Cacophony

Every once in a while, God is able to break through the noise of our lives and teach us something very significant. I didn’t realize it at the time, but last weekend God did just that for me.

We had our church retreat last weekend, focusing on rest, and silence, and contemplation. Unfortunately, I have two small children, so I didn’t get much of any of those three things over the two days we were there. Except for about twenty minutes on Saturday.

The kids were in their class, and I managed to escape for a brief time to find God. And there I sat, staring at a tree. And seeing glimmers of the kingdom of God.

I saw its glimmers in the sun shining through the leaves. I saw the barest hint of it as the wind rustled against it, causing the shadows on the ground to change in endless ways. And I sensed it in the peace that settled upon me, as I sat there in silence, staring, in the presence of God.

Yet all around me there was a cacophony of lives rushing to and fro. Mothers, fathers, and children. Students (for we were at a college that weekend). Fellow retreat-goers who had not found a space of quiet into which they could immerse themselves.

We cannot see God in the midst of the chaos that is our lives. Especially in post-millenial America, we rush to and fro, contributing to a cacophony which drowns out the voice of God, still and small that it is. We think that by accomplishing our tasks we will bring ourselves rest and satisfaction, and yet we never find that rest.

I got a new car this week, a Prius, in order to help the environment, save some money on gas, and give us a sedan that we desperately needed with two kids here and a third on the way. One of the unique features of the car is the energy display which shows you your gas mileage as you drive. And I found that the positive feedback of higher numbers changed my driving habits. Rather than rushing from stoplight to stoplight, I began to smoothly accelerate and coast as much as I could to a stop. I left people the proper amount of space on the freeway, rather than bunching up a bit too close behind them, getting ready to lane change around at a moment’s notice.

And my driving became more peaceful. In the midst of this change, I was brought back to that tree. Everyone was rushing around, trying to get there a few fractions of a second faster. Not letting people merge. Tailgating in order to force others over so they can shave fractions off their commute time. And I came to a realization. Whether we rush to and fro or give ourselves space and a couple minutes longer of a commute, we all have the same amount of time on this planet. And in the end, the fact that we were able to accomplish one or two additional things in our lives doesn’t mean all that much.

But what if we could see God by giving ourselves the space to be with him in silence? What if instead of passing by the trees which daily sway in the breeze, we could see the kingdom of God shimmering in their leaves?

That is a gift far greater than any accomplishment we can achieve in this lifetime by contributing to the world’s cacophony!

Grace, Revisted.

Emerging Grace: “The missional perspective seems to be that God loves us while we are yet sinners and that our sins are already forgiven before we even repent of them.

I think one of the biggest offenses of the evangelical gospel has been confronting people on the basis of their sin rather than introducing them to the love, grace, and mercy of God.

Do we dare run around in the ridiculous lavishness of His grace and trust others with that abundance of grace? What could happen if we let people be free of judgment, willy-nilly, without the restraint of guilt? Could their mistakes be any worse than the mistakes of legalism?”

I don’t think there’s anything I could add.

Post-Evangelical

As I’ve navigated my way through the Christian and evangelical worlds in the years since my embrace of Christ, cracks have developed between my understanding of God through scripture study and direct experiences with God and the traditional “evangelical” approach to those subjects. Some examples:

  • While I hold scripture in extremely high regard, I have trouble accepting the modernist doctrine of inerrancy. The fact is, when I read the scripture, there are points of disagreement within the text which I cannot reconcile with an inerrant reading of it. That being said, I believe that God in his sovereignty has directed the writers of the scriptures and the church in its development of the canon and therefore while the scriptures may not be inerrant, they are inspired, authoritative, and the ultimate rule in our faith. We are not to reject their teachings (but we may find that they teach us something different than we had always thought or were taught that they said). As I like to say, “I do not believe in inerrancy, but in something which is functionally the same.”
  • Evangelicalism tends to get caught up in its own certainty. There is a tendency within evangelicalism to believe that one’s own (or one’s churches own) interpretation of the scripture is definitively “the truth” and that anyone disagreeing with those teachings needs to be “corrected.” I have learned again and again that my beliefs are only my best approximation of God’s truth at this time, and can only be held on to lightly. I believe Jesus affirms this position when he discussed the concept of “new wineskins.”
  • I have been troubled by the lack of inclusivity among many evangelicals. Jesus modeled a radical inclusivity which reached out to even the most “sinful” of individuals, and which did not require any sort of hoop jumping to come into fellowship with himself. But for most evangelicals, that inclusivity has a limit. We’re a radically inclusive people, unless you’re gay, or (in some cases) liberal, or what have you.
  • Evangelicalism is far too focused on individual salvation rather than the expansion of the kingdom of God. While I believe that initially, we must be transformed individually, I do not believe God wants us to linger long in this place. He always brings salvation (in the form of inner healing, physical healing, and spiritual reorientation) first in order to move our focus outward to the world so that we may be agents of salvation and bringers of the kingdom of God to others. But in our “I” orientated worship songs, the “I”-ness of our prayers, and the inward focus of so much of what we do, I believe that envangelicalism tends to miss this key point.

While these are my immediate critiques of evangelicalism, I by no means want to imply that evangelicalism is without merit. To the contrary, as a post-evangelical attending an evangelical church, I believe that evangelicalism continues to be one of the key ways God is working in the world. Internet Monk has an excellent post which outlines some of the strengths of evangelicalism which I appreciate as well.

But in the end, at this point in my life, while I continue to associate with the evangelical expression of God’s church, I consider myself to be post-evangelical and believe that it will be the emerging church and its many “posts” (post-evangelical being only one of many) which will best show the gospel’s relevancy to our post-modern, post-Christian western society.

Mystery

My wife and I are thirty-one weeks into the launching of our latest project: an active little boy who was supposed to come out toward the end of July.

He will join his five year-old brother and three year-old sister when he arrives.

Now, for my wife, pregnancy has never been something which can be called easy, or even not horrible. Well, at least parts of it, in any case. She has suffered each time with incredible, debilitating morning sickness. And each time, her blood pressure has shot through the roof as she has entered labor.

Unfortunately, after the birth of our daughter, it never really came all the way down. And that has impacted this pregnancy.

She’s been given a prescription of “get as much bed rest as you can stand.” So we’ve reorganized our life to try to work around the loss of a very important pair of hands around the house. She’s been given medication, but so far, it hasn’t made much of an impact.

And we’ve been given a truckload of worry. Worry that the extra heap of contractions she has endured at an earlier point in this pregnancy may lead to a May or June baby rather than a July one. Worry that her blood pressure may spike still more during delivery. Worry about things that I won’t even mention because I cannot bear to think of them happening and am trusting that God will not allow to happen.

And here I sit in God’s mystery. Stretched quite a bit too thin by worry and added responsibilities. Quite aware of my sinfulness as I struggle to keep it in check. And praying longingly for God’s redemptive power in the midst of it all.

God knows what we want and he knows what we need. Praying “harder” won’t cause his grace to come any more or less quickly. But my desire is that instead I would pray deeper – deeper into the heart of God.

Deeper into the mystery.

I’m looking forward to holding our baby boy and crying with my wife as we celebrate his entrance into the world. An entrance which I believe is an opportunity for us to see the kingdom which glitters underneath the veil of the ordinary.

An entrance which will introduce us to yet another aspect of the mystery which veils so much of our lives.

Static

I just finished the book Static, by Ron Martoia. For a more complete review of the book, please go see what Michael Spencer of InternetMonk.com has to say. His review was what compelled me to pick up the book in the first place, and I am glad that I did.

Martoia’s book is about deconstructing and re-contextualizing the gospel message for the post-modern world. His point is that the tried-and-true messages of repentence, sin, salvation, and the “ticket to heaven” first of all do not resonate with today’s post-modern generation (roughly speaking, Gen X and more significantly Y), and secondly are based more on our cultural Christianity than on the teachings of scripture.

Some of the things that really struck me about his book:

  • He talks about the fact that while evangelical Christianity emphasizes the “Four Spiritual Laws” and the “prayer to accept Jesus,” the vast majority of converts come to know Christ gradually and don’t necessarily have a specific “date” of conversion. In fact, he seems to downplay the need to get someone to “make a decision for Jesus” to the point of unimportance. This resonates with me, as it was how I came to know Jesus. I can clearly see the “pre-conversion” processes which led me on the path to finding Jesus in college, and the gradual slide over a period of months from ardent skeptic to committed disciple. Even today I can see that my “conversion” is a continuing process. I can no more claim that I’ve “arrived” in my faith than I can that I have gotten as old as I will become.
  • He emphasizes that when Jesus talks about salvation in the Gospels, he is not talking about a ticket to heaven. Instead, he is talking about the restoration of the shalom of the Garden of Eden. Salvation comes to individuals not by praying a prayer, but rather through a reception of grace from Jesus – be it through healing, re-integration into society, or whatnot. In fact, Martoia emphasizes the fact that Jesus does not call people to repentence, but instead simply loves and cares for them where they are at. The repentence comes as a natural response to that grace, and then sometimes only much later.
  • He discusses that when Jesus talks about “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven,” he is not talking simply about some future kingdom, but rather his ushering in of the kingdom of God here and now. Jesus brings heaven down to us – we don’t need to wait until we die to experience it.

His main point in all of this is that we need to go back and read what the scriptures really said – trying as best we can to understand the context in which they were written – and then to take that understanding and re-contextualize it for post-modern people. Rather than focusing on a person’s sin and their need for forgiveness (something that many people today would not recognize), we can present the good news (or “newsflash” as Martoia re-christens it) that the king has arrived to heal the brokenness in our lives and in the world, and let people come to terms with issues of sin in time as Jesus draws them nearer to himself.

What I really appreciated about Martoia is that he did not cast off the traditional understandings from scripture – sin and repentence, eternal life in heaven, and so forth, but rather he shifted our vision to the stories that Jesus emphasized in his ministry. Yes, Jesus did on the cross for our sins, but that was simply part of the larger purpose he had in his ministry – the restoration of the kingdom of God – the garden of Eden – that we were intended to live in.

While much of what Martoia had to say was familiar to me based on some good teaching I have received in earlier parts of my life as well as the path on which God has been taking me over the course of the past few years, the way that he presented it was still challenging for my faith. There were some quite uncomfortable moments while reading the book, and some that I’m having to set aside for later thought. InternetMonk says this better than I could, and I wholeheartedly agree with him:

I appreciated his frequent references to his own struggles with these changes in understanding, because I’m still having them, and expect to have them for as long as I’m reading outside of the “safe and approved” box.

But I suppose if I never strayed off of the “safe and approved” list, I would have a much harder time shedding the old wineskins which prevent me from growing in my love for and understanding of God.

Emergent?

The term “emergent” as it applies to the Christian faith and the concept of the “emergent church” is still something around which I am trying to wrap my mind. At this point, here is what I think I have figured out:

  • It isn’t a denomination. In fact, it pops up in all sorts of denominational and non-denomination environments.
  • It doesn’t seem to have a particular theological take. In fact, it eschews systematic theology and embraces diversity of theological thought.
  • It doesn’t embrace any sort of “-ism.” In fact, people who associate themselves with the “emergent church” tend to place “post-” prior to any “-ism” to which they are associated.

Brian McLaren, in his book, A Generous Orthodoxy, uses the example of tree rings to describe the concept of “emergent.” Each new ring embraces those before it, and the tree grows in the soil comprised of its ancestors. A tree does not reject what has come before, whether it be well- or ill-formed, but encircles it, makes it a part of itself, and moves outward using it as its base.

McLaren’s book really struck a chord with me, as it summed up much of what I have been feeling over the course of the past several years. After I became a Christian, I simmered in the broth of evangelicalism into which I was converted. The world was quite black and white back then – basically, I and those who thought like me were right, and everyone else was wrong.

But then I graduated from my insulated bubble of a college fellowship and entered “the real world.” And things stopped lining up quite as well as they did before. The more people who were very different from myself that I met, the more I started to realize that there was a whole lot of God in people who I would have sworn were dead wrong about their theology.

This really came to a head for me when I went to the Politics and Spirituality conference last fall, and found that the person from whom I learned the most about God was a Franciscan father who had spent time meditating with Buddhist monks (a concept which set off all kinds of bells in the “black and white” remnants of my faith). And not only did I learn things about God from this man who in my former life I would have branded a “heretic,” but God’s spirit washed over me in response to those teachings.

Over the course of the past several years, especially in online conversations, I have learned as much from Methodists, Anglicans, and Catholics as I have from the evangelicals in the church I attend.

So when McLaren talks of an “emergent” view of the world where we seek to embrace and not reject those who have gone before us, his message speaks to my heart. Because that’s what I have been living in recent years.

The thing I like most about an “emergent” view is that it recognizes that we will never arrive (at least, prior to meeting Jesus face-to-face). The moment when we think we have God and the scriptures all figured out is likely the moment when we are the most wrong. And it is this understanding which gives us the humility to recognize our limitations in understanding the truth and the grace to accept and embrace others who may have a somewhat different understanding.

McLaren states this much better than I could:

“What we will be is not yet clear to us. What we are becoming is presently only visible as through a glass darkly. As we see the glorious image of God in the face of Christ, as we lean toward that image that beckons us forward, as we identify it as our true destiny and the pearl of great price that we seek, we are purified and transformed inwardly, from glory to glory. We constantly emerge from what we were and are into what we can become – not just as individuals, but as participants in the emerging realities of families, communities, cultures, and worlds.

For too many, the process of emergence is fitful, stalled, aborted, like a butterfly halfway in and halfway out of its cocoon. It is to these trapped people that Jesus calls, ‘Follow me.’ We follow him into full emergence as children of God. It is for this full emergence that we thirst with aspiration, longing, and hope.”

I still don’t completely understand what it means to be “emergent.” But I think, at the end of the day, I am convinced that God is working though the “emergent church” to teach his followers and the world something new about himself. And like other movements of his spirit beforehand, I suspect that the church will be transformed for the better.

And so, I guess it would be accurate to call me an “emergent post-evangelical.”

God’s Broken Heart

I’m reading David Batstone’s Not For Sale about modern-day slavery. I’ve only made it through the first chapter, but am already convinced that this is one of the most important books I’ve ever read. I’m not going to give a full review of the book, but rather just wish to share a few thoughts which have come from reading this chapter.

Chapter 1 is about sexual slavery in Southeast Asia. Batstone weaves the stories of individuals who are giving their lives to free women from slavery with the stories of the women themselves. In this case, he tells the story of a Cambodian girl, Srey Neang, who was sold into slavery as a child by her own family and by age fourteen had been delivered into sexual slavery. Her story consists of one despairing twist of fate after another, as her life moves from one nightmare to the next. It reminded me of what the prophet Amos prophesied about the Day of the Lord:

It will be as though a man fled from a lion
only to meet a bear,
as though he entered his house
and rested his hand on the wall
only to have a snake bite him.

This girl was ultimately rescued, but how many others will never escape this life of pain and misery?

The Lord broke my heart tonight as I was praying after completing the chapter. There are so many millions of people for whom life is like the Day of the Lord described by Amos. There is no escape from their suffering – and anything that looks like an escape is only a gateway to more suffering. They live in extreme poverty. They live in slavery. They suffer oppression.

And God’s heart is broken for them.

God’s heart burns with white hot love for each of these little ones. His anger burns white hot at the oppression and injustice they face. And he longs to see his people be so moved by their plight that they cannot but act against it.

I am but one person, and my family numbers only a few. It is clear that we cannot save the entire world from its suffering. But we can help save a few. And we can pray against the strongholds which bind them in misery. And we can share this vision with anyone who will listen so that they too can have their hearts broken for the poorest of the poor. And we must. For this is where God’s river is flowing.