Obey! (Or something like that)

The problem with having so many projects “on the desk” is that things start to overlap. The ideas emerging from one thing frequently merge into the notes for another. Thankfully, even my dissertation intersects with some of my “work” work, especially around the questions of practices and formation.

This last year we have developed a series of resources that describe the ordinances of the Church of the Brethren— Baptism, Love Feast, and Anointing. Speaking humbly, they turned out great. In doing the background work for those cards I spent a lot of time thinking and reading about ordinances as a concept. For many traditions within the Radical Reformation, the idea of sacraments we handily rejected. It was simply too magical and too clerical. But they were struck with the clear commands of the scriptures to “do” certain things. And for many of these folks, who took the idea of “scripture alone” to its logical and radical conclusion, when scripture said to do something it must mean we are to do it. So the idea of an ordinance is that these things we do— baptize, wash feet, share the bread and cup, and anoint with oil— are simply matters we are to obey. Jesus and the scriptures commanded them, so we do them out of our obedience to Christ. They were ordained (hence ordinance) as set apart practices for the church. No magic, no complicated theological interpretations, we just do what we are told.

The idea of obedience is certainly not fashionable today. In some ways, “obey” is a new dirty, four letter word. We like freedom. We crave the idea that we can do what we wish, buy what we want, and vote for our guy. Freedom of choice is the mantra for 21st century America. It is the most supreme of values. So to try to talk of Christian practices as acts of obedience is a nonstarter. If there is anything our culture tells us to obey, it is our inner wishes and desires. True freedom, we are told, is a matter of following our own inner longings.

So, then, what about desire? For good church folk, the word desire is just as taboo as obedience is in the wider culture. Its too messy, sounds too sexually charged. And we all know that decent folks don’t talk about those things. Yet, as James K.A. Smith says over and over again in his book “Desiring the Kingdom,” desire is fundamental to our humanity. We desire things and people. We desire recognition. We long to be accepted. All of these point to the deepest longings of our hearts. And, as Smith says just as frequently, there are forces at work on our desiring. We are formed to want certain things and certain ends. We may not talk about those things as our desire, but we want them nonetheless. The forces at work on us come through the various things we do and see. So commercials and the euphoria of buying work on us, below our conscious awareness, to want the very things we want. These practices point our desiring energy in certain directions. So like it or not, we desire. And like it or not, someone or something is telling us what we should want.

My daughter is in that fantastic age where she wants to be her own person but still wants to please mommy and daddy. So she will venture out on her own, try out something new, and even push the boundaries a bit here and there. But when she does something we don’t like, and we tell her, you can see that she is crushed. The bottom lip pushes out, the head turns down, and little tears start to collect on her eyelashes. When she is clearly tired, or is disconcerted by a new situation she says, with the most soft of voices, “Daddy I want you.” It is as if she gets that weird intersection of desire and obedience that we adults try so hard to pull apart. At her tender age of three, she wants us as parents so much that she wants to do what we want her to do, even while she tests the boundaries of her own identity and explores her own options.

It seems to me that Thomas Merton described just that intersection in his memorable prayer from “Thoughts on Solitude.” His words have stayed with me ever since first reading it: “the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.” Right there, in the meeting place of God’s will and our desire, is the intersection summed up in idea of ordinances.

We do these things, not out of coerced obedience but out of longing desire. That is the tough-to-grasp nature of our freedom in God that Merton frequently tried to describe. We are most free when we are living within the will of God. For those around us, the idea that freedom and bounds, choice and direction seem contradictory. But in Merton’s prayer we see the beautiful paradox of our “desire to please” and the desires God has for us. The irony here is that Christianity is at least up front about this meeting place of desire and an another’s will. We, as disciples, are in the process of conforming our desires to the will of God.

The advertises, marketers, and the corporations they represent try to buy this intersection. They mask the work they do on our hearts under the guise of “choice.” No commercial is designed to get us to exercise freedom of choice, but to get us to choose this particular thing. There are always people around us telling us what we should want. They conform our desires to the will of an unknown other.

Centuries ago, the philosopher Plato described the human soul as a chariot pulled by two horses. The first, he said, was the desiring horse that pulls us towards certain things. The second was just the opposite. That horse directs us by pushing away other things. In that combined movement of reaching out and pushing away the human soul moves towards an end. In different terms, in our desire for one thing we are simultaneously rejecting others. There is a boundedness to that movement. Our reasoning ability, said Plato, holds the reigns of these two powerful animals. We guide the two— the desiring and the rejecting— between the unlimited consumption through desire on one side and the rejection of everything on the other. Contrary to the proponents of free choice, where every option is on the table and good, reason steers us between the options in the quest to reach what is truly good and beautiful.

And this is just what Merton and my three year old daughter teach us. We desire to obey. We long for what others desire for us. That is the paradox of an ordinance.

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To Kenosis or Not to Kenosis

In a previous post I asked if Neo-Anabaptism is a ‘White Dude’ movement. The issue is that as Christendom crumbles, we who self-identify as either Missional or Neo-Anabaptist trumpet the need for a letting go of power, a kind of kenosis of the church. The hymnic imagery of Philippians 2 often stands as the central scripture for such a perspective. For, just as Jesus ‘emptied himself,’ we too ought to let go of power and privilege.

In the best light, this approach is a critique aimed at the American church as is slips from the center of society to its margins. In a way, we are offering a bit of solace as Christians lose the influence we once had politically and culturally. Such a ‘self-emptying’ is an opportunity for more faithful discipleship.

In more problematic ways, however, such an invitation can be heard as a proscription telling others that they are to let go of too much. As I said in that earlier post, it should give us pause to think that just as persons on the margins of society are gaining influence and power the white guys are saying that power and influence are not that important any more. In a weird kind of role reversal, those who were in positions of power and privilege are once again telling women and marginalized men to become more like white men. We have come so far, yet have not changed at all.

This shouldn’t suprise us too much. Theologians have been warning us for some time that a theology of Kenosis– or self-emptying– can often be used oppresively. Or, as theologian David Jensen of Austin Presbyterian Seminary noted in his book ‘In the Company of Others, “the theme of self-emptying has been used in our patriarchal context as fodder for the obliteration of the selfhood of women and marginalized men.’ (19) He went on to say that ‘unless images of suffering, self-sacrifice, and emptying are accompanied by the denunciation of injustice, the image of emptying becomes simply a coping mechanism in contexts of oppression and not a prophetic critique of existing oppressions.’ (20) Instead, Jensen offered, a just use of Kenosis involves relationality and otherness, and a ‘wider, social understanding of the human being, the world, and God.’ (20)

My goal isn’t to restate Jensen’s argument. Instead, I want to build on my earlier observation that Neo-Anabaptists must explore more intently issues and theologies of power. In our current use of Kenosis, we must be aware of both its implications and its critiques. Certainly, in Paul’s language in Philippians the idea of self-emptying is a descriptor of God’s own movement. It is then in light of God’s own action that we are to respond with the same movement to others. In a way, God’s self-emptying in Christ is a movement that empowers humanity to live abundantly. It is a giving that empowers. Our own kenosis is to mirror that same empowerment.

Kenotic theologies more justly argued in the way Jensen illustrated also push us to acknowlede ‘otherness’ more fully. In that way, I wonder if a more contemporary rendering of ‘Kenosis’ might not de-emphasize the dynamics of power and powerlessness. Rather, Kenosis more aptly points us to a vulnerable crossing of boundaries. In that frame, kenosis is a matter of setting aside our ego in such a way that we can more fully engage the humanity of ourselves and others. In traditional language, we often assume that power means ‘power over others.’ When viewed in this way, power is a wedge between one person and another. Yet, when we look to the example of Jesus, the aim was not letting go so much as it was a way of reaching out. God crossed the boundary between Creator and created so that all of creation might flourish.

The typical move among Post-liberal thinkers and some Neo-Anabaptists is to redefine the terms that cause the most trouble. As I stated in the earlier post, we need to expand our definition of power. Yet, at the same time, we need to reorient our other terms so that they no longer carry the oppressive weight of keeping things as they were. Kenosis is just one such term. When we view it as a bridge building act that sets aside ego, things like stepping aside so that others might speak become not only possible but normative. In other words, creating a multi-voiced church, or a rich hermeneutical community, is made possible by actual acts of letting go. At the same time, the cultural power and privilege that persons do have by nature of their class, gender, and race can be seen not so much as hurdles but as opportunities to open spaces for others who have been culturally marginalized.

In other words, Kenosis as “acts of vulnerable boundary crossing” is a way of reclaiming the humanity of all in the midst of a culture and way of life that diminishes some for the benefit of others. It becomes a practice that raises all rather than an coping ideology that maintains systems of oppression.

For me, the greatest kenotic practice is that of washing feet. On the first Maundy Thursday of Pope Francis’ pontificate the media was astonished that he entered a prison in order to wash the feet of 12 inmates. For those used to seeing the pope guarded by cardinals, and elevated above the crowd in so many ways, it was a profound reclamation of Jesus’ own washing of the disciples feet. For those of us in traditions where feet washing is a regular practice, it was not all that shocking. Time and again we have had our feet washed, and have stooped to wash the feet of another. In that mutual act of vulnerable boundary crossing, we have found profound aspects of ourselves and our sisters and brothers. It is that mutuality of serving and being served that the greatest meaning of kenosis is lived out. No one is left washing the feet of all as a servant of the house would have done in Jesus’ day. And at the same time, we each receive the grace of the priestly act of another.  What is more, there is no coercion in the act. In both washing and being washed, we each act freely. No one is forced to kneel, forced to perform the ordinance by an oppressor. And at the same time, the one being washed offers bare feet in a act of intimate vulnerability. In that moment, the boundaries are crossed. And in that shared kenosis, both are raised up. Both grant each other grace in their shared humanity.

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The Powers and the Power of Love

Those communities who follow the Revised Common Lectionary have been sprinting through the Sermon on the Mount these few weeks. This past Sunday the reading was challenging in its talk of turning the other cheek, giving of a coat and cloak, walking the extra mile, and loving enemies (Matthew 5:38-48). In American society where retribution, possession, and fear define so much of our imagination, these words of Jesus are a hard pill. 

In social justice communities there is a deep skepticism about these words from Matthew 6. In the hands of the privileged and powerful these few verses are a violent tool. They tell those on the margins to take one more slap, give up one more possession, and sit quietly by. Since Jesus tells us to take it, then surely this means you (women, minorities, LGBT persons, and the poor).

Of course this is to ignore the context of the sermon itself— both in the days of Jesus’ preaching and for the early church. The listeners and readers were not part of the ruling majority and to impose these words from above is a crass misreading. That is what author and theologian Walter Wink was trying to say by recasting these injunctions from the margins. The argument is rather simple. In Roman times, to slap someone with the back of the right hand on the right cheek was to dehumanize them. By offering the other side of the face, the one slapped was quietly subverting the norms by forcing the assailant to slap open handed. In effect, the tactic allowed the victim to reclaim some piece of humanity. That logic, said Wink, applied to the rest of the commandments. To be sued for a coat and to offer the cloak as well was to shame the litigant by the nakedness of the one who gave up both freely. And to carry the armor of a soldier two miles was to break the law that said a soldier could only force someone to walk a single mile. 

This Wink-ified version of the scriptures is to take them out of the hands of the oppressor and remind us of the possibilities of nonviolent resistance. They warn us against making them a prescription for others and ignoring them for ourselves. In reading them in such a way, we see just how effective nonviolent resistance can be, even in a time and place where super militaries define the ways we imagine change. Even more to the point, this reading reminds us just how practical the actions of Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi actually were. 

However, there is a second— and even more difficult to swallow— commandment in Jesus’ words. Not only are we to tactically reclaim our humanity in the face of powerful oppression, we are to act out of love itself. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:43-45)

This is so difficult because we are told to see the oppressor as human. While we are trying to reclaim our own humanity in the face of violence, theft, and oppression, we are told to respond with love rather than reciprocal hate. It is all too easy to resist with tactical actions and yet hold hate within. The difficult work of the Sermon on the Mount asks us to work just as hard internally as we do in our actions of mercy and justice. It is not enough, Jesus says, to reclaim our humanity by turning the other cheek. We are to reclaim the humanity of the ones doing violence by loving and praying for them.

In the partisan, sound-bite age it is common to vilify and dehumanize the other. They are idiots, backwards, naive, or worse. They are less human because of their unnoticed power and privilege, or due to their overt violence against others. We are formed to denigrate whoever is unlike us.

Changing the power relations between people seems a whole lot easier than changing the ways we see others. Turning the other cheek is easier than actually loving the one who strikes us. Jesus then challenges our presuppositions about nonviolence. In fact, he intensifies it. He asks us to reclaim the humanity of both the oppressor and the oppressed. He takes resistance out of the realm of social changes and makes it decidedly personal. 

That is the reverse logic of the Sermon on the Mount. By confronting the legalisms of his day, both religious and cultural, Jesus defied the line between personal and public. He united the outer and the inner in such a way that the disciple could not easily live only in piety or justice. To confront the oppressor was to confront the inner oppressor, making sure that both persons reclaimed the humanity of the other. That is the insanity of love. It cannot leave either party the same. Both are changed in the act of love. 

Nonviolent resistance was, then, not a just a political tactic for Jesus. Rather, confronting the powers was also a confrontation of the ways the powers shape us to do a different kind of violence to others. That is why Christian discipleship is not just a strategy for making more justice in this world. It is a way of life that never leaves us on the moral high ground, but constantly asks us to work on ourselves just as much as we work on our culture. No one is let off the hook in the power of love.

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Is Neo-Anabaptism a White Dude Movement?

I have a number of projects under way working with the surge in Neo-Anabaptism, especially in the US context. In one case, I was preparing a brief bibliography of blogs and books to share with a small Sunday school group. As I pulled together my notes and blog roll, I noticed quickly one striking similarity that had nothing to do with the content or perspectives of the writers. Rather, it was obvious that everyone on the list was a white guy. Now, if I had been a little shameless and shared the work of the NuDunkers, I could poiint to two excellent Brethren women writing in the blog world, but I stuck to those writers not directly connected to the Church of the Brethren. Nonetheless, I was dumb struck with just how white and male the grouping was= Scot McKnight, David Fitch, Stanley Hauerwas, John Howard Yoder, Greg Boyd, and Stuart Murray to name just a few. 

My friend, and frequent commenter here, Scott Holland often asks if we NuDunkers are aware of the Post-Colonial critiques. In short, yes I am. Now face to face with the bibliography, thinking about the white dudeness of Neo-Anabaptism I can not help but think about the dynamics of power and privilege that run just beneath the surface of gender and race. Is it possible that the stance of post-liberal Anabaptism speaks most clearly to white men as we slip from the central circles of power? Can a Neo-Anabaptist talk with a leg to stand on to women or minorities and say that the best place to be is a kenotic, prodigal, and powerless one. 

While at Candler, I had the opportunity to study with a great feminist practical theologian. I remember one day, in a conversation about power and humility, my professor commented on the trend of men scholars to not make much of their title as Doctor. “Is it any wonder,” she said, “that as more women are achieving the status so long held by men that the men are trying to be informal and go by their first names?” 

I cannot help but wonder if this critique applies to those of us who claim the name Neo-Anabaptist. Is it just too convenient that as women and minorities are claiming a rightful place of power and influence in the public square that men are now saying that ‘letting go of power’ is necessary for appropriate theology? I remain convinced, however, that such a posture is necessary. But is it a posture that speaks with any validity to only white dudes? 

I recognize that I say that as a white male. I do think that part of my vocation is to step aside so that others may speak. At the same time, I take very seriously the need to call up, support, and even empower women and others to speak with authority. 

So what, then, should be done? 

Though the continual critique of Christendom’s wedding of faith and power politics is still an important voice for the American church, I think the conversation should soon shift to nuancing the conversations of power so prevalent today. Certainly, there is a kind of transforming power– both through the work of the Holy Spirit and in the formative practices of the church– that Neo-Anabaptism embraces. So to say that Christianity should embrace a kind of self-emptying posture in regards to its slipping cultural hegemony is not meant to diminish this kind of “power as self-transformation.” 

Here, I think Neo-Anabaptism, at least the streams of MacIntyrian virtue formation, needs to rise again to the surface. Though Hauerwas’ wedding of Yoder and MacInyre is well known, we would do well shift the balance of emphasis away from Yoder to consider how we are shaped and formed by the Spirited power of spiritual disciplines. For we are certainly not talking about self-emptying as a kind of self-deprication, but a desire to embody the virtues of Christ– virtues that empowered all those who witnessed Jesus’ transparency to God.

Neo-Anabaptism might also do well to turn to the works of Foucault, especially his later work on care and hermeneutics of the self. My own academic work in early Christian asceticism has already made this shift. By exploring the nuances of power as not just power over others, but as power in the hands of the self to be shaped towards a valued end, ascetic theory has confronted the tired mantra that askesis was simply a form of oppressive mysogyny and hatred of the human body. 

Though Evangelcialism and historic Anabaptism retain Luther’s old distaste for ascetcism, there is still a clear sense that discipleship entails a change in the ways we live in the world which parallel the early monk’s desire to be transformed into the likeness of Christ. Basically, holiness is a value shared by the 5th century monks, and modern radical Christians. 

Wrestling with the monochrome nature of contemporary Anabaptism is a necessary one. The resources are there, both within the current writings and in the critiques to shift the conversation to consider the kinds of power still implied in the welcoming of waning privilege. At the same time, I do think that the streams of Post-Liberalism within the Neo-Anabaptist movement have the ability to reveal just how colonial some Post-Colonial theorists truly are. For there is still a sense that though these writers (many of whom are equally white and male) speak from the margins so as to colonize and totalize those whom they criticize. In other words, Neo-Anabaptism can pull back the veil to reveal just how much power over others is still part of the project itself. 

So is Neo-Anabaptism a movement for White Dudes? Short answer, yes. But not by its very nature. The resources are there to expand the conversation, to empower others to give voice and bredth to the movement itself. 

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Confessions of a Recovering Progressive

Our Sunday school class just wrapped up a great series. We have asked several persons to share how their mind has or has not changed in the course of their life. When you think about it for a second, it is a huge question! We often think of certainty and belief as something we hold onto. Any change of perspective or understanding is somehow a sign of weakness, or even worse “flip=flopping.” Thanks to the American political culture the idea that we can change or come to a different understanding is now anathema. 

After our first set of conversations I started to wonder how I would answer the question. There are a couple of things that came to mind— how I turned to look at the early church in my studies; how I came to see universalism as a problem and not an opportunity. Those topics, of course, would be enough to comprise a blog post or more (and likely light few fires along the way). 

There has been, however, a general trend in my thinking that encompasses those particular topics. In the fancy fashion of catchy titles, I’ll simply say that “how I changed my mind” can be summed up this way- Confessions of a Recovering Progressive.

Growing up I wouldn’t say I lived in either a conservative or progressive part of the country. However, the general influence of American Evangelicalism was quite pronounced. I was an early participant in after school Bible studies, and even went to See You at the Pole events. At the same time I agued for Christian non-violence and pacifism in the days of the first Gulf War. By high school I came to define myself as socially liberal and biblically conservative- not really knowing the baggage of either term. 

In my senior year I chose to attend a generally progressive college. My friends who knew of Manchester, and heartedly disagreed with what they knew about the school, wished me well by saying: “Don’t let them change you.” Knowing these persons well, I understood this as a fond farewell. But I am sure there are others who hear it as a bit derogatory. In fact, my declaration of a major— Peace Studies— probably did create some concern.

At college, my sense of not fitting the mold continued. I eventually dropped my pursuit of Peace Studies for a variety of reasons, the foremost of which was that I felt my emphasis on religion as the basis for peace making was on the fringe of my fellow students. That isn’t to say that the Manchester Peace Studies lacked a religious foundation, but rather my peers held a typically modern perspective that religious conviction is at the root of most violence. 

Nonetheless, over time I found myself self-identifying as a progressive Christian. I even bought a book or two by John Spong. I was simply running in the crowds that valued a clear sense of being progressive and I had cut my theological chops among them. By the time I entered PhD work, I had even made my position clear as so many did in the early 2000’s— on Facebook. I listed my “Political Views” as progressive. 

Along the way though, I have never really felt too at home in that circle of liberalism. I have often felt at odds with the general assumptions about Modern Liberalism. Here I should say that Liberalism is the dominant perspective of America. The assumptions and ideologies of Liberalism frame our cultural and religious debates from religion and science, politics and faith, to economics and social good. It is the genus for the two political species we call “progressive” and “conservative.” In essence these two camps are arguing with each other as to the best understanding of the liberal perspectives ushered in by the politics and philosophy of modernity (Kant and Descartes, just to name two). Basically, progressives and conservatives are arguing about how to be the best Liberals.

At one point this finally came to a head as I argued with a fellow Brethren theologian about the ways the liberal dichotomy of progressive and conservative impact the debates of the day. He quickly commented that even as I say these things my Facebook profile labeled me within that liberal construct. The chipping away of my progressive credentials had begun, and I deleted my own label. 

Certainly, as many of my blog posts attest, I am not all that liberal. I have found Post-Liberalism to reflect more of where I stand, especially in my critiques of modern assumptions and the false dichotomy of progressive and conservative. In 2012 I posted a piece on the surge of interest in Neo-Anabaptism. There I tried to say that those of us within historic Anbapatist circles that find the emerging camps of Neo’s helpful and interesting are drawn to the Post-Liberal perspectives of thinkers such as Stanley Hauerwas. In a way, I was making my position much more clear, stating plainly that my constant fringe feeling within liberal circles, even before I knew the word Post-Liberal, was indicative of not having the right category. 

So thanks to my friend and fellow NuDunker Andy, I picked up Nancey Murphy’s book on liberalism and fundamentalism. There I found the exact sentiment I had been experiencing all my life, and had tried to encapsulate by saying I was socially progressive and biblically conservative. In her opening argument Murphy sums it up this way (in paraphrase): To the liberal we sound like fideists, and to the conservatives we sound like relativists. And there it was! I finally saw in print the exact feeling I had in high school and college. Progressivism simply did not have space for the deep sense of faith and tradition I often argue for in my theology. At the same time, conservatism simply did not have room for the pastoral and contextual perspective I often bring to ideological debates. 

So despite my strong critiques of capitalism, the death penalty, and the American warring culture, I am just not a progressive. At the same time, I am not do not think that returning to anything actually is possible or helpful (there are things like patriarchy that I simply do not want to recover). 

Of course, there is a lot more to say about changing my mind. There are a lot of tapes that run in our heads, especially in our political climate where liberalism in both forms defines so much of our language and perspectives. Pressing pause on those tapes, or even playing them backwards, takes time and energy. To do so, is often the source of some personal frustration and draws side glances or outright conflict from others. Yet, I have to say I am a recovering progressive in search of better words, more options, and less antagonism in the ways we understand our world and our discipleship. For now, it is enough to just say I am more at home among those for whom faithfulness is our social capital and not progress, where the politics of the world are but shadow games in light of the Politics of Jesus, and where economic presuppositions are based in mutuality and sharing rather than accumulation of wealth as a sign of success and blessing. 

And in the end, I remain a recovering progressive. 

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Looking Ahead

The number of year in review blogs has been a little overwhelming. So I was thankful for fellow NuDunker Matt McKimmy’s recent post. Though he summarized 2013, he included what he was hoping for in the year to come. So I started thinking about what is ahead for the Brockway family in 2014.

Our events begin just a few days from now. On January 15 I will undergo a corneal transplant. The surgery is outpatient, but I will be under general anesthetic for about an hour to ninety minutes. Add to that the thought of a donor cornea, and the idea of someone cutting on my eye, and I am a little anxious. But in the long run, this is an important step for the year. I have a condition called Keratoconus, a thinning of the cornea that basically makes my left eye useless. I have been writing a dissertation with one eye and a constant headache. To make this next year what we hope it will be, the surgery is the best step forward. To make it more fun, I found a skull and bones eye patch for the recovery!

In May, we will welcome our fourth child. The news came around the celebration of our youngest’s first birthday. Though we were a bit surprised, we are looking forward to welcoming another member to our Brockway Brood! Of all the things to look forward to in the coming year, a new child certainly tops the list! Now, we just have to start the process of choosing a name.

The rest of year will be pretty active. In terms of work, I will travel to Columbus Ohio for our Annual Conference where three years of work on Congregational Ethics will be presented to the church for a vote. I will also travel to the beauty of the Idaho mountains to lead bible studies and campfires for a great group of Church of the Brethren folks. (Yes, this is my job!) And later in the summer I will join thousands of CoB youth at our National Youth Conference. We prepare for four years for this conference, and I am confident this year’s conference will be great!

Among all of these great events, I plan to complete my dissertation by the end of the year. Not only have I been talking about a PhD since graduating from undergrad, I have been talking about 2014 as the final year. But there is something to be said for having three chapters on the computer that makes that end goal so much more real. When we made the move to Elgin, I was still looking at a language exam and comprehensive exams, so to say that I plan to defend sometime in the next 12 months is a bit surreal. Though I still have one chapter’s worth of writing, and the tedious editing and revisions ahead, I am looking forward to seeing this project come together. And hey, this is why it is a PhD. It is just better to think of the months’ long journey and overlook the hours at my desk that lay ahead!

2014 certainly has a lot in store for us! I am looking forward finding out what else it has in store. It will be a year to remember!

A Prayer for the Year to Come

Gracious God, you have brought us safe to this new day. With the grace of the year behind us, we give thanks for the beauty of the year to come.May we not squander the gifts of this new day and may we always give thanks for the many blessings that come our way. Grant us the perseverance to strive for the goals ahead and the peace to rest our bodies along this way of following Jesus. May this year to come bring peace and may we, as your disciples, witness to that same peace each day. In the name of the one who came to grant us new life, Jesus our Lord, Amen.

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Change without a Change

It was a question I was wondering myself, but one that I had set aside as “theologically inappropriate.” Gathered around the dinner table the other day following my ordination in the Church of the Brethren, a friend asked quite plain;y: “What’s changed?”

As I said, theologically for the Brethren nothing changes at the moment of ordination- at least not anything that hadn’t already changed at baptism (and strictly speaking, nothing changes there either). We are a priesthood of all believers tradition. So technically, one enters ministry when he or she exits the waters of baptism. So, really, on the theological side, nothing changed.

And yet, a lot did change. As a church bureaucrat I can list all the things I now must do in order to maintain my ordination. And, for that matter, i now don’t need to fill out yearly paper work as I did as a licensed minister.

At the same time, the work I was already doing continues. The to-do list on my desk is the same as it was on Friday when I finally went home. There are no new events on my calendar. And the dissertation was not some how completed when I came in to the office.

I am just sacramental enough though to say that everything has changed. In the public recognition, both on my part and on the part of my faith community, I am not just Josh but am now a set-apart minister. In that public statement of vows, of reaffirming my baptismal covenant, and hearing the confirming assent of my congregation a lot does change. Even as I knelt among friends, family, colleagues, and sisters and brothers in faith, as they laid their hands on my head and shoulders, and as I held my youngest son in the midst of them, there was a change.

Certainly it was a change long in coming. It was not as though a switch was thrown the moment I stood up. Rather, in the 14 years of my discernment, ministry, and training I have lived into a different sense of myself. I am sure there are some who knew me at various points in my life who would be a little perplexed by the way my life has shaped up. Yet, over these years I have consciously put myself in places so that I could grow into a minister, and a particular kind of minister at that.

Ironically, there is a sense in which the change marked by the our ordination vows and prayers was not completed. I may not have annual reviews but I do sense that my vocation will have a different look and feel in a few years. As so many have said, this is a journey. Ordination may have been a high point along way, but it is nonetheless “on the way.”

So what changed? Everything and nothing, all at the same time. Thinking about that answer, I was drawn back into our NuDunker conversation about church planting. Ryan, a plater in Pennsylvania, said something to the effect “I love church planting and I hate.” In other words, no matter what changes, how the work goes, I cannot see my self doing anything else.

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NuChurches- Exponential Vitality

This post is part of the next NuDunkers conversation. This time we will discuss church planting. Several NuDunkers are in the early stages of planting churches so we thought exploring the practical and theological questions about the practice would be a great conversation. We will be joined in the video hangout this Friday at 10AM Eastern by Jonathan Shively, Executive Director for Congregational Life Ministries of the Church of the Brethren (and my boss!). To join the discussion, click over to the Google Event page, check out the blogs posted there, and comment to your heart’s content!

I am not a church planter. So I write more as an observer of and companion to those whose calling is to create communities of disciples.

I remember when the idea of church planting first came to my attention. My first reaction was similar to many I hear today in denominational circles. “Why plant new churches when we have so many dwindling communities already?” Now, many years later the answer to that question is a whole lot clearer. Church planting is not a zero sum game. Like one network of church planters says in their name, the growth is exponential.

Now as a parent, I understand just how this works. I am an only child. So when my wife and I talked of kids I could barely fathom being the father of one, let alone four kids. (In case you know me, yes you heard me right- four. We are expecting another member of the Brockway Brood in May!)  In our economic mindset we tend to think of love as a limited resource. So it really takes a stretch of the imagination to realize that as each kid is born the love of a parent grows to make enough room for them all. There is always enough love for one, or four, kids.

Growing the church is much like love’s growth. The energy, vitality of our congregations grows as more join us. That is, as long as we see ourselves as expanding the work of God in the world and not as creating more family groups of like minded people.

When we think of our congregations as safe places, where batteries are recharded to make it through a horrendous work week, comprised of friends and not fellow disciples we barely attend to the fact that what God has done for us should not be held tightly, but shared. In other words, we tend to lack the conviction that our faith is so convincing that we cannot do other than share it. Yes, I am talking about the E-word. We lack the conviction that our beliefs should be shared and that others should join us in following Jesus Christ.

When we have that conviction an energy fills and attracts. First, the mission of supporting and taking part in growing ministries enlivens existing communities. It reminds us that what we first experienced in God’s love continues, and makes room for us and many others. Second, the energy and conviction of a people embraced by God’s love draws others in. In more negative terms, why would people want to be a part of a community of people who solemnly conduct the business of maintenance. In short, people are drawn to life.

At some point, we must turn from zero sum thinking- that the energy and resources invested in planting churches is taken away from our existing congregations. Rather, we would do well to think systemically- that our ability to remain vital as communities of faith is a lot like love. It grows to sustain and enliven all our communities.

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The Apophatic Rage and its Problems

It is all the rage among popular theological writers today to make the apophatic turn. Apophatic theology is basically being clear about what we do not know about God, and that our theology needs an “ unsaying” through a negating of the names we use for God. For example, we can say with confidence “God is my rock.” Apophatic theology reminds that we must also say “God is not a rock.”

In the wake of the Emergent Church movement these writers, exemplified in the work of Peter Rollins, have turned to Deconstruction in the mode of Jacques Derrida to raise up the importance of questioning often unquestioned dogma and culturally assumed ideas. Following Rollins’ book, there is a need to turn away from the idolatry of God.

What these followers of Derrida rarely acknowledge is that apophaticism, or negative theology, has historic roots in the Christian tradition itself. Basically, they say nothing new. Their method, however, barely echoes these historic roots. Instead, what Rollins and others present is a mental exercise of negating the terms within theological discourse. For the ancients, this couldn’t be further from the case. Rather, apophaticism was a formative process- an ascetic discipline.

For Pseudo-Dionysius, the early proponent of such a negative theology, there are two modes of talking about God- the naming of God or kataphatic theology, and the corresponding descent of un-naming God or apophatic theology. As Sarah Coakley argues in her recent book God, Sexuality, and the Self, the twin modes of theology were accompanied by the ascetic pursuit of contemplative prayer. In order to speak to God the theologian names God and then must negate those names in order to listen to God. This was far from a practice of theological discourse or thinking, rather it paralleled the reformation of self often called asceticism.

The work of Rollins and others falls into the modern trap of thinking the problem is with the way we think. Instead, I think the early apophatic writers were clear that we need to reform our practices and our thinking. The two are not to be separated. What is more, the apophatic turn- the negation of the names for God- was a means of clearing the ground of the mind in order to hear God in prayer. Simply put, apophaticism wasn’t a philosophical or rhetorical exercise. It was a way of life, based in waiting on God in prayer.

In our time, the seeds of the Enlightenment have taken full root. Coupled with the publishing market place for theology, we are often dealing more with the realm of ideas than we are with practices. Speak the word “theology” and we all assume we are talking about a way of thinking. Yet, as I have highlighted in other posts, these earlier writers were convinced that theology was comprised of practices and thinking. As Evagrius said, “the theologian is one who truly prays.” Theology in this frame is not about publishing books but praying to God. In fact, the very word “orthodoxy” was not about right dogma but about the right praising of God (doxa being the Greek word for praise).

Rollins and others are right in the impulse to reclaim the ancient practice of un-naming God. However, this practice is not a reclamation of Hegel’s full dialectic (thesis, antithesis, and synthesis; antithesis corresponding to the new apophaticism). Nor is it a philosophical approach to writing made popular in the works of Derrida. The ascetic and contemplative of the early proponents of negative theology reveal just how mind focused our theological discourse has become. The contemporary apophatic writers miss the need to silence the world of words that hinder our very prayers.

Of course, I am biased in this assessment. Having read Dionysius and many others it is easy to see the gaps in Rollins’ approach. That is not to dismiss the role his writing plays in popular theology, but rather to name my own hope that his work is an entrance into contemplative tradition of the church. In short, bringing apophatic theology back into common, Protestant theology is not about questioning authority, but recognizing that our prayers are both filled with words and silence in the presence of God.

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A Pacifist and A Good War Story

In full disclosure, I wrote this a few weeks ago now. It just happens that it feel to the top of the pile as the next in line to go from my notebook to the light of day on my blog. It just so happens that today is Veterans Day. So far I have found my sisters and brothers rather quiet in the interwebs about this day. It is hard to say anything meaningful about peace making on Veterans Day that does not sound trite, simplistic, or even demeaning of soldiers and veterans.

I don’t come from a long line of pacifists. In fact, three of my grandfathers have served- stateside, Korea, and Bastogne in WWII. I love these men. As one of them ages, and memory loss becomes more pronounced, talking to him of his battle experience at the Battle of Bulge is the one thing that is still vivid for him. I will sit for hours asking him questions, allowing him to touch some memory that isn’t vanishing. And I love him all the more when we are done.

So today, a day originally set aside to commemorate an armistice , I write as a pacifist who values war stories.

Not long ago a portion of my sermon on peacemaking was shared in a newsletter for the Church of the Brethren called eBrethren. I was pretty clear that non-violence is central to my theology– based in both Christology and Ecclesiology (my understanding of Jesus as the Christ and the nature of the Church).

At 18 I was forced to make my decision whether or not to sign up for selective service,  just as every guy is at that age. Actually it wasn’t much of a choice. If I wanted any chance to go to college I needed to register. And since there is no way to sign up as a Conscientious Objector, I found a little corner of my card to write it as plainly as possible.

Nevertheless, just a few months after my birthday I got the famed call from an Air Force recruiter. It was a fun conversation, mostly because I was waiting for him to “pop the question.” Actually, it never came. We were on the phone for 30 minutes talking about school and decisions. He did ask where I was planning on attending and I told him Manchester College- since I had just sent my deposit. Of course, he had no idea what he was about to step into. “Never heard of it,” he said, “what’s with choosing them.” So I told him about the Manchester’s affiliation with the Church of the Brethren. “Oh, who are they?” This was just getting better and better! “A small denomination known as one of the Historic Peace Churches.” A new silence came over the phone. “So what are you going to study.” There it was, the moment of truth: “Peace Studies.” More silence, this time colored with a bit more discomfort. “So…. I guess that means you are CO then.” “Yes it does.” And with that, and a short good-luck, the call was over. I don’t think I got another recruiter call the rest of that spring.

The odd thing is, I watch a lot of war movies. I’ve read Tim O’Brien’s excellent book “The Things they Carried” about his experiences in Vietnam and was entranced by every page. Just the other night I watched Mel Gibson’s violent, graphic, and yet poignant movie “We were Soldiers” for at least the third time. I even read the book it was based on in order to get the story as the soldiers told it. I wouldn’t say I love war stories. In fact, when the movie ends or the stories concludes, my gut turns and I sit in silence for a long while, eventually finding a simple question coming to mind- Why do we do this? When the book is closed or the screen goes black, I am even more committed to my convictions about peace.

But it is an odd combination. Not many of my peacemaker friends would say the same thing. In fact, the horrors of war are a major reason they find non-violence so appealing. I don’t think you would ever catch most of them flipping through the “Military Dramas” on Netflix.

Yet, for me, there is something about understanding that drive to combat, the unknowable sense that what binds soldiers in battle is not their ideals but the very need to survive and care for the guy beside them. As O’Brien says, there is an unspeakable beauty and attraction to the lights, sounds, and valor of the fight. I don’t find any of that to be a glorification of violence. In fact, for me, it is a reminder that war is hell- literally, a deep separation from God.

I would say my commitment to non-violence, my continued affirmation of CO on my selective service card, is not an ideological one. All the same, my understanding is clear- All war is sin. Others may say that is the exact definition of ideological pacifism.

But really, I get it. I get the drive to defend, to fight, the hope that we can change something in violent conflict. I know all too well my own ability to hate and do harm. Even as I watch my kids grow I know the greatest temptation to violence would come if anything were to happen to my kids. I know, deep down, that there is a thin red line between my commitment to non-violence and my ability to harm another if something were to happen to any of them.

I get the paradoxical beauty of fireballs and tracers, and the extraordinary heroism of soldiers doing what they can to save one another. Unlike some of my peacemaker friends, I don’t look at a soldier as a bad person, or some kind of evil in human form. I see a someone in even greater need of God’s grace, love, and healing. In fact, I see a person who needs the healing act of confession- not as a trite “thank you for your service,” or an attempt to re-live someone else’s war story, but as an act of hearing the hurt and offering the vocal affirmation of God’s already present grace.

I am a Contentious Objector. And, yes, I watch war movies. I am a realist when it comes to the violence we are capable of inflicting and I am committed to non-violence regardless of the cost. I am a pacifist that values the grim stories of war.

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