July 4, 2020

A Few iMonk Gems (1)

A Few iMonk Gems (1)

The Gospel is not about how wonderful the church is or how dynamic the pastor is or how friendly the people are. If that is all true, word will get out, trust me. If you have to put it on a billboard or an ad or video, it’s spin. And the Gospel isn’t spin about us. It’s a straightforward proclamation about Christ. Remember?  “For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive,  but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.  For we never came with words of flattery…” (I Thessalonians 2:3-5)

When people are told that the church has all the benefits of a store or a club or a product, they are not hearing the message of sinners saved by grace through faith, nor are they being prepared to hear it in a real community of fallen people gathered around the cross. They are hearing the crafted ploy of exaggeration, and sooner or later they will figure it out.

• • •

Which brings me to the point that these scandals provide an opportunity for us to confess one of the great blind spots of the church: its inability to admit its institutional sinfulness. To acknowledge that we are fallen persons is not hard, but to admit that all the deceitfulness of the human heart is multiplied within our institutions is much harder. We seem to endow our institutions with an absurd degree of infallibility, especially considering that conservatives particularly should be suspicious of the idolatry of any human system. Institutional evil not only exists in the hearts of persons who make up a church, it exists within the system itself, and manifests itself in particularly surprising ways. As far as I know, fallen human organizations cannot be redeemed, though the persons who make them up may.

So we should not wait for the world to discover our flaws and drag us through the streets in derision. Christians should police themselves, and not condemn those who do that good work.

• • •

Listen. My list of church preferences is so narrow that I could justifiably sit home every Sunday on five matters of essential principle. I don’t want to hear about the God of Arminianism. I don’t believe there is any Biblical warrant for the public invitation. I have no appetite for legalism. Congregational church government makes me ill. I loathe the saccharine content of most hymnody this side of Isaac Watts. The list goes on. But I’m convinced that God has no real appreciation for this collection of potential excuses, and therefore, I have spent most of my life standing and singing twenty verses of “The Savior Is Waiting” after a sermon on “Ten Things God Can’t Do If You Don’t Pray Just Like This.”

…I’ve chosen to show up on Sunday for my children’s sake, and for appearance sake and a dozen other reasons running from good to phobic. But I hope, at the core of my Christianity, I recognize that the gathered church is a constant reminder of just what a wild and extravagantly ridiculous idea grace really is. That this collection of characters is destined for glory, worship around the throne and judging angels….it’s hilarious. The Bible never makes any pretense that the church will look like much to the world. Hats off to the churches that have made church cool, hip, trendy and the place to be. (Hint: It CAN’T last. So enjoy it while you can. We are TOO PATHETIC.)

As we’ve said for years, be careful about looking for the perfect church. When you find and join it, you’ll ruin everything.

• • •

I believe the Bible’s inspiration is that it tells us about Jesus. After that, not only am I not interested, I don’t know why I should be. Of course, Jesus turns out to be the meaning of all of scripture, so I win the pony.

• • •

Therefore, the idea of heaven as a place “up there” or “over there on planet Q” is nonsensical in many ways. Far more likely to me is that we are constantly in the presence of God, constantly surrounded by spiritual “beings,” constantly surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” because we are about as much “in heaven” as we can be…..two matters being excepted.

1) We exist in a physical plane that limits and restricts our awareness of reality. Before sin, this affected us less than it does after sin, but the physical universe is not identical with the fullness of God’s glory. That glory is mediated through it and is never separate from it, but physical existence- especially as mediated through the senses, the body, etc, is always a restriction of our participation in the full dimension of God’s presence and existence. (I believe this limitation will still be there in the new creation, and is a basic difference between God and any creature in any form.)

2) Sin has perverted our awareness of God and reality to the manner of self-centered, blind existence we currently live in. Though the glory and presence of God are everywhere, we are blinded to it by our fallen condition. At times that glory and reality creeps in around the edges, but we are utterly opposed to accepting it. This does change with conversion, and eventually, with glorification, as the effects of sin are removed. (Sin is, basically, a way of thinking and seeing reality.)

3) Therefore, “heaven” to me is a return to the full experience and awareness of God that surrounds us always. This happens in three ways: 1) Salvation, 2) death and 3) resurrection/new creation.

…Jesus is the traveler from reality to the shadow. He takes on the limitations of the flesh but lives fully in the presence of God. He says the Kingdom of God is here. Now. With him. With us. We are in it. If we believe in him, we never die. I believe that completely. I think when we “die,” it is death that falls away and we simply “fall” into the resurrection of Jesus, whose life allows our disembodied existence to continue until resurrection again gives us a spacial and temporal existence. If we follow him, to death and beyond, we are right there all the time.

Two thoughts. Some of the paranormal is the bleed-over from this situation. I am convinced of that. And “Field of Dreams” had it almost perfectly right. The door is in the cornfield.

Comments

  1. “the gathered church is a constant reminder of just what a wild and extravagantly ridiculous idea grace really is.”

    I do now often wonder how true that is… If they’re not giving grace, have they actually received it?

  2. “Congregational church government makes me ill. I loathe the saccharine content of most hymnody this side of Isaac Watts.”

    I am not without sympathy on the hymnody part, except that Ralph Vaughn Williams makes everything better. As for congregational church government, my sense is that it is much like democratic civil government: terrible, but better than the alternatives. This is not to say, however, that congregational church government either need be or should be unrestrained by any larger church body.

    • Ever been to a Southern Baptist business meeting? If you have, you know what Michael was talking about.

      • No, but the American Lutheran tradition is also congregational. I have sat through meetings where little old ladies asked why the line item in the budget for postage was so high. I totally understand the allure of not having to do that, but let us not romanticize the alternatives.

  3. senecagriggs says

    I think, predicated upon my beliefs about human behavior, the Congregation governance ends up being a church run by the un-elected “strong man/woman”

    The denominant, alpha male or alpha female, who exists in every organization will be the unelected power who makes the crucial decisions including who will be the pastor..

    • no wonder the Church is in trouble

    • That’s a rather bleak view of human nature. Do you spend a lot of time hanging out with sociopaths and/or would-be “pickup artists”?

      I know some churches attract those “alpha” disordered personalities, but I steer clear of communities like that. What I’ve more often seen is something that looks superficially similar, but is actually very different: church members and leaders who have a demanding or controlling personality but who are actually driven by deep insecurity and brokenness. Often they need to have their voice heard and their presence acknowledged just because the church is the only place where *anyone* pays attention to them.

      When you’re dealing with that sort of “strong” personality, often all it takes is a little bit of kindness or listening to them to help them back into a mind-space where they feel seen and validated and no longer need to lash out or control things.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        So how do you tell them from the actual Alpha Sociopaths?
        To further confuse the issue, some of those Alpha Sociopaths are masters at faking “driven by deep insecurity and brokenness” when that is to their advantage. (Remember the most common characteristic of a Sociopath is the ability to turn the tables and play the poor innocent victim on cue.)

        • Some of the comments of Paige Patterson about women were borderline sociopathic if not heavily misogynist.

          The way he treated a female Hebrew professor at SWBTS was so egregious that it might be called inhumane.
          Dr. Klouda’s husband was seriously ill with heart trouble when she was terminated by Patterson ‘for being a woman’,
          which any way you slice it is not the action or thinking of a Christ-follower capable of exhibiting the fruit of the Holy Spirit.

      • One’s church tradition matters. Lutheran came to America as a self-consciously ethnic church, transplanted from the old country. American Lutheranism has always been congregational, but this initially was out of necessity. Local immigrant communities built churches and sought out clergy before there was any hierarchy. When that hierarchy finally formed (starting in the late 18th century) it was as associations of local churches. It wasn’t imposed from the top down because there was no top to do the imposing. But at the same time the church, both in the local congregations and the hierarchy, looked to the old country for traditions.

        The result is a collective sense of being a part of a larger whole, which usually (not always) puts a brake on the more lurid individual tendencies. This is little-c conservatism. My congregation is over a quarter of a millennium old. We are intensely aware of our history and, by extension, our future. It is a kneejerk reflex to consider any major decision in light of how this will play out in fifty years. This is why routine building maintenance is practically a sacrament with us. Need money to repair the roof? We’ll find it somewhere. We may not know where, but that doesn’t affect the roof leaking. Growing up in California, most churches are far younger, but the same attitude was brought West.

        Also, we have a tradition of clergy sticking around typically seven to ten years: Long enough to be established, but not so long that the people in the pews have never known anyone else. This helps avoid the cult of personality.

        In this light, a strong sociopathic personality trying to take over has both institutional and cultural barriers to overcome. It does happen occasionally. One hears of congregations running off the rails and the bishop having to swoop in a bishop at them. This in practice is mostly moral suasion, but that sometimes solves the problem. But the situation is rare.

    • Michael Bell says

      So true. And I can hardly believe that I am typing that in a comment to Seneca.

      I have experienced this over, and over, and over again.

    • At every church there is the pastor, and then there are the gatekeepers… Yes. To get anything done at a church, ya gotta know who the gatekeepers are. Sadly.

  4. So I am not familiar with the history and teaching of M. Spencer. Did he believe that corporate worship was a good idea in reality? The “church” is the believers in Christ, the body of Christ are the believers, that is what I have been taught. The believers get together in a physical place that in the OT was the Temple, then the portable Temple, then the concept of a corporate meeting place we call church. Did/does a believer have to go to church to receive salvation?, of course not. Just like any group of people who share belief it is best for us as individuals to meet and worship as a group. I agree with Spencer’s personal rationale for going on Sunday morning to church, for his family, to show up to support the other believers and the whole spectrum of reasons he did not listen. In brief , it is where the forgiven sinners come to worship God in a corporate setting. To sum up , the believer as he grows in faith, knowledge and understanding can separate the wheat from the chaff in the corporate worship service. We have to be careful not to worship the organized religion that most people call “church” and remember that we go to one designated place to worship God.

    To be honest, I have a hard time following the thoughts behind this article other than the ramblings above and perhaps the Field of Dreams concept that if you build it , He will come? Good at pointing the “problem” but no real guideline on how to handle the issue. Within a few generations we will see if corporate worship centers had any value in keeping faith alive. I believe they do. One thing is true, worship centers are not perfect as they are run by humans.

    • Dan,

      today’s post consists of portions gleaned from several blog posts Michael Spencer wrote. He started the Internet Monk blog. From what I gather, he grew up Southern Baptist, swung over to Reformed for a while, then found some middle ground and a resting place a little bit higher up on the liturgical candle, as they say. He appreciated Luther and Wesley both. A couple of years before his repose, his wife became Catholic, which really threw him for a loop, but he and Denise worked it out, and he wrote about some of that on this site as well.

      If you have time, read some of the archives; you’ll be able to get a sense of his journey. He was deeply embedded in southern Evangelical Protestantism for nearly all his life. The reason he leaned toward “post-Evangelical” is that he knew Evangelical very, very well – and found it lacking in some important areas. His brilliant analyses, seeing through a lot of bs, as well as his honesty and kindness, and his tangible longing for an ever-deeper communion with Jesus, drew many people here. A number of us have stuck around.

      Dana

      Dana

      • Dana, thanks , as usual you communicate well. So what is the real message about the combo package of thoughts in todays article. I believe M. Spencer was a sincere Christian on a journey to find peace and understanding of his faith. So as a none, who goes to church with those I love and friends I find value in many of the services. Is the message today from M. Spencer urging us to do what? Go to a worship service and feel uneasy with our questioning thoughts, to the service and be totally uncritical of anything pronounced, not go but feel that we are worshiping as we see fit. We worship together to praise God and well to worship God with others.
        I am a cafeteria Catholic when with my elderly, sweet old traditionalist Mother in law, I am a cafeteria SBC Baptist with my sister and her very fundamentalist husband, I try to add my understanding and faith to the message of the worship service I am in and for me, only me , it works. If I go to a physical church worship service I am uncomfortable with I will not return. However, I think for the regulars at the worship service the corporate worship is a good thing and the only effective manner to preserve and pass on the need for getting together to worship God in a special place with other believers. Bottom line, any corporate worship service that preaches John 3.16 works for me in any that is dressed up. Who does salvation come from? I know one mans BS is another mans rituals and ceremony but in the end who are we following? Jesus , are we not. That M. Spencer is post evangelical is fine, I am too in a way but I sit in an SBC church with my sister and her family and find value, same with my wife who use to be a practicing Catholic who like me loves to go with her Mother to Mass, I find value and know the faithful there come to worship. But if we do not attend a church service with anyone we do not worry about our salvation. Just do not comprehend the nut of what M. Spencer was trying to convey, where did he go to worship God at in his final years? However, based on what I believe and what M.Spencer publicly proclaimed and affirmed he is with God, not that it matters what I think but he had a good mission in this world and was an honest questioner while maintaining his faith. He faithfully labored in the fields from what I see here.

        • The thing is that people can find value in the practices of other faiths when there is the presence of the fruit of the Holy Spirit in those practices . . . . kindness to others, patience, etc.

          There is more in common between a hard-core Westboro Baptist Church leader screaming hate at a soldier’s funeral,
          and a fundamentalist ISIS butcherer cutting off a victim’s head . . . .

          it’s the mean-spiritedness and intent to hurt people that is indicative of lack of grace in religious practices, and once ‘okayed’ by the heads of these religious entities, abuse and contempt can grow to prodigious proportions, so that within the hate expressed, you can see more ‘alike’ than ‘different’ among fundamentalists of different faith groups who ‘point the finger’ and target ‘those other sinners’ with abuse and contempt.

          So a Catholic can go pray with Muslims and Jews and Lutherans and find meaning in those prayers, if the intent is to cetebrate God’s goodness and mercy.

          For those who cannot see ‘any good’ in others who are different, maybe they don’t know what to look for.

          • Good words, Christiane. Maybe as an additional to your thoughts (and Dana’s as well), I’ll add these:

            To me, Michael Spencer had a realization (revelation?) that he was part of a church culture that could be very unhealthy at times. So everything I read by him bounces back to his “Road to Damascus” moment when he realized that he was — like Saul/Paul — part of the problem. Thus, Internetmonk became a place where he could share his own testimony of revelation/realization, of creating a safe place for Christians wounded and damaged by bad religiosity and Churchianity, of speaking out against legalism and harmful/unhealthy Christianity, etc etc.

            So what’s the answer? Find a place that preaches Jesus Christ. Find a place that avoids legalism and stone-throwing. Find a place where you feel healthy and safe in your beliefs (and doubts!). Don’t expect others to exactly follow “your way” of interacting with God, but also don’t force others to see it “your way” of interacting with God, either.

            • sounds pretty good to me, Rick Ro.

              are there such places?

              I think this blog might be pretty close to one for many of us . . . . and we are different from one another, but not intentionally mean-spirited, no . . . and that seems to make Imonk work as a place of refuge from the crazy for a while

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            There is more in common between a hard-core Westboro Baptist Church leader screaming hate at a soldier’s funeral,
            and a fundamentalist ISIS butcherer cutting off a victim’s head . . . .

            I’ve concluded when ANY belief system (not necessarily a religion) goes sour and destructive, it will follow a similar pattern and develop a similar attitude.

  5. Rick Ro. Good summary of pulling the thought threads of M. Spencer together for me, I appreciate it. Again there is nothing more firm in their conviction than a former anything, a former communist is usually a strong , non relenting communist- a former racist is usually a very radical foe to racism- a former conservative turned liberal and vice versa are very strong in their new found politics- I watched a series on EWTN entitled Coming Home about Catholic converts would share their story, they were firm in their new belief- so that M. Spencer so pronounced in his new belief system is typical and a good thing. The fundamentals I know are really not stone throwers or legalist to the degree portrayed in my own experience. That are they accepting and trusting of what they have been taught to believe, same with any religion? Is that not why we have different denominations? I do not believe when I pray I pray to the same God that a Muslim or Mormon is praying too but that is a personal matter of faith. I do believe that a faith group should insist that the members who profess to be followers of that faith based group accept the basic foundational beliefs of that group. Like I tell my friends who are big Ga.Bulldog fans, fans comes from the word fanatic. When we cross into the ream of being a fanatic in any area it is usually not good. Again, thanks for the good clarification. Only out of interest , did M.Spencer find a new church home he was comfortable in?

    M

  6. senecagriggs says

    Michael Z says
    February 18, 2020 at 8:46 am
    That’s a rather bleak view of human nature. Do you spend a lot of time hanging out with sociopaths and/or would-be “pickup artists”?
    ________

    I read Internet Monk daily. Does that explain it?