I posted this in my online class this morning, thought it’s worth posting here too
Category Archives: everyday theology
I posted this in my online class this morning, thought it’s worth posting here too
Love can mean many things. In Christianity, it’s meaning is oriented by the revelation of God that is expressed in the person and mission of Jesus, a mission that continues to be empowered by the Spirit. And yet…
It’s clear that this message of love hasn’t always been the primary expression of the church, becoming a rhetorical decoration for other goals. Some of these have been noble, such as teaching important concepts, some less noble, such as establishing power for its own sake and to personally enrich the leaders.
This isn’t new. We find such trends even in the era of the New Testament, leading the charismatic leaders of the earliest era to write letters. James wrote one such letter to the churches and in it he emphasizes that Love involves integrity and responsibility, not also for teaching, especially for teachers. And I argue that as we’re all empowered by the Spirit in some way, we’re all teachers in some way, living out lives and sharing our hopes with those around us, many who will never listen to a church sermon let alone take a class on Christian theology and practice.
This responsible love involves living true to the story of God in our lives. It also involves helping others be true to God’s story in their lives.
I preached more on this at the River Church, but it wasn’t recorded.
Here’s my complete teaching notes.
Over the last few months, there’s been a flurry of folks stating they are no longer Evangelicals, leaving behind that label for supposedly better appellative pastures.
Almost all that I’ve heard doing this are responding to the recent election in which a very high percentage of Evangelicals aligned with Trump.
That sentence is fraught with commentary potential, so much so that the very point of my post has already been sidetracked three and a half times. Erased sentences, one passionate rant now entirely subdued, and a google search history notwithstanding, I’m going to press on to my purpose.
Hi, I’m Patrick and I’m an Evangelical.
No, I’m not going to add any “yes, buts” or “howevers” and there will be nary a “post-” prefix to be found. I’m owning the label, come what may.
Why so bold? That’s who I am. I’m an Evangelical, and there’s just no getting around the fact without having to deny some significant aspects of my reality that I have no inclination to deny.
And if the label fits…
Before I get to why it fits so perfectly, I will add that I refuse to let others define the label for me, especially those whose motives are not in keeping with either the definition or the history of Evangelicals.
There are those who claim the label Evangelical that are nothing of the sort, and there are those who want to recast the label so as to undermine its history and contributions. I refuse to be cowed by either species and so enter the lists in defense of the title and myself.
I’m an Evangelical.
- I’m an Evangelical because of Confession.
- I’m an Evangelical because of Tradition.
- I’m an Evangelical because of Obligation.
All of these are important and together they lead me to an inescapable conclusion.
A while back, I wanted to learn what the Bible said about the various types of spiritual expressions we commonly call gifts. And, I didn’t want to use the usual lists of various gifts that Paul talks about. Rather, I wanted to see how gifts were expressed in the Bible. What does it mean to be a prophet? Well, I looked at the prophets. What does it mean to be someone who has discernment? Well, I looked at the men and women who were commended for seeing truth even when there were shadows and mists. What does it mean to be a leader? I looked at the leaders in the Bible.
This latter study was more than a little bit disconcerting. There are a lot of leaders in the Bible, be it kings or priests or judges or generals.
Leaders of all kinds abound in the stories. The trouble is that the percentage of leaders leading the people to God is pretty small. Most of the leaders in the Bible did not serve God. The other trouble is that their negative example does not mean they were bad leaders.
For instance, we have someone like King Omri of Israel. First Kings 16:25 has this to say about him: “Omri did evil in the eyes of the LORD and sinned more than all those before him.” On the other hand, archaeologists and others who study the history say that as a leader, he was pretty good! He orchestrated a lot of building projects and otherwise secured enough wealth and support to pass the kingdom on to his son, Ahab.
How about an example from the New Testament? Paul had to confront Peter when he learned that Peter stopped eating with Gentiles (Galatians 2:11ff). Peter influenced Barnabas and others, and had to be corrected, because they, as Paul puts it, “were not following the truth of the Good News” (Gal. 2:14). The practice of Peter was not reflecting the call of God in or for the church.
With this in mind, I now turn to the topic of worship. It’s not uncommon for me to be singing along during a service and realize I’ve just sung something I didn’t, or shouldn’t, believe. This isn’t limited to singing, either. For the most part, many of the approaches, use of space, wording, and other aspects of our gathering together are more like Peter’s faults than Paul’s goal. They might be engaging, or they might be traditional, or they might be functional, or whatever reason under the sun, but they are not when examined more closely, “following the truth of the Good News.”
Now more formally, this “truth of the Good News” could be gathered together under the theme of theology. That’s what I think theology is and should be about, at least. It is the reflection on the actions of God and his declarations that point to a more cohesive expression of God’s work and being. It can be expressed using four syllable words or it can be expressed in a dance, or in a liturgy, story, or song. But, in being expressed in some ways it is saying that it is reflecting the God who is. Theology, then, should be a pretty important issue in discussions of worship.
God does not, we learn from Scripture, like to be misrepresented in word or deed.
This is probably most clearly expressed in the story of Moses. In Numbers 20 we read a very disturbing story. The people were complaining, again, about having no water (the nerve of them!). They rebelled, Moses prayed at the Tabernacle, and God told him what to do.
Moses gathered the people, stood before them, shouted at them for their rebellious ways, and then hit the rock twice. Water gushed out.
But God was not happy. “Because you did not trust me enough to demonstrate my holiness to the people of Israel,” he said to Moses, “you will not lead them into the land I am giving them.”
Moses, you see, was supposed to command the rock to bring forth water. He wasn’t supposed to hit it. God was not just interested in the result. His holiness is about the method, the act, the approach, the whole context. God’s revelation is holistic and he calls those who would lead his people to reflect this holiness in ways that match how he has chosen to reveal himself.
We can’t just hit the rock and say that’s God’s work, even if water comes out. Because the method is as much part of the message as the result. He’s telling a different story in the midst of this world and that means leading people to live in particular ways, ways that might not immediately make sense. But it makes a difference in the long run. Just as the method of the cross makes a difference not only in salvation but also in how we respond to the systems of this world.
We have to listen to God, reflect on his ways, and then we have to talk to the rock.
When I began teaching full-time I put together powerpoint presentations on various topics, so the imaging of theology and church history became a regular task. For the last class of my undergraduate theology gen ed class I wanted to pull all the themes of the Apostle’s Creed and theological method together.
For some reason, a particular image came to mind that I then spent quite a while trying to find in my archives. I spent so long trying to find it because it so perfectly captured my sense of what we were about. When I thought about the theological task for the sake of my students and myself, this is the image that came to mind:
I took this picture about ten years ago or so while camping on Santa Rosa Island. Santa Rosa is part of the Channel Islands National Park, five islands off the coast of Southern California. I first visited during my first quarter of seminary, and they remain one of my treasured places of discovery and renewal.
This picture evokes the theological task with its narrow winding path and brown grass, which becomes a lush green with rain. The trail seems in the middle of an endless field but I know that eventually one meets up with the ocean. It also seems lonely, but I was with two friends at the time, walking nearby, just past the airfield on the island that drops off supplies for the national park service and occasional day-hikers.
With all that in mind, the task takes shape. A winding journey with memories and community yet still calling for a lonely kind of participation, a journey that may involve beauty and accomplishment or thirsty trudging through barren landscapes. Keep walking. It is mystical and it is wonderful. But I can’t prove it unless you go there yourself.
So, this image has been with me for the last four years or so. It is my longest stretch without visiting the Channel Islands and a very long stretch that has pulled me out of contemplation and into a frenzied busyness of teaching, where constant new courses have left me little time of focus or reflection.
It is a slog, but not without its own worth. And that worth pulls me back into a re-evaluation, a recovery in the midst of the busyness. A remembering. I’ve been trying to remember my own calling in theology. I’ve gotten caught up in the images of others, the way they suggest things have to be in order to make it in this competitive world.
Today is the first day of Winter Quarter. I’m teaching another new-to-me class, my eighth since starting full time at Fuller in Fall 2015. I’ve taught my other class a couple times before, so only have the regular tweaking and responding. I got back from a trip to Oregon this past Friday, bringing with me a bad cold. Getting back into the swing of things hasn’t been easy. But rather than being a distraction, it’s part of the equation.
Theology isn’t separate from life, it’s how we engage in life, how we see the world and how we invest back into it at moments of success or defeat, focus or frustration. It’s a Way and this way involves a cast of characters and experiences that might seem to pull us away from the rarefied world of theological reflection if we’re not intentional about keeping on task.
Only, what I’m learning, is that the task of theology is this cast of characters and struggles and investing the rarefied reflections into the mundane everyday.
Which isn’t an easy realization for me. Because I’m a very strong introvert, struggling to establish a lasting place in my vocation, pulled this way and that by all sorts of forces that keep me from writing, reading, indwelling the theological depths. I’m spread thin and while performing well in my teaching, keeping up with it all–and family, and all the demands of lived life–deflates the thrill of the quest, the renewal of the contemplation, the discovery of new vistas.
I want to seclude, to hide, to take up the pattern I’ve seen so many others in history adopt, the isolated control of time and space that allows for sustained research and complex integration of ideas. I want to drink deeply of the beauty and riches of God’s being and goodness and complexity. I thrill in this, become alive in the exploration.
Just let me be and my mind comes alive, my hopes renewed. But my very engagement with theology, the work of God in my life and in those around me, leads me outwards not inwards, involved not isolated. My batteries are nearly always on the edge of empty. But rather than run away from this, I’m learning to run with it. Somehow.
I can’t escape the earthiness of a Christian theology that not only calls for community but highlights participation with others as a central theme. It leads me away from what I want towards what I know I need, even as I struggle with how this might work out in that nagging interest in a permanent position.
I hate that nagging. The future should be one of hope not frustration, of earnest expectation, not nervous agitation about what might go wrong or not work out. If my vision is of the Living God, then I should be living in freedom in the midst of this present opportunity. I’ve misplaced that joy, that waking up with excitement about the tasks at hand. I’ve forgotten the love of theology that animated all my best steps over the years.
Which isn’t exactly the truth either. I’ve poured myself out in my teaching and in my family, trying to be faithful to these callings in ways that I’ve not always seen in theological/ministry, where teaching is deprecated and families are ignored.
It hasn’t resulted in substantive writing and publishing over the last couple years, however. So, in my low moments, I’ve pondered needing to isolate, to put up walls, to invest in more obviously professional tasks, the kind that also animate my love of writing and sense of self in accomplishment.
I ended the year with this tension. And begin this new one with it unresolved. That’s probably why I was excited to bring back from Oregon a new image of theology, one that brings together my developing sense of my own calling and goals in this new year. I saw this picture and it helped me recover a sense of both my calling and my love, renewing a sense of the theological task in my personal and professional life.
I stand before an endless ocean, full of bounty and danger. It extends beyond the horizon, yet meets up with me in varying depth. I can stand or walk forward or along the beach, expanding what I experience at every step.
But I’m not alone. It’s not just me and the ocean. I stand with my little girl, Vianne, whose love for life explodes onto the scene every morning and extends through her day. She is brave, willing to stand with me, yet scared when the waves crash and overpower. I’m responsible for her in this place. Yet, she’s responsible for me too, calling me out of my selfish isolation. We stand together, learning with each other, each in our own way.
The image speaks more deeply than what I can write, a new image that has only begun to work in my sense of calling and efforts as this new year, and new quarter, begin. I can likely reflect more on it but I’ll end with Vianne’s refrain that calls out to life and reminds me of what I’ve been missing about theology for a while.
“Bring on the fun!”
Today is also my eight year wedding anniversary. God could have worked in a lot of ways, keeping me focused in isolation, in solitude, in asocial discovery. Only that’s not the work God did in my life. He opened the door to life with Amy, whose love for God led her likewise down winding paths and challenging seasons. Our trails joined up and in this we find a daily discovery of God’s inviting promise, doing more and more in our midst than we can imagine, even as we struggle with holding onto that sense of focus that we assume we need in order to pursue our calling.
This is our calling, together, now with Vianne and Oliver. And that’s part of the fun. I’m thankful for it. Bring it on.
A little more than two thousand years ago a baby was born. We throw parties in his honor. We give gifts. We feast. We sing. We make merry, yearning for that spirit of his birthday to infuse our souls; if only for a season, if only for a day.
We celebrate this particular birth because of what this birth means to this world. We honor this baby for the miracle of being born, for the life he lived, for the death he suffered and for being reborn from the dead to embrace life eternally. This rebirth from the dead gives us the chance to be reborn as well, moving from death to life and from darkness to hope.
On December 25 we celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.
The birth of this man is the glory we celebrate on Christmas. Pageants, musicals, songs, decorations, gatherings of family from across the nation, all because this man was born.
What if he had not been born? Where would we be today?
How would we live? How would we worship?
We would be without a way to encounter God directly. We would be without an ever present hope and without the peace of trusting God who works. Instead of being free, we would all be slaves. Where would we look for our salvation? To gods of stone and wood? To patterns of philosophy? To rules and laws? To ourselves and our own abilities to conquer this world?
Without the birth of Jesus we would be caught in a web of insecurity, never knowing how the vagaries of the gods might move in our lives. We would be looking for something, for anything, to bring us some security and hope and light.
Where would we look?
What if the Holy Spirit waited and didn’t bring forth Jesus until this year?
If Jesus was born today I wouldn’t even notice. He wouldn’t be born anywhere I was looking.
The details of his birth likely wouldn’t be too much different. He would be born to Jewish parents, as the delay of two thousand years wouldn’t change the Old Testament prophecies. He’d likely even be born in the Middle East, where the strife and terror and chaos of our current era is shockingly similar to the strife and terror and chaos then. Instead of traveling because of a census, Joseph and Mary might make an untimely trip because of a UN mandate or an agreement with Lebanon to close a northern Kibbutz and move the families back within the settled boundaries of Israel.
I would be looking at powerful leaders and charismatic prophets. I would keep my eyes on New York or London or Beijing. I would be following the lives of great people and care about the children they have. In my library would be books by men and women detailing how to interpret the symbols of the age.
My eyes would be on the things that clearly mattered. An obscure baby, born to an obscure Jewish family, during a this time of great chaos and uncertainty, wouldn’t appear on my radar. Who would think of looking there? Except for the wise men, of course.
I would be obsessed with the looking I imagine, desperate to see the hand of God in the midst of the world’s misery. In the book of Exodus he brought plagues and freedom. In the books that followed he brought great victories to his chosen people and established a great earthly kingdom for them. Wars and rumors of wars, along with miraculous intervention in these wars would be a sign. The Holy Spirit is filled with power so I would look for that power to be manifested in great events that would obviously change my life and bring real order to this present world.
If Jesus was born today I wouldn’t celebrate. I wouldn’t give presents. I wouldn’t sing songs or take time off from work. I would stay obsessed with the chaos and keep my eye on those people I knew mattered to this world
No doubt about it, if Jesus was born today I wouldn’t even notice.
Thank God the Holy Spirit brought forth Jesus in Mary two thousand years ago. Now, after many centuries I build my trust on the faith of millions of others who came before me. I build my trust on those who wrote about the obscure birth in an out of the way Israeli town. I celebrate not because of how Jesus was born but because I know the end of the story. The Holy Spirit worked long ago, so now I know where to look on this Christmas day.
The Holy Spirit still works. In much the same way. Jesus is born on this day. No, he is not making another appearance as a defenseless baby destined to be baptized by the Baptist and die on the cross. Still, he is born on this day. This is the ever active work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit who visited Mary fills men and women all over the world. When the Holy Spirit descends, Christ makes an appearance in all manner of circumstances.
I would not have noticed when Jesus was born two thousand years ago, and I certainly would not notice if he was today born to a virgin. However, because of Christmas I have been given an opportunity to believe and look with new eyes. I have been called to notice the present work of Christ’s presence in this world.
I’m going to put aside my magazines, shut off the news, ignore the popular and the great. I’m going to look at the obscure and the troubled and those who are persecuted. I’m going to look around the room at folks who seem entirely average and unimpressive. The Spirit works through such people to bring Christ in this world. In recognizing, honoring, and supporting this work maybe I too can become a wise man.
So, on this Christmas I celebrate the birth of Christ two thousand years ago. I also celebrate the birth of Christ today, a constant birth that changes the world through outlandish people every day until his return. For in all those the Spirit fills, Christ is indeed born.
Will I notice?
(Something I wrote in 2006)
Earlier this week I got an email from a friend about the topic of finances. He sent it out to a number of people and asked for any tidbits, words of wisdom, advise, caution that you have learned, experienced or heard concerning discussing finances with your significant others.
I thought about it for a couple of days, nothing came to mind, and thinking that’s no reason to not reply, I wrote something up. Here’s what I said.
Amy and I are very different in terms of finances, both as a goal and in our family histories. But, while there have been tensions at times, I don’t think we’ve ever had arguments or battles. Partly because for the most part we really haven’t had much finances to work with. 🙂
That being said, I’ve been thinking about why it’s never been a huge issue even as we have different understanding. One, I think it has to do with our general pattern in marriage. We’re a team. That means there’s give and take, letting go insisting that our individual assumption of reality has to work in every situation. More important, seeing as being on a team means we think more about common goals. What is our mission in life and how do our finances 1) reflect this and 2) lead us deeper into this mission? We also make it a matter of prayer and trust in God, and learning how to trust each other. There are times I’ve taken risks and Amy feels tense but then sees God working in the midst of those moves. Then there are times I know God is using Amy to lead us to very wise financial decisions.
We both seek God, we seek fullness for each other, we try to live out our faiths in our finances, and give ourselves grace at times. There’s a place for “sabbath” in finances too, using what God has given to help bring restoration or rest or renewal in life. But, that’s not about satiating either our desires or our frenzy–that concern for absolute security that leaves no room for faith.
Which means we start by talking through our visions of life, not formally, but as part of a continuing commitment to openness. By being on the same page with the big issues–life, faith, mission–the financial stuff falls into place as we talk about finances in the context of the other, bigger, already agreed upon ideals.
I don’t know if that was helpful (my friend said it was), but it’s what came to mind. Amy likely would have something else to say.