Monthly Archives: November 2006

Joining the Conversation

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(Originally posted Nov 13, 2006 on randehle.com) Many of the leading voices in the emerging church prefer the term “conversation” to “movement.” In that vein, D.A. Carson has attempted to join the discussion with his book, Becoming Conversant With The Emerging Church (Zondervan, 2005). In his preface, Carson writes, “Whenever a Christian movement comes along that presents itself as reformist, it should not be summarily dismissed.” He expresses his desire to engage in the conversation in a manner that encourages mutual learning – certainly an admirable and necessary aim.

It strikes me as unfortunate, then, that Carson’s book is so clearly biased against the emerging church; so much so that I am afraid he has struck down any real hope for bilateral communication. For example, consider the scathing remarks of my friend and seminary classmate, Dustin, in response to what Carson has written: “[It] should have the subtitle ‘Why I despise Brian Mclaren[sic] and why everything he thinks is wrong.’ …most of the accusations posed in the book are simply untrue.” (For whatever it’s worth, I find Dustin’s comments no more beneficial to healthy dialogue than what Carson has written.)

From the initial pages, Carson expresses his desire to engage in a well-reasoned and balanced conversation about substantive areas of difference as well as agreement. If he has fallen short of the target, as I believe he has, then what may be needed in place of his work? First, it is necessary to establish the foundation upon which the conversation will be based. It would be easy to say that the Bible is our foundation but among theologians, that is so simplistic as to be meaningless. After all, a key element of Emergent involves reevaluating how the Bible is to be read and understood. It has long been difficult for us evangelicals to reduce our core beliefs – what we consider the essentials of faith – to a bare minimum. Whether it is the mode of baptism, the meaning and significance of the Lord’s Supper, or the form of church government, we tend to define our position, draw the battle lines, and take a firm stand in defense of those beliefs. Those in the emerging church, on the other hand, may not only hold different views of those core beliefs, but even consider them as so non-essential as to be essentially insignificant…to which we respond with a shocked gasp, a disgusted rolling of the eyes, and a quick about-face. As evangelicals, we need to instead respond with the grace of a counselor who at times must mask his disgust at his patient’s behavior if he is to help him overcome that behavior. We must remain at the table and reason through our faith; as Peter exhorted, we must “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Peter 3:15)

Likewise, those in the emerging church who tend toward a carte blanche rejection of all that has preceded them must put aside such prejudices and listen attentively to those who have truly investigated and become prayerfully convinced of their convictions. When a couple become parents for the first time, it can be tempting to reject all the methods of their parents, believing they can do a better job raising their own children. Wisdom suggests otherwise; wisdom would have the young parents thoughtfully consider both what their own parents did well and what they did poorly, then emulate the former even as they seek to avoid the latter. And in this they must recognize that they, too, will make mistakes…which their own children will one day need to redeem.

Finally, engaging in a mutually-beneficial dialogue will require that evangelicals recognize the value in allowing for uncertainty while emergents recognize a similar value in certainty. Key to both of these is appropriately – and biblically – determining where to allow for uncertainty and where to look for certainty. Let us consider two examples, baptism and homosexuality. In baptism, is it really essential that an individual be completely soaked – especially if, as most evangelicals believe, baptism is purely symbolic and has no effect on salvation? Many times I have seen someone immersed whose head didn’t quite go all the way under the water. Does she, like the mythical Achilles, somehow have a spiritual weak spot as a result? Or could it be that in our desire to stay true to the most accurate translation of the word baptize, we have become like the Pharisees who so narrowly defined exactly how much work was allowed to be done on the Sabbath without breaking the fourth commandment?

In choosing the topic of homosexuality as my second example, I recognize that I face the great risk of having the rest of my comments overlooked and of having the reader focus only on expressing their own views on this important but controversial topic. I beg you to flee that temptation and remember that I am merely using this as an example of an area that many in the emerging church are viewing with a measure of uncertainty. Could it be, however, that God really does detest homosexuality as much as our English translations of the Bible suggest? Scripture is certainly unambiguous about God’s hatred of sin; no less certain is the biblical mandate that my attitude and behavior toward a homosexual – or any other sinner – be constrained by God’s grace as exemplified by the life and teachings of Jesus, such as his words to the woman caught in adultery (John 8). Thus constrained, is it really so harmful to conclude from diligent study that homosexuality is sinful? Perhaps not.

If the church in any of its manifestations is to reclaim its place in God’s redemptive plan for a world separated from him, then we must work together as the body that we are – and that means that the various parts of the body must communicate – with each other and with the world around us – in grace and truth. Doing so will require from all sides that we put off our personal prejudices, our biases, our preferences, and that we learn to communicate much as a missionary does: crossing barriers of culture, language, and theology, and so opening the doors to meaningful, life-changing dialogue focused on the eternally life-changing message of salvation in Jesus Christ.

Consideratio

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I am a contemplative by nature, but a rushed one. The demands of life in the 21st century – as husband, father of three, employee/manager, graduate student, lay minister – compel me to action, sometimes to a flurry of activity. Reading of some early church fathers impressed me with their strong calls to balance between the contemplative lives they preferred and the active lives demanded by their roles as pastor. Pope Gregory the Great called this balance consideratio. Both John Chrysostom and Gregory of Nazianzus, in the 4th century, at first fled the call to pastoral ministry, preferring the monastic life that would allow them to pursue the study of God’s word and the prayerful meditation they believed so necessary for holy living in a corrupt and decaying world. Yet for both of these men, the compulsion of God’s call to ministry (i.e., to service) drew them out of the monastery and into the torrent of life where they would face the grime and dirt and bruises and messes of people who, too, need to learn to live holy lives. Within this torrent, though, these early pastors sought to find times of solace and refuge where they could meet deeply and meaningfully with God in order to restore their souls and find new energy and purpose before returning to the rapids.

It is certain that life has become far more harried – and hurried – over the centuries. The world is not only continually changing; the speed of change itself is increasing exponentially. The face of ministry is changing on pace with the rest of life. In our (right and appropriate) desire to stay relevant to a world in constant transition, we find ourselves racing just to maintain that pace, let alone anticipate and possibly precede it. I suspect that most of us involved in ministry – while recognizing the need for balance between contemplation and activity – tend to err on the side of activity. Some of us are by nature Type-A, driven, task-oriented people, so action comes easier to us. Others are introspective and meditative…yet we still feel the need to perform. The motivation toward tasks and activities may come from within (our driven personalities) or from without (e.g., from the expectations of others), but the truth is that most of us probably find ourselves caught between the whitewater in the river valley and the peace of the mountaintop monastery.

Talk is Cheap (or is it)?

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(Originally posted Nov 1, 2006 on randehle.com.) I’m sure you’ve heard this. Usually it is meant to express doubt that someone will follow through on what they’ve said. We may be extra sensitive to this right now, with elections just a few days away; it seems that every candidate claims the high ground by focusing on their own promises kept and their opponents’ broken promises. But when was the last time you actually believed a promise made by a political candidate? If you are anything like me, you expect the promises to be broken, if you pay any attention at all to them.

Talk becomes cheap when our lives don’t match our words. Paul warned Titus of this, speaking of people he described as corrupted and unbelieving: “They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him.” (Titus 1:16, NIV) Yet there is another aspect, as well, and that is in our choice of words. We do this by overusing or misusing two kinds of words: First, words that should have special meaning or significance; and second, words that are profane or vulgar (or stand-ins for them).

I was driving through town last week when Megan, my four-year-old, looked out the window and exclaimed, “awe-some!” I don’t know what she saw that so gripped her, but I knew she had little idea what she was saying and certainly no recognition of the real value of the word. As all young children do, she was simply parroting her older brother and sister; she has learned from watching and listening to her siblings that when we drive, it is appropriate to look out the window and exclaim, “awesome!” with a degree of enthusiasm. But was whatever she saw – or whatever the older two generally remark likewise about – truly inspiring awe, “A mixed emotion of reverence, respect, dread, and wonder inspired by authority, genius, great beauty, sublimity, or might”? (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/awe) Probably not. And I’m sure that none of my kids knew (before I told them) that in the Bible, the words awe and awesome are used almost exclusively for God, his works, or his messengers.

The second trend I hear – and it is more prevalent and disturbing than the first – is the casual use of words that not many years ago would have been considered vulgar or profane. We see this in media; words that in 1980 would have condemned a movie to an R rating are heard today in PG movies. The hit show Everybody Loves Raymond carries a TV-PG rating for language because one of the lead characters can’t seem to finish a sentence without saying hell, crap, or god. Walk into…well, just about anywhere…and you’ll probably find someone who punctuates every utterance with profanity. I expected it in when I was in college and the military, but was naively surprised to have found the same language in the professional offices I inhabited for a dozen years.

I am disturbed to find this trend increasing as much within the Christian community as outside it. We have adopted alternatives to some of the “hard core” words, thinking that they are less offensive to our listeners, but I wonder if we have considered whether God might be offended. But maybe that’s not even the right question. Maybe it’s not enough to just not offend him; maybe we need to ask whether God is glorified in our language. I will readily confess that I need to ask this question myself. A number of circumstances over the past few years have led me away from the staunch conservatism of my youth and toward freer expression of myself. At times, that freedom has been expressed verbally, using words that I never would have even thought to utter five or ten years ago. But perhaps in wandering away from any legalistic bent of the past, my liberty has sunk into license.

During a stint in the Air Force in the mid-1980s, I sat in an adult Sunday School class in which the teacher suggested that even saying darn instead of damn, or fudge instead of … well, you know the alternative – violates the command to not take God’s name in vain. I didn’t agree with him then and I don’t think I do today, either. But neither do I think that our standard is simply, “Is it sin?” As Paul wrote – twice – to the Corinthians, “everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial.” (1 Cor 6:12, 10:23) James says that “we who teach will be judged more strictly.” (James 3:1) Don’t these words suggest that we as Christ-followers – and especially as church leaders – need to be very careful about our words? And not only the message of our words, but the individual words themselves.

I know that word meanings evolve with time and use, and that words have different meanings within distinct cultural settings. Anyone who has listened to middle schoolers for any length of time has seen that evolution. Bad, sick, cool, awesome; all mean essentially the same thing to a sixth grader, and none means anything close to its etymological root. I wonder, though: Is there a legitimate need to regain some of the value of words?

How does this devaluing of language impact us as Christ-followers, and especially those of us who would be church leaders? Do you need to watch your tongue?