Friday, May 29, 2009

pluralism and portable faith

There is a great post over on Pomomusings in Adam Walker Cleaveland's series on Pluralism 2.0 that has brought a host of great writers, thinkers, bloggers, theologians and more to discuss what it means to be in a Christian in a time of profound religious interaction and discussion amongst a variety of faith traditions in our country and world. And this post by Brian McLaren helps to ask some of the most important questions that I believe Christians should be asking today. The two paragraphs that I think if most of McLaren's critics read would settle a lot of the bickering, and also I think pointedly address faith in our current context:

"At the end of the day, I know myself to be an evangelist at heart. I believe the good news of Jesus Christ is good news for all people. I am eager to offer the gift of Jesus and his good news to all people, whatever their religion. I am eager to help all people, whatever their religious identity, to “taste and see” how good God is, and to take on Jesus’ yoke so we will experience together his meekness and gentleness of heart. I am not a relativist in the sense of believing that beliefs don’t matter and that all viewpoints are equally valid or invalid.

But my confidence is in Jesus and his gospel - my confidence is not in us and our religious systems or institutions. I don’t think any religion - including my own - “owns” Jesus or has proprietary rights on his gospel of the kingdom of God. The good news taught by and embodied in Jesus is, I am discovering, far better than the half-good/half-bad version many of us were taught."

So tonight the youth are meeting for a mini-retreat called "Creating a Portable Faith." We are keeping with the traditional get a new t-shirt at the retreat deal, but this time it is going to be simple and helpful. It is a simple charcoal colored shirt with a lime-green port-o-potty on the front. Our aim for this retreat is to help the students to develop a portable faith...a faith they can take on the road with them. So we are gathering around 5 practices: Story, Listening to God, Community, Exercise, and Conversation in which we help will begin and build on some tools that they need to have or need to sharpen to help them to explore questions of life, faith, God, relationships, theology, doubt, fear, and all that life throws at them. I couldn't be more excited for my good friend Stephen Gray to join us and lead us on this retreat and through not only the series of five mini-talks, but also through the experiential and applied learning exercises and practices to go with them. It's going to be a fantastic time and I'm really excited to see how this stuff gets fleshed out in student's lives.

You may be wondering why even do anything like this...and the truth is, we are seeing that in most faith traditions and parachurch organizations somewhere between 80-95% of students within one year of graduating high school are not part of any faith community be it church or otherwise. And we hope by giving the students the tools they need to navigate their faith or questions about faith, etc. that we are trusting God to continue to work and speak into their lives while also preparing them to think critically and significantly about the profound beauty and complex mysteries of life.

Tonight Stephen will invite students to hear the story of his life and how that has become included into the story of God's mission and love for the world, and will invite students to reflect on their life story and how that interacts with the story of God. Then after some grub, we will discuss how to listen to God, and talk about prayer as listening and creating space for God to speak...not just for us to speak. Then we will spend the night at some different students' houses and then meet for breakfast to talk about community and the importance of connecting and processing the story of God and the profound beauties and complex mysteries of life in a community. And also how the community is a community on mission that seeks to include others rather than exclude. Then we will talk about how exercise is important as it helps us to physically communicate with others, God, and also effects our self-image which in turn effects how we relate to God and others. Lastly we wil talk about conversation as a value, about the importance of relating and being in conversation with people who think, believe, and act differently than us, believing that by being in converation with others we will be able to hear God speak in new ways.

It is going to be a great and packed 20 hours, but I couldn't be more excited to flesh out and put into practice some of the conversations I've had with folks like Stephen, Tom Lynch, Chris McPeek, Chris Folmsbee, Seth, Todd Cullop, and others. Please pray for us, and I hope to share some reflections on this experience here on the blog and next Sunday, June 7th when I preach next!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

performance art

I went to the 9:30 Club last night with a crew of high school students to see The National, a band that Seth introduced me to a couple years ago. If you haven't had a chance to see them play or hear any of their music, chances are you might have heard them last year during the election when Obama's campaign used their song "Fake Empire" for one of his campaign commercials. Hailing from Cincinnati, Ohio, the original 4-man band has expanded to include a wide variety of friends during their recording processes (including none other than Sufjan Stevens, as well as Marla Hansen & Colin Stetson, and numerous others) and many others while on tour, often having a wind ensemble and keyboard/piano/accordian player with them as well.

Last night's show was a powerful cocktail of sad songs, tails of broken relationships, layers upon layers of sound, rising and falling in the story and music, and astounding energy. I was talking with Ben Owsley on the way home about art and the power of live music, when I stumbled upon something that I have forgotten as life has become busy with work, study and new adventures in my career in combination with the joys and upheavals that come in marriage and Rowan, namely: good art can inspire change. Somewhere during "Secret Meeting" and "Baby, We'll Be Fine" I sensed a stirring within my being that I hadn't felt in a while, a sense of something transcendent and yet imminent, hopeful yet doubted, ethereal and yet down deep in my toes. Good art changes the person experiencing it in such a way that we aren't the same person after the experience. Good art, and for me a good live set of music, awakens an often dormant awareness of the world around me, the hope within me, and the power to change the world in which I live for the better.

Last night was one of those experiences when I realized just how important it is to be connected to good performance art, to take the time out for my soul to drink lavishly in the creation, experiences, and insights of another person. Shey has always understood this much better than me, and is so much more sensitive to the importance of fostering spaces for creativity and honest relfection, and recognizes the danger and loss when those spaces shrink or cease to exist. And last night I think I began to understand for the first time in any such way that I could express into words just why I think experiencing performance art is so important.

Because even though so many of the songs are dark twisted stories of doubt, failures, misunderstood relationships, and cultural shortcomings, the music communicated hope in the midst of it all. A hope that believes change is possible, real, and integral. Last night brought about an awareness in me of the importance of regularly experiencing performance art for the good of my whole being. And if you get a chance, check out The National. Alligator and Boxer are two phenomenal albums.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

hello world

I think there are a lot of reasons why I don't blog as much as I'd like to. I think the novelty of writing in a format that is often imprecise, immediate, and often unbalanced is sort of nerve-wracking for me has finally worn off. It's really hard for me to let go of things in such a way as to let others see my processing and messiness, not because I think that I should hide or am ashamed of how I am processing life, faith, family, relationships, theology, God, etc....but more because I don't want to write things that are boring and unhelpful and a waste of everyone's time. It's like listening to a new album of music, being excited about a song or two, but overall, finding the majority of the experience boring and lacking creativity or excitement. I'm an album kind of person. If you were to take a look into my iTunes wouldn't find many singles, or individual songs for an artist. I think the one song makes sense within a larger whole, and helps give its parts a stronger and more significant meaning when understood in the right environment. I used to have a rule in fact that I wouldn't listen to a new album until I had time to listen to the whole album all the way straight through. I'd lay on my bed and listen to an album, trying to hear the sounds, the words, and simply let the art wash over me. And sometimes, only a couple of songs would be any good, but I tend to gravitate towards musicians and bands who put together cohesive albums...which often stretch me into new places or new appreciations. But sometimes the things I am thinking about are really boring, or often lacking deep insight for many other people, but are fun for me to think about...e.g. stupid Onion articles, birds, etc.

But I think that I have started to realize that I need writing. I need the imprecise, journal style, unbalanced, messy format of writing and thinking. My brain is becoming overloaded with things I need to think about, and I just need to get it out. Maybe to all of you who are no longer reading because of my inadequate and infrequent postings, I may start writing about more therapeutic things for me (like the thought process behind considering a Ph.D., or teaching a diploma level theology class next semester, or possibly publishing a book about hope for students in a youth ministry line of books), that I will always love feedback about, or would love any thoughts someone else might have to help along the way.

I still hope to have some laughs, stir up the pot, and to keep up the conversations with friends that live far away, or I don't get to see as much, or whose thinking continues to influence and affect me. I'd like to share more random pictures of the garden, of birds, of life...and I will try to use this space to process for me, what is happening in my life, to share with others for sure, but most importantly, so that I keep up the habit of writing, processing, reflecting, and changing into the person that I believe God is inviting me to be.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Review: The Great Emergence

I have been using Phyllis Tickle's prayer guides called the Divine Hours which are broken up into three volumes based on the seasons of the year (Springtime, Summer, Fall & Winter) off and on for the last couple years as manuals, guides, starting points, tethers, and sparks to my spiritual journey with God and others. It has been refreshing to pray scripture, to pray prayers that have been passed down through the hands of church, to have something to come back to when a lot of days I feel like I have nothing to give. And perhaps most importantly, they have helped me to develop a second naivete, a second chance at approaching the sacred texts of scripture informed by my knowledge from seminary (for I certainly cannot forget it or act as though I am unchanged by it) and yet move beyond an expository reading of scripture or prayers, but rather to let the words inhabit me, change me, and trigger my imagination.

But this isn't a review of the prayer manuals, but a review of Tickle's slim but momentous work titled The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why released late in 2008. This short work is a broad and introductory overview to the major upheavals Christianity has experienced roughly every 500 years. Tickle of course recognizes that there is about a hundred and fifty years of turmoil and boiling leading up to the time when Christianity erupts into something new and different, which takes another 150 years to be worked out, followed by years of relative stability, new authority, and change, until the authorities and structures are questioned and the collective story of Christianity undergoes another great change. For a brief insight think: 500 A.D. Gregory the Great and Monastics perpetuate the faith despite the fall of the Roman Empire, 1054 A.D. The Great Schism the mutual excommunication of the Roman Church and the Eastern Church of one another, 1517 A.D. The Great Reformation, and now in 2009 we find ourselves in the midst of The Great Emergence.

One of the reasons I went to The John Leland Center for Theological Studies is that they teach the important doctrines of the church in a special way, they teach them rooted in a historical context. They don't offer systematic theology classes, but rather the subjects or doctrines of systematic theology in a historical and contextual setting. It makes it more difficult, or at least makes one slow up before calling someone else a heretic, when we see that most folks throughout the history of the church who fell onto the wrong side of where the church believes actually was not trying to do something evil or wrong, or even lead the church or world astray, but rather were trying to make sense of the impenetrable mysteries of God and the world in such a way that would be helpful to others.

So I like this book a lot because it helps to put the major changes in the structure, authority, and life of the church into a historical context, making it more difficult to make a villain out of one group or one particular way of thinking. It is clear though, that in these times of great upheavals, the old guard is going to be strong, hoping to preserve the remnant of their authority and power, in such a way as to advocate the status quo, and remain traditionalists to the their core. Which is great, those folks will help to anchor the story through their long line of tradition, theology, and questions, while those in the center will be partaking in the upheaval while in communication with those in the corners preserving their current position.

Tickle's book is a thoughtful and needed historical perspective on the current state of Christianity that is accessible to readers of various backgrounds. Her state of the union for Christianity is extremely helpful in finding one's bearings amongst the great sea of change, and helps to ask some of the most important questions of our time, namely, 'Where now is the authority?' Her explorations of where the authority resided in previous time periods is examined most fully for the time period of The Great Emergence, where uncertainty, the Holy Spirit, and experience have come into the forefront of discussion and provide for illuminating insights into the current scientific, theological, historical, and philosophical landscapes.

If you are in for a brief, hair-blowing, monumental work written by my guess a late 70 year-old woman, then this is the book for you. I don't think you'll be disappointed, and you just might learn some things about yourself and figure out that you have some decisions about where you'll fit in to this whole "Great Emergence" thing. If anyone hears that Tickle is looking to have some surrogate grandchildren, let me know, I'd love to hear more of the stories and insights she has about the future of Christianity sitting around the dinner table some time.

Review: The Fidelity of Betrayal

I like Peter Rollins' work a lot as many of you might have guessed, even while I don't agree with everything, I find his books extremely helpful. So I thought I'd review Peter Rollins' book The Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a Church Beyond Belief. A couple of months ago I had the opportunity to hear Rollins speak at a lecture series from my seminary, and it was a fascinating and great experience to hear Rollins come alive as he sparked imaginations, told stories, and laughed a lot...the way philosophy should be discussed in my opinion. He was humble, generous, and thoughtful in the way he engaged with responses from the crowd and faculty. It was great to have a couple of minutes to talk with him after his lecture, and while he rocked the boat a little bit, I don't think that he did it with a spirit of arrogance or attack.

Anyways, I read his latest book that was out at the time (he had a new book The Orthodox Heretic come out about a week ago) The Fidelity of Betrayal and found it to be a helpful read, especially in his discussion of reading the Bible with a second naivete (HT: Paul Ricoeur), which is an informed reading of the text, that is devotional and transformational in its aims, informed of course by the knowledge and previous experience one brings to the text yet with a second naivete that inspires new readings and understandings.

I also appreciated his discussion of the mystery of God brought near in Jesus. Rollins writes, "The mystery of God is not dissipated in Christ but brought near. Is this not the key to understanding the idea of transcendence within Christianity, a term that describes a way of breaking the here/elsewhere dichotomy of near and far through the idea of an immanence so deep and impenetrable that it cannot be approached? The myster of God now dwells among us rather than standing above us (pp. 53-54)." The point Rollins was making in describing the Incarnation was a bigger point in his discussion of truth, the biblical text, and the Word of God, namely that we will never be able to learn everything there is to learn or understand all that there is to understand about Jesus, the Bible, God, the mystery of God, theology, etc. not because God is unknowable, but because God's immanence ruptures into time and space, into real history in such a way that it shatters the ability to speak in any way about God, or an interpretation of the text that is final or the last word.

So the larger picture is that the church must be willing to deny its own beliefs in order to faithfully follow God. It must resist the tempation to name God in some final or all-encompassing manner. Rollins' writes further, "the deep truth of Christianity is not found in the acceptance of some particular historical claim. Rather, it refers to a happening testified to within the Bible that cannot be reduced to words, confined in concepts, or divulged by definitions (113)."

I enjoyed this book a lot, not as much as his first book, How (Not) to Speak of God which is in my top 10 of all time books at this point in my short life, but still worth a read if you are interested in postmodern theology and philosophy. Here's a pic from the evening when I heard him speak...a great night to hear someone whose work has meant a lot to me over the last couple of years.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Malcolm preaches at Cornerstone

So apparently i can now text my blog and post to it. Pretty cool. Enjoy a pic of Ro. I had a pretty great day today, Malcolm Goodspeed preached at our church today, who was a professsor at Leland, who reached out to me as I was a new pastor. Malcolm is a retired minister from England with one of the most generous and humble spirits that I know of. It was great to catch up with him this week and for Shey and Rowan to be able to meet Malcolm and his wife Ann. He preached on prayer out of weakness and pain. And it was one of the best sermons that i have heard on Romans 8 ever. God joins us in our weakness, our mundane, our routines, our suffering and cries out with us in groans for which words simply do not suffice. I have been thinking a lot about the difficulties of last summer for Rowan and Shey as Rowan is nearly a year old in one more month. And Malcolm's sermon reminded me of the
presence of God I felt from friends, and the cries that lept out of me as I layed crumpled before God.