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Archive for August, 2008

The dissention that rises against spiritual disciplines is that they ENHANCE the already-deadly hyper-individualization of discipleship. I agree, as do many others, that this is a struggle and I feel the reality of it sometimes in conversations about belief and practice within the church.

Yet I really side with Robert Mulholland in the fact that “spiritual [discipline] is about being transformed into the image of Christ for the sake of others.”  This takes the emphasis off of the simple act of transformation, which can become an end unto itself, and replaces the focus onto what impact formation and discipline has on others. If our spiritual formation and discipline have no effect on how we treat other people, both familiar and unfamiliar, then it is not spiritual formation but simple self-congratulating piety that we are practicing.

The major reason behind this is that any of the so-called “classical” disciplines are geared toward transforming relational elements of our character and habit. This is somewhat an echo of the Trinity, the community-nature of God, and the fellowship that is shared within those three persons. It is perfect relational action summed up in the very existence of God. Spiritual formation and discipline is a process of growing into that same relationship, albeit imperfectly, here in the “already.”

Practically, when we fast we take away something that causes significant ripples in our personality. When we are fasting (or giving, practicing solitude, simplicity) we realize not only our dependence on food and our ability to turn to food during times of stress, but we also see how we treat other people when we are hungry. We subject our personality to naked scrutiny when we remove that element.

This works because it is when we are at our worst that we find out who we really are–how far we are from the example of Christ. We realize how much patience, resolve, concentration, grace, and forgiveness we have when the headache of missing ONE MEAL kicks in. We also begin to sympathize with the instability and volatility of places in the world where daily hunger is a reality–we’re ready to write off our family when we miss a meal, imagine what we would do if we missed a few days? Consequently, this is the selling point for those who recruit for militant groups such as Hamas–food and shelter if you join our cause. Who wouldn’t do this to give their family one meal a day?

I think this is the perspective on the spiritual disciplines that will ultimately lead them out of the “personal relationship” arena and into the community/Kingdom building activity that is so desperately needed. The willingness to subject ourselves to ourselves at our worst is the lens needed to see where we must be conformed to Christ and how our worst impacts others.

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eulogia kai eucharistia

I am not a cat person. I have never been a cat person. We had 8 dogs over the course of my childhood. No cats. Holley is the same–no cats, not a cat person.

Yet, in December of 2005 we took in a wandering local cat during one of Illinois’ famous soul-chilling winters and she became a part of our lives. She came as we mourned a miscarriage, and she became (even against my hemming and hawing over it) a grand part of our family. We warmed to her largely because she was a cat that acted like a dog–came when you called her, etc. She had a quiet way of sneaking up on you and breathing in your ear when you were trying to do ab crunches at 5 am, both challenging your patience and tickling your semi-conscious body to lighten up. She lived with us and in us and around us, even at the worst moments of her behavior.

Immediately after taking her in, we found out that she had FIV (“cat AIDS” as I have crassly put it before). It acts much like HIV, hiding in ambush position until such time as an opportune infection arises. It weakens slowly from the inside out, making every sniffle a mine field, and ultimately can proves unstoppable. A recent kidney infection and the discovery of significant kidney damage presented us therefore with a deep challenge to which our decision was brutal and not without much pain.

We wept over putting Pepper down, intermittedly inserting “She’s only a ______ cat!” but to no avail over our emotions. Those of you who have been through this understand that no rationality works under these circumstances. None. We felt conflicted, sick, sad, and somewhat silly in public but serious in private about the whole thing. I imagine we are not the first nor the last to travel this terrain.

And even on a theological level, this is the curse of stewarding the “not yet”–the brokenness of creation is the brokenness of ALL creation, not just a “sin nature” of humanity (sorry to disappoint the modernist theologians present). Even the animals get broken in the mix. Stewarding life, acting humanely, etc. are not decisions that live in the completed Kingdom of God. We are not qualified nor confident to make decisions to end the existence of fellow members of creation–and we were never intended to (death penalty, anyone?).

And I say halleluia to that. Today we “speak in memory of and remember” (see the title of this post) Pepper and we see our way clear to believe this was the best decision.

I’ve spent most of this day looking around corners, listening, half expecting a shriek-meow hybrid to pour through the doorways and hallways of the house. Instead there is quiet, and soon quiet will bring peace.

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The clip below is an interesting illustration of either the positive or negative of the previous post about Brueggemann’s book.

I guess what most intrigues me about this is whether or not this is “poetic articulation” or simply vigilante-style criminal disobedience (I’m assuming China would consider it so). Is this really helpful in leading his church members to articulate an alternative text/reality? To what extent, given the examples we have of Wallis, Daniel Berrigan, Gandhi, MLK Jr., etc. in civil disobedience, is that a part of the poetic articulation of a new reality?

I don’t think this addresses the question of hegemony however. I think if Romans 12:14-13:8ff is clear about anything, it’s the understanding that there is a sense of order to the world that needs to be respected so that Christians may continue to “articulate.” I don’t think the Romans text is about total and unconditional submission to the empire, however, because if it is then Paul is a hypocrite. As a matter of fact every martyr in the early Church directly disobeyed the words of Paul in the New Testament by becoming martyrs. They were non-compliant with something and that got them killed.

Any thoughts? Oh, and the Jars of Clay add-on at the end of the video is a touch by the editor. Just in case it seemed like the news station was playing CCM.

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Reading Brueggemann’s The Word Militant: Preaching a Decentering Word since a few months ago. I’ve been working through it slowly, as it is a collection of essays not meant to be read end-to-end. And, well, those who have read him know….

He’ll “eat your lunch” if you aren’t careful. My lunch has been eaten several times with this book. Buen provencho, Senor Brueggemann.

He redefines preaching as the “poetic articulation of an alternative text or reality.” What happens in this definition is that we stop talking about what happens in a pulpit or on a platform or on YouTube and we begin talking about a radically reframed sense of reality. It is taking a text, an “old world” as he calls it, and finishing the interpretation until we have a “new world” or a new text that the community hears, obeys and lives into. This is bigger than just paid clergy giving carefully crafted talks around central themes or centered around snazzy graphics. This is a lived out, fleshed out, thought out (probably most difficult of all) way of being-Israel-around-Christ-in-the-world (thanks N.T.)

I’m not so sure about his hermeneutical principles, but I am sure that there is some existential/subjective resonance between his definition of preaching and what I have been thinking and feeling lately, being as I “preach” every Sunday morning just about. Packaging the narrative, turning the ideas around and around in the hearing of the congregation, doing the lexical and historical studies are all necessary and with the breadth of historical and cultural distance between the world of the Scriptures and the world of my folks it is essential to make the jump.

And yet, Brueggemann’s challenge is more than a call to ethics or piety. If you’ve read The Prophetic Imagination or any of his other writings, you understand that the “poetic articulation of an alternative text or reality” always comes at the expense of the ruling powers, i.e. the “hegemony.” Whether it is cultural or political, the “royal consciousness” must decrease so that the new world may increase.

So, this raises a philosophical and practical question that I think the readership of this blog is more than capable of handling: how does the alternative text or reality resist becoming a new hegemony? Is there such a thing as a world without hegemony and if so, how does that happen? Is there a profoundly cheapening action in the systematizing and institutionalizing of principles such as Brueggemann is suggesting (i.e. is this the Emergent church’s destination?) I’d love to hear your thoughts…

Also, as many of you are devout Wendell Berry folks, let me suggest an author that offers some incredible insights along the same way. My friend Phil lent me Michael Perry’s book Population: 485 and much like Berry he writes so movingly of the small town environment. Granted, he’s a thirty-something volunteer firefighter/EMT in a small Wisconsin town and the entire book is essay-form, it is still a stunning picture of simpler life and simpler worlds.

Be well friends.

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Last Thursday and Friday I attended a simulcast of Willow Creek Community Church’s Leadership Summit 2008. It turns out that Holley’s hospital encouraged some of their leaders to attend the conference, and my adjunct faculty position earned me a substantial discount.

So we had a two-day date. On “work days”. Scandalous.

I came into the conference a bit skeptical, mostly because of what typically qualifies for leadership discussion in evangelical circles (read: “morally curious corporate structures”). Three of the guests were non-church leaders, and three were church or parachurch oriented leaders. I knew what to expect, ideas of mission/vision/people-management with a twist of Jesus-ness to top it off nicely.

However, I kept hearing the word “justice” throughout the conference.

For inmates who’ll be paroled with little chance of a life.

For students in impoverished inner-city schools who needed decent teachers.

And of course there were the typical American/Evangelical standard-bearers, Chuck Colson for one, and his talk rang like a missed fret on an otherwise beautiful piece for classical guitar. If you had removed the word “God” from his talk, you may have thought he was actually running for office. He did not speak for long, and considering the man I mention below had already spoken, that was most definitely a good thing.

But above all, there was Gary Haugen. He talked about justice from the perspective of someone who is

Haugen is the founder and CEO of International Justice Mission

Haugen is the founder and CEO of International Justice Mission

convinced that it must be the heart and soul of every follower of Jesus and that to do less would be to ignore the very will of God. He put into a very portable package the idea from N.T. Wright’s Paul in Fresh Perspective that the “Creator was dealing with the problems in creation through creation itself.” Haugen issued the same call, saying that the answer to the question of “Why isn’t God doing anything about oppression and injustice?” is very simply, “We are the answer. There is no plan B.” I picked up his book called
Just Courage which does a very good job of putting the question of justice into an understandable and portable format.

For the record, Willow is Willow. Things are changing (a constant emphasis throughout the conference on those who were working with AIDS, global poverty, etc.) but they are still a large, attractional church model. The large platform for injustice was a great opportunity for evangelicals (a few of whom I knew were in attendance) that needed to have their lenses adjusted beyond just programs and strategic facilities management in the church. They are still the big church, there is still no overtly “missional” or “community” language coming out of their mouthpieces. But then again, “Whoever is not against you is for you.” I think I heard that somewhere… 

The question still remains though: is this just a trend-seeking/trend-setting organization picking up the latest in Christian fashion–the question of justice? I don’t think Gary Haugen is in that camp, because he’s been there and seen it (he was UN council for the trials of those who carried out the Rwandan genocide). I recommend him highly and his book if you are looking for a way to introduce the question of justice to staunch evangelicals. It is not difficult, a quick read, but it presses the serious questions.

A serious question for you: Is there a difference between “dumbing-down” and “translating” an idea or thought?

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If you do not know, there is a movement in Christianity worldwide called the “Emergent” church movement. Some of you are well acquainted with it while others are not. I can’t really go into all the various nuances, as those of you familiar with the movement understand, because there is a wide variety of methods, means, expressions, etc. of what it means to be Emergent. For example, fiery skull-cracker Mark Driscoll refuses to be called “Emergent” because he believes that all Emergents want a “limp wristed hippie Jesus” (see his book, Vintage Jesus for the full quote) but instead refers to himself and his church Mars Hill (Seattle) as “emerging.” He claims to want a Jesus with a sword in his hand and tatoos down both legs. I digress. On the other hand Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill (Grand Rapids) doesn’t claim either Emergent or emerging appellations yet he’s often the foremost target of criticism aimed at the Emergent church movement.

On and on, ad nauseum…

Dr. John Castelein, a brilliant guy who has influenced me greatly, once gave this model in a theology lecture during my class with him on postmodernism. The model is of what happens to create a trend and how the trend often finishes.

I – F – S -I

It simply means that the whole thing starts with an “Institution” that produces a disenfranchised group that rebels against the institution, a “Fringe” group–lets just call the “I” church as it has been since 1990 and the “F” as Emergent/emerging church folks. That fringe group sees the need for its own statements of belief and defenses for its existence so it begins to “Systematize” its thoughts and values into clear, repeatable, articulate statements. What results, as the fringe holds on against criticism from the “I” as well as others is that it creates leadership structure, process, etc. and then becomes….

<drum roll please>

…an “Institution” again.

We really can’t scoff at this because this process started with Jesus and the disciples and ended its first evolution with Constantine and imperial Christianity in the 4th C. AD.

I finished reading Tony Jones’ The New Christians  this morning and it will likely be a formative text in the current discussions about “Emergent” church and the movement that surrounds it. The most interesting thing is that Jones was named the “head honcho” of the Emergent Village, which sadly seems to be the systematizing of the fringe. Granted, the appendices of the book deny it, but the reality of human beings almost demands that this movement will become systematized and may very well become an institution.

That saddens me, because there is great value in active fringe folks like Doug Pagitt, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell and even Mark Driscoll though I disagree with him profoundly. The issue in all this that causes me to ponder and question is the issue of “trending.” Is neo-socialism, Wendell Berry worship, tiny farms/gardening, emphasis on community, social justice/action, study of the Prophets, arguments of church wedding with Empire, ancient/future worship, organic communities, fair trade, N.T. Wright, etc. etc. all part of a vast set of contemporary trends that will no doubt become systematized until someday they are rebelled against by a fringe group? Is it delusional to say “This is how it should be” when every trend that has gone before has said the same thing (i.e. Luther vs. Catholicism, right on some counts but what about the anti-semitism?)

What is the value of trends in the life of a disciple of Jesus and the greater body that bears His name and His mission? Are trends to be ignored completely? If so, how can we objectively evaluate whether or not we are simply “trending” in ignoring trends? Is this simply circular reasoning on amphetamines?

Shout out, fellow trendsters.

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To continue the thought from the previous posts…

What naturally forms out of Paul’s discussion of idol meat in 1 Cor. 8-10 (11 is an expansion of the original thought) is the idea of practicing the discipline of community. It is a sense of knowing each other’s weakness, which entails that we are honest and open about our weaknesses, as well as taking into account the role and action of love within the community. The self-centered Corinthian community was engaged fully in ignorance-of-other as part of regular worship. They fought for their own way, rights, and needs largely because their highly pagan, variously-influence culture supported that way of being. Not to mention the ever-present threat of being shut down by the Romans or ratted out by the antagonistic parts of the Jewish community.

What happens in 1 Cor. 8-10 is that Paul offers two examples: 1) himself and 2) Israel engaged in idolatry to illustrate this discipline of community. The interesting thing is that most of us believe community began with the disciples fleshed out in Acts 2. I would argue that it begins somewhere around Genesis 12 (covenant with Abraham) and is given full voice in the construction of Israel in exodus from Egypt.

The nation of Israel was intended to embody God-honoring community. National identity was meant to fortify and instruct Godly community, not create a theocratic gang of spoiled brats…which happened in small areas of Judaism namely in 70 AD and 135 AD.

Paul invokes his own rights as an apostle in chapter 9 but surrenders them in order to maintain, instruct, and guide the churches he serves. This is Paul’s way of maintaining community with so many different groups. This is also the source of frustration for Biblical interpretation, as Paul seemingly presents conflicting views (“Don’t get married” 1 Cor. 7 vs. “Husb/wife” household code in Eph. 5), when in fact it is simply Paul’s practicing “ethics as ecclesiology.” He holds his own forsaking of rights up as an example, and he also holds up the failure of Israel to avoid idolatry as an example of anti-community. As we see from passages like Joshua 7, Israel sank or swam together. Not alone–the battle of Ai is deep-sixed by one family’s greed and the nation pays for it. Therefore, chapter 10’s admonition and teaching on the idolatry of Israel paints a clear picture for the discipline of community–to ignore your brothers and sisters in order to celebrate your own rights is like idolatry. “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons.”

The cup of the Lord is the discipline of community along with the other various disciplines that shape individuals for community, “loving one another” being foremost.

The Joad’s, in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, experience both the lack of and presence of the disicpline of community. They experience the presence of it when people such as the Wilson’s give of themselves to fellow travellers. Or when neighboring families help with digging a levy at the boxcar “Hooverville.” They experience the lack of the discipline when the family begins to crack under the pressure and “poor people” can no longer be trusted.

As a move towards community today, both the Joad’s and the Corinthians were trying to do community in an environment that was intellectually and physically hostile to the fabric that forms in a disciplined community. My cry is that the church is constantly being fractured by the lack of practice in this discipline, mostly because Western enlightenment individualism will not allow for those who give up themselves for others.

Mainly because the end result of that is a community of socialists. Capitalists cannot fully commit to this way of being, because the decision is to steep. I’m not saying capitalists (the people) are unbiblical, but as always the call of “ethics is ecclesiology” is not respectful of economic, social, cultural, or physical boundaries. This brings into account fair trade, Wal-Mart, and the consumer church in America.

Question: Can this definition and discussion be shaped further? How do we practice/how do you practice the discipline of community where you are? If you are not practicing it, is there now a call before you to do so?

I look forward to your discussion. Be well.

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