Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

maundy-thursday-backgrounds-3This morning I began to intentionally set my mind on the special service my congregation will have this evening. Every Thursday before Easter Sunday we celebrate what we call Lovefeast & Communion. Essentially this is a time to gather for self-examination (confession & assurance of forgiveness), feetwashing, a simple meal around the table together, and finally the Eucharist. This sacred event serves as one of those liturgical practices in the church that reorders our life together in relationship to God through Jesus.

The examination is nothing more than our realization and admittance of our inability to see, hear and live in the way that Jesus taught. It is both a confession of our failures as well as a profession of our faith in Jesus. What this time does is to tenderize our hearts (our desires) in preparation for re-formation. In terms of worship, we are posturing ourselves in submission to God in preparation to give and receive the love and care that exalts Jesus.

Having surrendered ourselves to the reality of our finite and flawed existence in the presence of infinite perfection we take up the towel and basin. There are two points in this part of the ceremony that require more reflection. John 13 begins with Jesus preparing to demonstrate the full extent of his love to his disciples. Now this is meant to be interpreted two ways. One that in the event around the table this will be expressed. And secondly the ultimate expression of this love occurs in his glorification on the cross. Now I’m convinced that we cannot understand the latter interpretation unless we get the former. Often times, chapter 13 is simply interpreted as Jesus providing an example of humble service. I have even heard it used as a means of describing servant leadership. While there may be some aspect of these expressed within this passage, more significantly it represents a living parable of life together as disciples. Jesus is pouring out his love through an act that symbolically washes away sin. There is a definite connection between this cleansing and the cleansing of baptism. However, while baptism primarily attends to the vertical relationship between the Creator and the creation, feetwashing provides the symbol of cleansing of communal brokenness. It is necessary to sit vulnerably open to being washed (confession) by sisters and brothers as well as washing (forgiving) the feet of sisters and brothers. In the church this act is sealed with an embrace (a holy kiss in some congregations) expressing the unity that reconciliation brings.

Once the feet have been washed then the brothers and sisters are prepared to sit at theshutterstock_44110603 table and share a simple meal at which they break bread together. This meal not only looks back reflecting upon the last supper, but more significantly looks ahead to the table of the wedding feast of the Lamb. In contrast this is a simple meal (not a literal feast) that is shared remembering that we are living in a world where not everyone has food to eat. It sorrowfully acknowledges those currently suffering, but doing so with full gratitude for the table set before them to share the necessities of life.

Finally, while seated around the table, the brothers and sisters take the bread in their hands, break it together and confess in unison that the bread they break is the body of Christ broken for them. In much the same way, following a blessing they take a cup and with a similar confession drink from the cup. This is followed by a song and a benediction after which some leave to their homes and some remain to clean up.

What I find so significant about this sacred time is that in the mimetic exercise of this drama my “heart” is in some way re-formed. It is not merely an intellectual change of mind. I can experience that by reading a well formed argument. It is far more in that it to some degree transforms my life, my posture, my desire, my attitude. In ways that escape words, I sense that my life becomes a little bit more like that of Jesus. In his little book, Shaped by the Word, Richard Mulholland describes how religious icons are created in a way that moves the mind from the intellect to the affective part of the brain. In this way it changes the perception of the individual in such way as to move beyond trying to control the text to being shaped by it. In much the same way this symbol is iconographic in that it requires us to transition out of the left side of our brain that examines and analyzes to the affective side that becomes open to the formative experience of participation. While my Anabaptist sensibilities resist this terminology, I am convinced that in this way this symbol is sacramental disseminating the loving grace of our Lord Jesus upon the community transforming the current context into the eschatological hoped for community—even if only for a moment.

jobfair-660x330About five months ago when I returned to full-time ministry in a local congregation I wrote a post discussing the lessons I learned while working in the corporate world. In my previous post I addressed (for the most part) the ways in which the church has brought the market into the church treating pastors as employees. Moreover, the church (institution) has even begun treating membership numbers (as well as giving amounts) as the bottom line by which to evaluate the success of ministry. This is not to say that numbers are not important, but that they should not be treated (and interpreted) in the same way as the market uses them. Essentially I focused upon the church as institution and the congregation’s contribution to this ecclesiological move. In this post I will be looking at some of the lessons I learned from the other side.

The contrasts between corporate America and the church are undeniable in so many ways that I am often astounded by efforts made by pastors and clergy to compare them in a way that unwittingly expresses a desire to be treated as such. In conversations with pastors I have heard comparisons of the position of pastor in the congregation to be like a CEO. I was once told point blank that I needed to “dress for success” in church ministry. What is especially alarming in all this is the extent to which this syncretism is taking place and that church leaders are instigating it.

As I worked my job for two years as an operations manager with some account manager responsibilities, I learned what it really means when the business motto is that the client is always right (regardless of how wrong they might be). The numerical bottom line is paramount and the company pulls out all stops to protect the revenue stream that begins with the customer. I shouldn’t even need to begin making the argument of how wrong it is to bring this approach into the church. But what I learned most was that even in my prior ministry context, in spite of protesting such syncretism, I indeed became enamored by the bottom line mentality. With this form of reasoning pastors often measure the success of their “career” as pastors by the numerical bottom line.

When this model is adopted, it is a slippery slope to where the pastor begins seeing herself as a successful business person who is deserving of a “salary” comparative to the (numerical) success of the church. Moreover it doesn’t take long for attitudes to begin shifting away from ministry focus to employment focus in which there is expectation for comparative compensation for hours worked. As if it were a company workplace it becomes easy for the pastor to then begin counting hours worked doing “church business.” This is one consequential implication I was trying to warn about when I stated, “What I have ironically experienced in the Anabaptist/Pietist tradition is the full attempt to articulate the relationship between congregation and the pastor using the business language of employer/employee.” Indeed this is an unfortunate irony that leads to behavior and attitudes that are quite unlike what would be considered a biblical and spiritual calling (pastoral and congregational attitudes of entitlement, tendencies toward monetary legalism, etc.).

2016-05-19-1463647608-1254725-businessMy simple argument is that for the benefit of the church and the role pastors serve in the church, the pastoral calling should never be considered a career or employment. There are three (perhaps more) reasons that I think this. First, the standard of qualification for a career or some form of employment is based upon previous personal accomplishments and accolades. The implications of this is that if a person can write up a good enough resume (or profile) that includes particular accomplishments with a noted numerical bottom line result, then that person would be more attractive and more likely to be “hired.” The tendency here is to minimize a spiritual discernment process to being essentially a time to scour through numerous resumes and profiles to pick the most attractive one. The qualifications are understood to be education and accomplishment centered. The underlying result of this is to begin believing that anyone can be trained to be a pastor.

Secondly, this will inevitably result with the pastor claiming responsibility for congregational performance either positively or negatively. The consequence here is double edged. I have seen pastors who have taken responsibility for the great successes of their congregations providing fodder to build a false sense of self. I have also seen pastors leave the ministry because they have taken on the responsibility for failures of the church. At this point I need to qualify this also. In as much as there are occasions where responsibility predominately lies with the pastor. It is never that simple. Pastors are part of the church. Therefore the congregation necessarily always shares in that responsibility, whether negatively or positively.

Finally, and most significantly it changes the fundamental understanding of the role and call of ministry for the church. Rather than the emphasis being upon the role of the Spirit gifting the individual in the context of a congregation and that congregation discerning those gifts and calling them out, the emphasis is changed to human accomplishment. Once again the consequential belief is “if we can send them to seminary, then we can train them and in teach them the necessary skills to be a career pastor.” The theological and spiritual implications are devastating to the church and to the pastors alike.

Perhaps, instead of bringing the market into the church, the church should begin looking at pastoral ministry more like missionary service in which the church commits financial support so that the ministry to which the believer is called can perform that ministry on behalf of and for the church. Instead of approaching pastoral ministry as hiring an employee from “outside of us,” maybe we should begin with a spiritual and relational model derived from scripture. I don’t know for sure, but something inside of me thinks that might be a more suitable approach (note sarcasm).

Another lesson I learned over those two years is that if the church becomes the market place it will cease being the “the presence of Jesus.” I am more convinced than ever that this world doesn’t need another business (whether entertainment or marketplace). It desperately needs the church to be the church, shining with the love of God for the world.

Over the past couple of weeks I have been considering this “rule of lifDSCN2853.JPGe” for Brethren discipleship that is being developed even now. The very premise that o
ne needs a “rule of life” presupposes that living according to particular habits is efficacious toward desirable faith. What is most interesting to me (right now) about this is the underlying prem
ises—what the trajectory (or desired results) of this form of living is and how it will take shape.

One of the central teachings of Jesus in his “Sermon on the Mount” is the necessity of one’s radical re-orientation toward God’s projected (and incarnated) imaginary (God’s kin(g)dom) and away from the empire’s projected imaginary as well as the misshaped protested responses to its imaginary. Take notice that this is not about merely two competing narratives but more accurately multiple narratives. In Matt. 6 what is often considered a teaching on giving or stewardship, Jesus emphasizes a posture that is distinctive from the other competing narratives. It is one that requires practicing personal piety in secret and not ways that make it obvious to the world. Most significantly it is requisite of breaking socio-cultural bonds and practices that define one’s place in society, i.e., not announcing one’s charitable giving and systemically changing how one perceives wealth.

Moreover, this section of his sermon intentionally addresses how practices (orientation) affect the allegiances of one’s heart. Thus, Jesus tells stories that require rich young rulers to sell their possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. In this particular context, however, Jesus is addressing people who were more probably living at the subsistence level (barely getting by). So when Jesus follows up his teachings about nonresistance and how to give benevolently with instructions on prayer and fasting, he reaches the climax of his sermon with words regarding orientation and allegiances. In this it is assumed that human beings possess a natural capacity to create bonds and emotional ties to inanimate objects. And that such bonds project these allegiances. It is a natural human response to a teaching concerning the expectation of benevolence and nonresistance that the p
erson would begin wondering the future cost of such behavioral practices. “How can I afford to give someone my outer garment when they have already taken my inner?” “How can I afford to lend to anyone who asks without expectation of being repaid let alone not charging interest?”

soci_benevolence_imgThese questions are especially justified when our bonds and ties to the inanimate objects are based upon ownership and possession. In the twenty-first century northwestern world, with its obsession over wealth and ownership, it becomes a radically more difficult teaching. And yet it speaks specifically to the reality of one’s allegiances (or bonds of the heart). I believe Jesus understood well the complexities of these relationships, especially the effects of liturgies surrounding and leading to them upon the people of the first century. Within the Roman culture society was structured vertically. It mattered explicitly where one was located on the societal ladder as it was determinative as to the rights and privileges one was afforded. Unfortunately, this vertical structuring was not limited to the Roman culture. Jewish culture was similarly structured regardless of where one found itself in the community. Admittedly, Pharisaical Judaism was an attempt to reform these structural impositions to a more horizontal nature. Yet even so it was the means by which it too imposed such reforms that inevitably resulted in a similar structure.

One of the underlying assumptions of the “Sermon on the mount” is the power of practice to definitively shape allegiances and identity. I suppose another way of posing part of these recent thoughts would be to consider the necessity of being oriented to the kin(g)dom of God. According to the “Sermon on the Mount” living according to the habits listed is requisite for such an orientation. When we posture ourselves in such a way that our attention is benevolently directed toward the margins of society and the people who are excluded, our bodily attitude (with all its values and judgments) is reformed and kin(g)dom shaped. It is no coincidence that in chapter twenty-five Jesus sets up the standard of judgment according to how one treats and relates to this marginalized population. He essentially tells them (those hearing the parable) that whatever they do (or not) to or (not) for them, they do (or not) to or (or not) for him. This intimate association Jesus makes with this population is determinative of the trajectory and consequential effects of the practices by which he is instructing his followers to live.

Essentially the development and implementation of these habits in one’s life ultimately expresses a rejection of the societal structures of the earthly powers. Through behavioral assimilation into such a rule, one’s life becomes a protest of the current social systems and the injustice and oppression they incur. Moreover it becomes a rejection of the Empire’s social reality and all the violent responses to it. Thus living according to this rule reshapes the desires and imagination of the disciple. In terms of spiritual formation, such discipline postures the disciple in such a way as to submit to the formative power of God’s Spirit. This is to say that what may begin as a discipline soon becomes a way of life that is effortless due to the transformation of one’s whole person (not merely heart) in the process.

How Can We Worship?

Posted: July 15, 2016 in Theology, Things of Faith

handsOver the past two months I have been spending considerable time
catching up on my readings and devotional practices. Over the brief two years I spent working outside of church ministry as an operations manager I was re-introduced to the struggle for faithful living in the church while balancing family and career. It’s not an easy life and I humbly confess that I was not good at it. In my experience I found that my devotional life was the first part of my life to suffer. And so as I have re-entered full-time ministry I have enjoyed the extreme privilege of having a vocation that not only encourages devotional living but requires it.

This is all to say that in the process of being immersed in this life of devotion, I have experienced the Spirit working in unexpected ways in my life.  So I suppose this blog entry will be essentially confessional.

Today I am writing with a heavy heart. I wanted to write last week but I couldn’t. I felt led to silent reflection as I sought the inner peace only Christ can provide. Unfortunately this did not come. With the recent events (the shootings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile as well as the fatal shooting of 5 police officers) coupled with my devotional readings, the Spirit of God has pricked my heart. Being one who avidly writes blog posts I wanted to respond with outrage but the Spirit silenced me. I wasn’t silent out of fear or avoidance. I was silent out of holy patience. The Spirit of Jesus was speaking to my heart with painful words of conviction.

All the words I could possibly write would have been not only useless in this social environment but most significantly hypocritical. They would have feigned the political responses we have become accustomed to hearing. What has been revealed to me through much painful reflection is that I am a culpable participant in a social structure (institution) that systematically oppresses and persecutes people because of the color of their skin. As I have been preparing to preach a sermon this Sunday on a passage of scripture that says that if you come to the alter with your offering and realize that a brother or sister has something against you, that you are to leave the offering and go and make things right before returning to worship. Moreover I had incidentally just finished reading a book that describes how this passage was a core text for the early Christians and formed a basis for their living in peace.[1]

What has come to my mind most starkly is the fact that worship-waysthe white church (of which I am a part) has not only suppressed the reality of this evil system but has in many ways perpetuated it. How can we worship when brothers and sisters have something against us? This is a big question that requires humble confession. I think that our primary mistake (as well as ongoing sin) is buying into the lie that the sin of racism is located somewhere other than in us. I have to confess that it is within me.

The dilemma that is breaking my heart is that I feel compelled to go and make things right by confessing my complicity (both in general participation as well as my specific behaviors) but because this is such a large and systemic sin and so many have been hurt by it that I’m not sure where to go and to whom I should confess to make right or even whether I am able to make things right. This doesn’t even take into consideration that I’m not sure how “the making right” will take place. I understand the corporate aspects of this, but what about the personal and individual dynamics. This is a very personal issue that requires the reformation and transformation of the core being. It does not feel like it is enough to simply acknowledge and confess such complicity. Real change is required. Not the promise of change or the commitment to a process of change, but essential ontological change in the person and corporate body. Such participation in a system cannot be allowed to continue in the church of Jesus our Lord!

I humbly admit that I don’t have concrete answers and actually feel quite helpless. But I do have some inclinations as to what the answers might look like. So I continue to hear the questions in my mind shouting, “How can we worship when we actively participate in this system?” “How can we worship when we know that there are sisters and brothers who have something against us?” “Where do we go and what can we do to make things right?”

[1] Books that have contributed to my thoughts here, see Kenneth E. Bailey, The Cross & the Prodigal; Drew G. I. Hart, Troubles I’ve Seen; Alan Kreider, The Patient Ferment; Miroslav Volf, Against the Tide.