Saturday, January 24, 2009

Ministry Maxim, 3

This is rather long to qualify as a maxim, but nevertheless, here it is.

There are two kind of unhealthy churches. The first has no sense whatsoever that God might be up to something in its midst. The second can tell you at any given moment exactly what God is up to.

My friend, Pat Keifert, often says that most congregations are functionally atheist. This does not mean that they do not believe in God. This means that they have a hard time using God as the subject in a sentence with an active verb. God is absent in the functional imagination of a congregation, trapped either in a distant heaven or a distant past.

The church here is a closed environment with little imagination beyond what it can produce in its own ability and power. These churches may grow, even be vibrant in many ways. (This is a maxim related to the word health, not size). But their lives are totally explainable by the sum of their parts. And most of the time this results in dreary.

Sometimes the lack of God talk is an absence of nerve, or even the result of humility, not wanting to claim for God things that do not belong to him. If, however, God raised Jesus from the dead, then the testimony to God's saving purposes must be contemporary. This is risky business, but in my estimation less of a risk than saying nothing at all. And if death and resurrection teaches us anything, it is that God abides risk.

Still, this business of God speech is tricky. Our awareness of God also makes us aware of our own limitations, our propensity to make a god out of the projection of our own desires. Here, God is so immanent that every detail of life is a "God-thing." This travels by two names in my book: triumphalism and idolatry. To talk of God so pervasively and confidently betrays an over-identification between God and church. These churches are often very big and dynamic. It is exciting, after all, to be a part of a movement where you know God is on your team. But it is unhealthy in many ways.

At the very least it is bad theology. It collapses the holiness of God. It refuses to acknowledge that the victory of God is hidden in a cross, the glory of God hidden in human suffering. These things are not always easy to see, especially by people whose perspectives are limited by circumstance and sin. I love Luke Johnson's little line in relation to discerning the will of God. We should always be "modest before the mystery."

So, we are left with the tricky deal of needing to talk about God without claiming too much, with being simultaneously bold and modest. And I think the deal here is punctuation. We speak in commas, not exclamation points. The process of discernment is never complete. It is ongoing, and we might have it wrong. We confess what we believe God is up to, subject to further review. I like the word confess here. It can be direct speech. God is love. But it is also our language about God. It is what we have come to believe. And as our language, it is provisional.

I am convinced that we can't know God apart from confessions like these. As Paul says in Romans, with our hearts we believe, with our mouths we confess unto salvation. Saying is a necessary part of testing the spirits, allowing the Word of God to continue to speak. But it must be done with modesty

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Missional Tale

In the constant quest to define missional, I offer the following:

Tonight I attended an inaugural ball in our neighborhood. Well, ball is a relative term. It wasn't gowns and tuxes or anything fancy. It was in our neighborhood community center with its requisite linoleum floor and fluorescent lights. There were coats and hats and gloves and puddles from the snow clinging to the bottoms of our boots. And there were children and potato chips and brownies and cold cuts. And there was a band. Not a Tommy Dorsey kind of band. But something closer to a jug band. An Appalachian folk music band with a caller to help us folk dance.

It was an introverts nightmare. I knew less than half the people there. And I was going to be "dancing" with them. But I was brave because of the joy of the day. I have friends who were in the grandstands at the inaugural in DC today. That made me feel closer to the event. Being at something where people were celebrating this momentous day was the right thing to do, even if it wasn't quite my thing.

Now here's the deal. There's something about traditional dances that bring people together. I admit that when we did it in seventh grade I thought it to be the worst idea in the history of human interaction. But in just minutes, we are all fumbling around together, linking arms, holding hands, and welcoming each other. You can't help but smile and feel a part. I've participated in traditional dances in Brazil, and nothing I have ever done has broken down barriers faster.

I wonder, given the boundary crossing nature of the gospel, why there aren't more stories of Christians dancing. Well, ok, I know why. I'm just saying that this was as sacramental as breaking bread. I happen to prefer the Brazilian folk dances to the Appalachian ones. They're just more fun. But they do the same thing. They create community.

My buddy, John Ogren, organized this thing. And if you know John, you know anything he's involved with will include prayer. So, we wrote prayers through the evening on brightly colored strips of cloth and hung them on a string that crossed the room. And after a good deal of dancing we paused for prayer. John had invited a young Muslim woman working on a Master's degree in Islamic studies to pray. She sang the first chapter of the Koran and then translated it for us. It was beautiful.

Then my friend Lucy, a PhD student in pastoral theology from Kenya (her study carel is right next to mine), prayed in Swahili, and then in English. And Lucy can pray. And she did, a prayer filled with scriptural allusions on behalf of America and all the world.

And then a Jewish woman prayed. She prayed from Scripture, first in English, then in Hebrew. And like the others, she prayed for the momentum of this occasion, that it would roll into a time of peace.

I was deeply moved by each prayer. (They were better, in my estimation, than either prayer at the inauguration. Let the Yellow be mellow? And that was the better of the two prayers). I have no idea the faith commitments, or lack thereof, represented in the room. But after you've do-sie-doed with someone, prayer isn't as threatening.

This was missional to me for several reasons. It was in public space, not a gathering or a club or like minded people behind socially bounded space. It was public, an ecclesia. It was a vision of the future of God when all will dance together to the sweet strains of heaven. It was joy filled, an event occasioned by good news. It required no expertise or pride of position to participate. We crossed boundaries, welcomed strangers, and practiced peace. It took our entire person to participate; heart, mind, and body. It was relentlessly ecumenical and respectful. And God was right in the thick of it. There was prayer.

My heart is full today. It is such a vibrant day. It is so hopeful. And I know other days will be darker and less full of promise. But today touched something rare, and I went to an inaugural ball I will always remember.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

To Perform the World Beyond the Reach of Pharaoh

On of the benefits of sojourning at a seminary is that you get to hear the guys who write the books. Today, my favorite author on matters pertaining to Scripture (particularly the Old Testament) is on campus. Walter Brueggemann just spoke on Exodus at a conference on Engaging Scripture for the Sake of the World. WB never disappoints, and so I have a little theology geek buzz going.

I'll just mention one point that WB made today that presses some on what I've been blogging about of late. WB sees the decalogue (10 commandments) as counter commandments, standing in contrast to Pharaoh's commandments about production, bricks, and straw in Exodus 5. Against the insatiable culture of slave production under Pharaoh's control, the way of YHWH provides a coventantal neighborliness that allows acts of kindness toward others.

In the middle of this wonderful exposition of Scripture, Brueggemann made comments about God and the world. He was taught in seminary, he told us, that if you begin theology with God's initiative you're likely doing good theology (I was taught the same thing). Problem is, he said, the biblical writers weren't clued in to this little theological key. Brueggemann refers to the middle part of Exodus as the narrative of departure and noted today that it is human initiative that pushes the story along. Pharaoah produces a cry through oppression, Israel cries out againts Pharaoh's reach, and God responds to the cry of Israel.

The initiative of the Exodus is located in the cry of the slaves that move beyond Pharaoh's reach. The cry is the refusal of a dehumanizing way of life built around insatiable production. The one who is other than Pharaoh (the holy one of Israel), hears Israel's cry and calls them into the performance of a counter story.

I simply want to point out here that creation is active in the drama of redepmtion. The story of God-world is not just a story of God's initiative. God is moved by human initiative. This is not to say that humans can provide their own deliverance, or that God is not an initiator. It is to say that God's relationship with creation is ust that--a relationship. The world is not simply a passive recipient of God's irresistable plan. The world is a real participant in the drama of redemption.

This dynamic view of God suffers with the negotiations made by early Christian apologists with a Greek thinking world. Stan Grenz, and others, refer to the theology that emerges in this period as onto-theology. That is, thinking about God that is rooted in a certain notion of being, namely a substantialist perspective that divides the world into subjects and objects. And in this world, God only works if God is impassable, that is not affected by the world. God is a persisting subject--omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent. In Trinitarian thought, great pains were made to shield the Father from the suffering of the Son.

We still live with much of this today. With regard to mission, we have used passages like Matthew 28 and the biblical language of sending to support a substantialist notion of God. God sends the Son, sends the Spirit (a point of contention between East and West), sends the church. The world is simply an object. The church simply an obedient instrument of God, on the side of God in a series of sendings. The result is a strategic view of mission rooted in a paternalism, often resulting in a heavy-handed imperialism or ethnocentrism parading as the kingdom of God.

The biblical story is not one of an impassable God, a persisting Subject, but of a God who is revealed in relation to human cries, whether of the cries of slaves in Egypt, or of the Son in the Garden of Gethsemane.

WB always raises the spectre of an unmanagable God who if faithful, consistent, precisely in response to human suffering. This, I believe, is the necessary starting place for "Engaging Scripture for the Sake of the World."

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

"Who Would Jesus Smackdown?"

I admit, I've typically been on the receiving end of the whole bully thing. And given what I start with, I don't have the full range of options that burlier, manly men have at their disposal. I do, however, still have a full head of hair. So, there's that. And that ain't nothing.

I'm just saying that I find the whole chest pumping, macho thing hard to relate to. I don't watch martial arts movies or Smackdown. And over the years, I have developed an understanding of God and companionship with Jesus that is decidedly non-violent. I gave up violence for Lent a few years ago, which included being a consumer of violence. Tough thing to do. I have no doubts that my biography has much to do with this. But I also don't have to look far in the Bible or the Christian tradition for support. I'm not saying its the only way to read the Bible or the tradition. But I'll take my verses over the others any day.

I bring this up because the NYTimes Magazine carried an article this past Sunday on Mark Driscoll, the pastor of Seattle's Mars Hill Church, sporting the great title, "Who Would Jesus Smackdown." It's a great article ( outlining Driscoll's decidedly muscular approach to Christianity.

For those of you who don't know Driscoll, he grew up Roman Catholic, was converted to a fundamentalist/Calvinist strain of evangelical Christianity while a college student, and started the Mars Hill church, which is a multi-campus megachurch in the Seattle area. Driscoll was often listed as a leader in the early days of the Ermerging Church gang, though he has distanced himself from them and written particularly scathing remarks about other emerging leaders like Brian McLaren and Doug Pagitt.

His public remarks highlight Driscoll's style, unflinching, outspoken, never in doubt. He is not a conventional pastor to be sure. I visited Mars Hill for a week about six years ago and caught his gig. The website in those days featured young-ish "elders" (Driscoll being the alpha elder) who rock climbed, drank beer, dabbled in profanity and R rated movies, and talked straight about all issues. God is tough, demanding, and, at all costs, cool. To Mars Hill's credit, they were reaching people other churches simply don't care about, intentionally reaching out to a "postmodern" generation. I like the fact that Driscoll's church is also a critique of the seeker movement. His is not a "best life now" approach.

But make no mistake, Driscoll is no postmodern. He has wed two totalizing narratives, modern epistemology and hard core Calvinism. The Times piece, written by Molly Worthen, has some great descriptions of Driscoll's views.

"With his taste for vintage baseball caps and omnipresence on Facebook and iTunes, Driscoll, who is 38, is on the cutting edge of American pop culture. Yet his message seems radically unfashionable, even un-American: you are not captain of your soul or master of your fate but a depraved worm whose hard work and good deeds will get you nowhere, because God marked you for heaven or condemned you to hell before the beginning of time."

And she follows:

"New members can keep their taste in music, their retro T-shirts and their intimidating facial hair, but they had better abandon their feminism, premarital sex and any 'modern' interpretations of the Bible. Driscoll is adamantly not the 'weepy worship dude' he associates with liberal and mainstream evangelical churches, 'singing prom songs to a Jesus who is presented as a wuss who took a beating and spent a lot of time putting product in his long hair.'"

I love the smell of steroids in the morning.

Driscoll's world seems to be a binary world. Saved or damned. Right or wrong. And this kind of world needs an ever vigilant sense of authority accounting for all details, keeping all the boundary lines drawn and distinct. It is telling that in a dispute over the direction of Mars Hill, Driscoll put down the hammer, following the advice of a martial arts, ultimate fighter, a member at Mars Hill. Worthen writes:

In 2007, two elders protested a plan to reorganize the church that, according to critics, consolidated power in the hands of Driscoll and his closest aides. Driscoll told the congregation that he asked advice on how to handle stubborn subordinates from a 'mixed martial artist and Ultimate Fighter, good guy' who attends Mars Hill. 'His answer was brilliant,' Driscoll reported. “He said, ‘I break their nose.’ ” When one of the renegade elders refused to repent, the church leadership ordered members to shun him. One member complained on an online message board and instantly found his membership privileges suspended. 'They are sinning through questioning,' Driscoll preached. John Calvin couldn’t have said it better himself."

I have a friend in Portland who is a close friend of Driscoll's. Together they are putting together conferences that feature ultimate fighting as a kind of metaphor for Christianity. They have Christian ultimate fighters tell their audience how Jesus has changed their life. Then they beat the snot out of each other. Seriously. Totalizing narratives don't shy away from a little violence.

Driscoll, Worthen points out, is not alone. Other megachurch leaders, notably John Piper, espouse this rock-ribbed Calvinism and are finding an audience. And what seems to appeal to this audience is the never-in-doubt appeal. It has a certain pastoral attraction in a confusing, overwhelming world. Worthen quotes a young blogger at Mars Hill who sees a definite pastoral upside to a no holds barred view of God's sovreignty. “There are plenty of comfortable people who can say, ‘God’s on my side,’ ” he says. “But they couldn’t turn around and say, ‘God gave me cancer.’ ” Indeed. (A pause for the full, shuddering effect to take hold).

I sat in worship a few weeks ago next to a young man whose mother died suddenly of meningitis a few weeks earlier. She was at church one Sunday, seemingly fine, and two days later was dead. As I sat next to him we sang "Blessed be the Name," a song quoting Job. "He gives and takes away. My heart will choose to say, 'Blessed be your name.'" Now I get the comfort in this song (though it doesn't comfort me). We don't have to figure it out. It's all in God's hands. He's bigger than me. It all adds up in the end. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

I wondered that morning how my young friend might hear that song. I would hear it as God killing my mother. There are so many ways this theology goes bad. But at the heart of it, it posits an irresistable God who works his will through violence, through an unquestioned, unbending, authoritarian will.

The gospel way forward for me is not making God invulnerable, but precisely through the vulnerability of God in Jesus Christ. This is the real occasion for love, a demonstration of the power of heaven that overcomes the human tendency to maintain order through authority and violent control. In the thick of it, I'll take vulnerable love over smackdown any day.

If you'll excuse me, I have some hair care product to apply.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Dylan on a Sunday

Today I'm listening to the "I'm Not There" soundtrack. Definitely worth buying. Great covers across the board. Which clearly raises the question of the best Dylan covers. Who could possibly say since so many great artists have covered so many Dylan songs. But everyone has favorites. Here are my top five right now.

5. Ballad of a Thin Man--Stephen Malkus and the Million Dollar Bashers. This is becoming one of my favorite Dylan songs. It skewers the right people, and I have some Mr. Joneses in mind. And Malkus' version is great vocally and the band is killer.

4. Tombstone Blues--Richie Havens. His voice was made for this song. Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers, Otis Redding, Richie Havens. In my next life, I'm one of those guys.

3. Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window--Jackie Greene and Sal Valentino. I can't say why exactly, but I smile everytime I hear the first few ragged licks of this cover. Greene's voice is great. If I could be in a garage band and learn to play anysong well, it would be this one.

2. Masters of War--Pearl Jam. Undescribable. Powerful. And in light of the run up to the Iraq war, powerfully relevant.

1. The Times They are a Changin'--Brandi Carlile. Well, its Brandi Carlile, which puts it way up there just for that. I'm just saying. I saw her in concert early this fall, and her covers stole the show (Fortunate Son, Folsom Prison Blues, Hallelujah).

Anyone want to change this list?

Thursday, January 8, 2009

God, World, Church

Theology matters. And everyone does theology. Might as well be good at it. Especially if you want to do anything connected to the word missional.

What you think about God is inescapably connected to what you think about the church and the world. This is obvious in some ways. If you think of God as a wrathful judge, than you tend to treat your neighbors one way. If you think about God as merciful and loving, you treat your neighbors another.

What is less clear is that how you think about God as Father, Son, and Spirit is connected to how you treat your neighbors. But it is connected, and because its less obvious, may be far more powerful and determinative. The things we take for granted are the things that control us the most. And because the Trinity is a complex matter, it tends to be something we assume.

Making this tougher is that Scripture nowhere uses the term Trinity and is not interested, it seems, in defining the relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit. And because it seems to have little interest in defining these relationships, the various pieces don't always fit that well together.

Further complicating matters is the fact that once the church did become interested in defining these relationships, finding agreement proved to be a problem. There are two things, at least, that have to brought together in any doctrine of the Trinity--unity and personhood. The Western tradition (think Roman Catholic, Augustine, Aquinas) tends to emphasize unity, while the Eastern tradition (you can't even think about this, but if you want to try, think the Orthodox church and the Cappadocians) emphasizes the three persons. This is a complicated deal. Its enough to make you throw up your hands and give up, which is precisely what churches in my tradition did.

But here's the deal. We have been profoundly influenced by the Western tradition, like it or not, and it has influenced our understandings of mission. This is a complicated story, but let's just begin by saying that the challenge of seeing something as a unified subject is that it turns the everything else into objects. And mission practices tied to a subject-object view of the world tend to be imperialistic. One can't tell the story of Western missions apart from words like imperialism and colonialism (aka, the White man's burden).

Trinity is important in defining mission. In fact, the birth of the missional church conversation coincides with a rediscovery of sorts of Trinitarian theology. (Trinity had fallen on hard times under the rational gaze of the Enlightenment). The roots for the term missio Dei (mission of God) are often traced to Karl Barth who begins his theological writings with a return to Trinity. The conversation has moved beyond Barth, but he demonstrated again that the way forward in mission depends to a large degree on what we think about the relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit.

I hope to spend some time the next few weeks inviting you into this important conversation.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Dylan on a Sunday

First blog of a new year. Dylan. Did I tell you I used to have a dog named Dylan? Great dog. Someone stole him. He was that great of a dog.

Sean Palmer, a friend of mine, recently commented in my presence that Dylan holds some weird fascination for every 50 year old male he knows. With friends like Sean... First, I'm only 50 if you round up, which is an important distinction. Second, the phrase is "50 year old dude." And third, I can leave Dylan if I want. I've quit several times. And rumors to the contrary, my hand tremors are not worse during those times.

It could be worse. It could be Manilow on a Sunday, or Abba, or Neil Diamond, or show tunes. I know this is a weak defense for Dylan on a Sunday. I'm just saying that there are other musical obsessive figures that are not as worthy of blog meditations. I mean, "I Write the Songs"? Give me a break.

Truth is, Dylan's stage allows me to talk about a lot of the things I'm interested in. And I'm of the opinion that the best theology is not delivered in a creed, but in a song, something that is a bit more three dimensional. And theology that is not poetic is necessarily a step closer to ideology, and from there idolatry. In fact, one of the things I like about Dylan is that he doesn't play it straight with Scripture. He alludes to it all over the place, but not in some kind of straightforward quote, and often with a weird twist. After all, the letter kills, but the spirit gives life.

So, with this apology, there will be more Dylan on a Sunday this year. He makes me seem smarter, and gets me in the neighborhood of cool without making it seem obvious. That just won't happen with Abba.

"No reason to get excited," the thief, he kindly spoke,
"There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.
But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate,
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late."