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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Walking and the Slow Life of the Spirit

In my recent posts, I’ve tried to make three big points: being attentive to the Holy Spirit requires more than just self-introspection, but by neccesity includes being attentive to life in the world with others. Second, the speed of attentiveness is slow. Third, congregations should think of themselves as “attentional commons,” places rooted in the world, that take their located-ness seriously, and that slow people down for the sake of pursuing the Spirit of God and the living Jesus.

And I’m saying that few of us participate in the world in such a way that would make this a reasonable outcome. We’re out of touch with the world in which we live, opting instead for the virtual world given to us by Google, Amazon, and others. Thanks to the garage door opener and air conditioning and Netflix, we don’t know our neighbors. The most socially accepted complaint in our culture is, “I’m so busy,” excusing our lack of attentiveness for the virtue of greater speed. And our congregations, program driven, are constantly asking for more activity from volunteers who drive by their neighborhoods to escape the world for a worship experience aimed at inspiring the interior landscape of the individual.

If I’m wrong about this, (in general, I know there are exceptions) I’ll eat my iphone. I’m sure there’s a recipe on an app that will save me time so I can multi-task.

So, where do we start to get a handle on this? Let’s save the church stuff for a few later posts. Congregations are exceptionally hard to change, especially at such a deep cultural level. I’ve got suggestions about this, but let’s start with slowing down and paying attention.

Let me recommend walking as a place to start. Frederic Gross, in his book, The Philosophy of Walking, suggests that walking “is the best way to go more slowly than any other method ever found.” Beyond being a method of slowing down, researchers have also demonstrated a link between walking and creativity. By being a body in motion in the world, the mind becomes more fertile, more attentive.

I walk nearly everyday. I chose a neighborhood to live in because it was within walking distance to my work. It’s also now in walking distance to the congregation I attend on Sundays. And it’s in within walking distance of my favorite coffee shop where I am now typing my blog. Beyond the enormous gas saving and ways I am doing my part for my own health and the health of the planet, I find myself more acutely aware of my environment, my neighbors, and my community. I often have brain storms, bursts of creativity, as I walk. And I am more prayerful.

I often ask people I’m teaching to identify times when they felt closest to God, and to see what those times have most in common. For me, walking and/or running outdoors is the common denominator (very different than a treadmill for me). I slow down. I become more present to the world around me. I am more mindful of others. I am more prayerful.

I recently discovered this statement by Iris Murdoch on prayer: “prayer is properly not petition, but simply attention to God, which is a form of love.” I like this a lot, and find myself prayerful in this way when I walk. I am more self-forgetful, which in turn, makes room for others, including the Holy Spirit.

Now, I know you may not be able to build as much walking into your life as I have. But I bet you could find at least one way to make walking more a part of your life. (Though I would recommend making your life as “location specific” as possible, especially your church life). One less tv show. A walking lunch two days a week. A family walk on the weekends.

But beyond walking there are several ways to reverse the attetional demands in our life and be more a part of the world. I now only check my facebook (twitter, etc) page from my computer, not from my ipad or my iphone. This is a huge deal. My eyes are up and around more, not down in my lap as I check how I’m doing according to the social media world. I refuse the ear buds more often at the coffee shop or as I walk so that I’m more aware of what’s going on around me. I sit outside more and read and think and pay attention to the world around me.

And here’s the thing. I am confident that by the very virtue of these ways of slowing down, that I am more in tune with the life-giving Spirit of God. Because the Spirit that is at work in my is also at work in the world and among others.

Come, Holy Spirit.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

More thoughts on the space of slow

I have a few more thoughts on the space of slow. Here’s the deal. To function in the world we have to assume a lot. To act, we don’t have the time to test every assumption. This is true of everything from driving to worshipping to conducting a scientific experiment. And the faster we go, which is the pace our society encourages, the more we have to assume.

Another way to talk about this is that we live in a constructed world that we share with others. Charles Taylor calls this shared world, a social imaginary. Martin Heidegger called it the life world. Whatever you call it, its a functional version of how things are, not necessarily the way things actually are. And the faster you go, the more impervious the social imaginary is to change. Heidgger calls this entanglement, which keeps us from seeing “the thing itself.” In other words, our assumed way of seeing things obscures our ability to encounter the real thing.

I think there’s an analogy here with Paul’s thought. Paul talks about seeing things from a “human point of view,” or from the perspective of the “flesh,” which is the world given to us by the principalities and powers. To see what God is actually up to requires a different way of seeing. For Paul, the ability to recognize God’s presence in the world depends upon what you see when you view the cross. To some, the cross is foolishness and weakness, but to others it is God’s power, God’s way of being in the world that has the potency to renew all things.

The point with Paul is that it’s not immediately obvious to us how God is involved in the details of life. And the more we assume the world given to us, the less likely we are to recognize it.

One more insight from Heidegger. He was critiquing the Western philosophical tradition, from the ancient Greeks (Plato and Aristotle) all the way to the Enlightenment (what Matthew Crawford is talking about when he critiques the modern myth of the autonomous individual). One way to describe Heidegger’s critique is that the Western philosophical tradition is subject centered. That is, the world corresponds to the way I (the subject) perceive it.  What’s going on inside of me (the subject) trumps anything external to me, which subsequently turns the world into a series of objects. There is no “social imaginary,” a constructed world, because the subject is sufficient to see the world as it actually is, especially if freed from the prejudices of tradition.

Heidegger, and other philosophers (Gadamer, Ricoeur, Marion, Taylor to name a few) challenge these assumptions and actually reverse the direction of subject–>world. The world is no longer simply made up of subjects and objects, but there is a complex reality that comes before a “subject’s” awareness of it. We understand the world because we participate in it, because it is a reality apart from our ideas about it. So, reality is not something centered in a knowing subject, but is external to us and happens around us and between us. Heidegger made up a word for this reality (because the development of Western languages was deeply influenced by this subject-object way of viewing the world): Dasein. Dasein is his way to name the being that precedes us, which he says we are “thrown into,” and in which we can become entangled.

Here’s the big point related to all of this. Our notions of space (and time, but that’s another blog) are challenged. The world around us is no longer simply a world of objects to be mastered by an aquiring subject. The world inside of us is not prior to the world around us. Rather, to truly understand ourselves, we have to get beyond the world inside our heads and into larger spaces for discernment. We no longer simply have a self, we have a world.

So, in this larger space, how do we truly see, or to use Jean Luc Marion’s phrase, how do we let things show themselves as themselves? Slow. If we run as fast as our current social imaginary encourages us to, then the world around us can only be what we imagine it to be. And this is a world of objects. But if we slow down long enough to put what we encounter in parentheses so that we can look at them again, then what we see has an integrity of its own beyond what we assume when we encounter it.

Now, you can’t do this with everything at once. To get through a day, you simply have to assume things, trust things. But the posture of slow will allow us to see some things anew.

I am convinced that there is not a single spiritual discipline that tries to get us to go faster. Nowhere does it say that the fruit of the Spirit is urgency. Rather, the fruit of the Spirit foster slow: patience, humility, kindness, joy, etc.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

The space of slow

I’m fascinated with athletes who talk about the speed of the game. NFL rookies always say that the biggest adjustment they have to make is in relation to the speed. Consequently, when they’re at the top of their game or in “the zone,” they talk about the game slowing down. They’re not moving any slower, nor are the athletes around them. They’re also not mentally processing where they should be or what they’re assignments are. They are in the flow of the game, in sync with their environment.

And this couldn’t happen just by watching tape or standing of the sidelines observing. It takes actually being in games, moving your body around, becoming accustomed to the movements and motions and surfaces of the game, and knowing what their teammates and opponents are likely to do.

From this description, three observations.

1. We perceive our environments bodily, through motion and movement. Put another way, we don’t just “think” reality, but our perceptions are formed through bodily action in the world. This is more than a hunch. Crawford, in The World Beyond Your Head, reports that the findings of cognitive psychology are increasingly moving beyond notions of perception as being a “mental computational” function. Put simply, “the world is known to us, because we live and act in it, and accumulate experience.”

2. Perception is communal. As Crawford suggests, “the world we act in is one that is inhabited by other people.” Obvious enough, but the point runs deep and against the modern myth of the autonomous self. We are born into a social world already “saturated with social meaning.” It’s not just that there are other people around, but that a world of meaning has already been constructed and everything we perceive is conditioned by the shared meaning and rituals and rules passed along to us. And we learn to make meaning in the same ways. In fact, brilliance, innovation, genius, and for Crawford, even individuality come precisely through the mastery of a shared way of life.

Crawford makes this point in relation to the scientific community where discovery happens best within established scientific (social) communities with mentors and collaborators and traditions. These communities were strong in European univiersities in the 20th century and were far more productive than US scientists who had more money and resources. Simiarly, the US has now developed the kind of scientific communities Europe was known for, but China lacking this social scientific culture lags behind in discovery and application, though they give it more focus and attention.

Think again about the athlete who trains with others, who receives coaching, who learns a collaborative way of life. Again, the recent US experience in soccer demonstrates that our way forward doesn’t come simply through finding better athletes and studying film and learning strategy, but by sending our players to play in European leagues and hiring European coaches and by utilizing naturalized citizens who grew up in other parts of the world who inherited a distinct way of life.

3. The speed of an accomplished way of life is slow. This is not often how we experience it, especially when we are novices. There’s so much to know and so many shared skills and habits to develop. But a change happens eventually where its less that you’re viewing information and skills and habits, but more viewing through them, engaging the world through a cultivated way of life. And here things get slow, the moment enlarged, the world crisper and sharper.

Again, athletes know this feeling. But I also know it as a preacher. Because of the years of honing my craft, it feels less like I write the sermons and more that they write me. And in the moment of delivery, I’m less overwhelmed by the moment. The sermon is not external to me, demanding my attention, which makes everything feel rushed and fast. But I am in the sermon and more aware of my audience and also more open to improvisation. It’s a slow space.

Now, what does any of this have to do with ecologies of the Holy Spirit? Good question. And I have a lot of answers to this question. Let me just give one at this point. The modern myth of the autonomous self has led us to think of being a Christian in highly individualistic ways. In fact, being a Christian has come to be more related to beliefs we have than to cultivating a particular way of life in the world and with others.

I am convinced, however, that the coming new age, an age empowered by the Holy Spirit, is a way that transforms our ways of belonging to each other and to the world. The kingdom of God is a spiritual reality, precisely because it is social and even ecological. If we attend to our life in the world as a life with others, then our stories of the Holy Spirit will not be limited to private experiences and will be less obsessed specific gifts. Instead, there will be more stories of reconciliation and flourishing human communities in real life neighborhoods.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

A luxurious offer of stillness: the congregation as an “attentional commons”

As I write these words, I am aware of the email that sit unanswered in my inbox, some that have undoubtedly arrived in the last five minutes. I have voicemail that I haven’t listened to and my moleskein is full of notes to myself of the things I hoped to get done this summer. All of these are screaming for my attention. And the truth is, my days are often carved up apart from my intentions by the persistence of these drip-drip-drip demands on my attention. It is hard to do any one thing because I am moment-to-moment asked to attend to several. The decision to write this blog today was to let some things wait and other things go, because writing takes focus.

In my previous posts, I have talked about Matthew Crawford’s book, The World Beyond Your Head. From his perspective, the modern myth of freedom as autonomy has gone to seed in an “attention economy” aided by the pervasiveness of digitial technologies. The world we inhabit now is one of contant stimulation, the common areas of our life demanding for our attention. For instance, our hotel key has a pizza ad printed on it, the security bin at the airport has a cell phone ad pasted on the inside, every restaraunt has tv’s in every corner so that no one’s attention is left unmolested.

I had a friend tell me recently how impressed she is with how well Facebook seems to know her, the pop-up ads somehow perfectly attuned to her interests. And my hunch is that as you read this, your Facebook page is open and your Twitter feed is buzzing and your Bleacher Report preferences have sent important news updates to your cell phone. Crawford points out that neuroscientists find our brains are being rewired by our “habits of information grazing and electronis stimulation.” The result is that we have an attentional deficit. One way of saying this, is that we have a kind of cultural “add” that is satisfied only by the viritual world always placed before us, and not by the actual world of others–creation and people.

We have come to crave increasing amounts of stimulation so that the “content of stimulation is irrelevant. We are agnostic on the question of what is worth paying attention to…” And the question of what to attend to, what is worth our attention, whatever is good, or excellent, or praiseworthy (to quote Paul) is no longer given to us by cultural norms established by tradition. The autonomous self has dethroned these authoritative voices and we find ourselves “isolated in a fog of choices,” and, apart from traditional norms, manipulable by those who seek our attention. As Crawford states it, “in a culture saturated with technologies for appropriating our attention, our interior mental lives are laid bare as a resource to be harvested by others.”

The irony in the story is that personal autonomy doesn’t produce an individual. Rather, our anxiety about securing ourselves often leads to fitting in, to identifying with popular culture, to making our lives an abstraction.

One more thing in Crawford’s analysis. Not only is our attention fragmented, and therefore lacks focus, but it is representational. By this he means that increasingly technology moves us one step away from the actual world, calling our attention to a representation of that world. Take, for instance, the way cars have evolved to remove road noise or feel or aspects of handling or shifting. We sit now in ergonomic cockpits designed increasingly to limit our exposure to the acutal conditions of driving.

Crawford calls for a return to attentiveness, an ethics of attentiveness. And for him this means “affection for the world as it is: this could be taken as the motto for a this-worldly ethics.” “Affection for the world as it is” is important for Crawford because it better fits how we actually aquire skill and excellence, how we actually learn. Turns out, we are not simply minds, perceiving a representational worlds. Rather, our ability to pay attention, to learn, and to make our way in life requires participation in both an actual world and communities of meaning and belonging. (I’ll say more about this in future posts). Our attention is always situated in the world and with others. There is no autonomous self.

I want to suggest that this same kind of attentiveness, affection for the world as it is, is important for a coming world ethic as well. I think its essential for anything that would pass for the life made available by the Holy Spirit.

Just a few points here. I’ve already written that our churches don’t always do much to make our lives more attentive. Just the opposite. They play to the same kind of attentional deficits that characterize larger cultural influences. Satisfaction with spirtual life, however, goes the other direction. In a survey I designed for my dissertation, I asked questions about both spiritual practices and spiritual satisfaction. Far and away, having quiet time was the most common practice for those with high levels of satisfaction.

This is interesting given Crawford’s description of silence as a luxury commodity in our culture. In common areas, in an airport for instance, you are bombarded with stimuli. TV monitors with CNN are uniquitous, as are ads wall-to-wall. Add to this the constant bustle of a terminal and it becomes nearly impossible to find quiet. But for elite flyers, for a little extra money, you can enter a place of solitude. Here, there are no ads or tv’s blaring in every corner of the room. There is quiet. For a price. As a luxury. (Similar are aps, that for a price, will allow you to block pop-up ads).

Crawford calls for an “attentional commons,” public spaces that are absent the constant noise that demands our attention, and/or dulls it. I think the congregation should be one of these public spaces. A place that slows us down, that creates an ecology of the love of God and neighbor.

Be still, and know I am God. Come, Holy Spirit.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The modern story of inattentiveness

I know that these posts on attentiveness are kind of all over the place, but I’m thinking out loud and appreciate those of you willing to read and think with me. Test with me these two premises: discerning the leading of the Holy Spirit requires an ecology of attentiveness; many congregations possess ecologies that dampen attentiveness.

Ok, you’re with me on the first one, but maybe not on the second. So, here are the things I would point to regarding the second: no windows in our sanctuaries–we worship with little sense that we are located someplace. In fact, I would guess that the vast majority of congregational members drive past several congregations to get to the one where they worship. The results of this phenomenon are far reaching–the neighborhood surrounding the congregation is largely unattended to as are the various neighborhoods driven past and even neighborhoods in which congregational members lived. Locatedness then, is not constitutive of what it means to be a congregation. It’s connections to the world become less organic, and as a result more abstracted. In other words, others become to us “outreach” or “service projects.”

Our worship services lack the patience required for reflection. I can’t remember the last time I was urged to be still, to be quiet, to reflect. We read so little Scripture in worship and I’m often struck how preachers speed up when they’re reading the text, needing to get through it for the sake of the point they are making. I often have the feeling that the biggest sin a worship service can commit is a lull. Pace and energy are wall-to-wall, so even if we are asked to attend to one another, which we seldom are, it needs to be done efficiently. The stage and the projection screen are the architectural focal points for many congregations which places the evaluative expectation on the aesthetic experience of the individual. We attend to our own experience, and to the experience of the crowd (the congregation as abstraction), but we don’t have to attend much to the people who sit around us. After all, we have busy afternoons planned.

That attending to the inner life of the individual trumps attending to the world or to others is hardly a surprise. Our lives are largely interpreted in relation to a prevailing cultural story, the story of modernity and all of its offshoots.

This story is brilliantly exposed in Matthew Clifford’s book, The World Beyond Your Head. Others have traced this story well, but Clifford does so in relation to its impact on attentiveness. While many would place blame for our lack of attentiveness on digital technology (My family witnessed a public fight in a restaraunt recently over the rudeness of paying attention to your phone while on a date, the irony for us being that we noticed both the accuser and accused with their heads down, thumbs flying, as we walked in. They may not have known we were there), Clifford sees this as the “fruition of a picture of the human being that was offered some centuries ago.”

The roots of this story are in the Enlightenment, and in particular the desire to root authority in something other than kings or religions (the result of such authority being horrible religious wars in Europe). If we can’t trust the world given to us by the cultural authorities, then what can we trust, what is the basis of trustworthy knowledge. Descartes, looking for the one thing that could not be doubted, which could, therefore, serve as the foundation of all knowing decided that the one thing that could not be doubted was his own doubting. “I think, therefore, I am.” The source of authority was no longer located outside of the individual, but ultimately within.

Clifford notes that notions of freedom and autonomy became the resulting primary cultural values. These two values are related in the thought of Immanuel Kant. For Kant, the will had to be free from the influences of any external authority, or any object encountered in the world. He “builds a high wall between the empirical world and the purely intellectual, where we discover a priori moral laws. Reasons to act must come only from the latter if we are to be free, and the will is remain pure, unconditioned by anything external to it.”

The influence of Kant and others led over time to a broad cultural concensus that the world of objects and others was secondary to the stuff that goes on inside of me, either my rational judgments or personal experiences. This had to be the case to maintain freedom from oppresive cultural forces.

I ¬†will unpack this more as I go, but let me point to three ways this prioritizing of the individual has appeared in Christian life and practice. Objects only have representational value. That is, they represent realities that first take place inside of me. With this view of reality, baptism cannot be in and of itself effective. It can only represent what is the case already inside of me. So, I hear people say all the time, “baptism is the outward sign of an inward reality.”

A second example from the Stone-Campbell heritage: Alexander Campbell, in order to overcome the taint of man made creeds and prejudices (external authorities) endeavored to read the Scriptures as if they had never been read before. Aided by pure reason, and an unfettered conscience, Campbell was confident he could come to a non prejudiced, objective reading of Scripture. This same “scientific bias” also accounts for the historical-critical tradition of interpreting the Bible. Here, the diverse, tainted readings, located in different confessional heritages could be overcome by new concensus readings that would uncover the true intentions of the original author.

Third, because the judgments of the individual trump any authority, church leaders have nothing to appeal to that is stronger than personal dissatisfaction at church. Leaders are left only to better customer service, or the disgruntled member will go down the road to some church that suits their own private beliefs and tastes better.

For Clifford, the modern story is one that highlights the world constructed inside your head (one very congenial to the virtual reality driven by consumerism), and deemphasizes the way the reality of the world and community actually precede and make possible the conditions for individuality.

The modern world is an inattentive world. Not surprsingly, then, Christian traditions either demphasize the need for the Holy Spirit, or privatize it, defining the Spirit’s work primarily in relation to the interior life of the individual.

Clifford calls for a return to an “ecology of attention” that moves counter to the modern story of autonomy and freedom. Though his book is not theological (there are, however, some pretty interesting theological insights), I think Clifford suggests a way of viewing being human that also lends itself to an “ecology of the Holy Spirit.” Stay tuned.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Holy God is the Attentive God

The first few chapters of Exodus are some of my favorites in all of Scripture. The story is told in such a way that it yields treasure for the discriminating (ie, slow and attentive) reader. For instance, the opening scene takes us back to Genesis 1 where a divine council is plotting life and order and meaning. Exodus 1 begins with a “divine” council as well, with Pharaoh and his attendants plotting death and chaos and shrewdness. The descriptors are telling. The Hebrews are living in the blessings of a life giving God. Again, recalling Genesis 1, they were “fruitful and prolific, they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, and the land was filled with them.” Even when Pharaoh opresses them, “they multiplied and spread.” 

In contrast, Pharaoh invites his people to deal in something other than the blessing of life. “Come, let us deal shrewdly with them… they set taskmasters over them who oppressed them with hard labor…the Egyptians were ruthless in imposing tasks on them and made their lives bitter… (and in case you missed it) They were ruthless in all the tasks they imposed on them.” Think they were ruthless?

This opening scene sets up the early chapters of Exodus, not as a contest between Moses and Pharaoh, but between Yahweh and Pharaoh, between authentic divine sovreignty which leads to life and blessing, and counterfit sovreignty which operates out of fear with shrewdness and ruthlessness. While the subsequent liberation of the slaves (again revealing Yahweh’s superiority) frees them for life toward the God who rescued them, this life is defined in many ways over and against the experience of Egypt and the ruthless rule of Pharoah. Life before Yahweh is to be very different than life under other sovreigns. The Hebrews have not been freed so that they can in turn rule over others. Rather, special provision is to be made for the powerless, for the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner.
This idea that God’s rule is counter to Pharoah’s rule, I believe, goes a long way to defining the term holiness in the book of Exodus. God is not like Pharoah, or any other rulers (It is interesting that Pharoah is never named, in contrast, for instance, to Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives. This anonymity allows Pharoah to serve as a stock character, to stand in for all others who rule differently than Yahweh).Yahweh is other, and so are his people to be. Be holy, as I am holy.

So, with this contrast in mind, it is interesting to go back and look at the way Pharoah and Yahweh are characterized in the opening chapters. The first thing the narrator tells us about Pharaoh is that he “did not know Joseph.” There is no memory of the way that Joseph and his God prepared Egypt for the life threatening famine that came over the land. Apart from memory, apart from a narrative, the Israelites are now only a threat. They are an abstraction, a force, a resource, a tool.

The first time God is mentioned in the story is at the end of chapter 2. The Isrealites slavery caused them to cry out. The two verses that follow are so important:

“God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”

The intensification of the verbs by which the narrator lets us know that the cries of the Israelites has reached the ears of God is telling. God heard their groaning, AND he looked upon them, AND he took notice of them. But even more fascinating to me is the mention of God’s memory. While Pharaoh does not remember Joseph, God does remember Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. While Pharoah does not remember a common story with the Hebrews, God does. For Yahweh, the Israelites are not an abstraction, a threat or a problem to be dealt with, they are a people with a story, partners in history. Yahweh’s memory allows him to take notice in a way that is different than Pharaoh, underscored by the intensifcation of the of verbs of attentiveness used in these verses.

The implications of all of this are huge and run in many different directions. For instance, it might be interesting for churches to ask themselves if they see their neighbors as an abstraction, as only a set of problems or as prospects to pad the bottom line of the institution, or if there is some attempt to place them in a story, to allow memory to build empathy and connection, and ultimately the right kind of attentiveness. But the big point I want to make is about God. At least in part, and I think in a big part, what distinguishes Yahweh from Pharaoh in Exodus, and, therefore, what makes him holy, is his attentiveness. He remembers. He hears and looks and takes notice. And his people should do the same.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

A meditation on attentiveness in pursuit of an attentive God

I have been alone the past few days. Donna travelled to Nashville for the week to be with our amazing granddaughters and their sometimes amazing parents on the occasion of their 7th and 9th birthdays which are a week apart. I like a little alone time, given my commitments to introversion as a superior form of human life. And I admit that I use the time to indulge some of life’s enjoyments not shared by Donna. I had portabello mushrooms with my ribeye tonight. The bed has gone unmade for a few days and I nearly have it the way I like it. I shaved today only because I went to church and didn’t want to scare the customers or be mistaken for a homeless person and asked by the well-meaning saints if they could help me. And tonight, for the third night in a row, I sat in my backyard (or Sara Barton’s backyard since she planted nearly everything here) and smoked a cigar and enjoyed my favorite beverage while listening to Bob Dylan on my mini-Bose bluetooth speaker.

But what I discovered by being outside was the world that prcedes me and calls me into attentiveness. Tonight as I walked out the back door and into the yard, I scared the deer who were checking out our yard for something sweet and green to destroy. And they scared and thrilled me as they bounded into the woods with long and powerful leaps. I noticed a little orange beaked bird with a punk haircut who evidently is a neighbor of mine, having flitted around all three nights. And the fireflies were everywhere. My sense of all this was different than watching them through the window, from my space. I was in the space we shared and my perceptions of all of this were different. I was a co-participant in the world, not just an observer or consumer.

Last night my neighbor was cleaning his grill or doing something busy and industrious, which is how I always notice him through my window. But he risked the boundary that makes “good neighbors” and walked into my back yard and we talked for a half-hour or so. We shared our perceptions of the scariness of advancing technology, talked about the new pope, and about the importance of nieghborhoods like ours for keeping the virtual world handed to us by Amazon and Google at bay.

I have not been alone.

And while I have allowed myself a few indulgences, the fact is I have missed my wife. But not in an achey, needy kind of way. I am thrilled that she is with Autumn and Mya and their parents (who will remain nameless because they took our grandchildren to live in Tennessee), but because she surrounds me in this space. It is ours and I sense her in every movement through our house, our home, our shared life.

Her father died in February and our neighbors gave her a gift certificate to a local nursery so she could plant something to remember him by. So, before she left she picked out some flowering shrubs and we planned a little flower garden full of color so she could remember him in the bright colors that bring her delight. So, I have labored a little each day in the new memorial garden, not because I enjoy my lower back being stiff and my knees sore in exchange for dirt under my nails, but becuase I thought this might please her. And we live in a neighborhood of beautiful garden spaces, so I labored also under their gaze (real or imagined) because I have come to value their facility with beauty and want to hold up my end.

I have not been alone.

And I’ve done the dishes and laundary and swept floors and watered plants in a way more caring that I did in my old bachelor pad, because this is where Donna lives with me. Now I surely want her to think of me as a trustworthy co-habitant and would feel awful if her disapproval were evident when she gets home, but I did these things also because we have a shared life and I feel closer to her when I do them. I feel a part of her through these rituals of a shared life even when she is in Tennessee.

All these things require attentiveness. I could plant flowers and shrubs simply out of duty. But I took care to think of her, how she might feel or respond, which requires not only an attentiveness in the act of planting, but also a prior attentiveness to the way she lives and moves and cares, to the way she attends to the world in front of her.

I could’ve binged watched West Wing the entire time she was gone and completed my ninth viewing of the entire series and texted her heart emoticons from my place on the couch and lived on skinny pop and coke zero, the convenience food than enables this kind of virtual existence. And I would have risked less by doing this, than placing shrubs and flowers in places that she might find ultimately wrong-headed (its possible we might be re-planting many of these things), but the risk is worth it because regardless of the outcome, we will discover each other and ourselves in deeper way by attending to our differences.

So, this past week, though I have been alone, I have been made aware of the richness of the world that I share with others through attentiveness. I am reading Matthew Crawford’s book, The World Beyond Your Head, a very important book in my estimation, in which he argues that the cultural value of autonomy expressed in so many ways and instrumentalized by a virtual consumerism leaves us less and less attentive to the world that we live in. More and more, we can live in a virtual world, a world inside our heads, that caters to our desires and feelings which in turn moves us away from real connections to others and the world we live in. Reading Crawford’s book has confirmed my growing sense that life in the Spirit requires an ecology of attentiveness. More, I am convinced that the attentive life, an embodied life with others in the world, produces the fruit of the Spirit, things like thankfulness and patience and joy.

And this is the way to live in the world created by a God who is attentive as well. God is not a set of abstractions or impersonal forces that delivers certain outcomes for those who can master the “seven steps to this” or the “five things that wildly succesful people do that you don’t.” God is the one, rather, who takes notice of us, who has doings with us, and calls us to a world outside of ourselves through the love of God and neighbor.

Come, Holy Spirit and draw us out of ourselves to attend to the world God has prepared for us.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

When preparation and opportunity meet

I cried like a baby after Sara Barton’s masterful keynote sermon at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures this past May. It was such a momentous occasion and she just crushed it. Truthfully, it exceeded my expectations. I have heard Sara present several times and have always found her thoughtful and interesting. But I know from experience, the big room of a lectureship is a different kind of thing. She would have to move beyond thoughtful and interesting to gripping and forceful. And she did. Boy, did she!

The truth is, Sara’s preparation and the occasion met in perfect timing. Sara has long been reflecting and pursuing her own sense of calling to preach. She’s been preparing. She extended herself in Uganda to find ways to teach. She pursued a master’s degree at Spring Arbor University in spiritual formation. She worked, first as campus minister, and then as an instructor in Bible at Rochester College. She is currently in the final stages of a DMin from Lipscomb University. All along the way, she has found ways to fan the spark of her gifting into flame, taking whatever rare preaching opportunities came her way.

When I stepped onto the platform for the first time at Pepperdine, I had hundreds of sermons under my belt. Sara had so few in comparison–a dozen? twenty? But she welcomed what she was offered and took all her preparation into that moment at Pepperdine.

A few weeks ago, I sat with friends, drinking coffee and sharing dessert. Both of these friends, husband and wife, are theologically wired and ministry oriented. She talked about how theological education would have been something she would have considered if she thought it was even remotely possible for a woman to do. It just wasn’t a consideration. Which made me sad. Even though she uses her theological gifts in productive and important ways, the fact is her perceived limitations related to gender and ministry kept her from preparing in ways that might have opened other doors and opportunities.

So, I think giftedness is an important and undeniable part of finding calling in ministry. But so is the convergence of preparation and opportunity. More and more, I know of stories in our tradition of women who have prepared themselves. We recently hired Naomi Walters (and her husband Jamey) to teach at Rochester College. We’re thrilled to have them and are impressed with the seriousness with which Naomi has taken her preparation. She did the preparation, Rochester College provided the opportunity.

I’m hoping there will be more opportunities provided for women who want to pursue ministry in our tribe. I’m convinced, however, that those opportunities will be expanded more quickly in relation to women who have prepared themselves for the opportunity.

Good preparation for ministry is costly. While we try to do things that limit the amount our grad students have to borrow, the fact is that often they pile grad school debt on top of the debt they’ve incurred to get an undergrad degree. If you’re preparing to be a lawyer or a doctor, you can justify that expense. In ministry, it’s harder. You’re never going to make a lot of money. Now imagine you’re a woman considering graduate training in ministry in a tradition in which the job opportunities are few and far between. You might be borrowing money for a ministry job that will never come.

So, we’re in a bit of a catch-22. Without women prepared, there will be fewer opportunities, yet women are preparing for opportunities that might never come. One way to address this, however, would be to make ministry preparation for women less expensive. ¬†To do just that, we have established the Stuart and D’Esta Love scholarship for women in ministry at Rochester College. Awards will be given for women who are pursuing the master’s in missional leadership.

The scholarship is named for my parents whose lives have been committed to full gender inclusion in Churches of Christ for many years. We announced the scholarship at the Pepperdine lectureships and have already been receiving gifts.

If you care about the future of ministry, you should be giving money for student scholarships somewhere. Your church should make sure that young women like my friend know that theological training is possible for them and that you have money to help them. Any amount helps. $25 buys a text book (at least some text books), a string of $25 gifts, a laptop. You get the idea. We should do what we can to make sure that preparation and opportunity meet more often, that we have more moments like Sara’s sermon at Pepperdine.

If you want to give to the Stuart and D’Esta Love scholarship, you can send your checks to RC (800 W Avon Rd., Rochester Hills, MI, 48307) with “Stuart and D’Esta Love scholarship” written in the memo line (very important).

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Practicalities of Having Been Found a Charismatic: bigger than the indivdual or the church

If you place the Holy Spirit at the heart of your theology, you have to be open to the idea that God might be present in places you don’t expect. If there’s one thing I’m sure of regarding the Spirit, its that the Spirit is not subject to human mastery. You can’t own or buy or sell the Spirit or use if for your own dreams or aspirations. The Spirit doesn’t belong to me or serve me. The Spirit doesn’t belong to the church or serve it. The Spirit serves the coming of God’s great and glorious future. It works for this promised reality even when I don’t, even when the church doesn’t. 

One of the implications of this is that the Spirit’s work is in the world, and not just in me or the church. And this is huge.

I have a sense that we’re not clear about all of this. I’ve conducted interviews in churches that ask questions about the Holy Spirit. I have yet to collect a single response that talks about the Spirit’s work in a way other than in service of the individual. The Spirit encourages me, empowers me, gives gifts to me. These answers I get. I don’t get anything like “The Spirit is upholding the cause of the poor,” or “The Spirit is breaking down barriers between people to bring peace and create new categories of belonging,” or “The Spirit is making the righteousness of God known in the world.”

And these are, according to Michael Welker in his book, God the Spirit, the characteristic works of the Spirit if you take the entire biblical witness into account. Welker doesn’t begin his discussion of the Holy Spirit where most of us do, in Acts 2 or 1 Cor 12-14, with a focus on personal gifts. Welker surveys all of Scripture for accounts of the work of the Spirit of God. And while the signs and wonders of the NT are certainly an impressive part of the overall biblical story, they do not rise for Welker as one of the leading themes. Instead, it is characteristic throughout all of Scripture that the Spirit works to break down boundaries and create new communities of belonging (what Welker calls new publics), brings justice to the marginalized or oppressed, and increases knowledge of the righteousness of God. 

Notably, these are all characteristic of the coming age in which God’s reign is fully realized, leading Moltmann to describe the Spirit as the agent of God’s coming future.

We tend to think of the Spirit, even though we know better, only as our personal possession, given for our good and for our use.

So, the Spirit is at work if we felt inspired by worship or had a sense of peace about a decision (which may or may not be the work of the Spirit), but have a tougher time talking about the Spirit bringing understanding between people who are in conflict or creating the conditions necessary for people to escape the degradations of poverty. At the very least, a charismatic theology would say that the Spirit isn’t at work just in the individual, but also between people (and peoples) and in the material conditions of the world.

The practical difference this makes is huge and runs in many directions. But let me start with this statement: the church doesn’t exist as a self-propogating organization focused on its own institutional health, but to discern and obey the leading of the Spirit in relation to the coming reign of God. These two things may very well go together, but to confuse them as the organizational priority of the church is to miss the church’s calling in the world. And as I said in my previous post, most congregations are poorly organized to discern the leading of the Spirit, being organized instead to enhance the strength of the institution.

Here’s an implication that follows closely. When I ask congregations where they got their mission statements, how they were produced, I usually am told that the leaders or a group of key members came up with it at a retreat. I heard recently the story of two elder groups that met together to discuss an issue both congregations were dealing with. It soon became clear the difference in how the leaders thought of their work. As one elder put it, “you discern the church’s direction for the church, we discern it with the church.” I like this distinction a lot and think it honors a charismatic instinct. (Ironically, a lot of pentecostal congregations situate authority in a strong pastor who acts fairly autocratically). But I would take this one step further. We also discern the leading of God with the world, with the people in our neighborhoods, because the Spirit of God might also be at work in these circumstances. Yet, seldom have I had a congregation tell me that their mission statement came, at least in part, through interaction with the congregation’s neighbors. 

I think this would be one very practical dimension of a charismatic church, of a congregation that believes the Spirit does not serve the church, but the coming reign of God.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment