Posts Tagged ‘church’

In Surprised by Scripture, N. T. Wright makes a short but worthwhile foray into the question of a public theology. He is right, we should have been exploring this for a long time. The conversations that occur in the news involving the so called “evangelicals” don’t count. For example, a Christian periodical recently called for the president to be removed from office. This prompted an uproar from some and prompted the president to make claims he is a champion for “evangelicals.” This is a peripheral conversation at best. At worst, it implies that the church’s witness is dependent on who holds political office. No matter your feelings about the president, whether you prefer him in or out, he does not speak for the church and he certainly is not the spokesperson for God.

Wright brings up the possibility that we try to retain the appearance of a public theology by attempting to control God on election day. If this claim is true (and it very well may be) this is a dangerous place to be. The fact is, when the church joins a “secular” force in order to strengthen its own power it is nothing less than idolatry. The powers of the world will be agreeable with the church as long as the church serves the desired purposes of the state. This is easy to forget when things seem to be going well but history reveals that the world’s powers will turn on the church if we no longer serve its purposes.

A lot of energy is spent trying to convince us there are great differences between “secularists” and “fundamentalists.” Wright calls them “ugly brothers” and “doppelgangers.” Their arguments and disagreements are no more than a shouting match. Both are claiming that the right vote, the right person, the right party in power will make things right. No matter how different opposing political philosophies may appear to be – they are only two extremes of an already discredited world view.

Wright takes us to the New Testament Gospels where we are told about the “reality of new creation called God’s kingdom… And the reason why those who made that announcement were persecuted was because God acting in public is deeply threatening to the rulers of the world.” Meanwhile the church continues to insist that Jesus is Lord and does not reject the God given rule even of pagans. This is important for it appears we have lost the ability “to affirm simultaneously that rulers are corrupt and must be confronted and that they are God-given and must be obeyed.”

We are correct if we hold that the Bible has a high theology that God calls rulers. But the Bible has an equal (if not greater) theology of the church’s witness and martyrdom. Oh, “Doing business with God in public is always complicated, but it is never dull.” Wright is right… our politics are too small.

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A Beautiful People

Four years ago, I walked into a church building. It seemed almost accidental. They needed someone to preach that day and I was available. It was the second Sunday of Advent and I was greeted at the door by a gentleman who introduced himself as Charles (that is his name but no one calls him that). I had no idea how the next four years would play out.

These days, I am in that same building quite often. I like that I can walk out the front door and onto the Appalachian Trail. I also like that when I walk out the back door, I can see the Susquehanna River. Earlier this week I walked outside and saw snowcapped mountains. These will never be confused with the Rockies, but they were wearing a snow cap. Looking south from the front sidewalk, standing on the trail, a white cap was visible on Cove Mountain. Looking east from the back door, across the river, a white cap was visible on Peters Mountain. I tried to take pictures but they did not do it justice.

Now, four years later, we are again walking through the season of Advent together. I love that we are surrounded by some fascinating geography. But the real beauty is not the landscape, it is these people. It is privilege to gather with them to read old texts, sing old songs, light candles and explore ways to best serve this community.

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Earlier this month I had opportunity to meet Tod Bolsinger, author of Canoeing the Mountains. He addressed a group of pastors throughout the day and then joined some of us around the table that evening. (Kudos to Bob and Heather for hosting and bringing the brisket). The conversation was stimulating, Bolsinger is the kind of guy that is fun to hang out with. We discussed church and education and conflict and future projects and brisket among other things.

Something we did not talk about at length is systemic thought. However, in his book he demonstrates an obvious interest in systems. He quotes people like Donella H. Meadows and Edwin H. Friedman who write about such thinking. He warns us that to fail to see the systemic relationship between all living things is to miss out on most of what happens around us. He wants us to know that every part of the system affects every other part.

He borrows from the field of physics (Systemic thought crosses disciplines). The emotional field in a system is like gravity. Once relationships are formed, the pull of the relationship becomes more powerful than the individual. A reminder that relationships are more important than any one person in the system. Wendell Berry goes so far to say this about community, “to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms.”

Bolsinger rightly brings this thinking to church. The church is a living system in relationship with God to accomplish God’s mission in the world so loved by God. Therefore, church is more than a simple collection of people. It is a network of interdependent relationships that share in the mission of God. This ought to be expected since even the Trinity is “best understood as a relationship of distinct persons who share one essence.”

I wish we would have had more time to talk. Canoeing with Bolsinger is surely a systemic adventure.

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Twenty-two of us gathered around a table in the basement last night to talk about Christmas. We also eat at these gatherings. We seem to take cues from those first century gatherings we read about in an old book we call Acts so when we get together we are often eating (I suspect some come for the eating). We weren’t quite talking about Christmas, but about Advent. One has to go through Advent in order to get to Christmas. We are preparing. We are waiting. We are getting ready. In a way, I suspect we are like shepherds tending sheep in the fields or like Magi traveling from the east.

Our conversation actually included a prophet for hire and a donkey who talked. These are great stories but it was the words of the hired prophet that stick out in a context for Advent. “I see him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near; A star shall come forth from Jacob, A scepter shall rise from Israel.”

I love these meetings. While I do not tend to like labels, we have had people who call themselves Congregationalists and Methodists and Lutherans and Pentecostals attend these meetings. What do you get when you put a group like this in the basement with a holiness preacher for the purpose of listening to old texts together? I think you get a great picture of church. Sometimes this text simply fascinates us. Sometimes it creates more questions than answers. Sometimes it challenges us in ways we did not expect. But we always benefit when we get together for the purpose to hear what it says.

It is our hope that our readings and discussions lead to things like belief and behavior and belonging. If they don’t, then why spend time in the basement on a cold, dark night anyway? We don’t want to be a people who just talk about things. We want these things to spill out onto the street and into the surrounding community. What happens at 212 N High Street, doesn’t stay at 212 N High Street.

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A Gathering

At first glance, 212 North High Street may not stand out. There, you will find a fine brick building with plenty of character. The imprint in the concrete near the front steps say it was built in 1912. Multiple things go on here. In just the next few weeks, among other things, the building will serve as the site for a dinner, study sessions, the local food distribution, a board meeting, and a party. Next Thursday evening, we will sit on the front steps and give treats to the neighbors.

But the primary thing that happens here is a gathering on Sunday mornings. We don’t take these gatherings casually; in fact, we believe heaven and earth meet here. We gather with allies to acknowledge who rules the world. We gather to remind ourselves of our role in such an important narrative. We gather to pray, sing, and bless one another for the ongoing journey. We enter sacred space and read words of hope out loud. We are reminded of what is real in contrast to the artificial news we hear so much of the time. On account of these things, I suspect most of our gatherings leave attenders somewhat ‘spirited.’

But recently we were reminded that what we do is not always ‘spirited’, at least not in a sense that feels good. In fact, we were reminded that our gatherings can be sobering. It is hard to feel good when one of your own is hurting. It is easy to talk about retaliating toward a perpetrator. It is difficult to talk about forgiving them. It doesn’t feel good when a friend is pouring out the emotional pain of her soul because of a literal catastrophe.

At first glance, 212 North High Street may not stand out. But there is something going on in those Sunday gatherings where we attempt to “bless those who persecute… rejoice with those who rejoice… mourn with those who mourn.”

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For some reason, it has become natural to hear the voices of culture and feel the need to choose one issue or another. It might be more accurate to say we feel the need to choose one side or another. Unfortunately, much of the cultural dialogue is not dialogue at all. I am not convinced the issue matters as much as who is stating it. There is little evidence that those in places of influence are even convinced of their own perspective. But they are quite certain about who they oppose.

The current subject of impeachment is a prime example. Impeachment has become just another strategy for some who desire power to make a statement about how unworthy of office their opponents are. Whether the president is impeached or not will likely not be determined by whether he committed an impeachable offense, but by whether he or his opponents can rally more people to their side. I fear we have entered a time where extreme measures will become commonplace. Once upon a time, something like impeachment would have been discussed with caution, now it appears it has become standard political strategy. The question is not whether Trump should be impeached or whether Clinton should have been. The question is “how were Bush and Obama able to avoid it?”

This should remind those in the church of the mission at hand. Here is opportunity for us to demonstrate that it is possible to get along with those who share a different opinion. Here is opportunity for us to demonstrate that it is possible to love even enemies. Here is opportunity for us to demonstrate that the Donalds and the Nancys are not the enemy. Here is opportunity for the church to be the church.

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A Global Conversation

In class we participated in case studies that challenge our witness in surrounding culture. During that time, I learned that yoga is far more controversial than I ever imagined. I do not remember what else we discussed, but I am well aware of what was not. Following class, a friend from Liberia challenged me by claiming the Western Church is much too silent about the LGBTQ issue. He went on to claim that what occurs here eventually makes its way into Africa and they would be looking to the Western Church for ways to talk about the issue. Not long after that conversation, I was challenged by a friend from Kenya. Again, he claimed the Western Church refuses to discuss LGBTQ issues in helpful ways for the Worldwide Church.


This has caused me to reflect a great deal on the way the church relies on one another. Even more, how I experience issues differently and similarly than my brothers. I told them both it was not a challenge I was presently experiencing in the local church and that it was a subject many in the Western Church may be getting tired of hearing about. I suspect I came across as defensive. While both of those things may be true, it is still a concern of the church. In fact, I find myself wishing the network of churches I belong to would begin conversations on this very topic. Although our churches are not currently experiencing it as an “issue” it would surely be helpful in the future if we were at least discussing ways to talk about it. It is almost a certainty that what occurs in our sister churches will eventually make its way into our congregations. As I reflect on the conversation, I realize I am actually thinking similarly to my African brothers.


This was a wonderful reminder of the ways we need one another. The ways we talk with one another will significantly influence our global witness.

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