Tag Archives: church

On Making the Sign of the Cross

I should admit up front that I have not always been familiar, or comfortable, with making the sign of the cross. The services I attended for most of my life would be considered “low church.” However, as I have aged physically and matured spiritually an appreciation for the practice has developed.

In this post, I want to take just a few moments to briefly describe what is going on when a person makes the sign of the cross. I should also note up front that most of what I will write will be from the Orthodox perspective, something I became familiar with while visiting Eastern Europe. To begin, the practice drives home specific Christian teachings. The sign is made by touching the forehead, the center of the chest, and the shoulders. In doing this we are reminded to love the Lord our God with all of our mind (forehead), our heart/soul (chest), and our strength (shoulders). Now, you may notice that Roman Catholics will cross their shoulders from left to right while the Orthodox will cross from right to left. Even this movement has symbolism. For the Orthodox, this is a reminder that the Lord will separate the sheep from the goats (sheep to the right and goats to the left). Finally, for the Orthodox, the hand being used to make the sign will have the thumb touching the index and middle fingers. The thumb, index, and middle finger touching together remind us of the Trinity. The ring and pinkie fingers remind us of the two natures of Christ, that He is both truly human and truly divine.

There you have it, a brief overview of making the sign of the cross. Obviously, there are far more definitive and exhaustive resources out there for learning about the practice, and I encourage anyone interested to learn from such authoritative sources.

Can the United Methodist Church Survive?

The United Methodist Church is rapidly approaching a fork in the road that has enormous consequences regardless of which direction it chooses.  For years the church has been embroiled in a controversy of its own making.  On the one side are traditionalists who want to turn the church back toward its theology of origin.  On the other side are those who wish to set aside traditional ways of thinking for more progressive.  And, in the middle are those with their heads in the sand hoping the denomination can continue pretending that all is well.

Those in the middle are in a hopeless situation to say the least.  That leaves the traditionalists and progressives to determine the future of the church.  Can the two sides be reconciled? Let me answer this with a clear and emphatic “no!”  When one side or the other speaks of reconciliation in matters of theology, what they are actually saying is, “Come over to my side and we will be reconciled.”

I, myself, am counted amongst the traditionalists.  And, I do think the church needs to split.  Staying together like we are is helping no one.

Now, let me speak briefly to something I typed in the opening paragraph.  I wrote that this controversy is of our own making and I mean every word of that.  Refusing to stand firmly on beliefs only leads to the degredation of those beliefs.  The old syaing goes, “If you let the nose of the camel intio the tent, you let the whole camel in.”   In the same way, when the United Methodist Church refuses to enforce its own Book of Discipline, it cannot help but to collapse under the weight of all that soon follows.  This is where we are now: a camel is in the tent.  It is time to either move on, or learn to live with a camel.

A Denomination’s Descent Into Irrelevance

I have been a staunch defender of my denomination (The United Methodist Church) throughout my life as a Christian.  However, that being said, I have also been a witness to that very same denomination’s continuous descent into irrelevance.  I get daily emails from our News Service detailing all the trendy projects that we have gotten involved with or how we have joined in with issues that are celebrity causes.

I am saddened by what has happened, but I cannot say that I am surprised.  What, you might ask, has led this descent into irrelevance?  In my humble estimation there is no clearer answer than that the church has become obsessed with being culturally relevant.

What do I mean by this?  To me, it’s simple.  The church has chosen to alter or set aside it doctrines and discipline in an effort to be more acceptable to the mainstream culture.  While this sounds all well and good there are some serious difficulties that accompany such a strategy.

  1. The church was never supposed to conform to the culture.  From its inception, the church was countercultural.  The membership of the body of Christ is to “seek ye first the kingdom of God,” (Matt. 6:33 KJV) not to seek approval of the prevailing culture.  The church is to be in pursuit of holiness.
  2. By pulling up its theological anchor and allowing itself to be blown about by the winds of worldly culture, the denomination has diminished its identity and become just another unstable institution in an unstable world.  There is a longing out there for something that is consistent, steady, and willing to stand against the currents of our world.  The church has always been a rock that people could stand on during turbulent times.  But when the church seeks to appease the world by forsaking its doctrinal integrity, what you are left with is something built on shifting sands.
  3. Cultural appeasement is a slippery slope.  If we acquiesce to the whims of worldly culture at points A, B, and C, is there a point at which the process can, and will, stop?  Looking at other examples from mainstream Protestantism the answer appears to be, no.

This is something of a gripe session and it is late in the evening here, but it hurts me to see the way we have become obsessed with chasing after all the latest trendy projects while never looking back to make certain that we have not lost our way.

In the pursuit of relevance, we are becoming increasingly irrelevant.  Let us return to our roots and consider our theological foundations that we may be better equipped to engage a hurting world.  After all, if we lose our identity by tossing to the side our doctrine and discipline, then we are just another social group.  And that is not what we have been called to be.

Passion Week

Passion Week is now upon us.  During this week we will take time to remember the days that led up to the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord.  Of the many holy days (holidays) that we celebrate as Christians, there is no day more important than Easter Sunday.  Sure, you could say that without Christmas there would be no Easter.  However, Scripture and the history of Christianity shout out that Easter is the chief of special days on our calendar.

While the four Gospels only contain two infancy narratives, they each contain an account of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.  Further, the shear amount of space devoted to the Passion Week in contrast to the nativity speaks to God’s (the author behind the authors) intent that we would place more emphasis on the death and resurrection of Jesus than on His birth.  If you read beyond the Gospels you will see that the New Testament continues to pay only scant attention to Jesus’ birth while repeatedly referring to His death and resurrection.

There is good reason why the Scriptures place so much emphasis on the events of that final week in Jesus’ earthly life.  Our salvation is undeniably connected to those events.  Jesus died for our sins.  He took the Father’s wrath upon Himself for us.  He rose from the dead conquering death so that we too could conquer death and have eternal life.  Without the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we would all still be lost in our sins and under condemnation.  But, thanks be to God, that He “…so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 NIV).

So, why is it that we seem to give Christmas so much more attention than Easter?  In response, I think it is important to point out that churches do still give proper respect to the Easter Holy Day.  Many churches will have special activities or worship services planned for the week and the worship services on Easter Sunday are typically the most beautiful of the year.

However, the same cannot be said about our culture in general.  While it is seemingly easy to capitalize on Christmas, this does not necessarily hold true with Easter.  At Christmas time there are pictures of a jolly Santa Claus and a cute baby in a manger along with sales advertisements and other enticements to lure consumers into spending money.  It seems easy for merchandisers to separate the Christmas holiday from its root in Jesus’ birth.  But, when it comes to Easter there are no cute pictures and jolly, chubby guys in red suits.  The imagery of Easter and the week leading up to that day is that of a crucified Savior dying for the sins of the world, being buried in a tomb, and rising from the dead.  And, as Paul told us under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit centuries ago, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18 NIV), and “but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23 NIV).

The Lonely Text

A tragedy in much of the modern church is the lack of Bible-centered preaching. Perhaps you have sat in on a worship service where the biblical text sits alone by the wall while the one who brought it to the dance goes off and dances with something else. The scenario is familiar to many of us: a Scripture is read and the sermon hardly, if ever, acknowledges the text again.

Whenever I sit in such a service, I look around at all the people filling the sanctuary and think to myself, These people are starving for the Word of God. They come in and out of here each week looking for what the Scriptures have to say, and leave empty handed. It is my sincere hope that folks in such churches have the wherewithal to know that they are being spiritually undernourished and seek to be fed elsewhere.

With so many preachers delivering up “puff pieces” to congregations each week, it should come as no surprise that people are ill-equipped to deal with the challenges we face in the world. Consider this, according to research by the Barna Group, the top 6 reasons young people leave church are:

  1. Churches seem overprotective.
  2. Teens’ and twenty somethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow.
  3. Churches come across as antagonistic to science.
  4. Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental.
  5. They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.
  6. The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.

Popular “puff pieces” will never overcome these six items. The results of Barna’s research indicate that shallow and simplistic sermons simply will not do. A well-read, thoughtful, pastor who has a heart for Biblical preaching, however, can serve as the antidote to the poison that is destroying the spiritual life of so many young people.

So, getting back to the lonely text. There is simply no way that a person can leave church feeling that the Bible is relevant for today if the preacher ignores while instead choosing to tell fluff stories. If you are a pastor: feed the people! Don’t leave the text for that day’s message leaning up against a wall looking for someone else to come along. Be about the work that you have been called to and preach the Word of God.

Persecution of Christians

My family and I watched God’s Not Dead II last Saturday, and everyone agreed it was a quality movie. The focus of the movie is the pressure, or persecution, being applied to Christians living their faith in public. Such a premise is timely considering the numerous cases reported in the news of public displays of religion being challenged through the legal system. Still, much of the world sees what the Christian community is complaining about as nothing but whining. For instance, I recently stumbled across this quote, attributed to Jon Stewart:

Yes, the long war on Christianity. I pray that one day we may live in an America where Christians can worship freely! In broad daylight! Openly wearing the symbols of their religion… perhaps around their necks? And maybe — dare I dream it? — maybe one day there can be an openly Christian President. Or, perhaps, 43 of them. Consecutively.*

So, in the eyes of Stewart, Christians are simply imagining things. But, it is not just Jon Stewart who feels this way. Many people believe that the Christian community is just crying over little issues and, essentially, making mountains out of mole hills. Even worse, is the fact that there are many Christians who feel this way.

My question, however, is: How long are we to wait before acknowledging the changing tides? Sure, what we are presently seeing is more along the lines of “pressure” than “persecution.” But, after a while, this simply turns into a game of semantics. Belittling the idea of persecution now, on an individual and small-scale level, will allow the ease of transition into more widespread, governmental persecution. We must always remember that Russia was once a staunchly Christian nation that underwent a radical change in a very short period of time.

So, should Christians stand up and speak out when we witness the silencing of the Christian witness in our land of freedom? Absolutely! I cannot help but be reminded of “First they came…” the famous poem from Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.**

In much the same way, I wonder how long before the church can easily change the words “Socialists,” “Trade Unionists,” and “Jews,” for things like “Christian business owner,” “Christian politician,” and “Christian educator”?

* http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/1719-yes-the-long-war-on-christianity-i-pray-that-one

** https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007392

 

 

 

The Corrosive Effect of Liberal Clergy

If you were to take a look at the church as a whole, you would probably notice that members of the clergy vary widely in their view of Scripture. There are many who have a very high view of the authority and veracity of the Old and New Testaments, and there are probably just as many that have a very low view of the same. Now, when I speak of a “high view,” I am speaking of a view that maintains that the Scripture is, in fact, the inspired, inerrant, Word of God. So, for instance, a person with a high view of Scripture will see the miracles recorded in the Bible as actual historical events. The high view also leads to the recognition of the Bible as the accurate and authoritative teachings of God in regards to morals and ethics.

The “low view” of Scripture, on the other hand, sees the Bible very differently. In this camp you can find an anti-supernatural bias that guides its members in their approach to Scripture. So, a person with a low view of Scripture will question the miracle claims of found in the Bible, and will cast doubts on the inspiration and inerrancy of God’s Word. As an example, an instructor I had for a class in the Course of Study doubted that Matthew wrote the Gospel bearing his name as well as the account of Jesus feeding the multitude. For him, Jesus simply inspired others to share their lunches. (For another example, click here, or read this post from Albert Mohler).

Now, I should also point out that there are people all along the way between the high and low views. So, now that I have mentioned it, I will move along.

The low view of Scripture (as I have described it) is found almost exclusively among liberal clergy. Please recognize that I am not referring to politics when I speak of liberal and conservative in the context of theology. You can find liberal clergy who are diehard Republicans, and conservative clergy who are died-in-the-wool Democrats.

So, why am I writing this post? Simple. Liberal clergy have an incredibly corrosive effect on the church. In fact, you could say that liberal clergy are the atheists’ “man on the inside.” That liberal clergy have a powerfully corrosive effect on Christianity can be seen in the watered down morality espoused at many churches. Even atheists such as Daniel Dennet and Linda LaScola recognize how effective liberal clergy are in destroying people’s faith (click here to see the article). I see such clergy as a fulfillment of Paul’s warning in 2 Cor. 11:14 that, “And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light” (NIV). But, to make matters worse, there are even atheist pastors. It is a sad, but true, thing to say that there are apparently numerous wolves in sheep’s clothing standing in pulpits. Evidence of this is abundant with the advent of The Clergy Project, and a book authored by Dennet and LaScola.

The reason I bring all this up is that we should take a good, hard look at what we are being taught from the pulpit. If we are being told only those things that we want to hear, it may be that we are worshiping something of our own creation. Christianity was never meant to be easy. Sure, it is easy to slap a label on one’s self and say, “I’m a Christian.” But, it is a whole other matter to actually BE a Christian. Ordination committees should be wise in carrying out their sacred duties, as should pastor-parish committees. And, if these governing bodies fail in their tasks, then Christ followers should prayerfully consider leaving those congregations that are being led by the spiritually blind.

So, at the end of the day, let me say that, if you want to see your faith grow, then you would be better off under the teaching of someone who actually believes what they are preaching.