An Invitation to Theology

15 March 2019

The first thing to know about theology is that it operates from the inside; it is inherently a believing endeavor. Sociology of religion, comparative religion, cultural anthropology, history of philosophy–these endeavors focus on believers (and the beliefs they hold) as the object of study. They operate, in other words, by looking from the outside in.

But theology cannot be practiced in that way. Theology is not a study of beliefs but an experience of the One about whom people hold those beliefs. To engage in theology is to have your own beliefs about the divine shaped by knowing God yourself, by partaking in the divine nature yourself. In this way, theology is less something you study, and more something you participate in, something you practice, and perhaps something that–to a degree, by God’s grace–you may attain.

***

Theology is not an objective discipline, any more than romancing your spouse is an objective discipline. Objectivity seeks to elide the observer/interpreter, such that anyone might–through a scientifically valid method–come to the exact same understanding. This sort of method is entirely appropriate to the natural sciences, in which we are doomed to observe the objects of our study from the outside. Partaking in the nature of, say, a granite boulder is entirely beyond us. The best we can do is subject it to study.

But where the nature of the endeavor is to know another p/Person, we proceed differently. We seek the other person’s self-revelation. We communicate. If we are successful, there is a kind of mutual indwelling (or to use the old word, perichoresis). All of these are inherently relational acts; it matters who the parties are. To elide the observer/interpreter is to miss the whole point.

***

In hermeneutics texts, much is made of the gap between us and the original author and audience–gaps of time, culture, language, geography, and more. We work diligently to overcome those gaps and try to grasp the situation of the original author and audience in order to better understand the text.

Little is made–at least in the hermeneutics books I was reared on–of the gap between us and the divine Author, although in some respects, that gap is easier to bridge. This side of eternity, Paul is beyond my reach. The Corinthian church was the product of time, place, culture, and circumstances that no longer exist. Through diligent study and imagination, I get as close as I can, but some aspect of a passage may remain forever opaque to me through simple ignorance of an idiom, crucial archaeological fact, or tidbit of cultural knowledge. Many things that were obvious to them are now lost to me in the mists of time. Gary Derickson has given us a window into the viticulture behind John 15, for example. How many other such things are yet to be discovered and articulated?

The divine Author is entirely beyond my reach as well. But I am not beyond His reach, any more than the biblical authors were. And so it is that, unchanged by the passing years, is as present to us now as He was to them then. (More than under the Old Covenant, now that we have the indwelling Spirit.) He offers us the opportunity–if the promises of the sacred text mean anything at all–to know Him directly, in a way that is consonant with, but not limited to, what can be mediated by the Scriptures themselves.

***

tl;dr: God is real. God is present. God speaks. Here. Now. Yes, even to you. Are you listening?

 

 

Advertisements

We Have To Do This Work

8 March 2019

There was an interesting little controversy last month over on Theopolis Blog, and now that I’m caught up on reading the whole thing (which took a little while), I’d like to offer some color commentary from out here in the cheap seats.

It starts with a forum called “Theopolis Conversations,” in which an author makes a proposal, four other authors respond to it, and finally the initial author finishes with a rejoinder to his four respondents. In this case, the topic is “Paths to Human Maturity.” The initial article by David Field (which is looong!) also has links to the follow-up responses, except for a surrejoinder Doug Wilson posted on his own blog after the discussion was over. I’d encourage you to read the whole thing; it’s worth your time. But there’s a particular aspect to the kerfluffle that I’d like to comment on, and in order for my comments to make sense, I’m going to summarize the initial proposal, below.

In a nutshell, Field proposed a project, thus:

Reformed Christians would do well to take a look at the proposals and practices of psychoanalysis, the Desert Fathers, and Zen Buddhism because these supposed ‘paths to human maturity’, at the very least, generate some important challenges and questions for us.

Field then posed the situation of a pastor named Ira, “a sincere and spiritually mature man” who “meets the requirements for elders and bears the fruit of the Spirit.” Ira has carried a great deal of repressed anger since childhood, and although of course he is not conscious of it, his anger “does come out in various ways ‘above the surface’, i.e. in conscious, visible life. There are moments when there’s a [hint] that there is something lurking underneath, but Ira does not pay them any serious or sustained attention.”

Ira, though wholly sincere and genuinely godly, is not one to slow down, attend to the surface signs of unconscious passions, and connect with the associated emotions. He certainly has quiet times but in these his mind is busy – with intercessory prayer, memorising Scripture, and theological reflection. There is not time for extended, unhurried, radically honest, and exploratory conversation with another (therapist, counsellor, friend) and in any case, this would feel self-indulgent.

Moreover, drawing from contemplative traditions that might help Ira to notice what is happening in him seems “to represent a departure from the Puritan spirituality he so cherishes and therefore…to represent also a lack of trust in Scriptural ways of maturation.”

Therefore, Ira soldiers on,

And, in his case, the repressed anger manifests in his consciousness as a critical or reforming spirit which he identifies as the desire that things should be ‘right’….[H]e may control the conscious expression of this spirit and desire which can take the form of resentment at bearing responsibility, at an endeavour to control, at an obsession with correct doctrine or social conduct, as shame at the public sins or shortcomings of family members and so on….[H]e doesn’t realise…that underlying several of these various emerging ‘pressure-points’ is the one unresolved, un-named, unconscious passion of anger.)

Ira would like, of course, to be free of these besetting temptations against which he struggles. Field suggests that the only path from where Ira is to where Ira wants to be goes through “radical honesty with God,” which will require a kind of stillness and attention that Ira has not heretofore cultivated. Field further proposes that the Desert Fathers have something to offer Ira in such a season, as do the observations of the world gathered together by Zen Buddhism and depth psychology.

Field is pointedly not suggesting that Ira abandon his Christian faith. “The proposal is that we should investigate these pathways [the Desert Fathers, Zen, and depth psychology], not that we should adopt them.” [emphasis added] Why would we look into these traditions in particular? “The address to the self and associated practices which are found in these movements…are impactful and…have interesting connections with key biblical themes.” He then goes on at some length (which I’ll let you read yourself), discussing ways in which these three traditions intersect with biblical themes and might be worth investigating.

Peter Leithart, Uri Brito, and Alistair Roberts all responded with some measure of endorsement, but also varying degrees of caution. Their responses are well worth reading, and fairly brief. (As a massage therapist who works with essential oils, I particularly liked Leithart’s jag on the biblical ramifications of aromatherapy.)

What interests me here is the fourth response, from Doug Wilson, in which he (by his own later admission) “pulled the fire alarm.” In an article titled “A Crisis, not a Conversation,” Wilson rebukes the principals for even starting the conversation, and does so on asbestos paper with napalm ink. Wilson is at his fightin’ fundie finest here, quoting the expected passages about philosophy and vain deceit and banging the drum for the sufficiency of Scripture. He voices a number of valid concerns, most of which Fields ably addresses in his rejoinder. (I’ll probably have something to say on that subject later, because Wilson’s argument here is weak in ways he doesn’t realize. He argues in ways common to, say, the NANC/ACBC/BCF group, who have made “integration” a theological swear word–but he’s publicly committed to integration. Lotta tension there.)

Wilson goes more than a little over the top in his closing recommendations that Theopolis’ financial supporters might want to reconsider their giving, and threatening to do the closest thing his polity allows to calling for church discipline for the folks that started this thing, but that’s also another matter for another time. The first thing I want to comment upon here is what he doesn’t say.

Because here’s the thing: Ira, the fictional pastor with the repressed anger problem? Not so fictional. He’s more like a cliche. I’ve known a dozen of him, at least. These guys are spiritually mature (to hear the community tell it, anyhow), doctrinally sharp, honest in their business dealings–salt of the earth, right?

Yeah, about that..multiple times I’ve seen Ira’s unacknowledged wrath tank a whole ministry when it finally found its way to the surface. (And a another one where the underlying issue was vainglory, rather than anger.) I’ve been treated to the spectacle of warring Iras in the same ministry–a lot of people (me included) got drowned in that particular pissing match. Twice, I’ve had different sets of Iras blow up my whole life. Stats on pastoral failure and burnout tell the same sad tale. Various Iras, with their unaddressed sins and consequent inability to get along with one another for Jesus’ sake, are shambling through the evangelical church, leaving bodies and burning wreckage in their wake, and nothing could be plainer than that standard-issue evangelical piety is not addressing the problem.

Field is proposing an answer. Wilson doesn’t like Field’s answer. I like the way Field addresses it better than the way Wilson doesn’t. When the problem is real, which it is, in spades, having no answer is often as bad as having a poor answer. You can’t make course corrections in a parked car, and at least the guy with the poor answer is moving….

…which leads to my second point on all this: Field’s answer isn’t a poor answer. We have to do this work. We have to do it because our parishioners are not all as clueless as Ira. Some of them know something’s wrong, and they have figured out that they aren’t getting the answers they need at church. They may or may not encounter the Desert Fathers, but depth psychology has permeated our culture, and Zen mindfulness and meditation practices are not far behind. Our parishioners are searching for answers, and they are encountering this stuff. They work alongside people who are trying meditation and getting benefit from it, who are seeing Jungian shrinks and sometimes growing as a result, because common grace works. Think they won’t dabble? Bah. Of course they will. So will Wilson’s–they just won’t tell him, and what a loss that will be, both for him and for them!

Is there a straightforwardly biblical answer for these folks that makes a foray into other traditions unnecessary? If so, then let’s flesh it out and offer it to the church. Do we need some response to these other traditions anyhow, since our people are encountering them? Obviously. Would we rather have something wise to offer them in this area of common grace, or just leave them to their own devices? For a shepherd, that’s no question at all.

And anyhow, we are called to retake the territory; we play offense. To the extent that there’s anything there of value, it belongs to Christ, and we are commissioned to return it to its proper service to Him. Field has thrown down the challenge; what are we waiting for?


Martial Arts and the Christian

1 March 2019

A friend wrote me recently, passing on some questions he’d been asked about Christian participation in martial arts. Of course I’ve addressed these questions many times over the years, and his email ended up sparking an essay. So–lightly edited–here it is.

One of the first lessons I learned about speaking on Christian participation in martial arts training is that context matters. In the usual settings where the subject comes up for me, my principal concern is explaining my own practice—which is quite a different thing from addressing whatever might happen in the storefront dojo nearest you.

So I have two basic things to say: On the one hand, these things can be done well, and to the glory of Christ. On the other hand, they often are not, pagans are plentiful, and an awful lot depends on the teacher. Discerning whether a particular school, instructor, or class is a good choice for a particular student can be a tricky business, since it depends not only on the instructor but also on the maturity and needs of the student. But we are called to have our senses exercised to discern good from evil, so if it’s going to be difficult, we’d better gird up our loins and get to it. God is light; He’ll show us the way.

As with all such areas of liberty, Romans 14 applies. It’s good to look into it, and it’s good to be fully convinced in one’s own mind. Different people may come to different conclusions about the same program, and they may both be right…for them.

A Christian who walks into your typical storefront dojo (a taekwondo school, say) finds himself in an alien world. There’s a bunch of people wearing pajamas and bowing to one another, folks with arcane titles like “Master” and “Grandmaster” and so on. What does it all mean? Can a Christian be part of it?

As to the bowing and titles, I’d advise looking into what it means in the parent culture. If two businessmen in that culture would traditionally bow to one another when they meet (as opposed to shaking hands like we do), then I wouldn’t worry about it. It’s a greeting. You’re paying to learn a practice from someone else’s culture; it’s silly to be upset that they don’t act like Westerners. Similarly, look to what the titles mean in the home culture.

For example, my own title (which I never use except on official paperwork, but more about my practice later) is Guru Muda, which is enough to make any red-blooded, English-speaking Christian spit. But in Bahasa Indonesia, guru means ‘teacher’ with no particular spiritual connotations; one can be a guru of chemistry or Chinese literature or engineering. (Muda means ‘young;’ the ‘young teacher’ designation is roughly analogous to an ‘associate professor’ in our university ranking system. The next step up is ‘teacher;’ the one after that is ‘master teacher.’) The reason guru has spiritual connotations in English is because spiritual teachers from India used their native word for teacher (guru) when they came here—Vivekananda and the like. For the same reason, the Japanese sensei has martial arts connotations in America, thanks to the karate teachers who came here (and the Karate Kid movies)—but again, in Japanese it just means teacher. A friend of mine who was teaching English in Tokyo thought it was really funny that his students called him their sensei. They didn’t understand why it sounded funny to him—to them, sensei has no martial arts connotations.

As to the flag and the yin-yang symbol: Taekwondo in particular is regarded as a Korean national heritage, and the Korean flag is nearly always displayed in Taekwondo schools (as you’ll sometimes find the Japanese flag displayed in a traditional Karate school). I look forward to the day when the symbol on the Korean flag is a cross rather than a yin-yang, but I’d be reluctant to conclude something was spiritually fishy about a particular school based on the flag alone. I mean, jeepers, there’s a bunch of pentagrams on the American flag, but nobody thinks you’re secretly worshiping the host of heaven because you happen to have a flag on your porch or in your church. (Whether it belongs in your church, and what it means to display it there, is another discussion. But it doesn’t mean you’re a sky-worshiper.)

On these sorts of things, you have to keep in mind what you’re doing, and accept its necessary conditions as the cost of doing business. You’re learning to fight from people who know how. Taking one thing with another, the people who are really great fighters did not get that way by being happy, well-adjusted humans. You’re not likely to be dealing with saints and Sunday school teachers, ya know? (Yes, there are exceptions. Don’t hold your breath.)

Another (often-)necessary condition is crossing cultural barriers. Here in the West, we developed firearms to an exquisite degree, and at the same time we have developed a society that’s less violent than anything ever seen before in human history. Apart from some arcane holdouts if you know where to look, the West has not really preserved its traditions of hand-to-hand combat; those that have a serious need, carry guns. So you’re going to a culture where their hand-to-hand arts haven’t been lost, to learn the way they do it—which is different than how things are done here. So you remember who’s the visitor, and be polite. If they bow instead of shaking hands, you learn how to bow. If they like onion in their tea, then you learn to drink onion in your tea. If they treat their bruises with foul-smelling herbs after practice, then you do too.

If they bow to a little shrine containing pictures of their ancestors in the art, you politely explain that you will happily offer God a prayer of thanksgiving for those who have preserved the art for you and passed it down to you, but God forbids bowing to images of the dead. If they won’t teach you because of that, off you go—that one wasn’t for you. But the point here is that outside of things God actually forbids, there’s no point in going all ‘ugly American’ just because the foreigners are acting foreign. If you don’t like it, go to a boxing gym.

The degree to which a particular school spends time on whatever philosophy may underlie the art varies widely from school to school, and sometimes from teacher to teacher even within a single school. Some places, it gets pretty deep. Other places focus on the physical art. (One teacher, asked about the spiritual side of his (Japanese) art, said, “Yeah, there’s a spiritual side: the dead guy doesn’t get to go to church.” Another one, this one Chinese: “Our philosophy? Our philosophy is to crash through the opponent’s center and kill him.” Not everybody uses the art as a platform for teaching a spirituality.)

The point here is, you gotta go and find out for yourself, and whether it’s a deal-breaker depends on what the prospective student is ready for. An awful lot of Christians want some kind of guarantee in advance that nothing will make them uncomfortable. They seem afraid of getting somehow tainted by rubbing shoulders with pagans. They’d prefer to do all their research online, and won’t go to the events and meet the people. That’s a poor way to handle apologetic engagement. Apologetic engagement requires, well, engagement. If you don’t go and see for yourself, you’ve no right to complain when people answer your objections by telling you that you don’t know the first thing about it. They’re right; you don’t.

Having found out, you then have to answer some hard questions. Is this philosophy attractive to me? Does it repulse me? Why? What is true about it? What is false about it? How do I know? The cautions Paul gives in Colossians about philosophy and vain deceit apply here, as do the characteristics of idolatrous thought laid out in Romans 1. Any Christless philosophy is vain and self-defeating, but sometimes it takes some growth in us before the self-defeating nature of the system becomes apparent to us. At the same time, because everyone–despite their ardent pretense otherwise–is living in Yahweh’s world, they often learn some useful things about that world. Sifting the operations of common grace from the operations of human depravity takes a good eye. So we need to grow, but there’s no need for panic.

Those same cautions apply to enrolling in Leviathan State University as an engineering or pre-med major. The student will encounter all kinds of ugly ideas and sub-Christian worldviews. There’s work to be done to counter them, but God has not given us a spirit of fear. You don’t want someone enrolling—either in your state university or in a martial arts school—who isn’t up to the challenge the environment will present to their worldview. So get ‘em ready, and then send ‘em in.

Now, as to what I do with my classes: I don’t pretend this is The One Right Way To Do Things, but I’ve been teaching since 1999, and this is what I’ve found works best for me and mine. I practice Kuntao Silat, an Indonesian art brought here by Dutch-Indonesian immigrants in the 60s. Some of the leaders and senior practitioners are Christian; some are not. The roots of the art are deeply mixed: Muslim, animist, Hindu, Taoist, Buddhist, Christian. There are some practices in our history I don’t find appropriate as a Christian, so I don’t do them.

The terminology of the art is largely in Bahasa Indonesia, with a smattering of other languages thrown in; Indonesia is a polyglot kinda place in language and culture, just like it is in religion. I know what the Indonesian terms mean, but my students mostly don’t;  I teach my classes in English. (E.g., sapu and beset are two fundamental leg movements in the art; my students know them as ‘scoop’ and ‘drag’ respectively.) Shoot, half my students don’t even know my title is Guru Muda. They call me Tim.

We don’t open my classes with a bow. We open my classes with a blessing (and since I’m not starting a cult, we do it round-robin style; I give and receive.) All my students learn to speak blessing over other people, even if it’s a simple, “May the Lord bless you and keep you,” or “May your training be blessed today.” If you’re not willing to look another human being in the eye and speak blessing over them, I’m certainly not going to teach you how to hurt people.

After the blessing, we begin the class, which is informal and at times very demanding. You can teach martial arts with a number of different focuses (sport, cultural heritage, performance art, fitness, healthy movement, mental discipline, self-defense); I focus on healthy movement, discipline, and self-defense.

At the end of class, we finish with a closing circle where each student has to articulate one thing he learned that day, and one thing he intends to practice in the coming week. Then we have a closing blessing, and class is over.

Along with translating the terms to English, I’ve dropped a lot of the cultural trappings. This is a philosophical decision each teacher has to make for themselves: do you try to replicate your own learning experience as closely as possible, or do you cannibalize your own learning experience selectively to craft a new learning experience for your students? If you are, say, a traditionally raised Japanese man who learned jiu-jutsu from another traditionally raised Japanese man, you have a pretty good shot at reproducing your learning experience for the next generation of students, and it might be a good idea.

In my circumstances, that approach didn’t make much sense. The men who brought my arts to the U.S. grew up in colonial Dutch Indonesia before WWII, and like the Preacher said, “All is mist.” They are the products of a unique time, place, and culture that no longer exists. I’m a white boy from Virginia; I can’t reproduce that culture and I don’t intend to try. All the bowing and flags and so on leaves me cold, so I don’t bother with it. I’m passing on the fighting art, so that’s what we spend time on. I’ll teach some tidbits about the culture and history as it illuminates the movement or the mentality of the art (which it does), but the point is to understand the fighting art.

In my classes, we laugh a lot. We play, we have fun. But I also make my students face the ugliness of what we’re doing, for two reasons. First, I want them to come to terms with it in training before they have to face it for real. Second, it’s bad for your soul to romanticize a discipline where the raw material is healthy bodies and the finished product is cripples and corpses.

The theology is relevant, and it comes up as we work through the ethical issues that come with training to injure people. We can’t lose sight of the fact that what we are training for is not good. We broke the world, and introduced evil. We are living with the consequences, which include the need to fight evil—if you love sheep, you have to be ready to fight wolves. But—thank God—these things have an end. Jesus has already triumphed over evil and buried it in the heart of the earth; it just doesn’t know it’s dead yet.

On the glorious last day, we will beat our swords into plowshares, our spears into pruning hooks. From that day forward, we will no longer study war, and that will not be a sad day. No one will look back nostalgically at the good old days when we worked so hard to be ready to hurt people. But you have to know where you are in the story; friends don’t let friends over-realize their eschatology. Our job is to be ready for the last day when it comes, and until then, to be ready for tomorrow no matter what comes.


Going Full Cornpone

17 December 2018

Most of the American church is in bondage to a worldview that doesn’t wholeheartedly believe in the supernatural. It grudgingly allows for a handful of supernatural things that we feel forced to accept, but the truth is that the more intellectually respectable you aspire to be, the fewer supernatural things you can believe in. That’s how the hierarchy works.

If you’re okay with just being part of the rank and file, then you can be a little mushy on creation, and believe in the miracles of the Exodus. That’s fine for normal people. If you want to be an educated Christian, then you’ll clearly see myth in the early chapters of Genesis and have a tentative scientific explanation for the Exodus stories. Maybe the Sea of Reeds was only waist deep, after all. You’ll only start going supernatural around the later prophets or the ministry of Jesus.

The real intellectuals explain away the miracles of Jesus’ life, and just barely tolerate the resurrection. Of course only the total cornpones believe in 6-day creation or a worldwide flood, and even those guys mostly don’t expect God to do anything supernatural today.

Jesus wasn’t a big fan of that kind of thinking. He seemed to think and act as if God could show up anytime, anywhere, and do absolutely anything. Always had, always would. And He taught His disciples to act the same way.

Why’d we stop?


Family in Community

7 December 2018

One of the early responses I got to an earlier post on community was, “Tim, most people in the evangelical world can’t relate to the experience you’re describing. They don’t have anybody present in their homes, much less participating in the family life.”

The question I want to ask is: why not? How can it be that the people of God, the visible reflection of the Trinity on earth, do not live in each other’s lives?

And the answer is, “Because we’re rich.” This is most definitely a first-world problem; the rest of the world is very different, and the rest of time more so. But here we are in the first world, and if it’s a first-world problem, we have it.

In a first-century village (or even a city), people lived on top of each other. They knew each other’s business in the same way that I know when my upstairs neighbors take a shower, make love, or leave for work in the morning. The ceiling’s not soundproof, and I can’t really help knowing what’s going on up there sometimes. By contrast, the American dream is to use our wealth to separate ourselves from each other rather than to grow more interdependent. We live in single-family homes. We park in attached garages; we’re already ensconced in our little steel-and-glass universes, radio tuned to our favorite station, before the garage door opens to the outside world. We shop in stores that serve a wide enough area that we usually don’t run into anybody we know. (I live in a relatively small town, and have a fairly wide circle of acquaintance. I run into someone at the grocery store every now and again, but it’s pretty unusual. Back when I lived in a big city (or the suburbs, before that), it was vanishingly rare.)

If the culture makes it hard to follow Jesus, then we need to be countercultural; it’s that simple. Wordliness is not about what kind of car you drive or how many iPads you have or hemlines and necklines (although it can be expressed in all those things). Worldliness is about how much The Way Things Are dictates your willingness to be obedient to Christ. When our culture makes sin look normal and easy, and righteousness look strange and costly, what will you do? Will you be carried by the stream, or swim against it? Will you follow Jesus when it makes you weird?

In the culture we’ve built for ourselves, it is actually very difficult to live in close community with one another. We’d have to go well out of our way to do it. Which is to say that our repentance really will be costly. But it will also be rewarding.

I’ve been seeking tight community since early adulthood. I managed a form of it…and then I moved cross-country to a new state eight years ago, and had to start all over again.

It wasn’t easy; I’m not a naturally outgoing person. But I got there. In my community now, I’ve called for help at 1 in the morning, and gotten it. I’ve been called for help, and dropped everything to go help with…whatever. Taking chicken soup to a sick friend. Babysitting during a family emergency (or to salvage a date night when the regular babysitter got sick at the last minute.) Providing a ride to the hospital. Taking my massage chair and oils to relieve a headache or back spasm. Running to the bank because my friend’s small business was out of quarters.

As I make my final editing pass through this post, there’s a spool of grey thread on the counter. I’ll drop it off with one of my friends later today, so she can mend a hole in a pair of her daughter’s pants. We noticed the hole yesterday; she doesn’t have the right thread, and I do. It’s a simple thing, a small extra errand.

But it’s also an extra errand in an already crowded day, and it would have been easy enough to avoid. All I needed to do was keep my mouth shut instead of saying, “I think I have the right color thread for that at home.” Why complicate my life? Because the right kind of complications are glorious.

Marriage complicates your life. Having children complicates your life. Making lasagne or bread or soup from scratch complicates your life. Deciding to build your own piñata for the birthday party instead of just buying one complicates your life. Calling a friend instead of an Uber complicates both your lives. Making music with your friends rather than just popping in a CD complicates your life. Close community is made of just such complications. We are choosing that rich complication over convenience. We want to live closely. We live for the triune God, and therefore for each other, not simply for ourselves and our own realization of the American dream.

How did I get there?

Not, I can assure you, through some virtuoso display of relational acumen. I’m actually kinda awkward. But I keep showing up, and I keep loving people. I followed God’s leading, and as I participated in His mission on earth, I found some fellow-travelers that would walk alongside me. We supported each other in our shared mission, and along the way, we became friends. We walk with God together, worship together. We support one another, day in and day out, in all kinds of ways. And we face the world together, caring for broken and hurting people, supporting the weak, bringing healing to the brokenhearted and light to the darkness.

When we ask each other, “How are you doing?” we actually want a real answer — first of all because we love each other and we care, and second because we do rough work together and if somebody can’t bring their A game today, we gotta know so we can adjust. (And it’s ok — nobody brings their A game every day. We cover for each other as needed. But precisely for that reason, honesty is prized.)

In the suburban churches I came of age in, there was far too little of all this. There was an awful lot of country-club Christianity: folks were saved, sure, and lived a generally non-scandalous red-state existence. Beyond that, their faith often seemed to make very little day-to-day difference in their lives. They came to church and pretended everything was great, no matter what was actually happening. I saw at least one family utterly ostracized for telling the truth about the ruin and hurt in their lives.

The teenagers, with their gift for cynicism, saw right through it all. They still see right through it all, and they’re disenchanted with the church, in droves. Rather be anywhere else. They want something real, and in too many churches, that’s simply not on offer.

In other words, the way we’re called to live is everything your jaded suburban teenager craves and doesn’t know how to ask for…and they are the future of the church. Get ’em involved in something real. Let them spend time with addicts and drunks and soccer moms and restaurateurs…people of all kinds, just like Jesus did. Let them serve, and bless, and have hard conversations, like Jesus did. Debrief with them, just like Jesus did with the disciples. And like Jesus did, lead by example–which means you go first.

It will do your heart good, trust me.


Practicing Unity

27 November 2018

This post is part of the November Synchroblog on church and national unity. See the bottom of this post for a link list of other participating blogs.

The prompt for this month’s Synchroblog framed the quest for unity in terms of politics.

Well, the elections are over … but not really.

As I write this, counting is still going on in various states, and lawyers are setting up battle lines. Newly elected officials are heating up the rhetoric, and protesters are starting to lash out.

What is the role of the church in all of this?

It goes on to ask some bigger questions.

How can we work toward unity in the Body of Christ?…Does unity mean uniformity? If not, then how can we get along? And beyond unity in the church, how can we show the world the path toward peace and unity?

At the policy level, those are some tough questions. At the level of national policy especially.

To address those questions at the policy level, the level of presidents and congressmen and archbishops and general secretaries and such folk…jeepers. You would need a strategy that would unite the vast majority of all Christendom. As things stand now, any council with sufficient authority would never agree on a strategy.

But what makes us think we have to solve the problem from the top down? Top-down solutions are convenient, because they mean that most of us don’t have to do anything until the higher-ups get their act together. That shows no sign of happening anytime soon…so we don’t have to do anything, and it’s all conveniently somebody else’s fault.

That convenience ought to make us suspicious. Jesus rarely leads us by the convenient path. So what if He’s calling us to solve the problem from the bottom up?I think He is, and I think any straightforward reading of John 17 and Ephesians 4 confirms it.

What would that look like? Well, let me tell you what it looks like in my life right now. I’m not using myself as an example to say, “hey, look at me, I’ve got this thing knocked” — not a bit of it. I have a lot to learn. But I’ve also come a long way. What I have now? The man I was 15 years ago didn’t believe any of this was even possible. But it is.

I’m part of an interdenominational pastors’ prayer group in Englewood, Colorado. We meet once a month, and the pattern of the meetings is simple. We’ll go around the circle and check in with each other, and then we pray for each other. The check-in consists of three questions:

  1. How’s your ministry doing?
  2. How’s your family doing?
  3. How’s your walk with God doing?

That’s it. Brevity is valued — the goal is to answer all three questions in 3-5 minutes per participant. (Of course, we’re all pastors, so we don’t always make it under the 5-minute mark, but we try.) In a normal meeting, we’ll pray for each other, celebrating victories and blessings, and lifting up needs. When something unusually difficult is happening, we may abandon. The format entirely. There have been meetings where we put a chair in the center of the circle, sat our wounded brother in it, laid hands on him and just prayed for him for half an hour.

Nondenominational, Southern Baptist, Anglican, United Methodist, Assemblies of God, Messianic, Dutch Reformed…all of these are regularly represented, and over the 8 years I’ve been part of this group, we’ve also had Missouri Synod Lutheran, Grace Covenant, Vineyard, independent Baptist, a Navy chaplain, and many others. We don’t need a denominational commission to sign off on this; we just do it. We do it because Jesus told us to love one another. We do it trusting the Scriptures, which tell us that the Spirit makes the unity (not us!); our job is just to steward it (Eph. 4:1-6). And it works.

I’m also part of a ministry to the homeless of our city called Giving Heart. Come into Giving Heart when it’s open, and you’ll meet volunteers from all kinds of different churches — any of the ones above, and then some. You’ll also meet people who don’t go to church; some of them don’t even identify as Christian. They just want to help their city’s poorest and most vulnerable residents, and this is where it’s happening.

Giving Heart began 7 years ago with the realization that most apartment-dwellers are sorely lacking in community life. It started as a privately held community center serving a big multi-housing complex. The goal was to provide a third space where people could meet–host dinners, movie nights, parties on the holidays, and so on. It worked to an extent…but the open door turned out to be a magnet for the local homeless population. When we didn’t turn them away, more came. We didn’t have a lot to offer back then, but someone gave us a big popcorn machine. So if we were open, you could come by, get a bottle of water and some popcorn, and take a load off for a few minutes. Many did. A bottle of water led to conversation, which led to sharing life together.

Over time, the apartment ministry dwindled and the homeless ministry grew. Today, Giving Heart has grown into an access point to medical care, job training, transitional housing, counseling services, resource navigation assistance, and much more. Along the way, my business partner Joe Anderson was able to lead the pastors’ prayer group into a partnership with the city that birthed Change the Trend Network. Change the Trend is a partnership of city government, police, healthcare providers, Giving Heart and other ministries like them. Together, the network’s member agencies provide a road map out of homelessness, and the wrap-around services that getting out of homelessness requires.

Again, none of this came from a fancy council of archbishops, general secretaries, and so on, nor is it sustained by such people. It was birthed by local Christians working together to help the people right in front of us, because that’s what Christians do.

When we do what Christians do together, we minister healing to the sick and freedom to the captives. We proclaim the good news of Jesus to the poor and broken. We seek the Kingdom of God, and God is pleased to give it to us. As we do this together, the unity of the Body is a daily practical reality.

You notice I haven’t said anything about the elections. You know what? The people I rub shoulders with…some of them voted Trump, and proud of it. Some of them are “I’m with Her” folk. Some of them only voted for Hillary because Bernie wasn’t an option. Some of them held their nose and voted R or D; others held their principles and voted third party.

We’re just not that susceptible to the Facebook-meme level of political discourse, where you either voted like I did or you’re literally the devil. We already know better. We laugh together, cry together, pray together, work together to care for the people we all love. We have that basis of positive experience; we already know that our fellow workers who voted for those people are–however inexplicably–really decent human beings, definitely among the good guys.

So when the time comes to have hard conversations about politics, we have the relational and spiritual capital to handle it without demonizing the people who voted differently. We have a reason to actually listen to other points of view, because we already trust each other.

And the brutal truth is, we will not get to a solution any other way. If we can’t love the people right in front of us–the faces we see at home, at work, at church, on the street–then we will not become the sort of people who can handle bigger conversations and bigger issues. Conversely, if we will simply do what Jesus said — love our neighbors — we will find that the Spirit has already given us unity, and we will become the kind of people who steward it well.

Then when the time comes for the archbishops and general secretaries to do their thing, they won’t be trying to manufacture unity out of whole cloth. They will be seeking to steward  the unity their people already have. And that’s the way it should be.

***

Here is the list of other writers and authors who contributed to this month’s Synchroblog. Go read them all to see what others think about church unity.


Riffing on Romans 10

23 November 2018

Christians have always been called to engage in the healing and growth of the world in a holistic, spiritually aware way — not that we’ve always been good at doing it. Today in spiritual-but-not-religious circles, a quasi-secularized version of the same kind of person is often referred to as a lightworker.  

My heart’s desire and prayer to God for the lightworkers is that they would experience overflowing life. For I bear witness that they have zeal for love and peace, but their zeal is not according to knowledge.

For being ignorant of God’s ferocious personal love for them, and seeking to establish connection to divine love by their own wisdom, they have not submitted themselves to the love of God, although they often benefit from it. For Christ is the convergence of all wisdom that produces love, for everyone who simply entrusts themselves to Him.

Solomon writes in a certain way, “By wisdom God founded the world” and “those who hate wisdom love death.” But love through faith speaks in this way: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you,” which is the word we preach: that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you, too, will be filled with life,

Because with the heart one believes, resulting in reconciliation to divine love, and with the mouth you make your confession, resulting in overflowing life.

As the Scriptures also say: “Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.”

Because with God there is no distinction between those who are religious and those who are not. The same God over all hears their requests and is rich to all who call on Him, as the Scriptures say: “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be delivered.”

But how can they call on God for deliverance, if they have not trusted themselves to Him? And how could they trust themselves to Him, if they’ve never heard the truth of who He is? And how will they hear the truth, unless someone tells them? And who will tell them, unless someone is sent to do the job?

As Isaiah says, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace.” But having heard that good news, they have not all obeyed, as Isaiah also says: “Who has believed our report?”

So then they trust God because they hear the truth about Him, and they hear the truth when we proclaim the word of God. Can we say that they have not heard? No! “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies declare His handiwork” and “There is no speech or language; their voice is not heard, but their sound has gone out to the end of the earth, their words to the end of the world.” And again, “What may be known of God is revealed in them, because God has shown it to them.”

Paul explains: “although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became empty in their minds and dark in their hearts.” In that they have addressed their prayers and credited their results to the created universe, they have evaded the need to thank the God who made it, so that “professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the creator God into an image made like the creation” and “worshiped and served the created thing rather than the Creator.”

So these lightworkers, seeking healing, yet having fled from the one from whom all healing comes — has God cast them away forever?

No! I am one of them! God has not abandoned His creation, but “we also are His offspring.” Jesus said, “If I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to Me.” And with this Paul agrees, saying, “when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son.” As also Isaiah said so many years ago: “I was found by those who did not seek Me, and was revealed to those who did not ask for Me.”

Remember that when Elijah pitied himself and said, “I alone am left,” God said, “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal,” and on the last day, John shows us the saints before the throne of God, “people from every tribe, tongue, and nation.” Therefore among the lightworkers, God has reserved for Himself a people, for He “is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”

And knowing that “the kindness of God leads us to repentance,” He bestows rain on the just and the unjust alike, and also healing grace and love on those who seek Him and on those who do not. His love flows through lightworkers who know His name, and through those who erect altars “to the unknown God,” not recognizing the source of the grace that is given to them.

And yet the altar bears witness that they are grateful, and that they know this power does not come from within them. And so, God has overlooked this ignorance, but now calls all people everywhere to repent.

And from that call, we in the churches are not excluded. We have neglected the healing grace of God. Jesus came to heal the brokenhearted, but we have said that healing of emotions and memories is not God’s work. Jesus came to make the blind see and the lame walk, but we have been too timid to ask that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. If these lightworkers have found no place among us, is it because they have rebelled against God? Or is it because we have?

But thanks be to God, He calls all people everywhere to repent—even us.