Archive for December 2010 – Page 2

Membership, Covenant and Engagement: Introduction

The Search for Depth and Meaning

There is a hunger in western society today for a sense of purpose and belonging that goes deeper than the daily grind. We live in aWorkers at Eastern Market, DC world that is overwhelmingly focused on profit and appearance rather than service and substance. While some of us are fortunate to have paid work that to some degree satisfies our need for meaningful labor and community, there are many others for whom their professional life is mostly a burden to be endured – a transaction of time and energy for a paycheck.

Even for many of those with a satisfying professional life, something is still missing. Despite financial success and career advancement, there remains a subtle emptiness in our lives that we cannot shake. We attempt to address this void in a variety of ways: Volunteering at charitable organizations; taking up hobbies; or numbing out with television, music, internet, shopping, alcohol and drugs. In a world where we are consistently told that we are responsible for our own happiness, we find that we are incapable of producing purpose. The depth of life that our hearts desire remains out of reach.

The Myth of the Rugged Individual

The myth many of us have been raised with is: “If you are smart and hard-working, you can have anything you want. It’s up to you.”Shoppers at open-air market in DC Despite the optimism of this creed, many of us have found that our new national myth is false on multiple counts. To begin with, no matter how much we have educated ourselves and no matter how hard we have worked, real depth of purpose eludes us. The Western dream of endless prosperity and opportunity is revealed to be shallow and selfish; we are spiritual orphans listening to ipods in air-conditioned offices. We can have anything we want, perhaps, if all we want is soul-numbing entertainment.

Furthermore, we discover that we as individuals are not capable of accomplishing anything. We depend upon a web of interconnected relationships and social conditions, many of which are harmful and hold us back from growing to our fullest potential. Though we were brought up to believe that our destiny depended primarily on our own personal decisions, we come to see that our decisions are only a small piece of the overall picture. We cannot exist – much less achieve our goals – except in the context of community.

And some communities are more conducive to peace and fulfillment than others. Most of the subcultures in our society focus on goalsWorkers at Eastern Market, DC other than serving God and neighbor. In many of our offices and barracks, schools and nonprofits, competition and self-interest are valued above compassion and self-sacrifice. Nation-states demand loyalty and support even as they routinely harm others in the pursuit of greater wealth and power – developing horrible weapons and dominating neighbors. We abuse the earth, hideously disfiguring God’s creation, all in the name of “growth and development.” Clearly, there are many human communities today whose ends and means are starkly at odds with the Reign of Christ.

But there is an alternative. There is a community in which each person can find the deepest wholeness and purpose, in which the human family as a whole can experience love and peace, showing respect for God’s creation in all its grandeur and beauty. The Church – the community of those who follow Jesus and participate in his life, death and resurrection – is this community. When we live in Christ, we find that our entire worldview shifts; instead of having our character and destiny dictated by the prevailing human culture, we are transformed by the living presence of Christ in the community of his friends. We participate in him, and his life becomes the setting for our own. In him alone we find true freedom, experiencing the depth and purpose that we have longed for all our lives.

Emigrating to the Kingdom of God

Think about it this way: If a person relocates to a foreign country, they are not simply changing locations – they are fundamentallyVendor at Eastern Market, DC altering their entire frame of reference. This change may not be clear at first, and the emigrant may cling for a long time to the way of life left behind in their home country; they may continue to eat their country’s food, speak their native language, and relate to others as they would in their home environment. However, over time, the emigrant slowly but surely absorbs the local culture of the country to which they have relocated.

Over the course of months and years, the emigrant’s life is reoriented around the language, assumptions and way of life of their adopted country. Eventually, when the emigrant returns to their country of origin for a visit, they feel out of place in the land they used to call home. Their transition into a new frame of reference is complete – they are now more adapted to their new country than they are to their homeland.

When we commit to following the guidance of Christ’s Spirit over all else, we have effectively emigrated. We were once members of theWalking up stairs dominant society, but when we began to follow Jesus we forfeited citizenship in our earthly nations. Our process of growth in Christ is one of naturalization into the Church. As we are reoriented to the language, assumptions and way of life of our new community in Christ, we are transformed – not merely by our conscious, personal choice, but by our ongoing participation in the Church.

Making it Through Customs: Membership, Covenant and Engagement

In the essays that follow, we will explore what it looks like for us to change our spiritual nationality. We will consider the role of the individual, the Church, and the wider society as we transition away from being primarily participants in the dominant culture, becoming citizens of the Kingdom of God. We will examine the concepts of membership, covenant and engagement, looking at the ways in which individuals are nurtured and sustained by the community of disciples. Then, we will consider the role of communal decision-making, and how discernment takes place at all levels of the Church. Finally, we will look at the fruits of corporate discernment: the shared work that we as the Church undertake to make the love of Jesus visible to everyone.

As we explore the meaning of membership, covenant and engagement, we discover the way that Jesus is alive and active, showing love and mercy to the individual, the community of faith, and the world as a whole.

The Church Is Not Facebook

The Steady March of Progress – And Alienation

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, those of us in the industrialized West have become increasingly isolated from one another as we have grown in wealth, technological prowess and personal mobility. Our small towns and rural areas have been drained of their population, especially young people, and today we witness the process of urbanization reaching its natural conclusion. It is common for Americans to live in a different region of the country from that which they grew up in, and the vast hinterland is mostly consigned to resource extraction, whether in the form of factory-style agriculture or the extraction of resources, such as oil, natural gas, timber and coal.

As we become more and more alienated from the land and from fixed human communities, many of us have lost the strong senseDowntown DC of place that has characterized most of human history. The internet, along with cheap fossil-fueled long-distance travel, makes it possible for like-minded individuals in vastly different geographical, social and cultural contexts to form a sense of community, and to maintain that sense of community through ongoing communication and collaboration. For many today, there is a stronger sense of affinity with a group of friends and acquaintances scattered across the globe than there is within the local neighborhood.

The Church Used to Be Facebook

What implications does this have for our life as the Church? Traditionally, the local congregation formed a hub of relationships that permeated the wider society. In many places, especially in rural areas and small towns, being a member of a church was practically equivalent to being a part of the community as a whole. Codified in practices such as infant baptism, churches functioned as a sort of old-school Facebook: Most everyone was a part of a church, and churches served as an important common ground for a culturally Christian society.

But a lot has changed in the last centuries, decades. Small towns and rural life appear to be on the edge of extinction, and theA church building Church has become increasingly marginalized. The Church is still mostly a social club, an old-fashioned social network. But now, Google is a far more universal point of contact. And, for the majority of us who have come to live in a diverse metropolis, it makes a whole lot more sense for our social networks to be digital – and secular. The churches worked well enough as a general purpose “social network” when we lived in communities inhabited mostly by people who were at least nominally Christian. But the realities of the 21st-century urban West are quite different. We live in a multi-cultural, interfaith society, and Christian churches seem of little value as a place to meet our neighbors when most of our neighbors are Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, or Humanist.

The Humble Way of Jesus

So, what should the role of the Church be today, in our cosmopolitan, inter-religious, and increasingly secular society? If the Church continues down the route of inertia, insisting that we are still at the center of western culture, we will only compound our irrelevance and inability to share the gospel with our neighbors. In fact, if we decide to maintain the illusion of our own centrality and importance, we have probably missed the point of Jesus’ message altogether. The end of this path is stagnation, insularity and, ultimately, death – for all things die eventually when they have outlived their usefulness.

I would like to suggest that there is another way in which we can walk together as the Church, the same one that Jesus followed:Walking in Richmond, Indiana The way of humility and self-sacrificing love, valuing the wholeness and restoration of others over our own privileges and assumptions. If we are ready to follow in the humble way of Jesus, recognizing that we as Christians are no longer (and never should have expected to be) the center of the universe, we may be ready to start down the path of engagement with our culture from the perspective of the margins.

Engagement from the Margins

Once we recognize and accept that Christianity is no longer the dominant cultural force in our society, we are freed to engage with the whole of society without needing to defend our privileged position. We can form relationships with all of the religious and non-religious communities in our towns and cities; we are free to integrate our lives, inviting our Muslim co-workers and atheist neighbors to share our lives with us. We can let go of the burden that we have carried for so long, of deciding who is in and who is out – because we’re not in charge anymore.

On the contrary, we are once again in the position of the early Church, which shared the gospel as a small minority in a vast, Eastern Market, DCcosmopolitan, pagan Empire. Just like in the early days of the Jesus movement, we today can only share the Good News of Jesus if we humble ourselves and learn to speak to people from a wide variety of backgrounds and worldviews. When we acknowledge that we are not in control of our society, we are freed to be humble witnesses to the power of God. We can share the gospel freely with all who have ears to hear it as we learn to communicate the message to people in the vast variety of conditions in which we find them in our pluralist, post-Christendom society.

Have no doubt: The overthrow of cultural Christianity in the West is a blessing. As time passes, it is becoming increasingly clear to everyone that Christians no longer govern our society, and Christians are increasingly powerless to impose an interpretation of Christian faith on their non-Christian fellow citizens. As Christianity becomes visibly marginalized as a political force, we as followers of Jesus have a great opportunity to bear witness to the life and power of Christ. We can reveal the true nature of the gospel, which relies not upon outward power and coercion, but instead invites all people into a loving Parent-child relationship with God, and into a brother-sister relationship with our fellow men and women.

The Church is not Facebook. We are no longer insiders, nor the center of attention. But we do have work to do. Let us be like Paul, who explained his ministry to the Corinthians like this:

“…I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom but on the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:3-5)

The Word is Near to You

But what [do the Scriptures] say? “The word is near to you, on your lips and in your heart.” – Romans 10:8

Last night I attended a Bible study in Congress Heights. Those in attendance were from different Christian backgrounds. Besides me, there was a Methodist, a person who grew up in Baltimore Yearly Meeting and is now attending a Roman Catholic church, as well as several people who are members of a local Churches of Christ congregation, including their pastor. This evening, the pastor was leading our Bible study.

At the previous Bible study, I had gotten into a fairly lively discussion with the pastor about the role of Scripture in relation toMy Bible the role of the Holy Spirit, the scriptural basis of women in ministry, and other rather intense topics that should not be discussed over dinner. So, I braced myself when the pastor announced that our study that evening would be on the authority of Scripture.

He guided us through about a dozen Bible verses from the New Testament, explaining the scriptural basis for the supremacy of the Bible as the rule for Christian life. In his understanding, the Bible – the Old and New Testaments together – is the written Word of God. As a Quaker, my understanding of the role of Scripture is different from his, and I struggled with how to engage with his (and his fellow churchgoers’) understanding of the Bible.

In my reading of Scripture, I see the term “word of God” used in two ways. First, it is used as a name for the Son of God, JesusImage of Jesus Christ on Reformation Lutheran church building, Capitol Hill, DC Christ, who is the creative force behind the universe (For examples, see Revelation 19:13; John 1; 1 John 1:1-3). Most Christians – including my brothers and sisters at the Bible study – would not deny that Jesus is the Word of God. They can read the plain meaning of Scripture just as easily as I can, and it’s hard to deny the textual evidence for giving this title to Jesus, the creative power behind all of creation.

But there is indeed another sense in which the term “word” is used in Scripture. The Word of God can, without a doubt, mean Jesus; but it is also used to mean the commands and teaching of God. A prime example of this usage of “the word” is found in the Torah, one of the foundational texts of Judaism (and, by extension, Christianity):

Surely this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe. – Deuteronomy 30:11-14

In this passage, Moses explains that the commands that the Hebrews have received from God are not simply a code ofHebrew Scriptures regulations that are written down on scrolls. On the contrary, God’s law and teaching are available to every person and every community. The teaching of God is not a once-and-for-all event; instead, God continues to guide each one of us through the power of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and in our midst as the Church. The Word of God never changes – Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8) – but we, God’s people, do change. Our needs change; our context changes; our challenges are different from day to day. God, in great mercy and compassion, continues to walk beside us and show us how to live in our present context.

The apostle Paul remarked on this phenomenon of Christ’s direct guidance within the human heart, pointing out that following God is possible without having any knowledge of the Scriptures or of the Christian tradition. He explained, “When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law unto themselves. They show what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness…” (Romans 2:14-15). Though the Scriptures and the Judeo-Christian tradition are of great help in walking in the Way of Jesus, the ultimate foundation of our faith and life in Christ is our inward experience of Christ’s presence, God’s law written on our hearts.

I was saddened to hear one of the members of our Bible study say that she was envious of the people she read about in the OldEden Testament, who had full access to God. Adam and Eve walked and talked with God in Eden, and Abraham and Moses had regular conversations with the Almighty. She wished she had a similar “direct line” to God. How I longed for her to experience the living presence of God today, and that continual, personal relationship that each of us can have with our Creator! I wondered whether her church’s teaching that the Bible is the “written Word of God,” presented a stumbling block to her having that kind of intimate, direct relationship with Christ. How could it not be a barrier to have your religious community tell you time and time again that all connection with God must be mediated through the Scriptures?

I struggle with how to communicate the centrality of Christ’s inward presence with my non-Quaker brothers and sisters. The Scriptures are very precious to me, and I would never want to denigrate their usefulness in helping us grow in our relationship with Jesus. Nevertheless, I question this over-emphasis on the perfection, completeness and God-like authority of the Scriptures. I fear that many of my brothers and sisters risk losing sight of the supremacy of Jesus Christ, the Living Word, and substituting a dead letter – “holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:5).

I pray that we discover the living, inward presence of Christ, so that we can say with Paul: “…I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is theLiving the Word power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith…” (Romans 1:16). The true gospel is not merely the words that have been written under divine inspiration; Jesus and his gospel cannot be fully captured by any text (see John 21:25).

Rather than seeking to assure ourselves that we have pinned Christ down, let us humbly confess that we understand now only in part, but that as we continue to be led by the Holy Spirit we will be brought into the fullness of Christ’s Kingdom (1 Corinthians 13:12). I pray that the eternal, living gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ may come to you, “not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit with full conviction…” (1 Thessalonians 1:5).