Saturday, January 30, 2010

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Justin Vernon

I'm late with my best albums from 2009, but one of the surprises last year was Bon Iver's EP Blood Bank, whose last song "Woods" is below. After the earthy acoustics and echoed atmospherics of his debut For Emma, Forever Ago, to come upon an AutoTune-infused ballad based on a four-line poem repeated in a loop was, to say the least, a bit jarring. But after multiple listens, the song has grown on me immensely, and I find the words intriguing and wonderfully generative. I've embedded the song below for your listening pleasure.

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By Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver)

I'm up in the woods
I'm down on my mind
I'm building a sill
To slow down the time

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Notes on Being the Church, Part I: The Church as Friendship

The church does not exist in a perpetual state of frenzied evangelism; that is, within the life of the church there are enormous differences between what is appropriate for particular times, places, and persons. Though some would argue to the contrary, we shouldn’t simply walk up to people with a sign or prepared statement telling them that Jesus died for their sins. That sort of habit is both cheap and unkind, and its character (whatever the message) does not speak to the sort of “news” that is supposed to be “good” for all people.

Furthermore, the very idea of always having in the back of our minds “get ’em in the water, get ’em in the water!” is insulting. What could it mean to love another person, unconditionally and self-sacrificially, and yet always have unspoken “plans” for them? Of course, this does not deny that in a true friendship between a believer and nonbeliever, the subject of Christian faith would never come up; on the contrary, it is difficult to imagine a legitimate friendship in which it would not. But because we believe that God loves this person, has died for his person, is already at work in this person’s life by his Spirit—and because friendship in itself is a good gift from God—we needn’t make it our life’s purpose to “make” them a Christian. Witness does not work like that, and nor does true friendship.

Regarding friendship more generally, in many ways the love between two friends is the height of what it means to be human. God created human beings to flourish in common life together in this world, and friendship—built on truthfulness, sacrifice, intimacy, accountability, celebration, and presence—is a testament to the sort of ordinary gifts that constitute our lives as given and beloved by God.

In other words, a church without friends is no church at all.

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Therefore, our working thesis will be:

As the tradition states, the end of life is friendship with God. Within the church’s own life and in its engagement with the surrounding world, friendship is an essential ingredient to the sort of flourishing communal life God gives and promises us in the gospel. Therefore friendship—grounded in love and devoid of ulterior motives—is the healthy and proper fruit of faithful witness in the world.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Politics of Evangelism, Part VI: Toward Categories of Discernment For Faithfulness to the Spirit's Mission in the American Context

The question, at this point, rightly arises: But what does this look like in real life? Of course, Christians get in the worst kinds of trouble when they start prescribing checklists and paradigms as the “answer” or “solution” to some issue or problem; so that will not be the strategy taken here. Instead, while thinking concretely, we will explore what I will call the “politics” of evangelism, through an (inevitably incomplete) discussion of certain categories for discernment of faithful evangelistic practice, with an eye toward various issues and ecclesial habits in the American context.

Communal intentionality. The politics of evangelism is necessarily both communal and intentional. Not only is it grounded in the life and faith of the community together, evangelistic practice belongs to the entire community. It is not the prized possession or professional domain of a paid minister, however well trained or charismatic, but rather is properly the vocation of the entire church body, the priesthood of believers. This arises out of the fact of the church’s apostolic ministry, its manifest sent-ness, and thus calls forth a radical intentionality on the part of the entire community. There can be no passivity, no members who are left aside in the Spirit’s calling, equipping, and empowering for the missio dei which is the church’s reason for existence.

Baptism and discipleship. The politics of evangelism is characterized by disciples of Jesus, formed and shaped over time into the cruciform pattern of the way of Jesus, whose initiation into the community is consummated in the act of being baptized as believing adults. After Constantine, after Christendom, in a new phase of evangelism because in a new context—and therefore because in a new epoch of the church’s life in the world—the church must renew and reinstitute the practice of adult believers’ baptism. Not only does it leave behind the cultural habit of speaking on behalf of infants, only to see so many of them leave behind the faith as adults—a practice which thousands of families perpetuate without any connection whatsoever to a church body, yet whose “membership” and/or annual “tithings” the denominational structures are more than willing to accept—it renews the radically subversive character of baptism: that here all prior allegiances are subordinated, all prior divisions severed, the old world and old person put to death, only to be raised to new life as a new creature of the new creation, forever in Christ. The gift of the Spirit, too, so strangely divorced from baptism by the rite or sacrament of confirmation, now may be truly spoken as given in the act of being baptized—properly passive, for baptism is a communal act—and the beginning of the path of discipleship within the wider community of disciples. Furthermore, in order to pave the way toward a life of discipleship, believers’ baptism demands significant biblical, ethical, and theological training leading up to and after baptism. This is no paradigmatic Ethiopian Eunuch experience, who already had a knowledge of Scripture and Israel’s God—our context is one of a distant Enlightenment deity, a me-myself-and-I spirituality, an almost complete biblical illiteracy. Disciples must be baptized, disciples must be trained, disciples must be shown the way in order to follow.[1]

Justice and hospitality. The politics of evangelism is the politics of the reign of God as proclaimed and embodied in the ministry of Jesus, whose foremost message was good news for the poor and whose most visibly scandalous act was fellowship with the socially marginalized. Therefore justice for the oppressed and hospitality toward the other, as practiced and modeled by the Messiah, must also be practiced by the messianic community. The question of whether either are intrinsically (or can ever be truly) “evangelistic” is beside the point, for we follow the ultimate evangelist whose life cannot be divorced from these practices. We do not feed the hungry or clothe the naked because we hope they will “come to church”; but neither do we do so outside of our vocation as witnesses to the reign of God. To “evangelize” is to do and be “gospel,” literally to gospel, and in working for justice and welcoming the other we are in concrete fact embodiments of the gospel. Often there is nothing more truly evangelistic we can do.[2]

Peaceableness and urgency. The politics of evangelism is, on the one hand, one of God’s abiding peace, and thus acts peaceably towards all people, even enemies, in imitation of Jesus; on the other hand, it is marked by remarkable urgency, for that same Jesus proclaimed the imminent coming of the reign of God in all its beautiful and terrible implications as a reality now to be faced, now to decide upon, now to receive as gift or to reject as threat. If peaceableness overtakes urgency in the church’s evangelism, a dithering or sectarian passivity can overwhelm the church, to the extent that it acts unloving toward a suffering world or even forgets its primal commission. We might note the achievement of the Amish community in this case, living in absolute removal from the wider world. If urgency overtakes peaceableness, however, “winning,” “conquering,” and “crusade” become the buzzwords, secular orders and nation-states are baptized in the name of “spreading” God’s kingdom, and non-Christians inevitably start to die. If the soul is more important than the body, eternity more pertinent than time, why not offer Native Americans the choice of baptism or death? Praise the God of Jesus Christ that the gospel is not coercive, but neither is it a private affair. The church is perhaps most dangerously disobedient to its calling when it falls into either of these traps.[3]

Worship and technology. The politics of evangelism is always contextualized, never “universally applicable” in its catholicity but rather particular to the context of each congregation. Therefore the worship of each church, more than anything, must equally be proper to its context. However, in America in the 21st century, churches are tempted to be culturally relevant in the extreme—precisely as strategies of attraction, as evangelism—and no more so than in the arena of technology. This is an area of extreme ambiguity, but there must be basic contours in place within which a faithful engagement of modern technology may occur, particularly as it impinges on the practice of worship. On the one hand, worship must be in the language spoken by the people, culturally recognizable in its form, and continually open to new translation. On the other hand, worship is not entertainment, nor is it a show, nor is it a corporate board meeting. Creativity—better, beauty—as exhibited in visual and oral mediums is a welcome addition to a Protestant tradition than has often been dull and stale in its artistic expression within and for the worship of God. However, serious questions must be asked of technology before proper use in worship: Is this a fad? What does it communicate? How does it seriously attend to or facilitate the worship of God? In what ways does it conform to the way of the gospel? Should disciples of Jesus have more or less of this sort of technology in their lives? To what formative habits does this technology contribute in the practice of worship, not to mention everyday living? Such questions are crucial for patient discernment.[4]

Diversity and refusal. The politics of evangelism is, finally, one which accepts “no” in response to its offer. Furthermore, the reality and acceptance of refusal on the part of the church is concomitant with the church’s faithfulness in presenting the gospel to those most likely to reject it—the rich, the powerful, those with the most to give up in repenting and following Jesus—as well as to those most likely to receive it. The church’s diversity, then, reflects the extent to which no people group—whether around the world or in our backyards—is excluded from the good news of Jesus. Neither ecclesial homogeneity nor widespread acceptance of the gospel mark the sort of faithfulness consistent with the gospel of the crucified Lord.[5]

Conclusion. There is no way succinctly to summarize all that we have discussed up to this point.[6] Suffice it to say that the practice of evangelism is multifarious, inordinately complex yet radically simple, rooted in the gospel of peace and destined for the city of peace, committed to love for all because grounded in the God who loves all. Much of what passes for evangelism in America today—so unbiblical, often sleazy, rightly deserving a bad rap—we have learned is not evangelism at all, but a pale shadow. The politics of an evangelism ordered by the life of Jesus and the mission of the Holy Spirit, however, is the conceptual and practical remedy for this serious crisis in the life of the church. That God’s people have been unfaithful is nothing new; that they may turn from their ways and renew their strength on the wings of the triune God, only faith can maintain.

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[1] For a substantive account of discipleship, including a significant treatment of baptism and coming from my own ecclesial tradition, see Lee Camp, Mere Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003).
[2] See further Howard Snyder, Liberating the Church (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1996).
[3] Here is where Stone’s project has its greatest weakness: there is simply no urgency in the evangelism he articulates. Instead, see Vincent Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1978), for an example of a man driven to share good news with all people.
[4] The work of Wendell Berry is vital in this instance, especially his essay “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine” in The Art of the Commonplace (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2002), 65-80. See also Stanley Hauerwas’ essay “Worship, Evangelism, Ethics: On Eliminating the ‘And’” in A Better Hope (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2000), 155-61, for an account of the beauty of worship as evangelism.
[5] I believe this is perhaps the most pressing evangelistic task before the church in America today.
[6] Indeed, my brother, upon reading through this series, thought it strange I did not mention faithful "speech" in evangelism much at all. This probably reveals my unconscious response to what is been a radical over-emphasis on talking; to the extent that I swung the pendulum too far back the other way, I heartily welcome constructive ideas for faithful evangelistic speech in the American context today.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Basil the Great

This weekend while doing homework at a local coffeeshop, I read this poem and it brought me to tears. It is quoted by Ellen Davis in her recent book Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, in an essay on the creation poem in Genesis 1. I hope you find it as meaningful as I did.

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Prayer for Animals

By Basil the Great

O God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship
with all living things, our brothers the animals
to whom thou gavest the earth as their home in common with us.

We remember with shame that in the past
we have exercised the high dominion of humankind with ruthless cruelty
so that the voice of the earth, which should have gone up to thee in song,
has been a groan of travail.

May we realize that they live not for us alone
but for themselves and for thee,
and that they love the sweetness of life.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

James Cameron's Avatar and the Critical Response: An Alternative Perspective

A guest post by Garrett East

In light of the many critical reviews of Avatar written in the past month (of which here are two examples), I want to say something in response.

Here is what I think. In criticizing the movie for its supposed racism and lack of depth or imagination critics miss what the entire movie is about. By analyzing the details and finding fault in them, they miss the message. The movie is not about a white guy leading the natives and saving them. It is not by virtue of his whiteness or cultural superiority that he is able to lead them. It is by his conversion that he is able to lead them. It is by his becoming one of them through his chosenness by Eywa that he is able to lead them. It is their God that chooses him to be their leader, their ways that empower him to lead them and become great, and their life that gives him new life.

Furthermore, although Jake Sully could be described as careless and a spoiled brat, I do not think these are his defining characteristics that make him so appealing. He is appealing because he is someone who has lost everything in one world and now has another chance to gain a new life. That is why people are drawn to him. His story is about not having anything to lose, but having everything to gain. It is about his finding new life in a people who, far from being inferior to white people, are portrayed as far more superior. People love Jake, not because he is “a Western fantasy of spoiled childhood,” but because he has the courage to change his ways, to switch allegiances, and to become a new person in a new world. That is his appeal.

In essence, I think Avatar could be described as a conversion story. Although this conversion is much different in content than Christian conversion, the process through which it happens is much the same. Jake’s conversion entails immersion in the community of the Na'vi. It has initiative rites of passage. It requires not only a change of mind and intellectual assent, but a whole new embodied way of life. It requires new eyes, new ears, a new language, and a new heart. It is a relearning of what is right and what is wrong. It is a transfer of allegiance from one people to another (the Na'vi), from one God to another (Eywa). It requires that Jake become nothing less than a new creature in a new creation. In my opinion, this is what makes Jake such a fascinating character to watch, and why his story is so captivating. When we watch the two and a half hour story about Jake Sully, we are not watching a story that celebrates white people above others, or American ways of life above others. We are watching the story about a man who has his life turned upside down. We are watching the story of a man who moves from despair, death, hate, and disbelief to hope, life, love, and even faith. When we watch Jake Sully’s story, we are watching a story about conversion.

Another aspect of the movie that has been critiqued is its failure of imagination in regards to the Na'vi’s response to the violence of the military. Rather than finding an alternative to war, the Na'vi respond to violence with more violence in order to protect their land and people. I have only two points to make about this. First, this movie is in many ways a retelling of the genocide of Native Americans by colonists, settlers, and explorers to America over the last several hundred years. As such, it includes the reality of the violent responses by Native Americans. Furthermore, the Na'vi are not portrayed as a group of non-violent Christians ready to lay down their lives for the sake of their commitment to following Jesus and because of their love for enemies. In my opinion, this is okay! Their use of violence is not a failure of imagination by the director; it tells the story of the way most human beings would respond in such a situation. Second, the violence is not the focus of the movie! Although it plays an important role in the story's climax, it is not what the movie is about. Focusing on the violence near the end of the movie shifts the focus away from the actual story line: the conversion of Jake Sully.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Politics of Evangelism, Part V: Defining and Unpacking Evangelism

What, then, of evangelism? Evangelism is not synonymous with mission, for mission defines the church, but the church is not defined by evangelism. Evangelism is part of the church’s mission, but cannot be equated with it. The mission, however, must be understood in order to comprehend evangelism’s place in it. We will be primarily be relying on the work of Bryan Stone and William Abraham in this section, seeking to synthesize their thought into one coherent, actable account.

For Stone, himself appropriating John Howard Yoder, evangelism is ecclesiology. The existence and life of the church constitutes its witness, and is therefore its evangelism. Like Hauerwas’ dictum, “The church doesn’t have a social strategy, the church is a social strategy”[1]—a statement with which I substantially agree—so “the church does not really need an evangelistic strategy. The church is the evangelistic strategy.”[2] (15). This is so because “the most evangelistic thing the church can do today is to be the church—to be formed imaginatively by the Holy Spirit through core practices such as worship, forgiveness, hospitality, and economic sharing into a distinctive people in the world, a new social option, the body of Christ.”[3] I share many of Stone’s convictions and conclusions about the church, as they are rightly drawn from the extraordinary work of Yoder, and thus I find his vision extremely tempting. And for the most part, he is right. However, it is here that William Abraham’s definition is helpful: evangelism is “that set of intentional activities which is governed by the goal of initiating people into the kingdom of God.”[4] Stone speaks much of the telos of God’s story as embodied in the church—a telos of peace, the shalom of the heavenly city—and on a macro level, he is right; moreover, the explicit naming of peace as the end which must determine our means is unfathomably important as a corrective for modern evangelistic practice. However, for the particular practice of evangelism, a more “micro” telos—within the broader scope of peace as the goal of all things—is required, and Abraham’s explication of “initiation” as the short-term telos of evangelism is exactly on target.

Therefore, as shared above, our synthetic definition of evangelism shall be: the Spirit-led practice of the church’s peaceable witness among the nations to the good news of God’s reign come near in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, toward the gracious end of welcoming women and men into the life and faith of the church as initiation into the reign of God. Some of the contours of this definition will be obvious, but let us briefly unpack them below.

Evangelism is a Spirit-led practice because the Holy Spirit is always and everywhere out before the church as pioneer, back behind the church as impetus, and fully within the church as empowering, guiding, judging, renewing presence, pushing and pulling the church inescapably towards God’s mission. It is the church’s peaceable witness among the nations insofar as the mission is given to God’s newly constituted people, called to the cruciform peace of love for the other, commissioned by Jesus to be his witnesses in the world, even to the ends of the earth. Evangelism’s content is the good news of God’s reign come near in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, because it is the promise of justice, healing, and reconciliation for all peoples, especially those on the margins of society. And this news is concrete in that it is no mere announcement or wish, but revealed in a particular, identifiable, historically nameable human being the reign of God took on flesh and lived a life like ours, triumphing over all the powers that enslave and oppress us, putting them to death through the cross and emerging victorious over them in the resurrection. The fact of the Lord’s rising and the gift of the Holy Spirit are the tangible promise that God has not abandoned us to our fate.

Evangelism is toward the gracious end, because it is God’s action, toward a particular telos through a particular practice; and it is toward welcoming women and men into the life and faith of the church—surely, but strangely, a controversial proposition—precisely because the salvation of God is neither Gnostic nor individualistic, but rather is social, has a shape in the world, visible and public. From beginning to end, as we saw in the witness of Scripture, God’s purposes and workings in the world are in and through and toward the calling and creation and faithfulness of a people—in the midst of the world, yet called out of the ways of that world. It is no different for evangelism: we are not about “saving souls,” not about “incanting anemic individuals into Heaven,” not about “winning” people “for Christ.” Evangelism is properly understood as incorporation into a new people; anything less is not the evangelism or the salvation spoken of in Scripture or envisaged by Jesus or the apostles.

However, the church cannot be the end of the story, for the church belongs to a mission that is defined by the reign of God. Therefore evangelistic incorporation into the church may be understood as initiation into the reign of God. The choice of preposition (“as”) may seem odd, but it names perfectly the dynamic between church and kingdom. The church witnesses to something, is characterized by something, and that “something” is the reign of God; furthermore, it is not the church, but the reign of God which will be established (graciously, gloriously, wonderfully!) in all the earth on the last day. Thus the church exists by and for the reign of God as revealed in the cross and resurrection of Christ—and so incorporation into the people of God is initiation into the reign of God. This leaves open and workable the fact that God’s reign is neither possessed nor contained by the church, yet at the same time inextricably tied up with and the ground of its faith, life, and mission.

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[1] Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens (Nashville: Abingdon, 1989), 43.
[2] Stone, Evangelism, 15.
[3] Ibid., 15.
[4] Abraham, Logic, 95.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Practicing Faith, Part VIII: Embodied Protest and Praise

The God revealed in the story of Israel and the life of Jesus Christ is a God, utterly and singularly, of life. God is the author, maker, giver, sustainer, content, and object of all life—all life, all being, all existence finds its source, contingence, and end in the infinite life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. From start to finish God is one who loves and graciously gives life to others than himself.

We see this in Genesis 1–3, where God creates the cosmos by the word of his mouth and forms human beings from the dust of the ground and breathes life into them. In the temptation and fall in the garden, death enters by way of sin, not as intended or created by God, but as the ugly and regrettable negation of the flourishing life God had given to both humans and the earth. Unsurprisingly, Genesis’ next chapter tells the story of the first murder. The alien, enemy realities of sin and death inevitably lead to violence, the absolute disruption of human life and community together.

The calling of Israel (through Abraham in Genesis 12) was always about witnessing to the gift of life in the midst of great suffering and the structures of death all around. Israel rarely questioned why suffering and death existed, but instead called on the God of life to conquer and defeat the threat and forces of death. This constant calling on God (most visible in the Psalms) had little if nothing to do with what we often label “spiritual” matters, but rather concerned life here and now, life on earth, life as given and sustained by God in human community, in flesh and blood.

Israel’s God heard these cries and answered—in the deliverance of the slaves from Egypt, in the giving of the Law and the land, in the promise to work in and through David’s line, in the return of the exiles from Babylon. But ultimately, death always seemed to have the final say; and Israel groaned for God to strike the final, decisive blow.

And so Jesus of Nazareth came, proclaiming that God’s reign, the kingdom of life delivered from death’s grip, had come near in his own life, ministry, and teaching. Those who followed after this curiously powerless Messiah would live after Jesus’ own way of life, living as if the coming dawn of God’s good reign were already present. Thus his disciples were to love their enemies, turn the other cheek, share abundantly with friend and foe alike, refuse the sword, care for the needy, welcome the stranger, and celebrate together (that is, party), for if God is Lord even over death, there is nothing to fear.

Jesus’ own death, then, was a profound crisis for his disciples, because the very one who came proclaiming life abundant was nailed to a tree, gasping for breath, now gone. This was no divine triumph, no celebration of life, but only devastating defeat, only horrific silence. Death indeed seemed to have the last word even over the Lord’s anointed.

The crucifixion turned out to be no defeat at all, however, but rather the exaltation of the world’s true king. Just as God raised up Israel from the grip of death in Egypt, so God raised up Jesus from the dead once and for all, consequently triumphing over the primal enemy now and forever. Jesus had refused to live his life according to the rules of death—refused to fear its inevitability, refused to take another’s life in defense of his own, refused to succumb to the idols of “responsibility” or “effectiveness” in his mission to Israel—and the principalities and powers of death crucified him, with the cooperation of both the political and the religious rulers of the day. But in the cross the supposed power of death was disarmed, revealed as powerless before the death-defying love of God revealed in Christ: love, love for all, love grounded in life eternal, love willing to die for one’s enemies. This is true power, the power of God’s deliverance and salvation.

Thus in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, death was put to death once and for all, vanquished in the overwhelming life and love of God. In this victory the reign of God was inaugurated in time and space, and is the good news of the gospel.

Of course, people continue to die. People continue to suffer. The gospel is no abstract blindness unable to see the world’s pain. Rather, in Jesus’ ascension and in the giving of the Spirit, God has called and empowered the church to be his witness to life in a world of death. For how will the world for which Christ came and gave his life know of the good news of death’s defeat unless God’s people live and tell of it?

The living-and-telling of the church’s mission is shorthand for the practice of the spiritual disciplines. The disciplines are not meant merely for ourselves, for our own edification or growth; they are meant for the life of the world. And the church is called (among other things) to a twofold witness: as prophet, and as priest. The prophetic role stands before the violence, lies, greed, hatred, suffering, and death so prevalent and accepted in this world and denounces them as wholly incongruent with the God of all life, calling the world instead to repentance for alliance and (in truth) worship of death. Repentance is nothing less than turning from death to life.

The priestly role of the church stands before the beauty, happiness, friendship, festivity, art, culture, and life so resiliently present throughout the world and celebrates them as the joyous expression of the life God gives and desires for his beloved creation.

What do these two roles look like in practice? Without claiming to be exhaustive, an essential list of embodied resistance of death in the world includes practicing and working for social justice, service to the poor and marginalized, and care for the earth. An essential list of embodied celebration of life includes the making and sharing of art, throwing communal celebrations for special events or commemorations, and gathering together to rejoice in the worship of God.

Of course, in many ways practicing the resistance of death is simply affirming and celebrating life, and vice versa. Regardless of how we speak of it, the mission is the same: to live in anticipation of the coming kingdom as if it were already here—as it indeed is in the power of the Spirit and the victory of Jesus in the cross and resurrection—as fearlessly and joyfully as God has shown us to be in Christ.

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Therefore our working definition will be:

Insofar as Christian discipleship is irrevocably bound up with the relentless affirmation of life in the face of death, embodied protest and praise names any and all forms of resistance to the power and structures of death in the created order, hand and hand with any and all forms of celebration of the flourishing of life as the primal, enduring gift of the triune God.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: e.e. cummings

College marked an unfortunate gap for me between two flourishing times of reading and writing poetry. In high school, though, e.e. cummings was one of my favorite poets, and the poem below was my favorite by him. I rediscovered it this week and it brought back great memories of flipping through one baffling grammatical mess after another as a teenager, and loving every minute of it. In my humble opinion, the interplay between the second, third, and fourth lines of the first stanza may just be the most playfully romantic thing ever written. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

On a different note, you may have noticed a lack of my own poems on the blog recently. Well, I decided finally to submit some of my work for publication in various journals and magazines. Currently I have 24 poems out to eight different publications. We'll see what comes of it; more than anything, I'm just trying to test the waters.

As it relates to this blog, however, the poems can't be published prior to official publication, so I have to stop posting them here! Thus, if you go to old posts, I am taking down any poems I deem worthy to submit there as well. I'm going to keep the Sunday Sabbath Poetry series going, of course, only sans my own work. For any who have enjoyed it -- or, more likely, borne its various birth pangs -- thanks for the support, and I hope you continue to enjoy the series in its new form.

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since feeling is first

By e.e. cummings

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;

wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don't cry
--the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids' flutter which says

we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life's not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis

Friday, January 15, 2010

Haiti, Bad Theology, and the Crucified God

The following syllogism seems to be the internal logic to much of the awful theological rhetoric spoken in the wake of the earthquake in Haiti:
  • Everything that happens is a direct result of God's will.
  • Everything that God wills is for a good reason, and comprehensible to human understanding.
  • Therefore the earthquake and massive suffering in Haiti is the will of God, and we may and ought to seek and name the reason for its happening.
No, no, and no.

As Michael Gorman rightly clarifies, Christians are people who worship a crucified God. This same one said, "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." He also responded to those who asked about a tragedy in this way: "Do you think that [they] were worse sinners than all the others because they suffered this way? I tell you, no!"

This same one was in his time handed over to the religious and political authorities, rejected and spat on, brutalized and mocked, tortured and crucified. Because of these things he was considered rejected and scorned and cursed by God.

But the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is a judgment on every hermeneutic and interpretation of history's course of events as able to be understood as the direct providential will of God -- for the cross is not the judgment of God on a guilty criminal, and the resurrection of the crucified Jesus is the one true God's rebuke of all our idolatrous imputations of divine power, meaning, and finality either to finite human actions of violence, condemnation, and exclusion in the halls and killing fields of religious-political-ethnic-national power or to natural events of extraordinary calamity, calumny, suffering, and death. The triune God is relentlessly and eternally the enemy of death, and his apocalyptic intrusion into our world in the form of a humiliated and executed servant of others is both his radical solidarity with all who suffer and his judgment on all the powers of sin and death through the rejection of any caste system that identifies righteousness as synonymous with wealth, safety, security, success, or health. The incarnate God knew no wealth, safety, security, success, or health, but died at an early age, homeless and without possessions, alone on a tree, disfigured and despised.

This God offers no easy answers for the reality of suffering, either for the truly concerned or for those who want to inform Haitian mothers of the eternally valid reasons why their children are suffocating or crushed to death. Jesus was there in Haiti before the earthquake, and he is there right now, suffering and weeping and dying with the entire nation. We know that the beginning of the end of death has come in him, and we know to long for its coming with every breath. But for right now, our only choice is to be with and for the Haitian people in direct imitation of our suffering God, praying for them, serving them, mourning with them, and longing with them for justice, for alleviation, for a swift end to this terrible time.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Politics of Evangelism, Part IV: Scripture and Mission

Before constructing an account of evangelism, we must attend to the witness of Scripture. The Gospel of Matthew concludes with the risen Jesus on a mountain with the eleven remaining apostles. “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”[1] This enormous charge, what has come to be known as the Great Commission, hangs over every account of mission and evangelism the church attempts as a pledge and a vision, not only of the community’s commissioning, but of Jesus’ promise never to abandon the church in all its missteps and failures.

However, we must begin long before this mountain sending in order to understand the full scope of God’s mission in the world. Scripture tells a coherent story, from beginning to end, of the origins of creation in God’s mighty word to the telos of all things in the descending of the glorious New Jerusalem, the peaceable new creation, God’s dwelling with humanity and his shalom in abundance for all. After God’s pronunciation of “very good” on all creation and especially on humanity as made in the image of God, Genesis 3 tells the tale of the alienation wrought between humanity and God, between humanity and creation, among humans in their life together, and within each human person him or herself. The name for this alienation is sin, and as Paul would later say, “the wages of sin is death.”[2] Murder, violence, pride, hoarding, and division ensue, piling upon one another as the world spins out of control, truly falling from a primal transcendence over—inasmuch as with and for—the rest of creation.

And yet! In Genesis 12:1-3 God calls Abram, promising to him innumerable descendants, a great nation and thus a great name, and (most importantly) that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” By the calling of Abraham, God put into action what Lesslie Newbigin calls “the logic of election.”[3] God would not reveal himself to all persons equally, nor would he be immediately present to every people or region of the earth—no, God would reveal his will, his law, his saving purposes through a people and thereby work his purposes for the blessing of all the nations. Thus—as Abraham’s son Isaac, and Isaac’s son Jacob, and the twelve sons of Jacob, and the twelve tribes proceeding from those lines lived and grew over time in Egypt, were enslaved by Pharaoh and brutally oppressed, only to be delivered mightily and publicly by the hand of Yahweh, the same God who called Abraham so long before—was Israel born, the holy people of God’s own choosing.

Israel was to be God’s “treasured possession,” a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”[4] through whom God would bless all the earth. Over time, however—through taking the land, through the time of the judges, through monarchy, disobedience, exile, and return—Israel was perpetually forgetful of or unfaithful to its calling and vocation. Having been delivered anew from landlessness in Babylon, God’s people remained under occupation in its own land by a foreign power. Who would bring, when would come, how would look the final and definitive establishment of the righteous rule of the one God on the earth, in vindication of God’s people’s suffering?

“At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. ... After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The reign of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’”[5] Jesus of Nazareth comes proclaiming the reign of God, but not only proclaiming, embodying: with healing, with forgiveness, with table fellowship and welcome for sinners and outcasts, with radical inclusivity for the marginalized, with subversive teaching and concrete resistance against both the religious and the political establishments of the day. Jesus calls Israel to be gathered around him, to follow after him as disciples—but discipleship to this Nazarene is no simple thing: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the good news will save it.”[6] Suffering, opposition from the powers, love for enemies, reconciliation, truthtelling, right worship, hospitality toward the other, peaceableness toward all, no care for possessions or for tomorrow[7]—all these things and more would characterize disciples of Jesus as gripped and called forth by and in the reign of God.

Yet the powers that be could not stand by and watch this movement upend their plans. Jesus of Nazareth is crucified as a convicted criminal, condemned by his people and accursed by God, utterly rejected, naked and alone, bloody and disfigured on a tree for all of Jerusalem to see. The one so many thought to be God’s anointed, the deliverer, the outstretched arm of the coming righteous rule of God on the earth, dead and lifeless, asphyxiated on a cross, laid in a tomb like so many would-be messiahs.

And yet! Three days past, and the crucified and dead is alive—and not merely alive, but newly alive, the same yet different, restored and renewed yet utterly transformed, human, embodied, yet something more. The risen Jesus appears to his disciples and says, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”[8] Yet they understandably ask, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”[9] This vindication of Israel’s Messiah as truly the bearer and messenger and harbinger of God’s reign on the earth, this apocalypse of Jesus Christ as Lord of all, surely it is the beginning of the end—surely God will establish his rule here, now, by this man. But Jesus replies: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”[10] God’s rule will come, is coming, is present even now in Jesus—but the final consummation is yet to come. For now, it is left for the apostles—literally, those sent—to live and proclaim before the world as witnesses of the good news that God’s reign is coming, but not only coming, has come, in the life, death, and resurrection of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. And they are not alone in this, for the mission to the ends of the earth is grounded first and foremost in the power of the Holy Spirit; and God will pour out his Holy Spirit on his servants, both men and women, and thus a new people will be created, both Jew and Gentile, for the embodied taking of this mission, this witnessing, to the ends of the earth: the church.

The church, therefore, is the eschatological people of God. It is the new social body, created by God in Jesus’ death and resurrection, sent forth into all the earth to witness to the good news of God’s reign come in Jesus. It is the body of Christ, his visible presence in a suffering and violent world. It is the sign of the peaceable kingdom, whose life together points toward that day when all things will be made new, when the nations will no longer make war. It is the temple of the Holy Spirit, where the depth of God’s power and wisdom makes his home in the hearts and the actions and the worship of God’s people in the world. It is the radical dissolution of all “natural” divisions between male and female, Greek and Jew, slave and free, poor and rich, married and single, powerful and powerless—all are welcome at the table of God’s meal, prepared for the world. The church, in all its mistakes and all its hiccups, is the set apart people of God’s own choosing, sent into God’s beloved world with a mission to witness to the way of the reign of God. Just as God called and sent Abraham, just as God called and sent Israel, just as God called and sent Moses and David and Isaiah, called and sent Jesus the Messiah, called and sent Peter and Paul, promised and sent the Spirit in love—so God calls and sends the church of Christ in power and in grace for the sake of the world.[11]

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[1] Matthew 28:17-20. All Scripture quotations taken from Today’s New International Version.
[2] Romans 6:23.
[3] Newbigin, Gospel, 80-88.
[4] Exodus 19:5, 6.
[5] Mark 1:9, 14-15.
[6] Mark 8:34-35.
[7] See Matthew 5–7.
[8] John 20:21.
[9] Acts 1:6
[10] Acts 1:7-8.
[11] For an excellent ecclesiological account of the peoplehood of the church in the American context, see Rodney Clapp, A Peculiar People (Downers Grove: IVP Press, 1996).

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Politics of Evangelism, Part III: What Won't Work

Various strategies have been offered and performed by Christians in response to the church’s crisis of faith and evangelism in America. Briefly we will take a look at some of the more popular responses, and see why they must be rejected or supplemented if we are to be faithful to the character of the Spirit’s mission in the world.

The extensive failures of both the Constantinian and the modern stories have been discussed above. In their explicit form, the church in America must unequivocally reject them out of hand. Yet that cannot be the end of the matter, both because the imagination inculcated by these stories lingers powerfully in the minds of Christians and because aspects of evangelistic practice in America have often been unconsciously or uncritically adapted to meet the demands of persons still under their sway. Thus we must find ways creatively to discover where our or others’ assumptions have determined our practice, rather than the other way around.

For example, the project of apologetics, though in theory dedicated to intellectual persuasion of non-Christians of the truth of Christian claims, ineluctably leads to the stripping of the rich substance of Christian faith down to the bare bones of whatever the apologist happens to think most important, or (worse) to the bizarre goal of convincing people that a God exists, or that the Bible is historically reliable, and so on. To the latter, with others we ought to say, So what? Christian faith is not about becoming a theist any more than it is about becoming “religious.” To be sure, believing the gospel entails believing that God exists, but not just any god, and certainly not the gods established or allowed by modern skepticism or by the categories of the Enlightenment—no, the one true God revealed in Israel and in Jesus of Nazareth. Any and all attempts to clarify or justify Christians claims to the truth under the greater authority of a prior plausibility structure[1]—which, inevitably, apologetics is—fail to do justice to the integrity of Christian witness and offer an emaciated substitute in place of the whole gospel.

Another strategy on offer for Christian evangelistic practice in America is that of “church growth” theory. This view focuses on the tangible, quantifiable results of evangelism as the identifiable fruit of evangelistic efforts. Basically, the more the converts, the better the evangelism; the bigger the church, the more faithful it must be. As William Abraham outlines extensively in The Logic of Evangelism, however, there are numerous and important deficiencies with this theory.[2] What Abraham calls the “fierce pragmatism of the movement”[3] reveals the extent to which Alasdair MacIntyre’s emphasis on a practice’s goods being internal to the practice itself, and thus its means cohering with its ends, impinges on the practice of evangelism.[4] Is evangelism at root merely about high numbers of “converts” (without content) or “filled pews” (regardless of who is there)? What, ultimately, is the telos of evangelism? We will attempt a positive answer below, but suffice it to say for now that persons checking “yes” in the “Christian” column or happening to “attend” a church on some regular basis is neither proof of evangelistic success nor the end toward which evangelism is aimed. There is more to God’s mission than numbers on a spreadsheet.

Finally, assuming that we are not given to abandoning the evangelistic project altogether—and there are serious suggestions of just that in many Christian circles—there remain two seemingly opposed potential strategies that in fact are mirror images of each other. For our purposes we will call them the “watered down” options. Each sees itself as a needed response to an over-emphasis on the endlessly divisive doctrinal controversies of the past. One calls for a letting go of the identifiers that mark out Christian faith from other religious traditions and instead partnering with all peoples to work for justice and mercy in the world; the other lets go of its archaic language and rituals, not for the greater cause of justice in the world (though that may be involved), but rather for “cultural translation,” technological relevance, simplicity of beliefs, and attractive experience. The former may be seen in the decaying mainline denominations in America, the latter in the evangelical megachurches sprouting up in urban and suburban hubs around the country. Though each strategy contains strengths to offer the wider church—the primacy of working for justice in the world, the need to contextualize the gospel—both fail in the end to realize the character, politics, and telos to which the church is called by the Spirit.

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[1]See Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 8-11.
[2] See William Abraham, The Logic of Evangelism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 70-91.
[3] Abraham, Logic, 77.
[4] Stone, Evangelism, 34.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Politics of Evangelism, Part II: Attending to the Context

The context to which we must attend in America cannot be treated as if it were separable from the interconnected dynamics between the church and popular culture, and vice versa. Thus, in our appropriation of Bryan Stone’s analysis of the rival stories of Constantiniasm and modernity available to Americans living today, we will also take into account the cultural critique of Wendell Berry, both toward the church and wider society.

That the church in America finds itself in a situation ostensibly (but pervasively) described as “separated” from the state, seemingly relegating the “political” and the “public” to that under the state’s governance and leaving the “spiritual” and the “religious” for the church, is a double deception. In light of this supposed separation, Christians are able to convince themselves (in capitulation to a view given to them by modernity) that their proper subject or business is the “inner” or “personal” or “private” dimensions of life; yet simultaneously they retain no less Constantinian assumptions than past Christians, only they bring them in the back door of American exceptionalism or allegiance to a particular political party, rather than directly (and thus truthfully) from their understanding of what it means to be a Christian. Hence Christians in America can at once be enormously politically committed and active—can indeed be ferocious in the absoluteness of their devotion to various political strategies—and at the same time claim that Christianity is a-political, or serves merely as the “values” behind their political engagement, or does not lead one way or another to political allegiance.

And yet Constantine the Great looms large and potent in the consciousness of Christians in America.[1] “Constantiniasm” takes the name of the fourth century emperor who “converted” to Christianity and whose efforts to legalize and normalize Christianity in the Roman Empire led, mutually, to the mutual crowning of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire, and to the baptizing of the Empire by the church. The term names that historical movement and mindset—or, better, the narrative—“of the church’s forgetting its journey and making itself at home in the world.”[2] Instead of a beleaguered but visible social body anticipating its true home in God’s good future, now sojourning in the midst of the wider world, the church in the grips of the Constantinian story forgets its own story and collapses the boundaries between “church” and “world” such that to be a citizen is to be a Christian. It is no large jump from here to assimilate to the world’s ways of being as more normative—that is, more “realistic”—than the church’s given way of being—that categorically unrealistic life of cruciform discipleship to Jesus of Nazareth—and thus to baptize and even to bless the assumption of violence and coercion in the “necessary” task of Christianizing the world. And yet the “Christianizing” here named is merely the extension of some accepted portion of the world deemed “Christian”—whether Rome or England, Germany or America—over against the rest of the world deemed insufficiently “Christian.”

The story of modernity supplies the other side of the coin of contradiction so widely circulated in Americans’ conception of Christian faith.[3] Basically, modernity names the time after the Enlightenment in which civilized, autonomous persons in industrialized nations realize or decide “the chaplaincy function of the church is increasingly no longer necessary—or, rather, that function will now be relegated largely to the sphere of the private.”[4] The central subject in the modern story is the individual, free from arbitrary and oppressive authorities, left alone to decide for him or herself what is best. To the extent that “religion” is allowable in such circumstances, it is essentially a private affair, between “me and God,” and if a community like the church exists, it exists to facilitate the production of this kind of “spiritual” individuals. Supposedly a proper rebuke to the errors (and horrors) of Constantiniasm, modernity demarcates a clear line between “private” and “public,” such that what goes on in the world of politics, economics, war, and the like is not properly related to or even able to be addressed by the world of the religious—that is, the church.

We can clearly see the ways in which these two seemingly contradictory construals of the role and function of the church in relation to the world exist—in fact, flourish vibrantly, if destructively—in the life and imagination of the church in America. The point of coinherence between the two is striking: the Constantinian vision of the church is transposed onto America, so that American military might and economic power are truly the lords of history, while Christians who privately confess Christ as Lord leave the parochial sphere of the church in order to act “responsibly” in the “wider” world. The preservation, extension, and ascendancy of the American nation is understood as that which unites diverse persons, establishes peace, provides for justice, and goes forth to share the providential gift of its own life with a wayward world. Christians, therefore, pledge allegiance to this project, to this mission and this people, without realizing that they are, in fact, supplanting the God of Israel with an idol.

The church, of course, is not innocent in falling prey to this temptation. The state did not just “come along” and snatch false worship out of unwitting Christians’ mouths. Christians were and are inextricably caught up into this web of idolatry and nationalism. Furthermore, the church in America has created and perpetuated ugly and destructive habits that have proved more disastrous than anything “the state” could ever have imagined. Wendell Berry indicts the church in particular for being “so exclusively dedicated to incanting anemic souls into Heaven,” that “modern Christianity has become willy-nilly the religion of the state and the economic status quo.”[5] For “in its de facto alliance with Caesar, Christianity connives directly in the murder of Creation,” “presum[ing] to be able to save the soul as an eternal piece of private property.”[6] Rather than model its life on that of Christ, who “from the manger to the cross, was an affront to the established powers of his time,”[7] Christians in America, having handed over their imagination to the state, conceive of their task simply as valuing the spiritual to the denigration of the material, and therefore as shifting individual, disembodied souls from “the bad place” to “the good place.”[8] The consequences of this radically reductionistic reversal of faithful Christian practice may be seen in nearly every aspect of cultural life, not least the degradation and devaluation of creation.

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[1] See Bryan Stone, Evangelism After Christendom (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007), 115-30.
[2] Stone, Evangelism, 116.
[3] See Stone, Evangelism, 131-70.
[4] Ibid., 131.
[5] Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992), 114.
[6] Berry, Sex, 115, 114.
[7] Ibid., 115.
[8] Ibid., 114.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Politics of Evangelism, Part I: Evangelism, Embarrassment, and the Holy Spirit

Evangelism is a sordid subject—often for Christians, even for pastors, but especially for theologians. At the very mention of the word, nightmares of televangelists and snake oil salesmen, of Bible beaters and door-knockers, of street preachers and hellfire and damnation fill the minds not only of those outside the church, but of those in the pews, in the pulpit, and in the academy. The practice, if it may be called that, seems destined for the ash heap of history, either reserved for a once-uniform culture convinced of its own supremacy or relegated to small-town habits that still know the meaning of “revival.” Christians in America today would, as often as not, prefer to get by unscathed in their day-to-day interactions with non-Christians, rather than openly profess their faith, much less seek to share it with others in a spirit of invitation.

That evangelism has to some extent become an embarrassment for Christians in America is as regrettable as it is empirical. To be sure, the specter of past (and present) sins and misrepresentations of evangelism deserves to hang over the church’s life as both reminder and threat: reminder of why non-Christians rightly feel hesitant toward evangelism, and threat of the consequences of relating poorly to neighbors. Fortunately, there also hangs a promise over the church, and not only above but within: the indwelling Holy Spirit, the gift of God who not only judges and rebukes but guides and renews. The mere fact of the Holy Spirit’s presence ensures that all is not lost; moreover, the Spirit’s primacy in God’s mission on the earth entails hope that because not all is contingent on our “getting it right,” we may indeed, by God’s grace, somehow or another get it right.

This series is an attempt at a constructive vision for what might be possible for the faithful witness of God’s mission in the American context . Drawing especially on the work of Bryan Stone, John Howard Yoder, William Abraham, Wendell Berry, Lesslie Newbigin, and Stanley Hauerwas, I will argue that evangelism is the Spirit-led practice of the church’s peaceable witness among the nations to the good news of God’s reign come near in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, toward the gracious end of welcoming women and men into the life and faith of the church as initiation into the reign of God. What it means for Christians to practice evangelism in America can only be discovered through attending to the particular context in which we find ourselves; assessing past and present understandings of and strategies for the task; exploring the history of the church and the witness of Scripture; and attempting to shape whatever indeterminate conclusions that surface to categories of discernment for faithful practice. In what follows in the coming posts, we will attempt a sketch at just that process.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Jack Gilbert

I was introduced to Jack Gilbert through Candler professor David Pacini's recent book Through Narcissus' Glass Darkly: The Modern Religion of Conscience, in which many of the chapters begin with Gilbert's poems. Now in his mid-80s, the well-known and heralded poet's language is striking in its straightforward beauty, but I continue to find myself held at a distance by it. It feels alien somehow, even in the unexpected and startling constructions and images, and I look forward to seeing how the feeling evolves as I continue to read through his decades-spanning work.

The poem below more or less captures exactly how I feel every time I write.

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Doing Poetry

By Jack Gilbert

Poem, you sonofabitch, it's bad enough
that I embarrass myself working so hard
to get it right even a little,
and that little grudging and awkward.
But it's afterwards I resent, when
the sweet sure should hold me like
a trout in the bright summer stream.
There should be at least briefly
access to your glamour and tenderness.
But there's always this same old
dissatisfaction instead.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Practicing Faith, Part VII: Fasting

Fasting is both familiar and unfamiliar to us. If asked, few people wouldn’t be able to offer a bare definition of fasting—something like “not eating for a while.” On the other hand, fasting as a habitual, life-shaping, community-constituting practice is largely a foreign idea to most Christians in America. We might fast here or there, or give up this or that minor thing for a while (Coke for Lent, anyone?), but the power and breadth of fasting remains distant, ritualistic, or, worst of all, cheap.

However, unlike some practices which have developed in the life of the church in the centuries since the Bible was written and formulated, fasting has a powerful and pervasive presence throughout Scripture. Apart from the myriad and diverse examples in the Old Testament, in the Sermon on the Mount—what might otherwise be called the charter for faithful discipleship—after discussing giving to the poor and right prayer, Jesus addresses fasting not as a request or even as a command, but as an assumption: “And when you fast...” According to Jesus, caring for the needy, praying to God, and regular fasting are all equally nonnegotiable practices for the life of the church.

In many ways, while prayer is the central discipline of Christian faith, fasting is the paradigmatic practice of embodied prayer: utterly practical and inescapably bodily, yet intractably spiritual because directed towards life with God and compassion toward neighbor. It is turned “up” toward God, “out” toward others, and “in” toward oneself. It is difficult, and can prove truly painful if extended over a long period of time, but testimony down through the ages claims it as one of the most deeply rewarding practices available to us.

Fasting makes us singularly aware of our frailty as human beings, of the unavoidable mortality that constitutes our lives as creatures. It seems irrational to give up something as necessary to our existence as food, but exactly something of that magnitude is required in order to rid ourselves of the rampant self-deception that we are our own masters, our own providers, our own self-sufficient caretakers. “People do not live on broad alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” As creatures sustained by a loving and radically generous Creator, we must live creaturely lives, conscious of our status as contingent beings dependent on the One from whom comes every good and perfect gift.

As we described it in the introductory study, instead of speeding headlong, unstopping, through the highway of gluttony, the spiritual discipline of fasting pulls us over and tells us to wait. In fasting we learn that food is not what sustains us; instead, God is our food. God sustains us. Not for a moment do we live without the gracious provision of God. And so, instead of eating, we pray. Not only do we pray, we remember those around the world and down the street who are hungry, too. We remember that Jesus was hungry, and that his hunger is the world's hunger. We remember to hunger and thirst first and foremost for righteousness, for justice, for peace—not for steak, or caffeine, or sugar. We remember that the bridegroom has left and we fast in eager anticipation of his return. We remember that the money in our pockets unspent on food can pay for another's meal. We remember, in other words, whose we are, and whom his mind is on, and how it is we live and move and have our being.

Fasting is about renewed remembrance, about the mind transformed in Christ, about the self-control that comes in the regular reply of “No!” to whatever our body tells us it wants. Our bodily existence was pronounced “Good” by God in creation, but in the Fall our desires have been warped and bent, such that we must learn to discipline them according to right desires shaped and taught by the Spirit. Sexual desires are channeled and fulfilled in marriage; work desires are ordered for particular times, while one day a week is given to rest; and so on. The desires of hunger are no less complicated, and certainly no less “spiritual” a matter: we seek to eat certain amounts at certain times, such that are bodies are given the energy they need without feeding the habit of more, which inevitably proves self-destructive. For special events and celebrations, with God’s blessing we feast, eating more than we need as a testament to the superabundance of God’s loving provision and gifts toward us. On other days or for other periods of time, we abstain from eating to remind ourselves and our bodies that sustenance is a gift, that life is not earned, that God is the origin of all nourishment.

And of course, food is not the only thing from which we can and ought to fast. As we have found in exploring the Sabbath and silence and solitude, anything which crowds out space for God in our lives is a prime example of that which can be dismissed, if even only for a time, in order to create space for God’s presence in our lives. Whether it be “stuff” like television and the internet, or habits like shopping and sports, fasting creates the reality that before existed only in our imagination—that life can be lived without the omnipresence of these passing things. When we turn ourselves fully to God, we will see, even if painfully at first, who it is that is truly able to fulfill all our desires.

Therefore our working definition will be:

Fasting is the Christian practice of abstaining from any particular activity, normally food, for the sake of (1) removing obstacles from our lives to encounter God, (2) embodying the trust that our lives are ultimately dependent on God alone, (3) freeing ourselves from some need or desire that has become compulsive or excessive, (4) sharing solidarity with the poor and the hungry in the world, (5) repentance and prayer before or after a time of confession or great temptation, and/or (6) entreaty to God for deliverance in a time of great suffering or uncertainty.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

David Gentiles: Rest in Peace

In ways eerily similar to what happened just 10 months prior in February of last year, on Tuesday, December 15, I answered a call while at school, after receiving a flurry of texts from my wife, only to hear her crying on the other end. David Gentiles, Katelin's youth minister growing up, the father of her best friend, and the man who married us, had had a terrible accident the night before and was in critical condition in Austin, Texas. After coming home that night, we worked it out for her to fly to Austin the next day to be with the family and her friends. Three days later, on Friday the 18th, David passed away, having turned 58 just weeks earlier and leaving behind three daughters, all in their early 20s.

The service remembering David was on Wednesday, December 30, at a baseball field (fittingly for the lifelong Indians fan). Hundreds of people gathered to share in the memory of this extraordinary man who, as father, minister, brother, and friend, impacted more people in more ways than any but God can know. Just to be in the man's presence was to know the love of Jesus. (You can read more about David at his church's website or at the newspaper article.)

Donald Miller offered the eulogy at the memorial, and here were some of his words:

But if it’s true a person’s life is a sermon, David Gentiles preached the best sermon I’ve ever heard. I’ll never forget him, or what he did with his life. David was a rock of a man and his sermon was love. His life and what it pointed toward will remain with me, and no doubt with many of you, as a foundation on which you will build your families, your friendships and your faith. It’s hard to imagine a sermon on love has ever been said better. I learned more about Jesus from David than any other person I know.

David was not a typical minister, though. I don’t think he liked preaching. He was my youth pastor when I was a kid and the only sermon I remember him giving was about the breastplate of righteousness and the shield of salvation. With each descriptive metaphor, David donned an article of baseball gear, and by the end of it he was dressed as a catcher for the Cleveland Indians, complete with a mitt and catchers mask. Then he asked us if we wanted to go outside and play baseball. I think he just wanted to play baseball.

In a culture where professional ministers are tempted to use people to build churches, David Gentiles used the church to get to people. The Churches where he worked were just buildings where he could bring us together. Sunday morning was a trick that got us in the room so we could share our lives. He didn’t care about buildings or salaries or status, he cared about us. That’s why hundreds of us have come today to fill this stadium, to say goodbye to a very simple man who never wrote a book or recorded an album, who never put his name on a marquee over a church, or sold his sermons on the internet. We are here because we have been loved personally by David Gentiles. For some of us, at some point in our lives, he may have been the only one.

. . .

I confess I often wondered why David never wrote a book of his own. He had enormous talent and a heart that networked effortlessly amongst the marginalized and the powerful alike. He could have sold a million books. I’d talk to him from time to time about these things and he’d smile and say he might have an idea or two, if he only had time to get around to it. And what was he doing with his time? He was showing up the concerts by The Daylights or Andy Davis, he was promoting the new Bob Bennet record or gathering up a group to go out to Billy Crockett’s ranch for a show. He was sending me Grace Pettis’ CD’s or telling us about Rick Diamond’s new book. He was too busy shining the spotlight on everybody else to bring any attention to himself. I don’t say this because David would want us to feel shame or guilt. I say this to say thank you. Thank you David for believing in us, cheering us on and even showing us the way. And thank you for giving us a perspective on love worth writing about, and a friendship worth dedicating our work to.

But all along, David was the one creating the great work of art. Perhaps he didn’t know he was doing it. All the great artists are hardly aware of what they are creating, or that they are creating at all. They lose themselves in their loves and passions. I confess I spent time wondering whether or not David was getting robbed. I watched him give his life away. I watched him live in rental houses, drive old cars, house people without charging them rent. I watched him wear the same work-boots day after day and I wondered why he didn’t use that incredible ability to make people comfortable to sell something. Who wouldn’t have bought a house from David Gentiles? He could have been a rich man.

I know now what I was secretly wondering was whether or not love could win. I was doubtful that a person who didn’t comodify his experiences to barter for status would leave this world with any status at all. But it’s obvious today that all along, David was right. His intuition was right.

The whole time David was building us. We are all he cared about. Us. Bringing us together, introducing us to each other, shining a spot light on our gifts and our talents, on our hurts and our needs so that this community of common humanity could find in each other the love for which we were bartering. I don’t know how David Gentiles saw through it all. There seemed to be little fog in his world, there seemed to be clarity.

. . .

His sermon, then, was Christ. It’s clear now. Like Christ, he created the church to get to people. He never wrote a book. He leaves behind no home, and few possessions. His passing was untimely and seemingly unjust. He spent his life ushering people home, standing in as a father, a shepherd, a brother and a friend.

It’s our only comfort, then, that David and Christ are together now. They have everything in common.

Finally, I leave you with my personal favorite picture of David. Having not known him very well but knowing full well how important he was and is to my wife, this is the picture of us with David after I had just laid a gigantic smooch on my only-just-then-pronounced-wife Katelin.

Thank God for the gift of his servant David: may God give David rest in the peaceful embrace of Christ: may God sustain the memory of David in our hearts and in the good and unending work of love. Amen.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Billy Collins

Back from two weeks on the road -- or better, in the air -- from Atlanta to San Antonio to New York to Austin and now, back to Atlanta. Billy Collins' wonderful book of poetry Sailing Alone Around the Room kept me company in every place, especially in the airports and on the flights, and below is one of my favorites from the collection. Here's to the first Sunday Sabbath poem of 2010, and to the return of real posts instead of perpetual quotes from random books.

- - - - - - -


By Billy Collins

Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O'Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive --
"Nonsense." "Please!" "HA!!" --
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
why wrote "Don't be a ninny"
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls "Metaphor" next to a stanza of Eliot's.
Another notes the presence of "Irony"
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
"Absolutely," they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
"Yes." "Bull's-eye." "My man!"
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.

And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written "Man vs. Nature"
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

Even monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird signing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake's furious scribbling.

Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents' living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page

A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil --
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet --
"Pardon the egg salad stains, but I'm in love."

Friday, January 1, 2010

Rowan Williams on the Daily Art of Faith

"How it was that both [Thomas More and Thomas Cranmer] discovered at the end not only the freedom to die but -- at least in More's case -- even a kind of ironic detachment about it is bound to be mysterious, but it does say to us that God's freedom may be growing secretly in all sorts of unlikely people. We may not have a chance to see it if the great hour of public trial never comes, but it is still there nevertheless. It may even be there in us, who shrink at the idea of suffering for our faith or anything else. This is where it helps to be undramatic. If we felt sure of our willingness and ability to make unimaginable sacrifices in the future, if we were able to imagine without shame and terror how we would react if we were faced with persecution, we should have succeeded in taking possession of our future and enthroning our favoured image of ourselves. We do not and cannot know the future, however. What we therefore have to do is what, presumably, More and Cranmer did in the midst of their compromised and murky lives: we have to make room for God in prayer and repentance, day after day. At the time of trial it will become apparent how honest we have been in inviting God in. Meanwhile, there is only the daily art of faith, the necessary prose of Christian speech."

--Rowan Williams, Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgement (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 113-114