Category Archives: personal

the gnats of life

One of my realizations over the years is that it’s not always the big problems that can get a person down. Sure, major disasters and frustrations can certainly get in the way, but there’s often an accompanying sense of purpose to get moving past them. When my car is broken down on the side of the road, I have to put off doing whatever else I had planned, get it towed, get it fixed, pray for financial resources.  When there’s a fire across the street, hose down the roof, pack up the car, pray for safety.

The little problems are those minor irritations that just keep irritating. If there’s a big spider in my kitchen, I’ll kill it. But if it’s a little fly? I’ll just mostly let it be, even if it occasionally buzzes by my ear while I’m trying to watch tv.  Irritant, but not emergency.  Enough of that irritant, though, and it disturbs the peace, upsets the serenity of a given moment, takes away from my reserves of patience.

Those are important reserves when I have young kids!

Enough irritations and life itself takes a negative turn. I start seeing frustration in every direction, try to pin it on people who are frustrating me, or plans that get out of sorts, or news that intends to rile me up about frustrations in places I’ve never even been to.  Even as, on the surface, life is objectively good, the irritants rob the peace and invoke the chaos.

I call those little nagging frustrations “gnats”. They buzz around simply to be irritating.

I’ve sometimes let the gnats take over my moods, causing shadows and leading me away from what I should be doing.  That doesn’t help. The gnats keep buzzing, they certainly don’t care about me or my moods.

That’s why I’m increasingly convinced there’s a theology of smallness: the small problems that distort our hopes, the small sins that lead us down wrong roads, the small discouragements that disorient our sense of purpose.  I see that theology of smallness in the Gospels. There’s a big narrative, that’s for sure, but there’s also these particular stories and commands. Jesus didn’t really talk big politics, after all, he doesn’t address Rome, for instance, except to avoid the pointed questions.

He tends to turn the questions around to the asker, saying what they should do, or how they should prepare. Help your neighbor in the ways they need help right now.

Don’t murder, sure. But also don’t even get angry.

That’s a theology of smallness, because how can that fix all the problems in our world? But it’s the smallness that is important.

If every Christian in history actually did that, actually followed that command? Wow.

If every Christian was attentive to those small temptations and initial distortions? Wow.

If I did either of these things over the entire course of my life? Wow.

The quick response is to fall back into a discussion of grace, that I’m forgiven. Yada-yada-yada. But the gnats keep buzzing and the frustrations and self-judgments keep building.

A theology of smallness sees grace as an impetus to change, not a way of excusing the past.  The past is past, but what can I do now?

I did two small things this week. One for my own sense of purpose and one for helping others.  Neither are particularly important, and I likely won’t send announcements about them in my alumni newsletter.

I replaced the headliner in my 97 Honda Civic. It’s an old car, and I honestly don’t like it very much. It’s not fun to drive. I got it quite used in 2008, and it’s been well-used much more since. I see all the nice cars around, compare myself with people who are much younger who have much better. It gets me down. But, we have no car payments, and I don’t have a long commute. It makes sense.  There’s that, but then there’s the gnats of how the interior fabric is falling apart and starting to rub against my head when I drive and drop dust whenever I swipe it away.  Irritating!

I’ve gotten more and more negative about my car, tempting me to feel bad about finances, about job security, about decisions I’ve made, about… well that goes down a long road of gnattiness.  Bzzz. Bzzzz.  I got bored with that irritation, so I bought some fabric, watched a youtube video, and now the roof in my car looks fairly new.

civic headliner

Small, but it is a little bit of delight both in the aesthetic and in the feeling of accomplishing something that had a start, moments of things not going quite right, then finishing.  That put me on a better trajectory. I’m not a headliner for a major academic conference or church event, but I got the old headliner out, and a new one in. Now I’m not as irritated with the car that God has given me and I know is right for us now and is a wiser use of our resources.

Small, but it affects how I think about a lot of things. The brain is weird, but it’s the only brain I have.

Second, I finally got to learning some video editing. That’s entirely unimpressive. But for a long time, I’ve recorded audio/video for my online courses, and they’ve sometimes turned out less than good. Add to this the need to make changes with older videos, to fix sound problems, etc. and so on. I’ve neglected posting videos of myself because I didn’t want to deal with the software, etc. and so on. Posted videos I knew had issues, because I didn’t have time to do anything different and neglected posting regular update videos because I didn’t have time.

Then felt irritated at them, got frustrated at myself when students rightfully complained, got to feeling like I could do more, then that I never can do enough, and why did God call me to this, and I don’t know what I’m even doing.  Bzzzz. Bzzz.

So, fix some audio, edit some videos, easy tasks that I’m finally learning how to do, all so my students can have as quality an experiences as possible. Add to this helping my dad with his resurging literacy teaching in a group home, and my feeling of contributions grows, and then I see good things that God is doing, and how I’m somehow helping others in their work and ministry.

Being proactive with the small things, things I can do right now, things that are within my scope, invites a new song in my life for this day.

Swat the gnats, and it’s interesting how possibilities start awakening again.

Like writing a blog post again after far too long.

Posted in around the house, personal, spirituality, theology | Leave a comment

Official Patrick

My website has had some problems lately, causing a lot of problems on the server. An errant wordpress plugin even caused my host to shut it down for a while at the end of March, until I got some time to figure out the problem (the aforementioned plugin). The other day, I had another temporary shutdown because of another problem.  Needless to say, I’ve not been paying attention to my website health for far, far too long.  I have thoughts of making a big update at some point, but not at this point, because I just have too much other stuff to do. But in fixing stuff, I came across an old folder that had pages from long ago, like 2004. I’ve been going through the writings and pictures and such, a scrapbook of my post-seminary self.

Anyhow, I found this page noting my “official choices” on various topics. I thought it funny, so I’m sharing it here. Even though this is now over 13 years old, it’s pretty much still fitting. There are some changes, but not many. For instance, I have now seen Office Space and I’m thinking my official Channel Island is now Santa Rosa, though Anacapa is making a strong run again as I’ve become obsessed with its live came.

Now onto the list:

Oden’s Official things:

-Official Choices-

States have all sorts of official items.  They have songs, and flowers, and birds, and desserts, and sports (the official state sport of Maryland, by the way, is jousting), and just about anything else one can think of.  So, why shouldn’t I?  Am I not a state unto myself?  No, I am not in fact, not in any way.  But I still can have an ever expanding official list of random things.

Official Movie Litmus Test:  Joe Versus the Volcano

Official ‘White’ Noise:  a Fan

Official Church Father:  Tertullian

Official First Aid Product:  Neosporin

Official Play I Was Part of in High School:  Harvey

Official Sport I’ve Tried to Like for Ten Years and Now Have Given Up:  Hockey

Official Bottled Water:  Arrowhead

Official Constellation:  Orion

Official Natural Fiber:  Wool (the only material which insulates better when wet)

Official Men at Work Song:  Overkill

Official Deadly Sin:  Acedia (yeah, you were hoping for something a bit more spicy, weren’t ya’?)

Official scented candle scent:  sea breeze; sandalwood (tied)

Official movie I been told over and over is great but still have yet to see:
Office Space

Official rock:  schist

Official word I catch myself saying more than I want to
and want to quit saying at all:
  
actually

Official Bad Word:  ****  (this site has been edited for all audiences)

Official Precipitation:  a light, fluffy snow around sundown.

Official Sailing Role Preference:  The jib; the foredeck

Official Weight Loss Strategy:   Poverty

 Official Moon Phase:    Three-Quarters, past Full

Official Vitamin Supplement:    B vitamins (all of ’em in one giant pill)

Official Movie I really Liked when I was A High School Junior But Don’t as Much now:  

Nothing But Trouble (Starring Chevy Chase and Demi Moore)

Official Sport I’ve Never Played but think is really Cool:    Lacrosse

OFficial Sport I Watched to make Fun of and ended up really getting into:  Sumo Wrestling

Official Obscure Important Year:  390

Official Sleeping Posture:  On my side

Official Guy I’d Like To sock in the Nose for Some unknown Reason:  John Hagee

Official Biblical Character People Don’t Know:   Bezalel; Oholiab (tied)

Official Phobia I do not Have:  Fear of Heights

Official Music People May Be Surprised I Love:  70s Funk

Official Regularity for Mowing Grass should I ever Have to Again:
Every 2 weeks, or so.

Official Grammatical Mistake I Still Do Not Understand:
When to use ‘that’ or ‘which’

Official Painter of previous centuries:  Caspar David Friedrich 

Official Christian Cross style:  Celtic

Official bird:  the Raven (of course)

Official Comedy team of the Early years of Hollywood: 
The Marx Brothers

Official Tree:  Coast Live Oak

Official Least favorite State:  Nevada (sorry, Nevadans)

Official Most Favorite State besides California:  South Dakota

Official Favorite InterState Highway: 
the 90 (or I90 for the rest of the country)

Official Least favorite Interstate Highway: 
the 10 (or I10 for the misinformed)

Official Ocean:  The Pacific

Official Heresy:  Semi-Pelagianism

Official Terrain:  Mountainous 

Official activity I would like to do more of:  Sailing

Official Monty Python Sketch: 
The Spanish Inquisition (didn’t expect that, I bet?)

Official Dialing Sound:  Tone

Official Bible Character:  Joseph (the one in Genesis)

Official Weather:  62 degrees, sunny with scattered clouds, wind from the west at 12 knots, cooling off to the mid-to-low 30s at night.

Official Channel Island:  Santa Barbara Island

Official color:  Crimson

Official Pirate Movie:  The Sea Hawk

Official lighting preference:  Natural

Official Invertebrate:  The Octopus; the Cuttlefish (tied)

Official means of communicating before electricity: 
Yelling Really Loud

Posted in personal, silliness | 1 Comment

Of course I am still an Evangelical

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.

Three reasons:

  1. I’m an Evangelical because of Confession.
  2. I’m an Evangelical because of Tradition.
  3. I’m an Evangelical because of Obligation.

All of these are important and together they lead me to an inescapable conclusion.

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Posted in church, everyday theology, personal, politics, religion, theology | 3 Comments

Lent

Let me admit something that isn’t very popular in my theological circles. I struggle with Lent. I get Lent. I respect it. But I struggle with it. A big reason why is for most of my life I’ve had to give things up for the rest of the year. Giving things up isn’t new. It’s just October or any given Tuesday or the third week of any month, or any other random season of my life.

That’s not me being unthankful, as I am truly and entirely thankful for the many blessings God has given me. Rather, it’s being honest about the regular experiences of loss and letting go embedded in much of my experience of life so far. Lent is a great discipline, but I wonder if it is appropriate for those who live in such uncertainty and loss. As Ignatius of Antioch put it, “Every wound is not healed with the same remedy.” Yet so often we generalize an experience and a remedy as appropriate for everyone.

Loss and letting go define my experience of Christianity. I’ve learned to trust and hope along the way, so I don’t see these as absolute negatives, just a sense that my liturgical journey with Christ never quite matches the Christian calendar.

I’m not alone in this, of course. Maybe that’s why low-church traditions don’t emphasize Lent, because they are often arising from communities of struggle and loss. I’m not saying anything conclusive here, just wondering out loud.

This isn’t a new struggle for me. Every year I find myself wrestling with the same thoughts. In 2007, I made a curious choice to give up giving up things for Lent. The previous five years had involved me giving up almost everything that made for a normal life in our day and age, so I decided to give up giving up things. And that, oddly enough, was the year that the light switch came on and the bounty of God began a radical rebuilding process in my life, a wave I am in many ways still riding. Not without struggles and certainly not without a radical call to live in faith all the while. Life is still quite tenuous. But there was a fundamental change that happened that went counter to the previous 25 years. I didn’t give up on God in 2007, I gave up assuming that God demanded a life of loss for me. That I had to give up at every turn. He sparked new life into my journey, giving me a testimony that I share in a lot of my classes.

I’m indeed honestly wondering about the role of Lent, even as I read very heartfelt essays on the importance and value of Lent. I believe those who write them. Maybe I’m wrong about it all. Maybe it’s just my low-church tradition revealing itself behind my attempts at sophisticated theological posturing.

This year, I got to wondering about Lent as is my wont, and wondered if the idea of “Lend” might be more liturgically appropriate. Not giving up things to give up things, but instead to give of my time, my energy, my efforts to help those around me. It’s a proactive orientation rather than a self-reflective task. That’s more a discipline I need in my life, as I easily become jealous and hoarding of my now sparse time. It seems that an exocentric reflection fits the pattern of Christ’s gift for us on the cross, not taking or demanding of us but offering himself for us and our salvation. We have been given life itself. And even in times of uncertainly and feeling overwhelmed I can trust in this more than I can ever trust in what I have or don’t have or can’t have.

I yearn for fullness of life, not yet more frustration and discouragement and loss. That’s my liturgical place these days and for as long as I can remember. But life is there and life given so that I can participate in and with the life of others around me. That’s a calling.

Anyhow, as I was thinking about my struggle on this topic I remembered I wrote something on this about six years ago. It’s nice when I find someone putting my vague angst into helpful words. Even if it’s me. Here’s what I had to say then and still affirm today:
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Posted in holidays, holiness, liberation, personal, theology | Leave a comment

Past speaking into the present

Something I wrote exactly 12 years ago:

Very early Thanksgiving morning yesterday, around four am, I woke up feeling very thankful. For what? That’s always the question, and something I can easily beat myself down with. This wasn’t the point in that moment. There wasn’t a ‘for what’ there was simply a thankfulness, a full, cleansing thankfulness that had no object only a direction, and so I prayed and prayed for others.

I spent the morning cooking, something I don’t do very often, so I try to have a bit of adventure when I try it. My contribution to the family feast was salmon cakes with a walnut and pomegranate sauce. It indeed turned out well, better than I thought. The whole morning was filled with delight, and the day went by with that glow of thankfulness.

Then evening came, brother and sister-in-law came over, and I slowly descended. Until today when a fog rolled in over my soul, clouding my insights and delights. It was the kind of day that wanted to be wasted, which wanted to waste me. But, somehow I pressed on, turned direction, and spent the day building a renewed spiritual habit. I didn’t feel the pull of the Spirit, nor did my soul look outwards and upwards, but I did work to facilitate the habits which would keep my eyes focused even during the days of storm and fog.

I looked to the Daily Hours for inspiration and renewed the habit of posting the daily Bible. So, the fog rolled in, and I rolled onward, seeking God and Christ and the Holy Spirit no matter the emotion or frame of mind.

Tonight there is a full moon reflecting on the snow which still fairly covers the land. It is an eerie glow, a mystical light that the soul embraces without knowing why, or caring. A breeze picks up every once in a while, catching me by surprise as it stirs the branches and rattles the needles in the trees. I love the sound of the wind rushing through the trees at night, I love to look at the wan light of the moon reflecting palely off the snow. I need to dwell on this more, and dwell less on those things which God has called me towards but has not revealed. I need to dwell in the present, and embrace the work of the Spirit in the now.

This is the goal of time formatted to reflect a Spiritual yearning, and one which has encouraged countless seekers after Christ to find their rest in him. So, given that I was going to end the day with no thoughts and little encouragement, and after reading my through the evening prayers by candelight I sit and write this with a kernel of delight renewing in my soul, I figure it is precisely the course I was supposed to take.

God calls, and it does us well to listen.

Old Toll Road

When I wrote that I was 30 years old, living with my parents, unemployed, all my hopes and dreams had stalled. I had become so frustrated with the frustrations I stopped fighting to keep up appearances. Moved to the mountains where there was beauty and time to be found.  I wrote this after a year there, when God’s work was still much more about breaking me down than finding light and progress.  I was reformed in the forest, in the midst of having to come to terms with my own self, finding who God wanted me to be more than focused on what I wanted to do. I had to let go my calling in order to find my becoming. It wasn’t a quick journey, full of promise and discouragement, glimpses of progress and awareness of deep deficiency.

It was hard to find hope in the midst of nothingness.  I am glad I listened to words of faith and of the whispering promise of redemption and renewal.

It was indeed precisely the course I was supposed to take, though circuitous and uncertain.

A good reminder as I continue to journey into the fog-filled path ahead.  Even as my current path has much less of the loneliness and much more of the two-year old clamoring in the background, “I don’t want to.” I know the feeling, Oliver.  But we do it anyhow.

Hope is not a privilege, it is a calling.  It is the daily step, the “forgetting what is behind and pressing toward what is ahead” because that is the way of life.

Ignore anyone who preaches despair to the broken and hopelessness to the outcast. They don’t know what they’re talking about.

Posted in personal, spirituality | 1 Comment

Theological Education in “Azusa”

In my last theological education post I described the model of Azusa proposed by Cheryl Bridges Johns.  Again, the name is a bit misleading. When I think of the city Azusa, I think of the closest movie theater to my hometown growing up, and an example of a concrete/asphalt suburb that developed in the 50s and 60s before civic landscaping was a priority.   Split in half by the 210 (Interstate 210), it’s more of a working class town with recent renewal projects. Route 66 is a straight arrow through the northern portion alongside which sits Azusa Pacific University.

In my experience of formal theological education, it was on my commute to Fuller. It was the city before Irwindale and after Glendora, the east half of the drive before getting to the 605.  More recently, now on the other side of theological education, it is the city where I first taught theology full time. Teaching at APU radically influenced my experience and understanding of theological education. But that’s not what Johns is referring to.azusaacrepair

She’s not talking about the city of Azusa in her framework. At least I’m pretty sure she’s not.  She’s talking about the Azusa St. revival, which started in the city of Los Angeles on Bonnie Brae Avenue. The revival that began on one street moved to Azusa St, which is about 25 miles from Azusa, California.

So, really, she should call her model “Los Angeles.”  Given that the Pentecostal movement more formally began in Topeka, Kansas that might be the most fitting name. That said, Azusa is much more evocative than Los Angeles, and entirely more so than Topeka.  Sorry, Topekans. Bias against the fly-over states predates the ability to fly over them.

Yet, Azusa St (if not Azusa, CA) still does fit because while the movement itself began in Topeka, blossomed on Bonnie Brae Ave, it took root on Azusa St as a theological movement that spread throughout the world.  As a model of theological education, it seeks after holistic learning and expression.

Cheryl Johns notes, “Its paideia would enculturate students into an inviting and yet dangerous landscape of education where the disciplines of science and the humanities interact to formulate new paradigms. At the core of the curriculum would be an all-consuming passion for God and the kingdom. Visions and dreams would be honored as well as highly technical scholarship.”

That’s a handful of a description.  What it comes down to is orientation. What is the orientation of a theological education? Is it about becoming better citizens in a given society? Is it about becoming esteemed within the structures of academic life? Is it about being a faithful participant in an established ecclesial tradition? Is it about drawing others into the life of Christ?   Each of the cities we discussed so far orients in one of these directions.  azusastreet

The Pentecostal emphasis focuses on becoming whole in light of the dawning Kingdom of God.

If that sounds outside the realm of theological education, then that’s another indication of how the Modern project has so totally dominated contemporary discussions. In this project, we look for objective knowledge or pragmatic expression. In the Pentecostal approach, learning about the world coincides with expressive participation in it and for it.

This is ultimately pragmatic, but not always immediately so. It enters into the mystical and transcendent as it radicalizes hope in a new way of encountering life.  We become who God has made us to be in the fullness of our particular gifts in the context of a community.  In effect, the Pentecostal model adds a “lab” requirement to theological learning, in which all that a person is becomes honed and sharpened.  A person is invited to risk utterances and expressions in the rhythm of the Spirit, a risk that should be coupled with discernment. This discernment isn’t about negating a person, however, it is about helping them best determine the ways in which God is using them to contribute to the whole community.  Ideally at least.

This has been a worthwhile discussion for me personally as it has pushed me to think about my own theological influences and journey.  Most of what I’ve shared so far has been part of long-term reflection. But this discussion on Azusa (St.) got me thinking about the importance of my informal theological education, especially prior to going to Wheaton.

Growing up, my family had a lot of financial and health issues. Pervasive. These led to a lot of less than voluntary moves, assorted other upheavals, constant encounters with crisis.  In one of the brief relatively stable times of my life we lived in Santa Barbara where my dad was a branch manager for a security company. We had moved up there from eastern LA county and where my mom had gotten involved with a flock of charismatics.  We had been going to a Wesleyan church but then in the new place started attending an Assemblies of God church.

LFC-FBI don’t remember a lot about the theology of the church, just the assorted odds and ends that stand out to a 9-10 year old boy. My first clear memory of speaking in tongues was at what I think was a Mario Murillo event at the church. I could be wrong about it being Murillo, but I do remember speaking in tongues, probably around age 10 or 11.  I felt a call to ministry not long after that.  But life twisted and turned, forcing us to leave the sun-kissed Santa Barbara area in summer of ’87, and returning back to less than ideal circumstances in La Verne, CA (about 12 miles east of Azusa, CA and 37 miles east of Azusa St.). Less than ideal because both financial and health issues entered into even sharper crisis for a extended time.

We went to church, but I don’t remember having any connection with church.  If there ever was a time in my life where I just felt a non-relationship with God this was it.  Probably a lot of clinical depression and other issues in the mix but a major part was the upheaval of a community.  While my parents worked at a boys home in the city, we lived for a year on that campus, which was located in an upper-middle class neighborhood.  We found a place to rent across the street where we lived throughout my time in high school. But we were in desperate straights. I have a wonderful immediate family who I love very much, as good as a family as a person can ask for in terms of love and commitment.  But everything else in life was caught in turmoil. The youth groups I attended tended to be of the entertain ’em and sneak in a bit of Gospel approach, targeted for upper middle class kids.  I had zero connection with that life and with that message.  I had good friends and a loving family, and even a renewed life with God borne out of constant lament, but my connection to church was tenuous.

While in junior high, I became friends with a guy whose dad was a Foursquare pastor in town. After floating along in various churches, which had various problems of holding on to good pastors, we started attending this Foursquare church. FourSquare_church_logo

And it was here that I had my first real encounter with Azusa (st.) theological education.  Now the basics were that of most youth groups at the time.  Fun, games, a bit of singing, bit of teaching, very young youth pastor, still attending Life Pacific at the time.  Deeper than the basics, however, was the freedom and investment this pastor gave.  We were invited into an exploration of depth of our understanding and expression. We were given space to take risks, some of which bore fruit and some of which still haunt me with their awkwardness. I was invited into discovering the Spirit’s work in my life, a work of developing leadership, prophetic, prayer, music, expressive exploration that wasn’t always profound but was allowing me to hone listening to the Spirit’s work in my life.

After high school, I began attending another church, one that was not formally Pentecostal, but which I think was just as interested in fostering this Azusa (st) approach. It was the Flock that Rocks. NewSong is now considered one of the proto-emerging churches, launching the Gen-X ecclesial movement, and otherwise expressing a postmodern style, though with Modern framework behind it still. It was Conservative Baptist in formal connection, though hardly anyone would know this.  This was my home church during some radically different phases in my life and in its life.

The early experience was the most vibrant, where everyone was under thirty, most everyone was single, and the church had manifold ministries in all sorts of directions based on the interest and passions of those involved.  I was part of a setup-teardown crew (it met in a gym) and part of a small group, one that was really a holistic house church in the way that it transcending a weekly meeting and became a community in life together.  I got a chance to teach, to experience transforming worship, to see the vibrant nature of a body of women and men expressing and learning the life of Christ in the context of eastern LA county.

Then I went to Wheaton. Where life was Athens and that had little room for Azusa.  The freedom and vibrancy got packaged back into a box. There was certainly spiritual growth for me, but it became highly isolated as I just didn’t fit well into the model of Midwestern Reformed ecclesial assumptions. I didn’t know how much freedom and learning I had prior to Wheaton and how it radically shaped my responses to my time there, disappointing and frustrating me while I learned what Athens could teach.

To be sure, my time at Wheaton was far from entirely negative. As I’ve written before, I met God at Wheaton, but I wasn’t able to process this learning into a positive embrace of joy and renewed life. I certainly was not able to express it freely and as the particular person God was forming me to becoming.

My critique of Azusa, however, is that in emphasizing the subjective side it can prioritize the expressive over the contemplative and intellectual. It can become unmoored from tradition and then get caught up in the more dramatic, more glittery, kinds of Spiritual moves.  People are still people and people tend to want to show off, appear more mature, do great things for God while not grounded in God.

As my mom suffered from severe health issues, a lot of people saw her as target, a way of somehow proving their own spiritual adeptness. They were oriented in competition and performance, not love.  My wife had encounters with Pentecostals when she was younger who likewise were spiritual bullies of sorts, insisting on a narrow range of expressive spirituality rather than understanding the broad work of the Spirit in a person’s life.  Neither of these experiences are uncommon. There is a certain elitism and performance expectation that if not pursued results in alienation or diminishment. If expressive spirituality is a sign of faith, then lacking particular, expected results becomes a sign of unbelief. Only that isn’t the case, not whatsoever.  Spiritual expressiveness does not always indicate spiritual maturity or Spirit-endowed wisdom, both of which seem a priority for true theological education. And the work of the Spirit can often be profound in non-dramatic expressions.

I’ve not been a part of a formal Pentecostal institution, but my impression has been they tend to be a hybrid of Berlin and Azusa, with the classroom formal education not fluidly interacting with the expressive.  Fuller Seminary has some history with an attempt at integration, with its “Signs and Wonders” course becoming a lab for expressive experimentation. That was not without its own problems and critiques, however, to say the least.

Azusa type theological learning gave me a sense of my calling, propelled me into a confidence of exploration, but gave little depth in continuing to navigate through dark nights and deep valleys of the soul and life’s continued crises.

It was in a dark night that I first heard told of another city, and it was in that “city” that I found restoration and renewal.  This city isn’t unknown, but it isn’t included in these frameworks of theological education, so I’m going to add my own creative contribution to the framework.  Next up: the city of Skete.

Posted in academia, education, personal, seminary, theology | 3 Comments

Interlude

Being a travel writer sounds like good fun. Go to exciting places and meet interesting people. Find out all sorts of new customs and try out flavors of foods you’ve never even heard of before.  Write about the exotic experiences to others, highlighting the good, maybe mentioning only a sliver of the negative.

It’s interesting that when we want to watch shows or read books about exciting destinations we tend to turn to expert travelers. It’s the residents who know more about a place. They’ve dwelled in its history, know the neighborhoods to visit and the neighborhoods to avoid.  But, they know it so well, that it is easy for them to get bogged down in description.  We want a quick overview, after all. What can we see in a day and where’s a good place for dinner.

Writing about theology has the same problem.  There are a lot of tour guides out there.  Offering a quick trip through various doctrines or topics. And there are a number of residents, who have lived a long time in the world of theology, providing an in-depth study of the history of a particular corner, but not really speaking a language most people can understand.

That’s the tension I’m feeling.  Give too quick of an overview of the various models–the “cities”–of theological education and I risk oversimplification. Say too much and I get bogged down without ever getting to my main goal in these musings.  It’s like being on a road trip and getting distracting by the sights along the way rather than getting to the destination.

But, to get somewhere you have to go through other places.  My hope in not just describing the models but sharing a bit about my own story with them was intended to give some brief depth. I’ve spent time in most of these “cities” (except Geneva) and so I’ve gone beyond the superficial and know what each place is like in different seasons.

On a personal note, I’m using this blog as a way of sketching out ideas and exploring themes.  Some have bemoaned blogs for their tendency to encourage unedited publishing.  That’s certainly a danger. My writing can certainly use editing. Yet, blogs have an immediacy that makes them useful, hopefully even a conversational encouragement.  Blogs aren’t a fully formed systematic theology. They’re much more like Table Talk, where the table can be as wide as the whole world.

I’m also trying to practice writing.  One of my goals is to get back into a more fluid, even conversational, style.  And that takes practice.  For instance, one of my problems in writing, speaking, and teaching is that I spend too much time on prefaces before getting to my main point. This post originally was intended to be my discussion of the “cities” of Azusa and Skete. But then I wrote a preface that’s too long.  Now the preface is its own post and doesn’t nearly as crowded.

I like places with less crowds.  My writing should have less crowds too.

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Experiences in Theological Education I

I’ve been part of the Evangelical Christian world my whole life.  I grew up in a variety of sunday schools, children’s programs, student ministries.  I attended public schools from kindergarten through high school, so up through age 17, the church was my primary form of theological education.  My parents were both educated at fine Evangelical Christian institutions (my dad graduated from Wheaton, my mom graduated from Biola), so I had wonderful resources at home as well.  It wasn’t until I myself attended Wheaton that I entered into the institutional world of Christian education.

As I think about a theology of Christian education, I cannot help but think about my own experiences. I am not, after all, considering theological education purely from the standpoint of a teacher.  Before I started teaching, I had several decades of experience being taught, to varying degrees of success. In thinking about my experiences, I realize I’ve spent time living in each of the “cities” at various points.

For a great, succinct summary about the models of theological education see Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen’s article from a few years ago.  Really, for a great, succinct summary of almost any topic in Christian theology, see something he has written.

For now, I’ll offer just a brief recap and share about my time living in these cities.  David Kelsey got the framework started by using “Athens” and “Berlin.”  The Athens model reflects a classical approach exemplified in Greek education and later on was the model of the early church. The goal in “Athens” is to form character, to know God, to become a Christian in full–knowledge and practice.  This emphasizes personal development and spiritual formation.  Clement of Alexandria called a truly educated Christian a “gnostic,” one who truly knows, as he tried to redeem the term that had been co-opted by heretics.  The key is holistic learning.  Athens

From the first time I stepped onto Wheaton’s campus I was flooded with their emphasis on integrating faith and learning.  We had chapel three times a week, in which we would interupt the regular flow of campus life by sitting in our assigned seats and listening to great Christian leaders, Wheaton faculty, ministry teams.  I generally made full use of my allowed skips (I think we had 8 back in the day, but I can’t remember exactly), while even then valuing the opportunity for what it was. These chapels were inspirational, convicting, worshipful, community-building, and only very occasionally frustrating or numbing.  I generally got some coffee and a plain bagel from the STUPE on my way to chapel, so that likely helped.

We had a Pledge that mandated not doing certain activities.  It also encouraged doing other activities, but never with the same force.  There was strong peer encouragement to participate in a ministry, and even as this wasn’t required, most everyone I knew was involved in one or more teams.  Faith was integrated into every class, often passionately so, though never in ways that diminished the quality and depth of the teaching.  Wheaton had a lot of community activities, though I was not very connected. I had good friends (especially my junior and senior years), and yet I think back on Wheaton as characterized by radical loneliness.  God was shaping me, and that meant some radical deconstruction alongside intense learning in a broad liberal arts context.  Wheaton-Sign-Christ-and-his-Kingdom-Permission-300x200

That I was a very strong introvert and was dealing with untreated clinical depression (that was likely both neurochemical and related to current life issues), didn’t help my connection with others, but did seem to drive me deeper in Scripture, theology, and especially church history. I found counselors among the ancients and saints of the faith.  In almost every way, Wheaton was a profound time of transformation, and yet because I was so far from my roots, from what was a strong community back home in California, it wasn’t all good transformation.  I disconnected my spirituality from the experience of deep community and commitment.  God was certainly good even in my troubles–there are some truly good people I got to know there and I’m not sure I could find a better overall education–but I didn’t have guidance how to navigate the various hardships of my life and really finished quite a bit broken.

Which makes me see how holistic formation functions best in a context of committed community.  At home I had the committed community, but I didn’t have access to the depth of learning or exposure to the great teachings of the Church. I didn’t have guidance about how to truly integrate my faith, learning, and myself in a coherent way.  Wheaton was, as I look back, a white martyrdom, a giving up of what gave me security, what gave me comfort, what made sense (because it made very little sense that I would or could go to Wheaton for many reasons).  I was indeed crafted into a daily following of Christ that sustains me to this day.

Kelsey’s second model is “Berlin.”  This is the university model, especially in tersm of a research university. The goal here is learning and applying critical reasoning to categories of learning. It is a training of the intellect in accumulating and compiling information, an increasing pool of resources used to analyze and create understanding.  Such understanding then can be deployed in the professional tasks that require such learning. In theological education, this would be used in vocational ministry or academia.  Berlin

My MDiv studies very much reflected this model. Fuller Seminary was created as a new institution for Evangelicalism that emphasized critical learning and thinking.  The courses were structured to teach the essential categories of seminary education, namely Scripture, Church History, Theology, and Ministry. It was 144 quarter units of learning, about 3 classes per quarter.  There was a weekly chapel, but it was not mandatory.  As far as I can remember, there was little emphasis on prayer or personal spiritual formation. That’s not to say these were seen as irrelevant or unimportant. They were emphasized as vitally important! Just not seen as part of the course of formal study.

As a commuter student driving in from about 21 miles away, I very rarely attended chapel (they did not compare well to Wheaton chapels). While I had acquaintances and co-laborers, I did not develop deep friendships. There were some wan attempts at discussion groups, but these were stilted affairs, rigid and limited in scope.  Everyone attended classes for learning but then spiritual life was the role of the church. I did take an elective on Spiritual Disciplines at the end of my first year, which certainly did emphasis a more holistic approach, but it was indeed an elective. With generally very large class sizes, there was hardly any personal tutoring. I did make some key connections with Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, but the fruit of this did not really ripen until many years later.

I did learn a great deal.  I learned deeply of Scripture, the original languages, becoming pulled into systematic theology for the first time, finding resonance in church history, fuller-theological-seminarylearning about the vocation of ministry–how to preach, how to teach, how to respond to questions about faith struggles.  Unfortunately, this high quality of education was itself disconnected from my church experiences, which had varying levels of extreme dysfunction and success.  I was caught in the storm that is the church of our era, and I didn’t know how to navigate to a place of stillness and renewal.

Those are my experiences with the first two cities in the framework. I’ll save my discussion of the others for another post.

Before I go, though, it is worth noting that while Fuller was created firmly in the Berlin model and was still quite entrenched in this during my MDiv years, after my graduation it has gone through a shift.  There was a reduction of required credits for the MDiv, and it was mostly the core content classes that got cut or combined. Meanwhile there is now a set of four required classes with the title “integration studies” that bring together spiritual disciplines and pastoral/church practices.  These four classes respectively focus on calling, worship, community, and mission. They really do add a fair amount of holistic learning and reflection in the seminary process. Meaning that nowadays, theological education at Fuller might best be understood as “Budapest,” a city that is in between Athens and Berlin.

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On Being a Theologian

It’s always a little uncomfortable when people I don’t know well ask me what I do for a living.

“I teach for Fuller Seminary,” I say.

“Oh? What do you teach,” they invariably respond.

“Theology and Church history,” I reply, not wanting to add the various other topics I teach to the list. Those sum up my specialties.

“…,” they generally respond, at least for an extended moment.

I’ve learned to expect this uncomfortable moment and that gives me pause in my responses. Which isn’t right, I know. I should be bold and confident in responding about what is both my vocation and my calling.

“Why I teach theology and church history!” I should say with expectant respect.

Yet, I know that when I give my answer about what I do most people don’t know what to say in response. I have a bit of an alienating job title when it comes to small talk.  Which is problematic because I have a fair bit of trouble with small talk to begin with.

I really could use a job title with a conversational hook, like my teacher friends whose jobs involve relatable subjects and relatable experiences with kids and learning.  Or my friend who works for the Grammys.  “Who have you worked with?” “What are they like in person?” Or a friend who leads art classes at wineries. Now that’s a job that can go all sorts of different conversational directions.  So many more come to mind.  Jobs that bring conversation with them.

theologianI teach theology. People don’t seem to know what to say about that.

I am, to be even more bold, a theologian.

I confess being insecure about using that title.  But what else should I call my job? I do, in fact, read about, write about, and teach theology.  Even still, I’m uncomfortable about that being my job title.

In contrast, most people are comfortable with their job titles (even if they don’t always like their jobs). Titles are usefully descriptive.

Job titles give an indication about how a person spends their time. How they make their money.

I doubt scientists trouble themselves too much with assuming the appellation of one who  studies and teaches science. That is a badge of honor.

Painters paint.  Bankers bank.  Plumbers plumb. Electricians electrify. Politicians politicize. Teachers teach.

Theologians theologize. They speak about God.

That is quite a weighty subject. A noble subject.  It is the driving subject of most of my life, taking center stage during the last twenty years.  I am, I might say, God-obsessed.

Though at times I might rather say I am God-haunted.  I can’t let go, not that doing such is a theoretical impossibility, rather that I am not necessarily the one who has been doing the holding.  I’ve been shaped, pulled, turned, bumped, cajoled, empowered, envigorated at various points to keep at this topic of theology. It is my profession, both vocational and confessional.

I am not insecure about the topic, that it is important and worthwhile. In thinking about the title “theologian” I am confronted with insecurity about myself.

I know myself, for the most part.  Dare I use the title “theologian” to describe who I am and how I live?  Do I genuinely theologize?

I remember what I’ve done. What I’ve said. My mistakes, my frustrations, my doubts, my sins. I think about others who have known me over the years, during seasons of confusion, instability, hypocrisy.  Not that I’m the worst of sinners or have some deep horrible secrets.  But enough to cause me to consider my current role with echoes of embarrassment and shame about who I’ve been at times, and who I sometimes still am.

Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to theologies of hope, which do not discount the past but invite the past into a renewed reflection in light of God’s work in Christ.  I am not a theologian because I deserve the title, but because I seek to be someone who moves past the past into celebrating revitalization and experiencing new patterns and perspectives that are more fully oriented in God’s work and identity.

I speak, teach, write words about God as part of the continuing process of seeking what is more, better, possible in my life and in the lives of those around me. Like Paul says in his letter to the Philippians, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it.  But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

A theologian is one who prays truly, the early Christian leader Evagrios wrote, adding, that one who prays truly is a theologian.  In and through my life I seek to pray and pray truly. Theology is not a destination, it’s a way, and being a theologian is about walking on the path, understanding how to use the map and compass, recognizing the flora and the fauna, sharing this with others who are interested.

Even if I am who I know I am–most unlearned and least among the faithful–God has invited me to be who I fully can be in light of the fullness of who he is.  It is a task I humbly embrace, a calling that compels me to live and learn and act and teach, daily entering into again my humility and my hope.

Hasten, O God, to save me; come quickly, Lord, to help me.  In that prayer I find my confidence.

 

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“As we have long ago pointed out, what we propose as our subject is not the discipline which obtains in each sect, but that which is really philosophy, strictly systematic wisdom, which furnishes acquaintance with the things that pertain to life. And we define wisdom to be certain knowledge, being a sure and irrefragable apprehension of things divine and human, comprehending the present, past, and future, which the Lord has taught us, both by his advent anClement alexandriad by the prophets.

And it is irrefragable by reason, inasmuch as it has been communicated. And so it is wholly true according to God’s intention, as being known through means of the Son. Ad in one aspect it is eternal, and in another it becomes useful in time. Partly it is one and the same, partly many and indifferent–partly without any movement of passion, partly with passionate desire–partly perfect, partly incomplete.

This wisdom, then–rectitude of soul and of reason, and purity of life–is the object of the desire of philosophy, which is kindly and lovingly disposed towards wisdom, and does everything to attain it.”

~Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 7.7

I like the idea of “systematic wisdom”.  That seems a grand task and a noble goal.  A  long road to be sure.  I’d like to think that’s what I’m trying to accomplish in my present pursuits.  Is someone who pursues that a Systematic Wisdomian?

Also, I like the word ‘irrefragable’ and am going to try to use it in conversations this week.

I’ve been digging deeply into Clement’s work the last few weeks as I work on a new chapter. I’m very taken by him–once again.  I first read his work as an innocent pre-seminary student and it’s interesting to see how what I read then really shaped how I entered later study.  It’s always good to read an author before you know how you’re supposed to read them.

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