At 52 years of age, I am still in school. I am writing a dissertation right now for a PhD in congregational mission and leadership from Luther Seminary. There has seldom been a time in my adult life when I haven’t been taking classes. I finished an MA right out of my undergrad experience, but then slowly accumulated hours and degrees over the years. This has, in many ways, turned out to be a really rich way to get an education. The principle reason, I think, is that I was taking classes while I was in a ministry context.
When I read Luke Timothy Johnson’s, Decision Making in the Church (now Scripture and Discernment), I was able to apply it immediately to situations I was encountering in my ministry role. When I encountered the raft of important essays in The Church Between Gospel and Culture, my first foot into “missional” readings, their importance was immediately apparent because of the challenges I faced doing ministry in the missional context of the Pacific Northwest.
I think what I was experiencing was a learning environment that in many ways overcame the theory-praxis split built in to much ministry training. Let me explain. By this I simply mean that in recent ministry education (the last 200 years) information came before application. In fact, if you thought first about what to do (praxis) it would corrupt your pursuit for the right information which existed above and prior to practice. So, when I went to grad school, my first few years were loaded with “advanced intro” classes. I took Advanced Intro NT, Advanced Intro OT, Systematic 1, Church History 1, Biblical Greek and Hebrew, etc. Ministry classes (praxis) came only after these “theory” classes were completed. At the seminary where I taught for eight years, Intro to Ministry was not taken in the regular sequence of classes until the final year of the MDiv. Theory came first and dominated the curriculum. Praxis last.
Now, I loved my “theory” classes. I am so thankful for the chance to sit at the feet of great biblical scholars and watch them get after texts. I want to be clear: my imagination for ministry came in many ways from these classes. But there are significant problems with this approach to ministry preparation. I will limit myself to three here.
First, though none of my professors or colleagues would own this or desire this and fought in many ways to overcome it, it encourages a view of ministry that is primarily about getting information right, not getting lives right.
Second, and related to this, it fosters a view of the minister as the “answer man.” I was guilty of the sins of young ministers equipped with a seminary education who think that what the church is dying for is all the information I had gathered in all the research papers I had written. The big problem here is that the congregation is seen primarily as the place where I apply all of my theology, instead of as a primary location where theology is practiced by a community of God’s people.
Third, and perhaps biggest, is that we received all of this valuable information in the clean room of a seminary classroom. Many seminary grads are shocked to encounter real life congregations and are for the first time to be using live ammo in a bewildering set of circumstances. It’s no wonder that ministers and members alike are victims of friendly fire.
So, in our little experiment in ministry training at Rochester College, you can’t be admitted unless you have signed consent to do projects within a ministry setting. Every course, whether a NT or OT course, or a history and theology course, or a ministry course is concerned that the course content immediately engage an actual ministry setting.
We’re still delivering big content. Our students will read Brueggemann, Volf, Luke Timothy Johnson, Moltmann, Bosch, and other significant works. But they are reading these works within the immediacy of their ministry contexts. They are not simply accumulating “theory” that they will one day “apply” (praxis), but their theory and praxis are immediately mutually informing.
This is of course only possible if students don’t have to pull up stakes and spend a three year residency on a seminary campus. Again, I worried about the loss of this concentrated time with other ministers in training, surely one of the biggest plusses of a traditional MDiv. But for the sake of a more productive learning environment we were willing to give it our best try. And that meant online learning.
Most of the work our students do is on-line. They are required to be face-to-face with each other and program faculty one week per semester. The rest is online. As a result, we have youth ministers and campus ministers and preaching ministers and elders and new monastics and church volunteers and social workers, from Michigan and Ohio and California and Texas and Tennessee and Oklahoma and Brazil, putting Volf and Brueggemann and Johnson to immediate use. And I think the learning is thick and meaningful as a result of the rich environments that our students bring with them to the learning. I know our students think so.
Okay, last post on the Incarnation…maybe.
I like to work in coffee shops. Being an extrovert, I like to sit among people with my headphones on while reading, writing, emailing, or whatever my day has laid before me. It makes me feel as though I’m in community, even if I’m not really. Since I have started a graduate studies program in Missional Leadership back in August at Rochester College (which I HIGHLY recommend), I’ve been spending a lot of time in my local coffee shop. It’s a good place to get some work done and not have my two kids pulling my attention away. A lot of my coffee shop reading this semester has led me to a simple, yet profound thought: the need to listen.
The director of my master’s program and one of my favorite theologians and professors is Dr. Mark Love. Dr. Love has taught me this semester the need for listening leaders. Listening is not my best quality. While working through thoughts on listening this semester, I realized just how bad of a listener I am. I don’t think it is just something I struggle with. I’ve been attentive to this recently and noticed listening is not a common trait in our culture. It seems that most of my listening time is really spent preparing my next thought that I want to share. I have realized how selfish I can be and that I seem more concerned with what I have to say than with what others are saying to me. Rather than listening to what others have to offer and say, I have been acting as though I have the answers and thoughts that they need to hear.
I have been thinking a great deal over the past two weeks about the Incarnation and what it means for God to come, assume flesh and blood, and move into our neighborhoods. Creator God comes and allows us to host him. He lives among us. So, I have had this thought going along with Dr. Love helping to shape my thoughts on the world around me and how we go to them. How do we go to world? We go just like God came to us. In fact, one of the things my studies have taught me this semester is that we don’t go to them; we go with them and for them. That’s exactly what God does with us. What would it look like for my community to host me? Can I put myself out there like that?
So, I think there is a link between listening and living incarnationally. I was always taught that my purpose was to take a preset plan of evangelism to the world. I have things to teach and tell them and they need to hear me. What I have learned recently is that maybe sometimes I should go without thoughts of what I need and want to say. Rather, I should go and hear what they have to say and what the Holy Spirit might be doing. I should let my community host me. I should listen and see what God is up to in this person’s life and leave some room for the Holy Spirit to do work, rather than me being the one with answers.
I’m going to keep going to coffee shops. I like to work there and I love coffee. However, I’m going to try something new. I’m going to work without the headphones sometimes and leave space for people around me. I’m going to be praying for God to create a listening opportunity for me. I’m not going to worry about what I will say. I want to practice listening to what they have to say. Just like God came over 2,000 years ago and moved into our neighborhood, I want to try and do the same in mine. So I want to practice this listening experiment and see where it goes. Want to join me?
Perhaps this title is a little too strong for this post. It sounds so bold and sophisticated, and I am not even certain if it is entirely correct. However, I like that phrase “in-breaking Kingdom” and I want to explore it for a minute. I’ve been using it a lot with my friends in our conversations about God. It has also been on my mind a lot over the past couple of weeks as I think about God’s Kingdom breaking into our world through the God-child Jesus. I believe the birth of Christ and God coming in the form of human flesh is God establishing his Kingdom on this earth. It is God’s world breaking into the midst of ours. So, what does that look like? Again, I’m treading into territory that I don’t fully know. I may take a few wrong steps here, but I want to walk it anyway.
Every Thursday morning I meet with a group of guys at 6:15 for breakfast, coffee, prayer, fellowship, and the Word. Sometimes something profound is said that sticks with me. Always, the friendships encourage me and stay with me throughout my day. Today, a simple act was done that I believe was profound and will be with me for a while.
My friend Karl attends this prayer breakfast every week. Karl is a really neat individual who’s story is one from running on the streets in Pittsburgh as a young man to now running a nonprofit organization in Midland TX for teenage boys who are in the juvenile system. He gives these kids an alternative to the court systems and offers them a second chance at life. Today, Karl asked us to pray for and spread the word that they need belts; just plain old belts to help the boys keep their pants up because they are getting in trouble for sagging. It only takes a few seconds after this request before my other friend Nathan pulls his belt off and throws it across the table to Karl. And then it only takes a few more seconds before every person in that room that came with a belt was going to leave without one.
Now, you may read that story and think, “What’s the big deal? That was just a nice gesture by a group of guys.” Maybe that’s all it was. However, I would like to propose that the simple act of those guys removing their belts and handing them off to a few teenage boys who needed them was a moment I would call the “in-breaking of God’s Kingdom”. It was a moment of God’s future entering our present. The whole nonprofit that Karl runs is God’s alternative future for a group of boys who only know a hopeless and broken present.
So, when I speak of God’s Kingdom breaking in through the Incarnation, I’m referring sometimes to very simple acts. I know that we often see the huge and glaring moments. Sometimes they are moments when organizations are formed that feed the hungry and help the poor, like the Salvation Army. Sometimes they are moments when a victim forgives a heinous sin committed against them. Sometimes they are the moments when a wife forgives a cheating husband. They are the moments when a family adopts a child who would otherwise never know the love of parents. And, sometimes they are simple moments when a group of guys take off their belts and give them to a group of teenage boys who need them.
Everyday God’s Kingdom has a chance to break into this world. The most exciting thing is, we get to be a part of that in-breaking Kingdom.
I love a good “spiritual high”, although I really hate that term. I first experienced something like this as a teenager. I would go on these youth retreats or mission trips and really feel something happening in and to me. I would leave all jacked up on Jesus. Shortly after my return, those feelings would fade and I remember feeling inadequate or as if my relationship with Jesus was gone until the next dose of the Spirit was found at the next big event. This pattern defined my relationship with God for a very long time and I didn’t know what to do with it. I felt “un-Christian” at times. If I wasn’t “feeling” it, I assumed it wasn’t real.
This is not very deep and profound, but it’s on my heart today so I thought I would share. So, I’m sitting here today preparing a sermon for this Sunday. You would think I would be “feeling” it, but you know what? I’m not feeling it. I haven’t felt it for quite awhile. I’ve been struggling through what that means. Am I still a Christian? Have I done something wrong? Has God left me? For the better part of my life, I didn’t know what to do with these questions or these feelings (or lack thereof). Honestly, I still don’t fully know what to do with all of this, but I’m learning.
I notice when the feeling is gone, my prayer life struggles tremendously. It’s hard to pray when I don’t have a huge sense of God’s presence in my life. And when I don’t pray, the situation just seems to get worse. So in these moments, I’m learning to go to things that I know, even if I don’t feel. I know who God is. I know his character. I’ve read his story; I know what he’s done, what he’s doing, and what he will do. So in the midst of feeling a little distant from God, I know where he stands in all of this. I know he hasn’t left. I know he is still working. I know he keeps his promises. That’s why I also find some comfort in ancient prayers that the church has prayed throughout its history, particularly the Lord’s Prayer.
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us,
and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory,
for ever and ever.
So, even if I’m not feeling it today, or tomorrow, or the next…or however long it may take, I will keep praying that prayer. No spiritual high is needed to pray “Thy kingdom come”, for it is in the fullness of God’s kingdom that his presence is fully realized. I may not feel God’s presence constantly, but I will keep going back to praying for his kingdom and letting him use me to help bring it about. I know I want his kingdom to come. I know I see it happening around me. And the time will come again when I “feel” it, and then it will fade away…again. In these moments, I will rest in what I know about God.
Aside Posted on Updated on
It is only December 6th and I have read and/or heard the story of the birth of Jesus at least a dozen times already. Granted, this is mostly because I have been reading it to my 2 year old George, but still. George loves to hear about baby Jesus. He loves to talk about baby Jesus being in Mary’s tummy. The other night at church, we had a Christmas program about the nativity scene. George was obsessed with the fact that baby Jesus was there. I’m glad that, even at his age, he is starting to talk about Jesus at Christmas time. It will be awhile before he grasps what that means, but it is exciting that he is enjoying that story so much. So, it got me to thinking, what is the story of the baby Jesus all about?
Most of America knows about the birth of Jesus in some form or fashion. Whether it be plastic blow up figures in a nativity scene somewhere in town, or Charles Shultz’s version from Charlie Brown and the gang. But I’ve been thinking recently, do we like the birth of Jesus because it is a necessary step to salvation? In other words, we are excited and thankful for the birth of Christ because we need that in order to get the death and resurrection of Christ, which ultimately gets us to grace, mercy, salvation, and hope for eternal life. All of that is great and is certainly a huge part of the Christmas story, but I think there is something else going on here too. God is returning to dwell among his creation, again. John 1:14 says that the Word became flesh and lived among us. He made a promise to come back to his people Israel, and he did. And the best part of the Christmas story is that it has implications now, not just in the future life to come.
The birth of Jesus launches us into a new way of life. Not just moral and ethical behavior for the sake of obtaining something. It is a different way of living that is kingdom building. In Revelation 21, John shares with us the promise of a new heaven and a new earth. It is not the old Garden, it is the New Jerusalem. The birth of Jesus points to that day. The birth of Jesus also calls us to participate in building that kingdom. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus shows how this kingdom will be built and what it looks like, and it’s unlike any other kingdom that has ever existed. Every time we feed the hungry, cloth the naked, or give a cup of water in his name, we are adding to the structure of this new earth.
So, I’m happy that George loves baby Jesus. I’m glad he talks about him and wants to read his story every night. However, my hope is that as he grows up, he will see how this baby changes everything in his life. This baby will offer him hope of eternal life, but he also offers him a new world that breaks into this old one that we live in. I hope he sees that this baby is a king and is calling him to help build his kingdom. The birth of Jesus isn’t just necessary because we need him here to later take our sins to the cross. The birth of Jesus is God’s promised future breaking into the present.
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” – John 1:14
Sometimes I think that we Christians need to spend a little bit of time outside of our normal church circles and see what we can learn. Yesterday I got to spend a little time with a Catholic deacon. This was a whole new experience for me and I found that a lot of my perceptions of Catholics were ignorant. A lot of what I had been told about Catholics apparently just isn’t true. However, that is not the purpose of this post, so I digress.
What I did learn from my new friend was the meaning of Mass. I always thought Mass was just a fancy word for “worship service”, “church”, or any other word or phrase we may use to describe a weekend church service. While that is what most people mean when they say “mass”, that is not the original meaning. The word “mass” actually comes from the Latin word “missa” or “dismissal”. For Catholics, it was intended for this word to imply mission. When I learned this, I earned a greater respect for Catholics and how they view the purpose and mission of their weekend services.
In my tribe (the Churches of Christ), I don’t think many would argue with me that one of main reasons for gathering each week is to partake of the Lord’s Supper. The Lord instituted this meal for us with His disciples before He was crucified. He took an old Jewish feast and gave it a whole new meaning. He was now becoming the sacrificial lamb needed at the Passover. And so of course the Lord’s Supper is about remembering Christ, the Lamb who took away our sins. But I wonder if we could learn from our Catholic brothers and sisters a little more by looking at their mission of Mass?
In communion, Christ says that we partake of His body and blood through the symbols of the bread and the wine (Matthew 26:26-28). We consume the bread and the wine, but unlike other food that we consume and it becomes apart of us, we consume Christ and become a part of Him. In communion, we inhale Christ so to speak. And then if we put meaning to the term mass, or dismissal, we now leave to exhale Christ. We bring together Jesus’ words from Matthew 26 when he institutes this supper and His words from Matthew 28 when He dismisses, or sends His disciples.
So what if we as Christians started to rethink our gathering? What if we reconsider the mission and purpose of Sunday mornings? Sure there are many reasons for coming together, but none more important than to inhale or breathe in Christ so that we can in turn be dismissed to exhale the hope of Jesus to a broken world. This Sunday, when you commune, I encourage you to think a little bit more about what it is you are actually doing. And as you leave your church building, think about your mission of being the church. Inhale……exhale.