Monday, August 31, 2015

Soon...



Some of you may be wanting to know the latest on what is going on in my life (and some of you may not care in the least!) - so, in case you do, I'll get you started with this:

For those who may not be aware, I concluded my time as an Associate Pastor at Durand Church of the Nazarene one month ago, on July 31st.  Since then, I have continued to work for the United States Post Office as a Rural Carrier as I have been for the better part of the last 3 years.

Today, I announce that I have been accepted into an exclusive, one-time only cohort of 15 students in the "Preaching As Story" D.Min. track of the Leadership in Emerging Culture D.Min. program at George Fox Evangelical Seminary in Portland, Oregon.  This three year program is under the direction of lead mentor Leonard Sweet, and is almost all online (so no, I am not moving to the west coast!) but does include three "Advance" experiences in Portland and in Orcas Island, Washington.  Today is the first official day of class, and I will be traveling to Portland later this week for the Orientation Advance.  I am very excited about this unique opportunity and have high hopes for how this experience will help to shape and mold both my present and my future life and ministry.  And yes, of course, let the "Dr. Phil" jokes commence, in force...

The D.Min. will certainly be taking up much of my time in the coming three years, but there is more to real life and real ministry than just education.  So in addition, in case you also may be wondering where the ministry 'career' side of things will be taking me next, I offer this:

It has been 7 weeks (50 days today) since my ordination as elder in the Church of the Nazarene.  As special and amazing as that experience was, this hasn't been the most fun time of life, to put it incredibly mildly.  It took 14 years from my first District License to reach ordination, and I've been in ministry and/or pursuing ministerial education nearly all of that time.  It is time for an extended Sabbath rest - a Sabbatical. 

Now, this Sabbatical will look a little different than some, and that is OK.  Realistically, since one would ordinarily take at least 7 weeks after 7 years, and I've been going for 14, I am due for two of these, or at least 14 weeks, or something in that neighborhood (one could argue for months rather than weeks as well, but that's not going to happen!).  But I am not nearly as interested in keeping score as I am in making things right.

So, initially, I will be taking the next 7 weeks as a Sabbatical.  During this time I will begin and dive deeply into the aforementioned D.Min. program.  I will take time to pray and seek God, not only on my own, but together in community with many different people.  I will try to get some rest.  I will take care of some long overdue things of which I need to take care.  I will be in conversations about future life and ministry endeavors.  I will travel.  I will invest time together, just the two of us, with my amazing, incredible love, L.  And I will invest time together, just the seven of us, with my amazing, incredible family, that includes an extended and well-deserved family vacation to Florida. 

Much can happen in 50 days.  So at the end of these next 7 weeks, I currently anticipate concluding the Sabbatical period and shortly thereafter being able to make further announcements about life and ministry.  However, if more time is needed...then whatever it takes to make things right, that is what I will do.  Not that I am expecting most readers to be waiting around on pins and needles for any next steps in my life.  But...if you do have interest in what's coming next...after the Sabbatical...check back in 50 days. And if you would, during those days...would you pray for me, and for my family?  Blessings to all who read this.  See you...soon...

Friday, August 7, 2015

Jesus Isn't The Only Way


So...it's time to dive in to the ancient teachings of The Didache on #AncientFutureFriday.  These teachings were formed in community, for community, by community.   

As the earliest apostles, elders, and disciples of Jesus began to form communities of faith, "the teaching" was passed along first orally, and eventually gathered together in writing in The Didache.  This is the teaching that bound their communities together and through which they grew in Christlikeness together as disciples of Jesus.  This is how disciples of Jesus were apprenticed, in community, in the very earliest churches.  The power of Holy Spirit and the authority of Jesus flowed mightily through these churches as Jesus' message of the gospel of the Kingdom of God spread exponentially throughout the world.  That sounds like the kind of community to which I'd like to belong.  So let's begin to look at how such communities were formed and structured:

The first two 'verses' of the Didache read as follows (Milavec's translation):

1:1 -

"There are two ways: one of life and one of death!
(And) [there is] a great difference between the two ways.

1:2 -

[A] On the one hand, then, the way of life is this:

[1] first: you will love the God who made you;

[2] second: [you will love] your neighbor as yourself.

[B] On the other hand [the way of life is this]:
as many [things] as you might wish not to happen to you,
likewise, do not do to another.

You might recognize some of this.  You should - in verse 2 we have variants on two primary teachings of both Jesus and the Jewish community:  The Shema/"Great Commandment", and "The Golden Rule."

The Didache begins by declaring that there is more than one way we can live.  The Way of Jesus isn't the only way.  There is another.  But the Way of Jesus leads to life, and the other way leads to death.  Not only do they lead to these things, though - these ways actually, substantively are these things.  There is a way of life.  There is a way of death. 

You may or may not have noticed that the Western-American-Evangelical church became obsessed with the afterlife, with rewards-and-punishments, as they saw it.  The goal of salvation was to assure oneself a place in Heaven when one dies, and to avoid a place in Hell.  Everything in that mindset of church revolved one way or another around making sure individual souls made a decision that would keep them out of Hell, and put them in Heaven, when they died - and this decision always involved some variant of a particular prayer - "the sinner's prayer" (because, sinner's can only pray one thing?), essentially, "asking Jesus into your heart" by admitting sin and asking for forgiveness. 

I am not going to mock or dismiss such prayers.  The fact is, when I first came to believe in Jesus, it was through exactly that kind of prayer, and I very much believe that Christ forgave me, saved me, and became alive in me.  I am not going to discuss the validity of various views on Heaven and Hell and the afterlife (at least not today, and not in this post!). 

What I am going to do is suggest that this very narrow, limited, rigid view of the Way of salvation - the Way of Jesus - is not at all what Jesus taught his disciples, or what the apostles taught the ancient, early Church.  Not only is the Way of Jesus not the only way (because there is also a way of death!), but this bastardized Way of Jesus is not the only way, either!  There is supposed to be "a great difference between the two ways" according The Didache.  Do we really see "a great difference" today between those who claim to live in the way of life and those who live in the way of death?  What does this tell us about what the Western-American church has become?

The Way of Jesus is the Way of life declared in the first verse of the Didache.  The second verse then spells out the foundations of this way:  The Way of Jesus, the Way of Life, is the Way of Love.

The question, then, for Jesus disciples is not:  Have you said the sinner's prayer?

Rather, the question for Jesus disciples is:  Are you growing in love for God, self, and others?  

Do you see how the first question is passive, but the second question is active?  This matters, and the Didache teaches new disciples of Jesus that it matters, right at the outset.  This is not about a change in position, but a change of mind, a change of heart, and a change of life that is growing in love for God, self and others.  This isn't just about an individual decision, but about training in community in the Way.

In this community, there are things we must do, and things we must avoid.  What we must do is to love God, self, and others, in all things.  What we must avoid is hurting others by doing things to them that we would not want done to us. 

Sometimes, I think we trade in relationship with God for rules and legal transactions with God.  But we also sometimes trade in relationship with others for rules about how we view and treat others.  Love is not a rule, but a law.  We live by "the royal law of love found in Scripture" (see James 2).  But that law does not express itself in a thousand-and-one ways to make oneself holier-than-thou.  Instead, it expresses itself as love for God, self, and others.  Can we really go wrong in any situation, and as a way - the Way of life (the Way that is life, and that leads to life), by asking "what is the most loving action toward God, self, and others that I can take?"

This is how we live in community together.  This is how we learn to live as disciples of Jesus.  This is how we are trained in the Way of Jesus, the Way of Life, the Way of Love.  So, Jesus isn't the only Way.  But Jesus is the best Way, and the Way of Life.  And for Jesus disciples, that means living in the Way of Love, in community,

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Bible Is Not Enough


I rarely use the phrase "the Bible" anymore.  This might surprise you coming from an ordained minister.  But it really shouldn't.  Especially if you know me.

I'll never forget the time a number of years ago when I, as an associate pastor, was preaching in my local church, and one of the primary texts I used for the sermon was from the book of Tobit.  Yes, Tobit is a sacred writing.  It's not in "the Bible" that many people I know use.  It is, however, in the Bible that many Catholic and Orthodox Christians use.  And I used it in a sermon, in a fairly conservative church, that did not use Bibles with Apocryphal works in them.  Let's just say that it did not go unnoticed.

The funny thing is, I hear (and preach) sermons all the time in which we use video clips from movies, audio from songs, quotes from current authors, and the like...and nobody seems to bat an eyelash at it.  But dare to use a quote from an...(gasp!)...Apocryphal, not-quite-sanctioned-by-100-percent-of-all-Christians-as-Scripture-book, and...well, let's just say it doesn't go unnoticed.

I have never really understood this contradiction.  But then, that could be said about many things in the church.  One thing I do know:  Although it is a 'funny thing', it is not so humorous as to shrug it off as no big deal.  Our understanding of Scripture, "the Bible," and sacred and spiritual writings is important, and far too few people have a good grasp on this, which leads to all kinds of problems.

I remember another time my wife and I were accused by people we had invested years of our lives into of "not following the Bible."  This hurt, but it was because of the relationship - genuine friendship - we had built with these people, and how they were now rejecting that friendship.  It wasn't because of what they actually said.  What they actually said was one of those funny things that isn't really all that funny: 

I am pretty sure Jesus did not call his disciples by saying "Come, follow the Bible" (after all, Jesus hadn't written the rest of the Bible yet.  Wait...)  Jesus did say, "Come, follow me."  Jesus, in fact, makes his thoughts fairly clear on this issue when speaking with the Jewish leaders (and that they were the leaders is a very important detail that should not be missed) as recorded by John in his gospel:
 "You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life" (John 5:39-40).  It is Jesus who gives life, whom we follow, who calls us to a life as disciples, being transformed into God's image. 

In much of Western-American Christianity today, "the Bible" is worshiped as if it were God (and not just a testimony about God).  Now, I don't really know anyone who has ever bowed to and worshiped a Bible, but I know many people who effectively treat the Bible not as Scripture, but as God.  How many times must we hear "the Bible says..."  The Bible doesn't say anything.  The Bible is silent.  But...God speaks!  And one of the most important ways God speaks is through Scriptures, and other sacred and spiritual writings.  But what is Scripture?

Scripture is what comes first when it comes to sacred and spiritual writings.  Scripture has supremacy (with a lower case 's'!).  Whatever clearly contradicts the Way of love in Jesus as outlined in Scripture must be put aside, and whatever agrees with the Way should be upheld, whether it is found in Scripture or in any other source.  Truth is truth wherever it is found, and all truth, if it to be truth, must be from God. 

Scripture is not what God beamed to us out of Heaven, nor is it words on paper that were dictated word-for-word by God and then perfectly preserved forever.  Scripture is the collection of writings that the Church believed were inspired by the Holy Spirit when written, and continue to be inspired by the Holy Spirit when read, to this day.  The Church decided these were authoritative for Christian life and practice, for living in the Way of love in Jesus, that these documents, and no others, would be considered as Scripture. 

There were heated debates over this.  There were vehement disagreements.  And truthfully, there still are (see my use of Tobit, above).  Some writings were really close to "making the cut" but for various reasons, just missed.  The Church does not dismiss these writings as uninspired, or unhelpful, or unorthodox, or spawns of the devil. They are very much sacred and spiritual writings. They just aren't Scripture.  They don't come first.  But many of them do come a close second, and can help us understand and interpret what comes first, even better.

One such writing is "The Didache." According to one commentary, Didache is the Greek word for "the systematic training that a mentor (or a master craftsworker) would give to an understudy (apprentice)" (Milavec, The Didache, 2003).  It is "teaching."  Or more specifically, as the first line/title of The Didache itself says, "Training of the Lord through the Twelve Apostles for the Gentiles."  The Didache is essentially the earliest teachings of the Church we have, formed in some of the very first Christian communities, as taught by the earliest apostles and disciples of Jeuss, and perhaps pre-dating even many of the New Testament Scriptures.

The Didache explores the question, "how do we live in the Way of love in Jesus in everyday, ordinary life?"  Sound like a valid question for those who are Jesus disciples today?  I think so.  In many ways, it is simply exploration of what Paul writes in Romans 12 as translated by Eugene Peterson is the Message:

"
So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you" (Romans 12:1-2).

Comparatively few Christians or Jesus disciples in my historical-cultural context have ever heard of The Didache, much less read it, or tried to learn from it.  I hope to change that, if only for a very few readers, here, at least to some degree.  Last week's #AncientFutureFriday introduced the AFF concept.  This week's very briefly introduces The Didache, which will be a regular feature of AFF's.  It is a sacred and spiritual writing that is worthy of our time, attention, and reflection.

When it comes to God speaking to us through writings, we need more than "the Bible," for the Bible is not enough.  What we find in Scripture - the story of God and God's creation, and redemption and restoration of that creation in and through Jesus Christ - reveals all that we need for salvation.  But to work out that salvation, as Paul instructs us to do in the Scriptures, necessitates we do more than "follow the Bible."  We must, again as Paul says, "follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ" (I Corinthians 11:1). 

Life as a Jesus-disciple is never just about me-and-Jesus.  It is life in community.  It is life where we follow someone's example, as they follow Christ, and others follow our example, as we follow them.  That's discipleship, spiritual formation, transformation, and direction.  And that is what we all need.  The Didache gives us a gift of teaching formed in this very kind of community.  If you choose to journey with me and explore it together, it might just transform not only you...or me...but us.  I think that's a journey worth taking.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Stress and Tension

Stress is a word I used to refuse to acknowledge.  It's true.  I don't really know how one refuses to acknowledge a word, but nonetheless I did.  At least, I refused to acknowledge that I could, or should, have it. 

I can't say why this is - I can only remember my reaction when people, even people close to me, would try to talk about if I was feeling stressed.  

A person might say how a particular situation could be really stressful for me, and I would push back really hard against this - "I am not stressed!"  I would say, quite strongly.  Usually followed by "I don't get stressed."

Get real.

Everyone has stress.  Webster's first definition for stress is, "a constraining force or influence."  Stress can be positive (I used to work fabulously well under pressure and deadlines...I will probably return to that again, very soon...though life has not been that way for me, lately).  Stress can be negative (particularly that word, 'constraining' which I find to be quite similar to 'oppressive'...and oppression is what I've recently been living under for far too long).  But everyone has it, to varying degrees at different times in life, one way or the other (or both). 

But it is really important to acknowledge it.  It's OK to be stressed.  It's not inherently bad, or somehow evil.  Stress in a natural feeling and reaction that lets us know we need to respond in specific ways in order to alleviate the stress.  To borrow a word from another part of Webster's definitions, there is a "tension" involved with stress.

People don't like tension.  Probably because people don't like stress.  But they are both necessary.  The way many people seem to want to resolve tension between two things is to choose one or the other - we might, for example, have tension between our work and home responsibilities. So we choose one as the priority, to the exclusion, or at least the detriment, of the other.  We might have tension over relationships with friends and how much time we spend (or don't spend) with them as opposed to other important areas of our lives.  So we choose to either ditch our friend (or friends) altogether, or allow them to dominate our lives and squeeze out needed time for ourselves, our families, or God. 

There are hundreds of such scenarios.  I am not so concerned with specific ones as I am an underlying factor:  These tendencies are really the "either/or" dichotomous thinking that cause so many of our problems in this world, from the most complex international issues to the simplest interpersonal relationship.  For a long time now I have tried to embrace "both/and" thinking, rather than "either/or" thinking.  I call this the "Via Bothandia."  I'll probably re-post my original thinking on this from a previous blog/website, here, for a #tbt someday. 

To summarize for now though, it's sort of like the "Via Media" - the "Middle Way" with which John Wesley and the Anglicans would have been so familiar.  The difference is this, though:  The "Via Media" is intended to be a middle way between "two extremes" - essentially, a compromise.  That sounds good, but what often happens in compromises is that we lose the best of both extremes and wind up with a watered-down, muddied and muddled middle position, which really doesn't represent either of the other positions well.  It is certainly better than straight "either/or" thinking, but is still a derivative of it.

So when I coined the term "Via Bothandia" it was intended to take the concept of a "Middle Way" but ground it in "both/and" thinking rather than "either/or" thinking.  In the "Via Bothandia" rather than seeking a middle way between two extremes, we embrace all the best and good qualities of each extreme, and hold them in dynamic tension with one another.  Uh-oh.  There's that word again:  Tension.

It is my contention, that until we learn how to appropriately navigate dynamic tension in our thinking, belief, practice, and hearts - and hold on to the good, from wherever and whomever it comes - we won't be able to fully live a life of love for God, self and others, nor will be able to adequately and accurately proclaim, preach, and teach Jesus' message of the gospel of the Kingdom of God.  I think Paul's words to the Church in Thessalonica are important here:

Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil (I Thessalonians 5:19-22).

Do you see the dynamic tension at work in Paul's words here as he advises the Church?  Do you see the both/and thinking?  Do you see how either/or thinking may be much more likely to "quench the Spirit"?  And how both/and thinking is how we navigate what is good and true, and dare I say it, holy?  After all, Paul's immediate words that follow the above are these:

"May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it."  There is something about testing for what is good and true in the midst of a fallen world that brings about...holiness.

It's time to get real.  It's time to get stressed (let's really hope it's mostly the good kind, for a nice change of pace!).  It's time to live in dynamic tension.  It's time to know the times.  And this is the time.  While I may not post every Friday, today is the first and introductory installment of #AncientFutureFriday here at philmichaels.org that will be published regularly (as always, my definition) on, naturally, Fridays.

#AncientFutureFriday posts (I am borrowing the "Ancient-Future" term from the late Robert E. Webber - for more information on some of the background of this term, click here) will focus on the often stressful work of navigating the dynamic tension of the present between what has been in the past and what will be in the future. 

Essentially the term "Ancient-Future" is meant to place the present and ongoing future life of Ekklesia (the Greek word for the community of faith established by Jesus and built on the foundation of the first apostles and disciples of Jesus (what has come to be called 'church' - even though that is an invented word that never appears in the Greek) in the holistic context of her nearly 2,000 year history (especially the first few generations, and centuries, after the life of Jesus) as well the historical Jewish faith from which she was born (thus, "ancient"). 

In these posts I'll delve into both ancient writings/topics and future writings/topics, in light of the present historical-cultural context we find ourselves in, as they pertain to theology, the Church, eschatology, semiotics, economics, prophetic and apostolic thinking, and more. 

Next week I'll begin an #AncientFutureFriday series on the Didache.  Some may be asking, "Did-what?" Others may be aware of the Didache but never have investigated it fully.  And still others I hope will have enough familiarity to offer unique insights.  I think working through these earliest of apostolic teachings from the infancy of the New Testament church, and translating and connecting them with how we live as the body of Christ today, particularly from a Wesleyan-Arminian theological perspective, is a great way to begin with #AncientFutureFriday.  I hope you'll look forward to it as much as I do.