Monday, June 27, 2005

Christian as an Adjective

I'm sitting in our meeting place waiting for the bands to start. We've opened our leased facility to the local bands and so now regularly host a concert every couple of months. Tonight it'll be a couple of the regular local bands, and one from Oregon and another from Italy (unless Alex was messing with me). Should be interesting.

So I get to sit here and blog . . . and probably work on some teaching for this week.

Note to all cynics - we've had upwards of a couple hundred high school students here putting on their own concerts several times, and except for the one incident where someone microwaved a t-shirt and discovered the singe/melt factor . . . we've never had any trouble. The organizers even stay afterward and help set up the sanctuary after it's over.

I'm sure that some would want to ask "are they Christian bands?"

I'm not sure how to answer that. I'm not sure what that question means. Does is mean the band members are believers? Does it mean the songs are overtly Christ-centered? Does the band have to have a creedal statement to be Christian?

Sure . . . I know what most people mean by that question, but it is a lousy question. "Christian" is not an adjective that can be used to modify all our nouns. Is that a Christian school? Is that a Christian restaurant? Is that a Christian political party? Is that a Christian nuclear weapon? See how quickly it devolves?

Using "Christian" as an adjective separates the world into two camps. By not bestowing that adjective we implicitly label them as pagan. It seems that in an Ephesians sorts of way Christ is seeking to break down walls of separation - not erect them. We are redeeming, inviting, including, welcoming, and leavening the world. That's hard to do when everything either receives or is denied the "Christian" adjective.

I doubt that these bands are Christian in the overtly we-are-trying-to-communicate-evangelical-messages way. They might even be wary, perhaps hostile to Christianity. I heard two girls talking in the hall as they looked at some of the books we have in our coffee shop area, and one said sarcastically, "let's read the Bible." But maybe the fact that we welcomed those two girls to use our space, and even to express their disdain, will start to undermine their negative attitudes toward believers. Of course I want to tell them that we're different . . . not like institutional bastions of exclusion - but they'll only believe it if they experience a difference. I can't tell them anything.

Still sound checks. It's going to be a long night.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Hell and the Kingdom of God

Yesterday with people in an addiction recovery program I facilitated a discussion on the subject of spiritual motivation. We talked about what serves to motivate us. People mentioned what I would consider positive motivations, and the destructive ones like fear (abject terror - not biblical awe), shame, and guilt. Those are negative as long term motivations because they tear down. Being afraid, shamed, and feeling guilty, have a place but cannot be the foundation for spiritual growth - at least in my opinion.

Threatening people with Hell as never led them to be Christ-like. Did the Son live in holiness out of love for the Father or fear of punishment? Was shame, guilt, and fear the driving forces in his life? Did he obey that he might not burn?

We cannot form people into the image of Christ through terrorizing them spiritually. We may indeed foster some compliance, but they will hardly resemble Jesus when we are done. We cannot stoke fear, shame, and guilt believing those to be fires that will refine in people lives of righteousness, holiness, love, joy, peace, and such.

The reason punishment is not driven out of our vocabulary through perfect love may be that often the agenda is to convert people rather than form them into the image of Christ. When we convert them in ways that create an inner motivation that is foreign to the spiritual maturity of Christ, attempts to form these same people to grow up into Christ has become doubly hard.

The Spirit will convict, and the Spirit will comfort. To those in the grace of God in Christ there is no longer any condemnation, and perfect love has dissolved the fear of punishment. The kindess of God has led them to repentance (Rom. 2:4) and the Spirit brings fruit from that good soil of every godly attribute.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Installment #6

Perhaps my last (for now) thought about working for renewal in an established congregation, is the idea that renewal can't be copied.

What I mean is that renewal is an authentic response by believers to the movement of God's Spirit. Therefore, it cannot be, by nature, the calculated response of those seeking pragmatic ways to accomplish their desired goals, even if those goals are admirable and theologically-driven. The latter is by nature not renewal. It can't be.

To illustrate, one cannot be like Thomas Edison by inventing the light bulb. Thomas Edison, when he invented the light bulb, was creating something new. There is a difference between mimicking Edison (creating a light bulb) and being like Edison (inventing something new).

Renewal cannot be mimicked, though that is often attempted. We cannot copy the faith of others (though the Christian heritage I grew up in tried desperately to do just that) but must live it out ourselves.

What this has to do with congregational renewal is that a community must faithfully seek renewal according to the movement of God's Spirit in their time and place. We can learn from other examples of renewal (in scripture, Christian history, or our world today) but we do not gain from those stories techniques and strategies (as if renewal can be brought about on human terms) but indications about how to connect with God's prevenient Spirit. We can be inspired, we can see what faithfulness looked like for others, but in the end we must ask God anew to stir us with his Presence.

So if you take what I am saying seriously, I have almost completely nullified everything I've been talking about in these installments! I have . . . if anyone has been sifting them to discover a "plan" for renewal. It is about new wineskins, and about believers being bold in their faithfulness so that God may redefine their relationships with him, with each other, and with the world.

I hope that the experience of the gathering of believers I journey with daily will entice others to hunger and thirst for a similar adventure. If they seek, they will find . . . and another story of God bringing renewal will be written . . . in order to lure others to bold abandon.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Comment and Response

I thought the following comment to my last post deserved a post of its own - because several good points are made. My being "depressed" over Emergent heading in a more institutionalized direction isn't leading me to slit my wrists or anything - or abandon conversation and affinity with others of the emerging church.

Hey Friend,The fact that emergent village has a national director won't mean that we have less of a conversation. I'm here in blog world even with a natinoal director. In fairness, the leadership team of emergent, along with much help from Laci Scott, has done much of what a national director will be doing. Neither you nor I can run conferences, help direct conversations, nor keep in contact with supporters when time is limited. A full-time director will be able to give his/her full attention to the emergent conversation. I would strongly encourage you not to be too depressed about this decision. While it may not be what you nor I might want, it doesn't mean that either the theology or conversations will change significantly.Send me an e-mail if you are still depressed about this one... we need you in this conversation too.

You made some good points and I do realize that whether the whole thing becomes more institutionalized/organized that does not really affect my opportunity to share in and enjoy the conversation on this journey. My journey started in Africa and quite independent of “Emergent” – and it will continue because I can do no other.

My disappointment is that I can see a shift – in language and practice. Servants are always needed, and service is vital to the discussion and to invite others into the openness of it. But, I like the fact that no one has been able to “speak for the movement” but only for themselves. The request “take me to your leader” should be met with apology for our inability to point to human beings. I’ve succeeded in getting some of my brothers and sisters to stop introducing me to their friends as their preacher or minister – but just as a friend.

At least in the eyes of the rest of the world, this move turns the conversation into an organization replete with the necessary levels of leadership. Tony becomes the spokesman in the eyes of the world, whether he likes that or not. Even if Emergent continues to act in counter-cultural ways, something important has been lost in the means that have been chosen to get to a desired end.

I would rather remain, and do within the community I worship and share life with, downright stubborn in my refusal to be more than a servant despite some suggestions that being a “leader” would give us a more efficient organization. I think we have to resist mightily that direction because it is seductive.

I’m not going anywhere conversationally. Part of the dialogue is saying “I don’t agree”. To me, what is being set up is a para-conversation organization. Why? Because we need to grow the conversation.


Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Big 'E" Emergent

The white smoke was seen rising from a cabin in Minnesota. The "leaders" of the emergent conversation gathered in conclave, and chose a "National Director" (click here). But that was only the first of four announcements - and I can hardly wait for the next three!

Now we can start distinguishing being emergent (the original, institutional-less conversation, small "e") and Emergent (the institution born out of the conversation, big "E").

I'm depressed about this.

My first encounter with the emergent conversation was in Chattanooga several years ago when three of us went from our community and were blown away to find others were thinking like us! We never patterned ourselves after some supposed template, didn't start our community based on the conversation, and our worship is not as cool and "out there" as many other places. Our community also includes many people in their 60's even into their 90's - which I suspect is why we don't look exclusively pomo. Our community worship reflects who we are, which is diverse, not some specific group we are trying to evangelize (like gen-Xers).

Our commonality with emergent wasn't in externals, but in theology, the journey, the searching, and the non-institutional/non-leadership community emphasis. It was exciting to find like-minded seekers. I not saying we don't have anything in common any more, but I think our paths are diverging somewhat. That part is disappointing. I hope, like one of the bright spots of the Christian heritage I grew up in, they have their own "Last Will andTestament of the Emergent Leadership Council".

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Spiritual Direction in Marital Counseling

I have no extensive training as a marriage counselor though I've tried to help couples who've come to me. I have meant well, but not sure that what I've done has helped much.

I think the problem has been that I took an analytical/behavioral approach . . . which all the relationship/marriage books seem to employ. You know . . . endlessly examine what he does and what she does, try to foster self-understanding, see how the other person views it, attempt to substitute new behaviors, suggest alternative techniques, and underlay it all with some godly teaching. Sound good? For the most part, it has been a failure as far as seeing real improvement goes. Maybe I should have used more shame and guilt . . . just kidding.

On the other hand, I can think of three couples who have told me that I have helped their marriages . . . and I have done absolutely "zero" marriage counseling with them! Does everything have to be ironic?

The difference was that they benefited and experienced transformation in their marriage because of fresh understandings of Jesus, of God's grace, of what it means to be Christian . . . not through addressing the specifics of their married life together, but the foundations of how they relate to God. Our spiritually formative journey has brought healing and new blessing to their marriage relationships.

The obvious lesson I am drawing from this is to no longer search for behavioral techniques to substitute for current behavior (can't you say something positive in the morning instead of criticizing him/her?) but to focus on spiritual formation and disciplines.

I am coming to believe that there is great wisdom in the Catholic concept of the confessional. Sometimes we just need to hear someone tell us we are forgiven as we expose our sins, and then we need to be told to pray. I won't go into how I believe the practice has been panned by Protestants (perhaps, in some cases, rightfully so). To confess, to hear we're forgiven, and then to be told what to pray or do, not to pay for the sin, but to discipline oneself against falling prey to the sin again, seems profoundly formative.

Last week a man I met at the alcohol and drug treatment center asked if I would do some counseling with he and his wife. My response: yes, but I won't talk about what you're both doing and how to change it. Instead, we'll talk about becoming like God through prayer, meditation, scripture, and action. I feel like this is a good, theologically sound change in how I respond to those seeking help with their marriages.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Installment #5- Impediments

(This is the second post for today so you may want to read Installment #4 below)
One of the biggest problems I see for a congregation moving to embrace revival is any form of institutional pride. It is also the stumbling block that can stop a revival in its tracks.

What I mean is any sense of entitlement, achievement, legacy, nostalgia, "arrivalism", or satisfaction may be a symptom of group pride which suppresses the seeker mentality and striving forward to take hold of that for which Christ took hold of us. One of the hardest tasks is to not allow the blessing of "success" (and this doesn't have to mean crass temporal garbage like numbers and contribution, but real work that God does in us) to be a stumbling block toward additional movement.

I guess this is where a hungering and thirsting is essential, and where complacency must be banished. The goal to which we strive must not only be theologically defined but must be beyond satisfaction. The church growth movement is shot through with temporal goals manageable and achievable on human terms. There is nothing more aimless than a church which achieved its dream and now flounders for a new sense of purpose. Usually they just add superlatives to the original goal - more of everything.

Theologically driven congregations seek relationship with God, likeness with the Son, and filling with the Spirit. The mysterious here is sufficient to keep pride at bay, and a spiritual hunger and thirst alive. If humility is the beginning for a personal spiritual journal (see how the opening chapters of Thomas Kempis' Imitation of Christ and Fenelon's Forty Spiritual Letters begin here) it is foundational to congregational journeys as well. Without humility, it is hard for us to receive grace.

The question, then, for someone desiring to spark a revival, is how to subvert the complacency that results from any hints of congregational pride and to encourage a humble longing for God. If there is pride it flourishes in wrong goals, because longing for God is satisfied only by the inexhaustible person of God.

I am not suggesting that there is no satisfaction in seeking God, but only that longing for the Triune God is a unique endeavor in human existence because it offers genuine rest while never displacing the restless desire for God. We are filled while still hungering and thirsting. But this is not frustrating, because our desire for God leads to more filling. This paradox is only found in the mystery of relationship with God. This is the only goal for an individual or congregation that remains fresh, giving peace without complacency; satisfaction without sterility.

The one working for revival must help people acquire a "taste" for God so they see that He is good. This must coincide with cultivating a distaste for anything else - particularly the achievements of human effort. Even the gifts of the Giver should never satisfy. Undermining congregational and institutional pride is difficult, particularly when the accomplishments that are the objects of pride are the works of God himself. Glorying in the exodus instead of the God who wrought the exodus does little to prepare people for the wilderness.

I don't know how to actually communicate this . . . except to talk about it, draw the distinctions, live the proper orientation of longing for the immanent/transcendent God, and pray for the grace to be given for a congregation to taste God. A humble congregation that regards as refuse all human accomplishments and is careful not to confuse the blessings with the Blessor, will pursue the One who pursues them - satisfied but always wanting more. I believe that renewal will define their journey.

Installment #4

(more of my thoughts about a friend's question regarding how his congregation might discover more of authentic Kingdom living) . . .

I ran across a list of characteristics of revival movements in Christian history on Andrew Jones' blog
- They always begin on the periphery of the institutional church
- They are motivated by a transforming experience (grace) of God by an individual or group.
- The result is the desire for a more authentic Christian life that often leads to concern for the church and world.
- Face to face groups for prayer, Bible study, mutual encouragement are important.
- New methods of selecting and training leaders become important. These are less institutional, more grass roots and lay oriented.
- There are theological breakthroughs, that is, rediscovery of aspects of the Biblical message that have been forgotten or overlooked by the Church, usually they involve a focus on the gifts of every believer.
- There is a leveling effect, distance decreases between clergy and laity, social classes, races, men and women, and denominations.
- The movement is countercultural in some ways, often because it reaches out to those who have not been valued by their society.

A number of these characteristics seem to necessitate (at least to my way of thinking) what I suggested about an instantaneous movement to a new paradigm and not incrementalism, about the need for guides with a vision of the Kingdom in new and robust terms, and concerning taking intentional steps to break our worst religious addictions. I know that for the congregation I am part of, many of the specific matters mentioned in this list were and continue to be deep concerns of our community.

Monday, June 06, 2005

A major feature of my own journey (and I believe everyone's) has been shifting from man-centered ways of viewing everything, to seeing all things for the sake of God. I am talking about more than "who's on the throne" type of questions. Being raised in a Christian home meant that God was always on the throne; even so, my religion was largely human-centered.

In that continuing quest . . . I think about accepting people for the sake of God, rather than judging them for where they are theologically, spiritually, morally - in understanding or practice. Where anyone is in relationship to God is a phenomenon of time and place. I meet them here and now, but I don't know where they've been, or where they will go. If I make judgments on their present state, I am considering what God has done, but also their human imperfections. Anyone looking at me would see the same.

If, however, I view others through faith in God, then promises such as if one seeks, one will find, and Paul's confidence that the One who began a good work in the Philippians would bring it to completion, lead me to confidence in their perfection by grace (and mine too).

What if I accept people from a God-defined view, not measuring them in time where I meet them and noting the imperfections of thinking, practice, and devotion, but by faith in God when seeing evidence of his work and accept them as God will form them? I will accept the non-orthodox seeker as an orthodox believer, not giving them some "benefit of the doubt" or overlooking that person's non-orthodox beliefs or practices, but strictly for the sake of God's faithfulness.

I find that I have common ground not based on an acceptance of the Apostles' Creed, a high view of scripture, Trinitarian theology, a certain view of atonement, ecclesiology, eschatology, or a host of other important matters. I find that I am in a fellowship of seekers, and only find common ground lacking with those who don't seek (but might in fact agree with my thinking on many of the above-mentioned theological subjects).

May I accept those who seek on the basis on God's promise that they will find, welcoming them for the sake of God's faithfulness wherever they are "in time" on that journey. Of such, to my present thinking, is the Kingdom of God.