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Edwin Friedman on Herding Families, Communities, & Congregations

by Drew 5 Comments

failure of nerveI’m a big fan of Edwin Friedman, a Rabbi, therapist, and leadership consultant best known as one of the fathers of Family Systems Theory.  Friedman built on the work of folks like Murray Bowen and applied it especially to congregational life in his classic Generation to Generation.

My favorite of his works is A Failure of Nerve, in which he applies his systems principles to leadership.  We discussed some of Friedman’s chief ideas on a recent WesleyCast episode (also available via iTunes).  Especially interesting to me of late are Friedman’s ideas about what he calls “herding.”

Friedman argues that, evolutionarily, progress depends on a careful balance between togetherness and individuality.  Anxiety in a system (read: a family, a company, a community, a church) causes a “herding instinct” that is anti-progress because it seeks to “smother” those forces of individuality.  Here are some nuggets I found particularly insightful, drawn from pp. 67-69.

  • “In the herding family, dissent is discouraged, feelings are more important than ideas, peace will be valued over progress, comfort over novelty.”
  • “…the herding family will wind up adopting an appeasement strategy toward its most troublesome members while sabotaging those with the most strength to stand up to the troublemakers.”
  • “…so rather than take stands with the most disturbed members and support those who stand tall, the herding family will adapt to the symptom-bearer…and at the same time undercut anyone who attempts to define himself or herself against the forces of togetherness.”

For Friedman, this herding mentality that results from anxiety is a textbook example of why societies, families, synagogues, and other institutions regress.  You might recognize this phenomenon if you’ve known someone who was the first in their family to go to college and did so against their family’s wishes, or observed how whole families will enable an addict rather than stand up to their dysfunction.

We see this kind of behavior in many anxious churches, where a herding congregation would rather continue to live with and tolerate toxic behavior from, say, a leading family’s son, because they are too afraid to take a stand against that person, even though his actions are harmful to the whole system.  Thus, in Friedman’s terms, they adapt to the dysfunction rather than stand up to it – and shut down or even shun anyone who would stand up to the origin of the dysfunction.

Do you see this played out in your family, your community, or in your church?

Tolle lege. Take up and read.  Give Friedman a hearing. No matter your profession, you’ll be glad you did.

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Church is a Miracle: Reflections on General Conference 2016

umh-545 lyricsI’m not certain what I think about General Conference.

The usual rundowns from secular media – quoting a progressive, a conservative, and then maybe a moderate bishop or academic – reflect the problems of General Conference as much as they describe them. Both “sides” are, in different ways, claiming victory and crisis.  Most statements from denominational leaders seem to me the kinds of things one has to say when one is in leadership, not honest assessments of where we find ourselves. They fail to take seriously, at least in public, to degree to which wilfulness and division – major ingredients in the unholy concoction called evil – were everywhere on display in Portland.  Bishop Swanson’s powerful homiletic exorcism was a refreshing bit of honesty. Let’s go ahead and ask him to do that every morning in 2020.  The low point, at least to this live stream viewer, was watching a presiding Bishop, widely respected by both conservatives and progressives, get spoken down to like a school boy that had just forgotten his hall pass.  As David Watson points out, such a lack of trust is disturbing.

Regardless, the Church goes on.  I do not necessarily mean the United Methodist Church, whose institutional life is frayed. I mean that whatever happens to our particular part of the Body, the work of Christ’s family goes on.  And the true Church, wherever it is found, is based around table fellowship with diverse people. (Look to the Articles 13, 16, & 18 for the centrality of the Table.)  This has been true of the church from the very beginning, even in the church in utero, represented by the disciples.

In a wonderful section of his ecclesiological tome Does God Need the Church? titled, ‘Table Manners in the Reign of God,” Catholic theologian Gerhard Lofhink reflects on the how the church, seen in the figure of the twelve disciples gathered around the Eucharist, reflects such diverse people that only God’s Kingdom could bring them together:

Certainly the common meal, and therefore the common table, played a crucial role simply because a wedding is being celebrated. We can even say that the profane table at which Jesus eats with his disciples becomes the new place of salvation. Jesus dares to effect the eschatological renewal of the people of God with the simplicity and intimacy of a table around which is disciples gather as a family.

These disciples were by no means “like-minded people.” There is a good deal of evidence that Jesus chose the Twelve from the most diverse groups in the Judaism of his time in order to make it obvious that he was gathering all Israelites. The Twelve were a colorful mixture: from the former disciples of the Baptizer (John 1:35-40) to Matthew the tax-collector (Matt 10:3) to Simon the Zealot (Luke 6:15).  In a tax-collector and a Zealot the most bitterly opposed forces that existed in Israel at the time were joined within a single group, for the tax-collectors gathered revenue for the Romans while Zealous utterly rejected the Roman occupation as incompatible with the reign of God.

We should try to imagine how such different people could sit at one table. They were like fire and water. But just there began the miracle of the eschatological people of God. If each one were to remain in his or her own corner and individual house nothing of the reign of God could be seen.  Its fascination can only appear when people of different backgrounds, different gifts, different colors, men and women sit together at a single table – and when they join their lives so that together, undivided, they can serve God’s cause. (Lofhink, 174-175)

We wonder how different folks – Zealots and tax collectors, natural enemies! – can sit together at the one table of Christ.  The truth is that it is a miracle.

The church is always a miracle.

thereforegoThis is because the church is most herself when she points towards the reign of God.  It is easy for the church to reflect the world: its division, strife, discord, and polarization. United Methodists know too much of this.  But if and when the church reflects God’s Kingdom – when folk of different opinions and ideologies, life experiences and social locations, come to the one table – it is a gift of God.

As an Arminian, I believe that we can be open to or closed off to God’s gifts. God, in God’s radical freedom, grants human image-bearers a similar freedom.  As such, His gifts can be accepted or rejected.

When and where God’s people depart their “own corner and individual house[s]” and come to God’s table, there the miracle of church is enacted.

But when we refuse to leave our own huts and enclaves, when we try to keep one foot in my way and another foot on the narrow way, or if we come to God’s table with prejudices and ideologies that are more determinative than the Word of God, we have refused to receive the gift called Church.  We we make God’s table our table, we have rejected the very nature of Christian community.

I believe God’s desire is for a United Methodist Church that, like the eschatological feast that is at the heart of our faith, brings different people together to praise, serve, and witness to God’s grace.  But God has given us freedom in this. And while the Spirit binds us together and equips us for ministry, we are capable of following other spirits.

But unfortunately, the principalities and powers have been having their way with us.  The bishops’ post-Portland letter closed, cryptically, with words from John Wesley’s deathbed.  That’s the definition of cold comfort.

But God is in the business of making rivers in the desert and raising the dead to life.  It is not too late for a miracle.

I will be praying for one, and I invite you to join me.

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Hillsong London Just Ruined Christmas

by Drew 12 Comments
No it isn't, Hillsong. Not even close.

No it isn’t, Hillsong. Not even close.

Yesterday, I saw The Force Awakens. It put me in the Christmas spirit.  I know, not a Christmas film.  But the themes of family, joy, the light waging war against the darkness, all just put me in a good holiday mood.

But then I saw this monstrosity from Hillsong London, and Christmas is ruined:

A couple of days ago, I saw this SNL sketch making fun of Christmas Mass.  So before I go all Rambo on Hillsong London, let me just say that there is a lot of truth in the SNL sketch. Traditional Christmas worship can be done quite badly, and we’ve all had worship experiences like the boring, overwrought mess that Pastor Pat is leading here.

But holy hell, that was fiction.  Hillsong London actually turned Silent Night into a 1920’s Vegas showtune.  I don’t even know the words.  I thought Star Wars church was madness.  This is just insane and inane and all kinds of words I shouldn’t use if I want to stay employed by the church.

There is a deeper lesson here as well.  Form and content are not so easily separated as we often suppose. jesus crying The content of Silent Night – SILENT IS IN THE NAME – speaks of a peaceful, holy scene.  Is it a bit sentimental? Perhaps.  Does it whitewash the stench and filth into which our Lord was born? Somewhat.

But Silent Night ripped out of a Scorcese Vegas flick? This is ever so much worse.

As I said recently, I don’t care how “successful” something like this is.

It’s a monstrosity.

Vegas Christmas might draw a crowd.  But this isn’t worship.  It’s a show. And it’s not even a good show.

Thanks for ruining Christmas, Hillsong London.

I look forward to your upcoming burlesque Good Friday service.

 

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Darkness is My Only Companion [Book Review]

darkness companion coverImagine a book that NT Wright recommended to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who enjoyed it so much he not only wrote the Foreword, but credits it with renewing his faith.

I could probably stop there and it would be enough to tell you that you should pick up the new 2nd edition of Kathryn Greene-McCreight’s Darkness is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness (Revised and Expanded Edition, Brazos, 2015) as soon as possible.

But, in case you are unconvinced, let me give some of my own accolades, just in case you don’t want to take NT Wright, Justin Welby, or Stanley Hauerwas at their word (Hauerwas has a highly complimentary blurb on the back cover).

Every Christian should read Darkness is My Only Companion.  Here’s why.

Christians, by and large, have difficultly approaching mental illness, and this comes to the fore in a variety of contexts: in caring for friends and family who suffer with it, in attempting to talk about mental illness without blaming God or personal sin, and in coping with personally (because it has been so mishandled by the church, in part).  The societal stigma that keeps the mentally ill shut in on themselves, ashamed and afraid to seek help, is little better (and perhaps sometimes worse) in the Christian community.

Greene-McCreight brings a fascinating perspective, both personal and theological, to bear on the subject.  As the author notes, this book is difficult to categorize. It has elements of personal reflection and memoir, theological exploration, medical and psychological data and devotional piety.  The whole is greater than the sum of the parts I’ve name, though. Quite simply, this is a remarkable book that deserves a wide reading in the church, particularly by anyone in a care-giving role.  Christians who are or have suffered from mental illness would likely benefit from the author’s own honesty in sharing her story of living with bi-polar disorder and wrestling with big questions.

She does not shy away from those questions we are often too afraid to ask (or answer too glibly), such as:

  • What is the role of spirituality in coping with mental illness?
  • How does sin relate to mental illness? Is acedia related to depression?
  • How should a mentally ill person read Scripture?
  • How can the church and other caregivers best show support to those suffering mental illness?
  • What is it like to receive treatment (medication, psychotherapy, “electro-shock,” etc.?
  • How does St. John of the Cross’ “Dark Night of the Soul” relate to mental illness?

Kathryn Greene-McCreight wrote this book because what she sought out was not available; thus the importance of this work – it is simply unique, and its power is bound up in the need of the author for a resource to help her journey with mental illness as a disciple of Jesus. “Yet while therapists and counselors, psychiatrists and medications abound,” she notes, “I found no one to help me make sense of my pain with regard to my life before the triune God.” (5)

Both the author’s personal piety (she is an Episcopal chaplain by vocation) and deep well of knowledge (she holds a PhD from Yale) are present on every page.  She peppers her stories of struggle and heartache with petitions from the Book of Common Prayer, and transitions from SSRI’s and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to praying with the saints with a deft hand.  Greene-McCreight writes many things that need to be repeated in our pulpits and small groups, such as this simple but profound statement: “Mental illness is not an indication of the weakness of one’s faith.” (117)  As a pastor, I am glad to have this book to recommend, and I will be doing so frequently.

We need to hear this word from a sister in Christ who has walked this lonesome valley and invites us to tarry on with her; we need her wisdom, her depth, and her faithful tenacity in the face of illness.  I continue to be struck by this:

…sick people are not necessarily weak. I am ashamed to admit i did not already know this. Sick people are afflicted. They need the help of the Christian community, not our rejection. Mentally ill people can shock us. The stigma of mental illness can turn us off. But it should be the Christian community of all places where those who suffer are welcomed and supported, prayed for and comforted. (162)

As best as I can tell, churches tend to avoid the uncomfortable topic of mental illness. I am guilty of this.  But I believe I am better equipped to address these hard issues and help reduce some of the stigma in the community I serve after reading Darkness is My Only Companion.  More than anything, Greene-McCreight has convinced me we can and must do better.

I know it is normal to offer some critique as part of a review, even if only for the sake of custom or to appear impartial.  But I have nothing to offer on this score, and I do not wish to make something up for the sake of appearances.  As a pastor, and as a friend and companion to those with mental illness, I am grateful for this book.  I will echo Archbishop Welby, who concludes his Foreword to this new edition by giving thinks “above all to the God who unexpectedly has renewed me in his perfect love and grace” through this profound and unique work.

In the words of St. Augustine: tolle, lege.  Take and read.

P.S. I have not read the previous printing, but I was interested to read the afterword that is new to this edition, in which the author relates some of her own more recent experience with mental illness, discusses new treatments that are emerging, and responds to some of the chief critiques she’s received since the original publication in 2006.

Special thanks to Brazos for providing a review copy of this book.

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“Dark & Monstrous”: The Perils of Online Christian Community

A pack of gray wolves surround a bison, via Wikimedia Commons.  This is how group-think afflicted Christian often act online.

A pack of gray wolves surround a bison, via Wikimedia Commons. This is how Christians, awash in group-think unawares, often act online.

“How can you handle all that arguing??”  Friends regularly remark to me how much they dislike getting into religious discussions on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and the like.  They say this in shock that I seem to enjoy it.  I suppose we all have different personalities, some of which are amenable to getting in the gutter and slogging it out and some of which are not.  For my own part, I am not sure which is better; I only know that I am not good at seeing foolishness and not naming it as such.

There are many inherent dangers in the world of internet Christianity.  Ivan Pils, an Orthodox layperson, recently laid out some of these from a specifically Eastern perspective in a great piece for First Things.  His comments, though, certainly apply outside of Orthodox Christianity (so you might, as you read this, replace “Orthodox” with whatever your chief adjective is for your genus of Christianity – evangelical, progressive, Baptist, Emergent, Methodist, Missional, etc.):

It is unhealthy to have more co-religionist friends online than in your own parish. I have seen this happen to some converts who first encountered Orthodoxy online—an increasingly common phenomenon—and therefore naturally built their new identities around people and ideas from the Internet. The parish, characterized by creative chaos, is by definition a place to practice humility, patience, and brotherly love, and to be challenged by how others live the Christian life, not to have one’s biases reinforced.

By contrast, the online inquirer is comfortably anonymous, and can freely consume a wide variety of viewpoints and opinions. And there is a lot of junk out there: Anonymous blogs make the Orthodox case for every outré cause, from monarchism to Marxism. Faceless vigilantes harbor dark vendettas against bishops. And respectable-sounding forums provide a place for lonely sticklers to pursue uncharitable acts of Pharisaism against everyone from Roman Catholics (ultramontane Latinizers) to Muslims (bloodthirsty Turks) to the wrong kind of Orthodox (new-calendar ecumenists, or heartless liturgy-fetishists). One can easily find a sympathetic corner of the Internet and stay there, without having to face uncomfortable alternatives to one’s preferred vision of Orthodoxy. This is dark and monstrous.” (emphasis added)

So much truth here.  If you find more community online than in your local parish, beware.  The local church does not exist to confirm all of our biases, and to seek this out in fear or loathing of anyone who might challenge our pet theological fancies is unhealthy socially, psychologically, and spiritually.  Maturity does not come to those who seek safe refuge from all possible challenges to our assumptions and deeply held biases.

The many varieties of social media, by Brian Solis and JESS3 via Wikimedia Commons.

The many varieties of social media, by Brian Solis and JESS3 via Wikimedia Commons.

A good test for spiritual health is this: am I regularly in contact with people who challenge my worldview?

Pils is dead-on that “there is a lot of junk out there.”  Indeed, it seems that the key to being a significant voice in the online Christian conversation is to be at least half-crazy and barely Christian.  All the more reason to pause if you find yourself loving your online ecclesial family more than the flesh-and-blood Body of Christ.  You’ve traded a gnostic personal playground for the Christian life that God intended for you: a life in real community, with all its attendant blessings and challenges, conflicts and potlucks and pettiness and hugs.

In my last post, I noted Michael Eric Dyson’s critique of Cornel West: the true prophet is tethered to a true spiritual community.  Absent that filial and communal bond, Christian thought, speech, and action is likely to degenerate into a sad parody of church. And this, to me, explains rather elegantly so much of the garbage online that passes for Christian discourse.  It can’t be an accident that the most outlandish malarky comes from those with few or zero ties to the local church: ex-preachers, blogging hobbyists with an ax to grind, seminary students, campus ministers, agnostics masquerading as Christians, and former church staff members.

There is no shortage of those with a grievance against the local church (some days I am one of them); but beware of critique against the church from those who are not invested in it.  Words come cheaply when they are never tested by the gritty reality of other flesh-and-blood persons, and instead only see light among the self-chosen sycophants with whom it is so easy to surround oneself in the online world that we too easily mistake for reality.

In the image above, a pack of wolves surrounds a bison.  The pack mentality is strong among Christians online, and the instinct to hunt, run to ground, and destroy is easily spotted.  If you don’t believe me, get into a conversation with a TULIP-loving Calvinist or one of Rachel Held Evans’ minions (in reality, two sides of the same coin) – the pack will come out very quickly.

Even among Christians dedicated to caritas, the internet can be a place where our most base instincts are allowed to roam free.  As with many things, social media is a useful servant but a very poor master.  Let us resist the wide path, the easy substitution of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ for an online facsimile of like-minded people who all hate the same things.  This is a fool’s bargain when compared to the complex, messy beauty of the community God gave us at Pentecost.

Thoughts?

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Relevance Kills: Rob Bell and Pyrrhic Victory

Me and Rob in 2010 at Duke.

Me and Rob in 2010 at Duke.

Relevance destroys.  You can sell a lot of burgers, but that makes you McDonalds.  Your album went triple platinum? The Spice Girls have you beat.  I fear that the once-respected evangelical pastor Rob Bell is becoming a spiritual McDonalds, a pop shadow of his former self.  Will he serve billions and billions more? Likely. But a burger made for the masses is neither tasty nor nutritious (nor a burger).

First things first.  I genuinely have affection for Bell.  I showed Nooma videos to my young adults.  I defended him when those with no sense of doctrinal history condemned him for age-old questions asked in Love Wins.  I saw him speak live at Duke and even got my picture taken with him. (He’s much taller than me.)

But I was saddened to read a recent interview with him by RNS.  I can live with controversial, envelope-pushing popular Christian reflection. I can tolerate the hipster glasses and skinny jeans.  But getting in league with Oprah and her army of overhyped pseudo-experts? This is a bridge too far.

Think about the other personalities under Oprah’s corporate umbrella:

  • Dr. Phil McGraw, a straight-talking Texan who dispenses counseling mints to millions of homes a week, making the frightening and deep inner work of therapy look as simple as talking to your local rodeo clown.  While McGraw does have a legitimate doctorate in clinical psychology, he has not been licensed to practice in any state since 1989.  (Imagine me offering advice on the church, pastoral care, and theology if my denomination had severed ties with me over 20 years ago!)
  • Dr. Mehmet Oz, a leading surgeon whose television success came at the expense of putting  his stamp on all kinds of snake oil backed by psuedo-science.  Some of his claims about phony weight loss products were so egregious that the US Senate got involved (because priorities).

In both instances, their relevance to mass audiences have taken legitimate concerns (physical and mental health) and commodified them to the point of tragicomedy.

A few years ago, I would have thought Bell a poor fit for such company, but now I am less certain.  Perhaps burned from the (admittedly ridiculous) backlash following Love Wins, Bell has essentially abandoned the church:

Now resettled near Los Angeles, the couple no longer belongs to a traditional church.  “We have a little tribe of friends,” Bell said. “We have a group that we are journeying with. There’s no building. We’re churching all the time. It’s more of a verb for us.”

I wonder what the thousands of people who came to faith under Bell’s ministry at Mars Hill think of this? Personally, I would feel as if I’d been sold a bag of magic beans.  To think of it another way: the guy who so smoothly and confidently convinced you to buy a Honda is now driving a Fiat.

Rob Bell’s obsession with relevance – the desire to “matter” to the concerns and questions of contemporary culture – turns out to have been an invitation to entropy.  Bell is now so relevant that he seems to have little interest in Christianity.  Last year, in a speech at Vanderbilt University, he introduced himself as everything but a pastor, and didn’t mention his former calling until about 20 minutes in.  Moreover, when asked by RNS about working with Oprah, a notorious consumer from and promoter of the buffet of quasi-spiritualities, he responded:

“Is she a Christian? That word has so much baggage, I wouldn’t want to answer for someone. When Jesus talks about the full divine life, you think, this is what he’s talking about.”

I have no idea when Jesus talked about “the full divine life,” except when speaking about himself.  If the price of cultural relevance is that the “baggage” of a basic descriptor like ‘Christian’ is too much to palate or the particularity of the Son of God is an embarrassment, then it is time to stop making a fool’s bargain.

Rob spent a church building a career career building a church that was “relevant.”  The threshold for entry was low; it didn’t look, talk, or feel like “church,” and people responded in droves. Bell, in turn, built his brand on identifying with the non-religious and skeptic folks who were turned off by anything too obviously Christian.  But now, it appears, he has gone native.

dr philA pyrrhic victory is one which is too costly to be considered a legitimate win.  Bell’s trajectory shows clearly that the cost of cultural acceptance – the cost of relevance – is too high to pay.  The relevant pastor and the relevant congregation will find much success, as the world defines it.  But in earning that victory, it appears that one becomes so co-opted that the costs outweigh the benefits.  Looking back to the Civil War, we might consider the example of Confederate General Robert E. Lee constantly defeating Ulysses Grant’s attacks with superior tactics, but unable to sustain the campaign in the face of the superior resources of the North, who could afford the losses.  Likewise, pastors and churches who win the battle for relevance soon realize the long-term costs are far higher than first anticipated, and will then often find themselves co-opted beyond all restoration by the world they were trying to reach.  Playing to consumerism ends up consuming you.

Rob Bell is our next Dr. Phil, an expert whose expertise has been twisted to relevant, market-driven agenda.  He has gone from a pastor, a guide of souls, a preacher of the gospel, to just another space filler in Oprah’s cubby of spiritual shills.

A pyrrhic victory, if ever there was one.

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A Graceless Apocalypse: Thoughts on “Slabtown” (The Walking Dead)

Beth in "Slabtown," courtesy IGN's excellent review.

Beth in “Slabtown,” courtesy IGN’s excellent review.

[Warning: serious spoilers below. You’ve been warned.]

“Everything costs something, right?”

Season 5, episode 4 of The Walking Dead takes a departure to catch us up on a character we haven’t seen in quite a while.  Last we saw Beth, she was carted off by mysterious forces in a vehicle sporting a white cross.  In last night’s episode, “Slabtown,” Beth wakes up in an unexpected place: a hospital, which we later learn is Grady Memorial in Atlanta.  In a throwback to the pilot episode, she awakens in a strange location unsure what has happened.   The woman in charge of the hospital, Dawn, sets the tone immediately.  Because we used our resources to save you, she says to Beth, “You owe us.”

Beth soon learns that the abandoned hospital is run by survivors who have been rescued (kidnapped? kidrescued?) and then repay their debt by working various tasks inside the hospital.  Outside is nothing but zombies walkers/biters/rotters, so even those at the top of the hierarchy are basically trapped.  But in this inhumane place, the male guards abuse the female workers, and those who want to leave are threatened.  Anyone who questions the system is reminded what it took to rescue them.  “Everything costs something, right?” as one character says.  Beth even refuses food at first because she realizes it will only run up her tab faster.

“Slabtown,” aside from being the kind of interesting, creepy, and suspenseful episode viewers have come to expect from The Walking Dead, also offers the perfect picture  of life without grace.  Everything costs.  Nothing is simply given.

Thanks be to God that the Divine Economy works differently.  With God, nothing is earned, all is given.  As Ephesians 2:8-9 (NRSV) says,

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

As Tim Keller points out in The Prodigal God (and the parable of the sower further suggests), our God is not stingy in doling out grace.  When we meet God, His first word is not “you owe me” but, like the loving father in the story of the prodigal son, “all that I have is already yours.”

Icon of Christ the Sower

Icon of Christ the Sower

My church recently started a weekly meal for the community; anyone who wants to come in for a meal gets fed, at no cost. When people ask us if they can pay, we tell them no, that there are other ways they can show gratitude if they wish but the meal is free.

We call this ministry Table of Grace, because the food, like God’s grace, is free of charge.  “Slabtown” gives us an excellent view of a world (or at least a half-operative apocalyptic hospital) that has forgotten grace.  Too often Christians, though, act exactly this way.  We only recruit new church members with “resources.”  We plant churches in wealthy neighborhoods and only befriend those who can enhance our status and help us reach our goals.  We ask our community to pay our bills (with incessant fundraisers) but never give anything back to our neighbors.  The temptation of mammon remains, and always will.

But followers of Jesus are at our best when we remember that God is not miserly with His grace.  Though we capitalist North Americans so often hate to receive for nothing, though it is antithetical to the world we live in, that is the Kingdom economy that we meet in the Bible.  Unlike the apocalypse-stricken Grady Memorial in Atlanta, the truth of the cosmos is an economy of grace.

That which matters most is free; God writes no bills, and we could not buy His love with any amount of money.  Thanks be to God.

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Following Jesus Alone is Impossible

by Drew 2 Comments
More like your own personal idol.

More like your own personal idol.

In all quarters, we hear from folks who seem to have outgrown the need for religious community.  There is talk of scandals, such as Ted Haggard and the Archdiocese of Boston.  Significant figures famously deconvert, like Tony Campolo’s son.  And we all have personal accounts of being mistreated or insufficiently cared for by churches, pastors, and supposedly Christian friends.  Combine all that with a culture of radical individualism, a disease present even when masked by the superficialities of social media, and you have a recipe for the abandonment of Christian community.

Will Willimon reflects,

Living a religious life would be an easy task were it not for the troublesome presence of other people. The woman who says that she feels more religious when she stays at home on Sunday morning watching Oral Roberts on television, the man who claims to have a more uplifting experience on the golf course than in church, the young person who receives “better vibrations” in twenty minutes of transcendental meditation than in sixty minutes of morning worship are all simply stating what is true: It is easier to feel “religious” in such individual, solitary, comfortable circumstances.  Whether it is possible to be Christian in such circumstances is another matter. (78)

I can’t speak to other faiths, to atheism (though the rejection of religion seems to have itself become a religion), or to the searching spiritualists of no particular faith heritage.   But both the whole canon of Scripture and the story of God’s people – Israel and the Church – point to the impossibility of knowing and serving the One God alone.  Even the most extreme solitaries of the Christian tradition, the desert monks of Egypt, had a larger purpose to their isolation and would receive guests to teach or would emerge occasionally to give counsel.  We may like Jesus much more than his Body, the Church, but we are not allowed to choose between them.  Willimon goes on to say,

The church is, above all, a group of people, a more human than a divine institution – that is its glory. It was no accident that Jesus called a group of disciples, not isolated individuals, nor was it by chance that immediately following the death of resurrection of Jesus we find a group of people gathered together in the name of Jesus.  The Christian life is not an easy one, the world being what it is and we being what we are. We need others. Strong people are nose who are strong enough to admit that they need other people.  The rugged individualist is a spiritual adolescent. (84)

I have no idea how much community matters in other faiths.  But of this much I am confident: it is impossible to follow Jesus as Jesus intended by oneself.  If you truly love someone, you love their people, you love who they love.  How does that apply to Christian discipleship?

You can’t love Jesus well if you ignore his Bride.  He never intended that to be an option.

An oldie but a goodie.

An oldie but a goodie.

[Source: Will Willimon, The Gospel for the Person Who Has Everything, (Valley Forge: Judson Press 1987).]

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Empathy – the Enemy?

 

I read an interesting piece by Mark Steyn recently that questioned to oft-vaunted “empathy” of the Left.  The occasion for this discussion was the horror that some members of the media showed when Rick Santorum explained the circumstances around the death of an infant child.  In brief: though told that the baby would live only hours outside the womb, Mr. and Mrs. Santorum decided to take the child home so that the family could meet him.  Basically, he decided to treat his non-viable child like…a life.  How strange.

Steyn points out the irony of the “empathetic” Left showing horror at this occasion:

The Left endlessly trumpets its “empathy.” President Obama, for example, has said that what he looks for in his judges is “the depth and breadth of one’s empathy.” As he told his pro-abortion pals at Planned Parenthood, “we need somebody who’s got the heart — the empathy — to recognize what it’s like to be a young teenage mom.” Empathy, empathy, empathy: You barely heard the word outside clinical circles until the liberals decided it was one of those accessories no self-proclaimed caring progressive should be without.

Of course, the irony goes deeper than this instance.  The Left’s empathy ends when it meets people with whom it disagrees:

The Left’s much-vaunted powers of empathy routinely fail when confronted by those who do not agree with them politically. Rick Santorum’s conservatism is not particularly to my taste (alas, for us genuine right-wing crazies, it’s that kind of year), and I can well see why fair-minded people would have differences with him on a host of issues… The usual rap against the Right is that they’re hypocrites — they vote for the Defense of Marriage Act, and next thing you know they’re playing footsie across the stall divider with an undercover cop at the airport men’s room. But Rick Santorum lives his values, and that seems to bother the Left even more.

All this has me wondering if empathy is much good at all.  I recently completed Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve.  If you aren’t familiar with systems theory, you probably should be.  His basic argument in this book is that leaders lead best who lead themselves.  That is, the best leaders are able to remain connected while staying differentiated (not “bound up” on a core level with those one leads).  Doing so enables leaders to take well-defined stances that, if maintained, encourage growth on the part of those around her or him.

Empathy, as it turns out, is counterproductive to this model of leadership (and maturity).  Friedman points out that “empathy” entered our language very recently, and yet in its short history has come to be viewed as indispensable in all kinds of professions and contexts.

“As lofty and noble as the concept of empathy may sound, and as well-intentioned as those may be who make it the linchpin idea of their theories…societal regression has too often perverted the use of empathy into a disguise for anxiety, a rationalization for failure to define a position, and a power tool in the hands of the “sensitive”…I have consistently found the introduction of the subject of “empathy” into family, institutional, and community meetings to be reflective of, as well as an effort to induce, a failure of nerve among its leadership.”

The basic assumption of empathy is understanding.  The classic illustration is that sympathy can look down on someone from above with pity, but empathy puts us right next to the person in trouble.  Friedman’s argument – and he is not a reactionary arch-conservative but a Reformed Rabbi and counselor – is that the empathetic stance is actually counter-productive to the growth and “self-regulation” (read: maturation, development, positive change) of the others we seek to help.

The bottom line:

“Forces that are un-self-regulating can never be made to adapt toward the strength of a system by trying to understand or appreciate their nature…it is self-regulation, not feeling for others, that is critical in the face of entities which lack that quality.” (133-135).

What do you think?  Is empathy actually holding back our churches, families, and communities?  Is empathy the enemy?

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Oh That Pesky Infant Baptism…

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I’ve been slogging through the Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics and noting occassional gems.  As a whole, the Companion is quite good, though it obviously leans heavily toward the perspective of its editors.  One particularly interesting chapter, by David McCarthy, explores the practices of marriage, relationships, and sex in the modern world in contradistinction to the Church.  A central focus is marriage (from his Catholic theology a sacrament), which he argues is a means of grace.  As a means of grace, it bestows certain gifts as an objective reality, regardless of the fitness of those who recieve.

So it is, he says, with infant baptism:

Infant baptism makes clear that our relation to God and our active faith are always gifts.  It makes clear that we do not make ourselves or will ourselves to have faith.  Infant baptism makes clear that the presence of God in the world is mediated through the gathering of a people, who worship him and are called to be holy as God is holy. (Hauerwas and Wells, The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics [Oxford: Blackwell 2004 ], 284)

As a Methodist in the Bible Belt, it’s always good to think about why we practice infant baptism  because many of the folks around me think it nonsensical.  But the idea of faith as a pure gift – here the Wesleyan concept of prevenient grace is particularly helpful – gets us away from so much of the works righteousness/faith-as-personal-acheivement theology that permeates Protestantism.  Even as babies, God, through the work of His covenant community the Church, makes us Christians.  It is a gift that we spend a lifetime receiving.

Thanks be to God.

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