like a shotgun

August 21, 2008

I just got back from a marathon trip to my hometown Montana.  The days stretched long past sundown, round bonfires or behind the steering wheel; sleep fit in wherever I could cram it–curled up on an air mattress or in the back of my old Jeep.  I hiked up to mountain lakes, waded in a geo-thermally-heated river, practiced my fly-fishing on what very well may be the best trout stream in the lower forty-eight, held a good friend’s baby daughter, and ate breakfast at a different diner nearly every day.  Cindy even rode a horse!  My college-aged brother and sister are exploring what it means for them to be adults, and my baby sister is already in high school.  I am learning to relate to each of them in new ways.  Very good times.

I also faced down some old, genetic (perhaps) flaws, brought to the surface by the hectic pace my parents’ family keeps.  I like to think I am a pretty good friend, that I really care for people and go out of my way to interact them at a really human, personal level.  But sometimes I really mess up. 

For instance, this past week I planned to meet up with an old friend for coffee.  My schedule was quite full, what with fishing and family and all, but I plotted and schemed and thought I could squeeze in just this one more thing.  But with the way things in my genetic-line work, everything never gets done.  I try to fit too much in.  And one thing leading to another, I ended up flaking out on my friend, feeling quite awful about making her go out of her way for nothing and feeling quite disappointed that I wouldn’t get to hear about the great things God was doing for her as she follows where Jesus leads.

I could almost spin this positively, saying that my heart is bigger than my abilities, that I try to fit so much in because I care about these people so much.  And it would be true to an extent.  But my conscience gets upset at the part untruth, and it won’t let me leave it at that.

You see, I am an irresponsible scheduler, a culpably irresponsible scheduler.  There are so many good things that I want to do, people I want to talk with, so much coffee to drink; and I tragically try to shoot the moon every time.  The basic problem is that I don’t prioritize.  I need to pick a few of the good things to concentrate on, and save the others for another time or for other people to do.  It’s the monkey and the peanut jar.

I always thought this was just my style–I’m laid back, unplanned, spontaneous.  No one can fault me for my style, I thought.  But this last trip has changed my mind.  This is really a wrong decision, and it shows an undervaluing of people, a disrespect for their time and their expectations (not that I ever make plans thinking they’ll fall through; it’s just that I should be planning concretely enough to know if things will work or not!).  So this is my shotgun apology to all of you who have been let down by my bad planning.  I considered calling and leaving voicemails to each of you individually, but sitting down to make the list ended up being like picking out a pebble from a dam–quite overwhelming.  So trust that this is much more heartfelt and thought-out than html can communicate, and please forgive me.

On the evening after I had this revelation, I sat out in my Jeep in the driveway beside the corral, watching the sun sink behind the Tobacco Root Mountains.  I felt bad, really bad.  I began to realize that this a personal fault that has its roots in the family culture I like so much–the culture that gets out and does things, goes flyfishing on a river five hours away, goes for a dayhike before a dinner party, invites twenty-five kids over to their house for a twelve hour party.  Later, as I was unloading fishing gear and tents from the back of the pickup, I asked my fifteen year-old sister if she thought our family tries to do too much.  “I guess, maybe,” she replied.  I want to find a way to be laid back, adventurous, and concrete enough in my scheduling to show people I love and respect them.  That, perhaps, is part of the challenge Cindy and I face as we continue to form our own family culture.



July 27, 2008

certain summers are just in-between. maybe in-between is a bad word for it, because the very feeling of in-betweenness arises from not quite knowing what bookends this section of time, not knowing what’s next. this is one such summer.

i know these summers from my reading habits. the last one stretched from a may college graduation to a december flight across the atlantic to macedonia. and there were the months before cindy and i got married and the summer before starting college before that. i tend to read indiscriminately at times like these. these times are secretly relaxing. i know that from how i read too.

i spent the summer before cindy and i married immersed in blake, perusing bertrand russel, and scribbling poetry in worn out comp books (a habit i have yet to break). the summer before macedonia (i tend to think of all the waiting months beginning in may, faltering and rerouting in october, and ending in our departure on december 6 as “summer”) i read bits of foucault, checked out a medieval literature reader, and studied a primer on symphonic composition. this summer i’m bogged down in charles taylor’s masterful a secular age and barth’s first volume of church dogmatics. in between fruitless go’s at these massive texts, i pound out quick terry pratchett novels or whatever comic books the local library contains.

i’ve also been gloriously enraptured in dorothy day’s the long loneliness. augustine’s confessions topped my ma-comps reading list, undoubtedly the most spiritually-incisive of the texts i read. day’s autobiography rings with the same spiritual-yet-this-worldly tones, the same reflective writing style. one thinks of merton’s seven storey mountain. reading the text is refreshing, a stand-in for hours spent walking a creek or watching the waves roll against the beach. it’s been my respite in this stifling hot city of workaday reality.

to close: a pic of my favorite summer read.

Kierkegaard at the Aegean

Reading on the Aegean

theologian at the beach

June 10, 2008

i think i’m going to institute an international holiday, theologian at the beach day.

today i spent the afternoon stretched out in the shade of overhanging trees at hartigan beach. with my favorite hat slid low over my forehead, the sun beating down on my bare back, and my toes digging in the sand, i poured over von balthasar’s introduction to barth’s theology. the book is excellent, coming highly recommended by cindy’s fr. bosco. the beach is better. put the two together, and magic happens.

the sandy pages of von balthasar’s the theology of karl barth are highly worth your time. he traces lines of continuity and development in barth, his move from dialectical theology to the analogy of faith. the book gives some much needed context to my hard-fought progress through church dogmatics.

between swatting flying ants and rubbing sand off my coffee mug, i jotted this passage down in my commonplace book. von balthasar draws it from barth’s adolescent prolegomena to christian dogmatics. it’s something that may have been very helpful in my own adolescent theological flailing about.

Recent New Testament exegesis has been influenced by phenomenology, and Kierkegaard’s anti-Hegelianism is a philosophy too. … We all wear our own special pair of glasses, without which we would see nothing at all. We must use some framework to unlock the biblical message. We do not intend to save theology by waging war on a particular philosophy. … Using the same philosophical presuppositions, a man can hear the Word aright or wrongly. Philosophy does not threaten theology because it is philosophy, or a particular brand of philosophy. It becomes a threat only when its relative influence on our hearing of the Word is not taken into consideration.

to participate in international theologian at the beach day, roll up your jeans, grab your swimtrunks, or slip into a bikini, and reach for your nearest theological tome (the denser the better). then walk down to your nearest lakeshore, city park, forest preserve, or trout stream, and relax in the sun with your karl barth-equivalent.

(this may need to develop into a weekly habit for me.)

as cindy has already adverted, we’ve been experiencing some internet connection difficulties over the last month. but i hope we have them straightened out now. something about IP addresses and passwords and the need to meet up with one of my neighbours at a local cafe.

this missing month has been full of seeking direction, making surprising connections, and then losing both just as quickly, only to stumble on them once more. it began with a church-planting conference the second week of may. cindy and i have played with the idea of starting new churches since well before we were married four years ago; our seven months in macedonia with a church-planting mission helped put a little flesh and bone on the real life struggles of growing new churches. this idea has lain dormant for the last two years of my grad program, but with its close, new possibilities our pushing up all over the place.

so we found ourselves attending a nine-hour series of seminars everyday for a week up at trinity evangelical div school (a good half-hour without traffic/hour and a half with traffic drive from our apartment). going in, i had serious misgivings about how “evangelical” the conference would be. some more liberal friends earnestly warned me that the evangelical free church in america (the organization putting on the conference) supports the subjugation of women and prohibits any critical, scholarly investigation of faith and practice. the last thing i wanted was tutelage in how to prop up the status quo.

what i found during the week, however, was an organization wholeheartedly dedicated to the multiplication of local congregations as a testimony to the gospel. far from towing some doctrinaire line, they are more than ready (for better or for worse) to latch on to whatever innovations or reformations that will help “transform consumers into disciples.” the experience was definitely a mixed bag, admittedly. for every mention of neil cole’s organic church, there were five references to willow creek and seven to saddleback. and the appropriation of new ways to be the church often veered off into the realm of gimmicks and charlatantry. but more than the long hours of powerpoint and occasionally-rambling speakers, the new relationships really made the week worthwhile. i met people living out the communal, humble, honest gospel from cor d’alene, idaho, from duluth, minnesota, from flint, michigan, from some city in norway. one conversation would revive my convictions about the church’s responsibility to be working for social justice in its neighborhood; another would challenge me about prayer; a third would pull me out of my usual shy and introverted self into dialogue and interaction. i saw right in front of me the sort of Jesus-following life that i want to be living.

but now its three weeks later. my dreamings and schemings about what the church might look like have cooled. i find it more difficult to see myself as capable to pull people together into a community that proclaims Jesus in its pattern of life as much as in its worship–at least at this point. don’t i need more training? wouldn’t an mdiv help fill out the academic grad degree in theology i just finished?

at the conference a guy named jeff from anchor point community church presented on the topic of prayer during one of the first or second day “preparation” seminars. true confession: i’ve always struggled with prayer. i either feel like i’m whining to God about my somewhat trivial problems or i feel utterly overwhelmed by hurt in the world–far too much for me to express in words. plus, God already knows about this stuff, doesn’t he? but jeff spoke primarily on prayer as listening for God. i’m sure i’ve heard this elsewhere, but this was the time that it stuck with me. in prayer, he said, we are quieting ourselves, abandoning for a moment all our concerns to our Father’s wise caregiving, and waiting for him to speak to us in his Spirit. we wait and listen.

this is where i am now, waiting and listening.

the interesting conversation continues to grow. aaron klinefelter helpfully archives its progress here. and i recommend giving steve lewis’ post a read. great comments.

i have a confession to make (or perhaps it’s a disclaimer). here goes. i’m not an experienced church guy. yeah, i’ve been around a bit, but my day-to-day life is not the sweat-and-pulled-muscles work of bringing people together into a Jesus-following community. i’m much more at home in the academic theological community than hanging out on the corner where i live talking with my neighbours. so my ramblings are more abstract than i would like and quite humble. i’m open for revision.

so now that my dirty laundry’s out in the open, let’s get started.

whatever financial difficulties the church in the states is facing, we need to see them as an opportunity, a call, a chance God is offering us. it’s a recall. especially for mainline protestant and evangelical churches. (sidenote: i often think of the evangelical church–my tradition–as the church that got lost, left behind. it’s wandering around without roots and without any authority to help it get to where God’s calling it. among the congregation of christian traditions, it’s the orphan and the widow. just a sidenote.) changing economics, changing politics, changing ecology, changing technological web, changing ways of understanding identity, community, sexuality–these shifts are together forcing us not just to adapt (though any really wide, encompassing change can only come about through a multitude of small adaptations–we no longer live with a top down hierarchy supervising how we are the church) but to reimagine (to understand these very small adaptations in a new way, in a new grand picture).

let’s open back up our bibles, just for a minute, and lay our history books alongside. in the new testament, especially in paul’s letters, we encounter a picture of many small local gatherings, gathering together primarily for remembrance of Jesus through praise (spoken and sung) and eucharistic table fellowship. alongside these two primary activities, prophetic encouragement from both the hebrew scriptures (and soon the new testament too) and new words as inspired by the Spirit. reconciliation and community mediation of disagreements were carried out (with varying degrees of publicity), and people shared their material possessions to care for those in their community and those in other communities. lastly, we find that some sort of authority structure was in place, with wiser members keeping order and making sure Jesus stayed central to their meetings.

these gatherings/communities sit as a kind of charter, a beginning point we can’t go back behind. whatever church is going to look like now needs to be in dialogue with or in faithful development of these churches. but what we have now doesn’t fit that bill, it defaults on its responsibilities. we can talk about constantinianism (did i spell that right?) or the enlightenment or the emergence of a capitalist system and bourgeois religion. but however it happened, something’s wrong; it’s finally becoming evident that our way of being church is much more dependent on societal power structures than on fidelity to the Jesus communities.

so what could Jesus communities look like today? good question. what we can hold on to at this point is that they need to be faithfully (that’s the sticky word) related to the early communities. they should be local (in a sense), Jesus-remembering and Jesus-worshiping, prophetic (in many senses), reconciling (in many senses), sharing material goods with each other and with the ecumenical church (maybe this hints at a direction for how to train people in the Jesus tradition, though bi-vocational community leaders–organizers?–factor into the picture too, i think), and possess some structure that seeks to keep them faithful (that word again) to the Jesus tradition.

in my imagination, that looks a lot like the house churches i worshiped with while doing some short-term missions work in skopje, macedonia. the churches there fill the role of community, especially for the mladi–the youngish people. church was not the once-a-week wonder that it has become in the states. the mladi spent most evenings together, in each others apartments, in coffee shops, playing volleyball in the park. we spent more than a few late nights drinking chai or tursko kafe or boiled wine, talking about job prospects, about family, about Jesus. people helped support each other, helped each other get to church, helped each other become more like Jesus. leaders grew up in the community and were trained by those who were available (first missionaries and then the emerging elders of the church). things were local and small. people fought; people intervened to make peace. it worked like a church but without the budget.

what else might this new way of being church look like? where have you seen its shape poking through the graveclothes of the present model?

drinking coffee again

April 9, 2008

for the past few days i’ve been sick–that cold, that ache in the body, that dizziness whenever i stood up, and that insatiable desire to lay on the couch and play with my itunes. because i was sick, i haven’t allowed myself to drink any coffee, only tea. but i’m feeling better today, so i broke out the coffee, just for me.

while i’m sipping this stale coffee (it tends to sit in its canister on the counter for a month or two because cindy and i don’t want to become addicts; we relish but do not depend on it), i’m musing about the church, filing out seminary applications for next semester.

i think the crucial questions facing christians today is, what will the church look like? the explosion of novel approaches in the last two or three decades (seeker-sensitive mega churches, emergent congregations with their candles burning, their novel liturgies, and theoretical ramparts, the neo-monastic collectives hanging out with poor people and spending a lot of time together, to name a few) alongside the vehement, occasionally vein-pulsing arguments and polemics filling both pulpits and even academic journals–these attest to the weight of this question.

but, in truth, it’s a much more heavy questions than that. because the church, the way we follow Jesus together, is essentially bound up with what it means to follow Jesus at all. and this is what should give us pause; this is what should make us think.

how, in the everyday logistical details, do we follow Jesus together?