July 24, 2012 Permalink
By a technicality, I am a fairly large man. But one of God’s most gracious gifts to those of us in ministry is that as He gives us more opportunities we might perceive as “bigger,” He gives us perspective into how small we are. He allows me to see both that my life has unthinkable weight because He loves me, and yet how inconceivably irrelevant I am under the canvas of space and time. I am young enough that within my tradition, people occasionally tell me they see me as voice for “the future.” And while the sentiment is appreciated, I feel fairly certain I am not particularly futuristic.
The future has already arrived, and it has little to do with people like me. In the global body of Christ, we have seen a remarkable shift in the balance of power. Those of us in the west in general and North America in particular are used to being in the seat of power and influence; we are used to being those who shape global conversation in the Church. Our sense of self-importance is innate. Drunk on the rhetoric of America as a new Israel, our Christian faith a curious syncretism of sentimental piety and manifest destiny, we send missionaries into the world. We ship our virtues and vices wholesale into all the earth.
I am a Pentecostal by heritage and tradition, but culturally I am one of the bourgeois pastors whose day might seem to be coming, but in many ways has already passed. The whole white male, coffee-drinking, apple product-using, Coldplay-listening type. It is a very small world that we live in that feels deceitfully large. We have blogs, we write books, we talk about the most recent issue of Christianity Today. So it is easy to think we are the center of the universe.
We did not notice that the world has already moved on. We didn’t notice that the wind of the Spirit left us, and that there is a new world coming in Latin America and Africa and Asia that rendered us inconsequential. We enjoyed our time in the mainstream well enough to forget that the move of God always comes from the margins.
I am part of a tradition that began on the margins, in a rundown shack of a church in Los Angeles and among disreputable hillbillies in Appalachia. We did not have the burden of privilege then, and that afforded us the truer luxury of needing God and believing He could do anything. I write these words from Orlando, Florida for the Church of God General Assembly, and we are a case study for how the world had changed. Our movement is exponentially bigger outside the United States than within it. While we feel the sand sinking beneath us in North America, we have only a faint glimpse of the dynamic movement happening under our own banner in other parts of the world. Nonetheless, in Orlando we are comprised mostly white men from the Southeast—men just like myself—whose day has already past, our power already sifted through our fingers. And yet we still talk and conduct ourselves as if we are the center of the universe. We still talk as if the world has not moved on. We will talk as if God has not moved on.
This is not a distinctively Pentecostal phenomenon. I watched with some interest last week the online conflict that developed over gender issues in the Church. A blog from a pastor in the Reformed Gospel Coalition camp caused a stir in an attempt to critique the phenomenon of the novel 50 Shades of Grey, which is said to fetishize rape fantasy in the main artery of American fiction (I haven’t read it). The author of the post quoted from a book from Reformed “scholar” Douglas Wilson using strong language about gender roles. I alternately disliked the post and yet found it rather uninteresting. The use of the quote in context of the matter seemed to suggest that such fiction appeals to many women in our culture because gender relationships in the home are no longer properly defined. The idea, as I understood it, was that if men took their proper place of authority in the home, the little women wouldn’t want any of that stuff.
I both understood the backlash against the piece, and yet found the backlash surprising only insofar that there is perhaps no one in the North American Church more blissfully unaware of their own place in the grand scheme of things than some of my Reformed friends. I love my brothers there deeply, and find much to admire in many of them. There are some humble, powerful men among them I deeply appreciate. The fact that the author of the post, Jared Wilson, posted a lovely and nuanced apology a few days later demonstrates the many good gifts in their movement!
And yet that doesn’t quite get to the strangeness of the whole little affair. Most of the debate centered on the semantics of the language in the piece (which again I would personally find problematic). Yet I’m scratching my head that Wilson would still be considered a credible source in mainstream Reformed circles (especially the young guns) given some of the flagrantly bizarre positions taken in places like this (it’s full of gems: “Slavery as it existed in the South wasn’t an adversarial relationship with pervasive racial animosity…Many of the old slaves express a wistful desire to be back at the plantation.”) Suffice it to say that takes a special kind of audacity. But he has snappy one-line zingers (“egalitarian pleasure parties!” Har-har!), and a lot of those fellas just love that. (In some parts of the world it seems, you can get by with saying just about anything as long as you get atonement theology “right,” since this is the entirety of “THE gospel” and everything else is peripheral).
Still it is really not my intention to carpet bomb Wilson. Headed to Orlando, I am struck by how Wilson, the young Reformers, we Southeastern boys of the Church of God and this long-haired pastor with the pretentious named church have in common. The good news ecumenically speaking is that as different as we are, we are all brothers! The good news is, we are all on the same ship! But before we start singing “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord,” here’s the harsher reality—we are brothers on the same ship called “The Titanic.” To hear us volley at each other, you would think we are fighting for the souls of the nation between us. But in reality we are not. Among those of us in the younger set of our camps, we are competing largely for the hearts and minds of the 20 and 30 somethings with their Ipads and Macchiattos. We are already dinosaurs and we did not know it.
The average Christian in the world right now is an African or Latin American female in her early 20’s. She doesn’t read our blogs and she doesn’t read Christianity Today. She doesn’t know or care who I am and she never will. The names Piper, Driscoll, Chan, Bell, Stanley, Warren—mean nothing to her. Like most Pentecostal women coming into the kingdom around the world, words like “complementarian” and “egalitarian” are not in her vocabulary, nor Calvinism and Arminianism. Unlike some of my brothers would lead you believe (where their lunch table is the only one that cares about Scripture and THE GOSPEL while anybody who believes differently from them in these tired conversations are flaming liberals), she takes the authority of the Bible very seriously. But more importantly, she believes in the power of the Bible in ways that are incomprehensible even for our most rabid “conservatives.” The western filter and language that frames these issues will not be determinative for her, unlucky as she is not to read our blogs. She may well in end up leading a church one day where she preaches Jesus like a woman on fire and lays hands on the sick and watches God heal them, though this will surprise those Reformed colleagues who are sure all female church leaders have been trained by godless-Unitarian-lesbian-leftist-radical feminist-seminarians (she didn’t have access to seminary at all–unfortunately she has read the Acts of the Apostles). Who knew?
The world has moved on, God has moved on, and we didn’t even notice.
I do not wish to be overly contentious with my colleagues. Tribally we are different, but culturally we are so very much alike. This is intended to be more conciliatory. Why don’t you pull up a chair beside me here on the deck, bring something to drink, and let’s at least watch from over the bow, shall we? I would hate to feel this irrelevant all by myself. It’s a beautiful sight, really. It is not so tragic for the world to lose sight of us. We must decrease so He might increase. So it’s a celebration then. Bring your macbook pro if you like; we can even listen to some Coldplay.
July 19, 2012 Permalink
I love to make top ten lists. Neurotically so. I’ve been doing it since I was a kid.
But it’s been a while, and the other day I took a notion to tweet the ten theological books that have most shaped my life. I’ve included the list here below. If you are interested in purchasing any of them, I have posted an amazon.com wishlist here for easy access.
Be warned: top ten fever has regained its hold on my life, so far more random/arbitrary lists are yet to come!
Without further ado:
10. Simply Christian by NT Wright
I love many of Wright’s books. For hardcore enthusiasts, perhaps Simply Christian would be a surprising choice over some of his other more academic works. But Simply Christian hit me right between the eyes a few years before starting Renovatus, and I never got past it. I have never before nor since seen such a beautiful, accessible, elegant articulation of the basics of Christian faith. And for all of Wright’s many gifts to the Church, I think perhaps his greatest is re-framing the big picture story of the gospel–as he does relentlessly in all of his work, forcing us to read the little stories in context of the big one of salvation history. I don’t think any book of its kind (including CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity) gets it done quite the way Wright does here.
9. Richard J. Foster, The Celebration of Discipline
I read Celebration in my early 2o’s, and no other book has shaped the practical dimensions of my life with God like this book. It’s a classic for a reason. While Foster would write more directly about how to integrate the best of different strands of Christian tradition in Streams of Living Water, he actually demonstrates the principle effortlessly here in a way that challenged me to do the same early in my ministry.
8. Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy
I grew up in church all my life, and yet never heard a sermon about the kingdom of God. Hence this book blew my head open, also in my early 20′s. Nobody captures the heart and soul of Jesus’ foundational kingdom message quite like Willard does. His chapter on the beatitudes alone is worth the price of admission.
7. C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity get more press, but I think this is Lewis’ most enduring, truthful and haunting work. I refer back to it over and over again.
6. Stanley Hauerwas, The Hauerwas Reader
It feels like cheating to include a compilation here, but most of Hauerwas’ books are collections of essays. And since I think this is the most important theologian in America and the man who taught me most everything I know about what it means to be the Church, I say buy the big book and dive in deep. He’s provocative and brilliant every time. He has also been incredibly kind to me personally, and his visit to speak at Renovatus in 2008 is one of my favorite memories. (For Hauerwas fans, the introduction I delivered for him that day as well as his response to coming to Renovatus, his first time speaking at a Pentecostal church, is here)
6. Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination
Prophetic Imagination is so ridiculous, I feel like I need to make up new words to describe it. It’s a genre-crossing, shattering marvel of a book. As poetry…as cultural critique/social commentary…as Old Testament exegesis…it is categorically beyond brilliant. And will never date. Brueggemann is incapable of writing anything that isn’t genius: The Creative Word, Cadences of Home, Finally Comes the Poet, his commentaries on Genesis and Samuel, his multiple works on the Psalms, his collections of sermons, prayers and essays. He’s an artist, a prophet, a poet, a preacher, a beast. But in The Prophetic Imagination, the maestro is at the height of his powers, and every page is stunning. Read it. (My poor congregation: when I read it first in 2008, I tried to outline the whole book to preach in 1 Sunday. NOT A GOOD IDEA, PEOPLE.)
4. Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer
Almost every sentence of the second half of this book is highlighted. Nouwen’s book is short, but every line is potent. It and Return of the Prodigal Son are the best of his 40 odd books by me. This book changed my approach to ministry forever. The idea that my brokenness is an asset God could use to heal others never left me be. It radically challenged my assumptions about ministry. In Pentecostal tradition, preachers feel like they should act like super heroes. it’s a book I think everybody in vocational ministry should be required to read.
3. Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Comedy, Tragedy and Fairy Tale
Every sentence in Telling the Truth is beautiful. It’s the best book on preaching that has been or ever will be written. And Buechner’s grid of “comedy, tragedy and fairy tale” is an astonishingly powerful frame for the gospel story. A masterpiece.
2. Herbert McCabe, Love, Law and Language
The now deceased Dominican priest is the most underrated late 20th century thinker the Church produced. Love, Law and Language is the best book on ethics I’ve ever read. I go back to it over and over and over again. (Also worth noting: McCabe’s sermon on “Forgiveness” from the posthumous collection Faith Within Reason is my favorite sermon in print.)
1. Steven J. Land, Pentecostal Spirituality: A Passion for the Kingdom
Pentecostal Spirituality is far and away the best theological work by a Pentecostal. I’ve had a lifelong lover’s quarrel with my tradition- But Land’s big vision for Pentecostal spirituality helped me find my place within the tradition in a time when I didn’t know how I fit. Land won’t let Pentecostals be reduced to fundamentalists who speak in tongues, & makes the case for a distinct vision of the kingdom.
And if you aren’t worn out yet: my top alternates are John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, and Clark Pinnock’s Flame of Love.
July 5, 2012 Permalink
Frequently in Scripture, the “otherness” of God is celebrated. He is consecrated, set apart, holy…other. He in turn sets aside people and places for Himself. There are so many ways that God is not like us–in might, in power, in majesty. And yet for a monotheistic people living in a polytheistic ancient world, it is interesting how different the claims of Yahweh are from pagan, tribal deities. Religions then and now are full of locker room comparisons and trash talk to the competition across town: my god can beat up your god, my deity is more awesome than your deity.
There is no question that the God of the Hebrew Bible can be rightly called powerful, and yet so much of the entire narrative of Scripture critiques human notions of “power.” Power–brute force, might, the ability to conquer one’s foes–is deconstructed by the subversive Holy One of Israel. The religion of Pharaoh is the religion of power. The religion of Caesar is the religion of power. In biblical terms, power as defined as “the ability to whoop somebody else’s army or someone else’s god” is hardly a reason to worship. If God were merely powerful, then His “greatness” would be contingent on the same measuring stick as the Pharoahs or Casesar’s of the world.
But this God, powerful as He is, doesn’t even exist on that chart. For all we might say about the otherness of God, the thing that has always and will always set apart this deity apart from all the contenders and pretenders can be summed up in a single word: mercy. It’s His mercy that makes Him so unlike anybody else’s god. It’s His grace that confounds the elemental tendencies of mere tribal religions in all their varieties, including the superstitious folk religions we embrace in our own hearts.
Of course we know this first and foremost through the revelation of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. Jesus told his disciples that if they had seen him, “they had seen the Father.” If you want to know what God is like, just look at Jesus. We have an entirely Christ-like God. Which is what makes the cross of Christ all the more scandalous. In Jesus we go from “my god can beat up your god” to “my God let Himself get beat up on purpose.” And the astonishing thing of course is that the Apostle Paul says it is His death that makes a mockery of the powers of sin and death. It is a most odd way to “win” for a most odd God.
What I think often gets lost in all of this is that it is His mercy that has ALWAYS set Him apart, His mercy that has always made Him worthy of worship. There are theological systems where people spend a great deal of time talking about the “glory” of God. I of course have no problem with this–God is indeed infinitely glorious! The problem is how people define glory. It is either some hazy, abstract principle or all too often reduced to mere power. But when God reveals Himself to Moses, He is very clear about the basis of His glory. He is very clear about what sets Him apart from everyone and everything else in the universe: From Exodus 34.5-7: 5The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name, ‘The Lord.’ 6The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…
Did you hear it? Before the creator came into the world tabernacled in flesh and the creation knew Him not. Before the miraculous birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Long before there was a cross for God to suffer to death on, He already introduced Himself as the merciful and gracious God. What makes Him so different? He is slow to anger. What makes Him so special? He is abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. Who else but Him keeps steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin?
How interesting that when people consider the ways in which God’s “ways are higher than our ways and thoughts higher than our thoughts,” it is so often construed in terms of judgment. As in, “that might seem mean or harsh to you, but God is way above us.” So God is above us in that He has more sophisticated reasons for vengeance than we do? Or God is above us simply because He is stronger than we are and therefore could obliterate us anytime He wanted?
Don’t be confused. The reason you can’t comprehend Him is because you can’t fathom a love so deep or mercy so wide. It is God’s grace and not His might that is so confounding. It is not His unlimited capacity for destruction that makes Him great, but His unlimited capacity to forgive, restore and heal. It is His capacity to be cut and stabbed and cursed and never stop loving that is the basis of His greatness.
It is His mercy that makes God “GOD!!!” It is not His power that brings us to our knees with mouths gaping open, but His tenderness.
Many people are still trying to make themselves worship a god who is powerful. To the extent that they love him, it is as a concubine or a slave but not a bride. It is an arranged marriage wherein they hope they can “learn to love Him over time.” If you have to force yourself to love God, you simply don’t know Him well enough yet. That is not an indictment. It’s just that to see Him for who and what He is, to see His tenderness IS to love Him. To see that tenderness is to have your heartbroken with laughter and wonder.
And if your “god” doesn’t elicit that kind of reaction from you? I want to gently offer a radical diagnosis to you: you may not be worshiping the right God yet.