Thursday, February 28, 2013

Our Words & The Living Word

One of the greatest strengths of the Quaker tradition is that each of us is encouraged to discover the risen presence of Jesus for ourselves. It is not enough to read about Christ in the Bible, or to recite theological statements. Our faith is not based in our ideas about God, but in our lived relationship with God. This kind of faith is an encounter that comes through the daily practice of dwelling in God. We learn to say together with the apostle, "No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us."

Through this lived experience of Christ's indwelling love - and through the practical application of his love in community - we come to know who God really is. Through this process of growing and maturing in faith, we come to believe and share the core teachings of the New Testament. As we grow in love, we are drawn together in the reading of Scripture, the retelling of the gospel story, and the application of biblical principles to our lives.

But the experience of the risen Jesus, and the power of his love in our lives, must come first. We love because he first loved us, and we trust his words in Scripture because he first spoke his word into our hearts. When we claim to believe certain ideas about God, this is not simply because we have been told these things or read about them in the Bible. Instead, our starting place is this living experience of God. Our intellectual beliefs are simply an outgrowth of a life lived in relationship to God and the community of those who are seeking to follow Jesus and love one another.

Our beliefs are testimony to those things that we have experienced first-hand - that which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and touched with our hands. The words that we speak and the beliefs we hold are meant as a reminder of and invitation to the full-bodied experience of God's Spirit. Such beliefs are the fruit of a life lived in God's love. How could we not want to share that kind of beauty, grace and power?

Are there weaknesses to this approach? Absolutely. Individuals and even whole communities often deceive themselves. We easily become too subjective, allowing our personal feelings, assumptions and interpretations to dominate when we should be listening to the reasoned witness of others. This is why it is so important for each of us to live in relationship with a rooted community, and for each community to be in humble conversation with the wider body of Christ.

Despite the dangers of subjectivity, Friends believe that the lived experience of Christ's power must be the foundation of our faith. Without his presence and love, all our religious rituals, all our beautiful words, charitable actions and correct beliefs are nothing but empty forms. We trust that, as we dwell in the love of Jesus, the Holy Spirit will move within us and among us, gathering us together into lives of faithfulness that fulfill the New Testament witness - not according to the legalism of words, but by the grace of the Spirit.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Settling Down and Growing - Micah's Ministry Newsletter #51

Dear friends in Truth,

The daylight hours are getting longer, and I am beginning to feel hopeful that spring is on its way. Though the days are still mostly very cold, I feel a sense of hopeful expectation as the earth begins to wake up. This pairs nicely with the joy and hopefulness that I feel in the rhythms of my own life and in our community here in the DC area. As the weeks pass and the days grow steadily brighter, my experience of work, ministry and life in community are all deepening and becoming more vibrant.

New life is already blooming at Capitol Hill Friends. This Sunday, we gathered for the 5th session of our 6-week small group series. We have averaged about 14 participants at our meetings, out of 17 individuals who have been regularly involved. Pretty good for a small group that envisions itself as being a community of 6-12!

The spiritual depth and sincere seeking we have experienced together has been life-giving. We are learning how to pray together and read the Bible in ways that speak directly to our lives as residents of one of the world's most powerful and high-pressure cities. We are learning to laugh together, to let down our guard and really see one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. As one who is sometimes overly serious, this ability to laugh and be silly together has been very powerful for me.

Serving as small group leader for this first six-week series has been a rich experience. I have grown so much through working with my apprentice each week to prepare for the meeting, and my prayer life has deepened as I have become more intentional about lifting up each person in our community. With each week that passes, I feel more knit into the new community that is forming here, and I am heartened to see signs that others are feeling similarly drawn into this new life.

More than ever, I am feeling called to stability and rootedness in place. In previous years, I traveled extensively and got involved in events and communities around the country, and even beyond. Though in recent years I have felt a growing longing to settle down and focus in my home region, I have continually felt called elsewhere - whether to activities in the Ohio Yearly Meeting community, other ministerial travels or visits to family and friends in Ohio and Kansas. Whether I liked it or not, for many years I felt compelled to be away from home much of the time.

This year feels different. In the last two months, I have only left the DC area a couple of times, and both of these trips were to visit friends in Virginia. No grand mission, just nurturing relationships.

As I look ahead, I feel called to stay put. There are places I would like to go and people I long to see. There is so much important work to be done out in the wider world. But now, more than ever, I am feeling like a shepherd, or a gardener, tending this little flock, this little garden. I need to be here, with my people. I need to get to know my city better, to care for my friends, to make myself ever more available to my neighbors in a city where busyness is a status symbol and a spacious life is almost unheard of.

Ironically, as I seek to promote this spaciousness in the life of my community, I am probably busier than I have ever been. There is so much to be done, and I am increasingly aware of the limits of my energy. But this, too, I see as part of God's revelation to me. Christ is teaching me to recognize those things that are most essential, and he is calling me to release everything else. I must let go of anything that is not central to God's purpose for me, no matter how worthy and beneficial it may seem. It is so easy to drown in good things.

The call is becoming increasingly clear and simple: Care for the community, nurture and equip new leaders, pray for my brothers and sisters, seek justice and the well-being of my city. It is not complicated at all, but I have never felt so challenged.

Thank you for your prayers for me and for the work we are engaged in here in DC. All of the love and prayer that you are directing towards us is having a big impact. In the month ahead, please pray that our community here will continue to be built up - in numbers, in spiritual depth, and in healthy community that empowers us to be God's people in the midst of Empire.

Your friend in Truth,

Micah Bales

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Radical Within

Last week, I posted an essay entitled, Should We Give Up God For Lent? The piece was a critique of what I saw as some serious problems with the message of scholar, speaker and community-founder Peter Rollins. I took issue particularly with his campaign, Atheism for Lent, which provocatively asks Christians to give up God for Lent. I was especially concerned with Rollins' apparent assumption that belief in God is primarily a matter of intellectual assent.

Because I am grounded in the highly experiential Quaker tradition, and also due to my own personal experience of transformation through a direct encounter with the living presence of the Holy Spirit, it felt important to lift up another perspective: That while belief in God can be idolatrous when borne out of fear or an unexamined desire for existential security, belief can also emerge from a profound encounter with Christ within.

I write as someone who has lived through the process of deep existential doubt, a felt sense of abandonment by God. Ultimately, it was through fully engaging with my doubt that the Holy Spirit freed me from the false conceptions of God that held me in shackles. Far from being the form of idolatrous escapism that Rollins describes, this encounter is a profoundly humbling experience, one that strips away layers of pretension, self-centeredness and delusion. It is precisely when we are faced with the reality of who God is, when we stand in the light and beauty of the Spirit's presence, that we are empowered to strip away the false images we have created to control God and impose order and certainty upon our world.

I was glad that Rollins was able to make time to respond to my concerns in a blog post of his own. Unfortunately, as some very perceptive observers have noted, we seem to be talking past one another. Rollins spent much of his post analyzing me from the perspective of a Liberal vs. Radical dichotomy, concluding that I am a Liberal. In effect, he positioned me as being outside the realm of the kind of analysis that he wants to do. He also seemed to assume that I am uninterested in theory and analysis. Instead, I gather that he views me (and, more importantly, those with an experience and worldview similar to mine) as a reflexive doer, a do-gooder who acts immediately and without sufficient consideration for the structural consequences and context of my actions.

I understand this aspect of Rollins' critique, but I disagree. His evaluation of my stance is unnecessarily reductionist, and I question his decision to create two camps and assign me to one and himself to another. (Given Rollins' deep awareness and appreciation of Girard's scapegoat mechanism, I am surprised by this move.) As an alternative to this us-versus-them dichotomy, I would like to suggest that both Peter Rollins and I are holding up an important aspect of the faith/doubt journey that we are called to walk in together as friends of Jesus.

In many quarters of my own tradition (Quakers), there is a problematic reluctance to engage with deep theory. At times, this can result in exactly the kind of behavior that Rollins describes - knee-jerk reaction to circumstances, action for its own sake without thoughtful regard to context and consequences. I am grateful for this critique from Rollins, and I hope that Quakers will take it to heart (and mind!).

Yet, my observation is that Rollins' own perspective is also presently unbalanced. Our lived human experience is important, too. I find Peter Rollins' dismissal of personal and communal experience of God's presence and action to be deeply problematic. This represents an amputation of the heart, which is just as devastating as the intellectual lobotomy that he warns against.

I argue that the answer to an unreflective faith is not to cease action, but rather to engage in action that is informed by reflection. The proper response to a religious life that is overly dependent on individual experience is not to deny experience, but rather to hold that experience in dynamic conversation with theory. If we are to live out the full gospel, a balanced and complete gospel, we must wed faith and action, experience and analysis.

Besides this basic message of dynamic tension and balance, I would also like to briefly speak to the final portion of Peter Rollins' response, in which he addresses my own experience of and relationship with God. Rollins concludes that I "admit that I need God in order to gain meaning and work for justice." He identifies me as someone "whose belief in God... is not something they can question without the sense of destruction that would result." In effect, if I understand his overall critique properly, he concludes that I worship an idolatrous God of my own making, and that I have not yet been through the process of purgation required to release what he calls the God-object, the human-created image of God that one clings to in order to escape reality.

While I understand how Rollins could come to this conclusion, he is mistaken. Though it is easy to read my words as expressing a terror at the loss of God, what I am actually communicating is an awareness of a deep ontological reality that is, in my experience (and that of my community), inescapable. I could no more give up God for Lent than I could give up gravity. I say this because, for me, at this point in my faith/doubt journey, the God whom I worship is not a thing out there. On the contrary, my (and my community's) experience is that of a thou in here.

This living and visceral experience of the Holy Spirit comes unbidden, is uncontrollable and calls us into unpredictable lives of relationship with Jesus. Rather than a fetish object out there, this mysteriously personal Ground of Being draws us into lives of deeper trust, greater humility and community with others who also live in relationship with God. With this understanding, I do experience my own faith collective as a community where, as Rollins puts it, "people encounter this depth-dimension precisely by breaking the sense that there is some thing that is needed like air (for reducing faith to the affirmation of a thing renders the sacred into an object to be placed alongside other objects)."

In our experience as a community, we recognize that there are so many idols competing for our allegiance. It is by seeking after the deepest reality, the amazing divine Spirit that breathes in us and grounds our entire life together, that we are liberated from bondage to the many things that demand our loyalty and draw us into destructive patterns. In this, I perceive that Peter Rollins and I share a common mission, even if we still disagree on the best way to get there.

Lest there be any doubt, I would like to state clearly that I value the work that Peter Rollins is engaged in. I think that unmasking idolatrous conceptions of God is a crucial task that we must undertake as followers of the ultimate revealer, Jesus. Insofar as Rollins provides an analysis that allows us to strip off the false vestments of human-constructed deities, I stand in solidarity with him.

I am grateful that Peter Rollins has been willing to engage in this conversation with me. I think that being able to publicly discuss these questions of faith/doubt and life is crucial, and I am glad to have Rollins as a conversation partner as we seek to build up the Body of Christ. Moving forward, I hope that we can find ways to hold the tension between faith and action, experience and theory. What are ways that we find the synthesis between faith and doubt, reflection and action, rigorous analysis and reckless love?


PS: I have felt so blessed by the passionate conversation that has arisen around last Thursday's post, and I want to extend my thanks to all the bloggers and commenters who have engaged with these questions. I have gained a lot of insight from all of the bold, scholarly, imaginative and curious people who have added their own critique, asked questions and pointed out where they saw Rollins, me or both of us missing the point. Here are some links to some of the key sites where this conversation took place:

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The White-Hot Gospel

The early decades of the Christian movement were infused with a radical sense of a new Kingdom that turns the whole world upside down, but things changed as the Church began to settle into life in Empire. It is tough to swim against the current of the dominant culture. As time went on and the expectation of Jesus' second coming gradually diminished, the followers of the Way began to adapt to the expectations of Greco-Roman society. Decades passed, and Jesus still had not returned to establish his outward reign on earth, so the Church began to develop a meantime theology, seeking to live peaceably - and unobtrusively - within the Empire.

This made all kinds of sense. After all, Rome regularly carried out persecutions against those who refused to submit to the cosmopolitan religion of the Empire, to worship the Emperor as a god. Christians were already in very serious trouble much of the time. Under such circumstances, the temptation to blend in and do as the Romans do must have been huge.

But this decision to compromise with the surrounding culture came at a price. The white-hot gospel of Jesus upended the social hierarchies that were so integral to the internal logic of Empire - master above slave, lord above servant, husband above wife. Yet, as the Christian community struggled to get along in the Empire, all of these harmful dynamics reemerged in the life of the Church. Why?

The radically counter-cultural gospel of Jesus simply could not coexist with the Church's compromise with the unjust culture of the Mediterranean world. The only force that was able to hold this explosive witness together was the intense experience and expectation of Christ's presence and coming Kingdom. A new Order was coming that would replace the old ways of Empire.

But the years passed. Decades went by without the outwardly visible return of Jesus that the community had assumed would take place. Jesus did not come riding on the clouds, taking his seat on the throne of David and establishing a millennial kingdom for all the world to see. Gradually, much of the Church lost a sense of Christ's immanence. Jesus became someone out there, beyond the sky. His Kingdom became a distant reality, something that would eventually take shape at some point in the future - but certainly not today. For much of the Christian community, Jesus became a myth rather than an experienced relationship.

This feeling of distance from the Kingdom of God has made it even more difficult to resist the relentless pressure of Empire. It may be precisely because the Church has experienced and proclaimed God's Kingdom as existing only in a far-off heaven that we have been so susceptible to the distortions and compromises of a long succession of human kingdoms.

As long as the followers of the Way had a sense of Christ's living presence and power in the world, miracles happened. The sick were healed, the dead were raised and the poor had good news preached to them. Men and women entered into their originally intended state of full equality, just as they had been before the Fall. Jesus - not as mythical figure in some distant heaven, but as a viscerally present Teacher and Lord - broke down the divisions between Greek and Jew, slave and free, male and female. In this imminent experience of his Kingdom, all became brothers and sisters, functioning together as a living and growing body.

It is this astonishing reality that the early Quaker movement tapped into. Rather than looking to a distant Kingdom in the clouds, they experienced and proclaimed that Jesus had come to teach his people himself. The Kingdom of Heaven had come near, and all bets were off.

It was in this way - through the experience of Jesus himself, living within each believer and in the midst of the gathered community - that the Quaker movement was able to re-discover the radical equality of Christ's Kingdom. In an age of deep patriarchy, Quakers spiritually empowered women just like the earliest church did. Women served as elders, apostolic ministers and evangelists. Women and men labored side by side for the radical gospel of the Risen Jesus, and all were free to preach as the Spirit gave the words.

This powerful experience of Jesus is available to us today. It is this personal and community experience of God's life and presence that can break us out of our fallen addiction to racism, patriarchy, homophobia and all the many ways that this world encourages us to marginalize one another. When we walk in the light of Christ's Spirit, God gives us power to resist the injustice and false assumptions of our present culture, this current manifestation of Empire.

Are we ready to embrace the white-hot gospel of a present and living Kingdom? Are we prepared for the subtle and radical ways that the Holy Spirit calls us to live in contrast to the dominant culture? Do we have the courage to embrace the love that raises up the lowly and humbles the proud? Is today the day when we will meet the Risen Lord for ourselves?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Should We Give Up God For Lent?

Note: For the latest in this conversation, check out my reply to Peter Rollins' response to this piece, The Radical Within.

Some people give up chocolate, coffee or movies for Lent, but Peter Rollins has a slightly more radical proposal: Why not try giving up God?

Peter Rollins argues that real spiritual courage involves fully experiencing the absence of God. He warns that, as long as we allow ourselves to believe in a personal God who intervenes in history for the sake of love, we risk constructing a false god in our own image. Far too often, he says, our belief is in a super-hero God who serves as a crutch for our own inability to cope with reality.

As an alternative to this fairy-tale God, Rollins encourages us to embrace Jesus' felt sense of abandonment on the cross, presumably on an ongoing basis. His message seems to be that truly daring and courageous Christians aren't afraid to abandon belief in God and experience the desolation of atheism. To promote this message of radical doubt, Rollins has developed an annual campaign: Atheism For Lent.

I have been following Peter Rollins' ministry for some time now. Many people I respect find his writings deeply inspirational. This has encouraged me to take his message seriously. I have heard him speak in person, read his book and followed his online campaigns over the last couple of years. After extended consideration, I now want to outline some serious problems I see with the gospel he is preaching.

The Mystique of Elitism

As far as I am aware, Rollins has never laid out exactly who his target audience is, but my observation is that most people who are engaging with his message are either seminary trained or have a serious commitment to theological study. This is not surprising, given Peter's language and style of presentation. Of all the popular Christian thinkers I know, Peter Rollins is one of the most avant garde and edgy. His mystique is the promise of something new and unique in the 1st-world Evangelical/Protestant experience.

I wonder about the implications of this mystique. When I read Peter Rollins, and when I follow the commenters on his social media offerings, I cannot help but notice a theme of intellectual elitism and a fascination with secret knowledge. Ordinary Christians believe in a fairy-tale God-in-the-sky, but we know the truth. Most believers use God as a crutch, but we see clearly and cast aside our beliefs with courage. Most people who read the Bible think it is a story about God blessing the world, but we know that it is actually a story about radical doubt and abandonment by God.

I encourage my friends who are big fans of Rollins to take a serious look at what attracts them to his teachings. There is good stuff there; I do not deny it. The dark night of the soul can be just what the doctor ordered at certain points in our lives. But how does this special knowledge affect how you look at your fellow Christians who do not share your radical doubt? Do you see their lack of doubt as ignorant? Weak?

Injustice and Intellectualism

Something else I find troubling is how little Peter Rollins speaks about the need for social transformation, peacemaking and justice in our world. Instead, he emphasizes the personal experience and condition of individuals. He preaches individual salvation through an embrace of radical doubt. As Rollins presents it, the way forward is through each individual's decision to embrace a reality in which God is mute and uninvolved with the creation.

This sounds oddly familiar. Despite the fact that Rollins is superficially at odds with mainstream Evangelicalism, his message is one that bears great resemblance to the personal salvation narrative that is so central to Evangelical churches. Whether it is accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior or accepting the godless doubt of existential atheism, the major push is personal transformation via intellectual belief. The very fact that Rollins can ask us to give up God for lent suggests that he thinks that faith in an active, personal God is a preference, a chosen belief system, rather than a conviction that grows out of long experience and relationship with the Holy Spirit.

For those of us who really have experienced a living and powerful God - a God who intervenes in history and shows us God's true character in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus - these intellectual games do not cut the mustard. Whether offered to us by mainstream Evangelicalism or the avant garde of Peter Rollins, these head trips do not offer the whole wheat bread of life that we need to survive, thrive and bring healing to this broken world.

Safe Games for Comfortable People

I have a friend who spent years in the L'Arche Community, living alongside individuals with severe physical and intellectual disabilities. He is also an erudite and astute theologian, and we got to talking about Rollins' Atheism for Lent campaign. At one point in our conversation he looked at me and said, "I would just like to see Peter Rollins come to L'Arche and talk about this stuff. Let him explain to people suffering from schizophrenia and learning disabilities why they need to stop believing in God."

This statement drove home for me how irrelevant much of Peter Rollins' message is to those who are the most marginalized in our society. To those who are struggling under the burden of grinding poverty, long-term unemployment or broken homes, is atheism the answer? For the defrauded migrant worker, for the dispossessed Palestinian refugee, for those who are imprisoned for conscience - would Rollins prescribe atheism?

In my experience, a godless worldview (whether it takes the form of explicit non-belief or functional atheism) is most attractive to those who enjoy privileged positions in society. Rich and middle class people have the luxury of doubting God. But for those who face oppression, injustice and persecution, the reality of God's leadership and presence is absolutely essential for survival. While Peter Rollins purports to preach a hard-core gospel of existential doubt, he has little to offer those who are daily experiencing the reality of Christ's suffering.

We Really Do Need God

Tearing down false images of God is an important task, but this cannot be the end of the story. God does not leave Job sitting on ashes and picking at his sores. After the night must come the dawn. Unfortunately, Rollins seems unwilling to engage in the process of developing an alternative vision. Rather than offering a positive understanding of who God is, he seems solely interested open-ended deconstruction.

Leading people into darkness and doubt and leaving them there is simply irresponsible. We live in a deeply broken world that is in more need than ever of the redemptive power of God's living Spirit. How can someone ask me to give up God for Lent? I might as well give up breathing! How can we give up God for almost six weeks? How would we sustain our struggle for justice, truth, mercy and genuine love? What could be the possible benefit of denying this healing, life-giving power for forty days? We live in a world desperately in need of God's presence and intervention. Will we dare to believe?

Monday, February 11, 2013

Pope Benedict XVI Resigns: What Does It Mean?

I could not quite believe my eyes this morning when a New York Times alert flashed across my phone: "Pope Benedict Resigns." This is probably the biggest single news item in the worldwide Christian Church in my lifetime. The spiritual leader of 1.2 billion of my brothers and sisters in the Roman Catholic community is doing something that has no real precedent. While it is true that there was a pope who resigned back in 1415, that resignation came amidst one of the greatest scandals in Church history, with three different popes vying for control!

This resignation is clearly different. Though Benedict has certainly been a controversial pope, presiding over an increasingly firm turn to the theological right, he has not been personally embroiled in scandal to the same degree. Certainly nothing that would indicate that he should resign from an office that until now has essentially been considered unresignable.

And yet, here we are. Benedict has announced his retirement from the papacy on the basis of his advanced age and his own personal judgment that he is no longer able to fulfill the role of spiritual father to the Roman Catholic community. Declaring his retirement date as 28 February, 2013, Benedict is giving a little more than two weeks notice. Assemble the cardinals: It is time to select a new pope!
I am sure that there will be a great variety of reactions to Benedict’s resignation. Some – especially among the Roman Catholic community’s progressive wing – will cheer. Some will be appalled, and many others will be confused. I understand all of these reactions, but I have a different one. I feel awed and grateful.
In this unexpected act, I feel like I am catching a glimpse – perhaps for the first time – into the real character of this pope. This is a spiritual leader who has the humility to set aside his official authority and admit that he no longer has the strength or the divine calling to serve as the apostolic guardian of more than a billion souls. That takes some guts!
I cannot see into Benedict’s heart, and I am in no position to judge him. Nevertheless, I must say that I am deeply impressed by this act. It inspires me to be more willing to reevaluate my own spiritual gifts and sense of divine calling. Benedict’s resignation reminds me that I must be open to laying aside even the most importantwork that I do in order to be faithful to the One who calls me. By laying down the splendor, power and authority of the papacy, Benedict challenges me to follow his example, releasing my own privileges and reputation in order to become a more faithful, loving servant to the whole body of Christ.
In this one decision, Benedict reveals himself to be truly apostolic. As he lays down all his worldly crowns and honors at the feet of Jesus, he can say with integrity, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.“-
For another Quaker’s reaction to Benedict’s announcement, check out Dan Randazzo’s blog, A Closeted Radical.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Spiritual Gifts: They Do The Body Good

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. - 1 Corinthians 12:4-6

It may seem counter-intuitive, but I have found stepping into visible leadership roles to be a deeply humbling experience. In a culture that often expects our leaders to know everything and often blames them for anything that goes wrong, being put in the position to actually practice public leadership can be terrifying! As a leader, the contrast between who I am and who I would like to be is brought into sharp relief. I come face to face with my own inadequacy, all the ways that I am weak, ignorant and unfit to lead. It may be that I seem confident to others, but on the inside I wrestle with the fact that I do not have all the gifts that my community needs.

Then again, who does? It has been my experience that God offers each community the gifts we need to be whole, healthy and a blessing to the world. Our giftedness - whether in compassionate care for others, inspired preaching, practical helps, administration, evangelism or work for social justice - are distributed throughout our community gathered in Jesus. Does any one of us have all the gifts necessary for a vibrant, fruitful community? If we did, would we even need community?

The role of authentic, affirming leadership is to encourage, strengthen and empower the gifts of each individual, so that together we can become one living organism, growing to full maturity in the Holy Spirit. Rather than looking to an individual or group of leaders to provide everything we need, we must instead look within and discover what gifts God has given each one of us. How we are called to use these gifts to build up the body of Christ, the communities where we find Jesus alive and at work?

As we look to the health of this body, there are two very real obstacles that we confront: One is our potential for individual pride. We can become so enamored with our own gifts that we fail to realize how partial and contingent we are, how much we rely on our sisters and brothers to shore up our weakness and make us whole. If we elevate one person's spiritual gifts - or one type of spiritual gifts - above others, we mutilate the body. After all, if the body were only an eye, where would the hearing be? If we had only an ear, where would the sense of smell be?

Another obstacle is our false sense of humility: We may downplay our own gifts and expect other, more extraordinary, people to carry the weight of the community. While this kind of false modesty can seem very "spiritual" at first glance, it is actually part and parcel of the same mutilating dynamic that elevates some gifts over others. None of us benefit if part of our community is withholding its gifts. As long as we defer to the limited perspective of only certain individuals and gifts, we cannot become fully whole.

If we are to embrace the full array of spiritual gifts that God has granted us as a community, we probably need to develop a better awareness of what our gifts actually are. How can we as communities in Jesus become more intentional about discovering the giftedness of each person? How can we raise awareness of how each of us fits together into one living organism - one body with many parts?

Monday, February 04, 2013

Flowing With The Kingdom

In the ministry I am engaged in - fomenting new community rooted in a living experience of Jesus - I have a strong sense that I should be careful not to grasp too tightly. I must allow my effort to flow like water, slipping past all the places of resistance and confusion and allowing myself to engage whole-heartedly with each moment as it comes.

Each day, I have to make the choice: Will I engage in prolonged, theoretical disputes? Will I allow myself to get tangled up in arguments that have more to do with vying human egos than with truth? Or can I find a way to flow past these blockages? Is there a way to continually roll downhill, flowing through the cracks and tender places? Can I recognize those places of least resistance to what the Holy Spirit is doing right now?

This "easy" path is a lot harder than it sounds. This resolution to flow past the tangled places in my life and communities requires that I surrender everything that is not absolutely core to God's mission for me. It means that I have to be willing to surrender a lot of things that I like in order to be faithful to the One whom I love. It means trusting that the Spirit knows the best way forward, regardless of whether the end result looks like what I was expecting or desiring.

My calling is not to create a "perfect world," a world that meets my personal expectations. My job is not to tell the world how it ought to be. Instead, I am feeling invited into partnership with the work that the Holy Spirit is already doing - regardless of whether it matches my personal assumptions. How is Christ at work in the hearts of those around me? Where are the openings for divine love in our life together? What would it mean to flow with the Spirit to wherever life is happening, rather than insisting that the world come to me?

Communicating the good news of the risen Jesus requires me to get out of my comfort zone. Love demands that I hold loosely to my own sense of self and identity, entering wholeheartedly into the experience of others. I feel a deeper understanding of what Paul meant when he said, "Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible... I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some."

The good news is not that others should be more like me, but instead that all people, all communities and all nations, in the great diversity and differences that we display, can be infused with the living image and character of God in Jesus Christ. Our mission is not to produce cloned followers of a certain religion, but instead to connect every individual, language and nation with the True Vine whom we experience in Christ Jesus.

Jesus told us that the Kingdom of Heaven is like the yeast that a woman put into a mass of dough. As she kneads the dough, the yeast comes to permeate every bite. God has filled the world with the yeast of the good news: The living presence of Jesus is within us and among us! How are we called to knead the dough?

How is God directing us to create the conditions where the Way, the Truth and the Life can infuse every aspect of our lives, our society and our global community? Rather than striving to conform the world to our own image, assumptions and culture, how does the Holy Spirit call us to participate in the infusion of Christ's life and image into the vast diversity of life and culture that God has created?

What would it be like to see the whole world leavened with the first-hand, experiential knowledge of God's living presence? What does it mean to knead the dough, and how must we ourselves be transformed in order to do this work?

Friday, February 01, 2013

Do You Take The Bible Literally?

...Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. - Luke 14:33

As many Christians react to the emotionally tone-deaf excesses of fundamentalism, some of us have come to believe that we should "not take the Bible literally." When I hear folks say this, I generally think I know what they mean - and I think I agree. That is, the Bible is not a science text book, and just because something happened in the Bible does not make it universally applicable and morally pure. Context matters, and when we read the Bible out of its context, we risk not only misunderstanding God's revelation to us, but potentially doing real violence.

The evidence of this is all around us. Instead of focusing all our energies on doing works of justice and mercy, sharing the good news of Christ's Kingdom with the whole world, many of us have spent generations debating whether the earth is 6,000 years old, whether God enjoys a good genocide, or whether women should be allowed to speak in church. In this context, it makes total sense why many of my brothers and sisters refuse to "take the Bible literally." This often seems like short hand for saying, "we would like to focus on things that really matter."

Yet, for myself, I cannot escape the feeling that this retreat from "literalism" frequently becomes a renunciation of taking the Bible as seriously as we ought. The dangers of blind fundamentalism are clear - but what of the risks of syncretistic individualism? How can we avoid our innate human tendency to wiggle out of the deeply challenging message of the Bible if we refuse to be held accountable to it?

Is it possible that we have simply been taking the wrong parts of the Bible literally? What if, instead of trying to turn the Book of Revelation into a master plan for World War III or contorting Jesus' few statements about marriage into a hardly-convincing argument against gay relationships, we resolved to take literally the Sermon on the Mount? What if we literalistically applied Jesus' radical call to economic justice, healing and reconciliation? What if we were willing to bear the literal consequences of his call to renounce everything and follow him?

I think that few of us - regardless of where our theology falls on the Evangelical/Progressive spectrum - do a very good job of this. These are hard parts of the Bible to take at face value. It is relatively easy to condemn gays, silence women or affirm the idea that God created the world in six literal days. And it is equally easy to abandon the witness of Scripture and cobble together our own narcissistic path. What would it look like if we had the courage to refuse either temptation?

Without a doubt, this is the most fearsome path we can embark on. When we take seriously the wild-eyed Gardener who demands that our lives be pruned from top to bottom, it is a full frontal assault on our whole way of life. The narrow path of Jesus involves giving up any semblance of self-importance and control. Yet Scripture assures us - and we come to know from experience - that this deeply challenging way of Jesus is worth dying for.

How can we embrace the Bible with all seriousness - falling neither into fundamentalist faux-rationalism, nor the blind skepticism that offers itself as an alternative? What effect does it have when we joyfully receive the revelation of God through the witness of Scripture? How has your life been changed by taking seriously the example and teachings of the prophets, the apostles and Jesus?