(Un)Resolved Theology

"No star system will dare oppose the Emperor now." - Grand Moff Tarkin

“No star system will dare oppose the Emperor now.” – Grand Moff Tarkin

In my year of “embracing the wilderness” I have tried to take stock of where I really am in my life and ministry trajectory. Seeing a counselor will do this to a person. One of the things that has come up to the surface is the realization that I lean in a different direction theologically than any of the churches/denominations I have regularly attended.

Well, than all two churches I have regularly attended.

This has caused me to question my journey a bit. Should I be more conservative? Am I about to go off the deep end? Should I be more progressive? Maybe it’s okay to go off the deep end? A wise seminary professor challenged us to think of our spiritual/theological journey’s as more “orbits” circling around a center (God), who is constantly trying to pull us closer to himself. Moves we make closer to or farther away are not so much about which direction we are heading, but are more about our proximity to the center.

So, my orbit has definitely shifted over the last few years. Whether it has moved closer or father from the center is up for debate and depends on one’s perspective on the conservative-progressive spectrum. Because of that dependence on perspective, I’ve slowly been realizing that I need to hold onto my theological beliefs with more of an open hand than a clenched fist. Hence, the title of this post being (Un)Resolved Theology. I am finding more and more value in being okay with my theology and beliefs being (Un)Resolved rather than cemented and resolute. I get that not everyone will find the same comfort in this as I am. Also, please do not read (Un)Resolved Theology and think I have thrown all my beliefs out the window and have begun my slide down a slippery slope. Allow me to explain myself.

As we grow and learn, we have to constantly weigh the beliefs we hold to see if they still hold up. We must believe that as we grow, our understanding about the world grows and our understanding about God and his work in the world grows as well. When we are young, we are content with simple words and flannel-graph images to support our faith. When we are more mature, those flannel-graph images will not stand up and are often poor representations for the stories that are considered foundational to our faith. If we continue to grip, white-knuckled, on what we believed we may miss out on new understandings and new wonders God wants to reveal to us.

In the first Star Wars movie, Princess Leia drops this challenge to her captors during the scene at the top of today’s post,

The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.”
Princess Leia

Sandwiched between the unflinching Grand Moff Tarkin and the imposing Darth Vader, Leia points out that their use of force, power, intimidation and violence will not give them what they desire. The tighter their grip becomes, the more they will lose a grip on what they are wanting to maintain. I think the same can be true when we hold onto our theology and view of God with clenched fists and certain resolutions. In order to hold on to what we know, we may resort to violence, power, intimidation and confrontation in order to maintain our sense of security.

Jesus confronts the Pharisees on a very similar issue. The Pharisees were notorious for focusing on what actions would fulfill the Law of God as recorded in the Torah (or Pentateuch, the first five books in our current Bibles). They wanted to appear holy before God in every area of their life so they spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to fulfill the law through their daily actions. This caused them to focus on the smallest details and, at least according to Jesus, miss out on the actual intent and purpose of the law.

“How terrible it will be for you legal experts and Pharisees! Hypocrites! You give to God a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, but you forget about the more important matters of the Law: justice, peace, and faith. You ought to give a tenth but without forgetting about those more important matters. You blind guides! You filter out an ant but swallow a camel. How terrible it will be for you legal experts and Pharisees!”
Matthew 23:23-25 (CEB)

Jesus saw that the Pharisees were holding onto their beliefs with such a tight fist that they worried so much about the small details (“filtering out an ant”) that they missed the big point (“swallowing a camel”). The true purpose of the law, the true purpose of their faith, was slipping through the Pharisees fingers because they were holding so tightly to what they believed.

Predictably, their response was intimidation, power and violence as they conspired to execute Jesus. Their fists were clinched tight, their theological resolution so strong, that they failed to see God moving in amazing ways amongst them.

So, as a sort of (Un)resolution, I will work to keep my theology (Un)resolved. I will try to not miss how God is acting because I refuse to loosen my grip from a belief or theological concept. I hope I can remain open to new ideas, new thoughts and the new world God is constantly working to break into the creation. I hope to remain firmly anchored to the tradition just as much as I can be open to new insights. As my theology shifts and my “orbit” changes, I hope that my understanding of God grows and I will not be afraid.

Because, honestly…God is big enough to handle it all.

This entry is part of the UncoSynchro blog, a writing collaborative effort from #Unco14 focusing on subversive themes of faith and life. The topic for January is (Un)Resolved.

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Living with (un)Gratitude

The Thankful Poor by Henry Tanner, 1894.

The Thankful Poor by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1894.

Later this week many in the United States will be celebrating Thanksgiving. Many will gather around a table and enjoy all manner of seasonal and traditional food. Prayers and conversation will be shared along with shouts at the TV during broadcast sporting events. However, for many none of those things will apply. Many people will not have a house to go to or a family that would welcome them. Many will spend the day on the street lonely or alone. Some may attend public meals offered for little or no cost but they will remain nameless and unknown to those dishing out the food. Some may have a home and family but hardly have the finances to put out the feast that we traditionally picture (thanks Mr. Rockwell.) Instead, many may experience something similar to today’s featured artwork, The Thankful Poor, by Henry Ossawa Tanner. This got me thinking about the very different reality of Thanksgiving for a lot of people in light of our traditional expectations.

What happens when what’s on our table does not meet our expectations?

What happens when what’s on our neighbor’s table does not meet our expectations?

Can we be thankful? Can we show gratitude regardless of what’s on the table, who we are with or the circumstances of our neighbors?

There’s a nasty assumption that a full table is somehow blessed and a lean table is not. In thinking about this in light of our cultural expectations, blessings and gratitude my mind drifted to Jesus expectation-upending statements in the Sermon on the Mount. Especially the opening lines we refer to as the Beatitudes. Each line famously begins with “Blessed” or “Happy” depending on how your translation renders the Greek word μακάριος. I wondered how would our reading of it change if we read the first word as “Thankful”. We are typically thankful for our blessings so, could we be thankful in those circumstances that Jesus was pronouncing as blessed?

What would gratitude in those situations look like?

Thankful are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Thankful are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.

Thankful are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.

Thankful are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.

Thankful are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.

Thankful are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.

Thankful are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.

Thankful are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

How transformative would our faith actually be for us and our neighbors if we could be thankful in these ways?

This is world-changing (un)gratitude.

I call it (un)gratitude because it does not depend on table-filling blessing, but an unexpected and subversive gratitude that exists in spite of our cultural/economic expectations. The people and situations Jesus calls “blessed” in these verses are not typically those the world would consider blessed. Thus, they would not be expected to give much thanks in those situations.

However, if we ARE blessed in those situations, then we CAN offer thanksgiving and gratitude. It is quite subversive when we are gracious in spite of the seeming absence of blessing (i.e. as in today’s featured artwork). Through this (un)gratitude, difference in “blessing” should no longer serve to separate a full table from an empty table. Our thankfulness should not come from the fullness of our personal table, but through God’s provision for the World around the communal table established by Christ and served by the Church.

We are blessed when we have a table to sit at that welcomes the poor in spirit, those who are mourning, the meek and the merciful.

We are blessed when we come to the table with open arms to both share and receive blessings in peace.

We are blessed when we come to the table hungry for righteousness and not for a full belly.

For those blessings, we can always give thanks.

 

I am participating in the UncoSynchro blog, a writing collaborative effort from ‪#‎Unco14‬, focusing on subversive themes of faith and life. The theme for November is (Un)Gratitude. To read more reflections, check out UncoSynchro.

Ignoring the Burning Bush in the Room

I was sitting in a room with a bunch of ministry friends at the UNCO West 2013 conference.  In a discussion facilitated by the wonderful Shannon Meacham we gathered to talk about and brainstorm ways that worship could be more creative and meaningful.  We bandied about all sorts of ideas.  We discussed formal dress over casual dress.  We discussed how to involve hymns, modern praise, various instruments, congregational involvement, the theology behind our worship styles and everything in between.  Then, my good friend Tripp Hudgins started talking about an interaction he had with a member of his church.  They were talking about worship when the member dropped what I would respectfully consider a worship “grenade”.  According to Tripp, this member said:

“There’s a burning bush in our service and we don’t even know it.”

I wrote that little nugget down in my notebook.  I put a few asterisks around it and double underlined it.  If I had a red pen available I probably would have drawn a big circle around it or if I was feeling a little artistic may have drawn some flames.  This little sentence has buried itself deep between my ears and will not let go.  It stuck with me because I know that I will often miss the “burning bush” in a service.  For a refresher, lets look at the book of Exodus where this image of a burning bush shows up.

Moses was taking care of the flock for his father-in-law Jethro, Midian’s priest. He led his flock out to the edge of the desert, and he came to God’s mountain called Horeb. The Lord’s messenger appeared to him in a flame of fire in the middle of a bush. Moses saw that the bush was in flames, but it didn’t burn up. Then Moses said to himself, “Let me check out this amazing sight and find out why the bush isn’t burning up.”
When the Lord saw that he was coming to look, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!”
Moses said, “I’m here.”
Exodus 3:1-4 (CEB)

In the story, Moses is out tending his father-in-laws sheep when he comes across a bush that was on fire but was not burning up.  Seeing the bush, Moses is drawn to it and decides to go check “this amazing sight” out.  Once he gets close, the voice of the Lord calls out to Moses from the bush and Moses responds accordingly.  Moses had a choice to investigate the burning bush or dismiss it as an exception.

How often do we and miss, or refuse to see the glory of God burning in our midst?

Like I said before, I know I have done this a lot.  I have been in a few church services where I’ve silently critiqued the pastor or worship song choice.  I have also spent an inordinate amount of time looking at the stage setup, sound system, musical instruments and dress code of everyone on stage. Sometimes I have spent a whole service looking at anything and everything but the “burning bush.”  Sometimes I spend more time questioning the theological soundness of a sermon than actually trying to grasp what the pastor is trying to get across.

I have missed the “burning bush”.  And in missing the “burning bush” I have not taken the risk to come closer and actually hear the voice of God. This is so easy to do in our Western/American culture where we often go to churches looking for specific “goods’ and “services” rather than relationships and God.  We often look for good children and youth programs, a decent sounding worship band, people who dress the way we think we should dress in Church and a pastor who is engaging and charismatic (but not too challenging).  When we are not able to find those things we may just walk out the door and find a replacement church that we feel can meet our needs.

We walk out the door, past a burning bush, having never actually taken the time to draw near, investigate and listen.

The burning bush definitely did not fit Moses expectations of a bush that was burning. There was a fire, but the bush was not consumed. How often do we dismiss something because we expect or desire certain results?  We might look at a sanctuary and decide that it is not oriented to our exceptions so we walk out.  We might listen to a pastor and decide he did not preach in the way we like so we check out.  We might see that the church reads from a Bible translation that we are not used to so we speak out.

What if…what if we stopped disregarding the exceptions to our expectations and took the time to investigate? What if we opened ourselves up to be surprised in a church service? What if we did not come to church to be comforted and confirmed, but we came to be amazed and challenged?  What if we came expecting to find a burning bush in our midst?

A bush that burns, but is not consumed.  A flame that speaks the words of God.  Words that call out to us when we draw near.  Then, once we’ve drawn near we may begin to hear God’s voice and hear his desires for his people.

Hear God’s desire to save his people.

Hear God’s anguish for his people.

Hear God’s love for his people.

Hear God’s challenge for us to free his people.

There’s a burning bush here.  Do you see it?

I Am a Freelance Minister

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So, I’ve made one of my biggest changes in life and ministry outside of getting married and having a child.  As of last Sunday I stepped away from the church I have been attending regularly since I was born.  I have been actively involved and serving at the church since High School and served on staff as the youth pastor for seven years.  Recently I have been leading Sunday morning services as needed and have been teaching a regular Sunday school class.  Things have been good, very good as church life goes.  Visitors to our church say it is one of the most welcoming, we have had minimal drama,  consistent and awesome pastoral staff, and a generally great community of faith.  Some might think I am crazy to leave such a great community and there is a small piece of me that constantly says I’m crazy too.  However, I have been feeling a little restless over the past year after graduating from Fuller Theological Seminary and have been doing a lot of soul searching over what the next step might be.  I have applied to positions at other churches and nothing has really come to fruition.  For almost the past 5 years my 9-5, “payin-the-bills” job has not been with a church. The last year has been spent working in said non-church job while holding my Masters of Divinity from Fuller which when explained to my coworkers always elicits a confused tilt of the head and usually some questions about the church I attend. If I was honest with myself, I was usually questioning the whole situation myself.

I struggled with my desire to be identified as a minister (church work, Masters of Divinity) but always feeling like I had to identify or explain myself as my income was not derived from ministry work. When asked what I do for a living, I would explain my secular job first and then explain my volunteer ministry work second. I wished it was the other way around, but I felt compelled to identify myself from where my bread was buttered…and it slightly was depressing me. Then, I had a sort of epiphany.

I was attending the Unconference (Unco for short) at San Francisco Theological Seminary and we were discussing this temptation to identify ourselves by income stream and the confusion that arises when you try to do otherwise. Trying to explain that what you “do” is not where your money comes from can elicit equally confused head tilts that people were already giving me. But…if we truly feel called to this ministry thing, why should we identify ourselves any other way? Does our job as ministers have to be tied to our income stream? Is there an alternative? Thankfully, we agreed that there was, and my new friend Tripp Hudgins proposed the idea which I inspires this post today.

I am a freelance minister.

While, my 9-5 job may not be overtly ministry related (not within a church or with a church organization), I can always be a freelance minister.  In a way, I  always have but I have never really had a name for it.  Once people find out I’m a minister, they will usually start some kind of faith related discussion.  Some will ask me questions about family or friend issues, others will stop me in the hall asking for prayer. I have a sort of unofficial pastor status with many people here and I’ve never truly appreciated that role.  Funny thing is, I’ve done this with so many other things in my life and I’ve just never applied the concept to ministry.  I freelance photography and graphic design from time to time because they are things I enjoy.  Why not give the same consideration to ministry? So, as I move into this new path of the sacred journey I’m on (thanks Carol Howard Merritt), here is what being a freelance minister means to me:

  1. I am not limited to ministry in a special time and place.
    It’s easy to expect ministry to be done at church.  However, I think we sadly miss the opportunities for ministry outside the walls of a church building. My goal is to try and not miss those opportunities, especially at work and in my neighborhood.
  2. I am not limited to ministry with a special group/tribe/set of people.
    I interact with different groups of people all the time.  One of the things I’m uniquely positioned for now is to serve those groups in their own unique ways and maybe even try to bring them together from  time to time.  Sometimes, the people who need the most ministering to are those who wouldn’t set foot in a church on Sunday. I will try to not restrict my ministry perspective to people who enter a church or who know the language spoken there.
  3. I am not (should not and will try not to be) limited by income source as a validation of vocation and ministry.
    If this ministry thing is something I truly feel called to, then income shouldn’t be the way to validate it. Income and money can come from all sorts of places but I shouldn’t fall into the temptation that what I “do” is determined by what fills my wallet.  Perplexed head tilts aside, ministry effectiveness is rarely determined by financial success. Ministry is about people and as long as I am open to serving people, the opportunities will more than likely be endless.

When Jesus called his disciples, they left their homes, their families, their fishing nets and boats.  They left what was safe and their known source of income to follow around a poor traveling teacher. Jesus told them, “Don’t be afraid. From now on, you will be fishing for people.” (Luke 5:10).  As I step away from what I’ve known to be safe and reliable, there is a twinge of fear in my heart, as I’m sure there was with the disciples.  However, I pray that my eyes would be more open to the people and opportunities around me. I pray that I can learn to see people as Jesus taught his disciples to see them.  I pray that I will no longer define myself by my income but instead by the people I am able to serve and the lives I can touch.