Category Archives: theology

hope in faithful insecurity

“When a community lets itself be guided in its growth by the cry of the poor and their needs, it will walk in the desert and it will be insecure. But it is assured of the promised land–not the one of security, but the one of peace and love.  And it will be a community which is always alive.”

~Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, 142ff.

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experiencing the Kingdom of God

A transformative experience led the earliest Christians to become transformed in the power of the Spirit of resurrection and respond to the world as transformative people.[1]

This orients life within a “horizon of expectation.”[2] God’s people become oriented within the process of his eschatological work, while continuing to experience the contradictions of determinative history in their contexts—yet the hope in the transformative work of God allows them to live within the word of promise, which gives meaning to their participation and contexts.

The expectation, then, is not in vain but in keeping with God’s creative interaction and commitment, a commitment that seeks complete correspondence with heaven and earth.[3] The resurrection is, then, a “historical hope for the future” that is concerned with “the future in the lives lived by those who belong to the past.”[4]

The resurrection is not, however, a spiritualized hope, a vague embrace of otherness that imbues people with a sense of security in the midst of transitory, and often unfortunate, reality. Christ lives. This is a bodily resurrection that orients toward a physicalized salvation. The experience of the Risen Christ points toward a process of transition, one oriented eschatologically and experienced within its processes.

This is the Way. “Just as Moses led the people of Israel out of Pharaoh’s slavery into the liberty of the promised land, so Christ leads humanity out of the slavery of death into the liberty of the new creation.”[5] Those who participate with Christ participate in this way, entering into the process of God’s renewal of all life and becoming a liberating presence of Christ.

The praxis of Christ leads to the praxis of the Spirit in the praxis of the people. This is the experience of resurrection hope. This praxis is the expression of love realized in the flesh, the “transcendent perfecting of love.”[6] This love is itself the orientation of the resurrection, leading life to be expressed in love and it is this life of love “that will rise and be transfigured.”[7]

Such love is oriented by the Spirit, opening up, steering, even limiting the way toward the fullness of life that is expressed, making what is not present or even seemingly possible come into being.[8] The energies of the Spirit is the power of the resurrection among us, and the new way of living initiated by Christ is “the anticipated rebirth of the whole cosmos.” A life lived without expression of this resurrection is a life that is devoid of the horizon of expectation that includes the resurrection of Christ.

[1] See Moltmann, Way of Jesus Christ, 236–45.

[2] Ibid., 238.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 239 and 240.

[5] Ibid., 257.

[6] Ibid., 262.

[7] Ibid., 263.

[8] Ibid. Molmann writes, “The horizon of expectation make the sphere of experience accessible.”

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Summarizing contemporary politics and “ethics”

Just finished reading Niklas Luhmann’s Introduction to Systems Theory.  First, I’ll say this might be the most difficult book I’ve read.  Partly because I don’t have a background in sociology, mostly because Luhmann is a very dense and meandering writer.  But, I think there’s something in what he writes that is worth considering, and that really describes the state of society as well as any other.  The trouble is that the state of society should not itself be a model for Christians or the church. Yet, far too often Christians attach religious justification for acting just like the people around them are acting.  Both sides do it, and that embeds conflict within what should be a unified voice in Christ.

The Kingdom of Heaven is not a system within the world, but too often the language of the Kingdom is used in ways to perpetuate the systems of the world. Neither is the Kingdom of Heaven a later, supernatural reality. It is the expression of the Lordship of God in and through our whole lives, God’s will be done on earth as in heaven put into practice in daily and particular situations.

This has been part of my frustration with a lot of Christian ethics over the last many years and always pops up again when there is some kind of national news that highlights the conflict.  Those in the Church do not offer a unique voice (like Jesus did) but far too often position themselves among the established sides.  Jesus never dodged questions but he did reinterpret the underlying reality that should be addressed. Far too often, we (and I’ll include myself) take the contemporary systems at face value, adopting their forms of truth and priorities and values, then become more aligned to others within that system than with those who share the same supposed confession in Christ.

Anyway, this came to mind because of something Luhmann wrote near the end of his text:

The key statement for this purpose is my claim that conflicts themselves are systems. Conflicts are systems because one creates a situation that limits the bandwidth of variation concerning the other, if one treats him as an opponent and acts in a correspondingly aggressive, defensive, or protective way in his presence. He can no longer proceed at will. Of course he can (if he really can) walk away, shrug his shoulders, and say that all this is of no interest to him.

In typical social situations, however, when one does not have the option of leaving, the notion that there is in fact a conflict, or even a mere insistent “no’ as an answer to repeated interpretive offers, is a motive that produces a system, which is to say, a motive that organizes connectivity.

For instance, it may lead to the creation of coalitions, to the search for resources, and to the idea that everything that is to the other’s disadvantage is to my advantage. A friend/enemy relation is formed, which is an extreme simplification of the real situation…

Here, the organizing power of conflicts can be seen in social coalitions as well as in their themes. If someone contradicts a partiuclar point I have made, I generalize his opposition and suspect that he will also contradict me on other issues. From this viewpoint, moral perspsectivs serve to generalize conflicts. After all, if someone has shown himself to be ignominious, he is so in every respect and not just hte one that I happned to notice.

Whenever I argue morally, I have the tendency to generalize conflicts! The formula is that conflicts are an excellent principle of system formation…

The question is whether such a formed system can be justified in light of Christ’s work.  Even when pacifism finds empowerment in this system of conflict, there is a self-contradiction at work that suggests a less than thoroughly Kingdom oriented ethic.  Or, when supposed Christians insist on establishing the inerrancy of the Bible through the embrace of this conflict established system, they too are self-contradicting the supposed example we see in the New Testament Gospels and letters.

When we embrace the system of conflict in the cause of Christ, we are taking the name of the Lord in vain, taking up God’s cause but rejecting his method, his model, his Kingdom that is not the peace of Rome but the peace of Christ.

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Obedience is better than Sacrifice

Spoke on the atonement this morning. Flew up to Nampa, Idaho to join in with the Wesleyan Theological Society. Good time. Good people.

I’ve never really been all that interested in doctrines of the atonement. I was raised in a Christian family and so never had a dramatic conversion. And the other popular interest in atonement theories almost always are about drawing divisions in Christianity, using the cross as a bludgeon to attack people who don’t measure up to a perceived, generally parochial, orthodoxy. The conference theme was on atonement so I started thinking about it last Summer, and once that started, I got very interested in where my studies were taking me. So, over the last 2.5 weeks I wrote a 25 page paper as a beginning exploration of what I think is a somewhat novel approach. Well, novel in theology, it’s entirely throughout Scripture. That’s my argument and evidence at least. Got it down to 10.5 pages to present this morning. Seemed to go well.

Anyhow, here’s my intro:

Over the last half-century, there has been a shift in how we think about God’s eternal nature and work in this world. This relational turn in theology emphasizes a social model of the Trinity and with this a sociality of God’s kingdom rather than a political or hierarchical model. This is not, to be sure, a new conception.

The terminology of perichoresis—God’s eternal dance—has, for instance, been a key model especially in the Christian East for many centuries, dating back to the early church. In what follows, I will propose a model of the atonement that derives from this emphasis on God’s relationality. This is a preliminary exploration for what is a much larger project certainly in need of further refining and development. For the moment, I will propose themes and lay the groundwork for this approach that can be honed in future works.

A theology of the atonement involves two extremely important underlying questions. The first asks what is sin? Is it a violation of God’s honor as Lord? Is it corruption that leads to death? The tendency to establish a scapegoat? The devil’s capture of us in enslavement?

These questions point to the second key question. What is God’s primary pattern of interaction with this world? In the late twentieth century there was a shift of understanding of the human condition away from a strict legal construction and towards understanding sin as more of a disoriented identity that results in relational violations.

Such a view on the human situation is key in the theology of many contemporary theologians such as Wolfhart Pannenberg and Jürgen Moltmann. They both assert that attempts to establish our identity in a person, cause, activity, or goal other than God results in dis-integration—with God and with others—as nothing other than God can sustain identities into eternity. Such dis-integration requires re-integration.

However, models of the atonement have not derived, for the most part, from the starting point that Pannenberg and Moltmann, and others, suggest. This gap highlights the need for a new model, one that better incorporates contemporary understanding of the Trinity and anthropology.

This may also become a model that can include other models within its scope as it suggests the underlying priority, expressed through different themes, of God’s work throughout the Biblical narrative.

My initial conception is this: The relational trust between God and humanity that allowed for relational intimacy was broken through sin. God’s initiating movements then created contexts of obedience or disobedience as particular people chose where they would put their trust.

The expressions of obedience were insufficient both as a sustaining and as a fulfilling expression. The judgment of God expresses a relational displeasure, a response to betrayal and falsehood in attempts to instantiate ourselves through alternative means.

The cross becomes the ultimate expression of obedience and thus trust, denying false forms of identity and embracing the fullness of God’s promise. This act of obedience becomes the avenue of trust for humanity and the avenue of trust for God, who trusts those who trust the Son.

Such trust is first an ontological restoration as it orients a person within God’s field of force, his perichoretic substantiation that we call justification. This then re-initiates those who trust in the cross into a new transformative path of obedience, a new birth that re-constitutes the human identity and leads it to a path of identity reformation, which we call sanctification.

I’m not posting the whole thing because I’m considering what I want to do with it. It’s at least a book project, maybe my summer project now, but I may work on submitting the initial version as an article.

Posted in academia, education, Scripture, speaking, theology | Leave a comment

Why Ravens?

Ravens are important in many cultures and harbingers in more than one religion. It  is not hard to see why. Anyone who has spent a moment listening or watching must be struck with curiosity at what these aerial acrobats are about.  two ravensThey are among the most intelligent of birds. They are social, and talkative, with a complex language that shows regional dialects. Few animals show as much love for their own abilities as these birds. They fly, and they are aware how cool it is they do so. Drifting on a warm updraft, diving through a valley, riding the wind of battered air in storms and fire, wrestling with each other midair, they exult in their mastery of the sky.

A pagan site speaks of these totemic birds:

If a raven totem has come into our life, magic is at play. Raven activates the energy of magic and links it to our will and intention. With this totem, we can make great changes in our life; the ability to take the unformed thought and make it reality. The raven shows us how to go into the dark of our inner self and bring out the light of our true self; resolving inner conflicts which are long been buried. This is the deepest power of healing we can possess.

Though a mish-mash of do it yourself religions, this speaks of distant understandings, held by many peoples throughout time.

Norse mythology, of course, prominently features two ravens, companions of Odin, bearers of knowledge and information. Thought and memory is the meaning of their names. They are the embodied soul of the All-Father, whispering from his shoulder the goings on of the wider world. The Edda, an epic Norse poem, states:

The whole earth over, every day, hover Hugin and Munin; I dread lest Hugin droop in his flight, yet I fear me still more for Munin.

Because of these constant companions Odin has been called the Raven god.

This he is not.


Long before the Norse laid claim to mystical tales and the gold of other lands, the God of Israel revealed himself to be Lord and protector of all, even the ravens.

“He gives to the animals their food,” Psalm 147:9 reads, “and to the young ravens when they cry.”

“Who provides for the raven its prey,” God asks Job rhetorically, “when its young ones cry to God, and wander about for lack of food?”

He was answering Job out of the storm in chapter 38, replying to Job’s complaints not by direct answers, but by showing his character and power.

In return ravens served the God of Israel. Noah sent out a raven, which flew back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth. Ravens being what they are, it appears this one left the constraints of the boat for its own tasks. A dove was the next messenger, the one which came back.

The prophet Elijah ran into many troubles as he spoke the words of God to those who did not want to listen. He had power over wind and rain, and God had power over him. Savoldo Elijah Fed by the RavenA drought began, which parched the land.

In chapter seventeen of 1 Kings we read:

Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah: Leave here, turn eastward and hide in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan River. You will drink from the brook, and I have ordered the ravens to feed you there.

So, he did what the LORD had told him. He went to the Kerith valley, east of the Jordan, and stayed there. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook.


This is a website for those who now live near the Kerith, a place where water rushes through a narrow valley. God is calling many back as his own, and in doing this places them for a time in the midst of the wilderness, with drought and famine all around. There is water to drink, if it is sought, and food to eat by God’s gracious hand.

Many paths in this world lead onwards, but only one leads to the end. One travels with a goal in mind, and only those paths which take one to the expected end have perfect merit. There is only one path, the Way. Yet, along this path many sights are shared.

Forgotten views are highlighted elsewhere. Other paths may intersect, leading to their own interesting sights. Some travel far along, others stop very short. So, while there is only one way to the end, all others are worth consideration. For like the tale of ravens they remind us of our own stories, pointing us back to forgotten truths.

The Christian faith is ancient, laying claim to its history and the history of the Jewish people prior to the coming of the Messiah. The modern representations have lost much of the purview, limiting to specific words and angrily repulsing other voices. All truth is God’s truth. All those who hear truth, hear Yeshua. The Spirit moves wide and broad, teaching, reaching, grasping, enlightening. With an eye on the goal, and an open ear to hear the words which others speak, we walk together along the Way.

Moses knew this path. Into the wilderness and out he led the people, fully committed to the word of God, fully dedicated to the One who saves. To Hobab, son of Reuel the Midianite, he said this:

We are on our way to the Promised land. Come with us and we will treat you well, for the LORD has given wonderful promises to Israel! But Hobab replied, No, I will not go. I must return to my own land and family. Please don’t leave us, Moses pleaded. You know the places in the wilderness where we should camp. Come, be our guide and we will share with you all the good things that the LORD does for us.

RaveninflightNot of the people of God, but welcomed. Hobab knew what they did not, and could assist. In return, should he add his wisdom to their promises he would receive ‘good things.’ So we stand firm in our faith, with a listening ear and open mind to the work of the Spirit beyond our own understanding, trusting that it is he who draws people more than we. And thus we continue on the Way, trusting God will send ravens to bring food, everyday.
 

I wrote this about 6 or 7 years ago and it’s been a page on my website, though one rarely visited.  As I prepare for this new year, and all it entails, I thought it a fitting way as I renew my focus and thoughts.

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Unsatisfying churches? Or maybe a real reason millenials (and others) are leaving the church

Jane McGonigal has a very interesting book called Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.

McGonigal is a video game designer. What does she know about getting people involved? Well, 174 million Americans are gamers, boys and girls, men and women, who play video games. If you are under about 45, then you almost certainly grew up playing video games.

Now they are ubiquitous. All sorts, with all kinds of goals. In fact, some of the most profitable apps on smart phones or tablets are games. Designers are in it for the creativity, sure, and with this there’s an immense amount of psychology and overall understanding of human nature.

They’re not in it just for the creativity, however, there’s an immense amount of profit. So, game designers are, we might say, on the leading edge of what draws people in and what keeps them coming back for more.

Many games aren’t isolated experiences either, with some of the most popular being online multiplayer worlds, forming whole communities in the process. And there’s an immense amount of time and energy involved, involving intricate collaboration, mastery of skills, repeated application and practice, growth, development.

Why am I mentioning this with a title focused on the church? world-of-warcraftWell, these are the sorts of expressions that fills the rhetoric of pastors in sermons across the country, and world. Learn, grow, community, practice, express.

McGonigal notes the success of a game like World of Warcraft [a game which I’ve actually never played]. “Every single day,” she writes, “gamers worldwide spend a collective 30 million hours working in World of Warcraft.” Why?

Here’s her explanation:

Although we think of computer games as virtual experiences, they do give us real agency: the opportunity to do something that feels concrete because it produces measurable results, and the power to act directly even if what they’re manipulation is digital data and virtual objects. Until and unless the real work world [the church, maybe?] changes for the better, games like WoW will fulfill a fundamental human need: the need to feel productive.

That’s what it takes for work to satisfy us: it must present us with clear, immediately actionable goals as well as direct, vivid feedback. World of Warcraft does all of this brilliantly, and it does so continuously.”

John Wesley, I think, had an intuitive grasp of this. Sanctification coupled with communal feedback provided a form of continuous actionable goals. The early church, and many churches around the world to this day, had the challenge of martyrdom, where faith is constantly tested and faith either broken or built.

Most churches today operate with a very passive model. There’s very little actionable quests, almost an entire lack of direct, vivid feedback.

Should there be changes that reflect what game designers understand and put into practice? Could churches be the ultimate role-playing game? That’s the sort of stuff I’m thinking about tonight.

Posted in church, communitarian view, psychology, religion, spirituality, theology | 2 Comments

Sessions with Moltmann

In May 2011, I had a chance to talk with Jürgen Moltmann in his study in Tübingen. I recorded our three conversations, but never posted them. This was research material for my dissertation. 03

Now that the dissertation is written and passed, I think now is a good time to post those interviews for anyone who is interested.

May 17-19, 2011 in Tubingen, Germany
Session One — May 17

Session Two — May 18

Session Three — May 19

In connection with the interview, I wrote a paper that gives context and provides a loose transcript of the conversations.

Posted in academia, adventures, Moltmann, theology | 2 Comments

The Frenzy and The Void

There are two concepts that have been defining concepts for my theology and spirituality the last ten years or so: Frenzy and Void.

Now, these aren’t included in any other list that I know of. They’re not in the classical list of seven (or eight!) deadly sins. They’re not sins, I suppose, but I suspect one or the other is at the root of just about everything that is a sin.

I’ve occasionally described life with God, discernment and the Christian life, like autopia. There’s a rail that keeps you going a certain direction. If you let go of the steering wheel you’ll go the same basic way, but will be bumped back and forth as the car keeps crashing against the rail, going back and forth, right and left, crashing your way forward. Or you can steer and get where the track leads without hitting anything.

On the right is the Void, on the Left is the Frenzy.

Or maybe it’s front and back. Behind you is the Void, chasing after you. Ahead of you is the Frenzy, something you feel a need to chase after.

Up and down? The Void swallows you up from below. The Frenzy burns you up from above.

Looking back these have been with me my whole life. I suspect they are with most people. It wasn’t until I finished seminary, however, that I started discovering them for what they were.
void
The Void was the first one I named. Not that it was my name. I first found it named in a book by James Loder, who himself pulled the idea from Kierkegaard. I’ve since read more of Kierkegaard (though far from enough). At this point, a lot of theology discussions would go on to talk about Kierkegaard. But Kierkegaard isn’t really the point. Indeed, Kierkegaard just used good words to describe a much older awareness. The Void is all through the Bible. And in the writings of the church. And in writings found in all sorts of places.

It’s that gaping maw, that awareness of nothingness, of meaninglessness, emptiness. It’s that whisper that says God is not. We run from the void, we distract ourselves, we busy ourselves. In our quiet, still moments though, it’s there, gazing at us, suggesting it is all there is. Run.

So we run. We act brave. We talk about depths, and patience, and faith, and hope. Then the Void shows itself. We run. Run away.

The Void sought me out after I had finished seminary. It had been there all along, to be sure, leading me variously into depression or activity. When I finished school, however, when my church made clear it had no space or desire for me (a couple of elders pretty much said this directly), I didn’t have a direction to focus my energy. I paused. I was stilled. The Void opened its gaping maw and reminded me of my failures, my meaninglessness, my unpayable loan debts (I’m still a bit worried about this one). Do something. Do anything. Run. I tried joining the army. Run.

Felt there was no guidance from God. There was, but the Void was louder. Make yourself useful. Do something noble that is impressive to self and others. PAY OFF THE STUDENT LOANS, OR THEY WILL SWALLOW YOU. I told God that if he didn’t want me to do this, he would stop me. My blood pressure put me on pause in the process, high like never before when at a physical. My left knee ended it. Torn ACL when playing basketball.

The Void was silent, it’s always silent, but stared deeply, wider and thicker and closer than ever before, overtaking me like a wave just offshore. Swim! Run! Escape. Play the part. Make sense. Live to pay rent, go to nice restaurants, distract myself with suits, shoes, outings. Run. If you don’t run, you will be exposed for what you truly are. Nothing. Empty. Wasted. The Void threatens us with all our fears and threatens to expose our weaknesses to others. “I know who you are,” the Void says. “Who you really are.” Run.
Sarlacc
I looked at that life ahead of me. And I stopped. I turned around. Let the Void crash over me. Everybody saw my weaknesses: my lack of perseverance, my waxing depression, my introversion, my… well, this isn’t a place to list all of that.

I moved to the mountains. Everyone thought I had given up. Precisely what I didn’t do. I stopped giving in to the Void, to its whispers, to its condemnations, to its threats. I stopped running. I was tired of running. I faced the Void.

The Void never really goes away, however. It’s still a whisper, a burn, an impenetrable wall of fog and shadow, a belly in which a person is digested for a thousand years. The difference now is that I recognize it. I call it out. I speak its name. I confront it. Sometimes I lose. But I’m getting stronger at facing it.

On the other side is the frenzy. I’m not sure where I got that word. I know that the concept found a place in my ponderings when I was reading the Philokalia, a set of books that collects the writings of Eastern Orthodox monastics from throughout the centuries.

The frenzy is that temptation to do more, be more, have more. More, more, more. It’s the competition, the ego-satiation, and more. It’s the feeling that if something needs doing, you must do it, because everyone else is doing it that way, and that way must be the way to do it. Work more, plan more, fret more. Hither and thither, running yourself dry and moving farther still. Getting caught up in what everyone else is doing and how they’ve done it, checking boxes off the constantly expanding list.noid

God helps those who help themselves and that means must really help those who go above and beyond doing all they can do. All things to all people, constantly on the go. Perform. Earn. Fight. Even relaxing becomes a competitive experience: better food, better pictures, better beds, better and more, more and better. Facebook it. Instagram it. Tweet it. Blog it. Share it. Post it. Drawn into the web of frenzy, one draws others. Dance, monkey, dance.

Often these are distractions, often they are good things, justifiable things, things people celebrate us for. “I don’t know how you find the time,” they say, wooing our sense of self to greater heights. There isn’t time. There’s just frenzy. Because if we stop, there’s Void. We prove ourselves, prove our worth, defend ourselves, “We deserve it!”. Frenzy begets frenzy, chaos is our comfort… because at least it’s something.

Sin enters in through the portals of Void or Frenzy. Lost in the nothingness or consumed by the busyness, we lose sight of our own true self. The self that God knows fully. “I know who you are,” God says. “And I love you.” We don’t believe him. Or if we do, we don’t trust him.

Void and Frenzy lead us away from the garden, into the place of disobedience, the far country, joining the pigs at the trough.

Void and Frenzy are present in every part of our life, every theme and every goal, undermining our hopes or leading us to accomplish them without God. They are what we know, our knowledge of good and evil, giving us a perverted discernment about how to respond. sharkfrenzy

Void and Frenzy are with us, to the end of the world.

Void and Frenzy are the wolves. I lack everything. They lead me to parched pastures, to stormy waters, they disturb my soul. They guide me to wrong paths, thorny paths, for my name’s sake.

When I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear every evil, for Frenzy and Void are with me, robbing me of joy and peace.

They are at every point. Death and decay. Rot and annihilation. The eternal fires burning us up even now, every part of our life.

Which is why we need nourishment, renewal, transformation in every part of our life, thorough, not segmented.

We need oxygen to every part, saving us, resurrecting each element of our life anew. New birth in ambition, new birth in relationships, new birth in sense of self, new birth in every part of our life.

What brings this transformation? Salvation in Christ is the new birth. The Spirit works, moves, breathes into, freeing us from the Void and the Frenzy. The community of the Spirit, the Body of Christ, is the fellowship of the newly born, those who are maturing into being a new person, a new people.

Which is why arteries are not enough. They carry the life only so far, to apportioned parts, to cubbyholes, to major segments. But they’re too thick to reach everywhere. If the body only had arteries, there would be blood and maybe life, but decay would always be present, necrosis ever-present.

Frenzy and Void are thorough, ever present, and so too must be the response, the renewal. Arteries and Capillaries. Formal churches and missional movements.

Posted in church, musings, sins, spirituality, theology | 1 Comment

Arteries and Capillaries

Over the last many years, I’ve become interested in complexity.  No, not in order to make difficult that which should be easy, nor to add yet more layers of analysis to what are already indecipherable experiences.

Sort of just the opposite. That which is easy is very often not so simple.  Yet, we try to make it simple, and devolve into very remedial explanations that fit some conception of the world, but not a real like conception.  Our ethics and structures are far too often functioning in an 8-bit world when there’s 64-bits — really much, much more — in the architecture. In understanding the complexity, we embrace the reality, in which the simple is complex, and embracing the complexity is embracing the simplicity, experiencing what is beautiful.

arteries and capillaries

It’s an different kind of simplified reality that we use to deal with most of the world, reductionistic rather than complex. We’re a binary people, on or off, good or bad, do or don’t, wrong or right.  Then there’s the nuance people, which is where a lot of theological ethics tends to land, which makes everything a mish-mash of colors, turning everything gray.

Those are the traps in theology. We  create dogmatic stands on complex issues, oftentimes doing so in a way that aligns us, curiously perfectly, with political or social forces in our surroundings.  Or we use a whole lot of words to say very little except how complicated things are, and we should see both sides, and buy my book.

We are also extremely compartmentalized.  That’s church stuff, that’s business stuff, that’s God stuff, that’s me stuff, that’s my stuff, that’s your stuff, that makes me me, that doesn’t make you you or me.  Theology does that too.  Here’s the church stuff, let’s formulate that. That’s the stuff about Jesus, let’s stack this here. Here’s the bit on creation, that fits over by that wall. Here’s the Holy Spirit, where do we put that?
cubby holes
Now about salvation, here are your four steps that have very little to do with anything else I’ve mentioned but can be supported by five individual verses and so have to be the way things are.  And here’s who can be in charge, and there’s a verse on that, and because there’s a verse on that, we don’t have to think about what it means in terms of Jesus, or Creation, or Spirit, or salvation, or any of the rest because the answer is clear as day and I’m in charge or can use really big words so be quiet.

Church stuff is settled, we meet on Sundays, have an hour or so of busyness, a couple guys stand up front, do a varying array of semi-mystical expressions, everyone sits or stands or occasionally replies with a scripted response.  Some people are challenged or renewed or encouraged, others fulfill their obligation for the week, alleviating just enough religious guilt to keep God out of most of the rest of their lives until the next week.

The Body and the Blood.  More like an automaton. Gears and levers and tubes filled with a viscous enough liquid that keeps things from binding up. Turn the switch, it stands up. Pull the level, air blows through the bellows and it speaks. Don’t mind the man behind the curtain, it’s the people, the people!, who are participating. Everyone in their cubbyhole, in their place and program and category, two or three times a week. automaton

Very orderly. Can compile statistics about growth and involvement and giving and such. Put those in tables, tweak the numbers, pad the accounts, we’re all doing great. Why isn’t society listening to us? Hey! We’re still big, it’s the culture that’s gotten small.

Lest this seem like my litany of complaints about the church, it’s not. Like with yesterday’s post, there’s a bit of carthartic release just in the writing to be sure, but there’s something more. I go to a big church, one with staged worship, and manicured landscaping, and new seats that don’t clang when someone gets up to go to the bathroom in the middle of a sermon. I’ve even preached at times!

I’m in a Sunday School class, that remnant of once-care for the outcast and poor that has turned into yet another intellectualizing seminar for the relatively put together. I’m a member of that. Not because there are no other options. Not because I’m an ecclesial hipster who likes to hang around a traditional church in an ironic way, making snide remarks on my own or with other cool kids.

I go there because I believe that’s where God has me. Because of obedience. Now, the latter is going to be a rising theme hereabouts, so make not of it. Especially because obedience is grating on our sense of personal identity. Everything has to have an explanation, or it’s considered oppressive and degrading. So we want to explain. To put everything to the test. The test of what it means for my own sense of self. Which is why pastors like church services so much, you know, they’re the most important person at them. But, is explanation required? Does God explain to the people every time he has them do something? Or tells them not to do something? Rarely. But we expect it even still.

So that it makes sense and so by making sense we can put it in a particular file, label it with just the right title, then arrange it into the correct cubby hole, so that when we need to refer to that topic we know where to look. Here are my ethics. Here’s my finances. Here’s my relationships. Here’s my use of time. Here’s my house. Here’s my sexuality. Here’s my diet. Here’s my view on what happened in Florida or what happened in China. Here’s this and here’s that. Our ticky-tacky made out to be independent by giving it progressive names so that we’re not like those people but are entirely different by being exactly like this other group of people.

We are all conformists but we conform in different ways with different groups with each cubby hole, the file giving the instructions on who is the right guide for that part of our life.

This then fulfills our expectations for explanations. It’s enough that this is how it should be. It’s how we approach a lot of life, the appearance of freedom and complexity belaying the fact we’re simple sheep, with a multiplicity of different shepherds leading us different directions. That’s true with church too, you know.

The Law doesn’t make sense so we celebrate our freedom, except when the law is also part of our cultural sense of self so we give in an explanation that may or may not fit with reality. Going to church on Sundays is what people do, so we do it, and we do it because going to church is transforming because you’re going to church. When people see us go to church, they’ll say, “Hey! that’s a person that goes to church, I should go to church too because they are showing me what it is like to live as a person in our era and in our society.”

That’s what we like to tell ourselves at least. That going to church is transforming and going to church distinguishes us from people who don’t go to church and we’re better at being people because we go to church. That’s not why I go to church. I have very low expectations of what a Sunday morning might mean for me. I’m not closed off to it, but I don’t look for that to be my spiritual resource for the week.

Going to church has just as often encouraged my shadow sides as it has my light-filled side. Ambition. Competition. Performance. Pride. Envy. Gluttony? Anger. Acedia. Greed. There’s the list. Check off how many are fostered. Even as there are just as often encouragements and real expressions of lived faith that serves as a beacon, a model, a guide for me and others.

Church is a mixed bag. Just like the rest of life.

God said to us that our church was where we needed to go. And even in the midst of the frustrations I find myself wanting to be obedient. Because obedience in the context of relationship is an expression of trust.

And I want to trust. I want to trust that God is doing a work in and among this world, in my community, in my family, in my life.

Yet, I don’t want it to be a blind trust. I don’t think that is my calling. But in obedience I am drawn into an analysis that pushes me to be involved even where I might otherwise be disdaining. Because disdain is not a fruit of the Spirit, and God leads us to places so that we might learn and grow. I am finding in the big church experience all sorts of insights and lessons, and most importantly particular people, people are part of the body, finding their way in the blood, moving along the arteries. People who I can teach and who can teach me, who I can help and who can help me, people who I don’t trust and don’t trust me, but maybe we’re willing to test those boundaries a bit and see what happens.

And in my learning and growing, I’m thinking about complexity, and the inter-relationality of all things, and arteries and capillaries. Which has shaped my view of theology and my view of church to move away from the binary of this or that, horrible and wonderful, into finding how a multiplicity of forms and structures contribute to the more thorough transformation of our own life, families, and communities.

Fractal_Art_17

This means that my understanding of theology and my understanding of the church is coalescing into a shared approach, both informing each other, both needing to find reactive response to not only big, compartmentalized issues but also interrelated with all the other participants, themes, and scales. My view of the atonement radically affects how I think a church should be structured. My view of the Spirit radically affects my understanding of atonement. My experiences and challenges are shaped by and in turn fill in my perception of the Spirit. How God creates ties together my view of election, and eschatology, and what I should do when I gather intentionally with other believers.

Trust, obedience, faith, hope, love.

I’m not a big church guy. I’m, at heart, an embedded, missional, emerging sort of guy. Who God first led to the mountains to experience a semi-monasticism far from formal ecclesial connections, and then led me into the city where I became part of a local mega church, filled with all the sorts of good citizens — some of the world, some of the Kingdom, a few of both — that make it important in the church world. Is it where God will have me stay? Maybe not. But I suspect that if I go it will be with an interest in expanding rather than separating from that ministry. Arteries and capillaries. Mission and theology.

Posted in church, musings, spirituality, theology, Transforming Theology | 1 Comment

Finding roots when rootless

I’m feeling distinctively rootless these days. I’ve graduated my PhD program. But I don’t have a full time job. We’re living in a place that has a lot of benefits, mostly related to relative quiet, but a fair amount of inconveniences–one bedroom, no air conditioning, meaning it’s particularly inconvenient (okay, fairly miserable) when it is hot and particularly unsettled when I think about Vianne’s situation (we’ve made a space for her, but it’s not something that can be useful for too much longer).

I work a fair amount, teaching a number of classes, but no job security or expectations are offered by either Fuller or Azusa. Meaning I work quarter by quarter, not able to plan. We had to change pediatricians, because California ended its great program for kids in families with limited means, and cast everyone onto Medicare, which is accepted by a significantly smaller amount of doctors. Amy and I have very minimal benefits, enough to get us in a hospital but not something that encourages anything near checkups or minor issues (I get very Pentecostal again when I lack good insurance…). My car had an overheating problem when we came back from our trip last week, as a sixteen year old Honda Civic coupe, this isn’t surprising. It’s already too small for more than two people, but it’s the car we have and the car that gets us to the places we need to be.

My PhD was paid for entirely by fellowships, which were renewed each year based on my performance. Each year they were renewed, yet each year was a feeling of persistent rootlessness. Would this be the last year, I wondered each year. Yet, thankfully, it lasted to the end. My M.Div, however, wasn’t so finely funded. Loans are due and after 12 years in higher education, there’s still loans from my undergraduate days. Repayment now looms very strongly as there’s no PhD program offering refuge anymore.Sailing near San Pedro

There are no job postings in my field, not ones that fit my background and training. Yet, there is little more I could have done better in light of my finishing. Dissertation passed with Distinction (the highest rating), 4.0 GPA throughout, dissertation manuscript accepted for publication by Fortress Press, good evaluations on my teaching at Fuller and APU.

With all that, I am cast into the whims and fancies of the academic world, with only occasional retirements and the small possibility of created new positions offering a modicum of hope that there’s something more permanent than being caught in the adjunct vortex.

Then there’s church, a church we’re members at, a church we started attending because in the midst of a long church shopping after being married, that was the one that provoked a “yes” in each of our souls. It’s a big church, though, and we’re not big church people. It’s a church far away. And I’m increasingly interested in a holistic experience that allows my church community to be in, with, and among my actual community.

I wrote a dissertation on that, after all. It’s something I not only desire, but can provide a nauseating amount of theological justification for, and back it up with practical examples. Every time I drive to church I feel rootless, a church led by a great staff, with some wonderful people, yet located in an upper-middle class neighborhood that is a 1/2 hour freeway drive from where we live. That’s not to say everyone there is enjoying the bounty of a fully realized American Dream, but many are. My car is almost always the worst in the lot.

Amy is a full time mom, a choice we made together, following the passion of her heart and what she feels God is leading her to do. Which I honor and celebrate, especially as I see everyday the boon that is Vianne, and the intelligence and strong personality that she has. Having Amy around her is a great benefit. But it has costs, the costs of trying to live on my adjunct salary in the middle of one of the higher cost of living regions.

We don’t know where to go. We don’t how to be where we are at. I’m feeling especially rootless, not only because of my present but because I’ve been in a wilderness mode of life since, by my estimation, I was 9. Lots of opportunities and experiences, continually uprooted, tossed hither and thither, never finding roots, never having what I would call a home of my own.

Recently, this rootlessness has become fairly exhausting. It’s nothing horrible. There are a lot worse stories out there. Like a perpetual drop of water, however, it digs deep and becomes distracting. I’m tired of it.

Yet, there is nothing but to keep pressing on.

Lest this sound like a litany of my present complaints, know that’s not the reason for my writing all of it. Writing is my way of renewal, a way of release, a way of searching for light by sketching out what is in my mind. And this, thus, is not a litany of complaints, left for their own sake, as though I’m leaving my rancid trash on the side of the road in order to clear my head. No. I list these because I want to express my context. I didn’t just graduate with a PhD, I graduated with a PhD in Christian Systematic Theology.

Which offers the challenge. I cannot simply gripe and whine, making a list of my complaints or challenges and leave them at that. Because in the midst of all those complaints is also a work of God. And I can list those as well. Works of God that led me, and then with Amy, into the choices and situations that are resulting in these challenges.

Writing is my way of renewal, and maybe by sketching out my thoughts on this rootlessness, seeking wisdom for my own sense of self and purpose — even as I continue to seek real, palpable answers — I can find myself walking with others who are rootless in similar or distinctive ways.

Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.”

Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

I sought God. Now I feel rootless. That shouldn’t be surprising. But it is tiresome at this moment in time as I think about how to best support my family.

I seek God. I hope for rootedness.

Curiously, I originally sat down to write a little bit on my ideas about a missional community, one that I may want to get going when, and if, I ever find myself in a place of at least relative permanence (defined as having some commitment to stay for at least a year, rather than constantly aware we could move wherever a full-time job is found). I think that’s where I’ll keep musing, even as it was likely good for me to share my theological situation at first.kayaking on LA

Theology has never been about musing for musing sake. It was the road I took when I had significant challenges and sought “the ancient paths, where the good way lies.” Now with letters after my name there’s the challenge to keep it this way, and maybe, just maybe, by walking this road openly I can be a help to others on this path, the rootless, the dislocated, those who seek God in the midst of challenging questions, where they feel there is no way but forward, and there is no way possible to go forward.

That’s the place I’m at. And in the rootlessness I feel the shadows of despair rising, seeking to choke me, ruin me. Stronger -sometimes just barely stronger- is the substance of hope, that hope that has shocked me and surprised me, leading me to take the steps that led me farther up and further in. Holding onto that hope has led me through transformation in every part of my life, but there’s more yet to be transformed. The shadows thicken, reminding me how many ways I yet need Christ in my life, and his people.

From this, my theology and missional musings proceed.

Posted in How Long?, musings, personal, spirituality, theology | 1 Comment