Thursday, October 25, 2018

Slowly But Surely...

Well faithful readers, you must be feeling many different emotions right now: shocked, confused, possibly overjoyed, and with good reason, given the significance of the occasion. Come on, two blog posts in one week!?  It's hard to believe, but here we are.

In all seriousness though, I wanted to give you all a quick update on the space that Burning Bush is renting and renovating at 3594 Broadway. Many of you know that we applied for the permit the first week of July, and we were chomping at the bit to get started. So we chomped, and chomped, and chomped, until we learned that everything with renovating moves painfully slow!

We wound up getting the permit in early September, and since then have trudged through demolition and some water and electrical issues, and hopefully (fingers and toes crossed) we will be finishing a couple of walls early next week and then painting before inspections begin.

Below are a few pictures of the outside of the building (which was a medical building), and then you can see inside our suite some of the work in progress...

The front building is a pharmacy which faces Broadway. But if you keep coming back...

... you'll find our suite tucked into the first corner!
The main area as seen from the door.

Another angle of the main area.

A conference room to be.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Please Don't Touch My Idols!

What are your idols of choice?

Don’t have any? Are you sure of that?

Idolatry is, in biblical thought, the longest running, most damaging and most pervasive human problem. While it is generally seen in contemporary life as a relic of the ancient world (who worships a golden calf these days?), idolatry is just as potent and common today as it ever was. This is because idolatry is ultimately not driven by the object/item worshiped (i.e. a statue, a dollar bill, a chemical feeling of happiness), but is instead driven by the human condition, which is always in search of validation, vindication or escape… which are what the idols offer the worshiper.

A few months back I read a brilliant (and difficult) little book, Sharing Possessions, by a theologian named Luke Timothy Johnson. If you get the chance, read some of his stuff, it’s quality! In this book, Johnson offers a brilliant assessment of idolatry: what it is, why it exists, and how we can find it in our lives. Below, I am quoting my favorite part of this discussion, and encourage you to read it and reflect on your own life. But reader beware, because if you are honest here you might find some painful truths… I know I did!

From Sharing Possessions, pages 49-53…

Idolatry, in simple terms, is the choice of treating as ultimate and absolute that which is neither absolute nor ultimate. We treat something as ultimate by the worship we pay it, meaning here, of course, neither the worship of lips or of incense but of service. Worship is service. Functionally, then, my god is that which I serve by my freedom. Whatever I may claim as ultimate, the truth is that my god is that which rivets my attention, centers my activity, preoccupies my mind, and motivates my action. That in virtue of which I act is god; that for which I will give up anything else is my god. Diagnostically, I can tell what my god is by seeing what it is around around which the patterns of my life organize themselves.

Our lives, after all, do form patterns. Our freedom is not found in scattered outbursts of random activity, but in the shaping of a direction. There is in all our lives some sort of consistency in response to situations… The patterns in our lives form about the deep and usually unarticulated attitudes we hold towards ourselves, the world, and others. Within this fundamental orientation of our lives, our personal project of existence is being formed. The choices we make at this moment or that flow out of this orientation and either strengthen it or weaken it…

Phenomenologists of religion have been telling us for some time that the human creature is one that inevitably centers itself in this world, and does so by choice, The primordial sense of creatureliness, that is, our accurate perception that we are powerless and without self-generated worth, moves the human creature to seek power and worth in something outside the self. The human organism is instinctually impoverished and existentially threatened; meaning does not come to us automatically or easily. We do not have a place in the world given simply by birth and instinct as do cats and dogs. Somehow, it is in the centering activity of our freedom that we seek this place in the world and our significance. Where the center is located determines the pattern of human activity… It is from the center that the human person expects power, meaning, identity, worth- everything, in short, which should go with being.

We are lonely creatures, then, who find ourselves lacking worth and meaning (we are not the sufficient cause of our own being) and who feel impelled to seek them outside ourselves. Where we identify the source of our life and power (our being) and our worth is for us our center, and our center organizes the patterns of our perceptions from which our actions flow. Where the center is, there is our god.

Some questions like the following may help us get the point: What is it, really, that enables us to get up and face each day’s activity? What is it that we will make room for during the day, no matter how busy our schedule? By what measure do I look back over the day, or week, or year, and consider it a success or a failure? In the daily round, is the high point the end of work and the beginning of leisure? The first drink? Is that which I will fit into my schedule no matter what my three mile jog? When I lie awake in my bed with a feeling of discontent, is it because I did not get done all the work I intended to do that day, or did not get some time to myself, or did not spend time with my children and wife, or looked foolish in a conference, or dread facing a job interview tomorrow? When I look at others of my own generation, as I suspect we all do, and think about “where I am” in my life, what measurement do I use? Do I think of myself as a success or failure in relation to others, and on what basis- my health, my wealth, my work, my fame, my family, my power over others, my good looks? These are not complicated questions, but they are, for most of us, difficult ones, for they have a way of locating our center. And this brings us back to idolatry, For, if idolatry is a functional phenomenon, the real question comes when I ask, “Where is it that the meaning and power of my individual human life is sought? In what or where do I seek my sense of worth and identity? What is it, seen or unseen, which is the ‘bottom line’ for me, the source of my hope? What is it without which life would not be worth living? What is it for which I move and act, without which I stumble and fall? What gets me depressed? What is it, in my actual life, that functions as my god?”

Counterfeits are the more dangerous the closer they come to the genuine article. No one is much hurt by a wooden nicker, for no one is fooled by it. But people can be badly hurt by artfully printed thousand dollar bills… the important idolatries have always centered on those forces which have enough specious power to be truly counterfeit, and therefore truly dangerous: sexuality (fertility), riches, and power (or glory).

The attractiveness of idolatry lies in its claim to manipulate ultimate power; the folly of idolatry lies in the fact that any power which can be manipulated cannot be ultimate. The idolater says, “This which I can see and feel and handle and use, which is within my disposition, is the ultimate source of my worth, my identity, my security, my being. The power I have is the measurement of my value”… Idolaters are persons who, filled with the terror of nonbeing and worthlessness- the built-in threat of contingency- must construct their own worth (as the Scriptures have it), “with the works of their own hands.”

When we hand over the measurement of ourselves to forces which are just as much created as we are, then our gods are truly illusory… This illusion and folly is completely compatible, we should note, with a verbal confession of the “true god”; idolatry flourishes as much within orthodoxy as without. We can pledge allegiance to the most orthodox and theologically discriminating of creeds; it does not matter, Idolatry is found in the service of the heart, the way we concretely and existentially dispose of our freedom…

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Cynicism, "Christian" Leadership Failure, and a Proposal

What are you most cynical about?

What group of people are you most cynical towards?

For me, that’s an easy question to answer: celebrity “Christian” leaders, and the less-popular Christian leaders who imitate them.

I understand that I need to work on this. I’m not proud of it, but it is the truth.

A primary source of discouragement in my faith is the behavior of “Christian” leaders period. From Willow Creek to the ongoing Catholic scandals to the “Court Evangelicals” and beyond there is a super-abundance of evidence that churches are hiring and supporting men (let’s call it what it is) whose character is not even up to snuff for our lowly cultural standards, much less the standards of Christ. 

All of this raises two questions for me:
One, what is it that churches are looking for in leaders that creates this problem?
Two, what should churches be looking for in leaders?

Much could be written in reply to these questions, but I’m just going to offer two brief opinions on them.

First, it seems churches are most concerned with hiring people who are “effective.” That is, they are people who can fill seats on Sunday morning and can get the church’s staff to competently run the supporting programs needed to keep the people in the seats happy (children’s ministry, parking, communication, etc.). What that means is that these leaders are, above all, highly skilled communicators. They can capture and hold the attention of an audience, and they can inspire a staff and volunteers to run solid supporting programs. So, it all boils down to hiring a communicator… that’s what they are looking for. 

Now, let me be clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with hiring great communicators. It’s a wonderful thing to have a communicator on a leadership team who can do the items listed above. BUT, being a great communicator SHOULD NOT be the reason someone is hired to lead a church or is put in any position of spiritual authority. When it is the primary reason you entrust leadership to someone, you get the situation that we have now… abuse, lies, cover-ups, fraud and all the rest.

So, what should we be looking for in leaders?

To answer that question, I am going to enlist the help of Douglas Campbell, a New Testament scholar who just wrote a helpful book entitled Paul: An Apostle’s Journey. While I do not agree with all of Campbell’s theological claims in the book, his discussion of how the mission of the church should dictate the selection of Christian leaders is spot on. Below is an excerpt that I believe gets at the heart of this issue. While it might seem tangential at first, keep reading! You have to understand the part about how people learn (in this case, to imitate Christ) before you can understand Campbell’s assertions regarding leadership selection.

“As Aristotle said some time ago, the goal of ethics is also the means. What he meant was that the goal of our activity—here, right living—is approached through right living. This seems obvious at first glance, but actually it isn’t. What he is claiming—along with most of the ancient moral tradition that Paul stood within, but not our modern traditions—is that ethics has to be learned, and, further, that it is best learned in community. Putting things succinctly, communality is learned communally… To teach people to relate lovingly, then (which Campbell presents as a central goal of the church), we must construct a loving community and live in it, copying its most loving members.

When we consider this quickly, it seems incredibly obvious. When we press on it harder, however, it is anything but. Most of our pedagogies are not set up imitatively, and this might explain why most of them are so ineffective at transforming people’s actual relationality and relating. Protestants have long placed their faith in the transforming power of the preached word. They are frequently surprised at how little the communication of information about the Bible and from its texts—however eloquently and passionately done—changes the behavior of its churchgoing listeners. How unsurprising though. There is nothing to imitate here, or to copy. People cannot copy a preacher except by becoming a preacher, and that activity can leave a lot of other moral activity unaddressed. Writing a book will not change much either. It can help, but it can only be secondary to the main business of constructing healthy learning communities out of people that are influenced by people…

We have already noted that the basic relationship is imitative. People copy people. But who copies whom? We come face-to-face here with the irreducibly elite nature of a learning community, and we shouldn’t get too upset by this. Sociologists have long confirmed that all communities have elites. Every community has leaders and followers. There just aren’t any alternatives to this. The $64,000 question is not, should we should have elites? but what sort of elites should we have? The answer for Christian communities is that we should have Christian leaders who are characterized by the relational qualities that we want everyone else to copy.”

Campbell, Douglas A.. Paul: An Apostle's Journey (Kindle Locations 1302-1306). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

I can't help but think that if we took Campbell's suggestion here about how Christian leaders are selected seriously- and added to it some statements about demonstrating a vibrant and bold faith along with some ministry training and experience- we'd be on our way to a much better way to selecting leaders. And, as an added bonus, we might experience far less cynicism-inducing moral failure from the people who lead our churches.

Baby Steps into Mission: Presence, Part 2

Faithful readers, I apologize for the long delay in getting this blog up. Between summer vacation, official cross country practices starting...