Monday, February 28, 2011

A Manifesto for Restoration

"The Good News About the End of Christian America" reads the text across the front cover of Gabe Lyons' The Next Christians.  Many would argue that "Christian America" has always been a myth, but myth or reality, that mindset pervaded the evangelical Christian community throughout the second half of the twentieth century.

For this reason I found myself skeptical reading the first two chapters.  Lyons' described recent changes that would indicate that what once was an idyllic Christian environment has come undone in recent years.  I was wrong about Lyons' intention.  Rather than bemoaning the demise of "Christian America" and describing the twenty-first century method of fighting it, Lyons' embraces the challenges of a new century and the opportunities to reframe the Christian narrative in a restorative framework.

Lyons describes several subgroups of Christians, grouping them all into two main categories:  separatists and cultural.  The former reacts to the broader world by withdrawing and criticizing.  The latter integrates into the world at the expense of the gospel.  The Next Christians represent a third way forward.  This new way forward is neither progressive movement leaving the old behind nor a reactive movement rejecting the new to hold on to the old.

The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America
The next Christians practice restoration by fully living out the call of Paul to "be in and not of" this world.  They do this by being provoked, not offended; creative, not critical; called, not employed; grounded, not distracted; in community, not alone; countercultural, not relevant.  This third group of emerging Christians are neither separatist or culutural, reclaiming the full gospel beginning with creation and ending with restoration.

Within this clear and easy to follow framework, Lyons' fills out his description of The next Christian with moving stories of people living out this type of faith.  Some are familiar like the story of "To Write Love on Her Arms" and the simple Christianity of Shane Claiborne.  Others are surprising like the story of Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine.  Still others are personal acquaintances with first names only.  These stories turn an interesting but lifeless structure into an engaging and inspiring work.

The Next Christians encourages and equips the reader to begin a journey of engaging the contemporary world in a Christ-like restorative fashion.

Disclaimer: this book was received as a complimentary copy for review by the publisher.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Sunday Prayer for History

Dear God,

In a world of smoke and mirrors and shifting sand, we thank you for being the Rock on which we stand.*  The passing of time brings loss and change, enough to shake the most steady soul, but you are ever with us.  When we fail to cope and berate each other give us peace within our hearts.  Remind us when we provoke our children, lose patience with our spouses, and complain about our work that we are a people of blessing.  Keep us mindful of your promises to us that our hearts may grow thankful and not bitter.

We continue to fret over money.  Paying three dollars a gallon seems unfair, and we hate to be burdened this way.  As we deal with economy and make hard decisions we pray that you would show us the way of simplicity.  In our thanks for food and drink, family and friends, community and health may we learn that is enough. 

We honestly pray for our leaders.  They have such tough decisions to make.  May our voices inform them and not deflate them.  Give them wisdom to lead.  We pray as well God that when political answers are not the end of our problems that you would give us the wisdom to lead.  We are the body of Christ on earth, may your Christians practice the discipline of “Thy Kingdom Come.”

Thank you God for being our Rock, for today we stand at the end of history and the beginning of future and we don’t know what it may bring.  We give thanks for the people of North Africa and the Middle East that they have found a voice and the world can now hear what they call for.  But we pray for peace to come, along with an end to oppression and tyranny.  May the people of Africa and the Middle East gain the freedom they desire that we have taken for granted.  As troubling as the affairs of the world may be, and as uncertain as they leave our future—from political changes in Africa to growing populations and economies in Asia may we remember to rest our hope in the future on you, that we may know that all things will work out for good.

We pray for the earthquake victims of New Zealand, and those coping with the aftermath of flood in Australia; and as we consider the world, we lift also the needs of our friends up to you God.  We know of many who have received word in the last weeks of serious health concerns for themselves or for family and we pray that as their worlds change in a way that will render them forever different that you would be their strength. 

And we pray for your Church dear God, and our little part in it.  May we be the agents to drive change for your Glory instead of the reactors that infuse anxiety into the world.  We can do this through your will, and for this reason we pray the prayer you taught us through Jesus, our Saviour:  Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.  Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us of our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.  For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever, Amen.

*credit to Jerry Varner for this line, a youth minister and friend from Richmond.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Best Commercial Ever

I'll  never forget the first time I tried Miracle Whip.  I had recently graduated from college and lived on my own in an unfinished basement in Harrisonburg, VA taking classes at JMU.  It was my first experience grocery shopping completely for myself.  I wanted mayonaisse for my sandwiches so like any good starving unemployed college grad I went cheap.  Little did I know the mayonaisse that I bought wasn't mayonaisse at all-- it was Miracle Whip, and it was awful.

It's odd how little experiences like that in life stick out in your mind and remain in your memory.  I don't think I've even thought about that experience until tonight when I saw it, the best commercial ever.  In an age where everyone tries their best to convince the world that they are the best this commercial is a breath of fresh air.  When organizations dress up their performance and use smoke and mirrors to impress the public, politicians polarize constituents and pretend the world is black and white, a product that tells the truth just might make a difference.

Sure, they're just trying to sell a product, but for some reason it lifts my soul to see them do it so honestly.  I could force an object lesson here, or relate this to some greater truth, but that in itself would run contrary to the ideal of this post.  I'm just writing about how much I dislike Miracle Whip and how cool it is that the folks that market Miracle Whip are ok with that.  So from now on, they're ok with me. (But I'm still never eating the stuff again.)

Monday, February 21, 2011

Embodiment as a Spiritual Discipline

I remember the "good old days" of sitting in the "gifted classrooms" at the county administration building in middle school programming the Apple II to make my name flash on the screen.  Flash forward six years, and I'm sitting in a lab of computers ten times as big trying to get the command right after the DOS prompt to find WordPerfect so that I could complete my first word processed paper in college.  Shortly after graduating I was using the internet and e-mail, and today I am resisting the urge to upgrade so that I can do so on a device that will fit into my pocket.

The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian AmericaI'm certainly not at the head of the curve by any means, but like many (would it be presumptive to say most) I am certainly experiencing the ever increasing pull of connectedness offered by modern technology.  I am in the middle of reading a book called "The Next Christians" by Gabe Lyons.  I'll write a review of the book later, but chapter 8 is titled Grounded, not Distracted.  I encountered a new concept in this chapter that would serve all of us well in the changing world of the 21st century.

Lyons describes the concept of being "embodied, not divided" by sharing a story about Kevin Kelley, a senior writer for Wired Magazine.  To paraphrase, Kelly shares that God chose to be embodied in Jesus relating to his "creations" by being present with them.  Perhaps this would be another way of saying incarnational, but 1)does anyone really use that word, and 2)the idea of embodiment fits so much more nicely with the idea of the true church being the body of Christ on earth.

The basic premise of the idea of Embodiment is being truly present for others.  I notice this problem most acutely when I find myself at the counter of a store and the attendant takes a phone call while providing service to me.  I once had a parent take a phone call in the middle of a parent-teacher conference. (I am a teacher if you didn't know)  Most of American adult culture bemoans the teenage addiction to devices, but the over-30 crowd is quickly surpassing our youth in their attachment to technology driven connection.

Abstinence may be the answer for some, but the basic rules of embodiment as spelled out by Kelly and related in Lyons' book sounds like a great plan for beginning to notice our surroundings. 

Priority One: Face-to-Face.  If you are able to be physically in front of another person, they should have your full attention.

Priority Two:  Voice-to-Voice.  Without the visual "accountability" of physical presence it becomes increasingly important to refrain from engaging in other distracting behaviors such as watching the television, viewing your computer screen, etc.  Again, full attention to the person you are engaging with.

Priority Three: Screen-to-Screen.  Even here, we should be mindful that communication is a vital part of relationship.  We should keep this communication as brief as possible and recognize that there are limits to what can be communicated effectively this way.  And as always, the person with whom we are communicating deserves our full attention.

I doubt that Embodiment will achieve the status of traditional disciplines such as prayer and fasting (indeed, perhaps it shouldn't)  but as Christians in the 21st century, striving to be "in and not of" this world, the discipline appears to be a Christ-like practice.  The discipline of embodiment should keep us aware of the needs that God places in our lives enabling us to better serve as the body of Christ on earth.

Lyons' suggests that this relates to the story of Daniel refusing to eat the King's food.  A practice which seemed counter-cultural and certainly not mainstream led to blessing not only for Daniel, but for the lives that he touched.  Perhaps discipline in our use of technology, counter-cultural as it may seem, will serve to bless not only our lives, but the lives of others that we interact with daily.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Gathering

For the last few months, several young people at our church have hosted a gathering on Saturday evenings aptly called-- "The Gathering."  Tonight I had my second opportunity to attend.  It is quite a unique experience.  Walking into the Gathering, the informal nature of the event is evident, but despite the informality, it is not disorganized.  The attitude is also rather loose and laid back, but certainly not irreverent.

The service is primarily music driven, but we also took the time to vocalize prayer requests and time was spent reading from the Bible and praying.  Usually when you attend a religious service with children their behavior can become an issue and minor disruptions cause great stress, but with the atmosphere in this service the children were not a problem at all.  In fact, they were included in part of the service tonight as the leaders invited them to participate with rythm instruments in one of the songs.

What I most appreciated tonight was the worshipful experience.  Several people gathered, shared a bit of their lives with each other, and worshipped God without the normal distractions of "church."  We didn't have to follow a bulletin or be mindful of the myriad other activities going on in a usual Sunday morning.  I found myself acutely aware of the words.  Words that resonated in my mind through this service.  Words that just don't seem to fit in our world anymore-- faithfulness, mercy, grace, joy, hope.

I applaud the three young adults who have initiated this experience for our community, and hope they find encouragement as they continue.  If you live in this community I would encourage you to join in this experience in March on the 26th and in April on the 30th.  The Gathering meets at Chestnut Grove Baptist Church in Earlysville at 4:00.  It is a wonderful time of experiencing God, friendship, music, and coffee.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Justice and Mercy Redux

Over the summer I posted a link to a sermon I gave at our church.  The text for the sermon was Micah 6:8 and the title "Justice and Mercy."  I also noted in a previous post that our church staff is currently involved in a study using the Kairos Lifeshapes tools.  The most recent shape we've looked at is the triangle as a tool for managing our relationships.

The three basic relationships in our lives are up, in, and outUp refers to our relationship with God, in to our relationship with a closer circle of friends, and out to our relationship with the larger world.  Jesus reflects this balance in his relationships, spending focused time alone with God, time in the company of a few disciples, and time among the crowd.  It only makes sense that we would strive for the same type of balance in our own lives.

The resource we use for this study compares the angles of the triangle to the three commands from Micah 6:8.  At first I didn't see the connection, and even felt like I had spent time trying to understand Micah 6:8, and this didn't seem to fit with my understanding.  The connection between walking humbly with Our God and the "up" portion of the triangle seems obvious.  But acting justly being an outward focus and loving mercy being an inward focus doesn't fit quite as nicely.

But then I got it.  Just last month I posted a video of Cornell West on the Colbert Report with a little commentary.  One of the quotes I shared was as follows: "Justice is what love looks like in public, just like tenderness is what it looks like in private."  If the "out" angle of the triangle represents how we relate to the world, this makes perfect sense--Justice is what love looks like in public.  And the "in" angle of the triangle represents how we relate to those we are closest to--Tenderness is what it looks like in private. (I'm taking liberty of associating tenderness and mercy)  The power to do both comes from the love of God which we draw from our upward relationship because after all, God is Love (1 John 4:8 & 16).

So may we learn to balance the relationships in our lives, acting justly in the world, showing mercy to those we love, and walking humbly with our God.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Redeeming a Holy Mess

Churched: One Kid's Journey Toward God Despite a Holy MessThe subtitle of Matthew Paul Turner’s biographic novel, Churched, reads “One Kids Journey Toward God Despite a Holy Mess.”  Turner takes the reader through a journey that calls to question just what effects the peculiar faith experiences of our childhood have on our future conceptualization of God.  The book describes the author’s childhood deeply rooted in the world of Baptist Fundamentalism.  That word fundamentalist makes many people cringe, but I can totally relate.  I was a fundamentalist too.

When I read the words “I’m hear because Jesus doesn’t like men having long hair, and my hair is long” I knew that I shared more than just a last name with Turner.  I doubt the testimony of one can validate the stories of “Churched,” but as far as the fundamentalist upbringing that I experienced, Turner was dead on, and the hair was only the beginning.  If reading this book you find it unusual that a pastor would actually craft sermons around the virtues of hairstyles, I can say, the author is not overstating for effect.

As I read stories of Matthew’s youth group going door to door evangelizing, it brought back vivid memories of flooding the grocery stores to hand out tracks, or even sitting in perfect strangers living room with my dad as he explained the path of salvation to anyone willing to listen.  Just when I thought our stories couldn’t be more similar, Matthew describes his church’s decision to open its own school to provide an alternative to the secular institute of education.  Our paths diverge on this experience and I am still thankful today that my parents chose to continue my education in the public system.

Turner’s story simply unfolds relatively chronologically as he describes various episodes of his life from the time his parents first connected with the Independent Bible Baptist Church.  From the moment of this connection, the family’s life merged with the life of IBBC .  It is not as if the church consumed the family so much as the family lived through the church, faith was not the most important part of life, it was the very context through which life was lived.  This too rings true to my experiences of childhood.

A more disturbing thread that makes its way through the book is the fundamentalist preoccupation with judgment and Hell.  But without understanding the depth of belief in the fundamental truth that without Christ, the soul is destined for eternal suffering, one cannot appreciate the ultra-evangelical and morally disciplined behaviors that seem alien to outsiders.

An outsider to this experience may find some of these episodes disturbing and messy.  I’m sure that Matthew found them so at some points of his life.  I certainly looked to my fundamentalist past with disdain for a season of my life.  Turner says “there were times when I envied my father for having the right personality to be  Baptist.  He was stubborn, could be closed-minded toward anything that wasn’t his idea, and was fully convinced that Pentecostals were a bunch of nut jobs… Dad found something in our church that gave him hope.  Regardless of where it comes from, someone else’s hope is difficult to devalue.”

I attended the funeral of my aunt a short while ago, and the pastor of my parent’s church officiated.  All of my years of hating church and looking back at my experiences with resentment faded away.  Behind the fa├žade of strength and confidence I saw the struggle of faith that plays out in all religious traditions.  More so, I saw the hope that only comes from this frailty and understood the role that this Independent Fundamental Baptist preacher played in God’s big plan for spreading that hope.  In that moment, I appreciated him, the church, and the messy fundamentalist history that my parents bequeathed to me.

Somehow, after reading this book, I believe that Matthew Turner may share this appreciation with me.  If you’ve never experienced fundamentalism, the honest, bittersweet, and sometimes ironic retelling of the episodes of Matthew Turner’s life may help you appreciate how God can works through any holy mess. 

Disclaimer: this book was received as a complimentary copy for review by the publisher.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Sharpening Your Sword or Practicing Your Tune

For the last month, our church staff has replaced the normal weekly staff meeting with something closer to a Bible study.  I stop short of calling it a Bible study because it is slightly different than that.  The book that we are using is titled "Kairos," and it uses the "Lifeshapes" tools for understanding life.  It is important to understand that these "Lifeshapes" are not sacred, but they are excellent tools for applying the sacred to our lives.

The first shape is a circle.  Imagine your life as a timeline.  This is chronology, based on the word Chronos.  Compare that to the word for time that Jesus used when he said, "The time has come, the kingdom of God has come near.  Repent and believe the good news!" (Mark 15)  Jesus uses the word Kairos, translated time, but more like a defining moment rather than the chronological passing of a clock.  As we move along the "chronos" of our lives, we encounter "kairos" moments.  At these moments we step off the line at the tangent point and enter the circle.  We observe, reflect and discuss so that we may plan, act, and be held accountable for our actions, moving forward in our "chronos" having grown from processing our "kairos."

I've just come through a personal struggle that has lasted for about three months.  I won't explain details, but several weeks ago, the situation was getting close to coming to a head.  It is one of those situations that even though you want more than anything for the situation to change, chances are you are going to have to make the best of a situation or make a dramatic change in your life.  I saw this as a "kairos" moment that I brought to our group for discussion.

I faced an opportunity to meet personally with several people to discuss our current situation.  I felt reluctance to engage in this conversation because of the potential consequences.  I knew that I needed to either confront the situation or let it go-- letting go would be the easy way out, but I doubted that I could just let go.  I also worried that I had become so involved that communicating in a non-emotional/calm manner would be difficult.

The group pointed me to the story of Joshua and the Battle of Jericho.  God promised the city to Joshua and instructed his people to march around the city for seven days.  On the seventh day, the priests sounded the horns, and the walls came down.  I was in a confrontational posture.  I was absorbed in self.  The group pointed out through this story that perhaps this situation required that I practice my tune rather than sharpening my sword.  Instead of approaching this meeting as an act of war, perhaps it would be best approached as an act of worship.

I don't think this situation is resolved, but taking the time to pause the "chronos" of my life to process a "kairos" moment gave me a new perspective on the entire situation and a metaphor that will serve me well in similar situations.  Sometimes we shouldn't spend so much time sharpening our swords, instead we should be practicing our tune, a joyful noise that brings glory to God.