28 December 2005

Attention and commitment

TIME Magazine recently named Bono and Bill and Melinda Gates "Persons of the Year". I have to say that I couldn't be happier with the choices. These individuals are truly using their fame and fortune to enable the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God in this world on an enormous scale. They may not think of it in those terms (though I think Bono does), but that's what they're doing. And thank God for them.

In a related article on "Charitainment", James Poniewozik opines that,
[T]he most valuable commodity in ending misery is not money or even will but attention. And attention is the celebrigod's lightning bolt. If the most fatuous celebrity plants himself near a problem, he may embarrass himself. But at least someone will see it. And someone will film it. And a few of us may, little by little, be moved to change it.
I heartily agree. The big problem isn't money. People in developed nations have plenty of money. The problem isn't will. Human beings want to be compassionate. We want to help, at least in the abstract. Both of these facts were illustrated in our response to last year's tsunami and this year's hurricane Katrina. But there's so much misery in the world and there's so much else going on in our lives. And we are eminently distractable. So we're like, "Oh, of course, I'd like to help - what did you say the problem is? Uh-huh? Gee, that's terrible - ooh, shiny!" And then we're on to the next thing. But what if the thing that wants to attract us is itself a shiny and glorious celebrity, capable of capturing and focusing our attention, at least for a little while? Then, as the TIME article said, maybe some of us will be moved to action.

But what happens when the next shiny thing comes along? The first challenge - and it's a huge one, so thank God again for Bono and his ilk - is to get our attention. But the second, even larger challenge is to hold it. To really make a difference in the misery of the world, we need people and groups who are committed - deeply and truly. And here, I submit, is where the Church comes in. Bono and the Gateses can call us to action, but it is part of the mission of the Church and other faith communities to call us to commitment and sustained work for change. I know folks who are deeply committed to compassionate action outside of the context of a faith commitment, including my wife and (to the best of my knowledge) Bill Gates. But nonetheless, faith communities - especially followers of Jesus, who are fundamentally people called to a mission of reconciliation and love - have a unique obligation and a unique ability to call people to compassionate commitment and to equip them for that commitment. That's not a complete description of the mission of the Church or of any faith body, but it's a fundamental part of that mission. Bono, Melinda, Bill, Angelina and the rest are doing what they can. We people of faith, who are answerable to God and who are called to love like God does - like God does! - dare not fall down on our own duty.

Loving God, help us to love like that: with commitment strong enough to keep loving despite our cluttered lives, and with love strong enough to call others into that same commitment. Amen!

24 December 2005

Eats, Shoots & Leaves

My most excellent friends Jan and Shaw got me a book for Christmas called Eats, Shoots & Leaves, which (despite having received it only a couple of days ago and being very busy with holiday travel and family revelry) I've almost finished. It's a page-turner, believe it or not, and the reason you might (if you’ve heard of it) be skeptical is that it's a book about punctuation. Nothing but punctuation. History of punctuation, proper usage, suggested vigilante actions against those who use semicolons ignorantly—you know, stuff like that. Its tagline is, "Sticklers unite!" and the agenda of the author, a self-important Brit journalist called Lynne Truss, is nothing less than to organize guerilla legions armed with magic markers ready to deface movie posters for films like Two Weeks Notice and supermarket signs advertising "Banana's On Sale" and add or remove apostrophes as necessary. What an insufferable snob. I love this woman. She's a hoot.

Now, you may rightly object that I have absolutely no business advocating punctuation sticklerhood. I write a blog; my blogging software includes no grammar checker; and I am far, far from infallible. But I just want to confess that I do think these things are important, that I do try to get them right. The many errors I make stem from carelessness, ignorance, or deliberate choice, but neither the carelessness nor the ignorance is itself a matter of deliberate choice or apathy--like I said, I do think clear communication is important, and I (usually) try to get things right, for the sake of understanding on the part of the folks I'm trying to communicate with. If you're going to bother to write anything, what on earth could be more important than that? So even when I'm instant messaging, I (usually) go out of my way to remember that IM is still a written, not an oral, medium, and therefore things like capital letters, spaces, and punctuation (used correctly) are still very helpful in conveying meaning. In a blog, even moreso.

I do sometimes make deliberate errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation; and when I do that, it's for the same reason that I occasionally use profanity in my writing: I want you to notice it. I do that sort of thing for emphasis sometimes, or to adopt a particular voice, intending to enhance communication--but I don't doubt that they sometimes have the opposite effect, like when I set up a whole bunch of different e-mail addresses intending to make it easy for different people to communicate with me and was dismayed to find this only confused folks who wanted to know what my real address was.

But I do care about punctuation, and therefore I should probably come clean (for those who have, rather surprisingly, read this far) about some of my beliefs and practices in this regard.
  • In general, I try conform to U.S. standards regarding punctuation and grammar, since that's where I live. There are, however, some exceptions.
  • Just as the Brits, and other Europeans, get many other things right where we Americans get them wrong, they're inarguably correct about the placement of terminating punctuation outside of closing quotation marks. The American rule says that terminating punctuation is always placed inside closing quotes, even if the punctuation isn't part of the quotation. The British rule says: if it's part of the quote, it belongs inside the close quote mark; if it's not part of the quote, it belongs outside. The Brits are right. We Americans are wrong. Therefore, I follow the British rule. I honestly don't know how any computer programmer couldn't be mortally offended by the misguided U.S. rule. If you tried to write code like that, it wouldn't compile. This rule, and the awful habits that are created by its teaching in American public schools, probably singlehandedly explains the offshore outsourcing of so many U.S. tech jobs to India and other places where they're taught sensible language practices.
  • Incidentally, other things the Brits get right include measurement (the Metric system), date formats (2005 December 24 or 24 December 2005 but never December 24, 2005--what sort of logic does month-day-year have??), and time formats (24-hour; no silly AM/PM).
  • Back to punctuation: you might have noticed that I have way to much fondness for colons, semicolons, dashes, and (especially) parentheses. This probably explains why I liked this book so much. It probably also indicates that I'm a pretentious git. But that's the way I write. I take comfort in knowing several published writers (my Emerging Church friends will recall a certain Brian) who have similarly pretentious--though probably less extreme--styles and still seem to get books published and read. So maybe there's hope for me; if I ever really published anything, at least I'd probably have the moderating influence of an editor to tone me down.
So, on Christmas Eve, I'm blogging about punctuation. Every other day of the year, I blog about faith, and on the eve of our Savior's birth, I blog about printers' conventions. Oh well, this is what was banging on the inside of my skull this morning. This evening I'll go to church and will be in a different frame of mind. Merry Christmas, everybody!!

By the way, you can read the joke that explains the book's title here (third paragraph). Puncuation. Funny. Important. Who knew?

17 December 2005

The Missional Church // A Beginning Reader's Guide

Kevin Cawley has compiled an excellent list of books on Missional Church. If you're interested in Missional Church, and you haven't read much on the subject (and you have the wherewithal for some deep scholarly stuff), it's a great place to start.

Thanks, Kevin!

16 December 2005

I feel so ignorant

Until a few minutes ago, my blog looked like ass in Firefox. Boy, do I have egg on my face for not looking at it outside of IE and its derivatives. Why didn't anybody tell me? I fixed it. I also (belatedly) thought to check Safari. Looks OK. If anybody uses AOL or Opera or Lynx or whatever and my blog looks offensively bad, please let me know. Thanks!

Ah! Major Gaelic mensch.

The title of this post is my favorite anagram I've found so far (given about 1/2 hour of searching) for "Michael James Croghan". Perhaps "And humble, too!" is the appropriate follow-up comment. ;-) Anyway, the Internet Anagram Server (aka "I, Rearrangement Servant") is a fun time waster. Now I must go to work.

12 December 2005

Prayer for a Moral Budget, Redux

OK, I was lame and timid and forgetful, and I waffled too long, and now I'm not going to go get arrested, nor even take the day off to participate in the legal bits of the vigil on Wednesday at the Capitol. Nor did I get my act in gear and organize a vigil at one of VA's Senators' home offices. My sins of omission are multiplying of late, and it dismays me.

However, I do hope to attend the worship service Tuesday evening (19:00) at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation, which is here. I plan to take the Orange Line into the city and get off at the Capitol South station and walk from there (about three blocks, it looks like). If anybody who's in the area wants to come, please let me know.

11 December 2005

But what is this God-thing of which you speak?

Gary asked the question above as his parting shot in the longest comment-discussion in the short history of my blog. OK, Gary, I'll give you an answer, and it may or may not be the one you were looking for. As I said in another comment on that post, for me, the three major sources of knowledge about God are 1) the witness of other believers, 2) Holy Scripture, and 3) first-hand experience. So following that general outline,

God is the One who, through a two-way relationship of trust and love, shaped the lives and missions of Jalaluddin Rumi, George Fox, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, Juliana of Norwich, Jim Wallis, Brother Lawrence, Desmond Tutu, the Christian peacemakers currently in mortal peril in Iraq, and many, many other great souls who I know only through their writings and from reports about them.

God is the One who, through a two-way relationship of trust and love, shaped the lives and missions of Papa Bert, Joe, Melissa, Abid, Jaimie, Sam, Grandpa Del and Grandma Marion, Rick, Blair, Lou, DeDe, Dwight, Sue, Frankie, Carl, Allen, Susan, Bob, Cheri, Patricia, Virginia, Christine, Joanne, Susan, Ann, Wally, Hazel, Janice, Shirley, Sandy, Frances, Eleanor, Charles, Jane, Charles, Kate, Lisa, Marlene, Suzanne, Marco, Kathy, Marlene, Norma, Ken, Peg, John, Carolyn, Mary, Mary, Betty, Ellie, Stu, Karl, Blaine, George, Jim, Jack, Chester, Linda, Israel, Sonja, Ross, Pete, Mike, Stacy, Deanna, Helen, Caryn, and many, many other believers whom I do know (or have known) personally (if in some cases largely electronically) and who have impacted my own faith journey.

God is the One who Jesus knew as his Father. Therefore, I know God through those passages in Scripture where Jesus speaks of his Father. (If you follow that link, you'll need to skim past the references to "father", not "Father", since the search isn't case-sensitive.) I also know God as the Holy Spirit and as Jesus himself, the one who emptied himself and became incarnate, fully in the world, as a helpless baby in a cold stable--and who went on to do the other things I mention in this post. Much of this "understanding" I get from the Bible (as well as from the folks I mention above), and all these stories and testimonies are like brush strokes that paint a picture of God that's much more impressionistic or abstract than it is like a technical diagram with clean lines that results in an unmistakably coherent mental picture.

Finally, God to me is the One who called me (and continues to call me), gifted me (and continues to help me discover those gifts), and sent me (and continues to send me) into the world on a mission of love. God has done this through all the people mentioned above and through Scripture, but over time my "knowledge" of God has come increasingly through a personal relationship of love and trust through which God shapes my life. But I hope I'm being clear that it's not really about "knowledge" for me at all. My faith has almost nothing to do with logical propositions about God which I can hold neatly in my head and feel like I have achieved Understanding. (Anyone who thinks he understands God is a virtuoso of self-deception.)

It's about relationship, love, trust, mission, service--these are things which need to be lived, not defined. I leave definitions to the philosophers--I'm no philosopher. As I prayed this morning, and as we pray every Sunday during the Sending portion of our liturgy, we have work that God has given us to do. I'll let the Buddha make my point for me.

God needs agnostics who are ready to get busy. Too much seeking after understanding and the poison arrow may never get pulled out--too much certainty and people tend to start jabbing it into other folks. But healthy agnosticism combined with a conviction that the world needs help and that even I should be helping--that's something God can use. Love is more important than understanding--love is perhaps the only reliable path to understanding. And if the understanding never comes or turns out to be flawed, but the love was real? In the end, I think that's OK with me.

09 December 2005

Really good theology for the not-already-committed

Elizabeth M., a reader of my blog and writer of (among other things) truly excellent comments/questions on the same, just finished reading Brian McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy. She thought it might be a good try at convincing folks who were already committed evangelical Christians to consider allowing a bit more generosity into their faith, but asks,

So, I'm still wondering -- is there anyone out there who isn't only preaching to the choir?

That, my dear, is a really, really, really fine question. I think we're probably all in agreement here that the choir can use some preachin' to, but for all the emphasis in the Missional Church and Emerging Church conversations on evangelism, is there anybody out there writing postmodern, generously orthodox theology for the not-already-committed? Stuff that's not tying to do "the continuing conversion of the church" (like most Emerging stuff seems to be doing) and is also not (completely) beholden to the left/right dualism of modern theology? I know McLaren's got Finding Faith, but I haven't read it and don't know whether Elizabeth would like his approach in that any more than she did his approach in aGO.

I'm tempted to recommend folks like Tom (N.T.) Wright, Dallas Willard, Henri Nouwen, Marcus Borg, though the truth is that they're generally writing for the church too. But they do write stuff that's just good theology, not completely beholden to modern right-wing evangelical assumptions nor modern left-wing "mainline" assumptions (though their roots and theology will tend one way or the other--Willard right, Borg left, etc.). Also, they don't necessarily have an explicit agenda of trying to reform the church, like the Missional and Emerging authors tend to--an agenda, I might add, that's pretty much irrelevant to folks who aren't already part of the church. Maybe Tom Wright's "For Everyone" Bible study series?

I'm dismayed that I don't have a better answer to this question. Help?

08 December 2005

Claims about the Bible

Well, several of us ended up having quite a conversation about perspectives on Scripture (among other things) in the comments on this post on 1 Corinthians 13 which I made a few days ago, not really expecting a response. Shows what I know.

That discussion prompted me to think a bit about claims Christians have made about the Bible. What follows is a list of some of those claims, with my brief thoughts on each of them.

Christians have claimed that the Bible is:

Literally true. This is the idea that every word of the Bible that isn't obviously and explicitly metaphorical (such as Jesus' parables) is to be interpreted literally: it really happened exactly as it is described, word for word, and no fair interpreting anything symbolically. This is the point of view which leads to young-earth Creationism and other absurdities. (I'm sorry; I wish I could be more gracious to my fundamentalist brothers and sisters, but young-earth Creationism is absurd.) Obviously, I don't subscribe to this point of view.

Inerrant. This (as I understand it) is the claim that, while it may or may not be valid to interpret some parts of the Bible as symbolic or poetic language, when the Bible does make factual statements, it is not possible that those statements might be in any sense false. I don't believe this claim either. I think the Bible may well say things that are factually false, because it was written by fallible humans--inspired by God, true, but I know of no compelling reason to assume that this inspiration would necessarily prevent God's human collaborators from doing what humans are prone to do: screw up. For example, I think that when the Bible claims that the prophet Elisha used his God-given curse powers to summon two she-bears to rip apart some children who were teasing him (2 Kings 2:23-24), the human author of that story was simply factually mistaken.

Infallible. This, I think, is the claim that when the Bible makes a prescriptive statement that might influence a believer's thoughts or actions, it is not possible that those statements are not what God wants us to do, unless they've been superseded by a later Biblical statement. In other words, what the Bible tells us to do is always what God wants us to do. I think a slightly milder claim is that the Bible is Authoritative: its prescriptive statements always have authority over the believer. I think often when people say "inerrant" they mean these things too, and the reverse may be true as well. I don't hold with these claims either. For example, as much as I love and value the Sabbath, I don't believe that God ever really wanted God's children to kill their neighbors for breaking it, as is prescribed in Exodus 31:15 and elsewhere.

Inspired. This is the claim that God's Spirit was involved, to some extent, in some mysterious way, in the composition of the entire Bible. This I do believe. So what does this mean, practically speaking? For me, it does not mean that I need to believe that the Scriptures must always be interpreted literally and contain no non-obvious symbolic language. It does not mean that every apparent statement of fact must be factually true. It does not mean that every apparent prescriptive statement must reflect God's will for us. What it does mean is this: as a Christian, I believe that all scripture is inspired ("God-breathed") and useful for teaching, correction, etc. (1 Timothy 3:16). Therefore, it's my duty to grapple with "all scripture" (by which I mean the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament--other scriptures may also be "useful" but I'm not bound to study them) and to try to work out what truth the Holy Spirit wants to teach me through a given passage. It may be something different from the literal meaning, the facts presented, or the behavior prescribed in a passage. But as a Christian it is incumbent upon me to Take the Bible Seriously and work hard at allowing the Spirit to speak to me through its pages. And there's a further claim I'd make for the Bible: that for believers, it should be:

Identity-shaping. In brief, I think this means that the Bible should not just be a book we look to for facts, behavioral prescriptions, or even subtle inspiration: it should be a book that we allow to shape us, mold us, form us, sculpt our identity as Christians, and prompt us to both trust and action--to living its truth in our lives. It should be what Scot McKnight calls "living trustable truth", and at this point I'll just direct your attention to Scot's far superior post on this topic. Be sure to read the discussion in the comments on Scot's post. Good stuff.

OK, that's it for my thoughts on claims about scripture. Did I miss any major ones, or screw up the meaning of these? Did any of my perspectives on these claims irk you? Let me know.

02 December 2005

Current month's Daily Office

I don't know if this will be useful to anyone but me, but just in case....

I made a web page that will always send you to the current month's Daily Office listing (according to the 1979 American Book of Common Prayer, Rite II) from Mission St. Clare. The URL is:


Why is this useful? Well, it's useful for me because I can set it up as an AvantGo channel in my Treo smartphone and always (at least, until they restructure their web site) have the current Daily Office prayers in my pocket without needing to do any manual steps. I don't know why it might be useful to you, but you never know.

Update: I've added pages that take you straight to the current day's morning and evening prayer:



Also, for a great discussion on the value of praying in this fashion, see Scot McKnight's blog: this post on Praying with the Church and some follow-up posts too.

01 December 2005

A Prayer for a Moral Budget

I'm seriously praying about taking the day off, going down to the Capitol and getting arrested on the 14th. Anybody want to come? Or, alternatively, does anybody who's in VA want to work on organizing a vigil in our state? (I'll probably give that one a few days to see if someone with half a clue gets to it first.) Anybody not in VA want to organize one in your state?

But maybe it's not an urgent matter. It's too bad Congress wants to cut things like food stamps and day care for low-income folks, but at least the tax cuts for those truly in need (rich individuals and powerful corporations) are sacrosanct--thank God!

Seriously, thank God instead for people like Sojourners who are working on behalf of "the least of these" and also (utterly trivially) on behalf of my Christmas spirit.

1 Chronicles 13

1 Chronicles 13 was the passage my daily devotional told me to read this morning. If you feel so moved, do me a favor and read it; it's only 14 verses. I linked to the GNT translation, but that site will let you pick other translations, both more and less literal, if you prefer.

I have to say I wasn't very satisfied with my devotional's commentary on that passage. And I'm not sure what I make of it. So I thought I'd try a dirty trick and try to get y'all to be my Bible teachers. What do you make of that passage? I don't care if you're Christian, Jewish, any faith or no faith--what does that passage say to you? I'm not (just) interested in attempts to harmonize it with our ideas of the loving Father of Jesus; if the passage pisses you off or makes you throw up your hands in disgust at God/the Bible/people of faith/Christians/oxen, I'm interested in those reactions too.

I give you a topic. Discuss. And report back by clicking on "comments" just below. If, as I say, you feel so moved.


29 November 2005

What is the gospel?

Over at the Mars Hill Unauthorized Theology Pub (a Yahoo group I enjoy participating in), I started a discussion on the topic, "What is the Gospel?" In right cowardly fashion, I declined to submit my own opinion on the matter and waited for some others to do so first. Some did, and their thoughts were excellent. Finally I plucked up the courage and submitted what follows. For this week, anyway, this is how I would formulate an answer to "What is the gospel?"

One sentence super-nutshell version: "The Gospel is the story of God's loving work to save the world through Jesus Christ."

To expand on that a bit--bottom line: it's all about Jesus. Since Jesus is the complete intersection of God and the world God loves, it's also all about God and all about the world. But it's about Jesus, and I think a full telling of that story makes reference to the following elements:

  • His preexistence as the Word of God, creating and loving the world and every living thing, in joyful, communal dance with the loving Father/Mother and the indwelling Spirit.
  • His anticipation in the lives and stories of the Jewish people, grappling as we all do with the tension between the love God calls us to and our sinful temptations.
  • His birth, becoming fully incarnate in the world he loves, as a helpless baby born into a poor family in a poorly-regarded corner of the Jewish world.
  • His life and ministry: calling followers, proclaiming the nearness of the Kingdom and eternal life, and demonstrating it through teaching, healing, generosity, radical welcome, and speaking prophetically about justice.
  • His passion and death on the cross: by entering into the deepest depths of human existence--the deepest depths of cruelty and suffering--somehow opening the way to eternal life and the salvation of the world he loves.
  • His resurrection: in becoming the firstborn from the dead, demonstrating that God's love is more powerful than death, and that to the kind of life to which he invites us, death is no enemy.
  • His ascension and commissioning of the church, giving us the gift of the Holy Spirit, calling us to our mission as the sign and foretaste of the now-and-future Kingdom, and returning to his Father.
  • His life today as the risen Lord and Son of God, lovingly present to us through prayer and worship, eternally in communion with Father and Spirit, and inviting us to join in that communion.
  • His coming again at the end of the age, when the loving God will wipe away every tear and the Kingdom will be fully established on earth as it is in heaven.

That, I think, is how I'd present the gospel. This week. :-)

28 November 2005

Required church programs?

Once again, a truly incisive question in a comment to a previous post becomes a post in its own right. P3T3 said:

mike -- really enjoyed this episode. i loved the scripture passages and your perspective re: discipleship with respect to both Christ and us wanna be little christs. from there (i submit) we took a rather broad leap and extrapolated church responsibility. i don't know that this, or any other church program, is required or specifically supported by scripture. to be clear, i am *not* suggesting the church is to be "not missional". however, i am questioning how we assign *requirements* to the church. thoughts? pete

Hmm, OK, like I said, really good question. I can see where I might have given the impression that I was talking about an "evangelism program" and a "mission program" that every church needs to have, although I did say that I wasn't talking about "just another church program". In fact, I really didn't mean to imply anything like required programs; I meant to be talking about identity. I do think it's something close to a requirement that every church put some conscious effort toward discerning their missional identity/vocation (you agree that to "be missional" is important, and I could come up with bunches of verses to support that if you wanted me to, starting with these in John and the Great Commission in Matthew 28). And I do think that something like "programs" will flow from that missional discernment, since churches by their nature don't just be, they do. But the shape of those programs/activities will be particular to the discerned vocation of the church, and I agree that there's very little specific that the Bible dictates all churches must do. (Might be fun to try to build such a list some time.)

That said (and here I'm trying to circle in on the point I was trying to make, if it wasn't about specific programs), I think there are certain attitudes regarding missional identity that should cause us to pause and go "hmm." I'm not going to be so presumptuous as to call these attitudes "errors" or "sins", but I really do think that, if you or your church seem to hold these attitudes, it's worthy to stop and consider them carefully. In case it's not obvious, this is just my opinion, informed by scripture, study, and experience. So here we go:
  • If you or your church seem to consider ministry and mission to be something reserved for a select few (be they "clergy", "elders", "missionaries", or whatever), go "hmm." I think the New Testament calls all followers of Jesus to ministry and mission.
  • If you or your church seem to consider ministry and mission to be primarily individual affairs, with everyone having some vocation but no strong belief in a communal vocation, go "hmm." Jesus always sent his followers on their missions in groups of at least two, and it's hard to read the book of Acts or the letters of Paul and miss the fundamentally collective (and missional) nature of the early Christian communities.
  • If you or your church seem to consider ministry to be properly directed more or less exclusively inwardly, toward members of the church and people who come through the front door on their own, go "hmm." Followers of Jesus are, I think, definitely called to outward-directed mission in (but not "of") the world. Someone said that the church is the only human organization that exists primarily for the benefit of non-members. That's not completely true (there are others), but it is completely true that the church exists to bless the world, not just itself.
  • If you or your church seem to consider outward-directed mission to be exclusively a matter of proclaiming the Gospel and trying to make more disciples (i.e., evangelism), then go "hmm." Many evangelical/fundamental churches seem to be close to this point of view, but social justice, welcoming the outcast, healing, nonviolence, and speaking truth to power were vitally important parts of Jesus' ministry, and in my opinion should be vitally important to his followers too.
  • If you or your church seem to consider outward-directed mission to be exclusively a matter of programs of social justice, hospitality, etc., then go "hmm." Many mainline/liberal churches seem to be close to this point of view, but proclaiming the proximity of the Kingdom of God and calling followers were vitally important parts of Jesus' ministry, and in my opinion should be vitally important to his followers too.

So in discerning a church group's missional vocation, it may well be that there's an emphasis on clergy ministry or lay ministry, or on individual ministry or collective ministry, or on "social mission" or "evangelism". Depending on the discerned identity of the group, any of these might be emphasized or de-emphasized--there's nothing wrong with that! However, in my opinion, if a church group is intentionally excluding some aspect of ministry/mission (such as evangelism or "social mission"), it's worthy to stop and consider the reason(s) for that exclusion. Do they really believe it's something incidental to the Gospel and the mission of the Church? (Was it incidental to Jesus' ministry?) Is it due to discomfort or attachment, and if so, are those things that need to be examined in the life of the church? Or is it just that the activity is not compatible with the gifts of the church group? In any case, it's worth thinking about.

(I realize that by including "clergy vs. lay" in my little list of dualities, the above might be read to imply that I think the idea of ordained clergy is fundamental to Christian ministry and mission. In fact, my point regarding clergy is just the opposite. My understanding is that the establishment of an ordained "religious class" has a lot more to do with the emergence of Christendom than it does with anything in the NT, and in case you didn't get the memo, Christendom is so over. Don't worry Rick+, I'm not saying ordained clergy are a bad thing, just that I don't think they're central to the mission of the Church like disciple-making and social justice.)

So to summarize, I think my point was not that any particular programs/actions are required of a church, but if some activities that were very important to Jesus are being (more or less) intentionally excluded from a church's sense of missional identity, then that's worth a second thought, and maybe some collective prayer and discernment.

21 November 2005

Jesus, love, and mission in the Gospel of John

Here's something I learned at my Discipleship Group gathering this evening: The footnote to John 6:57 in my HarperCollins Study Bible sends you on a cool trip through the Gospel of John and several increasingly missional statements of Jesus. Here they are:

John 6:57: "Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me."

John 15:9: "As my Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love."

John 17:18: "As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world."

John 20:21: Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you."

I encourage you to read them in context. You can do that by clicking on the hyperlinks if you want.

Can any sane person read the Gospels and doubt that Jesus saw himself fundamentally as someone sent on a mission by his loving Father? And can there be any doubt that he saw himself as, in that same love, sending his disciples into the world on their own missions of love? And that those missions, in the same spirit of reciprocity, are to pass on that love and to, in turn, equip other disciples for their missions?

Mission is not a program at your church, one among many. Mission (which includes both disciple-making, aka evangelism, and active love, aka healing, hospitality, justice, etc.) is why your church--any church--the Church--exists. It's unavoidable. If you're a Christian, do you see yourself, as Jesus did, fundamentally as a person on a mission of love in the world? If not, what is fundamental in your Christian identity?

16 November 2005

Oh. My. God.

This site is sooooo funny, I think I am seriously going to plotz. The blog. The Cavalcade of Bad Nativities. The Holy Week kitsch. WTFWJD? I am so ROTFL I'm in serious danger of losing my supper.

Thanks to Helen for the pointer.

"...and they brought him gold, frankincense, and snausages." Ha ha ha ha ha ha ulp....

15 November 2005

Whole grain, whole enchilada, whole church

Well, if you were looking for a dose of pretentious BS with your morning cup o' joe (or whatever tasty beverage you might be enjoying just now), you came to the right place. In the following post, I make sweeping statements (not uncommon in this blog), I invent words (less common), and I present to you a half-baked ecclesiology in such a way as to imply that this is the system God intended for the church and was kind enough to reveal to me. So I apologize up front and hope that by these words I can defuse it a bit. But this is one of those things that just seemed to download into my brain from somewhere while I was driving in to work this morning, thinking about the "Missional vs. Intentional" thing I was on about a few posts back. And this blog is where I work those things out. So please, be kind--I know I'm being something of a windbag--but please do comment and please do criticize and help me think these concepts through.

The thing that I like least about it is the name I came up with for the overall concept. "Whole church" implies that I think churches that don't emphasize the things I say are important are somehow incomplete, inadequate, or less than "whole." I don't think that. It's just the best name I could think of so far. Anyway, here's my "theory", such as it is.
  • A whole church is MISSIONAL/TRANSFORMATIONAL. A whole church recognizes that the most fundamental identity of followers of Jesus is that of a people on a mission. That mission is specific to each Christian, each church, and each church system, and must be continuously discerned, but it always consists of the two parts of the mission Jesus gave his emissaries in Luke 10:9: proclaim the inbreaking Kingdom of God, and demonstrate it by transforming the world, one child of God at a time. By living out their particular missions together as contrast communities within and fully part of their larger cultures, Christians become the sign and foretaste of the Kingdom by healing the sick, welcoming the outcast, and speaking truth to power in defense of social justice and peace. Through proclaiming, through deed and word, the Gospel of Jesus and his Kingdom, they invite more disciples to join in this transformational work. I believe it's telling that it's mainly folks from a liberal/mainline/denominational background who are doing the hard thinking and writing on Missional Church: this sense of mission is perhaps something especially needed in those traditions.
  • A whole church is INTENTIONAL/FORMATIONAL. A whole church recognizes that authentic Christian lives are permeated by a habit of spiritual practice and prayer. Whole churches appreciate the rich inheritance of the Christian traditions of the past. They foster communities where the spiritual life does not revolve around the Sunday service, but bridges Sunday to Monday in a rich rhythm including prayer, discernment, fellowship, study/learning, service, and hospitality. Only through a Christian life that's formational can new disciples become mature disciples, and mature disciples stay grounded enough to be the sign and foretaste of the Kingdom and agents of God's work to transform the world. I think it's telling that so many "emerging church" thinkers from a conservative/evangelical/nondenominational background (Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt) are writing books about practice: this habit of intentional practice is perhaps especially needed in those traditions.
  • A whole church is CHANGE-EMBRACING/REFORMATIONAL. A whole church is not afraid to change. As the faces of its members change, or the faces of the folks outside the church doors change (or as new faces are discovered inside or outside that were always there but never noticed before), a church needs to be ready to reform itself to serve those who now need to be served in the ways that they need to be served--and to allow its own members to minister in the ways they are called to minister. To be able to do this, it's essential that the first two items be true. Without a strong yet continuously discerned sense of mission, how can a church know what is essential to its vocation and what is negotiable? Without a strong (or at least developing) habit of intentional practice, how can we have the courage and maturity to embrace change in this way?
  • A whole church is ESCHATOLOGICAL/"PRE"FORMATIONAL. A whole church always keeps in mind that everything it does--forming disciples, transforming the world, reforming itself--is in a very real sense just rehearsal, just preliminary. A whole church expects to change the world, but not through that modern myth called "progress." Instead, we expect God to transform the world (including us) through the surprising inbreaking of the Kingdom of God, through the work of the Spirit in unexpected places, and through us as the sign and foretaste of that Kingdom. We hold in tension Jesus' announcement that the Kingdom is at hand and within us now and his prayer for the future day when God's kingdom will come, fully, on earth as in heaven.

The key to all of that is a steadfast focus on what Jesus spent so much time proclaiming: the Kingdom or Reign of God, God's inbreaking New World, both now and yet to come. We transform the world as we proclaim and demonstrate that Kingdom. We form ourselves as mature members of the Kingdom. We reform our institutions to conform to the inbreaking of the Kingdom in our where and our when. And we "pre"form all our work in the image (so we hope and pray) of the full Kingdom that is to come.

So that's my high-fallutin' theory of "whole church". Church with plenty of fiber, organic and unbleached. ;-) Thoughts?

13 November 2005

Sleeping in Light

I just finished watching Joe Straczynski's commentary on "Sleeping in Light", the final episode of Babylon 5, and I'm cryin' like a baby. I'm telling you, folks, whether or not you like sci-fi, if you're willing to give this series a time investment, you will be rewarded. Absolutely breathtaking storytelling, characterization, performances, and very deeply human themes. Don't allow yourself to be put off by the odd space aliens or the explosions. This is a story about friendship, redemption, sacrifice, love, acceptance, triumph against all odds, and the fact that ultimately that which can bring us together is so much stronger than those things which would tear us apart. And it's a sustained, coherent story with a beginning, middle, and end that's told over five years of television episodes--a feat both unprecedented and unmatched.

Sniff. All good things must end. I'm glad this story was told, and I'm glad I can watch it again some day on DVD. Thanks, Joe.

God in full view!

Wow, the translation of Psalm 84:5-7 in The Message is gorgeous:

And how blessed are those in whom you live,
whose lives become roads you travel;
They wind through lonesome valleys, come upon brooks,
discover cool springs and pools brimming up with rain!
God-traveled, these roads curve up the mountain, and
at the last turn--Zion! God in full view!

Some of Peterson's translation of the rest of that Psalm is a little awkward, and say what you want about free paraphrase transation of poetry, but as a poem in its own right, I think that's right purdy-like, not to mention evocative in its imagery. It makes me think of John 7:37-39. I also love the way it subverts "spiritual journey" talk (which I'm fond of in its unsubverted form too): our lives become a road God travels. Neat.

Anyway, just wanted to share.

12 November 2005

Postmodernity, purpose, and mission

Usually, when a bunch of unrelated threads in my life seem to intersect (and I notice), I end up thinking and writing about it. This has happened recently.
  • I recently saw the movie "Rabbit-Proof Fence", about three young girls who trek 1500 miles to return home in defiance of an early 20th-century Australian national policy of "rescuing" mixed-race children from their Aboriginal families so they can be raised in the obviously "superior" white culture.
  • I'm reading a novel written by a friend of mine, in which the protagonist is a young woman whose face was severely scarred in an auto accident. In the section I'm reading now, she's coming to terms with the idea that the concepts of "beauty" and "ugliness" she's so far taken as self-evident are just social constructs imposed by society, nothing more.
  • Another book I'm reading is Darrell Guder's The Continuing Conversion of the Church. In it, Guder writes about the history of Western European missionary efforts, with their assumption that white European culture is the ultimate expression of the Gospel, and that the encounter between the Gospel and non-European culture necessarily entailed the reshaping of those cultures in the Western mold.
  • Finally, while I was walking this morning with another friend of mine (who's taking a class on postmodernism), she told me about some thinking and research she'd done on colonialism in the Philippines and on western feminine ideals. Both involve the establishment of a cultural construct as normative for everyone, often to the detriment of those it is imposed upon.

I think there is a common thread in all of this, and it has to do with the transition between modernism and postmodernism. Western cultural superiority, white racial superiority, narrow definitions of femininity and of beauty--all of these are metanarratives (big stories) that are a product of human cultures, but have been set up by those cultures as absolute and normative for all. In the modern age, it was common to accept these sorts of metanarratives as self-evident, or at least obvious to the sufficiently "civilized": since absolute truth was knowable, what the culture "knew" about civilization, about race, about gender, about beauty was usually accepted as absolutely true and normative for everyone.

There have always been rebels, of course, who bucked those norms. But if cultural observers are correct about this "postmodern" shift, for the last half-century or so (probably more like one or two centuries, actually), whole cultures have begun to rebel against--and relativize--these metanarratives, and to see them as mere cultural constructs without absolute value. Obviously, this can be very liberating. It can also leave us without a Story or Stories with which to interpret our lives. I tend to think this is something human beings need. Whether that's true or not, many of us postmoderns seem to be searching for a new Story--we may not want it to be absolute for everyone or think it could be so, but we do want to find some narrative that's authentic for us and helps us interpret and narrate our lives.

In the Western Christian world, one popular candidate for this life-defining story has been pastor Rick Warren's "Purpose-Driven" Life/Church/etc. While Warren's ideas are being voraciously consumed, my sense is that they're much more popular with Boomers and others who are largely "modern" in outlook, and less so with younger postmoderns. I've read The Purpose-Driven Life, and I found it fairly compelling, although not wildly so. I couldn't put my finger on why not--other than some biblical literalism which wasn't central to the book, I couldn't identify a big problem I had with it. So what makes "Purpose Driven" more of a "modern" phenomenon?

I'm still not sure, but I've sort of decided that it's "modern" because it's setting up one more absolute metanarrative that's normative for all individuals. Let me pick that apart a little. Rick Warren's "purposes" are presented as the purposes in life for everyone, everywhere--normative and absolute, one-size fits all, like most modern Stories. Further, they primarily seem to represent demands that each individual needs to fulfill--it's all about the purpose in my life, which I need to live out. I suspect that Purpose-Driven Church, which I haven't read, takes a more collective approach, but my impression of Warren's approach is that it's pretty individualistic, another hallmark of modernism.

What I like about the Missional Church conversation, is that in some ways it's the opposite of this. Missional Church is about discerning the unique vocation that God is calling you to in the world. It's not about a one-size-fits-all, normative metanarrative; it's about looking at the context of the world around your faith community, your particular talents, spiritual gifts, and passions, and figuring out where and how you can do God's work in the world. On the other hand, the way that story is discerned and lived out is fundamentally communal--there is an individual aspect to missional discernment, but calling must be discerned in community, and that's also the way it must be practiced in the world.

So: to me, a Story appropriate for us postmodern seekers is one that's our story in that it's specific and authentic to us, but also our story in that it can only be told and acted out in community. It should also be one that promotes humility, openness, welcome, diversity, and health, unlike many of the metanarratives of our past. I believe the Missional Church conversation--a conversation fundamentally about authentic ways to follow Jesus in the world--a provides one path toward answering the question: as we leave behind or diminish many of these cracked old stories, what new story--our story--are we going to tell?

05 November 2005

Solomon's Porch

I ran into a little bit of a traffic jam on the way to Solomon’s Porch, so I got there a few minutes late. (Side note: driving in the Twin Cities was, in general, a very pleasant contrast to driving in the DC area!) They were already underway with a first worship song of the evening: a good, well-played, inspirational alt rock tune that they composed (like all the music they use) themselves.

So here’s the picture: SP is currently meeting in a traditional, older Presbyterian church in urban Minneapolis. When I walked into the sanctuary, I was immediately struck by the extent to which they had transformed it. The front part of the nave, ahead of the pews, had been turned into a living room, with comfy chairs, sofas, and floor lamps. To the left, where the choir might be in regular Sunday morning services, they’d set up the band, and lyrics were being projected on the high white walls to the left and right of the pews. To the right of the central living-room area, the sanctuary had a removable wall that opened into what appeared to be a parish hall. They had more comfy furniture set up in there, facing the central area, and beyond that they had coffee and other refreshments. Behind the central area were raised wooden chairs that were part of the church itself. Members of the congregation sat on those, in the central area, on the comfy furniture in the parish hall area, and in the pews, all facing the central-front nave area. The overall effect: very “round”, very warm and welcome and comfortable. The light from all those floor lamps made the space very soft/warm and living-room like. They’d hung the walls with artwork that contributed to the homey, communal feel.

There were also little tables set up among up front and among the pews, accompanied by those soft floor lamps and laden with sliced bread and jugs of grape juice. As I found a pew to sit in, I almost grabbed some, thinking “refreshments!”, before the reality of the situation (“communion!”) dawned on me. :-) So I sat down and enjoyed the worship music. One thing I noticed was that, despite the projected lyrics, not many people were singing along wit the band. This may be a consequence of their always writing new music, so the songs don’t have a chance to become favorite hymns—I don’t know.

After the music, I think they launched right into the evening’s readings: Romans 1-4. Yep, that’s right: four whole chapters of St. Paul’s magnum opus! First, three congregation members stood up, one after the other, wherever they happened to be in the church, and read a portion as it was projected on the walls. Then, Doug Pagitt (the pastor) explained how the evening was going to work (four chapters of Romans!). The same three folks each read another portion, there was a musical intermission, and finally the three readers finished reading the text. It was an effective way to make the reading of such a long text not seem boring, and having the readers stand up and read from wherever they sat in the congregation was also effective—it seemed very egalitarian.

Then we had communion. The majority method of doing this was to go to the nearby tables, get some bread and juice, and bring it back to where you were sitting. Then, when everybody had some of the elements, we would share the body and blood together, like a big party. There were also other options, though: at the front and back of the church, there were places where folks would serve you bread and wine Anglican/Catholic style. Even there, you could take the wine in a cup, by dunking, or by sipping. This last option being the one most like “home” for me, I chose it. I don’t think many people do choose that option, because the young lady who served it to me poured it down the front of my sweater. As Blair remarked later, I was truly “bathed in the blood of Christ”. ;-)

After communion, they began what would often (I gather) have been a sermon or message. Doug Pagitt introduced this evening’s concept, spinning slowly around on a bar stool so as to address everybody in the round-ish congregation. During the previous week, four congregation members (including Pagitt) had written their own versions of Romans 1-4, and once again they stood up one by one wherever they were in the congregation (Pagitt ran up to the choir loft for his) to read their compositions. These ranged from a “The Message”-style paraphrase to a very broad meditation on Paul’s themes. The last interpretation was addressed not to the Romans, but to the people of Solomon’s Porch, which I though was effective, though I wished the writer had found a way to extend the metaphor throughout: are there any groups that the Christians of Solomon’s Porch can’t believe God is working among, just as the Jews of first-century Rome might have had trouble believing that God could be at work among the Gentiles? Thankfully, none of the presentations was as long as the Biblical passage itself.

After that, there was a brief time for the congregation to gather in small groups and discuss the passage and the interpretations, and then to share insights with the whole group. I never would have believed that a group that large (I think there were at least 100 of us) could have profitably grappled with a text that long in a less-than-two-hour church gathering that also included musical worship and a shared Lord’s Supper. But it really worked!
Well, that was more reporterly than contemplative, and even as a piece of reportage, I probably got some of the details or order of events wrong (it was two weeks ago). But overall, it was a wonderful, worshipful, and fundamentally communal and welcoming experience.

Rethinking dualities

Upon reflection, I'm a little concerned by some of the lines I drew in my last post.
  • I implied (as I perhaps have in the past) that liberal mainliners tend not to have a sense of outward-directed mission in the world. But that's not exactly true; many liberal mainliners have a strong sense of this, but it tends to be limited in concept to work for social justice, peace, ecological stewardship, etc., not proclamation of the good news of Jesus' saving work.
  • I may have implied that conservative evangelicals do tend to have a well-developed sense of mission. I think that, as broad generalizations go, this is true, but to make another such sweeping statement, I think their concept of this mission is often also limited: it includes only proclamation of Jesus' saving work, and that only on an individual basis (saving individual souls from hell). It tends to ignore the world-transforming scope of Jesus' message of the inbreaking Kingdom of God, and the implications for Christian concern for things like, well, social justice, peace, and ecological stewardship.
  • In reality, I think both ends of this spectrum can have a sense of mission, but it tends (in my opinion) to be a limited, reductionist one that doesn't take a full account of the Gospel. And I would go so far as to say that one of the chief failings on both sides is a lack of deep study and reflection on the "both now and not-yet" character of the Kingdom of God that Jesus spent his ministry proclaiming and demonstrating. I think we all need to return to a careful study of the life and teachings of Jesus, in the light of the lives and teachings of his followers, both in biblical times and through the ages. (Incidentally, I think this is exactly what those Missional Church theologians are doing.)
  • In regard to practice, I may have implied that liberal mainliners are more likely to be grounded in a life of spiritual practice than conservative evangelicals. Again, that's a caricature. Evangelicals tend to be much stronger in certain important practices, such as regular Bible study, than mainliners. And they may pray more, though their sources and modes of prayer may be more limited and less embracing of the long Christian tradition. And plenty of mainliners (including a shocking percentage of pastors, according to a statistic I recently heard) have no regular habit of spiritual practice.

So I just wanted to confess to having set up some false (or at least artificial) dualities for rhetorical purposes. I've made some generalizations in this post that repeat that sin. So please take my verbal diagrams with a grain of salt; my real point, again, is that in my pursuit of being an authentic follower of Jesus I need to be both missional in motivation and intentional in practice.

Another confession: I fear that this blog has gotten too intellect-oriented, dense, and philosophical again lately. Sorry, my head was full coming back from that conference, and I had to let it out. (Also, I've been sick, so I've had lots of time to blog.) Anyway, the next post will be a more contemplative reflection on my worship experience at Solomon's Porch, a warm and welcoming emerging church in Minneapolis. Thanks for bearing with me.

04 November 2005

Missional vs. Intentional: Smackdown!

So I've been blogging a lot about this "Missional Church" idea. Go back two posts for a fairly concise definition of what this is. Innovation in this space is being done by folks like the Gospel and Our Culture Network, Church Innovations, Missional Leadership Institute, and Luther Seminary. Most of those folks come from a mainline Protestant background: Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Mennonites, etc. However, I've discovered something interesting by creating a Google Alert on the word "missional": the idea, or at least the terminology, is catching on like wildfire among conservative, evangelical, even fundamentalist churches and church systems. (I'm not talking about emerging churches--they also tend to be thoroughly missional, at least in theory, but they aren't the big Google Alert generators.)

I haven't done a lot of research into their use of the term, but I wonder (idly and ignorantly) whether all of those conservative churches are thoroughly grounded in the deep theology being done by the groups I link to above. I also wonder whether they have a grounding in historical Christian tradition and spiritual practices--or do they act as if Christianity was founded and died out in the first century, and only resumed again in the 19th century when the Plymouth Brethren invented Dispensationalism?

OK, gear shift. As I mentioned in my last post, there's another concept, "Intentional" church, being investigated under the auspices of the Project on Congregations of Intentional Practice, a study being carried out by (among others) faculty at the Virginia Theological Seminary. One of those VTS profs, Diana Butler Bass, has written an excellent, slim book called Practicing Congregations: Imagining a New Old Church, which outlines her theory. Essentially, intentional congregations are those which intentionally and creatively choose to stop devoting all their resources to uncritically preserving the "shallower" (my word) traditions founded within the last century or so (church suppers, particular hymns, etc.) in favor of re-forming their communities in new ways, resulting in new vitality. Often these "new ways" are really old ways: reconnecting with the "deeper" traditions of the spiritual practices of the historic Christian faith, from contemplative prayer to radical hospitality to discernment to art.

Bass goes on to say that the "intentional" expression within the more conservative, evangelical churches is the Emerging Church, while the "intentional" expression within the more liberal, mainline churches is what she calls "Practicing Congregations": churches that have truly embraced the sorts of "deep" traditions and practices noted above and re-shaped their collective life around them.

I think it's a really exciting movement of the Spirit within the church that these mainline churches are rediscovering a life of intentional practice. But I can't help but wonder: shouldn't these practices flow out of a sense of missional vocation? Similarly, I think it's wonderful that those evangelical churches are embracing the missional idea. But I hope that, at the same time, they are grounding that missional commitment in an intentional habit of deep spiritual practice. I just have this feeling that each of these movements--potentially--is only telling half the Story. (I want to stress potentially--clearly many congregations talking the missional talk are walking the walk of intentional practice, and clearly many mainline "practicing congregations" are working from a discernment of their missional calling. In fact, these two movements are coming to many of the same conclusions--just compare the lists of practices on PCIP web site with those in the Missional Church book Treasure in Clay Jars, or read this review, which compares the two and comes, in the end, to conclusions not unlike mine.)

Like I said, I don't have much to back up my concern on the missional-but-not-intentional side, but I've gotten definite vibes from within my own liberal mainline tradition (including a conversation with a very cool gentleman from the PCIP project itself) that the idea of being intentional and practicing is a way for mainline congregations to let themselves off the hook for being sent out into the world to proclaim and demonstrate the Kingdom of God. If that's the case, then while I admit that intentional practice is a step in the right direction and may lead to renewed vitality, stopping there stops short of the full Gospel. It certainly falls short of the example of Jesus, who spent a great deal of time out in the world teaching about and demonstrating the Kingdom. It also ignores pretty much all of Jesus' post-resurrection instructions to the church, in the Gospels and in Acts. But the opposite approach (missional but not intentional) is also fraught with danger--Jesus also spent a lot of time "recharging his spiritual batteries" through solitude and prayer, and practicing healing, hospitality, and speaking out for social justice, and so have his followers through the last two milen

I think this is one of those classic "both, and" scenarios: in my opinion, the authentic Christian disciple, congregation, church system, etc. needs to be both missional and intentional. It's like running a race: mission marks the course, the starting line and the finish line, while intentional practice provides the ground under your feet and the water and electrolytes along the way. OK, that's a terrible analogy, but the point is that nobody, in my opinion, is off the hook. Even if you're a liberal mainliner, you have a missional calling in the world--inwardly-directed practice alone doesn't cut it. Even if you're a conservative evangelical, living out your mission requires an intentional habit of practices like contemplative prayer, hospitality, healing, art, theological learning and social justice--it's not enough to support evangelistic organizations and socially conservative politics and get all your creative ideas from the Left Behind books.

OK, well, that's why I call it Rude Armchair Theology. In any case, I guess my message is: when it comes to the Gospel, don't let yourself off easy, even if you're moving in a positive direction. Jesus' life consisted of both passionate mission and deep practice, and so should those of his disciples. And it's him (sure as HELL not me) that I'm holding up as the paragon of both. Oh, and sorry to disappoint: in the end, I am incapable of getting rival seminary professors into a WWE steel cage. And don't think I haven't tried. ;-)

03 November 2005

Resources for missional discernment

OK, as promised, here are some resources for helping an individual, a congregation, or a church system (synod, diocese, judicatory, loose affiliation, etc.) to discern the shape of their calling in the world. I learned about some of these at the conference I recently attended; others I learned of in other ways.

Discernment resources for individuals:

LifeKeys is a set of tools developed by a trio of diversely gifted Presbyterians. It helps an individual determine his or her natural talents, spiritual gifts, personality (using the MBTI), values, and passions. Together, these can be great clues to what you're supposed to do with your life.

One organization that uses LifeKeys is Church Innovations, an incredible Minnesota-based consulting organization that I found out about at this conference. Most of their resources are aimed at congregations or larger bodies (so I mention them a lot below), but I'm sure their LifeKeys-based services are excellent. But if you're a lone individual, you should just buy the book.

The Centered Life program, created by Luther Seminary (where the conference I attended was held), looks to be an excellent resource for discovering a sense of calling or vocation in daily life, be it working in your home or working for "the man". Their tagline is "Connecting Sunday to Monday."

Another expert on that topic is Anne Koester, associate director of the Georgetown Center for Liturgy (second bio down on this page) who offered a series on the Spirituality of Work at my church which I found extremely helpful.

Last, but not least, Listening Hearts is an outstanding program developed by folks within the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. It's designed to help an individual at the point of an important decision to discern what God may be calling him or her to do in that instance. It's based on a great deal of research into historic Christian traditions on discernment (Quaker, Ignatian, etc.), and it essentially involves a trio of trained discerners using a combination of listening, questions, silence, and prayer to help the "focus person" perceive the voice of God. I've been through a session myself, and found it incredibly helpful. If you buy the book, you won't regret it.

Discernment resources for groups and congregations:

Listening Hearts also has a book/program for group discernment, called Grounded in God. I don't have first-hand experience with it, but I don't doubt that it's excellent. Here's the book. They also have a program for spiritual conflict resolution, called Opening the Ear of Your Heart.

Getting back to Church Innovations, they too have a program for dealing with conflict, plus programs on staff covenanting, growing healthier congregations, and small group training.

They also have a really, really exciting tool for congregations interested in being guided through a process of learning about themselves and their contexts. Called Church FutureFinder, it's sort of like a LifeKeys for congregations, with the added benefit of guiding the church to gather demographic and anecdotal (story) information about the context to which they've been called. (In other words, church members are sent out into the neighborhood to talk to people--and not to hand them tracts, but to hear their stories.) That is so important for coming to understand the what God is calling them to do in that place! It's free to use if you don't want to print reports, and only $70 if you want reports and a user manual. It's also worth noting that by using it your congregation becomes part of a database and research project being undertaken by CI. There's also a "complete with consulting services" version of this process, called Congregational Discovery, which costs $2,500.

Finally, I recommend that mainline congregations check out the Project on Congregations of Intentional Practice, a study being carried out by (among others) faculty at the Virginia Theological Seminary. I'm a little concerned that this project may be encouraging some mainline congregations to ignore the elephant in the room (labeled "MISSION"), but intentional and practicing is way ahead of nominal, and I think this project and its findings are wonderful, if they perhaps don't go far enough. (My concerns will be the subject of an upcoming post.) So check it out.

Discernment resources for larger church systems:

I admit I'm new to this, but as far as I can tell, the experts of missional discernment at this level are Church Innovations. They've got a program called Partnership for a Missional Church, in which they take a collection of at least 12-15 congregations through an extended journey of discernment and convenanting together which is built on all their other resources. They've got another program called Robust Church Development which seems to be aimed at teaching church systems practices that help them build strong churches.

CI has also been working with the Gospel and Our Culture Network to equip at least four major major U.S. church bodies to re-envision themselves in a missional mold. This was the main topic of the conference I attended. One of those church bodies, the Mennonite Church, USA, has a lot of excellent resources that interested folks at any level (but especially big church systems) may benefit from. I was personally inspired to hear how these Mennonites, as well as Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Churches of Christ congregations are making mission the core of their identity throughout their organizations.

So that's all I've got for now. To my mind, this is what it's all about, or at least where it all starts. If Christians are a people on a mission, then their first and most important obligation is to discern the shape of that mission, or their particular calling in the world. It's not easy, but there are those who can help!

Know of any others? Comment on this post and tell me about them!

02 November 2005

Discerning Missional Vocation

OK, so now I'm finally getting around to writing about the actual subject matter of the Gospel and Our Culture Network Conference I attended. The basic motivating idea behind the conference is "Missional Church", which I've blogged about before, but in a nutshell, it's the idea that the Christian church is, in its most fundamental identity, a people on a mission. That mission is to be the sign and foretaste of the inbreaking Kingdom of God by proclaiming the Good News of God's redemptive work in Jesus, and by transforming the world through imitating Jesus' acts of welcome, love, and healing.

One easy thing to miss in that definition is the corporate nature of that missional calling. The church is not a collection of independent persons on a mission; the church is a people on a mission. Together. Early in my Christian walk, I "got it" that I as an individual Christian have been gifted and called by God to a particular ministry, a particular vocation. It's my job to discern the shape of that call (which may be fairly broad, but will be related to my natural and spiritual gifts, my passions, and my cultural context) and to live it out in the world. I've been busy with that process of individual discernment for much of the last three years. But what I missed until recently was the fact that this missional calling isn't just individual; it's collective. Just as each Christian has a particular call to ministry and mission, so does each church, each judicatory (diocese, synod, etc.), each denomination, etc.

And that, more or less, is what this conference was about. If congregations and larger church bodies also have a missional calling based on their particular gifts, passions, and context, how on earth would they go about discerning and living out that vocation? The good news (and I use those words intentionally) is that there are organizations out there bringing to bear a combination of deep, biblical, missional theology and leading-edge sociological tools to provide great resources to church organizations (congregations and larger bodies) that are ready to get serious about discerning and living out their missional calling in the world. I came in contact with many of these organizations in Minnesota, and I know of a few others from different sources, so my next post will include pointers to some of these resources. Stay tuned....

01 November 2005


I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Dharma.
I take refuge in the Sangha.

This is the most basic prayer of Tibetan Buddhism. To the Buddha (the enlightened teacher), the Dharma (his teaching), and the Sangha (the community of learners), I go for refuge--for protection from the evils of this world and of my own mind. For six years, since I first officially took refuge in Buddhism in the summer of 1999, I've tried to pray that prayer every day, morning and night, to honor the vows I took in that initial refuge ceremony. (Third Refuge Training: "To repeatedly (thrice in the morning, thrice in the evening) take refuge by recollecting the qualities of the Triple Jewel [i.e., the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha]."

But after a conversation I had with Blair in Minnesota, I've now stopped. This is the first time I've intentionally broken one of my vows, so this is a big deal for me. Even when I became a Christian, I didn't see any reason to think that this freed me from the vows I took as a Buddhist, especially since (as far as I could tell), there was nothing in them that conflicted with the life of a follower of Jesus.

But when Blair asked me if there where any practices from my Buddhist past that I maintained today, and I tried to describe this practice of taking refuge, I realized that my words made no sense. They didn't fit. I realized that, in point of fact, I don't take refuge in the Triple Jewel any more. When I was praying this prayer, it was just words with no meaning. I tried to rationalize it broadly: I was taking refuge in all wise teachers (Buddha, Jesus, Paul, the Hebrew prophets, etc.), their teaching, and the communities that learn from them. But that seemed lame and untrue, little more than a platitude: "Wisdom is good." I even tried Christianizing it: "I take refuge in the Christ, in the Gospel, and in the Church." But I realized that even that doesn't work.

The Christian doesn't take refuge, not even in Jesus. The Christian doesn't retreat from the world, or from his own sin, to the safety of the shelter of Christ and Church. The Christian goes to Jesus to have his sin forgiven, his life redeemed, and to be sent back out into the world to be the sign and foretaste of God's inbreaking reign. He doesn't flee the world, he goes out into it like a sheep among wolves to transform it as he himself is being transformed.

So with sadness and humility, I find myself having to lay this practice and this vow back at the feet of the Buddha who gave it to me. I can't continue taking refuge without violating another one of my vows: not to lie. Because that's what these words of refuge have become for me.

So I pray this prayer instead:

I go to the Christ for forgiveness and redemption.
I look to the Gospel for my missional calling in the world.
I go to the Church for companionship and accountability in living out that calling.


31 October 2005

The Gospel of Luke

So I got back a week ago from a trip to Minnesota to attend a conference at Luther Seminary. I stayed with my friends Blair (former Associate Rector at my church here in Northern Virginia, current Rector of St. Matthew's Church in urban St. Paul), Dwight (Blair's husband, a doctoral student at Luther and probably the best theological teacher I've ever met), and Luke (their 2 1/2 year old son and the subject of this post).

Luke is without a doubt the happiest child I've ever encountered. Every moment for him seems to be a new delight. He runs around all day long with a huge grin on his face, absolutely convinced that every thing he finds and every person he meets will be the bearer of good news. (And then he sleeps all night, Hallelujah!) :-) A lot of kids that age seem to have learned a little bit of apprehension; they aren't too sure whether what's around the corner might be good news or bad news. If there isn't actual harm in store, it's quite possible that the next thing might be a thwarting of their plans, a limiting of their fun, or just something far, far short of the non-stop party that, ideally, a child's life should be. And many kids seem to wear this apprehension on their faces much of the time, and to spend a good deal of time and energy trying to make sure that their fun quotient remains as high as possible at all times, even if they sometimes have to make themselves and everyone around them miserable to accomplish that. (I write as a non-parent, and I don't hate kids, but admit it. Kids do this.)

But not Luke. It's not that he gets everything he wants, or gets to do everything he wants; it's just that nothing in his life seems to have shaken his confidence that life will consist of one joyous blessing after another. It isn't his job to make sure the blessings keep coming. It doesn't need to be. They just come.

God, grant me that kind of faith! Grant me that kind of joi de vivre! But in all honesty, I have to say that when I reflect on this (as I have since spending time with Luke), I'm overwhelmed by the extent to which that prayer has already been answered in my life since I became a Christian.

OK, minor side trip, which I think is necessitated by my use of the phrase "became a Christian." It raises a bunch of questions. Do I believe in the reality of the experience of being "born again" or "born from above" (Gospel of John, chapter 3)? I truly do. Do I consider myself a "born-again Christian"? Yes, I do. Can I point to a single day or moment when I experienced this new beginning. Nope. Can I point to a year or several-month period during which I became "born again"? Yes, I can, and contrary to much of the theology of my Anglican tradition (and also Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and much of mainline Protestant tradition), I don't believe it was when I was baptized as an infant. It was in early 2003, when I truly began to trust and have confidence in Jesus Christ and to sense the activity of the Holy Spirit in my life.

For Luke, though, maybe it really did happen at baptism, or even in the womb, as he was bathed almost constantly in his mom's prayers. I don't know. But I do know that since I was "born from above", I've become a lot more like Luke. I thought about this as I reflected on the summer that just ended. I remember clearly looking back on waning summers in the '90's and even early 2000's and evaluating them like this: how much fun did I have? Life's short, so it was a good summer if I got to an amusement part at least once, got to the beach and swam, went to a Ren Faire, saw a lot of movies, etc. I was like the average child: the meaning of life, as far as I could discern it, was to make sure I was maximally entertained.

But as I looked back at this summer, I thought: gee, I wanted to get to an amusement park this year. Oh well. I didn't go to the movie theater much this year. Maybe next year. This summer, and indeed most of the last three years, has been marvelous, and not because they've been chock-full of non-stop entertainment. I've been living more like Luke: open eyes, open heart, open arms to embrace whatever life has in store for me next. I'm busy trying to follow the Spirit wherever She leads, and while it's not an endless party, it is wonderful. Literally, this kind of life keeps me, like Luke, in an almost constant state of wonder. I've got a long way to go (Philippians 3:12-14), but I'm really starting to get an idea of what Jesus was talking about in the Gospel of John when he spoke about "eternal life" or "life to the full".

If you ever have the chance to meet Luke, you'll get to see exactly what I'm talking about. Of course, Luke's life won't be all blessings. Nobody's life is. His faith in the universe will be tested. And so will mine. I've experienced some bad things in life (clinical depression chief among them), but I've yet to suffer in my life of faith. The testimony of the Bible and most Christians I know tell me that this is inevitable. I don't really have a lot of confidence in my own ability to weather adversity. But I'm not counting on me. And having spent a few days with Luke, I don't think the negatives he faces in life will break his essential confidence and joy. Bend them, maybe, but not break. It's who he is.

And I really think it's becoming who I am. So when the time comes for me to take up my cross, God, please help me to remember the Gospel of Luke: that life is Good News, life to the full, life eternal, and it's not my job to make it that way if I have confidence in the One who is the source of all blessings. Amen.

30 October 2005

Shape of blogs to come

OK, I've been promising blogs about my recent trip to Minnesota, and I've yet to deliver. And here again I've run out of day. But I do intend to blog on this, probably quite a bit, so I'll whet your collective appetite with an outline of the sorts of things I plan to write about, hopefully within the next week:

1) A post on the Gospel of Luke. No, not that Luke. (Yes, Eleanor, that Luke.) Those of you who don't know my friends Blair and Dwight and their delightful son will have to wait--not too long--to find out what I'm on about.

2) A confessional post on a conversation I had with Blair that made me re-assess where I stand vis-a-vis my connection with Buddhism.

3) At least one post (probably more) on the subject matter of the conference I attended. These will be on the theological conversation about Missional Church and how that conversation is being translated (by folks with deep roots in both theology and social sciences) into concrete tools for congregations and systems of congregations to discern their missional calling in the world.

4) A post about some concerns I have about two (apparently largely independent) conversations about the way churches are changing in the 21st century. The first is the Missional Church movement being pioneered on this continent by the Gospel and Our Culture Network, Luther Seminary, and others, whose language (at least) is being adopted enthusiastically by nondenominational and Southern Baptist evangelical churches (among others). The second is the "Intentional Church" movement being studied by Diana Butler Bass and others at Virginia Theological Seminary and elsewhere and being picked up on by many mainline protestant churches. My concern is not with either one of these movements, both of which (in my opinion) are the result of powerful activity of the Spirit within the church. My concern is with their apparent independence. They need each other. Or so I believe. More later.

5) A post on my experience at one of the most iconic Emerging Churches, Solomon's Porch in Minneapolis. (Nutshell version: If you ever find yourself in the Twin Cities on a Sunday evening, go!!)

Hmm. OK, that's as far ahead as I can reasonably plan my blogging life. Stay tuned!

27 October 2005

Great post from Scot McKnight

Elizabeth was asking (in the comments to a recent post) for some high-quality Christian theology. I recommended some books, but lo, this morning my RSS reader fed me this great post from Scot McKnight on salvation vs. discipleship. Good stuff, in my opinion. It's short, too. Bite-sized.

I will get around to blogging about my Minnesota experience, I promise, but you go away for six days and you come back BUSY! (Or I do, anyway.)

26 October 2005

Can I get an Amen???

Zowee, I'm pretty sure several readers of this blog will be interested in signing on for this:


G'wan, put your electronic John Hancock on that petition. The world needs more than one kind of Christian radio!

24 October 2005

Overwhelmed by great theology and practice

Well, I just got back from six days in the Twin Cities with dear friends who also happen to be brilliant theologians and deeply spiritual people (and whose two-year-old son is a non-stop delight). And I was there to learn (at a conference at Luther Seminary) from some of North America's deepest thinkers in Missional Church theology, and I found out the amazing extent to which they're not just thinking, writing, and teaching but doing--helping congregations and church systems to transform themselves and discover and live out their missional vocation in the world. And I got to worship at Solomon's Porch, one of the most creative American Emerging Churches. And...I'm a bit overwhelmed. And incredibly grateful--to my friends, to these Missional Church theologian/sociologists, and to God.

Much more on this later. For the moment, I'm too tired and it's too late.

Peace, all!

17 October 2005

Where's the purple?

Grumble. I agree with the general thrust of this article by Noah Feldman in America's Number One Newspaper (and the one that happens to direct-deposit my paycheck), but several statements really annoyed me. For example:

Beginning of fourth paragraph, just below the heading, "The divide": "The country is split between two camps." Aren't we tired of that simplistic binary worldview yet? Well, some of us are, anyway.

End of the paragraph after that: "Tell me whether you think religion should play a role in government decisions, and I'll tell you where you come out on these core debates [i.e., abortion and end-of-life issues]." No, Noah, you won't. You and I could play that game (and you and many, many people I know could play that game), but if I were you I'd avoid betting money on it. Try rock-paper-scissors instead.

Here's a whole paragraph near the end:

"If we were serious about getting back to the Framers' way of doing things, we would adopt their two principles: no money and no coercion. This compromise would allow plenty of public religious symbolism, but it would also put an end to vouchers for religious schools. God could stay in the Pledge, but the faith-based initiative would be over, and state funds could reach religious charities only if they were separately incorporated to provide secular social services."

I actually think "no money, no coercion" is a pretty good guiding principle for these debates, but I'm not sure I agree with some of his conclusions. Is there really no coercion involved when a teacher stands up in front of a class of elementary school kids and says, "OK class, now we're all going to recite the Pledge of Allegiance together"? Also, what does this say about "In God we trust" on currency? It is money, so does it fall under "no money"? (Obviously it's a stretch if it does, since it arguably costs the same to mint coins with that slogan as it does coins with any other slogan on them.) Is it coercion because everybody who lives in this country has no choice but to use our money, even atheists and Buddhists? Or since using the money doesn't imply that you agree with the slogan printed on it, is that argument weightless? (If I use Canadian money does that mean I'm fond of HRH the Queen?) Hmm.

Right after that, he says, "The public could logically embrace this modest proposal, and the zealots on both sides should think it over." Hang on, you just spent the first part of the article implying that "the public" was made up more or less exclusively of "the zealots on both sides". You mean it's possible that real people are purple, not necessarily fire-engine red or royal blue?

One statement in the last papagraph is something we need to all come to terms with: "No longer Judeo-Christian (if we ever were), we are now Judeo-Christian-Muslim-Buddhist-Hindu-agnostic-atheist." Yeah, and -Sikh-Taoist-Confucianist-Ifa-NewAge-Scientologist-Jain-RollYourOwn-etc.-etc.-etc. We're simply not going to get where we're going by re-establishing Christendom and the so-called "Judeo-Christian society". I just don't think it's what we're called to do in this place and time. But I think what we are called to usher in--a Kingdom of God that welcomes all kinds of folks of all kinds of faiths--is way cooler anyway.

In any event, I thought it was an interesting article, even if parts of it torked me off a little. Apparently it's the beginning of a regular feature of writing on faith topics by my beloved employer, so I'll be keeping an interested eye on what they come up with.