“What do you need?”

October 14, 2008

I listen to a lot of NPR now.  The radio’s usually tuned to WBEZ while I commute from home to school to home to work and back.  I’m discovering a lot more about politics, economics, and the like (albeit–as my dad likes to remind me–through a public radio lens).

This morning a feature caught my attention.  In the midst of news and commentary about yesterday’s upsurge in the Dow and speculation about Bush’s impending announcement of the govt’s taking stakes in commercial banks, a two-minute piece about the effects of the economic downturn in a hard-bitten California desert community really stood out.

The piece sketched the life of the working poor and out-of-work community through the first-person narration of an occasional commentator whose name escapes me.  She echoed her neighbors complaints about outrageous gas prices and the difficulties of making a minimum wage paycheck stretch for a week’s worth of food.  She told the story of her own escape from the welfare system only to brought back into through the last months’ events.  At one point she observed that people in the town could very well be suspicious of one another, defensively protecting what little they’ve managed to scrape together.  But instead, they plainly ask one another, “What do you need?”  “Arrogance,” she said, “gets burned off in the desert town’s 109-degree heat.”

Our churches need to show this same plain, simple-minded humility, especially (though not by any means exclusively) in the face of the financial difficulties facing the majority of people in the world right now.  Instead of ostentatiously clanging our charitable contributions into the offering plate–drawing attention to ourselves–we need to take deep into our hearts our common plight:  we are each one of us somehow enmeshed in this death system; even if we don’t feel its toxic effects at this moment, our time is coming.  We need to turn to one another, asking, “What do you need?”  We must seek an interim ethic of survival, of getting-by while we daily pray Come, Lord Jesus.


The Way Things Work

September 2, 2008

For as-of-yet-undisclosed reasons, I find myself contemplating what a functioning church might look like.  Functioning is an important word in this sentence.  You see, I tend to think of churches primarily in terms of the way they function, the way they work.

Our neighborhood church meets at the most important intersection of our lives.  It is the place where the gospel is planted within us, where it begins to green and come to life and send up shoots toward the glorious Son, to grow in the baptismal waters of the Spirit, to feed on the true food of scripture, the place where the gospel cracks the concrete of our hardened souls and the place where it twists and contorts our twisted and contorted forms into the image of Jesus, God’s Son. 

To state this with a little more precision:  the church down on the corner (or in the storefront, in the strip mall, in the cornfields, etc.) works to change deceived, abused, self-hating, self-absorbed persons into the promise and the presence of the God’s kingdom.  Too often we understand our local churches as collections, like baseball cards or Beatles albums:  a church is a congregation of individuals whom God has saved.  This ignores too much of scripture.  If we hold the church to be a benign society of believers, we make static something God founded as dynamic, we make dead something the Spirit breathed life into, something Christ died to bring to life.

I don’t foresee much opposition to the claim that many of us first heard the good news in a church.  I certainly did, Sunday after Sunday in what was then the little Bozeman storefront of Fellowship Baptist.  Nor will many disagree that some people first hear the gospel somewhere else–at an evangelistic rally, a Good News Club, from a friend, over coffee.  But like my sometimes-hero Karl Rahner said, regardless of where we are when we hear it, the gospel relentlessly seeks its fullest expression in the church (the Roman Catholic Church, if one is a good Rahnerian!).

At heart, this post is really a segue to the same old discussion of “what is the Gospel?” that often crops up on this blog.  If the gospel meets us as individuals, then it will not matter where and with whom we live our lives.  We could be Christ-followers just as well chained in a cubicle as meeting with a cell church.  But if the gospel addresses us as persons (as it indeed and thankfully does!), then how can we resist as it blossoms into the most important elements of our personhood, our relationships?

I believe that the gospel Jesus proclaimed (and that we are called to proclaim) is about the coming near of God’s kingdom.  I cannot open scripture without finding that coming near concerns our present, personal relationships.  The gospel is not “spiritual” (note the quotes), it is not theological, it is not something we accept in our hearts and not in our hands.  It is something as real as crying babies, as everyday as money, as concrete as stale bread.

And if this is the gospel, then what can our churches be but the places where we live as if we’re living in the real, concrete, everyday kingdom of God?  Church is the place where we shed our false gospels of abstraction, of feelings and of doctrines, and begin to truly live in Christ.  Our shabby local churches are the places where the gospel begins to push through our soiled exteriors to grow us up into the people of God.


June 24, 2008

this sunday i began my career as a jr. high sunday school co-leader.  i slipped into the role unexpectedly when i was playing foursquare with some neighbor kids at our church’s vbs kick-off block party.  the red ball had bounced into the gutter full of street-juice, so after i grabbed it i went to the gatorade cooler to wash the sewage stench off my hands with some ice water.  that’s when our church’s christian ed director pulled me aside:  “josh, i was just hoping to get a chance to talk to you…”  turns out summertime is a break not just for school kids but also for the regular sunday school teachers.  i was happy to get a chance to hang out with some of the coolest, if not a little adolescently awkward, people in the church.

but it’s a heavy responsibility.  helping anyone follow Jesus is, but all the more so when the people are young and influence-able.  but it’s not an accountability i share alone; i have a very cool and like-minded co-conspirator taking on this responsibility with me.  i’ve been playing with how best to get the kids to buy-in to the group for the summer, despite all the seasonal distractions (vacations, nice weather, being twelve, etc.).  whatever their finished, pithy form, i’ve settled on a few goals for what i’d like to see happen in the group:  i want the kids to dig deeper into the spiritual side of following Jesus; i want them to explore their emerging, christian identities; i want them to talk with our church-community about what they’re learning; and i want them to live out what they’re learning in loving service and proclamation.  basically, i want us together to become more like Jesus in how we think, feel, and act.

but this is far harder to accomplish in a forty-five minute class than on paper.  take this week’s lesson for example:  the assigned texts (for the whole church–we’re doing a churchwide curriculum to foster conversation around dinnertables; this summer’s curriculum is built around the theme “things that make for peace”) were leviticus 25.8-55 and luke 4.16-21, the laws instituting the jubilee year and Jesus’ proclamation of jubilee.  after a quick walk to our local dunkin donuts (a great way to win the hearts of six pre-teens!), we sat down, me with my coffee, them with their donuts and cool-lattas and croissant, to explore the passage.

one of my latent commitments for the summer is to expose the kids to the bible more.  our church contains a lot of burnt-out post-evangelicals who cringe at the words “bible study” or “quiet time.”  i understand that; i’ve been there myself.  but their kids have grown up with a greater familiarity with john howard yoder than with scripture, and their sense of what it means to follow Jesus reflects this:  it’s mostly a list of responsibilities and duties mixed with a repulsion to any form of violence and the letters w, a, and r.  i want to give their fair exposure to the other side of the coin (so at the very least they know what they are defining themselves against).  all that to say we started out with reading pieces of the leviticus passage.

naturally, they were all confused.  so i borrowed an idea from my wife (“josh,” she said, “they’re going to be really confused.  make it simpler.”), jellybeans.  i gave them each a few jellybeans, insisting they not eat them because they were my jelly beans.  then i told a mock story about drought and bad jellybean crops, about selling your jellybeans for enough food to eat, about indentured servitude, and so forth.  then we had a jubilee year, and everyone got their jellybeans back.  then they could eat them (more sugar, another good bribe).

at this point one kid wondered aloud about when the next jubilee year would be, like it was something on the calendar for 2018 or 2035.  so we turned to the Jesus passage.  after one of them read the handful of verses, we highlighted the connections to jubilee.  then i asked them how Jesus’ claim that “today this passage is fulfilled in your hearing” could be true.  there were still lots of poor people, lots of blind people, lots of slaves and prisoner, weren’t there?  they nodded, looking befuddled.  “let me rephrase the question,” i said.  “how do we follow Jesus when he makes this sort of proclamation?”


and i remained silent too.  we all knew the easy, readily apparent answers–take care of people, help out your neighbors when they need some food or a place to stay, talk to the people other ignore, petition for fair housing, take people into your home, protest war, practice conflict resolution, etc., etc.  this is the stuff these kids have lived from day one.  but the question probes deeper than that, into areas i can’t answer for myself, let alone for a group of twelve and thirteen year-olds.

you see, all these answers work great from the subjective end.  they’re things we can do.  but they aren’t all that effective.  when you live in rogers park, you quickly realize that no matter how many apples you give to the guy begging in front of the fruit market, he’ll still be back the next day.  no matter how long you talk with the sometimes homeless, usually jobless man at church potlucks or over dinner, he’s still moving from shelter to shelter and passing from minimum wage job to minimum wage job.  just like for Jesus, our proclamations of jubilee are fine as long as we are the ones in power.  but it’s more problematic from the other end.  i think jr. highers are especially attuned to the powerlessness; they’re used to the things they attempt failing.  they didn’t volunteer any personal answers, and i’m not sure i could offer any either.

so maybe we need to be like Jesus in john 6.  we could call what he does there practicing jubilee, feeding five thousand from a small lunch of a few loaves of bread and some fish.  we could.  but note what happens next.  after the dramatic and interpretively important interlude of Jesus’ revelatory and messianic walking on the water (an event significant enough to be in all four gospels!), Jesus’ groupies catch up with him on the other side of the lake, hungry for more food.  but Jesus doesn’t provide.  instead he addresses them with a riddling discourse about eating his flesh.  the crowd leaves puzzled.  not quite the jubilee of leviticus.  but it is something.  Jesus offers the crowd eternal (agely? eschatological?) life, something that renders the other jubilee little more than a shadow.

but this is really just dodging the question.  or maybe reposing the question, asking, “what is the life that Jesus offers?  and how do we follow him in offering that?”

teaching jr. highers is a difficult, heavy responsibility.  kyrie eleison.

last night i woke up around 3:30 am. i haven’t installed the new-to-us air conditioning unit in the bedroom window as of yet and yesterday was the first day in the chicago summer to feel like it spiked ninety degrees. so i was up in the not-yet-grey hours of the morning, dehydrated and unable to fall back to sleep.

naturally, i turned to karl barth to keep me company while i drank a cup of decaf chocolate-hazelnut tea (good stuff) and sat next to the window. as i struggled through church dogmatics‘ thick prose, the distance between barth’s germanic-reformed meaning of evangelical and my own rocky mountain, non-denominational take on the word kept pushing its way to the fore of my mind.

at times i really like barth. in many ways the same unhelpful alternatives face us that faced believers eighty years ago: the protestant modernism and catholic (super)naturalism that barth protests are still with us, though in new and modified forms. barth swoops in from above to offer a third way, completely outside the assumed possibilities of the dueling protestants and catholics. this much i like.

but i don’t like barth enough. not enough to become like him, to take him on as my theological exemplar. it’s the same problem i have when i consider attaching myself to a denomination: i find things i like in many of them (anglicanism, mennonite-ism (?), even catholicism) but nothing that compels me to become one of them.

this, i think, is a classic evangelical problem. i’ve called evangelicalism the orphan and the widow of the church, and i will stand by that. as for those of us raised in un- or losely-affiliated churches (often with “bible” somewhere in their names), we have no roots, no tradition to draw on. further we have no authority to appeal to, no one to give us definitive direction. so many of us end up walking around like a little bird, asking “are you my mother?” to whatever crosses our path. when we go looking for tradition, we can’t perform a chestertonian or eliot-esque conversion, not because of a lack of good options but because of our lack of something to be converting from. it’s like trying to learn a new language without even a glimmer of the rudimentary grammar of the language we already speak.

this said, i think a quest for a tradition (or even for what can be redeemed in evangelicalism itself) is a worthwhile endeavour–just a difficult one. it’s not one to be stumbled into unreflectively or haphazardly (slapdash, cindy would say). for my own part, i’ve pasted together two somewhat firm guides for the manner in which i go about this:

1. no tradition will be perfect. every denomination, organization, association or movement has its falling-down points, its embarrassments, its closeted skeletons. there will be the inspiring, captivating prophets who draw me to it (the barths, von balthasars, rahners, and john howard yoders), but each tradition will also have its loud, awkward, blustering members (whether in the pew, in the pulpit, or holding the pen) who smell funny, talk loudly, and misbehave (in ways not in vogue). don’t shoot for shiny perfection.

2. broader is better. (this perhaps betrays my jesuit education.) the older and more rooted a tradition, the more varied and sometimes in tension its current manifestations will be. i used to go a-questing for theological orthodoxy, down to my fine points of disagreement with my undergrad’s conservative systematics textbook. how dumb of me! a strait-jacket’s a strait-jacket even when you agree with it. a broader tradition (even if sometimes doctrinally-fringey) has room to listen and respond to God’s voice in ways that go beyond my own interests. it opens up the possibility for me to care about imagining what the claim “Jesus is Lord” looks like lived out here, to read church theology, to invite people over to our very hot apartment for soup (maybe a bisque), and yet the concrete physical needs of refugee families or the prophetic voice to power (etc.) still are carried out by other members (if not other orders).

it’s a hot afternoon now, and i need to see to that air conditioner if i want to sleep better tonight. i’d love to hear your thoughts on your traditions and how you’ve come to them.

a couple of streams of experience are converging for me. one is this conversation, as summarized and extended by mark vans (really, though, check out the entire conversation here, here, here, here again, here, and, finally, here). the crumbling empire we live in, with gas prices shooting up and talking heads filling the airwaves with as much noise about recession as about clinton and obama, is going to change the way we do church. unless significant things change, vocational ministry is on its way out–and this is a huge shift. vocational ministry has been the norm not only since the rise of capitalism or the enlightenment or the reformation or the renaissance but all the way back to at least constantine. this includes not only the common targets of a heierarchical church leadership structure and complicity with the state, but the more beloved heritage of twenty or so centuries of monasticism and religious ascesis. a big change.

the second element is johann baptist metz’ the emergent church: the future of christianity in a postbourgeois world. collected in 1980 (i think i miscited it as ’78 in an earlier post), this series of essays grapples with the disparity between rich and poor “at the eucharistic table.” unashamedly critical of the regressive policies of john paul ii, metz proposes an “anthropological revolution,” which is just his fancy way of saying conversion of hearts to fighting against our own position of privilege in the capitalist “christendom machine.” an incredible read really worth purchasing (if the only copy on abebooks.com was not priced at $123.99!).

so what do this convergence effect? i was in a seminar a week or two ago with a professor from north park university in which the prof cited himself as “going on record as quite critical of the emergent church movement.” why? because he does not see them taking seriously enough the position of the marginalized. it’s a good critique.

if whatever is becoming of us Jesus-followers is going to stand up to whatever is already happening in our society, we not only need to revamp the internal structures that prop up the “christendom machine” (good phrase, whoever coined it). a crucial point (perhaps the crucial point God is calling us to as we follow Jesus) is how we reimagine our relationship to–or better yet–our identity with the poor. we need to get poor. and if we can find a way to do ministry and not get poor, maybe we need to ignore it. Jesus was poor. Jesus suffered. that’s where the church should be.

the shape of the church

April 13, 2008

today has been a day of afternoon coffee, quick trips to the local market, dinner with junior highers, and hanging with an old friend at a burger joint.  it’s also been a day of rapid heartbeats, tired eyes, a persistent cough, and first contact with what my immediate future may hold.  a good day overall, but one that won’t leave me completely comfortable.

i ran across this article on open source theology (see sidebar).  for some reason it keeps running around in circles in my head.  Andrew P touches on all the issues i care about–church, scripture, poverty, community, change–but i am unsure whether i agree with how he draws the connections.  the source of this ambivalence lies in an earlier post, we have to go back, but not to square one.  what is at stake is not the evangelical commands of poverty, chastity, and obedience; rather it is the relationship of our following of Jesus to Jesus’ first disciples’ following.

shane claiborne’s irresistible revolution, the jumping off point for the article, proposes a radical, prophetic shape to our following Christ.  it looks like dropping out of the system and trying to live out the kingdom here and now, a premonition of the way things are going to be in the end.  without ever discounting claiborne’s model, andrew p suggests that it cannot function the longterm shape of the church.  the church is not always prophetic to this degree, not always negatively defined by the status quo death-money-power institution.  he offers a vision of the church more shaped by the resurrection new life revealed at Easter than by Jesus’ confrontation with power.  the two models are not mutually exclusive, for both contain a prophetic and eschatological witness.  but there is enough space between the two to provoke some serious thought.

read the two articles, check out shane’s book (if you haven’t already), and let me know your thoughts.

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?