This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Urgency!


Successful evangelism requires some urgency. We have to feel some kind of fire-in-the-belly to move out of our comfort zones and share the good news with others. Indifferent evangelism doesn’t work.

One of the reasons we mainline Christians fail so miserably at evangelism is that we have little or no sense of urgency. Certainly we don’t share the urgency of rescuing souls from hell, which seems to inspire fundamentalists. Without that rather negative and fear-mongering urgency, we have fallen into a relativistic, live-and-let-live, choose whichever road up the mountain that suits you, or not, attitude. It is hard to get excited about that. It is impossible for unexcited evangelists to excite the evangelized.

We need to realize some sense of urgency about our faith. And we do have cause for urgency. I propose that the urgency in doing evangelism in the post-Christendom, emerging/missional moment is the ecological urgency of Noah, feeling the first drops of rain, ushering the future life of the planet into the ark. He senses the imminent destruction of the sinful and corrupt past; and he prepares to sail in faith towards a promised future.

Fundamentalists might say that these are after-death, and/or end-times experiences. But today we know they are very real possibilities on the ground and in history. They represent a choice we have to make today. For we too face the prospect of catastrophe, and at the same time an opportunity for renewal. We find ourselves in a Noah-moment. The urgency is: “Get on this boat or die!”

The creation itself is on the cusp of a series of massive and comprehensive disasters, the biggest of which, of course, is global warming. But there are others: ozone depletion, fresh water exhaustion, mass extinctions, antibiotic-resistant bacteria and viruses, nuclear proliferation, and so forth. In some of these crises the planet itself is rebelling against human idolatry, injustice, exploitation, violence, and greed.

Evangelism says, “Get on this boat or die!” mainly by inviting people to follow Jesus. Jesus and his way of life is the boat. We get on it by following him and living as he lived.

If we do not change our ways right now, many of us will surely perish in an eco- (that is ecological and economic) catastrophe of, well, biblical proportions. Indeed, this cataclysm may be in fact unavoidable, as was the case for Noah. The best we may be able to do is to gather in life-preserving, life-sustaining communities in which we may weather the storm and be prepared and equipped to start anew.

Such communities are what Jesus comes to inspire and organize. Jesus’ teachings may be summed up by the Hebrew word shalom. More than simply the the absence of conflict, shalom has to do with justice, equality, humility, liberation, non-violence, healing, and a commitment to the least of society’s members. Jesus walked lightly on the Earth, in harmony with nature, consuming very little. He lived in community, building relationships, welcoming the outcasts, supporting the weak, and spreading God’s forgiveness and love. If people followed him by living like this, it would be enough.

Following Jesus also means conforming to his life, in which God’s infinite, saving love is demonstrated in self-emptying, generosity, healing, and sacrifice, which is fulfilled in resurrection. The atonement ultimately means reconciliation, people being brought back into unity with God and with all creation. Atonement is not something we wait for or to which we are passive spectators. By his Spirit, we participate with Jesus in his atonement now by the quality of our life together.

The fact is, for the sake of God’s creation, people need to follow Jesus. They may not need to worship Jesus, especially if worshiping him seems in the minds of many to actually preclude following him…. They may not need to harbor precise and accurate theological opinions about Jesus. Neither may they have to mouth the correct verbal formulas about him. But people do need to follow Jesus.

If they follow Jesus while retaining their religious labels as Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or atheist, fine. If they follow Jesus but don’t say (or maybe even know) he is the one they are following, I’m okay with that. What matters is if their actions reflect and express Jesus’ life and teachings. For it is our actions, the way we engage with and impact the Earth and its people, that matter most.

Evangelism, which is the communication of the good news of God’s love for the world to people, carries with it the urgency of life and death, blessing and curse. The destiny of the planet and human life itself is at stake. There can be no greater urgency than our need to board the ark, now! This means gathering in communities of shalom where we learn to live in justice, forgiveness, blessing, healing, and generosity. These are the characteristics of eternal life that Jesus taught and embodied.

Friday, February 19, 2010

McLaren.


Last week I read A New Kind of Christianity, Brian McLaren’s latest book. He argues for nothing less than a re-grounding of the Christian faith along lines quite different from what most of us know as traditional, Western Christianity. For some this will seem quite off-the-wall and threatening. Hence the nasty vilification he has received in some evangelical circles.

But there is little really new in McLaren’s book. Some of these insights go back a century or more. He brings together into a coherent presentation strands from many different places, from Matthew Fox, to John Milbank, to Northrop Frye, to Walter Brueggemann, to Harvey Cox, even Karl Barth, and so on. Some of this I learned in seminary 30 years ago. Some I remember my father talking about at our family dinner table in the late 1960’s. All this may seem new and wildly radical to some evangelicals; but many mainline Protestants have been familiar for decades with much of what McLaren is talking about.

His greatest contribution is something I heard him say at a conference last spring and which he underscores here. Instead of looking at Jesus and the New Testament through back the lens of 2000 years of Western culture, that is, through Barth and Tillich, Calvin and Luther, Augustine and Jerome, McLaren suggests that we look forward through the biblical tradition: the Torah, the prophets, the wisdom tradition. In other words, he asks that we understand Jesus from his own Jewish perspective, how he reflects and fulfills the tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures.

This is a significant turn because McLaren quite rightly contends that the original New Testament message was profoundly reinterpreted according to thought patterns imported to it from Greco-Roman philosophy. This is the lens through which we now see the text. But this lens is rather arbitrary. Not only is it not necessary, but it drastically distorts the message of the Scriptures. It crams the biblical witness into patterns and categories foreign to it. He identifies this as the “creation-fall-redemption” model (which Matthew Fox critiqued in the early 1980’s.)

I was in college when a professor first pointed out to me that there is no “fall” and no hint of original sin in the Old Testament. And there isn’t. If it wasn’t in the Hebrew tradition, it could not have been what Jesus taught; and he doesn’t. Neither does Paul or any of the New Testament writers. This is a set of doctrines that were developed later and then read into the Bible, most forcefully by Augustine. It is not even believed by the Eastern Orthodox church in the same way Augustine presented it! Thus it is in no way intrinsic to Christianity, even though most Western Christians assume that it is.

McLaren also criticizes the habit of using the Bible as if it were a legal constitution. It was never intended to be this. Rather, he realizes that the Bible is a spiritual library. It has many different perspectives and opinions. It shows development and evolution, as human wisdom and understanding increased. To use it constitutionally is to force it to function as something it was not designed to be.

The core of the book is McLaren’s take on Jesus, which is based on the clear New Testament accounts, and rooted in the trajectory of the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus did not come “to save souls from hell.” He came to liberate people now in this life from violence, poverty, injustice, and fear. Images like “Kingdom of God” and “eternal life” are clearly references to life in a community of sharing and generosity, which anticipates and manifests God’s intention for creation.

This is a great book. It has the power to change the direction of post-modern Christianity. Many will find it the most liberating and positive presentation of the Christian message they have ever encountered. Others will react with fear and hatred. Evangelicals in particular are mortally offended at what they perceive as betrayal by one of their own.

At bottom, all McLaren has done is to read the Bible carefully, minus the blinders and filters of Western cultural imperialism. He is not the first one to do this. I hope he serves as an inspiration for many more.

Friday, February 12, 2010

1956 Again.

Too often, what church members expect and desire from the church is what I call “1956.” I use that year to stand for a certain way of doing and visioning church. It exemplifies a time when the church saw itself on the upswing. It remains an era that is now deeply mourned by some because it is no more.

Church members who have 1956 in their heads are looking for the church to give them and their children “traditional values,” to foster good citizenship and loyalty towards American institutions, and to provide useful social contacts and perhaps skills.

It is not just church members who have this vision. I suspect it is the standard set of expectations held by the general public. Which means there is frustration both inside and outside the church based on the same obsolete vision.

One group is frustrated that this vision isn’t working anymore in the church. They keep trying to resuscitate the corpse of this model. They imagine it is still so and expect it to be happening. Mostly they expect their pastors to make it happen.

The other group doesn’t relate to the church at all because it assumes this vision is what the church is about. They have little use for traditional values and institutions, so why would they show up at a place that makes maintaining these things its main purpose? They know there are other more effective, more professional, and less annoying places to go for social contacts and skills, personal advice, healing, useful knowledge, and even spiritual growth.

A pastor who comes into the church today must often quickly learn that much of the power in the church is in the hands of people who cherish and cultivate this vision. Frequently, the successful pastors are the ones who learn to tell people what they want to hear, and set the gospel aside to the extent that it cannot be pressed into the service of traditional values and institutions.

It is a losing battle, though, because what the people want to hear is simply not real. It is not 1956. Granted, a small number of churches will find success pretending that it is. We are a nation of 305 million people; there is a market for churches that promote this vision. Some will be successful. These churches and pastors will be held up as shining examples proving that this model really is sustainable.

But for most churches it isn’t sustainable. Once a megachurch moves in (like WalMart) and sucks up the lion’s share of people who want this kind of church, there is not much left for the (ironically) “traditional” churches.

We are left with most churches diligently trying to do the impossible. They struggle along with difficulty, spending down whatever endowments they may have, until they have to close. But apparently this death-spiral is preferable to being open to a new vision which would necessarily require relinquishing the old vision. I despair that any new vision will ever happen with the same old people.

The answer, I think, is to put our efforts into starting new churches with people whose memories are not mired in 1956. That is, churches that explicitly reject the identity of the church as the maintainer of “traditional values and institutions,” and embraces the identity of the church as primarily followers of Jesus Christ.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

9 + 12.


In my training to attain certification as an enneagram counselor, I have noticed what I perceive to be a hole or a gap in the system. The enneagram is a personality-typing tool in which a person is identified according to one of nine distinct personality types. (See www.enneagraminstitute.com.)

The types each have their own energy and are rooted in a particular personality distortion. Traditionally, and in the early pre-history of the system, these were related to the “deadly sins.” Each type is prone to one of these sins. I am a type five; my sin is avarice. I tend to collect, absorb, hoard, keep, gather, and store things, ideas, thoughts, feelings, ideas, information, etc.

Each type has nine levels of health, from a powerful and balanced level one, and descending through average levels and down into unhealthy and destructive levels. We move up and down this scale in the course of our lives, most of us usually staying near the center. But an important aspect of the enneagram system is encouraging this movement upward into healthier places.

The mystery for me has always been how this happens. In the workshops I have attended with Russ Hudson and Don Riso, it seems there is a gap here. Russ does a fantastic job of describing the types, especially as they disintegrate down the levels into unhealth. But how we move up the levels is less clear. He usually says, when he has described the pit of doom at the bottom of each type, “but it doesn’t have to go this way!” as he jumps to a talk about the positive energy represented at the top. Clearly, accessing this almost idealized state is part of how we move up the scale into health. However, how we accomplish this is not laid out in great specificity.

It is not the case that one may simply will to act differently, for, if this is possible at all, it is often shallow and unconvincing. A deeper transformation is required. If the path downward is mainly a product of our fear, it would follow that moving out of fear would be a significant element of moving upward. But once again, while this is somewhat helpful verbally, what I am seeking is more of an explicit action-plan to guide this movement.

I am wondering if a useful mechanism for this transformation isn’t use of the “12-steps” of spiritual growth articulated by Alcoholics Anonymous. The 12-steps were developed and are now mostly used by folks dealing with destructive chemical addictions. But the system was originally rooted in more basic and universal principles of spiritual growth, including those of Christianity.

To use the 12-steps in relation to the enneagram is to put in the place of the particular addiction the person’s fundamental fear. For instance, the first step is: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable.” As a type-five, I would place avarice in the place of alcohol. I need to admit that I am powerless over my avarice. That is, I am subtly and powerfully controlled by this particular way of seeing and acting in the world. This is so ingrained into me that it has taken me over half a century to even recognize and name it correctly. Much of my life has been an attempt to manage or cope with the fundamental gravitational pull of what I now see as the avarice adhering to my type-five personality.

I intend to reflect further on how this works itself out in actually doing the rest of the 12-steps. It may be that for at least some of us, the 12-steps is a helpful tool in working with the 9 types of the enneagram.