Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Someone, Where We Are

Here on the street, a sound that meets me
Where I am; wherever I go, I know
There’s someone there
Who cares

Hearing the ringing
A heart that is singing
A message they’re bringing
That God is there,
Someone cares,
God is where we are

In front of the store, a sound that’s more than
‘Give to me’; plain to see, it’s for others
That someone’s there
Who cares

Feeling the echo
Telling me it is so
And letting us all know
That God is there,
Someone cares,
God is where we are

It’s God who’s there
Someone cares
Where we are

God is where we are

Monday, 25 November 2013

Salvation Army Vocational Responses

I first wrote this essay in 2005. The passage of time without significant change merely demonstrates the critical need to rethink what we've 'always done'.

As we now well into the third century of a Salvation Army presence in this world, we continue to ask what the Army will be like in the future, our near future.  Certainly we desire to be filled with the passion and drive of the 19th century; and we cannot fail to appreciate the systematic growth and stabilizing structuring of the 20th century.  But just as assuredly, we know that only dead things stop growing, stop evolving and changing.  Our prayer is that as we grow we follow God’s plan, his path, move forward by his Spirit.
Among the many questions that head the list of concerns at this critical time is this one, paired with an observation: In many parts of the developed western Army world, we continue to see a lack of qualified officer candidates; is God simply not calling our gifted soldiers into service anymore?
This statement-and-question is packed with assumptions, of course; these assumptions can be separately debated, but many readers will find them readily recognizable.  Our training colleges enlist fewer cadets than in even recent decades.  The cadets, on the whole, come to the training colleges less prepared and less able to provide the strong leadership needed; and some require remedial work and/or counseling to even rise to a minimum standard (and not just in an academic sense: spiritually, emotionally, and socially candidates carry many challenges).
Meanwhile, across many territories, a good number of our corps’ soldiers who are quite skilled and capable, who possess many favorable spiritual qualities, and would seemingly be  ‘good’ candidates for officer service, find instead valued and fulfilling service opportunities elsewhere; some even as Army employees.  So: is God not calling these soldiers into service?

We must say, clearly and forthrightly, from both experience and conversation, this: God is calling soldiers into service.  Some are called to be officers, some are called ‘other’ wise into service.  But all are called.  Every believer is called, and the will of God is clear that a believer has a consequent duty to respond.  The path this response should follow is likewise established by God, by the giftedness of the individual.  It is to be a natural response, and identifying an area or emphasis of service might well be a clear task.
What stands in the way of naturalness or clarity of response is, of course, the unnatural: in every church denomination there are such impediments.  With the Army, we might identify several areas.  Together these institutional barriers form a network that pushes away potential candidates for service.  These same structural habits work also to depress and discourage the good functioning of many who have already responded.
I believe one means of remedy lies in part with a recapturing of an ancient Christian understanding of holy vocation.
At its root meaning, vocation is the response to God’s call.  When we speak of vocations (plural), we mean the variety of paths God designs by way of the spiritual gifts and talents given to an individual.  God’s will is that every believer be in his service, and more: that each one follow the progressive path to growth to meet new and unexpected challenges and opportunities, through the leading and grace he provides.
This is to say that any one of us benefits and learns from new situations; indeed, the unexpected (or latent talents) may be the very way God leads us into once-unknown and unconsidered avenues of service.   So we cannot say that being placed by others (as officers within the appointment system) into situations and appointments not of our choosing does not allow for the progressive leading of God in our lives.

Yet we can acknowledge that a system that largely ignores or is forced to disregard giftedness can work to deflect potential officer candidates from responding, and discourage those already in service as officers in their work.
A more developed sense of vocation would regard responses to God’s calling as entailing a spectrum; a variety of ways by which one may faithfully and responsibly develop their giftedness in God’s service.
Note here that a spectrum necessarily implies degrees; in this case degrees of formal adherence to the role of commissioned and ordained officership.  That is, every soldier and every office are to be found somewhere along a spectrum of holy vocation.
This is a profoundly biblical concept.  Consider simply these two principles: that tenet of faith commonly called the “priesthood of all believers,” by which we mean that every believer has a role within the larger community that itself plays a witnessing, intercessory function in the non-believing world; and the understanding that not all are identically called, but rather there are necessarily different members of the whole that must work together for healthy functioning.  There is not a spiritual hierarchy here, but rather a straight-forward acknowledgment of diversity and integrated variation.
So: so one soldier’s giftedness find suitable service within the local corps setting, even as they find “living wage” employment outside of this arena.  Their vocation is not in this secular employ, however, nor is it, strictly speaking, to be confined to their time at the corps alone: their vocation is to be worked out in every sphere of life, but focused as vocation by considering life lived as service to God.

Another soldier find their giftedness might well be used of God within the wider employ of the Army, so that both their “living wage” work and their holy vocation merge within this role as Army lay leader and/or employee.
Yet another soldier senses God’s call to respond as an officer.  But perhaps this one does not also sense that this call means to volunteer as an itinerant generalist, a mobile “jack/jill of all trades.”
An institutional framework limiting responses tot he generalist role only might very well be filtering out the “specialists.”  (Indeed, did not the Methodist New Connexion Conference of the mid-1800s move along to other fields a fervent and gifted evangelist for want of a flexible vocational response framework, one that instead insisted that Rev. Booth be restricted to a role that did not fit?)
These specialist-leaning soldiers (identified as such by gifts, and – dare we say? – interests and desires) may well choose after all to become an officer.  And then face the discouraging possibilities of not serving in ways that are fulfilling or fruitful.  Again, this is not to say that there is not a great need, nor even that circumstances often require that some fill roles “unsuitable” – for God can surely use anyone who is open and yielded: His strength in our weakness, His eternal plans not finally frustrated.
But still the observation remains: if you are not yourself an officer who has had at some time felt less than suitably appointed in some manner, you need ask around too long or far before finding some who are so discouraged, perhaps even near resignation for want of a hopeful option.
Again: I am cognizant of many objections, so hear me clearly – not one of us has ever initially felt comfortable or fully prepared for any newly-received appointment, yet God’s grace is plenteous and sufficient, and many of us find that despite our initial reservations we discovered wonderful times of growth in our dependence upon God.

I am really aiming at a problem surrounding vocational understandings that is much more fundamental than this kind of anxiety and discomfort in an appointment: this speaks to those who are profoundly out of place in their appointment, and who find their service to be significantly out of sync with their holy vocation.
An ancient Christian understanding and practice of vocation included a variety of institutional and non-institutional responses.  Some responded as faithful believers who Christian witness flowed throughout their lives in whatever “secular” work life they found matched their talents; this service – as farmer, baker, seamstress, etc. – was rendered unto others as unto God.
Others found their life’s vocation to be a merging of their service to God and “living wage” labor in work roles within the church structure as laymen.  Their full-time Christian service – as scholars, teachers, musicians, clerk and so on – were sometimes formally ordered (that is, categorized, in orderly fashion) as a vocational response to God’s call, worked out along the lines of their giftedness.
Yet again others found a sense of calling that led them to offer their lives in God’s service in ordered institutions that used them in prophetic and pastoral ways, and were recognized as ordained clergy.  In each of these more formal categories we could see administrative leadership rise within the orders, with gift-expressions developed across the spectrum.  But there were (and still are, in some traditions) more-ore-less clearly defined avenues of service that could be held up as viable paths of response.
What are the implications, then for the Army world?  Among perhaps others, are these:
·         we must be willing to continued blurring the lines of distinction of ordination (and commissioning) between soldier and officer

·         we must be willing to formalize an array of employment opportunities as vocational options
o   this would include standards of education and proficiency, and entail as well some time spent in training in addition to “secular education” (such as music, education, social work, finance/accounting) that would describe a period of Army training, whether at a training college setting or through home-steady course work
·         we must be willing to consider commissioned officers interests and desires, in concert with a careful evaluation of giftedness, to be a predominant factor in making appointments
o   this should take place within a re-structuring of the appointment availabilities, whereby one may enroll in a course of officer training for service that is ordered to follow, say, social work, or counseling, teaching, finance or other types of administration work; or ordered to follow prophetic and pastoral roles; all of this restructuring done with the understanding that leadership is a gift that may be expressed within each (and across all) orders of vocation
·         we must not allow even this new thinking to become so structured and inflexible so as to prevent an easy crossing over, from order to order, as God’s leading calls and equips, and as needs require positions to be filled by individuals who faithfully respond

This essay is a considered reflection offered in the great hope of opening discussion and spurring on to good work those who may hear God and respond in his holy vocations.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

He Was Dust

He was dust.  That was his conclusion.  It was who he was, where he lived.  He had rejected more likely descriptions such as it was dusty, as too passive.  It was a dusty place to live, and he breathed in the dust and breathed out the dust, and he kicked up the dust with every step he took…that was true, but ultimately too indirect and beside the point.
            He was dust, not dusty, and definitely not Dusty.  D., yes; so maybe DeeDee was dust.  So long as you remember that, you’ll get it.
            Dee was also lonely, in that I’m not alone yet feel like I’m apart kind of way.  It’s not that Dee would get lost in a crowd, but when he was with other people Dee was not always present.  His mind couldn’t help but shift over into that stream of thoughts that began with futility and that eventually ended up going nowhere.
            Somehow Dee had hoped that it would be different, moving from Chicago to Santiago, Chile, in the middle of the U.S. Midwest winter to the middle of the South American summer.  January here was hot: skies overtaken by a sun that refused all cloud cover, fickle breezes and thus occasional stultifying nights, and yes, dust. 
            No clouds meant no rain.  An entire summer without rain.  And that was normal.  Walking around in the mornings and late afternoons, Dee would pass people with water hoses and sprinklers, wetting the dust that rose to reign in the front of their houses.  Patches of grass existed in this part of town, but it was ruled by the hard-packed dirt and so yellow dust.
            It was hard to grasp, this watering of the dust.  Watering front lawns to grow things, he got.  And people did water their patches of grass, their flowers. (Though that too suddenly struck Dee as futile.  Why water the grass to make it grow only to cut it down?  Too hot, this work, but at least water for plants made some kind of natural sense.  But not water for dust.)
            The thing that really killed him was when Dee would pass an early morning dust sprinkler where the water splashed across the already warmed over concrete of the streets and sidewalks.  Do you know that smell?  That evaporating water that carries the essence of the concrete into the air kind of smell. 
            For the years Dee loved that smell.  The smell of an early summer sprinkler splashing the sidewalks of a small town USA sunny day’s morning walk would remind him of the days on end with no school no cares no worries but getting home in time for supper.  The smell of clean, the scented trail of possibilities. 
            But the nose is the most devilish of memory sparks.  Odors travel faster than touch, more sure than sight or sound.  And every time, every yellow dust-forsaken time Dee caught a whiff of that mist the memory would catch him up and toss him down. 
            The dust that usually brought it on was the concrete dust of a construction site.  That was the most powerful, and piercing.  But first cousin to the hovering dust of concrete powder mixing with water smell was that of water on a hot road.  Dee couldn’t help it, this memory chain.  It’s like telling someone Don’t you dare even think about elephants and see what happens.  Pachyderms flood the mind.
            Dee tried to disassociate the dust from, well, he didn’t know what or why, but Dee couldn’t do it.  The very effort to not think about it brought it to bear anyway.

And what was it?  It was the two weeks he spent in NYC, the two weeks that began at the end of September 2001.  The two weeks-plus-whatever that began at the end of September and stretched into October.  And it stayed with him, long afterwards, long after he stopped staying in Manhattan, soaking up into the slush and sun of Chicago.  Stayed even now, in yellow dust of Santiago
            Of course in Santiago they don’t say two weeks, but quince días, fifteen days.  Sort of like the fortnight of the UK.  The same, mas o menos, only different.  And so it was.  Dee was dust the same only different.
            The day that towers fell Dee had stayed late in bed, enjoying the pleasures of a pastor’s rare Tuesday morning off, when the kids are at school and the schedule is clear for the morning, and the Monday had been too much and yet not enough.
He had sat up in bed that morning and turned on the TV, the Today Show and suddenly the tone changed with an odd report not yet understood, and Dee thought what everyone thought, and turned to CNN and saw what everyone saw.
            When the phone rang later that morning, it was one of the chiefs at HQ. 
“We’re putting together a team, Dee, the first group to reinforce the locals in New York will be from Chicago.  Can you go?”
“Sure, probably.  I mean yeah, I want to, I gotta clear the schedule. What would I do there?”
“Well, the official title is Grief Counselor, but, you know...it’s all kind of fluid right now.  Things change.  We’d have to know by Friday.  The team leaves on the 28th.”
A couple of days to decide, and a week to prepare.  The phone rang again, this time his best friend from a couple of states away.  Dee tells him about the trip.
“You better be ready, Dee, ready for how it’s gonna change you.”
“Yeah, but that’s why I’m here.  That’s why I got into the ministry.  This is what I want to do.”
This is what I want to do.  The same thing he had said when he and his wife pushed HQ to send them out of the country.  I want to serve overseas.  And now here he was, in Chile.
In Chile, where there were mountains all around that you could see sometimes, if the air wasn’t too thick with smog.  The best days were after a hard rain, but the relief of rains wouldn’t begin until after the Fall.  In Summer, the mountains were brownish smudges against a dirty haze of a blue sky.
And Dee arrived in Summer, in the dry season. 

One day, about a year and a half after he landed, after an unusually cold and wet Chilean Winter, and an unusually long and pleasant Chilean spring, Dee set out for another walk.  It was a Tuesday in mid-November that had Summer firmly in sight, with temperatures already in the 80s and removed by at least two months from the last of the seasonal rains.
His students were finished with their classes, and were away from the school where they all lived, for two weeks of practicum work in the area.  The sudden cessation of the busyness of the long school year that had begun in March appealed to him.  And yet.  And yet after only one day of this relative quiet and emptiness of the school, he felt the solitude returning, in all of its towering empty presence.
And so he set aside the final grade reports, pushed away the planning pages, turned off the computer and went to change his clothes for a walk on that almost-Summer Tuesday afternoon.  Dee pulled on shorts, a t-shirt, and decided on a pair of sandals that he’d never wear in Chicago but which were almost required by the heat here.  Coating his neck and face with sunscreen, he pulled on a baseball cap and then sunglasses. 
Turning the first corner, Dee saw the streams before he saw the sprinkler.  Rivulets of water were moving toward him, slowly filling the cracks in the road between him and the man halfway down the block with the water hose in his hands.  Watering the dust.
Dee stepped around the streams, walked ahead, shook his head again at the thought of someone wasting water like that.  And in his half-wasted effort to protect his new sandals and dance around the moving puddles, Dee stepped in it anyway, a confluence of water and the dust, and made some mud. 
And then of course it flashed in his brain, like a musical odor returning to flavor flaccid senses, a wrong lyric to an old song about the yellow dirt down in his toes

He gets up every morning and he lights upon the floor.
He migrates to the washroom and he opens up the door.
The whiskers on his chin tells him he's in, and then
Through the paste and the soap, sees an image without hope.
He's a broom of a fellow, an oddity in parenthesis.
So infected with disease of yellow dirt down in his soul.

He usually spends his spare time counting hairs upon his arm.
The ants upon the cupboard to his thinking add their charm.
He never starts to notice that his shoes are full of lead.
He's dead, through cough. Labored breathing, he is seething.
He's a sandwich of a fellow, an all-spread personality.
So infected with disease of yellow dirt down in his soul.

Last night a thousand stars were his to mold like clay, and so
In one split second's anger he did reach and take a hold.
He saw himself a captain way off in some kissin' situation.
That would have made his father proud, he laughs out loud.
He conceals the hurt. He reveals the dirt.
The yellow dirt down in his soul. The yellow dirt down in his soul.
The yellow dirt down in his soul. The yellow dirt down in his soul.

(Lyrics by James Seals & music by James Seals & Dash Crofts, 1971; from the album Summer Breeze, 1972).

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Ordinary Faith

The title is an allusion to, and an extension of, “Mere Christianity,” where is undertaken the task of describing that which is fundamental and central—as opposed to secondary and sectarian—to the Christian faith.
     This is beyond that, and yet like unto it.  Beyond it, because I aim to describe faith, not religion.  And not the religion called Christianity, but the ordinary faith in God that Christ reveals.
     I use the word ‘ordinary’ in this way: again, as a sort of cousin-in-meaning to ‘mere,’ as if to say central or foundational; but also to say in a negative sense that the faith I describe is not extra-ordinary.
  Much of religion is the accretion to the pure: the solidifying calcification of an extraordinary religious experience, so that a unique and special event is translated and established as the new norm, the addition to and qualification of the (previous) standard.
  It is the focus on these forms of expressing the central spiritual reality that is the essence of religiosity.  And it is precisely an unflagging devotion to religion that allows one to drift from an attention to faiths vital reality.
  And what is the essence of faith—faith ‘defined,’ if you will?  There is no end to discussions that begin with the oft-quoted beginning verse in Hebrews chapter eleven, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
            Yet I find many of these discussions to be about ten degrees off center.

   Faith is two parts: vision and action.  The vision is seeing beyond what is here and now, beyond what some describe as what is real and actual.  Faith is the perceiving/discerning of a reality beyond this present and material reality; some others would say it is the seeing the ultimate reality.  But in any case, faith is seeing what is not (yet) actual in our present experience.
  The action part of faith is living as if that vision were part of present experience, and thus making it so.  This is not delusional or psychotic behavior, where one doesn’t recognize, rationally, what is real and what is not.  Rather, it is acting with the full knowledge of that the vision is not yet real with the explicit purpose of bringing that vision into actuality. 
   Faith: vision and action.   Some have described The Salvation Army, that part of Christian religious expression that is particularly active in practical socially-community redemptive praxis, as ‘Christianity in Action.’  I am not at all opposed to this description, but again wish to move it to the broader discussion.  Faith is vision in action.

Returning to the distinction between faith and religion, one might say that religion too often takes a vision and enacts policies and practices that shift the focus to the program and away from the principle.  (I must somewhere reveal this bias: my tendency to not trust myself to—rely upon—emotion as the arbiter of the authenticity of religious experience.  Too many ‘religious’ principles [as opposed to saying ‘faith principles’] have been established as a result of emotion-bred experiences, rather than as extensions of faith visions.  But perhaps that is an essay for another time.)
     And so faith, if it is to be ordinary in the sense that I am describing, must resist these religion-forming tendencies.  It is not the vision which becomes our focus; nor is our focus on the action that seeks to make the vision real. 
    No.  I will have none of that kind of religion, or what many call religious faith.  The vision of faith must motivate action in order to be properly described as authentic—and thus ordinary—faith.
     Yet I do not believe that religiosity is pleasing to God.  Not when the focus turns, from Who God is, to What the religion requires of one in order to be described as a Christian.  I do believe that faith—vision in action—is pleasing to God.  Yet even this ordinary faith is not by itself the essence of what it means to know God.  It is at its best the natural expression of one who is already in relationship with God; it can never replace knowing God in the first place.
     (I here confess my another bias: I can in many respects be classified as an iconoclast, for my tendencies are to not trust myself—rely upon—the very religious structures that I have described so far.  But my desire is not really to tear down the institutional framework, as much as it is to name with a clear head and open eyes the limitations of religion.  My ultimate aim is simply to lift up as an alternative to religiosity this ordinary faith; faith not so much stripped of religious wrappings, as willfully unencumbered by them.)

Here I return to yet another thread; perhaps another perceived objection to what I am attempting here.  When I say that ‘ordinary faith’ as an exercise in writing out these thoughts is somehow beyond ‘mere Christianity,’ I realize that I am open to the charge of universalism.  That is, that I neglect the exclusivist Christian claim, quoting John 14.4, where Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me.”
     I do not forget that line.  There is time and space later to draw what I think John the Gospeler has done in general with community’s response to the milieu of late first-century religious communication.  But this verse in particular bears some addressing now.  I do not forget that line, nor misremember it as I write these words.  Rather, I choose to see beyond John and to incorporate John into the bigger Jesus picture (instead of the way around: taking John and as the primary Jesus lens and thus seeing all the rest of the New Testament witness through John’s reflections).
     I do not mean to undermine the centrality of Christ to Christianity.  Yet it is necessary to spend some time meditating upon the observation that Christ’s purpose was to draw attention to the reality of God and to foster a purer faith encounter with God, and not to draw attention to himself or to develop allegiance to his person to the detriment of the attention to who God is.
   Is it not possible—probable, even, given the other New Testament witnesses—that Jesus’ larger message was and is all about God?  Even more to the point, that Jesus was all about opening up for those mired in religiosity a vision of Who God is and how we might relate to this God?  The power of his life was to reveal God as Father, and so to richly establish God as Person, the divine in relationship.
    Now, align this conception of what Jesus was doing with the perspective of a Jesus with a mission to establish a new, different, or contrary religious principle or movement centered on his own person.
    So that when Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” we ought to really recognize that its connection to the rest, “no one comes to the Father but through me,” is not primarily about shifting the focus of authentic faith from God the Father to God the Son.
   No!  These words ought to be heard by us as a clarion call to abandon altogether a focus on religion per se, and to join with Jesus in a faith vision that leads to the ultimate reality—to know (experientially) God as our Father by living like Jesus the Son; to know the truth of Who God is in this dynamic relationship revealed by Who Jesus is; and to adopt Jesus’ ways as our ways, his faith (vision in action) as our faith (vision in action), even as we are adopted as Jesus’ brothers and sisters, as God’s own children.
     I cannot bear to see such a lovely and vital call to authentic faith in God being wielded as a weapon to force others into alignment with a religious requirement, all the while frustrating the words’ effort to lead all people to God.
     The way to God is the way Jesus lived.  The way to God is not adherence to creeds or formulas or religious practices.  All these can be good; but they do not lead inevitably to knowing God. Only following the example of Christ may we truly find God.
    And only by following the example of Christ can one truly be called a ‘Christ-ian.’  It is Jesus’ way of knowing and relating to God, and Jesus’ way of knowing and relating to other people that Christ-people ought to be described as knowing and practicing; not by how they are saying words in religious ceremony or performing rituals in religious duty.
    So if I am iconoclastic, it is to the extent that I follow the example of Christ (who is himself the fullest example of the prophets before him) in railing against the stultifying principles of the religious institutions, and in lifting up instead a purer focus on God-reality and the demand that this ultimate reality become our reality: by our actions, in the way we live our lives.
     Again, I say that the religious practices of a sectarian unit can be an aid to one’s faith walk—yet one must keep the priority straight: praxis is an external shell expressing a vital spiritual reality; praxis is never an end to be served itself, for its own sake.

In this way I find resonance with the message of ‘Mere Christianity’: the particular additions to the core of the Christian faith need not be strictly rejected, though quite often we might find that one particular expression is contrary to the particular expression of another sect or denomination of Christianity.
     At its best, a ‘mere Christianity’ describes that which is essential to believe and to practice in order to be called ‘Christian.’  To step further in with this description of a ‘mere faith,’ I have been attempting to describe what it looks like to be a Christ-ian seeking relationship with God, seeking to know Who God is. 
        At the end of the initial exploration of what it means to be in relationship with God, what it means to know ‘Who God is,’ there is this: the realization of our role as God’s people to reflect the reality of God’s existence.  So faith is related to demonstrating that God is alive.
         I submit that we do this best by how we live.  The highest form of worship is living a life—especially in the most mundane, ordinary of circumstances—that is so given over to God, that God’s very reality is revealed.  No greater gift or sacrifice or act of worship exists beyond living as if God were alive and real and known by you.
       (Some will here object, saying that the great thing is to be known by God; yet God already knows me; there is nothing in that.  The something upon which one may remark is in our knowing God, or perhaps at least, knowing the impact of the reality of being known and loved by God.)
        Worship in the formal sense of a weekly gathering of concentrated and intentional singing and reading and praying has its best merit in the willfulness and the togetherness.  These times are critical for our shaping, and the building up of the body.  But living out the faith vision comes in all the social interactions, often apart from formal worship settings.

[In future/potential continuations to this essay…worship redefined/expanded to include ordinary interactions…these ordinary interactions, when reflecting God’s presence, become the basis of speaking about living sacramentally]

Friday, 4 October 2013

Process & Outcome

Imagine that you and another person each follow the same decision-making process and yet end up with different choices. Why? What has happened? Why isn't the process itself determinative?

What has happened when you follow the same steps in making a decision as someone else, yet you reach a different conclusion? The most logical inference to draw from this is that some other element--integral to the scenario or the decision at hand--is different.

Just so. Take, for instance, a decision on what kind of milkshake to order. You have before you the menu of options at ice cream shop, you factor in what others have said about the quality of various flavors there, what you have ordered previously at other places, and your personal tastes. You order chocolate.

I read off the same menu board, factor in what others have said and done, what I have ordered before, my personal tastes--just the same process as you. I order strawberry. The same process, the same set of factors taken into consideration. One thing is different, and this leads to a different conclusion.

Change up the scenario just a bit. It's thirty years earlier, and you are at the same location, only then it was called a soda fountain. You move through the same decision-making process. Obviously, some of the factors are different: a different era might mean the quality of the ice cream (or other ingredients) is different, and so the reputation surrounding various flavors as an input factor is different. So too are the friends whose opinions you take into consideration. And you--are you the same or a different person?

You are different. You may well end up making a similar choice--chocolate--but the experiences you have over those thirty years make you a different person.

Now, move the whole conversation over to a subject of a different depth of import, and as a Christian making moral and ethical decisions with the Bible as our primary guide. As a Wesleyan, I will add, three other factors that weigh in early Church Tradition, logic or reasoning, and the testimony of personal (and contemporary community) experience. These four, Scripture, Tradition, reason and experience, are the factors that guide us in making moral and ethical decisions.

Suppose that you--or even a whole group of people in the same church denomination--return to a decision that you-all made thirty years ago. You are determined to retrace the decision-making process, and use that prior decision as a guide: you will return to study the same set of Scriptures; you return to seek the wisdom of the same Church Fathers; you follow the same logic and reasoning processes; and you give weight in the same way to experience.

And you reach a different conclusion. What has changed? Not the Scriptures. You might be focusing on a broader set of Scriptures or give higher priority to some texts over others. That would be a change. But on the whole, you value the Bible with the same conviction and seek the God's wisdom via Scripture in the same way. Similarly, the voice of Church Tradition has not changed. Though you are certainly reading the Bible and "hearing" the Church Fathers differently for some reason.

Ah reason: but, no, you have determined to follow the same mental processes. That has not changed, though the outcome certainly has. The answer, obviously, is experience. Over thirty years, your experiences (individually and collectively) have added to insight.

Just the one factor. Of course, as we've noted, that simple change (additional experience) also floods over to other factors. Experience does affect how you read the Bible, how you receive the wisdom of Tradition, how you give weight to certain factors in reasoning processes.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Fundamentalist Bibliolatry

In an interview for the fiftieth anniversary issue of Christianity Today magazine some handful of years ago, theologian John Stott made a surprising statement.  Surprising, that is, to the interviewer and perhaps to many fundamentalists reading the article.  Stott was asked to define who evangelicals are.  His response focused on the centrality of Jesus Christ, that evangelicals may be defined as deriving authority for faith and practice from the God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.
     The interviewer wondered if Stott had not forgotten to mention the Bible, believing that key for evangelicals is the place of the Bible.  But Stott put forward a gentle correction, saying that he wanted “to shift conviction from a book, if you like, to a person.”
      The fundamentalists within the evangelical camp have had this equation reversed for far too long. There is indeed a norming authority of Scripture in the lives of evangelical Christians.  However, Stott says, the Bible has authority “because Christ has endorsed its authority.”  The Scriptures “main function is to witness to Christ.”
      While we can affirm that the inspired Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the unique and normative source for Christian faith and practice, we ought also to remember that our faith is in a person.  Faith—we trust ourselves to the care of a person.
       It is a kind of creeping fundamentalism to claim faith in an object, even one so revered as the Bible.  It is revered, regarded as holy, precisely because it reveals to us a holy person. It is a means of grace.  However, this mediating function does not, cannot, work its work without the ongoing activity of the person of the Holy Spirit.
      Unmediated, Scripture becomes a blank screen upon which we can too easily impose our own ideas, exert our own wills, making claims that are thin on truth.  It is the reverse of letting Scripture interpret us, this bringing a pre-set agenda on how to read the Bible.  It is the opposite of humility before God, to interpret Scripture through the lens of a creedal statement.
     By this mindset have some created an idolatry of the Bible—call it bibliolatry—with their declaring as central to faith concepts of inerrancy and infallibility. 
       The Bible is a living document, though not a person.  The Bible witnesses to a person, God in Christ.  The Bible is a living document when the Spirit of the living God continues to reveal to us God in Christ through its pages, to impress upon our hearts its truths.
        When we replace a transforming encounter and walk with God (the underpinnings of salvation) with a doctrinal statement or creed, however piously constructed, we have turned from God and toward ourselves.  Thus, idolatry.
      It is a movement away from this fundamentalist kind of construction that Stott wanted to initiate in his conversations.  We ought to be moving toward a perspective of having faith in a person.
          The adaptability and applicability of faith, doctrine statements included, is a sign of its life—faith and faith creeds too can be said to be living precisely because they continue to be relevant, to apply to people in ever-changing circumstances.
            This is part of the wonder of God: Who, unchanging in character—Holy and Person, Loving and Just—is eternally adaptable in providing the means of grace that meet us where we are, when we are.
          We are not first and foremost creedal people in the sense that our faith is in a creed; we do not trust ourselves in a list of doctrinal statements.  We are a people of a living faith.  It is precisely when a systematic theology replaces the living God in our esteem and worship that we are in danger of shifting from faith in God to faith in an object.

            So I will venture to say this careful: we do not believe in the Bible, we believe in the One the Bible reveals.
(I wrote the preceding essay a few years ago. The following is a Facebook blog post inspired by a book I began to read recently, very much on the same theme, and which occasioned the posting of the older essay here.) 

When it comes to the primary nature and role of the Bible, there are major differences between fundamentalists and Wesleyans.
Fundamentalists tend to view Scripture as a body of unquestionable divinely given information that must be accepted as something of a rule book for safe Christian living. The Bible itself, with its comprehensive and rationally accessible inerrant divine truths or propositions, is the depository and residence of inspiration. The Bible and its truths are the primary objects of attention.
For John Wesley, for whom the Scriptures are truly the Word of God, the primary role of Scripture resides not in the text as divine information but in the Holy Spirit's use of it for a transforming encounter with the risen Christ, the true Word of God. The primary purpose of the Bible is to glorify God and form the people in the image of Christ. Christ, as the encountered Redeemer, not the Bible, is of primary interest and importance.
The Bible is the means the Holy Spirit uses for inner regeneration and the sanctified life. Its focus is not on issuing propositional truths about God and the world. Formation, not information, is its defining goal. Wesleyans accordingly believe that the authority of Scripture is centered on its Spirit-inspired ability to nurture Jesus' disciples in loving relationships with God and neighbor. The writers of the Bible tell us how to live in these right relationships and do not attempt to set forth a vast body of knowledge--historical and scientific--that Christians must unquestionably accept.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Re-Atonement: the start of a re-telling of the human story

My current thoughts on theology have danced around the topic of the atonement.  They were sparked by an article in Christianity Today that bemoaned the loss of the centrality of a particular atonement theory in modern evangelical circles.

     The author was describing a trend away from this centrality in tones that he intended as a clarion call to repentance, a return to orthodoxy.  But my own response was the opposite.  I was pleased to note that so many are finding it less than necessary to live with the now-standard notions of atonement.
     And so my thinking goes: I believe in the essence of what lies behind the stories of atonement, but not the specific theories of atonement (blood payment, or satisfaction, or ransom).  These stories made sense in their time, and in context of the biblical stories are entirely consistent.
     But I cannot hold them close to me any longer.  They simply do not make sense.  They do not resonate with me.  I cannot envision a God who would require anything of the sort (neither the sacrifice of animals or of Jesus on the cross) in order to bring humankind into a salvific relationship with God.  There is obvious benefit to us in making sacrifice, but no objective change in what God is able to do...although given my own tendency to thinking in free-will terms, God is self-limiting, and will not/can not override our wanting and acting. 
  Still, all of that refers mostly to OT sacrifices and atonement stories.  The NT atonement references are conscious reinterpretations of the OT, and brilliant.  But again, only within that closed system of thinking do they still make sense. 
    The OT is rife with a religious perspective that we do not fully share—though we readily use its terminology.   The NT appropriates this world view; but the imagery is one step removed from its literalness (see the NT book of Hebrews). 
      To wit: the OT poses the problem of satisfying a divine demand for blood, though this rationale is not explained beyond the reference to the natural blood-life connection.  The NT moves one step beyond the allowable animal substitute, and presents an interpretation of Jesus on the Cross as a new, fuller, better, and now once-for-all complete substitute sacrifice.
     No more animal blood, the act is complete; yet the imagery is itself unexplained, built as it is upon a more literal sacrifice of the past.

And now, while we use the words, notably of salvation by His Blood, this is all upon a system of sacrifices we neither fully understand nor could possibly accept.  What’s more, the ancient OT world had a concept of God very different:  why, for example, does/did animal sacrifice “work”?  Was it ever objectively effective?  Or, as I suspect of our own salvation experiences, was this animal sacrifice also subjectively effective—it worked in a way because of the attitude, etc., of the worshiper?
     This after all is the charge of works righteousness, that somehow contrition brings holiness.  But then if it “works”—if the sacrifice is propitiatory—because the subjective attitude is present and right (and there is great evidence that the attitude was more important than the act) then is there really an objective act involved?  That is, does anything outside of ourselves (i.e., God’s attitude or acceptance or whatever) change?

But maybe there is no (objective, transcendent) record book to be wiped clean.  Maybe there is no judge, prosecuting attorney, defense attorney, etc.—all those roles imagined being played in the cosmic drama of one of the atonement theories.  And maybe there is no jailer, no slave owner, no one from whom we need rescue or monetary debt redemption. 
     Maybe all of the pictures of the atonement the Bible allows us to draw are metaphors after all.  Maybe they are mere attempts to illustrate our (ancient ancestral) perspectives, and each carries deep scars of temporal connections.
     What then are we to do, what to say, how to think?  So what does atonement mean? And how is it "accomplished"?  How can we speak of atonement in terms that make sense—that honestly and faithfully represent our spiritual experiences yet do not wholly rely upon a system of sacrifice that does not represent our physical experiences nor a concept of God that no longer makes sense?

I suggest a new beginning story.  The traditional foundational picture is a story of an ideal life marred by sin.  This is how primeval humankind made sense of what they saw and felt: they saw imperfect life, but felt like it ought to be better.  So they imagined that it had been, and then the very real and obviously true tendency of humanity to do wrong destroyed that perfection.  And then the necessity to get back to full relationship with God led to actions on our part, the sacrifices.
     But what if the Genesis story were reinterpreted, re-read?  The initiating observations are the same: we saw an imperfect life, and the innate tendency (an inclination common to all of us, from birth) to act in ways that are destructive (but which are at root attempts at self-protection, self-care).  All of this remains the same from our subjective observations of how life is—and so becomes part of the new Genesis myth of how things were "in the beginning."
     Remember that a central component of creation is ordering from chaos.  And so my re-read Genesis story continues: into the chaos of this life as we know it enters God.  Slowly, gradually, as we come to know more fully who God is, and come to be changed more completely by the presence of God who is among us, we discover and develop that salvific relationship.  (I should say also that my theology now defines salvation entirely in terms of relationship.)
     This metaphor myth makes sense on two levels, macro and micro; also on levels of the individual and the community.  We may speak of creation as bringing order from chaos in the natural world.  And we can point to other stories of re-creation, like with Noah and the return from exile.
     But then we need to acknowledge that we, too, are part of the natural world.  God’s coming into our lives as a creative force is what revelation and salvation signify.  Religion becomes a way of making sense, and finding meaning, a way of living together as humans and in relation with the world in peace/harmony—this is good.

The re-atonement story is not just where we have come from.  
It is where we are going.

So instead of a picture of the ideal that has been corrupted, it is a picture of the natural world—which feels incomplete and chaotic—that is transformed into the ideal, a vision we all long for and wish for.  This story then is the foundation for what atonement is: God making the first step (prevenient grace), reaching out to us and enabling us to respond (reversing total depravity), and transforming us from our inclination toward evil so that our very desires resonate with God's: this life-giving grace is a continuing, sanctifying grace.
     This approach also addresses the problem of what has been called “inherited depravity.”  Which is to pose the question that arises when one literalizes the Genesis story: how is it that every human being born since has this natural tendency toward the selfish and corrupt and the wrong?  Inherited depravity as a theory answers that since Adam’s sin all are sinners, as if there was some change in the moral genetics.
     But removing the literalness of the story, and then starting at a different point than the ideal Garden of Eden scene, allows us to imagine a different answer.  How is it that we’re inclined toward chaos?  Because chaos is where we are from, and order and Shalom is where we want to go. We are not fallen, but we are feeling the chaos as part of our nature.