Giving and Receiving in Ministry

There’s no greater challenge in ministry than managing expectations. I have in mind here more the ways we feel obligated to one another. For example, at the end of my first year with a congregation I served, the leaders distributed a survey to the entire congregation to find out what kind of job I was doing. (That’s a whole different post). One person faulted me for not being friendly enough. People who know me are probably thinking, “nailed it!” True enough, I’m probably not the warmest person in the world and have come to realize that I have a foreboding resting face, but all-in-all I think I’m friendly enough. I have friends.

But I failed to meet this person’s expectations of what it meant to be friends. This person volunteered for everything. Our exchanges had been pleasant. I was grateful for the help and had communicated that. But evidently, the return did not match the investment in this person’s eyes. More was expected in terms of social interaction. All of this volunteering should have made us friends. What else could it be? I simply wasn’t friendly enough.

These kinds of obligations related to reciprocity can create resentments. Paul knew this. He lived in a world built on gift giving and reciprocity. His refusal of the patronage offered by the church in Corinth was a way of circumventing the obligational norms of gift giving in a patron-client relationship. Paul’s sense of calling to the gospel created inherent conflicts with the cultural norms related to gift giving. God was his patron, not wealthy Corinthians. So, he worked with his hands to avoid these kinds of expectations.

I think this is going on in Philippians as well. I am convince that this letter written from prison was to let the church know that though he appreciated the gift he had received from them, this did not obligate him to return to Philippi. More, they had all they needed even if Paul never returned. This letter begins with the assurance that “the one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion in the day of Christ” (1:5) and ends by reminding them that just as Christ supplies all his needs, so all of theirs will be met in Christ as well (4:19).

Paul is working tricky turf here. He has exceedingly warm regard for this church, but he’s not sure if he will ever be able to meet their expectations of a return visit. The end of the letter is a master class in managing expectations.

10 I rejoice[g] in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it.[h] 11 Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12 I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 14 In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.

15 You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone16 For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once. 17 Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account. 18 I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. 19 And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. 20 To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.”

I think Paul’s logic goes like this: Thanks for the gift. Not that I needed the gift. Christ satisfies all my needs. I am content in any circumstance. Still, nice gift and appreciated. No one shares in giving and receiving like you guys do. Not that I seek the gift, but I want you to see how the gift accumulates to your account. It’s not a gift given to me, not really. It’s a fragrant offering to God. And God is the one who will repay your gift by supplying all of your needs as well.

In the “economy” of the kingdom of God, there is no direct exchange between persons. What I offer, I offer through Christ who supplies my every need. I give freely out of the abundance of knowing Christ. This breaks the sometimes vicious cycle of reciprocity or obligation and allows giving and receiving to continue without resentments, but with thanksgiving. It’s not your gift that binds me to you, but the gift of Christ that obligates me to love you and others the way I have been loved.

The trick to all of this is learning the secret of contentment that comes from knowing Christ. The key is living daily in the mercies of God, receiving our life daily as a gift from God, and practicing thankfulness. That’s the trick.

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They make much of you, to exclude you

I’ve been thinking about biblical texts that have informed my practice of ministry. The potential list is long and most of the texts are familiar, but one of my “go-to’s” is a rarely noticed text in Galatians 4:17ff.

You’ll remember that in Galatians Paul is resisting the influence of “Judaizers” who are insisting on some sort of Torah observance, including circumcision, for Gentile believers. For Paul, this is not only not in keeping with his understandings of faith and grace, but is also pastoral malpractice.

He describes their practice this way: “They make much of you, but for no good purpose; they want to exclude you, so that you may make much of them.” Here’s how I understand what’s going on in these verses. Paul’s opponents, using the law, are constantly fussing over the Galatians to see whether or not they measure up. This seems like care because of the constant attention required to make sure standards are being met. But for Paul, this “making much” is for no good purpose. The result of this fussiness is exclusion, which serves the power interests of the one doing the fussing.

If we do pastoral care according to fixed standards of measurement, then the one being cared for is constantly at risk of coming up short, and, therefore of being excluded or diminished, even if this is not the intent of the one providing care. The power in this exchange is now solidly in the hands of the one who can pull the excluded back into the circle of acceptance. “They make much of you…so that you might make much of them.”

I had a bad therapist once who kept me in constant crisis. I left every session feeling like I was coming up short, which in turn made the next session all the more urgent and the therapist all the more powerful. So, this phenomenon is not just limited to those who would require adherence to matters of the law, but any kind of “making much of” that makes the pastor, or the discipler, the standard keeper. It’s why I’m skittish about accountability groups that are constantly measuring performance. “How are you doing with (fill in the blank)?” The answer determines your level of meeting the standard, and, therefore, your wellbeing related to the group.

Paul goes on to say that it is “good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you.” And what is that good purpose? “Christ formed in you.” Notice that Paul sees this work of formation as ongoing even in his absence. The thing about fussiness as a pastoral strategy is that is only works in presence.

I love Henri Nouwen’s little book, The Living Reminder, that talks about the interplay between presence and absence. Spiritual care requires presence, what Paul calls “making much of.” But it also requires absence. Even Jesus told his disciples that it is best for them for him to leave them so that the Spirit might come. In the same way, our absence leaves room for the Spirit to do the work of forming Christ in others. Our presence, then, serves the purpose of pointing not to ourselves as the effective agent, but to Christ. We are a “living reminder.”

Here’s the thing. For Paul, grace is not simply a way to “get saved.” Rather, it is a certain kind of power in the world that works in certain ways to form people and communities. His opponents’ pastoral style keeps people as children, clients, dependents. But grace works differently to form people. It works in freedom and love, in faith and through the Spirit. “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything. The only thing that counts is faith working itself out in love” (Gal 5:6).

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A place to stand

You should hug your minister today, because ministry’s hard. It’s baked into the very nature of the endeavor. Think about the various angles of pressure. A minister represents the living God. Talk about pressure. I know there are people who talk about their relationship with God like it’s a cardigan sweater, warm and comfy. I find this a view too lightly considered. A cardigan God is not a holy God, not a God that would invite us into the awful business of tending to all the tragically broken places of the world. Like Jeremiah, God is as likely to be my troubler as my comforter.

A minister represents the living God, to people. I don’t want to talk out of school, but some people are not kind. More, there are people who think I’m unkind! I tell my students that one of the hardest things about ministry is that each Sunday someone is miserable at church because you’re the preacher. I had a member who for eleven years I could count on to give me the head-toss-eye-roll every Sunday. Every Sunday. I can say this here because I know there’s no way this person would darken the door of my blog.

As a rule, ministers are people pleasers. We get into it in part because we want to feel loved and needed. At the very least we carry the pressure to be appreciated, if not loved. Our sermons are often juggling acts on unicycles designed to secure our audience’s admiration. And this can only kill you in the end. It’s a high-wire act with no net.

And then there’s the work itself, the business of inviting people into change they don’t want. I find Heifetz and Linski to be on the mark when they write, “Generally people do not authorize people to make them face what they don’t want to face…” (Leading in Dangerous Times, p 20). I think seminarians should be required to write that on the board a thousand times before they receive ordination.

I think, however, that Paul describes a place to stand in ministry that is realistic about the dangers while still making ministry sustainable, and in the end, rewarding. In 2 Cor 4:1-2, Paul provides my creedo for ministry: “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God”

Three things worth noting. First, it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry. While there’s no way around ministry as a wrestling with God, it proceeds only in God’s mercy. I am reminded of Jesus’ statement, “Take my yoke upon you, for my yoke is easy and my burden light.” If we can stay in the sweet spot of God’s tender mercies, the burden is light. Which leads to two other observations.

Paul is not interested in securing an audience by being entertaining. He’s commending himself here to those who admire sophistry, who like speakers who flatter and demonstrate rhetorical flourish. Paul will not resort to what amounts to in his estimation to cunning or to falsifying God’s word. Rather, by the open statement of the truth, he appeals to the conscience of everyone. This is the place to aim with people–the conscience–without lapsing into the temptations associated with pleasing. The conscience, for Paul, is like a muscle of judgement or discernment, a place to be formed for the sake of becoming fully adult in Christ. It’s potentially the best place in people. Aim for that.

While standing in the presence of God. Here’s the audience. Not the congregation. And because we do this ministry only by the mercy of God, there’s no audience to secure. I decided long ago that ministry was only survivable within a vivid sense of calling. It’s too damn hard otherwise. To be called is to know what you’re called to and to whom you’re responsible. If people have expectations beyond that, they can do the head-toss-eye-roll until they need a neck brace. It can’t be my problem. This might not keep you from getting fired, but it will keep you from getting crushed.

By God’s mercy. In the conscience of everyone. In the sight of God.

Go hug your minister.

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Reflections on re-entry from an Alaskan cruise

Donna and I are blessed to have generous parents, and the recent form of their generosity took the form of a two-week Alaskan cruise. And I’ll just say that it was a remarkably rich experience. I consider myself an Oregon boy and so consider myself well aquainted with beauty, but seriously I’ve experienced nothing like the beauty we experienced nearly everyday. The mountains, the glaciers, the wildlife, the ocean, the clean air. It’s all a little overwhelming in the best way possible.

Coming back has proved to be difficult in some unexpected ways. It would be hard for anyone to re-engage at work after such a soothing, relaxing experience. I’ll stipulate that everyone would feel that way. But the truly difficult thing has been experiencing how incredibly loud our world is.

Donna and I frequently walk together the half mile to downtown Rochester. It’s one of the best things about our life. To get there, we have to walk down Rochester Rd, a busy four lane street and main north-south thoroughfare for our community. The first time we walked together after the cruise, we could not believe how loud it is. We walked to our favorite eating establishment (where I proposed to Donna about six years ago) and were blown away by how loud it seemed. Admittedly, this was largely the result of a table of about ten women who were across the room from us, but even then it seemed unusually loud.

In just two weeks we had become accustomed to a quieter existence. The ship was quiet. Most of the dining rooms were quiet, even when full of people. But it was our shore excursions that really marked the difference. We were in small coastal towns. There was no traffic. And people just did their life at a lower decibel level, living much more aware of their environments than we do.

Eagles were everywhere. And while its great to see eagles, it was remarkable to hear them. We hiked a few times into dense rainforests where all sound was swallowed up by lush green. We enjoyed spectacular weather, it rained on us only one day, so we were spared even the sound of the rain.

The experience of the noisiness of our return home has seemed like a violent intrusion on our lives.

My favorite hike in Oregon is in the Columbia River Gorge. I have probably made the five mile hike from Wahkeena to Multnomah Falls twenty times. Wahkeena is a cascading falls from the ridge of the gorge to the Coumbia River basin. Switchbacks take you up the gorge, the water on your right, and soon the sounds of nearby I-84 have given way to only the sound of water. It’s wonderful. But my favorite part of the hike is once you get to the top and make your way east to Multnomah. The sound of crashing water gives way to no sound at all. You can see the interstate at various place along the way, but you only hear the trees and ferns and your own footfalls until you come upon the stream that feeds the spectacular Multnomah Falls.

While we live now just a block away from Rochester Rd, there is a rise on the dirt road where our house sits that effectively blocks the street noise. Our house backs up to the woods and our backyard is a refuge from the stressful noise of life. We have eaten on our back deck several times since we’ve been home, and the last two days I have sat in the shade in my backyard and read in the afternoons. It’s been amazing to hear the birds so clearly and distinctly and to hear the wind in the trees.

But beyond the relative peacefulness of this little sanctuary, I have been thankful for the ability to hear myself. I’m not distracted by noise. Nothing is demanding my attention. I find that I go deeper into awareness of my life the longer I am there, and I find myself praying for people I otherwise would be to distracted to think about.

Matthew Crawford, in his wonderful book, The World Beyond Your Head, talks about the need for “attentional commons,” by which he means spaces that aren’t constantly demanding your attention. Space where we can be bodily present and more aware of the world around us. A cruise is an expensive way to find such space (more on the spiritually corrosive effects of a cruise later), but my re-entry into our noisy world has made me appreciate the need for this kind of experience more.

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Preaching: Cover or Sample?

Anyone who’s read my blog for long knows that I am committed to preaching texts. Put more accurately, I am committed to the performance of texts. I think as important as the question, “what does this text say?” is the question, “what does this text want to do?” Some think of the burden of a text based sermon as teaching. I think of it more as helping people experience the text. I’m concerned about what the text says and hope to do a little teaching along the way, but I hope more to draw them into the experience of the world the text would create. I’m always asking, “what in this text wants to perform, and how would these elements perform best for this audience?”

From this standpoint, this makes the sermon similar to a cover. It’s a new performance of an original performance. Sometimes the original performance is so well known and carries such timeless elements, that the cover has to keep close contact with the original. Sometimes, however, the settings are so divergent and the themes so closely tied to the original performance that a more creative approach is called for–an update is in order.

The 2002, Concert for George, marking the one year anniversary of George Harrison’s death, was a concert of covers. Familiar songs like, Here Comes the Son, Something in the Way She Moves, and My Sweet Lord, stayed close to the original (with the exception of McCartney starting Something with the ukulele). My favorite song of the concert, however, is Sam Brown’s version of Horse to Water. A less well known song, it more easily tolerated a very different sounding version. This is more of a guideline than a rule. I also love Patti Smith’s transgressive cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit, or the Milk Carton Kid’s performance of Pink Floyd’s, Wish You Were Here. In cases like these, the familiar thing can once again surprise us and offer new life.

My favorite “cover” preacher is my friend, David Fleer, a rhetoric and homiletics professor at Lipscomb University. David uses the language and metaphors of the text to do the work of the sermon, hoping to get us for a few moments to inhabit the world the text would create. I heard him preach a few weeks ago on the story of David, Nabal, and Abigail. He never left the imaginative palate of the text, but at the same time we knew this text was being performed in Trump’s America, and in the aftermath of episode after episode of gun violence. It was a great cover. A true performance of the text, but with a contemporary audience in view.

I sometimes hear sermons that are content to “sample” the text–to take a riff or a loop and build an entirely new “song” around it. There is no rhetorical “world of the text,” and in turn no effort to draw listeners into the imaginative landscape of the text. A hip hop song might give you a sense of recognition or connection to the “text” of another song, but it is not a cover. Similarly, a sermon might strike a biblical chord of recognition, but leave the rhetorical setting of the text in the rear view mirror. This is not always wrong or bad, but we should be clear that it is not “preaching the text.” It’s sampling, not covering.

Sermons are an obvious place to use the analogy of a cover, but I think it can be applied to ministry as well. More on that to come.


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The Cover, Johnny Cash/Depeche Mode, and Meaning

In my last post, which featured the Led Zeppelin cover, In My Time of Dying, I used the “cover” as an analogy for how biblical materials get used anew in different contexts within Scripture itself. The point I tried to make there was that the original is not always the most authoritative version of a song or scriptural tradition.

In this post, I want to compare Johnny Cash’s cover of Personal Jesus, to Depeche Mode’s original. Cash’s version appears on one of the acclaimed American Series albums he released near the end of his life. These albums feature a lot of covers, some quite surprising. His cover of Nine Inch Nails’ song, Hurt, is perhaps the best well known of these. But he also covers artists as diverse as Roberta Flack, Tom Petty, U2, Simon and Garfunkel, and the list could go on. Some of them work surprisingly well, like his cover of U2’s, One. Some not as well (Bridge Over Troubled Waters). The most satisfying of the covers for me is Cash’s take on the Soundgarden song, Rusty Cage. It’s a surprising choice and tremendous new arrangement under the direction of Rick Rubin.

It’s not surprising, given Cash’s religious devotion, particularly at this point in his life, that he would choose to cover a song with the title, Personal Jesus. The Depeche Mode original made Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time. It’s a synth rock song, driven by electronics and keyboard, with a great groove. Cash’s version is acoustic, a guitar doing most of the work, still with an infectious groove, but less driven as the original. They are significantly different musically speaking.

But Cash is faithful to the lyric, word for word. And yet, in my estimation, the performances mean two completely different things. Depeche Mode wrote the song after reading Priscilla Presley’s, Elvis and Me. Elvis, had become her own personal Jesus. Carried into the song, the lyrics seem to be a critique of televangelists who offer faux spiritual comfort to lonely people. It’s ironic, a parody, a critique. (You can check this interpretation by noticing two other covers, Marylin Manson, and my favorite, Sammy Hagar).

Feeling unknown and you’re all alone,                                                                                      Flesh and bone by the telephone.                                                                                                  Lift up the receiver, I’ll make you a believer.                                                                                  Reach out and touch faith.

When Cash sings these very same lyrics, the meaning of the song changes dramatically. Cash’s evangelical faith holds as the highest value a “personal Jesus.” Jesus can enter your life even if you’re “feeling unknown, and you’re all alone.” Even in your living room, you can be saved. Reach out and touch faith.

We could argue the merits of the different theologies represented here. But the main point to be made is that the very same words can take on completely different meanings in their reuse. Perhaps Cash meant to do this, perhaps not. But the context of the recording, sung by an American country artist with a very public faith near the end of his life, as opposed to a British synth band increasingly known for their darker tendencies, makes all the difference.

I come from a tradition that was built on the idea of restoring the New Testament church. At the very least, the cover analogy provided here, would call into question the very enterprise. It’s possible to cover the original word for word and come up with something that means just the opposite. I love William Placher’s observation in his book, A History of Christian Theology, where he observes that the effort of the 2nd-3rd century church to keep everything the same ended up changing everything.

The power of a good cover, Cash’s or anyone else’s, is that it is contextually authentic. It necessarily presents itself as an interpretation, not a reproduction. Maybe the analogy here is the difference between a cover and a cover band. The cover band cares nothing of context or the surplus of meaning that is present in something as rich and textured as lyric, beat, voice, etc. But a cover, a good cover, brings out of all these potential meanings, something newsworthy–new meaning, an act of interpretation. I would suggest the same is true for all subsequent performances of the biblical narratives, whether in preaching or in the shape of congregations.

Choose the cover. don’t be a cover band.

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The Cover, Led Zeppelin, and the gospel

I watched a documentary on the making of Led Zeppelin’s album, Physical Graffiti last night and it got me thinking about Scripture. I know, right? But here’s how I got there.

I was fascinated by the backstory to the Zeppelin classic, In My Time of Dying. It’s a cover. I learned on the documentary that it was on Bob Dylan’s first album as a cover of a traditional blues song. So, I went searching on Spotify to see who all had covered it. There are over 50 covers of the song on Spotify, most paying homage to Zeppelin’s version. But let’s back up.

We don’t know who wrote or first performed the song, but it shows up on albums by Charlie Patton, J.C. Burnett, and Blind Willie Johnson. Here’s the thing though, it’s got a different title, Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed. Over time, it becomes a folk/blues/gospel staple (though this happens largely in the “oral tradition,” performed in traditional audiences without access to recording), eventually appearing on Dylan’s 1961 debut album under the now accepted title, In My Time of Dying.

While Dylan raised the profile of the song, it didn’t become a part of a broader musical consciousness until Zeppelin’s eleven minute version (which is a great way to spend eleven minutes). After their version, the covers proliferated, some staying close to the original, and some interpreting it more loosely or expansively given their own musical genre/abilities and the interests of the audience. For instance, John Mellencamp stays close to the original, albeit without the long instrumental sections of the Zeppelin version. The Succulents take a more folky approach with acoustic guitars and lush harmonies, but still sound more like Zeppelin than Dylan or Blind Willie Johnson. The band, Last Supper gives it a kind of Depeche Mode spin, while Umillo gives it an abbreviated electronic version. Again, it’s clear that dthe primary influence in all these cases is Zeppelin and not someone like Charlie Patton.

Ok, this is mildly interesting, but what does this have to do with Scripture or the gospel? Scripture, in some ways, is like a series of covers, traditional materials being reused in different contexts. Sometimes, the original has the most authority in how the tradition gets used and reused, but sometimes not.

Let me make a really rough analogy here. The original version of the song might be the Genesis version. It has resonance, but when people connect to the song, it’s not typically through the Genesis version. The wording’s a bit different than the the way we’ve come to know things, the musical setting a bit different.

Dylan, in this analogy, might be an exilic prophet, recovering the original and bringing to expression the development of the “oral tradition” worked out in communities over time, but now with a different title and a different musical setting. In ways, Dylan’s version paves the way for Zeppelin’s version, but no one is rushing to cover this “Dylan song.”

The version of the song that lifts it to the status of revelation is Zeppelin’s. This is the “gospel” (remember, this is an analogy) version of the song, everything coming after finding its reference point here, not with the original, and not with Dylan (though we should point out that Zeppelin owes more musically to the older blues tradition, than to Dylan). Every subsequent performance is an effort to embody the gospel given the place and time in which we find ourselves.

Again, this is not unlike Scripture, though sometimes the original is the most authoritative, the version from which other biblical authors riff. But whatever the case, the fact remains, Scripture is always being used and reused (the best parts, anyway) in relation to the new contexts in which it is being performed. Sometimes these performances attempt to be note-for-note, word-for-word, but sometimes the performance is surprising, the same song, but altogether something new and different. Some of these new performances are both faithful and original. Some are heretical.

I learned about this way of thinking about Scripture from the writing of Richard Hays, who has made a stellar academic career out of noticing how the NT uses the Hebrew Scriptures. His book, Echoes of Scripture in Paul, profoundly changed the way I conceived preaching. His student, Ross Wagner, has admirably taken up the same project and applied it directly to a “missional” way of reading Scripture. I want to write a few more posts around this theme anticipating what we will do at our Fall ministry conference, Streaming, for which Ross Wagner will be one of our featured presenters.

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Missional theology and the recovery of a world

In my last post, I suggested that missional theology might best be conceived as the conditions necessary for being attentive to the world as a location for confessing the work of the living God. This attentiveness would include both a fruitful posture and perspective for this work.

All of this assumes the world is something more than an object of God’s–or the church’s– concern. In other words, God is not simply a distant subject working only through the church to reconcile all things to Godself, but the church enters the world expecting to find God already there.

(As an aside, part of the problem of the loss of a world in the theological imagination is the way reality has been defined in terms of subjects and objects, especially in modernity. This is a long story and perhaps worthy of a future post, but it is not the only way to see the world.)

A chief burden of missional theology would be to reimagine the relatedness of God, church, and world, particularly to deliver a world in which God is active and is prior in some ways to the church. Not every way of conceiving theology will get you there.

A few years ago, I read a paper at a conference arguing for views of the Trinity that were both social and open to the world. I wasn’t making this up, but following theologians like Athanasius, the Cappadocians, and, more recently, theologians like Moltmann, Pannenberg, and Jensen, that prioritize God as three hypostasis (persons). Along the way, I critiqued classic Western, or Latin, notions of the Trinity that begin with God as a single ousia (being or substance) that moves toward the world in a series of sendings–Father sends the Son, Father and Son send the Spirit, with all three sending the church. Here, God is a single subject and the world is a dart board at the end of all the sendings, even the sending of the church.

This Western view of the Trinity coincides with practices of mission marked by colonialism and imperialism. The taking of western Christianity to other peoples was indistinguishable from taking the empire, whether it was the Holy Roman empire, or the later Spanish, British, or other colonizing powers. While the relationship between doctrinal understandings and social outcomes is complex, at the very least the imagination related to Western Trinitarian understandings was not powerful enough to disrupt colonial practice, and likely aided it (among other factors).

Trinitarian theology, then, would be one example of a choice to be made theologically that would make a difference in delivering a world. Similar choices are available related to Christology, soteriology (salvation), eschatology (final things), and pneumatology (Holy Spirit). For instance, Douglas John Hall distinguishes between understandings of Christ related to glory (the majority view in his estimation), and a more cross centered Christology (the minority view). He suggests that the theology of glory turns the world into an abstraction, whereas the theology of the cross necessarily takes the particularities of the world’s suffering into account.

Again, my point is that theological choices influence the way we conceive of the relatedness of God, church, and world, which in turn conditions how we attend to the world. A missional theology would attempt to bring together various theological strands in such a way so as to deliver a world.


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The conditions for paying attention

I’ve been thinking with other colleagues about the task of missional theology. I teach a course on missional theology, along with Pat Keifert, in the DMin program at Lipscomb University, and each time I do, it pushes me more to clarify what it means to say “we’re doing missional theology.” It’s time I put some of my ideas down somewhere other than inside my head and see what rises.

And surely this is the beginning of missional theology. It rises in relation to the mission of God itself. It’s not a settled bit of content or coherent set of ideas that exist prior to mission. Rather, we come to know God and confess God as we participate in God’s life–which is missional. This is not to say that ideas or coherence are unimportant. Rather, it is to repeat the old dictum, “mission is the mother of all theology.” The actual embodiment of God’s mission in the world presses us for better understanding.

This also means that how we are situated in time and space–what we often call context–is inescapably a part of doing theology. Where and when you live matters because we seek and are called by a living God–a God that encounters right now in all these places.

This “located” aspect of theology is both an opportunity and a challenge. As an opportunity, the life of every congregation in its immediate environment matters. The congregation is not just a place to apply a theology already determined, but is a generative location for hearing God’s call. As a challenge, it makes coherence difficult. There is simply no way to make general statements about the work of God that would account for every congregational experience.

So, how would you go about doing missional theology given this opportunity and challenge? Let’s try this on. Doing theology in time and space–in a location–requires attentiveness to the location. We are already way ahead of the game if we can convince congregations that their work is not to manage programs to foster growth, but to pay attention to the living God.

Still, sometimes our attention is limited by our posture and focus. We see things related to where we’re standing and what we expect to see. What we see is inescapably related to what we’re looking for. I’m convinced a living God is in the details, but not in every detail. And there are a lot of details. So, where we stand and what we are looking for matters immensely. Both our posture of attentiveness and the focus of our attentiveness matters.

For instance, if you think that God’s sovereignty is expressed as power or control, then you’re likely to pay attention to certain outcomes as evidence of God–maybe when things work out well for you. If, however, you think of God’s sovereignty expressed as a self-giving love, then you might experience God less in successful outcomes and more in places of brokenness and fragmentation where this kind of live becomes more strikingly apparent.

I want you to notice that what I have in mind for paying attention is not simply how we think about things. What we see is related to our bodies, where we are physically, with whom we are participating, what we feel, taste, and touch. In fact, it’s not what we see so much as what appears, or what is revealed to us based in part on our posture in the world.

So, what if a missional theology framed the conditions of participation for paying attention to God’s mission in the world? Not just any old theology would do. Some theological projects tend toward abstraction, or speak only in general terms, and so limit our imaginations and discount where we are located in time and space.

Ok, enough for now. More to come.

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The story of Israel and the saving promise of particularity, or why its important God doesn’t see us all the same

I presented a paper at a conference on hermeneutics a few years ago and had a respondent who hoped to improve on my proposal by offering the importance of a biblical meta-narrative. A “meta-narrative” is an overarching story that helps you interpret the importance of other aspects of biblical testimonies. How do these other elements relate to the biblical meta-narrative? This might tell you if a text has continuing relevance today, for instance.

I pushed back. While I’m a big fan of narrative as a leading characteristic of the biblical testimonies, I’m hesitant to lift a single narrative out of Scripture as the one ring that rules them all. I’m more comfortable, I suggested, talking about the biblical narratives (plural) and recognizing the inherent tensions that exist between some of them. Instead of smoothing these tensions out by appealing to one story that rules them all, I think the tensions themselves are important for us to live with as we interpret Scripture.

My auditor was not impressed with my response. With a high dose of incredulity, he suggested that every Christian would agree that creation-fall-redemption-consumation is the biblical meta-narrative. He’s certainly not alone with this kind of approach. Scot McKnight argues for something similar in The Blue Parakeet and NT Wright does something like this as well with his story in five acts. It’s popular with the students I teach at the graduate level as well. And who am I to disagree with McKnight and Wright? Fair point. And I would add that McKnight and Wright’s understanding of the major acts in the drama are full and more complex than this bare outline would suggest and don’t rub out the diversity of the narratives.

Still, in my favor, this is not how Orthodox Christians understand the story. They read Genesis 2-3 very differently, for instance, so don’t really have a “Fall” in their doctrine of salvation. So, not every Christian sees the overarching story in these terms. My auditor was outlining one way the biblical story has been understood (a Reformed version), but not the only one. I stuck to my guns that day and my commitments have only deepened.

Here’s the current problem I’m wrestling with related to this currently: the place of Israel in the creation-fall-redemption scheme. I mean think about it. What necessary place does Israel have in this scheme? For most of the people I worship with, Israel is little more than a failed attempt at delivering salvation. Law vs. grace. Commandment keeping vs. faith. Failed covenant vs. new covenant. It’s a historical part of the story and “predicts” the coming of Jesus in some places and we may learn a thing or two about God along the way, but Israel’s story has little or no immediate relevance in the creation-fall-redemption way of telling the story.

Let me see if I can make this point clearer. When you begin the drama with creation-fall, you generalize the biblical story. It becomes a story about each person, an abstract story about human sin, not a particular story about a particular people. The point or telos of the story easily becomes focused on an explanation of how to overcome individual sin and guilt.

“Yeah, so?” you ask. “Haven’t all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God? Isn’t this the point of Jesus’ coming, so that this would no longer be just a story about Israel, but all people?” Yes and no, and mostly no.

Let’s look at the stories the biblical authors are working within as they address God’s people. While creation and fall comes first in our Bibles, it’s not the story most use to explain what God is up to in either the Old Testament or New. For instance, there are several places in Scripture where Israel recites its story to clarify its identity. The story of “the Fall” never appears in these recitals and the story of Creation only once. The promise made to David shows up sometimes, but not often. The promises made to the patriarchs show up in most, but not all. The Exodus story is in every single one of them.

To expand this point, the creation-fall story is not told as a preface to the giving of the law, but the story of the Exodus is. And when Israel’s prophets call Israel and her kings back to covenant loyalty, they do not typically appeal to a creation-fall scheme, but they often appeal to the story of God’s act of mercy in delivering Israel from Egyptian slavery. The return of the people from exile, for instance, is often cast in Exodus terms. I think it’s fair to say that for Old Testament interpreters of Israel’s story, the Exodus functions paradigmatically in much the same way that the death and resurrection story does in the New Testament. So, while creation occupies the first place in our Bibles and certainly has theological significance, it doesn’t hold the first place in the theological imagination of the Hebrew Scriptures.

“Yeah, so. That’s the Old Testament. Jesus changes the meaning of the story in the New Testament.” Yes and no, mostly no.

I’m working a lot in Luke-Acts currently, which certainly emphasizes universalism (the salvation of people from all nations), but it does so within the story of God’s covenant promises to Israel. For instance, the significance of the death of Jesus in Luke is not related to individual sin, or a creation-fall interpretation of the biblical story. Instead, Jesus’ death is aligned with the unjust death of all the prophets who have come before him, from Abel to Zechariah. His death pulls back the curtain on these injustices, exposing the violent ways that human kingdoms keep the peace. Given this emphasis, it is no surprise that the story of the Exodus features prominently in the telling of Luke’s gospel. In Luke, the rule of God (Kingdom) stands in contrast to the rule of Caesar or Herod or Caiaphas or, by extension, Pharaoh. In Luke’s world, the power of the Holy Spirit is more powerful than the power of earthly rulers who can imprison, execute, tax, etc, and produces an alternative reality–the Kingdom of God.

OK, but what about Paul? Fair enough. Paul certainly has a functioning creation theology that includes Jews and Gentiles, and he does give us a lot of language that can be related to personal salvation, for instance, justification. But Paul scholars have been challenging the long held assumption that justification by faith is the center of Paul’s theology. In fact, scholars like James Dunn suggest its wrong to think of Paul’s theology as having a center–a doctrine or idea that informs others. Paul is less concerned with the question of how individual sinners have their sins forgiven, and more interested in how the inclusion of the Gentiles into the covenants of promise can represent the righteousness of God. The stories that stand behind that question are less creation-fall, and more related to the promises that God has made with Israel. In other words, Paul has not set aside the story of Israel for a generic human story about sin and redemption, but instead places what God has accomplished in Jesus within the concrete story of Israel. As a result, the story of salvation Paul tells is much larger than a story of individual forgiveness. Paul envisions salvation in terms of a new creation where all things (creation, our bodies) participate in the transforming realities of the resurrection.

Other New Testament writers could be similarly called to testify, and perhaps there would be some who are animated more by a creation-fall-redemption scheme, but not many candidates come readily to mind.

So, to summarize, the meta-narrative of creation-fall-redemption does not seem to be the one behind most biblical writings, nor does there seem to be a single alternative meta-narrative. But why does this matter? I think it matters profoundly and beyond the need to interpret the Bible well. At the very least, it would blunt the anti-Semitic impulse that has run through Christian history. But there’s more here as well, tendencies we don’t recognize because they’re part of the assumed fabric of Christian theology and practice. Let me see if I can get there.

Not long ago, a speaker at a church I attended talked about learning to see the world the way God sees it. God does not see our particularity, our racial and ethnic identities, this person claimed, but only our souls. Beyond the non-biblical anthropology at work here (we are not souls “encased in bodies”), this statement traffics at the level of same-ness or the general and abstract. This view comes from, I think, a creation-fall-redemption version of the story. There is no particularity, only a general human condition. There is no Israel, only generic, disembodied sinners. This is different than saying, for instance, that God loves the diversity of humanity in all of its colorful particularity. Could it be that God doesn’t see us all the same even if he loves us all the same? Could it be that our particularity is a gift, and that the gift of the other as an other is precisely what we need to be redeemed, to be liberated from our own sinful insularity?

When we make the Christian story a story about same-ness, it favors the experience of the majority at the expense of the marginalized. Hear me out. When same-ness becomes the norm of Christian imagination, what’s “normal” is easily confused with the experience of the majority. Same-ness too easily becomes the assimilation of the minority into the experience of the majority. Because there is no generic experience of what it means to be human, we have to assign same-ness to a particular experience big enough to pull off the illusion of being the definition of normal. It turn, this not only encourages various expressions of paternalism, but makes it invisible to those who benefit from it. We are, after all, attempting to see all people as being the same.

It was this kind of paternalism, traveling under the theological cover of creation-fall-redemption, that allowed European missionaries to confuse Christianity with Western civilization. Land and bodies and geographical identities were unimportant next to “saving souls,” which was indistinguishable from “civilizing” them according to European standards. Willie Jennings, in his provocative book, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, makes these connections clear. He demonstrates how soteriology became the driving logic of colonialism and claims that with the loss of the particular story of Israel came the loss of tying particular identities to place (Zulus, Aztecs, etc), all with disastrous consequences.

“OK, but those days are long in the past and we’ve overcome them with the same old creation-fall-redemption view of the Christian story.” Well, not so fast. Theologians like SMU’s Joerg Rieger suggest that colonialism has changed, not gone away. We’re in a neo-colonial era more than a post-colonial one. But let’s bring it closer to home.

Suburban congregations that do “outreach” to urban areas do not imagine, for instance, that the African-American experience is the norm to emulate or learn from. When they plant a church in the area, they import their own experience and too often replace the capacities of those who have lived there for generations. They don’t ask, how might we be assimilated into the experience of the congregations that are already there, but how can we assimilate this neighborhood into our expression of Christianity? They assume that their experience is normative.

How else would you explain urban ministries whose staff are all suburban imports and whose boards do not include any long term residents? As one urban church planter confessed to me, “I now realize we’re benevolent imperialists.”

Maybe I’ve convinced you that a skinny creation-fall-redemption soteriology pushes toward “same-ness,” which in turn makes the majority experience the assumed norm resulting in paternalistic practices. Maybe not. But at any rate, what difference would holding on to the particularity of the story of Israel make?

If the story of salvation necessarily passes through the story of Israel, it can never fully be my possession. It didn’t start with me, doesn’t depend on me, and it didn’t come directly to me from God. It came to me through someone else’s story, which means it is never fully my possession. I cannot confuse my own experience of the story with the story itself. So, when I’m a missionary to Uganda or Uraguay I cannot point to myself as the carrier of the story. I am instead a witness to the story. It is not my possession, it is not given to me within my own history. The story is mediated to me and to the Ugandans and Uruguayans through the story of Israel. We are both found in the sequence of “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” Together we witness what this story will produce among us.

The particular (biblical) story of Israel is important for more than its mediating function. Israel’s story is unlike others. Israel exists wholly within the saving action of God on its behalf. Israel is called by God’s summoning promise. It exists, not as the most powerful of nations or the most populous. They exist as God’s people precisely because they have been liberated from slavery, a situation beyond their control, which in turn obligates them to the widow, the stranger, and the orphan among them. It is this particular social circumstance that allows them to bear the story of God in the world. This is a different story than the story empires tell about themselves, stories where the world bends to their will, stories of exceptionalism and progress. Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Rome, the Ottomans, Great Britain, the USA, no matter how noble or good or accomplished, need not apply.

God raised Israel’s messiah from the dead and has made him Lord of all.

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