Archive for July, 2010

Life Together II

July 15, 2010

I’ve finished Life Together .  It’s a relatively short book (about 120 pages), and something I would encourage people to read.  At least, I would encourage people to read the first chapter.  After that, there is much room for subjective commentary on Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on how community ought best to function during the course of a typical day.

Chapter 1 is entitled Community, and I personally found this chapter to contain the most important and convicting theological musings.  It isn’t that the rest of the book isn’t necessarily helpful, it’s just that it falls very quickly out of the realm of theological inquiry and exploration, and into the realm of Christian freedom in action and living, where there may be may good and wonderful ways of approaching an issue (such as the best way to structure our day), and on which the Bible does not give extensive prescriptive instruction, but more descriptive examples.  
Bonhoeffer finds great value in monastic examples for structuring the day, and feels that these are in large part valuable even for a non-monastic Christian community or family.  I tend to agree.  But it isn’t a requirement by any means.  Bonhoeffer feels strongly about the importance, for example, of morning prayer, devotion & meditation.  He makes a persuasive argument that this is a healthy thing for any person to do as soon as they wake up.  He cites Scripture in support of this argument, but frankly his citations sound more like proof-texting, and I’m not at all convinced that those particular Scripture citations (often out of the Psalms) are intended to be prescriptive.  
His thoughts about the nature of Christian community – that it is not something we are entitled to, but a gift from God, for example – are wonderful.  His assertion that any attempt to impose our own ideas about what Christian community should look like or function as – beyond living in total awareness of our own sinfulness – are very helpful and convicting.  What would my experiment in Christian community have looked like if we had spent less time trying to figure out what to do and more time simply immersed in the Word and struggling to love one another?  I’m sure it would have been better.
But the problem is that Bonhoeffer then goes on to outline how Christian community should look like or function as.  While well meaning, it seemed that he contradicted his initial very powerful insights through the desire to give people practical direction.  He did this in another area as well – the area of how we deal with our Christian brothers & sisters.  He makes the powerful argument that we are to have no expectations of them, whether they are strong in the faith or weak in the faith.  We are to hold our tongue and seek to love them rather than risk damaging them through our expectations of how they ought to be.  But then he argues later about the importance and necessity of speaking the Word to our brothers and sisters, of not remaining silent in the face of some perceived struggle or failing on their part.  
So which is it?  I’ve run into this in discussions with peers on this topic as well.  On the one hand they argue that we are to only love one another, and then on the other hand they argue about the importance of discipling and building one another up and even chastising or warning with the Word when necessary.  These are not mutually exclusive things – love and taking some level of responsibility for our brethren – but they are often treated as separate things.  Biblically we are enjoined to love but also to recognize that love is not defined by us, but rather by the Word.  Which means at times we are going to have to say some very difficult things to someone else precisely because we love them.  Whether one prefers the idea of loving others by not holding out expectations, or loving others by being honest with them seems to vary directly on how they would prefer to have love shown to them.  
Understandably, it’s nicer when others love me and bear with my faults.  But perhaps others need to love me by helping me with my faults and holding me accountable.  This is less comfortable, less fun or enjoyable, but equally if not more important than loving me silently.  Bonhoeffer recognizes both things, and does not do a very good job in discerning when to use which approach.  In his defense, I’ve not run across anyone that does do a good job of making this distinction.  I hope when I begin my readings in the early Church fathers that there may be some more nuts and bolts suggestions or observations.
In the meantime, I’m going to want to re-read the first chapter of this book over and over again to help me focus as I live in community with other Christians, whether my wife and children or my parishioners.  The rest of the book can be helpful, but comes off more sounding like rules and regulations – rules and regulations which Bonhoeffer himself begins his book by rejecting.

It Ain’t Over Yet

July 10, 2010

Although the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) made a lot of headlines last year about this time in terms of it’s decision to be more accepting of homosexuality in general and in it’s pastors, there are other issues that are threatening the unity of other mainline denominations.

The Church of England is facing a very real schism as it struggles to come to grips with whether or not women should be installed as bishops.   Traditionalists in the denomination vehemently disagree with the drift of the denomination in this direction, while others are equally vehement that this must be allowed.  
Once again, the modern – and erroneous – assertion that equal must mean identical is wreaking havoc, and nobody seems to be able to address the underlying assumptions of those pushing for complete gender inclusiveness in all levels and positions of church polity.  If only as much time was spent on figuring out how to remain Biblically faithful and at the same time respectful of both genders and the contributions they can bring to a community of faith, perhaps these sorts of schisms wouldn’t be necessary.  

Book Review: Life Together

July 10, 2010

Six years ago my wife and I launched an experiment in Christian communal living.  I gave up my teaching position in Phoenix (moving to a part-time, adjunct and fully online teaching status that has been blessedly continued for the last six years!), my wife gave up her position doing outreach and cross-cultural education to international students, and we sold our home in the ‘burbs.  We moved to St. Louis, Missouri so that I could enter the seminary and complete graduate work leading to ordination.  Our oldest was two then, we were pregnant with our second, and didn’t realize that sooner than we expected we’d have a third.

Two other couples in our student ministry in Tempe were also eying relocations to the midwest, and we decided to try living together.  We’d been experimenting with small group/cell group ministry at our small church, and were curious about intensifying some of those concepts.  We met every week for eight months before two of the three couples moved out, purchased a house together, and got down to brass tacks.
I wish that I’d read Life Together beforehand.  More accurately, I wish we all had.  I’m not sure if it would have altered how we approached things, or dissuaded us from approaching them at all.  The hopeful part of me thinks it might have altered what happened during two years of living together.  The realist in me suspects that it wouldn’t have.  
The first chapter of this book is so convicting on so many levels.  Bonhoeffer accurately diagnoses the dangers of Christian community infused with utopian or other human-focused goals.  I think he does an admirable job of identifying what the true source and purpose of Christian community (whether a biological family, congregation, or other community type) – Jesus Christ.  But then it gets tricky, and I’m not so sure that I’m on board with where he takes things next.
After laying out a very persuasive argument about how we should strive to avoid at all costs our infusion of human-oriented goals, actions, etc. into a communal relationship grounded exclusively in the forgiveness of Jesus Christ, Bonhoeffer seems to move directly into outlining how a Christian community ought to operate.  And while he provides Biblical references to back up his assertions, in most of the cases I think he’s taking the texts out of context to support his ideas.  
I also struggle with what appears to be an emphasis by Bonhoeffer on how we are not to seek to change our brothers and sisters in the faith, but rather allow the Word to change them – however slowly that change might be in coming.  Yet he repeatedly makes references to how certain people ought not be allowed to do this, that, or the other.  He sets up regulations and rules that seem to violate his basic assertions that we have no right to attempt to dictate to one another how we ought to be in Jesus Christ.
I’m more comfortable with him violating his theoretical theology.  These ‘violations’ seem to be more honest, and more redolent of Paul’s repeated admonitions and very clear understanding that not only can Christians chastise and teach and otherwise seek to speak very pointedly to their brothers and sisters in the faith, he argues quite articulately that this is our duty.  We must do this, or we place  our brothers and sisters in temporal as well as eternal risk.  
I’m about halfway through the book at this point.  After the first chapter, he moves to discussing how the communal Christian life should be ordered, starting with what should begin and fill and end each day.  His recommendations are fine – but they’re only that, recommendations.  Most of them have some form of Biblical attestation, but are undoubtedly based equally on long-standing monastic traditions that Bonhoeffer has great appreciation for.  It’s not that these suggestions are wrong, but Bonhoeffer talks about them as necessities, as if this is the way that things should be done.  Which sounds a lot like infusing spiritual truths with human preferences and agendas – no matter how good or well-intentioned those preferences and agendas might be.  
I look forward to finishing the book and getting the full picture.  At this point, I think that I need to learn by heart his discussions in the first chapter, while the rest of the more logistically oriented material may get left behind.  I’ll keep you posted.   I’m pretty sure the logistical stuff wouldn’t have altered our experience in communal living in St. Louis.  But if there was a way to apply the first chapter’s theory, it might have made a great difference indeed.

Cross Cultural Church

July 5, 2010

I wrote earlier about my experience at Imago Dei here in Portland.  While I had hoped to return to that church, it hasn’t worked out.  But today we attended a different church where friends of ours attend.  The thing that caught our interest was their description of the church as very multi-cultural.  Considering they’re both native Taiwanese, I figure they know what they’re talking about, and we agreed to meet them at Village Baptist Church (VBC) this morning for the 10:30am service.

We arrived early – time enough to look around a bit.  They just purchased/built the facility in January of ’09.  They have lots of room for classrooms, child care, a large kitchen and fellowship hall, and of course a very large worship space.  We were greeted several times by people as we moved through the facility.  When we actually entered the worship space – (note to self for future blog topic – what’s the difference between a sanctuary and a worship space?) – I was immediately struck by the different atmosphere from Imago Dei.  
Both utilize large worship spaces.  Both have stages on which musicians or their waiting instruments are positioned.  But when we entered VBC, the musicians were nowhere to be seen.  Lighting was dimmed.  People were entering but not really chit-chatting with one another.  The Bible passage that was going to be the focus of the morning’s teachings was given on the display screens and we were encouraged to read it through and get familiar with it.  There were prompting questions for us to begin considering prior to the beginning of worship.  The overall feel of the worship space was that something was about to happen here, and it would be a good idea to get into the right frame of mind to participate in it.  One of the screen prompts encouraged us to consider going to one of the ‘alcoves’ to talk things over with God.  After closer scrutiny of the perimeter walls, I realized that there were four alcoves – I’d never have recognized them as such if they hadn’t been mentioned – for private meditation or prayer.  Very nice touch.  
As the service began, the lighting came up, the musicians took the stage, and the music began.  These weren’t 20-somethings.  They weren’t concerned with being too hip.  An acoustic guitarist, drummer, bass guitarist, pianist, and female vocalist led the songs.  These were more like mainstream worship music, some dating back to the mid-90’s, and one of the songs that morning a traditional Gospel song.  
Announcements were made, partly by a woman trying very hard to be amusing and falling rather flat.  There was a long distance call that was tenuously amplified by a hand held mic.  On the other end was a member of a mission team in Lebanon.  I liked that they made this effort to connect the people gathered for worship with the ministry team they were supporting across the planet.  Nobody was hip or flashy.  Everyone appeared to be in their late 40’s on up with pretty sensible, Northwestern fashion sense.  The preacher was a young man who preached on Ephesians 4:25.  His message was good, though I thought he was using the text out of it’s proper context somewhat.  There were better texts he might have chosen for the message he wanted to give.  But that’s a minor issue.  There were two offerings taken.  Communion was offered.
One of the things that struck me the most was that both the young man preaching and the pianist (a worship pastor, apparently) spoke of Holy Communion in terms I don’t generally associate with Baptist theology.  The referred to it as a Sacrament, first of all, which surprised me.  Both made references to receiving Jesus Christ specifically in the receiving of Communion.  One of them actually mentioned body and blood, though he didn’t completely link it to bread and wine.  Much more, well, sacramental language than I ever would have expected.  
I didn’t care for the way that Communion was given, and it was much more in line with a theology that believes it is representational rather than the actual body and blood in with and under the bread and wine.  At Imago Dei, they had the elements on big tables up front, just in front of the stage and everyone pretty much just went up and served themselves.  No Words of Institution Words of Institution or anything.  No Words of Institution or anything at VBC, either.  Bread (looked like pita bread pieces) and wine (in plastic individual communion cups) was were both passed down the rows and people helped themselves.  People were encouraged to wait to partake until they were prompted.  
The entire service was in English.  For the music, the words were projected on screens in both English and Korean.  There were audio devices available to provide Korean translations of the service as well for those who were interested.  Our friends indicated that at least on some occasions, translations were available also in Chinese and perhaps Spanish.  They also indicated that at times the worship format incorporates Christian music and other elements from various other cultures.  That would have been neat to see.  As for the people there (a pretty slim turnout, according to our friends), there appeared to be a very healthy mix of both Asians and Caucasians.  It was encouraging to see a place where different cultures could worship together, rather than in separate, culturally specific services.  Ironically, it seems that the only special cultural service they have is one aimed towards younger people – the emergent culture, as Village’s web site & bulletin today described it.  In fact, the young man who preached was actually the Pastor to the Emergent Culture – the only culturally specific pastor I saw on the staff listing.  Interesting.
I’d love to create a worship environment that was multi-cultural – where our differences were less important than our unity in Jesus Christ.  That’s hard enough to do in a strictly English-speaking congregation, what with the battles over contemporary or traditional or emergent worship styles.  But it’s good to see one place where these battles appear to be history, not current events. 

Supremely Inclusive

July 1, 2010

I’ve been mulling over the Supreme Court’s recent decision that a university has the right to tell official student organizations that they are not allowed to discriminate in their membership – they have to be open to any student.  In this particular case, that means that any Christian student organization that is officially a student organization of the school has to admit anyone – even non-Christians or those that conduct themselves in a manner that is not Biblical.

Various Biblical Christians are weighing in on this issue, since at first blush it seems like a pretty rude ruling.  It seems like another example of Christians getting smacked for attempting to hold true to their values.   If you want more nitty gritty details about the case, here is a good concise overview.  
This Christian student group argues that it shouldn’t be required to extend membership to people who disagree with it’s fundamental beliefs – Scripturally-based issues such as avoiding sexual misconduct (whether heterosexual fornication or homosexuality).  It sounds reasonable at first.  But is it?  Why don’t other student groups have similar issues?  Why don’t the Young Democrats, or other special interest groups have to ban certain types of people from joining?  
These organizations don’t have to attempt to ban membership because they have a strong sense of identity.  They know who they are and what is important to them.  And there are fairly uniform attitudes towards these things within these groups.   Neither of these types of groups worry about infiltration because they have a strong enough sense of identity that they can easily distinguish those who are on the same page from those who aren’t.  And while they may gladly tolerate the presence and membership of people who don’t adhere to their core values, there’s also no danger that those infiltrators will ever get to a leadership position.  The issues and sides are drawn very clearly.  Those who disagree are welcome to participate if they want, but they’ll never become a leader or pose a threat to the organization or ideology.  
Not so with a Christian organization.  Christianity is so badly fragmented that literally anyone can call themselves a Christian, it would seem.  Who defines what is Christian or not these days?  There are churches that decry homosexuality as unBiblical, and churches that declare that the Bible is not against homosexuality and neither are they.  Mormons call themselves Christian even though their theology explicitly contradicts many core elements of Biblical Christianity and the Ecumenical Creeds.  Christianity is being shredded from within, not just from the outside, so that we often find ourselves more often at odds with one another than with those who completely dismiss our beliefs.
As such, a Christian organization is likely to draw people with widely divergent views and practices.  And that organization won’t have any way of making clear what it considers to be truly Christian except by attempting to legislate it.  It has to specify exactly what it believes Christianity is or else nobody will know what it believes.  It has to be intentionally limiting because the central sense of identity of Christianity as a whole has been so weakened and degraded in the last 200 years (some would argue 500 years, and others could make a good case for 1000 years) that Christians often are ill-equipped for discerning what Christianity is and therefore who is appropriate for leadership.  
This is symptomatic of one of the core threats to Christianity.  We don’t know who we are.  Anybody can claim to be Christian and the old standards of evaluating this (the Ecumenical Creeds Ecumenical Creeds, primarily) are often no longer acknowledged.  The Bible has been the subject of reinterpretation and deconstruction to the point that many believers are unsure what they believe or why.  The disagreement between this student organization and the university is really a variant on the in-fighting that has been going on between denominations and groups of believers ever since St. Paul wrote his letters to address the disagreements between more legalistic, ‘Judaizer’ factions of Christians, and those who did not see the need to adhere to traditional Jewish practices.  
Given this fractiousness, the student organization can do one of several things.  It can attempt to devise an iron-clad charter that clearly states who it is and makes the changing of this charter almost impossible (like more conservative denominations with very specific doctrinal stances, such as the LCMS ).  It could give up on attempting to create any such a definition, and attempt to make Christians of any stripe welcome and open to discussions and explorations of what it means to call oneself a Christian (like more liberal denominations such as the Anglicans).  The organization could also – and I would argue should – quit ceasing to get university approval.  If it can’t abide by university policies, it doesn’t need to – and shouldn’t – expect to be an official organization.  Students are still free to gather together as Christians.  If they need resource assistance I’m sure  there are local congregations that would be willing to help them.