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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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On conversion.

Meet two of my new profs: Richard Kearney and Thomas Groome.

After two days of class, my head is already swimming with thoughts, but here is a short note about apolegetics and conversion:

The two classes that I have attended thus far have been a philosophy class with world-renowned scholar Richard Kearney, and a Christian Education class with beloved Catholic theologian and instructor (and now one of my principal advisors) Thomas Groome. This peculiar juxtaposition, which would have only been possible in a degree program such as this one, elicited some interesting contrasts between Christians’ different ideas about conversion—which, if you think about it, could be considered quite an arrogant thing: Here I am, as a Christian, charged with the Great Commission (which is part and parcel to my belonging to this faith-community), and thus I must seek to compel you, my dialogue partner, to encounter my faith and my God—(and not only that, but also that as mitigated through my words, my culture, my particular frame-of-reference).

In my second class, Groome said (and I agree) that to understand conversion in this way is a misunderstanding of the Great Commission, not to mention of the Kingdom of God: Christians should increase in their self-awareness, even as they assume the great task of the Commission that is charged to every disciple (yes, that means everyone), becoming more conscious of the predilection we have towards either cowering in the shadows, or force-feeding faith. We should also broaden our understanding of conversion in the first place, which I would state as a need to re-define evangelism in my contexts: The Gospel is proclaimed whenever Christ’s healing, restorative, loving presence is made manifest in the world. Therefore evangelism is the same as justice, as compassion, as relationship, as truth-telling, as prayer. This is a more holistic understanding of the task of the Church.

On the heels of Kearney’s class, however, even this call struck me as difficult, due to a possible arrogance—well at least, there is a temptation to be arrogant, whether we realize it or not. Indeed, any concept of apologetics, holistically-understood or not, seems that it would be a difficult pill to swallow for anyone with postmodern sensibilities. There are some branches of philosophy (e.g. Alasdair MacIntyre) that leave room for “conversion,” albeit radically re-interpreted, but the task of “Gospel-proclamation” remains always interpreted, always with the potential for grave distortion, always seems a bit “self-focused;” i.e., at the end of the day, my interaction in the world is about what I can give to it, or perhaps in a somewhat-mitigated version, what God can offer the world through me. 

Dialogue, relationship, narrative— all these are metaphors being used to describe the interaction between disciple and non-disciple… yet (genuine) dialogue, relationship, and even narrative, are more other-focused, than self-focused. Indeed, such a “self-focus” belies the very teaching of the Jesus the Gospel proclaims.

As I imagine Kearney would say, “conversion” and “apologetics” are probably words that simply need to be stricken from the Christian (or any tradition’s) vernacular— unless, perhaps, we speak of the former as a “mutual conversion.” That is to say:

Christians enter into conversation with others, including non-Christians, with the expectation of being changed, not only (and perhaps even more so) than to change. In that sense, conversion is an ongoing process that never ceases; even as we are continually being converted (i.e., renewed) in Christ, we are also converted by the Christ that appears to us, in expectedly ways, in the face of the non-believer, the skeptic, the Muslim, the Hindu, and the “vaguely religious” modern.

In fact, what better way, perhaps, to proclaim the Gospel in this world, than to be willing to listen, learn, and grow?

 

 
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Posted by on September 9, 2011 in theology

 

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Why being a heretic is to be theologically engaged… and why theology is like sculpting.

Reflecting on the post I wrote a few weeks back about the historic creeds, I wanted to throw an additional thought out into the blogosphere, just for kicks.

The tendency today, and in recent history, is for people to equate heresy with saying the “wrong” things about God… in other words, getting our theological facts wrong. We say that what the old school heretics (Arius, Apollinarius, Marcion, Abelard, etc.) all had in common was that they “got it wrong;” they taught something about God that didn’t fit with the rest of the story, somehow.

That is partially true… but anyone who’s studied the heretics, as well as those in the modern era (post 1500) that have been accused of heresy, knows that oftentimes, the goal of the so-called “heretic” was not to dissuade people from orthodoxy— it was to explain an existing problem of theology that had not yet been adequately explained. 

That’s why every major theological development in church history always had a heretic or two attached to it. In an important sense, the so-called heretic, demonized for their insolence, was actually necessary for theology to develop properly.

(catch the rest, along with some gratuitous basketball references, post-jump.)

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Posted by on May 9, 2011 in theology

 

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“Easter Philosophy”: Faith can be a crutch (Rollins). It can also give life (Jones).

 

Yeah, I’m still FOB (Flat on Back) today.  Thanks for asking.

Yesterday’s post featured a “vlog” of me responding to a great discussion between philosopher Peter Rollins and pastor/theologian Tony Jones (who just defended his Ph.D. dissertation yesterday at Princeton) that occurred on Easter in New York City.

(I’m still not happy with my vlogging attempts so far, btw.  If anyone has some ideas as to how to improve them, I’d be happy to hear them.  [Anyone else find it immensely awkward to talk to a computer screen?] )

But yesterday I offered some passing thoughts regarding Rollins, who is far more interested in the present-day manifestations of resurrection-living in faith communities, than in the historical facts of the resurrection itself.  (Which sounds Marcus Borgish, and it kinda is, but I think his objectives are quite different.)  I wondered what the implications were for his take on resurrection for missional church behavior, and I tried to summarize his take on the relationship between faith and doubt in comparison to my own.  By comparison Jones makes a case for a physical resurrection, not by prooftexting or using apologetics, but by talking about what makes a story about a physical resurrection compelling, fitting, and beautiful.  In many ways, their positions well summarize the two primary so-called “postmodern” approaches to Christian philosophy today, although the divide is not nearly as dramatic as it was in the modern era. 

When we say “I love God,” is this really what we mean?

Today, in contrast, I want to mention where I particularly resonate with Rollins, and then talk a bit about (what else?) faith.  Follow me, beyond the jump.

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Posted by on April 26, 2011 in theology

 

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Video: Quick response to “Resurrection Story” (Rollins and Jones)

I’m trying the “vlog” thing again.

And I’m doing it while bed-ridden. 

Apparently I’m trying to combine as many things that make me appear pathetic at the same time as possible.   Hmm…Maybe one of our parishioners who saw me yesterday was right when they chortled that I must have somehow subconsciously willed myself to injury, for the sake of attention-getting.

(Actually I got to thinking that maybe, whenever we share ideas and opinions online, we should choose some sort of position of humility from which to type/make videos.  Maybe if we were all supine, or prostrate, when we submitted our thoughts, we all wouldn’t be so quick to feel superior or judgmental, and remind us that our capacities are ultimately limited and broken.   But I digress…)

Yesterday for Easter, Revolution in NYC hosted Peter Rollins and Tony Jones, presently two of the most influential voices in emerging/progressive/post-evangelical/etc. circles.  The two “debated” (loosely defined) the meaning and hope of resurrection, and luckily for us, the entire thing was recorded.  If you have 40 minutes or so today/tomorrow, be sure to check it out.  It’s a great summary of what I perceive to be two of the most pertinent and commonplace positions in postmodern Christian philosophy. 

[For those who want to know, it’s the postanalytic philosophical world now largely represented by Alasdair Macintyre as well as others, and the theistic turn in Continental postmodernity articulated, among others, by the followers of the noted deconstructionist Jacques Derrida.  I throw this in just to say that, while many of you might listen to Jones and Rollins and immediately try to fit them into conservative/liberal camps, the divide between the two of them really isn’t as clear as one might think, and while there are similarities, the goals of the new philosophical conversation are quite different from the goals of the more typical modern (read: pre-post-modern) debate. ]

So today, you can take a look at my short(ish) response to the conversation, which is largely a 1) question and a 2) thought re: Rollins’ perspective (not to pick on him unfairly; considering that he could do gymnastics around me, intellectually-speaking… and considering that he has in fact helped me a great deal, despite limited exposure, to articulate my own thoughts). 

Tomorrow (hopefully) I will share some more thoughts.  Until then, be sure to check out the audio, and (so long as you promise not to find me too pitiful) video below:

VLOG 4-25-2011: re: faith, doubt, Rollins, and Jones.

 

Click here to find the Rollins/Jones discussion from Easter morning.

 
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Posted by on April 25, 2011 in theology

 

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New Questions– Compelling reasons for faith. (ANKC/God-Notes)

This week features both: 1) A change in blog theme, if you haven’t already noticed, and 2) Returning to posts inspired by A New Kind of Christianity by Brian McLaren.  Almost too much awesomeness to handle all at once, I know.  Take deep breaths if you get dizzy. 

There, there.  Everything’s going to be fine.

Actually, my line of thinking for this post originates from a conversation I had with a youth at our church last week about his faith, and the nature of faith in general.  He had some amazing spiritual insight for his age (16), and drew from a variety of religious sources to get there, including a bit of sensationalized religious “wisdom” passed on from peers.  In other words, as research would tell us, he is your typical American teenager [although I’ll give him higher than average marks for spiritual awareness and humility, imo].

It brought my memory back to a familiar question that I faced regularly in college, as I confronted religious diversity for the first time:  “What are the essentials of my belief system?”…. [which is followed by the important corollary:  “Why are they so essential, and what’s actually at risk if those essentials are muddied or disregarded?”]   

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Posted by on April 21, 2011 in theology

 

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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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