March 03, 2011

There and Back Again: A Pastor's Tale, Part Seven

dsc00012.jpg "When going back makes sense, you are going ahead." ~ Wendell Berry

Some who have been reading this series of blog posts may not know the title is a literary reference. It is drawn from J.R.R. Tolkien’s book, The Hobbit, which offers “There and Back Again: A Hobbit’s Tale” as an alternate title. The Hobbit tells the story of Bilbo Baggins’s unlikely adventure as he leaves his comfy home in the Shire, travels into wild lands and unknown dangers, and then returns again transformed by all that has happened in-between.

In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton, another British author of the same era, opens his book with a similar theme. Though not a fantasy, he nevertheless describes a fanciful situation in which an English yachtsman sets out from home on his own journey of discovery. However, through a miscalculation in his course, what he "discovers" is England itself—in the mistaken belief that it is a new island in the South Seas! Though such a man might appear to be a fool, Chesterton is not concerned with this impression. He states that any who think that a sense of folly "...was [the yachtsman's] sole or dominant emotion [has] not studied with sufficient delicacy the rich romantic nature of the hero of this tale." He continues:

"His mistake was really a most enviable mistake; and he knew it, if he was the man I take him for. What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again? What could be better than to have all the fun of discovering South Africa without the disgusting necessity of landing there? (With all apologies to my South African friends!) What could be more glorious than to brace one's self up to discover New South Wales and then realize, with a gush of happy tears, that it was really old South Wales?"

In context, Chesterton uses this amusing anecdote as a metaphor for his journey away from, then back to orthodox Christian faith. As it relates to my journey, it serves as a poignant, albeit imperfect, analogy for our journey over these last couple of years. It is imperfect insofar as it was not a miscalculation that led to us to move to New Zealand and then return to Kansas City. It is poignant inasmuch as it describes the scope of emotions—from the fascinating terrors to the humane security—we have felt as our family discovered a new island in the South Seas, and now, somehow, find ourselves preparing to land on our home shores almost two years later.

Here is how the final part of this tale unfolded...

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February 17, 2011

There and Back Again: A Pastor's Tale, Part Six

fog.jpg"If place lends structure, context, and vividness to narratives, it is stories, whether fictional or biographical, which give shape to place. However, as stories of displacement show, it is the absence of lineage and memory associated with physical place that is just as critical as separation from the landscape alone.'" ~ Philip Sheldrake

In January, 2010, our family arrived in Auckland, New Zealand, where I was to begin work as "Senior Fellow for Congregational Studies" at Laidlaw College.

Though we had been planning to move since July, 2009, we were nevertheless shocked to find ourselves in this new land, beginning our life again from scratch. In the months before our move, I had a dizzying number of things to do to be ready to go by year's end: sell vehicles, prep our house to be sold or rented, close various accounts, navigate immigration channels to secure residency visas, arrange an international move with all of the various customs requirements, etc. There was always something needing my attention at that time. As a result, I had thought very little about what we would need to do once we arrived in New Zealand. Now here, we faced the immediate challenge of putting back together all the various things we had just dismantled. But rather than having four months to do this (as I had in the US), we had two, maybe three weeks.

We were alternately excited and shocked - and in both instances, highly adrenalized. Our emotions were raw and at any given moment, as least one person in our family was in crisis. It was an exhausting time. And at the same time it was incredibly...energizing? Powerful? Vital? I'm not exactly sure. But one thing is certain: as a family we had never depended on each other the way we learned to during that time. We had a lot of fun exploring the stunning new place we now lived. We also spent a lot of time grieving. Through it all, we were patient and avoided trying to fix each other. Instead we tried to simply listen and be present as each person worked through, in their own way and time, the full spectrum of their emotions.

Perhaps some of you reading this have closed a chapter in your life, packed everything up, and moved halfway around the world. You know what this is like. We did not. Obviously. Now we were immigrants living far from home. We knew virtually no one, had no mode of transportation, and only temporary lodgings. Furthermore, our possessions would not arrive for another four months. It was crazy. And good - an adventure unlike anything any of us had experienced.

In short order we purchased a car and found a place to live. We set up bank accounts, cell phones, and utilities. We purchased appliances. We enrolled our kids in school, bought them uniforms and supplies, and sent them into a completely different educational system. We were introduced to, and pleasantly surprised by, "socialized" medicine when one of our kids fractured his ankle just after we arrived. We borrowed furniture (camp tables and chairs, a few mattresses and a futon), basic kitchen items, and enough plastic plates, bowls, cups, and utensils to get by. We bought a second car. And then, two weeks after we arrived and most of the basics were covered, I began work.

Continue reading "There and Back Again: A Pastor's Tale, Part Six" »

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February 10, 2011

There and Back Again: A Pastor's Tale, Part Five

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"Every life is lived toward a horizon, a distant vision of what lies ahead. The quality of our action depends heavily on whether that horizon is dark with death or full of light and life." ~ Parker Palmer

I have mostly related the facts, circumstances, and organizational dynamics surrounding our transition from Jacob's Well to New Zealand in this series so far. That might make it seem like our decision was primarily a response to circumstances that had become unsustainable for me. While that was certainly a part of what was happening, it was not all. In this post, I want to consider our decision from a spiritual point of view - though I am not sure "spiritual point of view" is the right way to get at what I am trying to communicate. Nevertheless, to do that I'd like to refer to a comment a former pastor made in response to my last post. He raises the issue of "calling." I want to use what he wrote as a jumping off point to engage this facet of the story.

"I can identify with the issues of transition Meredith described to you from my own journey. What I re-learned was the importance of and the role of call, and that God's call on our lives is not a fixed state but can move us in new directions (or even countries!) for a season of life."

He is so right and I think he touches on a critical point that many of us misunderstand related to calling. It is common to conceive of calling largely in terms of a vocation or job. Thus, many people understand what they spend their time doing every day as their "calling." You might hear a person say that they are called to be a teacher, a mother, a banker, or a pastor, for example. And that idea about calling is right, or maybe true - as far as it goes. But such an understanding risks mistaking a particular manifestation of a calling for something more fundamental. What might that something be?

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February 04, 2011

There and Back Again: A Pastor's Tale, Part Four

opensea.png "I was not sure where I was going, and I could not see what I would do when I got there. But you saw further and clearer than I, and you opened the seas before my ship, whose track led me across the waters to a place I have never dreamed of, and which you were, even then, preparing to be my rescue and my shelter and my home." ~ Thomas Merton

The previous two posts in this series describe some of the background, as well as the discernment process, that led me to resign my position at Jacob's Well. I shared how reconnecting with my friend Meredith Wheeler created the opportunity to come to New Zealand. What happened between deciding to pursue that possibility at the end of May 2009 and my acceptance of a position at Laidlaw College six weeks later is a story full of crazy drama. No kidding. I am going to resist sharing that part of the story for now, though. Instead, I would first like to highlight a few things that Meredith shared with me as we processed through my struggles and discussed the opportunity to do something different for a season. After that I want to describe what that something different was and why it appealed to me.

You might remember from my last post that Meredith was the pastor of a large church outside Philadelphia. Over the last several years of his pastorate, he was also doing doctoral work at Temple University and the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. His research focused on conflict in leadership, particularly how institutions, like congregations, handle leadership transitions. As a result, Meredith was a great person to interact with, bringing to our conversations both a pastor's heart and a consultant's perspective. He also brought his personal experience, having navigated his own transition out of congregational leadership just as his research on that very topic was being concluded. As I talked to Meredith about my struggles, he was able to contextualize them within the dynamics of institutional change.

Meredith shared that leaders often sense two to three years before making a transition that their life is not working and change is needed. He told me that a several factors make such changes complicated, though. The first is that leaders who think about leaving often feel like they are betraying people they care about deeply. Most leaders love what they do and a large part of that is due to the significant relationships they have formed with the people of their community. They are not just leaving a job; they are saying goodbye to people with whom they have shared life and love very much. This reminds me of the confession the Apostle Paul makes to the church at Thessalonika: "Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well." It is not surprising that such a decision can and does feel like a sort of betrayal.

Another challenging issue is that many leaders immerse themselves so thoroughly in their work that their identity becomes synonymous with their role - a reality I described struggling with in an earlier post. As a result, they have a hard time imagining themselves doing anything different: "Even if I wanted to leave, what would I do?" Further complicating the process is the question of how a leader in transition supports themselves financially. Meredith's description of each of these factors helped me to understand my own turmoil and why this process had been so confusing and protracted. With these insights I was also able to make sense of struggles I had witnessed other leaders having from afar.

Continue reading "There and Back Again: A Pastor's Tale, Part Four" »

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January 31, 2011

There and Back Again: A Pastor's Tale, Part Three

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"Blessed are those who trust in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage. As they pass through the valley of Baka [weeping], they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains cover it with pools. They go from strength to strength, til each appears before God in Zion." ~ Psalm 84:5-7

As the previous post describes, our decision to leave Jacob's Well was not easily made. Rather, we wrestled for a couple of years to reconcile competing and conflicting impulses. If the Christian life is indeed a pilgrimage, then we felt like we were in that stage of the journey described in Psalm 23:4 as "the darkest valley" and Psalm 84:6 as the "valley of Baka," "baka" being the Hebrew word for weeping. There certainly didn't seem to be a simple or obvious solution to our struggle. Then, in the spring of 2009, a few critical things unfolded very rapidly. Though far from a quick or painless fix, through these developments we saw a path leading, if not up and out the valley, then at least further down the road we had been wandering along.

It began in April when I received a message from a friend I hadn't connected with in awhile. I first met Meredith Wheeler when he was the pastor of a large church outside Philadelphia. He had heard me speak at an Emergent conference in San Diego sometime in 2004 or 2005. Following that session, we visited for a bit. I was surprised to meet him again in the foyer of Jacob's Well one Sunday evening before our worship gathering a couple of months later. I believe he was on sabbatical at the time, traveling around the country to observe how different communities were seeking to be faithful to the gospel in our changing cultural context.

Meredith and I continued to connect periodically over the next couple of years. At that time, I was a member of the board of directors of Biblical Seminary outside Philadelphia. On one of my trips there, Meredith picked me up at the airport and drove me to the school an hour away. This gave us the opportunity to get to know each other beyond the brief chances we had enjoyed thus far. Because of that growing connection, I shared with him my fears about some health struggles my oldest son was facing when I ran into him the next year at the same conference in San Diego. Following that encounter, Meredith began to send regular emails asking after Mabry and telling me of his ongoing prayers for him and our family. Though it may not seem like much, those messages meant the world to me, reminding me that we were not forgotten. I am glad to say Meredith became a good friend. He is an amazing person whom God used to reach out to me at a couple critical junctures of my life. Eventually Mabry got better. As such things happen, though, Meredith and I slowly lost touch.

When I saw his name appear in my email inbox in April, 2009, I was thrilled. I learned that he had recently moved to New Zealand, accepting a position as the Head of School for Mission and Ministry at Laidlaw College in Auckland. Once there he added Vice Principal of Operations to his list of responsibilities. Beyond sharing news of his transition, he inquired whether or not I would be willing to come with my family to New Zealand to teach a three month course at the college. He also wanted to know if I could recommend someone to fill an open lecturer's position in the School of Mission and Ministry. True to character, he concluded that message asking about Mabry.

I was excited by the thought of visiting New Zealand with my family and reconnecting with Meredith, however it was mid-Spring by then and he needed someone in July. I gave my regrets, but told him that I would like to talk again. I was due for a sabbatical in 2010 and thought New Zealand would be a great place to spend it. We agreed to stay connected and begin planning for the next year.

Continue reading "There and Back Again: A Pastor's Tale, Part Three" »

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January 28, 2011

There and Back Again: A Pastor's Tale, Part Two

Sahara01.jpg"The end of all our journeys will be to arrive at the place where we began and know it for the first time." ~ T.S. Eliot

In the previous post I shared the exciting news (at least for me!) that I will be returning to Jacob's Well Church mid-summer to take on the role of primary teaching pastor. The way this has unfolded is pretty amazing and I want to share parts of that story with you. But before I discuss the turn of events that led to this outcome, I'd like to first discuss the dynamics that influenced my decision to leave Jacob's Well in the first place.

I am motivated to do this for three reasons. First, I never took the opportunity to do so in this space and would like to now. Second, stories have beginnings, middles, and ends. To tell this story well, I want to give it some context. Third, I am passionate about local churches and their leaders. I spend a great deal of time talking with, reading and writing about, and coaching leaders seeking to be faithful to God and his purposes in their context. In best-case scenarios, this is a confusing and arduous task. I don't write that to complain or garner sympathy. To me, there is no greater privilege than leading a church. But there is no question that church leadership is fraught with challenges that often overwhelm and wear out its most committed practitioners. Perhaps this is not all that surprising. Every kind of work has its unique benefits and hazards. Men and women who follow Jesus into Christian service both follow a messiah who says that we find our lives when we lay them down and read scriptures that enjoin fortitude, perseverance, and long-suffering as we seek to live in the faith, hope, and love that animate God's kingdom. I believe that the struggles and opportunities that led to my resignation are not mine alone. In that sense this blog post is a narrative that operates simultaneously on a micro-level (my story) and meta-level (employing aspects of my story to make larger, systemic observations).

Thus, it is my hope that by sharing a few observations that illuminate the most recent chapters of my story, leaders might also have insight into the dynamics that could be impacting their own personal and communal stories. However, to do this I am going to have to generalize in ways that take very complex and dynamic realities and simplify them in fairly significant ways. I do this in order to make a couple of specific points in the clearest and briefest way possible. Though there are many different angles by which to approach this topic (e.g., organizational life cycles, stages of masculine spiritual journey, sustainable rhythms for people in helping professions, the necessity of leaders' ongoing professional and creative development, etc.), I want to focus primarily on the role that leadership plays in new communities and how it evolves (or doesn't) over time.

[Caution - this is a long post and will be an even longer series! I can't imagine too many people wanting to read on unless they are a) connected to Jacob's Well in some manner, or b) interested in the broader issues of sustainable church leadership that the rest of this post (and series) discusses...consider yourself warned! :-)]

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January 26, 2011

There and Back Again: A Pastor's Tale, Part One

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"The Road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began. Now far ahead the Road has gone, and I must follow, if I can, pursuing it with eager feet, until it joins some larger way where many paths and errands meet. And whither then? I cannot say." ~ J.R.R. Tolkien

I am really excited - and fairly amazed - to be able to share with you the news that I will be returning with my family to Kansas City, Missouri, in mid-July, 2011. I have accepted an invitation to be the primary teaching pastor at Jacob's Well Church, a new role that has been created since I departed in August 2009. I will assume my responsibilities sometime later in the summer.

Jacob's Well made this announcement on Sunday, January 23, at each of their three worship gatherings. You can read the statement here. Likewise, Laidlaw College announced my plans to the community here as simultaneously as possible. In fact, I'd liked to express my gratitude to all who helped coordinate the release of this news in a way that honored both communities - no small task given the distance that separates New Zealand and Kansas City in time (19 hours and a day ahead) and space (7800 miles) and the connectivity that instantaneously dissolves such distance in the socially-networked virtual world we now inhabit.

I am certain this news comes as quite a surprise to many who are reading this, or heard the announcement when it was first made. To you I say, "Me, too!" For those who are interested, over the next couple of days I will share some of the background of this story, as well as how this new chapter has come about...

But for now, let me say two things. First, I could not be more excited or humbled by the opportunity to return to Jacob's Well in this newly imagined capacity. That I have such an opportunity overwhelms me and once more demonstrates God's enormous goodness and generosity to me through his people - in particular, the people of Jacob's Well Church. I am grateful to once again be able to serve God as a part of this community. Second, I am equally grateful for the opportunity that I have had to live in New Zealand and work at Laidlaw College and beyond. The range of people who have welcomed my family to this amazing land and befriended us while here have made immigrating to "the ends of the earth" much easier than it should have been. We will leave dear friends, beloved and respected colleagues, and compelling work behind when we depart these beautiful shores for home.

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January 13, 2011

I Can Spare the Time...

Reflecting over the last couple of days on twenty years of marriage, twenty-five years of relationship to this woman...

I am a man, a boy really, blessed to have met a girl who has become an incredible friend, a worthy adversary, and a mother of unusual love, presence and grace. And, of course and always, a woman of great beauty. That I was 16 and somehow managed not to miss her or irreparably bungle the first steps of our dance is a mercy beyond reckoning.

I received Wendell Berry's wonderful new collection of poetry, Leavings: Poems, from my mother-in-law - signed by the author! - as a Christmas gift. I have been reading it slowly, savoring Berry's words a few stanzas at a time. This morning, coming to the end of the first section of poems, I read "Over the Edge." It is a beautiful reflection on marriage and one that speaks of the beauty of shared years.


Over the Edge


To tell a girl you loved her - my God! -

that was a leap off a cliff, requiring little

sense sweet as it was. And I have loved


many girls, women too, who by various fancies

of mind have seemed loveable. But only

with you have I actually tried it: the long labor,


the selfishness, the self-denial, the children

and grandchildren, the garden rows planted

and gathered, the births and deaths of many years.


We boys, when we were young and romantic

and ignorant, new to mystery and the power,

would wonder late into the night on the cliff's edge:


Was this love real? Was it true? And how

would you know? Well, it was time would tell,

if you were patient and could spare the time,


a long time, a lot of trouble, a lot of joy.

This one begins to look - would you say? - real?


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December 14, 2010

Love is Mental Nutrition

My friend Todd posted this video on his Facebook wall. I think it beautifully illustrates the self-emptying, privilege-forsaking "power" of incarnational love. Enjoy.

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December 13, 2010

"Good Artists Are People Who..."


wendell-berry-1.jpg Thumbing through Wendell Berry's Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition, I found myself reflecting on a couple of passages that I highlighted when I read this book a number of years ago. What a stirring book. The first quote describes what makes art "good." Perhaps it is surprising that he names permanence as a hallmark of good art. I also like that his understanding of what art is is expansive, not reductive.

"Good artists are people who can stick things together so that they stay stuck. They know how to gather things into formal arrangements that are intelligible, memorable, and lasting. Good forms confer health upon the things that they gather together. Farms, families, and communities are forms of art just as are poems, paintings, and symphonies. None of these things would exist if we did not make them. We can make them either well or poorly; this choice is another thing that we make" (150).

Berry makes this statement in the final chapter that draws a series of conclusions from the argument that he has been developing over the course of the book - namely that science often subjugates the arts and religion and that these critical spheres of life are not, nor can be, subject to the reductionistic and materialistic assumptions that govern modern science. In that sense, science/scientists often conceive(s) itself/themselves in a "superstitious" way - that is, as if it is possible to operate outside of and beyond a context. Within that false framework, Berry asserts that scientists (as well as people studying the humanities captive to this superstitious framework) do their "science" abstracted from specific communities and that such abstraction is "destructive." Thus, he says,

"The only remedy I can see is for scientists (and artists also) to understand and imagine themselves as members of, and sharers in, the fate of affected communities. Our schools now encourage people to regard as mere privileges the power and influence that they call leadership. But leadership without membership is a terrible thing" (148).

Perhaps that is what is so profound and beautiful about the God who is revealed in the incarnation of Jesus Christ anticipated during Advent and celebrated at Christmas. As Paul writes in the Christological hymn of Philippians, Jesus "...who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness" (2:6-7). Thus, the "power and leadership" demonstrated by God in Christ, if you will, is expressed through and in his self-limiting participation as a member of humanity. Or as Eugene Peterson poetically translates John's description of the incarnation in his gospel, "The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood" (1:14a).

And what about God's art? A reformed and renewed humanity imperfectly displayed and anticipated in his body, the church - created by God and animated by the Spirit in a way that has stuck together, more or less, for a couple of thousand years. "For we are," as Paul writes in Ephesians, "God's workmanship..." Or, as N.T. Wright has translated it, we are "God's poems." Our lives, especially when well-lived together, are God's artwork. Perhaps this is why Berry uses these words from the mouth of Shakespeare's Lear as both the title and the epigraph of the book.

"Thy life's a miracle. Speak yet again."

And so to the God who spoke and continues to speak the living, miraculous Word that is Christ, we pray and say during this season of Advent,

"Thy life's a miracle. Speak yet again." And again, and again. Amen.

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September 20, 2010

The Poetry and Power of Reading Aloud

While preparing my lecture for the Tuesday evening "Missional Leadership" course I am teaching this semester, I found a quote describing the power of reading aloud. I was surprised to discover the quote because I was searching the article for something else. However, the particular passage relates to something we have been doing every week in class. One of our practices has been "sacred reading." In most classes (mine included), reading is assigned and people complete the assignment (or don't) outside of class. Often the only means of connecting together over the content is by marking assignments given to measure a student's comprehension and integration of the material. This is fine, but not nearly adequate if learning is to be transformational.

So, to practice "sacred reading," we spend the first thirty minutes of class reading and listening and interacting around a specific part of a text. I think what we are seeking to do is bring the text to life in our context. For this particular class, we are reading from Henri Nouwen's classic book, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. On two other occasions we have read articles out loud together. This week we will do so again. The article I will read from is an interview that the poet Luci Shaw did with Dallas Willard on the practice of spiritual disciplines - among other things. It is a beautiful, almost lyrical interaction. To eavesdrop on a poet and a philosopher discussing the ways in which their imaginations (and, of course, their lives) have been shaped in the alternative reality of the kingdom of God is magical and inspiring. (By the way, the article I am referring to comes from the magazine Radix, volume 27, issue number 2.)

It was while rereading this article that I came across Shaw's description of the power of reading aloud in community. It is good and I want to share just a brief part of it.

"Getting back to language, I have often felt that it's important for poetry, and for Scripture, to be read aloud. Something changes when our voice tones carry those words - rather than our eyes reading them in silence, flat on the page. Reading aloud, with expression and understanding, adds a new dimension. It's a resurrection of sorts, a raising of a story, or an image, or an idea, into life. It becomes a living thing." (28)

I believe that part of what changes, or transforms, a text from something that is flat on a page to something that lives is what happens between us when we read aloud in the context of a community. It is the act of hearing something together, of being present to ideas with particular people (who are present to one another) and being willing to engage one another in community that brings an idea or a text to life...or better, creates the possibility of incarnation, the Word/word becoming flesh.

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August 23, 2010

Newbigin, the Gospel, and Freedom from Coercion

I am in the midst of lecture preparation for my preaching class on Wednesday morning - one of two I teach over the next two days...

(In fact, it is the combination of teaching [and writing] two new courses, working on my book, and doing heaps [a Kiwi phrase] of outside speaking that has all but destroyed the blogging momentum I was developing over winter break [three weeks in July for my friends in the Northern hemisphere]. Alas - I will endeavor to do better...now exiting blogging repentance mode.)

Anyway, I was thumbing around in my copy Lesslie Newbigin's The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, working through some of his ideas about Peter Berger's concept of "plausibility structures" for my next lecture. Plausibility structures are societal containers that hold, shape, and convey our thoughts and beliefs, of how we interact with and make meaning of and in reality. Or as Newbigin describes them, "patterns of belief and practice accepted within a given society, which determine which beliefs are plausible to its members and which are not." (8) Newbigin goes on to write of the gospel as a plausibility structure that causes the renegotiation of all plausibility structures:

"It is no secret, indeed it has been affirmed from the beginning, that the gospel gives rise to a new plausibility structure, a radically different vision of things from those that shape all human cultures apart from the gospel. The Church, therefore, as the bearer of the gospel, inhabits a plausibility structure which is at variance with, and which calls in question, those that govern all human cultures without exception." (9)

Of course, for Newbigin, it is the Church that is to be the plausibility structure that makes the gospel intelligible - or better, manifest - to the world.

"How can this strange story of God made man, of a crucified savior, of resurrection and new creation become credible for those whose entire mental training has conditioned them to believe that the real world is the world that can be satisfactorily explained and managed without the hypothesis of God? I know of only one clue to the answering of that question, only one real hermeneutic of the gospel: congregations that believe it."

Now, all that is context to set up to the next quote.
Perhaps one of the reason so many are baffled by Newbigin's emphasis on ecclesiology (the church) is because too often the Church has either dwelled comfortably and accommodatingly in the reigning plausibility structure of the broader society, or it has sought to impose some or all of the contours of its own plausibility structure on others, absent the spirit that animates the gospel itself.

"Part of the reason for the rejection of dogma [or a Christian plausibility structure] is that it has for so long been entangled with coercion, with political power, and so with the denial of freedom - freedom of thought and conscience. When coercion of any kind is used in the interests of the Christian message, the message itself is corrupted. The truth is that it is the dogma [the content of belief] rightly understood, namely the free gift of God's grace in Jesus Christ, which alone can establish and sustain freedom of thought and of conscience. We must affirm the gospel as truth, universal truth, truth for all peoples and for all times, the truth which creates the possibility of freedom; but we negate the gospel if we deny the freedom in which alone it can be truly believed." (10)

I think the importance of what Newbigin says here cannot be overestimated. As Marshall McLuhan has famously said, "The medium is the message."

(parenthetical comments and italics mine)

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July 30, 2010

Born by Bits

I had written the following quote down some time ago and have just recently rediscovered it. It describes the counterintuitive way in which the spiritual life develops in people.

"We are not born all at once, but by bits. The body first, and the spirit later; and the birth and growth of the spirit, in those who are attentive to their own inner life, are slow and exceedingly painful. Our mothers are racked with the pains of our physical birth; we ourselves suffer the longer pains of our spiritual growth." -Mary Antin

What an important reminder about the nature of the spiritual life - or better, of life itself. I appreciate Antin's declaration that the "slow and exceedingly painful" growth of the spirit mirrors the pain of biological birth. I am also grateful that she states that this kind of painful growth process is so precisely for "those who are attentive to their own inner life." This seems to be wrong somehow, doesn't it? Shouldn't those who desire to grow spiritually find favor, or at least comfort, in their journey towards life? After all, how many times have we heard Jesus' words, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (John 10:10) quoted as an invitation to experience the best possible version of life through God? Usually this passage is referred to in such a way that causes us to think that Jesus exists to enhance what is already a pretty good way of living. The spiritual life as a value-added commodity...

Such an orientation takes one quote from the lips of Jesus and ignores others. And not just quotes, but the entire trajectory of the life of the one Christians call Lord - that is, Master. Jesus says, "I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds" (John 12:24), and then demonstrates precisely what those words mean: that life is found not by clinging to it but by abandoning it in love and the hope of resurrection. The irony is that life births death, which makes a way for the possibility of a new and different kind of life altogether. This is the story of Jesus. This is our story, too.

So, back to the original question: shouldn't those who desire to grow spiritually find favor, or at least comfort, in their journey towards life? I guess that depends. If favor and comfort from God mean exemption from pain and suffering, then the answer is a resounding no. This is not because God is cruel, but because the nature of life itself is one of birth and growth through struggle and pain. Within that framework, however, there is enormous favor and comfort to be found. Why? Two reasons. First, because our pain and suffering have the capacity to birth something creative and redemptive in and through us. Second, because we follow in the steps of the One who has gone before us on this very journey, who is the "...firstborn among many brothers and sisters" (Romans 8:29).

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July 20, 2010

Wind of God, Unpredictable...

In 2005, I attended a gathering of young church leaders convened by Allelon and hosted by Alan Roxburgh. People from all over the world came to Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California, for a couple of days of conversation about building missional communities.

One of the people there was a Kiwi named Steve Taylor. Steve recently moved to Adelaide, Australia; prior to that, he planted a church in New Zealand, taught at Laidlaw College, and wrote a book called The Out of Bounds Church? Learning to Create a Community of Faith in a Culture of Change. I don't know Steve very well, but I was bummed when he left New Zealand before I arrived. However, that is not the point of this post...

At the beginning of the leaders' gathering in Pasadena, Alan asked Steve to lead the group in an opening exercise/invocation. First, Steve handed everyone a post-card with a photograph of a new art gallery that had recently opened in Christchurch. He spoke briefly about a number of things related to the gallery, including the importance of creativity and listening to marginalized voices.

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Then he taught us about the "hongi," a traditional Maori greeting in which one person presses their forehead and nose against the forehead/nose of the other. It is a very intimate gesture. The idea is that you share the intimacy of breathing with the other, literally sharing the breath of life (the "ha"). When breath is shared and intermingled, the visitor is no longer considered a stranger, but rather a person of the land ("tangata whenua"). Steve invited the group to greet one another in this traditional Maori way.

Finally, Steve talked about relying on God at a time when so much else is unreliable - or at least unpredictable. He shared a prayer with us that we then prayed.

Why do I share this story now? While the exercise Steve led in 2005 was very powerful, it was my rediscovery of this postcard last fall that really made an impact on me. Late last fall, after I had resigned from Jacob's Well, I returned to my office to clean it out and box it up. As I sorted through my files (seeing what I wanted to keep and what could be thrown away), I found this postcard while going through files of old conference notes. Because of the impression Steve's prayer made on me at the time of the conference, I wrote it out on the back of the postcard.

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If you can't read my handwriting, it says:

"Wind of God, unpredictable, blow on us;

Wind of God, unpredictable, blow on me.

Wind of God, unpredictable, be the arriving and the departing;

Wind of God, unpredictable, be the journey and the destination.

Wind of God, unpredictable, be praised."

To randomly find a postcard from a place I would soon being leaving for...I can't adequately describe how powerful it was to read and then pray that prayer at a time when everything in my life felt like it was being "blown" apart. The inscription of that simple, beautiful prayer helped me to see the Holy Spirit's leading and provision where I was experiencing only anxiety and chaos.

We have been invited to share breath with God - to breath, even host, the Holy Breath. We are people who live animated by the presence of the indwelling Wind, the One of whom Jesus said, "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit." Then, as now, it is important to remember that wherever we go, God is present, breathing in and through us for his glory. That realization was, and continues to be, a good gift to me.

May it be so for you, too.

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July 16, 2010

Learning How to Say "God"

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I thought I'd post one more entry from the Stanley Hauerwas memoir - more for my own benefit than anyone else's. (Copying down ideas that are important to me longhand, or by typing them out, is a key way that I learn.) The following passage comes at the end of the book. Hauerwas is summarizing his work as a theologian - both in terms of content and method. Apart from the telling of particular narrative elements of his story, this may be my favorite section of Hannah's Child.

We talk of God in very casual, familiar terms, using the language of faith.

"In fact, faith is nothing more than the words we use to speak of God. And yet the God to whom and about whom we speak defies the words we use. Such defiance seems odd, because the God about whom we speak is, we believe, found decisively in Jesus of Nazareth, the very Word of God. Still, it seems that the nearer God draws to us, the more we discover that we know not what we say when we say, 'God.' I suspect that this is why one of the most difficult challenges of prayer is learning to address God."

Isn't "God," God?

"Disputes between those who believe in God and those who do not often turn on the assumption by both parties that they know what they mean when they say 'God.' This seems unlikely, since Christians believe that we learn to use the word 'God' only through worship and prayer to the One we address as Father, Son, and Spirit. Such a God is identified by a story that takes time, often a lifetime, to learn. Theology is the ongoing and never ending attempt to learn this story and locate it in contexts that make speech about God work."

He continues:

"Learning how to say 'God' is hard but good work. It is good work because the training necessary to say 'God' forces us to be honest with ourselves about the way things are. Our lives are but a flicker. We are creatures destined to die. We fear ourselves and one another, sensing that we are more than willing to sacrifice the lives of others to sustain the fantasy that we will not have to die."

As a theologian who always turns the corner into ethics (who God is shapes how we act), Hauerwas believes that our God-talk ought to affect our attitudes towards death and suffering - and through that, confront issues like how we practice medicine.

"The widespread confidence that medicine will someday 'cure' death is a fantasy. The attempt to develop and maintain a medicine so aimed, moreover, depends on the creation of wealth as an end in itself. A social order bent on producing wealth as an end in itself cannot avoid the creation of a people who souls are superficial and whose daily life is captured by sentimentalities. They will ask questions like, 'Why does a good God let bad things happen to good people?' Such people cannot imagine that a people once existed who produced and sang the Psalms."

He concludes by addressing the reality of suffering as a part of normal human experience. How do we respond to such suffering? With prayer or with a fight for control?

"If we are going to learn to say 'God,' we will do so with the prayer, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' This is word work...The challenge I have mounted against the accommodation of the church to the ethos of modernity is my attempt to help us recover our ability to pray to God, and to imagine what it might mean to be Christian in a world we do not control."

This is how we learn to say God.

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July 13, 2010

Place, Personhood, and the Weight of Glory

woodengrvng.dore.pardiso.jpg I recently blogged about Stanley Hauerwas' new book, Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir. At the time, I wrote that I was reading it in "an episodic and leisurely manner." That lasted until about...the end of that blog post. Over the following couple of days, I consumed what remained - which was the majority of the book. I suppose that among the many things I enjoyed, what I appreciated most about Hauerwas' telling of his story was my sense that I'd encountered a real person, that there was actually a there there. What do I mean?

I am describing the same phenomenon discussed in the short video-blog interaction between myself and Travis Reed posted a couple of weeks back. In that second conversation, Travis asks me to reflect on what I believe are the most important aspects of leadership. I suggest that the most important aspects of leadership are presence, engagement, and the creativity that flows from the interaction of those things.

Being present is one of the most challenging tasks any human being faces. The temptation is always to be somewhere else - which is another way of saying somewhere other than here. We live regretfully in unchangeable pasts. We live projecting ourselves anxiously into unknown futures. We live mesmerized by that which is mediated to us on screens. We live anesthetized by what we consume. We are always seeking somewhere, somewhen, someone, somehow, or something else. We struggle to be present to ourselves, each other, or God. Here. Now.

This phenomenon exists not only on a personal level, as I am describing it, but also on communal levels, too. We live in communities that are rarely present to the world in which they exist. If you look around, you will find groups of every size and kind - churches, denominations, businesses, governments - seeking somewhere, somewhen, someone, somehow, or something else. That kind of forward movement is not necessarily bad, by the way. In fact, I believe it is a good sign that we are part of a story that is going (or leading) somewhere. The irony is that when our desire for outcomes (teleology) eclipses our practice of being (ontology), such an orientation precludes the possibility of ever actually realizing such desires. Paradoxically, I believe that the only way to move forward is to let go of the desire to do so and to live with conscious attention to the present. Easier said than done. But it is done, at least by a few.

Have you ever been around a person who feels substantial? I don't necessarily mean charismatic - though they might be that, too. I mean that when you are with them, you sense that there is a weight to their being. Their souls are heavy. Such people draw others to themselves like magnets draw metal shavings. Why? I think the answer is, in part, because they are there, alive in their place and time. There is weight to their presence that attracts the way gravity pulls objects to the ground. Gravitas. I think such people have cultivated their souls by their practice of presence. They are becoming human beings. The result of this is that they gained ontological weight. This can be especially, though not exclusively, true of people who have encountered, and continue to encounter, God as revealed in Christ - the incarnate One.

Perhaps a surprising way to describe such a person is glorious. What comes to mind when you read that word - glory? Rays of shining light, perhaps? The Hebrew word for glory is kabod. The literal meaning of the word kabod is "weightiness," or "heaviness." To talk about God's glory is to describe his weighty or heavy presence. When the Bible tells stories of human beings who find themselves in God's presence, invariably each account portrays people falling down on their faces. It's almost as if God's glory, or weight, presses down on them. God is Substantial. Present. Real. Here. Now. God's Person and Presence invites our person and presence into an encounter that transforms our being. We become more real, more human when we live our lives in relation to God, his people, and his ways. People who spend their lives cultivating their souls add weight to their being by borrowing some of God's weight. Another way of saying this is that they reflect God's presence and glory the way Moses did when he came down from the mountain, God's glory shining on his face...

What does all this have to do with the Hauerwas memoir?

In Hauerwas' story, and thought, you get a sense of a soul that has wrestled deeply with God, people, and place. You encounter a human being who has suffered and has caused suffering, who has forgiven and been forgiven. Most significantly, you witness a life gradually shaped by the cross of Jesus Christ (the only way it ever happens). I believe it is because we are so averse to suffering that we constantly jettison ourselves out of the present reality and into an alternate and ideal reality fabricated from our fantasies. In so doing, we reject the cross - and the possibility of resurrection! What a tragedy. There is nothing more glorious, or weighty, than a cruciform life lived passionately in the hope of resurrection.

Alas, such lives are only forged in the crucible of specific relationships with people whom we generally take for granted. And such potentially glorious relationships? They, too, are available only in the specific places and times we too often long to escape. When we look beyond our place and our time, we miss that which God would use to shape us into the glorious likeness of his Son. And we become less substantial...weighty...glorious. The Son's glory comes by virtue of his willingness to suffer in humility for the sake of those whom he loves. Our "glory" usually comes as a result of our significance and success.

Can such upside-down, kingdom realities ever be adequately described? I doubt it. We must witness such things first-hand. As John writes: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life" (1John 1:1). If this is the case, then perhaps a memoir is not a bad place to start. But it would be a poor place to end. Why? Because Hauerwas' memoir is not just about theology, but about the relationships that have made him the man he has become. After reading Hauerwas' theology for years, seeing it worked out in the story of his life is a gift that instructs me in the living of my own life. More than that, his story models the relational reality that I am trying to describe.

If we are ever to become what God has made us to be, we must live deeply in relationship to one another. We must pay attention to one another and live attentively, looking for people whose lives show us what it means to know and follow Christ in these times and places. If Hauerwas' memoir were nothing else, it would at least be a testament to the power of friendship to shape a life. That it is virtually impossible to make it through a page without Hauerwas naming a person and describing the influence of that person on his life and/or thought is the most significant thing I will take away from this "book." Which brings me to the following quote. In it, Hauerwas relates his experience having joined the faculty of the religion department at Notre Dame. There he finds people who show him something of the God he seeks in his theological work.

"There is no substitute for learning to be a Christian by being in the presence of significant lives made significant by being Christian...'Significance' can, of course, be a misleading description of the lives that got my attention. Significance suggests importance. It suggests lives that make a difference and that demand acknowledgement. But the lives of significance that I began to notice were not significant in any of those ways. Rather, they were lives of quiet serenity, capable of attending with love to the everyday without the need to be recognized as 'making a difference.'"

To what are we paying attention? To whom are we present? If we never learn to be here, now, then we will miss the many small, "insignificant" gifts that God gives to lead us into the present and unfolding reality of his kingdom - to show us...no, to make us his glory.

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July 08, 2010

Wright and Lewis on Hell

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Another post from the Wheaton N.T. Wright conference on a relatively benign topic...ahem.

This time the quote comes from the panel discussion on day two, the last 14 minutes. The moderator is asking questions from the audience to Wright and the other panelists. The question begins by stating that Wright's work renegotiating our understanding of Heaven has been prominent and important. That set-up is followed by an inquiry into whether or not Wright has done any similar kind of renegotiation regarding Hell?

Wright's initial response is telling I think. Before launching into content, he supplies some context that is as revealing as any answer he supplies.

"I did a riff on hell in Surprised by Hope because whenever I talked - I did those lectures many, many times around the country and around the world - and always somebody said, 'What about Hell?' and I used to get really depressed when that was the first question (laughter and nodding by other panelists). What sort of a culture is it where the main thing that people want to know is 'Will there be worms in Hell?' and 'How big will the flames be?' etcetera. I've been asked that question on a radio talk show once. 'Will there be worms in Hell? Because my Bible says there will be worms in Hell and unless you believe that, you don't believe the Bible.' Come on."

That last "Come on" is gold, by the way. It happens so rarely that you see Wright exasperated in public appearances that when he lets a little shine through...well, it's nice to see. Anyway, he goes on to share an anecdote about sitting next to an Greek Orthodox priest at an event in the Sistine Chapel. Looking at the artwork by Michelangelo, the priest looks at one wall depicting the life of Moses and says, "This, I understand." Looking at another wall depicting the life of Jesus, he says, "That, I understand." Then, pointing at the great east wall and its depiction of "The Last Judgment," he says, "That I do not understand." This story highlights the way the Western church, under the influence of Dante and Michelangelo as much as anyone else according to Wright, went on a different trajectory theologically than did the Orthodox communion. Wright aligns himself in the Eastern tradition as it relates to last things, or eschatology as it is known in theological studies. Wright states:

"Hell and heaven are not equal and opposite. I'm with C.S. Lewis on this in The Great Divorce. I'm not a universalist, but I think when people choose to worship that which is not God they diminish, and finally extinguish, their humanness. Insofar as they have a continuing existence post-mortem, it is an ex-human existence, which I think is a very, very, very horrible thing to imagine. But it is not then something that has the capacity to excite hope, pity, or anything else. I write about this in Surprised by Hope. I wish I didn't have to talk about that, I don't like thinking about that, but insofar as there is an answer to the question, that is how I do it."

I so appreciate Wright's Lewis reference. I discovered The Great Divorce in my early twenties and have read it almost once a year ever since. The divorce that the title references is the gulf that Lewis says exists between Heaven and Hell. Lewis is keen to point out that the distance between them is great. In the introduction to this book, he quotes the poet William Blake and his writing about the marriage of Heaven and Hell. Lewis states that there is, in every generation, a temptation to marry Heaven and Hell - that these eternal realities are equal and opposite in a kind of yin and yang twinning. Lewis, and Wright, want to "divorce" these two realities from one another. They are not equal and opposite. A couple of different quotes from The Great Divorce illustrate this and have had a significant influence on my own understanding of the doctrine of Heaven and Hell. That these doctrines are mediated so powerfully through a fictional/mythic account of Heaven illustrates something of the nature of what I was trying to get at in the last post.

In this quote, the protagonist is nearing the end of his journey and is speaking plainly with his heavenly guide. When asked directly about who gets to make the journey he himself is on, the guide replies:

"Everyone who wishes it does. Never fear. There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.' All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened."

Earlier, in response to the question of whether or not Heaven and Hell are only states of mind, he says:

"Hush...Do not blaspheme. Hell is a state of mind - ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature with the dungeons of its own mind - is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly. For all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakable remains."

We are relational beings made in the image of a relational God. Within this kind of understanding of life in God, we see that eternal life is not positional, it is relational. This is what Jesus is getting at when says, "This is eternal life: that they know you,the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent" (John 17:3). In Matthew 22: 37-40, Jesus equates love of God with love of neighbor (and recasts neighbor subversively as the person you hate the most in the parable of "The Good Samaritan" in Luke 10). The implications of this relational reality are not something we spend a lot of time dwelling on I fear. According to Lewis and Wright, the unwillingness to turn to God and to one another is itself imprisoning, a dehumanization that diminishes, then finally extinguishes creatures made to know and experience the glory of Love through relationship. Which brings me to the final quote from The Great Divorce.

The Heavenly tourist, who is our protagonist, encounters a woman on the shores of Heaven made glorious by Love. Her husband, on the other hand, is in the last stages of his devolution. With our protagonist, he, too, has made the journey to this purgatorial middle ground. He seeks to emotionally manipulate his wife into joining him on his terms, in his misery. It is pathetic. Now knowing love, she refuses.

"Did you think joy was created to live always under that threat? Always defenseless against those who would rather be miserable than have their self-will crossed? For it was real misery. I know that now. You made yourself really wretched. That you can still do. But you can no longer communicate your wretchedness. Everything becomes more and more itself. Here is joy that cannot be shaken. Our light can swallow up your darkness: but your darkness cannot now infect our light. Can you really have thought that love and joy would always be at the mercy of frowns and sighs? Did you not know they were stronger than their opposites?"

Then one of the most beautiful lines I have ever read:

"I am in Love, and out of it I will not go."

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July 06, 2010

Tom Wright: On PhDs and Myers-Briggs Types

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In April, my friend Keas Keasler sent an email discussing his plan to visit us in New Zealand this July. As a postscript, he added a link to a recent theology conference that he thought I might enjoy listening to. However, due to school and writing responsibilities, I hadn't had the opportunity to follow through on his recommendation. When the semester began to wind down a couple of weeks ago, I finally clicked that link and discovered a real treasure awaiting me.

The conference that Wheaton hosted in April 2010 was focused on the work of the British theologian and Anglican bishop N.T. Wright. Titled, "Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright," conference-host Nicholas Perrin invited different scholars to interact with Wright's writings - in particular Jesus and the Victory of God, the second of his three (soon to be four) volume "Christian Origins and the Question of God" series. Following each day's papers, Wright responds to the particular points from the different scholars during a panel discussion; each scholar is then allowed to reply, often resulting in a lively exchange. As the culmination of the day, Wright then presents his own paper: the first on Jesus, the second on Paul. It is a little hard to describe how provocative and moving it is to listen to such an amazing group of scholars (Jeremy Begbie, Markus Bochmuehl, Richard Hays, Edith Humphrey, Sylvia Keesmaat, Nicholas Perrin, Marian Meye Thompson, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and Brian Walsh) interacting so robustly, critically, creatively, and charitably about something I care so deeply about. While listening to the different presentations, I literally caught my breath and/or laughed out loud several times.

(In fact, let me highly recommend listening to these talks if you are at all inclined. If you only listen to a couple, then choose Wright's day-ending addresses on Jesus and Paul. [His chapel address on Ephesians to the students at Wheaton is also great: short, funny, and encouraging; this is Tom Wright at a popular/pastoral level.] A third academic presentation, Kevin Vanhoozer's "Wrighting the Wrongs of the Reformation? The State of the Union with Christ in St. Paul and in Protestant Soteriology," is totally worth your time and undivided attention, too. These resources are free to either stream or download in audio or video formats, by the way. Thank you, Wheaton!)

Wright_Panel_Discussion2.jpgNow, all that prelude to set up the point that the blog-post title references: listening to the first day's response, "Jesus and the People of God: Whence and Whither Historical Jesus Studies and the Life of the Church," Wright said something in the 43rd minute of his talk so out of left field to me that I could not believe I was hearing it. He had just finished summarizing the story of Israel and its fulfillment in the messiah Jesus. He goes on to describe the real world impact for followers of Jesus Christ in light of his resurrection from the dead.

"Jesus is raised bodily from the dead, therefore he is the messiah, therefore God's new creation has been launched. The old world of exile and sin has been dealt with, the new age has dawned and therefore we have a job to do. That is endemic in the confession of resurrection. It is not, 'We just have a nice future way, away, and by-and-by-in-the-sky,' or anything like that. It's 'Jesus is raised from the dead, therefore new creation has begun, and therefore we have a job to do.' And part of that job is to tell the story, the story of Jesus as the climax of the story of God, of Israel's God, and of the story of the climax of Israel - the means of the world's redemption."

So, because of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, we are not waiting around to go to heaven after we die. Rather, we are called to participate in the new creation that has been inaugurated by Christ, the new Adam, who signals a renewed humanity amidst a new creation. Because humanity has been renewed in Christ, we once again are called, like Adam and Eve before us, to participate in the stewardship of creation. As Wright says, that means we each have a job to do, that God's kingdom may come, his will be done, "...on earth as it is in heaven." And according to Wright, part of that job of stewarding creation is telling the story of what God has done and is continuing to do in and through Christ. This is where Wright sideswiped me.

"Where do we go with all this? Many, many tasks are still remaining. The world of biblical scholarship is a difficult world, a complex world. As many of you will know, it is much easier to get a PhD in biblical studies if you're a details person, rather than a big picture person…In Myers-Briggs terms, it's much, much easier to get a PhD in biblical studies if you're a ISTJ. You'll never do it if you're an ENFP because you'll never finish it. You'll be having too much fun. But we need, we need, we need "N"s in this business as well as "S"s because we need big-picture hypotheses. It's very difficult to do that at PhD level because your supervisors and examiners will want you to nail down all the details (and you have to do that) but we need these big hypotheses."

So, first let me say this: Amen. I cannot tell you how true this is in my own experience of writing and interacting around biblcal texts. I am in the middle of my third biblical studies-type writing assignment. If I were to characterize my editorial struggles in each of these works, I would do so with reference to the challenge that Wright highlights above. The need for Old and New Testament exegetical editors to get all the details "right" constantly threatens the larger narrative scope within which the details reside. I am not complaining, by the way. Wright is right to say that such detail is important and this work has to be done. However, he is also right to name the fact that this work, by its inherently atomizing nature, threatens the very possibility of big-picture creative work. I am reminded of Daniel Pink's assertion in his article in Wired, "Revenge of the Right Brain," drawn from his book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, regarding right and left brain competencies and how such competencies are harnessed within economic systems:

"If the Industrial Age was built on people’s backs, and the Information Age on people’s left hemispheres, the Conceptual Age is being built on people’s right hemispheres. We’ve progressed from a society of farmers to a society of factory workers to a society of knowledge workers. And now we are progressing yet again – to a society of creators and empathizers, pattern-recognizers, and meaning-makers."

It is these notions about creativity, pattern-recognition, and meaning-making that I fear are endangered by academic and church cultures often over-focused on details and the technical aspects of learning and leading; that these cultures are also blind to their biases is not only a huge part of the problem, but illustrative of the very issue at stake (this is also why a person of Wright's stature naming this dynamic is so exciting to me). In a world flooded by information (read details), the need for people who can recognize patterns amidst the data-deluge is not just important, but critical for finding and making meaning in our lives personally and corporately. That Wright names the inherent bias of PhD programs and supervisors towards such left-brained, or "S", competencies is art of what makes me, a raging "N" (INTP, to be precise), so ambivalent about whether or not to begin such studies myself. I suppose this phenomena is also what is on display in the title of my book, Intuitive Leadership. In fact, hearing Wright say those things reminded me of something I had written in 2006 about the necessity of a new kind of leadership. It comes from my chapter, "Leading from the Margins: The Role of Imagination in Our Changing Context," in An Emergent Manifesto of Hope.

"We need men and women who have previously been on the margins to come forth and lead us. In focusing so exclusively on our cognitive capacities, we have lost our imaginations. We need mystics. We need poets. We need prophets. We need apostles. We need artists. We need a church drawn out of the margins, drawn from the places and filled with people and shaped with competencies formerly thought to be of little account. In fact, perhaps it is from such 'marginal' communities as these that influence will begin to spread outward into communities that have been domesticated in a modern world and thus rendered docile. We need a wild vine grafted into the branch. We need alternate takes on reality. We need a different kind of leader - one who can create environments to nurture and release the imagination of God's people."

It is in the same spirit that Alan Roxburgh likewise describes the need for alternative leadership typologies for churches beyond pastors who teach. In The Sky is Falling: Leaders Lost in Transition, he does inspiring work naming and describing the offices of poet, prophet, and apostle as other possible roles critical to provoking and unleashing the imaginative life of communities of faith today. But naming these alternatives begs a larger question: where will such leaders be identified and trained? Given its trajectory, it is questionable whether or not it will be within the academy. That Wright, while nailing all of the details, still has the ability to see the big picture and name the challenges it faces, legitimizes the need and gives hope that it might yet be addressed.

And that, to me, is "good news."

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June 28, 2010

Embrace Life

A friend showed me a very powerful commercial today. I was sitting in my office and he dropped in for a quick chat. Periodically we push creative resources back and forth at each other. It's great fun and I always benefit way more than he does...

Anyway, in the course of our conversation he directed me to YouTube and had me do a search for "best seatbelt ad."

Wow. He was not kidding and I was not prepared. And from that point on, a funny set of circumstances unfolded. You see I was sitting there watching this ad and he was standing directly behind me. As the ad played out, I began to cry. Then another person walks into my office - my back is now to the both of them and I've got tears streaming down my face - and this person who has just walked in is introducing himself to me, wanting to meet me and...nice. Nice to meet you.

But it was fine. Actually it was nice to meet him under those circumstances: no pretense, what you see is what you get, and all that...

And besides, I am quite happy to be so moved, especially when the whole point of the advertisement is to effect an emotional response that incites a change in behavior. Recently there has been a morbid seat-belt ad running in New Zealand where a guy crashes his car and kills his passenger. Blood is dripping on the surviving guy and when he looks around and finds his dead passenger's eyes blankly fixed on him, he begins to repeatedly scream, "Quit staring at me!" It is just horrible.

Now, compare that description with this.

That is an effective advertisement. Don't you think?

Of course, this ad is not only effective, it is affective, too. Why? Am I moved because I love seat-belts so much and this ad preaches the gospel of seat-belts so efficaciously? Of course not. Rather at a certain point this ad becomes about more than seat-belts. It taps something deep and true and important in me, something for which seat-belts are a signifier. I am moved to tears by a power and beauty for which this ad is merely a sign.

For me, this ad is powerful because it is about the ways our lives propel us forward, the ways we make decisions and do things and how, in the course of it all, we are unexpectedly sideswiped by events and circumstances that we cannot see coming - or control, even if we could. The power of this ad is captured in the beautiful image of those small, yet strong, hands interlocked around their beloved as all hell breaks loose about him. And perhaps most importantly, it reminds me how grateful I am to love and be loved, to grasp and be grasped - by my family, my friends, my communities of faith near and far, small and large.

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June 24, 2010

Formulas or Descriptions?

201006241029.jpgStanley Hauerwas's new book, Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir, is a real delight. I am reading it in an episodic and leisurely manner, which memoirs lend themselves to. I have just finished his account of his father's death. Describing him as a good and gentle man, Hauerwas connects these virtues to the Beatitudes as he preaches at his father's funeral.

"My father was a good, kind, simple, gentle man. He did not try to be gentle, for there was no meanness in him...It was simply his gift to be gentle, which he gave unreservedly to those of us fortunate enough to be his family and friends.

"That his gentleness came so effortlessly helps us understand better Jesus' beatitudes. Too often those characteristics - the poor in spirit, those that mourn, the meek, those that hunger and thirst for righteousness, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted - are turned into ideals we must strive to attain. As ideals, they can become formulas for power rather than descriptions of the kind of people characteristic of the new age brought by Christ; for the beatitudes are not general recommendations for anyone but describe those who have been washed by the blood of the Lamb. It is they who will hunger and thirst no more, having had their lives transformed by Christ's cross and resurrection."

He continues:

"Part of the difficulty with the beatitudes is that some of the descriptions seem problematic to us - in particular, we do not honor the meek. To be meek, or gentle, is, we think, to lack ambition and drive. Gentleness, at most, is reserved for those aspects of our lives we associate with the personal, but it cannot survive the rough and tumble of 'the world.' Yet Jesus is clear that his kingdom is constituted by those who are meek and gentle - that is, by those who have learned to live without protection. Gentleness is given to those who have learned that God will not have his kingdom triumph through the violence of the world, for such a triumph came through the meekness of the cross."

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June 22, 2010

Point-blank Questions 2

Travis Reed has posted another video from our March conversation, this vignette just a bit over a minute long. In this video we interact about the practice of leadership.

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June 18, 2010

Point-blank Questions

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I first met Travis Reed in 1996. At the time, I was a seminary student living in Denver, working part-time alongside Ron Johnson at Pathways Church. Ron and I went to a "Gen X" ministry conference - one of the first of its kind actually - at Glen Eyrie in Colorado Springs. It was there that I connected with Travis, and also met Chris Seay and Doug Pagitt, both of who would become good friends.

After the conference Travis and a couple of the guys he was with came up to Denver. They spent a good part of that Saturday night hanging out with me in my tiny apartment and the next morning worshiped with us at Pathways. I lost touch with those guys and forgot about Travis - until I went to Rwanda in 2008 where he and I reconnected at an Amahoro conference.

Travis is a filmmaker. He has a business/ministry/website called The Work of the People. That name, by the way, is what the word "liturgy" means - literally "the work of the people." Anyway, Travis travels all over the world making films. That is his gig. Well, that and showing up in my life at the most random times and behaving in bizarre ways when we're together. That is also Travis's gig (these two sets of pictures, taken more than two years apart, demonstrate a little of Travis's bizarre sense of humor). By the way, I've blogged about Travis and his work before and you can read about it here.

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Shortly after I arrived in New Zealand, Travis appeared in my life again. He was hanging out with a mutual friend, Mark Pierson, traveling around Australia and New Zealand working on a film project. We met up at Laidlaw College, then went across the road for a coffee and a chat. It wasn't long before Travis pulled out his video camera and started asking me point-blank questions. I wasn't really expecting this, though I probably should have. It was good to spend time with Travis and fun interacting this way. He recently posted the video of our conversation.

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June 14, 2010

What Kind of Story?

shippingcontainer.jpgAs you might imagine, relocating a family halfway around the world is a bit of challenge.

Of course, there are all of the logistical issues that have to be worked through: navigating immigration, packing and unpacking a shipping container, buying new cars, finding a house and suitable schools, getting tax identification numbers, opening and closing bank accounts, settling into the rhythms of a new job career, etc. There are also the many little things that add up and remind you that you are not home: blowing up your computer because of confusion about how power converters work, wanting to watch sports and only being able to find rugby or netball, having it rain 15-20 times per day, paying $3.50 for a doughnut...

Don't get me wrong. This is not bad. Far from it, actually. It simply is. And as such, we are adjusting to it all quite well. It is amazing what you learn about yourself and each other when the trappings that make up your life are taken away. And you might also guess that the hardest adjustment is not the "things" that are absent, but the people. Living so far away from the many people we love and who love us so generously and consistently makes me ache with pain that doesn't go away. It is a sweet ache, though, and I would never want it to completely disappear.

Just this week that ache turned to joy when we hosted our friends Mike and Vicki King in our home for five days. We were tremendously blessed by our time with them. The night before they left I laughed so hard I cried, nearly wetting my pants in the process. Though we have met many wonderful people and are sowing the seeds for significant friendships, there is no relational equivalent to Miracle-Gro. Meaningful relationships are built over time. After having a wealth of such relationships, their absence is felt acutely.

Do you know what the biggest challenge in all of this has been for me, though? It took me awhile to figure it out myself. About two months ago, I noticed I was asking the same question over and over. Actually, that is not quite right. At first, it wasn't obvious to me that I was asking anything. Rather, something seemed to be going on deep inside me. Occasionally it would break the surface in the form of a feeling or even a word or two. When it did, I had the sense that something of vital importance was stirring in the depths of my heart. Its elusiveness intrigued me. Whatever this something was, it would not leave me alone. As I have continued to listen to my heart and had conversations with other people, I have slowly been able to give voice to the question I have been struggling to speak: "What story am I in?" That is the question that has emerged from my soul. Isn't that weird? "What is that about?" is probably the question you are asking.

I should probably say I am a story person. I love stories - hearing them, telling them, reading them...you get the picture. The entire first chapter of my book Intuitive Leadership is about my love of stories and my sense of their importance to our lives - especially as we seek to relate to the God revealed in the stories of our Scriptures. For the last 15 years, I have known the story of which I was a part - so much so I took its presence for granted. It was the story of Jacob's Well and my part in helping birth that church in midtown Kansas City. The story of trying to figure out how to participate in the life of God in that place with so many good people is one of the best stories I know. What a story it is and continues to be. Overwhelming, really. But when I sensed that my storyline was diverging, and in a way I couldn't have ever predicted...well, I don't know how to describe my reaction except as non-reaction, also known as denial. The truth is it took me five years to come to grips with it.

And now I live on the other side of the world, wondering what story I am in.

Recently our family began reading Don Miller's new book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. We're generally not the kind of family that reads books out loud together, by the way. This is definitely a first. Generally what happens is after a meal, I open up the book and read a chapter or two out loud. Despite some early skepticism, it has been really good for us to do this together. Why? Because in this book, Don is trying to get a sense of his own story. Reading about his search for the thread of his story has helped us to get some perspective on our own. Many of you might know Don's writing from his first book Blue Like Jazz. He is a great writer, self-effacing, funny, and incredibly gracious. He also has really important things to say. Which brings me to the quote I want to share. I won't want to spend a lot of time setting it up. If you want that, buy Don's book and read it yourself (which you should probably do anyway). I will say that as he is learning how stories work, he makes the observation that the best stories are the ones that have great conflict embedded in them. As he works at interpreting the story of his life, he observes,

"I wanted it to be an easy story. But nobody really remembers easy stories. Characters have to face their greatest fears with courage. That's what makes a story good. If you think about the stories you like most, they probably have lots of conflict. There is probably death at stake, inner death or actual death, you know. These polar charges, these happy and sad things in life, are like colors that God uses to draw the world."

He tells of his experience watching a news report where some people caught in a shooting rampage are tortured before being killed. It's horrific stuff.

"I had to turn the television off, because I could see the torture in my head the way they were describing it. I kept imagining these people, just living their daily lives, and then having them suddenly ended in unjust tragedy. When we watch the news, we grieve all of this, but when we go to the movies, we want more of it. Somehow we realize that great stories are told in conflict, but we are unwilling to embrace the potential greatness of the story we are actually in. We think God is unjust, rather than a master storyteller."

I don't think Don is trying to do an end-around on the problem of evil and suffering, by the way. I don't think he's giving facile explanations for how God is going to make everything better in the end, either. I do think he is saying that we often spend of our lives avoiding the kinds of conflict that could make us into great characters with great stories. I think he is saying that we like conflict when we see it condensed into a two-hour narrative that resolves neatly, but struggle to believe that our conflicts could likewise birth something beautiful and compelling and good. But they can. And I am discovering that even though I don't know what story I am in, living down here at the end of the world, I know that I am in a story that is beautiful and compelling and good - not despite the many challenges I've described, but because of them.

And so are you.

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June 03, 2010

Honest to God?

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I just checked out Kevin Vanhoozer's new book from Laidlaw College's library, Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship (and if you just clicked that link, yes, it costs $130.99 US). Although I am already reading too many books right now, I couldn't resist starting another. The title alone captured me - and alone is worth an entire blog post, but I'll save that for another day. For now, I'll share this quote from the book's preface:

"Those who would be honest to God must strive to avoid both pride and sloth in the their God-talk. Theological pride overestimates the adequacy of human language and thought; theological sloth underestimates the importance of responding to the provocations of God's self-revelation. The one goes before destruction; the other pre-empts instruction. Yet it is hard to miss the recurring biblical theme that God wills to communicate and make himself known: 'The word of the Lord came to...'; 'the Lord said...'. Theology is ultimately irresponsible if it fails either to attend to what God says or to think about the nature of the one who addresses us." (xvi)

He goes on to describe the necessity of honest conversation as the crucible for meaningful God-talk.

"Christian pilgrims emerging from the valley of the shadow of deconstruction are more aware than ever of how one's situatedness can distort one's speech, regardless of one's sincerity...Self-inspection is nowhere near as effective, however, as exposing oneself to the rigors of honest conversation. The shortest route to dishonesty is that which avoids dialogue. Being honest to God ultimately requires humility and boldness, the antidotes to theological pride and theological sloth respectively and the necessary prerequisites for entering into constructive conversation." (xvi)

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January 01, 2010

A New Year's Post & Prayer

11.jpgI don't think I have often re-posted an earlier blog entry, but I recently came across this post from two years ago that I really like. It involves a New Year's prayer, a way of beginning the new year by welcoming Christ at it's advent. Here is the content of the original post:

In my sermon yesterday, "The Opening Door" (January 7, 2008),I made use of a New Year's prayer my wife found in the book "Celtic Daily Prayer: Prayers and Readings From the Northumbria Community." We love this prayer book, in fact, you can find the daily office and readings online here if you are so inclined.

A lot of people asked me for the prayer we prayed so I thought I would make it accessible here. Enjoy.

This day is a new day
that has never been before.
This year is a new year,
the opening door.

(Open the door of your home)

Enter, Lord Christ -
we have joy in Your coming.
You have given us life,
and we welcome Your coming.

I turn now to face You,
I lift up my eyes.
Be blessing my face, Lord;
be blessing my eyes.
May all my eye looks on
be blessed and be bright,
my neighbours, my loved ones
be blessed in Your sight.

You have given us life
and we welcome Your coming.
Be with us, Lord,
we have joy, we have joy.
This year is a new year,
the opening door.
Be with us, Lord,
we have joy, we have joy.

Happy New Year. May your 2010 be filled with life and love the presence of God in both known and unknown ways.

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December 30, 2009

Celebrating the Incarnation

simeonthenewtheologian.jpgSo much of my life is up in the air, most of it unresolvable by me. Waiting, hoping, trusting...all the themes of Advent, really.

But now we are in the season of Christmas. I recently came across this extraordinary poem by Saint Symeon the New Theologian. He was born in Turkey in the 10th century. The story goes that at fourteen he begged to be allowed to enter the monastery, but was refused until he turned 27. Then only months after his entrance, he was tossed back out again. His passionate love of God was at odds with the age's more intellectual approach to theology.

This is a poem he wrote called "Awaken As The Beloved." You can sense his love of God and his hunger to experience Christ in all things. I actually hand-wrote this poem and gave it as a gift to someone I love for Christmas. Being a perfectionist and trying to copy it with ink on watercolor paper gave me multiple opportunities to interact with Saint Symeon's words, his passion, and revelation of Christ in him. While this poem is not explicitly a Christmas poem, the incarnation is so enfleshed by Symeon's words that it seems appropriate given that we celebrate the arrival of God in the body of the baby Christ. Good news for all who wait, who hope, who trust...

Awaken As The Beloved

We awaken in Christ’s body
as Christ awakens our bodies,
and my poor hand is Christ. He enters
my foot, and is infinitely me.

I move my hand, and wonderfully
my hand becomes Christ, becomes all of Him
(for God is indivisibly
whole, seamless in His Godhood).

I move my foot, and at once
he appears like a flash of lightning.
Do my words seem blasphemous? – Then
open your heart to Him

and let yourself receive the one
who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love Him,
we wake up inside Christ’s body

where all our body, all over,
every most hidden part of it,
is realized in joy as Him,
and He makes us, utterly, real,

and everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably
damaged, is in Him transformed

and recognized as whole, as lovely,
as radiant in His light
we awaken as the Beloved
in every last part of our body.

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October 27, 2009

The Glory You Got

in_his_eyes_lg.jpgEarlier this month, in the first part of October, Mimi and I took a vacation to Maine. Maine is a place I have longed to go to since I was 16 years old. We had a really wonderful time there. One of the reasons I was excited to go was the opportunity it gave me to see the Wyeth Center at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland. Andrew Wyeth is one of my favorite painter. Prior to this trip, I have only read one biography of Wyeth (which is by necessity also a biography of the whole extraordinary Wyeth clan). In the Farnsworth Museum store, I picked up another and am now about halfway through Richard Meryman's Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life.

Wyeth was a fascinating man. He just died this year actually. His ability to see deeply into a place and into people and then capture the essence of either or both in paint is literally breathtaking. His technical skill is likewise overwhelming, and yet his technique doesn't overwhelm the painting itself - it serves it. He paints in a way that feels mythic. The intriguing thing is that unlike his father, he did not paint mythic or elevated subject matter. Rather he plumbed the depths of the ordinary - what most people would pass by and mark with sentimentality, if they marked it at all. Wyeth saw the places and people surrounding him with dignity, pregnant with emotion and a narrative that demanded deep presence and attention.

I was just reading about a particular relationship he had with a local farmer, Adam Johnson, the very type of ordinary, mythic person that populated Wyeth's imaginative universe. Wyeth was forever walking the length and breadth of the land, connecting to it and the people that lived off of it. Meryman relates the following story regarding Wyeth and Johnson.

"One day when Andrew passed by on a walk, Adam called out, 'You out sighting, are ya?' Gesturing to an upstairs room, he said, 'I've been up there sighting the Bible. You want to come sight me?' On the windowsill of that little room Adam kept a stone tablet inscribed with a verse from the Bible. On a table was his own huge Bible, festooned with colored paper markers, indicating passages that illuminated issues in each day's news. Adam was a student of the nobility and the limitations of God's children. He once said, 'Andy got one power and he won't get nothin' else. Andy got a glory of painting. I got a glory of cuttin' grass and I won't get nothin' else'" (190).

Perhaps this is the kind of wisdom - a wisdom of contentedness - that comes from sighting the Bible over a lifetime, of attending to a place, of becoming a student of the nobility and limitations of God's children.

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September 02, 2009

The Mystery of Faith

I have had three books I have been slowly, meditatively making my way through over the last couple of months. I am finishing each of them up this week and I am the richer for it. This is a quote that I read this morning from Richard Rohr's Quest for the Grail - a book that employs the myth of the Holy Grail as a paradigm for the masculine spiritual journey.

"The mystery of faith is mythologically presented. Christ has died; therefore at least half of life will be absurd, unjust, painful, will make no sense to ego-consciousness. And Christ has risen; therefore half of life is beautiful, ecstatic, and sweet. This living and dying, good and bad, is all around us. It's the death and life we see everywhere in nature. Christ has died, Christ has risen - the inexorable wheel. Don't try to stop it, get on it. It's the dance. You ride it. You trust it. You trust the dying. You trust the rising. You live the dying. You live the rising. And Christ will come again and again and again. We cannot and we must not get off the wheel. Christianity is not about being 'good'; it's about solidarity with Christ in both journeys: death and resurrection - again and again."

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July 23, 2009

Face to Face

We've been navigating a series on the Holy Spirit through most of this summer. Several weeks ago I talked about the Spirit as Presence. I talked a lot about the human need to "face" and "be faced." Scripture is filled with references to God's people seeking God's face. Internally, eternally, we are made to face and be faced - with other humans beings, but ultimately with God.

I've always wondered if this is what the Psalmist references when he writes, "But you, Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, the one who lifts my head high" (Psalm 3:3). The image of a person's face downcast, for whatever reason it might be so, and then of God gently placing his hand under the chin and slowly lifting it so that that person's face is looking into God's own...it compels me.

You can listen to the message here - scroll down to the message titled, "Coming Face to Face."

My good friend Isaac Anderson sent me a quote he read from Miroslav Volf that speaks to this very thing.

"I have always been fascinated by the phrase 'The Lord make his face shine upon you.' God's blessing, God's protection, God's peace, God's grace - all part of that same benediction - are great goods, and if I had to choose between them and God's shining face, I might well opt for them. But God's shining face outdoes them all. For God's blessing, protection, peace, and grace concern things that we possess, do, and suffer, while God's shining face concerns our very being. It stands for God's sheer delight that we exist and live before him. Yet I rarely 'see' God's face shining upon me, and given that I am an inveterate sinner, it is not easy to know exactly why God's face should shine on me."

Volf's right - it is not easy to know exactly why God's face should shine on me, apart from grace. Grace. How little we apprehend it. And yet...

Richard Rohr writes:

"Most myths include belief either in a benevolent universe, a hostile universe, or one that is indifferent. Until we accept that ours is a radically benevolent universe, we are not Christians...We cannot stay in the indifferent universe for long. It will soon deteriorate into the hostile universe. Instead, if we are lucky, we will finally meet what we call grace, the notion that someone is for me more than I am for myself."

Face to face with Grace, the lifter of my head.


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July 22, 2009

To Love What You Command

I recently read this quote from N.T. Wright:

"One of the great Prayer Book collects asks God that we may 'love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise.' That is always tough, for all of us. Much easier to ask God to command what we already love, and promise what we already desire. But much less like the challenge of the Gospel."

Amen.

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