Friday, February 20, 2009

The Kingdom of God, in the Words of Early Christians

"The Kingdom of God" is one of the major themes of The unChurch -- what it is, and what it means for us to be living in it today, rather than just waiting for an afterlife. What does it mean to be living under the dominion of a new kingdom?

In many places, Christianity has somehow become so intertwined with good ol' patriotism and the "empire of America" that sometimes we forget that we are to be under a new empire. We are to serve a new king in a new way. We are to be a people that stand out -- a people of love, a people of forgiveness. To show just how DIFFERENT that is from how we often perceive it, take a look at some of these quotes from early Christians:
    You who are God's servants are living in a foreign country, for your own city-state is far away from this city-state. Knowing which is yours, why do you acquire fields, costly furnishings, buildings, and frail dwellings here? Anyone who acquires things for himself in this city cannot expect to find the way home to his own City. Do you not realize that all these things here do not belong to you, that they are under a power alien to your nature? ... Instead of fields, buy for yourselves people in distress in accordance with your means.
    -Hermas, 140 AD

    Christians "form a rabble of profane conspiracy... They despise temples as if they were tombs... They despise titles of honor and the purple robe of high government office, though hardly able themselves to cover their nakedness. Just like a rank growth of weeds, the abominable haunts where this impious confederacy meet are multiplying all over the world. Root and branch, it should at all cost be exterminated and accursed. They love one another before being acquainted. They practice a cult of lust, calling one another brother and sister indiscriminately; under the cover of these hallowed names, fornication becomes incest."
    -Minucius Felix, a lawyer in Rome, before his conversion.

    The professions and trades of those who are going to be accepted into the community must be examined. The nature and type of each must be established ... brothel, sculptors of idols, charioteer, athlete, gladiator ... give it up or be rejected. A military constable must be forbidden to kill, neither may he swear; if he is not willing to follow these instructions, he must be rejected. A proconsul or magistrate who wears the purple and governs by the sword shall give it up or be rejected. Anyone taking or already baptized who wants to become a soldier shall be sent away, for he has despised God.
    -Hippolytus, 218 AD

    We ourselves were well conversant with war, murder and everything evil, but all of us throughout the whole wide earth have traded in our weapons of war. We have exchanged our swords for plowshares, our spears for farm tools ... now we cultivate the fear of God, justice, kindness, faith, and the expectation of the future given us through the crucified one ... the more we are persecuted and martyred, the more do others in ever increasing numbers become believers.
    -Justin, martyred in 165 AD

    We are charged with being irreligious people and, what is more, irreligious in respect to the emperors since we refuse to pay religious homage to their imperial majesties and to their genius and refuse to swear by them. High treason is a crime of offense against the Roman religion. It is a crime of open irreligion, a raising of the hand to injure the deity ... Christians are considered to be enemies of the State ... we do not celebrate the festivals of the Caesars. Guards and informers bring up accusations against the Christians ... blasphemers and traitors ... we are charged with sacrilege and high treason ... we give testimony to the truth.

    I recognize no empire of this present age.
    -Speratus, from "Acts of the Martyrs"
Each of the Roman Caesars were often referred to as a "Son of God." We don't think about it very often when reading the gospel accounts, but that's why it was such a "buck-the-system" type of statement to call Jesus the Son of God. That title was reserved for the Caesar, and it sure should never be used on a homeless guy from Nazareth.

Christianity was (and is) VERY political, and at the same time, it's not about running for office and grabbing power. It's about serving a new kingdom, it's about changing allegiances. Paying homage to a new kind of king -- one who sets the example of washing your nasty, muddy feet with a towel.

Today, we often like our Jesus with a good dose of Americanism, and we often sprinkle our patriotism with a dash of God-fearing. Do we confuse the two? And do we remember that following Jesus is a whole life change, an entire "change of allegiances"?

What's it mean to live in this strange "kingdom of God"? Were those early Christians taking it too far?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Of Garlic & Roses...

Wanna score some big lover-points, fellas? Cook valentines dinner at home instead of fighting the sweaty, beady-eyed, romantic restaurant crowd. That's right, light a couple of candles, and group them between a "together photo" and those red roses you bought her. Center them smack in the middle of the table. There! You just reminded her that yes, she did get roses, UNlike those friends of hers who probably got a mop or a cook-book or red thigh-highs. Wise as serpents, gentle as doves, right fellas? (Thanks, Jesus! Wink, wink.)

Actually I did learn something valuable this weekend. As I played chef, I chopped peppers. I sliced onions. I diced garlic. I marinated steaks. I measured and timed and portioned and positioned--it's all in the presentation, you know. I did all sorts of things to all sorts of food, and it was quite a feast. When it was all over I had wine on my shirt, my nails were stained with marinade, I smelled of grill-smoke, and my hands had a scent of garlic that just wouldn't wash off. I was the master of the food, but I was stained by its colors, seared by its flames, and tinged by its smells. Most of all, I was filled with its substance...and I have the stretch-marks to prove it.

It reminds me of God's Word. We are told to "competently handle the word of truth" (2 Tim 2:15). But, expertly as I handled that food, what matters most is not what I did to the food, but what the food did to me. This is the primary business of reading God's word: Renewing, recreating, and transforming the soul. And just as God's Word transforms one's soul, it transforms our community. St Paul addresses this verse to us as a community, in second person plural:

"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord." [Col 3:16]

Transformation is the primary business of the Word. The business of regulating the Word, sorting it in neat stacks, and combining its ingredients into a diet of "The Sixteen Fundamental Recipes"...this is the business of men. It is not an evil business, mind you. God himself commissioned the man Adam to name all works His hands had made. To name them is the nature of man; but to create is the nature of God. Now he has called us, according to his own promise, to "genhsqe qeiav koinwnoi fusewv"-- to "become partners in the divine nature." (2 Pet 1:4)

God grows the green, spreading trees, and men cut them down and saw them up. We build garages for our cars, and closets for our clothes. Let us not saw up his holy Word to build a trophy case for our pride. Rather, let us let his Word dwell richly in us, so that we may be built together to form that holy temple where God lives by his spirit.

"Come thy kingdom, be done thy will! As in heaven, so upon earth!"

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Having Ears, Do You Not Hear?

This ancient practice takes us beyond merely studying the Bible, and into the wonderful world of listening to it.

A friend recently sent me a link to this interview with Eugene Peterson. It has some excellent points for discussion. Go take a look, then come back here.

Done? Okay.

The article talks about the "poetry of scripture," and how the "Bible is not a textbook. Nor is it a manual to be studied, mastered, and mechanically applied."

Make sure you get through the whole interview (it's fairly short), because my first impression of it was less-than-stellar. Because when I think of "poetry," I think of something that looks and sounds nice, but has very little real-world application.

And that's not what I believe about the Bible. But it's also not what he means when he says "poetry."

Peterson talks about this Lectio Divina ("spiritual reading"). "Engaging in the Bible reflectively." Slowing down, reading, listening, and allowing the mind to descend into the heart. Immersion. It's nothing terribly complicated. In a group setting, it's taking a passage, different people reading and listening to it, hearing the poetry of the language, the sounds, and the message, and discussing and sharing thoughts on it. My first thought was poetry of the language? It wasn't written in ENGLISH.

But again, that's a misunderstanding of what he's talking about here. Part of what he's saying is that the Bible was written in street language, common language. Most of it was oral and spoken to illiterate people -- they were the first ones to receive it. "When we make everything academic, we lose something." (Emphasis mine.)

And at the end of the interview, we get this:

As a pastor, I'm not a theology policeman. Of course there are going to be misunderstandings—that goes with language. How many times in a marriage do a husband and wife misunderstand each other? And those misunderstandings don't occur because they used incorrect grammar.

But if we are part of a community where the Scriptures are honored, I don't think we have to worry too much. The Spirit works through community. Somebody will have a stupid, screwy idea. That's okay. The point of having creeds and confessions and traditions is to keep us in touch with the obvious errors. Because we have those resources, I don't think we have to be anxious about it.

Hmm. Interesting point of view. Alright, you fine group of commenters. What say ye?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Pastoring, the Organic Way

Does it look uppity to quote myself, if in my original quote, I was quoting someone else?

I'd like to draw your attention to this fine post from last year, which I am allowed to call a "fine post" because, though I wrote it, it consisted almost entirely of quotes from a 40 year old book.

Really, I want to talk about the notion of spiritual discipline. Not the kind of "spiritual discipline" you'd find by most definitions, but rather, the accountability that comes via the development of organic Christian communities.

How many Christian acquaintances do you know that have had marital problems and gotten divorced without anyone even knowing about it before it happens? Affairs? Major problems at work or being unable to pay bills?

Suburban sprawl has made it possible to move into a nice area, have a big house with a 2-car garage, go to work, come home, pull in the garage, and never even really know the neighbors. But people back in the first century didn’t have that privilege. They had small houses that were stacked right up against each other, and they all knew each other’s business. They didn’t have the kind of secrets we have today. Shoot, when they got married, the wedding party even stood outside the hut while the couple consummated the marriage! That’s a LOT more open than what we’re used to. I'm pretty open, but I don't even think I'd be comfortable with THAT.

People that make a commitment to "throw their lives in together" are making a commitment that's about more than just keeping anyone from having any material need, as in Acts 2 and 4. It's about real accountability, real discipleship, and real pastoring. It's mentoring and being mentored. It's praying, learning, and teaching together, all while living life together. It's about being a light on a hill. Both loving people where they're at, and at the same time being hagiazo -- sanctified, set apart.

People have different gifts, and some people are natural shepherds. I know a few guys (and girls) that are smart, Godly, and have a tremendous heart for people. One is a paid "minister," and a couple are not. Some are "official" elders, some I'd consider "unofficial" elders. Whether or not someone draws a paycheck is not the dividing line between whether someone can pastor people or not.

The goal here is to allow people to grow into these roles. It's about submitting to one another and being honest, transparent, and vulnerable. And yes, even chastising when the need arises.

Functional vs Organic. Functional has its place. But it's not what drives a movement.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Evangelical Implosion

The End of Church? Internet Monk Says Evangelicalism Implodes Within 10 Years!

At least how the headline reads. Personally, I have observed that it is easier to kill Freddie Kruger than to kill off a church. But the following article by Internet Monk, Michael Spencer, is a long, dire, and well-grounded prediction in Part 1 of a looming crisis in “church-as-we-know-it”. He gives a grim prognosis for all the major streams of modern Christianity, except for his own of course. Part 2 details the post-apocalyptic realignment of the scraps and holdovers.

At the institutional level, his analysis is chillingly plausible, if a tad slanted. But on the “kingdom level” it is unseeing.

Among the movements whose days are numbered, iMonk counts what gets called “the grassroots movement as represented by Shame Claiborn.” (Note that the “grassroots movement” came up in the comments section, not in the article itself.) iMonk dismissed it as something of an appendage on some other doomed movement or another. The gentle Monks of unChurch Abbey, nestled high in the Indiana Alps, respectfully disagree.

The grassroots “movement” did not begin with Shane Claiborn, it just got a new face with cool dreds. The grassroots dynamic exists in most every church and tradition, and even outside them. They are the odd person or people who do not spend their hours crafting or criticizing church agendas. Or lecturing, or chomping pipe stems. Or climbing trellises of leafy ambition. Or blog-crawling.

They are living, where “faith acts out in love”. They are living--living like they believe their every word and action has power to renew the withered souls, and God’s creation with them. They bake the extra casserole. They babysit the crusty-nosed kid. They bring the ladder over and show the anxious yuppie how to use it without killing himself. They pause with him, and smile, and uncloak the Eternal. They break the bread and pour the wine. They pray and believe and confess, “On earth as it is in heaven!”

They know that the Kingdom of God does not consist in words but in power. And all the institutions and all the theologians of Protestantism and Catholicism have ridden pompously on their backs from the beginning. Sure, the institutions will crumble; they are but wood and straw. But I am not worried. How many times have men read the Last Rites over a lifeless body of Christ? Haven't we learned?

Our gospel just loves crumbling empires! Because the spirit that breathes eternal life into mortal flesh does not crack or crumble. And we ain’t skeerd.
Joe B

iMonk's Evangelical Implosion, Part 1 & Part 2