Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Facing Opposition: An Open Letter to Emergent Christians

To my faithful “emergent” brothers and sisters

As you may have realized, some denominational leaders are noticing us. Baptist Press recently offered an article arguing that our lives in Christ present a “threat to the Gospel.” We stand accused of accommodating the post-modern culture, abandoning trust in the unique saving work of Jesus, and selling out confessional Christianity. In my context of mission and ministry, these charges are simply untrue. Yet they are frustrating not merely because they are false, but because are born of stereotypes and poor generalizations about “what those emergent Christians believe.”

Why are these leaders so angry? Why are they so afraid? I can’t answer those questions, because those accusations are not made in the context of relationship. Without the mutual openness and respect that would come with a real friendship in the Gospel, any critiques that “emergent” and “traditional” Christians might offer one another are reduced to sound bites.

How then can we respond to our friends and the Powers That Be in American religious life who question our motives and our faithfulness?

I wholeheartedly believe that most of us in these emergent generations are making the choices we are in faithfulness to God’s call to be his new community in Jesus Christ: agents of change and redemption in his world. When our critics do not recognize our faithfulness, the answer is found in living openly. If it is really Jesus to whom we are responding, we needn’t be afraid to talk about that without defensiveness: we must “answer… with gentleness and respect … so that those who speak maliciously against [our] good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (1 Peter 3:15-16).

Many of us have critiques regarding the way “traditional” or “modern” Christians choose to live together. Many of them are valid and needful. But they will not be heard if we cannot be friends, and if we cannot be seen to assume the faithful intent of those with whom we disagree. If we are to be ideological adversaries, we must at least be adversaries in good faith. If we impugn the motives of our conversation partners, we will end the conversation, and relegate it to the realm of unhelpful, inflammatory, and fearful accusations: faithfulness is predicated, again, on who can most effectively use religious media to pain their enemies as “threats to the Gospel.”

To begin (or continue) fruitful conversation in religious life, we must remain friends. We must share our “redemption stories,” witnesses of how Jesus is transforming lives for the better in each of our ministry contexts. Let’s learn together what values and hopes we share in common with “traditional” church practitioners. If we let Jesus transform our lives, there will be quite a bit of deconstruction (post-modern or otherwise) along the way, as well as a great deal of construction. Truth, after all, is nothing to fear.

I offer a word of caution, however. This desire to maintain relationship with the traditional church and its structures can become idolatrous when the goal becomes approval, and not mutual learning and discernment. For many of us, our desire for the approval of “those reputed to be pillars” (whether seminary or convention presidents, popular writers, megachurch leaders, professors or pastors), can stand in the way of responding to God’s call. I don’t blame anyone for desiring the approval of those religious leaders who possess prestige and accolades from the masses, but that desire is dangerous.

Maintaining loving relationships with people does not require approving all of their values and practices, nor endlessly defending one’s own. Loving relationships are not so defensive, or so insecure. Sometimes we must agree to disagree. We must offer one another the freedom in Christ to do that.

God called Abram to leave his country, his people, and his father’s household for a land Abram had yet to see. He called him to leave behind his symbols of security, and trust God to reveal his faithfulness.

Sometimes we must disappoint important people whose intentions for us are not God’s intentions; we must often leave behind the approval of charismatic leaders and denominational entities. If you can remain in respectful, caring relationships with those religious persons, do. But if they continue to speak abusively and seek to keep you on the defensive regarding your life in Christ, it is better to walk away.

Regardless, keep praying together. Keep studying the scriptures. Keep delving deeply into the Church’s history. Keep doing life together. Keep being the Church.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

I made a t-shirt

I made a t-shirt today... Posted by Hello

Freestyle prayer?


How... Protestant.

I was in a funny mood...

And in other news, habemus papam!

Read Andrew Greeley’s piece for an optimistic appraisal, courtesy of Kendall Harmon.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Authority Issues

+ Irenaeus of Lyons

I wrote previously that is the willingness to feel badly [because of our relationships with one another], and deciding that in the light of the healing and love we’re receiving from Christ and his Church, we will stay with one another, and be obedient to him anyway.

If we will risk this, if we will accept the potential pain that comes with these relationships into which he calls us, then we can obey.

When discussing Clement's "come to Jesus talk" with the Corinthians, I wondered when one is justified in throwing off authority? Clearly, it depends on the nature of that authority.

I probably don't need to describe the destructive context of obedience, which is possibly what many of you are thinking of right now: signing over one's personhood to some powerful or charismatic figure who will take a very paternalistic role because one is just not clever or good enough to make one's own decisions. Often the decisions made by the authority figure will be for his own benefit, or the perceived benefit of "the community" at the utter expense of the individual.

Obviously, that's not godly authority, nor holy obedience.

The proper context of obedience occurs in communities in which the members are dedicated to one another for "the long haul." If God really is transforming us in that context of commitment, we can trust one another to care for us. Authority is not found in the dictates of a central figure, but in the counsels of the community at large.

We are responsible to one another, to listen.

We are responsible for one another, in healing, truth-telling, and sharing burdens.

Life in God's New Community draws us out to share our brokenness and confusion, as well as the joys and disappointment of everyday life. That intimacy is a gift we give God by handing it to one another. The recipient of the trust has an obligation to speak truth honestly.

Here's where it gets really difficult: that whole "agents of redemption and change" stuff.

The intimacy comes around to redemption, not mere catharsis. We do this because we believe that the Holy Spirit gives wisdom to the community for its healing. That wisdom will come through the counsel of friends in the community. That means that we have an obligation to listen our friends. Not to agree, and certainly not to obey slavishly, but to create a non-defensive place in ourselves in which we can really listen.

There is pain in that.

We're used to feeling pain because authority so often negates personhood instead of offering God's healing. But in trusting, loving relationships, it means something else. It's the pain that comes with realizing that we as individuals cannot be the final arbiter of God's will. It's the pain that comes when we cannot live according to our momentary whims - for we are dedicated to something bigger than ourselves. It's the pain that comes with learning we don't have the freedom - or damning responsibility - to orchestrate our own redemption.

There is another freedom in that. It's the freedom of listening to a Jesus who isn't mediated to us only by our own understanding. It's the freedom that comes with not needing to be right all the time in order to be "successful." It's the freedom and rest that comes with knowing that this community shares one's burdens. One does not succeed or fail alone.

What do you think? What is healthy authority? What is healthy, holy obedience?

Thursday, April 14, 2005

What is the Emerging Church?

Your religious leaders are worried. Your parents and church members are suspicious. You might be part of it, and not even realize it.

Just what is this “emerging church” thing that folks are talking about? Should churches get on board in the hopes that this will be another great evangelistic tool, a way to be “relevant” to the kids? Should they denounce it as yet another culturally accommodated fad, a hip and postmodern Christianity that waters down the Gospel?

They shouldn’t do either.

The “Emerging Church” is not a movement, or an organization. It’s simply a phrase, a more or less useful shorthand for discussing what God seems to be doing in the midst of his people. Among the Christians who identify themselves as emerging, one would find a variety of descriptions of just what God is up to, and many of them contradictory. Hence, it’s not a cohesive “movement” by any means. I can’t speak for other “emerging” Christians, only myself and the communities with which I am involved. It’s only in that context that I can offer a definition. Emergence is a process that’s occurring now: ancient Christian orthodoxy and the practice of transformation in God’s new community have been buried in our Western religious culture, and they are surfacing again through an act of God’s love and power. There is nothing new here.

Our faithful response to God’s initiative is a work of deconstruction and positive construction. It is deconstructive, because it demands that we confront our assumptions about Jesus and ourselves. Nothing we have learned needs to be thrown away, but rather judged in light of the Gospel. For example, many Christians have remembered that the Bible is not a guidebook on how to live a moral life or grow successful churches. Nor is it a roadmap from our world to God’s heaven: one may not use it as if were the user’s manual for an iPod. While the Bible does contain key propositional truths, it first relates a story: God created the world and its people for his own enjoyment. The creation fell. In Israel, God called together a people for himself, through which he would save the entire world. This plan has culminated in Christ and his Church. Through us, God is bringing his redemption to bear upon the world.

This basic story has been lost to the prevalent religious culture, which has little concept of how to practice it. The stories we tell ourselves now, of church growth, of the things mistaken for evangelism, of what “relevance” means, and about which side Jesus takes in the culture wars – all of these must be stripped away so that we can re-learn discipleship to Jesus. This rediscovery of orthodoxy is the constructive work the Holy Spirit is doing in us: we are again choosing to be intentional about sharing a new life as the Body of Christ, “the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (Eph 1:23). Understanding that we will be known as his disciples by the way we love one another (John 13:34-35), we’ve stopped asking questions about what it means to be an efficient, successful church or how to attract people to our religious activities. Instead, we are learning to share friendship and love one another well. We are sitting prayerfully with the scriptures and re-learning our history, asking Jesus to show us how to be faithful, and releasing our former “churchy” goals as the idols they are.

We aren’t seeking, necessarily, to be “relevant to the culture,” nor are we searching for a better “worship experience.” We are letting go of the search for the big fix, the next spiritual fad that will somehow make Christianity “work for us” or make it easier. We are called to dedicate ourselves to one another, and to learn discipline: to do the same right things for the long haul. In doing this, we will be agents of redemption and change in one another’s lives, as well as the life of the world. We will love recklessly and inefficiently. Being together as a people that does that, who are blessed to be a blessing, is the great work for God that we are called to do.

(This article originally appeared in the Wednesday, April 14 2005 edition of the Georgetonian.)

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Community: A Matter of Trust

I wrote last week on "risking love," and argued that a community ought not seek to ensure that its members never hurt one another. That is neurotic and severely limits our maturation. Instead, a community's members must strive to practice love and forgiveness, and learn how to heal and reconcile when hurt comes. We cannot choose not to be hurt by one another; we can only choose whether to keep walking together and share God's redemption or not.

Being faithful means that we choose to keep being together, as long as we can listen, and as long as we are willing to learn obedience to the word of God that our brothers and sisters bring to us. We do this because it is how God wills our salvation. We aren't risking on particular community members, but staking our lives on the trustworthiness of God's own plan.

This takes trust: trust that we are loved by God, and trust that we will continue to be loved by his New Community. Some people will tell you that trust means believing that a person will never hurt you, and that God will never allow you to feel pain. I reject that. Trust cannot be a savvy assessment of the odds, and taking our chances that we probably won’t be hurt.

In trust, we choose to be realistic, understanding that if we love, we will certainly feel badly at some point. Trust is the willingness to feel badly, and deciding that in the light of the healing and love we’re receiving from Christ and his Church, we will stay with one another, and be obedient to him anyway.

Choosing God's way of transformation and healing requires choosing the pain that comes with it. Otherwise, we will find ourselves changing our minds and backing out on Jesus every time things get too hard.

Trust isn’t about calculating the odds of someone else’s faithfulness, but about choosing to let myself be hurt. If I wait for a completely risk-free environment before trusting, I will never know what it is to freely give and receive the love of God.

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Sunday, April 10, 2005

"They knew that innovation was another word for heresy."

I bought a florescent green polo shirt yesterday. I like to be noticed from a distance.

I spent some time researching more on the "Son of Man" tradition for Asher's Historical Jesus seminar yesterday. Studying the Bible is actually hard work, at least like this. Apparently the Son of Man figure as Jesus seemed to speak of him(self?) is an interesting conflation of several Old Testament traditions: the Davidic king, Isaiah's suffering servant, Daniel's "one like a son of man," and so on. A good bit of the tradition Jesus seems to be working from is found not in any canonical scriptures, but is produced in the book of 1 Enoch. And the funny thing is, there are 2 groups that count it as part of their scriptures: the Ethopian Church, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Now that's an odd pedigree

I got out my crayolas to tell the tale of the other Kyle's secret origin. If I'm inclined, I might post the story come summer. I've been rolling around in my head a piece for Pentecost on the gifts of the Spirit. Yes, I am a charismatic Christian. Don't tell anybody. But first, two more essays on Community. I think that's fitting for Eastertide.

We're still doing the Apostolic Fathers at Schola today, so I thought I'd offer this bit I found somewhere. Enjoy, now.

"The Reformation is an argument not just about the Bible but about the early Christian fathers, whom the Protestants wanted to claim. This is one of those things that is so obvious nobody has paid much attention to it - then you look and you see it everywhere.
. . .

Calvin and Melanchthon both believed it was a very strong argument against a given theological position if you couldn't find authorization for it in the Fathers.
. . .

"The Protestants did this because they were keen to have ancestors. They knew that innovation was another word for heresy. 'Ours is the ancient tradition,' they said. 'The innovations were introduced in the Middle Ages!' They issued anthologies of the Fathers to show the Fathers had taught what the Reformers were teaching.

- David Steinmetz, Duke Divinity School, in Christian History and Biography, August 2003

Friday, April 08, 2005

This Week at School

It's been a pretty sweet week. The Georgetown College Pastor's Conference was held Monday through Wednesday, so most of my waking hours were spent on campus between reunion planning, the conference, and work (which I swear I really do!).

Dr. Ellis came from Regent's to interview undergrads for the Oxford program, and he gave a brilliant and deeply poignant lecture on my boy, G.A. Studdert-Kennedy. He showed great subtlety and style with the historic and contemporary parallels while focusing on the man's poetry.

We believe the call of God has come to Britain to spare neither blood nor treasure in the struggle to shatter a great anti-Christian attempt to destroy the fabric of Christian civilisation... We rejouice that many of the young men of our churches have dedicated themselves, with the consent of their parents, to the service of their country, and have been amongst the foremost to offer themslves for the defence and liberation of Europe.

- From the Minutes of the Baptist Union Council of Great Britain, September 1914.

I cannot say too strongly that I believe every able-bodied man ought to volunteer for service anywhere. There ought to be no shirking of that duty.

- Kennedy in his parish magazine, 1914.

Yeah, it's pretty creepy. But unlike many others, he did get out into the trenches and see the suffering caused by such attitudes.

I was invited to Shakertown last weekend with some profs and Oxford program participants to tour about and have an outstanding dinner. It was indeed mo' fun. Spent the time talking about local religious history ("I've never heard of these 'Campbellites' of which you speak...") and the nature of "practical" or "pastoral" theology. You know, how God forms Christ in people and how he forms us in communities. The usual.

Threw frisbee a few times this week, and got to sit at table with friends a few times.

So pretty outside. And I'm definately inside. Gonna type out my reflections on the Epistle to Diognetus. Whoopie!

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Why it Hurts

This whole matter of being together, this living as God's New Community: it's not hard and painful because we're doing it wrong. It hurts because it's really real. Doing this Life requires willingness to speak and to listen, to Jesus and to one another. This willingness is required for the long term. I think most Christians go through their entire lives without choosing this.

It's helpful to know that my friends and I aren't the only ones fighting this out. Real Live Preacher writes on "Personal Space" in The Christian Century:
Real Christianity involves getting together with a handful of pilgrims and becoming intimate. It means braving the possibility of communion. It means letting people into your personal space. And, by the way, these are exactly the sort of people who may hear something desperate and child-like in your voice and be experienced enough at listening to know exactly what it means.

And a reminder from +Alan, once again, that if we're going to be formed together into the image of Christ, we're going to have to sit down and be about it for a long time:
How long, how long, O Lord, does it take for us to become comfortable with each other? How long!? Here's a question for you? How long are you willing to put into it?
When will I be fully transformed in the image of Christ? When will I stop hating my brother? When will I ever be patient in traffic on the way home!? When? Well, here's the deal on all of it. It takes a while. Those whiles depend on so many factors that if I tried to pretend I knew, I'd be legitimately full of shit. I do know this - a long time. It takes a long time for us to go from being one kind of creature to being another. So, it takes a long time for a community of faith to become what it should be. Relationships are a lifetime proposition. They are always developing and evolving, as are we - it's all very dynamic.

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Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Community: Risking Love

Community is still hard. It is healing, redemptive, rewarding and exciting, but it is still hard. Understand that I don’t mean the “Okay everybody, let’s have community” thing that can be a new religious commodity or marketing ploy (See “Love,” in A is for Abductive by Leonard Sweet, et al). Real community is what you get when people dedicate themselves to loving one another. It’s often messy, uncertain and fearful, but it’s a process that can be trusted. When we do this, we are willing to hurt and be hurt, willing to argue, and willing to hit bumps along the way.

While God desires the complete restoration of each individual human life, the Master doesn’t do this work primarily on an individual basis. He restores us as a corporate entity, the Body of Christ. If we’re going to be Christians, if we’re going to be healed and whole, we must share our lives with one another. We have been called, and are being equipped, to carry the light of Christ into the dark and fearful places in our friends’ lives. This vocation requires dedicating ourselves to friendship for the long haul, and fully receiving all that comes with it: joy, compassion, and transformation, but also the certainty that we will be hurt.

If we are close enough to one another to offer love and healing words, we are close enough to hurt one another. This happens in any number of ways: through misunderstanding, unmet expectations, failure of communication, and any number of things. When we do get hurt, feeling rejected or maligned, we may even rebel against the love of God and our friends, resorting to bitterness, gossip, backbiting, and again the list goes on (Look at Paul's epistles if you want longer lists).

However, the community’s goal cannot be to set up barriers to make sure we do not hurt one another: that kind of fearful response will only grieve the Spirit and hinder love’s redeeming work. We must instead choose not to live in fear, and accept the certainty that this will happen, and decide how we will continue to be together when it does. When slighted, will we speak up and take responsibility for the way we feel? Will we deal directly with conflicts and be honest about our shortcomings and fears? Can we, in the midst of feeling rejected and uncared for, choose not to reject in turn? Can we affirm love for the other even in the face of one’s own perceived disaffirmation? Can we listen to one another, and be willing to absorb the pain of conflict?
In forgiving one another the sins we commit against each other and the community at large, we absorb the brokenness of our sinful humanity in the name of Christ. This is not an easy or glamorous task. It rarely feels warm and fuzzy. But it is a necessary part of redemption, for reconciliation is God’s fervent desire for his people.
- from Superpowers: On the Holy Spirit in the Community

Bonhoeffer warns us against loving “community.” The real work is found in loving the people in the community. If one loves community and not the people who are in it, as soon as one person’s weakness or sin interferes with the ideal, that person will be hated. We must sacrifice the ideal of community on the altar of our love for our friends.

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