Monday, October 22, 2007

Community and Spiritual Transformation

I am starting an eight-week experiment on spiritual transformation. At the root of my study is the question, "How do people change?" I am in the middle of a sermon series called Roots: Understanding our Spiritual Heritage, in which I am teaching through the Book of Colossians. I have divided the book into four topics that I think form the roots of our faith--Christology, mission, transformation, and community. The last message I did was the second of three weeks of transformation. The final transformation message will happen on December 30.

I have been wrestling with the question of spiritual transformation for some time now. I have talked about how not to be transformed (i.e. legalism) and the theology of transformation (i.e. the already but not yet), but I haven't settled the question of the nuts and bolts of change. When I share this, I don't just want to present a theological expose of how I think people should change based on what I read in the Bible, but I want to share real life wisdom on how people do change based on my spiritual experiences. As always, I am more interested in praxis than I am in theory.

I believe that spiritual transformation is just that--spiritual. I starts with God and happens by grace through faith. Perhaps that is what Paul means in Galatians 3:2–3, "I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?" (NIV) On the other hand, Bonhoeffer has convinced me that "faith" is not equivalent to passive "belief," so some kind of human resonse is necessary for transformation. Belief is certainly involved in faith, but the two are not identical. I love what Bonhoeffer wrote in The Cost of Discpleship, "Only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes." I think Paul also recognized a tension between spiritual enablement and human response when he wrote in Philippians 2:12–13, "continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose." (NIV)

There is a tension in spiritual transformation between will and grace. My question is, "What is the difference between what Paul wanted the Philippians to do in Phil 2:12–13 and what he criticized the Galatians for doing in Gal 3:2–3?" For this, I think the works on Paul by James Dunn and N.T. Wright are helpful. The "works" that the Galatians relied on were the ethnic identity markers of circumcision and obedience to the Mosaic Law. The "faith" that Paul encouraged was alllegiance to Jesus and the gospel message. The faith/works distinction is not between belief and action, but between allegiance to the ethnic identity markers of the Mosaic law and allegiance to Christ.

So, what is the practical outworking of faith? First, there is a necessity of trusting in God (I think this is what Paul means by justification by faith). Also, I think that it is also important to be immersed in the spiritual community (perhaps this is one aspect of what it means to be "in Christ," i.e. "in" His body, the church).

I have developed a philosophy of what I think it takes to be transformed. On the one hand, I think it takes prayer and meditation on God's word. These two disciplines are indespensible to Christian spirituality. Also, I think it requires involvement in the spiritual community, especially through confession and repentance. I think James was getting at something when he wrote, "Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed." (James 5:16 NIV) I have found that the significant spiritual changes that I have made in my life have occurred when: (1) I decided that I truly wanted to change and I resolved to do so, and (2) I found accountability for my resolution. It is interesting that these resemble the spiritual disciplines of repentance (1) and confession (2). Maybe the ancients knew what they were talking about.

I plan to teach on December 30 that repentance and confession are the keys to our part of spiritual change. Before I do that, I am going to find an accountability partner and test the theory on myself over the next 8 weeks. I will post on the blog how everything turns out.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Coming Soon: and Willow Creek Fellowship

God really spoke to me (careful now) today about the heart of ministry and about spiritual leadership. It started when I opened up this month's Outreach magazine, which features the 100 largest and fastest growing churches in America. I figured Lakewood church in Houston would be the largest (twice as large as Willow Creek, the second largest), but I was looking for some trends in which churches were growing the fastest--especially in our area. Surprisingly, Mars Hill is not the fastest growing church in our area--Champions Center in Tacoma is. I've never heard of it.

One of the things that I noticed in the list of fastest growing churches was the absence of denominations. Most of the fastest growing churches were either non-denominational or Southern Baptist. Hardly any of the other denominations had a major presence on the list. However, the list also had a category for "# of sites" as most megachurches have planted multiple sites to better suit the volume of traffic trying to get to their campuses.

It's interesting that most of these megachurches are hesitant to align with a denomination, but they are eager to plant satellite campuses. Its almost as if they are starting their own denominations. Instead of having First Baptist Church of South Barrington and First Baptist Church of Chicago, now we have Willow Creek South Barrington and Willow Creek Chicago. It's essentially the same thing, except that the unifying factors are style, philosophy of ministry, and (often) a dynamic leader, instead of common beliefs and practices. It's almst as if we like the feeling of having several churches working together, but we don't like the idea of having to submit to the rules and beliefs of some denomination.

Prediction: Soon there will only be a handful of megachurches with campuses all over the country. They will drown out all of the independant churches much in the way that Walmart puts independant stores out of business. (Maybe we will even see some ecclesial mergers, so that some day we will have to choose from two church and Willow Creek Fellowship.)

I am reading a collection of Deitrich Bonhoeffer's works, and today I read a portion from Life Together. Bonhoeffer wrote, "Nobody is too good for the lowest service. Those who worry about the loss of time entailed by such small, external acts of helpfulness are usually taking their own work too seriously." (Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, in A Testament to Freedom, edited by Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson [San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1995], 338.) God kind of reminded me today what spiritual leadership is all about--it's about serving people.

I don't have a problem with the megachurches or with their satellite campuses, but I wonder if in all of that there is evidence that we have lost the focus as Christian leaders. Perhaps we are taking our own work too seriously--as if God can't use other churches in other neighborhoods to reach other people. We feel the need to plant another version of our church in that neighborhood so that the people there can be reached "more effectively." Maybe we've forgotten that ministry is about serving people, not expanding our influence.

I can't speak for others, and I don't mean to question the motives of people I don't know. But I feel that God spoke to me today--that He doesn't want me to be a part of that culture. I want to be a part of a community that cares for me. I want to figure out what it means to be a genuine follower of Jesus Christ. I want to do a good job of leading the people around me. I want to be a servant. I want to know God--and to help others know Him, too. As for the rest of the pomp and circumstance? Eh, I don't think I'm interested.

"Father, thank you for reminding me today why I do what I do. I thank you for the community in which You have placed me. I pray that you would watch over me--that you would surround me with a community of people who will hold me accountable to godly priorities. I pray that I would use my gifts with reckless abandon, that I would not get lazy or content with the status quo. But at the same time I pray that I would I would not lose track of people in the process--that innovation, change, relevance, buzz, or growth would never become my gods. I thank you for the models of my ancient spiritual mentors--for Jesus, who hid Himself when the spotlight was turned on him; for Paul, who learned to trust others to continue the ministries that he himself started; for John, who learned to love people rather than be adored by them. I thank you also for the godly men and women with whom you have surrounded me today who show me how to live like you intended. I ask that you never let me get in the way of Your doing something great. Amen."

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Spirituality Update

A couple of days ago, I posted about my desire to find true spirituality. I thought I might take today to update about what I've found.

I am starting to recover the feeling that God speaks to us in prayer. The first class that I took in seminary was on revelation--not the book of the Bible, but on the process by which God reveals Himself to mankind. In this class we learned that God always reveals truth--i.e. if God says something, it happens. If someone claims that they heard something from God, and it doesn't happen, then it didn't come from God. Fair enough. Further, we looked at Deuteronomy 18:20, "But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded him to say, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, must be put to death." (NIV) From this verse we inferred that God doesn't want us to say things such as "The Lord told me . . . " unless He really did tell us something. They used to kill people for using that phrase wrong. As a result, the cessationists tend to discount any kind of "word from the Lord" that people receive outside of the pages of Scripture.

I understand where the cessationists are coming from. Most of the spiritual three ring circuses that I see on television look very little like Christianity and very much like a money-making productions. It also irritates me when people use the phrase "The Lord told me that you should . . . " as a spiritual power play. There is plenty of room for abuse when you grant that the Lord can speak to people in a personal way.

On the other hand, I think they may have thrown the baby out with the bath water. I walked away from seminary thinking that God only reveals himself to us in nature and through the Bible, and that only the elementary truths about God can be gleaned from nature. I am starting to doubt whether this is true. (On a side note, there is just as much room for spiritual abuse in this system. If God is best known through the Bible, then who knows God the best? The guy who knows the Bible best, i.e. the pastor.)

I don't know exactly what it looks like, but I have to believe that God speaks to us in prayer. Christ mysticism was too big a part of Paul's theology, and too big a part of historical Christianity to be illegitmate. On the one hand, that sounds pretty elementary. On the other hand, it is surprising how many people disagree with that or who don't take advantage of it. I have really turned up my prayer life over this past week, and it's amazing what it has done to my perception of God's presence. Further, I have returned to reading Scripture to hear God's voice (rather than just to prepare a sermon) and that has had an impact as well. I am still trying to figure out what it "sounds" like when God speaks to us, and how we can discern His voice from our own, but I am almost convinced that He does speak to us.

I still have a lot to figure out, but I am convinced that there is a legitimate mystical angle to Christianity that I have been missing for the past few years.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Is Tribalism the Next Major Challenge Facing American Evangelicalism?

I had an interesting conversation with some guys in a mens' Bible study this past week that made me think about tribalism in America (and the world). About a year ago, I moved from Dallas, Texas to Gig Harbor, Washington. In the Bible study, I was talking about the differences between the people in Dallas and the people in the Northwest, and the issue of racism came up. People in the northwest don't understand racism and honestly can't comprehend why someone would be prejudiced against someone of another race. During the discussion, we started getting a little holier-than-thou toward racists, and that started to make me upset.

The question that I wanted to ask these guys (but didn't) was, "Why do you think people in the south are racist and we aren't? Is it because they are stupid and we are better than them? Or do you think that there is some kind of sociological phenomenon down there that people in the northwest can't understand or appreciate?" Inevitably if you confront a southerner about racist behavior, they will respond, "It's a southern thing. You wouldn't understand." Why is that?

I think that racism is evil. I believe that it is still a huge problem both in our country and in our churches. However, I don't think it is the problem. I think it is a subset of a bigger problem, and that is tribalism. By tribalism, I mean our tendency to group ourselves with other people who are like us, and to demonize other people who are not like us. I think tribalism is alive and well in just about every sector of America.

In the rural south, tribalism tends to show up as racism. By default, people tend to hang out with other people of their own race, so the races tend to develop particular cultures. Thus one race has one culture, another race has a different culture, and the two races dislike each other. It's tribalism in the form of racism.

In the Pacific Northwest, tribalism does not take the form of racism (as often). When it comes to harmony between people of differing races, the east coast and west coast are night and day. It's amazing. However, just because racism isn't as prevalent doesn't mean that tribalism is absent. Instead of grouping by races, people in the northwest group themselves by other things--education, political affiliation, or socioeconomic class.

Most people have tribalistic tendencies. If you look at your friends, I guarantee that you will see that they are just like you. They may be of varying races, religions, or nationalities, but they probably all talk, think, and act just like you. After all, that's why you're friends. How many homeless friends do you have? If you are in your 20s, how many friends do you have who are in their 60s? How many friends do you have who don't speak English?

While I think that racism is alive and well, I think the problem runs deeper than that. I think that tribalism is going to be the major challenge facing the church in the years to come. In our postmodern culture, we are doing away with the absolutes and focusing instead on the local. We are abandoning metanarratives for tribal truth. But I think there is a danger in this, because metanarratives bring unity. When you abandon the metanarratives, it becomes easier to fall prey to tribalism, to make us/them distinctions, and to demonize the opposition.

How can the church overcome tribalism? I think there are two steps. First, we need to find a unifying metanarrative. Instead of abandoning all metanarratives for local, tribal truth, I think we need to focus on what unites the church--the creeds. The old maxim "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, diversity; and in all things, charity" is more important now than ever.

Second, we need to be intentional about reaching out to people who are different than us. This means spending time with people of different races, religions, nationalities, and socio-economic classes. We need to learn their stories so that we can appreciate our similarities and differences. Understanding others helps us understand ourselves.

"Father, I thank you for the Gospel of unity. I thank you that you do not show favoritism toward one race or one culture. I thank you for the example that Christ left behind--that He was open and accepting toward people who were different than him. Father, I confess that I haven't always been like that. I gravitate toward people who look and act like me. That kind of behavior is inconsistent with the message that I say I believe. I pray that you would open my eyes when I act like this. I pray that I would learn to be more tolerant of people who are different than me. I pray that I would learn to treat others as people, not just as one of "them." I confess that it is only by the power of Your Holy Spirit that I can live as You intended. Amen."

Thursday, October 4, 2007

On Spirituality and "Doing Life Together"

I had a long day yesterday, and then I came across a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer that really spoke to me about the importance of "doing life" with others in the Christian community. In a sermon called "Forgiveness," Bonhoeffer asked his congregation if there was anyone in their lives whom they needed to forgive--was there anyone with whom they were not speaking, or with whom their last encounter was one of anger. As I was reading the question, I immediately thought, "No, I can't think of anyone." But in the second paragraph of the sermon, Bonhoeffer remarks, "Or would we be so absentminded as to say we can't think of any? Are we so indifferent to others that we don't even really know whether we are at peace or at strife with them?" (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "On Forgiveness," A Testament to Freedom: the Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, edited by Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson, rev. ed. [San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1995], 260.)

I love that! Bonhoeffer is such a challenging thinker. I think one of my top character flaws is that I don't take the time to really relate to people. Often, I am so caught up in whatever project I am working on that I don't slow down to listen to people. I am starting to think that that is where life is really lived--in talking and listening to people who care about you.

I found out yesterday that my dad had a procedure done in which doctors discovered a growth in his lower G.I. tract. It's probably nothing, but there is the possibility that it is cancerous. He is only 55 and he is in good health.

It's amazing how life changes when you find out stuff like that. All I could think about was how I wished I could have more time with my family. Just the thought that something might happen to my dad brought me a deep sense of personal loss and regret. It made me ashamed of all of the silly things that I allow to come between me and the people I love.

Also yesterday I had a conversation with someone else that I love who is probably going through the most difficult life event that she has ever faced. Again, she is far away and I haven't seen her in too long. As we talked on the phone, things that seemed very important a few hours before started to seem pretty trivial.

The events of the past 24 hours got me thinking about the way that Jesus "did life" with people. In Mark 5, a synagogue leader named Jairus approached Jesus and asked him to come heal his sick daughter. Before he could get to Jairus' house, the man's daughter died. Some men came from his house and told him to stop bothering Jesus. After all, Jesus was a busy man and had a lot of teaching to do.

But Jesus didn't just leave Jairus to go preach the kingdom of God. He recognized that before him was a man in pain. This guy just lost his little girl, and nothing else in the world mattered to him at that moment. Jesus took the time to go to the guy's house and use his power in a way that reached that one guy, that one day. Further, it's not as if He used this miracle as a mass proof of his spiritual power--the only people who witnessed the miracle were the girl's parents, James, John, and Peter.

I believe that the most important discipline that Americans need to learn is the discipline to slow down and just "do life" with the people around them. We are so caught up in doing whatever it is that we are supposed to be doing at a given time that we let our lives waste away without making meaningful connections with the people in our communities. My prayer today is that God would teach me to slow down.

"Father, I thank you for the community into which you have placed me. I thank you for my family, my pregnant wife, and my friends. I confess that too often I am concerned about the trivial. I treat people as means to various ends. I value people only as much as they can help me. I fail to see the image of God that is in each and every one of them. I pray that you would remind me of the important things in life. I pray that I would see my neighbors as real people, not just as extras in a story that is about me. I thank you for the example that Christ left behind, and I pray that you would work in my life to conform me to Hs pattern of living. Amen."

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Is There Spiritual Power in Meditation?

I am still trying to figure out what it means to be "spiritual." I had a thought today while I was reflecting on Paul's letter to the Colossians.

In Colossians 3:16, Paul writes, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly--with wisdom teaching and admonishing each other; with pslams, hymns, and spiritual odes singing in your hearts with grace to God." Without doing an in depth study, I think the second part of that verse elaborates on the first part. Paul calls the Colossians to let the word of Christ dwell in them richly, and then explains to them what that might look like. Now, I think the phrase "word of Christ" probably means "word about Christ," and refers to the Gospel message. Paul didn't have a New Testament, and he probably would have used the Greek graphe if he meant to Old Testament. So he is not concerned about letting the Bible dwell in you richly, but the Gospel message. So the question is, What does it look like for the Gospel to take root in your life and dwell in you richly? He then elaborates.

Its interesting that each of the things that Paul mentions has to do with celebrating the community tradition and how God has acted among His people. First, Paul wanted the Colossians to seek wisdom for teaching and admonishing. He probably wanted the Colossians to devote themselves to the teachings of Christ with which they were familiar--either through written or oral tradition--and to the traditon that Paul himself handed down to them. He probably also wanted them to wrestle with any messages given to the community through the early Christian prophetic movement and the spiritual gift of "wisdom," whatever that is. Second, Paul wanted the Colossians to sing their spiritual songs to God. I may be wrong, but I think these songs probably came from the spiritual heritage of the community, possibly back to the psalms themselves. I don't know.

Regardless, there is value in reflecting on the traditions of the spiritual community that cannot be denied. This made me think of the spiritual discipline of mediation and how that relates to my search for what it means to be "spiritual." Since I am reflecting on Colossians, I thought I would find a passage in that book to memorize and review. I chose Colossians 3:12–17, "Put on, therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, the affection of compassion, benevolence, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving each other if someone has a grievance against another. As the Lord forgave you, so also you should forgive. Upon all of these things add love, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ rule in your heart, into which you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly--with all wisdom teaching and admonishing each other, with psalms, hymns, and odes singing in your hearts with grace to God. And whatever you do, by word or by deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God through Him."

I am going to meditate on this passage for a while. Paul emphasized faithfulness to the Gospel traditon so much that I wonder if he recognized some kind of spiritual power in this tradition. We'll see.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Christian Spirituality

I'm back. Sorry I was gone so long.

What does it mean to be "spiritual"? What does it look like? What does it feel like? When we talk about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, what on earth do we mean? I know that I have a personal relationship with my wife, but my relationship with God is nothing like that. I know the phrase "personal relationship" when referring to spirituality is simply a metaphor, but sometimes it seems like a pretty meaningless metaphor. I see very little "personal" about my relationship with God.

I am in the middle of a sermon series at Believers Fellowship call Roots: Understanding our Spiritual Heritage, in which we have been going through the Book of Colossians. I have been very excited about it because it has helped me clarify the role that the Scriptures play in my faith story. Throughout Colossians, Paul reminds his readers that they are not alone in this thing called Christianity--that they have inherited a tradition passed down from Paul and the other apostles. He criticizes them for being unfaithful to this tradition, as if they were trying to change the plot of the story halfway through (that's a party foul). Studying Colossians has really affirmed to me that there were historical men--Jesus, Paul, Peter, John, etc.--who had radical views of what God was doing with humanity. By calling myself a "Christian," I am claiming to be a student of these ways of looking at the world. There are limits to ways in which I can interpret the world and still be faithful to this tradition and thus call myself a "Christian." Good stuff.

One of the things that we have been looking at in Roots is "spiritual transformation." I believe that Paul viewed the world as two ages--the present age and the age to come. The resurrection of Jesus inaugurated the age to come, but it will not be consummated until His return. Thus, followers of Jesus always live in this tension between "already being radically renewed" and "not yet being completely renewed."

I can deal with the "not yet" part of Christianity. I realize that God has a lot of work left to do in the world and that we are not experiencing the kingdom as He intended. But the "already" part has been perplexing me. In Romans 8:9, Paul writes "But you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Any one who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him" (RSV). About this verse, James Dunn writes, "The fact that was immediately discernible was not whether they were Christ's--attested by baptism or confession--a fact from which their possession of the Spirit could be deduced as a corollary. That which was ascertainable was their possession of the Spirit; that was the primary factor from which their relation to Christ could be deduced. Their Christian status was recognizable from the fact that Christ's agent was in evident control of their lives" (James Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle [Grand Rapids: Eerdman's, 1998], 430). Dunn essentially says that people didn't know that they had the Spirit because they were Christians, but they knew they were Christians because they possessed the Spirit. The power of the Holy Spirit was so obvious in their lives that it could be used as evidence for their being in "the age to come."

That bothers me. It bothers me because I do not see the Holy Spirit working in my life in a way that makes me say "of course the Gospel is true; how else could I explain all of these changes?" Further, I don't see that kind of power in most Christians that I meet.
So, I am off to find out what it means to be spiritual. I feel that the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the original Christians was the major evidence for the truth of the Gospel. I want to reclaim that. Further, I am not interested in a series of proof texts or books on ten easy steps to spiritual bliss. I have read all of those and they don't work. I am going to use the Scriptures as a starting point to help me discern the kinds of things that the Spirit does in the lives of believers (i.e. I don't think it makes people bark like dogs or laugh uncontrollably), but ultimately I am not going to be satisfied with a biblical doctrine of what the Spirit should do, but rather an existential description of what He is doing. I am really not interested in more theories or quick fixes at this point.

I am going to start by studying the letters of Paul, reading Gordon Fee's God's Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul and by returning to some classic spiritual disciplines of the Christian faith, especially as outlined in the works of Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, and others. I will keep you updated on what I find out.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Brickworld, Trampolines, and the Communion of the Saints

I am reading a great book right now, New Testament Theology: Communion and Community by Philip Esler. I am only about 70 pages into it, but he seems to tackle a question that I have been thinking about for a long time--What role does New Testament theology play in emergent Christianity?

Why have I been asking this question? Well, I recently read Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis, a book that that is becoming increasingly popular in Evangelical churches. Bell's ideas aren't that innovative, but he has packaged them in a way that is brilliantly accessible to the general public. Bell is an excellent communicator. That, coupled with the success of the Nooma video shorts based on his teaching, has done much to advance his flavor of emerging Christianity.

I liked Velvet Elvis. I appreciate Rob Bell's vulnerability and willingness to consider ideas that push the envelope in American Evangelicalism. However, part of the book left a bad taste in my mouth. In the first chapter, Bell contrasts his (post-modern) take on Christianity with the mainstream (modern) American Evangelical view. He notes that most American Evangelicals view Christianity as "brickworld"--a system of theological suppositions stacked upon each other. According to the illustration, if the supporting brick beliefs are compromised, the entire structure collapses. In my opinion, this is a fair critique of most American Evangelicals--they do think like that.

Instead of Christianity as "brickworld," Bell suggests that perhaps we should view it as a trampoline, with the great doctrines of that faith represented by springs rather than bricks. In a trampoline, the springs aren't the point, but they enable the point (jumping). In Christianity, beliefs aren't the point, but they enable the point (following Jesus).

Now, I understand what Rob Bell is getting at. He's not saying that beliefs aren't important. He's not even saying that orthodox beliefs aren't important. He's just saying that we overemphasize beliefs over following Jesus. I agree with Rob Bell's thesis that (in most issues) we should never be content with answers--we should always ask more questions. However, there is a subtle aspect of the illustration that makes me a bit uncomfortable.

In the trampoline illustration, the "springiness" of the springs is open-mindedness with regard to doctrines. The more wiggle room that you have in your beliefs, the "springier" that your faith will be, and the higher you will be able to jump. To me, this implies that open-mindedness is in itself a virtue. Thus, the person who says "I don't know what I believe about Jesus, but I am following Him" is more virtuous than the person who says "I believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and I am following Him." I am pretty sure that Jesus Himself with disagree with that notion. A simple reading of the Gospel according to John reveals that Jesus cared a lot about what people believed about Him.

Now, don't mistake me for dogmatic. I'm not suggesting that I have 100% knowledge of all things Christian or that I am not mistaken in any of my beliefs. I'm not that naive. Further, I will always evaluate most my beliefs. But I don't think that it is appropriate to equate open-mindedness with spirituality. There are some issues that you cannot question and call yourself a Christian. (Right now, I might limit that list to the deity of Christ, the resurrection of Jesus, and the Trinity. Then again, I reserve the right to change my mind.)

So what does all of this have to do with Esler's book? I'm getting there.

In his book, Esler argues that Christianity is largely a faith of communion and community (thus the title of his book). I couldn't agree more. Further, he argues that our community is not just with those who are like us. The communion of the saints is cross-cultural. Again, I couldn't agree more. Further still, he argues that one way that the communion of the saints is cross-cultural is that it is cross-temporal. Very nice! The 21st century is the latest scene in the cosmic drama of rebellion and reconciliation, but it is not the first. Our faith is one of communion with those who walk with us, and with those who have walked before us.

Now, I have yet to see where Esler is going with this, but I know where I would go. In a sense, Jesus and his followers started the story (or at least inaugurated a massive turning-point in the story), and recorded their thoughts on what the story was about in what we call the New Testament. Further, most Christians would agree that these thoughts in some shape or form were inspired by God (whatever that might mean). I think we can know and understand these thoughts through critical study of the Bible. Granted, we will never understand with 100% certainty what the writers of the New Testament were trying to communicate, but we can still understand it with enough certainty to say that we "know" what they meant. (In the same way, I can't understand with 100% certainty that a red light means "stop," but I usually stop anyway.)

What does all of this mean for brickworld and the trampoline? Well, to the extent that your faith resembles that of those who started the story, you are in communion with the saints. When your beliefs deviate from orthodoxy, you have broken communion with the saints. Because controversy remains with regard to biblical interpretation, there will always be a little "spring" to the faith. But if you stretch the springs too far, they break. That's when the trampoline is no longer any fun.

We can't know the teachings of Jesus 100%, but we can know it well enough. With that as our starting point, we can begin to build a trampoline that will be able to support the weight of the church.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Awaiting Redemption and "Spiritual Remorse"

It's often said in the circle that I grew up in that Satan attacks you the most right after a spiritual victory. The idea is often attributed to Charles Spurgeon, but I am not sure if it really goes back to him. True to the observation--times of spiritual lows often follow on the tail of spiritual victories. However, I have an alternate explanation as to why this might be based on my own experience--what I call "spiritual remorse."

Have you ever seen something in a store that you just "had to have"? I get this feeling mostly from books and music, and sometimes I succumb to the temptation to buy on impulse. Usually I feel bad about it afterward--a classic case of "buyer's remorse." But that's how things work. How often to we plan and save for some item--be it a house, a car, a stereo, whatever--with eager anticipation, only to experience buyer's remorse when we have pulled the trigger on the purchase? I think we've all felt that way before.

But the empty feeling accompanying buyer's remorse isn't limited to gathering material things. It also accompanies major life events. I remember thinking that once I graduated from high school, life would be good. Then it was college. Then it was getting married. Now it's getting a house. I keep setting goals, thinking that accomplishing these goals will make me happy. But they never do. (Granted, these things usually give a temporary sense of happiness, but it isn't lasting, just like that new car feels good for a little while and then loses its luster.)

My latest experience of let down has been related to graduating from seminary and moving to Washington. For six years, my wife and I longed for that day when I would be done with school. We hoped and prayed that we would be able to get a job in Washington, thinking that then we would be truly happy. So here I am, in Washington, with a great job and everything we wanted, yet I am not content. I hoped for this for so long and now that I have it, I don't know what to do.

Here is why I think this happens to us: because of the Fall we will never be truly content. God created us to enjoy a supernatural peace--what the Hebrews called shalom. Because of our rebellion against God, we will never experience (fully) the shalom that God created us to enjoy. That's why Paul says that we "groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies." (Rom 8:23 NIV) When we try to find fulfillment in possessions, career, relationships, or accolades, we are destined to be let down. Only God can give us the satisfaction (the shalom) that we desperately desire.

However, part of awaiting redemption is that we will never completely experience God's shalom in this life. We will experience genuine shalom, but not complete shalom. There will always be a part of us that yearns for the future kingdom of God. I wonder if this is why often we experience a spiritual let down after a spiritual victory. I wonder if it is kind of a "spiritual remorse." Just like we experience buyer's remorse when a possession doesn't satisfy us the way we thought it would, I wonder if we experience "spiritual remorse" because our spiritual experiences don't satisfy us the way they ought to. No spiritual experience this side of the kingdom of God can fully satisfy our need for shalom. Just a thought . . .

So what does that mean for us? Is there any way to be happy? I agree with the author of Ecclesiastes, "However many years a man may live, let him enjoy them all. But let him remember the days of darkness, for they will be many. Everything to come is meaningless. Be happy, young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know for all of these things God will bring you into judgment." (Ecc 11:8–9) In Christ, we can experience the joys of the kingdom in part--and we should--but there will always be a part of us that yearns for more and will be disappointed until we are renewed.

"I believe in the kingdom come, then all the colors will bleed into one (bleed into one), but yes I'm still running. You broke the bonds and you loosed the chains, carried the cross of my shame (of my shame), you know I believe it. But I still haven't found what I'm looking for." (U2, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For.")

Monday, January 29, 2007

Doubts and Fears--Consumerism Christianity

Sometimes I doubt my faith. Worse yet--sometimes I doubt our faith.

I got a publication today for a huge Christian concert/convention that represented everything trendy in American Evangelicalism. It looked really cool. In fact, it looked like everything I would want to do at church if I had a multi-million dollar budget. The event had everything from creative expression in music and art to conversations on social issues and contemporary theology. The price tag for all of this--a little over $100 for a few days on the camp ground. That's not too expensive, but this is clearly going to be a money-maker for those involved.

At the same time as all of this, I am reading a number of books on the historic roots of our faith (typical for me). Right now I am reading N.T. Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God, Richard Baukham's Bible and Mission, Mike Erre's The Jesus of Suburbia, and Brian McLaren's The Secret Message of Jesus. As I read, it is becoming increasingly clear that America's agenda for global capitalism is not what Jesus intended. Don't get me wrong, I am not suggesting that socialism or communism would be a better solution. I love the system we have in America. Rather, I am suggesting that the hope economic growth and prosperity colors just about every decision that we make. If something makes money, then it is good. This scares me because I know that I think like that too. I also know that Jesus did not think like that.

On my way to work today, I heard an advertisement for a cell phone company. The guy in the advertisement said, "I am sick of the holiday season and all of this giving. I want to do something for myself for a change. So, I am going to buy this new red shiny cell phone." His friend responded to him, "That's good and all, but you know that buying that cell phone is a form of giving because a portion of it goes to fighting AIDS in Africa." The first guy then responded, "OK, I guess a little more giving will be alright." Now when I heard this commercial, my first thought was, "How much giving do most of us do during the holidays versus receiving?" I spent a lot of money this holiday season, but I got a LOT of stuff from other people. The stuff I received more than compensated for the stuff I gave. For most of us, the holidays are not about giving, but about spending. (On this note, I don't have any kids. I guess when you have kids the dynamic changes because they can't give back to you.) Everyone in America spends a lot of money. Sure, we spend on other people, but these other people spend on us, so in the end we all spend a lot and we all get a lot. The only difference between Christmas and an out of control shopping spree is that on the shopping spree you get to pick what you get. (Again, don't get me wrong, I am not against Christmas.)

So we have this massive month of consumerism in December, then this cell phone company makes it seem like we are all martyrs for "giving so much." So, they say we should reward ourselves for all of our suffering during Christmas by spending more in January. But then here is the kicker, you shouldn't feel bad about yourselves for spending, because a portion of that spending goes to AIDS relief in Africa. Now I'm glad that Africans suffering from AIDS will get some relief from this campaign (how much actually gets into their hands versus the hands of lobbyists and politicians in both America and the African nations is another issue), but who is the ultimate winner in all of this? The consumer gets a nice shiny phone, and the cell phone company rakes in a ton of cash because of all the socially-aware people who want to buy a new cell phone. Believe me, if the amount of revenue generated by this program (and the related tax write-offs) did not off-set the amount donated to AIDS relief, the cell phone companies would not do it. NO WAY would they do it. They are using the AIDS crisis in Africa to make money, and Americans don't ask questions because we get a shiny new cell phone out of it.

As appalling as all of that was to me, I got this brochure about the Christian concert today, and I was wondering if the Emerging Church is doing the same thing. "COME TO THE CHRISTIAN SUPER CONCERT SPEND FEST--A PORTION OF THE PROCEEDS WILL GO TO INTERNET BLOGGERS WHO LIKE TO TALK ABOUT SOCIAL ISSUES." That is scary! Consumerism--the drive to have all of the newest computer software, iPods, Blue Tooth technology, Trios, cell phones, etc.--is what we claim to be against. Why do most Emerging Churches spend so much money on technology???

Sometimes I feel like the growing interest in social issues in the Emerging Church is just an attempt to not feel so bad about ourselves for making $100,000 per year and spending $150,000. If you throw a couple of hundred bucks to AIDS relief in Africa and give a sandwich to a homeless guy, you can go ahead and buy that new iPhone.

Now I am not trying to step on anybody's toes. I see this in myself and I am afraid. I am afraid because I consider myself a Christian--as do millions of Americans who act like me. Sometimes I am afraid that I will stand before God some day, and He will shake his head at me and say, "You were way off." THAT is a scary thought.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Christian Celebrity

Right now I am reading Philip Yancey's, Soul Survivor. Unlike most of Yancey's books, this one is about all that is good in the church. I love it! Yet, I am noticing a strange thing in myself as I read this book. The work is a collection of mini-biographies of all of Yancey's spiritual mentors. When I read these biographies, I find myself thinking, "Wow, I want to be like that some day." It is almost as if these accounts awaken in me a sort of spiritual envy--a desire to be great.

I notice the same thing when I read a lot of popular Christian ministry magazines. Most of these are intended to give pastors ideas--"Check out what so-and-so is doing. What a great idea, you might try this too!" However, a side effect of these magazines is that they create Christian celebrities. This month's issue of Relevant magazine has blurbs about 10 articles on the front cover. Of these ten, only three advertize the content of the article ("The Scene Visits Boston," "A New Year's Manifesto," and "Our Guide to 15 Must-Have Books, CD's, and DVD's"). The rest are based on personalities (such as the cover stories, "Ben Folds Defends Jesus, His Lyrics, and a Dog" and "7 Big Questions: Warren, Driscoll, Bell, Winner & Others On the Future of the Church"). The magazine is marketed based on people, not issues.

I don't mention these things to complain--Philip Yancey is my favorite author and Relevant is a great resource. I mention them to ask why these resources have this effect on me (I am also sure that I am not alone on this). I find myself wanting to do something great just so that people might want to write about me. When I catch myself thinking this, I can't help but shake my head in frustration. I went in to ministry to get away from all of that. If I wanted people to know my name, I would have gone into another profession. I don't want to waste my life chasing fame and fortune; I just want to be faithful to serve where I am at and to be a good husband, friend, brother, son, and (someday) father. My prayer for the day:

"Father, I pray that you would frequently remind me of what is important in life, and that my ambition would not get the best of me. I thank you for all of the rude awakenings that you have brought my way in the past to correct my priorities. I pray that I wouldn't sacrifice my marriage, my family, or my life on the alter of celebrity--Christian or otherwise. When I read about the deeds of great men, I pray that I would not be envious. I pray that I would be grateful of what you are doing in the lives of others and that I would be faithful to pray for them. You are a good God. Amen."

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Twenty-first Century American Evangelicalism

I have recently started thinking again about what American evangelicalism is going to look like in the near future. Two events have spurred these thoughts, (1) I recently finished reading Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis, and (2) I preached for the second time at my church in Gig Harbor, Washington.

I liked Velvet Elvis, but it raised more questions than it answered for me. (That was probably Rob Bell's intention in writing the book.) That book, Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christian and A Generous Orthodoxy, Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz, Leonard Sweet's Out of the Question . . . Into the Mystery, and The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives (edited by Leonard Sweet) have given me many thoughts about the future of Christianity in America. I think they effectively challenge the Modernist assumptions of mainstream American evangelicalism. The old style of Christianity will likely die out in the near future, and a newer style will emerge.

In addition to the thoughts of the emerging church, my own preaching and teaching has caused me to think. I like to challenge people in their beliefs. I strongly believe that you should know why you believe what you believe--you shouldn't just accept it because your pastor told you it is true. I frequently tackle issues such as the problem of evil, prosperity passages in the Old Testament, the imprecatory psalms, spiritual gifts, legalism, and gender roles. I find that young people like this. They appreciate the fact that I tackle difficult questions and I don't give easy answers. However, I also find that a lot of older, more conservative people really dislike me. I think it is because they appreciate an air-tight, modernist, we-have-everything-figured-out-and-we're-right, kind of faith.

So here is my dilemma--most people would consider me an "emerging" teacher. I can't help it. I was raised in a postmodern culture. It's who I am. But when I read the writings of most emerging church leaders, I get very uncomfortable. The assumption that a lot of them make (that I disagree with) is that the Gospel is acultural, that is, the Gospel is not bound to culture and can be expressed differently at different times and places. They argue that Christianity looked one way during the time of the Fathers, one way in medeival times, another way in the Rennaisance, another way in the Enlightenment, and still another way in postmodernity. You might also add that Christianity takes on a different flavor globally in the post-colonial world. And while all of this is true, I question whether that is proof that our theology should evolve over time. Isn't it more appropriate to say that it has (for better or for worse) evolved over time.

I do not think that the Gospel is acultural. There are cetain cultural practices that are incompatible with the Gospel. Take human slavery, for example. In the Book of Philemon, Paul implied to Philemon that slavery was incompatible with Christianity. Because he and his slave Onesimus were brothers in Christ, they should be brothers on earth. Granted, the practice of human slavery continued for centuries (and continues today) even in so-called "Christian nations." Granted also, many in the church supported human slavery and justified it with biblical teaching. Today, most Christians do not believe that human slavery is acceptable. But does that mean that our theology evolved in the sense that we changed what was "Christian," or that it evolved in the sense that we discovered what was always "Christian"? I think the latter is the case.

What will the church look like in twenty-first century postmodern America? I think we need to be careful about which tenets of postmodernism that we allow into our theology. Just as the church needed to rise above culture on issues such as human slavery and women's rights, it needs to rise above the culture on issues such as egocentricity and materialism. In fact, I don't think the changing landscape of our culture is due to widespread acceptance of postmodernism. (After all, you still get fired for consistantly showing up to work late, even if you argue that time is relative. You still get a ticket for running a red light, even if you argue that there is no 1-to-1 correspondance between "red" and "stop" and that you interpreted the red light to mean "go.") I think we use postmodernism as an excuse for egocentrism because we have problems with authority. Americans don't want to be told what to do, and postmodern philosophy provides an easy excuse to live the way we want to live.

I think the reason that the emerging church has been so successful is because it is not as authoritarian as modernist evangelical churches. Whereas modernist evangelical preachers say "thus saith the Lord," emerging preachers say "thus saith the Lord, I think." This is music to the ears of egocentric Americans because they can choose whether or not to agree with you. In that sense, emerging churches are successful for the same reason that charismatic churches have been so successful--they elevate the individual to judge their own spiritual reality.

Despite how this all might sound, I think the emerging church is a good thing. I think we need to have humility in our interpretation. But you don't have to be a postmodernist to be humble in your interpretation. Critical realists do the same thing. Absolute truth exists, but absolute knowledge of absolute truth does not exist. However, that does not mean that we cannot have pratical knowledge of absolute truth. We can have practical knowledge of Jesus and His teaching in the same way that we can have practical knowledge of other things in life. After all, I don't have absolute certainty that the Tacoma Narrows Bridge isn't going to collapse the next time I drive over it, but I have reason to believe that it won't. I have enough knowledge to make a reasonable knowledge claim--the Narrows Bridge is safe to drive on. But then again, maybe I'm wrong.