Christian Ethics

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Dear Anonymous…

If you are a pastor, you more than likely have received an anonymous letter/note from someone or you are likely to receive one at some point during your ministry. They can be deflating and frustrating and really most of the time they hurt. Hardly ever do anonymous notes/letters contain words of encouragement or blessing, rather they often contain words about what you are doing wrong.

I got my first ever “anonymous letter” yesterday in the mail. This wasn’t my first interaction with an anonymous note, but it was the first time I received a letter that was anonymous. No return address. No signature. Just words:

Dear Pastor Justin-

Please keep your sermons to 15 min long. 25 min is way to long. We know you can get your message out in 15 min. We know people who stay home if they know you are going to preach.

Now I am not bothered by someone thinking my sermon was too long. It probably was for some (I couldn’t go back and check because the videotape is already to the cable company), and because of their words I did go back and look at my previous two sermons and they were 20 minutes and 17 minutes. It is probably safe to say that my typical sermon is between 15-25 minutes. However, worship doesn’t go over the usual time it ends when the other pastor preaches so in the end the person is spending the same amount of time in worship. That leads me to believe that it isn’t the “time” that is the issue but that they might have some other issue with my sermons, etc. (like “they are boring” or “you say the same stuff over and over…get to the point”) Unfortunately, I am unable to have a discussion with this person or the people who “stay home if they know I am preaching.”

That is the problem with anonymity: anonymity hinders growth. The anonymous letter writer may have some valuable pointers and insights into my sermons that could help me become a better preacher but I am unable to learn from them or the people who stay home because I don’t know who they are. I also cannot discern whether there is a larger issue with me as a pastor or my sermon because I can’t be in conversation with them and it makes me sad that we can’t honestly and openly talk to one another and grow.

In case “anonymous” might be reading this, here is my serious heartfelt reply:

Dear Anonymous,

Thank you for your note and I want you to know that I will be reflecting on this as I prepare for future sermons. What I am wondering is, do you have any advice as to what I could “cut out” from my message? Was there something that was missing? Did I repeat myself when I didn’t need to?

I will admit that I do not prepare sermons based on how long they will be but rather I focus on the message from God’s Word that might benefit the community and the individuals who are a part of this faith community? Do you feel that I am not doing this?

I would love to have a conversation with you and with the other people you know of who don’t come when they know I am preaching so we could learn from each other.

Know this, I have immense respect for those who address me with constructive criticism when I know who they are. I don’t think less of them and I value their insights even if I disagree with them. If you feel moved to contact me please know that I will not harbor any resentment or anger towards you for your note.

In Christ,

Pastor Justin

wonder

Who reached more people?

So the other day I ran across this video on Facebook and I have been thinking about it:

Here is my question: who reached more people with their message? The real question I would ask is who reached people who were unsure or on the “other side” and possibly convinced them differently?  What do you think?

A further question: Who more closely represented the message of the Gospel?

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Rage Against The Machine: Church Edition

Dr. Hall sent this to me via Facebook last night. A current student mashed up some audio from her lectures and put it to Rage Against the Machine. What you need to understand is this: Dr. Hall is one of the saints in my life. A woman who had challenging words for me as a theological student but who also walked the walk. How many professors just offer to watch your child? Well she did that for Stacy and I.

The key is her words are grounded in the Gospel. It isn’t rage for rage sake, it is “raging against the machine” because the machine isn’t always the Gospel. My favorite line is “You’re already dead.” It is a phrase that points to the reality that we have already died through baptism and Christ is raising us up. The question is will we follow Christ or the mandates of the old life which we died to in baptism.

This video gave me renewed energy in the way that Rage Against The Machine gave me angst as a teenager.

The Vegetarian Life: A Practice in Practices

I am not a vegetarian. Maybe I should rephrase that: I am not a vegetarian yet. I had been flirting with the notion of becoming a vegetarian for a year or two now, but I never could bring myself to commit. You see I like meat too much (or so I thought).

However, with my schedule at the church with meetings, confirmation, and campus ministry stuff I often found myself picking up a quick bite to eat from a fast food joint since I didn’t usually have time to go home and eat a meal with my family. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this was very unhealthy and very costly. Looking back I was spending between $5-13 a day eating out. That means I was on pace to spend between $1825-$4745 a year to ruin my health. Awesome! Or not.

So last week Sunday as we were grocery shopping, I finally made the leap and told Stacy I was going to commit to being a vegetarian with two exceptions: enjoying Buffalo Wild Wings on my birthday and the first day of March Madness. So began my practice in being a vegetarian.  I use that very intentionally because I am not a vegetarian…at least not yet.  When I see meat (especially sausage) I still desire to have it and can almost taste it and if I were not committed to the practice of being a vegetarian I would choose to eat it every time.  I don’t believe I will fully be vegetarian, but I think eventually by continuing the practice I will get to a point where I my desire to eat the meat will decrease when faced with the choice and slowly vegetarian will become my default choice so that I could consider myself vegetarian.  But I am not there yet, not even close.  To sum it up…I can for a whole year choose to not eat meat, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I will be a vegetarian…really all I might be is a non-practicing meat eater.  There has to be a change in my desires and I think this will come from the practice of living a vegetarian life.

Steve Chalke and Alan Mann in their book Different Eyes: The Art of Living Beautifully talk about virtue ethics and the importance of character and vision.  The speak of how the character of God gives us a vision that leads us to want to reflect that character (or image).  A big part of this is the importance of formation of habits and practices.  In discussing the difference between rule based ethics and virtue ethics, they write:

The Pharisees were worried that if you give up on the rules – on the positions you held – you would be giving up on discipleship.  But discipleship is not primarily about rules; it’s about the development of habits and practices.  You learn a skill when you are inspired by a vision.  Kids become great footballers because they dream of being like their heroes.  It is this vision that drives them to spend hour after hour kicking a ball up against a wall or learning to juggle a ball. (pg 76-77)

That is what is happening to me, I have seen a vision of being a healthier individual and it has inspired me to practice that life. The interesting part of this is that it has such powerful translation into discipleship.  How often do we hear the so-and-so is a good person because they have never (fill in the blank) or would never (fill in the blank), but is that true?  Does that really make them a good person just because they don’t do an action?  They could be a good person, but it doesn’t necessarily follow just like it doesn’t necessarily follow that I am a vegetarian because I now never eat meat. They just as well could be the meanest people on earth who find it beneficial to their own self interest to not do those things but still in their heart they are something else.

Is this something that is plaguing the life of disciples?  Has the church become a place that is again about following rules or not breaking rules instead of a place of inspiring vision to help us strive to be something more?  Is the church a place where we hear the message: you need to tithe. you need to do this. you can’t do that. etc. instead of a place where we see the abundance of God’s love and provision and are so moved that we want to become people pouring out abundant love and provision by entering into the practice?

Is your experience of church one that inspires you to want to be something better or is the experience something else?  Have we lost the heart of the matter? Can the inspiration to live a vegetarian lifestyle be a message to help rethink what church is to be?

Book Review: Different Eyes: The Art of Living Beautifully

I found this book a fascinating read.  Chalke and Mann have constructed a very engaging book dealing with Christian Ethics in a way that anyone interested in Christian living can understand and engage with.
For those of you who have read Stanley Hauerwas or Samuel Wells, Chalke and Mann are of the similar position (in fact the writings of both are referenced within the book).
Academically, this book is about setting forth “virtue ethics” as the best form of Christian ethics.  In the first two chapters, the framework is set for why virtue ethics are the best option over “deontological ethics” or “consequentialist ethics.”
For those who may not be familiar with Christian ethics jargon, this book is still a great and must read.  Chalke writes in a way that engages the mind and opens up the messiness of life and all its ethical choices by pointing to a living and dynamic faith that comes from following Jesus Christ.  
Chalke writes, “The development of character traits or habits, such as honesty, justice and integrity, enable us to act wisely and in line with our beliefs.  Therefore, the question we should ask of any action is, What kind of person will I become if I do this?” (pg 39) and “But discipleship is not primarily about rules; it’s about the development of habits and practices.” (pg 76)
Chalke sees Scripture as the Story of God and God’s choice to be present in the lives of people.  Through the story, God’s character is revealed and a vision is cast.  Discipleship then is the action of developing the practices and habits that come from that vision and allow the disciple to enter the process of becoming more and more in-line with God’s character.
If you want to gander at a section of the book yourself, check it out here.
My favorite part about this book is the inclusion of the “Thinking Christianly” section at the end of each four parts of the book.  These sections include two letters of differing views about some controversial topics.  Each letter is thought out by whoever wrote them and points to the messiness of discipleship and how answers aren’t always easy as both letters often can be convincing.  The inclusion of these sections invites the reader to start “practicing” the “art of living beautifully.”  After the two letters there are some questions that engage the reader to begin thinking about the topic individually or as a community.
That brings me to my advice:  If you read this book, read it with a group of people.  Don’t just read it as an individual disciple but read it as a group of disciples.  The “Thinking Christianly” sections bring about great dialogue and create an open atmosphere that seeks to discover who God would have us be.  After reading this book for review, I was so excited about the communal possibilities that I am using it with the college students involved in the campus ministry I lead and ordered each of them a copy.