Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Denominations Are Dying

Allow me just one more quick reflection on my brother Jamie's ordination this past week.  Many of my friends and congregants have asked me about my brother Jamie's ordination at San Marino Community Church, outside of Pasadena, California  The specific question people have asked is, "What denomination was Jamie being ordained into?"  The answer is; "The Presbyterian Church, USA."  And then the follow-up question has been, "But how can Jamie, your brother, be ordained in the PC USA, you be ordained in the Evangelical Covenant Order (ECO), and your father in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC)?  How can one family occupy and be ordained in three different denominations?  My answer is just as simple:

Denominations are Dying

There is no material theological difference between Jamie, my father and I.  We are are all pragmatic evangelicals.  We all are conservative on the main theological hotpoint issues (the transformation of the incarnation of Christ, fostering a culture of life, same sex union, the authority of Scripture...).  We all went to different seminaries but trained in the same basic theological rubrics (Greek, Hebrew, History, Theology...), and we all wear black robes on occasion when preaching and wear ripped jeans on other occasions when preaching.  And for all of us, the call to serve has been much more important than the denomination in which we serve.  Our feeling has been that the Holy Spirit calls us to a particular church, and we serve, no matter what the denomination is.

First Presbyterian Church of Colorado Springs has often been called a "Bapterian Church" (a combination of Baptist and Presbyterian). I have always loved this combination in a church.  Presbyterians, in general, care a lot about process and about an elder led government, and about deep thoughtfulness when it comes to Biblical exposition.  Baptists, in general, care a lot about doctrine and evangelism.  Presbyterians and Baptists are a good marriage in my mind.  However, the truth be told, First Pres really isn't a Bapterian Church.

First Pres is a really a Penta-Bapto-NonDenomo-Mennanito-Charismato-CMAo-Episcopo-Lutherano-Catholico-TERIAN church.  

In other words we have Pentacostals, Baptists, NonDenoms, Mennonites, Charismatics, Christian Missionary Alliance, Episcopalian, Catholic, Lutheran and Presbyterians all under one roof (and that is just in the small group that meets each week in the church plaza).  And, if we were to do a sample inventory of First Pres on any given Sunday, we would find that the church has many, many more denominations being represented.  And First Pres is not alone or unique in this regard.

Fulller Theological Seminary did a study not too long ago in which they studied churches that had a denominational name under their title, and that particular church's individual growth potential, verses churches that didn't have a denomination in their title. In one amusing case (I believe it was Redeemer Lutheran Church), they found that the church grew more at the end of the month than it did at the beginning of the month.  Why was this the case?  Was the preaching any different at the end at the end of the month?  No.  Was the programming different at the end of the month?  No.  Was there more outreach at the end of the month?  No.  The reason turned out to be that the church gardener trimmed the hedge in front of the sign at the beginning of the month, and uncovered the denominational sign (Redeemer Lutheran), but then at the end of the month, the hedge grew over the sign and so it was just "Redeemer".  The church grew faster without the denominational sign.

Of course, it needs to be said that there are significant differences between denominations.  A denomination means more than just a name - it connotes historical background, core convictions, core beliefs, core attitudes, and world view.  And, of course, most of the major non-denominational churches are actually denominational churches who are hiding behind a non-denominational title (Saddleback is Southern Baptist, Willow Creek is Reformed, Northpoint is Baptist, LifeChurch.Org has Methodist underpinnings).  But the fact that these fast growing churches are not highlighting their denominational connections points to the larger public's desire to be a part of something larger than a small club of believers.  Trust me on this one:

Denominations are Dying

But in it's place, I believe something better is emerging.  A church that is truly kingdom focussed, has fewer walls or divisions, that strives to include the best parts of all evangelical denominations, and...that doesn't spend so much money on church gardens or hedges...

All For Now,

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Be Yourself!

This past weekend, I had the great honor of attending, and offering the charge to, my brother Jamie at his ordination service for the pastorate of the Ministry of the Word and Sacrament.  My father, also a Presbyterian pastor, offered the sermon.  My 93 year old grandmother, a pastor's wife, was in attendance.  This ordination of my brother Jamie represents four straight generations of Presbyterian pastors in my family and two generations in which all male children were ordained (in my grandpa's generation, all three brothers were ordained - and Jamie and I, the only two brothers in our generation, are both ordained).  When I made my introductory comments, I said, "It is great to be here at my brother's ordination, or as we Bairds call it, just another family reunion..."

And what can one say to a young man who I have known all my life who is entering a call to ministry in the most be-pastored crowd I know?  The main focus of my charge was that my brother should, at all costs Be Himself!

Be Yourself!!

It was the best advice I ever received from another pastor in ministry upon becoming installed as the new senior pastor at First Pres Colorado Springs.  When seeking advice from one of my mentors in ministry, John Ortberg, he said, "Be yourself, Graham.  Life is far too short to try to be anything you aren't in your ministry.  Plus, you have so much to offer as...Graham."

When my father was about to go to college as a teen ager, he was met at the bus station by his father, my grandpa, and he was told, "Don, remember who you are."

This very simple advice (Be Yourself, Remember Who You Are) is not so different than advice that an aging apostle Paul gave to a young pastor named Timothy who was leading a church in Ephesus.  Timothy was undergoing much criticism in his home church for not being more than he was as a pastor:  More what?  More elderly, more astute, more pharisaical, more seasoned, more ascetic (the early Christians of Ephesus were becoming extremely ascetic in all things, drink, marriage, sex, food, and hence separating themselves from the larger culture).  Paul says to Timothy; "Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.  Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching, and to teaching.  Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you." (1 Tim. 4:12-14).  If you put your Bible next to your ear, you can hear Paul tell Timothy the same advice as John Ortberg gave me, that my grandpa gave my Dad, and I gave my brother...Be Yourself!

Of course, what Paul also knew was that the only way for a person to remain themselves in their lives, is not to try to hold onto their self (like a helium balloon held by an infant at an amusement park), but rather to let their selves go to Christ.  The only way we remain ourselves is to become like Christ.

But it also must be said that being yourself in the Christian faith may be the hardest thing for a person to do. There are so many social and cultural pressures on us to be like one another.  There are pressures to look as Christian as we can, to talk Christianese, to be like everyone else.

I am now reading my daughter the children's stories that I grew up with.  Recently I read her Hans Christian Andersen's "The Ugly Duckling."  The ugly duckling is the story, remember, of a little swan who is compared to a handful of little ducklings, and found to be wanting.  In the original Danish, Andersen says, "The little ugly duckling wanted to be like all the other ducks, but she wasn't, and she never would be."  Of course, had the little duckling been able to turn herself magically into someone, or something else, she wouldn't have been able to be the beautiful swan that she would one day become.

And so, my advice to my brother this weekend, and to all reading this blog is simple...

Be Yourself!!!

And by making yourself as much like Christ as possible, you and I stand a chance of doing just that.

All For Now,

Monday, March 11, 2013

Lewis on Love

The other night I was tucking my four and a half year old daughter in to bed, a process which is becoming more and more important, I am beginning to see, as Haley gets older.  Right before I gave her a good night kiss, Haley said to me, "Daddy, can I ask you a question about God?"  "Sure" I said hesitatingly...Even pastors get nervous when four year olds ask big questions about God.  Haley asked, "Who made God, I know God made everything in the world, but who made God?  God couldn't make himself, so who made God????"  Little did my daughter know that the question she was asking was not so different than the biggest questions of one of the smartest people ever to live, Aristotle (Aristotle asked, "What is the prime mover of the universe...what is the First Thing...?).  But more to the point, I realized in that instant how much I loved my daughter.  I don't mean just normal love.  I mean LOVE.  I mean PAINFUL LOVE.  I love her so much that it actually hurts sometimes...

This summer I will be taking class for my Doctor of Ministry degree at Oxford and Cambridge University on C.S. Lewis.  So, I am just giving you all a heads up that I am likely to be writing quite a few more blog posts on C.S. Lewis' big ideas and major influence on Christianity.  I actually have to read around 5,000 pages of Lewis for this class, which is sort of funny because Lewis never even wrote 5,000 pages of material (at best, Lewis wrote maybe 3,000 pages).

Lewis would have understood my feeling of PAINFUL LOVE regarding my daughter.  Lewis' main notion about love is that it is always painful.  That love really requires a kind of vulnerability and openness to pain that is quite frankly uncomfortable at times in our lives.  True love hurts.  Lewis said it much better in his book, "The Four Loves" which was published in 1960, just the same year as the death of his beloved wife Joy Gresham, who died far too young from cancer:

"To love at all is to be vulnerable.  Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken.  If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal.  Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.  But in that casket - safe, dark, motionless, airless - it will change.  It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.  The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation.  The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell."

As usual, Lewis puts it pretty bluntly.  But it does give us a new definition and understanding of love.  In a time and place and culture where only the saccharine laced, valentine imbued, sugary, pleasant, pleasurable, fun kind of love is lifted up, Lewis gives us a deeper understanding of love, that it sometimes doesn't actually feel very good.

Back to my daughter Haley's question.  "Who made God?"  "I don't really think anyone made God, honey, God made God."  "That doesn't make sense," said Haley.  "I know it doesn't, but sometimes things in life don't make sense."

"I love you, Daddy," said Haley
I....(gulp) LOVE you too...." I said,

All For Now,

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Two by Four

The Christian walk is full of beautiful images for the way that God speaks to God's people.  One of my pastoral idols, Bill Hybels has recently written a book called, "The Power of a Whisper: Hearing God, Having the Guts to Respond."  I love that image of a whisper coming from God.  It is such a soft metaphor.  The image of a whisper coming from the God of the universe is a very personal image of communication.  It is even an intimate image.  One gets the feeling of, "sweet nothings" being wafted to one through a summer breeze.  The Bible is full of of equally soft and intimate images of God's communication with his people.  In the Bible God speaks through;

*  A tree on fire
*  A donkey's mouth
*  Through the dampness of a fleece
*  In dreams
*  Through the mouths of angels

There is a hymn that was recently written about God calling a person into ministry.  The image of this song is of God singing to someone;  "I the wind of snow and rain, I have heard my people's pain, all who dwell in dark and sin, my hand will save."  God's song to us is then responded to by a lone singer, "Here I am Lord, it is I Lord, I have heard you calling in the night."

A song from God, calling in the night.  What a wonderful image of God speaking to us..

Unfortunately, God has never spoken to me in a whisper in my ear.  God has never spoken in a tree on fire.  God has never sung me a song in the night.  God always speaks to me in much more abrupt tones.  God usually tells me information that is startling and jarring.  God gets my attention with an "oh wow!".  God stops everything that is moving in one direction and offers a totally different direction.  In short;

God speaks to me through two by four boards right on the side of my head....

The cartoon in the above caption captures how God speaks to me most.  It is usually not a very pleasant experience when God speaks to me.  Probably because I am hard headed, God needs the most attention getting way to get through to me.  God needs me to really GET what He is saying to me.  God would probably prefer subtler means of communicating with me, but God knows that they really won't get the job done.  Examples of God sending a two by four to my head recently are:

*  When God sent our daughter Haley into our lives, our four year old thunderbolt.  God gave us three weeks notice about the possibility of adopting Haley, before He sent her into our lives.  A two by four...

*  When my brother Jamie informed me that a large group of discontented members of Highlands Church were planning on leaving all of a sudden, out of the blue, overnight, and going to a different church.  A two by four...

*  When I visited Mozambique on a mission trip with Lifewater International, and met a little girl with a green snot bubble on her nose, and I wiped it away, and asked where her parents were.  Someone told me, "Her parents are dead, they died of AIDS.  This little girl has AIDS too."  A two by four...

So, I am still waiting and listening for God to whisper sweet nothings to me in the night through a song or a prayer.  But with me, God prefers a much more direct method of communication...

A two by four...

All For Now,