The Taser's Edge

Vocation, the Church, and Time

How much time can you really get your head around?  10,000 years?  If you say you can, I don’t believe you.  250 years?  Perhaps just barely.  The question is really this: “From how far back can you place yourself in a relatively contiguous historical narrative?”

I’m talking specifically about the Church (as my title may have let you know), this reality in which my own few decades are coming after millennia and may be followed by millennia; or, within the whole of the Time of God, perhaps my years are book”ended” by infinity in both directions.

In this point which is my this-earthly life on the line of Time (yes, viewing time linearly for this exercise), I have things to do, a calling or callings, personal responsibility.  But I don’t knit All That Is Everything together, so I don’t need to approach life as if I do.

The point?  For as far back as I can actually imagine myself coming from (and that 250 year mark may be it for me), I want to imagine at least that far into the future for what I am working toward when I consider my calling.

Thus, the question of vocation is this: “What work of God, which God has been doing through countless people and circumstances for 250 years and more, and which God desires to continue for 250 years or more into the future, am I called to be a partially-yet-truly responsible piece of, for this day and for the next several decades, which are my this-earth life?”

Such a question makes me both more important (500 years and more on my shoulders) and less important (100 millions and more people sharing that load) than I usually view myself.  It’s not just a marathon, because a marathon is both selfish and easy in comparison; it’s the most ridiculous relay-race ever devised, with billions of participants involved, many of us not realizing that we are supposed to be on the same team.

I should say that there are a number of sources that have brought me to these thoughts:

  • Loving the Hebrew Bible
  • Loving the New Testament picture of the Jesus, the Church, and the work of God
  • Loving history
  • Loving fantasy (for many of the same reasons I love history)
  • Loving sci-fi
  • Personal anger and frustration with American historical short-sightedness (e.g., My own sense of 250 years as a ‘long time’ vs. Some family friends in England who own 18th and 19th century reproductions of furniture, and half-apologize for their inauthenticity as compared to the real furniture from hundreds of years older)
  • A friend, J, an Orthodox college chaplain who views his calling in terms of “What am I doing today so that 200 years from now my church will be able to have a clue in how to minister to college students?”
  • Rev. Canon Dr. Sam Wells, who in his Improvisation, reframes all our Protestant attempts to get back to the ‘pure’ early Church, instead asking if we might actually be the early Church
  • A year-long chaplaincy residency, in which I constantly found a wondrous tension: with God’s help I have tremendous power to do important work and to be life-giving, but I was simultaneously blocked at every turn from self-importance by the reality that I was far from any ultimate source of formation in a person’s life in which I was present for at best a few hours over a few weeks

The Christian upbringing I received taught me that Jesus could come back tomorrow afternoon.  My later movement to believe and live in a Church which is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic (with at least one, catholic, and apostolic pointing to greater historical continuity than I had yet received, and holy pointing to the transcendence of God in reference to Time) gave me a sense of history and Christianity’s future which that earlier pure apocalypticism had not.

And so now I find myself looking at Christian ethics (defined not as a corner of Christian thinking, but as the way that Christians are called to be and to do in imitation of and in sharing in Christ’s person, work, and reality) like this: We live as if Christ may return before you finish reading this sentence, and as if the Church has 10 million years to wait, which includes being willing to hear all the theological questions which that would raise for her.  (Not least, we might actually be able to talk about holy dying as we haven’t in a few hundred years; and we might be more humble about the way we do theology.)

Mentally, a 10,002,000 year window is far too big for us to handle, but I think we can live into a wider sense of time in particular ways.  For instance, I think the massiveness of time is part of the reason that remembering particular people in the communion of saints can be so helpful for our faith.  The massiveness of the reality of God in time is why we spread out focusing on particular pieces of that reality through an entire liturgical year.

And of course, because I’m writing this, I want to go back to my own present struggling: vocation.  This is why vocation is so difficult for me.  I believe that it is about praying for the senses to perceive what the Holy Spirit is already doing in the world, for a heart that desires to be a part of that work, and for the guts to actually join in that work.  And if that weren’t enough, none of it works without other people at every level.

Still too abstract?  Then try this.  I am an ordained minister in a church dedicated to new works in the form of newly planted churches, but equally dedicated to doing very old things, like living a Christianity which we believe is something received, not something which we make up (not to say that there’s not such a thing as ‘development’ or ‘growth’ or ‘improvisation’ out of those roots).

I live in Durham, North Carolina on Friday, December 10, 2010.  What is God doing here and now (a here and now which I can conceive of as a point between 250 years ago, when there was no Durham, NC, and 250 years in the future, when I have no idea if there will be a Durham, NC, but in any case a here and now which is situated squarely in the life of God in the world) and how is God calling me to be a part of that work, both in continuation of what God has always been doing, and in preparation for what God always will do?  With this question, I challenge myself to take the long view.

This replaces the normal, evangelical hubris – the assumption that we have something to offer to a person (a people, a community, a nation, a world, a universe) that no one else has to offer or ever has offered – with the hope that God actually is at work, actually wants us to join in, and that we actually have something to offer.  And in case that still leaves room for our pride (for pride, like Dr. Malcolm’s life, will find a way), remember that God’s work is to share in Christ’s suffering and death out of love and for the life of the world.

space church

Death by Footwashing: A Sermon

This morning, as you know if you read posts from earlier this week, it was my turn to preach at Anglican Missional Pastor training, a program for ministry development within the Anglican Mission in America.  The manuscript of the sermon I preached is as follows.  Even if you don’t go around reading random online sermons, my mom does, so there.  And Holly’s mom.  And a few other people.  For those who are disinterested, I dangle this tidbit: in the sermon I talk about my recent encounter with some Jehovah’s Witnesses.

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Tuesday Reading Roundup, Week 5

Sometimes I find myself planning out blog posts just for the sake of blog posts.  For instance, this afternoon I thought about posting a couple short essays I wrote for Happiness, the Life of Virtue, and Friendship.  Then I realized, “No, that would be boring.”  So I spared you.  Yes, you’re welcome.

1. Planting Missional Churches by Ed Stetzer–You already know some about this book if you read my posts about it last week.  What has been great about reading it is that my imagination has never been fired by the idea of church-planting.  Now it is.  I’m finding that I do find a lot of the ideas exciting and that my imagination has some room to run around in them.  The question in my context now: Why liturgical Anglican churches?  Can such churches truly meet unmet needs in communities in the US?  Again and again, this book points me to the need for a robust ecclesiology (theology of the church) as a prerequisite for church-planting.  I think Stetzer falls short (and I think that’s because he’s Southern Baptist).  I’ll need to hit the books to develop that further.

2. Christians Among the Virtues by Stanley Hauerwas and Charles Pinches–A familiar favorite.  This week–reading about Aquinas.  This has been a really good read and a useful secondary resource.

3. Putting on Virtue by Jennifer A. Herdt–Again, a repeat.  Again, for the same class–Virtue, the Life of Happiness, and Friendship with Hauerwas.  It, too, is a secondary resource for this week’s reading of Aquinas, but I haven’t yet cracked it.

4. Treatise on the Virtues by St. Thomas Aquinas–The man himself arrives.  I’ll be reading this for the next two weeks.  Hopefully all this virtue stuff in my Hauerwas class will start making sense (and coming more directly from the primary sources, something which it has as yet failed to do).  I still remember how confused I was the first time I tried to read Aquinas, with absolutely no instruction as to his organizational method, in undergrad.  Derrida was an easier read.  Now somehow Aquinas doesn’t seem as difficult, at least once I get into the rhythms of his organization.  Of course, the fact that it is Tuesday night and I have yet to start reading probably bodes ill for my finishing the assigned portion for this week.

5. Deliverance by James Dickey–Famous poet writes lauded novel which is made into Burt Reynolds/Jon Voight film.  It’s always annoying to pick up movie tie-in edition paperbacks, but this is a new low–bare-chested Burt is never a good thing.  Four friends set out on a wilderness adventure in north Georgia.  Things go horribly, horribly wrong.

6.  Great Lent by Alexander Schmemann–Okay, so it’s a sham.  I’ll never start it, and I’ll always make it look like I read Orthodoxers.

7. Generation to Generation by Edwin H. Friedman–A modern classic on family systems (is there any other kind of classic on family systems theory?) within church and synagogue.  I’m told it’s good.  I’ll find out tomorrow before class.

And as for tonight?

1. Walk Pru.

2. Finish the rest of Stetzer’s book.

3. Quickly clean up some houseness.

4. Watch a yet-to-be-determined movie with Dave and possible more folks.

Tuesday Reading Roundup, Week 4

My blog traffic has been abysmal these past few days, but my posts have been mostly cheating (videos and prayers–what?!), so I can’t blame anybody but myself.  At least there’s this beloved staple, which I can’t do without a bit of a personal touch.

1. Perspectives On Marriage edited by Kieran Scott and Michael Warren–For tomorrow’s class, I got to read about cohabitation vs. marriage.

  • First was a report on Cohabitation and Marriage by the National [US] Council of Catholic Bishops.  (You can probably guess that on the topic of cohabitation, they’re agin’ it.)
  • Then we moved onto an article by Kieran Scott, “Cohabitation and Marriage as a Life-Process,” in which he describes a history of Christian marriage.  Although his history is abit fuzzy (no real solid dates, for instance) sex after betrothal and before marriage was commonplace and expected in other eras.  He goes on to argue that the current system–no sex before marriage and then flip the sex-is-okay-now switch at the wedding ceremony–is too abrupt of a process.  I would say that he’s right on that count.  I’m just skeptical about his idea of reinstating betrothal today.
  • A couple other articles that I’ll skip over…
  • And finally “Sex, Time, and Meaning: A Theology of Dating” by Jason King and Donna Freitas, in which the authors lament the state of a theology of Christian dating.  They are right that evangelical Christians have a sorry track record.  I can attest to that from the late 90s and early 2000s.  But as much as I hate the mentality of I Kissed Dating Goodbye and others, I think these authors are overly harsh in their reading, to point of distorting those books’ views.  And honestly, I didn’t know it was possible to be too hard on them.

2. Planting Missional Churches by Ed Stetzer–Confusingly, this is the second edition of a book by a different title, Planting New Churches in a Postmodern Age.  I’m not sure what to think about the significance of the fact that this book is listed in many places as basically The Bible of Church Planting, yet Duke Divinity Library has no books at all by the author.  Is that a judgment of the validity of his work?  Or are new churches totally uninteresting to the Christian academy?  Or might the faculty of Duke Divinity and its library have no knowledge of church planting literature?  Let me know if you can think of other possibilities.  At any rate, I have to read it for this month’s Anglican Missional Pastor meeting, Friday next.  (I flipped Friday and next because it’s Anglican, you know.)  I’m hoping that my well-tuned critical unit can keep it down a little bit.

3. Becoming Married by Herbert Anderson and Robert Cotton FiteFor Duke CPE, I already read one book by Anderson, entitled All Our Losses, All Our Griefs.  Despite the cheesy titles of pastoral care literature, it’s really amazing stuff, and I feel entirely illiterate in the area, after five semesters at a top-tier divinity school.  (Perhaps the problem is that I went to a top-tier divinity school.)  But, to the point, this book is awesome.  The title refers to the fact that “becoming married” is a long-term process, not just a ceremony.  All kinds of family systems theory and psychology, which is incredibly helpful, although thus far lacking in theological insight.  One thing that is distinctive is that the authors insist that the personality inventories which are so common in Christian premarital counseling (and beyond?) are very limited in their usefulness.  While such inventories can pick up major incompatibility and personality issues, they fall short, because people entering marriage are often still growing as human beings and certainly in relationship to each other.  More helpful, insist Anderson and Fite, is a genogram, basically an in-depth family tree.  When we can see and discuss our family backgrounds, we can begin to talk better about what the new family will look like.   All this genogram talk makes me want to blog about it, but until then, see what Wikipedia has to say about it.

4. Christians Among the Virtues: Theological Conversations with Ancient and Modern Ethics by Stanley Hauerwas and Charles Pinches–Honestly, the readings I am doing this week were due two and three weeks ago, but I find myself, for the first time ever, having a bit of time to go back and catch up on the stuff I missed.  Huzzah!

5. Great Lent: Journey to Pascha by Alexander Schmemann–Discerning readers may notice that this first appeared two weeks ago, and then disappeared for last week.  That’s because I have yet to start it.  But Lent is also yet to start, so I’m safe.  The problem may be that I have nowhere in my schedule to read this.  As interested as I now seem to be in theology and such, I still can’t see this as “fun reading.”  Probably that’s a good thing.  I’m fine with being odd, but maybe I’ll hold off on that kind of odd.

Creating Christian Community and Naming the American Lie

This post is meant to be read after “Tasty, Tasty, Stanley-flavored Kool-Aid.”

Last night I traveled up to Roanoke, VA to visit Church of the Holy Spirit, an Anglican Mission in America congregation.  Actually, there are now three churches, the original Church of the Holy Spirit and two churches that it has planted in the surrounding area.

It was the first meeting of the new year for Anglican Missional Pastor, the clunkily named (hard to see that on a resume) program I’m doing to train to be a pastor within the AMiA.  It was a wonderful discussion about all kinds of stuff having to do with church planting and church leadership, encouraging rather than a bunch of technical stuff.  Eventually, one of the questions we asked was basically, “Can we name some basic human needs that our churches try to meet, no matter what the variables of a given setting?”  There are many answers to that question: hope, community, belonging, to be known, to be accepted, to be understood, to love and be loved.

Stanley Hauerwas has a catchy slogan depicting his reading of the claims of modernity: “You should have no story but the story you chose when you had no story.”  Although his wording is facetious, it is also true.  Think of the promises of America: you can be whatever you want to be, you can do whatever you want to do (provided it doesn’t harm anyone else), your political beliefs are your own and you alone formed them, your philosophical beliefs are your own and you alone formed them, your religious beliefs are your own and you alone chose them, your mind is your own, your body is your own, your identity is your own.  Your personal story started with you, has been defined by you, and only those influences which you choose (bad influences being able to be ameliorated by counseling) will affect you.

If you think this is an overstatement, look at the promise of Barack Obama: grows up in poverty, the child of a Kenyan, raised by a single mother, becomes the first black president.  It is a lie to say that any child in America has the same potential.  I have only to talk to my wife and her fellow public school teachers about their students’ performance on End-of-Course testing (North Carolina’s way of doing their part for No Child Left Behind) and I know that it is a lie to say that, in America, any child has the potential to be president.  (I want it to be clear, however, that I do believe that every one of those children has the potential to do great things, but for most of them, their greatness will not be one chosen from among a stack of possibilities, but one highly determined by the circumstances of their lives, circumstances which were far beyond their control.)

Once again, I’m far afield.  This post is supposed to be connecting the post on postliberalism to my AMP day today.  Here’s the connection.  As I mentioned in this week’s Tuesday Reading Roundup, I have been reading Bryan Stone’s Evangelism After Christendom, which brings many of the ideas of postliberalism to bear on Christian evangelism.  One very strong part of postliberalism is a focus on narrative-formed communities.  Each community has its own story, and the members of that community are not discrete beings.  Rather their identities are dependent on one another (intersubjective) and upon the story and tradition of their community.  Communities are particular because they and their members are formed by particular stories and traditions.  One of these communities is the Church and its story is the Gospel.  Certainly this idea can be relativistic–many communities, none better than another–but Bryan Stone claims it doesn’t have to go that far necessarily (as does Alasdair MacIntyre, on whose work much of narrative theology is based).

“Can we name some basic human needs that our churches try to meet, no matter what the variables of a given setting?”  People long for community, because although we are told that we can decide who we want to become, our identities are intertwined with each other.  This is not just a collective consciousness as a species (although I don’t necessarily have a problem saying that it may also be that), but it is more importantly about our collective identity as children of God.

Deep inside, we still know that we are connected to one another, that the divisions between us are wrong and somehow artificial (even though they go very deep), and that we are not separate islands unto ourselves.  No matter how loudly and often we are told that we can be whomever we choose to be, we know that our selves are not wholly determined by our choices or ourselves.  The Church has something to offer, because it is a place which (at its best and truest) affirms that voice within us and says to us, “Yes, you are connected to everyone else and also to something greater than you can voice or name, you are not alone, you were created to be loved and not to be abused.  Here is a community in which you are invited to experience and to have your identity be shaped by love, joy, peace, companionship (a word literally meaning ‘sharing bread’), and hope.”

Believe it or not, throughout history, there have always been some quarters of Christianity (a remnant, if you will) which actually work like that, and there are churches where it happens today.