There is Hope

Things aren’t the same for everyone.  Things aren’t the same everywhere.  Somehow, this is part of the “postmodern” condition.

I’m spiritually in touch with how things aren’t well for many in the church.  Many congregations I work with really struggle.  I serve a few congregations in which their youngest member is in their 50’s.  One or two, their youngest is in their 60’s and 70’s.   These are usually wonderful loving people who secretly struggle with feeling absolutely abandoned by their children, grand-children, even God, church, or society.   Deep down, they often wonder what happened to their beloved church.

Other congregations I work with are surviving the 21st century.  But they, too, struggle.  They struggle with cohesion in their congregations.   They struggle with clarity in their faith.   They struggle with getting outside their walls, feeling deeply spiritually fed, and engaging in mission.

There is hope.

I’m deeply committed to theological education.  For me, it is not an issue of relevance or professional development.  Theological education is a matter of discipleship.  It’s a matter of spiritual discipline.  It’s a pro-life stance toward the religious life: pro-life-of-the-mind, pro-life-within-the-wellspring-of-our-hearts, and pro-relationship-with-Christ as a way of life.

Spending time with God in prayer and study:

  1. Brings one closer to oneself by taking refuge from the world
  2. Brings one closer to community by entering into regular communion with another’s thoughts, reflections, and testimony.  When we study the scriptures, in particular, it brings us into communion with both the living and the dead.
  3. Brings one closer to God by drawing nigh to the Spirit that meets us in solitude & study.

But, in our world, economic and personal demands creep in and literally suffocate the Spirit’s breath in our lives.  It steals away this way to God from us.   Powerful spirits of achievement, false-promises, even our own personal quest for meaning leads us into the fury of an undisciplined life – a life without rhythm.  A life where time somehow gets out of sync with God & solitude, communion & meaning.

For this reason and others, seminaries are struggling.  Many of them are having to drastically rethink theological education to meet the needs of busy lives.  They are having to adjust to an economy that renders theological study  unnecessary in people’s lives…at best, a luxury.   Seminaries have to adjust to this disposition with new students, who struggle with the spiritual, emotional, and mental adjustments of learning a discipline.   All this is straining what was once standard approaches for long-standing institutions.  The economic world is forcing another spiritual adjustment.

There is Hope.

Amidst these challenges, the future isn’t clear….for churches or seminaries I love.  But, there is hope.  Real hope.

It’s hard, sometimes, to see the opportunities that lurk amidst the challenges.  It’s even easy to lose sight of the eternal source of the church.  It’s easy to lose touch with the Spirit that truely funds the spiritual discipline of theology and theological education.

There’s speculation that the prophetic words of Isaiah 61, which Jesus claims as his mission in Luke 4:16-20, were spoken in complete ruin.  Israel had fallen to the Assyrians generations before, Judah to the Babylonians.  The Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed.  The learned, the wealthy, and the strong, had been sent into exile.   All that remained were the poor, the indigent, and undesireable.   It was amidst this crisis that the prophet Isaiah proclaims his vision of the Messiah.

“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news…”

Through Isaiah and Luke, I remember that Christian faith is a messianic faith.  It is faith in the one who comes.  In such faith, hope springs eternal.

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Christian Identity OR Why Christians shouldn’t have one

Whether it is the church I serve (Community of Christ) or any other, I’m troubled by how important identity is for Christians.  There’s a perennial concern among Christians and other religious groups to define themselves.   It’s an ongoing theological challenge.  The easy way is to define yourself against other religions or against each other.   Christians, it seems, get a lot of mileage defining themselves against Muslims and Mormons.

Some might argue that identity issues within Christianity aren’t as important anymore.  They might say ecumenical movements over the last few decades have opened many doors to overcome the divisions of denominational identity among Christians.   Plus, many Christians have moved away from denominational identity altogether.  Some of America’s largest churches are non-denominational.  Some go so far to say that we live in a post-denominational age.   Christians have moved beyond denominational divisions and identity issues?  Isn’t this all a sign that Christians have moved toward unity?

Maybe.  Ecumenism and post-denominational movements are important.  But, they’ve done little to curb our ongoing identity questions.  I think they’ve only revealed a change in dynamics.   Ecumenism, non-denominational churches and post-denominational sentiments indicate that Christianity is undergoing certain changes.  But, ultimately, I think these changes simply displace our identity issues by rearranging them in new ways.  As we move away from denominational definitions, there’s significant ferment around the personal and interreligious dimensions of Christian identity.    For many, Christian life is a personal journey.  For at least a generation, religious identity has moved from the traditional and religious to the spiritual.   Faith less a matter of traditional upbringing, and instead something more personal, even psychological, and evolving.   Christians are also increasingly aware of other world’s religions.  Interaction with other world’s religions also raises huge questions about Christian faith and identity.   All these factors redefine how and how much Christians concern themselves with issues of faith and identity.

Religious or spiritual or whatever, 90%+ of Americans still believe in some kind of God.  Moreover, churches, both non-denominational and traditional, must concern themselves with defining or or recreating who they are.  As Wade Clark Roof has documented, our religious lives have been infiltrated by a kind of spiritual marketplace.  Whether a fundamental or nominal Christian…born once, born again, bored, or agnostic…religious identity has been freed up from the constraints of tradition and history.  It has fallen  into the hands of the consumer.

This, not post-denominationalism, ecumenism, or the emergent movement, has been the true revolution taking place in America’s churches. The freedom to create and recreate our religious identity – to pick a religion or amongst religions and construct our own spirituality – has redefined how Christian faith is received, perceived, and lived out all around us.

Scholars and theologians, especially denominational leaders and independent pastors, no longer dictate their faith to their flocks without these dynamics.  Religious authorities, too, must learn to compete and cope with the spiritual marketplace and its influence.  Some of the most successful Christian pastors in America are successful because they’ve adapted and shaped the Christian marketplace.   Aware of it or not, they are aware we are producers and consumers of faith.  Of course, some more one than the other.

This situation is not without its ironies.  It’s often pastors and preachers who claim the Gospel stands firmly outside all worldly influences who thrive best in the Christian marketplace.  Christians who feel spiritually adrift in the ‘willy-nilly’ logic of the marketplace are attracted to a faith that stands ‘outside’ cultural influences.  It provides a secure sense of spiritual security and identity.  Many of these Christians make the mistake of blaming liberalism and see the answer as getting involved with politics.

They’d do better to dig deep into the spiritual impact of our market economy.

This may all sound like I’m being terribly negative.   But, that’s not my intention.   This is just contextual theology.  The implications of the spiritual marketplace are all around us.  Just look at the Christian market:  Christian music – rap, rock, country and ska – has exploded.  Other examples: The Purpose Driven Life, T.D. Jakes, nationally televised worship serves, and the religious fiction section at Barnes and Noble.  It even shapes the way we engage and read the bible:  The Life Application Bible, Green Bible, and True Identity Bible for Women are all available on Amazon.   I’m not picking on these people and products.  They’re only the most visible examples.  My point is, the impact of the marketplace on the way we receive and perceive Christian faith is almost immeasurable.   For most Christians, it’s become transparent.  The slow, long, but sure shift from doctrinal issues regarding traditional authority that brought us denominationalism to the search for identity in the spiritual marketplace has happened.   Market-logic continues to shape and reshape Christian faith and set the stage for our search for faith and identity.

Forgive me for getting theological a minute.  But, there’s something terribly revealing for me amidst all this.  I don’t think it’s all negative.  I just believe the Bible says something unique to us about all this, especially about our search for faith and identity.

Prayerfully consider:  At the most basic level, God’s selflessness on the cross (cf Phil 2:5-11) just doesn’t  jive with our deep and ongoing concerns about identity…or what it means to be a true Christian.   It doesn’t matter if we’re talking denominationally or personally.

We  cannot escape the identity trap by “freeing” ourselves from denominational affiliation and just spiritually trying to be ourselves.    In the end, its our actions that reveal more about who we are than our religious identity issues.  Old Testament prophets, like Isaiah, seem to be keenly aware of this (cf Isaiah 58).  True worship – lived in the rhythm of devoted study and neighborly love – begets a life beyond ourselves.  Beyond identity.

Faith is an action.  (cf. James)

Christ is God’s example.

Think of God’s horrible identity issues.

If being truly God in antiquity meant your people never lost a war, then the God of Israel was no God at all.  Followers of Jesus made it even worse.  They claimed God became incarnate…only to die a humiliating and public death between two criminals.   If we measure God’s true identity – true divinity, true power, true sovereignty – then the God in Christ just doesn’t measure up.   That God would be no God at all.

In fact, this God would have to be either a real nobody or, in some way, the God of all gods.   Now, to believe that would take faith.  Imagine that guy on the cross: The King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

His true identity would have to remain a mystery.

Christians might take a hint?

New Blog, Pastor Tom

Union Ave Community of Christ, Grand Rapids, Michigan

Union Ave Community of Christ, Grand Rapids, Michigan

I want to introduce you to another Community of Christ pastor’s blog. Tom Reynolds is Pastor of Union Ave Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  He call it “Whacked by a fish.” Tom’s emphasis is on the transformation of the Gospel, the Christ beyond the cultural Jesus of self-fulfillment and self-desire.

Tom, the Gospel is different.

Rock on.

Check it out: http://treynolds.wordpress.com/

Two Ways to Appreciate the New Year

There are at least two ways to appreciate the new year.

Most of us do it looking forward.  We focus on the calendar.  The year turns over like a car’s odometer.  Another 10,000 miles.   But, instead, it’s a new year:  2008 flips 2009 .   It’s an excuse to party… as well as, to wonder.  What will 2009 bring?

I’m a little more introspective.  Maybe I’m just a little more cynical….or a little more romantic, in the classic sense. For me, the new year is measured by looking back.  I’m interested in where I’ve been.

2008 was an eventful year.   We began 2008 with Margo on a 90 day medical leave.   She had spent a month in the hospital and two times in the ICU.  For a while, I didn’t know how or if she would leave.

I also accepted a call.  I went back into ministry.  After five years as a stay-at-home dad, Katy and Kenzlee were finally in school full-time.  For the first time in years, I had much of my day available to work on doctoral studies and commit to the church.  It’s been a wonderful roller-coaster ride of celebrations, challenges, and learning.   So many measure themselves with success or failure.  I know the challenge in ministry is how to love one another, keep faith, and survive.

I finished my doctoral exams in 2008.  Next year, my focus will be on writing my dissertation.  I plan to write on current work being done in theology and economics.  I’m interested in the question of property.  No matter how dated, my thesis involves asking Marxist questions without pointing to Marxist solutions.  I’m actually looking forward to writing it.

Most of all, though, my heart is most concerned for Katy and Kenzlee.  With them, my attention is most focused on the future.  What will 2009 hold for them?  They face different challenges growing up in the city.  Their days are filled with friends and school, homework and after-school activities.  On the weekends, they accompany me to different churches, often ones without Sunday School.  What will they learn about life this year?  What new thing will they fall in love with in their onging development?  What memories will we create as a family?

Is there any way I can be what I need to be for them?  And for the church?  And for Margo?  And in my doctoral studies?

God, like last year, walk with me.