15:28 compliant: spaces for the storytellers

Let me remind you what I’m doing here in my recent blog posts. I’m taking Acts 15:28 as a decisive clue for Luke’s understanding of the church. That is, the phrase, “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” says something definitive about what it means to be the church. So, what are the elements that make moments like these possible?

One of the remarkable things about Acts is how many stories are told by the characters. Peter tells stories. Paul and Barnabas tell stories. Stephen tells stories. All in an overall story about the Spirit leading the church to the ends of the earth.

I’m fascinated by Peter’s story telling in particular. The events that lead to his meeting with Cornelius in Acts 10 also lead directly to the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15. What’s fascinating is how Peter’s understanding of what God is up to grows with each telling of this story.

You remember how it begins for Peter. He receives the exact same vision three times while in a trance, in which a sheet with unclean animals comes down from heaven accompanied by a voice imploring him to “rise, kill, and eat.” Peter, however, protests because he’s a good church boy and keeps the food laws religiously. The voice from heaven persists, clarifying the moment, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Yet, despite this interpretative clue, “Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision he had seen.”

Following the vision he receives the messengers sent from Cornelius, who inform Peter of Cornelius’ visitation from an angel who brings instruction to send for Peter. The next day Peter returns with them to meet Cornelius. By the time he arrives at Cornelius’ house, he is no longer puzzled about the meaning of the dream. He flatly declares, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” The vision Peter received is about food, or unclean animals. And while the voice from heaven gives a hint that this might be bigger than just food, Peter’s declaration makes the expanded meaning clear. No person is unclean. The story has received added clarity in the retelling.

In chapter 11, Peter is compelled to relate the story again to his Jewish brothers in Jerusalem. In the retelling, the meaning of the story is again expanded. Now Peter relates the story of Cornelius’ conversion to the story of Pentecost in Acts 2. The Spirit fell on the Gentiles at Cornelius’ house the way it did on Jews on Pentecost. We might say now, call no one unclean upon whom the Spirit has fallen. It was, after all, Peter himself in Acts 2 who suggests that the Pentecost event is a fulfillment of the word of God spoken by the prophet Joel, “In the last days…I will pour my Spirit out on all flesh.” In Acts 11, he connects the two stories.

Luke’s account of all of this is fascinating to me. In each re-telling, the significance of the story for those telling it, and hearing it, grows. Part of this has to do with the adding of new events, for example, the angel’s appearance to Cornelius and the Spirit falling upon the Gentiles. But it’s not just new information that gets assimilated into the telling of the story. It is also older stories that take on new meaning in light of the retelling of the more current story. And it takes multiple persons to provide the full meaning of the story. Peter’s confusion related to the vision is surely cleared up by in part by the visit of Cornelius’ servants and by Cornelius’ own account of things. The full meaning of the story is held by a community, not just an individual. No single person holds the entire meaning. It takes multiple storytellers.

This kind of telling and re-telling is essential to a 15:28 moment. And if my premise is right, then this kind of storytelling is also crucial to the church’s identity. That is, the church is not simply an organization with formal characteristics or marks, but it is a story-formed, story-performing community. The church lives in its Acts birthright when it bears testimony (a good Lukan work) to the movement of a living God through the stories it tells and performs.

This narrative understanding of the church, that the church is a story-formed, story-performing people, isn’t surprising given the fact that we express meaning primarily in narrative ways. We are constantly picking and choosing details from our life and placing them into a meaningful plot. And part of the way we pick and choose is by what others notice in our stories, or how others put little threads together in ways that we might otherwise miss. This telling and retelling is inescapably communal.

I’ve seen this dynamic at work in some pretty important ways in my work with congregations. I am a consultant for the Partnership for Missional Church (PMC), which works with clusters of congregations over a three year period. During this process, we have “cluster gatherings” where “process leaders” gather for reporting and training. Our consistent practice on the opening night of a cluster gathering is to tell stories. Each congregation decides on a story to tell the others from the work they’ve done since the last cluster gathering. We do it in a round-robin style where the storyteller stays put and the congregations rotate around to all the storytellers. So, a storyteller might tell the same story five or six times in an evening. At the end of each telling, those who are listening can make comments or ask questions.

As a consultant, I eavesdrop on the stories. Here’s the thing. They get better as the night goes on. The storyteller gets better with each rehearsal. But it’s more than just better communication. The storyteller is interpreting the story anew every time she tells it. The very effort to bring the experience to words clarifies its meaning. And the questions and comments made by others also pushes and shapes the story in certain ways. Things that others noticed now become a part of the story. It’s significance grows and becomes clearer with each retelling.

I think this dynamic is typical of the work of the Holy Spirit. From the initial experience that gives rise to a story, through its telling and retelling in community, the Spirit of God often moves to bring a meaningful testimony to the work of God.

So, congregations hoping for 15:28 moments must leave space for this kind of activity. It may take the whole church to tell the story of how the Spirit is leading. It will surely take the the creation of space dedicated to the telling of stories.

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Is your worship renewal pagan follow-up

I thought yesterday’s post was a little one-off kind of post, published on a Saturday when no one reads blogs. But the post struck a nerve, both positive and negative. I’m fine with people disagreeing with my blog, especially respectfully, but I want to be understood. Some negative comments in particular didn’t seem to locate the critique I was making in the way I intended. I’m sure this was due to my lack of clarity, so I’d like to take another shot at being understood.

First, I didn’t say that any particular worship practice was wrong. I wondered at the end of the article whether how we plan worship might change if we connected silence to the living presence of God in the world. But I offered those as questions, not prescriptions. To focus on specific worship practices obscures my point.

I am very concerned that we are lacking in capacity to be attentive to God, which requires slowing down, absolutely requires it. It requires being still among other things. Absolutely requires it. I think it requires simplicity, which in turn produces a singleness of vision. Absolutely requires it. Silence is not simply a metaphor, as one comment suggested. It’s an actual practice, as are lifting hands and bending knees and singing and praying (which I’m in favor of).

Our world pulls us in exactly the opposite directions. Our lives are frenetic. And, again, to quote my friend, Randy Harris, “if you’re too busy, God didn’t get you there.” We are constantly being bombarded with things demanding our attention, one after another, producing a cultural attention deficit disorder. We have a hard time being still, and our lives are anything but simple. As I argued in previous posts, Matthew Crawford, in his book, The World Beyond Your Head, has brilliantly laid out the case for why we lack the ability to be attentive to anything, much less God, and calls for the preservation of “attentional commons,” public spaces that refuse to be filled with noise or unending ads. I am arguing that churches could be such spaces, but not as we are currently configured.

We don’t slow people down. The biggest sin a worship service could commit is boredom, which places certain kind of performance pressures on those who plan and lead worship. We’re on the clock, members needing to get on to the next thing. And as I said in the previous blog, we are seldom called to silence or stillness. I am of the opinion that this is a deep spiritual challenge that is deserving of our attention.

So, this is my critique. We might be feeding cultural appetites that make it tough to attend to God by offering more of the same in our worship assemblies. So, if you want to disagree with me, you’re welcome to, I may very well be wrong. But I would simply suggest you make this issue of attentiveness the focus of our disagreement.

On a less germane (to my argument) point. Some of you accused me of poor exegesis, particularly in my use of the Amos text. And if by exegesis you mean a historical-critical reading of Scripture, then you might be right. I certainly didn’t study it all out before I used the texts. But let’s check my work a bit.

I don’t see how you could say that Randy’s reading of Habakkuk, which I was following, is wrong. You might disagree with his application of the text, but clearly idols are being contrasted with the living God, precisely at the level of being able to address worshipers. Because God is not a dumb idol, because he can address the world, the appropriate posture is silence. I would go so far as to say that this should be the predominate gesture or posture of worship. It measures the distance between us and God, that God is God and we are not. It says that life works best when we wait for a word from God. You get the point.

But let’s look at Amos. I’ll admit that I wanted a text that contrasted the noise of our assemblies with silence, and Amos was the closest text in memory. I thought about whether or not I should use it, and decided that it was precisely because of its allusive power that I should. A few readers objected to its use, saying that this was a totally unfair comparison, one saying that Amos had in mind people who had abandoned God, which is not what is going on in our assemblies.

Ok, maybe a bridge too far, but…maybe not. I think we could all agree that Amos is concerned with practices of injustice in which the rich are complicit, and that they are papering them over with displays of piety. Would you agree with that reading? Now, Amos can see this clearly. Can those whom he is critiquing?

I doubt they would say that they had abandoned God. They are, after all, praying, fasting, offering sacrifices, worshiping God. Are they deliberately mocking God? If not, what belief would allow them to hold these things together? They might very well be explaining their circumstances as God’s favor related to their piety or to their status as God’s chosen people. These practices of piety, then, function as a hedge against the prophetic voice that they shout down. Amos, needless to say, sees this all very differently than they do.

So, what would be a legitimate analogy? Well, you would need wealthy believers living in the midst of economic injustice that they are at least ignoring, and in which they are likely complicit, but are papering that over with impressive performances in worship, which in turn allows them to ignore prophetic voices.

Well, that clearly doesn’t apply to us. Yeah, you’re probably right. After all, in our country, poverty is a matter of choice. I heard a Christian candidate for president say that just the other day. It’s simply a matter of how hard you work. Poverty in America, at its roots, is a moral problem. The poor must lack the will, the effort, the industriousness, to lift themselves out of poverty.

I wonder if Amos would see it the same way. Anyway, that would be my exegesis of Amos. I’ll let you decide whether or not it has any bearing.

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Are your congregation’s efforts at worship renewal pagan?

Last weekend, Randy Harris, from Abilene Christian University, spent a day with our new missional leadership cohort at Rochester College, helping them to write a shared rule of life. Randy’s the guy to do this work, and we get so much more than rule of life help. He says things every 30 seconds or so which challenges us to more and deeper.

For instance, he was talking about being attentive to God and how important the contemplative life is to that end. Along the way he noticed a text from Habakkuk 2 in which idols are compared with the living God. The thing about an idol is that it doesn’t speak or do anything. You have to supply all the energy. In contrast, Habbakkuk says, “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (Hab 2:20). We keep still because God is active. Randy then said something to the effect that most efforts at worship renewal appear to him to be more pagan than Christian. We’re working up a performance because we’re not sure God is doing anything. Too harsh?

I don’t remember the last time I sang the song, “The Lord is in his Holy Temple,” in worship. But here’s the thing I remember about that song. It has a four beat measure of silence toward the end in which no one sings. I never encountered a song leader who treated that measure as anything more than a brief pause. We were never silent for four beats. We couldn’t endure it. It was too awkward. Which is totally ironic, given the intent of Habakkuk 2 and the parallel intent of the songwriter.

The fact that we never seem to sing this song anymore and, could never be silent when we did, seems to me to be a parable of sorts that might indicate Randy is on to something.

Most congregations I attend have no space for reflection, no moments when we are invited to be still or silent. When there is silence, it is typically because someone has missed their cue to lead a prayer or read a Scripture, etc. And everyone fidgets in these moments, embarrassed at the lack of performance. We cannot abide silence. I cringe to think that our assemblies might be closer to Amos 5, “Take away from me the noise of your songs,” than Habakkuk 2, “Let all the earth keep silence before him.”

In fact, this might be an important way the church learns to serve the world. My wife, Donna, and I were talking about this and she noted how even when we are asked to observe a moment of silence in the wake of a tragedy at a public event like a ballgame, those moments used to be much longer than the brief pauses we now observe. A few posts ago, I noticed that silence is now a luxury commodity to be sold, for instance in the premium flyer lounges at airports, or with apps that allow you to avoid pop-up ads for a small fee. We are trained not to be attentive, not to be still, not to be silent.

This is an instance of the larger cultural environment, constantly bombarding us with information, influencing the way we worship. It should be the other way around. The way we worship should prepare us to live a life not given to us by the principalities and powers of the age. And that life should be attentive, because our God is no dumb idol.

So, what if our Sunday worship took Habakkuk’s distinction as the starting place for worship planning? What if silence was a prime indicator of belief in a living God? What if worship was intended to form us for greater attentiveness in the world? Would we sing less? (In my experience, we could sing less and still be singing a lot). Would we have fewer powerpoint slides? Would we have more moments for reflection? Would our sermons be less performance oriented? Would worship be a space for slowing down? I think these are things worth thinking about.

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15:28 compliant: got some prayer?

Churches pray. I know they do. But sometimes I feel like they pray as a congregation the way some families pray at mealtime. They’ve got the perfunctory prayers down. They pray when they’re expected to, so that prayer is one of many activities the church does. But, it’s not a way of life. They’re not known for prayer like they’re known for their singing or for their youth programs.

I have no doubt, however, that Luke sees prayer as the church’s way of life, not just one among a number of activities. In Acts, the church does what Jesus does in the gospel of Luke. When Jesus is baptized, only Luke tells us that Jesus is praying when the Spirit descends on him. Only Luke tells us that Jesus is praying when he chooses the twelve. Only Luke tells us that Jesus is praying when he is transfigured. These examples could be multiplied. Clearly, Luke wants us to associate prayer with Jesus. It’s not something he does. It’s his way of life.

In Acts, the church is gathered for prayer when the Spirit descends with tongues of fire at Pentecost. The summary of life post-Pentecost at the end of Acts 2 emphasizes the church’s devotion to the prayers, and in Acts 3 we find Peter and John going up to the temple “at the hour of prayer” (3:1). When people are appointed to a task, there is prayer. When people escape prison, there is prayer. The early believers are a community of prayer.

This one is hard for me, personally. I’m not a great pray-er. Part of it relates to my conflicted views about God’s agency in the world, principally prayer designed to get things or have life break my way, though I believe God invites the concerns of our hearts. I think, however, that prayer is less a way of tracking outcomes and more a way of being mindful of God in any and all circumstances. A prayerful person is a less anxious person. A prayerful person is more apt to be patient, less likely to take matters into their own hands.

So, I am convinced that prayerfulness is necessary for a life attentive to God. And I am convinced that prayer as a way of being still before God and listening is more important than prayer that simply piles up requests. The great prayer-ers I know are good at this. And I am convinced that a congregation should be characterized by more than just its public, perfunctory prayers. Prayer should be its way of life.

I guess I would say that a congregation that has prayer as a way of life does more than pray together as occasion arises (illness, big decisions, crisis or opportunity), but prays as a way of being attentive to the leading of God.

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15:28 compliant: considering the testimony of boundary transgressors

One of the implications of the Spirit being poured out on all flesh is that The Spirit’s influence won’t be limited to people you hang out with. And Acts isn’t the story it is without people who transgress the perceived boundaries of the group. There border crossings may very well be instigated by the Holy Spirit.

The big example here is Peter and Cornelius. Peter, staying at Simon the tanner’s house (we’re already in iffy territory), has a vision in which he is told to kill and eat food considered unclean. But Peter is a good church kid and refuses the offer of a little guilt-free bacon. But the Spirit has bigger ideas than Peter and has been working on the Gentile, Cornelius, to send for Peter. Peter provides lodging for them and then travels to stay with Cornelius and enjoy his hospitality, all border crossings. And the Holy Spirit shows up.

As Peter returns to Jerusalem, he is encountered by the boundary police. They care little for a report about the Spirit, or speaking in tongues, or baptism. They want to know if Peter ate with Gentiles. Peter’s story about his time with Cornelius ends up becoming a major part of the reasoning of the church to accept the Gentiles as Gentiles.

My favorite story of boundary transgression comes after the persecution breaks out after the stoning of Stephen. This sends some believers “as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, but they spoke only to Jews.” Except for these guys from Cyprus and Cyrene. They didn’t get the memo. They were low level operatives. They thought “Go, Ye, means Go-im.” (Give it a minute). And so they preached to the Hellenists, and low and behold the Spirit was with them and they became obedient to the gospel. And in Antioch these Gentiles began worshipping with Jews, and Luke tells us this is the first place the early believers were called Christians.

And the boundary police send Barnabas to Antioch to make sure everything is kosher. And later, Christian Pharisees travel to Antioch to insist Gentile believers receive circumcision, the dispute that became the immediate occasion for the Jerusalem conference. The Spirit drew early believers beyond the recognized boundaries of the faithful and drew the church to the moment where a decision had to be made, to the “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” moment.

Apart from disruptions, apart from surprises or things that don’t fit into our framework of understanding, there is simply no need to discern anything, to make sense of anything. All that work has been done and boundaries suitably erected. The status quo rules. This is why I teach my ministry students that one of their evaluative questions should always be, “what was surprising?” This may be a disruption caused by the Spirit that leads to fresh discernment.

This will also require that congregations find ways to value their boundary crossers, people who may feel more comfortable with non-church people than with the Saints, who make the faithful develop a little purity rash, the voices of dissent.

Holy Spirit, Come!

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15:28 compliance: the Spirit poured out on all flesh.

Here’s the question I’m pushing. What environment would have to exist for there to be an Acts 15:28 moment, “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” Let me first say that this is not an environment created by human actors. It is an environment created when the church’s life is tuned to pursuing the leading of the Holy Spirit. It is less that the church builds a cage for the Holy Spirit, and more that the Spirit pulls us into a certain kind of life through our attentiveness.

As I said in my last post, I have several of these. But let’s begin where all good Church of Christ folk do, with Pentecost. But let’s look way ahead of 2:38 and hear Peter’s explanation for the commotion that has grabbed everyone’s attention: the falling of the Spirit on those gathered with fiery tongues that allows what is said to be heard in the language of each one gathered there. This is not, Peter makes clear, a little hair of the dog. Too early for that. This is, instead, the promised pouring out of the Spirit on all flesh. On all flesh. Young and old, male and female, and as Acts will make clear, Jew and Gentile.

So, an environment of attentiveness to the Spirit begins with this Spirit given reality. The Spirit is not the province of some and not others. The Spirit is not just with leaders or with men or with prophets. The Spirit is poured out on all flesh. And the promise of the gospel is similarly for you, for your children, for all who are far off, all who the Lord God calls to him. So, when baptism is offered to the crowd in 2:38, it comes with the promise of the Holy Spirit. All are empowered and ordained for participation in God’s mission.

I think this core conviction of Luke’s understanding of the church is reflected in two very important texts. The first is Acts 6, the choosing of the seven to serve the Hellenistic widows. The second, the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15 when the decision about the mission to the Gentiles is determined. These two stories have several features in common. Both feature decisions that bear upon the spreading of the mission of God. Both involve food. Both involve issues related to Hebrew/Hellenist, Jew/Gentile.

Notably, both occur with the whole assembly gathered. And the decisions reached pleased the whole group. This is what it looks like to make the big decisions when you take seriously the belief that the “Spirit is poured out on all flesh.”

Functionally speaking, I don’t think most congregations organize themselves or make decisions in ways that demonstrate such a conviction. Put another way, I seriously doubt that you can have an “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to US” moment without an “us” that includes all those who have received the Spirit.

Well, that would be chaos, you say. That’s what leadership is for, to make the big decisions and ask us to follow them. I agree that taking this seriously will slow you down and make you less efficient, especially at first. And I’m not suggesting that everything be subjected to congregation wide discernment or that everything be put to a vote. After all, in Acts 15, James, on behalf of the elders and apostles, announces the decision. But what he announces there is not the result of a study done by the elders or staff. What he announces is the shared sense of what the Spirit is up to given all the stories that have bubbled up from “below.”

I recently heard about a meeting between two groups of elders occasioned by one group’s concern that the other was allowing congregational discussion on a controversial topic. The concerned elder group had already come to a conclusion on the matter and didn’t see the value in stirring matters up. “That’s the difference between our way of being elders,” said one of the elders from the other congregation. “You discern for your people. We discern with our people.” Ah, the Spirit poured out on all flesh.

Everything else we will notice in Acts proceeds from this basic conviction. Got some 15:28?

Come, Holy Spirit.

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Why you should come to Streaming, Oct 8-10

Baptized with Fire: The Holy Spirit and Missional Communities

Jerry Taylor will be preaching from Ezekiel 37, the valley of dry bones, and if that doesn’t give you goose bumps of anticipation, then you don’t know either Jerry Taylor or Ezekiel 37 well enough. AND, we will have an African-American church choir lead in that period of worship. Can’t wait.

And while we’re talking preaching, I can’t wait to hear Mallory Wyckoff preach on the groaning of the Spirit and of all creation from Romans 8 in our closing worship. I’ve had Mallory as a student in the Lipscomb DMin program and she is top shelf.

And while we’re mentioning women from Nashville, Claire Frederick Davidson will be doing a “VH1 Storytellers” type presentation, featuring songs written by women in the Tennessee Women’s Prison. Claire’s an accomplished performer and budding theologian who has participated in a project with other Nashville songwriters to bring the words of these women to music. Can’t wait.

And we’ll have other storytelling as well. In Ted-talk format, presenters will be sharing stories of the Holy Spirit, both from their ministry context and from history. Stories from charismatic-Anglican, Disciples of Christ, Churches of Christ, inner city Chicago and Detroit will be told alongside Acts 2, the Montanists, Cane Ridge, Azusa St, the Civil Rights movement, etc. I can’t wait.

I can’t wait, and I haven’t even talked yet about our main presenters.

If you don’t know Amos Yong’s work, you should. He’s a serious theologian and a serious pentecostal, and those things haven’t always gone together. He’s doing so many important things by making pneumatology (teaching/experience related to the Holy Spirit) the centerpiece of contemporary theology. One by one, he finds a new way forward where theology has been at an impasse. And he takes current philosophical and historical perspectives seriously, avoiding the charge of anti-intellectualism so often associated with pentecostal life. Can’t wait.

And it will be so great to sit at Leonard Allen’s feet again. Here’s a Church of Christ guy who brings deep experiences of the Spirit together with searching theology. I find Leonard an enthralling presenter and know you will too. Can’t wait.

There are a few theological adjustments that are absolutely necessary if the word missional is going to mean anything more than churches doing more outreach. One adjustment is related to eschatology and the coming Kingdom of God. The other is the move toward a more participatory understanding of God as Triune. And for both, the Holy Spirit is front and center.

Put more directly, there is no participation in the mission of God apart from the empowering of the Holy Spirit.

If you’re planning to come, registration before September 1 gives you a discount.

If you’re planning to come, share this post with your friends.

If you’d like to come, share this post with your friends.

Holy Spirit, come.

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Is your congregation 15:28 compliant?

For Paul, it’s all about ecology. Remember, for Paul grace is a “saving dynamic environment,” a dominion, that produces a certain kind of life. I am convinced that life in the Spirit both creates and requires a certain kind of ecology. Put another way, there are conditions and practices that allow us to participate in the life made available by the Spirit.

So, one way I’ve thought about this is related to the story of the Spirit in Acts. The Spirit certainly initiates the action in Acts. The church is instructed to wait until they have received power from on high. The church’s story in Acts is not one of strategic planning, but of faithful responsiveness to the leading of the Spirit. This does not mean that the church is always in compliance with the leading of the Spirit, but there are practices and habits that make it possible to participate in the movement of the Spirit.

A great moment of “compliance,” however, does occur in Acts 15, when the church formally recognizes what the Spirit has been doing all along–drawing Gentiles into the covenant promises AS GENTILES. When the church reports its finding in a letter written to Gentile believers, they say “it seemed good to us and to the Holy Spirit…” I think all churches should organize their life so that moments like these are possible. Hence, the question, is your church 15:28 compliant?

I’m convinced that most congregations aren’t. Most lack the capacity to have a 15:28 moment because of how they are structured or organized, because their habits and practices couldn’t produce an outcome like this.

Call me cynical, but I think most congregations are organized for customer service. The animating question for these congregations (I’m sure you don’t attend one), is “how can we attract the most members and keep them happy and growing?” Regardless of what their bulletin masthead reads or the banner hosting their mission statement that hangs from the front of the sanctuary says, congregations tend to be preoccupied with their own survival and growth. I’m not saying they’re not interested in the Bible or God or discipleship or evangelism. They are and they do many good things and honor God in many important ways. But the way they are organized, the way they deploy their resources, the way they use volunteers, the way they describe congregational life in terms of benefits, all belie a deeper anxiety about the survival of the institution. You know how I know? I was a minister who lived and died with numbers and other indicators of institutional success.

To be a “customer service” kind of church requires great energy. The greatest sin this kind of church can commit is to be boring. And so, this energy requires pace, speed, and efficiency, and leadership with tightly held vision and control, all things that mitigate against discernment.

Ok, maybe you don’t buy my diagnosis. Maybe its too cynical. So, let’s work the other way. What would have to be in place for a church to have “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” moments? Which is to ask, what was in place for the church in Acts.

I’m working on a list of things that went into the Acts 15 moment. Like, there has to be a belief that the Spirit has been poured out on all flesh. Or, there have to be moments of congregational story telling. Or, there has to be a tolerance, even encouragement, for boundary transgression. There has to be a way for the whole community to discern. Anyway, I’ve got about ten that I want to work out over the next few weeks.

We’ll see if 15:28 compliance has any usefulness as we think about the congregation’s life.

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More than a feeling, or why you may not actually have a word from the Spirit

Here’s my heretical sentence for the week (you should have at least one a week). Non-Christians who are attentive to the world around them through slow rhythms of life might very well have lives more in line with the coming Kingdom of God than distracted Christians leading hurried lives.

Talk amongst yourselves.

Having made this heretical declaration, let me be quick to add that slow and attentive, while being necessary to participate in the life made available by the Spirit, is not the same as life in the Spirit. This is because, as I posted last week, the Spirit has an identity. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Crucified One. And this gives us cues to the Spirit’s presence and movement among the various details we encounter in life.

Ok, let me unpack this a bit. Every event, or everything that happens, has a “surplus of meaning.” That is, the potential meanings of an event are hard to exhaust. I don’t notice everything present in an event and interpret what I do notice according to my values or focus.

I opened my front door for years, for instance, and never noticed that it had a stained glass cutout in it. When I did notice, the potential meanings ran several ways. Someone switched doors on me. A thief? A prankster? A housemate? A “pay it forward” do-gooder? Or, I’m not very attentive. Is this a general principle? I am very attentive to some things, like books that have been borrowed from me and what kind of laptop a person is using and liner notes on an album cover. Do I have something against doors? Did I have a bad experience with one as a child? Am I an anti-doorite? Others around me have known for a long time that the door has a cut-out, so this narrows the range of potential meanings, but when asked they can’t tell me what kind of hardware is on the other side of the door or whether they pulled or pushed to get in.

And my neighbors who see me go in and out of the door all the time assume that I live in the house, but might be distrubed to see others enter in the middle of the day without knocking or ringing the bell and call the police on my unsuspecting parents.

OK, I could have found a better example. But it is good enough to show that even the simplest of events has a myriad of details and several potential sources of causation. And it shows that the perspective of the one viewing the event matters when supplying meanings. We see some things and not others, partly because of where we are standing (location) and partly because of what we are accustomed to look for (focus). And if this is true for a non-mysterious event like opening a door, how much more the case for a mysterious event like the moving of the Spirit.

So, how do we speak of the Spirit amid all the details of life? The identity of the Spirit as the Spirit of the Crucified One gives us both location and focus.

Let’s start with focus. We are looking for things that look like Jesus. For instance, we are looking for non self-seeking or securing things. We are looking for instances of self-relinquishment and trust. We are looking for events where there is mutual submission and understanding. We are looking for moments of reconciliation or of self-giving love. We notice humility and kindness. We notice those who don’t demand attention and who associate with the lowly. We notice those who love their enemies and do kind things for them, because after all, while we were enemies to God, Christ died for us. And as Paul says, this love…this very kind of love…has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

Ok, but what do I man by location? From where do we view the world? Well, first let’s say that the incarnation teaches us to pay attention to the world. Jesus did not come to us a generic human, as an every-person, but in the particularities of time and space. And so our new incarnation of Jesus’ presence in the world should take the conditions of our world seriously, as the location from which the good news of God might emerge and have meaning. But as every good business man knows, its all about location, location, location. And here are some of the locations of the movement of God in the world: a barren womb, the ruthless treatment of slaves, wilderness, exile, an unplanned pregnancy, a manger, Galilee, a cross outside the city gates. Notice where the movement of God is largely missing: the perfect couple, Pharaoh’s court, a military victory, Rome, empire.

Here’s my point. If we want a front row seat to the movement of the Spirit of the Crucified One, we should be in places of brokenness, vulnerability, incarceration, disability, conflict, poverty. After all, Jesus came to preach good news to the poor, release for the captives, recovery of sight for the blind… You get the idea. These places are the natural habitat of the Spirit of God.

So, here’s my point. Because we lead hurried, non-attentive lives, the only thing we are attuned to is our inner self. How we feel from moment to moment. We have few stories of the Spirit, because our focus and location are ┬áseverely circumscribed. So, all we know to report related to the Spirit are our own inward experiences.

Please here me at this point. These may very well be experiences of the Spirit of the Crucified One as well. The Spirit works in these broken, impoverished, conflicted, and vulnerable places as well.  But apart from attentiveness to these other locations, we may be overly apt to equate how we feel with the leading of the Spirit.

As a preacher, people often have a Word for me that they have received from the Spirit. This thought came to them, they prayed about it, felt peace about it and decided to bring it to me as a “thus sayeth the Lord” moment (in a best case scenario. I have received other, less considered words as well). And I have had experiences where I am certain this was indeed the case, that this was a Word for me. But I have had more experiences where the “word” was just plain wrong or was incomprehensible, at least to me.

Here’s the thing. I think that the Spirit’s movement in our lives is as likely to be experienced as troubling as peace-giving, as much bewildering as confirming. As PT Forsyth once wrote, and I paraphrase, “there are few of us who can distinguish the voice of the Shepherd from the gusts and sighings of our own fitful selves.” Our inner lives are no less complex that the world of surplus meanings.

Here’s what I’m arguing for. I’m not arguing for less attention to your inward life. I’m arguing more for an attentivess to these other things as a corrective, as a way of attending to the life of the Spirit more deeply and with greater texture and nuance, than simply my inner experiences or feelings.

Come, Holy Spirit.

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May the force be with you, or something to that effect

Ok, grace, biblically speaking, is not a blue-eyed blonde. Waka, waka. But neither is grace simply “unmerited favor,” the Sunday school definition I grew up with. It may very well be that, but it’s bigger than that.

Paul calls grace a dominion in Romans 5. It’s a realm. It’s a form of power that produces a certain kind of life. It’s an ecosystem that produces a certain kind of life. And it’s totally a gift of God. We did nothing to create the conditions through which God reigns through grace. It is God’s work, created, maintained, and sustained through God’s power. Which is to say, it’s the effective domain of the Holy Spirit, and not of the flesh or of the principalities and powers responsible for the current mess we’re in.

Paul imagines two kinds of human life. One, under the power of sin and death, produces futility, a creation gone awry and groaning for liberation, human divisions, dogs and cats sleeping together (just seeing if you’re paying attention and it you know your Bill Murray movies, and if you don’t, you’re likely still under the power of sin and death). You get the idea. The other possibility for human life is new creation, life in the ecology of the Spirit, which produces people who look more and more like Jesus. Here, creation’s goraning is joined by our own, human divisions are overcome, and we become the righteousness of God.

So, this is what I mean by life in the Spirit being an ecosystem. Some theologians, notably Pannenberg and Welker, refer to the presence of the Spirit in the world as a forcefield. I think what they’re driving at is a way to discuss the Spirit’s work in the world as being larger than personal influence or encouragement. I’ve written here before that I’ve collected a number of interviews with people that include questions about the Holy Spirit, and I have yet to find one response that suggests the Spirit is at work in something other than an individual’s interior life.

While the Spirit does empower and encourage us as individuals, the Spirit is at work in the world independent of what is happening in me. The Spirit is at work to create the conditions necessary for people to encounter and welcome the peace of God in all of its forms. In this sense, the Spirit is like a forcefield, and effective realm of influence.

So, may the force be with you? Well, not like Luke and Han Solo. In fact, I don’t like the term forcefield for two related reasons. The Spirit isn’t simply power, but a person, and forcefield is too impersonal. Second, the Spirit’s work is discernible to us precisely because of this personal dimension. I mean by this, that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God, the God who took notice of slaves in Egypt and liberated them. I mean by this, that the Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus Christ, who trusted God with his life, even to the point of death on a cross.

The Spirit is not simply a force or power in the world that we can learn to master, like voo-doo, or securing the desire’s of your heart, or personal financial mastery, or church growth. That’s the way the power of the flesh works, through human mastery of certain powers. Rather, the Spirit is a person, one beyond our control. And the very condition for life in the effective realm of the Spirit is that we give up all pretense to personal mastery so that we might instead be mastered.

Let’s put it this way. The fruit of the flesh, the attempt at human mastery, is chock full of dissension, envy, rivalry, division. That’a frenetic life, a “looking-over-your-shoulder” life, a hurried, frazzled life. But the fruit of the Spirit, as I said before, is slow. It’s patient and kind and non-rivalrous. And because of these fruit, life in the Spirit can be an attentive life. And when we live this way with others (the fruit of the Spirit requires a life with others, you can’t have any of it by yourself), then we find ourselves in the effective environment of grace.

Come, Holy Spirit.

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