Archive

Monthly Archives: August 2009

I’ve been preparing for next month’s Moltmann Conversation by reading The Church in the Power of the Spirit.  I read The Crucified God and The Trinity and the Kingdom in seminary, and posted some thought about them here, but given our current context with The Upper Room, I’m especially interested in Moltmann’s take on the nature of the Church.  Specifically for this post, I’m intrigued by a few insights he has into the missional nature of the church in The Church in the Power of the Spirit.

1) The Church is sent in mission because God is within Godself a sending God.  Not only did God the Father send the Son in the power of the Spirit into the world, but the Trinity has an inherently “sending” nature within Godself.  “The missio ad extra reveals the missio ad intra. The missio ad intra is the foundation for the missio ad extra” (p. 54).  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist in love, and love necessarily must express itself.  Hence the mutual expression of love which the persons of the Trinity share for each other becomes the foundation for God’s expression of love to the world in the sending of the Son and in turn the foundation for the Church’s expression of God’s love for the world in mission.

2) The Church’s missional nature derives from eschatology.  Moltmann’s theology is done from the perspective of eschatology.  In light of Christ’s resurrection, he looks forward to the new creation of all things, and that hope becomes the foundation of other theological reflection.  Applied to the Church in mission, this means we look not just to the Cross and to Christ’s resurrection as the foundation of the Church; we look to the coming resurrection and new creation that will be the completion of Christ’s redemptive work as the future which determines the Church’s present.  “It is precisely for the sake of this futureof the immediate presence of God experienced by liberated and glorified man that the missionary movement must take the messianic Word to the ends of the earth and to the end of the world’s history of suffering,” (p. 85, italics added). 

3) The Church’s mission is inescapably political. While writing about the Church as the community of the crucified Christ, Moltmann writes, “As a crucifixion by the Romans, the death of Christ has an irrevocably political dimension” (pp. 89-90).  The Church in mission will be conformed to Christ’s sufferings, it will bear in its body the dying of Christ.  But that suffering does not take place in a political vacuum.  The martyrs of the Church are political martyrs, killed for refusing to submit to the lordship of Caesar.  Moltmann continues “Churches which forget the martyrs who were ‘political’ in this sense are in danger of adapting themselves to the political religion of the society to which they belong” (p. 91).  Applied to mission, this means that participating in Christ’s mission includes challenging political idolatry.  Thus one way in which Christ’s sufferings are manifest in the Church is the Church’s “public apostleship in public intervention on behalf of the lost and despised” (p. 93).

4) All who profess the lordship of Christ are called to participate in his mission.  Similar to Barth in IV.3.2 of Church Dogmatics, Moltmann argues that all who respond to the Gospel of Christ’s Kingdom are in turn called to be heralds of that Kingdom.  And the purpose of mission is not the building of the Church, but the proclamation of God’s reign and the coming Kingdom:  “As a call to freedom the gospel is an event of missionary calling.  Its aim is not to spread the Christian religion or to implant the church; it is to liberate the people for the exodus in the name of the coming kingdom” (p. 84).  Proclaiming the inbreaking of God’s future for the world, “all Christians share in the prophetic ministry of Christ and are witnesses of the gospel” (p. 85).

Last May, I got a kick out of Nadia Bolz-Weber and Tony Jones reflecting on the Revised Common Lectionary’s tendency to omit passages of scripture that are potentially offensive or not politically correct.  For example, passages such as James 5 are omitted: “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you.  Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. ”  We don’t like judgment, especially judgment against comfortable wealthy lifestyles, so we avoid happily censor such passages. 

Tonight at Upper Room I’m preaching on Ephesians 5:21-6:9, expurgated from the Lectionary because of its language about wives submitting to their husbands and slaves submitting to their masters.   Certainly in history the passage has been abused to justify slavery and misogyny.   Because of that history, when we hear “wives, submit to your husbands”, we assume it will lead to situations like the permission of  marital rape in Afghanistan.  Thus the lectionary omits the passage and people avoid talking about it.  But how are we supposed to teach people to interpret texts like this responsibly if we don’t preach on them? 

The key verse in the entire passage is verse 21: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  Verses 22, in the Greek, doesn’t even have the verb “submit” in it.  Literally, it’s a continuation of verse 21, as though it could say, “for example, wives to your husbands . . . . ”  The passage offers a call to mutual submission, following the pattern of Christ’s self-offering on behalf of the world – not a one-sided submission.  In fact, the attention Paul gives to the husband’s love of the wife is much more than other ancient writers would have given.  Paul’s call to love and mutual-submission was counter-cultural to the one-sided submission expected by much of Greek and Roman society. 

Mutual submission is counter-cultural today, as well.  Our culture has gone from having one spouse submit to the other to having neither spouse submit.  Instead, both often seek their own independent will and fulfillment.  This is one reason why so many marriages end in divorce today: each spouse isn’t really seeking the good of the other, they’re seeking their own good.  It is counter-cultural now, just as it was in the first century to say: “submit to one another.” It’s counter-cultural because it requires denying the self, not just by one partner, but by both.  Self-dential for mutual submission is even more offensive to a culture that exalts in the individual self than the idea of a wife submitting to her husband is to an egalitarian culture.

Hence Paul’s call to love our spouses as “Christ loves the church and gave himself up for her.” Mutual submission is about dying to self and living in love, which is never a pleasant process.  It is offensive, and that’s why we need to hear it.

As I was finishing reading Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy two days ago, this caught my eye.  Talking about the need to practice spiritual disciplines, he says “The important point is to understand that some framework of disciplines . . . is needed to form a life plan for spiritual growth” (p. 418 n. 18).   Willard is encouraging commitment to rhythms of spiritual disciples, but the phrase made me think of something even bigger.  How often do we have plans for other aspects of our lives: career-tracks, five-year plans, family plans, etc.?  But how rarely do we really set life-size goals to grow spiritually, or allow plans to grow spiritually to trump other factors in decision making?  What would happen if major life decisions were made by asking which option forced us to become better disciples?

I have one friend who chose to pursue a Ph.D. in theology because he thought it would lead to spiritual growth.  It will probably set him on a decent career track (as a professor or writer or pastor), but the purpose wasn’t his job.  Nor was the purpose academics for the sake of academics.  He wanted to grow spiritually and chose a path that would lead to it.  Aside from that example, I can’t think of many people I know who have deliberately made major life decisions by the same criterion.  Usually personal ambitions (or lack thereof), or financial, practical, or relationship factors determine our “life plans.”

One place where planning for spiritual growth is gaining popularity is in the concept of a Rule of Life, which I first came across through reading Pete Scazzero’s Emotionally Healthy Spirituality.   Most examples of a rule of life that I’ve seen, though, seem more focused on maintaining sanity and spiritual health, rather than consciously and deliberately growing in discipleship.  I think the difference between a rule of life to a life plan for spiritual growth would lie in decision-making.  Looking to the future, and seeking to grow spiritual as a disciple as one moves into the future God has for a person, a person makes choices based upon choosing the path of spiritual growth.  For some examples:

  • Vocational/career decisions are made not based upon financial criteria, but upon choosing a path that allows for greater discipleship.  For example, my friend’s choice to pursue a Ph.D. in theology.  Or, in my life, choosing church-planting over taking a comfy job at an established church because of the ways this life forces me grow as a disciple.
  • Marriage/parenting/friendship relationships are seen primarily as crucibles for growth in discipleship. For an example of this in marriage, see Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas.
  • Schedules are determined by one’s spiritual needs, rather than one’s other perceived needs.  In other words, we consciously align our schedules around spiritual disciplines.
  • Geographical location – we move where God has called us, or where we will continue to grow spiritually or participate in God’s mission, rather than simply to be near family or near a well-paying job.

Most of what I listed are big decisions; what smaller choices are a matter of choosing the path of discipleship and spiritual growth as well?

  • The books we read. Music we listen to. TV shows we watch. Which choices promote spiritual growth?
  • The clothes we wear and food we buy.  How can choosing simplicity and justice over excess and abuse of people and God’s creation help us grow as disciples?
  • Our means of transportation.  Can we choose to walk, bike, or ride the bus as a part of our “life plan for spiritual growth”?

What other types of decisions could be seen through this lens?

Someone at the cafe recently taped this fortune cookie fortune to the cash register: “If you don’t do it excellently, don’t do it at all.”  I’m not sure whether it’s resulted in increased excellence or excuses not to attempt certain tasks, but I appreciate the point: Strive to do everything with excellence.

For a follower of Jesus, I think the point needs to be taken one step further: Strive to do everything in a way that honors God.  One of the hardest places for many people to do this, unfortunately, is their work environment.  Our workplaces are where we spend a great amount of our time every day, but rarely does the church teach disciples well what their faith means for how they work.

I think part of the problem stems from two misconceptions: (1) We assume that a job can only honor God if it’s explicitly ministry related.  Occupations that aren’t “full-time Christian service”,  non-profit work, or dedicated to a noble humanitarian cause get written off as “ordinary jobs”. (2) We assume also that if people have an “ordinary job”, then the only way they can serve God at that job is if they evangelize their coworkers, or attempt to be the moral conscience of the company.   

A helpful corrective for both of these is to see one’s work, whatever it is, as something that is done for God, in the way that Jesus would do it.  In two weeks I get to preach on the household code portion of Ephesians (5:21-6:9).  That includes a passage encouraging slaves to obey their masters.  Without going into detail about slavery in biblical times, it’s worth saying that a common application of this passage in our context today is that of bosses employees and their bosses.  Ephesians 6:7, tells workers to: “Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord and not people.”  The parallel passage in Colossians 3:23 says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.”  The emphasis is on how one sees the work that they do, not what the actual work is. 

Dallas Willard has some great words about this in part of The Divine Conspiracy which I recently read.  Willard points out that a disciple is “learning from Jesus to live my life as he would live my life if he were I.”  (p. 283).   This means that we approach our work seeking to do it as Jesus would do that specific task.  So for example, tonight at the cafe, while thinking about writing this post, I had to mop the basement floor.  Mopping a basement would not be the first thing on my list of jobs that honor God if I were operating from the assumptions listed above.  But, thinking about serving the Lord and not people, I tried to do an even better job than I normally would have.  (Our manager will probably read this and tell me in the morning that Jesus would be disappointed with the job I did.  Oh well.  I think Jesus would be proud that I swept the staircase, too.)

Here’s an extended quote from Willard to elaborate on how almost any job can be done for the Lord:

“But once again, the specific work to be done – whether it is making ax handles or tacos, selling automobiles or teaching kindergarten, investment banking or political office, evangelizing or running a Christian education program, performing in the arts or teaching English as a second language – is of central interest to God.  He wants it done well.  It is work that should be done, and it should be done as Jesus himself would do it. Nothing can substitute for that.  In my opinion, at least, as long as one is on the job, all peculiarly religious activities should take second place to doing ‘the job’ in sweat, intelligence, and the power of God. That is our devotion to God. (I am assuming, of course, that the job is one that serves good human purposes.)” (p. 286). 

 The assumption he tacks on at the end is important.  A job that contradicts God’s purposes in this world may not be something we should work at as though for the Lord.  Perhaps working some jobs as though for the Lord means being subversive or prophetic in certain contexts?  More Willard: “A gentle but firm noncooperation with things that everyone knows to be wrong, together with a sensitive, nonofficious, nonintrusive, nonobsequious service to others, should be our usual over manner.” (p. 285)

But back to the original question, what difference would it make for a secretary, a garbage man, a cook, an accountant, or a mail-carrier to see their job through this lens?  How can we better teach this form of discipleship in the Church?  Are there any people who serve as examples, known for doing this well?

BennerLast night I finished reading Sacred Companions: The Gift of Spiritual Friendship and Direction by David Benner.  The book has been out for several years, but I only came across it this year thanks to the recommendation of Adam McHugh.  I wanted to read it for two reasons: (1) Adam said it was good for introverts; and (2) It was honestly the first Christian book I’ve come across that addressed the idea of spiritual friendship.  I’ve had friends before who’ve challenged me to grow in my faith, or who have walked alongside me at different points in my journey, but I rarely consciously reflected on the power of such friendships, or how to engage in them intentionally.  Sacred Companions proved to be extremely helpful in providing that opportunity for reflection and guidance in how to intentionally pursue spiritual friendship.

Mike and I read and discussed it together over the past few months and have found it very helpful in thinking through how we relate as friends and co-pastors.  Chapters 2 and 3, “Hospitality, Presence & Dialogue” and “The Ideals of Spiritual Friendship” have set the tone for the way we seek to relate to one another as both friends and coworkers. One of the most rewarding parts of working on The Upper Room so far has been the friendship that Mike and I have developed, and these chapters both helped us articulate what that friendship is called to look like and spurred us on in growing together.

I also especially appreciated the third part of the book.  Chapter 8 addresses the idea of “spiritual accompaniment groups” – small groups that gather around discerning and sharing where God has been present in their lives (rather than focusing primarily on Bible study or fellowship).  I didn’t have the name for it at the time, but this is what the Tuesday night men’s group of Open Door was for me during my final year of seminary.  I’m grateful for that group of guys and wish we had been able to read this together then. Chapter 9 gave an honest, realistic, and encouraging picture of what marriage looks like as a shared spiritual journey, including both the struggles and the rewards spiritual intimacy in marriage. 

Lastly, the book has an incredible annotated bibliography.  Be careful – it’s one of those books that makes you want to read seven more.