Tough Questions at Chico Grace Brethren

Our nation seems more divided than ever on moral and spiritual issues. The different tribes watch comfortable cable channels, subscribe to congenial blogs, or lob incendiary posts at other tribes on social media. Each group is trying to control the script—evangelicals included.

There are fewer places where the tribes even live side by side. A New Yorker might read What’s the Matter with Kansas? while flying over the actual state at 30,000 feet. Here in northern California, it easier for an evangelical to see a video of a scientist on YouTube than to talk with one face-to-face.

But Chico and the ridge have all the tribes. We are not isolated from people who think differently. They’re next door. So, at Chico Grace Brethren, we decided to start a dialogue.

Over the summer we said to friends and neighbors, “If you could ask a pastor to speak on any question, what would it be?” We found that the conversations lowered barriers. We also thought the questions we received were terrific. I choose six of them to address in a short series that starts this Sunday.

The series is called, “Tough Questions,” and the title fits.

Some of the questions are confrontational. “Why would I want organized religion?” Or, “How can Jesus be the only way?” Others come from profound pain. “Why does God allow evil against children?” Two questions are simple requests for information: “What happened when Jesus was young?” “Where is heaven?”

This is a way we can throw away the script and have a real exchange of ideas. I also take written questions about the sermon and answer them during the service. We’ve found that this kind of dialogue keeps the atmosphere respectful and the temperature low. We won’t necessarily be able to agree, but we will find some new ways to talk about timeless issues. We hope you will join us, either at 10:15 a.m. on Sundays, or on the web at chicogracebrethren.com.

Goodness and Wellness at the Community Action Summit

by Matthew Raley Dr. Paul Zingg opened and closed Chico's Community Action Summit with an assertion. At the start of the day, he said that the summit was about "virtues." At the end, he said that he was pleased to hear the issue of wellness receive so much attention. "But," he added, "we must add goodness to wellness."

The distinction goes to the core of the summit's focus: our city's problem with alcohol.

Wellness is good health, both physically and emotionally. As a culture, we are comfortable talking about this category. We spend vast sums of money on fitness, dieting, and medicine. We analyze many problems like alcohol abuse as public health issues. If people were educated about wellness, we think, they would make better decisions.

It's a useful model.

But wellness is not the same as goodness. Goodness is the result of the moral disciplines that Dr. Zingg called virtues. The very term goodness calls us to discriminate between actions -- that is, to discover which ones might be evil. We are less comfortable with this category.

During the summit, the need for clarity about goodness came up repeatedly.

A session on sexual assault was attended by many survivors of violent crimes, both men and women. Several young women identified themselves as survivors of rape, describing an atmosphere on campus in which men laugh about sexual assault, stalking is a constant reality, and the most dangerous spaces are not public but private. One male student described being beaten in front of cheering bystanders. A father told of an attack on his son. Alumni in the group said that the atmosphere has not changed since they were students years ago.

Survivors of actions like these do not need evil explained. They want change for the good.

Assault survivors talked about creating a culture of personal responsibility by focusing on daily actions and relationships. Associated Students president Jay Virdee also raised the issue of personal responsibility and ran a session exploring educational approaches. He is articulate and passionate about this priority, and has ideas to encourage good decision-making through student mentoring.

I attended a session in which bar owners described being swamped with fake driver's licenses, either forged or stolen. They conferred with a police officer, cordially but inconclusively. Does the city have resources to arrest and prosecute the people who make and use fake cards? Clearly not. I was struck by the diligence bar owners and managers have shown in enforcing the laws. They are the people who confiscate fake i.d. from a parent trying to pass his kid off as 21. Personal responsibility came up in this discussion as well.

Clearly we need to change individuals' decision-making. Is wellness a strong enough category to bring about that change?

The parent sneaking liquor into his daughter's dorm room has a sense of wellness. If he thought it would hurt his daughter to drink, he wouldn't get her the stuff. If anything, his sense of wellness is offended by what he sees as intrusive rules.

The 19-year-old who uses his older brother's i.d. to get into bars has a sense of wellness, too. His partying is under control. He gets good grades and holds down a job. He's not on crack. Who gets hurt?

The 26-year-old who gets a 19-year-old woman to "sext" him when she's drunk, and later posts her pictures on the web  -- even he has a sense of wellness. How could his actions possibly have hurt her? She's famous now. Guys love her.

On what basis will we argue that these three people are not well? They don't see the harm in their choices. They don't see any connection between their actions and nights of mayhem like last Saturday, when the police received 391 calls in a twelve hour period. These three will say it's other people who are "out of control."

To make the case, we will have to use the word wrong. We will have to talk about what is good. We'll have to examine beliefs -- critically evaluate the reasons we give for our actions. We'll have to speak in terms of goodness because wellness is not a self-evident concept. It is derived from ethics.

There are several things we can do to make this case. We can recover some old words that express the differences between actions: honesty and lying, wisdom and folly, lust and love. We can also restore to educators the mandate to teach these words. Even further, we can link consequences to good and bad actions. These are the things that confident communities do.

As a pastor, my job goes one step further. The gospel I teach has to go beyond wellness. Jesus is indeed a healer. But he did not die and rise again because of our poor decisions. He died and rose again because we are not good. He came to deliver us from evil. Only that message is worth calling "good news."

Chico News & Review Reports on Churches and Gays

by Matthew Raley Jerry Olenyn did a service for Chico in his story for CN&R on how local churches view homosexuality. Writing such a piece is a thankless task, the only guarantee being that some on all sides will see Olenyn as biased. Conservative evangelicals should notice that Olenyn's language is even-handed, that his use of quotations presents a well-rounded picture of what conservative pastors believe and feel, and that his objective in the piece is right: to deepen our civic culture on this issue.

The article is solid reporting, an essential tool for keeping leaders honest and their discourse civil.

Olenyn only made one characterization in the story: "There's a definite evasiveness that seeps through this discussion. Conservative churches fear being labeled homophobic and intolerant, while gay-affirming churches worry that their pro-gay stance could cost them members." The characterization is fair.

Olenyn identifies the roots of this evasiveness. He responds to one pastor's assertion that "there are bigger issues" than homosexuality, "such as reaching out to the lost, feeding the hungry, and fulfilling Christ's mission." Olenyn asks, "But does part of fulfilling Christ’s mission include defining sin? And what exactly is sin?"

Perceptive. A pastor cannot speak clearly about whether homosexuality is a sin until he defines what sin is.

Throughout the article, as in the debate nationally, the word sin is used without definition. Today sin connotes a "really bad" thing, something that makes you feel guilty. With the term apparently used this way, we seem to be debating whether churches have a right to shame people.

To understand the Bible's definition of sin, we should start with the more basic issue of what it means to be human.

According to the Bible, human beings can only understand themselves fully in relation to God (e.g. Psalm 139). We are creatures. We do not govern our own lives. Rather, we serve something larger than ourselves -- either God or the things we put in place of God.

Sin, in this worldview, is primarily an identity of servitude to false gods, whatever form they take, and only secondarily a specific action or choice (Romans 1.18-32). Paul's teaching in Romans 6.15-23 is that human beings are sin's slaves. Jesus himself teaches (John 8.34), "Truly, truly I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin."

The implication is clear: to be human is to be the property either of sin or of God. All specific acts of sin express the same identity of sin-slavery in different ways. The issue in reconciling with God is not the individual acts, but the identity that those acts express.

The contrast between the biblical view and that of Western modernity is stark. The modern individual assumes -- more precisely, he believes as a matter of doctrine -- that he owns himself. He is the property of no one, having the autonomy to construct his life as he chooses. His dignity as a human being consists in asserting himself.

Conservative evangelicals know that a genuinely biblical definition of sin calls people to reject their most basic beliefs about who they are. For many decades now, evangelicals have been trying to finesse this point. They have cast sin in terms of "choices," "addictions," "values," or "lifestyles," as if behavior were the primary issue. Jesus, in this cautious gospel, is less Savior than Coach. He helps you make better choices about your life.

But in addressing homosexuals -- without a social consensus on sexual morality -- evangelicals are trapped by their evasiveness about sin. They can't confront homosexuality without asserting God's right to determine human identity. At the same time, they can't assert God's right over our identity without offending many of their own converts. The evangelical pew holds many who believe that their lives remain their own property, and who've been assured that God would never be so Godlike as to require their very selves.

Several conservative pastors quoted in Olenyn's article showed a wise mix of clarity about the Bible's teaching on homosexuality and humility as forgiven sinners. I'm grateful that Olenyn showed this.

But I am also grateful that he identified the core question, which humbles everyone equally: What exactly is sin?

New Chapter for the Raleys

by Matthew Raley It has been several weeks since I've made any significant posts, for which I apologize. I have been preoccupied with some personal changes. I am excited that the Lord is leading me to take a church one-third the size of my current ministry.

I will be leaving the Orland Evangelical Free Church (OEFC) in one month and will become pastor of Grace Brethren Church (GBC) in Chico. (For readers not from California, Chico is 20 miles west of Orland.)

Chico is my hometown, and my parents and grandparents still live there. Bridget and I look forward to our boys Dylan (10) and Malcolm (5) being closer to Pops and Grandma. I'm also eager to be closer to my musical work, which centers on Chico State.

I have a personal connection to GBC, too. My grandpa Vere was an elder there in the final years of his life. I was encouraged to see him productive and busy with ministry among people he loved. This is a spirited group with a sense of calling and a strong desire to serve.

Our personal satisfactions, however, do not mask the challenge we face. The people at GBC have experienced many difficulties and are asking for a new direction. I will be the sole pastor, financial resources are low, and I hear many around town are skeptical.

Here's the story.

OEFC has grown significantly over the years. Part of the growth has come from other towns, Corning and Chico in particular. A sizable number of people have felt a strong enough kinship with the OEFC's focus on expository preaching and its philosophy of ministry to keep driving to Orland each Sunday. But our Chico and Corning attenders have always felt a strong desire to minister actively in their own towns. We have all felt that our worship together would be temporary.

So, two years ago, OEFC began exploring how to help our Corning attenders start a church there. They have done just that, holding the first service of Christ Community Church on February 13th at a school in Richfield under the leadership of Jeff Tollison.

When the opportunity with GBC came to my attention, I felt it might be a chance to do something similar in Chico. Perhaps OEFC might send the Chico attenders to join and refresh GBC. When the leadership GBC welcomed the idea, I knew I had to do something dangerous. I told the OEFC elder board of my strong desire to lead this effort myself.

That was a difficult thing to say in some ways. I knew my revelation would hit them hard, and I did not want to hurt the men I've served with closely for so many years. But, in another way, telling them about my desire was easy. I know these men. In spite of their sadness, I was certain they would see a new opportunity to help believers from another town.

And that's exactly how they responded. One of them said what the rest were thinking: "The Kingdom has to get bigger."

Together, we agreed to take another dangerous step: Tell the OEFC congregation about my desire. Again, this was difficult emotionally. I have served the Lord at OEFC for 12 years. I didn't want to hurt my congregation. But, again, telling them what was stirring in my heart-and-mind was the obvious step to take. I have always trusted them to receive hard things graciously. They are my colleagues.

Three weeks ago, the elders and I announced at OEFC the possibility that I would move to GBC. That evening, I told the congregation the story, took their questions, and asked them to pray for the Lord's leading the following Sunday when I candidated. There were many tears.

But since that meeting, person after person has spoken or written to Bridget and me, many after deep wrestling. They have variations of the same thought: we're sad, but we see the Lord leading you. One said, "I'm sad, but I'm full of hope." Another said, "We are planting you over there!"

These blessings are powerful to me because I know they come at a price.

GBC extended a call to me on February 20th, and I accepted. The two churches, OEFC and GBC, will worship together in a special service of dedication on April 3rd in Orland, colleagues now in something new.