Feb 172014

A brief review of where this series has taken us so far:

  1. Phyllis Tickle believes we are entering the Age of the Spirit, a new era for humanity in which the Holy Spirit is more fully engaged as member of the divine trinity.
  2. “Spirits” are things we experience every day. People have unique spirits, as do places and organizations. We are all aware of the spiritual on some level.

So there are spirits of peace, and there are human spirits, and there spirits of disorder and chaos. And… there is also a Holy Spirit, which has sometimes also been called the “Spirit of the Lord” or the “Spirit of God.”

Dove of the Holy Spirit (ca. 1660, stained glass, Throne of St. Peter, St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican)

Christians often speak about the Holy Spirit, suggesting a uniqueness that distinguishes itself from all of the other spirits. Also, Christians have often referred to the Spirit of God using gendered pronouns. Over the centuries, it has sometimes been a feminine gender  (“she”), but mostly it has been a masculine gender (“he”). Both, however, suggest that the Holy Spirit is a personality, not merely an abstract “force.”

So in the Holy Spirit, we have a “spirit” in the sense I talked about in the last post. But this Spirit is markedly different from other spirits. And those who have experienced this Spirit talk about the Spirit like they would a person.

Paul – the apostle from the New Testament – wrote a lot of very interesting things about the Holy Spirit. In fact, you could say that he and his friends were obsessed with the subject. Here is an example that some of you may have encountered recently, if you go to a church that follows the Revised Common Lectionary:

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—

these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.

Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.

“For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?”

But we have the mind of Christ.

Here, we have a description not only of the Spirit, but of what the Spirit is doing in our world. Paul believes that he and others have encountered this Spirit of God. In fact, not only have they encountered it. This same spirit also inhabits them – it has become part of them, as are their own, human spirits.

This is a remarkable claim that ought to sound as crazy to us as it no doubt did to the people in Paul’s day. Paul tells the people who receive this letter that – because they have received this Spirit of God – they are able to understand things that would otherwise seem foolish to those who have the “spirit of the world.”

Now, at this point, I think a lot of people miss something very important, and to understand what people miss here, you need to understand something about Paul and the reasons he wrote so many letters.

Paul believes that we are living not in one world, but in two. They both exist in the same time and space, but they are vastly different in one respect: the first is governed by something that Paul often calls flesh or sinful nature. This is a world where people crawl over each other to get to the top, and where those who have wealth and power don’t hesitate to use them to dominate others. It is a world where might makes right. When Paul talks about the “spirit of the world,” he is talking about the spirit that drives people to behave in destructive ways within that world.

But Paul believes there is also another world, one which was birthed when Jesus rose from the dead. In this world, Jesus is considered the “Christ” or “Messiah,” and he has become the true Lord over everything. And now this new world is slowly pushing its way onto the scene – one where humanity can live together in peace and harmony, and where mutual love gives birth to a new era of joy. Paul does not ordinarily use the same language to describe this as Jesus. Jesus called it the “kingdom of God.” But there is no doubt that Paul believed in it, just as Jesus, before him, had taught.

Paul says that the Spirit of God gives his readers the “mind of Christ” in the text that I cited above. In other words, he is saying that his readers no longer have spirits that drive them to live in the old world. Instead, their spirits - inhabited by the Spirit – are part of this new world.

And what does this Spirit that is ushering in the coming world look like? Paul writes about it in another letter, this time to a church in Galatia:

…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control…. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

Do you see the same idea here? The spirit of the world – which here is described as “flesh with its passions and desires” – is gone. The new Spirit, one of love, joy, peace, etc. now inhabits the believer.

Another example. When Luke writes about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he tells a story about Jesus reading from a book in the Old Testament called Isaiah. Luke uses this story to tell us what Jesus is about. And what does the text say?

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And there we have the same idea again: this Holy Spirit is “upon” Jesus at the start of his ministry. The result? The poor receive good news, the unjustly captive are set free, the blind see, the oppressed go free. It is a fantastic picture of God’s new world, which this text describes as “the year of the Lord’s favor.”

That – in a nutshell – is my take on the Holy Spirit within the Christian tradition. The Holy Spirit is is some ways a “spirit” like any other – a transcendent quality that we sense all around us, but which defies simple observation by sight, sound, or touch. Yet the Spirit of God is also unique, personal, and divine. This Spirit inhabits us so that we are capable of living in this new world where peace, kindness, and gentleness reign supreme.

Next, I plan to talk about two traditions that have taken the Holy Spirit very seriously. First, the more recent charismatic tradition. And second, the more ancient contemplative tradition. What do they have to offer?

 Posted by at 7:04 pm
Feb 142014

In a previous post, I talked about Phyllis Tickle’s book The Age of the Spirit, in which Phyllis and John Sweeney, her coauthor, talk about a dawning era in which the Church is becoming increasingly sensitive to the Holy Spirit.

spirit spirituality angels demons

morgueFile credit: Penywise

For our next step after this post, we will see if we can get a handle on what we mean when we talk about a “Holy Spirit” or the “Spirit of God.” But before we can get a handle on the “Holy” part of “Holy Spirit,” we need to deal with another question: what about this  strange word – “spirit”? What does it mean?

Some people think that talking about the “spiritual” is a bad thing because it causes us to ignore the things that are going on around us in the “real” world – the one that we can see, hear, and touch. They think we will ignore the needs problems of our world, such as  poverty and inequality if we are only concerned with “spiritual” matters. But Christians, beginning with the ones that wrote the Bible and continuing until today, have been deeply concerned with the idea of spirits – and, therefore with the spiritual. This is not because we want to ignore what is going on in the world around us, but because we are convinced that a spiritual perspective is the only way we can fully understand it.

More about that in a moment.

For now, lets talk about “spirits.” Many of us have been conditioned to think about “spirits” as mysterious, maybe even fictional things that “normal” people never experience. Perhaps a select few people – maybe psychics, mediums, or priests that are interested in that sort of thing – can experience spirits, but most of us can’t. If there are any such things, the rest of us are simply oblivious to them.

I don’t agree with that. We all encounter spirits every day, but we aren’t always conscious of them. Not only do you have a spirit yourself, you also have your own sense of them. It is something that is built into your humanity.

A twentieth century theologian named Walter Wink has been of tremendous help to me on this issue, and most of the next few paragraphs come more or less directly from what I have learned from Wink.

Have you ever heard someone called a “free spirit”? How about when your grade school was getting ready for a big game – were you supposed to have “school spirit”? Have you ever heard talk about the writers of the Declaration of Independence and the “spirit of 76″? Have you ever walked into a room, or a house, or a building, and immediately felt a sense of dread, or of warmth, or of anxiety that you couldn’t explain?

All of these experience are – in a very real way – encounters with spirits or the “spiritual realm.” Spirituality tells us that what we see, hear, taste, and touch is not all that there is . Something else is also present within and around us: in people, in groups, and even in some places. We can choose to pay attention to the spirits that are around us, or we can do our best to ignore them and go about our day with our blinders on. But they are present, and at some deep, intuitive level, we are all capable of sensing them. At least, to some extent. 

There is one thing, however, that most of us don’t get about the spiritual. We have been trained to think that matter and spirit are separate things. That is, matter exists in one “realm” and spirit exists in another. Perhaps one crosses over into the other from time to time, but for the most part, they are separate. This way of seeing the world is called dualism.

But there is another way of seeing the world that is much different. This alternative way of seeing the world understands that matter and spirit are both part of a single reality. That is, they both exist side-by-side. Your spirit, then, is not separate from your body or your brain. They are all part of one, single package – one reality or “realm.”  This way of seeing the world is called an integral view.

Under the integral view, there is no point in thinking about a “sweet by and by” or a separate sphere in which things are purely “spiritual.” Such place does not exist. Both the material and the spiritual are fully present here and now – all bound up in a single reality. True, we can most clearly see those parts of reality that are made up of matter and energy, flesh and blood. But there is a part of the same reality that transcends those things, a part that we can only “feel” and sense more indirectly, that is just as real. That part of our reality is called the spiritual.

So when someone claims that “spiritual” people don’t pay enough attention to the world’s problems, I say: “No. The only way we can truly understand what is happening in a world filled with war, and violence, and poverty, and oppression is to see the full picture. And we need to appreciate what is happening spiritually in order to get that picture.” If someone has a dualistic view – where their “spiritual” concerns are about a separate world that is disconnected from our own – the criticism may be true. But not for those who take on the integrated view.

So there are spirits. There are free spirits, and spirits of rebellion, and spirits of anger, and powerful spirits, and weak spirits. Some of them are peaceful and gentle. Some of them – we all have been near them – are very, very disturbing. Sometimes we understand them properly. Sometimes we don’t.

There is also a Holy Spirit. We are going to talk about that in my next post.

But before I wrap things up on this post, lets focus on the language that we use to talk about the spiritual.

We have all kinds of words that we use when we begin talking about the spiritual. We talk about evil spirits, and demons, and angels. We talk about someone the Bible calls “the Satan” or “the accuser.” The Bible even talks about something that sounds really foreboding called “the Powers.”

When we use language like this to talk about the spiritual, we are often engaging in projection. Projection is a way of using things we can see and understand – creatures with horns or wings, or exorbitant weapons, or crazy looking faces – to describe experiences of the spiritual. So when most of us talk about demons, we don’t really expect to encounter a creature with red pigment and sharp horns around a corner some day. We know it is something else. But we are using the physical imagery of the demonic as a way of describing something that we sense on a much deeper, more intuitive level.

So when people ask me if I believe in angels and demons and evil spirits, I say “yes.” But how I understand those things is different from what you will encounter in a fairy tale, for example.

Which brings me to the final thought for this post. At this point, some of you may be asking: “Well, okay, if spirits are these things that we all know and encounter every day, and if all this business about angels and demons is really just a projection of those experiences, is any of this real? Or is it all just stuff that we invent in our imaginations, which can be easily explained by psychology or sociology?”

That is a good question. I often ask questions like this of myself. And the best way that I know how to answer it has two parts:

Part 1: Yes. I do think there is something that is “real” behind the experiences of the spiritual, whether they are ordinary, day-to-day things (like a sense of someone’s anxious spirit) or more extraordinary events (like someone speaking in tongues). I think something is happening that cannot be fully accounted for by psychology or neurology (at least, as we currently understand those fields). Having said that, though, I also think that the material realities that are studied by psychology and neurology are integral with the spiritual. All of it is, as I have already said, bound up in a single reality, some of which science can measure and observe, and some of which it cannot. So it turns out that the question “is all this real” is a lot more complex and nuanced that you might think.

Part 2: In either case, however, the bottom line is that the experience is the same. This is another thing Walter Wink has taught me. When someone is angry or upset, their spirit affects us in certain ways. When an organization pressures everyone to behave in a certain way, a certain spirit descends on everyone who is a part of it. You can say that angels and demons are “real” or “unreal,” but the experiences that we have are still there. So, in a way, I don’t think you have to sort out this (surprisingly complex) question to understand spirituality.

Soon, I’ll be posting on the next issue – what is this “Spirit of God” that Christians claim to know?

Feb 082014

via caffinatedthoughts.com

Much of the social media buzz this week related to the infamous “Ham on Nye” debate. It seems like almost everyone agreed it was a really silly exercise, and yet no one could resist watching and commenting. It was like a huge train wreck that was announced far enough in advance to give everyone a chance to gawk at it.

The problem with the debate, of course, was that – while it appeared to be a dispute about Earth’s history – it was really a clash of two different approaches to the process of knowing. Ham thinks knowledge is best acquired through his preferred approach  to interpreting scripture (i.e., fundamentalist readings). Nye thinks knowledge is better acquired through the scientific process of observation, testing, peer review, etc. They were never going to agree, because they never got around to talking about the underlying philosophical issue in sufficient detail.

It was largely a misadventure in which the real issues were never discussed. Much like most political debates.

via christianbookexpo.com

But there was another social media debate last week that also missed the point in its entirety; this time, a debate over the importance of “church attendance” that took place between Blue Like Jazz author Don Miller and a myriad of others.

It all started with this post by Miller, in which he stated that singing church songs doesn’t really inspire him, that he doesn’t really get any other benefit out of regular church attendance, and that he feels more connectedness with God in his day-to-day work. Miller explained by talking about his learning style. He learns by doing, not by sitting and listening. Since most churches offer experiences that require facing forward toward a stage, listening intently for a long time, and then leaving, he doesn’t really benefit that much from the traditional church service.

The response was swift and strong. One post by Jonathan Leeman on the Gospel Coalition website disagreed, comparing Sunday morning activities to the skeleton and food that support and make the life of Jesus possible. You can’t love the church without belonging to a church, he argued. He also inferred that if you aren’t willing to come and listen to a Sunday morning sermon, that it must mean you refuse to “listen to God’s word.”

On and on the responses went – many of them deploying the theological language of “participating in the body of Christ” and “spiritual community” as a way of suggesting that one cannot be a follower of Jesus without attending church. Most of those responses never put the “attending church” part so bluntly, but it was not difficult to discern that implication behind the statements.

Miller was so overwhelmed by the responses that he wrote an extensive second post. In this one, he doesn’t retreat from his point at all. In fact, he admits he doesn’t really go to church very much. Furthermore, he was able to dismiss almost all of the suggestions that there was something “unique” to be found in traditional church, talking about how he was finding them elsewhere. He even suggests that he is surrounded by a strong spiritual community with which he shares his journey. (I think Miller is right insofar as he makes his point, but also missing something; more on that below).

I think this debate also features two or three perspectives that are largely missing each other’s points. A few observations:

First, this disagreement is largely about what the word “church” means. Some participants are thinking about church as a longstanding Western institution, or series of institutions. The institutional church has buildings, pastors, worship services, budgets, committees, and various programs. Membership is primarily comprised of attendance at the weekly service, giving, and participating in some of the church’s planned programs. Others are thinking about church as a much more abstract and universal concept – those who are Jesus followers and who, by extension, can share a certain identity and purpose. The people who share my faith walk with me, both in person and (in more recent years) in other ways, such as through social media – are my church. The remainder is seen as unnecessary. In particular, attending a Sunday morning worship at an institutional church is no longer necessary.

Second, there is a lot at stake in this argument. The institutional church is in decline. Pews are emptying. Budgets are getting tight. Churches are closing down. Anxiety levels among those who support (or depend on) church-as-institution are at all-time highs. If people no longer think of participation in institutional churches as a component of a life that follows Jesus, then these institutions are going to vanish. No wonder Miller stirred up a hornet’s nest.

Third, most institutional churches are in survival mode. Butts and bucks are what drives them. Success is measured by how many people attend and by how much giving takes place. Large staffs and overhead must be justified as being useful to people. A 50,000 square foot church facility, which requires heating, cooling, maintenance, etc., together with a 10 member staff, doesn’t look like a very efficient use of resources if only a handful of aging members attend a single Sunday service each week. Likewise, all of those costs for staffing and overhead – not to mention the demands for staffing and overhead for the larger denominational structure – have to be paid. Every time another well-to-do member dies, with no one to replace them, the situation becomes more and more dire.

But this issue isn’t limited to the classic, neighborhood church. The big megachurches, which meet in giant facilities and often have huge staff with a handful of well-paid CEOs at the top, have the same problems. If they don’t keep their attendance and giving levels up, they are bound to fall into crisis just as quickly as they came together. The pressure for fundraising is enormous.

To make matters worse, as crisis escalates, financial resources are increasingly internalized. That is, they are used to serve the members of the institution, rather than to benefit the community or world at large. It becomes increasingly true that they only thing the church can do is pay its bills and provide a salary to a staff which plans and implements its weekly service, together with a few other programs.

Fourth, at their worst, some institutional churches enable abusive behavior by their leaders. One of the problems with large structures that accommodate people with significant authority and celebrity is that the wrong people can end up in those positions. Those people then use their power as a means of accommodating abusive behavior, and then shielding it from visibility. This surely does not take place in all churches (or even most of them). But it has probably been the case with some institutional churches for a very long time, and in the media age, it is almost impossible to hide. The existence and harm caused by sexual and spiritual abuse by those  in positions of church authority is more apparent than ever.

Fifth, I think People Like Don Miller Can Easily Discern These Issues. I don’t think it takes long for most people to quickly understand the survival dynamic or the internalization of resources dynamic. Nor do I think it takes very long to pick out churches where spiritually abusive behavior, whether it be moderate guilt control or more severe varieties, is lurking in the background.

Don Miller does not say this, and it may not be what is lurking in the back of his mind. However, I think there are many people who will say what Don Miller is saying, while in actuality they are consciously or unconsciously trying to get away from an unhealthy institutional culture.

Sixth, defenders of institutional church should stop using guilt and shame strategies in efforts to win people back. Messages which state or imply that those who reject institutional churches are either insincere or that they don’t care about [pick your favorite theological concept here " the Gospel," "the Body of Christ," "the family of God," "spiritual community," "being accountable," etc.] are disingenuous at best. Yes, people often can and do experience those things without institutional church structures/services, and you often don’t find them in institutional churches. Such statements are patronizing at their worst. Pastoral experience and theological education do not necessarily qualify someone to better discern and explain how “spiritual community” ought to look in a context that is different from their own. And, even where there is a point to be made, such strategies suffer from the classic problem of mote and beam.

Seventh, I think there is still great value within institutional churches. Here is the central problem. I am not sure that institutional protestant churches will or even can survive in their current form. (Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches are a different story – for another time). They have simply been deconstructed/exposed too extensively, largely by X-ers and Millennials – and even by their “own” – theologians and scholars. The model of building/pastor/services/members/programs that I talked about at the top seems to me to be increasingly dysfunctional, both financially and – by ripple effect – in many other ways.

Yet these churches, for their mountains of problems, also carry something that – to me – is extremely important. For lack of a better phrase, I am going to borrow from the Apostle’s Creed and call it the “communion of saints.” Here, I am not talking about an immediate spiritual community in the here and now. As I have said above, I think you can have that without institutional structures. Rather, I am talking about a means of living out one’s faith in the context of the history that has gone before it. I find it impossible to develop a healthy perspective on the timelessness of my faith, and of my connection to believers throughout history, without participating in the traditions of the church. That means: liturgy, Eucharist, witnessing baptism, blessing marriage, Lenten ashes, singing the same songs, hearing the same Psalms and scriptures. I can have spiritual community, and even improve my spiritual walk, in conversation with my friends over a Coke. But if I want to appreciate my connection with Isaiah, Paul, Augustine, Francis, Luther, Terese, my Grandparents, etc., if I want to know that I have deep, ancient roots, I need this thing – this “communion” that, for better or worse, is carried along in its current form by the institutional church.

Eighth, I think the debate over “church attendance” ignores the real dilemma, which is this – how to preserve the communion of saints even as the institutional church, in its protestant form, vanishes I completely sympathize with the Don Millers of the world. Really, I do. I don’t think the answer is always to recommend a return to institutional church. But I also think that, despite all of the toxicity and pointlessness to much of it, there is something that is of value to future generations within institutional churches. Something that needs preservation.  What I think is needed more than anything else at this stage is a conversation which (a) acknowledges the decline of church-as-institution and (b) seeks a creative means for preserving the communion of saints, as carried by institutional church, for future generations.

I don’t know exactly what that looks like. I am a part of a project that – in some ways – is trying to do that through an alternative conception of church, even now. But I don’t pretend to have all of the answers, and I don’t think we have arrived at the be-all-and-end-all solution. We are just one of many trying to work out a practical solution to a difficult problem.


And there, in almost 2000 words, is my reaction to the Don Miller/church attendance debate from this last week: the Don Millers of the world have a point, and guilt and shame counter-strategies should be abandoned, yet I find it important to preserve some of the the traditions that are carried by institutional churches.

I conclude with a statement that is consciously liturgical.

Lord, have mercy.

 Posted by at 2:02 pm
Feb 022014

The Age of the Spirit

Some religious writers tackle modest questions about current issues with simple answers. Phyllis Tickle is not one of them. Tickle possesses the unique ability to move back a step or two (or a hundred) and help us to process how our current arguments and uncertainties fit into a bigger picture.

And in The Age of the Spirit, which Tickle coauthors with Jon Sweeney, the picture doesn’t get any bigger. The question which Tickle/Sweeney pose is this: are we on the cusp of a new age in Christianity, in which the Holy Spirit will now become a more significant factor in our relationship with and understanding of God?

Their answer is “yes.” And they make their case by undertaking a brief survey of Christian history throughout the centuries, placing an emphasis on difficulties that our forebearers in the Church experienced when trying to talk about and agree on the nature of the Holy Spirit. The survey – as I said – is short. But I was surprised at how much acrimony – even bloodshed – has taken place over issues that, for many of us today, are not all that significant, or even comprehensible. 

Much of their argument – as well as the title of their book – goes back to a twelfth century Italian monastic named Joachim of Fiore. Like Gregory of Nazianus, Joachim believed that the nature of God is only slowly being understood by humanity throughout the millennia. At first, God-as-Father was clearly known through Judaism, with only small glimpses of God-as-Son being revealed. Then, God-as-Son was revealed in Jesus, with some glimpses of God-as-Spirit. In the age of the spirit, which was yet to come, Joachim believed that humanity would “relate primarily to the third member of the Trinity.”

Which brings the writers to the 500-year cycle that the Judeo-Christian tradition seems to follow, and about which Tickle has written much more extensively in The Great Emergence and Emergence Christianity. In those books, Tickle pointed toward a theory of church history which holds that Christianity tends to experience great upheavals every 500 years or so. The last upheaval – the Great Reformation – saw millions of Christians cast off the concept of Papal authority in favor of a belief that authority can be found within the pages of scripture. Tickle has argued, and continues to assert in The Age of the Spirit, that one of the defining characteristics of our current upheaval – the Great Emergence – is the questioning/abandonment of scripture-as-authority. The critical issue then becomes – where, then, do we find Divine authority?

The authors suggest that Joachim has provided us the answer – in the Age of the Spirit, believers come into a more immediate relationship with God, making them less reliant on Church structures and interpretations of scripture. I do not think they are arguing that those will become irrelevant, but that they will no longer be viewed as sources of authority and power in the way that they have been viewed in the past.

There is evidence that the Age of the Spirit has already begun to take off. Tickle and Sweeney point to the Charismatic movement that arguably began with John Wesley, and that traces its roots from there up toward the remarkable renewal that took place on Azusa Street in Los Angeles, at the turn of the twentieth century. It was there that hundreds, even thousands of people packed into and around an old building made into a church and experienced, for the first time, the modern manifestation of spiritual gifts. The result was an explosion of enthusiasm that resulted in a global Charismatic movement.  Azusa Street, they point out, took place outside of any formal church structures or social conventions.

Regardless of one’s opinion of the Charismatic movement, it has undeniably exercised tremendous influence, even among those who do not identify with it. The now well-recognized trend of those who call themselves “spiritual, but not religious,” for example, is clear evidence that the notion that one can relate to God through the spirit of God, rather than institutional church structures, has become embedded in our consciousness.

The Age of the Spirit has left me with a lot to reflect on. Among other things, I have been convinced by the authors that I would benefit from a closer examination of the Charismatic movement. I have some reservations about it (at the top of the list would be the prosperity gospel, which seems to be one of its step-children), but it definitely deserves more attention.

Finally, by way of some preliminary observations, I think there are three ways that we can help to mitigate some of the negative effects of the Charismatic movement as take the first baby-steps into this new era:

  •  First, I think we can blend contemplative spirituality into the mix. Unlike the Charismatic movement, the concept of knowing God through contemplation has been around for centuries. There is much wisdom to be recovered from this tradition, and if a typical Charismatic relies too heavily on the experience of the extraordinary to “find God,” the contemplatives can help us to also find God in the ordinary.
  • Second, I think there is much to be said about how the revelation of God ordinarily takes place within community, rather than as a result of individual experience. Thus, if Churches are no longer to be seen as places of structured authority, then they probably need to be places where people can safely talk about and experience God in a variety of ways. That is how it worked at the Counsel of Jerusalem in Acts. That is how it has worked in scores of other great counsels over the years. And I think we may need to rescue the Charismatic concept of revelation from the individualistic Western world in which it seems to be trapped.
  • Finally – and I realize this is a little more of my own personality coming out here – I think we need to explore alternatives to the deterministic/Calvinist-like worldview that (so it seems to me, at least) dominates the Charismatic movement. I think that if you introduce something more like open theism, or the Orthodox notion of perichoresis (think of it as dancing with God) into the mix, we get a much healthier framework within which discernment can take place.

I am thinking I might unpack some of this a little more in a later post.

 Posted by at 2:38 pm
Jan 252014

Earlier this month, I gave a 7 minute presentation at the Christianity 21 conference in Denver. You can read a summary of the talk here. I’ve also finally managed to get my 7-21 audio edited. The quality isn’t that great, but if you’re willing to listen closely, you can follow along. Here it is:


…and here is Sheila’s talk on language and its effect on “outsiders”:


Jan 202014

The Case for the Psalms

I recently finished NT Wright’s The Case for the Psalms. As is always the case with Wright, this book does a great job of shedding fresh, sensible light on its subject in ways that reinforce, rather than work against, much of what we already know.

Wright believes that the Psalms should be a part of the daily life-blood of the Church, and he is concerned that they are often shoved to the side. There is nothing wrong with modern expressions of worship, but good liturgy does not simply exist for the moment. It attempts – as he puts it – “to inhabit the great unceasing liturgy of heaven.” Over the centuries, the Psalms have served as the primary vehicle through which Christian worship has taken on a quality of timelessness.

Here are four things I learned from reading the book:

Lesson #1: The Psalms Should be Prayed, Not Merely Studied. One temptation in approaching the Psalms is simply to treat them as a subject of academic interest and literary analysis. Wright encourages us to study the Psalms, but the studying is not the ending point. To fully benefit from the Psalms, we must inhabit their worldview by singing them and praying them. We must add our voices to the age-old chorus, and not merely stand by as passive listeners.

Lesson #2: The Psalms Help Us to See Our Lives Within God’s Time. Caught up in the here and now, we are always at risk of attaching too much importance to the present moment, our current wants and needs, and the petty issues of the day. The Psalms, however, transport us into God’s time, inviting us to see humanity and its history from the divine perspective. We begin to see ourselves as a part of a larger move to reclaim and redeem the world.

Lesson #3: With a Little Imagination, Almost any Psalm Can Become Our Own. Many of the psalms emphasize elements that are difficult for us to relate to. The two most significant examples are the temple and the king. Wright encourages us to see both of these in the context of God’s larger move to redeem creation. The temple, he says, can be seen as a foretaste of God’s habitation of God’s people and of creation itself. Thus, when we pray or sing about the temple, we can easily imagine that we are ultimately praying or singing about God’s habitation within the Church or even within ourselves. Similarly, the king – who is featured in many psalms – is a representative of God’s movement to establish justice and peace within creation. To pray for the king is to pray for Jesus – and for ourselves as we seek to embody Jesus within creation.

Many of the psalms also celebrate God’s law. While much of that law is no longer relevant to our lives, we can still appreciate the way we continue to work toward the ends of that law – a society in which everyone can live together with mutual respect and love toward one another. Thus, to pray “O how I love your law,” as an example, is ultimately to pray about my desire for a society in which love for neighbor and God is paramount.

Lesson #4: The Psalms Can Transform Both Us and Our World. “The heavens are telling the glory of God,” boasts Psalm 19. This is typical of the psalms’ recognition that creation reveals and reveres God. It is not merely poetic license. Everything around us is a part of an unceasing act of praise toward its creator. By joining in with that song, we develop a perspective on our existence that changes not only us, but – as we begin to act on it – the world around us. Once we allow the Psalms to shape our worldview in this way, we inevitably become different, and better, people.


The phrases that will stay with me long after much of this book fades from my memory are those which talk about “inhabiting the world of the Psalms.” And that is my main takeaway: I want to find ways not just to understand the psalms, but to see the cosmos through the lens of the psalmists, much in the same way we can see time, space, and matter through the lens of the Hubble.

So how about you? How have the psalms influenced your life? Have you found inspiration by “inhabiting” them? Singing them? Praying them? Reading them?

Jan 132014
Jesus Feminist

Sarah Bessey – author of Jesus Feminist

Sarah Bessey doesn’t want a seat at the table. She wants to rip the table apart, hack it into kindling, and hold a huge party around a bonfire – a party that celebrates the fact that there isn’t a table any longer.

If you can appreciate that image, then you are going to love Jesus Feminist. And if you can’t then… well, you are in good company. As Sarah put it at last week’s Christanity21 conference: its hard to think of a two-word book title that is capable of angering as many people as this one.

Jesus Feminist is not, for the most part, about feminist theory. It touches here and there on a broader sociopolitical context. However, it is mostly a book about how the day-to-day workings of the Christian tradition can be transformed by the full inclusion of women across the spectrum. This book isn’t about feminism generally. It is about the way feminism should be transforming the Church.

Here are a few of the highlights that struck me:

  • “I am through wasting my time with debates” about women and boundaries. “These are small, small arguments about a small, small god.”
  • Sarah is a feminist because she is a Christian, not in spite of it. Jesus’ radical inclusion of the marginalized leads to a natural move toward feminism.
  • But: “equality is not an endgame; it is only one of the means to God’s big ending: all things redeemed, all things restored.”
  • The Bible can be easily read to support women within all aspects of the community of God. Acts 2 is cited as one example. She also does a good job of dealing with the clobber texts in I Corinthians and I Timothy.
  • In actuality, when women are restricted from service of God in any capacity, we are only “allowing an imperfect male-dominated ancient culture to [dictate our practice], instead of Jesus Christ and the whole of the Scriptures.”
  • A perspective that emphasizes only marriage and child-bearing as appropriate roles for women strips singles, non-parents, and empty-nesters of any meaningful role.
  • If women were pastors and preachers, we would better understand the metaphors of birth and pregnancy as a part of God’s story. (“I am rather tired of sports and war metaphors.”)
  • Maybe it is time to end the “women’s ministry” thing (and, I guess, this brings about the demise of the “men’s ministry” as well – ok by me). It tends to put women off in the corner.
  • She writes beautifully about women and works of mercy and justice (“The daughters of the earth are crying out for God’s justice and peace…. [W]e are buried in the world’s power structures, tensions, histories, the old empire fallout of authority and patriarchy, war and economic injustice…”).
  • “Patriarchy isn’t the dream of the Kingdom of God, and so we can loosen our grip…, unfurl our fingers, and simply let it sink to the bottom at last.”
  • And this is really good: Women need to stop waiting on the men to create space for them. They should know they count because God has already said that they do.

Sarah possesses a unique ability to be genuinely kind and humble, and yet subversive at the same time. You need to read her for yourself to fully appreciate this. She can strike a loving tone and yet simultaneously undermine established ideas. It is a gift that I wish I shared.

This is a great book for the women in your life who are ready to break free from the limits that are imposed on them by traditional roles. It is equally useful for pastors and other church leaders who are interested in exploring a fresh perspective on this difficult, but occasionally tiresome subject.

You can learn more about Sarah’s passions and life by checking out her blog. The book is also available on Amazon and Kindle.

 Posted by at 1:48 pm
Jan 102014

Today, I am making a presentation at Christianity21 on  work and spirituality. The presentation is about using the metaphor of the monster to speak with urban professionals about their experiences in large firms and institutions.

Here is a summary of the presentation:

BriefcaseA few months ago, I developed an interest in the relationship between work and spirituality. This interest arose out of my frustrations with the tools that are currently available to church leaders when talking to urban professionals about their work experiences.

Traditionally, churches have spoken about work using Luther’s concept of vocation. Vocation is one’s “calling” in life to do a particular task, and to do it well. Thus, if you were called to be a cobbler, then you should make and repair shoes as well as possible, and your community will benefit from your work. This is the way you fulfill your calling. But most workers – particularly young, urban workers – are likely to flit about from job-to-job and responsibility-to-responsibility an a semi-annual basis. There is no one “thing” that they do. Their work is amorphous – and adaptation to a variety of tasks and responsibilities is one of their keys to survival. As such, they don’t have a vocation in the traditional sense.

There are also a number of books that claim to describe so-called “Christian business principles” – which often amount to good advice about ethical conduct in running a business. These books are also of limited use to urban professionals because they aren’t high-level executives or small business owners. They work in cubicle farms, where they are expected to implement, rather than create company policies. They don’t have control over the things that these books are recommending.

I also felt like these tools were inadequate to help people deal with what I think is a central problem in our day – a problem that relates to the tendency of large organizations to engage in toxic, destructive behavior. Walter Wink has already given us a theology and Biblical framework to talk about these problems – he has done some tremendous work on the Powers. (Note: I like to a couple of other posts in which I describe this issue in detail at the end of this post).

Urban professionals often find themselves connected to these organizations in various ways, and I think we need a language to talk about the experiences of these connections in helpful ways. But the language of the Powers is a little abstract to get us there. I think we need to add to Wink’s analysis some language that is a little more accessible.

In my talk, I suggest that the metaphor of the monster can be helpful in this regard. What are monsters, after all, but things that we create for good, but which end up spiraling out of control (think, for example, about Frankenstein’s monster)? Vampires, likewise, are essentially human beings without souls. This raises the question – what are we like when we lose our soul? Or – more to the point – what happens when we create giant, powerful institutions that, by their nature, have no souls? What can they become?

Another great example: toward the end of Jurassic Park, John Hammond talks about how he didn’t want to make another flea circus; he created Jurassic Park because he wanted something real. But wait, Ellie Sadler tells him, its all still an illusion. But she isn’t talking about the dinosaurs – they are real enough. The illusion, she says, is that you can create something this big and this powerful, and then expect to control it. It is the control over Jurassic Park that is the illusion.

At the end of my talk, I suggest one way that we can talk to professionals about dealing with these monsters: we can seek to unmask them. That is, we can simply speak to others in the organization about the problem, shedding light on it. Often, this alone can be enough to mobilize people within an organization to do something about it.

Of course, that is only a start. There are a number of other things to be said on this subject – but one can only say so many things in seven minutes!

If you are curious about the concept of the Powers, and its relationship with the crisis of governmental and corporate accountability, you can find an extended discussion about it in this post, which relates to the recent BP oil spill. I have also illustrated the issue in some detail, using emails in documents from the investigation into the Penn State/Sandusky scandal.

 Posted by at 12:01 pm
Dec 242013

I suppose I first saw A Charlie Brown Christmas when I was about five.  It was my earliest exposure to Charles Schultz and the eccentric, slightly neurotic cast of characters from his comic strip.

If, at the time I first saw the Christmas special, you had told me that Peanuts was largely about angst in the midst of rapid cultural change, I would have had no idea what you meant. But, even then, I understood the concept.

In the 1960s, the world was rapidly changing. The sexual revolution, civil rights, and rock n’ roll were pushing their way into the center of American culture. Gone, seemingly, were the days when the world seemed stable and understandable.  To his credit, Schultz never gave into cynicism or negativism in his assessment of the emerging culture. He only sought to help people understand how that change was driving them nuts!

We see all of the craziness of American pop culture in Charlie Brown’s friends. Lucy wants in on the money-making rackets. Sally is self-centered. Freida is the beauty-obsessed narcissist. Today, we would probably think of Schroeder as a hipster – tossing aside the then-popular musical forms for vintage baroque. Then there is Snoopy, the too-cool-for-school early adopter – always effortlessly adapting to the latest and greatest cultural craze.

In the midst of all of the crazy are Charlie Brown and his friend Linus.  Charlie Brown doesn’t fully understand what is going on around him, and therefore never feels like he measures up. Linus, on the other hand, understands all to well, but – unlike Charlie Brown – seems determined to not let it affect him. There is a reason he won’t let go of the blanket!

I believe that A Charlie Brown Christmas is enduring because it plays off of themes that have only grown to be more true in the half-century that has passed since it first hit the airwaves. We live in a world which seems to be moving at an increasingly rapid and demanding pace. Technology, which should have improved our lives, is also serving to make it more confusing. Media – and particularly social media – constantly remind us of all the different ways we don’t measure up – especially in comparison to our peers and friends. With the advent of cellular devices, work follows us home, demanding more attention and intruding into every part of life.

Many of us have come to feel like we are never cool enough, smart enough, hard-working enough, good-looking enough, dedicated enough, hip enough, fast enough, loving enough, caring enough, or family-oriented enough to satisfy all of the demands that get thrown at us from friends, co-workers, bosses, relatives, churches (yes, churches!), and friends.

A Charlie Brown Christmas plays on all of these themes. Charlie Brown is freaking out because Christmas has become over-commercialized. Sally is obsessed with what she can get from Santa. Snoopy has entered his dog house in a lights and display contest. Lucy has concluded that Christmas is a big racket that is “run by an Eastern syndicate.” Most of the secondary characters are content to party along mindlessly in the light, meaningless mood that accompanies lengthy breaks from school. Schroeder, as usual, is way too hip to join in the frivolity, but close enough to the action to make sure that everyone notices how little he cares.

Which brings me to Charlie Brown’s tree: the weak little sapling that is offered up to the rest of the gang by Charlie Brown and Linus when they are tasked with obtaining a centerpiece for the Christmas play. They have a lot of choices: large, elaborate trees, brightly lit trees, artificial trees, etc. (Lucy urges him to purchase an aluminum tree and paint it pink). But Charlie Brown settles on this one: a tree with only a few green branches that can’t even bear the weight of a single ornament.

It may not look like much, he recognizes, but it is real. It can be decorated and made into something spectacular. “And besides,” he says, “I think it needs me.” Here, in caring for this tree, Charlie Brown hopes to find meaning in the chaos that is the modern Christmas season.

But the tree, of course, is rejected by his friends, who only mock him for screwing up yet another seemingly simple task. Exasperated, Charlie Brown shouts: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?!”

Then comes that memorable moment where Linus walks to center stage and calls for the lights:



Linus tells a simple story about simple shepherds who find a simple baby who is lying in a simple manger. And the catch to the story is this: in spite of the seeming ordinariness of all of these things, they are – in fact – a canvass on which God’s glory is on display. God’s love for humanity is transforming all of these simple things into a glorious scene.

The rest of the story is familiar to most of us: Charlie Brown takes the tree home and tries to decorate it – unsuccessfully. But his friends follow along soon and – surprisingly – begin to see the the same things in the tree that Charlie Brown saw. It isn’t aluminum, it isn’t pink. It isn’t large or bright. It doesn’t measure up by any of the modern standards. But it does have a beauty of its own.

And, instead of rejecting it, they begin to love it.

Hands wave in exaggerated motions (I love that part!) and – BAM! – suddenly before them the tree that Charlie Brown chose has been transformed into something new and beautiful.

And that is the story of the tree.

But, of course, in the end, the tree isn’t simply a tree.

On one level, the tree is Charlie Brown: they misfit who never can seem to discern, much less satisfy the ridiculous standards that people are constantly holding him to.

On another level, the tree is Jesus – rejected by the powers of his day, but made great by the love of God.

But on the most important level, the tree is you and me – ordinary, simple people who never have and never will satisfy all of the ideals to which we are constantly held (or, more to the point, to which we constantly hold ourselves).

That is the gospel – the good news – that Linus told us about when he took center stage in the spotlight almost 50 years ago: Anxiety and guilt from failing to measure up – destroy. Love transforms.

So, here is my wish for all of you: I hope you have the same experience this Christmas as Charlie Brown. I hope you finally let go of the pressures that make you feel second-rate. I hope you find a way to bask in the love of a God who brings glory to the ordinary and the flawed. And I hope you find ways to liberate others from expectations in the same way that you have been liberated.

In short, I hope that you have  a Charlie Brown Christmas.

 Posted by at 3:34 pm