Saturday, September 26, 2009

"Church"? ... unraveling the crisis

Continuing the theme of the previous post, I’ve appreciated several observations that I want to summarize.

1)  Many Christians are discouraged with “church,” not just any "church," but “church” in general, not only as irrelevant but unbiblical.

2) Pastors and elders tend to blame the lazy and complaining people in the congregation for many of these problems.  These problems would be sorted out if people were hard-working, more submissive to leadership, and knew the Bible.
3)  Some of these complaints are surface issues, symptoms of a deeper problem. These symptoms include, but are not limited to, 

  • a general unfriendliness of fellow Christians in large group settings,
  • passivity, the masses listening to the few,
  • content control,
  • church is an entertainment production to attract a larger attendance,  
  • the church mimics popular culture with appeal to instant gratification, 
  • and an authoritarian approach where those at the top tell those under them what to think and believe without equipping them with good reasons or practice.

3) Some of the complaints are systematic, including, but not limited to, 

  • a strict hierarchy (senior pastor at top, etc) of the church creates a more passive approach from the people,
  • the institution tends to focus on abstract beliefs and programs rather than relationships, 
  • denomination create an environment unwilling to identity with other “churches,” 
  • church services, pastoral “vision” and programs tend to leave out how the Spirit moves among a people with the Messiah as the real head, 
  • leadership caters more to the masses than to individuals, 
  • our evangelical churches overemphasis on Paul’s letters to the exclusion of the gospels and Old Testament.

What I want us to consider in this post as we search for the root of this issue (and I do believe some of the root is clearly knowable and that changes can be made) is to consider that many people EXPECT more out of the “church” (as we know it) than it seems able to give.  Likewise, the “church” (as we know it), may be promising more than it can deliver.  I feel these assumptions are themselves indicators of something deeper that needs definition.

We may find some helpful perspective in identifying what the “church” IS in general.  The previous comments have made a distinction made between the people and the institution.  This is an important distinction if we're to unravel the larger crisis we see today.

  • Is the church both of them?   
  • Is the organizing of a people an automatic institution as we know it?   
  • Have we historically been thinking of the “offices” “format,” “government,” “membership” qualities of the institution in the right way (do we automatically use the verses to justify the positions and formats we have at our “church”?),  
  • Do we identify ourselves more closely with the people or the institution?   
  • Do we identify ourselves along denominational lines and part of a pastor’s flock OR do we more automatically identify ourselves with all Jesus followers in our town?   
  • Does the "way we've always done it" cloud our reading of Scripture for what it really says?
  • Is there a new way to think about this distinction  between people and institution we haven’t thought of before? 
  • And, most importantly, are we in a posture of humility, willing to change should we need to? 
Continued on next post.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

What Exactly is "Church"?

We've all witnessed the onslaught of recent publishing.  We've read the articles that speak to so many people leaving church.  We've seen the books by people disillusioned with church.  We're heard the statistics decrying that most students won't even attend church by the time they are out of college.  Many leaders are fretting over the dropped attendance as an indication of the spiritual maturity of the Christian population.

What exactly is going on here? Why are people discouraged with church? What is church that it isn't meeting people's needs? What is it about church that seems to be missing the point?

Many surface features come to mind: music, preaching, shifting more liberal or more conservative, trendy, laziness, etc. But there must be something more. Is there something intrinsic to today's church that repels so many people who follow Jesus (and those who don't!)?

I really want to know some what you're observing where you are? What are you feeling about church that troubles you? What are people talking about? Have you heard some important insights? What is "church" and what should we do about it? Throw them into the comment section and let's discuss!

Continued on next post.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Beyond the Border: The Mystery of Mystery

When I began to take my faith serious in my late teens, few things made me feel more alone among God’s so-called people than when my Christian community discouraged me from testing and pressing into my faith. They would say, “Don’t think too much!” or in more disguised positive ways like, “You just have to take it by faith,” or in ways that made me feel like I had a disease like, “Man, you’re deep!” Pressing into the so-called “deeper” things with thoughtful reflection was my life’s blood. If life itself was a meaningful as I sensed that it was, I couldn’t settle for pat answers, party-lines, and the insistent simpleness of the mob who fail to risk their reputation for freedom.

That was how I felt then, needing to push aside systems and people, including the church, in order to find light and truth. My quest continues. But the irresistible gnawing at my soul in those early years was unbearable, a real darkness, a kind of hell. A recent Christianity Today article moved this theme in me, “Reveling in the Mystery.” D.H. Williams, professor at Baylor College, explores the mystery of God. He writes, “As a result, Christianity has struggled since the 3rd century to avoid what theologian Jaroslav Pelikan called a "tyranny of epistemology" in its understanding of God and God's revelation to us. Simply put, this tyranny occurs when Christians think of God as a great field of investigation, a problem to be solved.” I can affirm that some have treated God as a problem to be solved. Wrap God up in a pretty box with a bow on top and call it “Christianity.” In reality, these are seeking merely propositions about God, in part, because the more you know the more you can control. It is a tyranny both of the knower and for those around him. I find that people in this position are often insecure and afraid and need our patience.

Many in the Emergent movement have decried the tyranny of epistemology, sometimes overstating exactly what the tyranny is out of their own insecurity, but still bearing at the heart of it an insistence that when we act as though we have the special corner on truth, all parsed and dissected, we are actually farther than God in our arrogance than we ever were without our knowledge. In dissecting our theology too much, we something gets lost. The patient dies. I know some groups that denounced the Emergent church as heretical, yet I suspect that denouncement can only come from those who have both misunderstood as well as become tyrants themselves with a wooden view of God and the universe. Yet, the other spectrum is equally dangerous, that we can know very little and must revel in nebulous mystery if we’re going anywhere. Reveling in mystery can become wallowing in mystery. Some of the people of my growing up years were like this, taking “faith” to mean contentment in not knowing even basic ideas revealed to us by God—things that God seems very keen on us knowing.

Williams then takes the reader through several stages in the mystical journey of the Christian journey, drawn from Gregory of Nyssa who draws these ideas from Moses. The reading is very interesting, so I recommend going through the article (one of the better ones by CT). While I’m unsure of Gregory’s hermeneutic that Moses life is an outline for our own, I do think many of the mystical experiences in this article are common to those who press into God, bringing all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.

In reading the article, I wondered how we can explain mystery more clearly, at least to me. What exactly is mystery? Where does mystery begin?

Paul often talks about the "mystery of time," by which he means things we did not know and now do know. Jesus the Messiah being one such example of a revealed mystery. We did not know God would send THIS kind of Messiah! This is one of the pleasures of surprise in education: every day new knowledge comes to us. More mysteries revealed. With this kind of mystery, we go into the darkness of knowing that we don’t know. And, once illuminated, we now know.

Many of our questions in life are like this. We come to learn many things, just as the questioners Nicodemus and Thomas came to learn by simply asking their questions. And we continue to know as we grow. Like a child must have pureed vegetables, an adult gets to indulge in all the crispy pleasure of a ripened broccoli. We get to grow up in our knowledge too, taking in all that we are capable of. “When I became a man, I put away childish things.”

But there is another kind of mystery, one that is more interesting to me and more at the heart of this post. It is the "mystery of relationship." Mike Mason wrote the only marriage book I recommend for anyone serious about getting married called, “The Mystery of Marriage.” Marriage is a mystery, because marriage is relational. Unlike the mystery of education, where we grow to know more as we study, the mystery of relationships involves mysteries we may never know as we have no capacity to get into the mind of the other. As much as we can show courtesy to see things from another’s perspective, we can never get inside their skin.

This is true with God as well. He reveals things to us, but we only know him as we get to know him. Because he is Creator and we are creaturely, many things about him I may never know, but can only experience. I’ve heard the verse abused, “His ways are higher than our ways,” to mean that that God is indescribable, past understanding. But that’s not the context of Isaiah (55:8). God is referring to his love, that quality so broad and deep, that we hardly approach understanding how much he cares about his creation and to what ends he goes to be with humans and redeem them. Who knows what he will do next? Who knows what his full feelings are for me? Who knows how far he is inviting me up his mountain? That is mysterious indeed.

Paul was getting at this kind of mystery in Ephesians, when he wrote, “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord's people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:17-19). Love is a mystery. It is only known, not through propositions, but through experience. Like a rainbow, you can see love, but you cannot bottle it.

This morning I listened to the bull elks bugling in the forest around our cabin. The bulls are collecting harems, their mistresses of the rut. Their trumpeting bugle echoes off the canyon walls, inciting fights from other bulls and inviting cow elks to their bedroom chambers.

I hike into the 100 acres of aspen, pine, and gamble oak that we affectionately call the “White Woods”. I see the sign, the scraped trees, the scat on the ground. I smell the musk in the air. I even walked up on a bull last week. Within my boundaries, I can explore what the elk are doing, see the spike following the bull, see the cow a hundred yards to the south making her approach.

I think of the boundaries as the knowledge we grow into. And while there is still much to know, knowledge is available to me. Yet what goes on outside my boundaries? I can still hear bugling. But I cannot explore it. I cannot see the clashing of antlers between two mature bulls. I cannot count the number of heads in the herds. My boundaries are not limitless. Beyond my borders, mystery comes to me in sounds and hints, enough for my imagination to marvel at what lies beyond.

Most of each person lies beyond our borders: My wife, my friends, God, and even myself. I am closer to myself than anyone else in existence, yet I have depths I do not understand. My self-knowledge is limited. I gain some tools through therapy, unpacking my past, letting the Spirit search me, knowing myself and my desires, but I see a deep, dark well within me, one that I will never fully know. I explore what I can until I hit the border when I can go no further. I can grow in virtue, but it will require more than willpower to change myself. If I’m mysterious to me, if I have parts inaccessible by my own faculties, then all I can do is hear the faintest hints of who I am and what lies beneath and let my imagination marvel. “I am fearfully made.”

The mystery of mystery is that God’s generosity puts us in a world too big for us, inviting us to know all we can and marvel in what is beyond. We do this generosity a disservice when we use “mystery” to be lazy, as an excuse from pushing into love because our souls are weak and undisciplined. Only a mind awake takes the greatest pleasures in what is unknowable because it it knows its own limits, seeing mystery not as a hindrance nor as fearful, but a place filled with God’s love unfolding colors I can only dare to dream about.

One day we will see God’s face and I pray that we recognize it. Perhaps the only way forward is to take what God has revealed, press into its meaning as much as we can, and then allow the mysteries that lie beyond the border continue to sound off.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

When America was Humble

My cousin sent me this article today: High-Five Nation. The writer, David Brooks, reflects back on an earlier page in American culture--the day WW2 ended. Americans were sober, grateful, humble. I was encouraged to see a better time in American sentiment, when we didn't think we were the best, when we just did what we could to get the right things done within our legitimate power.

This article invigorated me again that when we are humble, we are great. In light of the last post on our fear-mongering politics, this is a more positive attitude forward than insisting our status quo is the "right" and only way, using humility rather than majority power and slippery rhetoric to move forward.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Thoughts on 9/11 - Are we free?

I was sitting in the kitchen of my soon-to-be fiance's house in California... strangely enough I was living there, but that's another story. (Eleven days later I would propose.) It was around 7am.

At the kitchen table on September 11, 2001, I was eating cereal (maybe with some toast), when Jonalyn's grandmother stepped in from next door. "You won't have heard about this yet, but the World Trade Center has been attacked." She elaborated on what happened.

Any dramatic moment in our lives makes time slow, puts our sense on alert, our imagination spinning, "What does this mean?" We didn't know. Two wars later, we may still not know.

We went to class. Jonalyn and I had the same class that morning on epistemology. How do you know what you know? Do you know what you know? What if we're deceived and think we know but we only grasp to something false and hence do not know what we thought we knew? That's the weird mind-bending stuff of epistemology. That was our first class that day. Fitting.

Our professor paused and asked the class what they thought of the events of the morning in NY. Many wanted to attack the perpetrators immediately (most of the students in the class were male, interestingly). Though the criminals were all dead and bound to no sovereign nation of origin, my fellow students were ready to shoot into the dark. I wasn't ready to attack. I didn't know what to do.

I had lunch with that same professor that day. Chinese food, I think. He took an interest in me. Normal guy behind all that brain. That's when I caught the first images of what happened in NY. The television at the entrance of the restaurant replayed footage of the towers disintegrating like sand.

Just 21 months after the new millennium was SUPPOSED to be defined by Y2K, the world was redefined by primitive sabotage.

The world fixed its attention in this new era on hostiles. We allowed ourselves to be defined, not by what we love, but by what we fear.

And perhaps that is what has changed the American landscape most dramatically. It wasn't being struck on native turf, but by how we responded and continue to respond as people who insist we have our fate in our hands and must manipulate to a predefined "American way" at all costs. All costs.

Most of history learns to live with such tragedy and are deepened by it. Nobody likes it, but then the better way to live is to not fear being afraid of it.

I'm reminded of this "American way" every time I air travel. Every time I go through security, wearing shoes to wear that slip on and off easily, pants that don't require a belt, the pack that slides a laptop in and out in a flash, the empty water bottle to fill up in the terminal, the to be without toiletries should a plane be delayed, the misfortune of packing a week of clothing into a carry-on.

Every security point, every TSA worker that looks like they've been on shift with grumpy people one hour too long, every report in the terminals that the security alert that day is "orange" (it is always ORANGE!... it is so typically orange that the meaning of orange has worn on... why not just tell people to be alert instead of watering down the coloring system, giving us evidence that even when we're under the scary color orange, life is normal?). All of this because we fear our enemies, all enforced by politicians who do not bear such inconveniences, making laws for the unsafe little people in our land, because we know our lawmakers are always safe, right?

And so the fear continues. Terrorists yesterday. Environment and health care today. We continue to be motivated, not by what we love, but by what we fear. We are afraid life will be dramatically altered if we don't cash in our clunkers (a 'rescue' with a very misleading name), not wanting to preserve the earth because we love it, but because we fear our lifestyle will be changed.

Nobody is talking about reducing urban centers that choke out nature and community. I continue to see fancy commercials about reducing waste and saving the earth, only to see images and messages for these campaigns coming from urban centers where the earth has been demolished and people lack knowledge of farming, forest, fresh air, where "conveniences" rule the day, and anonymity is an option. We crave the sophistication of the city, women in their vulnerable high heals, men in their ties, none of which is very suitable to actually living in nature, all the dress code of a location where we pretend we are safe, where our ties won't get caught on trees, where our heals will not require we know how to run. We've created a false world and now we want to preserve it.

The same can be said for the economy... for all we see in the media, we're willing to sell our souls to let the government bail us out so our economy can grow. We're willing to pick on minorities (our politicians appeal to the majority by using derogatory words for the minority, like "the rich" or "wealthy") to ease our lives--much like we did with the minority in the years of slavery. Is that all we are, economic animals, scroungers? We need the economy to grow because we fear our enemies will outpace us, grow stronger than us, demolish us. A legitimate fear? Perhaps. But does it steal our freedom to fight it?

And then health care, with a myriad of voices all wanting reform (yes, let's reform it! Let's stop suing doctors for not being shamans and not raising the dead so that their insurance premiums can go down so we can pay decent prices!)... but nobody can agree with what reform we want or need. One hundred years ago, nobody had health care. We had less a problem with death because we knew life was more than the body. Today's technology promises we can alleviate our fears of sickness so that we can.... wait, what exactly do we plan to do with all our health and life? Oh, yes, continue to live in fear over the environment, economy, and some rogues.

Or we can be free. As William Stuntz has pointed out, "Some might wish for an American future free of culture wars. I don't. I think these battles are worth fighting, but I do wish for good wars, the kind [Martin Luther] King fought, the kind in which we love our enemies and fight for the chance to embrace them." May the things we live for today be things worthy of our humanity, free of fear, reaching forward into what is hearty and good.

Edit 9/15: this article I think speaks into our present situation... allowing fear to rob of us freedom, wanting immediate "change" to overhaul our evils, surrendering our thoughtfulness to "experts," and our resources to a few at the top.