Category Archives: theology

The Wayne’s Worldification of Christianity

In his book, Practicing the Way of Jesus, (also on kindle) Mark Scandrette recounts a very powerful conversation. A small group of friends had chosen to engage in a short-term experiment. The idea of the experiment was to live simply, making more space for devotion to God and service to others. One of the aspects involved simplifying their wardrobe – boxing up all their clothes except for two outfits.

After describing the experiment to another friend, that person was highly skeptical. He says that, having grown up in an incredibly legalistic faith community, he had hoped that “we” were moving into an age of more grace and freedom. And this experiment sounded a lot like that legalism.

Scandrette’s response was fantastic.

“A rule is oppressive when we impose it on others or judge them by it, but there is great freedom when we choose limits which add value to our lives.”

Now to be sure, the danger of being human is that we (or those who come after us) are tempted to take the helpful experiments of today and make them into the universal codes of tomorrow. My friend Nate used to say, “Disciples will be to an extreme what their teachers were in moderation.”

However, I also believe that using the slippery slope argument is typically nothing more than laziness built on the fearful anticipation of future laziness.

There is great wisdom in Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 4 to think upon those things that are true, noble, excellent and praiseworthy. This isn’t just about keeping our thoughts pure and untainted. Dwell on the excellent, noble things because the mind is a powerful tool. I’m not talking about “The Secret” here, I’m talking about human obsession and self-fulfilling prophecies.

For instance, in many “men’s purity” ministries, there seems to be an incredibly unhealthy obsession with our own sin and temptation. In the process we go from dehumanizing women as sexual objects to dehumanizing women as instruments of temptation. Men are encouraged to look away, attempting not to see this woman in order to avoid lust. This is seriously messed up.

What if we instead focused on that which is excellent and praiseworthy? If we struggle with seeing women as sexual objects, the solution isn’t to simply change the image to another object – the solution is to actually see the person. See the image of Christ. See the child of God. Because they are not the problem, we are and our continued obsession on sin just feeds our own brokenness.

As a blogger and purveyor of blogs, facebook posts, twitter feeds, etc., I hear a lot about Christianity’s “image problem.” We talk about the way that Christians are perceived by the media, by those who are not Christian, by those who feel (happily or indignantly) like outsiders. We talk about the “Shoot Christians Say,” to playfully deconstruct our constant use of insider language. But, I wonder if Christianity has a much more fundamental image problem: how we see ourselves.

There is a difference between acknowledging our imperfection and narcissistically obsessing about our depravity. Constantly commenting on our unworthiness sounds like false humility or compliment fishing. I don’t think that is what’s going on as often as it may seem. It’s an image problem. We don’t see ourselves very well and that makes it difficult to see God clearly…and vice versa.

A well known pastor recently said, “All theology is cat theology or dog theology. Let’s say two pets have an amazing, kind, generous owner. The cat thinks: “I must be an amazing and valuable cat.” The dog thinks: “I have an amazing and valuable master.”

There are about 37 things wrong with this brief quote. First, it makes me agree with a cat…and that should never happen.

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Second, it equates our relationship to God to a person’s relationship with a pet – also problematic. I’m not just being an overly literal metaphor reader here; the relationship dynamics that this brings to mind are off base. But that isn’t the real problem.

The biggest flaw is that it buys into the assumption that there is something wrong with rejoicing in our value and worth as image bearers and children of God. I’ve said this before, but if I found out my kids were telling people that I loved them even though there is nothing lovable about them it would break my heart. My children are amazing. I love their quirky personalities. I love how different they are from one another. I love Conner’s analytical thinking and tender heart; Micah’s artistic eye and stubborn individuality; Josiah’s constant passion for everything and quickness to show affection. My kids are amazing and I hope they know that.

Does God enjoy us less than I enjoy my own children? That seems odd.

The tendency to constantly belittle the human condition seems pious…but it only seems that way. In a sense, the running commentary of total depravity makes light of suffering, brokenness and sin. “Of course we do awful things, we’re awful…whatcha gonna do?”

We have become Wayne and Garth…and that’s only funny in brief doses.

Its very convenient, really. We have a built-in excuse for never growing, never taking responsibility for our actions and feeling spiritual throughout it all.

This denies Jesus’ claim and Paul’s exhortation that we are being made new – new creation, new life, new people.

Why do we not see more of this transformation? Perhaps its because we’re so busy giving ourselves negative reinforcement that we are unable to see anything else. We’ve trained ourselves not to see. We tell ourselves we’re worms and wretches, then gorge ourselves on self-centered consumerism like a half-gallon of Blue Bell after a break-up.

Or we become disillusioned with the whole thing and reject all discipline, structure and guidance…even that which would be life giving.

I’ve found that living with a Rule of Life – particularly in community with others (including the one I live with my boys) – is freeing and rejuvenating. I’m able to explore the possibilities of my own discipleship in the Way of Jesus because I’m not constantly trying to figure out where to start. I can embrace limits to my “freedom” which add value to my life by clearing away the clutter, because I trust that that which I will see more clearly is worth seeing. Like the grueling summit climb to a mountain top, I know that momentary discomfort will be rewarded with a view you can’t get from the valley.

But this won’t work if my heart and mind are filled with pseudo-pious self-loathing. I am an image bearer of God, a beloved child of the King, one who is worth much because I was fearfully and wonderfully made. I know that I am valuable because my Father has repeatedly told me so.

And this does not make me a cat, damn it.

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A Missional Post on Missional Scripture Composed on my Missional Laptop.

Missional.

For many, the word has become like a Katy Perry song: love it or hate it, you can’t go 10 minutes without hearing it…and catching yourself singing along unconsciously. Others may think that the word is owned by Apple, because it shows up in front of absolutely everything the same way their lower-case “i” does.

Speaking of which, yes, there is an iMissional.org.

Missional Coffee

And as often as I use the word, I admit, even I get tired of hearing about missional toasters, missional coffee, missional songbooks, missional underwear (wait, no, that one could be interesting). There’s even a Missional Study Bible. Perhaps I’m just bitter because I wasn’t asked to contribute anything, and in fairness, it looks pretty cool, but I believe we already have a missional Bible – the Bible.

That’s what I want to address in this series of blog posts. It wasn’t actually inspired by the publication of the Mission of God Bible – that’s just a happy coincidence – instead it has come about for several reasons. First of all, I believe that those of us who are committed to (or even just considering) missional and incarnational approaches to faith should wrestle with the deeper theological realities that accompany this orientation. They’re there, they have been ignored too often and for too long – and they transcend, “this just works better.”

I’ve written here, and lots of other places, that missional is first a theological, rather than pragmatic or strategic, issue. Theology is the practice of thinking, contemplating and talking about God. So when I say this is a theological issue, my claim is that saying something about missional is actually saying something about God – not just the strategies, practices or attitudes of Christians.

Therefore, it makes a great deal of sense to look more carefully at the relationship between missional theology and scripture. Is the Bible a missional text? What does that mean? What does it look like? This question is not just about putting missional in front of yet another aspect of Christianity. Frankly, I hope that we will someday reach a point where it is (as it should be) redundant to even use the word missional in relation to our faith.

Unfortunately, given that our society tends to devour words and ideas voraciously until they become bitter in our collective mouth, there is a good chance it will fall out of use long before it becomes unnecessary.

In one sense, I’m already seeing the trend begin. Mike Breen’s post, Why the Missional Movement Will Fail is one example. In fairness, what I take Breen to be saying in his post is that we cannot focus on “doing” mission if we are not first pursuing discipleship – without discipleship our missional efforts will be empty, short-lived, and will ultimately fail, cut-off as they are from the source of our calling.

Perhaps our thoughts on this depend on what we mean by, and how we’re using, the word missional. Stated very briefly, missional means that the whole community of faith, not just a few special standouts, is called to live on mission with God. The concept is meaningless without discipleship – just as discipleship can easily become individualistic and theoretical without a missional orientation. Missional isn’t a doing focus – it is essentially about who we are; who we are called to be and formed into being by the one we want to be with and be like. We can’t really claim to BE these people if we fail to DO what such people are called to do…but the doing is a result of being, not the other way around.

We live this way, on mission with God, because we are the people of God. In this way our actions are in response to our calling and thus originate, not in our own awesomeness, but in the Divine Awesomitude.

Missional is more than a call to personal piety, activism, social justice, evangelism or discipleship – it encompasses all these aspects in a holistic call to the Way of Jesus, empowered by the Spirit in the midst of God’s mission of reconciliation…together, as the Body of Christ. Each disciple of Jesus, each person who bears the name “Christian,” is included in this call – not just those who attended seminary, have tons of free time to volunteer, enjoy teaching Sunday School, or set aside time in the summer for a mission trip to Mexico.

Sadly, as we consider the state of the Church in North America, missional is not yet a redundancy.

So what about the Bible? Is it right to refer to it as a missional text? Are we saying that every passage is a “missional passage?” What does that mean?

When I refer to the Bible as a missional text I’m claiming that:

– The metanarrative (overall story) of Scripture is about a missional God who creates as an act of love and hospitality. The brokenness and separation experienced in creation are not God’s doing – they are precisely that which God is undoing. As those created in God’s image, God is (and has been all along) inviting humanity to collaborate as junior co-creators in this mission of reconciliation. Make no mistake, it is God’s mission – but we are called to participation.

– The purpose of Scripture is to equip God’s people as those being called and sent together. This Story, like all truly great stories, aims to change those who hear it. But our transformation goes beyond personal piety or eternal destination…we are being pulled into the Story that transforms everything.

– Basically, I’m saying that God is actually up to something in this world; we – all of us – are called to play an active role in that something, and the Bible is the story of that something.

In this series of posts we’ll address: (these titles will become links once the posts are live)

What Difference Does it Make?

Streams of Missional Thought, pt 1

Streams of Missional Thought, pt 2

Really? Scripture is Missional? Have You Actually Read It?

Still…Judah and Tamar?? What the What?!?

I hope that this series will be helpful for ongoing conversations – and that you’ll be willing to engage some of that here on this page.

From Theology to Practice

The Mission Alive video I recently participated in has been released. For those who aren’t aware, Mission Alive is a resource organization that collaborates with churches and church planters in order to plant new churches and revitalize established churches.

Mission Alive is committed to the idea of, as they say, “Moving from theology to practice.” Basically this means that our starting point in ministry/missional life is not “what works” but “how God is at work.” Theological reflection must then compel us into action…because that’s precisely what we find God doing.

Take a look at this short video and tell me what you think.

From Theology to Practice from Mission Alive on Vimeo.

From Theology to Practice

This morning I had the opportunity to take part in the filming of a new video for Mission Alive dealing with the issue of “Moving from Theology to Practice.” (Keep an eye out here and a Mission Alive’s website for the release of that video.) As is often the case, as I was driving back across the metroplex, I thought of a dozen things I wished I had said or said differently.

Partly this is because I felt a little disconnected and disjointed in my interview (we’ll see what wonders they are able to do in editing…) But the primary reason I couldn’t stop thinking of things I wish I’d said is that I believe this subject is So. Very. Important!

Much ink and perhaps a little blood has been shed over finding the “best practices” for ministry…and all too often those quests have been carried out with little thought given to the theological implications of our choices. Worse yet are the myriad of successful practices (where success = large crowds and financial support) built around anemic or just plain BAD theology (see Richard Beck’s excellent series on Why Bad Theologies are So Popular).

We often fail to see the ways in which the unreflective adoption of “best practices” can shape the way we view other people and even the way we view God.

In the case of “bad” theology the problems can run even deeper. Here’s a popular example (and one which I think many people are starting to see through): The loss of a loved one is deeply traumatic – all the more so when that loved one is young. In our attempts to console grieving family, statements are made, such as: “God just needed another angel.”

Aside from the fact that this statement completely misunderstands the origin of angels, it also says some very unsettling and incriminating things about God. It is even more unsettling when these types of statements are made from the “pulpit.” (Some may not agree with making a distinction between what a “normal” person says and what a “minister” claims – but that is simply the reality of the situation in traditionally structured churches.)

Beginning with best practices or unreflective theology works against the goal of cultivating faithful missional communities.

Additionally, it seems that a large number (I won’t pretend to know the percentage) of people involved in church planting are doing so from a largely reactionary and negative mindset. In this case, I don’t necessarily mean “negative” in the sense of having a sour attitude, but rather that our practices and our theology (even if its just implicit) are rooted in negating or reversing what someone else has done.

To be sure, there are some abuses of the past which should be reconciled or flat-out abandoned. However, in talking about moving from theology to practice, an inherent claim is that our thinking about God, faith, church, discipleship, worship, etc., should be generative (developed by what are we FOR because of the gospel vs. what we are against).

Think about it this way: When someone asks about your church planting (or your established context…or your personal faith – this holds true across contexts) how do you describe it? Do you begin with, “We/I aren’t so focused on _____” or “We’re/I’m trying to get away from _____”?

These statements may have their place – particularly when they’re used to clarify false-assumptions about the nature of our community. However, when they become the language of vision casting (formal or informal), warning sirens should begin going off in our heads.

The question that needs more attention in these situations is, “Okay, so what ARE you/AM I about?”

One thing I appreciate about Mission Alive’s approach is the steady commitment to deal substantively with this question – BEFORE formulating a strategy for church planting.

A couple years ago I read John Patton’s From Ministry to Theology. Patton states, “Christian ministry involves not only understanding what we do in light of our faith, but also understanding our faith in the light of what we do.” It is in the context of our dealings with others that our theology is able to be fleshed out and incarnated. I’ve begun incorporating this insight into my own work and teaching – We move from ministry to theology to practice.

This is not referring to ministry as an official position of leadership in a church – I mean ministry as engaging in concern, care and service within an actual place with actual people.

Theology, if it is going to lead to healthy practice, must be contextual theology – it is rooted in what God is up to IN THIS PLACE. To be sure there are cosmic elements to our theology (things that transcend time and place) but even they have contextual implications.

The people we encounter, the trials we go through and the victories we witness are able (if we’re willing to reflect carefully) to shed light on our theology, just as our theology sheds light on them. In her book Teaching From the Heart, Mary Elizabeth Moore addresses the value of case studies in religious education. One significant point in the book is her reminder that there is truth to be found in the case itself – not just in what we bring to it. When our eyes are open to what is happening around us, we begin to realize that God is indeed still at work in this world – and lo-and-behold, God’s actions are still able communicate truth.

I recognize that many people are hesitant to engage in theological reflection. I’ve heard a number of people say, “that’s for academics – my calling is in the field.” Or others are suspicious of the whole process: “I just read the Bible and do what it says.” I vividly remember a conversation I had at a fast food restaurant with a friend who said, “Well, you know I’m able to hear from God more clearly than you because you’ve read what other people have said about it – but I just read the Bible.”

It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard that, but was the first time I heard it from a friend in such a matter-of-fact, non-accusatory way. It was just common knowledge that those who engage in theological reflection – especially if they’ve studied theology -simply can’t hear from the Spirit.

This same struggle has been played out for years between “academics” and “practitioners.” I remember in seminary the tension between those who were preparing for academic careers / PhD studies and those who were preparing to serve as preachers or other local church ministries. One group says the other is too lazy to do the hard work of real substantial theology, while the other group lobs back accusations of being disconnected from the “real life of faith.” (And of course both groups agreed that the missions majors were just plain weird.)

Aside from being a ridiculous game among privileged students (which unfortunately grows into a ridiculous game between privileged professionals) – this whole debate misses anything resembling the point. This isn’t an either/or issue. We cannot hope to cultivate healthy communities of faith without both theological reflection and practical ministry. They are two sides of the same coin – each leading to further insight in the other.

This isn’t to say that we all have to read Barth’s Dogmatics once a year (to my non-nerd friends, Dogmatics is the theological equivalent of War and Peace…great stuff but not a beach-read by any stretch).

However, we must come to grips with the reality that what we do (or choose not to do) will inevitably communicate something about who we believe God to be… At the very least we should pause to think about what that might be.

To be as clear as possible, I’m not simply talking to those who’ve spent the last 14 years pursuing degrees in ministry like this one insane guy I know. Taking the move from theology to practice seriously doesn’t require the ability to read Greek or Hebrew, quote your favorite theologian or describe the history of theological development in the church. (Though, contrary to my fast-food companion, I still think these are valuable contributions to the conversation.)

Theological reflection should inform our practice, it should be considered from within a local context and it is best approached in community. Our churches should be communities of theological discernment – with each disciple contributing the gifts and resources they possess to the process. Theologies which are formed in private can have a tendency to represent our own personal preferences and idiosyncrasies more than the movement of God in this place.

I didn’t really have time, and the context didn’t really allow for me to get into all this in the video…and I expect that about 10 minutes after this is posted I’ll begin thinking of other things I wish I’d said or said differently in this post. But…its a start.

In the meantime, I’d love for others to weigh in on the topic.

Anybody?…

Is Theology Even Important?

So I just finished posting the transcript of a podcast which describes a missional theology – or perhaps a part of one anyway. And the question that comes up in some conversations is, “Why does it matter?”
I’ve gone back and forth on how to begin a response to this question because I don’t want to sound like I’m going on a rampage against anyone…not today anyway. 🙂
So I’ll say this. I know many, well meaning people who love God and in whom I see the hand of God at work, who for several reasons find discussions or articulations of intentional theology to be a waste of time. My concern isn’t that they don’t have a theology, because everyone does. Theology is “God talk” – its what we believe about God and what God is up to in this place.
What worries me is that the opposite of intentional theology isn’t no theology, its unintentional theology. A recent conversation with an old friend reminded me of this point. He was describing how an acquaintance recently tweeted about God blessing his new business. My friend noted that this person was already very blessed materially and seems to be content with God continuing to bless him more without any concern for the difficult state of others. My friend made a comment to the effect of, “So why does God care about giving this guy more than he needs when other people have nothing?”
Of course, this is only a sound byte of the conversation. From the larger story, it doesn’t sound like the guy is a terribly greedy person who thinks he should have everyone else’s stuff. However, I do think that there are some consequences at play from unintentional theology. The guy, raised under the “personal relationship with Jesus” mantra seems to have no paradigm for how Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation has anything to do with the plight of others. Jesus came to earth so that I can be saved and salvation is about me going to heaven when I die.
I’ve written and talked about this topic before, so I won’t get on a soapbox. The point here isn’t about the rightness or wrongness of this theology; the point is that, without thinking through the implications of our beliefs, our practice is effected without us even realizing it.
Here is why I believe it is important for the church – even decentralized, organic churches without the resources to pay “professional” theologians – to take theology seriously. If practicing the Way of Christ is our goal, then we need to be serious about considering the ways in which our beliefs about God and Christ lead to (or away from) practice.
I spend a good deal of time with folks who do not consider themselves Christians. It has happened, and I believe it will continue to happen, that these friends see something authentic in our commitment to God, to them and to one another and are drawn to our community.
I don’t think it is necessary for us to form a Christ Journey 101 class that lays out our written systematic theology. Most of these folks would head for the hills as soon as it was suggested. I do believe that, like the disciples of Jesus, we learn in process, as we go along. Learning doesn’t have to take place in a classroom or through a formal curriculum. That doesn’t mean that it should happen on accident or without thought.
Neil Cole, author of Organic Church, Church 3.0 and several others, is a proponent of rapid church multiplication. In his model, which is highly successful in what it sets out to do, new faith communities are started through an incredibly grassroots oriented movement and spread into new homes and coffee shops like wildfire. Leadership is very decentralized (even more so than in our context) and, in fact, he notes that it is common for churches to be born without any awareness of the church planter who “started” the movement…perhaps just a few months and few blocks away.
He has been asked about heresy in this movement, since there is little accountability outside of the small local group which may be comprised completely of new disciples. His response seems, to me anyway, to be very dismissive. He points out that heresy is more common in highly centralized structures because that is where someone who is seeking power can find it concentrated in one place. Decentralized movements are less prone, in his argument, because these power-seeking leaders don’t have a large group of people to influence. Thus, the leaders may take a small group off in a strange direction, but they don’t have a huge crowd to follow them and the heresy, in effect, dies out.
I see his point, in many aspects, it makes sense. I’ve seen the way that certain kinds of unhealthy people seem to seek out positions of power to launch empire building schemes…and I don’t think they’d get much satisfaction attempting that with Christ Journey!
And yet, there are a couple major flaws in Cole’s assessment. His assumption seems to indicate that bad theology is the result of a dangerous person with an agenda. That isn’t always the case. Each of us have some levels of bad theology we’re working through and there are scores of well meaning people with unintentional theologies pulling them in directions that move them away from active participation in God’s mission. It is our connection to the larger community, including but also beyond the friends who gather in our living room from week to week, that allows to hold our beliefs AND actions up for discernment, consideration and continued formation.
If the assumption is that people are blank slates and a simple reading of the Bible, with no outside influence is going to lead to healthy discipleship…I think Cole has missed out on the warning of history.
We all have theological assumptions (good and bad), whether we were raised in a Christian church or not. People in the Bible belt may have heard the “personal relationship with Jesus” mantra. They may believe that God is merely a vending machine for all our wants and wishes. They didn’t put money in the machine before because they thought it was empty, but now that they’re starting to believe…its time to find that roll of quarters. I have several friends who haven’t attended a Christian worship gathering in years (and who only went before that because their parents carried them kicking and screaming) and others that have never “gone to church” who, when they do talk about faith, do so in these terms.
My friends who have been missionaries in Africa talk about the difficulty they had in getting African converts to stop worshiping their ancestors. Studies in the history of African missions (and early missions to North and South America) are full of warnings against colonial approaches that simply transplant Western Christian theology, dress and church polity over the old “pagan stuff.” It doesn’t work.
However, the answer can’t be to simply ignore both the old theologies and new ones and just hope something good comes about. We have to think carefully about our beliefs and their necessary actions; every context is cross-cultural and demands that we treat it with respect and careful consideration. We must ask, “What is the Gospel in this place?” That question will get us nowhere if it is a strategic marketing consideration. It is deeply theological. It gets to the very essence of “God-talk.” What is God’s message of reconciliation to these people? Where is the darkness that is pregnant with anticipation for the light? What are the ancient infected wounds that pump toxin into the system generation after generation? What strongholds of the old kingdom are cowering in a dark corner, praying that the Kingdom of Light doesn’t discover their presence?
These questions are not best answered in a lab, by the scholar’s pen or in a seminary classroom. They are answered by the community of light that is following Jesus into that darkness. And they are questions of theology.
My other concern with Cole’s laissez faire approach to theology and discipleship is that it seems to put rapid multiplication of churches ahead of people; ahead of reconciling the brokenness in the world. This seems odd, given that it is a highly relational context that emphasizes the ability of everyone to read the gospel and put it into practice. However, what if, instead of patiently walking with and instructing the struggling early church, Paul had decided, “Meh, they won’t affect that many people anyway.”
This mindset in effect says that if people are led into some unhealthy theology, its their own fault for listening to bad information…and there are a million other bodies to take their place. I’m not sure that this is significantly different from the modern church that sees each family as a “contributing unit.”
Is the mission of God to start new churches or to inaugurate a new kingdom and a new life? If it is the former, then theology isn’t that important. Just organize folks around the Bible, call them a church and who cares what happens next. However, if the point is new life with a whole new paradigm of what’s up and what’s down, then a more intentional process may be warranted. We are learning to think in new ways, spend money in new ways, interact with neighbors in new ways. If just putting a Bible in people’s hands and calling it victory was sufficient, the Gideons would have completed this task years ago. In case you’re wondering, that’s a gross oversimplification for emphasis, and I feel like I should acknowledge that there is a lot to commend in the work of Neil Cole. He is a leader in the movement to reclaim Christianity as a way of life which engages and embraces God’s Kingdom breaking into this world…
I think there is still a great need for intentional theology that is processed and discerned in the midst of the community of faith. Perhaps what we’ve reacted to are propositions formed in “the ivory tower” that are passed down to be accepted blindly by the masses. Many of us have a strong reaction to rigid hierarchical leadership that, again disseminates the accepted beliefs everyone must uphold, though from the pulpit rather than a distant headquarter.
However, I think that what we’re struggling against here are forms of leadership rather than the need for theology. We who are attempting to follow Jesus into the dark places are more in need of clear theology than those who see their role as simply filling a pew. When people ask us why we put the grill in the front yard, our answer (whether they or we realize) is deeply theological. That answer says something significant to what we believe about God. We need intentional theology.
And we also need good healthy leadership. As much as we may think we want to, we can’t get away from either. So, on Monday, I’m going to post a few thoughts about leadership. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the relationship between theology and leadership. Specifically, I’ll be wrestling with the common assumption that our preachers, teachers and theologians are the primary leaders in our churches, precisely because of their role as teacher. Is that the best approach?
It may be that our resident theologians help guide discernment as participants in the conversation rather than as the authoritative leader. What if the role of preaching, teaching and theologizing was not where we understood the locus of leadership to reside? What say you?

Reflections

I’m writing the Cultural Analysis section of my Theology of Ministry paper and I’ve been looking through things I’ve written in the past (primarily blog posts, papers and journal entries for online classes). I’m trying to find different comments and studies of culture and suburban life since I don’t have my books here…

Anyway, I came across this assignment from a class I took while we were in Mandeville. The class, Engaging Contemporary Culture, was meant to help students learn to…never mind, you can figure that out. This particular paper was a part of a series of assignments meant to help us become aware of the things we encounter regularly but uncritically. 
Its interesting to read this because it chronicled an important time in my development – it was during this season that I was becoming aware that God had called me to connect with people outside of the church where I served!
Anyway, I thought it was interesting and worth posting. If you disagree, then go re-read the May quotes on the Wellsbrothers blog…maybe you should do that regardless…

Starbucks in Particular

Mandeville, LA – Fall 2007


A year ago things were very different. Life here was incredibly hectic, harried, stressful, and unpredictable – it was the most insane environment I’d ever witnessed. It is still quite stressful here, but most everything else is different.


We were a church of over 150 and recovering (down from 230 pre-Katrina) – we now run around 100. The lower numbers are due to what can only be described as a church split, but in reality one large, power-driven family led a failed coup attempt, took their toys and left…about 40 of them (we also had several families move out of state this fall). 


When that family left, they took a lot of the “ick” with them – there were literally folks whispering in corners on Sunday mornings, secret meetings that led to ultimatums being sent to the elders demanding the resignation of the whole leadership and the installment of their family members…very ugly. Now, things are pretty quiet. 


There were 3 ministers on staff including myself (I was just a temporary associate minister brought in to help following the storm). The youth minister resigned because things were so ugly and he was tired of getting caught in the middle (among other things of course). Then the preacher left too. Now I’m here alone in a building we can barely pay for, with a congregation full of people who work on the other side of the lake…


So I spend most of my time at Starbucks.


I go to Starbucks for several reasons. First, I don’t care what some “anti” folks say, I think the coffee is really good – it’s considerably better than CC’s – the Louisiana version of Starbucks. Second, I enjoy the atmosphere – the people who work here are pleasant, the music isn’t too loud, the place smells good, they know my name and what I like to drink…it’s enjoyable. But the biggest reason: there are always people here. 


Our church building is empty (when I moved here we were housing disaster relief volunteers – there were between 20 and 200 volunteers in the building 7 days a week) and the phone doesn’t ring often. We’ve got around 10 families in pretty serious crisis right now, so I check in on them. But most everyone else is busy with their lives and I see them on Sunday and Wednesday.


I like studying and preparing lessons around other people. There have been countless conversations overheard that have inspired or helped me with a class or sermon. There have been numerous conversations entered into that provide me with encouragement to continue. And so I go (not everyday, but often), I watch, I listen and sometimes I even talk.


As I find at seat in one of the hard back chairs at the community table (which is what I call the large table with a power strip in the middle…it’s the only table where people feel comfortable sitting down when another person is already there) I usually set up my computer before ordering (grande medium roast, grande non-fat latte or triple-grande non-fat latte…depending on the severity of the need for caffeine). After I get my drink I let the computer “warm up” for about 5 minutes before trying to do anything – it seems to operate more efficiently when I do that…its probably in my head.


During that time I love to see who is there. There is the old guy from Church of the King (the very big charismatic church in town) who will want to engage you in redundant conversations about the Bible if you aren’t careful. I know it seems weird, but I don’t like talking to him – its very difficult to have a meaningful conversation with someone who seems to always either be speaking in clichés or trying to get a fix for how well you line up theologically.


Then there are usually 5 or 6 business folks either having actual meetings or holding meetings over the phone while scanning the internet. Steve has really good stories, but hates his job as a pharmaceutical rep. I like Steve. He always asks me lots of questions about church (usually more logistical and practical rather than theological) and then seems interested enough in my answers to have a conversation. 


There’s also Melissa, who is one of the managers, but I’ve seen her more often this week just coming in for coffee and to talk to the other manager and the employees. They like Melissa. I think they like her because her kindness seems genuine rather than the required politeness of management at an image conscious coffee shop. I saw her in Wal-Mart with her two kids on Saturday – she was nice to me, which is interesting because moms with kids at Wal-Mart are rarely in the mood to be nice. 


I really noticed the ceilings and walls for the first time this week. They’re really layered – nothing is flat. There are multiple sections of drop-ceiling which are all at different heights and each with lights. Then there are hanging lights which are also suspended at different heights. The walls have sections that stick out or are recessed and are several different colors. All of this serves to create a very “lived in” feel – not sterile like our office…I guess that’s another reason I like being there. 


I had never spent any real amount of time considering the architecture of Starbucks – I’d noticed before that they were decorated to feel inviting, like a living room at a really cool person’s house…I don’t know very many really cool people, so I haven’t been in many cool people’s houses, but if I did, I bet their living rooms would look like that.


But the layered effect is really effective. It is interesting what architects and designers can accomplish with space. I wish we took that more seriously in our church buildings – not that we should spend incredible amounts of money on “contemporary” architectural design…but maybe we could at least give “space” a little more consideration.


I felt a little silly, but at one point in this whole ordeal I found myself affected emotionally and spiritually by the stinking ceiling in Starbucks. But I guess that’s the point of this little “exercise” in normalcy…


As I read that post written around the end of a dark, difficult but important time in my life, I am struck by the way that community was beginning to become a controlling theme. Today the understanding of God as the Community of Love is one of the primary lenses through which I view most of what happens in life and ministry. 


Okay, enough nostalgia, back to paper writing!


Living with The Tension

I’m working on a few posts right now. At Rachel’s encouragement I’m going to put up a series of posts on our Arkansas trip – basically one for each day. She thinks that will help keep them from being too long…

But I’m also writing another post, a nerd post. These days most of the people who read this blog are Christ Journey folks who don’t necessarily understand or care about a lot of the nerdy stuff I wrestle with. So…if that’s you, feel free to simply reread the Arkansas stuff!
When I wrote recently on the “Wrath of God” issue, some were concerned that I was getting worked up about stuff that didn’t really matter. 
There are a couple important notes to make here. First of all, I’m a bit of a freak. (Surprise!) I don’t fit neatly in many categories. For instance, I grew up on a ranch but I absolutely love the DFW metroplex. To be more precise, while I’m learning to love the Fort Worth side (and Burleson in particular); though this is where I was born and spent my first decade (Benbrook) and where I have several family members (grandparents and uncle in Benbrook, other relatives in Aledo, uncle in Burleson…), I still miss Dallas. 
But I’m not supposed to. 
Country boys aren’t supposed to like the big city, but I love it. I love all the little coffee shops and bookstores, the libraries, the postmodern young adult crowd in the Village, Deep Ellum and lower Greenville area…even the “uppity rich folks” in Highland Park…well, some of them. 
And yet, I still love cattle, hunting, fishing, camping, kayaking and generally being out in the woods. I wear camo, under armour, express jeans and polos from Banana Republic – often at the same time.
I love playing sports and going to sporting events, but I only watch ESPN occasionally to get updates…trying to follow stats, trades and the drama is tiresome. And I just can’t get into Nascar at all. Sorry.
On the overtly spiritual side, I really like sitting in someone’s living room and talking about the ways that God is moving in our lives, hanging out around the barbecue pit being neighbors, telling the big picture Story of God to someone who has never heard it before, spending 24 hours in the Chick-Fil-A parking lot so that we can donate a bunch of meals to Harvest House, finding ways to help a struggling young single mom climb out of the clutches of poverty. 
But I also like to read books written by the Fathers and Mothers of the early church – like Maximus the Confessor and the Cappadocians – and discuss the significance of concepts like theosis, the limits of certain atonement theories and the tension between a bounded-set or open-system approach to ecclesiology. 
So my country friends and family think I’m too city, my city friends think I’m too country. My ESPN watching friends find my level of commitment suspect and my book loving friends find my desire to get out and do something physical are equally suspicious. Some people assume that because I’m a nerd, I must need to focus on people more. Others think that because I’m missional/postmodern/post-denominational I probably don’t have a well-developed, thought out or robust theology of anything. 
I’ve had people complain because my preaching is too narrative – they want more exposition of the text. Others have expressed hope that I’ll stop worrying about background, history and exegesis and focus on telling stories… alluding to a passage or retelling it in contemporary terms is sufficient. 
Sorry, I like both and see the value of both. I may not be great at either…but not many are. I’m trying.
That brings me to the other issue: while I’m trying to make my blog more personal these days, that has never been my first compulsion for writing. Blogging has always been my setting for working through theological and pastoral stuff in writing. In the past it served as a forum for other students and ministers to struggle in community.
Actually, the theological conundrums I work through are pretty personal – it just happens that personal for me is often found in the struggle to develop more sustainable and consistent theologies – just ask Rachel. 
If you want personal then you’re going to get a good dose of this stuff because this is me. 
You are welcome to do the same thing that Rachel does: just smile and nod, then go back to what you were doing before I started babbling. 🙂
I’ve written enough of these posts to know that folks often misread my tone – one of the drawbacks of having a dry and sarcastic sense of humor is that sometimes it gets lost in translation. So, let me say explicitly that this isn’t an angry or accusatory post at all. More than anything else I’m just revealing the internal struggle I have with not really fitting in anywhere. I’m okay with all that about myself, I’m just trying to help clear up any confusion. 
…and its a heads-up on some nerdy stuff coming down the pipe! 

Chatty Cathy’s Thousand Word Reply

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My friend Anthony left a comment on my previous post asking a couple questions. When my response reached post length I decided to just put it up here! So with that said here’s the comment and my reply.

Anthony says:

Ok, I’m a latecomer to this conversation, but thought I’d chime in anyway. I have no time to go finding a bunch of texts to buttress a position, so I will assume that we all share a common general knowledge of the same story. Anyway, I have two questions regarding Bret’s position, which may be completely right, I just have some questions.

1) Is God’s wrath passive — leaving us to the consequences of sin, but without active intervention on his part? “Passive wrath” sounds like an oxymoron.

2) Was the death of Christ necessary? Jesus prayed that the cup be taken from him if there was any other way. Did the Father say, “I could do it another way–but this one shows the depth of our love better than the others”? Or was there really no other way that we could be saved?

My reply:

Anthony,

Thanks for the comment/questions.

First, I wouldn’t use the word passive. I for sure think that it goes too far to say that across the board God’s response to sin is passive – though I think there is plenty of evidence to show that one response of God’s wrath is choosing not to intervene. 

We know that for those who consistently choose to live rebelliously God will give them over to their sinful desires…the result of believing a lie is living into that lie. Is that passive? I don’t know that passive is the best descriptor, but neither does it fit the view of vengeful God doling out punishment. 

Also, as I pointed out in the previous post, Galatians 6:7-8 says “Do not be deceived, God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” I’ve heard it said here that God pours out his wrath on those who sow to please the sinful nature. However, it makes at least as much sense (and I honestly I believe it is more true to the text) to say that God allows us to reap the natural consequences of what we’ve worked to achieve.

In that way it does seem that the Wrath has a passive component – the wrath is the withholding of rescue that has been rejected. 

I do not believe that God’s only response to sin is passive/not responding and I don’t know whether “passive wrath” is an oxymoron or not. However, at the risk of going more philosophical than anyone wants: if God is omnipotent, to choose NOT to act isn’t really passive, it is a significant action.

In either case I believe that God’s wrath, be it active or passive or some paradox of the two or something else entirely, is meant to be redemptive. And that leads to your other question.

Was the death of Christ necessary? I’m not sure if that’s the right question for this conversation. I would say that Christ’s death was necessary – just perhaps not for the reasons we’ve traditionally held. Taking your hypothetical God to Jesus statement “This one shows the depth of our love better than the others” 

I’m not sure but I think you probably meant that as a tongue-in-cheek obviously wrong answer, but perhaps that “argument” would be more compelling for God than it is for us. The deepest display of love may in effect be “the only way” precisely because God IS the deepest display of love.

The question we’re really wrestling with here (or at least that I’m wrestling with) is whether the death of Christ was the only way for God’s irrevocable demand for justice to be satisfied. Or beyond that, is the satisfaction of God’s righteous wrath and need for justice the crux of our salvation?

Perhaps we’ve too narrowly defined what it means to “be saved.” Is our salvation merely the satisfaction of God’s righteous anger? Who are the players in this drama? Is God the protagonist and humanity the antagonists? Or vice versa? 

Are not sin, death and satan the true enemies? Is it possible that we, marred as we are by sin, have perhaps been held captive by the enemy or even foolishly (and often unknowingly) aligned ourselves with the enemy?

There is no other name in heaven or earth through which salvation is available than that of Jesus – this I fully affirm. To whatever degree that sins must be atoned for it is only through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus that atonement is made possible. Whatever rescue is available, God has fulfilled it through Christ.

But I still contend that we devalue the true wonder, power and profound love/kindness (chesed) of God by placing such emphasis on penal substitution and God’s inability to forgive any offense without the taking of a life.

Many brilliant folks through the years have put forth views of God’s justice and holiness which demand that he have satisfaction. My dissent is not to the position but the degree to which that position is held. I agree that God is righteous, holy and just. I’m not so sure I agree that God’s demand for justice outweighs all else. Why then should Jesus have taught us to turn the other cheek? Why then would Paul have said, “Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?” (1 Cor. 6).

In a previous conversation the response to this was that God’s demand for justice is unavoidable but he shows his grace by sending Jesus as a scapegoat. Okay. That still leaves me with questions of why we then are commanded to forgive. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Do we forgive those who trespass against us by demanding the death of an innocent?

I find little support for saying we are to forgive only once justice has been enacted. And I believe it is a cheap forgiveness indeed to say, “you can forgive them and move on because God’s going to punish them in the end.” There doesn’t seem to be any real forgiveness taking place there. And doesn’t that only work if they aren’t “saved”? Otherwise they avoid punishment – which then leads me to cry out for justice…which I apparently won’t get.

However, if the message is that through ultimate sacrifice we learn to have peace even when justice is denied…

When God incarnate makes the choice to NOT continue the cycle of vengeance and retribution (what if Israel and Palestine could get that concept??) When he willingly lays down his life rather than demanding the justice he deserved. When God made that choice he stepped into the middle of an unending cycle of sin and death and sent the whole thing spiraling in a new direction. Then justice was indeed served when Jesus rose from the dead, vindicated and glorified. 

Perhaps our mistake is confusing the issue of satisfying God’s wrathful requirement for justice with the issue of our salvation in Christ as though the two were synonymous. We’ve treated them as such but, again, just perhaps they aren’t.

Perhaps there have been many things throughout history which have appeased God’s wrath – sacrifice, repentance, a broken and contrite heart and faithfulness to name a few. But perhaps our salvation is about more than that. Perhaps our salvation, found only in the power of Christ, is the restoration of God’s Kingdom; the defeat of the enemies of sin, death and satan; the healing of wounds; the end of death; our transformation into fully human creatures, once again bearing fully the image of God without blemish or scar. And perhaps wrapped up in that is indeed the appeasement of God’s wrath…but its wrapped up in it, it isn’t IT. Only the power of God could accomplish all that – there is no human effort or sacrifice possible beyond the fully human and fully divine sacrifice of Jesus himself. 

Yes, I think that the death of Christ was necessary and I think it was much more valuable than just a penal substitution.

Anthony, I don’t know if answered your questions or just used them to launch into another tirade.

If nothing else, I think its clear that I don’t buy into the Calvinist/Reformed determinism theology. I’ve received a couple questions asking, since I’m obviously not very Augustinian/Calvinist in my persuasion do I consider myself Pelagian or Arminian or something else. Most of the 3 people who read this blog regularly either don’t know or don’t care what that means, but I will post a reply to that question in the near future.

The Wrath

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I realize that contemporary evangelical Christianity is heavily – if not primarily – influenced by Calvinist and Augustinian assumptions about the total depravity and sinfulness of humanity, the justice of a wrathful God and the need for penal substitution which is the primary purpose and accomplishment of the cross of Jesus. With all that said, I know that this post will not sit well in such a worldview. But I’m okay with that.

The Wrath of God is a central point found in the “substitutionary atonement” view of what Jesus accomplished on the cross. For those who don’t know what that means, it is the understanding that our sin has caused a deep and tragic gap between us and God. Because He is completely pure and holy, God cannot stand to be in the presence of sin and impurity therefore we cannot enter God’s presence. Because our sin has caused such great offense to God, we are deserving of death and only a sacrifice at the level of God himself taking our place could satisfy the debt we owe. And so Jesus Christ takes on the sin of humanity and by his sacrifice we are ransomed (the debt of sin is paid). 

Let me say that this is ONE way to explain what happened on the cross and while it is certainly a scriptural position, this is just part of the story and there are other equally scriptural ways to understand what took place. I will state up front MY BELIEF that while this understanding is biblical and is an appropriate description in some settings, there are other explanations which are equally biblical (meaning they are found in scripture) but are perhaps more central to the overall message of the Bible.

Recently this issue came up on a friend’s blog and another commenter defended the position strongly. He provided a list a scripture references defending penal substitution and even made the statement that there was no reason for the cross other than to appease the wrath of God. In fact he believes that “any attempt to diminish the importance of the penal substitution of Christ diminishes God’s holiness and wrath, as well as the wicked depth of human sin.” 

I’d like to include the main sections of my two responses. I haven’t asked the fellow for his permission so I’m not going to include his comments. Let me say that while I disagree with his position, I appreciated his willingness to dialog without resorting to name calling or personal attacks. 

The act of the powerful Christ emptying himself in the face of violence and sin – not fighting fire with fire, so-to-speak – is a powerful way to understand what took place on the cross. Through Christ’s response to evil we are given the ability and model to do likewise. We do not have to respond to evil with more evil – we can show the expression of true love and willingly lay down that which is temporary to enter into that which is eternal.

The Cristus Victor theory, which has its own limitations, declares that through the cross Christ was victorious over the enemies of sin and death. Christ entered fully into the grasp of the enemy and then in an undeniable display of superiority, brushed himself off and walked away – effectively showing the enemy to be impotent.

For a people (Israel) who were expecting the return of a Davidic King and the restoration of the nation to a position of prominence, the cross holds yet more significance. Jesus was certainly the promised Messiah and yet he behaved very differently from the manner in which Israel anticipated. Rather than leading Israel in a grand military coup, Jesus showed them – and us – how to die. More than dying so that we don’t have to, Jesus died so that we would know how to.

There is no reason, from the perspective of the cross, to view substitutionary atonement as even the primary expression. Again, I don’t intend to discredit the theory, yet those who choose to approach the message of the cross from the perspective of victory, freedom, healing and love can do so with a clear position of scripture and the history of the church to support them.

Then after conceding that it is possible to construct a list of valid texts to provide a biblical case for substitutionary atonement (not unlike the lists that one could put together for other atonement theories) I went on to say… 

However, we also could look at larger trajectories in scripture and see that God’s wrath is rarely the point…it is often the last ditch effort of gracious creator engaged in every imaginable tactic to get the attention of his unruly – but still beloved children. You pointed to the suffering servant in Isaiah – if you continue reading through to chapter 58 you’ll notice that what God desires is mercy, not sacrifice. Appeasing the wrath of God through sacrifices, at least here, is secondary to showing grace, mercy and compassion – because this is the type of God in whose image we are created.

I won’t argue one bit that the wrath of God is an important and recurring theme in scripture, but I am far from convinced that it is the primary message…Personally, I’m going to say that talking about reconciliation doesn’t have to always be a message about “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” And I do not see in any way that God’s holiness is diminished by that – and I find it interesting that we should even feel compelled to put God’s wrath up next to his holiness as preeminent descriptors. I’ll argue all day that it is perhaps more central to the overall message of Scripture to say that “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”

Of course this quote is from Exodus 34, where God came down and proclaimed his name to Moses. You’ll notice that the rest of verse 7 says, “Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished.” I affirm that truth and yet also put it secondary – as the text does – to God’s compassion and graciousness.

There’s more that I could say about this topic, but I’ll stop for now and see if anyone else has something to add. 

Response to Reconcile?

The great thing about this poem, and the conversations I’ve had with Adam about it, is the recognition that injustice and abuse of power is a human issue – it’s neither Western nor Eastern, Capitalist nor Communist, Christian nor Muslim, or (as Will Smith said) “Black, White, Cuban or Asian.”

For the most part I think this was Adam’s point (Adam, in case you’re wondering, that’s your cue to chime in when you get a break from your Hebrews class!).

I realize that at some point we have to remember this is primarily a poem meant to have an overall effect for a specific course content and it is not a general historical theology paper. Since this was a poem for a class that focused on England/Great Britain that undoubtedly influenced the content and presentation. Perhaps that alone answers the majority of these issues, but…in the name of fairness there are a couple sections where I’d like to challenge Adam’s thinking.

The main reason I’m challenging you here is because I do think you’re on to something, but I can also detect the warning signs for developing a despising of white people as the source of all evil. Let’s not replace our ethnocentric superiority complex with an ethnocentric sense of universal guilt. There is plenty of blame to go around!

I think you have the foundation for a strong call to recognition – sin, corruption and injustice is a human condition and not one group of humans have shown themselves immune. Therefore reconciliation should not be about putting a new group in charge…give ’em time and they’ll become corrupted by power as well (historically speaking). Reconciliation must be about shared responsibility and perhaps an expanded definition of “neighbor” which leads us to a new and not just different future.

I believe that the call must be to participate in the Kingdom of God, particularly as Jesus presents this type of life in the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon opens with the beatitudes which present a shocking depiction of who the heralded members of God’s Kingdom will be and how they will live. I DO NOT believe that the Sermon was meant as an unrealistic ideal that we can never actually experience, nor do I believe that it was intended as a preview of life after this life, in heaven.

I believe that the good news that the Kingdom of God/Kingdom of Heaven is at hand (meaning its here now) is primarily a message of hope for reconciliation – to God, to our fellow humans and to creation in general. But, I also believe that the Church has been guilty of using “Kingdom” language to mean something entirely different for a long time and we have to earn the right to speak to people again.

Neither the Church nor the United States (TWO COMPLETELY SEPARATE ENTITIES) should be seen as the ONLY group that has failed to live up to a high calling, but as your poem points out, neither can pretend not to have been ONE such group. For us as Christians (specifically protestants living in the US), pretending that since we’re Protestant or CofC that this story isn’t our story…well that just leads to less credibility in my opinion.

Including my challenges in the body of this post made it too long, so each one is going to be posted as a separate comment. You can feel free to engage with any or all.

Adam, thanks for letting me use your poem – its always a bit unnerving to put something in writing for people to critique. You did a great job.

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