I had occasion to preach at Faith Community Littleton this past Sunday. When I teach people how to make disciples, I tell them I’m from the “open a vein” school of discipleship: we don’t teach in the abstract, we invite people into our own struggles and let them see God at work in real time. Well, this was an “open a vein” sermon. It may be the least polished thing I’ve ever preached.
I was recently having a conversation with a friend about generosity. She was sorting through the tension between our finitude and God’s call to do things that are frequently beyond us, and had run into conflict with another believer about how to approach such things. It’s an interesting conversation in its own right, but we’ll save that for another day. Today I want to go a level up and look at a general trend in arguments about philosophy of ministry.
In anything we do, there’s more than one way to screw it up. In generosity ministry, there’s such a thing as stinginess on the one hand, and toxic charity on the other. (Sometimes our service to others is more about how it makes us feel than it is about actually helping the others in question.) There’s a ditch on both sides of the road.
Very often, our conflicts in philosophy of ministry happen thus:
- Person A has already been in the ditch on the left side of the road, and he’s never gonna let that happen again.
- Person B has already been in the ditch on the right side of the road, and is determined never to repeat his mistake.
Put them together, and hey, whaddaya know — a fight breaks out.
It’s easy enough for each to damn the other for steering toward a ditch, and then go their separate ways. That’s tragic, because their stickiest difference is actually the reason God put them together to start with. God means for them to honor each other and listen to each other, so they will balance each other out. If they can do that, they stay on the (narrow) road between the ditches.
As a pastor’s kid and lifelong minister, I’ve seen this play out many times over many different issues. Partnerships regularly fall apart over exactly the issues where they could benefit each other most…and then the resulting ‘independent’ ministries fall apart for lack of balance.
This to say: the unity of the Body actually matters. We are impoverished — and as a result, the world around us is impoverished — when we won’t live up to it.
Owen Barfield was a companion of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, sometimes called “the first and last Inkling” because of his varied career and long life. He had an extraordinarily agile mind that mostly found expression in philology and philosophy rather than the fiction that was the domain of the more popular Inklings like Lewis, Tolkien, and Charles Williams. Here follows a distillation of some key points from Barfield’s work.
First piece: Language is a forensic record of human consciousness
Human consciousness changes over time. A modern person from New York does not think like a 15th-century English aristocrat, who does not think like a 15th-century Javanese rice farmer, none of whom think even remotely like a 5th-century BC Babylonian astrologer. Some of the differences are cultural, but some differences are more than that.
The development of human thought and consciousness leaves a forensic record in our language. As we develop new concepts and new ways of interacting with or perceiving the world, we also develop vocabulary and expressions to say what we’re thinking.
A simple example of this language/consciousness interplay would be our words for colors. When we don’t have a word for a color, we literally have a harder time seeing it. As soon as we name it, it becomes easier to see. So you have a forward-thinking individual who sees something most people can’t see, gives it a name, and starts teaching other people to see it. If it catches on, your language gets a new color word.
Second piece: Original participation
Ancient languages worked from the outside in. The Hebrew word ruach meant “wind” first, then “breath” — the wind inside the body — and then finally “spirit.” The Greek pneuma and the Sanskrit prana worked the same way. Modern languages, on the other hand, work from the inside out. There’s a whole class of words that have come into existence in modern language that never existed before, as we have come to see the outer world in terms of what goes on inside us.
Originally, human beings saw themselves as immersed in the world, participating in it by taking its qualities into themselves. Thus, in the ancient world, a tribe would name itself after an animal and seek to take on the animal’s traits. Modern people project their traits outward onto the world. Ancient man would be the bear tribe, channel the spirit of the bear, eat the bear’s heart to gain the bear’s courage; in modern times, we have Smokey the Bear, who walks upright, talks, wears clothes, and carries a shovel. The man no longer seeks to be like the bear; rather, he makes the bear more like himself.
Original participation is nearly dead. We simply can’t see the world in those terms anymore. People who are born into the few societies where the last vestiges of original participation remain can see the world that way, but someone who’s grown up in a modern society has language — and therefore consciousness and categories of thought — that preclude original participation. We can mimic it in a way, but we can’t really go back there. There’s an unbridgeable gap between a modern Wiccan and one of the Druids who tried to assassinate St. Patrick.
But if we are cut off from original participation, we have not yet reached final participation. We can project ourselves onto the world in a psychological sense — hence the cartoon bear wearing pants. But that’s all it is; a portrayal, a fantasy. We do not really participate in the world, and so we are stuck in limbo between original and final participation. We can neither take the world into ourselves to transform us, nor transform ourselves in a way that alters the world; we are cut off from the world, separate from it.
Third Piece: The Twofold Cord
Barfield held that reality is a melange of matter and spirit, inseparably tangled together. Under original participation, nobody saw these as separate things. The idea that the ancient animist believes in a tree spirit would come as a surprise to the animist, who just thinks of it as a single being, a tree– as alive as you and I are. Likewise rocks, animals, and so on. There’s a series of necessary steps to get from there to where we are.
- Differentiate matter and spirit.
- Focus on matter for the purpose of investigating matter thoroughly.
- Come to believe that only matter is real.
- Learn that matter is really condensed energy…and that it interacts with and responds to consciousness at the quantum level.
First, we have to differentiate between matter and spirit. The ancient Hebrews started this in Genesis — God formed man from dirt, and breathed the breath of life into him. Man is a melange of these two elements, which are separable only in death — the body returns to the earth, and the spirit returns to God who gave it, as Ecclesiastes says. But while the two elements are not separable in any real way, they certainly are distinguishable. One can talk about them as two things, and this is the first step.
The next step is made by Descartes. Having distinguished objective matter from subjective consciousness, he unravels the two-ply rope of reality for the purpose of an in-depth examination of matter, rigorously excluding any hint of consciousness or the subjective. This is the beginning of the Scientific Revolution, and it gives unparalleled results.
The third stage is mistaking the Cartesian principle of investigation for a metaphysical reality. People come to believe that anything not subject to scientific examination — i.e., anything not matter — isn’t important, and then that it isn’t even real. At this point, everyone believes that matter is composed of small but solid particles, like a lego building is made up of smaller lego bricks.
The final stage dawns when advances in atomic science show that matter is mostly empty space, gains momentum when Einstein proves that matter is really highly condensed energy, and comes into full bloom when quantum mechanics shows observation changing the behavior of fundamental particles. We have chased our examination of matter as far as we can, and it has bent back round to consciousness.
Meanwhile, the parallel investigation of consciousness, the deep delving into the subjective, has not really been done (particularly in the West).
Fourth Piece: Final Participation
Barfield saw that in order to continue growing, we would have to undertake that parallel examination of consciousness, and then deliberately re-entwine the two strands to get a fuller understanding of reality. That fuller understanding leads to final participation, in which humanity grows from merely projecting ideas onto the external world to actively interpreting the world in a way that conforms it to the interpretation. Enamored of various techniques for doing this, Barfield missed his opportunity to see what the Bible says in this area.
The first thing Scripture shows us is that there is a height of authoritative interpretation to which we cannot rise. The world comes pre-interpreted by its Maker; we are invited to explore and interpret under God, not in place of Him. He has invited us to create within His world, but we cannot simply make our own private world. We are not the Creator; we are not imposing our own world on undifferentiated chaos. There are limits we cannot cross.
Second, Jesus showed us in His earthly ministry what final participation can look like. Blind eyes saw, demons fled, the storm was stilled. He commissioned His followers to go out and do two of those things (heal and cast out demons), and set the shaping of the natural world before them as a possibility: “If you had faith as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” Maybe deadly hurricanes make landfall because we haven’t the faith to steer them.
Third, Jesus fulfills the hope of final participation. He is the human being who, uniquely, can consummate Barfield’s hope by ascending the heights reserved for the Creator. By Him all things were made; all things are now upheld by the word of His power; all things come to coherence and completion in Him.
If you’re interested in digging further into Barfield’s thought, I recommend Saving the Appearances and The Rediscovery of Meaning. His dialogic novel Worlds Apart is a tough read, but very valuable.
God gave us a command to be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. This is an essential part of what it means to be human.
The basic, straightforward meaning of the command is simple enough: have lots of babies, lead them to Jesus, baptize them, and raise them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, so they will do the same. This is the direct meaning of the command, and it is also the middle of the bell–curve of human behavior. Across time and culture, we pair off and have kids. It’s how the species continues.
So what does that mean for those of us who — in God’s providence and the brokenness of the world — are denied children? Those of us who’d give anything to have kids, and for whatever reason, can’t?
There’s a broader meaning to the command; it’s not less than the direct, literal meaning. It’s a good and necessary consequence of it, and the broader command applies to us all.
A particular couple may not be able to have kids, but we are still required to be the sort of people who would have kids, the sort of people who love fruitfulness. We are called to love children, love other people’s children, love the raising and training of children to be more like Christ, love the institutions that shelter and grow children. Beyond that, we should love and practice fruitfulness in all its forms and varieties — art and music, daffodils and peach trees, building houses and farming fields and breeding cattle and throwing pots and writing books and baking flaky biscuits, all of it — and we should hate things that are fruitless by design.
We are in the midst of a cultural trend where forward-thinking young people don’t get married and have kids; they shack up and get dogs. (These folks think of themselves as the people of the future, although, as my friend Richard Bledsoe observes, it’s wildly unlikely that the future belongs to people who don’t reproduce.) These folks pride themselves on sliding through life with no complications — no mortgage, no kids, no need for a divorce if things go south — no mess, in other words.
Against that, we should let ourselves be taught what fruitfulness looks like by the literal fulfillment of the command. Obeying “be fruitful and multiply” is a messy business. God could have designed human reproduction so that it happened with a fist-bump. Instead, He made sex visceral, primal, messy, the sort of thing where you might need to change the sheets afterwards — and we love it, as we should. Pregnancy only gets messier, and birth messier still — even more linens to wash. And then the diapers! Toddlers are petri dishes with legs, ambulatory forces of destruction wandering the house with an illicitly gotten permanent marker in each tiny fist. As they get older, they get messy in ever more complicated ways. We’re called to love all that too…and to do all the laundry.
All fruitfulness is messy, filled with confusion, cleanup, course corrections. We should not just love the product; we must learn to love the messy process of creation. There’s an ever-present temptation to reject the necessary mess. Writer’s block, for example, is a rejection of the messiness of the process of creation, a desire for everything to be preternaturally bright and clean the first time around — and it never works out that way.
The good news is it doesn’t have to. We are the image of God; we are designed to dream and to make and to do, and then to bring our glory and honor into the New Jerusalem, which is the Church, the Bride of Christ. He made us for this, and all His ways are good. The sooner we learn to love changing the sheets afterwards, the more often we’ll create something good.
Saul of Tarsus: a serious young Bible scholar who ditched everything he’d been taught, betrayed his mentors, and blew up his whole life based on one bad day on a road trip.
Watch out for mystical experience, kids. It’ll wreck your theology….
If we believe that God is who the Bible says He is, we will never deride the search for spiritual experience. God built us for communion with Him. Adam walked with God in the garden in the cool of the day, and from that day to this, we hunger to experience the presence of God. You don’t have to be a Christian to know this — it’s only natural to seek it out, the same way we seek out water when we’re thirsty.
The unbeliever’s problem is that he thirsts for God, and at the same time doesn’t like Him (as described in Romans 1:18ff.) That aversion leads to a search for all kinds of other spiritual experiences in the vain hope of quenching the thirst without having to deal with the One he thirsts for. In the Old Testament times, Israel struggled with idol worship for this reason. God cured them of idolatry, and by the time of Jesus, Israel faced a different set of temptations. Many Christians today are so frustrated or bewildered by this proliferation of options that they have given up on spiritual experience altogether. Rather than sift the true from the false, they deride the search for spiritual experience as itself an evil thing, and take refuge in an idolatrous quest for moral or doctrinal purity — as the Pharisees did in Jesus’ day.
This is an utter failure of discernment. We are built for relationship with God. We are not meant to just do holy things and think holy thoughts, but to live alongside God, to experience Him. And we are meant to integrate those experiences into our doctrinal understanding.
Jesus had the antidote to the Pharisees’ temptations: “If you won’t believe the words, believe the works.” He didn’t denigrate experience; He challenged people to take their experience seriously, and seek out the theological ramifications. Jesus provided the people around Him with many experiences that they could not integrate into their existing theology, because their theology was wrong.
What do you do then?
Fix your theology, of course. Your theology must remain correctable—correctable by Scripture, and by experience.
If your theology cannot be corrected by your experience, then you are in the position of the Pharisees who rejected Jesus because He wasn’t what their theology told them the Messiah would be like. (Their theology was wrong, of course — but yours is wrong in places too. And that’s the point.)
Of course, everything can be done badly, and so can this. Someone can experience a personal tragedy, a business reversal, a setback of some kind, and decide that God doesn’t love him anymore. That would be a mistake — unfortunately, a very common one. When people say “Don’t make theology out of your experience,” they are trying to guard against this error. But the way they’re going about it is a mistake.
This person’s theology is woefully inadequate. He had a vending-machine view of God: ” I will live a decent, non-scandalous, red-state existence, and in return, God will shower me with personal comfort and material abundance. Since God’s not holding up His end of the bargain, He must not love me anymore.” That theology is wrong, and experience is showing just how wrong it is. This person certainly ought not cling to his theology and deny his experience. Rather, he should allow his experience to drive him back to God and the Scriptures for an explanation. He certainly should allow his experience — i.e., what God is actually doing — to correct his theology. If a literal act of God can’t correct your theology, what would it take?
An orphaned spirit can manifest in rebellion or in religion. It can be the prodigal who runs away or the older brother who stays with a sense of entitlement — either one of which boils down to “Look at me, Daddy!”
In reality, Father God has never looked away, never abandoned us, but it is no accident that we think he has. Mother Church told us Papa wouldn’t talk to us directly; she said he only spoke through her. (Convenient, right?) Because we were children, we believed her, and we lost confidence in our ability to hear God. Then, far too often, Mother Church withheld her love unless we conformed to rules designed for her comfort and convenience, rather than our growth. Within Mother Church, many of us found no breathing room.
Some of us grew up into everything she wanted. Some of us stayed around, but got progressively more angry and sullen. Some of us ran away from home. We were children. Perhaps we did the best we could with whatever we understood at the time. But we have to grow up sometime, and an adult is responsible to re-evaluate.
The truth is, Mother Church lied. She said you had to check all the boxes and do all the things or Papa would ignore you. But it was never actually about performance, and Father God loves you more than you can imagine. He never stopped speaking; you can hear His voice.
Yes, you. Yes, now.
What if you took a few minutes to just listen?
In the beginning, God made the world as a temple, and no temple is complete without the image of the deity inside. As His last act in creation, God installed man and woman in the temple as His image. You can’t escape this; it is the very core of who you are. Mystics and meditators the world over testify that if you dig far enough inside yourself, if you can peel back layers of ego and shame and damage, you will find, deep within, a light so bright you will consider worshipping it. What you are seeing is what the Desert Fathers and Mothers described as the Created Light — the very image of God, a mirror that reflects the beauty of God Himself.
It’s very hard to find that beauty in some people, isn’t it? If we’re honest, it’s often very hard to find in ourselves, too. We excel at piling all kinds of junk on the mirror, and we’re not good at cleaning it off. On top of that, we’re really good at rationalizing the junk we pile up for ourselves. Maybe this is what we’re supposed to look like….
The incarnation of God as His own image — the coming of Jesus — blew away all our rationalizations. He reflected God’s beauty Himself, and He never failed to find it in others. Jesus showed us a whole new set of possibilities. Possibilities that only become visible to us when we hear them from God directly, as He did.
So listen. What would the day be like if it were one long, running conversation between you and God?
But are they right?
Maybe so…before the cross. But Jesus really did change everything about our relationships. Let’s look at what it’s changed already….
In traditional cultures, the blood tie of the clan trumps every other allegiance. In traditional cultures, marriage is generally about familial alliances and property. In traditional cultures, the glue that holds clan-sized small communities together is a network of family relationships around a shared economic endeavor (farming, fishing, hunting, blacksmithing, whatever.) In other words, they’re related to start with, and they need each other to survive.
In that setting, the authority of the clan is absolute. You are who your clan says you are. You marry who they say, you go into the line of work that is chosen for you. Your whole life is laid out virtually from birth…before the cross.
But the cross casts a very long shadow.
The Christian priesthood and monastic movements broke the power of the clan. A young woman fleeing a repellent arranged marriage could take vows in a convent, and be devoted to God for the rest of her life. Her family couldn’t force her to leave. A young man could choose the monastic life over the vocation his family chose for him (as a young Martin Luther did, in response to a near death experience.) Today, the choice sounds horrifying. Who wants to choose between an awful marriage and a celibate life? “Why not more options?” we think. But back then, it was revolutionary–there was a choice! That was new, and the possibility of having a choice opened the door to further options. Today, it’s rare in Western culture for anyone to face that dilemma.
Without the external pressures of the clan holding a marriage together, without the economic stimulus of property at the center of the marriage, is marriage doomed? It seems a silly question now; it wasn’t, to them. Martin and Katie Luther effectively invented (and the Puritans refined) companionate marriage, and today, we can see that with Christ at the center, marriages flourish even though considerations of property or familial alliance are now secondary at best.
Of course, marriages are also failing at significant rates today. God is sharpening the antithesis: will you have Christ at the center? If not, you may not be able to have a marriage at all.
Having broken the power of the clan, and reconstituted marriage in the image of Christ and the church, the long shadow of the cross is now reaching out to touch the clan itself and reconstitute it around Christ. Can extended-family sized small groups sustain themselves apart from blood relation and a shared economic center? It seems unthinkable…but why can’t we? Marriage has been reconstituted around the mission of God; why not the clan?
We saw the beginnings of the re-formation of the clan already in the life of Jesus, in two ways: repurposing the existing structure, and forming entirely new structures around a superior blood tie.
When Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, she got up and made food for them…and then the village brought their sick to the house, to be healed. Peter’s home, Peter’s oikos, became ground zero for the Kingdom of God coming to his city. Paul similarly turned Lydia’s home into a base of operations (following Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 10).
Similar things could happen today. An economic engine may be part of the new clan in the same way that familial alliance and property are still possible considerations in marriage. Sure it’s possible; the dominion mandate is part of the missio Dei, after all.
But Jesus is up to more than just repurposing existing social institutions. He’s remaking them all. What happens when we allow the blood tie of the clan to be supplanted by a superior blood tie? Jesus showed us a glimpse of that when He looked around the room at a devoted group of His followers and said, “these are my mother and my brothers” — and again, “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:49-50) He is showing us a new family–not a postmodern “family of choice,” but a family that is born, “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of the husband, but of God.”
Who is in this family? All the devoted Christ-followers — “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Notice that: “and sister.” There it is. Cross-gender, same-generation, familial relation in the family of God. I cannot live a Jesus-shaped life unless I learn how to live in a clan that is united — this side of the cross — by our common relation in the blood of Jesus and our common devotion to doing the will of God. And that clan will, of necessity, include both men and women. We have to be able to relate to each other, seek counsel from each other, encourage each other, care for each other. In other words, we have to be able to be friends.
In theological discussion, much is made of allowing the conversation to rest on common ground, things all parties at the table accept as true. Those conversations are both useful and frequently important for the growth and development of the church and its people. They are (appropriately) common in, say, a seminary classroom, or over a leisurely cup of coffee among friends on a lazy Saturday morning. I partake in them often.
But those conversations take time–time we often don’t have in the moment. On the fly, we have a different sort of conversation, one that arises from what I call the “practitioner mentality.” No matter how long we might take to discuss an issue in the classroom or over coffee, when the same issue comes up in a practical context, we usually have very limited time and bandwidth, and so it’s a different sort of conversation. We have to do something, now.
In those conversations, authority and trust are vital. We aren’t all going to agree on all the details. If we can agree on who has the authority to make the call, and we can trust God to lead us as we move forward, that has to be enough.
A fellow that wasn’t at the wedding at Cana has a certain epistemic right to doubt the accounts of water turning to wine; a servant who was in the room at the time does not have the same right. In fact, it would be foolish and wicked for him to retreat to skepticism instead of bearing witness to what he has seen and heard.
In the moment, a leader makes decisions based on what he knows, and he does this even if other people don’t know all the same things.
I have seen God at work, from simple things like bringing someone to repentance to more showy things like healing and casting out demons. I was there. That which I have seen with my eyes, which I have heard, which I have looked upon, and my hands have handled–this is what I proclaim to you. I can no longer refuse to know, and I don’t pretend ignorance for the sake of someone else’s comfort.
I accept that someone else might be within his epistemic rights to doubt my account of my experiences, particularly if he doesn’t know me anyway. Perhaps I’m lying. Perhaps I’m deluded. Perhaps I’m simply mistaken. How could he know? (There are ways, actually–read the beginning of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe for one of them–but skip that for now.) Thus far, someone else’s epistemic rights.
But I also have an epistemic responsibility. I may not pretend that I don’t know things that I do, in fact, know. And so my decision-making must address the factors I know to be real, and this despite the fact that not everybody I’m leading is going to be on the same page about that.
Nice as it would be to have everyone on the same page before we move forward, Pisidian Antioch isn’t going to evangelize itself while we wait for the Jerusalem Council to figure things out. The opposite, actually: The issues were already worked out in practice; the Jerusalem Council was vetting the theory after the fact. That after-the-fact vetting is a really important church function, but the point here is that you don’t pause all the work of ministry waiting for it. It does happen after the fact. If course corrections are needed, as they sometimes are (cf. 1 Corinthians 12-14), then you make them as soon as you figure it out. That’s how a bunch of the church epistles got written.
The weekly services, the weddings and funerals, this week’s counseling appointments–these things keep coming. Every day, all the problems get a day older, whether we have the necessary theory worked out or not. Life does not wait. Theory does not move at the pace of life; effective practice had better, even if there are unsolved questions.
That’s a panic-inducing thought to a theoretician. With events flying at you at the pace of real life, how do you ever know what to do? But here’s a thing practitioners know from experience: certainly we sometimes don’t know what to do, and we improvise. But very, very often, we actually know what God would have us do; we just can’t explain why it’s the right course of action. In other words, our courage gets tested a lot more than our discernment. So we pray really hard, listen really well, and move forward anyway with the best call we can make at the time. It is enough to obey as best we can, and trust that over time, the underlying wisdom of God’s way will be revealed.
The underlying explanation, when it comes, will be fascinating, and may even allow us a fresh take on things that will reveal better practices or new frontiers for application. But if we don’t have that, we have to keep moving anyway. We rely on what we know is real, and trust that the explanations will get better in time.
Does that feel a bit shaky to you? Consider this: our best physicists still don’t know how the four fundamental forces relate to each other, but in the meantime, the engineers keep building bridges…and the bridges work pretty well.
So let’s build.