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Rediscovering Mystery in the Information Age Rev. Stephen Cagle

In Douglas Adams’ science fiction masterpiece, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there is a scene where a group of scientists are building a computer to answer the hardest question in the universe. They build a massive computer that they call “Deep Thought” to answer the question: “the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.” Deep Thought tells the scientists it will take seven and a half million years to compute the answer. After seven and a half million years had passed, the descendants of the original scientists waited excitely to hear Deep Thought’s answer, the very answer all intelligent life had been searching for from the beginning.

“Are you ready to give it to us?” the scientists asked. “I am,” replied Deep Thought, “though I don’t think you are going to like it. The answer to the great question, to life, the universe and everything is… 42!”

The scientists are aghast. After seven and a half million years, the answer that Deep Thought provides them makes no sense. “I think the problem,” Deep Thought tells them, “is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”

This is a very silly story of course, but it is also a satire of many of the great thinkers of the last 300 or so years. Beginning with the Enlightenment, there has been a pervasive idea that the great questions that vex us as a species could be answered with the scientific method and reductionism. It was believed that questions like “Who are we?” and “Why are we here?” could be answered purely through scientific advancement. In social sciences this era of scientific advancement is called “modernity.”

We see the effects of modernity every day in the incredible technological advances that have been made during this period of history. Particularly in the last 150 years, humankind has taken an enormous leap forward. My grandparents used horses as their only means of transportation when they where children, and now I have the sum of all human knowledge accessible to me from the smart phone in my pocket at all times.

But yet, with all of this scientific advancement, we don’t seem to be any closer to answering the “ultimate question” than we were 300 years ago. There are many people now who believe, just as Deep Thought did, that we are asking the wrong question. We can’t ask a computer, an implement of science, a philosophical question and expect to get a sensical answer. We have entered into a new era, which the social scientists call “post-modernity.” This is the era of Generation X and the Millenials. This is the era of people who look at the quest of modernity and see its failure and come to one of two conclusions: 1.) There simply is no answer to the ultimate question, or 2.) There is an answer to the ultimate question, but it is beyond human understanding.

The Church was not immune to modernity, and it has even been suggested that the Protestant Reformation was the garden from which modernity grew. Modernity expressed itself in the Church in different and seemingly contradictory ways. On the one hand there was classical theological liberalism, which denied the existence of miracles, questioned the legitimacy of the Biblical record, and began the so-called quest for the “historical” Jesus. On the other hand was Biblical fundamentalism, the idea that every single word of the Bible is meant to be taken literally and that the Bible has an answer for every single question. Fundamentalism treats the Bible as a science textbook that is to be examined and combed for “evidence.” Fundamentalism makes the same mistakes as modernity, looking for answers to questions that aren’t fully understood. I know this because I grew up in the world of fundamentalism.

In the church I attended as a kid, there was an answer to every question. I was a pretty inquizzitive kid, so there were lots of questions. Sometimes the answer I got was terrible, but there was always an answer. These answers were most often derived from applying the scientific method to various parts of scripture. “What is heaven like?” Let’s look for a precise literal description in Revelation 21. “If God created the world in seven days, when did the dinosaurs live?” There were no dinosaurs, the world is really only 6000 years old, end of discussion. I always found the answers lacking. They were answers, sure, but they never really clicked for me. It was just like asking “the ultimate question” and getting “42” back as an answer. It was an answer, but it doesn’t make sense!

I remember the first time that I went to a church that used a more traditional liturgy in its worship, and there was a curious little phrase that stood out to me. It was during the communion time, and the pastor said, “Let us proclaim the mystery of the faith.” This phrase isn’t anything new, as it goes back all the way back to ancient Christianity, but it was certainly something I hadn’t ever heard before. Mystery?! There isn’t supposed to be anything mysterious about faith, because the Bible has all the answers! Or so I had been told. Imagine my surprise when I learned that this phrase actually comes from the Bible itself.

In the book of 1 Timothy, Paul uses this phrase to describe people who are qualified to serve in the church as deacons. That they must be “committed to the mystery of the faith.” Paul uses the word “mystery” (in Greek, mysterion) to mean something that was hidden that God has revealed to his people. Paul tells us that, yes, there is an answer to the ultimate question and that it is indeed beyond our reach. However, it is not beyond the reach of God, and God has chosen to reveal some of that answer to us. God did this through scripture, through the prophets of old, but most of all God revealed himself to us through Jesus. The Bible, therefore, isn’t a science textbook but rather an instrument of God’s revelation.

The distinction of what this means precisely is summed up well by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, where he tells us that what we understand about life, the universe, and everything is like looking through a darkened piece of glass, much like being on the mirror side of a two-way mirror. We catch glimpses of the eternal truth of God, but only that. When we look through the glass, we can only see that on the other side which is brightest.

As a Christian I believe there is an answer to the ultimate question, and that answer is a relationship with God. This is an answer not derived through the scientific method, but an answer given to us by God himself. He has revealed enough about himself that we can know how to live our lives and experience his love, but he has not given us every answer to every question… and God expects us to be okay with that. Over the years, I have had to learn to be okay with that.

And so, I believe that people can experience salvation from sin and death because Jesus died and rose again. I don’t know how (though I have some theories), but because Jesus was dead one moment and alive the next, I trust and have faith that it is the case. I believe that when Christians have communion, we meet Jesus and experience his presence in a unique way. I don’t know how, but because Jesus said, “This is my body… this is my blood,” I trust and have faith that it is the case. And that is exactly the beautiful thing about allowing mystery to play a part in my religious life: I have found myself trusting in God more.

There are many questions I have about life, the universe, and everything that are still unanswered. But that’s okay. I have found comfort in the mystery of the faith. I don’t need to know everything to know God.


cagle_stephenRev. Stephen Cagle is a United Methodist pastor and serves as an associate at Claremore First United Methodist Church in Claremore, OK.  He is the husband of Ashley and first of his name.  Stephen has a background in the world of technology and spent many formative years of his life going to hardcore and punk shows.  His top three spiritual influences are: John Wesley, Søren Kierkegaard, and the band mewithoutYou.

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Why Advent? By Rev. Kyle Kiner

Waiting…watching…preparing

These are words of a season leading up to Christmas Day.  Christmas in the Christian church means even more when we practice waiting.  During Advent we take seriously a time preparing to celebrate the fact the God brought Jesus into the world.  We do this time of preparing in a number of ways.  We sing songs that say O Come O Come Emmuel!  We hear scriptures and sermons that speak about what will be coming in what God is doing.

And why wait?

Because on Christmas Eve it means so much more when we light the Christ Candle and sing Silent Night…Christ Our Savior is born!
In the Christian faith, we deal with a discipline of waiting because of the tension we live with.  Apostle Paul speaks in his letters about the times we live with in the church.  It is a time of waiting.  Jesus came into the world and blessed the world and then through His death and resurrection gave us the gift of salvation.  And as Jesus ascended he promised that one day He would return.  His return and completion of the Kingdom of God is what we are still waiting and watching for in our faith.  So we practice waiting during Advent as well as Lent in the time leading up to Easter.

As part of worship, I love lighting the candles of the Advent wreath. The purple candles symbolize Hope, Peace, Love, And Joy.  Then we light the white candle on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  Some churches use blue candles to symbolize the royalty of Jesus in the Kingdom of God.

This year Christmas Day falls on a Sunday which only happens about 7-8 years.  Christmas Eve will be on Saturday night.  It is going to be a complicated for preachers and planners.  Because we know that people in their families will be upholding their family Christmas traditions of opening presents and staying home.  This is the clash we struggle with for the church in conflict with a world that is increasingly more secular than sacred.  What will we do in the church to bring meaning and bridge the gap?

In my church we will invite children to come to worship in pjs.  We will have a blessing of toys because we want to dedicate our play as holy before the Lord.

As Mike Slaughter famously teaches, Christmas is not Your Birthday!  We honor the birth of our savior Jesus by waiting watching and dedicating the season and what we give and receive to Jesus the new born King!

Why Advent?

Why not…Wait and See!


kyleReverend Kyle Kiner is currently serving as Lead Pastor of Henryetta First United Methodist church. Kyle is married to Jennie and they have two children. He enjoys playing golf and watching premier Star Wars movies in 3D with Rev. Matt Franks.

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So What Do We Do? By Rev. Matt Bridges

 

*Part 4 of 4 in a new blog series by Matt Bridges

So What Do We Do?

We must reclaim the word “church” so that the original meaning and intent is not lost for good. And for many of us, it will mean claiming a new identity in our lives as believers individually, and collectively. Making this mental and communicational shift will be an incredible step toward reclaiming and I think practicing much of the gospel in our daily lives in brand new ways. Claiming this identity as a people equips us better as followers of Christ at the outset to live into the charge to make disciples, baptize, and as my denomination promotes “make disciples for the transformation of the world.”

I believe this shift in language and action has the power to revolutionize how we live into these lofty and faithful goals of being a relevant presence in this world for God. Living as the church enables believers to be the people who tell of the Good news anytime, anywhere, and under any condition. An unhealthy pattern we have, and even sometimes promote as leaders, is that we invite people to a place where God is talked about and that’s where “church” happens. This is an unhealthy model because it makes the evangelism limited to a place, and it allows people to pass off the telling of the good news on someone else. What to do? We embrace the church as us, a people, and we unbind the ways we’ve bound the gospel. It’s going to take work in our heads and hearts though.

We have to change our language, and sometimes that means adding words. In an age of trying to streamline much of our existence in both form and expression (virtually any form of sources we look to as a hub for communication promote expression with as few words or symbols as possible), we don’t always like to upset this norm. But I believe we must if we want to recover generations of whittling down such an important word, and meaning, and state of existence.

After all of these words, I think of my friend Daniel. My friend and brother in Christ Daniel O’Doherty, a pastor in the Assemblies of God denomination where I live, told me he makes sure to end his service each week with “Let’s go be the church!” And his congregation leaves the sacred space of worship as a people back out into a different part of the world to be the people who follow Christ, who rely on each other for how to follow Christ, and live on as the Body of Christ, the church.

So, I want to end the same way. Go be the church if you believe and follow Jesus. Don’t be attached to a building or event in time and call it “church.” If that idea of church has been weighing you down and giving you reason or excuse to not pursue a daily life of faith, be free of it. Be connected to your faith and life in Christ like never before. Invite people into a relationship with you, and then show them where and how the church lives out their faith when they meet together on occasion. Take the time to help a person become part of the church by helping them understand the power and beauty of being a follower of Christ. Go back to the beginning of this article. Have the phrases above changed for you? How?


final-bridges2 Rev. Matt Bridges is an ordained elder in the United Methodist church and currently serves in New Mexico as the pastor of First United Methodist Church in Lovington. Matt has served in ministry in one form or another for the last seventeen years. In particular, he has a passion for music ministry and other types of worship ministry. In all of the things he’s learned in ministry, if he were to write a book on worship right now it would most certainly be titled1001 Times (and counting)  I said “Well, I’ll Never Do It ThatWay Again” in Worship. He is joined in ministry by his wife, Corinne, and daughter Emilie. And they all love being the church together.

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Okay, So What? Part 3 of 4 Rev. Matt Bridges

*Part 3 of 4 in a new blog series by Matt Bridges

Okay, So What?

I believe limiting church to a location or an event in time ultimately allows people to hold their church and their relationship with Christ at arm’s length. It allows people to fall into any number of unhealthy categories of how to approach a faithful life of following of Christ: episodically (unhealthy) versus continually (healthy). Any definition of “church” which has limited the word to a geographic location (or locations) or an event in time like worship will weave in too much identity with a location or event rather than in a healthy relationship with Christ, and thus turn it into a faith lived out episodically. In terms of sharing this faith and identifying as a believer, these assumptions of and this mixing of meanings has become unhealthy evangelism if our goal is to tell others of the good news of Jesus Christ. Our evangelism then becomes episodic and very limited as well. It is limited to an invitation to a place or event.

But What About the Children?

If we raise our children up in the mentality of “going to church” as though their ecclesial identity is linked directly to a location or a worship service, well, no wonder they feel lost and don’t connect as they progress in their lives of faith. No wonder they grow more distant and don’t relate until feeling like this identity with Christ is simply irrelevant? I am reminded of the phrase I used above making a distinction about “Big Church” and “Children’s Church.” It is little surprise when I encounter people who feel lost when they can’t find an exact replica of the identity they were taught was “church” because their church identity is too entwined with a place or event. Also, their identity is any number of models of children’s church and being told explicitly and implicitly for years that they weren’t relevant to the “big” worship space. If all of this is woven together and called church, then it is right to feel disillusioned with the church. If we send our children out into this world and expect them to have a healthy idea of faith and a healthy idea of their relationship with Christ; and if that idea is based on the identity of a very narrow view of how that faith and life are expressed, they will fall away and their views of faith as relevant will degrade as well.

When I reflect on my own experience and how I am seated in multiple generations of Christianity in the 20th and 21st century (I’m 35), I grew up “going to church” with varying degrees of willingness. I didn’t realize that until my late teens that I had grown up identifying my faith almost solely with a building or events in time like “worship,” “youth group,” or “choir.” If I identified myself as “the church” or “part of the church” and it was a reference strictly to a people or my relationship with fellow believers, it was only implicit, or an afterthought (or that catchy hymn at the beginning of this post). In many conversations over the years, I know that I do not write this as an isolated and self-serving case study.

Upon this revelation for me (it was a revelation for me) of the word “church,” I am much more intentional in my usage with my congregation, with my child, with my family, with everyone. My faith has been changed, and I’ve had powerful conversations with parishioners, unchurched, de-churched, and atheists with this change in, and approach to, the word. I no longer go to the church to work.

I go to my office, at the church building, to work. I don’t go to church on Sunday nor do I prepare throughout my week for church on Sunday. I prepare sermons, music, prayers, orders of worship, all for the sake of sharing the gospel and doing my part to be the church. I sit with the church next to hospital beds and offer prayers, encouragement, and communion. I cry with the church in loss, and I shout with joy with the church in success.

My faith and work simply cannot be episodic now that I embrace this shift in meaning. I try to show distinction inside and outside of worship. I have a running joke and “test” with the youth group and they have fun correcting me, and being corrected. “Me: Hey __________, are you going to church tomorrow?” “Youth: Haha, no Brother Matt, I am the church….and I am going to the worship service tomorrow.”

 

*Stay Tuned for

Part 4 Nov 22 “So What Do We Do?”


final-bridges2 Matt Bridges is an ordained elder in the United Methodist church and currently serves in New Mexico as the pastor of First United Methodist Church in Lovington. Matt has served in ministry in one form or another for the last seventeen years. In particular, he has a passion for music ministry and other types of worship ministry. In all of the things he’s learned in ministry, if he were to write a book on worship right now it would most certainly be titled1001 Times (and counting)  I said “Well, I’ll Never Do It ThatWay Again” in Worship. He is joined in ministry by his wife, Corinne, and daughter Emilie. And they all love being the church together.

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Breaking Down the Word: What’s the Big Deal? Part 2 0f 4 by Rev. Matt Bridges

*Part 2 of 4 in a new blog series by Matt Bridges

Breaking Down the Word: What’s the Big Deal?

Now, here at the outset is a disclaimer: anyone who knows me could tell you that I play pretty fast and loose with language. Language is fun, and it is messy. The English language in particular can be messy because it incorporates so many words from other world languages and is therefore continually growing and changing. English could possibly be compared to a youngest child who gets all of the hand-me-downs and not all of those hand-me-downs fit, but who cares because at least the youngest is clothed. But I’ve come to recognize a certain bank of words that I have had to rethink and get back to the roots, not to discover or further burden with new meaning, but rather the meaning that was always there and got lost in the handing down to me. I believe “church” is one such word and I want to attempt to get back to the original meaning. I want to revive the richness this word in meaning and usage can offer the church today.

The word church, in its most basic form is the derived from the Greek words kyriake (roughly “belonging to the Lord”) and Εκκλησία, or ekklesia (“assembly”). These words together form the sense “the worshipping assembly called forth by God” (Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms). In any definition I have come across in any translation, and traced back to its nascence, “church” is in reference to [a] people. Even in referring to an “assembly” of people, it is not in the act of “gathering as a people” or gathering at a location, but the already “gathered” people (in physical presence or Spirit). A slight difference; however, I want to cover my bases. Theologian Paul Minear wrote a book titled Images of the Church in the New Testament and counts some ninety-six different images or analogies of the church found in the New Testament alone, which is fascinating in and of itself. You could take on a new image and analogy of the church every couple of days and live it out! Hehe, now that would be an interesting experiment. In taking a deeper look into Scripture as an exercise in searching for meaning, even in the references the Apostle Paul makes in his letter to the Corinthians, that “[we] are God’s field, God’s building” (1 Cor. 3:9), whatever the structure looks like, it is made out of people, the assembly; and Paul goes on in the remaining verses to describe this in great detail leading to the popular verse 3:16 about how we are a temple. The word refers to the people gathered who faithfully practice together their faith as followers of Christ. In the letter to the Corinthians, the body individually and collectively therefore becomes a dwelling place for the Lord to do the Lord’s work.

The word “church” has transformed in usage over the years, the centuries. The word itself describes subjects, or a collection of subjects into an assembly, all bound together. But the original definition and intent has given way in common-speak to refer to or attract people to a place or specific event in time (like worship). And the church has engaged in many, many different tactics to accomplish these goals (with varying degrees of success if the goal is to attract to a location or event). But the location and/or event meaning does not stand alone. Other solutions to reclaiming the word “Church” have been proposed.

I’ve listened to the argument of expanding the word “church” to become a verb as well, that through adaptation the word can actually morph into a new part of speech. Many words do this in colloquial usage, sure, and I am certainly no purist when it comes to language and usage. But I think the way we have adapted this word in objective definition, usage definition, and certainly practice, is rendering the word useless; it is eroding “the church” in the same way our church buildings—our half-century old (or older) fortresses in some cases—are eroding. I see many parts of the church attempt to expand and stretch the meaning of the word to attract and empower believer and non-believer alike, but the attempts often end up being localized to attract to a location or particular mode of accommodating worship style. While I find myself agreeing with the goals and intentions of various attempts and campaigns—of which many are trying to get people to discover God in a rich and powerful way (Amen!), I still see the limitations these efforts present and unknowingly impose on people’s relationship with the Body of Christ.

We try to expand a definition and meaning in an attempt to empower people of the church in new ways, but it ultimately distracts the believer from embracing an identity as a follower of Christ among followers of Christ as the church. I am all for an active faith in any aspect one can live out their faith in Christ, but being an active church is a people who follow Christ and use their facilities and gatherings in healthy ways to be active and growing. The distinction is crucial for understanding the big picture idea of believers being bound together in Christ. I just want people identifying with others first as the Body of Christ rather than a building, a particular denomination of faith, or an event. And embracing this identity as a person will lead to the active part of our faith. It is much healthier to identify as a people bound together in Christ first and then after that celebrate the ways and opportunities we practice and experience our faith together.

Yes, we all are paying a price for the church not reclaiming the word “church” and putting it back into its rightful place as identifying a people, not a place or an event in time. We need to reclaim the word from the institution the church has become.

*Stay Tuned for

Part 3 Nov 15 “Okay, So What?”

Part 4 Nov 22 “So What Do We Do?”


final-bridges2 Matt Bridges is an ordained elder in the United Methodist church and currently serves in New Mexico as the pastor of First United Methodist Church in Lovington. Matt has served in ministry in one form or another for the last seventeen years. In particular, he has a passion for music ministry and other types of worship ministry. In all of the things he’s learned in ministry, if he were to write a book on worship right now it would most certainly be titled1001 Times (and counting)  I said “Well, I’ll Never Do It ThatWay Again” in Worship. He is joined in ministry by his wife, Corinne, and daughter Emilie. And they all love being the church together.