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But I’m bored already: a call to long-suffering

 

As a church… as a culture…. we are easily seduced by the instantaneous.

Never has that been more true than in the age of Internet, fast food, and airplane travel. Yet the seduction of doing things as quickly as possible has been a part of Western life for over 150 years, since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. The effect has simply snowballed.

Church communities have long since bought into this as well:

* The 19th century saw a rapid spread of Protestant Christianity in the US, which necessitated more “efficient” ways to become a Christian. Tenets of faith were reduced to simple “fundamentals” that everyone could digest, understand without much intense study, and were easily replicable. Theology became the means to substantiate this “Christianity Lite.” Circuit riders and wagons followed Manifest Destiny west.The proliferation only increased in speed with the advent of technologies such as the steam engine and the railroad, followed by the automobile and airplane.

* Pastoral care had to speed up, too. Inspired by the miraculous events in the scriptures, and perhaps by the testimonies of healing, some of these evangelists took up “healing ministries”—which was a convenient way to both continue full-fledged proliferation of the “gospel,” without having to get bogged down in slower, messier activities like relationships or compassion.

* Of course, while many denominations and groups maintained their devotion to compassion and justice, many communities spent less and less time on such things, unless of course doing so posed some direct benefit for their cause to “spread the easy-to-swallow Gospel.” Justice, fighting prejudice, challenging unjust laws, these things take time. The 19th and early 20th centuries still saw some progress, but it was around that time that people advocating for a “social gospel” were being demonized as heretics and Communists…such causes were deemed as ‘getting in the way’ of spreading the real Gospel message.

* All of these incipient trends began to accelerate in the mid/late 20th centuries. Along with it, churches and revivals became places of mass religious consumption, designed for maximum conversion rates. Reactions against liberation movements for women, blacks, and others led many churches’ silence or outright condemnation, which allowed abuse, scandal, and corruption to go unchecked in homes, businesses and in churches themselves. In the face of threatening post-Christian culture, churches catered more and more to the styles and modes and fashions that they hoped would make their Gospel-nuggets palatable again. Missionaries were being slowly replaced by the medium-term, and then the short-term missionary. This allowed more people to have “life-changing experiences,” but cost far more money, less of which actually went to the poor… but it was all good, because the trips gave the participants all the feelings of “investment,” without actually investing. Needs of the community have been farmed out to committees and sub-committees, all to find convenient, cost-effective solutions, advertised as easy, not-too-life-consuming “ways to get involved,” nearly always in the form of a structured church program.

Is it any wonder why people feel lonely in our world? Even at church?

It’s time for the church to think long-term. 

To not do a hundred things at the shallowest of levels, but to do only a few things, and to do them well.

The new benchmark for church success? That people build deep, long-lasting, long-suffering relationships.

With each other. With community projects. With the poor, young, abused.

It’s time to stop judging a ministry on the basis of whether or not it “grows,” or if it leads to “conversions” (but probably not disciples)… but on the basis of the love that is shown, and grown.

It’s time to think in terms of years, not months…. and in DECADES, not years.

It’s time to realize that deep, systemic, deeply rooted-within-societal problems don’t go away with our prayers, if no loving action goes with it. And they don’t go away with our one-time action, or even, oftentimes, our one-year action. It takes deep, systemic, deeply rooted responses to such deep problems… which includes prayer, AND involvement, for the long-haul.

It’s time for churches, as well as the individuals in them, to build relationships. Real, two-way relationships. And to realize that these, unforced and uncajoled, take time to develop.

It’s time for churches seeking pastors, and new church leaders, to see the inevitable “downswing” that happens after new relationships are forged and the “honeymoon phase” is over, as an opportunity to “long-suffer” with another, rather than high-tail it and to look for another community, group, individual, etc. to fawn over, or to let fawn over you.

It’s time to stop patting ourselves on the back for only the things we measure as “success.”

And for the love of God, we must, we must, we MUST stop supplementing our quick-fix, easy-answer, instantaneous-results orientation with a “Gospel Lite.” The “Good News” is not truly good, until it affects every strata of living— physical, emotional, social, spiritual, political, ecclesial. Until it is Good News for those who long-suffer and carry heavy burdens of oppression, guilt, abuse, neglect, poverty, self-worthlessness. Until that Good News becomes Incarnate, en-fleshed, in the very midst of that suffering, and we then “suffer with” (com-passio) the suffering.

Even if it takes a while.

A LONG while.

….

Are we willing to work on behalf of others without immediate or continual payoff?

Are we able to?

Does our theology, our Gospel, give us the resources to do so?

 

“Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it.”
Henri J.M. Nouwen

 http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/4837.Henri_J_M_Nouwen

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Posted by on October 13, 2011 in church, jesus, theology

 

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What JJ Abrams reminded me about the beauty of God (A.K.A., how the church should be like a mystery box).

 

[Travels to Boston this week have thankfully yielded housing; word still out on employment… travelling also meant no early-week blog, hence the Saturday post.

In case you were wondering.]

typical airplane passengers

(via EmilyDawn2)

I spent most of this week with my lovely wife/spouse/partner in crime, Amy. Wonderful.

Much of that time being, in an airplane. Less wonderful.

Towards the end of our final flight on Tuesday, with a few spare minutes left to kill before the limitless thrill of landing and taxiing ensued… I picked up the on-flight magazine and read an article. Well, I read a paragraph, at least.

Couldn’t tell you what the article was about, but that paragraph was about lauded TV producer JJ Abrams, of Lost and Alias fame, and the “mystery box” he kept in his office. Curious, the next morning while sitting in a Massachusetts Starbucks [always an admitted source of comfort in a new location; I can always rest assured that all Starbucks everywhere are the exact same.] I looked up the story— and as it turns out, the airplane magazine ripped the illustration off a TED presentation Abrams did a few years ago. 

(See his thoughts, my thoughts, and some other words formed into sentences, after the jump.)

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Posted by on May 28, 2011 in church, faith

 

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High-Stakes Unity: Paul, Cyprian, Belhar

Unity starts with Jesus. 

[A Bonus Post for the Rally to Restore Unity]

bears for christian unity sign

This is completely unrelated to my post, but this is my favorite #restoreunity sign from the week thus far.  Originally from Bryan Dormaier (link to original post)

OH, I also REALLY liked the Bill and Ted sign… whoever did that one. 

Sure, unity is great. 

But is it vital?  Is it necessary?

After all, churches (in this country in particular) have been splitting and re-splitting like amoebas for decades…centuries, even!  We know, somehow, deep down, that it’s bad… but at the end of the day, what’s the big deal?

Well, either it truly isn’t a big deal…. or, we have grown so accustomed to division, to digging in our heels and standing up for what we believe to be the authentic Gospel, that we have become numb to the fact that, according to Jesus, the Gospel itself is at stake when we fail to unify. 

The stakes are too low in our minds.

Jesus Himself is what’s at stake.

Some examples— (following the jump):

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Posted by on May 6, 2011 in bible, church

 

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Unity in love; unity in purpose—possible, or a pipe dream?

This post is a part of the Rally to Restore Unity hosted on Rachel Held Evans’ blog.

NOTE:  I largely wrote this post last night, prior to learning about the Bin Laden death.  Thus, I make no mention of it.  I’ll just say here, no matter your perspective on it, that I hope we could consider this apposite RTRU sign(Courtesy of @WritingJoy). 

If you knew me back in my high school and (especially) college days, you would probably know that the concept of Christian unity was always a passion of mine.  I always felt like the church’s fragmentation and Christians’ general distrust towards each other was a tragedy, and that God has called the church to live and act as one… and that by remaining fragmented, the church’s message to the world would continue to be tarnished. 

Of course, I should clarify that by “concept” of Christian unity…I meant: “If only all churches would just believe the same things THAT I DO, and care about the things I CARE ABOUT, then we would be able to truly be one again.”

Of course, I didn’t think about it that way at the time… back then, I would’ve said it this way:

“If only all churches believed what the Bible says…. then we would be truly one.” 

So simple!  Why hadn’t anyone else thought of this before???  Smile 

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Posted by on May 2, 2011 in church

 

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Making Jesus in our image.

 

Oftentimes when I meet new people, I hear one of two things:

Either:  “You look like Shaggy from Scooby Doo!” 

(To which I, of course, reply with my best impression:

“I’m scared, Scoob!”

(Imagine me doing my best prepubescent squeal as I say it. ) )

Or, more commonly these days (especially after people learn of my profession):  “You look like Jesus!” 

I’ve never known exactly how to respond to that statement, but it’s typical for these encounters that I find myself overwhelmed with the same, somewhat-snarky thought: 

       “But Jesus wasn’t a white Scandinavian.”

And sometimes, despite myself, I say this out loud.  Which, predictably, usually yields an awkward grimace and a change of subject, which I gladly welcome–thankful to be out of that awkward exchange.

For starters, I could do about 25 blog posts just talking about all the ways in which my life has not looked like Jesus’ at ALL in the past week!  But that’s not the subject of this post (Thank God).

But I think it’s a real problem that we naturally make assumptions about how Jesus looks based most depictions of him in the Western European tradition… when most of us are at least aware that Jesus was a Palestinian Middle-Eastern. 

[It’s amazing to me that I have often been called “Jesus” just for being a white guy with a beard and long hair.  I mean, I have red hair, people!  I’ve never seen a depiction of a red-headed Jesus. (After all, we prefer our Jesus white, not sunburned.)  Meanwhile, I wonder what the same people would say if they met a Middle-Eastern man with a beard…would they make the same association? ]

Naturally, I mostly blame the depictions themselves–which leads my thinking about the question of images of Christ in the first place, which I woke up Monday morning thinking about.  

In addition to being pasty white, American Jesus also typically has a great stylist and makeup artist. 

In general, I’m not an iconoclast in general (an iconoclast is someone who destroys or condemns the use of art or “icons” for worship because they see them as idolatrous).   I am actually an advocate for the use of art and images in worship, despite their obviously-imperfect depictions of the ineffable God or of a historically-inaccessible Jesus.   Art can guide our minds towards worship of God, just like interpreted, translated words on the pages of our Scriptures can guide us towards God.  We in the Protestant church have underutilized the engagement-possibilities of our other senses and learning styles, and reclaiming them in part, as some churches have done, is a helpful corrective[although there is admittedly great beauty in the Anabaptist/Mennonite/Quaker tradition as well of near-sensory-deprivation in worship]. 

But when I see all these depictions of a white Jesus with a white robe, often (though not always) painted as such out of a white European tradition regarding what Christ looked like, I typically process it with one of the following two inner-monologues:

1)  “Josh, chill out with the righteous indignation. After all, every culture has always depicted Jesus “in their own image,” with the skin color of their own people [not always true, in the post-colonial world, but point conceded…]… People are merely saying that Jesus is ‘for them.’ They’re reminded of the truth of the incarnation— that Jesus came to be among us, to be like us.  Sure, it may be inaccurate, but it’s ultimately no worse than all the other ways that we see our faith through our own personal lenses.  It’s natural, merely people following historical patterns, and not inherently sinful. At any rate, as the Western church has always used them, people have come to naturally connect these images with Jesus and thus find them meaningful for worship…so it’s really not much about the images themselves in the first place, anyway.”

2)  “Josh, I know you’re not an iconoclast and that you really think using art and icons in worship is a good thing, but maybe, if the only image of Christ in the West that we’ll accept or “naturally connect” with Jesus in worship, then maybe we’re better off without them.  There’s something to be said, after all, about making God into our own image!!! We have made Jesus in the image of the race that is typically identified as the wealthiest and most powerful in the world on average; yet Jesus on earth identified with the poor and despised, those without power.  For whites, that means we’re psychologically-conditioned to believe that Jesus, as a fellow white, condones our affluent lifestyle.  For people of color who inherit this Jesus from former colonizers or oppressors, they are left with an image of God, made in the image of their oppressors.  In a multi-cultural world, we would do well to depict Jesus as he was—or to just not depict him at all. 

I go back and forth with these two lines of rationale… but as I write today, I’m very much in favor of the latter… although I still think we should use art in worship.  I just think we should depict Jesus closer to as he was:  a Palestinian. 

The elephant in this virtual-room, of course…. is that in white America, we don’t want our Lord to look like (what we perceive to be) a terrorist.  Because we assume everyone who’s from the Middle East is Muslim [not true], and all Muslims are radical Muslims [also not true], and the cognitive dissonance that would be created if we commonly saw images of our Lord Jesus looking more like “those people” we see on the news throwing rocks at tanks would be too much for us to handle.

Maybe, we really don’t believe in the radical nature of the incarnation. 

Such a change in depiction, I think, would drastically change us, if we let it.  Images, after all, have a way of lodging in our brains and influencing our subconscious assumptions and judgments, more so than we even realize, I think.  I think a Middle-Eastern Christ would force many to confront their own discomfort and disregard for Jesus’ command to “love your enemies.”  It would force the racism in our hearts out into the light of day, exposing it to the fires of worship.  And, we (as white Americans) perhaps, would stop implicitly assuming that Jesus is our Jesus (which, perhaps unwittingly, carries with it the implication that he is not your Jesus). 

What do you think? 

An Aramaic depiction of Jesus… what is your gut-response when you see this?

Does our depiction of Jesus as white in art and dramas affect how we view ourselves, and others? 

Would changing our art change our perceptions, or would we simply be better off without icons/art of Jesus altogether? (Keep in mind that even the most iconoclastic among us still have manger scenes in our home during Christmas.)

If we DO depict him, should we have a variety of “Jesuses” depicted with various ethnicities, or should we be “historically accurate”?

At least we can all agree that Jesus looked NOTHING like this growing up. 

 
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Posted by on April 12, 2011 in church, jesus, justice, race

 

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Creeds Guard the Mystery of the Story.

 

Can being dogmatic actually lead us astray off the path of faith?

Church history has never been short of people who have claimed to be the “true defenders of the Gospel.”  Far too often, this group is composed of Christians who look at other Christians and say, “Well, they’ve really mucked this up, haven’t they?” and then proceed to split from, condemn, dismiss, or destroy the opposition. 

Some will say that the church has always done this, going all the way back to the early church controversies that led to the creation of the Nicene and Constantinopolitan creeds, among others.   Theology, it is said, was at stake…. and the church put a stake in the ground for certain theological truths, an interpretive grid that would ensure that the Bible would be read the “right way.”  

There is a danger in false teachings, to be sure… and creeds were written in order to help defend the church against such teachings.

But what about those creeds, anyway????

It’s interesting to me that what’s presented in the creeds (particularly in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan and Apostles’ creeds) is a story, primarily… and they are primarily concerned with stating the clear identity of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and telling the story of God’s revelation.  They don’t work out a particular theological system. 

In fact, you can make the argument that the creeds’ authors were actually responding to attempts to systematize the story—i.e., church leaders were overstepping the boundaries of faith by trying to figure out the how of Jesus’ incarnation and divinity and the Trinity… and so the church responded with an assertion that kept the mystery intact.

     (your run-o-th-mill heretic)                     (an apophatic theologian)

                                                 

“Jesus had the power of God.”

                                                         No…. he WAS God.

“Oh, so God the Father took the form of a human.”

                                                         No… he WAS human too.

“Okay… so Jesus was a lesser God, created by the Father.”

No…. he was FULLY God, and existed eternally.

“But then how can he be two things?  He must have two wills.”

                                                       No, he has one will.

“Oh, so maybe he’s a weird human/divine combo.”

         No, he’s both human and divine, fully, not a “third thing.”

“……..”

                                                       …….

“I don’t get it.”

                                                       That’s the point. 

To the Greek (dualistic mind)…. rationally, these things don’t make sense.  The whole thing is a big, fat contradiction.  Of course, Jesus didn’t fit into Greek categories.   When people tried to shove Him into Greek categories, crucial parts of the story were squeezed out of the mold.  The creeds were written to prevent that.  Creeds can be seen as defense against overstepping bounds, and embracing mystery, despite the logical inconsistency of it all, in a Greek-philosophy-dominated culture. 

Because what’s at stake—is God’s character, his identity, his mission… things ultimately beyond our grasp, that CANNOT be “defended” by us; they can only be asserted and lived-out. 

This naturally leads me to question:  How many times have we as Christians overstepped the bounds of what we can possibly know, in order to create an artificial, “who’s in, who’s out” distinction?

Did Roman Catholics overstep with particular [e.g. Tridentine] views on sacramentalism and church authority, or especially in doctrines such as immaculate conception? 

Did Luther and his followers overstep by making justification by faith the centerpiece of the gospel (thus strictly dividing it from sanctification)?

Did Wesley overstep with his defenses of Christian perfection?

Did Calvin overstep when he makes some apparently logical conclusions about election and predestining of the future of both the saved and damned (preservation of mystery was, in fact, Calvin’s point….)? 

Isn’t it ironic that our “defenses of the Gospel” when it’s at stake, can actually strip or deemphasize aspects of the Gospel story? 

The fact is, we all have systems, lenses, traditions, etc…. that seek to explain and interpret.  These systems use of combinations of logic and experience, tradition and cultural developments, history and church authority, translations of scripture, etc. etc…. all of which shape our view of scripture and our experience of the Spirit.  And they help us understand…. and they also hinder us, and cause us to overstep.

Overstepping, honestly, isn’t the big issue.  We wouldn’t be able to say much about God without overstepping (although some examples are certainly worse than others.)

The big issue is how we overstep, and then say, “And I KNOW this is true….and if you don’t believe this, you do not believe the REAL Gospel!”

Because faith and dogmatism are antithetical. 

I think the Creed-authors realized this, which is why the creeds were seen as so critical. 

Because in a rationalistic world, the creeds guarded the Mystery for the universal Church.

And we sometimes need to say definitive things about God…. but we’d best remember:  we should first determine why this need is present and if it is truly a need, and second, say what we say with humility, love, and openness, knowing that whenever we claim to speak for God, no matter how many people we believe stand behind us, we are standing on dangerous ground. 

The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son.

John 5:22

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2011 in church, history, theology

 

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Thoughts on Rob Bell (part four).

 

Evangelicalism’s Doom and the Phoenix that is Mainline Protestantism:  A response (sort-of) to David Fitch and Scot McKnight

 

{DISCLAIMER:  Post (and especially picture captions) are not for the easily offended.}

 

Faculty David Fitch

David Fitch and Scot McKnight are both evangelical theologians of the highest caliber, both with better-than-average communication skills in a field that’s not exactly known for its sublime prose. 

Fitch has a new book out, that you can learn all about here.  I’m excited to get a chance to read it soon, and as you can see for yourself on his website, you can get a copy at a 40% discount.  What a guy. Smile 

[See “our conversation” (in a manner of speaking) after the jump.]

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Posted by on March 21, 2011 in church, emergent, future, RCA, theology

 

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