Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Genius, Not so Fast!

I spend an inordinate amount of time listening to music. Actually, that's been less true lately. I can't read philosophy and theology with Lenny Kravitz in my ears the way I can with something less strenous like biblical studies. Heidegger and U2 simply cannot be in your head at the same time. But, in my normal life, I am always listening to something. My life definitely has a soundtrack.

Listening got even more interesting with the advent of iTunes. It made playlists, the true art of listening to music, an almost daily possibility. There were two levels to iTunes playlists the way I saw it. The first was to group songs together and put them on random so that you never quite knew how these songs that went together thematically or musically might come together in new combinations. This is fun, but does not require a lot of skill. The deeper magic for which I reserve the category "playlist genius" comes not only through grouping songs, but by putting them in just the right order. Ah, this is something that requires taste, sense, a poetic sensibility. Each song discloses possibility in opening and closing that requires the previous song and reccommends the next. And a true artist doesn't just string together obvious combinations, but finds unique points of contact that allows music to cross genre and era in a combination never dreamed of.

When iTunes let you share your playlist with users on the same network, my hidden gift came into the open. I'm not much of a theologian, and my contributions are not nearly so auspicious as my colleagues in publishing and lecturing, but my peers had to admit I put together one awesome playlist (are you kidding me, only two of them knew that iTunes even existed, but the staff noticed and appreciated that I made their days a little brighter). Who else would think to put Marvin Gaye, Van Morrison, and David Gray back-to-back? Well, ok, maybe others would as well. I'm just saying, I was good at it.

The latest version of iTunes has a feature called, get this, Genius. And this feature is a playlist feature. You simply let Genius have access to all your music, and then you pick one song and Genius creates a playlist based on that one song.

I was skeptical to say the least. I ran it through its paces. And I have to admit, it's pretty good. It would be one thing if it simply grouped music together based on some broad categories, but it seems to know the difference between Pearl Jam's "Yellow Ledbetter" and "Jeremy." Those two songs produced two totally different playlists. Sheesh, I could be out of business. And here's the kicker, it does it in an instant. The loving care that I took placing each song in just the right place took hours sometimes. This pulls songs together in a nano-second. Is this yet another instance of technology eclisping the human? Say it ain't so.

Ok, it ain't so. Genius has its limits. It tends not to cross genres and if you start with an older song (say the 70's), it tends to stay in that era. It would, for instance, be more likely to put Yellow Brick Road with a Zeppelin classic than a Wolfmother song. Some genius.

But it is also all teleology, and just in case you were wondering, I'm all about the eschatology. The difference is that teleology sees the end from the perspective of the beginning. The beginning has a certain momentum that simply works its way out. Eschatology, on the other hand, is an overthrow of the way things are. It is an invasion of the end on the middle, the last things determining things in between. iTunes Genius is determined only by the beginning. It is teleological.

So, when I'm bored--more properly, really, really bored--I like to take two songs that don't seem to belong together and see if I can get from one place to another. Can Genius do that? So, the last few days (I hope none of my profs read this), I spent a little time (about 2 hours total, I think) trying to start with the Elvis Costello classic, Shipbuilding, and ending with the new Kings of Leon song, Crawl. That's a pretty big gap to traverse. Then, to check my work, I compared it to what Genius came up with.

I'm not one to brag, but let's just say that I don't need a label to. . . you know. I'll spare you all the details, but there are some moves I'm proud of in there. I went from Elvis to Fiona Apple to Spoon to Beck to Liz Phair. From there I was home free. So, for fun in the middle I went from The Racontuers to David Bowie to INXS to Jet. I know, huh. But my favorite move was somehow getting a Weepies song within four of the Kings of Leon payoff. That's a Weepies song in the midst of a rock and roll buildup, a ramp up to Southern Rock no less. A Weepies song, sandwiched right between Tom Petty and Wilco! The Weepies! From Jack, to Suicide Blonde (perfect transition), to Kamera. Thank you, very much.

How did Genius do? Well, we both had Fiona Apple, Beck, and Liz Phair, but they were not the right songs to put with Shipbuilding (any half way informed PhD student wishing he were a music critic could see that). And I admit that I wish I had gone with Suzanne Vega's, Frank and Ava (what was I thinking). But the rest of the list is either predictable or uninspired. I know you'll have to take my word for all of this. But I think I've proven two things. First, for some things you still need a real human. And second, it's not so much where you begin that makes it worthwhile, but knowing where it ends.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Believe the Good News

I teach an undergraduate course called "Teaching Good News." (I've written about this before on the blog, but I want to visit it again to preface a series of posts). I ask the students to write the same paper three times through the course of the semester, "The Meaning of Salvation." This turns out to be a challenging exercise. Many cannot form a meaningful set of paragraphs. This could be because the habits of college students do not exactly keep the brain in full firing capacity. But mostly, I think, its because for them salvation is the end result of a theory, or a formula, that is difficult for them to sketch with any confidence.

To the extent that they do have a coherent answer, they always give me penal substitutionary atonement--"He paid a debt he did not owe, I owed a debt I could not pay. . ." God's wrath demands punishment for sin. Jesus takes my place, takes my punishment, averts the wrath of God, and allows me to stand forgiven before God. It's a courtroom scene, complete with judge, verdict, sentence, and the like. With my students, this account is ubiquitous. It is the gospel without remainder.

There is a Baptist church in the area that evidently sees our Christian college campus as prime evangelistic real estate. They leave fliers from time to time all over our campus warning students and others of our impending doom. I've found them under the windshield wiper of my car, under the lid of a photocopier, even (I kid you not) strategically rolled up in the toilet paper roll in the bathroom. I guess they figure that's one place you're likely to be looking for something to read. The content is classic penal substitutionary atonement.

This makes for great classroom discussion. What assumptions are at work if this is how you do evangelism? What is the human problem if you can present this in a disembodied way--in a flier, not in a person or a community? How would you know if this worked? What would that look like? What view of God is assumed here? What is the significance of Jesus? For instance, why is his resurrection never mentioned? Why are the deeds of his life conspicuously absent?And what does this assume about the person reading this? What is our problem? What is this trying to do, to accomplish, with the person who finds it? And what do we make of this idea that forgiveness can only come through capital punishment? 

My students have no problem identifying the problems. Thing is, they can't imagine talking about salvation in any other way.

As gently as possible (and many of them don't experience this as gentle), I try to widen their horizons. They are stunned to find out that this is a fairly recent explanation of the meaning of the death of Jesus. While the historical development is long, their version is circa 19th-20th century. I point out that this is old as far as sea turtles go, but with theories of atonement this is a Johnny-come-lately.

More to the point, there is no detailed theory of atonement spelled out anywhere in Scripture. Nor did the church that decided what needed to go in the Bible feel the need to define atonement. While creeds like Nicea and Chalcedon go to great lengths to define the divinity of Jesus and the identity of God as Triune, they made no effort to explain the "how" of salvation.

This does not mean that theories have no place in understanding salvation or in helping others understand why Jesus' life, death, and resurrection bears saving significance. But these theories are always secondary. They came after something else. And no single theory can every explain the full meaning of salvation. It takes a multiplicity of pictures, sometimes in metaphor, sometime in theories, to get at all the dimensions of salvation. If we identify any of them as equivalent to the gospel, we are straightway into distortion.

It is interesting in this regard to see what passes for gospel in the New Testament. In 1 Cor 15, the gospel is the announcement that Jesus died in accordance with the Scriptures, was buried, and raised in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to witnesses. It is the announcement of an event.

Mark 1:15 also has a clear and concise statement about the gospel. Jesus comes proclaiming the gospel of God. Namely, "The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is near, repent and believe the good news." While there are differences in vocabulary between these two texts, they share one important thing in common (among others we will delineate in future posts). They both define gospel in terms of the announcement of an event.

Before the gospel is an explanation, a theory, or a metaphor, it is an event. And in light of this, my reading of NT texts indicates that the primary language of salvation is the language of participation. We are saved as we participate in this event. The implications here, I believe, are massive, and would change not only the way we do evangelism, but would also change our understandings of worship, doctrine, koinonia, ethics and morality, etc. Another way of saying this is that our practice of the Christian life is inextricably embedded in what we believe salvation to be. And by extension, our understandings of mission are tied to our notions of salvation.

I don't think that most churches who want to move beyond "a place where" church to a "people sent" church will make much headway without some shift in soteriology (the meaning of salvation). Missional travels on certain theological themes, and the missional church literature has opened up in essential ways the theme of Trinity, and to a certain extent eschatology. More focus needs to be given to soteriology. So, hang on, and let's see if we can do some thinking about this together. Are you up for it?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Dylan on a Sunday, Next Generation

Today I dwell in the music of Bob Dylan's offspring, Jakob. His band, The Wallflowers, has produced some great music. I have it all on my iTunes. It's straight ahead, lyrical, and smart. While no one would want to be compared with Bob, Jakob's poetic sensibility is an acorn not far from the genetic tree. His lyrics burn the world down (fire being a prominent motif), but the burning world is not devoid of life, and it bears meaning precisely in its huddling brokenness. His songs always make me want to start over, and they even make it seem possible.

He just released a solo album produced by the great Rick Rubin. It is spare--acoustic guitar and Jakob's smokey vocals. Parts of it are gripping, and most of it satisfying. My favorite song might not be the one to dwell in on a Sunday, but I love "Evil is Alive and Well." This isn't evil the way John McCain and Sarah Palin talk about it. It's more like the way C. S. Lewis imagines it. It's not always obvious, which makes it all the more evil.

It doesn't always have a shape
Almost never has a name
It maybe has a pitchfork, maybe has a tail
But evil is alive and well
It might walk upright from out of the inferno
May be coming horseback through deep snow
It's ragged and fat and hungry as hell

Evil is alive and well
Evil is alive
Evil is well
Evil is alive
Evil is well
On your feet to the tower and yell
Evil is alive and well

May be too humble to want to speak
May have a blood soaked bird in its teeth
Smoked filled skies and bees in the well
Evil is alive and well
Maybe in a palace it may be in the streets
May be here among us on a crowded beach
May be asleep in a roadside motel
But evil is alive and well

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Dylan on a Wednesday?

Doesn't seem right to do it on Wednesday, but I actually had someone complain that there was no Dylan on a Sunday entry this week. I apologize to my loyal reader.

This a little note on young Dylan verses old Dylan. I like old Dylan better. I like the guitar better, I like the razor blade voice better, I like the songs better, I like the hats better. I'm hoping that my move past midlife goes as well.

That said, there are early classics you just have to hear at a Dylan concert. And the ones we got in Dallas last February were perfect. Senor, Ballad of a Thin Man, All Along the Watchtower (which felt more like Dylan doing Hendrix than Dylan doing Dylan). But my favorite of the night was Lay, Lady, Lay. Of course it is a great song. Classic. But the original doesn't sound like Dylan at all. It's not his typical loopy, sliding, overwrought vocal. It's almost like a normal singer, except with Dylan's nose. And while its a great lyric and melody, its always been hard for me to listen to.

Which is why one of my favorite moments that night was Bob's 12 packs a day for 60 years rendition of Lay, Lady, Lay. Old Dylan singing young, classic Dylan. So, great. Someone captured it on their cell phone and put it on youtube. So, I'm sharing the moment with you, on a Wednesday. Sigh.

Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed
Stay, lady, stay, stay with your man awhile
Until the break of day, let me see you make him smile
His clothes are dirty, but his hands are clean
And you're the best thing he's ever seen

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Missional Transformation, Part 6


There is no more powerful action with regard to transformation. Listening.

Churches listen poorly. They talk a lot, but they seldom do a good job of listening. Most churches do not have active processes of listening. Few churches have the capacity, either with regard to skill, process or motivation, to have a congregational conversation. Communication takes place in the form of conclusions. Leaders tell others of their conclusions, and the others tell leaders what they think of their conclusions. In neither case, is there understanding. And often, there is conflict.

Missional transformation is fundamentally a listening process, or we might say a discerning process. There are two reasons for this. First, we are listening for the Spirit who leads and empowers us with regard to God's mission. We are discerning God's mission, not solving congregational problems. Second, we believe that the Spirit of God is among the people of God. The wisdom of the Spirit of God is not the province of a few leaders, but of the entire congregation. At the congregation I served in Oregon, we had an expression, leaders don't decide the will of God, they discern it. One implication of this saying is that they couldn't determine what God was up to without listening to his people.

This bears some stress. Some people when they hear me talk about communal discernment worry about group think that overrides the voice of dissent. The heroic individual is the only cure for the communal discernment blues. I would simply respond that because we are seeking the voice of God, and not the will of the majority, the voice of dissent is particularly important to processes of discernment. Apart from a productive role for dissent, there is no Christian community.

Second, I would say that because we are humans discerning the will of God in something as messy as space and time, all of our judgments are provisional. We must decide and act, otherwise we cannot prove what is the will of God, what is good, acceptable and perfect. But this deciding and acting is always subject to further review. I like Luke Johnson's line here: We need modesty before the mystery. A congregation can never see itself as having discovered the final word.

So, I want to suggest four habits of listening toward missional transformation. First, Dwelling in the Word. I learned Dwelling in the Word from the folks at Church Innovations (CI), the organization Pat Keifert leads (http://www.churchinnovations.org). Basically, this is group lectio divina, a way of reading Scripture meditatively with others. The process is simple. Select a text to dwell in together over time. We always begin with congregations dwelling in Luke 10 for a year. Someone reads the text aloud. Silence is observed. The group shares in pairs, and then with the group as a whole. The sharing to the big group, however, has one stipulation. Participants are to share, not what they said, but what their partner noticed.

Dwelling in the Word emphasizes that Scripture gets first word in discerning the voice of the Spirit. It involves every member listening--the Spirit of God is among the people of God. And it models an engagement with Scripture different than what we typically do. We tend to use Scripture as a tool, as a way to solve a problem. We want to master the text. Dwelling is a more submissive practice, inviting Scripture to master us through a prolonged sojourn.

Second, I think leaders need to be constantly about the task of appreciative inquiry. Appreciative inquiry is a particular kind of listening that builds upon the actual stories of appreciation that already exist in a congregation's life. An appreciative inquiry question, always begins with the words, "Can you tell me about a time when..." Transformation is a narrative enterprise, and people have powerful stories to tell. And, the very act of asking a good question is already an act of change.

Third, a congregation should be in the practice of interviewing members on a periodic basis. Not everyone needs to be interviewed. The interviews do not need to represent the demographics of the congregation to be informative. They should, however, involve persons with different levels of involvement with the congregation (what CI calls family, inside strangers, and outside strangers). The questions should be in a direction decided by the leadership, but the questions themselves should not be determined by the leadership of the congregation. If discovery processes are sensed in any way to be tied to a predetermined outcome, you will not get honest communication.

Fourth, congregations should have regular conversations or forums. The goal should be something between a business meeting with a lot of reporting and an open mic gripe session. Neither accomplish much listening. I know of a congregation that gave a series of Sunday evenings (one a quarter) to listening around certain issues. One night they heard stories of families with special needs children, another the stories (anonymously reported) of what it was like to suffer from depression as a Christian. Sharing took place around tables. People got to share things that otherwise would never be known. They were powerful meetings.

The more practice a congregation gets having conversations like these, the safer people feel and the more likely authentic communication can take place in times of anxiety and conflict. And anxiety and conflict are just a part of any meaningful transformation.

This is the point. Listening as a way of life takes practice, the development of habits. These habits pay off big in times of transition and create the space necessary for discerning the Spirit of God.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Dylan on a Sunday

A few years ago, my buddy John Ogren and I did presentation on Dylan at a large denominational gathering. It was an after hours presentation, a coffee house of sorts, featuring live music, video clips, commentary, etc. John and a friend of his performed about a half dozen Dylan tunes and I provided the commentary.

The audience was a surprise. It was both old and young. I was surprised to see the following Dylan had among college students. They were more than curious. They knew the music, sang along with John, and listened with energy. But there were also a lot of Dylan hippies there, surprising at a church conference. These were church people who had a misspent youth (or well spent, depending on your values), now dressed in the habits of ministers and church leaders, but covering a previous life that was not quite so buttoned down.

These attendees were really into the evening. These were not so much fans, like the college students, but worshipers. I know I've written a lot on my blog about Dylan, but I was a late comer to the Dylan thing, and admitted that much that night. I was an admirer, not a congregant. One congregant in particular that evening was deep in the moment as we presented. He was probably in his early 60's. He sat front row center. Every song, he closed his eyes and rocked back and forth, mouthing all the words. He was fun to watch.

After the program, he made his way to me immediately. He had an anthology of Dylan lyrics in his hands, which he presented to me. "I want you to keep this for awhile," he said in a quite serious tone. I thought this offer indicated that either he considered me a fraud, or a promising newcomer. It turned out to be the latter, and more.

"How'd I do?" I asked. "You were right on target," he replied. "Here's my theory on Dylan," he continued. "He tapped into the Jungian collective unconscious. It's why his music is so universal and important." Interesting, I thought, and wondered if I might also learn that night secrets about Roswell or the grassy knoll. "And I've been watching you this week, and I think you've tapped in as well." (I was the director of this event and so played a very visible role). So, I've got that going for me (extra points if you can name the Caddyshack allusion).

But it gets better. He then told me that he had smoked pot and dropped acid to tap in. "But since you're a minister, I'm assuming you're getting there some other way." It's the best post-presentation comment I've ever received, save perhaps the woman who told me I reminded her of Jerry Lewis, whom she considered a very handsome man. And yes, for the record, I'm getting there some other way (assuming that I am, indeed, tapped in).

This man took quite an interest in me. He sent me books on Dylan and Jung. He sent me Jackson Browne's, Late for the Sky, cd and the different biography dvds on Dylan. Jackson Browne was a great diappointment to him after such a promising Dylan-esque beginning. Evidently, not enough acid for JB.

So, in honor of my Dylan mentor, and hoping to stay "tapped in" by some other route, today we live in the great song, "I Shall be Released."

They say ev'rything can be replaced,
Yet ev'ry distance is not near.
So I remember ev'ry face
Of ev'ry man who put me here.
I see my light come shining
From the west unto the east.
Any day now, any day now,
I shall be released.

They say ev'ry man needs protection,
They say ev'ry man must fall.
Yet I swear I see my reflection
Some place so high above this wall.
I see my light come shining
From the west unto the east.
Any day now, any day now,
I shall be released.

Standing next to me in this lonely crowd,
Is a man who swears he's not to blame.
All day long I hear him shout so loud,
Crying out that he was framed.
I see my light come shining
From the west unto the east.
Any day now, any day now,
I shall be released.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Miracle of Being Known

I have been confronted yet again this week with the reality that I am the one in who in some ways knows myself the least. It is always startling to come to this realization. After all, I'm the one who knows what's going on in my head (a very interesting place most days). No other person is privy to my inner dialogue. And for this inner dialogue to occur at all, there has to be some sense of who I am, some authorial voice in my head that narrates my actions, perceptions, judgments, etc.

But I am not simply a self in my head, I am a self in relation to others. And others are accounting for my life as well, putting my actions in meaningful relationship to any number of factors. They do this from a greater distance than the inside of my head, and that distance allows them to have perspective that I simply can't gain. It's not that their perceptions are necessarily more true than mine. Often they are not. But sometimes it takes the very distance of the other for my own tightly wound little account of reality to be overthrown.

Now I am an intensely introspective kind of person. By temperment and training I am constantly interpreting myself as a symbolic presence among others. I think this is why it is particularly unsettling for me to be brought up short. To learn that the person I think I am is not the same thing as the person I am is always a humbling experience. Usually, I have found, that realization is a negative one. Yikes.

Self-knowledge is not a stable thing, at least not in people worth knowing. I am highly untrusting of people who act always out of total conviction, without a shred of doubt, assuming only two options--the wrong one and the one they have chosen. Still, the lack of center in a self, a self always given over to review, a self always in flux, makes for a very neurotic existence.

It is with this in mind, that I am reminded of a passage in Galatians. It's actually a parenthetical statement in an argument very different than the one I'm laying out here. But I am learning to place a lot of stock in it. Paul is talking about a former time when we did not know God. But now that we know God...and then the parenthetical statement. It seems like almost an afterthought. He says, "Now, however, that you know God, or rather are known by God, how can you turn back..." (Gal 4:9).

I have no doubt that there is great benefit in knowing God. But I wonder if salvation doesn't consist in resting in the fact that I am known by God. This is more than just saying, God knows all my secrets and still accepts me (though those are no small potatos). This is saying, I think, that I am a definable self, a knowable self, in relation to God. It's not that I have to figure out amid all the contradictory evidence exactly who it is that I am. I am a known quantity to God. I am not in the business of constructing a self, or of figuring out a self, but of receiving a self secure in the knowledge of God. My life is a gift, secure in God's knowing.

This idea offers me both more openness to change and less subjectivity to volatility, a greater chance in both cases to develop into a dependable character in both my life and the lives of others.

I am often struck by the way we elude each other, and even ourselves. But in the grace and freedom of Christ, we are known by God.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Missional Transformation, 5

I know the pressures of leadership in a congregation. I know how bottom line thinking can dominate a leadership's imagination. I know that in spite of our best intentions to be other than this, we tend to equate success only in terms of numbers. I know how much energy is spent trying to attract more members. I know it like a nagging cough, like a limp or a birthmark. I've even known it like a cancer, like a siren's song.

MANDATORY DISCLAIMER: It is not wrong to want your church to grow, even numerically. It is not a virtue in and of itself, or a mark of faithfulness, to get smaller.

Having said that, there is a prior question that must command the attention of a congregation than the question, "How can we attract new members?" It is the missional question, "What is God's preferred future around here?"

Now, I know there is a way of understanding God's future so that those two questions yield the same answer. This perspective views the ultimate purposes of God in relation only to the destiny of individual souls. All God cares about is the tote board of who is in or out. Individual status is the only thing that matters under the heading of salvation. The only thing that matters for the church, therefore, is claiming individuals. The logical extension of this kind of individualism is to think of the church primarily as a support group for individuals. What kinds of programs will attract as many individuals as possible?

This view of salvation, however, is not the biblical view. Salvation is not a status conferred upon individuals--not primarily. Salvation is a reign, a rule, a way of ordering reality that makes it clear that the one who is crucified is Lord of all. The resurrection of Jesus and the presence of the Holy Spirit are God's guarantees that there is a day in the future when all things will correspond to the intentions of God.

There is nothing we can do about the kingdom of God. We cannot build it or add to it or diminish it. It has been established in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It's reality is secure in the future of God. This is God's salvation in which we are called to participate. We belong to that day and serve its interests in the power of the Spirit now.

If this is the case, then mission becomes larger than just evangelism. The question is not just how many people can we get in our building on Sunday. The question becomes, how can our life together show that we belong to the great day of God's salvation?

I've been working with a little meditation to help people get a sense of this. It's not complete by any means. More pictures could be added. The main point here is that our vision for mission is necessarily eschatological, and our view of that is typically way too small.

God has established a day in the future when all of humanity will gather around one table, will constitute one family all recognizing God as Father. This is our salvation. We belong to that day.

Because of Jesus and through the power of the Spirit we experience that future today…

not fully but in ways that are undeniably connected to that future hope…

and we live together a way of life that is only explainable by our belief that that day is real…

God has established a day when we will fully enjoy his presence. Sin and death will no longer separate us from God. This is our salvation. We belong to that day.

Because of Jesus and through the power of the Spirit we experience that future today…

not fully but in ways that are undeniably connected to that future hope…

and we live together a way of life that is only explainable by our belief that that day is real…

God has established a day when all of creation will be set free from its bondage to decay, when God’s good order will once again be seen in a new creation. This is our salvation. We belong to that day.

Because of Jesus and through the power of the Spirit we experience that future today…

not fully but in ways that are undeniably connected to that future hope…

and we live together a way of life that is only explainable by our belief that that day is real…

God has established a day when nations will stream to God’s holy mountain to learn only from him. His teachings will reach to the coastlands, filling all the earth. This is our salvation. We belong to that day.

Because of Jesus and through the power of the Spirit we experience that future today…

not fully but in ways that are undeniably connected to that future hope…

and we live together a way of life that is only explainable by our belief that that day is real…

God has established a day when there will be no more war, nor weapons of war. This is our salvation. We belong to that day.

Because of Jesus and through the power of the Spirit we experience that future today…

not fully but in ways that are undeniably connected to that future hope…

and we live together a way of life that is only explainable by our belief that that day is real…

God has established a day when each will be filled and satisfied, where hunger and want will be no more. This is our salvation. We belong to that day.

Because of Jesus and through the power of the Spirit we experience that future today…

not fully but in ways that are undeniably connected to that future hope…

and we live together a way of life that is only explainable by our belief that that day is real…

God has established a day when we will have rest, when toil and struggle will no longer mark our existence and our life can be a life for others. This is our salvation. We belong to that day.

Because of Jesus and through the power of the Spirit we experience that future today…

not fully but in ways that are undeniably connected to that future hope…

and we live together a way of life that is only explainable by our belief that that day is real…

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Dylan on a Sunday

I saw Dylan in concert in February in Dallas. Friends of mine, huge Dylan fans, warned that he can be a bit lackluster in concert. The night I saw him, however, he was energized and engaged. I was surrounded by Dylan vets, a few who had seen him over 100 times, and they all agreed that his performance that night was uniquely energetic.

I've wondered if something that happened that night during the first song was responsible, at least in part, for the evening's vibe. As Dylan and his band walked out on stage, the woman standing next to me collapsed. I think it was a coincidence in terms of timing. She had been standing all day and imbibing an assortment of mind altering chemicals. When she collapsed, those of us around her yelled for security to come to her aid. Since we were close to the front of the stage, she was carried away by two security dudes who were stationed right in front of Dylan. The gap in security coverage allowed a young woman to jump the front of the stage and run up to Dylan during the song.

I thought this might be an evening buster. Dylan was naturally surprised when the woman ran onto the stage. But he turned out to be more amused than angry when it became clear that she was just a star-struck fan. And I wonder if that just set the vibe for the evening, got him into it in a way that he might not otherwise have been.

If this is at all true, then it is a case of peripheral and surprising things, like a woman feinting as the concert begins, having a bigger impact on outcomes then the obvious things, like playlists, venues, artists, etc.

The Dylan concert was the highlight of my concert going life. In honor of surprise, today's Dylan song is Rainy Day Women, the song he opened with that night. This is the very concert I attended, complete with woman rushing the stage.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Missional Transformation, 4

In the first three posts, I've talked mostly about transformation in general. The things we trust to make a difference are usually poor catalysts for transformation. Which is an odd way of saying it in the first place--the things we trust, rather than the person we trust.

There are many different ways to be transformed. We've got that word missional in front of our phrase. What makes transformation missional?

I often hear the word attractional used as the opposite of missional. In fact, I sometimes here it coming out of my own mouth. The difference being that the first works to "attract" consumers, the second views the church sent out among others. But this doesn't get it quite right. Missional churches still gather, and there's nothing wrong with being attractive (although treating people as religious consumers is highly problematic).

The difference has more to do with the imagination related to mission. A missional church is always discerning what God is up to in the world. I know this sounds really obvious at one level, but it really is a fairly significant statement. It might best be described as the difference between a straight line and a triangle.

Too often, the church sees itself in a straight line relationship to the world. The line goes something like God-church-world, with the church simply receiving the things of God and passing them along to the world. There is little need for discernment of God with the world, since the church receives the gospel as a fixed content to pass on. All that is left in terms of mission is strategy. How do we take what we've received and effectively transmit it? The church is in mission to the world, and the church becomes the primary, active agent in mission.

A triangle, on the other hand, is interactive. The relationships between God, church, and world are mutually informing and each element is constitutive in some sense for the others. In other words, there is no church apart from both God and world. There is no picture of future hope for the world apart from God and church. God is revealed in Jesus Christ in relation to both church and world. In this triangle, the church does not simply assume that it has a monopoly on God. It does not simply take God to the world, it also hopes to discover God there, in partial and fragmentary ways to be sure, but there nonetheless. This requires more than just strategy, it requires discernment. The church is in mission with the world, and God is the primary active agent. Discernment in this sense is properly spiritual work.

The shift from strategy to discernment is huge in so many ways. Chief among these is the way we view persons. When the church's engagement with the world is primarily strategic, then people are viewed as objects or targets of mission. They become "Saddleback Sam," a demographic, an abstraction. The church's logic become instrumental and mechanistic. Communication aims at effectiveness rather than understanding. The church too often seeks fusion to overcome otherness, rather than communion precisely through otherness.

Discernment requires a listening posture, a certain amount of humility. It requires that others be taken seriously on their own terms. It values otherness as the possibility of freedom and openness that allows God's Spirit to move effectively among us.

What is required for this kind of missional discernment? Many things. But one thing chief among them is hospitality. Hospitality is more than just entertaining others or being friendly. It is being open to the stranger, being interruptible. In my work with congregations, we dwell in Scripture, and often we spend a year dwelling in Luke 10. One of the values of Luke 10 is the demonstration there that God's hospitality often occurs on someone else's turf. Just as Jesus becomes our host ultimately by being our guest, so the church expresses the welcome of God for all by eating at someone else's table. This is mission.

This requires a pretty big shift in congregational imagination. I like to describe the shift in terms of belonging. We spend a lot of energy as a congregation trying to figure out how to get "them" to belong to "us." We have less imagination for trying to figure out how in Jesus' name we belong to our neighbors. The first imagination is instrumental and strategic. The second is more properly incarnational.

So, missional transformation necessarily will involve experiments in hospitality, fully expecting that the persons we have not yet met may well be new partners in the mission of God.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Missional Transformation, 3

I've spent a lot of time and energy getting congregations and students to understand evangelism differently. Specifically, I've tried to get them to think of evangelism in relation to the gospel of the Kingdom of God, rather than a particular view of the atonement. It's my theory that our practices of evangelism are tied to our understanding of the gospel, and that most church members define the gospel almost exclusively as penal substitutionary atonement (psa).

The problems with psa are numerous, but suffice it to say at this point that its not the only way to understand the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Changing evangelistic imagination related to psa, however, I have found to be a very difficult thing.

My earliest efforts were aimed at giving people more information. I taught them other theories of atonement, used the concept of theological worlds, explored various metaphors for salvation, all to little effect. New information was simply not potent enough to change a very entrenched imagination.

So, I began inviting people into experiments related to the Kingdom of God. In my graduate courses, I asked students in small groups to pick a pattern of repentance related to the Kingdom. Some chose to keep sabbath, others to avoid violent speech, still others to practice hospitality. Now we were getting somewhere. They had real experiences to talk about, amazing experiences. But when they turned to say something meaningful about these experiences, they talked about them in their old categories.

So, I added intentional practices of reflection and articulation to their experiments in repentance. Wow, what a difference. The stories were poignant and full of the language of salvation. They could connect sabbath, for instance, to living in the death and resurrection of Jesus. They could speak about how this required a Spirit filled community. They could talk in concrete terms precisely the shape their salvation was taking.

All that to say, we tend to think of transformation in terms of information and application. But people have great capacity to absorb new information into existing imaginative constructs leaving us far short of transformation.

Transformation requires new experiences, intentional reflection, and articulation. My friend Pat Keifert often reminds congregations that people don't learn much from experience in and of itself. They learn from articulated reflection on experience. My students are evidence that this is indeed the case.

Experience-->reflection-->articulation allows for a new narrative to emerge. We get transformation when we learn to tell a new story about ourselves. This is deep structure change and won't come simply by adding programs or tinkering with our worship.

My sense in many churches is that we expect very little from our members in terms of experience. We expect them primarily to experience Sunday morning worship. Anything else is kind of like the options we could add to an automobile. They're nice, but not essential. But even less do we ask church members to reflect in any kind of deliberate way on their experience. And we provide few venues for articulation for all but a few of our members. We are poorly equipped in terms of practices related to transformation.