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Those Who Disciple

In one of my first classes of seminary we were given a note card and asked to put down the names of two or three people who have been key in our faith life. It wasn’t a hard task, except for narrowing it down to just a few. The top three names were people in my home congregation that had shown grace, joy, wisdom, and a deep life of faith.

One was a mentor who had taught me to put a roof on a house by giving me a summer job. Yet, it wasn’t just a job. He took the wages he earned on each roof and put it toward a scholarship fund at the church.

Another was a deacon in the congregation who showed amazing self-knowledge, and demonstrated what service meant in so many ways.

The other was a woman who noticed how restless I was one Sunday. After church she asked if I wanted to learn how to light the Christ candle. Every kid in that church went to her for a big bear hug after worship every Sunday. She included me in church, and she showed us all how to be loving and joyful in everything.

The first two men on my list passed away almost twenty years ago. And I learned today that the joyful woman, so ready to embrace everyone, passed away last night.

All the people I named in that seminary class have now passed. And it gives me pause.

Have I lived up to the gifts they gave me so long ago?

Am I passing on those gifts?

My ministry now focuses on discipleship. So I often talk about the process of following Jesus. Yet, that is really only half the equation. The Christian life, while ultimately aimed at following Jesus, involves generations of followers before us. Though I read about who Jesus was and what Jesus taught in the scriptures, it is those around me who have taught me what it actually looks like to follow the Jesus of the Bible. Put another way, being a disciple of Jesus means being discipled by someone else.

For me there a many of those disciplers I should include on my list. Some have passed, and some I see only so often. Yet, each one has in some way reflected a part of Jesus in the flesh.

In these persons I have seen Jesus’ generosity, compassion, joy, and selflessness.

In others I have come to value deep study, love of the church, the beauty of ministry, and the centrality of prayer.

Today I mourn that some of these reflections of Jesus are no longer shining among us. And I feel a the weight of knowing that those of us who have been discipled by them have a great responsibility to mirror a bit more of Jesus in their absence.

I am grateful for the gifts they have given me, for I simply would not be the disciple of Jesus I am today without them.

Godspeed Naomi Robenstine. I patiently wait the resurrection, when I will once again cherish your hug.

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Our Moral Calculus

I have been thinking a lot about privilege, race, economics, and our culture. Some of my thoughts emerge when I catch up on the news, and others come as I read the important work by others more intelligent that I.

However, the news of the recent sentencing of a young white man for the sexual assault of a young woman was the final straw. The conviction carried the minimum sentence of 2-3 years, but the judge gave him six months in the county jail. While I am sure that any time in jail is enough for any person to see the violence of their actions, in this case the rape of a woman, it is all too plain that as a young white college man he was given the benefit of the doubt. And as has been all too plain, that same benefit is not awarded women, blacks, latinos, or sexual minorities.

The struggle for equality in our time is one that in some ways builds on the advances for minorities in the last century while at the same time eclipsing those achievments. For instance, it is all too common to hear a white man say plainly “I am not racist.” Such a statement is probably true (though even saying as much is a recognition that racism is implied), but that very self-perception is based on the idea that racists are easy to identify– or that they participate in explicit and personal actions of hate based on race. Today, however, we are confronted by the myriad of ways racism, misogyny, and fear of sexual minorities is shaped in us by cultural practices that work below our subconscious.

Compare one of the young black men shot on the street by police. Their communities try to rehumanize these young men, saying just what the dad of the young white rapist did– namely that they are good kids, who made a poor decision. White pundits often discredit such stories by saying that the young men were on drugs, but in the case of the white man who was intoxicated it was just a youthful indiscretion. Just because the rapist is a white college student, he looks like he has so much potential. And even the minimum sentence took into account his lack of a criminal record, but still treated the severity of the crime. Because he was white and looked to have potential, he was granted a dramatically lenient six months.

For all of us white men, who are “not racist” or not prone to misogyny, or “not homophobic” we finally have to realize just how much leeway we are granted simply because of our skin color and gender. Not only are we innocent until proven guilty (a luxury many blacks, latinos, LGBT persons are granted in name only), but we are even given the future benefit of the doubt when we are indeed guilty.

We must come to terms, as a society, that we in fact do make a moral calculus that is based on race, gender, and sexual identity. And that calculus, as Drew Hart has named it, is a hierarchical one. White men on top, and the rest fall out somewhere below.

When we employ this calculus, we overlook that sexual predators are more likely to be white straight men preying on children in church than they are transgendered persons lurking in bathrooms. We conveniently omit the fact that the so-called black-on-black crime rates are statistically the same as white-on-white crime. And because white men have such potential in our culture, the accounts of women who have been sexually assaulted are attempts to falsely discredit men until a jury finds enough proof to the contrary. And even then, as we have seen this week, even the testimony of the victim, bravely read in court at the sentencing, is not enough to actually enforce the law.

This hierarchical moral calculus, despite our overt assertions to the contrary, instills in us a subconscious story that allows these things to continue. And while we may not be racists, we allow these cultural factors to cloud our judgment, and the same is true in regards to women and many others.

This, to me, seems the heart of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7. Many today latch onto Jesus’ words about judging others, but the remainder of the passage are striking. If we are ready to point out the sins of another, the speck of dust in their eye, we must first remove the plank in our own. For those of us who have significant cultural privilege, that plank in our eye is huge. And we have grown so accustomed to seeing the world in those terms, adjusting our perceptions to account for our skewed and fallen vision of the world, we barely notice just how privileged we are. And truthfully, it may not be out of our own doing. As the classical tradition regarding the Fall says so plainly, when humanity sinned against God it did not just affect individuals, it was cosmological. The ramifications of our separation from God are not our personal doing, but are true nonetheless. Sanctification, becoming like Jesus, is the one remedy and it takes work. And at times, like the camel passing through the eye of a needle, is a painful struggle. But just because it is painful does not mean we should cower in the face of significant transformations.

We must change.

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The Church is Dead, Long Live the Church

The church is dead. Or at least every marker we would hold up as a sign of life is in decline. Membership is down across the board, and worship attendance is but of fraction of what it once was. Budgets are in decline as congregations and denominations struggle to find ways to support their ministries and leaders.

On top of that, nearly every denomination is fighting within itself. Leaders and laity a like are asking not “if we split” but talking about “when we split.”

Of course, this is not news. Even if saying it so bluntly causes you to gasp, we have known that the church is dead for some time, and known it deep in our bones. Each year the anxiety builds towards budgeting season, and every pastoral transition brings a whole new season of “visioning.” Lay leaders are hard to come by, and those who do say “yes” seem to be the same ones year in and year out. Words like change, relevance, adaptation, and even mission fill board minutes and sermon manuscripts in nearly every congregation. When sociological research confirms again and again that the US is growing less religious each year, church leaders scramble to find new and attractive ways to stem the tides.

Denominational statistics confirm what many know from social research, namely that our members are aging. Membership numbers across the board are in decline, and have been for some time. Of course the subsequent financial decline is following. Congregations are often faced with mounting costs— property, utilities, and staff salaries—and must choose between keeping the lights on or keeping the pastor at full time or continuing important ministries and allocations. Institutional systems constructed with financial windfalls fueled by the baby boom and peak numbers of church attendance now find themselves struggling to maintain staff, program, and property. In the last decade nearly every mainline denomination has undergone significant restructuring in order to responsibly meet the new financial realities.

All the while church leaders, both evangelical and mainline, seem flustered by the emerging realities, especially the growing marginalization of the church in general. The new normal is a constant state of anxious panic.

In cultures governed by monarchies every change of leadership was a microcosm of panic. Each time a king or queen died, there was a moment of possible anarchy as the power changed hands. Lodging the succession of the crown in family lineages was one way to keep that window of transition as small as possible. A phrase quickly emerged to help the people stem the moment of anxiety. When the monarch died, it would be proclaimed around the realm “the king is dead, long live the king.” Though there were sure to be changes as a result of the transition, the lines of continuity were well in place. The people need not panic, or act from their anxiety.

To be honest, we have very little that assures us as the church of any continuity. The modern structures of church life like denominations, congregations, and even church buildings no longer provide us with the sense of security and continuity they once did. More simply, the ways of “being church” are dead or dying.

So we panic. We act from our anxiety, as if the future of the faith depends on our ability to shore things up, or change things to meet the times.

The church is dead, long live the church. That is now my new motto. As a historian I can point to any age and name the ways the church was different from the age before. And yet, when I step back and look at the longer trajectory of history, the church continued on. That was, for instance, the brilliance of the Reformation. Amidst the dramatic cultural, political, economic, and religious change, leaders like Luther were able to root the continuity of the faith through the scriptures. While everything around them was in turmoil, there was at least one line that could be drawn back in time to the first Christians. As the religious loyalties of the princes shifted, and thus the official religion of the territory changed with him, the people could still find their roots of the faith in the scripture.

I am finding myself asking not “what needs to change” but rather “what keeps us rooted in the long history of the church.” In other words— The church is dead, long live the church.

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Twitter Killed the Theology Star

We all know that video killed the radio star, but what about social media? Has Twitter killed the theology star?

Theology has rarely been “in style” but social media has opened a door onto the once insular conversations. There was a line between popular and academic theology. Now, with Twitter and blogs, emerging academics write for an audience outside of the “guild.” At the same time, writers of varying degrees jump into blogging and tweeting as a part of their promotional strategy. In the publishing economy, this is becoming more and more essential. One’s followers in social media is seen as market potential.

The clear benefit is that an “ivory tower” discipline can begin to step out of the tower and speak so others may hear. Theologians can begin to hear their work in conversation with so many more people beyond their fellow specialists. Too many books are published for the dozen our so colleagues in the field. Just look at the footnotes and you can see a conversation between a few people. Engaging a wider population helps to stretch our vocabulary and style while at the same time inform our thinking in ways that the traditional format of guild journals and academic publishing has not yet done.

Yet, social media is also creating a bit of a different culture that brings with it a number of problems. First, it creates an air of conversation that is really non-existent without intentional cultivation. Few writers have been able to actually engage an audience and keep the conversation constructive in the process. Instead of conversation, trolls and ideological one-upmanship tend to dominate the threads. As we have seen, a number of news outlets and journals have shut down the comment sections of their webpages for that very reason.

For those emerging into the field by the nature of their formal education or in a desire to cultivate a following to support future projects, the conversations often feel like nothing more than self-referential. In academic forums this is fairly typical. It is not uncommon to sit in a conference presentation and listen to question after question from graduate students that are more about their own interests than about the paper just presented. It is kind of like that scene in Good Will Hunting where Matt Damon’s character calls out a first year grad student for his pompous recitation of the basic syllabus. “So you must be in this class, wait until next year when you read these books and you will change your mind.” Yet, in social media, such dismissiveness is akin to heresy. The democratizing assumptions in Twitter and Facebook are such that any attempt to “pull rank” is quickly labeled as mean or patronizing.

The effect is a kind of conversational throat clearing. The theologian has to defer to the readers and commentators in a way that often dismisses his or her own research and expertise. There is no room in social media for a true expert or trained practitioner. Instead, in the chaos of comments, he or she must constantly acknowledge the critiques of readers who often have only read the basic introductions to any one theological topic.

In other instances, when the commenter does have some expertise in a field, the conversation quickly focuses on that person’s understanding. In face-to-face conversations, the expectation of collegiality pushes towards connections and development. Yet, in social media the conversation often sounds like someone trying to make everyone else’s project look like their own. Of course there are ways to show the interrelationships between different theological arguments, often through questions. But the tactics and rhetoric are such that there are sentences of preface in order to not sound like a troll or a random critic.

I am beginning to wonder if Twitter and Facebook can ever really support the kind of conversation they seem to capitalize on. All we need to do is look at the number of headlines that basically say “Look at what this person said on the internet, how stupid can they be!” Or, skim the Twitter feed and see how many “gotcha” tweets have been posted in the last 30 minutes. The nature of short, pithy, and decontextualized statements the likes of Tweets and Facebook posts is based in the soundbite culture of our media. While substantive discourse can emerge, such conversation has to be filtered through the noise of trolls, snark, and flat out error. In short, the energy expended in filtering our the static quickly outweighs the benefits of the media itself. The end result is a social media “persona” that is just as one-directional (“Here is what I think on this subject”) as traditional publishing has been for centuries. Either respond to all the comments, or don’t. To filter out the dregs of trolls and off-handed remarks runs the risk of looking too self-concerned.

For those in Anabaptists circles, social media gives the feel of community when all that really exists is a connection. We often insert our expectations for high church community where relationships are a significant part of our theology, and assume that these connections give us place to confront or converse. However, community in social media is a rarity, and takes effort to cultivate. Just because you are friends on Facebook or follow someone on Twitter does not give one the capacity to “call out” or for that matter to question. In the end, such questions or comments are just more noise to filter. And when the comment or critique that we think is substantial is filleted with the dregs, it becomes personal or the silence becomes a statement made about the character of the other.

In the first centuries of Christianity, Tertullian famously asked (with a bit of rhetorical irony) “what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem.” Maybe it is time to ask a similar question. What does Twitter have to do with Theology? Maybe it hasn’t killed the theology star, but it is importing expectations into the conversation that may not have been there in other media. Maybe social media in general is creating a false sense of community, giving connections the weight of true relationships. This veneer, however, is quickly shattered when someone does not respond as we think they ought. This is not to say that community cannot be encouraged, or even cultivated on-line, but rather such communities are the outliers, and thus the exception that proves the rule. Building relationships through social media takes just as much effort, if not more given the lack of context and non-verbals, as building them in face-to-face conversation.

So then, the irony should be clear. Here I am writing about the pitfalls of social media on a blog that will be shared through Twitter and Facebook. The question, then, is to you: What of theology in the social media landscape?

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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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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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Christendom Isn’t Dead?

Recently Mennonite pastor Isaac Villegas penned a brief article for Mennonite World Review that called the Post-Christendom thesis into question. By highlighting the recent political developments in North Carolina, especially the influence of figures like Billy Graham and the US Catholic Bishops, he states quite emphatically that “Given the dominance of Christianity in the United States, we ought to rethink using the language of ‘post-Christendom’ to describe our time and place.” This understanding of the Post-Christiendom interpretation of culture, however, narrows in on one element of the thesis: “The Christian story has moved from the center to the margins of culture.”

While Villegas rightly observes the dynamics of the American political process, he marshals the narrative as evidence that Christendom is alive and well. There are two problems with such a generalization. First, a robust definition of Post-Christendom entails more than just these political power moves. Second, social research is showing quite clearly that fewer and fewer persons are self-identify as Christian. So then, these political anecdotes are not a sign that Christendom is flourishing but are indicators that established groups of Christians are fighting to stay in positions of cultural power. In other words, we are in the slide toward the marginalization of Christianity. These days are simply the death rattle of Christendom in North America.

British Christians like Stuart Murray are speaking to America from the other side of this journey. In fact, Murray himself is clear as he engages American Christians that even the idea of Christendom in the United States differs significantly from that of modern Europe. Their outlining of the Post-Christendom thesis, then, includes a number of markers. “Christians therefore no longer feel at home in the dominant culture.” As a result, Christians “no longer enjoy automatic privileges.”  More to the point of Villegas’ criticism of the perspective, “The church no longer exercises control over society but instead Christians can exercise influence.” The wider cultural reality of pluralism and the constitutional disestablishment of a particular form of Christianity have created an atmosphere of anxiety among previously established church leaders.

At the same time, sociologists are backing up this interpretive frame. Ross Douthat, Diana Butler Bass, and George Barna have all noted in their recent books that the number of persons who self-identify with a particular religion has significantly declined in the last decade. Even those traditions that had flourished as Mainline Protestants declined in the late 20th century- non-denominational Evangelicals and Mormons- have decreased in percentage of population.

So what are we to make of this decline? I for one, agree with Stuart Murray, we are on the path to a Post-Christendom culture. The church in the coming decades will only be one more voice among many. What is more, established and institutional religion will most likely be “on the margins.” Part of the Post-Christendom assessment within North America is not to say “we are now the minority,” but rather to say this is the coming reality. Do we cling onto the previous vision of cultural hegemony as was the case for previous centuries, assuming that Church life and political culture are intertwined? Or, do we embrace the emerging realities and reconsider the Mission of the God.

David Fitch, in his book “End of Evangelicalism?” points to this dilemma in his discussion of the ideology of the Christian State. American Evangelicals, especially, have embraced the disestablishment clause of the first amendment but have assumed a kind of privilege in terms of political governance. This is also clearly argued in James Davidson Hunter’s book “To Change the World.” These Christendom minded groups, both liberal and conservative, assume that the society can become more Christian as the people assert their democratic influence. Such an ideology, however, is soon to not be a reality. Both the numbers and the stories are showing that christianity will eventually lose influence. Even in cases where Christian leaders can influence the political debates, these laws will eventually be struck down by the constitutional logic of rights and freedom of religion. What we see now are Christendom leaders trying desperately to keep their power as it slips through their fingers.

Unfortunately, Villegas falls into the same trap as many of the Christendom diaspora. He has assumed that Christendom is summed up in the political discourse and process of the country. But as Murray and others reflect on their own cultural realities, the Post-Christendom move is starting to show up in North America. We can no longer assume that those around us naturally know the parts of the Christian story. We cannot assume that just because we have a church building people will automatically come to worship. What is more, the typical “return to church when you are married and have kids” perspective will no longer sustain the institution. In sum, the Post-Christendom argument is about much, much more than just politics. It is an assessment of the culture in which we are finding ourselves.

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What do we have to lose?

It has been said on a number of occasions that if the Church of the Brethren cannot emerge from our discernment about the issues of human sexuality that our witness to the world is compromised. Even more striking is the implicit sentiment that if the Church of the Brethren suffers another schism somehow the tradition itself is lost as our result of our disunity.

To both of these observations all I can do is wonder: Really? Our witness to the wider world and Church is dependent on our human systems of conversation and discernment? Our theology and commitments are that rooted in us?

So what is really at stake in this conversation. My sense is that our tradition is not lost, nor is our witness. Rather, what we are losing is a particular way of understanding that witness in this corner of the Christian tradition.

In order to step back from the emotional and anxious energy wrapped up in our current times and debates, I want to look back at another liminal time in the history of the Church of the Brethren. Though some scholars debate our transition to the 20th century, whether it was a faithful re-articulation or apostasy of the church, the shifts of that age reveal what we are confronted with today. The typical focal point for that conversation is the work M.G. Brumbaugh. It was his historical re-narration which confronts us today, especially the distinctly modern terms he used to describe the tradition.

As the world moved into modernity, the Brethren were not immune to the changes. Through increased travel and as technological and philosophical innovations emerged, the sectarian practices of the 19th century Brethren would soon threaten its very demise. The community could either re-understand its witness in a new time or find itself increasingly irrelevant.

Brumbaugh’s narrative recast the tradition for a community which was interacting increasingly with the modern age. Looking back some say that this new narrative compromised the uniqueness of the Brethren and functionally opened the door to assimilation to American culture. Whatever the assessment of this shift, it is clear that our current understandings of Peace as active peacemaking rather than non-violent non-resistance; Service as altruistic assistance rather than mutual aid: and Community and Non-Creedalism as elective participation in congregations rather than mutual formation and discernment are rooted in this 20th century shift. Our tag line, Continuing the work of Jesus, peacefully, simply, together, is a sign that our terms of Brethren Identity are indeed rooted in Brumbaugh’s translation and are the fruit of modernity.

So it is no wonder than our members see in our current conversations the potential demise of our very way of being Church. For when our terms are cast in modern visions of making peace, humbling service, and family-like relationships there is no other conclusion than to say they are, or soon will be, compromised. Our very ways of debating and dehumanizing in the process of discernment do contradict what we say are our bedrock values. How can we speak of peace making when verbal violence defines our interactions? How can we speak of service when our interactions are demeaning? How can we speak of community when our very relationships between congregations and persons could break?

Indeed, the Church of the Brethren as we know it in these 20th century categories cannot continue. But that does not mean that the tradition dies. Maybe our understandings of peace, service, and community are no longer adequate for this new age.

We need a new set of terms, rooted in the ordinances and practices, which speak of the root values of both the 19th and 20th century understandings which gave flesh to our tradition for 300 years.

What might those new terms be?

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The Wide Open Creed

Though most of the conversation around here lately has been focused on the topics of the body and modernity, I want to return briefly to discuss the nature of the creed.  While I offered a kind of apologetic for the creed below, it is important to discuss why I think the traditional Anabaptist and Pietist critique is too narrowly conceived. I argue here that the liturgical practice of the Church holds together the narrative frame of the creed and the particular scriptural examples of God’s actions.

Among Mennonites and Brethren it is often stated that the creeds do very well talking about Jesus’ birth and death but not so well talking about his life and teaching.  The Nicene formula is most often marshaled out as the prime example.  In that creed, it is often said, we skip right from Jesus being “incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and made man” to his crucifixion “for us under Pontius Pilate.”  I have heard it said several times that a whole lot happens in the comma between incarnation and crucifixion.

Though I do not disagree, it is important to set the creed within it’s liturgical context before jumping to conclusions, conclusions of narrowness and convictions about doctrinal certainty.

First, the creed itself was not written as a systematic theology.  Though it was constructed as a canon of orthodoxy, the creed was first and foremost a liturgical text.  It was a statement to be made as a profession of faith within the wider context of the Church’s worship.  More specifically, the recitation of the creed was first made by a newly baptized Christian in the font and was repeated each liturgy after.

Second, as a liturgical text the creed was never intended to stand on its own apart from the other elements of worship, including the readings of scripture.  As an ordinary, or fixed portion of the liturgy, the creed would remain fixed within the communities order of service while at each gathering the readings of scripture would change.  In fact, whole gospels would be read over the course of months while each time the creed would set those life stories of Jesus within the trajectory of redemption.  In a way, the scriptures and the creed mutually informed each other over time- the creed framing the reading of the gospel within the entire Christ event and the scripture filling in gap of the creed with the particulars of Jesus’ life and teachings.

So, for example in our modern practice of the Revised Common Lectionary we work through one gospel following Pentacost all the way to Christ the King, or the last Sunday before Advent.  In those many weeks we observe as Jesus calls, heals, and teaches.  Over that course of time it would be easy to lose sight of why we read these stories: Are they just good moral narratives? Are they read in order to entertain? What’s the point? Once we read these stories and hear the sermon the recitation of the creed reminds us just why we should even care- For it was this same Jesus we witness in the reading whom we confess as the Incarnation of God and whose death and resurrection redeems the fallen world. The particularities of Jesus fill in the universality of redemption.

Those of us within the Christian tradition who have left the creeds out of our times of worship are at a severe disadvantage.  Though we have set aside these texts for noble reasons, namely their gate keeping and oppressive use in the last half of Christian story, we are tempted to lose sight of the larger plot structure of God’s narrative.  By not rehearsing the frame we are tempted to lift the particulars out of their appropriate setting within the Christian narrative, that is to say not out of their historical but rather soteriological context.  For those of more accustomed to the professions of creeds, the reading of scriptures keeps the Christian narrative from become so abstract that the details of Jesus’ ministry barely make a difference. The creed and the scriptures are two poles within the formative practice of Christian worship.

All of this is simply to say that when juxtaposed with scripture the creed should never be seen as limited.  What is more, the practice of Christian worship serves as the proper context for both the reciting of the creed and the reading of scripture.  These two texts form the worshiping community in the particular and universal nature of salvation.

Though this may not read like an exploration of a Christian practice, it does match the request to articulate how practices, as opposed to intellectual assertions, shape the Christian disciple.  For it is in the the frame of Christian worship that the doxological act places us within the Christian narrative, through the reading of the particulars within scripture and through the recalling of the narrative trajectory of God’s salvation.

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