Archive for the 'House Church' Category

Losing My Religion

Last month I had the privilege of joining Callid Keefe-Perry, Jules Kennedy, and host Pastor Nar for the Losing My Religion podcast – outdoor edition!

We were at the beautiful campus of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington DC, at a truly singular event emceed by Steve Knight, communicant extraordinarine at Halogen: TransFORM – East Coast.

This conversation is like a small tasty morsel of the feast that was this ‘conference.’ I use air quotes because, truth be told, I didn’t attend too many of the actual sessions; raging ADD aside, there were just so many people I’ve known for years online, whom I was able to meet in-person for the first time. It was like a “family reunion in heaven” – people whom you’re simultaneously meeting for the first time, but whom you’ve also known forever. (I also had a great time with my Atlanta and Cobb Emergent Cohort peeps, and even a lovely Augusta representative – getting to see them is too long and far-between!) It was a rag-tag conglomeration of emergents and outlaw preachers and missionals and mainliners and meditators and Wild Goosers and Big Tent-makers and organics, all coming from every denomination (or lack thereof) under the sun – lots o’ variety in God’s great big family.

This event was very well-timed for me, personally. I’m at something of a crossroads, both vocationally (great developments, some of which I’ve already shared, as well as some scary-awesome challenges!) and health-wise (I really will get to posting about this in the near-term future); during large swaths of TransFORM I felt quite literally like I was going nuts. And yet the warmth and unconditional presence of the TransFORM folks carried with them the distinct aroma of Jesus. There was a palpable sense of Christ and his Kingdom throughout the weekend, on display in the kindness and dizzying diversity of those present – women and men; black, white, Latino and Asian; Quaker and Wesleyan, Pentecostal and Catholic, Baptist and Reformed.

TransFORM: The Event is but a subset of TransFORM: the Network – a collection of church-planting and pneumatic-community enthusiasts who color outside the lines. If this is you, you should connect with us. As I like to say, there’s more than meets the eye with TransFORM. (Cue groans)

Okay, without further ado, here is the free-flowing conversation, with gentle provocateur Pastor Nar at the helm!

And a little namesake R.E.M. – why not?

Finally – and most significantly – a TransFORM blog-post roundup (If I’m missing some – and I probably am – please put ’em in the comments section below; I’ll list ’em up here):

Adam Moore

Anthony Smith

Brandon Mouser

Callid Keefe-Perry

Chris Rosebrough (note: Chris, from Pirate Christian Radio & Fighting for the Faith, is not a fan. He’s more of a loyal critic, and drove all the way out from Indiana for the main purpose of critiquing. But we love him anyway!)

Darren Rowse (yes, the accliamed ProBlogger was with us via video link from Australia!)

Doug Pagitt

Drew Tatusko

Hugh Hollowell

Jonathan Brink

Joy Lynn- Schroeder

Julie Kennedy

Kathy Escobar

Liz Dyer

Lori Wilson – Part I and Part II (a very thorough recap of the actual sessions!)

Marcus Gibbs

Pete Rollins

Phil Wyman

Shawn Anthony

Sivin Kit (joining us via video from Malaysia!)

– Trans4m in the Twitterverse

“I Don’t Want to be Part of Any Jesus Revolution Without a Perichoretic Dance” – Why We Need Both Jesus Manifestoes

Frank Viola and Len Sweet’s book  Jesus Manifesto remains in the Amazon Top Ten today, and my interview with them yesterday has stirred a lot of interesting conversation. Among conversation partners is my friend Jeff Straka, who airs some honest thoughts and frustrations that inspire me to say something I’ve been wanting to say for a long time. Jeff wonders:

While Brian McLaren has endorsed both these authors’ books in the past, his name is glaringly (to me, anyway) missing from the list on this new book. Nor did I find any endorsements from other names considered more solidly in the emergent movement (and not just in “conversation” with). Am I reading too much into this or is this shaping into a “spy vs. spy” manifesto?

Also, are the subtitle words “the supremacy and sovereignty of Jesus” a helpful choice of words as they seem to imply then that other religions are flat-out wrong or false (ala Franklin Graham)?

Well Jeff, we know that Brian rarely eats or sleeps, but even he cannot endorse everything. 🙂

But seriously. I think there is a difference between divergent views and hostility. F’r instance, it was apparent that Mike Wittmer didn’t merely have differences with Brian’s presentation in A New Kind of Christianity; he was pretty hostile toward Brian, both theologically and personally.

I’m almost certain that this isn’t the case here. While there are doubtless differences between Len and Brian (as the Sweet piece you cite demonstrates), I see them as iron-sharpening-iron differences and not iron-jabbing-your-opponents-eyes-out differences. Both Len and Brian have been accused of various grevious heresies by the self-appointed watchdog ministries; I doubt Len wishes to inflict that pain on anyone else, even if he disagrees with them theologically.

So: Does JM say some different things than ANKoC?

Yes.

Is it possible to enjoy both books?

Yes, I think so, though natural predispositions being what they are, readers might naturally gravitate toward one perspective or the other.

Here’s the fascinating thing, as an aside: Brian in ANKoC and Richard Rohr in The Naked Now (which I’m presently reading) both write out of a conviction that Jesus has become in the hearts and minds of Christians too remote and too ‘divine’ to be of any earthly good, or connection with his followers today. Rohr specifically indicts contemporary Christians of the heresy of gnosticism, saying that while Nicea (or was it Chalcedon? I always forget…) technically settled the matter of Jesus being fully human and fully divine, “most Christians are very good theists who just happened to name their god Jesus.” By contrast, Rohr calls for a robust incarnational ethic, where we disavow a remote ‘theism’ as such and affirm a ‘down and in’ God who is located precisely right here, in our midst. Brian and Rohr both hope that people will stop merely worshiping Jesus and start listening to and following his teachings.

Sweet and Viola, by contrast, are observing an opposite trend: People following the human Jesus, but neglecting the exalted Christ. They wish to reclaim the grandiose language of the Epistles, which speaks of a Christ who fills all-in-all. This is different than a John Piper or Franklin Graham approach of brow-beating the planet earth with a jingoistic Christ, in my opinion.

To begin with, ‘supremacy’ is used in a mystical sense, inspired by T. Austin Sparks. And the divinity of Jesus championed by V&S isparticipatory divinity: We have become partakers of the divine nature through Christ. It’s a perichoretic divinity: The expansion of the dynamic life of the Trinity into communities where this Trinitarian life is made welcome, and thus radiating into the earth. (See Viola’s From Eternity to Here and Sweet’s So Beautiful.) To be honest with you, not counting Rohr, I miss this kind of unbridled mystical-devotional dimension in much of the emerging church. I too agree that everything must change and I don’t share Len’s antipathy with liberation theology (I don’t see how anyone can read Leonardo Boff or James Cone or Gustavo Gutierrez, or know the story and plight of the Base Ecclessial Communities in Latin America, and dismiss liberation theology as simply re-hashed Marxisim), but I will paraphrase anarchist Emma Goldman here: “I don’t want to be part of any Jesus revolution without a perichoretic dance.”

I want to see an emerging conversation that makes room for neo-liberationists and neo-pietists, Jesus Manifesto and Jesus Manifesto. We need neo-pietists in the Conversation to remind us just how revolutionary Paul was, and the Epistles are – that participatory divinity linked to the monotheistic God was truly a new phenomenon in the first century, and can be just as much so today. We need the neo-pietists to remind us of a good, strong, Lutheran-esque Gospel of God’s gratuitous grace and favor toward us, and how we can’t be the ‘hands and feet of Jesus’ unless we’re connected to the authority and animating energies of Christ our Head.

And so: I hope that in the next year, emergents and missionals, organics and liturgicals, conservatives and progressives, can stop writing each other off. If I have to stop calling it the ’emerging’ conversation in order to help missional and neo-pietist folk feel more welcome at the table, I will. Because I think that’s what Jesus – the whole, living Christ – wants.

Frank Viola & Leonard Sweet on ‘Jesus Manifesto’

Happy June! In May I was able to chat with Len Sweet and Frank Viola, penners of the declaration-turned book Jesus Manifesto: Restoring the Supremacy and Sovereignty of Jesus Christ (not to be confused with the Anabaptist-anarchist Jesus Manifesto webzine edited by Mark Van Steenwyk – same great Jesus, two different manifestos.). It garnered a ton of signatures and acclaim last year when put online in short form – as well as a little controversy for its emphases and what it didn’t say. That’s why I wanted to interview these two gents, to set the record straight with the book’s release today.

And so, without further ado..!

1. Jesus: He’s the central figure of our faith, and yet in so many ways He’s like a living Rorschach test – everyone sees what they want to see: Mystic, sage, redeemer, prophet, reformer. Who is your Jesus? Is He the Jesus of history? The Christ of faith and inner experience? What are your sources, and what need do you feel that Jesus Manifesto is fulfilling in publishing, yet again, about the Most Talked About Man in History?

Frank: We believe that the Jesus disclosed to us in the New Testament is the same Christ whom the Holy Spirit reveals today. He is the Christ of the cosmos, the Christ of Eternity, the Alpha and the Omega, as well as the Christ who lived on this earth as the quintessential human – the second Adam, or more accurately, the Last Adam – who then died, rose again, was glorified, ascended, enthroned, and now lives in His people.

By my lights, the Christ that is presented to us in Colossians and Ephesians is little known or preached today. Mind you, He’s the same Christ as the One born in Bethlehem. But His incomparable greatness has been lost sight of in so many quarters.

We feel that for many Christians today, their Christ is simply too small. And so we chase all sorts of other things . . . good things, religious things, spiritual things even. And Jesus becomes a mere footnote or a stamp of approval – an Imprimatur – that we place over those other things.

We expound on the following point in one of our chapters, but take for instance Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Scholars have spent a lot trying to figure out the exact nature of the erroneous teaching that captured the minds and hearts of the Colossian believers.

One of the reasons why there is so much debate over it is because Paul never directly addresses the problem. Paul’s primary way of dealing with church problems is to give God’s people a stunning unveiling of Jesus Christ. (Therein lies a valuable lesson for all church leaders.)

For Paul, Jesus Christ is the solution to all problems. And any problem that a believer or a church has can always be juiced down to one common denominator. They have lost sight of the Head, Christ. They have lost touch with the living Christ. Or to put it in Paul’s words, they have stopped “holding fast to the Head.”

But whatever the error was, we can be sure of this: The Colossians thought they could graduate beyond Jesus Christ. They took Him as Lord and Savior, but they felt they could advance to higher and deeper things. Higher and deeper things beyond Jesus . . . hmmm.

In short, if we ever get to the place where Jesus Christ isn’t enough … if we ever get to the place where we feel we can advance beyond Him … then we haven’t met the Christ of Colossians. And our Christ is too small.

In the same connection, there is a debate within much of Christendom presently. It’s not new, but it’s grabbed the attention of many young believers, so it seems novel to some.

One side argues for the Jesus of justice – who is largely derived from the Gospel accounts. The other side argues for the Jesus of justification – who is largely drawn from some of Paul’s statements in Galatians and Romans.

While Len and I embrace the Jesus of justice and the Jesus of justification, our book attempts to present a Christ who is far greater, far more glorious, and far richer than simply being the Justice-Giver or the Justifier.

We feel that this third vision of Jesus is sorely neglected in our time. It’s possible to put justice and justification on the throne, and leave the living Christ out in the cold.

The indwelling life of Jesus also seems to be a missing note in both discussions.

In this regard, I don’t think I can improve upon what Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, said about the book:

“This is a really exhilarating reintroduction to a Jesus who seems sometimes to have become a stranger to the Church; a passionate and joyful celebration of God with us, which cuts right through churchy quarrelling and brings us back to wonder, love and praise – and the urgent desire to make Him known to all.”

Len: When I was 17, I deconverted from Christianity and became an atheist. After college I decided to go into academe and study the history of religions from a scientific, critical perspective. When I was in graduate school, and gradually finding my way back to faith, I made an appointment with a professor to talk about my return journey to orthodoxy. This theologian confessed that for him personally, “I am in pursuit of truth. Whatever truth is, and wherever it is to be found, that is the journey I’m on. When I seek truth and find it, and if truth turns out to be two hydrogen atoms that accidentally collided, and no more than that, I will kneel in front of those two atoms and give them my worship and praise.”

I shall never forget the power of his words which sought to embrace the meaning of meaninglessness.

At about the same time, I encountered a letter Dostoevsky wrote to Natalya Fonvizina, in which he admitted that he was a “child of unbelief and doubt” and would remain so “until my coffin is closed over me.” That got my attention. But then Dostoevsky went on to say more: in the letter he laid out his conviction that “nothing is more perfect than Christ . . . .” He then adds: “If someone succeeded in proving to me that Christ was outside the truth, and if, in reality, the truth was outside Christ, then I should prefer to remain with Christ than with the truth.”

It suddenly hit me that here were the two choices I was facing in my spiritual journey: the worship of a Big Bang, or the worship of a Savior, Redeemer, Sanctifier and Friend who sticks closer than a Big Brother (Proverbs 18:24).  That was a decisive moment for my spiritual pilgrimage, and I immediately immersed myself in our sacred texts and traditions and learned from them that it is dangerous to separate three things that enliven and enfaith us: Jesus, Scriptures, Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit brings Christ to life, and the Scriptures point us to Christ. Separate one from the other and you risk writing another chapter in the history of the waylaying and wrong-footing of the Christian story.

2. The Jesus Manifesto started out as an online declaration by you two; now it’s a book. How did this come together?

Len: I smelled Jesus all over Frank and wanted to know how he had kept his faith “fixed” on Christ. Frank and I met at a GFU event, and stayed in the same bed & breakfast. In the course of coming and going, we both commiserated about how, to hold on to tolerance, so many of us think we must let go of Christ and just hold on to God. So the Christian story becomes Unitarian, primarily about God, only peripherally about God’s Spirit. But Jesus no longer has the leading role . . . that belongs to God alone.

Then I mentioned to Frank that I could not get to Colossians 2 because I couldn’t get past Colossians 1, where it says that “the secret that has been kept hidden has now been revealed, and that secret is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” When I found out that Frank also was transfixed and transfigured by Colossians, we first talked of jointly writing a commentary on Colossians. But then we were led in this direction, and now no one knows the rest of the story …

Frank: In August of 2008, Len and I began conversing via email and phone. One of the things that came up in our conversations (as a pleasant surprise to both of us) was that we both felt that Jesus was getting short-changed in His church, being eclipsed by other “hot” topics and subjects.

In February 2009, we both spoke at a seminar hosted by George Fox Seminary, and we were able to spend some time in person to discuss what was on our hearts. Our burden only increased, as well as an awareness that God had something for us to accomplish together to discharge it.

In April, the idea of writing a joint article/essay emerged. We wrote it in approxiamately18 days, titled it “A Magna Carta,” and subtitled it “A Jesus Manifesto.” It was published online on June 22, 2009. It went viral immediately. I’m told that it was viewed 500,000 times in 8 weeks.

Thomas Nelson was interested in turning the essay into a book (and we were as well), and that’s what happened.

Folks can visit www.theJesusManifesto.com and read sample chapters, hear some brand new songs that were recorded by professional Christian artists based on the book (one of them by the man who wrote some of Amy Grant’s most popular tunes), check out the iPhone app, read endorsements, etc.

3. Frank, you’ve been identified with the ‘house church’ and ‘organic church’ movements – how has Jesus Manifesto been nurtured in that soil? In what ways do you think if functions as a kind of prophetic critique to it?

Frank: In 2005, I began working on a project that I finished at the end of 2009. The project has come to be called the ReChurch Library – five books on radical church reform and the restoration of God’s grand mission in the earth.

The dominating subtext of these five books is the absolute, functional headship and supremacy of the Lord Jesus Christ. Each book in the series themes around this subtext. The afterword of From Eternity to Here is fully dedicated to it.

In short, the organic expression of the church and the supremacy of Christ go hand in hand. Christ is the head; the church is His body. They are organically connected by life. I’ve defined the (local) church as a group of people who are learning to live by the indwelling life of Christ together and displaying that life in their locale. I don’t believe the New Testament knows of any other kind of local church. In addition, the church has no other specialty but her Lord. Everything else flows out of that relationship. Thus for me, the issue of the church has never been its structure. The issue has always been its center – Christ. If Christ is truly the functional head in a particular church, the expression of that church will be effected—sometimes radically. This is my chief argument in Reimagining Church.

Jesus Manifesto takes the thread Christ’s supremacy and builds an entire volume around it. Consequently, the book is a blending of both our (Len and mine) hearts, voices, and burdens regarding our shared vision that Christ should “have the first place in all things” (as Paul put it). Our book explores what that means exactly.

In short, I view Jesus Manifesto as an enlargement of the thread that runs through all of my previous books.

On a lighter note, for the last two years I’ve been writing cook books, but this is my first sweet book 😉

With respect to your last question, I am of the opinion that the driving force of much of the house church, organic church, simple church, and missional church movements is not Jesus Christ. And so I’d like to see this changed. Hopefully, God will use the book toward that end.

4. Len, you have been a pioneer in Christians’ being responsive to the postmodern cultural and philosophical turn – what is now known in different circles as ’emerging’ or ‘missional’ church. Is Jesus Manifesto a departure from your earlier fascination with cultural change and its impact on faith, or in some ways a fulfillment of it?

Len: Even though my primary field is history and semiotics, I challenge you to find one of my books where I do not make the case for the supremacy and sovereignty of Christ in some fashion. In fact, for the last decade, in one book after another, most blatantly in So Beautiful (2009) and Out of the Question, Into the Mystery (2004), I’ve been obsessed with making this case for understanding Jesus as “The Truth” and for understanding discipleship as becoming a Jesus manifest. I am only saying here what I have said in other places and other forms and other ways: how do we speak the name of “Jesus” in such a way that the world we’re in can actually hear us, not the world we wish we had but the world we actually have. The difference is that here, I feel like Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society,” where he has the students throw away and tear up the text books and instead stand on top of the desks and speak at the top of their lungs. In Jesus Manifesto, maybe I’m back to my “shouting Methodist” and holiness Pentecostal roots.

5. Up until last year, I would have never expected Sweet and Viola to be sharing a book byline together! What was it like collaborating for this? Did your styles naturally gel, or was co-authoring difficult?

Frank: We were given a very quick deadline from the publisher after the book idea was finalized. As a result, we wrote the entire book in roughly six weeks. We were laboring on it Christmas Day even, rushing to meet our January 1st deadline.  The book was also bathed in prayer. We deliberately prayed for one another as we wrote our chapters.

But despite the haste, the process went smoother than I expected. We complimented each other’s chapters, adding to them our own unique ingredients and seasoning them with our own peculiar spices. Len made my chapters stronger, and I hope I did the same for his. I trust that readers will feel that the mix works.

Len: For me, what Frank and I did was not “work” but “play.” You don’t “work” a violin. You don’t “work” basketball.  You play a violin; you play basketball. All the best creativity comes from a play paradigm, not a work paradigm. “Labor” was what we got when we were banished from the garden, and in writing this book I felt that I was back in the garden, living out of God’s Prime Directive to Adam (“Conserve and Conceive”), with my pen a plow and my keyboard a seedbed.

I always feared that co-authoring a book would stymie rather than stimulate my creativity. When I tried my hand at woodworking, I never could master the art of mortise and tenon joinery. But I found that Frank’s passionate investment in the project opened the sluices of my soul and the rain that flowed out from both our beings is what you hold in your hand. It’s a fine line between drawing out a colleague’s best and dredging. Frank never crossed the line. It was a joy to play with him in making mudpies of praise out of soil and rain. But as Frank says, the reader is the ultimate judge and jury of our Back to the Garden project.

6. You all were up against some pretty strong critiques toward your original online Jesus Manifesto last year. Some folks thought that you were so ‘Christ-centered’ that you weren’t Trinitarian enough; others thought you magnified Jesus’ person at the expense of His teachings and deeds. Reading the book length Jesus Manifesto, I see that you more than address Jesus’ place in the Triune dance; perichoresis, the community life of God. But what would you say to the readers approaching your book who are looking to integrate this high view of Jesus with their desire to pursue a witness of good works and social justice toward expressing God’s Kingdom?

Len: Actually, we spend a lot of time talking about this in the book, maybe too much time (two chapters is a lot). But we did it because justice is now top dog among social values, and for many in both the more liberal and emerging sectors of the church, justice is another word for “equality”—making more equality more just than less equality.

The truth is no one knows what justice is. No philosopher in history has been able to satisfactorily define justice, whereas everyone knows what injustice is. Injustice is subject to Justice Potter Stewart’s “you-know-it-when-you-see-it” test (first applied to pornography). In fact, one of the best definitions of justice may be this: justice is what emerges in the struggle against injustice. If you don’t believe me, read Amartya Sen’s new book, The Idea of Justice (Harvard University Press, 2009), where he argues that justice is not a philosophical category or principle (“niti”) but a practice (“nyaya”). Justice is a practical matter of dealing with injustice; justice is asking “what is best to do in the here and now, given what can be done.”

In other words, even philosophers are bringing us back to Micah 6:8 where we are to “love mercy,” and “do justice” all the while “walking humbly with our God.” Notice what we’re to love: mercy. We’re to “do justice,” or to “practice justice,” but we are to “love mercy” and “walk humbly.”

My critique of the emerging movement is precisely here: it’s like these “young evangelicals” discovered the “social gospel” movement a century after liberals did, or fifty years after their boomer parents did in “Sojourners.” I’m a “social gospel” person (is there any other gospel than a social one?). But when you replace the “kingdom of justice” as the “framing story” rather than Jesus’ life, death and resurrection as the framing story, there ends up everything “social” and nothing “gospel.” In the Scriptures the kingdom is never something you build or create; the kingdom is something you receive as a gift and enter with your whole being, because the kingdom is the presence of Christ. A couple of years ago Relevant magazine interviewed me about my critique of Emergent and the emerging church along these precise lines, so you can read more about it there.

Frank: Someone once counted almost 200 blogs on the original essay. As I recall, there were only five that were negative. The ones I saw did mention that we neglected to discuss the Trinity—a correct observation. The others felt that we were somehow pitting Jesus against justice.

We certainly failed to talk about the Trinity in the essay. Right or wrong, we didn’t feel it was necessary to discuss it because our entire focus was on Jesus, and we were attempting to point out those aspects about Him that we felt aren’t getting enough air-play today. The Trinitarian nature of God wasn’t one of them; hence, it didn’t come up in our radar. We also wrongly assumed that most of our readers were familiar with our other books that go into the Trinity in detail.

On the other point, we tried to state as clearly as possible that it’s a gross mistake to separate the Jesus of the Gospels from the Person of Christ depicted in the epistles. And that it’s a profound failure to separate His Person from His teachings. For us, neither should be neglected; both should be held together. I addressed this very question (as well as the topic of God’s kingdom and liberation theology) more fully in an interview last year.

Having more space to unravel our vision and burden in the book (which is roughly 190 pages of actual text), we discuss the Trinity and we explore why the Person of Jesus shouldn’t be separated from His teachings and the problems that (we believe) ensue when we divide the two.

7. There seems to be a lot of grassroots energy behind this book, as well as some high-profile friends of its message via endorsers from across the Christian spectrum. If your fondest dreams could be actualized, what do you hope Jesus Manifesto will accomplish – on the literary landscape, in the Body of Christ, in the marketplace of ideas?

Len: When the Marx brothers were in the early stages of their career, the New York City family home was heavily mortgaged to the “Greenbaum” banking firm. Often the payments were very hard to come by. When the three elder brothers (Chico, Harpo and Groucho) and two younger brothers (Gummo and Zeppo) were on stage, their mother would stand in the wings. When her five zany sons began to improvise too much (especially Groucho) and depart  from script, she would snap them back with a loud stage whisper: “Greenbaum! Remember Greenbaum!”

With this book Frank and I are hoping to snap the church back with a loud whisper: “Remember Christ. Remember Christ. Remember Christ.” It’s okay to improvise as long as you stay on script/Scripture and don’t short-shrift Christ. Don’t ever forget the supremacy and sovereignty of Christ.

One more thing: Christianity has lost its liturgical and devotional language. To be sure, English is not the best language for liturgy or piety, as it has largely lost its stately, magisterial register that makes the 1611 King James Version (which was mostly cribbed from Tyndale’s 1537 translation) so resonant and thrilling. Frank and I purposely wrote this in a worshipful way in an attempt to re-introduce the church to a devotional way of talking about Jesus that seems to be missing in the life of faith today.

Frank: Yes. We are thankful that we have over 20 endorsements from some of the most influential leaders on the Christian landscape today. They include Baptist, Reformed, Anglican, Methodist, Charismatic, Pentecostal, New Monastic, Neo-Anabaptist, Missional, etc. It’s a nice mix of theologians, biblical scholars, pastors, and renowned authors, all of whom share our passion for the supremacy of Christ.

My dream in a nutshell: That the Spirit of God would taken the unveiling of Jesus that’s presented in the book and press it upon the hearts of every reader, bringing us all to our faces in the presence of so great a Christ. That we would make Christ and Christ alone our chief pursuit, our chief love, our chief passion, and our chief obsession in life, in ministry, and in our churches – at whatever cost it may exact. That the body of Christ would begin to learn how to live by His indwelling life, which (according to the New Testament) is a major part of “the mystery of the ages.” And that churches all over this planet would be built upon the only foundation that exists – the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Not in rhetoric, but in reality, thus discovering and displaying His inexhaustible riches to one another, to principalities and powers, and to a lost world.

All told: I see the body of Christ in battle with its own. Some are fighting on the left; others on the right. This is true politically as well as theologically. May these timeless words from our Father stop us all dead in our tracks:

“This is my beloved Son, hear HIM.”

Jesus Manifesto is our frail attempt to reflect this heavenly voice.

Jesus Manifesto: Restoring the Supremacy and Sovereignty of Jesus Christ (Thomas Nelson) releases Tuesday, June 1st (today!). Check it out and be re-centered.

Zeitgeist vs. Paraclete – A Prayer Conspiracy

I was able to write an autobiographical reflection on the role prayer has played on my life, for the fine folks at Conspire magazine. Here’s an excerpt from the fourth issue:

Ah, Prayer – what a complicated relationship I have with Thee. Are You talking to God, or are You what happens in the spaces between the words?

What is prayer? Ask a dozen people, you’ll get at least a baker’s dozen responses. From books of common prayer and missals, to extemporaneous evangelical prayer (punctuated with the unwritten mantra of ‘holylordfathergodwejust’ every few seconds, used as a kind of prayer-comma), to ecstatic glossolalia, we followers of God in the way of Jesus are all over the map on the varieties of our prayer experience. Is prayer about asking God for things? Does it form the basis of our much-vaunted ‘personal relationship’ with God, a grand I-Thou dialogue? Is it the glue that holds together churches, neighborhoods, faiths, and countries? Yes, absolutely.

Yet as comprehensive as the above laundry list of prayer might seem at first glance, it actually eclipses its meaning for many of our most significant poets, mystics, lovers, and rapscallions through the ages. For a wise minority both inside the Church and without it, prayer is a difficult-to-quantify exchange-less exchange, occurring between people and a God beyond imagination, after words have been spent or when they’ve been gently laid aside.

This ground clearing – the release of words – is, ironically, a whole lot easier said than done. For me at least. I am deluged with words from morning ‘till evening – can I get a witness? And I was raised on prayer with words – asking God for stuff in my Baptist beginnings, which I continue to believe is just fine.

In my Pentecostal years, heartfelt, exuberant prayer was emphasized – we sang and danced prayer, to the beat of drums and tambourine. And glossolalia, or ‘praying in tongues as the Spirit gave utterance’ was encouraged, subject/object boundaries collapsing between you speaking to God and God speaking in and through you. The emphasis here was on ‘power with God,’ your prayers for self and others augmented via being directly ‘plugged in’ to the Paraclete, the Helper, the Holy Spirit of God. Tongues were like Popeye’s spinach for training ‘prayer warriors,’ heaven’s storm troopers who would kick butt and take names for the Almighty. I was never a really good prayer warrior as it turned out, but unlike a growing number of people who are part of Pentecostal churches these days, ‘tongues’ weren’t just a fad with me. They were a gift – a permanent stage you might say – and I continue to enjoy these hotly contested ‘other tongues’ to this day, some 15 years after my Assemblies of God days.

Of course, this would cause me no end of confusion during my soon-thereafter Presbyterian days, where tongues and tambourines designated you as lower-class, theologically inferior, mentally ill, or all three. (Turns out they were on the money with two out of three; sometimes the ‘planks’ you call in brothers’ eyes turn out to be right after all…) My Reformed friends, in this particular church at least, liked acrostics: In youth group we learned that the most pleasing way to talk to God was to act up – or, to ACTS up. That is, we approach God with Adoration, Confession, (oh gosh, I forget what the T is – Thanksgiving? Lemme Google this, be right back…) Thanksgiving (yes indeed), and Supplication – a weird word that means you finally get to ask God for stuff. I always got ‘Adoration’ and ‘Thanksgiving’ confused – kind of like which way to go in the Box Step whenever I’d try to learn the waltz over the years. This was especially awkward when doing it with a partner – praying or waltzing. I’d step all over the other partner; it was like I was all left feet.

Then one day in the late 1990s, during my freshman year in college when the Internet barely existed in popular use but it was already consuming more and more of my time, I felt a calling: Not to abandon all of these beloved (and sometimes frustrating and contradictory) prayer forms, but to transcend them for something sweeter: the call to ‘Be still and know that I am God.’ (That’s not me talking; it’s God. It’s in the Psalms. Look it up.) I remember when I first heard this siren song: sitting on a bench in a beautiful wooded area on my 28,000-acre campus, probably avoiding homework (or maybe even cutting class), transfixed by this little book by evangelical mystic Jerry Coulter called Beholding and Becoming. This passage is indicative of what caught my heart:

[Jesus] wants to be “with” us now. He wants us to experience that same intimate relationship with him that he had with his disciples. He wants to walk and live with us constantly. He wants us to sense his loving presence in our daily circumstances. He has made provision for this intimate with-ness for each of us. He has prepared a place for us where we may be “with him where he is.” Right now!

Jerry goes on to describe this path as one of koinonia, or fellowship with (and within) the Godhead that takes place in the depths of the human spirit; this romance of language and shift of perspective almost instantly gave me a whole new, more alive reading of Scripture that freed it from the more wooden interpretations of my youth. I wanted to be such a fellowship-er, what I learned Christian faith has named a contemplative. I wanted to have a more significant, intentional living into the One in whom we live, move, and have our being; the One who, it is said, is the All in all. (See Acts 17 and Ephesians 4, you Bible-lovers out there). If Jesus’ own prayer to our Abba in John 17 was true, this was an invitation open to everyone who begins a journey along the Way – to be hid with Christ in God, the same way Jesus was cloaked in his Father’s essence while treading our humble and blessed earth.

And so it has been. From that ‘call’ at the tender age of 19, through my 30th birthday just a few days ago, I have been a wannabe contemplative, stumbling and faltering through the absurd possibility that our faith offers us – to be friends with God, and participate in extending this friendship to all creatures for the healing of the world. What I’m going to share now is what I try and fail at, as taught by some pretty adept folks toward living into this audacious goal. In my faltering attempts I see our enabling Paraclete graciously inviting herself into increasing palpability and centrality in our lives – collectively and personally – as she seeks to put the mighty Zeitgeist, the spirit of our frenetic age, in its place as servant rather than master of our most precious resource: our attention.

– to read the rest of this piece (this is only the first third), go here to find out how you can pick up a copy from an intentional community within driving distance from you, or online.

On Scatology and Compost

No, not eschatology, though many folks consider than an equally excremental topic. Rather, yesterday’s post Organic Church: Full of Crap? elicited a lot of lively feedback (thanks all!). One friend in particular emailed me off-blog  and wondered if perhaps I was carrying the metaphor of church history/our personal experiences-as-compost a bit too far; couldn’t saying that the ‘crap’ is valuable justify abuse, manipulation, or normalizing sub-standard experiences? It’s a good question. Here’s what I replied:

Great question. And if I was brutally honest about my own ‘organic church experience’ over its 10-year period, on a scale from Euphoric to $#!tty, I’d probably say it’s somewhere in the middle – and that I’d rather not spiritualize my experience of the latter.

Far be it from me to make the compost metaphor whitewash the $#!t and justify manipulation and groupthink. Rather, I think that this image of spiritual life can stand – on a personal/local level as well as a macro/historical level – as an ecosystem metaphor for even the best of times and the healthiest of institutions/movements. ‘Cause when you think about it, most people don’t pile steaming excrement on their home compost heaps. That’s just fertilizer – and that’s helpful too, but somewhat different. No, the compost heap in my parents’ backyard garden gets a regular supply of egg shells, carrot peelings, old lettuce, and other bits of organic matter that were (and are, strictly speaking) life-giving – just not at that moment for my parents. They were yesterday’s meals – yesterday’s manna, if you will. By sewing into the compost heap, they hope to reap some life-giving food down the line a bit. Even a psychologically-healthy, well-adjusted group will have old manna to put on the compost heap for tomorrow’s nourishment.

You’re right, too, that we don’t worship the decay – the compost heap isn’t = the life of the Spirit. Rather, it’s the fertile ground where the Spirit can do her work.

Organic Church: Full of Crap?

The Web has had been a-buzz with some conversation about my native church milieu, ‘organic’ church – aka house church or simple church. Folks meeting in homes, rather decentralized, certainly de-clericalized. Senior Christianity Today editor Mark Galli wishes organic churchers well, but is concerned that we might burn out on our lofty ideals.

What I worry about is the coming crash of organic church. And after that, I worry about the energetic men and women at the forefront of the movement. Will they become embittered and abandon the church, and maybe their God?

Some folks think this is over-dramatic – including Neil Cole, who responded to Galli’s editorial here. (Update: Frank Viola has responded too.) But others, like my friend Neil Carter, were writing about the death of idealism in organic church before they even read Galli’s piece. Carter finds himself looking at organic church on the outside after 10 years as an insider: Far from breathing the rarified air of ‘changing the world’ (as Cole suggests organic churches do) or ‘revolutionizing the history and practice of the church’ (as the house church stream Carter & I share proclaims as one of its goals), Carter is now churching with that most ubiquitous (and some would say, boring) of tribes: Southern Baptists. Reflecting on this, Carter writes:

It’s funny how you can age ten years in the space of just one, while at other times you can go ten years and hardly age a year. It’s a variable process, it turns out. It’s all about what you learn — what you experience in the space of a year. Having said that, I feel I’ve aged more years than I know how to count just in the last 12 months.

Specifically, he recounts a major compromise with his ideals in allowing some professional pastor dude baptize his youngest daughter – even though he baptized his first two daughters himself as part of his former house church community, in a swimming pool. He quotes a coupla Michael Caine flicks – “Obsession is a young man’s game” and “Idealism is youth’s final luxury.” Neil’s only about five years older than me, but he’s musing, as Blink-182 did a decade ago, “I guess this is growing up.”

Or is it?

Do-it-yourself New Testament scholar Bill Heroman – whom I also shared a living room with, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away – thinks the organic church movement is full of crap – in a good way. “The challenge,” he says, “is sustainability.”

Human systems last a long time mainly by suppressing the human element that challenges established traditions, but that same human element also provides authenticity and vitality. Thus, the best way to survive for a long time is to be nearly dead. Nature, naturally, sustains itself quite differently. The work God needs to do within a local body of believers will always be messy, but Institutional Christendom keeps peons & yokels from participating precisely because they make messes. The shift is: who says messes are bad? Antiseptic works well for hospitals and elementary schools, but not in gardens or forests. After all, crap makes good fertilizer, and God is a gardener.

God is a gardener, and we – our individual lives, collective lives, our history and our institutions – are compost. Just like the Holy Spirit, Sarayu, in The Shack: She is unoffended by our messiness and our chaos. Indeed, it is beautiful to her.

So thanks, Bill, for stealing my metaphor. :)

Even so – I understand and respect my friends like Neil Carter, who find themselves outside of these more ‘ideal-laden’ patterns of doing and being church – whether by necessity or shifting sensibilities. It’s an internal tug-of-war, sometimes. Even though I’m far more interested in liturgical and traditional elements (from the ‘compost’ of our history) than I once was, I’m as opposed to clericalism as I’ve ever been. Even so, I’m not at all opposed to leadership – even strong leadership – as some in the organic stream are. Leadership is, it helps, and not everyone is gifted at it. That said, any leadership modeling itself remotely on that of Jesus or even Paul will be continuously giving power away – “You feed them!” “Try this!” and not seeking its own self-preservation. Because while we’re not all ‘leaders,’ we are all priests.

What does this look like, practically? These days I’m drawing inspiration from the 70-year-old Church of the Saviour cluster of churches in the D.C. area (read Inward Journey, Outward Journey by Elizabeth O’ Connor! Do it now!), as well as the 30-year-old St. Gregory of Nyssa congregation in San Francisco (do yourself a favor and pre-order Sara Miles’ new book Jesus Freak: Feeding/Healing/Raising the Dead). While these fellowships are older than the current ‘organic’ church nomenclature’s popular use – and they certainly have the trappings of Galli’s ‘smells and bells’ in significant ways – to me they embody composted communities; not experiments in puritan house-cleaning, but groups who are full-of-crap and they know it. It’s from this rich, loamy soil that they can sprout the Spirit’s life afresh in each generation.

Open or Closed Table Eucharist/Communion – WWJD?

Vaux EucharistThe sacred meal that Christians celebrate, variously called ‘Eucharist’ or ‘Communion’ or ‘Lord’s Supper’ – is both the centerpiece of most Christian worship worldwide, and one of the most painfully divisive rites we practice. My friend and Catholic Celtic contemplative (how much more alliteration can I pack into his descriptor – oh I know, his first name!) Carl McColman blogs about feeling this ambivalence firsthand in his post Communion and the Broken Body. What follows is a response to Carl, and the others who have interacted in the comments. I recommend you read Carl’s post before proceeding.

First off Carl, thank you for sharing this – I recall you and I discussing some of this the first time I came to the monastery with you and participated in the morning prayers and mass; the Christian community’s celebration of unity with God and each other is fragmented, broken much like Christ’s body on the altar, and this does indeed call for sadness.

But I also agree with Darrell and some of the other (you could call us ‘green meme’) commentators on this thread – that unlike other things the Church might mourn, such as the energy crisis or genocide in Darfur, this is a matter wholly of our own making and within our purview to change. In stages of grief, if grieving doesn’t lead to fresh beginnings and new action, the griever is stunted in her growth. So let’s move on.

How might we do this? Well, if Catholics want to appeal to tradition and authority, and Protestants want to appeal to conscience and Scripture, maybe we can all agree to hold these in abeyance while taking a moment to appeal to Jesus. (Ack – I realize upon typing this that it can sound awfully one-sidedly Protestant, even Pietist. Bear with me a moment…)

If I may be so presumptuous, I think Jesus agrees with your growing realization that there are legitimate boundaries to the community of faith – that there are mysteries to be stewarded, and hard roads to walk, and that while hospitality is a crucial part of our vocation as apprentices to him, there are also places where the general public simply won’t go – and this is fine. Inclusive green meme progressives like us struggle with this a bit, but Jesus deliberately thinned out the crowds from time to time – speaking in enigmatic parables, ratcheting up Moses’ law a thousand-fold to show the heart of God’s reign, and ultimately inviting followers to a challenging third way path between Roman hegemony and reactive Jewish intransigence. In this way Jesus brought a ‘sword,’ and families were divided over what to do about him and his message. So Jesus is exclusive, yes?

And I hardly need to argue in this esteemed audience that Jesus is inclusive, too. Maybe cranky and reluctant at times, but reaching out to Samaritan women and Roman centurions and – most significantly – to lowest-caste Jewish folks of his day that polite society and religious elites wouldn’t countenance. Jesus seems to genuinely enjoy the company of the outcast and ne’er-do-well.

And Jesus gave us a meal – sometimes somber, sometimes joyous, in re-membrance of him, embodying Christ for the sake of each other and the world. And the question we post-Christendom, postmodern friends of God in the way of Jesus are asking ourselves is,

How then shall we eat?

And with whom?

Recognizing that there are initiation rituals and boundary rituals in any religious group, we could then ask the question what are our boundary rituals, and what are our initiation rituals? And is Eucharist the former or the latter? I know that official Roman Catholic polity – and that of many other communions – say that Eucharist is the former, it’s a boundary ritual reinforcing membership in Christ’s Body.

Byzantine/Anglo-Catholic liturgist Richard Fabian makes a brief-but-compelling case for reversing the well-tread order of Baptism and Eucharist in his essay First the Table, Then the Font. I’m not going to reiterate his arguments here, but it’s well worth the read. Summarizing him from my point of view, I have to ask the question “How did Jesus eat with others in his earthly life? Were they initiation meals, or boundary-maintenance?” I have to conclude that, overwhelmingly, in his eating Jesus is precisely at his most inclusive. This is when he dines with terrorists and sex workers and tax collectors, whilst the religious authorities of his day were disgusted.

“But oh,” contemporary religious authorities might object, “his final meal this side of the grave – the one where I told his followers to keep eating in remembrance of him – that was just with his inner circle.” Granted, but let me ask you this: If Jesus was asking his followers to eat in his manner to celebrate his presence among them, would they be drawing solely on this one ‘final’ meal, or the collective memory of their years shared together? To put it another way: If the Church wants to insist on a closed, bounded-set meal based on one night of our Lord’s life, shouldn’t it work equally vigorously to celebrate the scandalously inclusive, no-strings-attached manner of eating our Redeemer practiced during the vast majority of his public ministry?

Religious thinking is so bass-ackward sometimes. We’re afraid of ourselves, and afraid of the ‘outside world.’ We think of boundaries as something that we need to institute and enforce, externally, while gratuitous inclusion is something that will result in our loss of distinction and identity. Jesus seemed to reverse this pattern, finding his identity in complete open-handed invitational inclusion at the site of the shared meal, with boundary naturally arising in his call to follow him. It’s good branding, really – being salt and light both attracts and repels different people, or even the same people at different times – even ourselves at different stages of life’s journey.

With this said, I realize that – both practically and intentionally speaking – Eucharistic celebration is primarily for the edification of committed apprentices of Jesus; it is not ‘evangelistic’ per se in its design. Even so, it is invitational when practiced in the way of Jesus. We needn’t be concerned that abject heathens are going to keep beating down our doors to participate in a ritual that they disrespect and that holds no meaning to them – it just ain’t happening, folks. On the other hand, atheists, agnostics, sinners and ne’er-do-wells might just be curious enough to participate alongside us – to see if they can belong before believing, to see if they can ‘taste and see that the Lord is good.’ I long to see creative, prophetic acts of public worship, like my friend Lucas Land proposes in Eucharist as Eat-In. If we unshackle Jesus from our exclusionary practices, the transforming love of God can spill into the streets and the ‘profane’ lives or ordinary people – through our supposed ‘means of grace’ that we keep shut up.

That’s what happened to another friend, Sara Miles, who stumbled into Fabian’s congregation over a decade ago. I loathe to think of where Sara, her city, and even her congregation would be had she not been allowed to encounter Jesus at a no-strings-attached Communion table in her neighborhood. I shudder to think of how Jesus is being shuttered up in buildings across this world – what we’re missing out on by not making liturgy the work of the people, for the people.

I’m sorry, Carl – I got into the very argument that you didn’t want to have. And I’m going to ratchet it up slightly here – I don’t think that Darrell was being overly unkind or by describing the closed-handed exclusivity of certain Eucharist practices as ‘demonic.’ This needn’t be seen in an overly polemic way, but rather in the spirit of the apostle Paul, when he wrote a church to say he was giving one of its members “over to the devil.” This wasn’t a curse, but a naming of things as they really are in hopes of full repentance and restoration. I can’t – and won’t – stand in judgment of denominations that fence the table from all who don’t have confessional unity with them. But I do sniff the smell of fear and sulphur around such behavior at an institutional level, at what Walter Wink would call “the Powers” (demonic again. 🙂 ) And I do pray that such power will be broken – for Christ’s sake, and the sake of the world.

If anyone wants to do some theological heavy-lifting on the matter, I’d recommend (in addition to Fabian’s essay above) Come to the Table by Anglican priest Jamie Howison – the full book is available here. Also Making A Meal of It: Rethinking the Lord’s Supper by United Methodist minister and theologian Ben Witherington III. And to be fair to another perspective (thanks Carl for pointing these resources out), Episcopal priest and Thomas W. Phillips Chair in Religious Studies professor at Bethany College in West Virginia Jim Farwell has staked a lot on a generous-but-boundary-keeping stance on limiting Communion to the baptized. His essay Baptism, Eucharist, and the Hospitality of Jesus: On the Practice of  ‘Open Communion,’ as well as its rejoinder by Kathryn Tanner can be found on the Anglican Theological Review website here. (Interestingly, for me anyway, I took a class with Farwell nearly a decade ago on Eastern Religion with a focus on Zen and interreligious dialogue at Berry. It’s a small Body of Christ…)

It’s also worth noting that, in true house church fashion, I think that the Eucharist is best celebrated as a full meal – why redact God’s feast into a notional meal only? But that’s a subject for a whole ‘nother post…

Panentheism & Interspirituality – What’s Jesus Got to do With It?

I’m working on my response to Frank Viola & Len Sweet‘s A Jesus Manifesto. Before I (finish &) post it, however, I wanted to share this blast from the past with you – something I wrote for TheOOZE blog about three years ago, right after Jasmin and I got married. Carl McColman & I have become quite good friends since then, and some of my inclinations & language have doubtless changed. But I think I’ll preserve it as-is for the sake of its integrity…let me know what you think; this is relevant to my upcoming intereaction with A Jesus Manifesto..!

panentheism logo

This is my response and interaction to wonderful and incisive questions raised by Carl McColmnan’s post, Notes on Manifesting a Truly Interfaith Spirituality. (You should definitely read it first) I hope that I can respond as an “interfaith-friendly post-evangelical.” In Carl and I’s correspondence, he mentions that “a core issue for me personally is the ongoing question of where the balance point is between the old-Pagan-me, the new-Catholic-me, and the overall-Christian-me,” and I suppose it is very much the question of where does pantheism stop and panentheism begin–a core dilemma of Christian mysticism.”

Panentheism In Brief

It is indeed a core dilemma! I think of myself as a panentheist, and probably have for the past half-decade or so. I first encountered the notion through the post-denominational contemporary Christian mystic, Norman Grubb. If you’ve never read Grubb you really should; he’s fascinating. He began his life as a missionary, biographer and publisher. He never really left these passions, but lived them all out from a Center of what he would call “fixed awareness of union with Christ.” In the last several decades of his life he was a wanderer. He’d go anywhere and life for awhile, with anyone who would have him–he spent years with house churches, Messianic Jewish synagogues, all-summer camp retreats, and I learned a few years back that he spent several years at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Rome, Georgia where I went to school! His life exemplified his conviction that God was truly present in all things as the All in all.

I have more recently encountered the panentheist message in the writings of Marcus Borg and others, such as in books like The God We Never Knew. And I appreciate these writings, I truly do. But I suppose a significant difference between the vision of panentheism that lives in my heart and the interspiritual vision that informs Marcus, Matthew Fox and others is that I believe that the Divine which permeates all reality is the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

[Ouch! In the intervening years I’ve read both Borg & Fox more, and have to interject that this statement is rather unfair. While I don’t align with either of them ‘jot and tittle,’ they are both committed to the person and spirituality of Jesus.]

Like a good post-evangelical (Over the cultural and political commitments of this particular epoch but cherishing Scripture and good news nonetheless) my panentheism is biblically informed. I see unmistakable cadences of the all-inclusive Christ in such passages as (you’ll forgive me for not citing precisely) –

“I am God, there is no other,”
“God causes it to rain on the just and the unjust alike”
“There is a Light which enlightens everyone”
“God is the all in all”
“Christ will be the all in all”

…and of course that pagan poem that Paul quotes to pagan friends at Mars Hill in Acts, appropriating for Jesus Christ–“In Him we live, move, and have our being.”

This break with functional Deism came to me as liberation–very good news indeed! Not only did Christ’s spirit indwell me (a message which was good news enough after hearing from Calvinists that God only “positionally” indwelt a regenerate person–whatever that meant–and the Pentecostals who seemed to treat the Spirit like a rather elusive guest), but God was in everything in some sort of real and compassionate way. I like panentheism because it emphasizes immanence while still preserving transcendence and awe. Certainly many of my conservative Christian brethren squirm at such an understanding but I have to to go with what I’ve discovered.

Interspiritual Relevance

CoexistBut now I’m afraid that some of my progressive Christian and interspiritual brethren and friends might likewise squirm at my working understanding of “panentheism.” I know how much well-intentioned people wish to see panentheism as the vehicle for all interfaith dialogue and even interfaith worship, as some Great Core Spirit that, when you get right down to it, is shared by all the great faiths or life-paths. But I think this is more of a deus ex machina than it might at first appear, and I hope that I can respectfully explain why I feel this way.

I think that dialogue, learning, and appreciation among faiths, spiritualities and religions is crucially needed in our day and age–I will elaborate more in a moment. I am significantly less comfortable, however, with co-worship and integration as it seems to transgress something, and disrespect all faiths involved. Further, syncretism of this sort seems as if it would have the fruit of only further dividing people, giving them yet another religious option (interspirituality) to embrace or reject.

Does this make sense? You get a bunch of nice, open-minded progressives together to share their hearts considering their journeys as Pagan, Christian, Sufi, Unitarian, Buddhist, or Snake-handling sex cultist. Wonderful. But then if someone says, “These are all vital emanations from the same Source,” many in the room nod solemnly, but a few people look up like “Wait.” Then what? A new multifaith dogma has just formed in the room, and everyone has to either accept or reject it. Call it the curse of Martin Luther’s endless fragmentation.

Education and mutual understanding through interfaith dialogue might seem a whole lot more modest (read: lame) than constructing a bold new interspiritual outlook, but I think its small gains can do much to build mutual esteem and trust in our shakily pluralistic world, all without going the “all roads lead to the same path” route.

Getting back to the internal integrity of one’s faith, and speaking from my “Jesus-y” (as Anne Lamott puts it) perspective, where does fidelity to God come in? I consider myself thoroughly postmodern, but do postmodern people of faith always need to put ironic, self-effacing quotation marks around everything they “believe” to be “true”? I am personally struggling to live life through the Jesus Way–not the pop culture, American Jesus, but the Jesus I see in the Gospels and New Testament and mystics and marginalized church history through the ages. One thing I’ve come to discover is that Jesus loves everyone but he does not agree with everyone. He embraces and forgives the Woman at the Well but–before acknowledging the universality of the coming eschaton where God can be known everywhere, in Sprit and Realit–he engages her in a little Jewish versus Samaritan debate about the appropriate place for Temple worship!

My friend Brian McLaren says something like this: “Jesus is the Way to God and abundant life, it doesnt mean he stands in the way to divine access!” I believe that “Jesus is the savior of the world,” whatever that ultimately means, I can only speculate and hope. I cannot limit the meaning of this to a particular model of atonement, or a particular scope of redemption. All I know, based on Jesus’ revelation of God’s character and intention, is that the Godhead loves his enemies, forgives those who persecute, and practices restorative justice. I have every confidence, with Julian of Norwich, that “all will be well.” Please keep this in mind as you read, knowing that I’m not coming at this to Bible-beat dissenters into submission or condemn anyone to eternal flames! I’m simply talking about faithfulness to the light we’ve been given, and how that light might be unintentionally dimmed or blurred.

Clearly Carl feels more free than I do to “play with the poetry of an interfaith spirituality,” no doubt owing to your diverse background. On an intrafaith scale I am similar–I grew up equal parts Baptist, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian, and was always more willing to integrate the best of each of these denominational traditions. What was effortless to me in this regard always seemed like a huge sticking point to some of my friends, who grew up in a particular denomination. Perhaps because of this, there are ways that I can appreciate a “humble model” of interfaith interaction:

I value interfaith dialogue because it’s educational. So many people of all faiths are fearful of “the other.” We have no idea what our neighbors hope for, believe, or practice, and we tend to draw the worst possible conclusions because they’re not following Jeee-suz (or ‘the Prophet,’ be it Muhammad, Joseph Smith, or Elizabeth Clare). In an integrated society with a pluralist public square, this simply will not do. I love to participating in interfaith sharing times–whether formal sessions or conversations with friends and neighbors–to gain understanding about the diverse religions of the world.

Models of Pluralism in Christian Perspective

ConnectionFurther, I believe that I can truly learn, spiritually, from the world’s religious traditions–things that Zeus or the Vishnu decreed can give me an altogether fresh perspective on an obscure passage of Scripture or way that I reach God. But this is a qualified learning. I was talking about this with my friend Frank Viola, who’s an author and house church planter. Frank is definitely a conservative evangelical theologically, though he’s a pretty open guy considering these caveats–he has a special love for church mystics in particular. Right now he’s reading Cynthia Bourgeault’s Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening. Because she’s coming from an “apophatic” contemplative perspective, she quotes freely from what she’s gained from her Buddhist background. As I was talking to Frank, I asked:

“I’m curious: Do you, personally, feel put off by Bourgeault’s references to Eastern spiritual practice? I personally feel like she’s simply giving credit where credit is due: she has a background in these practices and she feels like they have wisdom to illuminate the Scripture and our own tradition. I don’t feel like she ever says “Buddha is just as important/relevant as Jesus Christ,” or any such thing. It’s fascinating that, as people of different faiths began getting to know each other, you see this “borrowing of wisdom” take place. You see it all over Merton as well. It seems like there are several different ways professing followers of Christ have related to those of other faiths:

  • Way One: All other religions are simply false. (Their “gods” or philosophies are nonexistent and irrelevant.)
  • Way Two: All other religions are demonic. (Their gods or philosophies are real and dangerous to body and soul)
  • Way Three: All religions contain shades and gradations of the Truth. (Their gods or philosophies are incomplete revelations, tainted by the humanity’s fallen and fractured state, that nonetheless contain glimmers of the story of Christ)
  • Way Four: All religions lead to a singular (or at least similar) path. (There is a beneficent Force governing the cosmos that none of us can quite grasp; this Force communicates to people in different times and cultures in different ways, but there’s no significant qualitative difference between them)”

I then continued, “As for my .02, the First and Fourth Ways seem too black and white and simplistic, though they stand on opposite poles. Even though later Judaism seemed to view all gods who weren’t YHWH as nonexistent, Jesus makes much of genuine spiritual forces who were nonetheless malevolent. And of course in Daniel you have the angels doing battle with the Prince of Persia, etc… The Third Way, advocated most notably by CS Lewis, is the one I want to believe most–that God has not just communicated in symbols and shadows not just to the Hebrew people, but to all times and cultures (See, for instance, the contemporary East Orthodox book Christ the Eternal Tao by Hieromonk Damascene.

Common sense and experience, though, suggests to me that Way Two is frequently the case– humanity being what it is sometimes, faith becomes so twisted as to be demonic and dangerous, as is the case with televangelists and Vodou and fundamentalist Islam.”

So, to recap: I think that I can learn about communion with God from a Buddhist or a Sufi, but I inevitably see God’s clearest speaking in Jesus Christ. Jesus does not always negate the spiritual experience of other faiths, but–and this seems unkind and un-PC for interfaith dialogue–he sometimes does. When Christ calls us to conversion, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “He bids a man come and die.” We’re called to die to different things–different ingrained mindsets, different patterns of being, different destructive religious and cultural beliefs. I am not comfortable dictating what beliefs and practices are to be abrogated by people whose cultures I do not belong to–that is between them, God, and their Christian community.

Thank God for Pagan Christianity! 🙂

Born Again PaganFor this reason I don’t have any beef – sacrificed to idols or no – with Carl engaging in “folkloric Irish practices (that have been practiced by Irish Catholics for centuries) that are clearly Pagan in origin.” I believe that when the Holy Spirit came to Ireland, God wasn’t pissed at the Irish for being who they were. Since I believe that Jesus’ call to make apprentices of the Kingdom of God applies to all people and cultures, and don’t think any culture has imperialist preference in YHWH’s book. God’s great transition was from one chosen people to “every tribe, tongue and nation,” and so when the Spirit brooded over Ireland, God lovingly extricated the Irish people from harm and embraced, and transformed everything else. God loves the beauty of worship from every tribe, people group and culture. This is, though, a break with a certain pluralistic orthodoxy that insists that every region will have their own inherent cultural religious expression, and that expression should never be tampered with. At this point any attempt at sharing another point of view becomes verboten from the start; I simply don’t think this is fair.

Of course I realize that missionary history has a definite dark side, where financial opportunism and cultural imperialism can run rampant. But what many of my non-Christian friends (and even some Christians) might not know is that missional or apostolic work among indigenous people can and does take place with care and respect to the cultures involved. I’d recommend reading Roland Allen, Leslie Newbingin, or even my own church’s planter Gene EdwardsThe Americanization of Christianity to see how Christ can authentically incarnate into a culture in an authentic way.

Anyway, at this point your many readers of other faiths are reading all this talk about conversion and Jesus coming into other cultures and you’re either offended or colossally disinterested. “When will this exclusivist bigot be finished?” you tire. Okay, well let me see if I can bring this to a close and earn just a bit of your continued interest. Carl asks, “What are workable, creative boundaries for interfaith spirituality?” Can a “druid with a rosary” really work? How can we all be “friendly” to faiths with which we might (and indeed must at some point) disagree? And, “Where is my ultimate loyalty?”

Sharing Faith

Clasping the ShadowsI resonate with shunning the “smarmy sales job” of snake-oil evangelists out to sell a quick conversion. And yet…I’m not averse to sharing Good News, or the conversion of heart and priority that may result. I suppose, working with my appreciation of interfaith dialogue, I always respect the space that I’m in. To me (like a good Calvinist) conversion is God’s job, and being open and engaged with others is my job. Because of the love of Christ within me, I’m naturally drawn to hang out with people and spend time with them, with no particular agenda. But the Spirit being who s/he is, I am “always ready to give an answer when someone asks you about your hope,” as the first-century church planter Peter encourages (in 1 Peter 3:15). I don’t necessarily think I’ve earned the right to knock and a stranger’s door and bombard them with a plastic gospel. As my favorite faith-sharing group, Off-the-Map, says, Christians should “count conversations, not conversions.”

I agree whole-heartedly with what Carl says about not selling people with chaos and fear. And yet! I affirm this even as the purifying fires of hell could be relevant, and God just might care about how we relate to others with our genitals. I like living in this tension. In another paradox that I’m going to have to chew on and digest, Carl says:

“As a Christian, I am in fact called to be an evangelist; but I understand that to mean that I am called to spread good news. And in today’s world, and especially among Neopagans, talking about the Christian religion is the quickest way to subvert “good news,” instead sounding like a tired old purveyor of religious negativity.”

I think you’re absolutely right, and I think that Jesus would agree with this completely. In fact, in one popular translation of scripture, Jesus says:

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. (Matthew 11:28-30, The Message)

When you talk about being faithful to your values, I feel you…obviously you don’t want to embrace so-called “spiritualities” that are hurtful, selfish, or unloving. I feel like a lot of Christians don’t understand that God doesn’t care about “Jesus” as some sort of abstract cosmological category; Father is in love with his Son because of his beauty and character. Jesus said “Whoever is not against me is for me.” When some people at the end of their lives stand confidently before the Big J and read off their religious resume, he tells them “I never knew you.” I think the Christian family’s views on “who’s in” and “who’s out” are out of sync with an intimate knowing of the risen Christ.

I like what Carl said about cultivating the positive and embracing the contributions of other faiths. Forgive me for pushing back a little, though: is there ever a place in interfaith dialogue to loathe aspects of faith–starting with your home faith to be sure–and repent, or turn from these patterns of being? I mean, in the physical realm most of us have no problem telling a friend they’re engaging in destructive and life-threatening habits, from “You should really quit smoking” to “self-immolation is not the way!” Yet if the realm of spirit is at least as real as the material realm, couldn’t certain cosmological choices have dire consequences?

Carl closes his reflection with the statement “I am free to love.” It echoes my interview with Anne Rice a few months back, a Gothic horror writer-turned eclectic Catholic. When I asked her what she’d like to share with fellow Christians, she told me:

We need to stop being so afraid that the devil is winning. The devil’s not winning–we are winning. Jesus is winning. God is winning. We have the strength and the time to open our arms to absolutely everyone. Rushing to judgment, condemning whole classes and groups of people–that is not in the spirit of Christ that I see in the Gospel. I can’t find that spirit. I see the spirit of love, taking the message to absolutely everyone.

Amen?

Update

Well, that wasn’t the final word, thankfully. Carl had a great follow-up, and Jon Trott did too. Here are the comments from the original Ooze post. It also opened me up to a fair bit of heresy-hunting, which I’ve covered extensively. Carl has re-published a classic of his dealing with all of this material, titled Spirituality: A Post-Modern and Interfaith Approach to Cultivating a Relationship with God – I highly recommend it. One of the most significant voices I’ve discovered in the intervening years exploring panentheism (and its implications for science & spirituality) is Philip Clayton of Transforming Theology. Since writing the above post I’ve discovered both the Interfaith Youth Core and Faith House Manhattan, which are living experiments in putting flesh on the bones of interspiritual engagement.

Enough rambling by me, past or present. What do you think?

Devotion, Ethics, & the Tree of Life

treeoflifeiiIn a few days I’ll be speaking at the Transmillennial 2009 conference in Little Rock. I’ll be sharing on The Incredible, Edible God: You Are What You Eat. (or, How Faith & Food go together like Peas & Carrots) – Love feasts! Home gardening! Farmers’ markets! The Tree of Life! What on heaven & earth do all these things have in common? Join Mike Morrell in an interactive conversation on spirituality, hospitality,  culinary pleasure and the coming deep economy.

The Tree of Life has always fascinated me – as a symbol, and icon, a pointer to a deeper reality of divine fellowship and a new way to live. When I heard that Frank Viola was doing a mega-blog-circuit for his latest (and quite possibly greatest) From Eternity to Here today, I just had to ask him about his take on the Tree of Life, which he discusses in Chapter 19, God’s Building Site.

Here’s the interview:

1.) Can you give us a practical example of what it might mean for an individual or fellowship to partake of Christ? Is this a way of describing all spiritual activity a person or church does (ie, worship, prayer, thanksgiving), or do you mean something more particular?

Worship through song, prayer, and any other “spiritual disciplines” or activities can certainly be the vehicle through which a person partakes of Christ. However, an individual can do all of those things without partaking of Him. So it depends on whether or not their inner being is engaged and they are connecting with the Lord through it. For example, in Ephesians 5, Paul exhorts the Asian believers to be filled with the Spirit by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Now, one can sing a song and their heart (mind, will, emotions, and conscience) not be engaged at all. In such cases, there will be no “filling.” Or they can sing the same song and be turning to Christ and receiving from the Lord’s Spirit through it, i.e., eating and drinking of His life. It’s the same with reading Scripture. One can read the Scripture in such a way wherein there’s no spiritual transaction at all. Or they can read it as a means of spiritual communion with the living Christ. That said, I think of various spiritual activities simply as utensils. But those utensils are designed to carry food into one’s body. It’s possible to put an empty fork or spoon into one’s mouth. We wouldn’t call that eating.

2.) You outline the superiority of living by eating from the Tree of Life rather than the Tree of Knowledge; you rightly point out that, biblically speaking, the Tree of Knowledge contains knowledge of good as well as knowledge of evil and that the only one who is innate Goodness is the Father. Can you share with us an example of an individual or fellowship who was partaking of the Tree of Life in a way that might have appeared ‘evil’ in the short term but was later vindicated as the highest Good (or Life) in the long-term? I’d love to hear a story from history or your personal experience.

I’m not sure if I can think of a case in my own life where something I did was considered “evil” in the eyes of others, yet I felt it was the Lord. Perhaps writing the book Pagan Christianity falls into that category 😉

Nonetheless, I can think of many cases where a certain action wasn’t understood or thought to have been wrong by others and the Lord’s vindication came later. (At the same time, I can think of times where I completely mistook what the Lord was putting on my heart and interpreted it wrong. Or where I expected Him to do something, and He didn’t.)

I’ll just share one case that comes close to what you’re asking. Once an individual came into our fellowship. For purposes of clarity, we’ll call this person “Pat.” Pat was frustrated because they felt I wasn’t spending enough time with them. Pat then began to sow seeds of discord between myself and a friend of mine. It got so bad that Pat and my friend visited me unannounced and began to rebuke me for all sorts of vague things that Pat had “sensed.” I didn’t say a word. The silence was deafening. I was then rebuked for being silent and not responding to the charges. In a private conversation with my friend sometime afterwards, my friend pressed me about what I really thought of Pat. Feeling forced to give an answer, I said that Pat was not being honest with us about who they were. I perceived that Pat came into our lives under false pretenses and was sowing seeds of discord. My friend defended Pat and asked for concrete evidence. I had none. I just perceived it, and I was certain enough to say it. Not long afterwards, it came out to everyone that Pat had lied about who they were and where they had come from. The story shocked everyone who knew Pat because the details weren’t pretty at all. As soon as we all found out, Pat disappeared.

As to your specific question about something appearing “evil,” some would offer Bonheoffer’s decision to support the plot to kill Hitler as a case in point. Bonheoffer felt it was God who led him to do this, even though he was seriously conflicted over God’s will in doing it.

So there you have it! What do you think, dear readers?

Mine is just one of 50+ blogs asking Frank questions and reviewing his CBA-bestselling From Eternity to Here today. Find out more about the book & join the Facebook group here; see a full list of the blogging participants after the jump.

PS: Do you Twitter? Let’s follow each other! I’m @zoecarnate

Continue reading ‘Devotion, Ethics, & the Tree of Life’

Denominations & Ordination: A Crock of Baloney?

Priest Collars 1Tony Jones has been shocking the ministerial and denominational blogosphere this week by suggesting that our contemporary denominational ordination systems are sinful and obstruct the flow of the Spirit’s activity in our time.

His entire series on this is worth reading:

Let’s Ordain Adam

Reconsider Ordination. Now.

Reconsider Ordination. Now. (Continued)

My (Anti-) Ordination Sermon

Ordination: Housekeeping

Is There Ordination in the Didache?

I have some thoughts on this as you might imagine. Here’s a lightly-edited version of what I commented on Tony’s blog during the series…

Thanks for having the guts to have this conversation, Tony. As I think you know, for the past decade I’ve been part of a stream of house churches where we emphatically believe (and on our better days practice) ‘the priesthood of every believer.’ This means that we all have the dignity, worth, responsibility and empowerment to be ministers of reconciliation, demonstrating God’s shalom here on terra firma. It also means, practically speaking, that we’re all expected to share in our gatherings, at least occasionally and hopefully more. Not like a bacchanalian Pentecostal service gone awry (though that can be fun too), but like preparing something or being open to share – you know, a psalm, hymn, a spiritual song; or perhaps a teaching, prophecy, or exhortation. : )

That said, for the past two or three years, I’ve been increasingly influenced by mainline and Catholic spirituality – liturgy, mystical theology, and commitments to justice in particular. And, like these churches would be quick to tell you, you can’t just cherry-pick the ‘spirituality’ and theology you like from them while discounting the ecclesiology it’s been shaped by and comes wrapped in. So, I haven’t. Though I remain opposed to an ordained caste of Christians that stands over and above the mere ‘laity’ (yep, I’m also an egalitarian when it comes to gender issues and I think the mutual-subordination model of the Trinity articulated by the Cappadocian mothers & fathers, and by the author of The Shack, makes good sense), I respect the coherence & elegance of the liturgy and the priesthood that’s evolved to support it.

Here’s where an ’emergence’ orientation has personally helped me, Tony: A decade ago, I would have had to keep on embracing house churching and slam mainline & Catholic spirituality; alternately, I could have ‘converted’ to (say) the Episcopal Church and recanted my house church ‘heresy.’ Now, I can transcend & include. I can embrace a both/and perspective on this.

My both/and happens to be what you all practice at Solomon’s Porch. I first encountered the idea from a friend of mine (I’ll protect his identity) who’s a progressive catholic type who’s flirted with the idea of being ordained as a priest in the Celtic Catholic Church, an independent Catholic church in the ‘ol apostolic succession. If he pursued this path, he told me, he’d pursue becoming a bishop. Once a bishop, he’d have the official authority to ordain anyone he wished – thus, he’d ordain any baptized Christian who understood the glory and duty of being a priest on earth.

I like this approach. I think that one way mainline churches can infuse new life into them would be take this subversive and experimental approach – perhaps with a few test dioceses at first, since I’m sure it would be scary. But take the Episcopalians for instance, who wish to be the best of Catholics meet Protestants. Why not take the pomp & circumstance (what Bono called the ‘glam rock of the church’) of formal priesthood and make it available even to the plebs? I know institutions rarely undertake prophetic acts, but it seems like a Jesus thing to do. And way sexier than what we dour-faced house churchers do, poo-poohing the whole ordination ‘thang.’ Priest Collars 2

This need not be overly disruptive to the highest ideals of ordination. It could draw from the best of the 2nd-5th century cathecumen process, where becoming baptized happened after much study, prayer, and service, carrying with it great weight and dignity. Make the ordinations gift-specific if need be, and certainly be clear that ordination doesn’t mean you’ll be making a full-time living or drawing a full-time paycheck from this vocation. For an era, I imagine there will still be full-time priests in this setting, but perhaps their role could evolve to being coordinators of church full of priests. After awhile, inspiration or necessity might give birth to an all-volunteer driven church, volunteers who nonetheless are completely serious about their great & glorious vocation.

[After sharing this, there were some other comments. Here’s my response…]

Thank you for your thoughts & experience sharing, Rev. Joey.

“If everyone is “set apart,” for ministry then no one is set apart.”

Well, isn’t church ‘eclessia,’ that is called-out ones? It seems that everyone is set apart for something.

“I don’t think that Tony’s comments point us to “no ordinations.”

Me neither.

“But I also have a hard time reconciling ordaining everyone to be the leader.”

Hmm. I suppose if everyone tried to be the leader at the same time, in the same space, and in the same way, one might have confusion like there was in Corinth circa century one. But if we see a diversity of ways leadership can function and is manifested, I think it makes sense to refer to a church of leaders (which isn’t the same thing as saying a church of pastors or church of elders – though I would also assume that both of these can and perhaps should be plural in a healthy gathering; ie, more than one).

Wow. Let me just say it feels weird discussing church polity like this in an ’emerging’ context. It brings me back to house church vs. conservative Calvinist debates I was having on email listservs 11 years ago! In that spirit, I’ll close with a quotation from Holy Writ:

“You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (I Peter 2:15-16, echoing Exodus 19:6, “You will be my kingdom of priests and my holy nation.’ These are the words you must speak to the Israelites.”)

These texts in their context might not mean everything I want ’em to mean, but they’ve gotta mean something.

[Someone then told Tony that if he’s decrying a corrupt denominational system paying minister, then he needs to stop writing books for a corrupt publishing industry. Naturally, I took great umbrage. 🙂  Here’s my reply…]

The difference between regularly-paid ministry/denominational apparati and Christian publishing is significant: If Tony’s a compelling writer, people will buy his books and in effect choose to be ministered unto by him on a per-book basis. Any monetary compensation he receives from this is per book sold, unless he & the publisher negotiate an advance royalty – which still isn’t the same as a salary with benefits. A paid denominational minister, on the other hand, can and often does coast for years on mediocre material at best, continuing to draw salary and benefits. Even when local congregations oust the so-so minister, they can go from church to church and build a career out of it. I’m not suggesting that most have this outlook; I am suggesting, though, that publishing is way more merit-based than most bureaucratic ministry. Two mediocre books and you’re finished in publishing – if that. Bureaucratic ministry procedures hurt the ‘clergy’ as well as the ‘laity;’ the whoredom of Christian publishing produces Christian best-sellers, which are their own form of calumny. But that’s another conversation…

And I’ll admit, people had some great pushback to my publishing-as-meritocracy comment. The posts are well-worth reading.

Thanks again, Tony, for these provocations!


Check Out This Free Book Club

Tweetlie-Dee

Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.

Abolish Slavery – Join the Movement Today!

  • Friend of Emergent Village

    My Writings: Varied and Sundry Pieces Online

    Illumination and Darkness: An Anne Rice Feature from Burnside Writer's Collective
    Shadows & Light: An Anne Rice Interview in MP3 format from Relevant Magazine
    God's Ultimate Passion: A Trinity of Frank Viola interview on Next Wave: Part I, Part II, Part III
    Review: Furious Pursuit by Tim King, from The Ooze
    Church Planting Chat from Next-Wave
    Review: Untold Story of the New Testament Church by Frank Viola, from Next-Wave

    a