Posts Tagged ‘Evangelism’

The Christian tradition has, like other religious traditions, succumb to a temptation.  The temptation is to provide proof texts and answers in defense of itself.  In fact, what gave rise to the Christian faith were, I think, powerful holding environments (to borrow a term from Ronald Heifetz) where questions could be imagined, discussed and celebrated.  Whether they were Jesus’ questions, the questions of disciples or questions from the crowd, it makes little difference.  The questions of the gospel rarely get a straight or simple answer and those who pursue answers are often characterized as rigid fools.    The gospel response to questions is often more mysterious and there is some sort of invitation to understanding.  It is portrayed as frustrating and confusing to those within the gospel narrative and we know how they feel.

What is the difference between understanding and answers?   It may be helpful to return to the etymology of the word understanding.  To understand has been confused with “knowing” something or someone.  The etymology of understand indicates “a standing between or in the midst of”.  This suggests that understanding is an act.  Understanding holds a tension between  things.   Perhaps in it we are held between our past experiences and our future hopes.   Perhaps understanding puts us between significant individuals of our lives.  But to just be between things seems a pansy-sort of stance.  Why do I want to just stand between, in the midst of.   Isn’t it more powerful to decide and stand on one side o or another?  Aren’t we declared “willy-nilly” or worse, “non-committal” with such a definition of understanding?  “I understand” can be such an impotent response to those in crisis, after all.

The spiritual discipline of asking questions seems to shed new light on understanding.  Questioning moves understanding from a passive observation toward and active engagement with the world.  In our questions to one another, we assist in the exploration of life.  Offering our questions into our relationship with God, according to the gospel record, illumines the human being’s journey.    Too often, I have been out of touch with the most significant questions of my life.  I think this happens to me because those original questions have given rise to very meaningful relationships and experiences that define my life and its purpose.  I don’t want to insult life’s meaning, my experiences, God’s gifts to me by seeming to second guess what has already been considered….at least in part.

As I consider John 3:1-10, this week’s lectionary text, it occurs to me that to return to significant questions (like “Who am i?”) does not mean that I don’t value the experiences that have risen from that question thus far.  On the contrary, returning to the essential questions may be  something like a miner who returns to a stable and robust mine.  This mine promises so many gems, they cannot be carried out in one journey.  And if the mine is the question….each gem is not a complete answer but part of what built the question.  The question is the joy and the purpose and each portion of the question catches a divine light….that light illumines a chosen path.

When Nicodemus asks his question, “How can one be born again?” it seems to me that he is trying to understand his desire to return to questions without shame.  He wants to keep their adventure at the fore front of his living.  And Jesus, for his part, responds with understanding.  He offers not another question nor an answer, but he offers modes of investigation for the adventure.  After all, water and wind have always been masterful at finding their way into the spacious depths of earth and humanity’s geography.


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A little dexterity is helpful in working with ...

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At First Presbyterian of Osawatomie we have begun a small group program.  I am a part of one small group that is learning to knit.  Knitting is not easy because it involves just one strand of yarn and a complex series of wraps, tugs and dips to move that yarn into a weave that is plush and warm.   Knitting is not only a discipline of crafters, it is the discipline of theology itself.  For if a certain theological suggestion is to be valid, it must ultimately be practical and a tool for God’s people.

Whitsitt’s last chapter of The Open Source Church,  knits in the concept of the open source church back into the practical tasks of  congregational leadership.  I appreciated the chapters specificity suggesting that leaders should at least and essentially be proclaimers, facilitators and mentors for the congregations they serve.  While it is not my privilege to add a category or even a chapter to the book, I do believe any open source church will also need to be  a place where leaders model a multi-disciplinary approach to scripture and theology.   In a way,  modeling the multi-disciplinary could be easily subsumed into any of Landon’s three fundamental leadership tasks.   But in other ways, it needs to be considered a more fundamental knitting exercise for the leader that will affect proclamation, mentoring and facilitating.

By multi-disciplinary I mean a consistent integration (in pulpit,  classroom and idle conversation) of all the major disciplines of hard and soft sciences, local and global politics, literature and the arts into conversation with scripture.  If our people are really to arrive at church and appropriately use the church to realize God‘s call upon their lives, then that surely begins by allowing the world from which they come to be fully present in the classrooms and sanctuaries of our churches.   There has been, for too long, a battle in our sanctuaries and Sunday School rooms.  It is  a battle that we seemingly wage alone, arguing that the church is the ultimate authority.  Though the world is full of discoveries that rival focused attention to our authority, we pretend that we just need to talk louder about our ancient authority and that will be sufficient.

I think about it a bit differently.   Using the knitting metaphor, all the various disciplines of the world are like the individual fibers within the strand of yarn itself.  And it is the job of congregational leaders to allow the god-given yarn its full integrity.  We must refrain from pretending that our fiber is the only important one.   Folks we are not being invited to a battle as much as we are being invited to knit a bundle of fibers into a warmth that can move our people fully into their present moment.  This means that our task is to be constant learners outside of our own field of discipline in order to pay homage to our God that is fully in the present and is the source of all that is creative and novel. So we don’t try to discount or strip the fibers or disciplines of psychology, sociology, algebra, physics, astronomy, literature etc. from the congregational conversation.   Such integrated attention assures our people at the deepest level that God is present here and now and not lingering in just the past or future.

Lest you think that I am demoting the fiber of religion let me say that what I am suggesting is intended to be most respectful of Jesus’ life and ministry as well. Jesus, after all, made significant responses to the various disciplines of his day.  Politics, family structure, morality, laws of tradition, economics, ethics, religion etc.   I worry that our Christian community is becoming increasingly rigid and focusing more on the record of Jesus in scripture rather than the knitting method of Jesus’ living and loving, part of which is recorded for us and, thus, we hold sacred.  In order to cultivate an open source church leaders must model how it is that one takes the various disciplines of thought as examples of a living and revelatory God.    Examples of a living God then allow us to live non-anxiously into the method of Jesus in new and creative ways in the world.

It is surely a rich part of our Christian tradition that much of how we move forward comes from overt and focused instruction.  Whitsitt recommends just that encouraging open source leaders to be intentional  proclaimers, facilitators and mentors.   However, overt instruction can be exhausting.  I want to suggest that for the sake of the system, the instruction can continue in some gentler ways as well.  Fred Craddock,  in his timeless work as one without authority, reminds us that because communication has grown increasingly complex, overt instruction (like preaching)  must be co-mingled with method in order to communicate fully.  There must be subtle but no less intentional opportunities to “observe” or “overhear” what it means to be an open source congregation. In my experience, an open source church must partly exemplify its values by being open to the world as a source.  

By taking in the current events, trends and discoveries of its world as conversation partners with the gospel,   the open source church practices  relevant meaning from various professional disciplines.  We allow the world to observe us doing this.  This communicates subtly, but powerfully,  the truth, that each individual Christian per their personal relationship with God is also an expert knitter who has a contribution to make to the Kingdom.   The stakes are high!  After yarn that does not get knit….begins to unravel.

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I have been reading Gordon Kaufman’s book on my new kindle.  The book is entitled: Jesus and Creativity (published 2006) and it is further detailing the premise of Kaufman’s book In Face of Mystery  published in 1993.  The premise is that a God that is imagined as an agent-person (or anthropomorphized) is not an intelligible option for most individuals as they mature in the faith.  Such an understanding of God contributes to a diminishment of God as little more than a divine agent with human weaknesses such as anger, jealousy and vengance.  Kaufman suggests that this has affected our understanding of Jesus as well.  That a person-like God results in simplified and fractured understanding of Jesus.  This understanding vacillates between understanding Jesus’ humanity and imagining his divinity.  

Kaufman’s life work has been to suggest that our faith is better served if we imagine God apart from any antropomorphized language or imagination.  He argues that we should understand God as creativity.  In the current book he hones in on our understanding of Jesus.  He does so by giving us two Jesus tracks on which to to run. The first track he calls Jesus Trajectory (1).  This track declares that upon his death on the cross, Jesus’ life and ministry is increasingly understood as “quasi divine and then fully divine” (location 62 on the kindle).  One of the biggest problems with this track is that it understands the world dualistically with God and Jesus in the heavens and those of us on earth in some lower place.  Kaufman argues for the inadequacy of understanding the world dualistically.  I agree, with all the advances of science, astrology and change theory, dualism is simply outdated.

Kaufman invites us to understand that if we can release God from the anthropomorphized restraints, God as creativity gives rise to a Jesus Trajectory (2) “…the sequence of creative and historical events beginning with Jesus’ baptism, ministry, death and resurrection and then continuing creatively through human history all the way to the present.” (location 321 on the Kindle).  In other words because of the life and ministry of Jesus there is a creative trajectory that uniquely informs us about God’s creativity.  (All of this and I am not yet half way through the book). 

As I pause in my reading, my question for anyone reading this blog is this:  Can a human being ever fully do without a personal or personified image of God?  Do we need the warm and cuddly image (or alternately the threatening one) in order to feel close and connected?  Is the anthromorphized God an essential even if it is flawed and sometimes depraved?

I look forward to anyone generous enough to respond!

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Texting on a keyboard phone

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Texting is a challenge to the human experience.  It challenges us to be articulate without our full communication arsenal at our disposal.  It challenges us to be brief and agile in our response time.  Texting challenges us to feel connected and yet be balanced in our solitude.  The High School Sunday School class at First Presbyterian Church of Osawatomie is studying texting in detail over the next four weeks.  This week, they will consider texting and the body. 

This subject is important because the state of our body influences our ability to communicate and text well and faithfully.  The subject is also important because the mechanics of texting makes great demands on our body.  The interdependence of the body and technology is remarkable.  Texting is just another part of the reality that we human beings are both organic and mechanistic.  Replaced knees, hearing aids, pacemakers, eyeglasses were earlier ways we enhanced our body joining it to technology.  Such a partnership, we found, could greatly enrich life.  When our body was aided, our psyches were released and more open to experiencing life.    

As a person of the Christian faith, scripture and tradition instruct me that my body was the design of the Ultimate Source of Creativity, God.  The hand-held device by which I text is a secondary creation even as it is full of wonder.  So, when I think about this partnership and how to manage it, I want to draw on the wisdom of the primary creation in order to guide my behavior and decisions.  In other words, using these fundamental observations regarding God’s design of the human body, how shall I be a person who texts faithfully?  

What shall we say of the body and the technology of texting?  We might begin by saying that our body is itself, a messaging system.  The body is hardwired, chemically triggered and a cautious receptor of the external environment.

 The body is hardwired in countless ways but perhaps the most fundamental of connections would be the synapse within our nervous system.   The synapses are both chemical and electric and are the means by which neurons (cells with a message) make their way to target cells that need their message.   Our body and brain’s hardwiring needs excellent nutrition in order to stay functional.   

So too, our texting needs to be of a quality that it enriches and nourishes other people’s lives and potential.  Of course there will be lots of pragmatic texts but I have also heard of texting that is sent in order to remind human beings  of their potential and their contributions.  Like food for thought to the brain, texting can empower the living of other human beings.

The body is chemically triggered in countless ways, but  a chemical of particular interest of the human being is the chemical serotonin.  This chemical performs a great many functions within the body which includes the working of all sorts of muscles.  Properly balanced, serotonin  allows for experience of happiness and satisfaction.  Out of balance and the human being can suffer from depression.  It is thought that protein rich diet, B-6 and daily exercise a healthy amount of serotonin in the body.   

Texting can trigger a chemical response within the human being.  Texts can trigger, excite, alarm us.  Because texting increases the amount of information that comes our way and affects the chemical reactions within our body, the wisdom of balance as discovered in research on serotonin becomes an important clue in texting faithfully.   We must balance anxiety with a calm responsiveness.  Not unlike Jesus stilling the storm for worried disciples.  We must balance alarm with a clarity of mind and strategic response.  Not unlike Jesus’ response when he is arrested in Gethsemane.  We must balance our anger or fear with a trust and confidence.  Jesus is remembered as saying,  “Forgive them for they know not what they do” from the cross.  If we do this…communication will less likely go haywire and relationships strengthened and individuals more resilient.

The body is a receptor of external information without being completely vulnerable to the exterior world.  Of course, our skin serves this most basic function.  It is sensitive to the outside world while simultaneously filtering and protecting the body from infectious and hazardous elements.  The skin can receive hydration gratefully one minute and detect an infection that needs to be fought off in the next.  Decisions, decisions.  So that even when our phone receives text messages, it is important to remember that we are not our phone.  We do not have to take in the messages that are received.  We can make decisions  to receive or reject all for the welfare and strength of our human pilgrimage.

So, somewhat playfully, this week we will offer our teens three body basic rules for texting:

1.  HARD WIRED RULE – I will remember my body does get tired and depleted.  When I am depleted and tired, I am not at my best to communicate in a faithful way.  I will let my phone charge while I take in lots of vitamins, minerals and rest.

2.  CHEMICAL RULE – I will remember that balance is the key to feeling good.  I will not overindulge in gossip, negativity or worry when I text.  Occasionally, I will move beyond passive texting and offer “food for thought” to those I love and care about.

3.  SKIN DEEP RULE – I will remember that I can receive information without taking it all to my innermost places of mind and heart.  When I am confused by others communication, I will take time to think before I vent to another person or fire off a quick response.  When I receive hurtful information, I will manage it before it makes its way too far into my heart and mind.   When I receive important information that is painful, I will find a way to take it into my system so that I am stronger and more resilient. 

Perhaps with such rules, we will feel less like triggered cyborgs driven by our devices and more like thoughtful human beings whose faith will be known despite any hex in the text.

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Image of hell, part of The Garden of Earthly D...

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With the opening of each chapter of her book Sharon L. Baker is competing with the entrenched images of hell that Dante’s Inferno that still exercise themselves in human mind and culture. Like the  Baker is asking us to reconsider hell from a truly Christian perspective.  And sort out the complexities and dimensions of hell.  Hell can be confusing as imaged in this painting of hell by Hieronymus Bosch which is part of a two dimension piece of artwork ”The Garden of Earthly Delights

In Part III, Baker reinterprets traditional understandings of Hell and proposes a more biblically sound and intense hell than is traditionally considered. She begins in chapter ten by giving the reader an accessible formula for reading scripture:

Knowledge and assessment of scriptural context (ex. Gehenna as the trash dump of Jerusalem)


Recognition of metaphoric/hyperbolic language used by Jesus (ex. weeping and gnashing of teeth)


Individual ability to discern the archetypal message being conveyed.


Harmonization of message with a loving God for the final application to life of the believer

While the above formula is a part of my routine homeletical practice as a pastor, I confess I was skipping some steps in my theology.  Baker provides a more careful and fundamental approach.  This is essential for congregations such as mine.  With care she challenges the reader to harmonize their discoveries with the loving God of as seen through the “Jesus lens” of chapter five. 

Now, in the event that we were going to lose heart or courage that we were taking too much liberty or responsibility, Baker makes a most important statement on page 153.  Perhaps among the most important statements of her book in terms of encouraging her reader and substantiating her own constructive work, Baker writes,   “The layers of reinterpretation in both the biblical texts and in the history of Christian doctrine lead on to realize that the tradition is to reinterpret the tradition.  We reinterpret continually, repeatedly with a repetition of reinterpretation that preserves the relevance of the living and active Word of God.” (153)  As I read these words, my mind was drawn to the work of Bernard P. Prusak and his book The Church Unfinished:  Ecclesiology Through the Centuries.  Prusak addresses the organization of the church from which all doctrine springs when he says that:

The emerging Church did not stress unchangeability or a fixity of structures positively predetermined by an immutable divine decision.  To the contrary, it was still open-ended, and had to be.  Jesus had chosen the Twelve and had left an emphasis on service or “pro-existence.”(50)

Prusak’s work might undergird Baker’s reinterpretive efforts with audiences that are most concerned with the question “What would Jesus do?”

Not only does she reinterpret tradition.  Baker give us new ways to imagine hell. In her final chapters we revisit Otto (first introduced in chapter nine) who is the classic example of one who might “be sent” to hell as a consequence of his life.  However, and most importantly, we also meet Anne.  This woman is one who has led a devoted Christian life.  She has upheld and pursued the example of Christ and she is not one that we imagine would be destined for hell.  In her brilliance, Baker opens up her  re-imagined hell not as a place for just some people but for all people.  Having reminded the reader that fire is symbolically a consumptive and purifying power.  In chapter eleven, Baker welcomes the likes of Anne into hell. 

“On judgment day she came into the presence of God with joy and with a bit of trepidation (some would call it the fear of God).  The blinding light of God’s presence dazzled her, its burning heat encompassed her; and its boundless love embraced her.  At first she feared that the fire would totally consume her.  But as she experienced and then understood its inexpressible and excessive love, she hoped it would. …As the fire of God’s love continued to burn, she knew that the purification that began for her during her lifetime was finally finished.  But rather than the pain and the hellish work of repentance that unbelievers face in the fire, Annie experienced the intense joy of divine love.  She walked with Jesus next to her, into the center of the fire, into her at-one-ment with God.” *164-165. 

Between Otto and Anne, Sharon L. Baker has enriched a tired doctrine of atonement.  No longer is hell only a place to fix what is broken but a place that brings all people of varying circumstances into a more intense unity with God.  Baker notes this is the highest hope of the Christian faith as well. (176) 

You know, Halloween is coming…and we will celebrate All Saints Day that same Sunday in Osawatomie Kansas.  Though these dates have been very close on the calendar, never before have they been so powerfully reconciled in my mind.

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