December 28, 2012

A Letter to Anger

Dear Friend,

All I wanted to do, while listening to your pitiful story last week, was fling my fist at your face. Waiting and waiting I was for some break in all the maleficence, turmoil and your perennial anger. But no break came. Story and after painful story is your collection, your ruined heap called "my life." I realize the last thing you need from me--or anyone--is some further articulation of the gravity of your sins. You don't. And I also realize you are, for the first time in your life, genuinely mourning and repenting of your sins against yourself, your family, your friends, your church and God. Because they are so grave, this will take time. By no means, don't rush this process.

My heart is afire as I peck away on this keyboard, burning it is for you. Because I don't want the rest of your life to succumb to the hells of its first sixty years, of lying to and failing your dying wife, mercilessly taking out your rage on your kids, your own flesh and blood, and deep bitterness toward God. You have wasted and ruined your life and others' with your impassioned soul. You were a slave to anger and rage. You did only that which they requested. They shackled you down like a dog, letting you venture out only to the end of your leash. But not anymore, and I'll be damned if you shack up with them again.

If there is one thing your hot tears, streamed as they did down your old weathered face, told me as you shared that evening it was you have, finally, had enough of living in anger, which is just a fancy way of saying living in death. Only Jesus brings life. Everything else is death in a pretty bow. Only Jesus and His Spirit can lead you out of hell and away from temptation and into paradise, virtue and freedom in obedience. So hear these few words, as they come from a place of friendship.

Defeating Sin: Overcoming Our Passions and Changing Forever is a book I recently finished by an Orthodox pastor, Joseph Huneycutt, from Texas. He wrote it for struggling people like you and me. About halfway he dedicates a section to what he calls the manifestations of the Passions. You probably know the Passions by their more popular name: The Seven Deadly Sins, pride, anger, lust, envy, gluttony, avarice and sloth. He takes each passion and briefly writes what he sees as the manifestations of each, or how they are expressed in everyday people.

You must understand now that Jesus brings freedom from sin, but, more often than not, we struggle, fight and even wage war against habitual lifestyles. Jesus has saved your life, here and later, and now, because the Scriptures tell us to strive for holiness--godly difference from the world--we do our part. Extremely important is also the realization that it is not just about the snuffing out of anger we desire. There's more. It's about the acquisition of, the obtaining of anger's opposite, the virtue that starts to sprout when we stamp anger out. In our case, patience. A word that seems dull to our modern ears because of its dearth of meaning. But it is absolutely vital for your flourishing.

Huneycutt quotes Elder Joseph the Hesychast:

You are delivered from this passion through love towards all humanity and true humility. Therefore, when anger comes, close your mouth tightly and do not speak to him who curses, dishonors, reproaches, or bothers you in any way without reason. Then this snake will writhe around in your heart, rise up to your throat, and (since you don't give it a way out) will choke and suffocate. When this is repeated several times, it will diminish and cease entirely. (77)

Now, listen to Huneycutt's manifestations, reading them slowly, letting them wash over you. And think not only how anger expresses itself but also how patience would be expressed, as anger's opposite, as our vitreous goal.

Resentment. Refusal to discern, accept, or fulfill God's vocation. Dissatisfaction with the talents, abilities, or opportunities He has given us. Unwillingness to face up to difficulties or sacrifices. Unjustified rebellion or complaint at the circumstances of our lives. Escape from reality or the attempt to force our will upon it. Transference to God, to our parents, to society, or to other individuals of the blame for our maladjustment; hatred of God or antisocial behavior. Cynicism. Annoyance at the contrariness of things: profanity or grumbling.

Pugnacity. Attack upon another in anger. Murder in deed or desire. Combativeness or nursing of grudges. Injury to another by striking, cursing, or insulting him; or by damaging his reputation or property. Quarrelsomeness, bickering, contradiction, nagging, rudeness, or snubbing.

Retaliation. Vengeance for wrongs real or imagined, or the plotting thereof. Hostility, sullenness, or rash judgment. Refusal to forgive or to offer or accept reconciliation. Unwillingness to love, to do good to, or to pray for enemies. Boycotting or ostracizing another for selfish reasons. Spoiling others' pleasure by uncooperativeness or disdain, because we have not got our way, or because we feel out of sorts or superior.

I'm not going to pretend that, on some fundamental level, some of your feelings are not justified. Life has been difficult on you. But you have taken seriously wrong turns in blaming your dying wife on God and transferring your anger and bitterness to the aching bodies of your beloved children. It is time you took responsibility for your disgraceful actions and with inspiration for redemption and sanctification, in Jesus' Spirit, journey toward healing and wholeness and the acquisition of the virtues, starting with patience. You never journey alone. Look up to the history of worthy saints before you, that great cloud of witnesses, who have modeled in blood, sweat, and tears what it means to be holy.

Sincerely,

Nick

Notes

All quotations taken from, Joseph Huneycutt, Defeating Sin: Overing Our Passions and Changing Forever, (Salisbury, MA: Regina Orthodox Press, 2007).

photo credit: ecstaticist via photopin cc

December 22, 2012

A Letter to Pride

Dear Friend,

As you know, making a good confession can be both surprisingly liberating and absolutely dreadful. What you did in opening up your heart and coming clean to me and, more importantly, the Lord will, I pray, be the doorway to something new. In your case--and I really believe this--a new way to live, to be human.

Let me just say quickly how proud I am. Of you of course. Your heartfelt confession to me that night under the stars was the seal--many, including myself, are thoroughly impressed by your growth the last 3 months. For I was struck, upon meeting you that first week, at how haughty you were, towering over others with your ego, shooting any passerby down with words and gestures if you felt wronged in anyway. And you were, according to yourself, more than justified in your actions, always demanding your way or making exit, ignoring family wishes, neglecting close friends, carelessly using girls as if some toy, grossly demeaning critics--you had plenty--crediting only yourself for your gifts and talents, in the acquisition of your local fame. Nearly every rotten thing I heard from people’s stories you confirmed. Your pride had taken you and hadn’t planned on relinquishing.

Yet after that night, hearing your vulnerability, my heart began to burn for you and your future. Thus this letter. It almost seems like perfect timing, but I have recently finished reading a book about the Passions and the Virtues and overcoming habitual sins that spring to life in an impassioned soul. Your love affair with pride shaped you into the sinner you were. It’s fruit is death, and you ate without restraint. But as we talked about, Pride, like the rest of the Passions, dies at Jesus’ cross.

We both know, though, that pride, after living with, in and through it for so long, isn’t just going to go away. We struggle. Even if it takes the rest of lives, we fight for what we believe to be the good life, the best life, the life Jesus has shown us, a life of, amongst other virtues, humility. Because we can't talk about the putting-to-death of some passion without talking about the acquisition of its opposite virtue. In our case (ours because I stand with you in this), we strive for Humility.

But in order to do this, and the main reason for this letter, I want to share with you the manifestations of pride--or how I have to come to know them from the book I mentioned, Defeating Sin: Overcoming our Passions and Changing Forever. Pride has many forms in many contexts and illuminating them here, I hope, will inspire deeper reflection and effective soul-searching. Introspection is paramount in these affairs.

And so, as a starting point, in what follows is author Joseph Huneycutt's thoughts on the manifestations of pride, summarized. Note the idiosyncrasies of each, which, by the way, extend beyond what is mentioned here--think about how else they could look. And reflect on how they have taken shape in you (I've bolded them below to help you see, remember and return to them).

Pride takes the form of irreverence, deliberately neglecting the worship of God and adequately expressing thanks and gratitude. 'Worship is a foolish enterprise, a wholly waste of time,' it declares. Also, pride can be sentimental in "being satisfied with pious feelings and beautiful ceremonies without striving to obey God's will."

Failing to bring to God the persons or causes that should stir in us compassion is pride as presumption. Presumption remains stagnant, fully content and satisfied in one's spiritual activities and achievements.

Pride can also crop up as over-sensitiveness, which, I'm sure you would agree, was prominent in you. As over-sensitiveness, pride is the "expectation that others will dislike, reject or mistreat us" and "timidity in accepting responsibility, or cowardice in facing difficulty or suffering. Surrender to feelings of depression, gloom, pessimism, discouragement, self-pity, or fear of death, instead of fighting to be brave, cheerful and hopeful."

Listen, these words, the quotes I'm pulling from this book should be read slow. Humility, what we want to cultivate in you, will recognize the wisdom of a spiritual man and take heed, but not with haste. And don't be discouraged if you see yourself in all these forms. The struggle is day by day, moment by moment. When you're ready, continue reading.

Disobedience is another. This is the "rejection of God's known will in favor of our own interests or pleasures." It could even be "slow and reluctant obedience." Disobedience would rather drown itself in its own affairs, leaving the scraps of its time, energy and interest for the things of God.

In the garden, Adam's impenitence was his refusal to face up to his sins and confess them before God. As well, pride sees no shame in justifying or discounting its sins as insignificant, natural or inevitable. Or perhaps it fears injury to reputation more than it feels sorrow for what its sins are in the eyes of God. Impenitence can even be doubt that God could forgive our sins.

Vanity, in our day and age, is accepted as a virtue in many circles, but it's surely an offspring of pride. Vanity credits itself instead of God for talents, abilities, insight, accomplishments, good works. It ignores indebtedness to others. "Undue concern over, or expenditure of time, money, or energy on looks dress, surroundings, etc., in order to impress others."

And finally pride can reveal itself as both arrogance--insisting others conform to our wishes or leadership, or accept our estimate of our self worth--and snobbery, "pride about race, family, position personality, education, skill, achievements, or possessions."

That's a ton I just dumped on you, I know. Pride is a diamond with many faces, one for every area of life. You and I both know the lure of it all, how it calls to us. My hope though is that reading these manifestations will pour water on its fire and even help you see it for what it is, a failed way to be human and an appalling stench in God's nostrils. My prayer is that you would come to hate it, but not as an end in itself. Ultimately, it's about loving God and striving to be fully human as Jesus was.

Take a few moments everyday, because pride will continue to visit as often as you don't want it to, to sit in prayerful silence. Give yourself to God. Entrust yourself to him and him alone, since he is the one who sanctifies you. Listen. Where is pride cropping up? Write down your thoughts. Take inventory on your heart and soul. And diffuse your pride more and more with the practice of humility. Because it isn't just about the killing of pride but the acquisition of humility, for this is Christ's way.

Blessings on Your Journey,

Nick

Notes

All quotations taken from, Joseph Huneycutt, Defeating Sin: Overing Our Passions and Changing Forever, (Salisbury, MA: Regina Orthodox Press, 2007).

December 16, 2012

December 14, 2012: Nourishment Amidst Tears

"My tears have been my food day and night..." - Psalm 42:3

Found on Jason Goroncy's post, here are two sermons--No, Not Now and A Voice in Ramah--written by retired seminary professor and United Church of Christ pastor J. Mary Luti. Hopefully not too soon, and since tears sustain for only so long, I found these words helpful and beautifully pieced together.

photo credit: Lieven SOETE via photopin cc

December 15, 2012

December 14, 2012

In yesterday's wake, I was speechless. Today: what the fuck?

December 10, 2012

The Passions and the Virtues

Reading Defeating Sin: Overcoming our Passions and Changing Forever has left me stricken with the thought, “There is much wrong with me” (on a rare occasion a book will leave a reader, in this case, disillusioned at the state of one's soul). Now, this isn’t to make little of the Holy Spirit’s sanctification in my life. I’m only recognizing the profound truth that the road stretches far in both directions. I’ve come a long way yet have much to travel. Indeed, for the rest of my life.

Joseph Huneycutt, the author, clergy at St. Joseph Orthodox Church, speaks and teaches on sin, the Passions and the Virtues, of which the latter two he thoroughly explores in his book.

Apparently, and I had no idea, the Passions are a big deal in Orthodox teaching, as became clear to me reading the scores of Orthodox teachers and theologians Huneycutt quotes throughout his discussion. The Passions, in some places known as the Seven Deadly Sins, are Pride, Anger, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Avarice and Sloth (or, for memory’s sake, PALE GAS). For me, the movie Seven immediately comes to mind, though not in this order.

A bit of the beginning of the book explores the labyrinths of a theology of the Passions, navigating through the implications of, both, God creating man and woman with the Passions and God creating them without them. In the former, the Passions, before Adam and Eve’s transgression against God in the garden, would have been pure with God-intended ends. After their sin, though, the Passions somehow “fell” and would no longer have taken after their proper God-intended ends. They would have been aimed “lower”, so to speak. In the latter, God creating man and woman without them, the Passions would have been a consequential fruit-bearing of that first sin.

Ultimately, for my ends, it matters little the position taken. What is obvious here, today, is the Passions, whatever they are and however they have come to inflict us with temptation, are real and powerful. But things mustn’t remain this way.

That which I found intriguing from the beginning was Huneycutt’s discussion of the Virtues, the opposites of the Passions. But what are the Virtues' place within such a discussion on overcoming sin? Simply, the center.

The argument here, implicit in the book, is that it isn’t enough to simply overcome the Passions. Employing the story of the Exodus, it seems strange to imagine the Israelites, as the slaves they were, being freed yet remaining in Egypt. The people were led from Egypt to the Promised Land. So: in dealing with the Passions and their manifestations (which is what I’m trying to actually get to), we are led, by God’s grace, from the Passions to the Virtues, Humility, Patience, Chastity, Contentedness, Temperance, Liberality and Diligence, the Promised Land of spiritual liberation and freedom.

When we wage war against the Passions, simultaneously, we are striving toward their opposite, the virtue we long for. In the battle against pride we strive for humility, against anger we strive for patience, against lust we strive for chastity, against envy we strive for contentedness, against gluttony we strive for temperance, against avarice we strive for liberality and against sloth we strive for diligence.

For me and my quest against the Passions, it has been helpful in thinking this way, that I’m going toward the Virtues--ultimately, Christ-likeness--as my end and goal, for Christ's glory. Not just the squelching of the fires of anger or envy but the acquisition of patience and contentment. And in all this fighting and striving, we are fighting the good fight of faith, conforming more and more to the image of God’s Son, moving from one glory to another, resulting in honor and praise to Him we trust and find our lives, Christ Jesus.

December 6, 2012

Recognize Adam: Me

Let it seep down, deep down to the marrow:

If any of us does not recognize that he is Adam, the one who sinned before God in Paradise, how can he recognize and think that the coming down of the Son and Word of God was for him?

-St. Symeon the New Theologian, The First-Created Man

December 3, 2012

Let It Speak: Writing Songs with Gordon Ramsay

Some friends and I have been hooked on Gordon Ramsay’s show Kitchen Nightmares. It’s seriously addicting. If you don’t know, Gordon Ramsay is a world-renown chef and a professionally cussing Brit too who, on this show, travels around Europe to distressed restaurants, pointing out, to the usually delusional staff, weaknesses and implementing much-needed leadership and simple business strategies. I admire him in a lot of ways.

In one episode, while rattling off an award-winning slew of cuss-words, he tried to get the head chef, an experienced and accomplished man, off his high horse to realize he was over complicating his food. As the plate was sent down the line every other kitchen staff added his own flourish, seasoning or ingredient. By the end, the food on the plate had been covered with unnecessary additions. According to Ramsay, its simplicity was compromised.

Commenting on this, Ramsay told the head chef: “let the ingredients speak.” The unnecessary additions, like siren calls, crowded out the main voice, the main ingredients. When there is too much going on, in food, the mind is overwhelmed and can't "land down" on the richness of taste and thus is drown out. Tragic. Gordon suggests 4-6 ingredients--tops--for any superb plate. That's it.

Now, on to what I’m getting at--no, this post isn’t actually about cooking. Sorry.

My friend Bijou and I have been writing music. If there was a musical one--like musical musical--it’d be Bijou. He livens up my boring chord progressions. I often scratch my head at his idiosyncrasies. Both of us wanted to, specifically, write songs to be used during the musical worship sets at the local youth group we’ve been getting involved at. So far we have one full song, which we’ve sung twice now, with a collection of unfinished tags, choruses and lyrics.

On a number of occasions though, as we sat, leaning over our guitars, we made songs that were overly complicated, bombarding ears with busy bass lines and frivolous instrumentation, earnestly filling every nook and cranny with "just the right part".

We had given into that callow songwriting trap: we thought more was more.

Nope. It’s not.

It’s striking how Ramsey’s advice carries over perfectly to the art of songwriting. What sets really talented bands apart--besides tremendous skill, etc.--is the maturity to restrain, the wisdom to remove. Sometimes songs sound best stripped bare. And often true moments of inspiration come back at square one, back for simplicity’s sake.

Just one instrument can be super powerful when used right. This is just one example of a band that lets their instruments speak:

November 19, 2012

Gentiles and Stepfamily as Intruders: Reflections on a Sermon

Last Wednesday ended a lapse from preaching for me. Honestly, I can’t recall, for sure, the last time I preached. A year ago, possibly two.

Our youth pastor has been in a series entitled “Repossess.” There have been three segments: identity, generation and family and Wednesday kicked off the segment on family. Obviously then, mine was the privilege of sharing a bit of my story and some reflections on family. Specifically, and this was the main reason our youth pastor had me preach, I shared about my experience--both good and bad--with stepfamily. Since divorce and mixed families are as common as anything else, I thought this was an important and necessary item to talk about.

The question I wanted to answer was simply, “How do I treat my stepfamily when I see them as intruders?” I think this is a valid question, not just for teenagers, but for anyone who has felt the relational tension between, now, members of the same family. Nowadays, it takes zero stretch of the imagination to think of a woman marrying a man with two kids of his own or vise versa. Stories like this happen all the time, every day. But their normalcy doesn’t dissolve the deep feelings of being intruded upon, as if it’s totally fine that this stranger is now living with me and assuming a role they haven’t earned (i.e. mother, father, etc.).

Early on, I had this thought of how to capture this issue within the biblical narrative (albeit, now, I would have done it slightly different since my storytelling skills aren’t what they used to be, causing some kid’s faces to looked annoyingly bored--preacher's worst nightmare). I thought about Ephesians 2:11-22: in Christ, two people groups, the Jews and Gentiles, God’s people and the others, had, expressed at Pentecost and beyond, become one, united as God’s single dwelling, as one people, as one family.

And for some reason, I thought it would be brilliant to attempt to explain the whole story from its proper origins in Abram. This is where some kids got bored, at least this is what their faces were telling me. Sometimes you have to adapt, change it up, screw the itinerary.

At the end, what I wanted them to see was that they, being Gentiles, since none are full-blooded Jewish, were separated from God, not apart of Jesus’ family, like Paul wrote in that passage. I wanted them to take that in! Because, if they did they would realize they have an insider’s perspective on what it’s like to be stepfamily.

The way that many kids today view their stepparents and stepsiblings is probably similar to how the early Jews saw the Gentiles: intruders. Can’t you hear them say? “This is our covenant, our family, our God! They have no business here!” And as we know, both peoples had a difficult time understanding the radical reconstruction of the former way, the original rules.

My advice at the end was so basic: love Jesus by loving your stepfamily, pray for your stepfamily often, get to know your stepfamily and, in some instances, forgive your stepfamily. It seems almost like I threw together this application section. To the contrary, I sat for a long time, laptop open, cursor blinking, thinking about how the kids could apply this. At the end of the day, I guess it comes back to what we all know, the Christian fundamentals: love, care, prayer, forgiveness. Oh, the simple, difficult Christian way. How beautiful it is.

I told the kids I wanted them to make eye contact with me if they wanted to become apart of God’s family for the first time and/or they were going to try to live as a Christian among their complicated, messy family situations, as their heads hung downward during those last moments when slouched bodies perk up and bored faces become calm. I was shocked by the many eyes that looked into mine. I gave back a look like, “Are you sure?/Do you know why you are looking at me?” to some of them. It seemed it wasn’t accidental.

All the struggle through that sermon seemed like nothing in the lightness and calm of those few seconds of catching the eyes of teenagers who, in sincerity and freedom, decided that in the difficult and beautiful way of Christianity, as led by Christ, is where they plan to place their feet. Ah, yes. And just how exactly did I manage to be away for so long?

November 15, 2012

The Rolling Jubilee

"There’s something very good about forgiveness," writes Felix Salmon, concluding his post on Occupy's latest bright idea, Rolling Jubilee. Indeed!

I heard about Rolling Jubilee a couple days ago while reading Richard Beck's blog. And since then I've read several articles from writers across the political spectrum. So far, everything I've read salutes the idea and its biblical roots and ancient genius.

Among the articles I read was one written by Charles Eisenstein, author of Sacred Economics, which I'm currently working through. It's quite good.

Some others engaging the idea are Anya Kamenetz, senior writer at Fast Company, author Matthew Yglesias and Tim Worstall at Forbes.

Rolling Jubilee is kicking things off officially tonight! You can stream it live. The ole biblical witness, with its outdated ideas, is applicable today. Who'd a thought?

November 6, 2012

The Good in Defeat (or what feels like it)

She didn’t bother to say, “Hey, call me back when you get this,” which, now, in retrospect I kinda understand. Hearing this would have perked my ears and imagination to think I got the job. Alas, it was all there, everything I needed to hear in that simple voice message.

Honestly, I was a little surprised I didn’t get the job. Maybe I was too positive about it. I went in for an interview last week for a youth pastor position at a church in Bellevue, Wa. Overall, the interview was good. I was told that I was the only person called in for an interview. Shocked, I excitedly figured I had a good chance, no? The pay was good, which I wish wasn’t a deciding factor (but anyone who has shaken hands with the devil and successfully found themselves floundering in student loans will readily attest to the necessity of a decent salary). And it was a job I wanted: youth pastor. Hello! Just the thought of seriously engaging students--junior to senior high to college--in matters of Christian faith and spirituality can spark an all-too-easily-lit fire I usually keep contained in the bottom of my heart.

This is all I want to do: saturate young imaginations in God’s narrative, the story he’s writing, ya know, the one from the dawn of time and give them an example, a life of a struggling, attempting-yet-failing, loving, thinking, experimenting, life-taking-serious Christian and preach the best sermons I got and teach them about faith in a way that’s creative, embodied and wise. Ok, there’s more, but this sums up a major chunk.

And some may find this fascinating or stupid or both, but I spent a good amount of time this night talking to myself--by social standards that is. But I wasn’t, technically. I was preaching and instructing teenagers--in my imagination! Although, youth workers got some attention as well. A little weird I know.

Today though, honestly, felt like a defeat. It wasn’t just about being rejected as youth pastor from the Bellevue church. That was the culmination of a number of setbacks. Amongst other things, there are emails I set to churches and pastors that were inquiring or needing a youth pastor that have yet to be responded to. Emails are pretty impersonal, sure. And I know pastors get a ton. But if some guy takes the time to send an email, cover letter and resume seeking about an opportunity at your church send something back. Right? In the face of the neglect I would have seen even one simple “thank you” as super pleasant.

You can ask a bunch of my friends: I was perfectly torn, and for a long time, upon graduation, between youth pastoring or teaching english abroad. Constantly, like a pendulum, my mind alternated between these two options. I had legit reasons for both. Doing the latter is still something I would love to do somehow, sometime, somewhere. But I want to youth pastor. Hands down. I minored in it for a reason.

Amidst feelings of frustration and disappointment, and in true Davidic style, tonight, I encourage myself: Son, what great warrior, athlete or CEO has never been shackled to defeat? What hero has achieved their status flawlessly, with no cuts or bruises, embarrassment or shellacking? Could such a scoundrel be remembered as great? I know it’s not about fame or glory, but you must see properly the nature of defeat. Do you see only failure, only a sight to be mocked? Wrong! Of course there is more to it than that! God sees you son. And where he sees you he will lead you. So rejoice that he would bless you with such a gift, with such a great teacher. Everything that happens, remember, passes through God’s purifying flame of love, his ever burning agape. In such divine love, even the most unpleasant thing is consumed in order to bring about what's authentically good. Carry on!

October 24, 2012

My Beef with Identity: Abstract Language and Youth Ministry

"Hey, that's my identity!," I hear myself say, playing around with the thoughts, swirling about my head, the youth pastor's sermon provoke. "You took it. Now give it back!"

I slump in my seat. This is a sermon that I'm sure has been recycled (for better or worse) hundreds of times. Hearing it is as normal as skipping breakfast; it's nearly part of my routine. Christian speech about "identity" is typically overbearingly simplistic and cliche. Why would youth pastors subject themselves--and their listeners, teenagers!--to such vague, abstract language concerning a complicated psychological and sociological phenomena: identity. What's more alarming is such teaching without any supplementary pedagogical methods to help clear the waters.

"Find and discover your identity in Christ," and "your identity has been mucked up by the passions of this world" and "we must repossess our identity from the enemy" are all phrases I easily imagine a youth pastor spouting off to his group. But, what becomes plain to see, after a little study and thought, is the difficulty in pinning down an adequate definition of this term, thrown around so vehemently.

I have a feeling our metaphorical understanding of identity as something--an object to seek and search out, or perhaps something lost and hidden deep down in the soils under uncharted terrain--contributes to our (more or less) careless and nonchalant handling of it. Think about it. Metaphors are employed to aid us in understanding some abstract idea. Perhaps our routine use of identity in everyday talk and negligence to reflect on its meaning have given us confidence that we've mastered its mystery. But think with me all the ways identity is used in popular discourse and then try to define that sucker, neatly. Not going to be easy.

While researching popular uses of identity, I stumbled upon a draft of James Fearon's What is Identity? for a political science class at Stanford. He wrote:

The meaning of “identity” as we currently use it is not well captured by dictionary definitions, which reflect older senses of the word. Our present idea of “identity” is a fairly recent social construct, and a rather complicated one at that. Even though everyone knows how to use the word properly in everyday discourse, it proves quite difficult to give a short and adequate summary statement that captures the range of its present meanings.[1]

Essentially, according to Fearon, there are two "linked" senses of identity in popular discourse: social and personal.

In the former sense, an “identity” refers simply to a social category, a set of persons marked by a label and distinguished by rules deciding membership and (alleged) characteristic features or attributes.[2]

Here identity is used, in society, to understand "proper" interaction with members outside one's social groups, for instance a mentally-handicapped person, gypsy, or monk. In sociology, status and role have parts to play here. Though this aspect is seriously intriguing, I want to focus on the personal aspect--though eventually moving pass Fearon--because of its pervasiveness in Evangelical churches and youth groups.

In the second sense of personal identity, an identity is some distinguishing characteristic (or characteris- tics) that a person takes a special pride in or views as socially consequential but more-or-less unchangeable.[3]

The latter is more about a person's self-understanding, the story one tells him/herself, but usually that which is a source of pride and esteem: Japanese, Christian, introvert (personal examples). In some instances though, a person will identify themselves as/with something they don't esteem: shy, overweight, homosexual could be possible examples. We could call this latter instance negative personal identity (npi).

Here's an interesting example of npi from the movie The Sandlot: Scotty Smalls, the main character, in a scene where he's conversing with his mother about the hiccups in his friend-making endeavors (since they are new to the neighborhood), openly laments--and not so subtly reveals how he sees himself--"Face it, I'm just an egghead," to which his mother simply counters, "You'll always be an egghead with an attitude like that." "Oh mother, if it were only that easy," I think for him.

Scotty obviously views his eggheadedness as "socially consequential," in that he's no good at making friends. He's better nerding out in his room with his erector set.

Ultimately though, Fearon's definition, while perfectly adequate for his discussion, falls short for us doesn't it? When Christian youth workers speak about identity, they aren't calling for "some distinguishing characteristic that a person [a youth] takes a special pride in." Sure, ya, they want that, but they want more than that. What youth pastors (and don't forget parents!) beckon their youth toward is something of an objective identity (if there was such a thing), seeing oneself as a part of the people of God, as taught in Scripture. Read in your cheesy youth pastor voice: "I want you to know who you really are!"

We want our children to see themselves properly, do we not? Not as consumers of markets, adults in shrunken bodies, stupid nor mistakes, unnoticed nor overlooked, unwanted nor unloved. According to Scripture, adolescents, if they've been baptized into Christ, are something. They are much more, in fact. They are his body in/to the world. I get that--I know that. And I know this is important for youth to understand. This is why I sympathize with pastors and their efforts to rid their youth groups of false identities, to march against mendacious marketers and manufacturers. Youth pastors want their youth groups to understand how God sees them. No doubt!

But this is my beef: many teach and preach identity as something youth need to understand, but utterly fail when it comes to helping actually form it. That's right, form. Not without the help of James K. A. Smith, I'm employing a different metaphor from the ones above. Preachers can stand in front, hands pointed and voices elevated all they want, but unless they bring their sermon and its application to the ground, that is back from lofty abstract language to substantial engagement with the teenagers, little to nothing will change.

Why? Because youth workers are not the only ones in the business of forming identities. This is not eye-opening. Why else would we have to talk about identity so damn much?

In our gone-mad, capitalist America, youth are wanted for identity formation. If Nike can form the identity of a thirteen year old kid, to see Air Jordans as more than shoes, as a part of the good life, then guess what will follow? Yep, money. And to make matters worse, there are thousands of companies which understand identity formation better than, maybe, anyone. Professionals are paid a grip of money to ensure the identities of their customers remain perpetually infatuated and caught-up in their brand, logo and product.

Now it is here that I believe James K. A. Smith's book Desiring the Kingdom helps a ton. Published in 2009, as the first volume to a three-part series on a theology of culture, this book should be required reading for professors, pastors and youth workers alike (after reading it, I seriously contemplated buying this for every professor at my previous school). In it--and I'm wrapping up now--Smith, a Christian philosopher and professor, relocates desire to the center of the discussion on philosophical anthropology, the study of what it is to be human. He argues, quite masterfully, to be human is deeper than thinking and believing, projects of modernity. Fundamentally, to be human is to desire, it is to be a lover. And this is important to our discussion on identity? I think so.

What if identity--the story we tell ourselves--is intrinsically linked to desire? What if identity formation--the shaping of who we are--takes place "within" our primary loves? And what would this mean for adolescents and their youth pastors?

First off, it would mean overly-simple, proposition-saturated and word-heavy sermons on complex psychological and sociological phenomena will not cut it. Secondly, it would mean we are in need of a complete reconfiguration of how we handle identity at youth group. Anyone up for it?

Notes

[1] Fearon, James D. "What Is Identity (as we now use the word)?" Thesis. Stanford University, 1999. Print, 1-2.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Ibid., 2.

October 19, 2012

Thinking on Christopher Rollston

Some loosely tethered thoughts...

My friend Ben received a text message from me two days ago. I had just previously been (unintentionally) engulfed in the mighty whirlwinds of an intriguing controversy I was reading about online via personal blogs, mainly Religion at the Margins, where I read the heartfelt words of Thom Stark and current students at Emmanuel Christian Seminary (previously Emmanuel School of Religion) regarding a troubling mess involving Christopher Rollston, beloved professor of Old Testament and Semitic Studies at ECS.

Still spinning is my head after working to wrap my brain around the whole story. Others who were close to the action--or better, turmoil--have spilled much ink explaining, clarifying and unfortunately righting the wrongs that have gone out like grenades from this issue.

If you want to read about it, which could potentially keep you busy for a good while, there is plenty of very interesting material. To start you off--and after clicking you will soon realize why I say "plenty"--read (or skim) this. Inevitably this post is too huge, so peruse this instead. Or, try some of these related links. Whatever you read, whether all, some or nothing, it seems a grave injustice is taking place with the (probable) termination of a fabulous scholar, teacher, friend and Christian over disheartening circumstances.

The facts get muddied, especially when so much already has gone public. And it doesn't help when apparently administration from ECS paints an unclear picture of what is really going on.

Rollston wrote an opinion article for Huffington Post regarding the Bible's marginalization of women. As Stark has already thoroughly commented, from a biblical scholar's perspective, nothing about Rollston's article was controversial, at all. I read it, and (for what it's worth) agree. But a colleague of Rollston's, Paul Blowers, didn't. And he made himself known on Facebook. The ensuing controversy would soon flood over.

Altercations like this one capture my attention. The politics in Christian universities and seminaries, particularly confessional institutions, with professors and their scholarly freedom (or lack thereof) and others who have a stake in them, whether that be the administration, alumni, prospective students, or donors, fascinate me, especially when priorities are exposed. My stake in Professor Rollston's issue is minimal to nothing, but it has got me thinking about a professor I had the privilege to sit under, a man I respect to no end.

After reading a few open letters from students showing support for their professor, I started to tear up. Their words reminded me of my own thoughts for a professor of mine at Life Pacific College, where I just graduated in May.

You have to understand a few things. I see similarities between these professors, Christopher Rollston and mine, who I will name Dr. Smith. The characteristics that students described Dr. Rollston with could be perfectly transferred over to describe Dr. Smith. Additionally, both ECS and LPC are very small confessional schools with amazing faculty for their size. Wondering, I ask myself what would happen to LPC if such a controversy went down. It'd be ugly.

At LPC a few years back, a friend I won't name (for those who might know this story, it will surely bring a smile) rocked the boat a bit during his polity interview, which is where graduating seniors stand before a board of professors to be tested, essentially, on doctrine, ministerial practice and Foursquare polity to become liscenced Foursquare ministers (most pass through the fires and walk out purified and a little taller with Foursquare pride boosting their step. Others, unfortunately, realize they had more straw than substance and must try again). In retrospect, and I suspect then, during the heat of it as well, it's a little humorous. This friend said some things, in his interview, that didn't sit well with his panel regarding Scripture. Pinning the origins of his conclusions to the teacher he had learned them (Dr. Smith) seemed plausible. So he did. But it caused a ruckus through our very little campus among students and professors.

Dr. Smith, letting us in on what happened, shared with our class last year about how he wrote endless emails and papers to several individuals and the administration concerning his actual view, articulated much better by him than a student. The boil eventually died down to a brew then went away for good. Thank God.

I have a special place in my heart for those who have shaken me up in my constellations of belief. I learned what they learned and thus realized my worldview was impoverished at best, and uttering failing at worst. Dr. Smith was one of these people for me, and I'm positive for most who take him have found him humble, passionate, brilliant, biblically-honest and thoroughly Christian. By my standards, he's the best of the best. I was blessed to have him. And I couldn't imagine future students not having him!

The unraveling Rollston mayhem has sparked some questions in me. What happens, at a confessional institution, where faculty must align themselves with certain positions doctrinally, when an honest professor/scholar confronts a position and genuinely concludes, through rigorous study, something different or contrary? How should s/he handle this? These questions remind me of Peter Enns awhile back, when he was asked to leave Westminster Theological Seminary for writing Inspiration and Incarnation, a great book. What role do big giving donors have with the degree of academic freedom Christian institutions have/allow, apart from what is said? What does it mean to be a "Christian" university, seminary or institute of another kind? How is such a thing--a system?--Christian anyway? How does a faithful institute operate, live out its mission and values? Is there such a thing as institutional obedience?

A prayer:

Father, only you could bring good out of the muck we make. I ask for your hand in Christopher Rollston's affair. Bring about good, justice, truth and even joy. Only you could do a thing like that. Give us all courage to be thoroughly Christian in our everyday. To you be the glory, Amen.

October 5, 2012

The Future of Books?

The author of Not Only a Father, Tim Bulkeley, has done something unique with his new book (link at bottom). He has made it available online, the whole thing, start to finish, and even made it possible to converse with readers through commenting on each section of the book, to give him (and other readers/commenters) more of an understanding of the thoughts of his readers. I think this is a great idea. I'm interested in seeing how it goes.

You can make your own notes, like the ones you scribble in the narrow margins of your own books at home, but for all to see. It's like a bunch of people all reading the same book, at the same time.

It seems this would give authors broad access to thoughts, ideas and feedback of readers, academic and lay, quickly and on a grander scale, something (most) authors, I'm assuming, would want and learn from. Hopefully I'll be able to join in the "pages" and unfolding discussion.

And I admit I stole the "future of books" bit from a smart man/teacher/blogger I like named James McGrath.

Click here to see!

October 2, 2012

The Young Days: Why Faith That Grows Up is Good

I spoke with a good friend. Talking on the phone can often be a labor-some endeavor for me, but this call was good, a much-needed catch-up with someone I admire and respect.

We talked about many things; finding jobs, transitions, ministry and getting in it again. One of the things we got to talking about was something I'll call 'the young days.'

Certain times throughout my education in biblical studies, I pondered at the world of (Christian) academics, specifically my instructors. I remember having conversations with friends that, though I wanted to be educated and smart, I never wanted to loose that simplicity, that childlike glint in an innocent eye, that simplicity that I feared may had lifted from some of my beloved teachers.

My friend talked to me about his faith, and the holes he was punching in it. There were questions, like uncovered rocks, he was now turning over. "Faith and life used to be simple," he lamented. Simple was life before thinking, before analyzing, before experience.

I, too, remember. When I was 18, 19, all that mattered was that I loved Jesus and wanted to minister to the world. I had fire, and heart. Rawr!

The young days were when you saw in black and white. You experienced God's love in some real way and now you wanted to live the rest of your life pursuing that for others, or whatever version. That's what mattered. Life was simple. Doubt never lurked, ambiguity was too big a word and any other obstacle was minuscule and trivial.

But, time goes by. Then what happens? You grow up (hopefully). You learn. You experience.

Life isn't so cut-and-dry. You take in people, stories and suffering that don't fit well with a simple outlook. What seemed so right before, whether belief or practice, in retrospect, seems ignorant or juvenile. The beautiful simplicity of the young days is overcome by complexity, bringing a host of other dangers.

Some grow up and "realize" that those were the days. It's easy to want them back, or think you want them back. It seems natural, at least if you grew up in and/or regularly participate in American evangelicalism, to dismiss doubt, ambiguity, complexity, skepticism--an odd collection of trademarks for growing faith--as ills to be cured rather than gifts to be treasured; prizes of adulthood.

A friend told me once that it isn't until (roughly) the age of 25 that a person can hold things, two separate ideals or concepts, in tension. Additionally, this is when someone can see (better or, for some, very clearly) the gray amongst the once steady intake of black and white, wrong and right, sin and obedience. Eventually though, simplicity breaks down.

In a culture that worships the age of 21, the glory of the young and the dream of the old and fading, I want to encourage us along the maturity process, to open our arms to welcome things like doubt, complexity and skepticism as friends and companions, though once (or still) strangers. I'm advocating a faith that grows up. Here's my take:

Doubt

This word means many things to many people. Essentially, and in modest terms, I am uncertain about my views on things, things that were, back in the day, easily-grasped and quickly-swallowed, things I didn't think twice on. Specifics? My view of Scripture, my view of Christianity and Christian practice, my view of world religions, my view of myself and my view of God for starters.

Growing-up-faith is one that doubts and a faith that doubts--oddly enough--actually opens you up to learn. What does certainty lack? The ability to hear, listen and learn.

Complexity

I am a firm believer--and I may be wrong, but I doubt it; wink, wink--that nothing is simple. 2 + 2 is fairly straight forward... I'm moving on. Life seems simple when young and naive. But life rarely ends this way.

I don't know about you, but when the profound absurdity of life at all really sets into my bones, I remember again the unavoidable finitude that has seized me. Complexity brings humility, at least it does to me. Amidst the structures and politics, ethnic groups and classes, I find myself as small as ever in my skin and sometimes this is just what I need. I am not as great as I think I am. I am not the center of the universe. God is beyond my cognitive reach. Remembering I am small, reminds me of others and Jesus' command to love.

Skepticism

It's a blessing and a curse. I am a skeptic. I'll admit, way too often my thinking and over-analyzing gets in the way of just enjoying things as they are, which is exactly what is needed sometimes. But, skepticism--that symptom of adulthood--moves you beyond the routine, the normal, the typical. Skeptics call out the phony, the fake, the not-working mechanisms in our religious machinations and call and pray for a fresh take, an in-breaking of fire and wind. Give a skeptic some freedom and she will bust the molds of dead religion and offer a creative space for reflection and transformation.

Check this book out for Addison Hart's take on Christian skepticism, and its good.

Besides, practicing and enjoying our new friends joins us to the massive could of witnesses hovering over us, full of saints beckoning us to follow their example. So grow up. You're in good company.

September 22, 2012

Desk

The world is God's desk. From there--here--he works, imagines, reigns. All creative types need such a place, a place where work and play collide, where imagination runs free, where the brain behind perspiring foreheads struggle to think, create, capture.

Perhaps it is our being like God, being in his image, that push some to make a world all their own. I once had such a world. I once had a desk.

Many are messy, some tidy. Some have piles of paper. Others have heaps water-falling into other heaps. Trinkets and doodads are scattered abroad, while favorite art pieces hang on a nail nearby on the wall. Or maybe there are windows, or just one, to bring in the ocean breeze, or city air. Hemingway, Lewis, Dickens, they all had their own version, their own complex ecosystem of books, files, memos, pens, pencils, notepads and typewriters.

I loved mine. It was waiting, opened by a previous owner, though undamaged, in the furniture section of a local Goodwill, one I occasionally stopped by at. I don't recall whether or not I went to Goodwill that day actually looking for a desk. But, a desk is what I got.

Arranged in a large rectangle box, I carried it back to my apartment. It was a drafting table and I would have to assemble it later. Normally, this desk was easily $150. I bought mine for $30.

Later that evening, after screwing in the legs, I slide it around the corner into my room. There wasn't much to it. It was all black with a long and wide flat piece for the top with sharp edges and corners and two pieces of rounded pole for the two legs. It was simple--truly pleasing for any minimalist. I straightened it up next to my window. In both apartments, it was by a window.

The top had a tilting mechanism so it slanted. It felt like it was falling toward me, like it wanted me to sit down at it, and read or write or draw.

Sometimes I would sit and lean my body into it, scrutinizing over some text, making a horizontal dent along my ribs from the desk's edge. I remember reading How (Not) to Speak of God and Is There a Meaning in This Text? at that desk. I remember, too, writing my online posts for my Genesis class while sitting there.

Unfortunately though, I abandoned it. I didn't think ahead. Two summers ago, I quit my job at a shoe shop and moved out of my (second) apartment with my roommate Max and relocated to Nevada City, California where we would work for the summer. Moving out was a frenzy and I hadn't secured a location to store my big items, a huge futon mattress and my desk. There was no room in our car and thus no chance to take it with us.

God only knows what happened to that desk. Maybe it landed in the garbage or perhaps a passerby snagged it on his walk back to his apartment. Hopefully, it's a station for someone else's endeavors.

Now, I have a new place I'm living, but what's the point without my desk. Being deskless is really just being homeless. It was more than some piece of furniture, some decor. It was the birthplace of creativity, the gateway to imagination, the collision of work and play. I abandoned my desk. Imagine if God had abandoned his.

September 20, 2012

A Philosopher's Prayer

I'm intrigued by this prayer. It was written by James Smith (I kind of like this guy if you haven't noticed). Being the philosophy scholar he is, he reads strange foreign texts and then attends obscure seminars to discuss complicated ontological matters, and the like, that only those gathered can understand--at least, this is how I imagine them.

He wrote the following words as the "Opening Prayer" at the Continental Philosophy Seminar back in Spring 2003:

"Lord God,
Creator of earth and matter,
You both dazzle and hide,
You call both light and shadow to be.
You dwell on mountaintops
And in the nooks and crevices of the mountainside.
You speak in both fire and whispers.

Your very material creation--
With all of its dirt and blood,
All of its smells and tastes,
Is a playground for thought.

And so we--graced, privileged, and called--play
At what must seem to you, sometimes, just games.
Is God to be found in the trace? we ask, almost serious.
Is the world the folding and unfolding of God's immanence? we     inquire.
As we try out our questions, surely you chuckle, Lord--
But I think that you chuckle because you like to play along--
That you are glorified in our play, even our serious academic     play.

Only you, Lord, God of a richly folded creation,
Could be found in a place like Deleuze or Badiou,
Could surprise us in the pleats of French philosophers,
Could whisper in the creases of continental ontology.

Lord Jesus, you "sunk yourself in matter" for our sakes,
That we might be pulled out of our flat absorption in     immanence--
To be the "charged" material image bearers of divine excess.
Help us, then, Lord, to be your disciples above all--
To discern what these texts mean for our discipleship,
For our being-in-the-world,
Our being-for-others,
And our being-before-you.
Amen."

September 9, 2012

At Camp: Friendship, Innocence and a Moment's Peace


[The boys in this post were renamed and yes I know this is long]

Affray and dissension were inevitable. Trying to keep jr. high boys who are tremendously different in background, temperament and sense of humor, to name a few, from killing each other is a genuine task. When squabbling cropped up amongst my clan of boys I always second-guessed myself in how I was handling it and thought, "Gosh, how in the heck would someone else handle this? Should I let him say that? Am I being too lenient?" At the end of the week, though, all my boys went home with fully-attached limbs (at least to my knowledge) and intact egos, for better or worse.

As a cabin leader, you become pretty good, say, during mealtimes, at deterring astringent speech, being ever watchful of the easily-heated emotions of some of the boys. Some had short fuses. James' epistle talks of tongues being like fire. How is it that the short wick of some lad seemingly-attracts the blazing words of another? A spitfire. I, too, had to be careful not to add any flame of my own, since by day three laziness and scant patience can overwhelm.

Coteries, and other anti-shaloming, characterized my group dynamics from day one, up until late Friday night, the night before camp ended, the night God broke in. I want to tell the tale of a phenomena that took place on that Friday, something that I'll probably, hopefully, never forget, evidence, for me, that God had truly moved and worked among my jr. high boys.

If you've been keeping up with my other camp stories, you know of the absurd trouble I had with some campers. Some cabin leaders went for team spirit, decking their cabins, faces and anything else they could find with appropriate colors and team symbols. Or maybe they went for funny or cool so campers would like them. Ya... I didn't really do any of those things, at least with true cabin-leader zeal. All I was trying to do was keep my campers hidden, that I might "sneak" them under the radar of the directors and other overseers, so I didn't get in trouble for their cruel behavior, as if I had somehow turned them into little beasts. Ok, I did more than this, but I'm trying to paint a picture here. You get the idea.

So, Friday. I wish it hadn't taken all the way till Friday for my kids to get stirred up by God. But, alas, it did. Friday is better than not at all though.

My friend and fellow intern Ellen could tell you, I was baffled. Friday night session was specifically carved out to be a time to "commission" the kids to go out into their world, since it would be happening whether they wanted it to or not the next morning. It was going to be a night of praying that they would be bold and true and diligent, all those "commissioning" characteristics. But my kids, my crazy boys, made it something else indeed.

All the other sessions, Monday night, Tuesday night, Wednesday night, Thursday night (including all the day break-outs), with their hip songs and funny sermons, did absolutely nothing, as far as transformation, spiritual-seriousness and overall God-awareness was concerned. But their heart's soil mustn't have been rock-hard because something finally broke, allowing the Holy Spirit to fall just as the tears would from their eyes. I think God was slowing spinning seeds.

During that final ministry time I watched as some of my kids, the spiritually-acute ones, responded to the commissioning calls. They went forward. Awesome. I wasn't surprised. But then I watched as the "immovables," the rebels, got up and shuffled across the floor as they made their way up front. I concentrated on them, wanting to make sure they weren't goofing off or distracting. To the contrary, they got prayer. I watched, like an animal researcher taking in some profound and rare mystery, something beautiful, something abnormal. Tears fell. Hugs, no! Grasps exchanged. Grace received. Reconciliation offered. (these short sentences are the sub total of a colossal moment and, obviously, reveal my literary inability to capture the magnitude of that hour properly) Wow... I was blown away.

I would of had to answer "No.." No, I didn't see it (Isa 43:19). It seemed God had used the commissioning hour for unprecedented things. He does what he wants doesn't he? "I will be who I will be," he proclaimed to Moses all the years ago. He hasn't changed much.

My previous expectations floundered with reality.

More could be said, so much more, but I want to end with the most memorable part of that camp for me, after the commissioning night finished, in that in-between time after cabin time but before bed. For the camp as a whole, the night ended in a tangled fray, something not relevant here nor appropriate. What's important here is that three boys from my cabin who, up until that moment and for all I knew, hated each other, became friends. I couldn't tell you how it happened. It was truly batty.

A hundred yards from the cabin there was a massive--and I mean massive--tire swing. The three of them and I, after the others went inside the cabin, walked there. And what did we do? you ask.

We played...

We simply played.

Jordan climbed on top of the tire, sat down, straddled it and hugged the pole. He was terrified. It was funny. Marcus wiggled his way into the hallowed inside. His body bowed as he snuggly laid flat. And Bo hung about the thing, dangling then whipping his limbs wildly to scare Jordan. I started to push them, in that tire, attached to that huge pole connected to the moon, it seemed, that swung back and forth and back and forth. They started counting each time I pushed. Bo said, "Push us seventy times!" "Psh, your dreamin'," I thought.

For the first time all week, there was Friendship. Innocence. Peace. (now read those words again, slower) Those good things seemed tangible, like the Kingdom had actually come. I paused, listening for the trumpet, yet nothing, which reassured me that God answers Jesus' prayer still today in small and beautifully penetrating doses: "your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven" (Mat 6). God's Kingdom can be here now. And it was, then.

But, it pissed me off that I hadn't seen these kids like this before, as they should be, as kids, playing and goofing off, with no external worries, without the cussing and showing off, bullying and crude jokes, over-bearing adult supervising and other sabotagers. Kids grow up so damn fast in our world, where parents are stuck in adolescence and children act like adults. I want kids to be kids, stripped of peer and parental pressure and the broken circumstance. I want them to play. I want them to laugh that innocent laugh and I want them to grow up doing the same.

I ended up pushing those boys seventy times, and if it would of made that moment last forever, I would of never stopped. No way.

September 6, 2012

A Pentecostal Worldview

Relocating my books from the garage to my new room in my parent's house, and freeing them from their dank cardboard prison, enabled me to “visit” some old reads, a truly delightful experience. I unloaded them, ninety-three in all (plus two that don't belong to me), onto the shelves made for clothes in my closet. Books, obviously, are of higher significance than clothes. If I could wear them, I suppose I would.

One of the books I immediately set aside to peruse was Thinking in Tongues. My last post was a result of that perusing. Though, the more I scanned and read and reminisced, the more I wanted to share. There are many scrumptious layers to it so I concluded I would expand. Plus, when was the last time someone, and an academic at that, spruced up some neat thoughts on being pentecostal (could you not tell by the title?)? Exactly my point. So let us take advantage.

Last time (click here to read or simply read the preceding post) I put up the aspects to a pentecostal worldview as articulated by James Smith, professor, philosopher and author. Worldview, though, is a word thrown around a lot, is it not? What is it exactly?

“By referring to this as a worldview," Smith points out, "I don't mean to suggest that this is a system of doctrine (as the terms has sometimes been used); rather a worldview is a passional orientation that governs how one sees, inhabits, and engages the world.”

Hm, please continue.

With the help of James Olthuis' definition, “A worldview (or vision of life) is a framework or set of fundamental beliefs through which we view the world and our calling and future in it,” James expounds the “several elements of this account of worldview:

1. It is a framework of fundamental beliefs: a worldview provides the grid or framework through which we 'make sense' of our world-—the 'set of hinges' on which our thinking and doing turn.

2. It is a framework of fundamental beliefs: as fundamental, we could say that these beliefs are pretheoretical. They are often not beliefs that we consciously, rationally reflect upon. They are the 'control beliefs' that operate subterraneously. Thus, I would suggest that we think about a worldview operating at the level of imagination, not thinking.

3. It is a framework of fundamental beliefs: as 'ultimate beliefs,' worldviews are fundamentally religious in character, shaping the root commitments of individuals and ocmmunities. It is in this sense that Abraham Kuyper can describe all of life as religious in some fundamental sense, even for the naturalist atheist.

4. It provides a view of the world: as such, worldviews are comprehensive, giving us an account of how the big picture hangs together. In this way, they help us make sense of the totality of our experience, not just our 'religious' experience.

5. A worldview tells us something about our calling: how we understand our world then determines how we understand our roles in it. By determining our calling, worldviews shape our identity by constituting the telos of our being-in-the-world. It defines what matters.”

Professor Smith is a sport, painting for us a clear picture, drawing needed distinctions and pulling us in to gaze upon his lucid, scholarly flare. So there you have it folks, a pentecostal worldview.

September 2, 2012

What's a Pentecostal Anyway?

I would imagine, as it does for me, the word 'pentecostal' triggers a host of imagery, probably weird and, possibly, embarrassing. Recently I heard someone ask, "Can we just be pentecostal for a minute...?," using this question as motivation for praying voluminously, subtly reducing 'pentecostal' to charismatic dazzle.

Those of us born and brought into the Pentecostal tradition should know (or venture to know) what makes and doesn't make one pentecostal.

In the brilliantly titled Thinking in Tongues, Christian philosopher and author James Smith (visit his blog, Fors Clavigera, here) articulates what he understands as the five core aspects to a pentecostal worldview. Taken from the first chapter, and as for venturing goes, this may be a solid place to start.

The five bits to Smith's pentecostal worldview:

"1. A position of radical openness to God, and in particular, God doing something differently or new. In terms adopted from continental discourse, we might describe this as a fundamental openness to alterity or otherness. More traditionally, we might simply describe it as an openness to the continuing (and sometimes surprising) operations of the Spirit in church and world, particularly the continued ministry of the Spirit, including continuing revelation, prophecy, and the centrality of charismatic giftings in the ecclesial community.

2. An 'enchanted' theology of creation and culture that perceives the material creation as 'charged' with the presence of the Spirit, but also with other spirits (including demons and 'principalities and powers'), with entailed expectations regarding both miracles and spiritual warfare.

3. A nondualistic affirmation of embodiment and materiality expressed in an emphasis on physical healing (and perhaps also in gospels of 'prosperity').

4. Because of an emphasis on the role of experience, and in contrast to rationalistic evangelical theology, Pentecostal theology is rooted in an affective, narrative epistemology.

5. An eschatological orientation to mission and justice, both expressed in terms of empowerment, with a certain 'preferential option for the marginalized.'"

If this sparked something in you, pick up the book, as he expands each in detail. Or get ahold of me since I like sharing.

August 30, 2012

A History of Camp: Anyone?

I'm putting this up in faith. Just in case you've been longing for a brief historical overview of religious camps, here ya go.

Groups, churches and organizations have been running and conducting camps for decades now and during my two straight weeks of camp (high school then junior high), I became interested in the history. Why do we do these? Who started this stuff? I stumbled upon this article and thought maybe some nerd out there is interested too.

August 29, 2012

At Camp: What About His Chains?

"Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning" - Exodus 2:23-24

"to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound" - Isaiah 61:1

Right from the get-go I knew he was trouble. I walked into my cabin from being outside, where I was instructed to wait to properly greet my arriving campers and their concerned mothers and fathers. A whole week without them. What on earth would they do? Party? Regain sanity? Worry?

They, two boys who I thought were brothers (they were friends) and a mom and dad, had made their way to their cabin, my cabin, to drop off bags and apparently get ready to swim, though the lakefront hadn’t even opened. He--let’s just call him Bo--was climbing and trotting around the cabin as if he owned the joint, barely listening to stern instructions his mom was throwing at him. Something about behaving and remembering what happened last year. “Oh boy,” I thought. He shrugged off his mother’s speech with a simple nod. His dad stood there.

I managed to squeeze in an introduction between their conversation. My charisma quickly faded when Bo’s parents just looked at me as if to say, “Good luck, buddy. You’re goin’ need it! He’s in your hands now!” Their eyes smiled.

“Fudge,” I thought, “What have I got myself into?”

I wasn't sure what to make of what just happened. Was this kid high energy? Did he have trouble listening? Like ADD? Whatever the issue, to seem like I had it all together, I sucked in any worry or concern I wore on my face.

I noticed that Bo and his friend didn’t look at me, to my recollection, not even once. Why was that? They were busy searching their bags for swimming shorts. They changed and left.

A sweet first-camper impression...

It didn’t take long until I encountered their thick skin, willful rebelliousness, and dearth of sensitivity for anyone. Their conversations were negative, full of mean jokes and put-downs of other campers and mocking language about Christianity and spirituality. Heck, I was pleased when they limited their speech to gangs and drugs (as long as they weren't bullying anyone). Yet, eventually though, like all other teenage boys, they incorporated talk about girls too.

Additionally, it was as if they practiced being cold and unaffected by anything spiritual or Christian before they got to camp. "Ok, play the next track. It's a really inspiring sermon. Now, just sit there, unamused, with a blank stare on your face... Ya! Just like that, perfect!"

Things weren’t all bad though. The sound guy for jr. high camp was the youth pastor of these kids. And thankfully, he gave me insights into their lives, their contexts, which are not pretty. Their situations are thick. They swim in violence, drug addiction and a host of gross dysfunction most kids never dream of. I was appalled. No wonder their behavior.

My mind got to thinking about these kids one day and how they’ve been heavily influenced to be who they are. They are products, outcomes, offshoots of their culture, of their soil so to speak. I’m hesitant to use these words, but the point is they are who they are due to their highly-dysfunctional environment. And it's unfair. These kids were born into that garbage. They had no choice.

Now I’m obviously no professional on the idiosyncrasies of the sociological matters at stake here and I’m not saying that these kids are not responsible for their actions. But, they have been formed, fashioned and forged by situations, structures, politics, economics outside their control. Bottom line!

The same thing happened to me, and is still happening. I am here, as me, today, due to the "nurturing" that took place in my life. My past's dysfunction is a whisper compared to their screams. And why? How? Did I just get lucky?!...

(Taking a deep breath) I have strong feelings about this. And it all was sparked by a song.

During the musical worship, we sang a tune originally written by United Pursuit Band called "Break Every Chain." The chorus is simple enough:

There is power in the name of Jesus (x3)

To break every chain (x3)

We sang this over and over again. It became an anthem, because of its simplicity and repetition. But what does this mean? To break every chain? What chains? It is typical to hear talk about chains and slavery and bondage in Christian circles. These are metaphors employed to understand addiction and our overall relation to sin, right? This is biblical language is it not? We are addicted to bullying our peers, we are hooked on images of naked bodies, we are trapped in endless cycles of poor stewardship, cutting or drinking too much alcohol. Most are slaves. All have been. Some, by grace, toil and sweat, have been freed.

But, are there not other chains that keep us bound and imprisoned? Is it only the vicious habits of sin, due to our foolish choices, that we need liberation from? What about, say, a fallen economics? A sick empire? What about a shattered hierarchy? A corrupt government? What about a wounded relationship? A maddening society? What about the things that lay outside our control? What about the immorality we've been brought into without our consent, the sin we were born into? Is there any hope for redemption *there*? What about salvation? Liberation, is it too much to ask for in these places?

When the other kids are standing, passionately singing at the top of their lungs, “To break every chain, to break every chain, to break every chain,” what do I tell Bo and others like him, a kid whose dream would to be free from the humanly-unfit conditions of his everyday existence? What words are left for a kid like this, who’s world he crashed into by no counsel of his own? What about his chains? What about his chains?