Monday, December 31, 2012

On the fifth day of Christmas

Sorry for the lack of posts this week. We've been a little busy.

Happy New Year. May you be blessed.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Hope in the Darkness

It is a strange thing to be expecting a child at Christmas. We are expecting a daughter some time mid-January, but she could come any day now. The nursery is ready, the crib is assembled, the returns have been made and the furniture has been put together. It is even stranger to be part of a clergy couple expecting a child at Christmas. My spouse and I are on staff together, a situation which makes the whole thing even more interesting (and fun). As the church has waited, so have we. And though we have successfully avoided being the ones to light the Advent wreath until now, I think we are up soon.

We have certainly experienced an expectant Advent.

But the strangest thing, for me and for this particular season, is to be expecting a child in the midst of the hopelessness we all felt a week ago Friday, upon learning the news that twenty-eight people were dead as a result of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary. Twenty of them were children.

I don't know if I am feeling this way because we are expecting a child, but this particular tragedy has knocked me off my feet. I just can't get my wits about me. How has it been for you? I just can't seem to get past it, this event which is--and I am serious about this--the worst thing I can possibly imagine.

The absolute worst thing.

I hope you do not expect me to make sense of this. There is no sense to be made. We call these things "senseless" for a reason.

But I do want to say a word about how we go forward, and perhaps much of my motivation is just to convince myself to keep going. It is enough to make you want to go to bed and never get up again. It is certainly enough to make you think twice about bringing a child into this difficult world.

The more I have thought about it, though, the more I think that having a child is the ultimate act of defiant hope. There is no stronger tool in the toolbox of faith than hope, and no tool more active. We look at the world as it is, see the pain and heartache, and we recognize that it is difficult business, this business of being alive. And yet we initiate someone new into that difficult business anyway, for though life is difficult, it is rich, and bubbling with possibility.

We do not venture towards hope with the naive assumption that difficiult business will go away. We hope with the active belief that with work, with sweat and tears and blood, the work will get easier, such that rather than simply drafting someone new into an unwinnable conflict, we work to lessen that conflict with the expectation that that new person will take up where we leave off.

The work of the Christian is much larger than one person, much grander than one time. The hope of the Christian life as it is expressed in baptism is that it is indeed New Life--not just for one, but for all of us--as well seek to justice to what we've seen, as we seek to leave the world better off than we found it, as we seek to discern the fine line between what is and what could be.

In dark moments, I am prone despair. But I remember that we are a people called to hope--hope ultimately expressed in the person of Christ--and I quit looking at my shoes and discover God's great work going on all around me. This is the thing onto which I hold in this expectant season, and it is enough for me.


Friday, December 21, 2012

A Good, Old-Fashioned Book-Raising

I am really excited to share that my book is being released today! Becoming the Church: Lessons for Today's Disciples looks to the Book of Acts for lessons that were learned by the first disciples--and that speak to today's disciples, too. It is a book well suited for a Sunday School class, Bible study, or personal devotion, as it traces each chapter of Acts and includes questions for discussion.

In these coming days, I need your help! Keep reading for more information.

As you might be aware, it is next to impossible to get curriculum published these days. The denominational publishers just aren't putting out books by unknown authors. I am no Adam Hamilton, you understand.

So I need some help.
  1. If you read this blog, appreciate its perspective, think I am funny, want to help out a guy whose spouse is about to have a baby, etc., please help me publicize this book! You can link to this blog post, or you can link directly to Amazon. You can purchase a copy in paperback or for the Kindle at this link. If you have a Prime subscription, the Kindle version is free!
  2. If the church is going to continue in theological conversation,we've got to have some new voices. Blogging is great, but there is a significant segment of the church population we are missing. Since church is the proper place to do theology (this is much of the premise of my book), we need to figure out how to involve the whole church. Let's figure out how to bring some new voices back into the Sunday school classroom. If you do use this book as curriculum, let me know how it goes! We have some significant work to do if we are going to enter into an era of innovation. Let's start now.
  3. This is uncharted territory for me. Obviously having never written a book before, I'm stepping out a bit. The past month has been the most popular for the blog since I started writing in 2008. I hope you will be in conversation with me in the coming days. And I hope you will help a brother out by spreading the word! I'm really proud of this book and the perspective it represents. The disciples had to figure out how to the becoming the church in the days after Christ. We have not got it figured out yet! Let's keep going.
  4. If you read the book, leave a review on the Amazon page. The more reviews, the more folks are drawn to the page. If you like it, great. If you don't, that's fine too. I am hoping for a conversation.
In all of this, I'm thankful for the community I've experienced here! Your emails and comments have tempered me, challenged me, and helped me sharpen my own perspective. You are some great, faithful folks. I would appreciate your help.

With thanks,
Dalton

---

An excerpt from Becoming the Church: Lessons for Today's Disciples:
As we look the Bible to teach us how to live, let me share two pieces of good news. The first piece of good news is that we do not have to figure out how to be Christian by ourselves. In fact, one of the core messages of the Bible is that you cannot just pick up a Bible and go live as a Christian by yourself. The founder of my religious tribe, John Wesley, is quoted as saying that “’Holy solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the Gospel than holy adulterers.” We are made for one another, and when we ignore the fact that we must do this work together, we are ignoring much of the Bible. If the Bible belongs to anybody, it belongs to the whole church, and we are called to figure this all out together.

The second piece of good news is that we are not the first ones to try and figure out how to live as Christians without Jesus available for questions and answers. The Book of Acts tells the story of the first disciples, as they struggled to figure out how to use the broken shards of their community after the Resurrection of Christ in order to fashion a new way of living. They had to become the church.

You and I continue this work of becoming the church today. In many ways, we are like the first disciples, stepping out into a strange land with a strange message about a strange savior. The Book of Acts is an excellent guide as we step out in the same faith as did the early disciples.

A Good, Old-Fashioned Book-Raising

I am really excited to share that my book is being released today! Becoming the Church: Lessons for Today's Disciples looks to the Book of Acts for lessons that were learned by the first disciples--and that speak to today's disciples, too. It is a book well suited for a Sunday School class, Bible study, or personal devotion, as it traces each chapter of Acts and includes questions for discussion.

In these coming days, I need your help! Keep reading for more information.

As you might be aware, it is next to impossible to get curriculum published these days. The denominational publishers just aren't putting out books by unknown authors. I am no Adam Hamilton, you understand.

So I need some help.
  1. If you read this blog, appreciate its perspective, think I am funny, want to help out a guy whose spouse is about to have a baby, etc., please help me publicize this book! You can link to this blog post, or you can link directly to Amazon. You can purchase a paper copy at this link. You can also purchase a Kindle version at this link; if you have a Prime subscription, you can download it for free on your Kindle!
  2. If the church is going to continue in theological conversation,we've got to have some new voices. Blogging is great, but there is a significant segment of the church population we are missing. Since church is the proper place to do theology (this is much of the premise of my book), we need to figure out how to involve the whole church. Let's figure out how to bring some new voices back into the Sunday school classroom. If you do use this book as curriculum, let me know how it goes! We have some significant work to do if we are going to enter into an era of innovation. Let's start now.
  3. This is uncharted territory for me. Obviously having never written a book before, I'm stepping out a bit. The past month has been the most popular for the blog since I started writing in 2008. I hope you will be in conversation with me in the coming days. And I hope you will help a brother out by spreading the word! I'm really proud of this book and the perspective it represents. The disciples had to figure out how to the becoming the church in the days after Christ. We have not got it figured out yet! Let's keep going.
In all of this, I'm thankful for the community I've experienced here! Your emails and comments have tempered me, challenged me, and helped me sharpen my own perspective. You are some great, faithful folks. I would appreciate your help.

With thanks,
Dalton

---

An excerpt from Becoming the Church: Lessons for Today's Disciples:
As we look the Bible to teach us how to live, let me share two pieces of good news. The first piece of good news is that we do not have to figure out how to be Christian by ourselves. In fact, one of the core messages of the Bible is that you cannot just pick up a Bible and go live as a Christian by yourself. The founder of my religious tribe, John Wesley, is quoted as saying that “’Holy solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the Gospel than holy adulterers.” We are made for one another, and when we ignore the fact that we must do this work together, we are ignoring much of the Bible. If the Bible belongs to anybody, it belongs to the whole church, and we are called to figure this all out together.

The second piece of good news is that we are not the first ones to try and figure out how to live as Christians without Jesus available for questions and answers. The Book of Acts tells the story of the first disciples, as they struggled to figure out how to use the broken shards of their community after the Resurrection of Christ in order to fashion a new way of living. They had to become the church.

You and I continue this work of becoming the church today. In many ways, we are like the first disciples, stepping out into a strange land with a strange message about a strange savior. The Book of Acts is an excellent guide as we step out in the same faith as did the early disciples.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The New Evangelicals

I am convinced that in order for the church to survive the culture wars, those of us of a more moderate bent must become the new evangelicals.

I do not mean to suggest that the moderate church should capitulate to those regressive elements of the church who refuse to acknowledge the work of the Holy Spirit. Nor do I mean to suggest that the moderate church should give up its quest for a faith that balances acts of piety with acts of mercy, individual salvation with the social Gospel, faith and science. In fact, perhaps Scott Jones' term, the "extreme center" is a better term, for there is nothing moderate about the fight for equality in God's church; there is nothing moderate about working for a better future in God's world.

Those of us who find ourselves at this extreme center must become the new evangelicals, for if we do not leave our pews in order to bring in people who are predisposed to this way of living, the church is in trouble. The church will become more and more irrelevant, more and more run by an inward-looking fringe, and the good news that comes from Jesus Christ will turn into something it is not: something about me, and my heart, and my relationship, and my needs. We are already seeing corners of the church that have contracted a sort of spiritual nearsightedness, an inability to see beyond themselves, or out the front door of the sanctuary.

If we are to survive, and if we are to do justice to God's call on our lives, we must be honest about things. The church is at a critical point. I reject the constant refrain proclaiming the church's imminent death, and I find language of crisis unhelpful, for it often exists to crowd out other opinions.

But.

God's church is at a tipping point, and you need only look at age demographics to see that there be dragons ahead. The church is going to change, whether I prefer it or not, and we may use this opportunity to consolidate power, deepen our control over church structures, gaze deep into the ecclesial navel and hope that a savior jumps out of it.

Or.

We may use the opportunity to be faithful, to spread the good news of the saving grace of Jesus Christ, not in terms of who gets in and who does not, but in terms of Christ's promise of rich eternal life, a life which acknowledges that praising God and serving others are not distinct categories (except , perhaps, on conference reports), but rather two sides of the same coin. We could take this opportunity to share the salvation that Christ has shared with us, reaching whole new generations who have been turned off by the church. Let me offer two reasons for the urgency of this call.

First, if we are people who believe in the power of the love of God, we have an obligation to share that love with others. The Great Commission, after all, is not simply a command we are given in the interest of Christianity's self-preservation. The Great Commission is a call to share that which we already know, for Christ's redeeming love is for everyone, and it opens us to new, deeper possibilities of what it means to be human. Too often, the more moderate among us have been scarred by the word "evangelism," so we throw it away without much of a thought, content to live and let live.

I get it. I have scars. Many of us do. But I also have hope in Christ and hope in the church, for it was Christ and the church that saved me from myself. While I was content to wallow in my own baggage and pain, the church said said, "You are not alone. There is a better way."

So here I am, having received the good news. And let us be clear that when we talk about "good news," we are not simply talking about going to Heaven. That is a pretty myopic view of eternal life. The good news is that we are loved and accepted by the God who saves us from ourselves and gives us eternal life.

This eternal life does not begin upon death. It has already begun. We are called to live differently, for we have new life. This is the good news.

Keeping this good news to ourselves does not do justice to God's love, however, and neither does it do justice to our experience. We have been given a gift, a particular way of living. I am sensitive to the offensive ways people have been abused under the banner of "evangelism," and I am certainly not advocating that sort of conversation. There is no need to badger people, or to scare them with threats of Hell (which by their nature do not do justice to Christ's love, nor the wideness of God's mercy).

We must be sensitive to other belief systems and ways of living. But if we are unwilling to share the good news, this gift of love, how do you think we look to those standing outside the church, the ones we are so scared of offending? How does it look to those outside the church doors when we attempt to hoard this love for ourselves? How seriously does it look like we take our faith?

It is these people standing outside the church to which I want to turn next, for it is the particularity of much of this population that helps me to realize the urgency of this work.

The Barna Group, a research organization specializing in church concerns, released a study last year that look at the reasons young Christians leave the church. The group found six reasons, all of which speak to the theological navel-gazing to which the church is especially prone:
  • Churches do not engage culture outside the church doors
  • Churches do not seriously engage difficult issues
  • Churches ignore science
  • Churches deal too simplistically with the issue of human sexuality
  • Churches are too exclusive
  • Churches are unfriendly to those who doubt
Are you sensing a theme? The church is too inwardly focused for many young Christians, so they leave. They do not leave to find another church. They leave.

If the point is not clear enough, let me just make one more observation. The young people who shared these observations are not those on the margins of society, those who have never been exposed to church. The people we are talking about here are Christians, people who have grown up in the church!

The data for the overall population of young people is even worse. Three percent--three percent!--of young adults ages 16-29 have a favorable view of evangelicals. When asked to describe the church, respondents used words like judgmental, old-fashioned, and hypocritical more frequently than any other. And when asked about the church's stance on sexuality, a staggering 91% of non-Christians described the church as fundamentally "anti-homosexual."

Folks, the church is not supposed to be anti-anybody. We are supposed to be pro-God and pro-people, and if we don't know such a thing at a fundamental level, we've got bigger problems than our reputation.

Much of this reputation is unwarranted, of course: the sins of the fathers whose consequences we must bear. And while the reputation is, perhaps, unfair, it is also reality, and we ignore reality at our own peril. Too frequently, we wallow in our frustration at the nearsighted church, and blame others for the predicimant in which we found ourselves.

There is a better way.

Too often, I have seen those who place a heavy emphasis on evangelism seek out only a certain kind of person. But the good news of God's love is for everyone, and if we want the church to be a more faithful picture of God's gracious love, we cannot simply reform from within. We have got to get out of the church and evangelize.

The people we are missing are the people we need, for there are many outside the church who hunger for justice, who are fueled by service, who believe that science ought to be taken seriously. There are many who, in the final analysis, are like the "extreme center" we talk about in church, but who have not been given the opportunity to see that the church--at least in some expressions--is neither old-fashioned nor judgmental.

We need these people. We need them. And let's be clear about this: if we leave them alone, they will get along just fine. They won't have received the good news of Jesus Christ--and it is indeed powerful good news--but they've gone along just fine without it. They may not know what they are missing, but they will survive.

We may not.

Perhaps you might say, "This whole scheme is just about making the church more liberal/pro-gay/compromising. He wants to bring in people who think just like he does." I am sensitive to this criticism, but it misses the forest for the trees. Because the church's reputation for hypocrisy and judgmental attitude turns off so many, people who are fundamentally predisposed against this kind of behavior have left the church in droves. But only two or three generations ago, this discussion would not be necessary, as many of these people were already in the church! We would be having conversations about how to live into the future, but the conversation could happen within the church because forward-thinking folk were already there. It is the attitude of judgment, so foreign to the Gospel, that has turned off millions. I do not simply want to bring in people predisposed to moderate, socially conscious theology; I want to bring these people back.

Without more open-minded, moderate folk, without younger folk, the church will not change. And, in the not-so-distant future, as we do survey after survey to figure out just what went wrong, more and more people will talk about how judgmental the church is, how insular. And those of us in the church will say, "Yes, but we are so faithful."

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