Getting Back to Resurrection Street

In a previous post I said I’d return to Brazil only as a fully supported missionary. I’m re-thinking that position. Although I received significant support from American churches (though I still worked as an EFL teacher for part of my support) I never had any problem with those churches. I did what I could and reported on what was happening.

In the long run, though, most missionaries will find themselves compelled to work and seek results primarily for the support to keep coming. You have to show progress for churches to feel like it’s a good “investment.”

Another issue is the content of one’s faith. In order to obtain mission support, one of my fellowship of churches generally has to persuade several congregations that he or she represents the faith of that congregation. For those who go through a mission board of a denomination, the doctrinal restrictions can be tighter still. Beyond the first pledges of support, once the missionary is on the field he or she is obligated to stay within the boundaries of faith and teaching of the fellowship or denomination.

This is not to say that all missionaries do continue to agree with the beliefs and practices of their denomination once they are on the mission field, or that all deviate from those parameters. Some do, some don’t. A more exaggerated example of deviation with which I am familiar is that of a missionary in Asia who became an active lesbian, but didn’t report this to the denominational mission board. Someone discovered her “tendencies” and reported her, resulting in her dismissal and return to the United States.

Other, less dramatic, cases would be those of missionaries who embrace a change in doctrine from their sending group. This ranges from Calvinists becoming to some extent Arminian to evangelicals from cessationist groups becoming Pentecostal (as with many Christian Churches missionaries in central Brazil). More often than not, these variations from the group position go unreported.

It’s not as though this never happened before in history. Adoniram Judson become Baptist while en route to the Asian mission field. At least he was honest and open about it, though.

Full-time missionaries do a lot of good around the world, but I don’t think I can be one of them. It’s not that my faith is so unstable, but rather than I need my freedom to change and grow if need be without financial concerns. Also, I would really like to avoid anything that may distract me from keeping the main thing the main thing.

So, while some support would be welcome, I think I need to work out how I can be a bivocational missionary in Brazil. Right now, though, I need to figure out how to be a dedicated missional Christian where I am. If I get it right now, surely it will work out tomorrow.

Mission Now

For pretty much all of my adult life, I’ve felt like I was working towards something, rather than living right now. When I went to college it was with the goal of becoming a “Pastor” (a denominational change or two later the goal remained the same, though the terminology changed). I was in college to fulfill that goal, and everything I did was aimed in that direction. My first two month mission trip to Brazil turned me in the direction of mission work, and my heart and mind were ablaze with plans to do mission service in Brazil. Once I was actually in Brazil, shortly after I was married, I told my wife that I felt like I was being providentially prepared for “something.”

Disillusionment with ministry have left me adrift for nearly two years since I’ve been in New Jersey. Without goals that inspired my imagination, I haven’t known what to do or how to live.

Now I realize something very important: Goals are wonderful and necessary, but life has to be lived now. Discipleship is about taking up one’s cross daily (Luke 9:23)…not studying about how to take it up some day. Life isn’t a movie, where the hero (me, of course) suddenly finds the moment in time for which he or she was born to fulfull. Even Christ’s life, death and resurrection did not fulfill prophecy all at once. God’s will was fulfilled at each stage and every day in between in His life. Had He not been faithful even during “ordinary time,” to play on the lectionary’s wording, it would have all been for nothing.

The missional life is life lived now, not later. Following Jesus is when I’m at work, at home, gathered with other Christians or at a concert or ball game. Every moment is sacred, though I might not always feel as if that is so. Yes, I’m preparing for the future, but I’m also living out my present. Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed.

Brazil On My Mind

When most people think of Brazil, beaches in Rio de Janeiro like the one in the picture here probably come to mind. Others think of Samba, or remember that Carnival, is big in Brazil. A few might have a vague impression of favelas (though not many seem to have any idea how dangerous these places are to outsiders).

Brazil, to me, is a place of hope, frustration and fervent faith. Brazilians are generally a hopeful people, though hope is frequently frustrated by major economic setbacks and struggles. As for faith, Brazilians range from Roman Catholic (both active and nominal) to evangelical/pentecostal to Spiritist to Muslim to…well…things you’ll never hear of elsewhere. Faith matters to most Brazilians.

Somewhere I have a picture of me in Uberlandia, on “Rua da Ressurreição” (Resurrection Street). This street is located in Bairro Aurora, the neighborhood I worked to evangelize before my brother-in-law invited me to work with him in the new congregation he had just started in another neighborhood (Pacaembu). My dream was to see a church founded in Aurora, and I thought it’d be great to have a meeting place directly on Resurrection Street. “Discipulos de Cristo reunem aqui” was to be the sign overhead, and I might have used “Igreja na Rua da Ressurreição” (“Resurrection Street Church”).

Ah, but now I’m in the United States. Mission support wasn’t adequate for a growing family, and due largely to visa issues (it took over 2 years to get a permanent visa…necessary to open bank accounts and transact business in my own name in Brazil) was unable to get a better-paying job to supplement my income. Though I live in an area densely populated by Brazilian immigrants, it’s just not the same.

Would I go back today, if I had the chance? Maybe, but only for a visit. My time in Brazil was valuable to me, but I’m not ready to live there again. To be ready, I need to get my life fully in order and have my wife on board with me 100% in doing mission work. She and I both need further training. For myself, I’d like an MDiv. For her, at least a Bachelor’s in some Christian field, like counseling. When we go back, it really must be as full-time, fully-supported missionaries.

My dream is to work together with my wife in planting a missional community, a church dedicated to the belief that every Christian is a priest of Christ and called to minister in accordance with their gifts and abilities. It must be a church that is devoted to living out the life of Christ, continuing the ministry of Jesus.

This time in the United States must be to me a time of preparation, training and experience. May God help us realize His dreams for us, and may our dreams be in tune with His.

Down to the River to Pray

Have you ever seen the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”? It runs in repeats a lot on cable now, but it remains one of my all-time favorite movies. One of the best scenes in it is near the beginning, when the escaped band of convicts stumbles across a congregation dressed in white heading down to a river, singing “Down to the River to Pray.” Two of the three wind up stumbling into the water to be baptized.

To some, that seems too easy. Many churches require long classes or meetings with the pastor before a person may be baptized. In some congregations a person has to have a “Christian testimony” to salvation prior to being baptized, in order to be granted baptism. In most Christian communities the pastor is the only one authorized to baptize people.

This isn’t what we can find in the Scripture, and missional churches will do well to realize that baptism is open to all who believe in Christ alone for salvation, is non-denominational in nature and may be administered by any Christian. Ultimately, it is Christ who gives baptism meaning and power, as it is He who gives the Spirit at that sacred moment.

Before I first went to Brazil during the summer of 1997, I had a Brazilian roommate. He was from an evangelical background in Brazil, and spoke broken English. Struggling through one of our first conversations, I learned that he had never been baptized. The church he attended required him to attend 6 months of baptism classes without a single absence. He never managed to make all the classes, due largely to work obligations. For a couple of hours I went over the Good News with him and discovered that he positively believed in Jesus Christ as the only savior an d that salvation is a gift, not something to be earned. He earnestly wanted to be baptized to follow Jesus. That same night he was baptized by a college professor in Moberly, Missouri that he admired for his work with youth.

Were we wrong? Absolutely not!

Reading the Book of Acts we find no example of anyone being told to wait to be baptized. In the earliest days of the church, people were told the Good News of Jesus Christ, and then baptized as soon as they asked for it. Baptism was the natural result of coming to faith in Christ and repenting of sins.

“As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him” (Acts 8:36-38 NRSV).

We don’t find denominational baptism in Scripture, simply because there were no denominations. Some groups of sincere, good Christians actually consider baptism to be an initiation into their church group. Baptists generally hold this view, with some exceptions, and the Community of Christ baptizes all people who seek to join their group. Although in recent times they’ve softened and recognize that baptism in other groups is also valid, they still require rebaptism for entrance into their denomination.

Christian baptism is simply that: Christian. When I baptize someone, it is into Christ’s body, the church universal, and not into a specific expression of the church. Yes, I hope that the one I baptize will hold to the teachings of Scripture as I do, but ultimately what must be believed for a baptism to be “valid” is the Good News of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection for our salvation.

A certain Baptist missionary in a third world country has no trouble reporting progress in his mission field. He came into the region 40 years after the first missions of his denomination had begun there, and Baptist churches and mission outposts were already located throughout the area. The only ordained minister of his fellowship in 150 miles, he travels a circuit of villages teaching, preaching and administering the ordinances, including baptism. Truth be told, he’s never led a single person to Christ, though he has baptized hundreds. The local Christians do the actual evangelizing, and he just finishes the job by baptizing the new converts.

“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’” (Matthew 28:18-20 NRSV).

If the “Great Commission” was meant for more than just the 11 apostles of Jesus (after the death of Judas, prior to the selection of Matthias), and in fact is spoken to each new generation of the church, then it must be applied in its entirety. Disciples of Jesus are called to reach out with the Good News, making disciples, baptizing and teaching the whole counsel of God as revealed in Christ. On the authority of Christ, each and every Christian has the right and obligation to proclaim the Gospel and baptize. No one needs to wait for an “expert” to arrive to complete the sacred work of initiation into the Way.

Christian baptism is the immersion in water, but there is more to it than the physical aspect. The Scripture soundly promises the “gift of the Holy Spirit” to those who are baptized into Christ (Acts 2:38). The living presence of God Himself comes not through the instrumentality of man, or based on some power inherent in the earthly baptizer who can only lower one down into water and lift up again, but rather the immersion from on high comes from the Master.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire" (Matthew 3:11 NRSV).

Baptism is for everyone who believes in Jesus, is ecumenical, can be provided by any Christian and is empowered and blessed by the Spirit of God promised and sent by Jesus.

The Real Presence

During my first year in college I became very concerned with the true nature of the Lord’s Supper. Having left the Roman Catholic Church at age 17, belief in transubstantiation was one of the doctrines jettisoned in the process. During my time in the Presbyterian Church (USA) I imbibed a respect for Communion as a Sacrament symbolic of Christ’s death, and one in which I was receiving Christ “spiritually.”

Leaving the PCUSA, I never really thought out what I was going to think about the Lord’s Supper until that first year in college. Studying it out, I felt myself drawn to the Lutheran belief in the “real presence” of Christ in the Supper. Mislabeled “consubstatiation,” the orthodox Lutheran view is that Christ’s body and blood are present “in, under and with” the elements of the Lord’s Supper. The bread is still bread, and the juice or wine is truly juice or wine, but the body and blood are also mysteriously really present in this Sacrament.

Ultimately I ended up considering Communion to be a symbolic act which, according to Scripture, declares the Lords’ death until He comes (1 Corinthians 11:26). Besides that, I also taught that it can be a moment of personal reflection and recommitnment to the Lord.

Further reflection leads me to believe that there is more to it than this, though what I’m finding is along different lines than what I had seen before. Consider, for example, 1 Corinthians 10 &11.

“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:16-17 ESV).

The context of the verse above is one of communal unity. The text gives an example from ancient Israel’s failure in falling into idolatry, and comments on how as a group they had all been “baptized” in passing through the Sea of Reeds and had all eaten the same “spiritual food” and shared the same “spiritual drink.” The communal nature and unity of the ancient Israelites and then of the church in Corinth were in view here.

Though the topic meanders a bit, Paul soon returned to the matter of unity and the Lord’s Supper in chapter 11, condemning factions (continuing a theme he started back in 1 Corinthians 3:1-9) that arrive even at the Lord’s table. When the disciples gathered and participated in the commemoration of the Lord’s death, they apparently did it in a divisive way. It seems that people were treating it like a potluck, bringing good food for themselves and maybe their friends, and not sharing with the needier brothers and sisters. The moment that called for greatest unanimity had become a time of shameless division and favoritism.

“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another– if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home–so that when you come together it will not be for judgment. About the other things I will give directions when I come” (1 Corinthians 11:27-34 ESV).

Reading 1 Corinthians, and especially chapters 10 and 11, I think it becomes fairly obvious that the problem the apostle Paul was addressing was the factious spirit in the Corinthian congregation. The church is the “body of Christ”(1 Corinthians 12:27), and those who look down on brothers and sisters in Christ because of race and/or socio-economic status and who create divisions or “cliques” within the church are in sin and subject to the Lord’s judgment. They who behave so badly in this way are “guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:27).

Have no doubt, there is a “real presence” of the Lord when we come together for the Holy Sacrament of Communion. The Lord is present whenever two or more disciples are gathered (Matthew 18:20), and especially when we remember and declare His sacrificial death in the Lord’s Supper.

Let’s take part in a worthy manner. “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35 ESV).

God-breathed (Some Quotations on Scripture)

<!– 16 –><!– 17 –>“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work”
(2 Timothy 3:16-17 NIV).

Useful is the inspired word. Useful can be proved in every person who has been blessed and led by the word of God. The intent was to bring us to salvation and make us all proficient and equipped for good works. The emphasis is clearly on character and conduct development. The focus here is not on scriptural flawlessness” (from What Does The Bible Really Say About Hell? by Randy Klassen).

“The total result is not "the Word of God” in the sense that every passage, in itself, gives impeccable science or history. It carries the World of God; and we…receive that word from it not by using it as an encyclopedia or an encyclical but by steeping ourselves in its tone or temper and so learning its overall message" (from Reflections On The Psalms by C.S. Lewis).

“God reveals himself in the Bible. Christians believe that God himself speaks to us in this book. But he speaks in and through human writes using the original languages of an ancient near Eastern tribe and of an ancient Western civilization. Moreover, the biblical writings reflect their writer’s education or lack of education, historical environment and culture, primitive views of geography and physics and astronomy. As God in Christ came to us wrapped in swaddling clothes, so the word of God comes to us wrapped in the words of these men – in this human form” (from Christian Doctrine by Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr.).

Primitive Baptists

The church building here is from near Hurdland, Missouri. I grew up on a farm about four miles north and east of this location, and when my father was a child he attended this church from time to time (rarely) with his family. They were not frequent church-goers, though my grandmother was a Christian. None were members of the Primitive Baptist Church.

This building belongs to the Primitive Baptists, a “back-to-the-Bible” Protestant group. They are Calvinists, though not all Primitive Baptists are.

Oddly enough, there’s a group in the Appalachians that, although of the Primitive Baptist variety, is also universalist in theology. There’s a book out there about them, but you could also read an article about them online.

In general, Primitive Baptists believe they are restoring original Christianity in faith and practice. Most of them have a cappella worship, meaning no musical instruments are used. This Primitive Baptist Universalist group is apparently quite small, though, and barely exists outside the Appalachians, like many religious groups there.

I’m afraid that if any of the many people with universalist sympathies were to seek this group out with some romantic idea that this is the group for them, they’ll be sorely disappointed. One doctrine alone does not imply compatibility, and I don’t think these PBU people would be too impressed with the New Age and speculative forms of universalism that are circulating online.