Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Putting Away Childish Things: Marcus Borg's First Work of Fiction

I confess that when it comes to reading I am more comfortable in the realm of nonfiction than fiction. My wife often challenges me to provoke and develop my imagination by setting aside, even if it is just briefly, theology, philosophy, history, and other scholarly works, in order to pick up a novel or other form of creative and engaging fiction. I have heeded her advice on more than one occasion (I find this to be a wise move on my part, i.e. to listen to my wife when she speaks) and read in the recent past a few works that have allowed me to escape for brief periods of time the density of nonfiction. However, I have found that I cannot do this for long, as I prefer to stimulate the mind with the works of Moltmann, Barth, and Gutierrez versus the cleverly crafted fantasy worlds of past and present storytellers.

That being said, Marcus Borg’s first novel, Putting Away Childish Things: A Tale of Modern Faith, was a great read that I plowed through in a mere two days. I have always enjoyed and been challenged by Borg’s nonfictional reflections and theological contributions to the Christian faith. I have particularly appreciated his interaction with and reclaim of the validity of myth in regards to the gospel stories and the historical Jesus. Borg’s concepts and suggestions are neither without controversy, nor to be digested without a certain dose of critique. Nonetheless, there is much to be gained in reading such books as Jesus: A New Vision, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, and Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary.

This fascination with Borg’s scholarly contributions made the fictional tale both captivating and spiritually rewarding. The story interweaves Borg’s biblical insight, theological imagination, political wisdom, and ethical musings within an honest tale saturated with relatable characters and relevant plotlines. The bulk of the novel incorporates two parallel and interconnected stories. First, there is Kate Riley, a professor of Religious Studies at a liberal arts college in Wisconsin. Professor Riley is well known for her contributions to the academic world in regards to New Testament Studies and a beloved teacher in the student body. However, recently she has been under fire in the academy for being “overtly” Christian in the classroom and too “popular” in her publishing. On the flip side, the evangelical world has labeled her as a liberal fraud for her suggestions that much of the gospel writings are more connected to the memory and kerygma of the early church and disciples than factual accounts and literal teachings of a historical Jesus. That is to say, Kate Riley is caught in crossfire with only a few advocates and friends. Second, there are students such as Erin and Amy. These two friends are a part of a small Christian group called The Way, a conservative campus ministry that is apologetic and fundamentalist in nature. Erin and Amy are enrolled in a course with Riley that challenges their understandings, stretches their convictions, and reframes their spirituality. It could be said that the narrative of these two students is paradigmatic of many college students when they engage theology and religious discourse outside the church for the first time. They are surprised by how the freedom to ask questions, deconstruct their traditions, and engage “liberal” ideas not only breathes new meaning into their religious commitments, but also refreshes their passion and hope found in the Way and story of Jesus. However, like their teacher, their slow embrace and curiosity also causes conflict in their circle of friends.

Putting Away Childish Things, much akin to Borg’s scholastic work, unashamedly tackles tough and controversial subject matters. However, Borg’s fiction allows him to do so in a way that is new and clever, even somewhat generous. In other words, Borg’s carefully crafted story provides a framework that allows the reader to interact with his thoughts and ideas in a way that escapes his nonfiction, yet certainly compliments and buttresses it.

This text is a must read for anyone who has experienced cognitive dissonance between the academy and the ecclesia. This text is a formative read for those who find themselves interested and called to both the academy and the ecclesia. This text is a pastoral read for others who believe that mystery, wonder, and faith are sacred gifts of the Spirit that have often been overshadowed, in the academy and ecclesia, by modernist quests for certainty and assents towards absolutes. As with Borg’s nonfiction, Putting Away Childish Things should be read with care, caution, and within a community (which Borg, generously, provides resources to do so). But, Putting Away Childish Things, should without a doubt be read.

A great Christmas reflection from the novel:

Parables are about meaning, not factuality. And the truth of a parable is its meaning. Parables can be truthful, truth-filled, even while not being historically factual. And I apply this to the birth stories [of Jesus in Matthew and Luke]: we best understand them when we see them as parables and overtures, and when we don’t worry about or argue about whether they’re factual…And they are about God’s passion for a different kind of world. They’re about all of this. Even the themes of light and fulfillment are political as well as religious. They are the gospel in miniature. And just as the gospel- the good news about Jesus- is both religious and political, so are the Christmas stories”
(Kate Riley in a radio interview, pp. 26, 29).

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Life Is Advent: Prayers in Waiting this Christmas

Life is Advent; life is recognizing the coming of the Lord, says Henri Nouwen. I read this a few weeks ago in one of my morning reflections that have been guided by a great book, Advent and Christmas: Wisdom from Henri Nouwen. Said differently, life is waiting; life is hoping; life is lived in eager expectation of promises to be fulfilled and dreams to come to fruition. So as Christmas draws nearer this week, I thought I would list prayers related to some of the many longings that dwell in the hearts, minds, and souls of our family, friends, and neighbors…feel free to add your own. Even more, may we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear the ways in which we are called to recognize the coming of the Lord, or maybe incarnate such Advent as we extend compassion, concern, and generosity to those near and far…and not just at Christmas.

Advent Prayers:
• A warm place to rest and sleep.
• A meal.
• A job.
• 2011 budgets for non-profits and self-supporting ministries be experience enough, even more than enough (see post on Broad Street Ministry)
• Strained relationships to be mended
• Conversations around the table to be less about our differences and disagreements and more about what we hold in common…
• Comfort to those for whom the baby Jesus is a reminder, not of hope and joy, but of their constant battle through infertility
• Peace to those who grieve the loss of loved ones in the distant past or the year that draws to a close
• Reconciliation for nations torn internally and/or with their neighbors by war and violence (Israel-Palestine; Sudan; North and South Korea; Vietnam…etc.)
• Peace in our cities, especially Philadelphia, Chester, Coatesville…
• Students who look for relief from unnecessary pressures and anxieties that results from oppressive cultural myths of achievement and competition
• Expecting and new parents
• Strength to those who are persecuted for their commitment to the Way of Jesus, especially in nations where freedom of religion is not something taken for granted…
• For those who grow our crops and make our clothing to be paid a fair wage and for the ability to speak to and rally against those who prevent such from happening
• Those who are judged and condemned do to difference to find welcome and community in churches who have been willing to risk everything to live into the Way of Jesus
• For affordable (or free) healthcare to be provided to ALL…
• Love to those students whose parents have either split up or are working through divorce
• Ways out for those in abusive relationships…
• The ability for nations like Haiti and regions like New Orleans continually to work towards restoration in the wake of natural disasters
• Cures for diseases like AIDS and cancer and advocacy for victims of both…
• Improved education in our cities and developing nations

Add your own...

Monday, December 20, 2010

Advent Reflections: 'Tis the Season to Be Hurried.

Hurry. Haste. Anxiety. Fear. These words are synonymous to an American Christmas. Is this really what Christmas is supposed to be about? Is this really the context of which the birth of Jesus is to be celebrated? It could be said that our alacritous pace is generated from the infinite seasonal obligations, wish lists, shopping sprees, and attempts to cram as much into this “joyous” season as possible. We then enter the New Year and celebrate a deliverance from consumer-driven, culturally conditioned angst that has left us tired and worn. Hurry. Haste. Anxiety. Fear. Yes, this was the very context of the first Christmas. However, these experiences were not the byproducts of American, consumer culture; rather, they were the effect of God’s people questing for liberation from the oppression and captivity that had been their storied history, past and present. Egypt. Assyria. Babylon. Rome. Yet God’s people held fast to the story of Moses, their deliverer, the one who parted the seas and led God’s people in mass exodus and into the Promised Land. And they knew God would do this again. Hear the echoes of the exodus in Matthew’s narrative, “‘Get up, take the child [Jesus] and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead’” (2:20). In Jesus a new Moses, a new Deliverer, a New Exodus has come. And this exodus has set the world free from not only Egypt, but from all forms of oppression and captivity. This Christmas may we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear the ways in which Jesus seeks to deliver us from whatever holds us in bondage, even seasonal and consumer angst. Moreover, may we join this Deliverer as participants in this gospel that moves towards the liberation of all people from whatever holds humanity captive, and not only at Christmas.

Advent Psalm: Psalm 33:
"he gathered the waters of the sea as in a bottle; he put the deeps in storehouses...our soul waits for the LORD; he is our help and shield. Our heart is glad in him because we trust in his holy name. Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us, even as we hope in you." (Ps.33:7,20-22)

Advent Prayer:
Jesus, you are the world’s Deliverer. Part the seas of our chaos and set us free from whatever holds us captive. Make us a people who quest for the liberation of all people and all of creation as we follow your unfolding story of life and hope. We pray this expectant of the day to come when you will make all things new and right. Amen.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Broad Street Ministry: My Home Away from Home

One of my favorite quotes is from Thomas a Kempis who said something to the effect, practice now what you'll have to put into practice then.  There are few places that have really responded to this sort of Christian vocation in word and deed.  Broad Street Ministry is one of those places.  Over the past three years, I have been blessed by strong and beautiful relationships with the people of this urban faith community and those who have devoted all of their lives to practice resurrection with such a diverse and creative group of people in Center City, Philadelphia.  It has been said before that Broad Street Ministry is a place where biblical stories come to life.  This is certainly true.  At Broad Street, the rich and the poor, the young and the old, believers and doubters, skeptics and sinners, those who live on the streets, under the streets, across the streets, the unemployed and the overemployed, artists and poets, pastors and entrepreneurs all gather together as one of the more authentic portraits of the kingdom of God.

In Anne Rice's fictional novel, Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana, she tells the story of Jesus turning water into wine. After the miracle, Jesus is questioned about what is now to come. Jesus responds, "I will go on from surprise to surprise."  I suppose that if you asked any member of Broad Street Ministry about what they are up to in the days ahead, I am sure they would respond with similar words, we will press on, from surprise to surprise.  BSM is not afraid of mystery; instead, BSM embraces it.  The members of this ecclesial mosiac are confident that in mystery the Spirit unveils sacred surprises, glimpses of the life that is to come. 

I am grateful for Broad Street Ministry and their commitment to works of justice and peace, hospitality to the stranger, solidarity with the poor, love of neighbor, friendship with the marginalized, and provision of a church community for those whom church and faith have been cursed words and experiences.  I am also indebted to those of BSM who have embraced the students of Imago Dei Youth Ministry as though they were residents along the Avenue of the Arts. 

I hope and pray that you will watch the video below, check out their website, visit their community, and worship with my friends of Broad Street Ministry.  May we together be surprised over and again as God's people continue to support, fund, and participate in the kingdom activity of this place.

Broad Street Ministry End of Year Appeal Video from Colin Comstock on Vimeo.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Christian Universalism: An In-House Practice of Generous Orthodoxy

I am not a universalist. I am not an exclusivist. I am not an inclusivist. I am a Christian wrestling with an in-house debate [1] related to the implications of the vocation of Jesus, i.e. his birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, on the history, present, and future of the whole world (versus the elected few). I am also a follower of Jesus who dares to hope that all of humanity can be redeemed. In other words, the ransom has been paid (Mat. 20:28; Mk. 10:45), Christ has died once for all (Rom. 6:10; 2 Cor. 5:14-15), death has lost its sting (1 Cor. 15:55), the gates of heaven will forever remain open (Rev. 21:25), as God desires not only the church, but also the whole world to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4; 1 Jn. 2:2). I am aware that a long list of competing biblical references could be compiled and a systematic, proof-texting debate could be pursued ad infinitum. Nonetheless, the dialectic remains. I wonder if that is the way that it is supposed to be?

Origen of Alexandria
While I do find myself leaning more towards universal redemption, potentially due to my eternal optimism and inability to believe that anyone is beyond redemption or without hope, I am also aware that the Scriptures are clear on this matter on one point: limited and universal redemption are possible. However, that is not my current gripe when it comes to this in-house debate. Instead, my frustration lay in the inability to relinquish the association between universalism and Unitarianism. [2] That is to say, there is a clear and significant distinction between Unitarian Universalism and Christian Universalism. The former is rooted in politically correct, cultural and religious pluralism that believes all religious faiths to be witnesses to redemptive truth and universal salvation. The latter is a Christocentric reading of Scripture and interpretation of the gospel that believes in and through Jesus alone the whole world and all of humanity are saved. [3] In language common to Evangelical theology, Jesus is the only way, truth, and life (John 14:6). This way was and is for the entire world and all of humanity.

I also struggle with how the mere mention of universalism leads to a complete dismissal of the viability of evangelism and missional vocation for a Christian universalist. This sort of assumption reduces the nature and purpose of Christian mission to an evangelism rooted in an escapist and fatalist theology. In that light, Christian universalism actually gains an edge in that it promotes Christian mission as present incarnations and inaugurations of the new creation that is already here and yet to come. Moreover, when one’s eschatology is shaped by universal salvation evangelism becomes an invitation to participate in this divine and everlasting life in anticipation of the eternal life to come. Thomas a Kempis once wrote, “Practice now what you’ll have to put into practice then.” This is the paradigmatic nature of Christian mission and evangelism within a universal hope for the world’s redemption.

I am aware that I develop these reflections from my context of freedom and luxury and within a nation that privileges people like me, i.e. white men. Furthermore, as a Protestant Christian, neither I nor my ancestors suffered through the holocaust, making hope for even Hitler’s postmortem redemption less personal and painful. I did not suffer through American segregation or African apartheid, making it far easier to relinquish resentment of those who promoted racism and oppression. I do not live in Western Sudan and the regions of Darfur, certainly alleviating a need to quench a thirst for vengeance against those who encourage mass genocide of the tribal peoples. Moreover, those who have endured these historical crimes against humanity, as well as many others like them, may find universalism not only improbable, but also offensive. Why would they want to hope for an eternity where their oppressors also have been granted access? I cannot answer that justifiable question. I cannot even relate to the context in which such question would be posed. I can only bear witness to the gospel that calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute you. And for those who may feel unable to do so, I can only offer love and prayers for their enemies on their behalf. I am not saying that Christian universalism is the most effective reading or interpretation of biblical theology, for it may not be. I am suggesting, better said, longing for others to dare hope for it. [4]


[1] I borrow this phrase from Gregory MacDonald, author of the blog, Evangelical Universalist. He writes on his blog, “Therefore disagreements about whether all will be saved should not be thought of as debates between ‘the orthodox’ and ‘heretics’ but rather as ‘in-house’ debates between Christians” ( 24 Sept. 2010).

[2] My frustration on the matter began when an article was published in Relevant Magazine by Jonathan Merritt, “The Rising Tide of Universalism.” Nov/Dec 2008. . I wrote a critical review of this limited and naïve article, of which a portion was published in the in the following month’s issue.

[3] This is not a new conversation in the Christian tradition.  Men and women alike have explored and suggested the viability of Christian universalim, most notably Origen.  While I am not interested in exploring the contributions of this faithful disciple at this time, although I hope to in the near future, I do suggest reading some of his works, e.g. Origen: An Exortation to Martyrdom, Prayer, and Selected Works .  Also, look for the release of All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universal Salvation and Christian Theology from Origen to Moltmann by Gregory MacDonald.

[4] A phrase borrowed from Hans Urs von Balthasar, a 20th century Swiss theologian and Catholic priest.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Lectionary Reflections: Over the Rhine, Matisyahu, John Legend, and Zechariah’s Prophetic Lyric

The invention of programs such as iTunes has effectively resulted in the deconstruction of the artistic brilliance behind musical compilations. That is, instead of buying a whole record we pick and choose the songs we prefer from a particular album so not to waste money on other, less favorable tracks. However, this money-saving habit leads the consumer to miss the carefully crafted storyline or thematic overtone that provides context for each song. Yet, there also are advantages to the plucking of preferred tracks, e.g. our ability to piece together our own narratival playlists that incorporate a variety of artists. In other words, we become the artists who write musicals conducive to our particular experiences and personal stories. These playlists generate emotional and experiential rhythms that move in harmony with our life experiences.

The music industry’s encounter with the downloadable world bears resemblance to what has typically been done to the Christmas story and the birth narrative of Jesus. The church has often plucked the baby Jesus out of the compilation we call the biblical narrative and celebrated the coming of Immanuel outside of the context of the whole. We then lose the brilliance, beauty, and prophetic thrust behind such tracks as Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), the angelic announcement to the shepherds (Luke 2:8-20), and even this past Sunday’s lectionary, Zechariah’s priestly lyric (Luke 1:68-79). In that light, in my feeble attempt to provide a brief and not-so-developed context that surrounds these sacred texts and the real experiences of those whom first experienced them, I have crafted a mosaic of sorts that combines three tracks from three great musical artists coupled with a related biblical reference (click on each for the song, maybe open the Scripture as you listen):

o Idea #21 (Not Too Late) by Over the Rhine // Psalm 13

o Thunder by Matisyahu // Isaiah 11:1-9; Isaiah 65:17-25

o Wake Up Everybody by John Legend and The Roots // Luke 1:46-55 and Luke 1:68-79

The movement of these three songs moves us from despair and struggle, questions of suffering and the hope for change as in "Idea #21" and Psalm 13. Then there is the promise of deliverance, movement out of exodus, and the assurance of a new “break of day” to come as in "Thunder" and the texts from Isaiah. Finally, John Legend, The Roots, Melanie Fiona, and Common invite us, as did Harold Melvin who originally wrote the song in the 70’s, to wake up to the “God hour” that will “reboot us” through love. The same rings true as Mary and the angels announce the “God hour” that is to “wake up” God’s people through the birth of this Messiah, whose special concern and ensuing work of liberation is for the poor and the oppressed in the land. The playlist above could be titled something like, Despair. Faithful Endurance. Deliverance. Moreover, it could be suggested that these are the themes of the biblical narrative that runs throughout Scripture and culminates in the coming of the Christ child at Christmas.

Despite the premature nature of our consumer-driven culture, Advent is a season of waiting, hoping, and pondering the arrival of our Deliverer, who is Jesus. It is a season where we reenact the story of God’s people who were moving from despair, pursuing faithful endurance, and expecting deliverance. As we enter into this Advent season next week, I invite you to rest, to wait, and to ponder. You may be in a season of despair. Speak that to existence and let God meet you there. You may be faithfully enduring a difficult and dark season. Speak that into existence and let God meet you there. You may be in a season of hope and joy. Speak that into existence and let God meet you there. Wherever you are, know that in Jesus, who is “God with us,” the Creator of all things will meet you there.

What’s your Advent song? Mary had one. Zechariah had one. I have one. Write it. Post it. All the more, know that as we journey through Advent we are an expectant people, believing that in Jesus God has met us right where we are…and will guide our feet, as a community, a people of God, into the way of peace. And may we live into that peace with those lifted up in the songs of Mary and Zechariah, not only during this holiday season, but especially all the days thereafter…

Friday, November 19, 2010

Thinking, Being, and the Validity of Generous Orthodoxy

I was reading a particular Christian periodical the other day when I stumbled across an ad for a new book written by a well-known Evangelical. The book's title and sub-title underscored "thinking" as the primary discipline and characteristic that forms a person's Christian identity. In other words, it was argued that in order to live right one needed first to think right. The book proceeds to explore this "right thinking" as a prerequisite for Christian identity, especially as it affirms a particular school of thought that is deemed true, Christian, and orthodox. I shrugged, familiar with the writings of this particular Evangelical, his particular theological convictions, and the related quest to convince others of his brand of thinking. But is right thinking really the goal of the Christian life? Is right thinking really the benchmark for Christian identity? And how can this particular individual and his followers claim to have arrived at and possess such absolute truth?

I read another book a little over a year ago that pursued the matter from a different angle. In Desiring the Kingdom [1], James K.A. Smith writes, "Being a disciple of Jesus is not primarily a matter of getting the right ideas and doctrines and beliefs into your head in order to guarantee proper behavior; rather it's a matter of being the kind of person who loves rightly- who loves God and neighbor and is oriented to the world by the primacy of that love" (32-33). Smith's running thesis throughout the book is that humans are primarily liturgical animals whose desires and imaginations are at work even before we begin to think. He writes a few pages later:
"We are what we love…humans are those animals that are religious animals not because we are primarily believing animals but because we are liturgical animals- embodied, practicing creatures whose love/desire is aimed at something ultimate" (40).
In other words, Christian formation begins not with the embrace of right philosophical ideas, concepts, and doctrines. Instead, Christian formation begins in the "fulcrum of desire" (56) whereby our imaginations and habits are reshaped and reformed so to move in rhythm with the narratives, myths, pictures, stories, and dreams that are a part of the kingdom of God. That is to say, the question must shift from primarily thinking to a way of being in and for the world.

However, it must not be misunderstood that we can escape the significance of thinking, especially theologically, nor can we underestimate the grave consequences of misinformed and irresponsible thinking. In fact, we could spend endless amounts of time and energy exploring the effects of ignorant thoughts, oppressive ideals, and dreadful theologies on the social, political, and religious landscapes of the past and present. Time must be invested in the value of thinking critically. Nonetheless, thinking alone cannot lead us into God's dreams for the world any more than my modest musings found on this blog could solve homelessness in my community. Moreover, the moment we claim to have arrived at a set system of universal truth statements and assumptions, i.e. one right way of thinking, we begin to move from faithful Christian discipleship and into imperialistic religious discourse. In essence, there must be room for dialogue, space for conversation, and opportunity for dissent without condemnation and marginalization, especially as we change the focal goal from right thinking to right being in and for the world. Said differently, a generous orthodoxy is crucial to the transformation of our thinking and being on individual, communal, and global levels.

In Brian McLaren's, Generous Orthodoxy [2], he writes, "Theology is the church on a mission reflecting on its message, its identity, its meaning" (105). That is to say, theology is a conversation that God's people have on the move, as pilgrims, who are venturing towards God's promised future mysteriously unveiled in the present through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This conversation cannot be co-opted by a singular voice, a particular culture, or a distinct tradition, and imposed upon the whole. There must be room for mystery, space for disagreement, and opportunity for debate as God's people seek truth not as statement, but follow Truth who is Person. Karl Barth once wrote, "Evangelical theology is modest theology, because it is determined to be so by its object, that is, by him [God as trinity] who is its subject" [3]. Again, the goal is not doctrinal or dogmatic certainty, but movement towards the object and subject of the faith, who is God as Trinity. We can never posses or fully contain God, no matter how right we believe our thinking to be. Therefore, we must never cease to be conversant with one another, even though we may be in disagreement, as we move more and more in rhythm with the mission of God and the gospel of Jesus. Even more so, a generous orthodoxy is vital to the Christian community as it seeks to move conversations from intellectual speculations and academic debates and into shared vocations and witnesses in and for the world.

Over the course of the next few weeks I will make a few posts in regards to significant issues of debate within the Christian conversation. My posts are to be interacted with, discussed, critiqued, and debated. However, may we maintain an awareness of our convictions as modest musings of faithful pilgrims who practice generous orthodoxy with one another. Even more, may we be reminded that thinking is not the goal; rather, may we encourage one another to fresh opportunities for being a particular people in and for the world. May we do this together as we desire the kingdom of God that is breaking in all around us, if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

[1] Smith, James K.A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009.
[2] McLaren, Brian. Generous Orthodoxy. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004.
[3]Barth, Karl. Evangelical Theology: An Introduction. Translated by Grover Foley. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans    Publishing Co., 1963. p.7.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Privilege, Power, and Pentecost: Long Over-Due Reflections on My Freshman Experience

As a final assignment for my recent course, Theology, Ethnicity, Gender, I was charged to write a sermon I would potentially give that pertained to course content. This is what I came up with:

I remember my first class as an eager first-year student at Eastern University, a Christian, liberal arts college outside Philadelphia. The course was titled, "Living and Learning in Community." INST150, its name according to the registrar, was more or less an introductory course to the university's curriculum framed by "faith, reason, and justice." [A quick aside] Those of you that know me are aware that I am neither short of opinions nor slow to offer my perspectives. What many of you may not know is the drastic narrative of transformation and change that has undergirded my theological and ethical convictions over the past ten years. [Back to the story] So I purchased the books for INST150, walked towards Walton Hall, and took my seat in the conference room where I would participate in my first-ever college course. The primary text was a collection of articles and excerpts from publications that were then bound in a book. First-year students were then to mull over and discuss the content with one another, in community, hence the course name. My professor was an African American woman who was fairly new to the faculty. I was unaware in that moment how much she would influence and shape so much of my thinking in the days ahead.

One of the assigned readings was a paper written by Peggy McIntosh, "White Privilege and Male Privilege." Needless to say, as someone who grew up in a very conservative, right-wing Christian experience, many of my worlds were colliding. I was beginning to experience some of the most intense personal cognitive dissonance to date. I was in a course being taught by a minority faculty member. This was a personal first, as my childhood education was far from diverse. I was being taught by an educated woman in a religious setting. This was not only a fairly new encounter, but also did not resonate with my readings of Scripture as reinforced by my context, i.e. only men were able to do such a thing and women were to be in submissive roles in family and church life. After all, that's what the Bible says?! Then I was asked to read an article that suggested I was in a position of power and privilege as a white American male. This was also an uncomfortable and offensive first, as all I knew was my white experience. I read the article, which I still have, jotted some ignorant remarks in the margins, and intended to reject the article then and forevermore.

Then there was the final exam. I cruised through questions that pertained to worldview, personal spiritual formation in the academy, and even missional praxis in the emerging and post-modern context. No problem. Then there was a question that asked us to explore the notion of white privilege and male privilege and how that has implications on faith, reason, and justice. I was irate. How could the professor dare ask such a question on an exam? How irrelevant to the gospel? How naïve to demand us to respond to the liberal notion of on-going racism and gender discrimination? So I wrote something to the effect: As a white male, I find this question absurd and inappropriate. To suggest white privilege and male privilege is irrelevant to what it means to be a Christian and explore the Christian faith. I refuse to respond to this question any further. I closed my blue book, handed it to my professor, refused to make eye contact, and walked out.

I was not sure what sort of grade I would receive. To be honest, I feared my future at Eastern even in my first class, thinking that I was about to fail my first exam. But that was o.k. If I was going to fail an exam because of white privilege and male privilege questions, I did not want to be there anyway.

But…I got an "A" and proceeded to graduate from Eastern, Magna Cum Laude. I wonder what would have become of me should my professor have responded to my hatred and discriminatory behaviors, some would even say racism, with a well-deserved failing grade versus a generous and forgiving offering of not only a passing grade, but an absurdly gracious "A." Would I have stayed? Would I have explored further? Or would I have chalked it up to another example of angry minorities holding grudges about long-gone experiences of injustice? I am not sure. But she gave me an "A," and I stayed…and I am so grateful that I did…

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Changing the Conversation: Day 2 Reflections from Pastoral Leadership Gathering

"Wilderness is where we [the church] are, a community questing for an alternative future in the wake of a patriarchal empire." These were some of the opening remarks made by Peter Block in this innovative leadership gathering being held at my home-away-from-home, Broad Street Ministry. I was not prepared for such a prophetic statement loaded with religious and biblical overtones, as Block is not noted for his engagement with the church (in fact, it has been said that this is the first time he has implemented his ideas in an ecclesial setting). You could have heard a pin drop as Block was speaking a lot of what many of us in the room had been thinking for quite some time. Nonetheless, those of us who gathered in the sanctuary are interested in "changing the conversation" from sustaining institutions to incarnating kingdom ethics, from propping up absolute systems to imagining fresh embodiments of intentional communities, from feeding imperial truth-statements to asking prophetic and formative questions and concerns. As Block reminded us, as pastors we are more than holders of certainty and dispatchers of answers; instead, he challenged us to be initiators of conversations, conveners of dialogue, and architects of communities.

Here are a few notes from the "Day with Peter Block." These are not absolute statements, rather comments up for critique and debate as we explore together alternative methodology to community formation:

Morning Part 1:
  • Transformation is linguistic, i.e. conversations about creating alternative futures distinct from the past; this is not to say the past is to be completely forsaken, rather the past is neither absolute nor definitive…
  • Key to transformation is to invite people into a conversation they have not had before with people they are not used to talking to
  • Offering "help" is more often demonstrative of colonization than transformation
  • Communities are not built by deficiencies, systems are, and are propped up by attempts to "fill the gap" with consumer-driven, quick-fix solutions
  • Communities are gift-minded; key distinction between citizenship and consumerism
  • "Citizen Capacity": encourages people to create for themselves what they thought they could purchase
  • Six Key Conversations:
    • Possibility v. Problem; i.e. what can we create together v. what is wrong and how can we fix it…
    • Commitment; i.e. what role do I play and what can I contribute; what can I give v. what can I get…
    • Dissent; i.e. the right to say "no" and the embrace of doubt and disagreement
    • Invitation; extending hospitality and including even those on the margins into the conversation
    • Ownership and Accountability; i.e. turning complaints into requests
  • Small groups are the units of transformation
  • Systems extract humanity in order to create safety, security, and control; communities reclaim and restore our humanity in quest for alternative future distinct from patriarchal past
  • The future will not come from the front of the room

Afternoon Part 2:
  • My transformation will never come with those whom I know best; if you want a future distinct from the past you must extend the invitation to those who are different from you…
  • Questions are more significant than answers; answers lead to peddling and consumerism, implementing a system that sells
  • Art plays a key role in community formation, reminds us who we are and who we are striving to become
  • To be human is to "not know"; to claim certainty is to deny humanity
  • Most reform movements are about improving the system instead of reimagining an alternative future; we must begin with the surrender of our need to fix problems (deficiencies) and engage gifts to create new possibilities
  • What threatens communities is not difference of opinion, but absolute certainty
  • Dissent and doubt are the beginning of conversations of transformation; communities need to create adequate space for cynicism and doubt

It is difficult to grasp fully the implications of the day's events, reflections, conversations, and interactions with strangers from within the same denomination. However, when listening to Block, especially after reading his book (Community: The Structure of Belonging), one cannot help to notice the significant Christological and ecclesial overtones found within his proposed methodology. Block ended with a brief anecdote whereby someone approached him after reading his book and said, "It's so good for a book to be written by a Christian like you." Block responded, "Thanks, but I am a Jew." The man proceeded to respond, "No, you're not." Block laughed and acknowledged that he was grateful to explore his theories and paradigms among Christian leaders and pastors, with whom he felt very much at home. I would agree, and maybe that is because a large part of our narrative is shared- a quest out of imperial exile and towards an alternative future in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Future Will Rise Out of a Barren Past: Day 1 Reflections of Pastoral Leadership Gathering

This week I am attending the Pastoral Leadership Gathering, hosted by Arch Street Presbyterian Church and Broad Street Ministry. Pastors and other church leaders from a variety of churches, predominantly from PCUSA communities, have traveled to Center City, Philadelphia to be a part of facilitated dialogue and intentional conversations related to community formation. A key element to the gathering is one of the more influential books I have read within the last few years, Community: The Structure of Belonging by Peter Block. However, the first day was all about setting the tone and beginning the conversation. While I was grateful for the opportunity to walk the streets of Philadelphia, a sort-of exegetical exercise of the City of Brotherly Love," and to have significant conversations with new and old friends in various ministry contexts, it was Susan Andrews' sermon as a part of opening worship that, for me, really got the event started. Andrews is a former Moderator of the PCUSA and now general presbyter of the Hudson River Presbytery in New York. As a fairly new Presby, I was unaware of who she was when she began to engage John 1:35ff in light of the gathering's thematic intentions and missional implications. However, her message was clear, convicting, and nothing short of prophetically engaging. Here are a few snippets of the sermon (beware, she doesn't mince words):
  • "The brokenness of the institutional church has superseded its beauty."
  • "The old [paradigms] has died and the new has begun to rise…"
  • "The call process is not about rules, but about relationships; not about regulations and doctrine, but about reimagining new possibilities."
  • "Leaders are disciples who begin with the question, "What are you looking for?"
  • "A future will rise out of a barren past."
Andrews even incorporated a prophetic litany of indictments on the institutional church that challenged our obsessions with policies and procedures, committees and doctrines, mission giving without missional living, capital and stewardship campaigns, etc. It is important to note that these were not cynical remarks from a disenfranchised, Gen-X, emergent church leader; rather, they were honest reflections from a seasoned and gifted veteran who has begun to lament over the institution she has spent so many years trying to "prop up." She challenged those who gathered in the old sanctuary of Arch Street Presbyterian Church, where many have gathered, questioned, and explored before, to ask tough questions, consider new possibilities, and to "come and see" fresh opportunities to incarnate kingdom life in the communities we live and serve. This may mean surrendering old paradigms for the sake of the gospel, the love of our neighborhoods, and the hope of the world. Dare we place institutional standards before the needs of our communities and the mandate of discipleship? If so, these institutions will surely die…

Again, I am reminded that there are beautiful conversations taking place within the PCUSA. Unfortunately, these conversations often take place on the margins of the denomination and often fail to enter into the midst of real congregational discourse, spiritual formation, and local church and community structuring. My hope and prayer is that the gap between conference and congregation would be effectively bridged in the days ahead. Even more, I am grateful for my friends who are exploring this missional turn and paradigmatic shift with me in Center City over the next few days, reminders that we walk not alone…

More to come tomorrow…

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Presbyterian Church (USA): Vital Resources for Venturing towards a Missional Future

Maybe this is precisely where I am supposed to be as an Inquirer for Ordination within this denomination, but I continually wrestle with a wide variety of issues related to the missional church, the PCUSA in particular, and the related conversations there within. It could be said that the PCUSA is one of the prime examples of Western ecclesial paradigms saturated in extra-biblical resources that forms the life, government, and mission of these ecclesial institutions, i.e. Book of Order, Book of Confession, Book of Common Worship, etc. That said, I often find myself exhausted, sometimes limited, in PCUSA conversations related to what it means to be the church within emerging, postmodern, postcolonial conversations. It can be quite difficult to move in rhythm with missional convictions and callings, as individuals and communities, when we are confronted with the reality that we must not only adhere to biblical faithfulness, but also the daunting collection of secondary sources (often mistaken as primary) in order to be supported, recognized, and affirmed by the denomination at large. Furthermore, these documents have often failed to take into consideration that they were primarily developed within the context of the Western white world of power and privilege and then imposed upon other communities in diverse, non-Western, non-white communities, i.e. Africa, Asia, Central and South America, etc. This is not to discount the contributions of the Western theologians, confessions, and people of faith formed by them, i.e. Calvin, Barth, Heidelberg Catechism, Scots Confession, Barmen Declaration, etc., for these are certainly important witnesses to not only the gospel, but also the gospel as incarnated within particular eras and contexts (including Nazi Germany). However, if the PCUSA is to be faithful in the days ahead and to exist not as a denomination of imposition but of humility, generosity, and grace, it must begin to embrace the contextualization of both the gospel message and method. In other words, we must be reminded that Scripture and the constitutional documents cannot be read, interpreted, and incarnated absolutely and universally, once and for all. Unfortunately, the relinquishing of control of the latter is often more feared than the former.

That being said, I have been grateful for the recent conversations that have been had by the PCUSA over the past few years, especially as it considers what it would look like for the denomination to embrace the missional turn of the church, abbreviate constitutional documents and thus leave room for contextualization of message and method, and reevaluate the church's stance on a wide variety of significant, albeit controversial issues. This is a refreshing testament to the denominations quest to be faithful to the gospel and to bear witness to person of Jesus in a wide variety of cultural contexts. Yes, we are reformed and reforming. Moreover, in such conversations the PCUSA has recognized its need to expand its confessional documents to include non-Western, non-white attestations to manifestations of gospel faithfulness in the midst of oppressive contexts, i.e. Belhar Confession in the wake of South African Apartheid (see a previous blog entry: "Belhar Confession: A Bold and Intentional Incorporation?"). Finally, I must note that my gratitude for and engagement with these recent discourses is because I have come to love this denomination, value its history, and believe in its future. That is to say, the present dialogue will only enhance the witness of God's people gathered within this particular denomination, especially as it opens itself to new and fresh possibilities.

As I continue to wrestle with the PCUSA's venture towards a missional future, I invite you to join me. Moreover, I ask that you would converse with me as I am surely a novice to the denominational positions, traditions, and incarnations of our missional vocations. Below are some helpful documents as we move forward together…and may God's Spirit go with us as we seek to be "a provisional demonstration of what God intends for the world" (Book of Order, G-3.0200).

Monday, November 1, 2010

James Cone and Jonathan Tan: Reflections on Black Liberation and Asian American Theologies

Christian theology and related discourses are not to be limited to a single tradition, cultural context, or human experience. Instead, a plurality of witnesses is imperative for the development and movement of Christian theology within the emerging culture and an increasingly diverse socio-political and religious climate. In James Cone's seminal text, A Black Theology of Liberation, and Jonathan Tan's introductory survey, Introducing Asian American Theologies, the voices of the marginalized are elevated to prominent positions within theological conversations. In other words, the engagement with these premier texts allows the reader to be reminded once again that Western, white theology is neither normative nor absolute in the Christian quest to bear witness to the person of Jesus and God's unfolding story of liberation.

Click here for the full review and reflections on these significant contributions to the Christian faith and theological traditions.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Reflections on Lectionary: Luke 18 and Luke 19

Musings from Luke 18:9-14 and Luke 19:1-10

Some of the more central components of the Imago Dei Youth Ministry are missional experiences and opportunities to be immersed, albeit temporarily, within diverse communities of faith. This often leads us to develop relationships and partnerships with those living in contexts of poverty, homelessness, racism, and other forms of systemic oppression. I confess, it is difficult for me to develop these partnerships, as I recognize that our ability to move into and out of these contexts flies in the face of incarnational paradigms; however, when working with suburban youth, it is not exactly possible to say, "I know you are a minor, but let's all move into X place and make our permanent dwelling here." That being said, short-term experiences are all we have to work with- and the fruits of such experiences are irreplaceable.

There are a variety of reasons why students participate in these missional experiences; many are genuine responses to the call to live into their deeply rooted faith and missional vocations. However, without fail, every year I hear parents (and sometimes their youth) explain their participation as follows, "I just want Joe/Beth to realize how much they have and to be grateful for where they live." I cringe as I attempt to paraphrase these explanations and rationales. In other words, not only do we exploit the poor and oppressed in order to arrive at particular situations of luxury, but we also exploit their condition in order to reaffirm and bask in our abundance and comfort.

These experiences are what first came to mind when I read through this Sunday's lectionary text and the stark contrast between the prayer of the Pharisee and the prayer of the (un-named) tax collector. The Pharisee, "God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector." Said differently, "God, I thank you that I am not poor, that I am not an immigrant, that I do not have a criminal record, that I have never been addicted to drugs, that I am not a minority, that I do not live in contexts of oppression." As long as we bask in gratitude about whom we are not and where we are not we will fail to enter into genuine community with those that are, for to do so may jeopardize that which we have either worked so hard for or just so happened to possess merely through happenstance.

Then we hear the (un-named) tax collector, "God, be merciful to me a sinner" and Jesus' exaltation of this humbled other. But who is he? Is this really all there is to this little parable of Jesus within Luke's gospel? If you have been tracking with the gospel story up to this point you know that there is always something more that Luke is bearing witness to, constantly offering hints and guesses to a much larger picture and hoping the reader connects the dots. That's where we need to jump a week ahead to next Sunday's lectionary text: Luke 19:1-10. It is then that we realize, maybe this tax collector had a name after all- Zacchaeus.

As with many of Jesus' parables, we in the suburbs have hyper-spiritualized Jesus' parable and even this narrative so much that our crafting of clever nursery rhymes for children has rendered this subversive illustration irrelevant. We think it is nice that the tax collector was humble and repentant in Luke 18; we are quick to affirm his humble heart. We love Zacchaeus because he repents of his sins and turns to Jesus, and we should do the same; we even love that he was "a wee little man." While this is true, there seems to be so much more. Dare we miss that the humbled sinner and tax collector "standing far off" in prayer is also named Zacchaeus. After much contemplation and deliberation, even confession, he has climbed down from his elevated position in the tree, given reparations for his unjust and oppressive deeds (i.e. repents), and identified with the poor he once exploited. It is only after this sort of repentance that Jesus then says salvation has come to this son of Abraham. Said differently, is it possible that salvation in the economy of God is linked to our concern for and identification with the poor and oppressed? As Luke says elsewhere, "blessed are you who are poor…woe to you who are rich" (6:20,24); "some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last" (13:30); "for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted" (18:14).

Am I willing to make such reparations? Are we as a people of God willing to incarnate our confessions by actually identifying with the poor and oppressed and moving towards liberation and change? Is the church willing to come down from elevated positions in suburban trees and participate in God's kingdom of reconciliation and peace even though it may cost us much, maybe even everything? Luke's gospel suggests that we open our eyes and ears to see and hear the ways in which we can enter into the community of the oppressed and participate in God's kingdom of salvation. The reality is, we do not have to go very far. We may not even have to leave our neighborhoods, townships, or boroughs. And sometimes we may, possibly for longer than a week over the summer. And surely for reasons far greater than to affirm and give thanks for our contexts of wealth, acquisition of possessions, and statuses of privilege.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Bullying: A Brief Word and Response

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words they can destroy me. This seems more appropriate in light of the continual rise in bullying and in-school violence. Even more, the recent bullying of gay students that has led to instances of suicide has caused me to pause once again and reflect on the violence of language and the abuse of speech. The students in my youth ministries over the years have heard time and again my constant rebuke of those who choose to use slang terms of sexuality as filler words or insults, even of their friends. This ought not to be so. Regardless of your theological convictions, the slurs that are tossed around at the expense of gay individuals and the gay community have repercussions that are sometimes irreversible. We are to be a people who promote peace, advocate for compassion, and give voice to those on the margins of society. Instead, we so often exclude and oppress, not only through our activity, but also and especially through our language.

This leads to another point. On the issue of homosexuality it is common to hear those in opposition say, "hate the sin and love the sinner." I am afraid that such a posture towards homosexuals will never allow for authentic community to take place between gays and straights. Homosexuality is not necessarily that which can be removed as an isolated characteristic of a particular individual as though to say I hate your red shirt, but I love you. That is, their sexuality is a portion of who they are just as much as I am a heterosexual male. Moreover, the reductionist statement not only assures that homosexuals will forever be kept at arm's length (if that), but also assumes that we as a people are actually capable of separating our opinions of homosexuality from those of homosexual people. To put it bluntly, "hate the sin and love the sinner" becomes breeding grounds for hatred of the "sinner," as the "sin" and the "sinner" are no longer able to be distinguished. Again, in light of the devastating consequences of our irresponsible speech, individual and communal theological convictions and reductionist statements must be reevaluated. The consequences of anything less is unacceptable and unfaithful as people who claim to be witnesses to the liberating gospel of Jesus.

I would be amiss if I did not end this brief reflection with a call for intercession. Last week our church and youth ministry participated in Domestic Violence Awareness Sunday in the Presbyterian Church (USA). As a part of this collaboration, we invited a counselor from the local domestic violence center to share with our high school and middle school youth about the reality of domestic and dating violence as well as bullying. In light of recent events, we are so grateful that we did this. But the hosting of a one-day event is not enough. We must continue to be agents of peace in contexts of abuse; voices of hope in circumstances of suffering; advocates of justice and compassion in the midst of oppression and hatred. And we do not have to leave the country to do so. In the days ahead, may we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear those who are in need of our intervention. May we be on the lookout for those in need of our intercession. Even more, may we look inward and be challenged to consider how we have been the inflictors or bystanders of discrimination, hatred, and violence and then act towards change. And for those of you who continue to suffer at the hands of the naïve and the cold-hearted, rest assured that you are not alone and that there is help and hope for you. Even more, you were made in the beautiful imago Dei (image of God),which is not something that can ever be separated or taken away from you.

Here is a great post by Jim Wallis of Sojourners, "Christians and Bullying: Standing by Gays and Lesbians":

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Inward/Outward: Fall Retreat 2010 Reflections

The vision began on a road trip among friends as we returned from a conference in Illinois that included many of our favorite theologians and scholars, most notably N.T. Wright. It could be said that we were returning from a sort of retreat ourselves. My good friend Tim was in roughly the fourth hour of his driving shift on the PA turnpike when we began to share the celebrations and laments, among other things, that often accompany the life of a youth pastor. We particularly grieved the intense pressures that our students face on a day-to-day basis- school, work, scholarships, college applications, peers, image and identity, parents, and the media, just to name a few. We also shared our common heartaches over these pressures that often distort adolescents’ ability not only to see the kingdom of God, but also to participate in it. In other words, their schedules and calendars are already so full that to even begin to consider taking a weekend off for a spiritual formation retreat or missional experience is difficult and nearly “impossible.” After all, what return would there be on their investment in a week(end) away? Would their time not be better spent studying, writing, working, competing, practicing, researching, and filling out forms? We live in a culture that considers any form of prolonged rest lazy and recess from scheduled obligations irresponsible. And the sources of such critique and pressure often comes from those closest to them, making any sort of break from the idolatrous and exhaustive rhythms of suburban America all the more difficult for Christian youth. So we thought, we prayed, we dreamed, and decided…let’s develop a subversive retreat where we expose these pressures and provide youth with a weekend where they are free to rest and engage Christian spirituality within the context of community. And yes, a Presbyterian and Evangelical Free Youth Pastor would do this together.

Here are a few reflections from the weekend appropriately titled: Inward/Outward: For Us and the Whole World:

1. Bel and the Dragon, Elijah and the Priests at Mt. Carmel
Believe it or not, even the apocrypha can preach. If we can use media clips from contemporary films and pop-music, why not the ancient story of Daniel who exposed the fallacy of Bel, a foreign idol who was fed everything the king had? [1] Why not parallel this story with the Protestant Scriptural narrative of Elijah (1 Kings 18) who did much the same with the priests of Baal? Moreover, why not draw parallels from both as we remind youth that so often we feed cultural idols all our energies, time, talents, and resources only to have the “expiration dates” (as Tim cleverly noted) of these deities exposed? So we did! It was incredible to see the youth take advantage of and be refreshed by being granted freedom and permission to expose the root of their pressures and anxieties, i.e. cultural idolatry, that have threatened to drain them of their life energy.

2. Outward Journey: For the Whole World
Tim led a beautiful reflection on the myth that we have to have everything figured out before we consider engaging in the mission of God. Many of us, teenagers included, have a superhero complex by which we both think we have to and believe we can solve all the world’s problems on our own. Our obsession with individualism has infringed even our altruistic aspirations. Yet we were meant to live in community, serve in community, worship in community, and work towards change and justice, which are markers of God’s kingdom, in community. I greatly appreciated Tim’s beginning with a communal emphasis, from which individual participation stems. Furthermore, his reminder that God calls all, including youth, as they are versus when they figure everything out or get their lives in perfect order.

3. Baptism: Sacred and Sending Waters
We do not often discuss the divine mysteries, i.e. sacraments, within our youth ministries specifically, or our church communities generally. It is often assumed we know what they are all about. So we created space to reflect on the baptismal waters that are both sacred and sending, for us and the whole world. Aided by the echoes from early Christians like Aristides and Tertullian, we compared and contrasted the ethos of ancient Christian communities and that of contemporary, consumer-driven religious clubs. How far had the church come, or strayed? Are these ancient communities really a part of the gospel story we claim as our own? However, the bulk of the conversation came as the product of intentional small group and ecumenical conversation generated by youth who have the eyes and ears of the kingdom.

4. Eucharist: Sacred and Sending Table
Is the Eucharist just another meal? While we were sure to once again tap into the legacy of alternative heroes and sheroes, such as Perpetua, Felicitas and Justin Martyr, we also allowed the recent episode of Glee, “Grilled Cheesus,” [2] to provide a platform for ecumenical dialogue about the sacred and sending Eucharistic table. Again, the bulk of the conversation was generated by the small group conversations. However, after noting the plurality within the gospels related to the Last Supper [3], the most significant part of the weekend for me was when we gathered around the table as Tim instituted the sacrament [4]. What a beautiful picture as over 50 youth and their leaders gathered around the table, reminded that the body and blood of Jesus is for us and the whole world.

5. Inward Journey: For Us
And the beauty of the gospel is that while it is for the whole world, it also includes each of us! Tim’s natural ability to tell stories and engage students with a pastoral heart provided an appropriate end to what was an incredible weekend! He even was creative in his challenge for the students to take the time to pursue personal formation and spiritual disciplines that are markers of a relationship with the God who created all and is in all. Moreover, as we live into our inward journey we are then sustained for our ouward journey, for us and the whole world.

I could go on and on with witnesses to how God was at work this weekend. The weather. The conversations. Football games and bonfires. Picnic table reflections. Disco parties in bunkrooms. Walks along the Chesapeake Bay. Frost’s incredible ability to lead us in worship and song. Random appearances of Lady GaGa (who oddly enough looks like Tim Ghali). Even the annual (Un)Talent show, a fresh reminder that part of kingdom life includes laughter. For we are indeed fools for the gospel who have a diverse collection of gifts and abilities, some which continue to make me laugh as I think back, and all which can be transformed into gifts for us and the whole world.

I look forward to next year’s adventures. I look forward to future interactions with Montvale Evangelical Free youth. I am grateful that my travels to a conference in Illinois with an E-Free friend turned out to be so much more than just a conference…

[1] After all, this story is considered Scripture by a large portion of the Christian Church around the globe, i.e. Catholic, Greek and Russian Orthodox.
[2] See Kenda Creasy-Dean’s blog for a great review of this episode:“grilled-cheesus”-glee-and-teenage-spirituality/
[3] This includes a reflection on the apparent absence of the Eucharist in the Gospel of John and the writer’s replacement with the washing of the disciples’ feet (John 13). However, when one reads John 6 with Eucharistic eyes we discover that Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand is actually a Eucharistic celebration that extends beyond the disciples and out to the multitudes. In other words, the gospel writer reminds the church that the table is for us and the whole world.
[4] It is funny the hoops you have to jump through in Presbyterian polity in order to have the Eucharist celebrated on a youth retreat. Thanks be to God for the plurality of truth and the diversity of denominations that allows for Tim to give our ministry a gift by instituting the sacrament, in accordance with the PCUSA Book of Order of course ;)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Columbus Day: Cause for Celebration or Confession?

“Our people were decimated by war and disease from some 50 million in 1400 to barely 230,000 in 1895. There are numbers of documented cases where small pox infected blankets were sent to villages (biological terrorism) and bounties were paid for the heads and scalps of Native men, women and children. Today we are 2.4 million in the USA and 1.2 in Canada. But, perhaps what makes the story most tragic is that so much of this was the result of the misappropriation of the biblical narrative that was co-opted as a tool of colonial imperialism. However, the story is not finished” (Richard Twiss, “All My Relatives”). [1]

Is this really a cause for celebration every second Monday in October? How is it that we can have a federal holiday that commemorates Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement in the beginning of the year and another towards the end that underscores ignorance in regards to one of the most heinous demonstrations of genocide in recorded Western and human history? Again, we are reminded that at the forefront of both these movements were confessing Christians and the Church. Said differently, “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so” (James 3:10).

It seems that it is not much different in the theological arena, where the voice of Native American and First-Nation Christians continues to be left out of the conversation in favor of Western, white theological colonialism. And I am guilty just the same. Richard Twiss is the founder of Wiconi International, a community of First-Nation Christians, and a leading voice in First-Nation Christian theology. Yet I confess, his address to the World Communion of Reformed Churches Uniting General Council was my first real exposure to this significant attestation to the on-going activity of God’s Spirit and the gospel of Jesus. Moreover, Twiss reminds us that our cathedrals and churches, fellowship halls and sanctuaries, sacred spaces and youth rooms are built on land that is not our own:

"A close examination of the national Christian speaking platforms across the land reveal the glaring absence of native men and women who are ascribed a place spiritual stature in our own land. And I repeat in our own land. And I repeat again, in our own land!"

The Christian hope is not for a monoculture, hegemonic kingdom of God whereby everyone looks the same, worships the same, prays the same, interprets the same, or even thinks the same. N. Gordon Cosby, founder of Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C., once wrote, "The Church of the Holy Spirit is full of variety. Sameness and conformity are the demands of alien spirits." [2] How tragic, then, that our versions of Christian theology strive for such sameness and assume the posture of Western, white theology, i.e. Anglo-Protestant theology, as the way, the truth, and the life. This is not to say that Western theology has neither a place at the table, nor a valid contribution to the Christian faith, for indeed it does. Even more, I am deeply grateful for the traditions and confessions made by the likes of Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and Barth, for they are my own. We just must not assume for a second that any one person, culture, or system “can write theology for all times, places, and persons” (Cone xi). To do so would be yet another demonstration of cultural imperialism headed by individuals and communities of faith naïve to the plurality of truth that is not a hindrance, rather witness to the cultural mosaic called the kingdom of God. And this kingdom is already here and yet to come, if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

So Columbus Day- a cause for celebration or a call to confession? Maybe both. Christians must confess the realities of an oppressive history that has paralleled ecclesial traditions, missions, and confessions. We must repent of the expansion of the faith that has often come through the abuse of power, the co-option of local cultures by Western ideals, and the exploitation of indigenous and tribal peoples. It should also be a cause for celebration. However, instead of the second Monday in October commemorating Columbus’ stumbling over “new” territory, it should be an opportunity to acknowledge the first-nations and Native Americans, many who are our brothers and sisters in Christ, whose history, tradition, culture, and gospel witness have so often been trumped by the stranger and foreigner in their midst, i.e. people like me. It is about time I listen to their theological and ecclesial contributions.

[1] For the full text of Richard Twiss' address:
[2] See O'Connor, Elizabeth. Eighth Day of Creation. Washington, D.C.: The Potter's House Bookservice, 1971. This is yet another beautiful publication from the communities apart of Church of the Saviour. This missional church community has been around since the early 1950's and is a brilliant example of incarnational, intentional, and holistic faith communities:
[3] See Cone, James H. A Black Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1990.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Aristides and Youth Ministry?

As I get ready for yet another high school formation retreat I stumbled across the writings of the ancient Athenian philosopher, Aristides, and his letter to the emperor in the latter portions of the second century A.D.   Aristides would come to faith not long after this writing and it serves as a great illustration for youth to wrestle with within conversations on the nature of Christian community, spiritual formation, and the missional vocation.  Even more, it is exciting to link youth to the history of the faith that calls them to live into the redemptive narrative called the gospel that has gone on long before them and will continue on after them. 

It is intriguing to compare and contrast the words of an ancient secular philosopher with those of contemporary critics as they pertain to observations about Christian communities and witness.

It is the Christians, O emperor, who have sought and found the truth. We have realized it from their writings; they are closer to the truth and to a right understanding than all the other peoples, for they acknowledge God. They believe in him, the creator and builder of the universe, in whom all things are and from whom everything comes. They worship no other God. They have his commandments imprinted on their hearts… They show love to their neighbors. They pronounce judgments which are just. They do not worship idols in human form. They do not do to another what they would not wish to have done to themselves. They do not eat the food sacrificed to idols, for they are pure. They speak gently to those who oppress them, and in this way they make them their friends. It has become their passion to do good to their enemies… They worship no alien gods. They live in the awareness of their smallness. Kindliness is their nature. There is no falsehood among them. They love one another. They do not neglect widows. Orphans they rescue from those who are cruel to them. Every one of them who has anything gives ungrudgingly to the one who has nothing. If they see a traveling stranger they bring him under their roof. They rejoice over him as over a real brother, for they do not call one another brothers after the flesh, but they know they are brothers in the Spirit and in God. If one of them sees that one of their poor must leave this world, he provides for his burial as well as he can. And if they hear that one of them is imprisoned or oppressed by their opponents for the sake of their Christ’s name, all of them take care of all his needs. If possible they set him free. If anyone among them is poor or comes into want while they themselves have nothing to spare, they fast two or three days for him. In this way they can supply any poor man with the food he needs. They are ready to give up their lives for Christ, for they observe the words of their Christ with much care. Their life is one of consecration and justice, as the Lord their God commanded them. Every morning, yes, every hour, they give praise and honor to their God for all the good things he gives to them. They thank him for their food and drink… This, O emperor, is the rule of life of the Christians, and this their manner of life. As men and women who know God, they ask of him the things that are proper for God to give and right for them to receive. Thus they run the course of their lives. They acknowledge the good deeds of God towards them. And see, because of them, good flows on in the world! Truly it is they who have sought and have found the truth, and from what we have understood here we must conclude that they alone are close to the knowledge of truth. Yet they do not cry out in the ears of the masses the good deeds they do. Rather, they take care that no one should notice them. They hide their giving like someone who conceals a treasure he has found. They strive for righteousness because they live in the expectation of seeing Christ in his radiance and receiving from him the fulfillment of the promises he made to them. Take their writings and read in them, and you will see that I have not invented anything here and that I have not spoken as their partisan. Rather, through reading their writings I came to these firm convictions, also regarding the future things to which they bear witness. It is for this reason that I felt urged to declare the truth to those who are ready for the truth and ready to seek the world of the future.

Aristides, Apology 15, 16; ca. A.D. 137.

Taken from: Arnold, Eberhardt. The Early Christians in Their Own Words, Farmington, PA: The Bruderhof Foundation, 2003.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity by Soong-Chan Rah

Another great resource for those interested in the Missional Church.  Below is the introduction to a review I wrote this past week.  If interested in the full-length review, click on this link: The Next Evangelicalism by Soong-Chan Rah: A Brief Review.

The twenty-first century has posed a wide variety of cultural challenges and changes for the Christian Church and related witness in the world. The ability of the church to adapt and respond to these changes without either lagging behind or surrendering to the culture will influence both the effectiveness and faithfulness of the Body of Christ. In Soong-Chan Rah’s, The Next Evangelicalism, he indicts the Christian church for a failure to keep pace with the rising cultural and ethnic diversity and the co-option of the gospel by dominant Western, white traditions. Rah terms this contemporary reality as the Western, white cultural captivity of the church. This captivity continues to infringe on the church’s ability to bear witness to the gospel within the increased demographic and cultural plurality of American Christianity. In The Next Evangelicalism, Soong-Chan Rah exposes the nature of the church’s exilic condition, underscores the pervasiveness of Western, white captivity in evangelical and emergent churches, and provides attestations to the next evangelicalism that derives from multicultural Christian communities. The collective work of The Next Evangelicalism provides a significant resource for the Christian church in its quest for liberation from imperialistic theology and colonialist paradigms that have co-opted the Christian prophetic and missional imaginations.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Free of Charge by Miroslav Volf: Excerpts from My Review

I recently read Free of Charge by Miroslav Volf for a course on Missional Theology.  A great text that refreshes and provokes the Christian theological and missional imagination related to giving and forgiving.  Here are portions of a review I wrote for this course...

The tendency within contemporary Christian literature is to draft and publish a text that is either theologically rich and spiritually disengaged or spiritually engaged and theologically naïve. In Miroslav Volf’s work, Free of Charge, he reminds the reader that it is not only possible, but also necessary to dismiss this dichotomy and generate reflections that enter into the sacred hybrid of the heart, soul, and mind of Christian spirituality. Free of Charge illuminates two of the central disciplines of the Christian faith, giving and forgiving, and calls both Christian individuals and communities to live into their related vocations, firmly rooted in the giving and forgiving nature of the Triune God. Miroslav Volf interweaves biblical texts, orthodox and reformed traditions, cultural illustrations, and personal anecdotes in efforts to lead the reader into the redemptive and reconciliatory work of God. In so doing, the reader, be they Christian or skeptic, is invited to enter into a fresh spiritual exercise that challenges a culture hesitant about grace.

Free of Charge explores the uniqueness of the Christian faith through the lens of two focal disciplines: giving and forgiving. In a culture obsessed with self-gratification, personal success, and individual achievement, no two ethical behaviors are more subversive. Volf writes:

Far too often, power- not fairness and certainly not generosity- is the name of the game. We assert ourselves and our own interests through raw physical strength, political connections, or loads of cash; through sexual prowess, sarcastic comments, lies and half-truths; through anything that can serve as a weapon in this low-grade war called life. We fight, and we often take spoils or go away defeated” (14).
This begs the questions, how does the gospel speak to a culture saturated in the self and unconcerned about the other? What is to be said about contemporary ideals that treat the other as a commodity to be expended versus as an attestation to the imago Dei? Moreover, how should God’s people live into their call to give and forgive in a culture stripped of grace? ....

Volf furthers his discussion on Christian giving through developed reflections related to how Christians should pursue generosity. Free of Charge’s discourse hinges on the contributions of Martin Luther who noted that God’s people are not only receivers of God’s good gifts, but also channels of God’s gifts to our neighbors (50). The new self inaugurated in Christian baptism underscores the higher calling of both individuals and communities who are to hold neighbors in need at the forefront of their hearts and minds:

To the extent that we are channels of gifts, however, we can’t just do with them as we please. They come to us with an ultimate name and address other than our own. Though in our hands, they are on their way elsewhere (60).
Furthermore, Christian giving is pursued in dialectic tension between the freedom and real obligation of individuals and communities. As Volf suggests, Christians are “rubbed” by the paradoxical nature of giving as both a free act of gratitude and an obligatory response to God’s free gift in Christ (65). Moreover, Volf illustrates Christian generosity as an exercise in realized eschatology whereby believers anticipate the “perfect exchange of gifts” between God and one another that characterizes the hoped-for world to come (70). The incarnation of this new humanity for the new creation targets the establishment of parity within “pervasive” manifestations of inequality (82), all motivated and shaped by the God whose “love spills over the rim of the Trinitarian circle of reciprocity” (73). In essence, Christians are to give as participants in the Triune God’s on-going work of redemption in the present creation in anticipation of the new creation yet to come....

While Volf’s approach to Christian giving is to be commended, his portrait of forgiveness is even more insightful.  He prefaces his discourse with an indictment on contemporary, Western culture, “If we could, we’d sue God, it seems, for having created a world in which bad things happen” (125).   That is to say, we live in a “kick-ass culture” (126) whereby our index fingers are pointed in accusation and our fists raised in pursuit of vengeance and retaliation.  This makes forgiveness a subversive and somewhat offensive discipline.  Nonetheless, Volf reinforces forgiveness as the only hope for a world in desperate need of reconciliation and peace, “to keep liberty we need grace. To live humanely we must learn to forgive” (125).  This forgiveness maintains a dialectic tension that, yes, names and condemns wrongdoing, but also and especially refuses to hold wrong-doings against wrong-doers for all eternity (129-130).  It is this dialectic that moves beyond vengeance and towards reconciliation...

A discussion on forgiveness would be incomplete unless it engaged the biblical theme of God’s wrath. However, we more often than not fear the wrath of God and related theology, unaware that without God’s wrath we are left with a world bathing in its own devastation and demise. In other words, God’s wrath is redemptive in that it condemns the evil of the world and then holds the wrong-doing not against the world, rather, in the death and resurrection of Christ, liberates it from such oppressive and evil realities. Volf offers insight to his personal reformation:

Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love (139).
This brings us full circle to Volf’s initial definition of forgiveness as that which condemns wrong-doing and refuses to hold wrong-doing against the wrong-doer. In other words, forgiveness demands the condemnation of evil and injustice, but it does not rest there. Instead, God’s forgiveness, which God’s people are replicate, moves out of wrathful condemnation and towards redemptive reconciliation. Unfortunately, this is where we stray as human beings, struggling to move beyond the “vengeful imagination” (159) and, in our quest for redemptive justice, find ourselves overcome by the evil we once opposed (Romans 12:21). In that vein, Volf reminds the reader that God’s forgiveness and grace is for even our worst of enemies.

As a whole, I found Free of Charge to be an excellent reflection on the Christian disciplines of giving and forgiving.  Furthermore, I appreciated Volf’s shameless approach that went beyond the spiritual kitsch[1]  offered in local bookstores. Volf explored God’s unfolding drama of redemption and reconciliation as not only future anticipations, but also present incarnations to be pursued by individuals and communities alike.  Furthermore, Volf’s work reminds the Christian that our emphasis on giving and forgiving stems neither from cultural idealism nor trendy altruism, rather from the nature and character of the Triune God whom we worship and proclaim with our lives and our lips.  Unfortunately, pop-theology has distorted the ethical and pragmatic postures of the Church and confused our motivations for witness and mission in and for the world.[2] That being said, the Church is indebted to Volf for his contribution to Christian literature and his service as a channel for God’s revelatory grace.

One final musing related to Volf’s Free of Charge regards the potential inferences for universal redemption. I should confess, I dare to hope that all of humanity might be saved [3] and continue to explore the biblical witness’ dialectic related to the matter. However, I could not help but assume that Volf shares a similar theological posture as he explores the implications of forgiveness. He writes:
There are no unforgiveable sins…There are no unforgiveable people…God’s forgiveness is not reactive- dependent on our repentance. It’s original, preceded and conditioned by absolutely nothing on our part…One died for all. Absolutely no one is excluded (179-180).
But the Scriptures are clear, I can hear my evangelical friends mutter. I would agree. The Scriptures are clear: limited and universal redemption are both possible readings of Scripture. However, Volf reminds the reader that regardless of one’s conviction on the matter, forgiveness comes neither through the faith of a converted believer, nor the merits of committed Christian. That is, God’s forgiveness is not reactive (179). Instead, forgiveness originates in the nature and character of God who is Trinity and the giving and forgiving that comes to the whole world “free of charge” (180). That being the case, the question remains, should the unrepentant be forgiven:
Forgiving the unrepentant is not an optional extra in the Christian way of life: it’s the heart of the thing. Why? Because God is such a forgiver and Christ forgave in such a way (209).
Said differently, the real victory in Christ comes in that neither death nor life, angels nor demons, principalities nor powers, the unrepentant nor ungracious, can be separated from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38-39). This should serve not as a threat to our theological systems. Instead, this should be our greatest hope and anticipation for even the worst of offenders, transformed participation in the new humanity and new creation that is already here and yet-to-come.

As I survey both my synopsis and related musings in response to Free of Charge, I am affirmed in my assessment that this text should be read by more congregations in journeys through Lent.  Volf’s thorough reflections on the giving and forgiving disciplines of Christian faith are fresh reminders to individuals and communities of our free obligations and missional vocations to replicate these gifts that originate in God as Trinity.  Free of Charge is neither lofty theology nor naïve spirituality.  Instead, the brilliance of this work comes in Volf’s ability to sojourn along with us in a theologically rich and spiritually engaged adventure.  Along the way, with Volf as our guide, we are encouraged to rest often as we not only digest the content, but also reform our character as participants within God’s unfolding drama of redemption and reconciliation. That being said, I look forward to future re-readings of this text, only next time within the context of a community, maybe during Lent.

[1] I love N.T. Wright’s tongue-and-cheek remark, “The church doesn’t have a monopoly on kitsch or sentimentalism, but if you want to find it, the church may well be the easiest place to start” (223).
[2] For example, the church has often pursued altruism instead of the gospel, leaning on the crutch of legislation instead of the incarnation of reciprocal giving mandated by the gospel. The law should be neither a prohibitory or motivating force behind the Church’s incarnation of the Triune God’s generosity. This is not to say that the church should not play a pivotal and prophetic role in unjust politics and social change; instead, it should pursue these very things as it moves towards the reign of God and in rhythm with the missional character of God.
[3]  I borrow this phrase in anticipation of reading Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved (1988).