Monday, April 29, 2013

Sentness Extends Authority: Exploring what it means to be sent.

Within the missional conversation there is a common mantra: “God is at work already in the world, we are called to join in with what He is already doing.”

I have always found this missional mantra helpful as a corrective to evangelicalism’s patterns of engaging the surrounding community. The evangelicalism of my youth saw engagement with those outside the church primarily through what we called one-on-one evangelism. Christians were sent out into the neighborhood as individuals armed with the truth. We were sent to proclaim the truth which usually meant giving a presentation of a particular gospel one on one to a lost person seeking a moment of conversion. There was little room for God’s work of restoring all things in that gospel presentation. And it always felt like the Christian carried the truth as his/her possession to those who didn’t have it. Once they received it, they would then be expected to come to our church. For many reasons (which I can’t go into here now) this approach is built on the back of a Christian society. It makes little to no sense for those worlds that are now post- Christendom culture.

And yet I remain unsatisfied with what has become the alternative approach to cultural engagement. This “missional mantra” of “joining in with what God is already doing” seems to imply that Christians bring nothing with them into the context to which he/she has been sent.  What then does it mean to be sent? As a result, we are left wandering looking for God assuming He is at work in anything in the world named justice. We end up exhausting ourselves in mission/social work/ good deeds because we have no theology as to how God’s reign/power/authority works in and around us (in a way that is not us).  We have become so worried, it seems, about colonialist imperialism, that we shy away from owning that Christians bring something with us into our neighborhoods and places of mission(society/culture /world etc.).

All of which leads me to the very dangerous but stunningly important point of this entire post: Sentness extends the authority of the Kingdom.  In “being sent” by God through Jesus by the Spirit into the neighborhood, we bring the authority of the Kingdom with us. Yet this does not deny that God is already at work and indeed Lord of the world. And this does not deny that this inbreaking authority is not ours and we can never be in control of it. In essence, when we accept our identity as being sent, we become carriers of the authority of the Kingdom. But this authority of Jesus Kingdom only becomes present when we as subjects submit to His rule and authority and let Him reign. The minute we pretend to be in control or own it or get coercive with it, it is gone. Nonetheless, our entry into a neighborhood, as people already in submission to His Lordship/Kingdom sets loose a dynamic in which God’s Kingdom can become materially manifest in a way in which it wasn’t before. This dynamic overcomes both colonialist pretension and accomodationist passivity.

Luke 10, John 20

There is a stunning array of passages in the New Testament which reference this dynamic. But let me just offer two. Luke 10 is a foundational missional text detailing Jesus’ “sending” of the seventy to every town and place (10.1). They are “sent” and told God is already working (“the harvest is plentiful – ready to be picked” 10.2). Yet they are told that when they proclaim the “Kingdom has come nigh” (10.9) that they speak in the authority of Jesus (10.16). When they return from the mission they are stunned at the authority of the Kingdom that has been let loose in and through them.  “Lord even the demons submit to us in your name” (v. 17). Jesus says he saw the powers of Satan fall in the midst of the gospel proclaimed. “See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes, and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy.” The power and authority of the Kingdom has been set loose in the sending. Yet Jesus says “don’t rejoice that the spirits submit to you, rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” In other words, it’s not your authority, rejoice that the authority of heaven was set loose through your participation in it as members.  The dynamic is brilliantly illustrated: even though God was at work already in these towns and villages, it was the presence of the sent ones in submission to his name(authority) that became the space for the inbreaking Kingdom to become manifest.

Likewise, in John 20:21 Jesus says, as his disciples are being deputized as the first apostles – the sent ones , “As the Father has sent me, so send I you.” Then he breathes upon them the Holy Spirit and says “receive ye the Holy Spirit, if you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven, and if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” This “binding and loosing” is the sign that indeed the authority of the Kingdom of heaven is being released with this sending. They are the keys to the kingdom (Matt 16.19). They are the sign that the Kingdom of God is breaking in (Matt 18.18).  “Binding and loosing” is the very authority of the King becoming manifest among flesh.

This manifest authority, the presence of Jesus via the Spirit, breaks in wherever space is cleared for his work or hospitality, with-ness, Kingdom prayer, reconciliation, the gifts of the Spirit and the contextual proclamation of the gospel.  We spent ch. 7 of Prodigal Christianity talking about this a little. I have a full book coming out on these practices and the dynamics surrounding them in 2014. But the point here is, God is surely already working there in this context, but the kingdom actually becomes visible when God’s people meet together submitting to it in time, place and context, i..e the neighborhood.

Some may say this domesticates the power of the Kingdom. It puts the Kingdom at our disposal and makes the church the keepers of the Kingdom. Not true. Because a.) God is already working in the world (outside the church), and b.) wherever God’s people come together to submit to his rule in time place or context, it becomes visible. BUt it only happens in a posture of submission. Once we do not submit, there is no more inbreaking Kingdom. The kingdom of God can never be controlled or possessed by God’s people (this is what triumphalism looks like). When we seek to control it God’s power leaves. An example of this loss is when the disciples failed to heal the epileptic in Mar 9 14ff. When the disciples asked “why could we not cast it out?” they correctly articulated that they had sought to take control of the authority as if it was theirs. Instead Jesus says (Mark 9:29) “this kind comes out only by prayer:” by submission to God, His Kingdom and His will.

And so the dynamic of entering the context as sent one does not merely entail that God is already working and all we have to do is join in, although that is true. It is not that we bring something that we control. No we enter a context as God’s people humbly contextually to submit to God’s power as His subjects to become the space and to clear the space in which God’s Kingdom can break in. In the process we become witnesses by which the rest of the neighborhood can see and join in.  In this marvelous dynamic, the manifestations of the Kingdom break out ahead of the time when the whole world shall see the culmination of all things in Gods Kingdom.

This then is what I mean when I say “Sentness extends authority.”

Sunday, April 28, 2013

On Creation and Killing Canaanites: One Simple, Hardly Worth Mentioning (but I feel that I should) Thought
April 28, 2013 By peteenns 2 Comments

In recent months, these two issues–creation and Canaanite extermination–have been among the more heat-producing that I have dealt with on this blog. Today, I want to make one simple point that concerns both of these issues, and others like it.

Nothing creative or profound. Pretty standard stuff, actually, though when push comes to shove (literally) in controversial issues, it is often the first we lose sight of.

Here it is: Ancient context matters—a lot.

So, when the debate is about whether Christianity and evolution can co-exist, the conversation often turns immediately to the very interesting canonical, theological, and philosophical factors that arise for Christianity if evolution is true and there is no first couple.

Of course, these factors are vitally important, must be brought to the table, and require our full attention. But far too often these factors are raised in happy isolation from the historical/literary factor of the ancient Near Eastern context that gave us these texts–as if the conversation can simply proceed without considering what the Adam story is doing from the point of view of an ancient mindset.

Seeing Genesis as an expression of ancient theology, asking ancient questions, and giving ancient answers, would necessarily reframe theological discussions of origins that are otherwise too commonly locked in abstractions and categories of thought that have little to no grounding in the biblical narratives themselves.

Put another way, when I see discussions of how or whether biblical Christianity and evolution can co-exist but that leave to the side how these ancient texts functioned in antiquity, I get nervous.

The same idea hold for Canaanite extermination (and here). At least as much as creation, this topic often leaps immediately to what we think God can, can’t, should, would, or must do, based on alleged immutable starting points: his character, holiness, righteousness, etc.

Again, all fine and good, but when we look at the Canaanite genocide stories within the ancient context in which they are written, speculations of God are tempered.

Once we see that Yahweh’s actions toward the Canaanites are like that of the gods of other nations toward their enemies, the discussion cannot continue as before. A vital historical contextual factor is brought into our speculative theological and philosophical musings.

We can talk about God’s actions toward the Canaanites within the parameters of the canon or carefully worded categories of dogmatics and systematic theology. But once we see that Chemosh, god of the Moabites, tells king Mesha (or better, Mesha tells us what Chemosh told him) to take Nebo from the Israelites and “put to the ban” the entire population–and that the word “ban”  corresponds precisely to the Hebrew word for the same sort of behavior–well, it puts the theological and philosophical discussion on a whole different level.

So, the question, “Why would God command the Israelites to exterminate the Canaanites?” cannot be addressed in an intramural theological back-and-forth. It must also include this little bit of historical information: Yahweh’s actions are not unique but seem part of an ancient way of thinking.

Maybe that’s the best way to sum up what I’m saying here: theological discussions about biblical interpretation must be in conversation with ancient ways of thinking.

Told you. Not very profound. But then again, I feel like I need to keep saying it.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Critique of Empire, Warning to the Church

April 24, 2013
In Reading Revelation Responsibly, Michael Gorman brilliantly captures Revelation’s critique of civil religion that undergirds empire:

Revelation is a critique of civil religion (first of all, but not only, Roman civil religion), that is, the sacralization of secular political, economic, and military power through various mythologies and practices—creeds and liturgies, we might say—and the corollary demand for allegiance to that power.

Because civil religion is so closely connected with power, it often appears in extreme forms in empires and empire-like states (e.g., modern superpowers), grounded in the assumption that expansion and victory (in war or otherwise) are signs of divine blessing and protection, and in the common belief that god is on the side of the powerful.  At the same time, however, civil religion is not exclusively the property of empires and superpowers; it is also to be found in former empires, would-be superpowers, ordinary states, and even poor, developing nations.  Human beings seem to have a need to attribute a sacred, or at least quasi-sacred character to their political bodies, their rulers, and the actions of those entities.  One tragic but frequent result is the sacralization of one’s own people, whether nation, race, or tribe, and the demonization of the other.  Out of such religion comes a culture of hatred and even violence.  We know far too many examples of this in modern times (pp. 47-48).

He concludes this section by focusing the critique of empire as a warning to the church as it faces the seductions of civil religion (p. 56):

Is Revelation a critique of empire?  Yes—but that is not its ultimate theopolitical function.  The fate of empire is certain; what is uncertain is the fate of those who currently participate in the cult of empire.  The more significant critique is the critique of the church, and specifically of its participation in the idolatry of the imperial cult, the civil or national religion.  Will the churches repent?  For the churches, one main question emerges: “Beast or Lamb?”

It’s impossible to read Gorman without sensing the power of Revelation for the contemporary American church–not as an object of fascination and speculation, but as urgent prophetic warning

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

(RNS) I wonder if social isolation — not extremist religion or Chechen roots — explains the two brothers who set off bombs during the Boston Marathon, killing three and wounding more than 170.

The older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was quoted as saying “I don’t have a single American friend, I don’t understand them.” One emerging theory is that, he dealt with isolation in America by seeking his heritage in Chechnya and there, some think, found purpose in violence against his unwelcoming home.

In feeling isolated, the alleged bomber isn’t alone. Isolation is the new normal in America.

More than one in four Americans have no friends for sharing troubles, a recent study of social isolation found. Those who do have friends tend to have only two. Just half of Americans believe they can count on anyone outside their home for support. Less than one in 10 counts the neighbor next door as a confidant.
Researchers blame television, long commutes and long hours at work to make ends meet. Other factors include aging in place and feeling isolated among new and younger neighbors; being immigrants and non-English speakers struggling to assimilate; feeling cut off from society by illness, physical abnormalities, race, gender and sexuality.

Give credit also to rampant sexual abuse and its lifetime consequence of shame and feeling different, as well as social disruption caused by lost marriages and broken families. Unemployment tends to drive people indoors or into part-time jobs away from their usual circles.

It takes an event like the Boston bombings or recent shootings for us to see how some angry, isolated people are taking refuge in weapons, and dream of revenge.

It’s a wonder that we don’t have more outbreaks of rage and violence. If isolation corrodes the soul and stokes the fires of self-loathing and resentment, we shouldn’t be surprised when some loners — from bullied teens to poorly welcomed immigrants to the jobless to desperately lonely elderly — take arms against their troubles.

It makes me sad when I see churches close their doors to protect their assets, when they could be opening themselves to the isolated, and easing the loneliness. Many social service agencies are cutting back because of funding gaps.

Yet it makes me glad when I see people banding together in women’s support groups, small faith communities, lunch buddies, church choirs, cycling groups, exercise circles — the many ways we are able to get outside ourselves.

Small steps can go a long way. For example, as our church prepared to bring gospel music legend Richard Smallwood to New York to direct singers from Park Avenue Church and Marble Collegiate Church, we knew it would sell out.

Three leaders of Lifeline, our recovery ministry, bought a block of 12 tickets for residents of Greenhope Services for Women, an extraordinary residential program in East Harlem for women seeking recovery from addiction. Several attend Lifeline.

We wanted them to feel connected with a world of sobriety and sanity, to know that life offers more than just the rough times and isolation they have known.

Not just by attending a concert, of course. There are no magic bullets in addiction — or in any of life’s
agonies — and no single-shot events. “One day at a time” takes work all the time.

Few of us go to the extremes of building bombs or carrying assault rifles into schools. But the acid of isolation is still there, eating away at our social fabric.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Habits that Name Us

Some practices or habits we engage in are thin, like exercising or brushing our teeth. We do these habits toward a particular end, to be in shape and have clean teeth. Thin practices don’t touch on our identity. “It would be an odd thing, for instance, for me to think of myself first and foremost as a ‘tooth brusher.’ These practices or habits don’t touch our love or fundamental desire.”

Thick practices or (liturgies) are rituals of ultimate concern, rituals that are identity-forming and telos-laden, that embed particular visions of the good life, and do so in a way that seeks to trump other ritual formations.

So what kind of liturgies do the people in the congregation you serve in embody? How do they increase people’s honesty and love for God? How do they help shape people for God’s purposes in the world?

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Angry God, What kind of person? 

Apr 21, 2013 @ 13:31 By 4 Comments
From Stephen C. Webster:
People who believe in an angry, punishing God are much more likely to suffer from a variety of mental illnesses, a scientific study published in the April edition of Journal of Religion & Health finds.
The study, conducted by Marymount Manhattan College Assistant Psychology Professor Nava Silton, used data from the 2010 Baylor Religion Survey of US Adults to examine the links between beliefs and anxiety disorders like social dysfunction, paranoia, obsession and compulsion.
To do this, Silton viewed the data through the lens of what’s calledEvolutionary Threat Assessment System Theory, which posits that parts of the brain specifically evolved to detect threats, and suggests that many anxiety disorders may be a result of dysfunction in the brain’s perception of those threats.
In keeping with prior studies on this very subject, she queried the data on three types of believers: those who see God as angry, those who see God as neutral and those who see God as loving. Controlling specifically to weed out the non-believers, Silton found that a belief in a forgiving, loving God is associated with positive psychological traits, “almost protecting against psychopathology,” she told Raw Story.
But for those who think God is angry and preparing punishments for sinners, “that belief seems to be very much related to these negative symptoms,” Silton said.
“If you look at the previous research, they’ve connected it to depression and all sorts of other psychiatric disorders,” she said. “We were looking at social phobia, obsession, compulsion, paranoia and a lot of features of anxiety disorders.”