i like to travel. it must be rooted somewhere in my montana childhood. there going anywhere means at least a half hour drive and going somewhere might take anywhere from two to six hours on the interstate. i liked growing up in a big state.

travel also means a chance to see good friends from far away. this last week two tea friends (one old and one newly inducted) stopped by on their epic move from NYC to seminary out in vancouver. we met up at some good friends’ apartment out in the suburbs (we didn’t want to risk all our new york friends’ worldly goods on the sometimes sketchy streets of our northside neighborhood). we talked until well past one a.m. (two a.m. for the former east-coasters), about life and theology and attempts at ministry in the city and, of all things, travel (specifically in between speck-on-the-map northern towns in canada’s prairie provinces). we ate some burgers (really good burgers!) and nursed mugs of tea and coffee. it’s nights like these that make life livable, that make life valuable.

growing up in montana meant growing up in-between (a common motif on this blog), in-between the town and home, in-between the culture of a sizeable city and the ranches that surrounded our country church, in between big timber and columbus, helena and havre, missoula and polson. home on the range sits in a funny space, the intersection of rugged individualism and the necessity of cooperation to get anything done at all (if your barn is going to get raised or, better yet, if you’re going to play on a high school basketball team, you need to cooperated with anyone who lives within a fifty-mile radius).

my dad brought this up in a conversation a few nights ago. i was in the middle of a meditation on the felt need of community, strategising ways churches can foster it, structurally and organically, when he broke in. i had just said that for people who don’t dig the every-friday-night bar scene need a place, a consistent group of people to spend their evenings with. “that describes the first thirty years of my life,” he said, “and it only gets worse after you have kids. kids can be really isolating. you get involved in their lives, they demand a lot of your time; and you and your friends gradually drift further apart.” or something to that effect.

to put this another way: i just finished the so-very-good dorothy day autobiography, the long loneliness (still worth a read for any of you readers out there). she draws back in her closing lines, asserting that long loneliness really is life–we find ourselves (and i mean this in the plural) divided, cut off from one another. love, she writes citing st. john of the cross, is the answer. love that comes from Christ, love that binds us together into true community (a revolution of “cult, culture, and cultivation” to borrow a peter maurin line quoted continuously throughout the book).

can we find community on the road? in a sense, that’s what we are always set to do in life. but in a less metaphorical way, how are we to balance our drive to bridge the spaces that separate us from those we love and our need to invest in this place, this neighborhood (where uhaul trucks or stuffed minivans might easily go missing over night), these people, etc.? how might we do it?



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


July 2, 2008

over the past few months, i have been engaged in a conversation with the efca about my desire to help start new churches.  as part of the application process, i had to write up my vision of what the church(es) i would start would look like.  as cindy and i are still a good three or more years out from doing anything non-academic, what i see is necessarily and unfortunately vague.  unfortunately because the church is such a particular, concrete reality, it’s difficult to see it apart from its particularities.

at any rate, it’s been a good exercise in clarifying what really are my core convictions about the what it means to be the church.  i think the heart of my past reflections on church (see my old blog post here) are still present, but i’ve had to work some reconciliation between my natural anarchist bent and the need for institutional structures for the church to be both workable and faithful to what the church is.

confusing?  read on…

My Church-Planting Vision

I see a church larger than a building, bigger than its programs. I see a church spreading out until it touches the edges of its members’ relational networks. I see a church living as the presence of the gospel both in interpersonal relationships and in its geographical neighborhood. I see a church that is listening and waiting for God to send its members out to begin new church-communities.

My vision is not just a church but a growing network of local, neighborhood church-communities. Some of these communities look like storefront congregations, some look like cell groups, some may even look like the stone edifices of long-established denominations revitalized from within. This multiplication is one of the results of a different way of thinking about what it means to be the church. Most basically, this new way of understanding church amounts to giving up a model where the church, in its programs and outreach, is a means to get individuals to heaven; instead we begin following Jesus as he talks, listens, heals, and eats with people, promising them that this kind of fellowship is what his Father’s kingdom is like.

The heart of these communities’ new way of being the church is koinonia, both as fellowship and as participation. This reflects Paul’s overriding concern for the communal life of the churches and his continual, theologically-motivated depiction of believers as “in Christ.” This together with Jesus’ parables about God’s kingdom, his moral concern with social relationships, his habit of eating with all sorts of people, his promise that his death founds a new community, and his prayer that this community love one another in unity—these support a vision of ecclesial koinonia that is grounded in Christ and oriented toward the eschaton.

In practice, this looks like church-communities built around shared meals. These meals happen in two contexts. First, and most importantly, these meals happen in members’ homes (backyards, alleys, nearby parks, etc.). These gatherings are the stuff of which the life together of the community is most basically comprised; without this casual time spent together, the church would not really be a church. But because these meals are inevitably bound to end up clique-ish and in-grown, and because, on the other hand, the gospel establishes one community full of all kinds of people (not just one’s friends), a second, institutional meal is necessary. This meal (which the New Testament terms the Lord’s Supper and the church appropriated as the Eucharist) ensures the present incarnation of the gospel witnesses truly to God’s coming kingdom that Jesus proclaimed, a kingdom where all people are called to live to God together, without divisions on the basis of cultural heritage, socioeconomic status, politics, age, health or gender. Though this weekly celebration meal looks more like a potluck than a sacrament, it is the promise of God’s coming kingdom and the pledge where this kingdom is already making itself present.

While one of the primary roles of the church-communities is just this getting together, these conversations and these relationships, the communities also takes seriously Jesus’ command to participate in this fellowship in remembrance of him. When it remembers Jesus in his incarnation, life, death, and resurrection, the community is reflecting on its own life “in Christ”–its life that bears the same shape as Jesus’ life. This demands an attentiveness to Scripture as the place where we find stories of God’s action in Jesus and in history and attentiveness to our culture where Christ’s life is now being lived out in us.

This remembering also takes place in the two contexts. In homes, it looks like conversations or, perhaps, the structured discussions found in many home Bible studies. In the institutional life of the community, it somewhat resembles a sermon. Yet in its institutional life, the church-community maintains a tension between a strong commitment to honor God’s revelation with openness and study, and a fluid organizational structure that assumes that God’s Spirit may speak through any of its members. This fluidity shows up as a teaching-preaching role shared by the entire community (as reflected in 1 Corinthians 12-14). This shared role is ordered and doctrinally accountable to the leaders of the church-community (as prescribed by chapter 14).

Leadership in the church-community is understood less in terms of control than as accountability: the leaders are those accountable before God to ensure that the community is growing in Christ-likeness in thought, feeling, and action. This leadership model makes possible the rapid multiplication of church-communities. First, it requires the entire community to listen for the speaking of God’s Spirit, for the Spirit may speak in surprising places. This listening develops an attitude of obedience, whether obeying means joining in a praise chorus, throwing a barbeque for our hungry neighbors, campaigning for fair-housing, or sending members from our community to start a new community. Second this structure reveals and equips those God calls and gifts to lead. A shared teaching, preaching, praising, organizing, cooking, cleaning, etc. responsibility provides natural opportunity for the communities to discover new leaders in their midst. These practiced leaders in this community become the accountable leaders in the next community, arranging meals, listening to and proclaiming God’s Word, safeguarding doctrinal and practical orthodoxy, and so forth.

I see a church beyond the once or twice a week meeting, beyond paid and part-time staff, beyond programs and Sunday School classes. I see a church beginning with people, with their relationships and their needs, which is where Jesus’ good news of God’s kingdom comes to meet us. It disrupts assumed distinctions between the people who run the church and the people who go to church by taking up the New Testament’s insistence that these two groups are really the same. In the end, it pushes the church beyond itself, multiplying into a growing network of church-communities that proclaim Jesus as Lord of our normal, everyday lives.

i’d greatly appreciate your feedback, your witty criticisms, and your speculations about which theological voices are showing up where.  blagodaram.


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.

around our dining room table, cindy and stumbled our way into an interesting conversation while we picked at our dinner of salad greens, polish sausage, microwave-baked potatoes, and yogurt. cindy is taking a summer class on the modern catholic novel (e.g., graham greene, flannery o’connor, etc.) that has led into a lot of discussions about grace, revelation, creation, and natural law. between this and my recent interest in barth, we’re lucky our dinner conversation doesn’t become a food fight.

on monday night, the connection between ontological and hermeneutical assumptions was at issue. somehow paul ricoeur functioned as the jumping off point for the whole to-do, but i can’t quite remember how. it ended with the two of us washing dishes and making some tea while i pontificated on the difference between what, for lack of better terminology, i call the abstract stance and the narrative stance. cindy eventually handed me the dish towel and politely excused herself on the pretext of reading for class.

still, i think i’m on to something (that’s probably already been said). i should credit barth (and, indirectly, von balthasar’s treatment of barth) with directing me to the happening character of God’s relationship to us. most emphatically in Jesus, but in God’s history with israel too, God comes to us in events, in actions, in moments of time. the word history itself betrays this event-like, actual character, and it provides an excellent entrance into story or narrative as the conceptual framework that structures our theological and doxological reflection.

this sort of active, happening understanding of our relationship with (or, perhaps better, relating to) God seems to pervade the new testament, or, at least, it promotes a better reading of many passages. mark, matthew, luke, paul, and john of patmos all embrace an eschatological vision that waits for God to bring all things together at the parousia through the final intervention of Jesus. debatably, john can be added to this list too. what this story-shaped stance produces is an openness to God’s continued action, the conviction that he exceeds every particular revelatory event (with the exception of Jesus, who in turn superabounds every formulation of his identity–why else do we have four Gospels?), and hope, a hope in God finishing the story he started.

the alternative is to abstract. this impulse develops early in church history, finding full-bodied expression in the work of the second-century apologists. in place of the unfolding action of narrative experience, theology becomes static, synchronic. one might blame the influence of hellenistic philosophy, the cultural play-dress-up that christians use to gain some intellectual capital. one might blame a lot things. in this view, God quickly moves from person to principle, the event of God’s breaking into our world become theoretical points, and hope becomes a conclusion. things are much more manageable (albeit pagan).

the way i see it, relating to God is not something that can be developed a priori (like marechal, de lubac, or rahner) or a posteriori (like bits of thomas, most of the scholastics, schleiermacher, etc.). it can neither be an assumption nor a deduction. it is something that happens, something we wait for, crying out “how long?” only when we see ourselves as standing in the middle of a story, between the “in the beginning” and the “amen,” do God and reason come together.

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.)

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.