Every morning for the past three years I’ve asked my children this question. It started with just Conner, but then Micah caught on and now Josiah.
In response to the question we say our “Four Things.”
Today, I will pay attention.
Today, I will be Jesus.
Today, I will see Jesus.
Today, I will mess up.
And then we say the Lord’s Prayer together.
Often we’ll take one of the four things and talk about what it means. Paying attention means listening to our teachers, parents, and other adults. But its more than that. It also means that when a friend is talking to us (not during class) we listen carefully to them. A “grown up” way of saying this is we seek to be fully present. It means that we notice what’s going on around us. We notice when someone is alone. We notice when someone is really happy or really sad – and we want to know why.
Most days I ask the boys to choose one of the four to focus on specifically. Yesterday, Conner chose paying attention as his focus. He later told me that during recess he looked over and there was a girl sitting alone on the swings. He told me that it looked like the wind – which was CRAZY yesterday – was the only one willing to push her. So he went over and asked if she wanted someone to play with.
Being Jesus means that after paying attention we look for the good we can do and be in a situation. We’re kind to those who are lonely and we’re kind to those who are mean. We don’t just notice the lonely person on the swings, we go over and say hi. The wind will not be the only person a friend has so long as we’re around. Being Jesus means we not only choose not to engage in bullying, but we stand up to those who bully others. Being Jesus means that people matter to us and they should know it.
Micah chose being Jesus as his focus yesterday. At one point, because of good behavior he got to choose a prize from the “treasure box” in class. He didn’t see anything in the box that he couldn’t live without. Instead of just getting something, he asked a friend if there was anything he wanted, selected that thing and gave it to him.
Seeing Jesus is probably the hardest. It requires paying attention and being Jesus. We are committed to looking for signs of Jesus present in every person. Especially those who are mean; who we consider our “enemies.” It may be harder to see Jesus in some people…but it is also harder to hate those people or neglect them when we do see Jesus.
Somebody once suggested that we shouldn’t end our Four Things on “Today, I will mess up” because it was a negative ending. I disagree – and so do our boys. This is a final reminder of grace. We talk about it all the time. We’re not perfect, we’re going to miss opportunities. And that’s okay. Every day we strive to live up to a high calling. But that high calling comes from our identity, not the other way around. So when we mess up we are not wracked with guilt. We talk about why we missed the opportunity to pay attention or be Jesus, and what we might do tomorrow in order to grab on to a similar opportunity.
When we talk about our Four Things in the evening, the mess up part provides a chance for confession – Rachel and I participate in that confession as well. We learn that sharing our struggles is an opportunity to be loved – because our confession is met with forgiveness and grace. If the mess up involved wronging someone, we talk about what we can do to make it right…and since we do this often, its rare that the boys haven’t already begun making amends by the time they share their mistake.
If “Today, I will mess up,” is viewed as a negative its because we have a misshapen understanding of confession and holiness. We see confession as a retributive rather than redemptive act. We see holiness as a harsh demand rather than an inspiring calling. Today, I will mess up. Period. So how will I deal with that incompetence when it manifests?
This morning, Josiah called me on his way to school. He didn’t get to say the Four Things with Conner and Micah, and wanted me to hear. This is what I heard over the phone…
I had an interesting conversation a couple years ago. A good friend shared his frustration that many who engage in missional church planting seem driven more by being different from the church they grew up in than by a deeper positive conviction.
He noted how often people seem to operate out of a desire to be “not like” other churches…but aren’t really sure what it is that they are actually about. Beneath the hyper-activity and enthusiasm, they just often seem so angry, cynical and negative.
Like most stereotypes, this one is both painfully accurate and unfair (not to mention, in many cases, completely wrong). When we paint with broad brush strokes we miss details and blur edges. It isn’t usually so cut-and-dried.
However, I’m around missionally oriented church planters regularly. One lives in my mirror…and all too often when I see that face, anger, cynicism and negativity are staring back at me.
And no, I don’t think I’m alone in this regard.
Still, I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, reacting to perceived abuses – while a present reality – is not my driving force. I can articulate fairly well what it is we do hope to be about; why we’re doing what we’re doing. And again, I don’t think I’m alone in this either.
Motives are tricky, elusive things.
To make matters worse, the desire to run away from past experiences isn’t just made manifest in negativity…like superheroes and villains, sometimes it shows up wearing a mask.
Mike Breen and the folks at 3DM have this little diagram they use to describe the problem we encounter when we attempt discipleship from the starting point of obedience. Our starting point should be our identity – which was given to us by God before we did anything to earn it. So really, this means that the true starting point is God’s action – which gives rise to our identity which, in turn, results in our obedience (when things are functioning properly.) Obedience is the fruit of our identity, not the other way around.
Okay, makes sense. It also makes sense that a lot of people struggle with this. In fact, when a friend described it recently, he seemed to suggest that trying to start from obedience is the normative experience of Christianity in our culture. We all struggle in this way. (Broad brush strokes again.)
However, this isn’t the problem I deal with most often as a church planter in a missional context. I have the opposite experience. Non-Christians, new Christians, former Christians, re-Christians (I just made that one up, but its a real thing) – many people in each of these categories seem to be reacting to the legalism and abuses they’ve witnessed in the church or at the hands of a self-professed “Christian.” The result is often that the very topic of obedience becomes taboo; it is too closely associated with that judgmental legalism stuff.
And so the identity thing – the love, grace, mercy and compassion of God poured out for us, eliciting a worshipful response – that’s celebrated…but we’re not interested in your religiosity, so save the obedience talk, okay?
For some, functioning negatively (focused on what we are not) will not appear negative – or cynical, or jaded – on the surface. It actually seems very warm and inviting. Its very inclusive and pressure-free. That doesn’t make it a healthier problem. It makes it more dangerous, because the toxins are masked.
If you’ve had a similar experience, let’s be honest: we can’t talk about obedience because we’re living out of our baggage. We’re in the same boat as the person working themselves to death trying to please God like an impossible-to-impress father. We have the same struggle as the Bible-thumping legalist or the angry, cynical, jaded hipster Christian. We’re not responding to God, we’re reacting to baggage.
This is a problem.
If a church planter, church leader, average Christian or a Pope, is going to have a healthy lived ministry, it must be generative rather than reactionary (what we are about rather than what we’re avoiding).
And I don’t offer this critique from a position of superiority. My own baggage is pretty evident to myself and those around me. It has influenced many decisions – almost always negatively. In retrospect, I can think of several people who were openly asking me to push back against their anti-religion rants…and I didn’t want to offend them so I just sat there, nodding like an idiot.
Then there’s plenty baggage stemming from past relationships I’ve damaged due to my stubborn insistence on telling people what I think. So now I have a nearly neurotic desire to avoid conflict. Unfortunately, once I’m in it, I still have a tendency to say too much.
I am so very screwed up. But I’m dealing with that.
Right now I’m going to embrace my tendency to say what I’m thinking:
Your baggage is a terrible advisor and everyone else is tired of it trying to tell them what to do as well.
I’m sorry you had such a legalistic upbringing. Really, I am. But God still wants you to be holy. We’re not talking about group-think, blindly following the lemming in front of you, or transforming into a Stepford robot. I’m talking about being renewed, transformed, recreated and resurrected into something greater than the sum of your parts.
Obedience isn’t a bad word, a bad concept or a bad idea. It isn’t inherently connected to legalism – that comes when we try to give it a causal relationship to our identity.
Back in my Bare Minimum series I talked about the ridiculousness of the faith vs works debate. They are inseparable, we can’t just choose which one offends us the least. Doing so destroys both. Without obedience, our faith is a meaningless speech – like an apology from a sociopath. Yet without faith our obedience is anemic. If we root our identity in our obedience we become legalistic, judgmental jack-wagons.
Likewise, when it comes to church planting it is important to know our history, to honestly and boldly critique the ways in which we’ve become too much like the dominant culture or lost sight of who we are called to be. But a ministry is not truly prophetic unless the critique is paired with hopeful engagement. It isn’t enough to know what you don’t want to be – we have to know who we are, who we can be, who we hope to be.
Last night at the Sentralized Conference Hugh Halter gave some ideas for what leaders in established churches should remember before attempting to transform their church culture in a missional direction. One of his points was to stop criticizing everybody else. We’re so quick to dismantle what everyone else is doing – that can’t help but eat away at us.
But its so tempting. We don’t like to admit it, but we’re still – for the most part – trapped in the system of determining our worth and our correctness in terms of what others are doing. Perhaps we can try letting go of just a little bit of this; maybe we can be intentional about moving a tad more of our energy toward what we hope to accomplish rather than what we hope to avoid. Instead of allowing our baggage to determine our emphasis, it should serve as a point of contact with others who are hurting. But it doesn’t still dictate what we do – its called baggage, so leave it packed up.
See, even our baggage is missional now.
This post is continued from yesterday. I hope you hugged a preacher…
The decision to potentially pursue a ministry position with an established congregation would most likely mean moving out of the area – possibly out of Texas, yet again. We didn’t like the idea of moving away, but if the job didn’t come through with MWF, I didn’t really see what options were left. I’ve learned that you can do just about anything for a season – if it is important enough. But we all have limited energy and resources…and mine were tapped.
In late February we received the news that the MWF’s paperwork would not be finalized in time for the March grant deadline. It could be another year or more before the position would be possible (in fact, it is now May and the paperwork is still pending). It was time to initiate plan B.
Putting together a resume was not half as difficult as getting my heart and mind to a place where A) any church would be interested in hiring me and B) I would be faithfully entering a new situation without bitterness and reservation.
I really believed that just making a decision to move forward would bring a semblance of peace. Isn’t that how it usually works? Even if it isn’t the outcome we’d hoped for, just the removal of wondering is typically a relief.
It wasn’t… at all.
The truth is, I felt fairly confident that if we accepted a position, I would throw myself into the life of that community…but it still seemed wrong somehow. This was when I started doubting just about everything in a significant way. How could I feel so strongly about what it was God had called me to and yet not be able to do that? It was as if Paul had received the vision about the man from Macedonia calling them to come help only to find that someone had extended the Great Wall of China right across their path.
An answer that seemed increasingly reasonable was that God hadn’t called me to anything, I was just making it all up in my clearly “nuts” head.
The day I sent out my first batch of resumes I had an experience which brought me more sadness about leaving Burleson and caused me to question everything all over again. Then a couple days later, I had another one (you can read about that here).
So I talked it over with Rachel and we decided to do something that neither of us wanted to do again – a path we’d even rejected in choosing to put together resumes. We decided to continue pursuing conversations with any of the churches that contacted us from the first round of resumes, but to hold off on sending any more until we tried one final round of fundraising.
From conversations with MWF I felt confident that within two years I could have a full-time position which would allow to continue in our church planting work here in Burleson and also work to equip others to start new faith communities, as well as lead established ones in missional renewal. If I could just hang on for a couple more years.
At this point the “are you nuts” questions started bubbling up again.
Nuts or not, I put together a packet of fundraising materials. I posted them in pdf form here on this website, and started contacting churches in hopes of setting up a meeting to discuss our request.
I didn’t get any takers. That wasn’t really surprising – I’ve done fundraising before and I know how long it takes to get any traction with churches and missions committees. I wasn’t discouraged by the lack of folks jumping at the chance to support us…though I was starting to get a little antsy at the lack of any response at all – not even a “we’ll get back to you.”
I forwarded my material to lots of people, including several who I knew would be good at offering a careful evaluation and suggestions for how to improve.
One of those people was Larry Duggins, the executive director of the MWF. We were working together on a website project anyway so he asked if I’d like to stay a little longer in order to talk about my fundraising material.
In the two days before our meeting two separate churches (neither of which in or near North Texas) contacted me saying I’d made it past the initial “resume culling” and was invited to pursue further conversations about their ministry opening. Both asked me to fill out a questionnaire to help the search team get to know my theology and philosophy of ministry. Honestly, just trying to fill them out was difficult.
There was a (mostly) unconscious part of me that was rebelling and wanted to subtly undermine my chances of further interviews – easy enough to do. There was a more conscious part that just wanted to curl up in a ball. But I knew that if this was the door that God opened then I’d better get my head and heart into it – both seemed like good churches and if I wasn’t going to commit then, well…they deserved better than me and I needed to stop pretending like I care about following where God leads.
So I committed. I responded carefully and honestly (without being so in-your-face that they’d run in fear).
The day after both had been sent, I met with Larry. I was looking forward to some helpful insights on the fundraising process. Instead he said, “We looked over your stuff. We’d like to offer to pick up the amount you’re seeking to raise and have you start working full-time for MWF effective immediately.”
I think I was accepting the job before I’d even registered that it had been offered.
I’d like to say that my calm acceptance and conversation was simply an example of my awesome professionalism. But really, I was simply blindsided and in shock…in a good way for once.
I didn’t start shaking until the drive home.
Back to the discernment issue. If we hadn’t carefully and prayerfully made plans – and then stuck to those plans – there’s little chance that we would have been in place long enough for this to all play out. Sure, most of the plans we made didn’t pan out the way we anticipated. It was frustrating and exhausting.
In retrospect I can see how most of what we attempted over the last three years either taught us something significant about this approach to missional life and church planting (you should hear some of my stories of 2 am conversations with fellow security guards) or they kept us going until the next temporary phase came along.
In the moment it didn’t make sense that my prayers and processes of discernment lead to the perceived response of “I’ve called you to this, do it faithfully.” How? How could we keep going when the doors to support kept slamming shut? And yet, we never missed a payment.
That part really didn’t make sense. According to our budget and financial records, we should have run out of money MONTHS ago. But at the end of each month everything worked out. Every month.
I don’t think that our plans give God something to laugh about. Our plans, if they are developed through prayer and discernment, keep us moving forward when we can’t see where the road is headed. Our plans are one part of why we were still here to see God’s miraculous provision come to pass. Without prayerful planning – and sticking to our commitments even when conventional wisdom said to cut our losses – we most likely would have given up and moved on to something else entirely. Had that happened, I am confident that God would have still found ways to use our lives for his Kingdom, but we would have missed out on that which I believe God has been carefully and thoroughly preparing us. By sticking it out, we are more convinced than ever that we are doing precisely what God has called us to do.
And I wonder about those two interviews. The timing was very interesting. Was this a situation like Abraham on the mountain with Isaac where I was being given a chance to see for myself just how much I trusted God’s leadership? I don’t know if it was or not…but that’s precisely how it has impacted me.
I’ve been trying to write this post for a couple weeks…but I’ve been speechless.
Obviously, it was a short-lived affliction.
For the past 17 days I could feel the implications, lessons and reflections rolling around in my head, but they wouldn’t surface. Dan Bouchelle wrote a post recently on the danger of journaling and writing for us wordy types. I think he is absolutely correct. I needed to be silent before God in thanksgiving and praise before trying to share this story.
My role has expanded considerably within the MWF and I’m already tackling some new challenges – not the least of which being the very enjoyable task of getting to know the students and leaders who participate, serve and lead in the Epworth Houses and New Day communities. One of the aspects of my job which I anticipate bringing me great joy is coming alongside to support and encourage these folks. Their holistic approach to life, faith and ministry is inspirational and, let’s face it, somewhat nuts.
I can appreciate that.
In part one of this mini-series, I began by addressing the faith vs works debate as an attempt to answer the question “How do we gain access into salvation and life with God?” To summarize, I think the faith vs works debate misses the point…partly because we’ve missed the point of the goal and question we’re asking. I’d like to get into that a little more in this post.
One problem is that we cannot seem to squelch our obsession with comparing ourselves to others – and to come out looking good in that comparison. To state it in overly-simplistic terms: If you do less good than I do, you’re not committed enough. If you do more good than I do, you’re trying to earn your salvation. If you do different good things than I do, you’re misguided at best and an enemy of God at worst.
I think that most of these problems really stem from our understanding of who God is – that’s a subject I’ve written on before so I won’t spend too much time on it here. But it seems to be assumed that our goal should be to figure out the most basic, bare minimum of “being a faithful Christian.” This is not a new development. Its in the background of the discussions of faith and deeds in the writings of Paul and James as well as Isaiah and the other prophets. More recently, much of the Protestant protesting came from a desire to throw off the “extra trappings” that had accumulated over time. For folks in my own tribe in the American Restoration movement, that desire was an even more pronounced and primary consideration.
Again, none of us magically or arbitrarily arrived at this point. We have received both the unfinished struggles and the firm conclusions of those who came before us.
We owe a great debt of gratitude to pioneers in the faith who helped to chart the course through difficult waters. We pick up and continue their struggle to discern how it is we are to live faithfully in this place. And yet, sometimes we fail to recognize the ways that past discussions about how we should live are influencing more and more matters in less and less healthy ways.
At some point along the way – and perhaps this struggle was present from day one – we began thinking of our life in God in terms of the bare minimum. “What is the least I have to do in order to be okay with God?”
Let’s set aside for a moment what this implies about our view of God, and look instead about what this implies about us. Do we really want to treat our faith the same way we would a silly class or assignment in school that we don’t care about, but must complete for graduation? Is life with God something we simply go along with to avoid punishment?
Okay, its unavoidable, we have to consider the implications of how we view God in this quest. Do we really think God is basically a cosmic principle who, with detached professionalism determines whether or not we graduate? (Or, if you believe in Purgatory, may choose to leave us in Junior High for an indefinite period…wait, no, maybe that’s hell…never mind, the metaphor is getting out of hand.)
If we believe that God sees humanity as basically detestable things that deserve nothing more than eternal punishment, but has grudgingly offered reprieve to those who meet a rigid set of criteria…then, yeah, I guess concern for the bare minimum makes sense. Honestly, who would want to spend any more time than required in the presence of such a being? Talk about a stressful and toxic work environment. You just think having 8 bosses complaining about your TPS reports is bad.
If I believed that this were an accurate depiction of God, I’d be writing a best-selling book about “The Gospel According to Office Space” – my real motivation would be to not get hassled…and to keep my job – but you know what Bob? That’ll only make someone work just hard enough to not get fired.
What if, in our obsession to get it all right, we’ve pulled a Pharisee and completely missed the point?
What if God came near because God actually…likes us and wants to be with us? What if God has invited us into a full life of collaboration with the one who creates universes? What if the whole point is to experience life to the full, which is found in the way of Jesus; in the renewed Kingdom of God?
Perhaps if this is true, the question is no longer about the bare minimum, but about the abundance of new adventures which await us today. Maybe the reason we have seen such minimal transformation of life in the church (we don’t really look all that different from anybody else) is that we’ve only sought after minimal transformation in God. Even if we’ve obsessed our whole life with getting every little piece of Biblical knowledge memorized and correctly categorized, that’s still SO incredibly minimalistic. Isn’t there more to us than storage and recitation of information or checking the right box on a doctrinal belief test? Isn’t there so much more to life?
Yes. There is.
What impact has this minimalistic approach had on how we “do” church? Well, probably more ways than we can begin to describe. But there’s one way in particular that actually scares the hell out of me. That will be the focus of the third and final installment in this series.
This may seem a bit obvious, but Chris and I have been spending a lot of time thinking about the suburbs lately. Its obvious (obviously) because we live and are planting churches in a suburb of Fort Worth, TX.
A couple months ago we both read a book, Death by Suburb, that we felt addresses many of the issues that we and our community deal with on a regular basis. Toxins like the temptation to for every relationship to be transactional – based on an exchange of goods, services or some perceived benefit. We get our coffee from a drive-thru worker, not a person; we buy our groceries from a corporation and pay a cashier…no names required. Even our interactions with our Christ Journey family runs the risk of becoming transactional – I call you because you volunteered to read Scripture on Sunday or because you are a House Church Leader, not because I wanted to see how your doctor’s appointment went yesterday. That reminds me, I want to call somebody about their doctor’s appointment yesterday….
…Okay I’m back.
Transactional relationships, the inability to slow down, the temptation to define ourselves by what we do or have, the compulsion to have someone else’s life – to compete with our neighbors and define ourselves through “immortality symbols” such as new minivans, community service activities, successful kids, etc, – none of these things are unique to the ‘burbs, but many have unique expressions in suburban life. And we deal with all of them in one way or another.
Of course, our work here in Burleson is interesting in that we aren’t in an exclusively “typical” suburban area. There are sprawling McMansion neighborhoods to be sure, but there are also still plenty of “small town” and even “rural” areas, many of which found in the same zip code.
As we’ve continued to engage this suburban idea in our studies and conversations, we’ve come across some very helpful resources, including this article in Newsweek magazine (thanks for the link Chris!)
I couldn’t help but think of my time in the New Orleans area when reading that article. I typically say New Orleans when folks around here ask where we were in Louisiana. But to the locals, we were well outside of NOLA…we were on the Northshore. New Orleans is situated around the Mississippi River but is also held in place by Lake Pontchartrain (the huge oval shaped water feature on the southeast corner of a LA map). Across the 24 mile Causeway Bridge there is a growing “bedroom” community made up of several towns: Mandeville (where we lived), Madisonville, Covington, Lacombe, Abita Springs…and plenty other small communities.
MANY people drive across that bridge to the Southshore every day. New Orleans would be in serious trouble if it were not for the North Shore. And yet the various discussions of urban renewal and even church planting typically ignore or show mild neglect to the residents of St. Tammany Parish.
The Newsweek article addresses the reality that as the popularity and availability of suburban life increases, so does the existence of social concerns which many suburbanites tried to leave behind. One quote in particular said it well:
The end of the (traditional) suburbs was inevitable. Hopeful, mobile Americans may once have thought they could leave behind the pressures, demands and compromises of city life. But social concerns inexorably follow society.
One of the things that Chris and I have wanted to be very intentional about in our Navigating the Suburban Wilderness series is to avoid telling people they should move to the country OR to the city.
It seems that these options are often held up as the true choices for the person who doesn’t want to become a Stepford wife…or husband. “Move to the country and get back to your roots!” “Enjoy small town values with people you can trust.” “Experience the land again.” These are all great things – I come from the country and enjoyed these aspects of my upbringing.
“Return to the cities and stop ignoring the poor!” “Jesus wouldn’t live in the burbs, he’d be in the city where the oppressed and forgotten live.” “If you want real character and personality, you have to experience city life…suburbs are too sterile.” There is a deep pull in my heart for speaking for the voiceless, seeing the invisible and breaking the chains of injustice. And its hard not to like areas like Sundance Square in Fort Worth…
But make no mistake, Jesus is not merely a resident of the city or a friend of the rancher. Jesus is the one who has come near and is the companion of humanity – not just a certain cross-section. Anywhere there are people there is opportunity to know their names – not just in small towns. If you won’t meet your neighbor in the burbs, you aren’t likely to learn the names of shop owners in a rural town either. If you haven’t spoken up for the needs of the oppressed in the suburbs (refer back to the Newsweek article if you think they don’t exist…or better yet, visit Harvest House, Heart for the Kids, or talk to just a couple random people and ask them their story) then why would you be more likely to do the same in the city?
Don’t get me wrong, I believe that there are people who feel a special calling to show solidarity with the urban poor and I am so glad they are willing to answer that call. There are plenty of people raising their families is small towns, and that is great. But you don’t typically have to go any further than your own neighborhood to find opportunities to love those who are unloved and share hope with those who are trapped in despair.
I believe that the burbs are going to continue to become more and more complex and diverse. We believe that the Kingdom of God is breaking in even here and the Lord Jesus is seeking to proclaim freedom for the captives, even if their prison bars are picket fences and their sentence is self-imposed.
Rachel is still fond of saying that,“without doubt it isn’t faith, its fact.” And before you think that makes faith less valuable or true, remember that one of the very fundamental fallacies of modern/enlightenment thought is that empirically verifiable fact is the only thing which is right or true. Translation – for the last five hundred years we’ve heard that only things which can be seen, touched, smelled, tasted or heard can be proven or trusted. The whole world, including the non-religious, are waking up from the stupor brought on by this thinking and in a loud voice are calling out for something more. We must stop expending so much energy labeling the New Age, Eastern mysticism and spiritualist movements as something evil and recognize that the world is tired of waiting for Christians to tell them what they need to hear.
There is something real and deep and true beyond the world that the senses currently detect. And sadly, Christians are often too busy attacking spirituality which fails to match our own to be able to say, “Yes! Your impulses are good! Let us journey together.” Having a commitment to the Lordship of Christ does not mean that we must attack and destroy or ridicule and ignore anyone with another commitment.
Unfortunately when we have engaged in this conversation it has often been with a Platonic and Cartesian dualism than from Biblical spirituality. The Platonic way of viewing the universe says that not only are the senses not where all truth resides, but the senses cannot be trusted AT ALL. For Plato everything we see and experience is merely a “shadow” of that which is Real. So we have developed this belief that matter and physicality are not real and are essentially evil. And this is something which the Bible does not affirm.
The certainty of the Enlightenment was based on science and human progress – and we, along with much of the world, say, “Not so much.” Much of the Christian community of last few hundred years jumped on the progress bandwagon. However, what spirituality we experienced has often gone to the other extreme and placed all our eggs in a disembodied spiritual existence. And to this, the Bible says, “Not so much.”
What does all this have to do with doubt and certainty?
When our existence involves both the seen and unseen, physical and spiritual (though I utterly disdain that distinction), faith and reason…it is more difficult to develop and defend rigid systems with black and white boundaries. There are variables. There is mystery.
That doesn’t mean that there is no truth or that we should not hold convictions. It does suggest that we should hold our convictions with humility. It does suggest that we can, in good conscience and good faith, admit struggles and doubt; we can have a sense of solidarity with the skeptical seeker. It does mean that we can question assumptions, and challenge beliefs.
I wonder what that looks like? It can look like secular humanism. It can look like individual cafeteria-style spirituality. It can look like a lot of things which have already been shown to be ineffective.
However, if part of the process of challenging is giving serious consideration to how Christians and Jews throughout history have been formed; if part of the process is remaining connected to community – even in the midst of differing perspectives; if part of the process is listening to the voices (present and past) who with faith in God have asked similar questions…this process can healthy and life affirming.
Is Dr. Beck right when he suggests that injecting doubt into our churches will probably kill them? My guess is that typically it would be pretty difficult to accomplish without viciously pulling the rug out from under folks. And yet we who are engaging in the ministry of planting new churches are often doing precisely this at some level. At least some of us are saying to those we encounter, “I’ve got a lot of questions and doubts too, and my goal is not to eliminate your doubt. I want to invite you into community with other people who are wrestling and also to introduce you to Jesus, the One who is more interested is healing your wounds (and sending you to heal others) than giving you a list of answers (and sending you to convince others).”
Make no mistake, left unchecked, doubt can be crippling. And yet, when a community of disciples is willing to openly and honestly deal with their doubt; to struggle with difficult issues instead of hiding behind platitudes, such a community is poised to experience faith that is never touched by those who refuse to fully engage.
A large part of college education is to take a group of people who feel that they know everything (college freshmen) and get them to the point where they feel that they don’t know anything. That takes a lot of work in the classroom. The goal is to instill a curious bent to the student’s intellectual character. To get them to see each new experience (ideological and interpersonal) as an opportunity for learning.
Higher education is good at this. But I wonder how good the church is at this process. Churches, it seems to me, move in the opposite direction: They try to instill certainty. A similar thing happens in political affiliation. You don’t see circumspection when Democrats and Republicans square off. I think this is why we live with the rule to never discuss religion or politics in polite conversation. The “feeling of knowing” infuses those discussions, making them very intense but also very unproductive.
So I wonder, can a church survive if it actually tried to undermine the “feeling of knowing” the way higher education does? Probably not. But I think some persons can make this shift. As a consequence, these person seed the church with question-raisers. The presence of these people infuse the faith community with flexibility and curiosity which prevents ossification and stagnation. A healthy church would be a mix of those who feel they know along with people who feel they don’t know. The real trick is getting these people to get along with each other and to mutually affirm the gifts each brings to the communal setting.
What a great thought from one of my former professors, Dr. Richard Beck. His blog, Experimental Theology is quite challenging for several reasons. First of all, those who think that the content of my blog is too heavy and serious should not even click on his link (though his sarcasm and humor ensure that even his scholarly work is often light-hearted and enjoyable for nerds like me). However the real challenge of Experimental Theology is that Beck is quite comfortable living into the role he suggests in the extended quote above. Challenging not only assumptions but assumptions which entire systems of thought are often built upon.
While I will not cover this topic in any way like Dr. Beck and his very well researched article, I would like to talk a little about the usefulness of doubt and willingness to question assumptions. And since this post is over a thousand words, I’ll post the rest tomorrow.
Some of those who have responded to my previous post on the wrath of God(primarily in person or by phone) seem to have understood me to say that God is not concerned with sin or that there is no response of wrath.
I understand how they could come to that since my first post on this subject was intended primarily to pull our focus away from the satisfaction of God’s wrath as the primary purpose of the cross. I made a case against this perspective not because I don’t believe it has a part in this story, but because for so many of us it has been the ONLY part of the story that seemed to matter.
I do believe that sin and injustice matter to God. I believe that violence and oppression certainly bring about the wrath of God; my friend Luke pointed out the story of Sodom and Gomorra…another good example would be the plagues on Egypt. I have said before, and still believe, that mercy taken to an extreme is injustice to those offended.
I believe that our obstinate desire to continue in sin when faced with the Truth of God, is something which does bring guilt and potentially wrath.
I’d like to talk more about what that means. When we read about the wrath of God being poured out or threatened to be poured out there are two basic categories: 1) evil and violent cultures/people groups and 2) God’s chosen people who continue generation after generation to refuse to worship God alone; who fail to be the people they’re called to be.
Notice that if the evil communities – such as Sodom and Gomora or Egypt – would have repented, then God would have withheld his wrath. Look at Ninevah – Jonah preaches the worst sermon in history and boom, the whole city repents and then, double boom God relents. No sacrifice needed to appease his wrath other than the sacrifice of a broken and contrite heart.
Regarding the wrath poured out on God’s people – a story which is repeated throughout Israel’s history – let’s not forget how often they were given the chance to repent and turn back to God. The message of Jeremiah was that God’s wrath would come in the form of exile and control by a foreign power unless the people turned back to God. God’s wrath was NOT inescapable, it only came about after repeated refusals by His people to listen.
I’m not arguing that Jesus’ crucifixion didn’t serve as the final sacrifice for sin – I think that is absolutely part of what happened. However, I believe that it is false to assert that God is bound by his justice to require a sacrifice and therefore that must have been the primary reason for the cross. If God is bound to satisfy justice, then God is subservient to justice…we should worship justice because it is more powerful than God. But God is love. Love certainly involves seeking justice for others, but love also forgives offenses against itself.
I believe that there are some serious holes in the position that God is bound by his justice and so the pouring out of his wrath on someone (be it on us or Jesus) is central to his nature. While God is certainly just, God is not subject to anything – if so then, again, we should worship that. It is not okay to say that God IS justice and thus he is bound by himself. First of all, while Scripture says that God is just (an adjective) it does not say that God IS Justice (noun) – we’re told that God is Love…not Justice.
One response I’ve heard to this is that love must be just. Love certainly contains a component of justice yet it is also filled with mercy, long-suffering, forgiveness and grace.
Substitutionary atonement fails to acknowledge God’s longstanding history of offering forgiveness to those who have offended him without requiring the taking of life. Hosea 6 reminds us that God“desires mercy, not sacrifice.” In that passage God, through through the prophet, is urging his people to turn back and acknowledge him – they had ALREADY broken their covenant with God and thus justice demanded that they be put out. The entire point of Hosea’s life and ministry was that God is not bound by this expectation of justice. God is willing to set all that aside if his people will remember and return.
Isn’t that precisely what we are called to as well? Paul confronts the church in Corinth for their insistence on getting justice when they’ve been wronged: “The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?(1 Corinthians 6:7)”
Demanding justice for yourself does not seem to carry the same weight as demanding justice for the weak and the oppressed (assuming you aren’t the weak and oppressed). God is the One who speaks up for justice on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves and yet where God is concerned he extends mercy and forgiveness.
When God is finally forced to pour out his wrath, he tells the people he will not remain angry forever – God’s wrath is redemptive rather than merely retributive (thanks Nate); God’s wrath is a means rather than an end.
How does Jesus describe God in relation to our “lostness”? Well, most of us are familiar with the three parables of lost things. The lost coin, lost sheep and prodigal son are important parables where Jesus stresses heavily the nature of God – hence three similar stories in quick succession. In these stories we find not a vengeful God of righteous wrath, but a compassionate caretaker, shepherd and father. The shepherd does not require the sheep to be sacrificed and the father does not require the son to become a slave – apparently being lost was punishment enough.
HOWEVER (Galatians 6:7) “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.” God does take sin very seriously because sin is a component of the larger brokenness that plagues all of creation – a creation that is beloved by God and which God is even now working to restore and heal. Sin, brokenness and evil are true enemies of life, if that is what we sow then that is what we will reap.
What if that is what the wrath of God really is? Eventually God allows us to remain in the lostness we brought on ourselves. It isn’t that God brings about some vicious torture because his sense of honor has been accosted. He invites us to return but if we continue to refuse; if we continue to willingly sow evil, then how can we not reap destruction?
This shift in understanding does is not devalue the damage of sin or the need for a Savior. However, it does demand that we recognize how we’ve made sin the point for too long. Sin is only the point if our genesis (beginning) was in Genesis 3. But the fall of humanity is not the foundation of this story, the point is the power of a good creator God speaking all things into existence and being very pleased with his good creation (Genesis 1). The point is that this God desires to be in close communion with that which he has made and he will cross any chasm to rescue us from death.
Sin is a character in this story, but it is not the main character. The wrath of God is a potential subplot, but not the climax or the resolution. The wrath of God is no more central to this story than not failing a class is the central reason to study in school or gaining nutrients for physical survival is the primary reason to share a meal with friends.
God is a just God; he demands justice for those who are oppressed and he will not allow those who continue to defy him to remain unpunished. But God IS love. God is the One who is at work in healing broken lives and restoring damaged relationships. This is the central message of the cross – a new power and a new kingdom are available. No longer will the oppressive regimes of this world define power. The Kingdom of God is at hand, it is for everyone and it has a whole new definition of life.
The barriers have been torn down; the enemy has been vanquished and the invitation to enter into life has been given. This is not primarily about a loan shark collecting a debt, this is about a father running to meet his child on the road. Falling on his knees, kissing and embracing his beloved, putting rings on fingers and coats on shoulders and throwing a feast to celebrate the restoration of the father’s broken heart.
That is a much better story.
I just finished 5 weeks of preaching at Christ Journey on the topic of Sabbath. My suspicion going into this series was that very few of us, particularly here in our faith community, really understand, appreciate or practice any type of Sabbath rhythm.
I think this suspicion was confirmed and (hopefully) overcome. Over the past month I’ve had people come to me and say, “I’m glad we did this, I never knew that Sabbath had anything at all to do with Christianity – I thought it was just an Old Testament thing like Passover or Kosher laws.” Another told me, “I was always taught that Sabbath was going to church and NOT GOING to movies or the mall on Sunday.”
What we spent this entire month considering were the ways in which a Sabbath rhythm could be cultivated (which basically means that we have an intentional time set aside each week to cease from work and the compulsion to produce and prove ourselves and instead embrace other things like rest, worship, feasting, remembering, celebrating and storytelling).
I admit fully that while I have a great affinity for the concept of Sabbath I am not always very good at practice. I can see the areas in my life that would be healthier and more satisfying were I to center myself in the practice of remembering God is God and I am not…but I do not do the thing I want to do and what I do not what to do, I do.
One concept which has come up quite a bit lately, through our Sabbath discussions as well as in other (seemingly) unrelated settings is the importance of story. Being good storytellers and story-hearers is important to our spiritual formation and it is also a reenactment of the Gospel of Jesus.
We discussed in a couple of the sermons that Sabbath itself is rooted in story – we are first introduced to Sabbath in the narrative of creation. It does not simply show up out of the blue in the middle of the Ten Commandments. In fact the command issued in Exodus 20 is to REMEMBER the Sabbath day. This story is formative.
Later when the Ten Commandments are retold to Israel in Deuteronomy 5 Sabbath is set within another story. Here the people are told to remember the Sabbath day as a way to remember that they were captives in Egypt and God rescued them and brought them to freedom. The Exodus story is central to understanding God’s relationship to humanity. We, the captives, cried out to God and he came near in order to set us free. He is not a God demanding constant production, like the Egyptian masters. He invites his people to rest in Him.
Jesus would later say that He came so that we might have life and have it to the fullest. He said, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.”
The hearing and telling of these stories – our stories in scripture – is central to participation in the life of faith. But that isn’t where the importance of story ends.
In the midst of one of our worship gatherings we had an opportunity for several couples to share stories. They were asked to talk about how God had worked in their lives in the past or where they were hoping to see God at work in the future.
I thought it was a great moment for our family when one couple shared what they thought were two unrelated stories. However after they shared their two stories we helped them to reinterpret their story. In fact the two were so closely connected that it was quite powerful – one talking about the struggle to find balance between providing for his family and spending time with them and the other talking about her struggle to forgive a father that failed to maintain that very balance.
We are a community that tells, retells and sometimes, reinterprets stories. It is what we do because it is precisely what God has done for us. The story of human existence was one of brokenness and despair. Sin, unchecked, destroys life after life with no compassion or mercy. God in his greatness did not allow this story to define us forever. Instead he stepped into the story and began redeeming and reconciling the characters. Humanity and all creation are in the process of being healed and restored by the Great Storyteller who was not happy with this tale ending in tragedy.
Where there are chapters of brokenness, God is editing and rewriting to include restoration. Where there is pain, God writes in healing; where there is chaos, God speaks a narrative of peace.
We too have that ability. We are able to tell the story in a new light. This isn’t to say that we stick our head in the sand and pretend that everything is okay. No, we step into the midst of a story that says everything is doomed and proclaim that in fact, there is hope. (Which was part of what happened at Marvelous Light)
Paul stepped into the midst of total relativism in Athens (Acts 17) and said, “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship – and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”
Paul was able to reinterpret this story for the Athenians because he was willing to enter into their story in the first place. Had he simply stood outside the Areopagus and denounced their idolatry he would have had no impact whatsoever.
I recently heard a Christian say that they were unable to participate in Christmas activities because December 25 was an ancient pagan holiday associated with the Winter Solstice and the practices of Christmas originate in the worship of Saturnalia and other pagan gods.
It may be jarring to learn for the first time that there were religious celebrations associated with winter and even December 25 prior to Christ. While this may be difficult if you didn’t know about it, it isn’t a great deception.
In (I believe) 350, Pope Julius declared that the celebration of the birth of Christ would take place on December 25. This happened when many pagans were being forced to convert to Christianity. The move, while certainly containing the risk of syncretism, retold this story – which was always one of hope.
And theirs was a good story. The worship may have been false, but the concept was one of hope in a higher power that could rescue humanity from the powers of nature which were so threatening.
In fact, the practice of bringing an evergreen tree into one’s home was meant as a reminder that life would return even though the harsh cold winter seemed an unstoppable ally of death.
And Christianity retold this story. “Yes” we were able to say, “there is hope in the darkest of times; yes we can look forward to resurrection of life from the dead – but not because we’ve properly coerced the pagan gods but rather because the One True God has become one of us in order to be life and light in this darkness.” In other words, “So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship – and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”
Granted, the early church’s use of power and coercion was not something I believe to be Christlike. There were probably many pagans who simply used Christian language while maintaining their pagan beliefs – just as there are many Africans today who struggle with syncretism…and many Americans who baptize their consumerism and greed.
For Christians not to celebrate Christmas – at a time when the whole world is just a little more receptive to hearing the story of God coming near – seems to me to be a tragic missed opportunity to engage in this story. This story has been reinterpreted, retold and redeemed. For those who used (or use) the winter solstice to worship gods which are unable to actually save, we say, “Do not be afraid. We bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” And because this story has been redeemed we can claim it as our story…because that it what it has become, it is a new creation!
I love the season of Advent – which is focused on anticipation of God coming near; the season of Christmas – which is focused on the arrival of our hope in the form of a Savior; the season of Easter – which is the fulfillment of our hope through the victory of Christ over sin and death. These seasons are filled with storytelling cues which can be incredibly powerful…and they can also prime the pump for the story to be told to those who’ve never heard.
I love the music, the decorations, the preparation for Christmas…there is no denying that something is happening. This story is just begging to not only be told, but to be experienced and entered into.
Now if we want to have a conversation about letting Christmas be an excuse to become self-centered materialists…well that’s an altogether different story.