Sunday, April 26, 2009

Dylan on a Sunday

Pretty big week in my life coming up. Among a few momentous events looming includes the release of Dylan's new cd. The reviews have been great and I have been living in the glow of anticipation.

Anticipation is a great thing. Anticipation in circumstances like this keeps you in the mode of promise. The daily projection of future promise, especially as the reality gets closer, is one of the great things in life. It gets you out of bed, gives you a sunnier disposition, makes everything seem a little brighter.

Of course, the downside of anticipation is that often the real thing is a let down. Boston's second album. Tusk following in the aftermath of Rumors (Fleetwood Mac). Flinstones, The Movie (Barney Rubble, what an actor!). Caddy Shack II. The real thing often pales next to the experience of anticipation. These experiences might encourage you to dampen expectations to keep from being disappointed.

Some things are more, though. More than you expected, even when expectations were high. As great as the anticipation, the reality actually exceeds it. More, always more, is rare and you just have to be thankful when you find it. The last three cd's from Dylan have come fairly close to the anticipation. I am giving myself to anticipation fully. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Gospel and Cultures, 2

In the last post I ended with the question, "What does it mean to define a relationship in terms of news?" This question followed the observation that for the earliest Christians, gospel was a mode of engagement with the world. It is significant that they chose the word "gospel" to define in primary ways their relationship with the world around them. What is it that Christians offer the world? News. Good news.

James Brownson, a New Testament scholar, was the one who started me thinking down this road. Brownson, in Speaking the Truth in Love, talks about the significance of choosing gospel, a fairly secular term, over other more typically religious words readily available for Christian use. Words like law, or instruction, or mystery, or truth. Christians use these words, but not in the same way that other religions use them, and certainly not with the broad significance of the word gospel. These words establish different types of relationships. They have different modes of relating and create different social realities. If this is the case, then it stands to reason that gospel would also form a different kind of cultural engagement.

Truth, for instance, tends to manage itself in certain ways. It tends to be argumentative (in a good sense). It is interested in nailing things down with precision. It seeks norms and justifications. The common mode of relating is teaching. Experts rule.

Or take mystery. Mystery is for the initiated. It is unveiled for the enlightened, and it typically requires some sort of secret process to decode. You have to get inside the walls to figure out what it is all about. (A modernist version of this might be scientology).

The category of news has some places of overlap, but is very different in others. News is public. While it typically is about something new, this new thing is for all, not just for the initiated. And its primary mode is witness, not teaching. It is concerned with the eventfulness of situations, not just the universal principles. News cares about truthfulness, but in terms of the authenticity of the source, less in terms related to certain indubitable ideas or notions.

News is related to events. Something happened or is happening or is going to happen. It is not about getting certain ideas in place in an argument. I like the way that Amos Wilder describes early Christian speech. "It is naïve, it is not studied; it is extempore and directed to the occasion, it is not calculated to serve some future hour. This utterance is dynamic, actual, immediate, reckless of posterity; not coded for catechists or repeaters" (Early Christian Rhetoric, 12-13). It is news.

This news is related to what God is doing in the world, and in particular what he is accomplishing in and through Jesus and the Spirit. For the NT writers, the advent of God in Jesus and the Spirit signals a turning of the ages. The old ordering of things is judged and found wanting; a new ordering rooted in God's future salvation is appearing. This appearing is always in a sense a new thing. The gospel is not simply that God did something in the past that matters to us today. The gospel is ongoing news of an emerging new creation. Jesus is risen and his reign established. The Spirit is active. This is always newsworthy in an ongoing way.

Staying in this mode (gospel) requires certain practices and perspectives. It requires certain aesthetic or journalistic instincts. It requires participation in the ongoing eventfulness of the gospel, which we will turn our attention to in future posts.

This is first order business for a faith that believes in an active God. This is not to say that there isn't need to nail down things propositionally from time to time, or unlock a few mysteries along the way, or clarify moral or ethical standards. But these are not the primary ways the first Christians sought to define their relationship with the culture as a whole. And that's a pretty big deal.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Gospel and Cultures

There are few conversations in Christian theological circles these days more full of energy than the one concerning gospel and cultures. There are many reasons for this, some external and some internal to the dynamics of the Christian experience. Some of the energy is simply around defining terms. For instance, what do we mean by culture, or as you'll see in my use, cultures. Several, notably Kathryn Tanner, have traced the shift in the meaning of this word. It once referred only to the achievement of a particular society, or more precisely, the achievement of a certain class. Only some were cultured, namely the elite.

Now we refer to culture as a whole way of life, as a web of significance, as something in which all of us participate and find a common life. In fact, culture is no longer simply something we achieve or produce. It precedes us, shaping our identities to a large extent through language, convention, rituals, and images.

One more shift, one under way in my opinion, is to see culture less as a spatial category, and more in temporal terms. Culture precedes us because it is moving, like a stream, which means it is also eluding us in some ways. We can no longer speak of it as something fixed. It is less a continent to explore and map (spatial), but more a stream to navigate (temporal). And because it is moving and not fixed, we also recognize that culture(s) is both plural and specific. Some have stopped using the word culture at all, preferring cultural. We can say something is cultural without nailing something down as the culture. Others talk about cultural flows, a variety of streams in which we find ourselves. No matter how you speak of it, notions of culture are still being explored.

This is an important conversation for Christianity because of its unique relationship through the centuries to cultures. Christianity has proved fairly nimble in crossing cultural boundaries. Imagine, for instance, the boundary crossing impulse in telling the story of Jesus in a language other than the one he spoke. Islam and Judaism, generally speaking, are much more wed to a particular cultural expression rooted in a particular language. Christians are eager to translate the Bible into as many languages as possible and do not require adherents to read the Bible in its original language. This is a pretty big deal.

It is also striking to me that the New Testament is comprised of documents representing a season of transition in the life of the people of God. It is a missionary literature propelled by the impulse that there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. This universalizing tendency in Christianity has to take into account every culture it encounters.

There is much to say here, and perhaps over time we can say more. But what I think is still largely lacking in the contemporary conversation is a rigorous discussion of gospel.

I often hear people say that the gospel is a constant, but the tactics, methods, or modes that we use are cultural. The gospel, here, is a fixed content. Like spatial understandings of culture, it is a fixed container. The way to make the gospel relevant is to give it a contemporary facelift, communicate it in ways that are meaningful to a particular culture. The relationship is kernel and husk. The gospel is the kernel, the seed that never changes. The husks are the cultural elements that can be peeled away. They are temporary, simply a matter of expediency. Relevance here is using movies or U2 concert footage to make the gospel more culturally accessible.

This is to be preferred to a view of gospel that overidentifies everything we do as the gospel. Some churches won't change at all because they think of everything as fixed. They think of Christianity in spatial terms. It can be identified completely and finally through certain characteristics, or marks of the church, that are immutable.

The problems here are numerous. Most critique from a theological perspective focuses on the naive understanding of the relationship between content and form. How we do something is just as much content as what we say. Form is meaning, and the adoption of cultural forms is a risk, perhaps inevitable, that threatens the particular formfulness of Christianity.

I appreciate this critique and have said things like this before. But I am coming to think that the greater problem in a kernel-husk view of gospel and culture is that it always makes the world a secondary concern to church. The church has the kernel, the world the husks. The world is only valuable as an illustration. The church can settle the gospel and its own identity beforehand in some kind of pure form, without any engagment with the world. This tempts theology to think of its task as settling certain topics related to certain notions of God (primarily owing to a substantialist ontology, i.e. spatial), rather than tracking the leading of a living God in the world he loves (more temporal?).

So, I want to see if there might be a similar gain for the term gospel to the one that delivered notions of culture from a fixed, spatial understanding.

And gospel is the place to start, I believe, for this reason. It is the term coined by the early Christians to indicate the mode of relationship they had with others. What does it mean to define a relationship in terms of news? In distinction to law or instruction or mystery or even truth? This is a vitally important question.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Giving up Missional for Lent

I preached this sermon the opening night of the Missional Think Tank hosted my Church Innovations a few weeks ago. It's a sermon on John 12, the lectionary text for that day.

Giving up Missional for Lent
A Sermon from John 12

“Now when the great crowd who had gathered for the festival heard that Jesus was coming, they took branches from palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord
The King of Israel

Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written:

Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion,
Look your king is coming sitting on a donkey’s colt!

His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. It was also because they had heard he performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him. The Pharisees then said to one another, ‘You see, you can do nothing. The whole world has gone after him.”

Which they say to their dismay. They have, after all, been seeking to destroy Jesus. Twice John tells us that they sought to arrest him, but failed because “his hour had not yet come” (7:30; 8:20)

And now it appears, this has gone too long. The genie is out of the bottle. The road map has been unfolded. The whole world has gone after him. This is no longer a Judean thing, or even a matter for the diaspora. This thing has gotten too big. There’s no way to stop it or put a lid on it or hope it will simply lose steam. The whole world has gone after him.

And because the narrator knows that nuance is often lost on a listener, we are told in the text’s very next breath:

“Among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.” Greeks!

And the Greeks found Phillip, who, in case we forgot his introduction in chapter one, is from Bethsaida in Galilee. Galilee! You can pick these guys out at the festival, these Greeks and Galileans. They’re the ones holding maps of the city with digital cameras hanging around their necks. The Greeks told Phillip they wanted to see Jesus. And Phillip found and told Andrew. And together Phillip and Andrew found and told Jesus.

And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified!”

Oh, we’ve been waiting for this line for a while. Ever since the wedding feast at Cana when Jesus questioned his mother, “What business of this is ours. My hour has not yet come.” And John has reminded us at strategic points throughout this story that there is an hour coming—an hour of glory. And now its here!

In this moment. When the Greeks have come to Phillip, and Phillip has gone to Andrew, and Phillip and Andrew have gone to Jesus, this story has changed lanes, crossed a rubicon. It’s crossed the tracks and is no longer controllable by the religious authorities. The whole world has gone after him! The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.


I am from a liturgically challenged tradition (Churches of Christ). But I am aware that John 12 is the lectionary text for today, and that today is the fifth Sunday of Lent. And I have practiced Lent with some regularity for a while now.

This year, I considered giving up missional for Lent.

It is just too hard. I’ve determined its no way to make a career.

It’s a little like that bit that Letterman does on his show now and then: Is This Anything? Have you seen the bit? There’s some act behind the curtain, no one knows what it is. The curtain is raised and between scantily dressed women—one twirling multiple hula hoops and the other creating sparks with what looks like a portable sander—you have a juggler or a fire eater or a guy doing handstands using an exercise ball. And the question Dave and Paul answer is “Is this anything?”

That’s what being a recognized advocate for missional church feels like—some kind of novelty act connected to the question “Is this anything?” (Perhaps it would be easier if we had scantily clad girls). There’s hardly a place I go where this isn’t the question. Is missional anything?

My spell checker doesn’t think so.

I spent six years teaching in a seminary trying with mixed success to convince my colleagues.
“The word mission’s not even in the bible.”
“This isn’t real theology.”
“It’s just the latest fad, like purpose driven church.”

And now I’ve come to Luther Seminary to get a PhD in missional, because surely if you can get a PhD in missional it’s got to be something. But I fear this will be only slightly more persuasive. Am I missiologist, a theologian, a systematic theologian, a Christian leadership prof?

And it gets only a slightly better reception in congregations. My Aunt Beth asks me, “I hear the staff at church using this missional church phrase. Can you tell me what this means?” And I try. And these conversations typically go one of two ways: My explanation is met with a blank stare, or they happily respond, “oh, then we’re already missional.” Either way, it’s not anything.

I’m willing to accept that I may not be a very good spokesman for all of this. Maybe its just that I can’t make a career out of this. I suspect, however, that I’m not alone. It’s a hard way to make a career.


The whole world has gone after him. Now that’s way to make a career. That goes in your tenure portfolio or on your list of faculty accomplishments. That’s a blurb on the back cover of your book, right between the endorsements from Oprah and Bono.

You’ve hit the tipping point. Big momentum is on your side. The crowd is behind you. Your enemies have conceded. The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.

The next line of this story holds so much promise.

“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth, and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit. Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.”

He missed the moment. He took everything he had going for him—palm branches, hosannas, public support, the resignation of his enemies—and buried it in the ground.


Look, we’ve been reading this text a long time. And I know that no matter how well I set this up this evening, you would not be surprised by what Jesus does with this moment. You expected him to say, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies… “ Most of you have preached sermons against triumphalism and know that Jesus’ hour of glory in the gospel of John involves his death. I would assume that you would hear Jesus’ saying as gospel tonight.

But this is a scandal nonetheless and we make peace with it at our peril. This is a saying about death, and not Jesus’ impending death, but an invitation to follow Jesus through death. “Where I am my servant will also be.” This is about our lives as well. And I fear that we’ve washed over these words so many times that they have become smooth stones with no more rough edges. And with that, they have lost their capacity to turn our lives in a new direction.

And so, I would invite us into their scandal again by focusing on two phrases in the text. The first is the phrase, “it remains just a single grain.”

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single grain.”

I have become increasingly aware in my life of the pressures toward the single grain strategy. How forces conspire to make my life a single grain, and how I associate single grain-ness with glory.

I mean by this that I think of my life as something I accomplish, sustain and maintain through my individual effort. I imagine that most of our strategies for glory are of the single grain variety—that is, an accomplishment perceived as my own doing. Something that makes me stand out from the crowd.

Some of these pressures are internal, pressures I place on myself. But some I’m squeezed into. And a lot of that for me revolves around this notion of career. Processes of tenure and promotion, the pecking order within a faculty, the specialization of knowledge, all push me toward seeing my life as a single seed.

And if I can turn the image a little here—they encourage me to see my accomplishments as fruit, not seed. As the finished product. As something to be admired and tasted by others. And I worry about the lasting benefit of my work, its capacity to remain fruit. These issues have come into focus for me because I’ve just turned 49 and I feel the pressure of making this next move count, not losing my momentum, not letting my work to this point fall to the ground and die. My life is all too explainable by the single seed strategy.

And Jesus has something bigger in mind. He knows that a single life—not even his—is adequate for the work of God related to the world. He tells his disciples a few verses later that it is better for him to leave, to no longer be present, so that the Spirit might come. Indeed, his followers will do greater things than Jesus himself becase of the multiplying impact of the Spirit. It’s better than the single grain strategy.

The second phrase hardly seems worth noting. It’s this business where Phillip goes to find Andrew. Why does Phillip go and find Andrew. Why not just take the Greeks directly to Jesus? Is Phillip not a self-starter? Is he afraid to take initiative?

This question is bigger than just a question about Phillip’s role. Look at the progression of this text. The crowd cuts palm branches and shouts hosanna and Jesus’ enemies give up, “Look the whole world has gone after him.” Why not right here? Why isn’t it in this moment that Jesus recognizes his hour of glory?

It’s in the next verse. The Greeks go to Phillip. Phillip goes to Andrew. Phillip and Andrew go to Jesus. It’s here that Jesus says, “Now has the hour arrived for the Son of Man to be glorified.” It is in relation to this connection of human lives.

I’ve looked for some deeper significance. I got my concordance out and did Phillip and Andrew searches in the Gospel of John. I read the commentaries. Is this some Andrew source that lies behind the gospel that insists he be recognized? I got nothing.

So, because I’m the preacher tonight, I’m just going to say that this is the way of the kingdom of God. There is no seeing Jesus that is not mediated by another. There is a necessary Phillip to Andrew movement that gets this is crucial to both relationship with God and mission with the world.


So, is this think tank on missional church anything? I hope so.

I have evidence that it could be. I wouldn’t be here tonight apart from some Phillip to Andrew movement.

But I also think it might be too early to say. The jury’s still our. We’re between the hula hoop and grinder girls, and Dave and Paul are still trying to decide.

Is this anything? It won’t be if it’s just another incident of a single seed strategy. If its just another way for us to make our careers or distinguish ourselves from others. If its just something in our tenure portfolios or books we publish or articles we author.

Is this anything? It won’t be if missional becomes a private little brand, a designation only for those who get it, a word whose meaning we control, a movement that we direct.

Is this anything? It won’t be if it becomes balkanized by the survival instincts of institutions where we’re always protecting our little piece of the action. If ACU or Princeton or Fuller or Luther or the GOCN or CI or Allelon become single seeds. It won’t amount to anything.

Is this anything? It could be if we learn to see our lives as seed and not fruit.

Is this anything? It will be if we see the other as the end of my project, as an occasion for dying, as opposed to seeing the other as someone I can absorb into my little corner of the action.

Is this anything? It will be if we learn to trust the Spirit of God, and the power of the resurrection. If we can let this moment and other like them be a burial so that much fruit might be born.

Maybe giving up missional for lent is not such a bad idea after all.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Dylan on a Sunday

I've played the new Dylan song over and over. Can't wait for the new cd in a few weeks. This has been a momentous month. Purchased U2 tickets. Bought the new Gomez cd (I'm a fan, what can I say), I see Alexi Murdoch ("In your love, my salvation lies in your love...") Monday evening and Dylan releases a new one in a few days. It is good to be alive.

Beyond Here Lies Nothing

Oh well I love you pretty baby
You’re the only love I’ve ever known
Just as long as you stay with me
The whole world is my throne
Beyond here lies nothin’
Nothing we can call our own

Well I’m moving after midnight
Down boulevards of broken cars
Don’t know what I do without it
Without this love we call ours
Beyond here lies nothin’
Nothing but the moon and stars

Down every street there’s a window
And every window made of glass
We'll keep on loving pretty baby
For as long as love will last
Beyond here lies nothin’
But the mountains of the past

Well my ship is in the harbor
And the sails are spread
Listen to me pretty baby
Lay your hand upon my head
Beyond here lies nothin’
Nothing done and nothing said

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday Playlist

Good Friday is the hinge day to a new world. It is God's affirmation that he enters into all of life with us. There is no aspect of human experience in which God refuses to participate. Good Friday, not Easter Sunday, is Jesus' moment of glory in the Gospel of John, and I think this might be why. At any rate, for me Good Friday is about possibility in the midst of life's complexity.

So, today I have a Good Friday playlist. It's theme is new music, music new to me that is. There are a few tunes here that I've had awhile, but I've found them anew. Songs that I overlooked before, but are now at the top of my most recently played. But the rest are from music I bought this year. And this is a good year for that.

This playlist isn't just my faves from these cd's, though some of them are. A playlist has to make sense from song to song, either musically, or lyrically, or both. And this one is a bit of both. We start with rolling blues rock and end with some basic three chord rock and roll. But in between there are acoustic guitars. So, for what its worth, here's today's playlist.

Beyond Here Lies Nothin'--Bob Dylan. You expected something different? I love this song, which is a pre-release for the upcoming cd. It's got a Cajun blues feel--guitars, horns, accordian. And Bob's scratchy vocal, "Oh, I love you pretty baby..." Perfect.

Shuffle Your Feet--Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. This is from their cd, "Howl," which is the find of the year for me. My brother-in-law hooked me up. Their other cd's are good, but very different. This one is rife with gospel themes, sin and redemption, and you get the feeling these guys could go either way. Great guitars, harmonica, blues rhythms, blues/gospel vocals. And this song, I always have to play twice.

Good Eye--Bruce Springsteen. I like Bruce when he's roughing it up a little. His stuff can be a little corny for me and several songs on his new cd are that way. But not this one. He growls about his good eye being turned to the night and his blind eye to the day. A great transition from BRMC.

I Want You--Kings of Leon. And while we're in the blues rock kind of mold, we go to those Southern rockers, KoL. This is my guilty pleasure music. I love this guy's vocals, and the Southern Rock guitar licks.

Magnificent--U2. Here we make a playlist turn. The growling guitar at the beginning of the song makes it possible to go from KoL to U2. I like the new U2 cd a lot, and this might not be my favorite song. But I like it plenty. "Only love, only love..."

The Delicate Place--Spoon. I always have to listen to this song more than once. It makes me feel cool to listen to Spoon, one of the good things to come out of Texas. We're into a jazz/rock fusion kind of thing here, more piano driven. Love it. "I'll picture for you, you'll picture for me, the delicate place."

Remain--Tyrone Wells. This guy can flat sing. If you want someone who can roll your socks up and down, Tyrone Wells. We have now transitioned into slower stuff.

Look at You--My Morning Jacket. I bought this after reading a review in the NYTimes. I like it. And there are definite gospel allusions in these songs."Look at you...such a glowing example of peace and glory, glory, glory..."

True Blue (Acoustic Version)--Gary Louris. Louris is one of the Jayhawks' vocalists. I saw him in the Dallas airport a few weeks ago carrying his well worn guitar case. He was on his way to SXSW. I want to learn to play this song on the guitar. "Today is the day all my branches will bear their fruit and all my labor will be rewarded... Strip it what is right and true blue."

Pull Me Through--Foy Vance. My buddy Ben Ries turned me on to this guy. The cd is uneven, but there are great moments and this song is one of them. "You fill me up with fire and I crash on the rocks of desire..." Great, great vocal.

I Just Don't Think I'll Ever Get Over You--Colin Hay. A friend gave me the Garden State soundtrack a few years ago, and some of the tracks made it immediately onto playlists. Such a beautiful cd and a great movie. Somehow this song didn't make the playlistsand I've only recently rediscovered it. Beautifully sad, which sometimes is the most beautiful kind of beautiful. I wish I could write these kinds of songs. Great acoustic guitar and a beautiful vocal. "If I lived till I was a hundred and two, just don't think I'll ever get over you."

How Come--Ray LaMontagne. Another song I've had for awhile but am just now discovering. LaMontagne allows a vocal transition from Colin Hay. They have a similar sound. But this song is upbeat. It makes me want to dance (don't worry, I resist in public), which is pretty great for a protest song. I always have to listen to this one twice.

Mr. Richards--REM. Can't say why exactly, but I love this song. In fact, if I want to do a little celebrating during the day, this is the cd these days. It's just fun. And it's biting critique of something, perhaps our bureaucratic society. "Mr. Richards you're forgiven for a narrow lack of vision but the fires are still raging on the public's got opinions...and we know what's going on."

So, all the stuff of life on a Good Friday. It all gets admitted as evidence, and as possibility for transforming love. Good Friday.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Missional Think Tank, an Observation

I mentioned in my last post that I participated in think tank concerning missional church that involved a very diverse group of about 70. I learned a lot from the conversation.

The two day conversation was built around small group conversations and big group reporting. I noticed an interesting in the big group reporting. Some of us valued the messiness associated with the word missional, that it couldn't be easily defined or categorized. Others of us felt acutely the need to find more precision in the use of the term. What does the word actually mean? And to what does it point?

This tension kept rearing its head through our discussions which led me to another observation. Those who valued the messiness were by and large academics. Those who valued clearer definition were typically people working in congregations. I have a theory about that.

One of the impulses of the missional conversation as it relates to the seminary is a critique of the hard and fast silos that have defined our work for a long time now. Even though a seminary's faculty are all about the training of ministers, they have prior commitments related to their specific fields of study--New Testament, Church History, Systematic Theology, Homiletics, etc. In that context, missional functions a little like a hand grenade blowing up silos, blurring the lines between disciplines.

This is in part because those interested in the missional conversation are typically missiologists or ministry professors who have been relegated the back end of a theory-praxis divide. In other words, biblical scholars, historians and systematicians are those who say what, and ministry folk are those who say how. I will admit to this feeling a bit like the sound end of a horse as it jumps over the fence. We like a little silo busting to create a little more room at the the theory end of the table. Missional has to remain a little disorienting to sustain its viablity.

Church leaders, on the other hand, experience congregational life these days as chaotic and disorienting. They see missional as a way to organize the chaos into something a bit more orienting and purposeful. They are typically frustrated by academicians who tell them that missional is something, but to tell you exactly what it is defeats the very premise of missional--that it looks different in every context.

My mentor, Pat Keifert, following his mentor, Paul Ricouer, invites us into these kinds of tensions less as a problem to be solved and more as a polarity to be managed. Both impulses are necessary for the health of any social imagination. Both impulses have to be understood in relation to the other. And both have to be strengthened over time. This is hard work, but meaningful, and should be at the heart of any notions of missional leadership.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Missional Think Tank

I have spent the past few days with about 70 other people who are all interested in missional church. It was a diverse group. There were pastors and other church leaders, denominational execs, seminary faculty and administrators, and students. We were from all over the world: Naga, Myanmar, Korea, South Africa, Malawi, Kenya, Germany, England, Texas, and other foreign countries. We were young, young-ish (my category, of which I pressed the upper limits), and seasoned. We were Church of Christ, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Charismatic, Baptist, Mennonite, Episcopal/Anglican, and probably some unaffiliateds (perhaps like George Clooney in O Brother, Where Art Thou). There were founders of the GOCN and persons who only recently have discovered the conversation.

The most moving moment of our time together for me was when the young cohort (leaders under 35) blessed the founders, those who have been at this for a long time. The under 35's were our most international cohort, representing at least five languages. They stood around the founders in a circle and each offered a blessing in their native language. After all the sharing and struggling that had taken place in our interactions, this was a profoundly moving act. It struck me that it only made sense liturgically. I recognized only the English words offered, but I comprehended the meaning of the others given the setting, the circle, the occasion. Their words did not need to be translated to be understood.

I was asked to preach in the opening worship Sunday evening. (I'll post the sermon here in a few days). One of the images I used was the Letterman bit, "Is This Anything?" You know the bit. The curtain comes up with the hula hoop girl and the grinder girl (how else would you describe her?) doing their thing and between them is an act. The act could be anything--fire eater, juggler, contortionist--and Dave and Paul decide whether or not this is anything. Being a representative of missional church can feel that way. Sometimes missional can feel like a novelty act, minus the hula and grinder girls, with people wondering "is this anything" as you perform.

Truth is, I still don't know for sure the answer to that question. Obviously, I think it could be or I wouldn't spend so much of my energy on it. And I do see enough and hear enough stories to be encouraged along the way. And this gathering falls into that category. Whatever the merits of various arguments or theological planks, this appears to be something, at the very least because it possesses a massive and productive ecumenical impulse. We are not trying to figure out how this brings us together, or if it could, it just does. And those who gathered had no problem calling this the work of the Spirit.

I have some hunches about this. I think most of it is because the focus of the missional conversation is about God's mission, his acting in the world. This is both more productive theologically than asking how God is related to a set of philosophical categories (though this work has an important place), and more open ended, leaving room at the table of theological discernment for people as diverse confessionally as Church of Christ, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic. And it does not privilege the tradition of Western philosophy that has governed theological discourse, leaving Asia, Africa, and Latin America always as junior partners in the discussion. It was pretty clear at this meeting that the Africans in particular had much to teach us.

So today, I think this is something.