Love, Understanding, and Participation in the Life of God

Just thinking out loud here, and trying to reverse engineer the bigger project I’ve been working on. So, you are generous to audit my raw notions.

The author of 1 John insists that the deal is not that we love God, but that God loves us. I take that to mean that there is a qualitative difference–a saving difference–between the way God loves and the way we love. After all, the same author claims that God does more than love, but rather that God is love. God’s entire life is love, expressed immediately within the life of God as Trinity, and toward us as God’s creation. Not only does this raise questions about the quality of human love, which we know is mixed in its objects and motivations, but it also makes God’s love prior to ours. We experience it, not through our efforts to love, but as a gift beyond our capacities.

Paul says similar things about God’s love. We know God’s love, not as an analogy to how we love, but as an expression of enemy love, hostile to God’s intentions, weak, sinners, enemies of God, Christ died for us. You can imagine that for a righteous person someone might actually give her life, but that’s human love, not divine love which wastes itself for the enemy. More, Paul says that God’s love has now been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:1-11).

A recent favorite passage of mine is in Phil 1, where Paul prays that their “love might overflow with knowledge and full insight.” Here love produces understanding, not the other way around, which I think is how we would put it, ie our knowledge might overflow in love. To use modern categories that Paul would not understand, understanding is ontological, not epistemological. In other words, we understand God as much by how we live as by how we think. It’s not that the mind is not important, but as Paul puts it Rom 12, we are called to offer our lives as living sacrifices, which is our spiritual worship, which leads to the renewing of our minds. (Rom 12:1-2).

Which brings me to the genesis of this whole brainstorm. Paul suggests that faith lives in the reality, not of our knowing God, but in God knowing us. The most dramatic place where Paul makes this distinction is in Galatians 4:9. He reminds the Galatians that their life is different “now that you have come to know God, or rather that you are known by God…” Something of what Paul means in distinguishing between our knowledge of God and God’s knowledge of us seems evident at the end of 1 Cor 13:12: “For now we see only a reflection, as in a mirror, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Again, there seems to be something of a qualitative difference between our knowing, which is only in part, in a glass darkly (KJV), and God’s knowing us. And again, it places the emphasis on God’s knowing to be prior to ours.

I would also suggest that “knowledge” here is not epistemological, but ontological. Knowing is not simply the ideas in our head, but more importantly comes through our participation in a way of life. (Love overflows with knowledge and insight). Knowledge, in other words, is a relational concept, not just an individual one. It cannot come only within us, but only in the network of relationships that precede our understanding. Here’s my claim, for Paul understanding is something we exist in. What we know in Christ is conditioned by God’s prior knowing of us. We live, move, and have our being in the reality of God’s knowledge of us. Both love and understanding then are realities in which we participate.

This sense of participation God’s love and understanding moves in sync with the apocalyptic mood of the NT. Paul certainly is a noted apocalyptic thinker, suggesting both that we live in the already-but-not-yet of the coming of the new age, but also privileges the initiative of God apart from which the realities of the new age are not possible. Because the reign of God cannot come through the will or desires of the flesh (human agency), the realities of God’s reign are only open to us as a participation in the realities of the life of God. God’s love and understanding, which comes before and transcends our love and understanding, is ours only by the Spirit of God, the agent of God’s future.

All of this is important to me as I think about mission. My dissertation demonstrated that Paul’s views of salvation correspond to certain instincts present in philosophical hermeneutics, while much of contemporary notions of mission are still wed to Enlightenment epistemologies. What I’ve written here would expand those insights, especially as it relates to the work of Martin Heidegger and Jean Luc-Marion. I know, I know. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it. And I won’t bother you with it here. Instead, I’ll end with some reflections by Luke Timothy Johnson from his book, Faith’s Freedom.

Johnson writes, “Why does Paul emphasize being known by God over knowing God? Perhaps for this simple reason:knowing God is compatible with the project of idolatry; being known by God can only come by way of gift, can never be brought under human control.” Johnson continues, “When we look closely at the primordial fear that generates the compulsions of idolatry, we perceive that it has a great deal to do with the sense that we are not known and loved… Paradoxically, however–and this is our enslavement–what we most desire at one love (being known and loved), we work the hardest to prevent at another. To be known as we really are is too threatening, so we struggle to construct a self that appears more real and substantial” (69). The liberating path to overcoming the compulsion to idolatry is faith, notably receiving as gift the reality that God loves and knows us.

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Despair that disguises hope

I’m in despair. I have great hope. I’m not optimistic. There is a clear path forward. Yes, I am of two minds.

The topic is the state of the church today in North America. I browsed the “religion” aisle at Barnes and Noble today and was struck how “Christian” books could sit side-by-side on the same shelf. There in my line of view were Jesus and John Wayne, and a book calling Christians to stand their ground against “cancel culture” before it’s too late. There were anti-racist books next to Christian nationalism books. These contrasts seem to me to be less options within a shared faith, and more two completely different faiths. I’m not optimistic.

I am not optimistic that there are terms for reconciliation. But the greater problem in my estimation is the public beating the reputation of the church is taking. Part of the public damage is the de facto schism between these two or more versions of Christianity. But the bigger reputation problem, in my estimation is related to the ugliness of public Christian discourse. Though not all Christians are guilty of public ugliness, it is prevalent enough that all Christians are painted with the same brush. Fair or not, this is a problem for us all.

Evidence that this is our lot may be found in the series of “Jesus gets us” commercials, a multi-multi-million dollar effort to rehabilitate the reputation of Christians. I have no doubt that this massively expensive undertaking has strengthened something most people already believe, namely that Jesus gets us. Jesus needs little PR help. People think favorably of him. It has done little, though, to convince people that the “church gets us.” In fact, the irony is that some Christians have complained that the Jesus presented in the commercials is too woke. The irony here is that Jesus doesn’t get “us,” the “us” being Christians. Put the other way, these critics don’t get Jesus.

I doubt that this public reputation problem will improve much in my lifetime (I am, after all, on the back nine). It leaves me with the question of how best to spend my energies. I’m not sure, though I have some hunches that I’ll explore later. But I have a read on where we are, that could be mistaken, that gives me hope.

We are in a place of public humiliation. Our brand is diminished. We have sold ourselves into bondage, imposed exile on ourselves, and nailed ourselves to a cross. It is important to realize that we have put ourselves in this position. This is our own doing. “Secularists” didn’t do this to us. This isn’t the result of pluralism or globalization. This is a self-inflicted wound. To see ourselves as victims would be to misread the moment and fail to do what is needed the most, to be humiliated.

I imagine this is not yet all the way to hopeful yet as a proposal. Perhaps it would be more palatable if I had said “humbled” instead of “humiliated.” But I think “humiliated” puts us in better company. It puts us in company with Hebrew slaves dealt with ruthlessly in Egypt. It puts us in company with the Servant of Yahweh who was humiliated in exile. It puts us in company with the one who was publicly humiliated on a Roman cross. It puts us in the company of those whose only hope is God, the God who raises from the dead. We find ourselves where God does God’s best work. I have hope.

The wrong move, I am convinced, is to claw our way back to a place of prominence wherein we call the shots and control outcomes. Not only is it the wrong social goal for a group that follows a homeless Galilean peasant who dies outside the city gates on a Roman cross, but the effort will require only more of the same that got us in this place to begin with–more judgment, more condemnation, more moral superiority, more hypocrisy, more strange political alliances, more corruption related to the quest for power, more of all of the wrong things.

The church has ultimately nothing to fear in losing its life for the sake of the kingdom. It has much to fear in winning, in triumph, in grasping its life through its own doing, and as a result losing its life.

The way forward, I believe, is to embrace exile, but in a new way. It begins by confessing that the public critique of others is true and just. This does not make them right about everything. It’s only that they’re right about us in this case. No self-justifications, no defensiveness. Just saying the truth of the matter. We are no longer publicly trustworthy.

And for awhile, this means acting like exiles: not trying to make our lives bigger, the program grander, the show more spectacular, but to instead find simplicity and humility the shape of our footprint in the world. And it means to make league with all of the other disempowered, marginalized groups. As the “Jesus gets us” commercials have made clear, these are our people. To make league with them not to be their savior, but to share life with them, to find Jesus among them. Not to advocate for our own sake, but for theirs.

It will require that we hold still long enough for one version of Christianity to die so that another might emerge from the rubble. Again, the gospel teaches us that those who lose their life will find it. I remember Bonhoeffer’s line that the church enters the world, like Jesus, to die. My hope lies here, in the irony that this diminished church will in fact be a more powerful church. That humility and self-forgetfulness is more powerful than casting our shadow to appear bigger than we are. That this way is more winsome. But most of all it is more in line with the Jesus who gets us.

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“A Pandemic is a Terrible Thing to Waste”

I attribute my title to Pat Keifert, who has said this in my presence time and again the past few years. He could stop at “a pandemic is a terrible thing.” And it is. Think of all the ways it has disrupted our lives. I am particularly mindful of those who had family members die alone in hospitals, unable to receive visits from family members. But the toll goes far beyond death and illness. Businesses were destroyed and jobs lost. School children learned in isolation, separated from friends and teachers, and more susceptible to anxiety and depression. Our country’s already fragile compact was further strained over masks and vaccines. The pandemic is a terrible thing.

A terrible thing to waste? I know few congregations who aren’t reporting a decline in membership since the pandemic began. It is tempting to blame the pandemic for this state of affairs, but I think it’s less the case that the pandemic caused decline in our churches, and more revealed the fragility that already existed. The fact is, congregations of all persuasions were already leaking members before the pandemic hit. The losses were more gradual and less universal, disguising the fact that our churches face uncertain futures. What I think Pat is pointing to is that the pandemic pulled back the curtain on our pain, revealing the true state of congregations in North America. Faced with the truth of our situation, our options become clearer. We can live in denial and rush back to the familiar ways through which we were experiencing a slow but sure demise, or we could seek a new way of being and doing. We could shake off the lethargy of the “way we always do it,” and find new possibilities for a new future. Congregations that rush back to the way things were before, according to Pat, are wasting the opportunity presented by a pandemic, by a crisis.

Scott Hagley, in his book, Eat What is Set Before You, suggests that mission is always the product of crisis. This is perhaps a corollary to the oft cited line, “mission is the mother of theology.” The uncertainties of a given situation give rise to new ways of being and doing, which in turn give way to new ways of conceiving of God’s presence in the world. Hagley does a wonderful job of tracing biblical stories in which crisis and uncertainty led to new ways of being and doing, particularly his narration of the book of Acts. Crisis breeds mission to those open to what the Spirit of God might be up to. Hagley will be at our Fall conference, Streaming, Oct 6-8, to make the connections and implications clear.

Were that the pandemic comprised our only crisis. Wars, refugees, racial tensions, democratic institutions at risk, climate changes and disasters, and mass shootings are but the beginning of the long list of crises that confront both our neighbors and ourselves. They are all terrible things. Are they terrible things that could lead to a new participation in the mission of God? We have no choice but to explore together the possibilities.

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Mission in an Age of Crisis: Call the Midwife

In our graduate program, we are careful about the metaphors for leadership we use. I believe that definitions of power and authority, which are not bad words in and of themselves, may be the thing that distinguishes Christian life and practice from other ways of being in the world. And, in large measure, Christians not only fail to distinguish themselves in the regard, but represent the worst of abusive forms of power and authority. We do our best to challenge the “leader as hero” metaphor, with all of its iterations (leader as visionary, leader as strategic planner, leader as guru). There may be aspects of these perspectives that are a part of being a leader in the mission of God, but when they rise to the level of an organizing metaphor, they become problematic.

There are several reasons for this, the main one being that the Triune God is a living God, and is always calling communities into a new future in God’s mission. The Triune God, therefore, calls and leads the church, not the heroic pastor. And because God exists in community, our discernment of the call of God also comes in community. We have for years used the metaphor of ecologist to describe the work of the leader. The ecologist is concerned with healthy environments that produce certain kinds of life. The pastor as ecologist keeps the congregational environment healthy so that the Word, or call, of God can continue to be spoken and heard, and so that the mission of God can be discerned and joined.

I think ecologist is a good metaphor. It corresponds to the notion of a living God. But good leadership metaphors should also reflect the moment we are in. And we are doing ministry in an age of crisis and dislocation. Metaphors, in other words, should also mark the pain we experience in liminality where we don’t know if we’re dying or finding new life. Shawna Songer Gaines is teaching me that “midwife” might be just the right metaphor. Her DMin thesis explored the work of actual midwives and pastors, bringing them together for conversation and reflection. What she learned will be what she presents at this year’s Streaming conference.

In the opening of her thesis, she makes a very interesting observation. She was taught in seminary that the pastor “was the shepherd of the congregational flock. My role was to guide the sheep in and out of the pen, lead them into green pastures and beside still waters, and to protect them from the wolves and robbers.” Sounds familiar and right. But then she adds, “This metaphor seems to work in a church where congregations are full, pastors have a clear sense of where they are headed, pain is avoidable, and our innocence–like sheep–is unquestioned in the society at large.” She has set us up for a big turn. “But we find ourselves in a very different social moment.” We do indeed, one of pain and loss. For Songer Gaines, the metaphor of midwife is apt for a moment like this. It recognizes the pain we are in, but also suggests that the pain might be leading to the birth of something new. Our pain might be the necessary prerequisite for the new thing to be born. The difference between death and new life might be the capacity of the pastor to function as a midwife.

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Giving up Snark for Lent

I’m not good at Lent. I have no great Lent advice and I always have a hard time thinking of something to give up. This is not because I lack possibilities, but because I have too many. Where do I start in becoming a better person? Those of you who know me likely have several very specific suggestions.

But this year, I’ve decided to give up snark as a way of making room for gratitude and generosity of spirit. I’m aware that the previous sentences run along the boundary of snarkiness. I know how much of my sense of self is tied to being clever. Public cleverness, with an edge, is a way to show others how smart I am. “Look at me, don’t I have a way of turning a phrase, of making you admire me?” I think at times snarkiness says, “I’m smarter than most of you.” Whether or not that’s it’s intention, that’s the way snark often functions rhetorically. It can be a form of self-promotion. And it’s often offered at someone else’s expense, the dumb ones, the ones that don’t get, the ones that don’t have a clue. In its worst forms, it promotes the self and diminishes the other.

Look, I’m as guilty of this as anyone. It’s not what I think I’m doing in the moment, but it’s often the practical effect. So, this year, I’m thinking of Lent as an opportunity to emphasize a more generous way of being with others. I easily slide into cynicism, into assigning less than the best motives to others. When it becomes pronounced in my life, I feel it like an illness.

The path to getting better, I think, is twofold. First, just practicing gratitude is a path to healing. Expressing gratitude, I once heard Randy Harris say, is the chief Christian virtue. It opens the heart to the world. It replaces complaining with appreciation. It helps me see my life as something given to me, a gift, and not something I have constructed out of my own ingenuity. This is a perspective I lose from time-to-time, and suggests that gratitude is not an attitude as much as it is a practice.

Second, I’ve come to think of generosity of spirit as a way to love those who are difficult for me to love. By love, I don’t mean have affection for, but to the extent that I can, to do what’s best for them. I need frequent reminders that people don’t wake up each day thinking, “Who can I screw over today? How can I make Mark’s life difficult today?” We’re pushed to assholeness by a variety of factors. There are evil, malicious people in the world, but most of us are just a bundle of contradictions who find ourselves playing roles that if given the chance would do something different. It’s just good to remember that. Again, this is a practice more than it is maintaining an attitude. I find Jesus’s advice on loving enemies in Luke a good way to practice generosity of spirit. Do something good for others. Be kind. Bless them. Pray for them. These are ways perhaps to embody Paul’s advice in Romans 12 to associate with lowly, not to think of yourself better than you should, but rather to consider others better than yourself.

This is hard work. It’s not in my spirit to do these things. It takes a holy Spirit. God have mercy on me, a sinner.

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The Backward Hermeneutics of Paul

I’ve been reading posts from my students in their missional hermeneutics course. They are currently responding to Richard Hays’ book, Echoes of Scripture in Paul. I’ve read these posts alongside participation in a conference on hermeneutics I attended the last few days, and it’s got me thinking about a few things.

Hays suggests that Paul’s hermeneutical approach “seeks to overcome the estrangement between past and present by positing a diachronic resolution of the intertextual tension” (179). In other words, Paul allows older texts to speak in the present tense, overcoming the historical distance, and he does this not with methodological rules, but through certain theological commitments. These commitments allow him a certain creative liberty in using older texts in ways different from their initial usage. Hays suggests that “Paul provides us with a model of hermeneutical freedom.”

I have a former colleague who taught exegesis who claims Paul would have flunked his classes. I think he’s being somewhat sarcastic–somewhat, but I’m also convinced that if he wouldn’t flunk Paul, he would flunk his contemporary students for anything approaching the words “creative” and “freedom” in interpretation. I was taught that the text couldn’t mean anything it didn’t originally mean. In other words, there was one timeless meaning that could be uncovered through use of the right method. To this way of thinking, Paul is not a model for us in terms of the interpretation of Scripture. Do what he says, but don’t practice what he practices.

At the recent conference I attended, no one was holding on to this “one meaning around authorial intention” approach, which in my estimation was a step or two or three forward. Texts have a surplus of meaning, especially sacred texts. They don’t just represent meanings, they continue to produce meaning.

Instead, interesting proposals for theological readings of the text were offered. One call was to read them through the narrative of God’s redemptive work in Christ through the power of the Spirit. Narrative and Trinitarian! Cha-ching! Another proposal was more specifically christological, Christ becoming the key to interpreting the whole of Scripture. You know, it’s hard to argue against anything when the answer is Jesus! The first approach was similar to the approach taken by others (McKnight, Wright, both Tom and Chris, Goheen, to name a few). This narrative approach moves from beginning to end, or forward. The christological approach is less narrative and more thematic, arguing for a center, one ring that controls them all.

While these approaches have their merits, they are not Paul’s. At least, not according to Hays. Paul, Hays contends, has two theological commitments that inform his interpretative approach–ecclesial, and eschatological. These are related for Paul. What God is doing toward the day of Lord is creating communities that are no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. The proof of the truth of his gospel is that Jew and Gentile praise God with one voice. This is the mystery hidden for ages, and now revealed through Christ, that Jew and Gentile are being built into a new spiritual dwelling for the Spirit of God, that Christ is the first born of a large, new family, and that all of creation is eagerly anticipating the eschatological revealing of the children of God.

For Hays, then, Paul is not moving christologically, but ecclesiologically. His organizing theme is the eschatologial identity of the people of God. You might quibble with Hays at this point. James Dunn has argued that there is no single theological center to Paul’s thought. Rather, there are multiple theological trajectories that move in and out, forward and backward, to inform Paul’s pastoral responses from situation to situation.

What there is more agreement on is that there is a narrative structure to Paul’s thought, but that it doesn’t move from beginning to end. Rather, it moves backwards from the end (Dunn, Hultgren, Beker, Hays, P Achtemeier, Sampley, Gorman, Brownson, to name a few). Paul thinks apocalyptically, that the future of God has broken into the present, judging the powers of this present evil age, which is perishing, and inaugurating, not a continuation or improvement on the old age, but an alternative to it–a new thing, a new creation with a new family(“The old is passing away, behold everything has become new!” 2 Cor 5).

I think that this “backward” reading is most responsible for Paul’s hermeneutical freedom. If the future is the horizon of interpretation for what God is up to, the past becomes less of a precedent than if you’re reading from beginning to end. If you’re reading from beginning to end, previous practices or positions possess more authoritative inertia. Issues like slavery, gender, and sexuality take on a more normative force. As Moltmann has pointed out, reading from beginning to end tends to honor the status quo, the future (futurum) being the outcome of the past, or the way things are. But an apocalyptic imagination (adventus), assumes a new thing is coming, a reversal of fortunes that provide hope to those on the underside of current arrangements.

There are other hermeneutical approaches in the NT, simply because there are multiple theological perspectives among biblical authors and their communities (another argument against a meta approach). Paul’s approach is important to consider, however, as a theological model for our own readings. His apocalyptic framework makes him valuable at the level or process and not just results.

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The Continuing Presence of Jesus in the World

I read today a quotation emphasizing that Jesus has taken up residence in the human heart. I get it and I don’t think it’s wrong. The language of abiding in the gospel of John would indicate that Jesus continues to be present to his followers through a mutual indwelling. The problem, though, with the “Jesus in my heart” language is that we can internalize the saving work of God in the world. This turns salvation into a “Jesus and me” thing, and misses the larger social and material significance of the kingdom of God.

So, Jesus goes from being the marginal peasant who walked the dusty of roads of first century Palestine, embodying the kingdom of God, proclaiming a way of non-violence, creating new social arrangements by welcoming the unclean and sinners and tax collectors, providing space for women and children in the welcome of God, to living in the hearts of individuals. Jesus in the heart, in an age of expressive individualism, becomes a therapeutic presence, inspiring peace and tranquility, and personal, moral improvement. These are hardly things to put anyone to death over.

I guess if I were to play the other side, defend the “Jesus in my heart” expression of much of contemporary Christianity, I would have so say that God’s plan is to make the world better one heart at a time. But then I would have to explain how this expression of Christianity carries little of the radical social and material nature of the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed. I think at many churches you’re more likely to hear a sermon extolling the virtues of personal responsibility than you are to hear one on sharing possessions or turning the other cheek.

While I think I have something of Jesus in my heart, I think it is more in keeping with the incarnation, with the life that Jesus actually lived in the world, to think of his continuing presence as being with the prisoner, the hungry, the naked, the abandoned, the overlooked, the refugee, the poor and marginal, all those excluded in other realms of significance and power.

I was asked by a student a few years ago why incarnation isn’t a bigger theological warrant in our program. That seemed to him to be a pretty big oversight for a program emphasizing God’s mission. But our program does emphasize incarnation plenty if what counts is the life Jesus actually lived and the kingdom he actually proclaimed.

I know this is a grumpy old man kind of post. I have mounted a blatantly obvious soapbox. I’m not asking anyone to ask Jesus to please vacate their heart. If he’s there, that’s great. What I’m trying to suggest is that Jesus’ actual, ongoing presence in the world is bigger than your heart. In fact, you might want to see if the Jesus in your heart looks like the one who continues to be present in the world.

Ok, next post will have less snark.

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Mercy, Not Sacrifice: Some Observations

Twice in Matthew’s gospel, nearly complete verbatim agreement with Mark’s account is expanded to include a line from the prophets: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (9:13, 12:7). In the first instance, Jesus invites the Pharisees to “go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'” I heard Andre Resner once refer to this as the first great commission in Matthew, which I have come to accept as gospel. In the second, the phrase points to the different approaches taken by Jesus and the Pharisees to the disciples plucking grain on the sabbath. In this instance, Jesus says, “If you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.”

I won’t take the time here to trace the enormously important theme of mercy in Matthew, but will just make the observation that this line from the prophet seems to serve as an interpretative approach to the law taken by Jesus in Matthew. This is not only how Jesus interprets Scripture, but how he interprets situations, and who he believes God to be. I think it is the clarion call of Jesus in Matthew to learn what it means to desire mercy, and not sacrifice.

So, what does it mean? Clearly in its original settings (Hosea with similar sentiments in Micah and Amos), it has some reference to the offering of sacrifices in the temple. The prophets indicate that God is not pleased with “thousands of rams or 10,000 rivers of oil.” Rather, the Lord requires justice, mercy, and humility (Micah 6:6-9). So at one level the saying has to do with not expecting favor with God through religious performance, but through a life that honors what God values.

In Matthew, the Pharisees have little or no interest in what is happening in the temple. They agree with Jesus that temple practice has been corrupted, and they view keeping favor with God as a matter of Torah observance. They share this value with Jesus who proclaims, “think not that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Mt 6:17). So, Jesus and the Pharisees share an emphasis on the proper performance of the law and the prophets, but they differ in approach. That difference in approach is encapsulated in the line, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

So, if sacrifice is the interpretative path the Pharisees take in Matthew, and temple observance is not in view, what is being indicated? I think the word that typifies this approach is the word “purity.” Matthew’s Pharisees are interested in observable aspects of the law that keep them pure or clean (sabbath, circumcision, diet, etc), not contaminated or unclean. It’s not hard to imagine that maintaining a reality through an appeal to purity would run headlong into conflict with an appeal to mercy. It’s not that purity is unimportant to Jesus, but if it becomes the primary way you understand God’s presence in the world, then you’ve misunderstood God. Mercy is the big umbrella category for understanding the way of the “kingdom of heaven.” And if there’s a conflict between mercy and purity, mercy wins.

I’ve had occasion to think about this more of late, especially as it comes to relationships. I’ve run afoul of this principle myself thinking that if certain things can be avoided, that if somehow purity or rightness can be achieved through strict observance, then the outcomes will be good. When we do this, we’re setting up everyone involved for failure, for resentment and shame.

I know Christians who are brutally hard on themselves and highly anxious because they have high standards of performance and I wonder if this isn’t evidence that purity, and not mercy, is piping the tune. In my students, I know some feel pressure to perform in systems that are high on demand and low on tolerance. I wonder if this isn’t evidence of valuing sacrifice, not mercy.

I know churches who are clearly more interested in keeping their precincts pure, whether morally or doctrinally, than they are modeling the way of mercy.

Here’s the rub, I think Jesus actually thinks you get more out of people through mercy, not sacrifice. I think Jesus is serious when he says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees you cannot enter the kingdom of Heaven” (Matt 5:20). I think that valuing mercy over sacrifice produces this exceeding righteousness. Mercy is an expansive way of being in the world. It often requires more of us in living it out than the quick drawing of lines enabled by the way of sacrifice. It can be a more rigorous “yoke.” But it is also the light burden. It is rest for the soul. Mercy creates possibility and it mitigates the debilitating effects of scolding and shaming. It recognizes our limitations and refuses to assess value in light of those. Mercy creates environments for flourishing and ultimately produces better, more productive people. Most importantly, mercy frees us toward God. Freed from guilt and shame, we can pursue God without fear.

I hope you can see that just as sacrifice is more than what you do in the temple, so mercy is more than just overlooking wrongdoing. It is a large organizing perspective on life. There are certainly times to establish boundaries and expectations. To use Miroslav Volf’s language, there are times to exclude and not embrace. But these should take place under the overall desire for mercy. In light of this, I’m mindful of Ubuntu, an African perspective on life that understands the self only in its relatedness to others. “I am, because we are.” Built into this way of being are empathy and trust. I’ve been told that Ubuntu is manifest in ways of dealing with people who have violated community standards. Instead of retribution, the way of sacrifice, offenders are surrounded by the community and reminded of all the positive things that person contributes to their collective life. Justice here is restorative, not retributive. The way of mercy. I wonder which produces better outcomes.

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Dave Grohl’s Rock Calling

I did the pilgrimage to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this week. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long given the fact that it’s only a three hour drive from where I’ve lived the past twelve years. It was a great experience, marred only slightly by the lack of attention given to Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin. I mean, c’mon.

The main exhibit area is on the first floor where you find storytelling by memorabilia, large display windows with items like John Lennon’s guitar played in the Get Back documentary, or Mick Jagger’s football pants that he performed in one tour, or Little Richard’s sequined jumpsuit. The higher floors featured smaller exhibits, with the fourth floor displaying hall of fame inductees including the class of 2021. In one corner of a large display were instruments from the band, Foo Fighters. I had seen the HBO airing of the 2021 induction ceremony and loved the Foo Fighters part of the evening. They were inducted by Paul McCartney and played a Beatles’ song with him at the conclusion of the festivities.

That night, as with other times I’ve witnessed him, I’ve been impressed with Dave Grohl, the former Nirvana drummer, and now guitarist and frontman for Foo Fighters. He’s thoughtful about what he does. He seems grounded in family, and he is clearly loved by his bandmates. My middle daughter gave me, Dave Grohl the Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music, for Christmas this year, and I’ve been savoring the reading.

I was struck by one of the opening chapters in which Grohl talks about the inevitability of his becoming a musician. “I was blessed with a genetic symphony,” he says, something in his DNA that needed only a “spark” to kindle it into existence. It was something given, less a decision or outcome of a series of decisions and more of a genetic destiny.

Two floors above the Foo Fighters’ exhibit was a small room with video pieces on rock guitar legends. One of them featured Keith Richards, the leather faced guitarist for the Rolling Stones. He began by saying that he had attended art school to be a painter, but came out a guitar player. This was not a choice, Richards says. It was given to him. The guitar chose him.

Nearly the exact same thing was conveyed by Tom Morello, guitar player for Rage Against the Machine. He took up the guitar at the age of 17, later than most accomplished musicians. Yet, once he had one in his hands, he knew this would become his way of life. The guitar chose him.

As someone who teaches theology at a Christian university, I recognize these as “calling” stories. As a university, we spend hours helping students explore their developing sense of vocation, or calling. While we attribute calling to God, at its most basic element calling has an external source and involves a pull into something greater than yourself, a pull into some purpose that makes your life meaningful. Grohl, Richards, and Morello all have a profound sense of this.

I’ve read similar things from and about other musicians. Willie Nelson claims no real gifts on his part as a songwriter, but something of a divine inspiration. Songs just come to him, fully formed. Anyone who has seen the documentary by Peter Jackson, Get Back, on the Beatles, is stunned by how things come to McCartney in particular. He’ll leave for the day and come back the next day with a song that he heard in a dream that night. This kind of genius seems otherworldly, mysterious both to us mere Muggles, and to the artists themselves.

Grohl is something of an exception here. He claims no divine source for his gift, but neither is it merely science, a set of genetic factors that produced a music making machine. He acknowledges that, genetics aside, it also requires a spark of some sort, something that ignites latent possibilities and fans them into flame.

Todd Schultz (my cousin’s husband), a respected and well published psychologist, has devoted his career to studying the “mind of the artist.” In his recent book, The Mind of the Artist: Personality and the Drive to Create, he suggests that artistry may be complex, but it is not mysterious. It is largely attributable to personality, and specifically to one personality trait among five identified by psychologists: the trait of openness. The other personality traits might vary among artists, but openness is nearly always determinative. These traits are largely inherited, part of Grohl’s “genetic symphony.”

I’m also reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, and his observation that genius typically requires 10,000 hours of “practice,” or performance. The Beatles we see in Get Back are not the Beatles who performed in the Cavern in 1960. By the time we find them in the documentary (1969), they had played thousands of hours in a strip club in Hamburg, and then years after that as a band writing and recording their own music. McCartney’s dreams were fueled by hours of playing other people’s songs, and by hours of collaboration with John, George, and Ringo. He was manifesting, among other things, his broad experience with a tradition and a community of collaborators.

Surely, Dave Grohl’s “genetic symphony” is part of his “rock calling,” but he was also consciously traditioned by his mother into the world of music and found an amazing community of collaborator’s along the way. He undoubtedly has an artist’s personality, but he also has an account of his being in the world that provides meaning. He has stories.

Back to Schultz. The “top floor of the personality system” consists of stories. “The function of the story,” he writes, “is to explain yourself to yourself and to others.” Importantly, Schultz suggests “we don’t introspect and locate traits.” They are abstract, not internally evident. We see the “visible manifestations” of these traits through our participation in the world, and through the subsequent weaving of a sense-making narrative. The title of Grohl’s book is telling: The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music. He conveys to us his sense of calling as a musician in a series of tales. He tells not so much a chronological narrative from beginning to end, but a series of stories that tie his past and present together.

I can’t imagine a world without the music of Dave Grohl, or Keith Richards and Tom Morello. I have no doubt that they found what they were meant to do, what they were called to do and to be. And to them, at the user end of calling, lies a sense of wonderment, or forgetfulness, even of mystery as to how the rock gods deposited all of this in one place. But this mystery is also the alchemy of personality, tradition, and community, the elements of all callings. I am agnostic concerning calling by lightning bolt, where the threads of community, tradition, and personality are bypassed completely. Calling by lightning bolt has great appeal to many who need to believe in God’s agency in the world. I do believe that there are catalytic moments, “sparks” to use Grohl’s term, that make things more or less clear. I have greater belief, however, that God must be involved in all these seemingly mundane aspects of our being in the world (community, tradition, personality), making God all the more present and mysterious.

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How not to pick a church fight

I spent time recently with a fried who leads a Church of Christ as a minister. He told me that the elders of his congregation had hired a consulting group to come in and help them determine a strategic direction for their church. This process included a congregational survey with a follow-up consultation Zoom meeting and subsequent visit to the congregation.

I’m a big fan of having someone from the outside come in and help congregations gain perspective on their direction. I also know that elders in Churches of Christ have a near impossible role. They feel uber responsibility for the wellbeing of the congregation, while at the same time feeling underprepared to lead. So, the offer of help in setting direction is tantalizing. I’m all for giving them help.

But I’m afraid the experience of this congregation offers little in the way of real help for the issues that confront them. First, the survey measured congregational satisfaction across a broad spectrum of congregational activities or services. Worship, preaching, youth and children’s ministry, etc. The problems with this approach are manifold. First, you’re raising congregational expectations for improvement in these areas, expectations which are often disappointed. You’re setting people up for resentment, or worse cynicism regarding the ability of leadership to move them in positive directions.

Second, when you’re inquiring into preferences over the direction of the congregation, you’re picking a fight. As soon as you ask five persons how to improve worship, you will have five different opinions. Now leadership finds themselves in the task of being a referee for competing visions of church life. There are simply better ways for getting at God’s preferred future for their shared life. Instead of inquiring around satisfaction, I find it far more productive to inquire around people’s perceptions of God’s involvement in their lives. The answers may not be terribly sophisticated, but at least you’re drawing the focus related to the future of the congregation around participation in the life of God.

Third, the short time frame for determining possible future pathways implies that the change needed is already in present in congregational capacity. It assumes technical change, that is a change that is in keeping within the capacities already present in the congregation. But for my money, the problems faced by most congregations are not primarily technical, but adaptive. Adaptive challenges require new skills and practices which lead to a new imagination about what it means to be a church in the first place.

Adaptive work is not fast work. It can’t be done around a survey and follow-up consultation or two. It is patient work which requires experimentation and deep reflection. Even if the insight gained by the survey and consultation lead to improvements in the congregation’s life, the congregation is only a slightly better version of what it already was. File cabinet drawers in congregations are full of plans that didn’t deliver on the hopeful outcomes they promised. Patient processes that take into account the complexity of congregational cultures typically promise less and deliver more.

Obviously, I have a dog in this hunt. I work as a consultant for Church Innovations and lead groups of congregations through a three year journey of spiritual discernment around the question of God’s preferred future for their collective life. This process is called Partnership for Missional Church, and obviously I’d be happy to tell you more about it. The point of this blog, however, is more to create awareness around some of the drawbacks of quicker, more technical approaches to the issues facing congregations today.

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