Sunday, November 30, 2014

Accepted, Respected, Expected: Profile of Christian Existence

In this country we live in a Christian culture well-described by the late Dallas Willard as promoting a gospel of “sin-management.”  Perhaps it’s because it was birthed in frontier revivalism with its dualism of body and soul.  The latter was the important thing about us and hence, “soul-saving” (getting people into heaven) was the overriding (only?) task of the Christian.  The barrier to this was “sin.”  Therefore we became sin-obsessed.  We saw ourselves as forgiven sinners (which we are – thank God!).

This was Billy Graham’s burden in his evangelistic crusades and, in a different key, it was the message of philosophical theologian Paul Tillich is his famous essay “You are Accepted” in his book Shaking the Foundations.  After quoting Paul’s claim that where sin abounds grace superabounds (Rom.5:20), Tillich writes:  “These words of Paul summarize his apostolic experience, his religious message as a whole, and the Christian standing of life” (

As important, crucial, necessary, gracious, and non-negotiable as God’s unconditional acceptance of us in Christ is, it remains but the first word in living faithfully as a Christian.  A first word we never outgrow or leave behind, to be sure, but a word that if made the whole of our life with God stunts our growth and leaves us infantilized.  And I believe this is what has happened in much American Christianity.

The key here is the phrase “in Christ.”  Irenaeus of Lyon, the great second century theologian, in his book Against Heresies wrote: 

“[Christ] was in these last days, according to the time appointed by the Father, united to His own workmanship, inasmuch as He became a man liable to suffering ... He commenced afresh the long line of human beings, and furnished us, in a brief, comprehensive manner, with salvation; so that what we had lost in Adam—namely, to be according to the image and likeness of God—that we might recover in Christ Jesus.”

Athanasius, an important fourth century theologian put it more concisely: “He became what we are so that he might make us what he is.”

Paul’s favorite phrase “in Christ” is what Irenaeus means by “salvation” – the recovery of the “image and likeness of God” and what Athanasius means by us being made “what he is.”

And that is much more than seeing oneself as a forgiven sinner.  God accepts us fully and unconditionally as the sinners we have become.  But his intent is that we are restored to the humans we he created us to be.

Accepted in Christ is thus but a first moment in believing existence.  Indispensable yet incomplete by itself.  A second moment is that God has respected us in Christ.  He treats us as the beings he made and redeemed us to be.  Forgiven sinners is not an identity that will foster growth in us because it does not correspond to reality in Christ.  Karl Barth gets it right in the chapter on the resurrection of Jesus in his Dogmatics in Outline:

“. . . he is translated into the kingdom of God’s dear Son. That means that his position, his condition, his legal status as a sinner is rejected in every form. Man is no longer seriously regarded by God as a sinner. Whatever he may be, whatever there is to be said of him, whatever he has to reproach himself with, God no longer takes him seriously as a sinner. He has died to sin; there on the Cross of Golgotha. He is no longer present for sin. He is acknowledged before God and established as a righteous man, as one who does right before God. As he now stands, he has, of course, his existence in sin and so in its guilt; but he has that behind him. The turn has been achieved, once for all . . . Man is in Christ Jesus, who has died for him, in virtue of His Resurrection, God’s dear child . . . may live by and for the good pleasure of God.” (121-122)

God respects his own handiwork and purpose in us and his costly redemption and restoration of us to, as Irenaeus put it above (echoing Genesis), “the image and likeness of God.”  He treats us in Christ as he created us to be:  his image-bearing royal priests to whom he entrusted the responsibility for reflecting his will and way throughout creation and caring for the creation’s well-being. And it is folly, perhaps even blasphemy, to regard ourselves as other than that!

Finally, in Christ responsibility comes with response-ability.  We are now expected, the third moment in our profile of Christian existence, to live like those royal priests in the world.  What God gives us to do, we can do.  By grace, of course.  Thus it was always meant to be.  God never envisioned us doing what he wants us to do on our own.  That’s what the “tree of life” in the Garden of Eden means.  Our life source and energy comes from God’s life in us.  All we can do by ourselves is sin! But accepted and respected in Christ, we are also expected now to live as who we are.

All this is why I claimed earlier that to live only as accepted stunts our growth as believers.  It leaves us in the position of forgiven sinners, which is great as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough.  It does not go as far as God goes, which is as far as we should go too.  We never enter into the fullness of life God has for us here and now. Instead we stay trapped in a holding pattern, often called “at the same time a sinner and justified,” thinking we will always be “treading water” between sin and faith.  Now while this slogan captures a certain truth, it needs to be reformulated to indicate that there is no equilibrium between sin and faith but rather an asymmetrical relation.  Sin, while still a reality for us is passing away, while faithfulness is growing to be more and more real in our lives.  And we can only claim and live that out if we embrace the profile outlined here:  accepted, respected, expected!

St. Nicholas: what can I say, he was a beast


St.-NicholasIn church today, our rector handed out a card with a icon of St. Nicholas, similar to the one on the left.

On the back of the card read the following:
Nicholas was born in the 3rd century in Asia Minor. He used his entire inheritance to help the poor, sick, and children in need. He gave in secret, expecting nothing in return. He attended the Council of Nicea in AD 325. Greatly loved for his faith, compassion and care, he is venerated in both East and West.

OK., that’s pretty cool. He gave away his entire inheritance to those in need. I never knew that. I thought he had elves helping him or something, but I guess I got that part wrong.

The rest of the card really hit me and made me feel stupid and cheated for never having been taught this as a child.

Nicholas saved young women from slavery, protected sailors, spared innocents from excecution, provided grain in a famine and rescued a kidnaped boy.

Nicholas was a beast. Mother Teresa, Oskar Schindler, and Samuel L. Jackson all rolled into one. What an absolute crushing beast.

I like the icon–his eyes. He is looking off to the side, like he’s annoyed about having to sit there for a portrait while people in need were suffering.

Can you imagine how he would react to what he has become in our contemporary society?
Read more:

Saturday, November 29, 2014

10 Reasons to Follow the Liturgical Calendar


Happy New Year!
Well, almost.
With the arrival of Advent this upcoming week, I’ve been thinking a bit about the benefits of following the Christian year. I’ll admit that this is a tradition I once disregarded with sneers of haughty derision. But over the past decade, I’ve grown to see the liturgical year as one of the more important of our Christian traditions. Here are a few reasons why.
  1. It reminds us that we are a people set apart, and as such our lives aren’t oriented around nominal civic holidays and observances. When I was growing up in Baptistland, I never heard of the liturgical calendar. Church just wasn’t organized that way. Oh sure, we had our annual 6-week Christmas celebration, and Easter was a fairly big deal. But next to those, the biggest “feasts” we celebrated were Independence Day, Mothers Day, and Fathers Day, and Thanksgiving (and in that order). Most of the year was spent in a sort of liturgical purgatory; a perpetual ordinary time without the guidance of any real Christian organization, and revolving around whatever the pastor wanted. But as Christians, we serve a higher throne, and our purpose in gathering together isn’t ever nationalism, cultural pride, or sentimentality. I love grilling on a warm summer evening, but the 4th of July has nothing to do with the Christian story, and neither do fond remembrances of mom and dad, or commemorating that one time the Pilgrims let the Native Americans dine at their table.
  2. It distinguishes our holy days from their secular knock-off celebrations. I do love many things about this time of year. The weather, hitting the mall late into the evening, holiday parties, watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (“Where’s the Tylenol?”). But, as fun and exciting as these things can be, the discipline of the church year helps us realize that these things are merely periphery.
3.  It organizes and shapes our lives by the Christian story, instead of the things the kingdom of the world holds valuable. Our lives are divided up into semesters, work schedules, electric bills, tax deadlines. Intentionally choosing a gospel-centered organization system helps us to maintain our first allegiance to Christ and his kingdom. Want to keep Christ in Christmas? Stop worry being the “Happy Holidays” police or petitioning to keep the nativity scene on City Hall lawn. We serve a throne that calls us to rise above that noise.


Dis Town


The dumbing down of smart -- and Washington.

Americans have an uncomfortable relationship with smart. They are perfectly happy to celebrate genius, provided it doesn't make them uncomfortable or require too much of them. They are more concerned that their children get into college than they are that those kids are graded against the kind of tough standards that might ensure understanding of important concepts. Once in college, students often really have to screw up to get a D or an F. I taught graduate school for a number of years, and I practically had to alert psychological counselors if I gave anyone anything below a B.

This phenomenon was once described as "the dumbing down of America." And in recent years, the trend has accelerated. One particularly odious element of it is what might be called pop intellectualism. Big, buzzy ideas are boiled down into short books that provide more cocktail-party conversation than significant concepts that require a little work to grasp. Think The Tipping Point and The Black Swan. (For real heavyweights, there's always the biography of Steve Jobs or recent, popular volumes by Thomas Piketty and Henry Kissinger to leave on the coffee table and make an impression. Because let's be clear, more people buy these books as fashionable accessories, not for what's on their pages.)

Worse still is the whole TED talks phenomenon, which offers the intellectual equivalent of diets in which someone can lose 10 pounds in two weeks without giving up ice cream sundaes or pizza. In just 18 minutes, a person can be exposed to breathlessly earnest genius -- a slickly marketed brand of chicken nuggets for the brain. The talks enable non-scientists and non-technologists to feel smart, but that is not the same as actually being smart or, alternatively, feeling dumb in the way that hard ideas sometimes make you feel -- and should -- when you first encounter them.

Perhaps worst among the consequences of the dumbing down of America is the hyper-politicization of discourse. This has led to the rise of media outlets and debates that are tailored to specific audiences who seek out viewpoints that support already-held beliefs. (The notion that beliefs are more important than actual knowledge is a byproduct or perhaps a driver of all this.) So people watching or reading the news tend not to see both sides of any issue -- much less issues that have more than two sides. Litmus tests and the ability to articulate already-popular views are valued more than what is really new or challenging.


Karl Barth on Philosphy and Theology

(from Bobby Grow)

Student: What is the relation of the Church to the world, with its science and philosophy? Why is dogmatics necessary for fruitful contact and conversation?

Barth: You speak of conversation, but what does this mean? Conversation takes place when one party has something new and interesting to say to the other. Only then is conversation an event. One must say something engaging and original, something with an element of mystery. The Church must sound strange to the world if it is not to be dull. The Church’s language has its own presuppositions. The Gospel is good news, news that is not known. Even we Christians will find ourselves in conflict with the Gospel, for it is always news and new for us too. The secularized Church is peaceful, but not a light in the world. The Church must be salt and light, but in order to be these, it must clarify its presuppositions. Thus the necessity of dogmatics! Even philosophers will not listen to a theologian who makes concessions, who is half-philosopher himself. But when you ring the bell of the Gospel, philosophers will listen! For the past two centuries most theologians have been cowards, and the result was that the philosophers despised them. There is no reason for theologians to be afraid. We may read philosophers (and we should!) without accepting their presuppositions. We may listen respectfully (I have a holy respect for a good philosopher!). We can learn much from philosophy and science. But as theologians we must be obedient to the Word.

[Karl Barth’s Table Talk, ed. John Godsey, p. 19. Originally published by John Knox Press in 1963.]



dark waters
The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters. Genesis 1:2
In post-Ferguson America, now more than ever, we must rescue Advent from its Western cultural captivity. I sigh with relief when I’m reminded that Advent isn’t what so many of us think it is. We’ve been tricked by chocolate-filled Advent calendars and blissful Christmas pageants that gloss over the very real evil that makes the Messiah’s coming so very necessary, so very loving, and so very heroic.

Advent isn’t a holiday party. It doesn’t pressure us to conjure up a hopeful face, ring bells, and dismiss the foulest realities we face. Advent isn’t about our best world, it’s about our worst world. I think we eat the chocolate and put on the pageants because we don’t want to face the worst.

But we do the Light a disservice when we underestimate the darkness. Jesus entered a world plagued not only by the darkness of individual pain and sin, but also by the darkness of systemic oppression. Jesus’ people, the Hebrews, were a subjugated people living as exiles in their own land; among other things, they were silenced, targets of police brutality, and exploitatively taxed. They were a people so beaten down by society that only a remnant – most notably Anna and Simeon  – continued to believe that the Messianic prophecies would one day come to pass. For many, the darkness of long-standing oppression had extinguished any hope for liberation.

It was into this “worst world” that the Light-in-which-We-See-Light was born, liberating the people from the terror of darkness. So it is in the midst of our worst world that we, too, can most clearly see the Light, for light shines more brightly against a backdrop of true darkness.


First Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 63:16b-17, 19b, 64:2-7
Psalm 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:33-37

Advent’s familiar themes of waiting and hopeful expectation have a different ring this year.
“Waiting” works if you live in a world where you know that a little more patience generally would do you good. “Hopeful expectation” has a pleasant enough sound if your life is going reasonably well at the moment.

But how do these admonitions sound–“wait!” “be patient!”–in a context of violence and despair, of deprivation and gross inequality? What does “hopeful expectation” sound like, look like in places where justice has long been delayed, meaning, of course, that justice has been denied?

What if you’re sick of waiting?

What if your patience has run out?

What if you have no hope?

Is it possible that affluent churches in nice neighborhoods (or even churches of modest means in safe communities) often make of Advent an aesthetic: a carefully rendered “experience”–beautiful, tasteful, moving–while missing or at least masking its intimate, immediate connections to our messy, broken, violent world?

How do the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri–in all of their heart-breaking complexity–remind us that we are called to something more, invited to see that Advent is rooted in Israel’s and the early Christians’ longing for justice, for reconciliation, restoration, wholeness? And that this longing was not an in-the-meantime passive acceptance of the status quo but an active participation in the work of healing and hope?

In Christopher Nolan’s film Interstellar, the mess that humans have made of their lives–personally, collectively–is met with the realization that everything is connected, that “quantum entanglement” names not only the behavior of subatomic particles but the nature of being human. (Is there something to the idea that, beyond our love of physics–relativity, singularity, black holes, worm holes, the fifth dimension–physics is ultimately about love?)

We tangle and are entangled.


Thursday, November 27, 2014

Michael Brown's death and the prophetic fire


In the aftermath of a precious life lsot, a movement emerges


Wednesday, November 26, 2014, 7:00 PM

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. — The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

On Monday night at 9 p.m., I (Peter) boarded a JetBlue red-eye in San Diego to fly back to JFK from talking about prophetic witness all weekend at the American Academy of Religion meeting, the annual national gathering of religion educators in North America.

Somewhere between consciousness and unconsciousness, I watched Fox News and CNN spread images of flaming buildings and smashed windows all across the nation in light of the grand jury’s decision on the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

Yet Fox and CNN missed the real story and the real fire in Ferguson. The true fire is burning in the hearts of a movement that has emerged in the wake of the destruction of Michael Brown’s precious life.

It’s a prophetic fire in our hearts that is finished with a nation that ignores the legacy of treating black and brown people as property, while obsessing over the property destruction that is the understandable outcome of human anguish and moral outrage.


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Rambling through Romans (27): 5:6-11

While we were still weak, at the right moment, Christ died for ungodly people. It isn’t often that someone will die for a righteous person, though maybe someone might dare to die for a good person. But God shows his love for us, because while we were still sinners Christ died for us. So, now that we have been made righteous by his blood, we can be even more certain that we will be saved from God’s wrath through him. 10 If we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son while we were still enemies, now that we have been reconciled, how much more certain is it that we will be saved by his life? 11 And not only that: we even take pride in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, the one through whom we now have a restored relationship with God.

Weak, ungodly – that’s how we were in our autonomy, our “damned” independence from God.  Yet even then Christ died for us.  We weren’t righteous, and far from good (the kind of person someone might actually die for!).  But while we were doing our best to break away from him, God’s love overtook us anyway in the death of his Son.

Having been reconciled with God through Christ’s ultimate act of love, we realize that he has saved us from God’s wrath too!  Luke Johnson tells us what God’s “wrath” is:

“. . . it is precisely the sort of expression that would have been instantly grasped by Paul’s first hearers but seems puzzling and off-putting to present-day readers.

 The ‘wrath of God’ (orge tou theou) is not a psychological category but a symbol (widely used in Torah) for the retribution that comes to humans as a result of their willful turning away from God; indeed, it is a concept that derives precisely from the prophetic warnings against idolatry (see Isa 51:7; Jer 6:11; 25:25; Hos 13:11; Zeph 1:15).

Although it plays a thematic role in Romans (2:5, 8; 3:5; 4:15; 5:9; 9:22; 12:19), it is used elsewhere by Paul as well for the eschatological (‘final’) threat that looms over those who oppose God. 

God’s wrath is therefore the symbol for the destruction that humans bring on themselves by rebelling against the truth. For those alienated from the ground of their own being, even God’s mercy appears as ‘anger.’ It is a retribution that results, not at the whim of an angry despot but as the necessary consequences of a self-distorted existence.” (

It is from “the necessary consequences of a self-distorted existence” that Christ has saved us through his death.

If God was pleased for us to be reconciled to him even when we were “spitting in his face,” is it any wonder that since Christ now lives he will take us up into his life and we will experience salvation to the fullest?

Though boasting is not usually a good thing (because we usually boast about what we have accomplished), but this thing God has done for us in Christ, this unbelievably goodness he has graciously sent our way, we can and will boast in that.  Forever!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

#ChurchTrending: How Trendy Was St Paul?


0 Sidenotes

How “trendy” was St. Paul? An analysis of his life and letters shows us a very culturally-aware and culturally-engaged apostle who was well-traveled, conversant in the idioms and ideas of various cultures, able to interact with popular poetry and philosophy, and eager to use symbolism from sports, war, and theater.+
And yet, and this is perhaps the most important thing to know about Paul as apostle at large, he was remarkably un-trendy in his perspective on honor and power. You see, in Paul’s world, the hottest commodity was honor or reputation. It wasn’t dying with the most toys that mattered – it was dying with the highest number of honors recognized by the most number of people, popularity through status and virtue. Sometimes a concern with honor can be a very good thing, like a business “priding itself” on fine craftsmanship or excellent, trustworthy service. However, good “pride” can all-too-easily turn into greed and self-absorption wrapped up in the paper of “reputation.” While many first century people tried to position themselves as superior in the great race for honors in culture, Paul was far too busy being untrendy in the work of the gospel. Here are four ways Paul was noticeably “untrendy.”+

Paul promoted hard work, not high positions.

One of the funny things about the earliest Christian leadership positions is that we have very few descriptions of them. Part of the reason for this, I think, is that leaders like Paul focused less on the “office” of the elder or pastor and more on the work and character of leaders. In 1 Thessalonains 5:12, Paul tells the church to respect those who “labor among you.” They are not told to respect these as “bosses,” but to acknowledge and honor the work and the workers who serve the people. This would have been noticeably untrendy in a world where you worked your way up to less labor-intensive positions. Is there not a message in here for us today? I am afraid too many Christians (pastors included) think that being a grace-filled community and people means that we can let hard work slide, especially when we can rest on our position’s “privileges.” Paul does not recognize “high” and “low” jobs, but he does differentiate between the hard working and the lazy (2 Thess 3:10-12).+

Paul valued transparency and integrity, not bright lights and entertainment.

Paul’s ministry was not attractive because of his showiness. He did not fill a stadium or make headlines (at least not in a good way!). His messages weren’t heart-warming in the “chicken soup for the soul” way. He was given a hearing because he spoke words of truth, words that pierced the soul. He was a “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” kind of guy.+
It is all the rage to be a polished communicator in our culture (just as it was in Paul’s), to look and act the part of the super-pastor – impervious to doubt, pain, problems, weakness. By contrast, Paul shows surprising intimacy and warmth that can be nothing but genuine. He shows meekness and vulnerability. He tells the Thessalonians – we felt so strongly about you – how could we not hand over to you, not just the good-news message about God, but even our deepest, most vulnerable and sensitive selves. Why? Because you became a community we fell in love with and cared for like family (paraphrase of 1 Thess 2:8).+
It is one thing for a pastor to say, from a stage looking out onto a dark auditorium with the undifferentiated faces of the masses, “I care about you.” It is another thing for him or her to really get to know them and say it, that this is real affection borne out of intimate and vital communion. That happens to be untrendy (because leaders might appear too needy and broken, rather than independent and perfect), but, in the end, extremely gratifying when you catch a glimpse of real “wounded healers.”+


Honor the Outrage: A Reflection on 1 Corinthians 6 and the Ferguson Grand Jury Decision

Posted on 11.25.2014

In 1 Corinthians 6 Paul chastises the members of the Corinthian church for taking each other to court. Suing each other was one of the many ways that church expressed and experienced disunity.

We don't know why the members of the Corinthian church were taking each other to court. But scholars are relatively confident that the lawsuits were being brought by the wealthier members of the church against the poorer members.

Given the power structure at play in Corinthian society the legal system "worked" for the wealthy and disadvantaged the poor and less privileged. Thus, lawsuits could be used by the wealthy to get their way.

In his book Conflict & Community in Corinth Ben Witherington describes the situation and its relevance for the problems Paul calls out in 1 Corinthians 6:
From at least the time of Augustus certain people--fathers, patrons, magistrates, and men of standing--were basically immune from prosecution for fraud by some kinds of other people--children, freedmen, private citizens, and men of low rank. Only if the lower status person had a powerful patron was there a likelihood that he or she could bring suit against someone higher up the social ladder...

To the wealthy, well-born, and well-connected went the chief rewards of the legal system, along with many of the other benefits available in society. There was a strongly aristocratic bias to the whole culture. Justice during the empire was far from blind and was often looking over its shoulder.

The importance for this for 1 Corinthians 6 is that at the very least one or both of the Christians going to court were probably well-to-do and hoping to exploit the judicial system to their advantage.
I'm bringing attention to the situation in 1 Corinthian 6 as I think it is relevant to how the White and Black communities are and will be responding to the Ferguson grand jury decision to not indict officer Derran Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown.

Specifically, and eerily similar to the situation in Corinth, the church is being split by how it judges the fairness and integrity of the legal system.

Similar to how the wealthy and powerful members of the Corinthian church viewed their legal system, many Whites in the US view the American legal system as "working." This is, by and large, because legal systems tend to advantage privileged groups. Then and now.

By contrast, and similar to how the poor and less powerful members of the Corinthian church viewed their legal system, many Blacks in the US view the American legal system as "broken." This is, by and large, because legal systems tend to stack the deck against disadvantaged groups. Justice isn't blind but biased. To say nothing of how legal systems are often straightforwardly antagonistic and hostile toward disadvantaged group, tools of injustice and oppression.

Thus we have two groups of believers--the rich and the poor in Corinth and Whites and Blacks in America--with divergent views of the legal system resulting in disunity within the church.

For White America the justice system "works." Consequently, the grand jury decision not to indict Derran Wilson is trustworthy. The system did its job so we should abide by the decision. Justice has been done.

For Black America the justice system is and has been "broken." Consequently, there is no reason to trust the grand jury decision. The system is rigged. Always has been. No way justice was going to be done in this instance.

I want to be clear. From an evidential and legal standpoint I cannot say if the decision to not indict Derran Wilson was appropriate. I wasn't on the grand jury.

What I am talking about are the perceptions of trust Whites and Blacks have of the US legal system and how those perceptions affect the unity of the church in light of how we are responding to the news coming out of Ferguson. I especially want to draw attention to how many White Christians will harshly judge and condemn the outrage within the Black community regarding the grand jury decision. Many White Christians will ask, Why all the anger and outrage? The rule of law was followed, the grand jury did its job, the system worked.

But this easy confidence that the system "worked" is a luxury of the privileged. It is the same easy confidence that allowed the wealthy members of the Corinthian church to expect justice to break in their favor when they took their brothers and sisters to court.

The Corinthian church experienced division and disunity because its members had very different opinions about the degree to which the legal system was trustworthy versus broken, the degree to which the system was biased for or against them. The privileged and powerful trusted the system because it worked for them. And the same holds true for White America today. And you abide by decisions you trust.

But the less privileged and powerful in Corinth distrusted the system because it worked against them. And the same holds true for Black America today. And it is difficult to abide by decisions you deeply distrust.

And as these opinions divided the Corinthian church they divide the American church today.

So what's the solution?

I think one answer in moving toward greater unity is the same one Paul gives later in the book in 1 Corinthians 12. In that chapter Paul succinctly says, "But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body."

Unity is achieved by giving greater honor to the members of the church that lack it.

Unity is achieved in the church by rehabilitative honoring, caring and respecting, with the privileged and powerful giving greater honor and care--not balanced or equal honor and care but greater honor and care--to those who have lacked privilege, prestige, power or status.

And whatever that might mean for White Christians today I think it means at least this much, that we honor the outrage.

Agree or disagree, you honor and show care for the outrage.

Why Atonement?

As an example of an especially articulate use of this analogy for the Atonement, here is Shirley Guthrie (1927-2004), longtime professor of systematic theology at Columbia Theological Seminary:
If God loves and forgives us already, why atonement at all? Why did Jesus have to sacrifice himself to “pay the price”? Why did not God just say, “I forgive you,” and let it go at that?
We can catch a glimpse of the answer with an analogy in human relationships. Suppose I have done something that deeply hurts a friend, and he says so me, “That’s OK. It doesn’t make any difference. Forget it.” Has he forgiven me? What he has really said is: “I don’t really care enough about you to be touched by anything you say or do. You are not that important to me.” Not only that; he leaves me alone with the awareness of my guilt. He lets me “stew in my own juice,” refusing to help me by letting me know that he suffers not only because of what I have done to him but because he knows how I feel and can share with me my shame and guilt.
Good-natured indulgence and broad-mindedness, in other words, are not forgiveness and love but indifference and sometimes even hostility. Real love and forgiveness mean caring enough to be hurt, caring enough to put oneself in the other’s shoes and sharing his guilt as if it were one’s own. Real love and forgiveness are costly — not in the sense that the guilty must squeeze them out of the injured, but in the sense that the injured freely participates in a guilt not his own.
[Christian Doctrine (Richmond, VA: CLC Press, 1968), 253. It is currently published in the revised 1994 edition from WJK Press.]


Monday, November 24, 2014

A Missional Diagnostic - David Fitch

1.) Leadership:

  • Do the leaders here know their giftings/spheres of leadership? (Eph 4: 7-16 APEST)
  • Do the leaders here know how to lead in mutual submission one to another as a group?
  • Are the leaders here recognized by the community as the ones given the responsibility to lead in say evangelism? Apostleship? Teaching/organizing? Pastoring/organizing? Prophetic leadership?
  • Are the leaders empowered to lead and to cultivate more leaders on the ground in the neighborhoods.
  • Are the leaders leading? Submission is a posture of leadership not an abnegation of leadership? Does the leadership function within this dynamic?

2.) Gathering:

  • How many people are in the relational web of this community? versus how many people show up for worship gathering? To me the first question is probably more important than the second (although the second is not unimportant).
  • Is there a road map/a way for outsiders to know how to enter and become part of this community, and what makes this community what it is?
  • How many KCC’s  (kingdom cups of coffee) happen on a monthly basis from this community? (KCC = sitting with someone, listening, discerning what God is doing in someone’s life, whether God has brought them here for a reason? to be part of His Kingdom expression here at this community or another?)
  • Is there a public presence for this community? A way people can identify this community of Kingdom activity from outside the community? Website?  Public celebratory gathering? Is it too early for a public presence?

3.) Engaging – Being Present – in Surrounding Community

  • Do you know what it means/does not mean to be present in the places you live, work, play and raise families?
  • What are those places in your community/neighborhood?
  • How do you train/lead community participants in being present in the community?
  • Where are people being present? Homes, neighborhoods, third places, Moms groups, bars, social service agents, homeless/domestic abuse shelters. Local sports programs etc etc.

4.) Rhythms

  • Are you developing a sustainable life giving weekly rhythm of life together? Are you making space for God to work in and among you and in the neighborhood?
  • Tell me about the development of your worship gathering? How does it shape people in life with God and His mission? How is it woven into the lives of the participants and their everyday lives? Does it focus people too much on Sunday? Or does it lead out into everyday life?
  • Prayer. Where is prayer in the life and rhythms of your community?
  • Meals. How do you eat together? Does the Eucharist on Sunday feed a time of presence with one another in the neighborhood?
  • How do home groups function? Triads function? What do you do there? What is practiced there? Are these groups functioning in God’s presence for His work among people and around people and through people? (In, Up and Out)

5.) Practices

  • How are you leading people into the basic practices of being a people of God in His Kingdom for His Mission? Including:
  • Proclamation of the gospel: Is gospel being proclaimed for this context in the gathering? Are the participants learning how to proclaim gospel in their contexts through their lives? Do people know the difference between proclamation, explanation and or providing information?
  • Eucharist: Are the participants in the community being led into the Real Presence of Christ at the Table, to experience the flooding of God’s forgiveness, love, reconciliation and renewal of all things through the Spirit? Are they then learning how to practice this same presence in their meals in the neighborhood?
  • Reconciliation: Are the participants practicing reconciliation in all conflicts? Are they being led in this? And are they learning how to practice this same reconciliation of Christ in the neighborhoods?
  • Practicing Being With the Hurting/Least of These: Most of all, are the participants learning how to be present with the hurting? Not solve problems, but be present/with hurting people both inside the community and in the course of everyday life. Do your people know the difference between Presence in the community and  finding a Project in the community?
  • Most of all, when we gather together to worship, are we being led into the real presence of Jesus as our Lord and Savior for the world? Are we then being sent?

There are probably many more questions that have not made the list? For all you great missional coaches out there? What category would you include? What questions would you ask that I left out?


Sunday, November 23, 2014

Compromise, Hell!

by Wendell Berry

Published in the November/December 2004 issue of Orion magazine

WE ARE DESTROYING OUR COUNTRY—I mean our country itself, our land. This is a terrible thing to know, but it is not a reason for despair unless we decide to continue the destruction. If we decide to continue the destruction, that will not be because we have no other choice. This destruction is not necessary. It is not inevitable, except that by our submissiveness we make it so.
We Americans are not usually thought to be a submissive people, but of course we are. Why else would we allow our country to be destroyed? Why else would we be rewarding its destroyers? Why else would we all—by proxies we have given to greedy corporations and corrupt politicians—be participating in its destruction? Most of us are still too sane to piss in our own cistern, but we allow others to do so and we reward them for it. We reward them so well, in fact, that those who piss in our cistern are wealthier than the rest of us.
How do we submit? By not being radical enough. Or by not being thorough enough, which is the same thing.

Traditional Sexuality, Radical Community

Corey Widmer
Oct 03, 2014
I looked nervously across the table, fidgeting with my coffee cup. Do you realize what you’re asking of me? he questioned. We’d been meeting for more than an hour, talking about his struggle with same-sex attraction and his decision about whether to enter into a more intentional relationship with his boyfriend. He’d been part of our church and community group for a couple of years, always intelligent and effervescent, exhibiting many marks of a mature Christian. Yet my friend’s dark internal struggle had finally reached its culmination, and here we were together in a coffee shop, grappling with the reality of his decision.

Do you realize what you’re asking of me? I did. I was asking him not to act on his same-sex desires, to commit to a celibate lifestyle, and to turn away from an important romantic relationship. Yet as I reflect on that discussion, I now realize I didn’t fully understand what I was asking of him. I was asking him to do something our church community wasn’t prepared to support. I was asking him to make some astonishing and countercultural decisions that would put him out of step with those around him. In many ways, I was asking him to live as a misfit in a community that couldn’t yet provide the social support to make such a decision tenable, much less desirable. No wonder he walked away.

Several years have passed since that conversation, but it’s convinced me of the vital relationship between sexuality and ecclesiology. There are many churches like ours that believe there are two possible paths for followers of Jesus to live obedient sexual lives: heterosexual marriage and sexual abstinence. But among churches that are committed to a biblical sexual ethic, there are few, I’m afraid, that make living out that ethic possible for the average person dealing with same-sex attraction.

I’m now convinced any church that holds a traditional view of sexuality must also foster a radical practice of Christian community in which living out a biblical sexual ethic becomes possible and even attractive.

Thick Communities as Alternative Plausibility Structures

More than two decades ago sociologist Peter Berger coined the term “plausibility structure” to describe the sociocultural systems of meaning, actions, or beliefs that are basic to community life and tend to remain unquestioned by individuals in a given society. Had you told someone 50 or 100 years ago not to have sex before marriage, even if he transgressed he’d still agree abstinence “makes sense” and is “the right thing to do.” This idea was an axiomatic part of his plausibility structure, his shared sense of meaning with the broader culture.

But today, what the church affirms about sex and sexuality is so radically out of step with what’s commonplace in the culture that we cannot expect anyone to innately “get” the Christian view. Our beliefs are no longer part of the cultural plausibility structure. Yet the church often puts the demands of Christian sexual discipleship on individuals without creating social conditions to make those demands possible and attractive.
I believe one of the most serious callings of the church in our age is to create new, countercultural plausibility structures that make the demands of the gospel plausible, practical, and attractive.
I believe one of the most serious callings of the church in our age is to create new, countercultural plausibility structures that make the demands of the gospel plausible, practical, and attractive. If a gay friend is going to embrace a life of chastity for Jesus Christ, she must be able to look into the future and see not only the loss and pain but also the possibility that a real fulfilling life can be lived. If we don’t work at this task, if we don’t create the kinds of communities in which the countercultural lifestyle we’re advocating is supported and upheld, we’ll continue to see people choose plausibility structures that make more sense and have greater support from the culture.


Friday, November 21, 2014

The Conspicuous Absence Of Biblical Values In The Immigration Debate

    (Credit: Icars, Flickr Creative Commons)

Last night President Obama announced a new approach to immigration in which the government will go after “felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids.”

Today, my Facebook feed is predictably filling up with outrage. It’s the same sort of outrage (and often from the same people) I hear whenever a new state legalizes same-sex marriage or whenever a bakery doesn’t want to bake a particular cake or whenever a wedding chapel doesn’t want to perform a certain kind of wedding.

But there is something conspicuously missing in the outrage over immigration.

Biblical values.
- See more at:

Revisiting The Shack: Ch.10: “Wade in the Water”

                                                                Fear of Water

Jesus and Mack take off for their picnic at the lake.  Mack is stunned when he learns Jesus intends for them to walk across the lake to their destination. When Mack (understandably) has difficulty taking that first step on to water Jesus asks him what he is afraid of.  Mack gives a variety of answers but finally Jesus asks him a seemingly random question:  “. . . do you think humans were designed to live the present or the past or the future?”  He follows that up by making it personal and inquiring of Mack where he spends most of his time in his imagination.  “I suppose I would have to say that I spend very little time in the present. I spend a big piece in the past, but most of the rest of the time, I am trying to figure out the future.” (150).

Jesus replies that he lives in the resent and that when he indwells a person he does so in the present. Mack asks Jesus why he spends most of his time in the future.  “It is your desperate attempt to get some control over something you can’t. It is impossible for you to take power over the future because it isn’t even real, nor will it ever be real. You try to play God, imagining the evil that you fear becoming reality, and then you try to make plans and contingencies to avoid what you fear” (151).

“So why do I have so much fear in my life?” 

Jesus’ reply cuts right to the chase:  “To the degree that those fears have a place in your life, you neither believe I am good nor know deep in your heart that I love you. You sing about it, you talk about it, but you don’t know it” (151).

What is that blunts or eradicates our awareness of the love and goodness of God?  Why are we preoccupied and worried with the future? The answer, as Jesus makes clear, is fear.  And fear is so powerful because of the ever looming specter of death.

And that is as true for us in our lives as it was for Mack in this story.

William Stringfellow, an American lay theologian, saw this more clearly than anyone else. From our personal bodily life to suprahuman, suprapersonal institutional powers which strangle our cosmos with death, fear of death stalks and terrifies us. Stringellow insistently and stridently insisted, however, that the resurrection of Jesus defeats death and its lethal minions.  This goods news frees us free to live and minister within our worlds, its risks and institutions as servants of Christ.  Free of the power of the fear of death we may risk even our lives for the sake of Christ, for we are safe in him, and we may live among the powers as free people who no longer have to live by the ethos and ethics they seek to impose on us. All they can do to us is kill us!  But Jesus has turned even that possibility into a means of grace as the martyrs of the church teach us.  Like Mack, we are free in the certainty of God’s love and goodness seen in Christ, to step of the dock and on to the lake and cross it with Jesus!

And that, in sum, is what Mack needs to learn and what Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu are teaching him.  Or rather, they are loving him into a realization and awareness of it!




Why God Doesn’t Just “Fix It”

Jesus and Mack eat their lunch with a beautiful panoramic view of majestic mountains in front of them.  This prompts Mack to praise Jesus for his handiwork but also to ask him why he doesn’t just “fix” the planet he created and loves. Fix the mess we’ve made of it and avoid all future pain and suffering.  Good question.

Here’s Jesus answer:  “Because we gave it to you” (145).  And to take it back would short-circuit the whole reason for creation.  And that reason?  “To force my will on you,” Jesus replied, “is exactly what love does not do. Genuine relationships are marked by submission even when your choices are not helpful or healthy” (145).  And submission, he adds, is just what Mack has seen and found so winsome and attractive in the relationships of Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu.  “Submission,” he continues, is not about authority and it is not about obedience; it is all about relationships of love and respect.  In fact, we (the trinity) are submitted to you in the same way.”

Befuddled again, Mack asks why God would want to be submitted to humanity. Jesus replies it is because they want to share life with us in intimacy and reciprocity.  Slaves are not what God desires.  God desires family (146).

“A Larger Twisting”

Mack confesses his difficulty with relationships, unlike his wife Nan.  Young has Jesus talk about the sexes in a way that perhaps engages in a bit of gender stereotyping (146-47).  Males value their achievements; women value relationships.  We could quibble with him over this but I think it more useful to see the point he makes out if it.

Jesus reasserts for Mack the “larger twisting” that has thrown male-female relationships into such disarray. 

“The world is broken because in Eden you abandoned relationship with us to assert your own independence. Most men have expressed it by turning to the work of their hands and the sweat of their brows to find their identity, value, and security. By choosing to declare what’s good and evil, you seek to determine your own destiny. It was this turning that has caused so much pain” (146-47).

But that is not how it ought to be.

“We want male and female to be counterparts, face-to-face equals, each unique and different, distinctive in gender but complementary, and each empowered uniquely by Sarayu, from whom all true power and authority originate. Remember, I am not about performance and fitting into man-made structures; I am about being. As you grow in relationship with me, what you do will simply reflect who you really are” (148).

(BTW, when Young uses “complementary” he is not expressing a “complementarian” view of the relation between men and women that is common today.  That view claims a basic equality between the sexes but that God has assigned each sex particular roles in life that they must fulfill.  This usually gets back to a men are leaders in church and world/women are nurturers in family and church.  That, I take it are the “performance and man-made structures” Young mentions in the quote above.  He has Jesus here voice a fundamental across-the-board equality between male and female in their gender difference as both pursue the care for the planet and one another God has entrusted to both.)

It is our lust for independence and autonomy, that “larger twisting,” that frustrates our realization and experience of this divine design.

Mack again confesses his weakness and failure in relationships.  Jesus responds that he can’t and won’t ever be able to do relationships on his own.  The twisted independence that now animates us has to die.  Jesus’ life inside us is the only possible source of such a submitted, relationally-rich, life (149).

“Being my follower is not trying to ‘be like Jesus,’ it means your independence is killed. I came to give you life, real life, my life. We will come and live our life inside you, so that you begin to see with our eyes, and hear with our ears, and touch with our hands, and think like we do. But we will never force that union on you. If you want to do your thing, have at it. Time is on our side” (149).

And with that Jesus tells Mack he has another appointment to go to.

What Makes Up a Christian Imagination?

Interesting list of 12 components of a scriptural imagination.
  1. The human creature is broken to its very core and it is incapable of rescuing itself from its foolish, stiff-necked, irrational, and demented lot in life. The creature is not afraid to be honest about this fact.
  2. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has revealed himself supremely in the life and work of Jesus Christ and chooses to rescue this creature in the most "I'll be damned!" surprising ways. This God is a mystery—to be enjoyed, but never to be mastered. Though this God is often silent, he is never absent.
  3. Because Christ stands at the centre of the cosmic order, the created realm can be properly regarded as the beloved world of God and a sphere for creative exploration, requiring no extra justification than sheer wonder in the peculiarities of this world.
  4. If the Spirit is responsible for creation's order, it is important not to think of this order like that of a factory assembly line. It is instead an irrepressibly dynamic order, yielding new configurations of life and prompting praise to a God whose goodness is revealed through all the intensely particular things in creation.
  5. The biblical "household"—which includes both actual and adopted relatives, both biological and "spiritual"—matters more than the nuclear family.
  6. Individual human meaning is realized to the extent that it is deeply embedded within the concrete Body of Christ, rather than by means of self-realization.
  7. Allegiance is given to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, the global and historic body of Christ, and not to America or Argentina or Armenia. Whatever pleasure we may derive from being American or Argentinian or Armenian is rightly ordered by one's prior allegiance to the civitas Dei.
  8. Marriage is a holy vow that remains incoherent outside of the life of the church. The bonds of marriage are sustainable only in allegiance to the people of God who together vow to sustain husband and wife—from friendship to engagement to wedding, and on through the later years of married life.
  9. The wisdom of the elders is privileged over the innovations of the youth, but the elders are never threatened by the novelties of the young. The new and old are wrestled out in conversation, which is another way of saying that a healthy tradition is an internal argument carried on by all members of the community, each in their own way, joined at a common table.
  10. Heroes are people of questionable character who often remain unnamed and unknown to us, whose doubt is not contrary but in fact integral to a living faith, and whose ambiguous lot in life is not at odds with the God whose promises are so often fulfilled beyond death. Joy, not happiness, marks the virtue of the hero because joy can account for suffering, while happiness cannot.
  11. Though the "wicked" flourish over and against the sovereign rule of God, they will never be given the last word. The wicked never get away with their acts of injustice. Evil is real and it is named.
  12. The need to laugh, chiefly at ourselves, is paramount. A good sense of humour is required because of the weird and fantastic nature of human life, but, even more importantly, because comedy, not tragedy, will have the final word in the economy of God.

Community Patterns for the Church (7 C's)

When my wife and I got married 16 years ago we'd already been dating for 5 years prior. We had a winding dating relationship that was stretched by time zones, career u-turns and simple immaturity (mostly mine) but we continued to hold onto each other despite these challenges. Naively I thought our sheer romantic-will-power would be enough to cultivate a vibrant marriage. I was an idealist that needed to experience the school of hard knocks. The first year was filled with beautiful memories but the assaulting arrows of: demanding jobs, fluctuating finances, existential crisis (mostly mine), complicated outside friendships, the intensity of school, and learning to grow up, was an onslaught to our bondedness. Our emotional love for each other was still strong but a significant shift needed to take place if we were going to build an abundant life for the future. We needed new patterns.


All of life is built upon patterns. In the natural world bees form their honeycombs methodically, robins put together their nests piece by piece and planets loop around the sun in a strict cycle. All of these are wild expressions in nature, yet none of them is spontaneous and random. They are exuberant but they are organized around a pattern. These prescribed patterns form the platform for robust displays of brilliant beauty. Patterns on the surface can seem constricting, stiffly organic expression. Funny thing, organic farming is hip but organic farming is anything but haphazard. Ask any organic farmer how intentional, premeditated and rhythmic their toiling is in order to produce a bountiful, colorful, natural crop.

Shaping Together

Patterning is part of the modus-operandi of God. The Genesis one account reflects creation patterns, instructions given to Moses for building a worship tabernacle reflects patterning – “See that you make this according to the pattern shown to you on the mountain” (Exodus 25) and the Apostle Paul urged people to model their lives on the pattern of other Jesus-followers – “Take note of others and live according to the pattern we gave you.” (Phil 3). My own marriage lacked healthy patterns that would produce fruitful character in our oneness. We lived by anti-patterns. I love mystery but we both learned our relationship needed to move out of the abstract and into some particular patterns we could commit to and apply together. We fashioned daily, weekly, monthly and yearly patterns we began to massage into our active lives. The goal was not to reach some level of self-congratulation but rather partnership towards growing something beautiful in our midst. Some of those early practices were as simple as a daily cup of coffee to download the happenings of the day, or going over finances weekly so no one bore the stress alone, or having a full date day monthly to indulge in each other. Some of our patterns have changed over the years but we've committed to them, rallied around them and trusted they would shape our life together in the typhoon nature of the world.


This post is not about my marriage but it is about patterns and the church. I share my waking-up to patterns because what I felt in my early years of marriage, I feel deeply about the church now. The church needs to re-evaluate its patterns of togetherness in the places they dwell. Lesslie Newbigin has said "We are shaped by what we attend to". We must refresh what will conform us into a love-filled, grounded people, for the good of the world and the glory of God. The pressures on our existence as the People of God are numerous and are primed to choke the embodied life of Christ out of us. I’m a minimalist, believing that the power is in the essentials not the luxuries. From that perspective I ask "what are those essential patterns we must cultivate that foster a vibrant life together in the world?". I find the question "how can we be a relevant church" distracting from what will nourish ecclesia for the future. What is really relevant is when the church is the church, not when it’s an impressive production. We need a full recovery of simplified, sacred, shared-patterns that mold a new but old way of being Kingdom-Come in the neighborhoods we inhabit. We are human so our joy, energy and emotional maturity towards living as the church ebbs and flows, which makes it paramount to covenant to foundational patterns. I use 7 C's to explain the patterns I attempt to live into with others.

1.    Commitment (A Pattern of Fidelity) – We need a foundation of mutual commitment to each other. If you're gathering a cluster of people to live as the People of God do not be afraid to ask for a long term commitment to a neighborhood together. We're not in a promise-keeping culture so commitment sounds alien and potentially cultic. Covenanted-community is a core sacrament of the church. This is not an issue of control but of mutual love for one another. Love is not sentimentality it is fidelity. Love is a rugged commitment to be with and for someone. We don't have a relationship with Jesus by ourselves. We are invited into a family. Many live their lives with a strong dose of individualistic-ADHD, transitioning to the next shiny, exciting opportunity that benefits them. We cannot be fueled by inspiration as inspiration comes and goes; we are fueled by covenant-love, patterned after God’s relentless faithfulness to us. Discover rootedness, converse about it, come together, fashion some vows together, don't take them lightly and press into a long faithfulness.