Evangelical Anabaptist: my journey so far…

Faith traditions can be a funny thing when it comes to talking about how folks identify themselves.  Denominational or theological heritage can be for many a simple matter of family heritage i.e., “My great grandparents were Baptists so I’m a Baptist.”  This generational default seems to be the prevailing occurrence for many of my Christian friends.  Others sort of “fall into” a tradition without much thought as to why they join one faith community over another.  I have a few family members who are members of a United Methodist congregation, but were not looking to specifically join that tradition.  They simply attended, felt welcomed, and stayed.

Church researchers and sociologists have done all sorts of studies on why people attend the churches they attend. Common factors include a local congregation’s proximity to their home, demographic similarities between the individual and larger congregation, worship style, etc.  What I notice when talking to people about why they attend a particular church is that their reasons are seldom theological/doctrinal.  They may have a general sense of whether or not they “agree” with what the church does, but that’s about it.  In my experience, the denominational affiliation (or lack thereof), of a particular church and all the history that comes with, isn’t a focal point for most. Perhaps I should add the caveat that I’m mainly talking about Protestant contexts, but even then, my Roman Catholic family members seem to reflect the “family heritage” trend.

I’ve always envied folks with a “tradition” and the sense of belonging that can come with it.  My mother came out of a slightly fundamentalist Bible Church background and my father, who became a believer in his early 20’s, was influenced by highly conservative “KJV only” Baptists.  Much of my childhood, however was spent attending either an Evangelical Covenant or Evangelical Free church.  I think my parents felt much more comfortable raising my brother and me in more inclusive Evangelical “community churches” as opposed to what they had been exposed to in their younger days.  My parents have repeatedly said that they wanted us to live out of God’s love not under a set of rules.

The big appeal for many of the folks in the community churches that I’ve been a part of is the lack of a long-standing tradition.  For them, dispensing with a church history that may be several centuries old is a welcomed freedom.  I appreciate part of this sentiment, while also regretting it.  On the one hand, tradition and (the catechesis that comes out of it) can become empty and robotic.  Things are recited and regurgitated with little to no reflection on the part of the believer.  Many Evangelicals who have come from longer standing traditions have felt the need to get away from such empty church experiences.  On the other hand, people like me who have “grown up in church” without strong ties to any particular heritage can feel lost.  We often ask ourselves, “What do we believe and why do we believe it?”  For a long time I wasn’t sure who to look to for developing my theology.  As a young person, if I were to ask five trusted elders within my church I could have easily gotten five different perspectives…confusion abounds.

Part of my journey toward an Evangelical Anabaptist faith is marked by a need for clarity without dogmatism, catechesis without mindless creedalism, and community without unnecessary exclusion.

More to come.

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Macy and Abel: Celebration as Defiance

Eight years ago, four couples (including my wife and I) joined together for a life of intentional discipleship which came to be known as Exodus Community.  In that time Exodus has welcomed in all sorts of folks from very different walks of life.  They simply strive to be the Church to whomever they encounter…it’s not perfect, but it’s beautiful.

In the past 8 years, those four couples have brought 14 children into this world…what can I say, we’re a reproductive bunch.

Today, it’s the two most recent births that have me reflecting on Christ and the nature and mission of his Church.

Macy

A little more than three months ago, three of us four couples connected for a weekend away. No kids, good food, good drink, good fellowship.  The fourth couple (Andy and Julie) stayed home as they were close to the  due date for their fourth child Macy.  As the six of us sat down for dinner that Friday evening, we called to see how the baby was doing. The events that followed will forever be in the memory of our community.  After 38 weeks of healthy pregnancy we learned that our friends had lost their little girl.

We dropped everything, packed up, and headed back home to be with our friends.  The days that followed were some of the most difficult we’ve ever gone through together. The sense of loss and deep sadness felt like is crept into our bones, we carry it with us and are reminded of it in a 100 different ways every day.  A personal example of this comes when I see a photo of Andy and Julie’s other three children. Usually a photo of those bright smiles brings a smile to my face.  But now, when I see those same photos, I can’t help but think to myself, “someone’s missing.”

Abel

This past week Exodus welcomed baby #14.  Matt and Courtney (one of the other founding couples) had their fourth son Abel.  In light of what happened only a few months ago Abel’s arrival brought with it a bunch of mixed emotions.  We’re called to remember the loss that preceded him, and called to rejoice in the new life we’ve been blessed with…again mixed emotions.

We four couples have a tradition following the birth of a child.  We order pizza, get some ice cream, and all meet up at the home of the newly born child.  Over the years, these gatherings have grown larger as more children have been added…it’s quite an event now.  And so, just as we have with the other children, we sat down with our pizza and enjoyed the new addition to the community.

Abel was passed from one pair of loving arms to the next, and then in a moment more sacred than I can describe, Julie took Able in her arms and held him like the experienced mother she is.  It was at that moment that I realized why we had really gathered together that day.  This was certainly a celebration, but it was also more.  We, the people of God, Christ’s Church, gathered together as a holy act of defiance.  Death won’t keep us quite, in fact while we were sitting around talking about Abel, we were also talking about Macy.

Our Response

Our culture is terrified of death.  We use terms like “passed away” rather than “died”.  We spend so much time trying to prevent the inevitable day when we will breathe our last breath and in our efforts, we keep ourselves from truly living.  And beyond that, when we fear death, we let it have the last word in our lives.  When we celebrated Abel’s birth, we in essence told the forces of death that they haven’t beaten us because they haven’t beaten our savior. Jesus is why we gather together at the home of baby Abel and at the graveside of baby Macy.

I think of Paul’s words when he defines his co-laborers as “sorrowful, but always rejoicing.”  My brothers and sisters are trying to embrace that way of life. They won’t morn like those without hope, but they won’t pretend that death isn’t real.  They won’t rejoice in a way that’s cheap, but they won’t stop celebrating.  May they stay the course of holy defiance, remembering those we’ve lost for now, proclaiming the empty tomb and longing for the day when all will be made new.

The Discipleship of the Mind: pt. 2

APOSTLES’ CREED

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

When I read the words above something stirs within me.  I recognize that making strong statements of essential belief has some sort of unifying power behind it.  That being said, I know there are traditions that regularly stand and recite creeds like  one above with little recognition of what they’re really saying.  They may recite one creed together, but they may also vary drastically in their intellectual commitments regarding the content of that creed.

The reason I bring this up, is because part of our congregational discipleship should include an ongoing instance that we’re putting our trust in real things.  In turn, that means that we, as Christians, are holders of real knowledge.  To encourage any other perspective among those in our churches is to do away with the teachings of scripture and with some of the most long-standing traditions of the Church catholic.

Some have argued that our central concern should be the promotion of Christ’s teachings on love and peace and all around moral behavior.  The trouble is that if we read our Bible with even the most basic sincerity, we see that its writers did talk that way about Jesus. Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension are written about as ontologically necessary.

We have no basis as the church of Jesus Christ for an encouraged moral behavior apart from the historical reality of the garden tomb being empty.  That should give us pause next time we enter into a time of communal or individual worship.  When we pray “thy kingdom come,” or when we celebrate the Eucharist, or when we anoint the sick, it’s because we have knowledge about the truth behind it all.  This is why Peter could write to the early church and call them to give a well-reasoned defense (1Pet 3:15).  He was firm in his conviction that Christians have something real to say.

 

Always Be Prepared: 1Peter 3:15 and the discipleship of the mind.

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect… (1Pet 3:15 NIV)

Knowing what we as Christians believe and why we believe it is important.  The life of the mind and its surrender to the transformation brought about by new life in Christ should be of central concern in our local congregations.  Paul’s words are clear in this regard when he writes, “..be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Rom. 12:2)  Simply put, Christians, because of Christ, are to be a thinking people who are prepared to give the reason for the faith that they have.

Peter’s exhortation in chapter 3 is culturally situated in such a way that we are wise to take note of its  parallels to us and our contemporary context.  We as Christians are scattered all over the world as resident aliens.  We find ourselves in all sorts of cultural contexts that are often opposed to the gospel of Christ.  Many of us may also find ourselves in places that are overtly oppressive and violently opposed to those who hold our faith.  In this regard, things haven’t changed.

I think Peter would write the same words today…”Always be prepared to give a reason…”

When I read the words of Peter I first ask, “Am I always prepared to give a reason for the hope I have?”  Then I ask, “Am I living in such away that prepares others to give a reason?”

As I have previously described in others posts, my concern for the intellectual well-being of the local congregations continues to grow.  Many of my generation, even though they may have “grown up in church”, can scarcely talk about their faith beyond how it makes them feel.  What they often fail to realize is that we all think about things before we feel a certain way about them.  Their thoughts about faith are unexamined and so they are left unprepared.

In coming posts I’ll examine the key points of Peter’s exhortation and consider how the Church might faithfully respond.  As always, I encourage feedback!

You need someone like this.

Milt Gould

For the last few years I’ve noticed many church practitioners lamenting about the generational gaps found in their various faith communities.  This “generational homogeneity” is the result of several cultural factors that exist both inside and outside of the church.  We’ve got old churches and we’ve got young churches, but except for a few exceptions, we don’t have generationally diverse churches.

For me personally, this gap has resulted in a lack of mentoring relationships.  Receiving and interacting with the wisdom of those who have been down roads that I’m only now considering for myself is incredibly helpful.  But I’ve found that if I don’t intentionally seek out such relationships, I’m not likely to stumble upon them.  So here’s what I’m doing.

Pictured above is my friend Milt. He’s 38 years my senior.  He’s retiring this year after 45 years of service as a UMC pastor.  He’s a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary and also holds a D.Min.  But apart from his academic training, his experience in ministry life is rich and…eye opening.  Every few weeks we sit down on a Saturday morning over a cup of coffee and simply talk about life. At times he prays for me and my present ministry efforts…he’s teaching me how to talk to God.

I often leave our meetings with a renewed conviction that we are, at present, a culture of knowledge, but not one of wisdom.  Milt is incredibly humble and probably doesn’t think of himself as wise, which is a common mark of wise people.  As we talk about the Bible, ministry life, our families, and whatever else, I have the sense that I’m learning things that I can’t google, or pickup in a how-to manual.  Some things must be gained through the intentional submission of oneself to the life experience of another.  This is me, Joel…the Millennial saying…I didn’t come out of college with the wisdom necessary to apply all the other things that I’ve learned in a more formal sense.

So here’s a challenge.  Find someone who is wise, and ask them about life.  This simple invitation to have someone else invade your life for a time is well worth it.

Ken Ham, Bill Nye…(face-to-palm)

Before I get going on the central point of my concern regarding the two gentlemen above, I would like to direct you to the InternetMonk post that brought this whole thing to my attention.  The concerns listed there summarize many of my own so I won’t restate the sentiments of IM here.  That being said, I do want to consider a particular cultural aspect of the above event and others like it.

Debates like the one above are indicators of a lost sense of incarnational presence in the world with regard to Christian witness.  The idea seems to be that Christians, a la Ken Ham, are called into the arena of naturalists to beat them at their own game via (especially in this case) colorful rhetoric.  I’m quite certain that Ham will be preaching to folks who already agree with him and his particular method of biblical exegesis.

I’m all for rigorous debate, but let it be in a venue where all sort of folks have access to the discussion.  In my mind, Nye is (culturally speaking) acting like a more faithful witness as he goes into foreign territory to defend a way of thinking that is not accepted by the majority audience.

I think Ham is playing it safe.

Beyond the matter of audience, is also the issue of locating the “otherness” of non-Christians in matters of  secondary (if not tertiary) importance.  Events like this confuse the issue of what the gospel really is, and what it means for the world.  The fight is played out on the wrong battlefield, leaving behind casualties that could have otherwise been spared.

I’m not dogging biblical apologetics, I am, however, dogging bad biblical apologetics at the expense of informed dialogue about what the Bible is and what it is not.  I get really frustrated with folks like Ken Ham, they give many of us a bad name which I guess is part of the whole call to follow Jesus in as much as we all get lumped in together for better or worse.  To also be clear, Ken Ham has an organization to support which stands to benefit from events such as this upcoming debate…my suspicions are mounting.

I Joined the SEA: a reflection on membership

These days it seems like whenever a well known evangelical joins a society or engages in some sort of official membership within a group controversy isn’t too far behind.  I think back to the events of late 2003 with the Evangelical Theological Society’s “trial” of Clark Pinnock and John Sanders.  Basically, the ETS had some members who believed that these individuals didn’t allign with the society’s doctrinal statement.  I remember hearing about this ETS uproar as an undergrad and making a mental note to avoid evangelical societies in the event that my developing theology might be found controversial someday by folks who have some pretty strong pull in their respective circles.  Fast forward ten years.

In recent years, while studying theology at the graduate level, I’ve often felt disconnected from the larger community with which I share many of my theological convictions.  Specifically, Evangelical Arminians don’t organize themselves with the level of intent found among other evangelical groups.  I suspect that this is because many Arminians lack a depth of theological understanding that is more often found among their Calvinist counter-parts.  A similar sentiment was written by W. Stephen Gunter (Duke Divinity School) in his review of Don Thorsen’s recent book, Calvin Vs. Wesley (Abington Press).  Wesleyan Christians have probably been the largest group of Arminian proponents in the 20th and 21st century (this is a suspicion, I don’t have the #’s to support this), but in my experience, they are often plagued by  anti-intellectualism, or fragmenting liberalism.  Arminians have a lot of ground to gain in the evangelical conversation.

That being said, I’ve seen some recent bright spots.  First off, is the popularity of Roger Olson’s books and his blog.  If you haven’t checked into his work, I highly encourage you to do so.  Secondly, the publishing/media ministry of Seedbed is developing great material for the reemergence of a more robust Wesleyan evangelicalism.  And then there’s the SEA (Society of Evangelical Arminians).  This group of laymen and theologians are taking helpful steps toward a more robust expression of Arminian theology and practice.  I decided to join this group in the hope of connecting with some fellow like-minded brothers and sisters while also being challenged to better understand and articulate Arminian theology.

I hope you’ll look into some of the groups and resources I’ve mentioned above.  Perhaps something will spark some good conversation and reflection.

Until next time friends, grace and peace.