It’s Personal

Posted: May 19, 2016 in Things of Faith

So it’s been a couple of years since I last wrote anything of substance regarding anything remotely theological (or faith centered for that matter). I have recently been called back into pastoral ministry which required Laura and I to put to bed the ministry we fowhy-illegal-immigrant-anchor-babies-dont-actually-workunded in Massachusetts (Tender Shepherd: a Ministry of Soul Care). While we are sad to end one ministry, we are certainly excited to begin this next stage of life.

In one significant way I was silent over that same time period. It has not been because I have not tried to write, but in some sense I experienced a loss of my proverbial voice. Looking back I now recognize that this time has been in some ways a forced sabbatical. It has also been a time to reconnect and refresh. Having served in vocational ministry for the last 20+ years, I lost touch with life on this planet. I guess you could say I got caught up in church and faith issues to such a degree that my sense of reality got skewed.

This is not to say that church and faith issues are not important, which I believe they are. But when we become so immersed in them that we forget what is of vital importance then we have crossed a line. It is one thing to protest immigration laws (as well as the many other social justice issues) and the oppression our culture causes. It is an entirely different matter to work with and care for these people who have migrated into this country (whether legally or illegally); to come to a place where you call them friend.

During my time in Massachusetts I had the privilege of working for a company whose employee list was made up of a majority of these delightful folks. Working with them in what were often times difficult situations I developed real relationships with some of these who face difficult circumstances resulting froimmigration-secure-border-jpeg7-1280x960m having left family behind. Many of the challenges surround their assimilation into a foreign culture whose values and priorities are drastically different.

What I discovered over this span of time was the difference between talking about such circumstances divorced from the human beings who are living them and the (very) personal nature these circumstances are when they are connected to faces of my friends. Immigration may be an “issue” facing the United States of America, but not for me any longer. It represents life and death for many of my friends. The politicized bigotry attached to this national and church “issue” is the source of fear for numerous people who simply want to work and provide a better future for their families.

How I used to think about this particular “issue” was a safe way for me to talk about it and not truly be invested in it. I could talk about what the Bible says about treating aliens. I could preach about the command to love our neighbor. However, I never really had a horse in this race. I knew of these people but didn’t know them, much less call them friend. Now when I hear politicians (as well as some people, including Christians) pontificate about immigration using bombastic language, I hear the words directed at my friends. This is not a political issue. It is highly personal. The problem with western politics (national, ideological, or religious) is that they remove the human element and replace it with language games. I knew this before, but somehow I lost my way.

Having said all this, what I mean to say is that things of faith are personal. They are shared and expressed publicly, but they are very much personal.

This morning I got a little jab in the ribs from my fellow NuDunkers as the blog posts began to fly. I have been, admittedly, silent for more than a month. This has not been my intention but with the big move to Massachusetts and the effects of this transition in full effect, I was afraid I may have lost my (proverbial) voice. Of course my family disagrees. However, as I read the blogs (Collationes, Authenticity, Restorative Theology and the Patchwork Pietist) I noticed the themes of authority and language in each post.

As I have begun to be re-immersed in the New England culture I have noticed (at least religiously speaking) a remarkable presence of extremes when dealing with the Christian churches. I know that I have been away from this culture for a while, but there doesn’t seem to be as much open space for theological conversation. Before my email box fills up, please let me explain. What I have been experiencing are churches that are either very conservative (particularly from the Reformed tradition) or very progressive. Even as I write this my mind is thinking of how much this culture is thoroughly Liberal as well as post-Christian. Again this is certainly a generalization, but one that it is clearly evident. Even as I have met with some area pastors they have described the situation in very similar terms. So let the bifurcations fly!

I am always curious how in such contexts as this parties from either side speak with absolute authority without room for movement on the one hand. On the other hand neither side will allow themselves to be held accountable because they are convinced that they are absolutely right in their stance. What such Docetism creates is the context to demonize and dehumanize their enemies. Either “they are fighting fundamentalists bent to have everyone burn” or “they are flaming liberals who stand for nothing.” Each of these are hyperbolic caricatures of positions. In various places I have noted how on first meeting people we have a tendency toward wanting to categorize for the purpose of knowing. This in itself is an arrogant act of minimizing the personhood which God created. As if any human being could be so easily defined. In our workplaces (and even churches) we want to label people either Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, male or female, straight or gay, rich or poor, etc. The key terms in those phrases are “either, or.” And the most significant marker is the desire to categorize. Each of these is the work of Liberal society or the Modern agenda. In such a culture we are obsessed with categories and bifurcations. Epistemologically we are driven to dichotomies because our understanding is driven by the evaluation of objectivity (as if that were something we could ever attain). From a more generally sociological perspective cultures such as this need the “either, or” phraseology in order to construct the illusion of truth upon which they are then able to form their authority (I’ll save examples for a later post).

Within the so-called Christian church I have witnessed and experienced numerous forms of authority, most often wielded in such ways as to damn rather than to save. I have seen it imposed upon people in ways that quench the Spirit of God keeping dearly loved children of God from exercising their Spiritual gifts. I have witnessed the fruit of such authority as people have been cast out to destruction. I have also born witness of a quiet authority expressed with gentle meekness in words of correction as a brother was held accountable for his actions. I have seen a congregation in turmoil go silent when a godly elder has stood and provided the much needed wisdom. And I have seen authority exercised with righteous anger when a child is intentionally wounded.

The only legitimate authority in the church (from the humble opinion of this post-liberal Anabaptist) finds its roots in the narrative of Jesus and the presence of spiritual discernment. God’s authority is most explicitly revealed in the redemptive life, death and resurrection of the incarnate Word. Those who legitimately carry such authority in the church are those few who have sojourned the path of faith with such integrity as to be reflective of the Christ narrative. We may ask what it looks like, but we need only to go so far as Jesus’ life and teachings. Unfortunately, I have known too few of these people. But the ones I have known have been instrumental in my spiritual formation. These folks (both women and men) bear the credibility that is earned by humble integrity. Even when they find themselves at odds with the church in which they were baptized, they have maintained their vows. They may reject the “either, or” decisions recognizing that God’s creation is far more complex and intricate than two parts can possibly represent, but they also recognize that they too are called to submit (this does not mean one should submit to abuse or some other form of evil. Scripture also teaches us to resist evil nonviolently). As difficult as it seems sometimes, submission is the exact posture by which Jesus lived and the attitude Paul instructed all the believers of Ephesus to practice (Eph. 5:21). It is the way of the cross and paradoxically it is the conduit for the credibility necessary for authority. It is the key ingredient of redemptive living and absolutely necessary for loving both God and others.

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Christmas Celebration in Nazareth 2012

In his little book, Source of Life, Jürgen Moltmann includes a chapter entitled “There Is Enough for Everyone.” Essentially it is a meditation on the “original Christian Communism” found in Acts 4. I have read this little book several times and each time I come to this chapter the title brings me to a halt. “There is enough for everyone.” Really? Is there enough? Moltmann asks this very question. In light of the Acts passage we get a glimpse of people sharing from their substance. As I have stated in previous posts, I had the privilege of serving on the Mission and Ministry board for the Church of the Brethren. It was here that I was introduced to the saying, “we live simply, so that others can simply live.” And while I love this saying, it doesn’t really get at what Acts 4 is saying.

For Christians living in a society that casts the dream of ownership as an ideal—“American Dream”—this comes as a particularly difficult pill to swallow. Examples of the extremity of this value include people who have killed others to “protect” their property. We are taught from a young age that purchasing and owning are vital to the American way. Unfortunately Christians are not exempt from the trappings of this aspect of consumerism. If this is not enough, we have become the proverbial horse eating itself to death. We are consuming ourselves into extinction. We have created a voracious appetite which seems impossible to quell. This would be a problem in itself if it were only self-imposed upon our population. However, as we are quickly learning, we are part of a global society. What used to be worlds away now resides in our backyard. The abuse we impose in the northwestern quadrasphere (I’m not sure what the correct term for this region of the planet is, so I thought I’d make one up) of this planet in the name of consumerism has real effects upon the population on the other side of the world (literally in our backyard).

Personally, I think Christians (as well as people in general) get this more than they let on. When we get to the holidays we begin to witness encouraging acts of generosity which does not seem to exist at other times of the year. In fact it sometimes feels as if we act this way out of some form of guilt for our failures to live this way every day. The problem for Christians is that every day is a “holy-day.” While Brethren have embraced the saying I quoted above (“We live simply, so others can simply live”), it really doesn’t go as far as the first Christians went in their lifestyle. Actually if we look closely at the quality of life which Luke describes in that early community, what we discover is a group of people living the very salvation Jesus promises—abundant life. In our culture today any suggestion of living life in ways that is reflective of this is met with threatening glares or accusations of “communism” (you might think we were still living in the 1950’s) or with being categorized with such labels as “liberal, idealistic, etc.” However, doesn’t the life described their reflective of the prophetic visions of Isaiah? Aren’t they foreshadowing what is promised in Revelation 21? In my mind (perhaps I’m a bit off) this early Christian community exemplifies one into which God’s shalom and kingdom are breaking.

As experience the waiting and watching of Advent, perhaps the contemporary church residing in the northwest quadrasphere should consider how living out its faith in such a way would affect the other three quarters of the planet. Just maybe we have got the “simple living” wrong. What if simple living is living the abundant life in the way the first Christians did? What if our Christian community’s culture was founded on the very grace of sharing that these first Christians practiced? I wonder if the kingdom Jesus announced would be more evident in our midst as the powers and principalities of consumerism, capitalism, greed, and ownership are conquered (even as I write this I find within myself an overwhelming compulsion to grasp tightly to that which I have). Imagine the gift this would be to the world into which Jesus, the son of God entered?

SOH logo10I know, I know, you haven’t heard from me in a while. I am well aware that the death mark of a blog is inactivity. However, I have a
good excuse. Laura (my wonderfully gifted wife) and I are in the midst of a major life change. We have just recently moved to Massachusetts. The purpose for our move is to plant a missional Anabaptist-Pietist church (Seeds of Hope) in southeastern Mass.

On Friday the NuDunkers will be hosting a conversation on church planting in the Church of the Brethren, in which I’ll be participating. So check out the live video chat this Friday, Dec. 6th, at 10am Eastern. Also check out the event page on our G+ community page
for more information.

Several years ago I had the privilege of traveling to Haiti to teach a theology of leadership to pastors in training. While there we worshiped in a small house church. It was here that a vision of ministry which had been developing in my imagination came to life. In this little house church embedded in a poor community, this small Christian community burst forth with the light of God’s kingdom through the risen Christ. As we worshiped (accompanied by instruments salvaged from the trash) in a room with open windows I soon became aware of crowds of neighbors gathering outside trying to see what was happening. Following a lively song (sung in Haitian Créole) the pastor offered a prayer in which he invited people to come forward with need requests. What happened next amazed me. People from the neighborhood began to come in with little pieces of paper on which they had written their requests. Soon the pastor had a pocket full of slips of paper. He continued his prayer of intercession followed by one of thanksgiving. While the specifics of the service may be interesting, what I found most notable was the embedded context of this little congregation. What I witnessed was a small, poor congregation seeking to love their neighbors. This experience served as a powerful (at least for me) illustration of the simplicity of what it means to be church.

One of my ongoing struggles with the institutional church (in North America at least) today is that we have made it an extracurricular activity that has perpetual meetings and institutionalized liturgy. What, in my mind, we seem to have lost is a gathering that invites, discerns the Spirit of Christ, worships and serves others. It seems to me that according to the modern social script we have dichotomized between church life and home life (or even work life) as if our life outside the “church-building” is somehow exempted from our faith. We put “church” on our calendars as if it is an event or appointment of some kind rather than the very life we are called to live. Moreover we have brought the very market Jesus overturned in the temple into the church we are. We give lip service to calling pastors but hire them as employees to do the ministry Jesus called us all to do. We treat the body of Christ as a club in which we get to control the membership. Unfortunately many of our churches today are more reflective of the national government (in which we broker power) than they are of Christ’s body. There is often a notable absence of North American churches in those places where God’s kingdom is breaking in. We tend to busy ourselves gathering people like us, who look like us, act like us, talk like us, believe like us. Yet the Jesus we claim to follow is constantly seeking the other.

I have had the great opportunity of introducing this new vision of ministry to the church I was serving over the past six years. What was most exciting was how the people of the community responded. Much like Brian Gumm’s proposal, reconciliation and peace (shalom) at the local level sit at the heart of my vision of ministry. While I have not had the opportunity to talk with Brian about his vision, I find similarities of our visions striking. Unlike the traditional church plant that sets up the organization and sends mass invitations, we are committed to living out our faith in the local community where we live. Primarily “Seeds of Hope” will be focused upon building relationships and becoming involved and invested in the local community. Throughout the process we will unashamedly love people in the name of Christ. The ministry revolves around discerning where the Holy Spirit is already working. It primarily involves bearing witness to the in-breaking kingdom and cooperating in whatever form the Spirit leads. This newly formed community will meet regularly to read and study scripture, pray, worship and actively discern the Spirit’s leading. In one sense the organization of the congregation will be pneumatically organic in that it will be according to the Spirit’s gifting and formed from pragmatic necessity.

As Brian notes, patience is a primary practice as growth and success are not measured according to the quantitative markers of the world, but according to qualitative aspects of Christian discipleship. Making disciples, baptizing and teaching all the things Jesus commanded is the primary mission. A core preunderstanding theologically is that the Spirit converts hearts and we surround those converts with loving community.

Obviously more could be said and I have probably raised a whole host of questions. I certainly don’t have all the answers nor all the questions. But I am excited to live out this new adventure and enter into the larger conversation about church planting.

Image  —  Posted: December 4, 2013 in Church of the Brethren, Things of Faith