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.