Grace Alone

One of the best things I’ve ever read from Michael Spencer:

For me, the Gospel itself is “the Gospel of the grace of God.” (Acts 20:24) The Bible is incomprehensible apart from grace. It is the tidal wave predicted in the first scenes, and it eventually arrives to soak everything and everyone in Jesus. Titus summarizes the incarnation and work of Jesus as, “the Grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people.” The New Covenant is grace and truth from Jesus, as contrasted with the law that came through Moses. (Consult Hebrews for the difference.) Every single New Covenant blessing comes through grace. Listing the scriptures that substantiate this would be woefully redundant to most of my readers. The air of heaven is grace. The heart of the Father is grace. The Good in the Good News is grace.

Emphasis mine. Read the whole post. He understands the grace of God in a way that I can only hope I will attain. This is the heart of the gospel, and it’s beautiful.

A Vision for the Future

What’s that scripture about “without vision the people perish?”

That’s pretty much how I have felt the past several months – like I am perishing. There’s been a war going on inside myself between the easy path – just go with the evangelical flow and live the typical American Christian lifestyle, which with three young kids is – trust me – very tempting, and the deeper path I believe God has revealed to me over the course of the past couple of years through any number of his servants who are already walking down that path.

But instead of choosing one vision or the other, I have been basically adrift – unwilling to “settle” for the easier path, but afraid that the deeper path is too difficult for a family to pursue. So I’ve been stuck in neutral, and in-and-out of depression because of it.

This is, of course, compounded by the fact that no-one – not my wife, not my church, not my pastor – no-one – is really thinking about the same kinds of things I am right now. It makes no sense to them. Why would I want to go to an Episcopal church on occasion? Why do I find the communion administered at my church lacking? Why would I choose to recite rote prayers at regular intervals? What’s with all of the candles and the sign of the cross? And am I crazy to suggest that perhaps we should be trying to find a way to live in community with other followers of Christ?

Perhaps I am crazy, but it doesn’t help that I’m the only one with this particular brand of craziness in my church.

And yet online I’ve found so many other fellow travelers. Through teachers such as Richard Rohr and Brian McLaren I’ve learned a great deal about the wealth that exists in the broader church, outside of the parochial confines of evangelicalism which largely rejected tradition in the 20th century. Which, of course, helps me feel a little more sane.

So rather than just perish, I figured it might be a good idea to try to construct a vision for what this “deeper path” might look like in my and my family’s life. To start, I wanted to lay out what it might look like in the 5-10 year time horizon. So here are my dreams:

In five to ten years, I would like to be living in the same neighborhood with a number of other families and others who are committed to a common rule of life – centered around a spiritual rhythm, engagement in the missio Dei in our neighborhood, and the pro-active embrace of Christian community for both those inside and outside of our community.

I would like to together start non-profit businesses which could act as “third spaces” for our community and the neighborhood in which we live. Instead of making people come to church, we would have the church come to them – both through these businesses and of course through our interactions with our neighbors.

I strongly desire to have my children see a faith that is active in the world – loving the poor, caring for the hurting, passionately coming to God in prayer, contemplation, and worship. A faith that welcomes all to the table, and that while seeking actively to understand the truth, is humble enough to accept those who may have different understandings without judgement, condemnation, or a need to be “right.”

Now, I can’t see a path to there at this point. I don’t know anyone else who shares this vision. I can’t imagine myself having the time to pursue this and still have any semblance of a family life. And, to be honest, I’ve had Christian community blow up in my face so many times in the past that I have a hard time believing something like this is even possible.

But for the coming year, I would like to start small.

Try to find a way for my family to serve the poor at least once a month.

Consistently pray at least the morning and evening office every day.

Find time at least once a week to sit in silence before God.

Have an extended time with God at least once a month.

Find a way to start sharing the spiritual disciplines I am learning with my wife and kids, and anyone who will listen, to be perfectly honest.

Perhaps if I just start small, then next year God will give me some more steps to take. And maybe that 5-10 year vision will have a chance of coming true after all?

When the Spirit Speaks…

As a follow-on to my rants from the past couple of posts – and perhaps as God’s response to them in a certain way. I just bought a new “album” (of MP3s) from a band called The Ember Days – which is very good, by the way. While of late I certainly have found myself drawn to the theological heft of hymns and the contemplative mystery of Taize, I still have a soft spot in my heart for a well-crafted bit of emotional praise music. And while The Ember Days mix things up with a bit of indie, atmospheric, rock, this album is clearly a praise and worship album.

In any case, while reading N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope (the chapter where he discusses concepts such as hell and purgatory – completely engrossing) and listening to The Ember Days, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the Spirit of God and compelled to cross myself (another one of those “strange” post-evangelical practices I have taken on).

I can only say that the sense of the Lord’s presence and his peace was overwhelming as I prayed through the remainder of the song – “you’re holy… you’re holy… you’re holy.”

Maybe there’s a way to reconcile all of my contradictory feelings about Evangelicalism after all. Certainly, the Lord seems to be willing to combine my evangelical past with my post-evangelical present in surprising ways!

Post-Evangelical Pilgrimage: Weeks 3 and 4

I actually did complete my “post-evangelical pilgrimage,” but managed to come down with a series of illnesses which have pretty much knocked me down for the past month so I haven’t had a chance to write about it. At last, I have the time and energy to do so.

For the last two weeks of my “pilgrimage,” I stepped firmly outside of the comfort zone of my evangelical tradition and visited the Episcopalians and the Catholics. While I have attended services of both traditions in the past, I really enjoyed hitting them back-to-back, as it gave me a really good sense of the continuity between the two.

Being a non-liturgical Christian, I did quite a bit of stumbling in the two services. Besides being able to respond “thanks be to God” to the pronouncement of “the Word of the Lord,” I was unable to follow the liturgy in the Catholic service (I believe there is something analogous to the Episcopalians’ Book of Common Prayer, but it wasn’t present in the pew in which I sat). With the Episcopal service, I was able to follow along, but had to get used to the switch between the BCP, the hymnal, and a supplemental hymnal that they had. Not to mention the standing and sitting and kneeling going on in the midst of that.

That being said, I REALLY enjoyed both services. While I believe evangelicalism is very good at making us aware of the immanence of God (sometimes to a “Jesus is my boyfriend” extreme, sadly), the Episcopalians and Catholics are very good at lifting us into his transcendence. In these two services, I truly felt that I was on holy ground and in the presence of the Lord God.

Now to the meat of both services: the eucharist. Obviously, not being Catholic, I was unable to partake of the elements in that service, whereas I was able to join with the Episcopal congregation in receiving the sacrament. But in both cases, it was during the Eucharist that I was most aware of the presence of God. Which given the fact that the two churches will not allow their members to receive communion in the others’ services makes me wonder why we can’t get past this barrier (I know, I know, five hundred years of history and fine points of doctrine).

But it also made me question the way that my own church performs communion (and even raised a question inside of me as to whether we actually DO administer communion at all). One of my biggest complaints about my own church is the self-service nature of the communion – there is no blessing of the elements during the service, and each person individually goes up and takes their own elements during the time communion is given.

And it also raised theological issues – one of the areas where I break from evangelical doctrine (there are quite a few, but this is an important one) is with regard to what is actually going on with the elements during communion. For our church, and for most evangelicals, the bread and wine – er, grape juice – are just symbolic. There is no presence of Christ during communion. But from my experience, my understanding of church tradition, and even the scriptures themselves (see Paul’s description of individuals falling sick and dying for receiving the Eucharist in an unworthy fashion), it seems clear that regardless of WHAT happens during the Eucharist, SOMETHING does happen and Christ is present.

Now, I’m not exactly sure in what capacity Christ is present – do the elements become the literal body and blood of Christ as the Catholics claim, or do the elements merely reside alongside Christ’s presence (I apologize if I’m misinterpreting the doctrine) as most Anglicans/Episcopalians would say, or is it something else entirely? I’m not sure. But I definitely feel that there is more there than just a symbol, and my sense of God’s presence during the Episcopal and Catholic services reinforced that belief.

So in conclusion, I have some serious thinking to do with regard to the Eucharist. While my predisposition is against the kind of doctrinal division which has hounded the church since it was born, I have to seriously consider whether I should continue to receive communion in my church, whether I should continue to receive communion in my church but also supplement it with the Eucharist at a church like the Episcopal church, or whether I can accept that Christ can be present even in our self-service communion as long as I am looking for him there.

But setting aside my personal struggle with the issues raised by the Eucharist, the biggest thing I came away with from these two weeks was the fact that we are all one Church, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox, and my prayer is that one day we would be able to live like that church.

Post-Evangelical Pilgrimage: Week 2

I’m a bit late with this post since I’ve had such a crazy week at work, but I wanted to get something out here before I attended yet another church which might color my experiences from last week.

Last week I stayed basically within my “evangelical comfort zone” by visiting an Evangelical Covenant church. The result? I really liked it. If I had to create my “ideal church service” for where I am at right now, this would be it. A mix of hymns and contemporary worship, liturgy, scripture reading, and congregational prayer. And an excellent sermon. The only thing missing was communion, which presumably was missing because I was there on an “off” week (I’m going to rectify that by attending an Episcopal church this week).

Since the congregation was about 100 people, I didn’t feel like I stuck out quite as much like a sore thumb as at the church I attended the previous week. The crowd was pretty mixed with regard to age, and predominantly white (since I attend a primarily Asian church and have a mixed Asian-white family I notice these things).

All in all, another excellent experience with a different type of church than I used to.

Post-Evangelical Pilgrimage: Week 1

Over the course of the next couple of months I am embarking on what I am calling my “Post-Evangelical Pilgrimage.” My goal is to step outside the friendly confines of the evangelical tradition in which my faith began in order to gain an appreciation for what is going on in the larger Church, in its various traditions.

Today, I took a bit of a baby step by going with my youngest son (14 months!) to a small (30-50 people) Church of the Nazarene congregation around the corner from my house. It’s a church in the precarious position of trying to bring in younger members while still ministering to the needs of its older members, who make up the majority of the congregation.

I’ve actually been to one other, much larger, much “hipper” Church of the Nazarene church (which has many things to recommend it), and let’s just say – this was almost nothing like it. And it certainly was nothing like my home church, in all of its young-adult, loud worship, self-service communioning glory (take those as both compliment and critique – they are both).

There are many things that I like about my church, but I really enjoyed my time at the Nazarene church today both because of what was missing and what was present.

What was missing? The noise! One of the things I absolutely love about evangelicalism is the passion of its adherents. But that very passion – loud worship, loud prayer, loud loud loud – is also one of my biggest criticisms. I think modern-day evangelicalism, in its desire to be hip, relevant, and not boring, leaves very little space for God on Sunday. We crowd him out with the noise of our exuberance!

In contrast, I was acutely aware of the presence of God in the quiet of the service this morning. No gut busting praise music here – just classic hymns which expressed theological truths of God beyond “we love you, Lord” – sung by the worship team, the pastor himself. No powerpoint presentations. Just the congregation, the minister, and the word of God. Jesus unplugged.

And what was present? The Holy Eucharist. No self-serve elements. No little plastic cups. But the assembled people of God coming forward to receive the body and blood of Christ together.

I really enjoyed my time there this Sunday. The message was excellent – a reminder of God’s ridiculous grace which would forgive a ten thousand talent debt and command us to do likewise with the much smaller debts owed us. The fellowship was warm. And the service helped focus me more reverently on the Lord this Sunday.

Spiritual Practices in Missional Community

One of the most exciting aspects of the post-evangelical journey I have just begun is the opening of my faith to spiritual practices from parts of the Church far removed from my evangelical home base. The fact is, for the first sixteen years of my life as a follower of Jesus, my arsenal of spiritual practices was limited to two:

  1. bible study
  2. prayer

While I certainly still value those two practices, I have become aware of and come to appreciate a number of other practices which have helped me draw nearer to God. In the past year or so I have added the following practices to my tool chest:

  • contemplative prayer
  • praying the daily office
  • taize
  • candles as a means of focusing worship
  • the sign of the cross
  • meditative walks
  • recognizing God’s presense in the mundane
  • liturgy

Each of these spiritual practices has helped me draw nearer to the mystery of Christ and grow in my relationship with the triune God. As a father of three, I only wish I had the discipline to practice them more in the midst of my busy, frequently tired lifestyle.

I believe that a good missional community provides a framework for its members to pursue spiritual practices both individually and in community, drawing from the two thousand year tradition of the Church in all of its flavors – evangelical, mainline Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and so on. These spiritual practices provide the foundation for growth in Christ which allows the community to bring the church to the world.