Sunday, August 09, 2009

Goodbye Blogger

After 3+ years, it was time to make a change. The Expatriate Minister is now powered by and you can find me at my new home:

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See you there!

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Down on "religion" & up with "faith"?

I've noticed in a number of places the trend of opposing "religion" with "faith." Setting up these two concepts as foils--as in "religion does x badly, while faith is perfectly y"--might be catchy, but is terribly false.

The underlying concept seems to be something like religion, religiosity, etc. all have an institutional component which squeezes out the main point of belief. So I know many Christians who refuse to describe or understand their belief as "religion," in either a descriptive or normative sense. However, to speak about Christian belief as non-religious ("we're a faith") is disingenuous. It masks the institutional qualities which the Christian faith not only posseses now, but has since apostolic times. In every form/time/place, there is leadership, doctrine, and ministries--all of which are institutional, supposedly "religious" characteristics.

Furthermore, describing Christian belief as only a "faith" panders to those who believe that you can be "spiritual," whatever that means, without being "religious." Christian faith is a robust expression that encompasses heart, head, and hands, which cannot be lived out without a vital connection to others in a community of faith. To portray a "me & Jesus faith" (which admittedly many are hawking on street corners and in Starbucks) is a vapid and shallow expression of what is intended to be dynamic and engaging. If we want to talk about institutionalism or fossilization, about what our call and mission is...well, that would be great. But to disparage religion as if it is ossified by virtue of what it is is just smoke and mirrors.

If we would speak of religion, let's begin with etymology. Our English word is derived from the Latin religio, which means "to bind." Think about what religion does for believers. What does "religion" actually describe?

When I talk at the university about religious belief (to a diverse and usually skeptical audience), I generally ask these questions:
What binds us to nature/the created order?
What binds us to one another?
What binds us to God/ultimate reality?
Answering these questions move us away from the false dichotomy of religion/faith, and toward a deeper appreciation of what religion attempts to accomplish.

Moreover, it exposes the fact that human beings naturally ask these big questions. In this sense, we are homo religious. This is why the academic study of religion has an important role to play at universities and colleges. Unfortunately, many state schools--including the institution I serve--have an anemic department at best.

This approach to "religion" reminds us that you don't have to be an adherent of a religion to possess religious beliefs. Not a fervent believer in God? You can still hold religious beliefs deeply. In fact, the most secular scientist will have a strong grasp on humanity's place in the universe. That's a religious belief.

To make religion and faith into polar opposites is just plain silly. Let's start thinking about what we believe about who were are and where we are, and see how that might actually draw us closer together. It might turn out that we're bound together in ways that would surprise us!

Friday, July 31, 2009

"Let no place in me hold itself closed..."

For some reason, reading poetry seems the perfect way to end the day. Rainer Maria Rilke's The Book of Hours is especially appropriate in the last, dark hours. Written at the turn of the last century, it is as powerful in the first decade of this one. I am quite taken with this particular poem, and I hope you are as mesmerized by it as I am this evening.

I'm too alone in the world, yet not alone enough
to make each hour holy.
I'm too small in the world, yet not small enough
to be simply in your presence, like a thing--
just as it is.

I want to know my own will
and to move with it.
And I want, in the hushed moments
when the nameless draws near,
to be among the wise ones--
or alone.

I want to mirror your immensity.
I want never to be too weak or too old
to bear the heavy, lurching image of you.

I want to unfold.
Let not place in me hold itself closed,
for where I am closed, I am false.
I want to stay clear in your sight.

I would describe myself
like a landscape I've studied
at length, in detail;
like a word I'm coming to understand;
like a pitcher I pour from at mealtime;
like my mother's face;
like a ship that carried me
when the waters raged.

Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to God
. I, 13. Anita Barrows & Joanna Macy, trans. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996, 2005.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Twitter and Mission Fields

In "The Goal of Twitter's New Homepage?" the social media gurus at Mashable suggest that Twitter is expanding their horizons: rather than being a network all about you, what you're doing, what your friends are doing, and what

BTW, my standard defense of Twitter is that it is a place to engage real people and their ideas. Twitter puts a human face on events like The Episcopal Church's General Convention, on corporate behemoths like Southwest Airlines and Starbucks, and engages in inventive pastoral care and liturgical expression: look at @TheUrbanAbbey @butterflybeacon @twiturgies and others. I read people's blogs, laugh at their pictures, read news stories and commentary they find interesting or challenging, and often enter into a conversation that responds to John Wesley's question: "How is it with your soul?"

I have a longer thought developing about why Twitter is really useful, but Mashable's take on Twitter's new homepage reflects good ecclesiological practice as well. We ought to be moving away from an exclusively individual-centered church towards one which is attentive to a broader mssion field:

Emphasizing that Twitter is the world’s platform for realtime information, for being connected to the entire world, is a savvy move on the part of Twitter....Branding Twitter as the one place where you are plugged in to the collective world makes it tougher to ignore. You can say “I don’t feel like updating people on my life,” but it’s far tougher to say “I don’t care about what’s happening in the world.”

What would it take for the church to say, "I don't feel like catering to the worries in my own life...I care about mending the world!" ? This shift in emphasis means not just a re-branding move, like changing from the SciFi channel to SyFy, but making an enormous culture shift. It means moving past the toddler "me me me" stage to the point where we mature into the body of Christ building one another up so that we may all come to the fullness of faith and full stature of Christ (cf Ephesians 4).

What kind of faith do we inculcate? Are we just asking, "How are you doing?" Or are we caring about what's happening in God's world?

Monday, June 29, 2009

Where Does God Happen?

At the top of the list of things Josh wrestles with in his own life is my uneasiness within myself as I relate to other people. Whether it's because I was raised in a loving-yet-high-expectation environment, mocked throughout my school years for my nerdiness (evidence of which has always been in abundance!), or my own conviction within myself that I have a major role to play in this world...I can't help but be anxious about how I relate to others.

My own knowledge of myself is remarkably limited...self-awareness is not one of my strong suits, and I've never been good socially. And, of course, this is intimately related to how well I can relate to and understand another human being. How this relates to our salvation, witness, and life in the Spirit is the concern of Rowan Williams' excellent Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another.

This litle book is actually a reflection upon the contemporary state of society and the church through the lens of the Desert Fathers & Mothers, and he relies heavily upon Benedicta Ward's excellent translation of the Sayings, for it is liberally sprinkled with statements and anecdotes illuminating a monastic vocation both dramatically different from our common life and remarkably desirable. Williams begins with the father of desert monasticism, St Anthony, and his interlinked concern with salvation and communal relationships:

Our life and death is with our neighbor. If we win our brother, we win God. If we cause our brother to stumble, we have sinned against Christ. (13)

And this theme of life & death & the neighbor doesn't just frame the opening chapter but the entire book. Self-examination, righting our broken relationships with God & neighbor, the balance between justice and mercy, and sitting in judgement (or accountability!) are all radically re-framed by Williams' exegesis of Scripture and the exemplary desert monastics. He then describes becoming a person (rather than individual or mindless automaton) before taking on the central tension between flight and stability in the last two chapters. An appendix contains some relevant selections from the sayings themselves.

The question that Where God Happens raised for me throughout has to do with the relationship between the type of faith encouraged by Williams and his monastic forbears and the current communities of faith most of us find ourselves in. To say that this type of reflection, action, and comprehension would be alien to the churches I'm associated with is an understatement. I'm forced to wonder: "Does this presume a more rigorous community that is throughly familiar with and committed to a Biblical/gospel faith?"

Or is this putting the cart before the horse? Perhaps all it takes is a St Anthony figure who is willing to live life with others, yet in isolation, to begin the transformative work in a local church or community. Williams proposes that we consider not a casuistic approach to ethics (in which you have a certain scenario, and then a set of responses) but a virtue-ethics approach which focuses on shaping character rather than outcomes. This is why Williams understands the church's blessing on life-long commitments such as marriage and ordination vows (and monastic vows): those who take them "are bound to the patient, long-term discovery of what grace will do with them" (67).

So I am not surprised that Williams, despite his position as Archbishop of Canterbury and spiritual leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, observes that "the church is always renewed from the edges rather than from the center. There is a limit to what the institutional church can do" (111). The priorities of being church as Jesus calls his disciples to be church are always at least in danger of being displaced (if it's not already happening) by the values of being a self-perserving, continuing institution. If anyone understands this better than Williams, their address must have Vatican City in it. So we return to the need for Church (whether local or global) to have renewal elements which call us back to the dirty here-and-now, the unpolished enfleshed existence which is but our raw material--not the end product.

Where God Happens is a difficult and challenging read, despite its lack of theological insider-language and brevity. It is precisely the kind of book which will haunt me for a long time after its reading, for its incisive description of human nature (my nature) as well as its insistence on the basic shape of the Kingdom of God and salvation. Williams reminds us that in the Christian life, "the goal is reconcilation with God by way of this combination of truth and heal by solidarity, not condemnation" (19, 20).

Living Theologians!

"Ten living practical theologians who have changed my own faith and life and why you should read them too" would be the subtitle of this post, if Blogger would let me do that...

A few caveats on this list: I have read more than one thing by each of these authors. There are some great things out there that I would love to put on this list (Elaine Heath's life-changing The Mystic Way of Evangelism, for example) but this list reflects a consistently transformative oeuvre for these authors. Also, this is a list of people alive when I wrote this piece. I am sorely tempted to add Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr., but to be fair, then I'd have to extend it back 2,000 years, and that's too much trouble right now!

Final note, the list is in alphabetical order merely because it would be a nightmare trying to rank them all. So without further ado, here are my picks for "Living Theologians!"

Rob Bell
He betrays an enthusiastic evangelical heart that is evident both in his media efforts like the NOOMA videos and the "Everything is Spiritual" tour as well as in his book-length offerings Velvet Elvis and SexGod. He rarely settles for the easy answers yet makes it look effortless as he exegetes a troublesome or over-familiar Biblical passage with a timely and fresh approach.

Frederick Buechner
Both his witty miscellanies of faith (Peculiar Treasures etc.) and his extended literary meditations on the ordinary holiness (Godric is perhaps the best-known) are full of God's laughter and laced with human finitude. I particularly recommend Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale as one of the most formative things I've read on preaching and ministry.

Richard Foster
I first met Foster's classic work in college, browsing through my nearby Cokesbury store for things I had heard other people talk about but hadn't yet read. In the 10 years since then, I probably have read Celebration of Discipline a half-dozen times, and taught it on multiple continents. His commitment to the development of the interior life (and its outward effects) brings me back to the living heart of the Christian faith time and again. Streams of Living Water, Prayer, and other Renovare' resources are excellent reads as well.

Gordon Lathrop
Perhaps not well known outside of Lutheran or liturgical-theology circles, Lathrop is an extremely conventional theologian in the sense that he tackles a particular area of theology and seizes it with the determination of a small dog. Yet he manages to do so with outdoorsy, ecumenical insights that yield unconventional thoughts. Lathrop's excellent reflection on the clerical vocation The Pastor and his trilogy of liturgical explorations (Holy Things, Holy People, Holy Ground) are some of the best things I was introduced to while in seminary.

Eugene Peterson
Perhaps best known for his paraphrase of the Bible known as The Message, Peterson writes with a prophetic, graceful word for pastors, lay leaders, and the whole flock of the faithful. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (reflections on the Psalms of Ascent which began The Message project) and Under the Unpredictable Plant display his fervor for the ministry of the local church and the conviction that is to be done under the influence of God alone.

Marilynne Robinson
With the partial exception of Buechner, Robinson is the only fiction author on my list. Her Gilead was nothing short of a masterpiece, and I'm beginning the follow-up, Home, which takes up the story of an Iowa town a generation or two later. Her study of theology and the life of "middle America" is harnassed by a soaring, piercing beauty which punctuates ever page.

Don Saliers
I had the delight of studying with Don at Candler, and he more than any other person I've met cultivated the sense of beauty and wonder that is present in liturgy, theology, and The Soul in Paraphrase is an excellent study of prayer and heart-language via Jonathan Edwards; Worship and Spirituality is the most delightful exposition of those two pieces of the life of faith that I've ever read; and A Song to Sing, A Life to Live is a conversation with his daughter Emily (of the Indigo Girls) on the deep relationships Saturday night concerts have with Sunday morning worship.

Barbara Brown Taylor
She is better known for her preaching, but her reflections on the intersection of Christian vocation and ordinary life such as The Preaching Life and Leaving Church are poetry in prose. I really can't describe them justly: go read for yourself!
Miroslav Volf
Exclusion and Embrace is a book that many of us read while in seminary, but it was his 2006 Lent book Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace that really made an impact on my own life, highlighting the ways in which we fail to give as God gives as well as forgive as Jesus does. (It's also an excellent commentary on Luther on Paul). It is a must-read for pastors and church members who want to understand what is at the heart of God's character.

Rowan Williams
The Archbishop of Canterbury is not just the spiritual leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, but he is also an engaging and thoughtful author. He isn't afraid to let his scholarly credentials shine (he was highly regarded as a theology professor before his episcopal career began), but it always does so in service to the church. I particularly enjoyed Where God Happens (reviewed on The Expatriate Minister here) and Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief, which began life as a series of Holy Week talks on the Nicene Creed.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on these authors (and corrections to the list!)....

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Asking the Right Questions (6 of them)

As a pastor, I often get asked the question: "So how do I know what God wants me to do?" And the answer I give is pretty much the standard issue one: pray + read your Bible + listen to the wisdom of the people God gave you + use your own common sense. But there's another step in there which has to happen before you can even begin the hard work of discernment.

You have to ask the right questions.

Let's think about it this way: if you are thinking about transportation, and you want to know the answer to the question "Does God want me to buy this Lexus or that Hummer?" then chances are you aren't going to be hearing God speak clearly because you haven't asked the right question. You've already narrowed the parameters so much that the Holy Spirit got marginalized. You haven't asked "Does God want me to get a car," or "Do I need to consider alternative transportation," you haven't asked the hard questions about how to spend the money you may or may not have, and you haven't asked any justice or righteousness questions (environment, workers' issues, etc.). Too often, the task of discernment is either too frustrating or too easy because we don't ask the right kinds of questions.

We've been engaged in a prayer journey over the past 38 1/2 days, and that will end this week. To immediately assume that because we spent 40 days praying, reading our Bibles, talking amongst ourselves, and using our common sense we are ready to fix the broken things in our churches would be presumptuous. These are the kinds of conversations I had with my best friends in seminary, and are still somewhat amusing, but don't take into account the real world in which we must do our ministry.

"40 Days of Prayer for the United Methodist Church" has been a convicting, heartening, difficult, joyous time. But before we begin the hard work of semper reformanda, we must ensure our premises and our questions are sound, and that they rest upon the cornerstone of Jesus Christ, else the building will--sooner or later--come crashing down around our heads.

So, you're invited to help discern what the right questions might be. Join us in asking "6 Questions for the United Methodist Church"--or 6qUMC--today. You can find more information at and we hope that you will help renew the church from the margins.

Invite two friends to join you as you listen and converse. We're ready to begin asking the right questions.

For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.
Matthew 18:20

Monday, June 22, 2009

"No Simple Language"

I stumbled across an old favorite album as I made my way home on Saturday after a week at church camp. I probably haven't listened to the first Jars of Clay effort in its entirety in about 10 years, but I think it still holds its age about as well as any Christian album I've ever heard (with only "Jesus Freak" by dc Talk as a peer). The eclectic instrumentation, piercing poetry for the lyrics, and sheer joy that shines through it differentiated it from both the mainstream alternative of the '90s and from its contemporaries in the Christian Music camp.

"Flood" may have been the most popular song on the album, with its heavy alternative feel--and it's probably one of the biggest reasons for Jars' crossover appeal--but the one that remains my favorite is "Love Song for a Savior." Towards the beginning of the song, it tells us that "she loves the daisies and the roses/no simple language/someday she'll understand/the meaning of it all..."

I don't just love this song because of my history with it in the formative years of my faith, nor for the fact that I can see my two-year-old daughter with this kind of delight and potential and hope. I also love it for the sheer poetry that opens up the whole of my interior world for reflection.

Doesn't good poetry do that for us? Far from the simplistic rhymed couplets which most amateur poets inflict upon us, a good Shakespearean sonnet (or his blank verse, for that matter) or the horribly-absent-all-punctuation e e cummings delight and dumbfound us. Rabindranath Tagore, Constanstine Cavafy, Rilke, R S Thomas, T S Eliot, Emily Dickenson, Keats, Lewis Carroll, and many more have been my guides through life since I was read to as a little child.

There are poets, too, whose songs are matched with Augustine says, "The one who sings prays twice." Amongst these are James Taylor, U2, Jim Croce, Simon & Garfunkel, Sting, the Beatles, Stephen Foster, our aforementioned friends Jars of Clay...well, add your own to the list.

The Bible gives us a great deal of poetry, even in its prose. And I've discovered that poetry makes the quest for understanding slippery and difficult, for every meaning has its mirror and shadow. A poetic faith as related in the Revelation to John means something entirely more difficult, more beautiful, more timely than a prosaic reading of it would lead you to believe. An attempt to flatten the raw beauty and sexual power of the Song of Songs into only an allegorical or literal reading constrains the text and Spirit in a way that the lovers in the verse refuse to allow. And when Jesus speaks poetically of the need to be born "from above," the flat and simple faith of Nicodemus begins to take on a texture and richness both true and terrifying.

As I spent time at camp this week, we thought together with teenagers and grown-ups about being connected in faith to God and each other, and many of us reflected on how that informs our interpreting the Bible. Are we reading it just for the head-knowledge of concrete doctrine...or do we allow it to grab hold of us and plunge us into a new world where we become "lost in wonder, love, and praise" ?

Another one of my favorites, Welsh priest & poet R S Thomas commented, “Poetry is that which arrives at the intellect by way of the heart.” May the poetry of life and faith so shape the thoughts of our hearts into no simple language!