Category Archives: theology

Consumerism: I learned it by watching you

If you were a child of the 80s, or had a child in the 80s, you’ll remember the public service announcements they showed on daytime television, especially Saturday morning. I occasionally use the phrase “that’s one to grow on” when a show is particularly heavy handed in presenting a lesson.

These covered a lot of topics, with many of them about the dangers of drugs. Drugs were a big deal in the 80s, and the best way to keep kids away from drugs was to make short films that told kids in no uncertain terms that drugs were bad and that bad people do them. You don’t want a fried-egg brain, do you?

I’ve forgotten most of them, but a few have become part of pop folklore. For instance, the one about the dad who confronts his son after finding drugs in his room.

This came to mind as I was thinking about habitus the other day.  What is habitus? It’s habits. But why not say habits? Because latin makes it sound more profound, of course.  More than that, it’s not just habits as we usually think of them, things we happen to do.  Like putting my keys on the desk by the door when I get home, or forgetting to close the cabinet doors when I get a plate.

More, it’s really formational habits that shape us in a particular way. Like practicing a sport builds muscle memory so that when we play we respond without going through an intellectual process. The brain is slow, after all, and by the time it sorts through the various options and issues, everyone is on the other side of the field.

It’s the same way with morality and spirituality. In the moment, we respond. And our response reflects who we have been up to that point, what feeds into our values and priorities. Our habitus is reflected in our habits, priorities, use of time.

Why was I thinking about habitus the other day? I was reading a great book by Alan Kreider called The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, one of the best books I’ve read all year. In it, he talks about the habitus of the early Christians, how their intentional practices and rhetoric oriented them to respond with patience in the midst of a lot of chaos. That patience defined every aspect of personal and church life, allowing Christians to grow and spread in unimaginable ways.

That changed when Constantine came into power, and Kreider argues impatience became cemented into Christian habitus through the writings of Augustine. Things needed doing, heretics needed resisting, the state needed converting, and there’s no time to wait.

Impatience defines so much of Christian ministry even to our era, where everything is measured in the short term and immediate success of limited tenure ministers, who will move onward and upward as they are able. Buildings get bigger, bulletins get flashier, budgets get bloatier, numbers of all sorts of things and people (and people are often basically things) are counted and massaged.

The challenge for churches becomes a budgetary bloom, where people are called to give and give and give. This then is the primary expression of spiritual service. When money becomes center, and money is used to expand property or improve facilities or hire staff–none of which are bad things–it becomes an expression of a core spiritual discipline.

Then people who want to contribute to the life of the church develop ideals about how this can happen and how to live out their own lifestyle of displayed plenty.

Money brings nice things.  Those who have money get treated better and have more influence.

The odd thing is, as we build in this consumer mentality within church life, it coincides with a frustration about consumerism.

An impatient and consuming church contributes to an impatient and consuming society.

Which is me saying, it’s no use railing against consumerism in society until church growth models themselves stop being consumeristic themselves, consuming people, resources, time spent on frivolous activities.

Where did they learn it from?  Not from Jesus.  From impatience and societal displays of success that were intended to provoke awe and envy and competition.  And the more competition there is, the more people will be willing to shop around for the best product and value. They look for that which is celebrated by those who lead the churches.

Not all churches are like this, but those who aren’t, those pastors who aren’t, feel a constant tug to just give in, because that way is the way to honor and success in the church world.

Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.

Posted in church, holiness, spirituality, theology | Leave a comment

Go!

I preached on Jonah 1 a few weeks ago at the River Church.  Here’s a link to the video

Some lessons from the passage that I ended with:

  • God isn’t on our side.
    God invites us to be on his side.
    And sometimes his side isn’t the side we expect.

    God’s side is the way of life.

  • God cares what we do, and God responds.
  • God has a plan, a mission, and we’re part of it.
    But he doesn’t always give us all the details.
  • Calling isn’t always what we want – but it is good
  • Ignoring God isn’t a private affair, it affects those around us

Here’s my Jonah 1 presentation notes

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The art of textbook choosing

I’ve learned over the years, there’s an art in choosing just the right texts for a class.

I wonder if this is one of those problems that are new to our era, like having a dynamic classroom experience. It used to be, a professor could have multiple pages of notes, or even a book they’ve written, read those notes in front of a gathered collection of variously engaged students, and that was called teaching a class. To add a dynamic element, they’d reserve some time at the end of the class for questions. Anything else could be saved for office hours, every other Tuesday from 3-4:30.

For books, there were standard tomes, that covered all the assumed ground.

For a theology class, the assumed ground was, to be sure, rather limited in scope and perspective, generally reflecting a narrow theological tradition and almost certainly a narrow gender and geographic distribution.

That’s not a critique, that’s just how it was done, for generations upon generations.

Times have changed and they’ve changed within short amount of time.

I have to teach in ways I was only rarely taught, and choose books in light of a diversity I was very rarely exposed to during my undergraduate and much of my masters degree.

This is a good. By all means, it’s a good. Better pedagogical possibilities. Just more work.

The challenge isn’t finding good books. There’s a lot of good books out. Too many. I can assign about 1200 pages of reading for a class, and that reading needs to maximize both content and perspective. Really, it’s an impossible task. Something has to give.

The goal then is to find the balance of representational books that help orient students in continued study. Basically, to make them aware of what exists.

One solution is to get a lot of reserve reading, to basically find 20 pages here and 20 pages there, from chapters, articles, etc. and so on. That’s a good but complicated solution, both in the compiling and in the processing (every chapter/article has to be requested with a separate form). It has the upside of wide-ranging, often historically important, sources. The downside is that it doesn’t provide students with a lasting resource. I go in assuming students won’t sell books back after the end of the quarter.  Intentionally naive. But, I do like to think about books that provide them continuing resources for their growing theological library.

I’m teaching two classes this quarter. One is HT501, which is formally titled “The Church’s Understanding of God and Christ in its Theological Reflection,” but I informally call it “Theological Reflections on the Trinity” because the themes of the class are Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, focusing on the theology relevant to the particular Persons and as Trinity.  I wrote a long description of my books and approach to the class as part of the proposal process.  Here’s what I had to say.

The other one is IS502, Practices of Community, which is part of the Integrated Studies set of classes offered at Fuller. These are a blend of spiritual disciplines and pastoral/spiritual theology.

We go through 8 disciplines that help contribute to a thriving and growing community experience: Hospitality, Truth-telling, Promise-keeping, Forgiveness, Christian Formation, Gratitude, Testimony, and Group Spiritual Direction.  In teaching, there are those that begin with specifics and hope to translate that into broad principles and there are those that begin with broad principles/examples and hope that translates into specific expressions.

I’m definitely more of the latter. I want to awaken student’s imaginations about their own spirituality and context, not give a bullet-point list of tasks to carry out. This reflects, I know, my own approach to learning. I hate lists of rules, but thrive on being provided depth of discussion and can easily see how this applies to me.  Not everyone learns like this, so I’ve learned to add texts that provide a diversity of learning styles, with the goal that everyone will find at least one text that really matches their own approach, while being challenged and stretched by other texts.

This class was especially interesting for me as it reflects discovery of books from throughout my own theological journey.

So, for this class I picked:

  1. a book that discussed community from a Biblical perspective, Paul’s Idea of Community by Robert Banks which radically affected me in my junior year at Wheaton.
  2. A book that discusses community in a rich historical Christian tradition, The Conferences by John Cassian, which radically affected me during my first year of MDiv studies, and may have changed much of my trajectory and outlook on Christian life and ministyr more than any other single book besides the Bible.
  3. A book that discusses an active missional community, Thin Places by Jon Huckins. My good friend who introduced me to the Channel Islands during my first quarter of seminary, and continued to be a vitally important friend, spiritual compatriot, and camping buddy, during my 20s, moved to be part of this community. I also used this book as a key resource for my dissertation.
  4. A book that discusses a deep theology of community in light of a very practical expression of it, Community and Growth by Jean Vanier. Vanier’s work is one of the more enlightening and inspiring theologies I’ve read in recent years. I’m using this one and others of his for my current book project.
  5. To add to these more general overviews of theology and expression I have a couple books that provide specific discussion of our chosen disciplines,Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, which I discovered when I worked for Field Education during my PhD studies.
  6. Living into Community by Christine Pohl is the book required for all sections of IS502 taught at Fuller. This was a new text for me, I read it because I was teaching on it, and I’m happy to say it’s a wonderful book I can highly recommend.

A quarter length class isn’t enough to provide all the content on any topic, so my goal is more to provide substantive introductions and help orient a trajectory of continued learning.  That’s why I say every class students take at Fuller is a beginning to continued study. My goal, is they take these tools and discussions with them as they continue learning and leading after they graduate.  That makes my task much more achievable.

Being achievable makes teaching more gratifying, taking a lot of the weight off trying to cover far too much material in far too short amount of time.

Posted in academia, spirituality, teaching, theology | 1 Comment

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.

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Integrity in an age of Confusion

One thing we learn from the Bible, maybe a key lesson throughout the text, is that we shouldn’t expect God’s story to take shape the way or the timing we want, but it is ultimately leading in a better direction.

Not just in an eternal (heavenly) sense. The more we walk in God’s story the more we experience the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5)

There are two elements of this patience:

  1. Be patient for God’s justice against the wicked: judgment
  2. Be patient in waiting for God’s provision: intercession

Being patient like a farmer is patient, doing the work, waiting for the work to take shape in light of God’s grace and sustenance.

Hear more on this in my sermon on James 5:1-7

Here’s the complete teaching notes.

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Teachers and Tongues

Love can mean many things. In Christianity, it’s meaning is oriented by the revelation of God that is expressed in the person and mission of Jesus, a mission that continues to be empowered by the Spirit. And yet…

It’s clear that this message of love hasn’t always been the primary expression of the church, becoming a rhetorical decoration for other goals. Some of these have been noble, such as teaching important concepts, some less noble, such as establishing power for its own sake and to personally enrich the leaders.

This isn’t new. We find such trends even in the era of the New Testament, leading the charismatic leaders of the earliest era to write letters.  James wrote one such letter to the churches and in it he emphasizes that Love involves integrity and responsibility, not also for teaching, especially for teachers. And I argue that as we’re all empowered by the Spirit in some way, we’re all teachers in some way, living out lives and sharing our hopes with those around us, many who will never listen to a church sermon let alone take a class on Christian theology and practice.

This responsible love involves living true to the story of God in our lives.  It also involves helping others be true to God’s story in their lives.

I preached more on this at the River Church, but it wasn’t recorded.

Don’t fret!

Here’s my complete teaching notes.

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A Faith that Practices: Advice for the Good Life

The message in Scripture isn’t just about some isolated religious issues as expressed by an ancient people. It was expressed by an ancient people, but more than a limited cultic set of temple acts, it’s really an expression of how the world is, how life is supposed to be, who we are supposed to be in light of that. It’s a narrative that took place in the past, and takes place even now. Indeed, this story of God is an orientation. We are invited into a way of life that can be expressed in any setting, at any time, as it is about living in light of the way this particular world is supposed to function. It involves our faith, and our faith involves our whole self, our emotions, and our five senses. In the book of James, he highlights the spiritual through emphasizing the sensory, using these together to point to how we can find hope and peace in the midst of a complicated world.

I preached more on this in my sermon on James 1:19-27.

Here’s the complete teaching notes on James 1:19-27.

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Faith

There’s a tendency to assume faith and facts are somehow opposites.  That facts are based on proof and faith rejects such mundane realities.  A quick google search turns up this definition: “strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.”

Based on spiritual apprehension?  I’m not even sure what that means.

Proof is a loaded word, of course.  It’s not a binary, all there or all not there.  Maybe in a strictly mathematical sense, but very few of us live our lives in a strictly mathematical sense.  We assess and predict, using our experiences and reason to gauge the world around us. When I come to a stoplight and the light is green, I keep going fast because I know the laws and I have experience in how these laws are followed.  I don’t have proof everyone will follow the laws, but it’s a good bet.  Though, not absolute.

We go by incomplete proof all the time, it’s how we make our way through life.  In Hebrews we have this definition of faith: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”

There’s nothing about a lack of proof here, as if our confidence just erupts wholesale from our hearts.

Faith isn’t the absence of proof, not at all, that’s defining it in a way that doesn’t match either Biblical testimony or religious experience. People base their faith on something after all. Whether that proof is enough to convince everyone is a different matter, but that doesn’t negate the fact there’s a driving proof for a particular person to live in a particular way.

Faith isn’t believe in absence of facts or proof. Faith is a trajectory, an orientation in life based on a variety of proofs, towards a not-yet-experienced future. Understanding faith as a trajectory rather than a kind of wish is central to Scripture, where God, we say, works in a variety of ways and then expects the people to continue to believe that he will work in ways not yet seen.What's on the other side?

Maybe this is why I wrestle with the idea of doubt. It’s become trendy to emphasize doubt, to celebrate doubt.  But doubt isn’t really conducive with faith.  But just writing that sounds so… religious and old-fashioned.  But when I think of faith as trajectory, it’s an important statement to make.  Because if I’m always doubting, I’m not moving forward towards the goal, I’m not pressing onward, stopping and pausing and checking the map every moment, getting sidetracked.

But, here’s the problem. People assume faith means absolute understanding or at least wholehearted confidence. It doesn’t mean that either. Faith may be the opposite of doubt but it welcomes questions and concerns. It invites query.  We want to understand, even if we don’t. Doubt suggests there’s maybe no point to asking.  Faith assumes there’s an answer ahead, even if we can’t know what it is or even if we’re asking the right questions.

That’s probably why I liked this quote from Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy:

“There is no power nor virtue in this travesty of faith, which makes it mean the taking of all things on trust, the folding of the hands and the bowing of the head, the spiritless submission to the lie that whatever is is right. Faith does not mean that we cease from asking questions; it means that we ask and keep on asking until the answer comes; that we seek and keep on seeking until the truth is found; that we knock and keep on knocking until the door is opened and we enter into the place of God’s truth.”

God calls us to this trajectory of faith, where we persevere in an uncertain and sometimes discouraging present based on what we know of God’s work in the past. We hold onto this work, in faith, because this is the only way to fullness.  It’s a risk, to be sure.  How do we truly know?  We don’t.  That’s the very challenge. What do we do with what we have experienced? What we’ve heard from others? What we’ve read in Scripture?  Faith is build on such proofs and calls us into a trajectory where our lives reflect taking a risk on these truths.

It’s the uncertainty in the midst of conflicting possibilities where faith comes alive, grounded in proofs that we risk are true so that we can see the truth blossom in full in the future.  It is being willing to move forward past the seemingly crushing denials because of the proofs that sustain our hopes in God’s future. Christ may die.  But he does not stay dead.  Christ may leave, but we are not left alone.

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