Saturday, November 30, 2013

FIRST CUP: Some random thoughts on rebranding and the church….

I don’t suppose it will come as a surprise to anyone that I am not exactly applauding the recent announcement about rebranding the Church of God (now Non-Reformation) Movement. While the church is in many important ways my mother, our relationship has often been more difficult than dutiful. I love her but she’s a difficult mother and I've been a challenging son.

I do want to be hopeful about the future, although I find it harder and harder to believe that anything like the traditional church has much of a future. This won’t be the first time I’ve wondered if God hasn’t already moved on in his constant reimagining of church to something infinitely bolder and humbler. It often feels to me that those of us still connected to the institutional church are filling and stacking sandbags against a perfect storm of cultural and theological change.

The church is in the midst of a massive cultural sea change. This paradigm shift is altering everything around us and we in the church are not at fault for the devastating impact it is having upon our institution. The decline in the church is not primarily the fault of mismanagement, bad theology, or lack of good will. We are caught up in forces much bigger than we can control.

I just want the church to be the church and not some strange hybrid of entertainment, big business, and marketing.

I’m not against marketing; I find value in the processes that marketers manage. There can be real value in the creative process; anytime people are brought together to think about who they are and what they do and where they are going and how to bring greater focus and, thereby, greater energy to their work—that’s good. It is good especially if it is rooted firmly in the historical narrative of the organization as it leads to new/renewed vision.

But I am troubled when the marketing process, as it unfortunately often does, remains pretty much at a superficial level—inch deep and a mile wide. Too often there is a paucity of thoughtfulness and depth—the glossing over of the deep divisions and uncertainties that do exist by the artful use of language and the creation of a new look, a new tag line, and a new web site. And no real grappling with.

I do think it is oddly presumptuous to talk of rebranding the church: brands are about ownership. (I remember at least that much from my Saturday morning Westerns: people got killed for rebranding where a brand already existed.) I don’t think we own the church; I’m not really sure that we have the authority to rebrand it.

I want to be equally clear about this: the future of the church does not rest in the processes and methodologies of marketing and public relations, however useful they may be. The future of the church lies in deep historical, theological, sociological, and epistemological reflection—and actions based on such reflection so long as such work is grounded in the life and teachings of Jesus.

The church will not recover its nerve, its creativity, or its authenticity simply by instituting fancy new gimmicks, implementing flashy programs, trying to get more organized, or working harder. The way forward is through the development of meaningful spiritual practices, a renewal of corporate spirituality, and a profound shift of consciousness in the way we do church. These deep inner changes will only be achieved by creating space for awareness of the presence and action of God to emerge in our midst.

I’m out of the loop on these discussions; I don’t assume that I should be in the loop. But it is interesting to me that I am alerted to the new logo, tag line and web site by a friend in Auckland, New Zealand (I love the Internet!).

The announcement of new bold change for the Church of God came, oddly enough, at the same time I received a copy of Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. I have to say there is more contrast than comparison.

Church of God—here’s what I found on our new Web site, which I had to look for:

Branding, marketing words—our church as defined and described by a marketing firm, our values color coded, and our mission more ambiguous than ever—although I am sure that marketers would say more open ended and inviting.

Lack of theological reflection—in fact, I have yet to find such. It may be that such reflection exists and that I just haven’t found it, but so far it is missing.

Foundationally ahistorical; we are no longer a reformation—this one, frankly, is pretty astonishing to me and not just a little disturbing. Without the theological reflection, of course, I can’t know what is meant but it seems odd that a church that has described itself as part of the reformation now decides that doesn’t matter anymore.

A tagline as definition, yet a definition that is as ambiguous as it is clever—Jesus is the subject. It has a nice ring, but what does it really mean? It seems to me to raise more questions than it answers.

We are “modern” in a post modern, even a post Christian, era—I just don’t get this. Modernity nearly killed the church; it may be singlehandedly responsible for the understanding that we are now living in a post Christian era and we suddenly want to describe our selves as modern?

A conflation of church and “headquarters”—a dynamic tension in the historical life of the church—how do we do the work of the church without becoming a denomination—is suddenly dismissed, and suddenly it is all one.

I do celebrate the reassertion of a global vision and, certainly, any discussion that doesn’t include Jesus would be simply wrong, but a question is begged: “If Jesus is the subject, which Jesus are we talking about.” The naiveté of the statement is, to me, pretty staggering.

There is a presumption operating: a logo precedes rather than flows from theological reflection.

Evangelii Gaudium—here are my observations after my first read of this letter to the church.

Francis’s “joy of the gospel” resonates so deeply into the roots of the Catholic Church and the Gospel of Jesus Christ—I’m afraid the contrasts between the rebranding of the Church of God, Anderson, and the depth of Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation are so striking that that they are nearly overwhelming.

His is a deeply theological and sociological and economic and relational reflection. It is, I think, a radical call to be the church; it is radical because it is so focused on Jesus—on a particular Jesus.

How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers.”

The result is a striking, even radical, contemporary reframing of historical truth, which calls the church and its leadership to a deeper spirit marked by contrition, humility, and integrity—and Christlikeness.

It names the sins of the church for what they are and calls the church to be better—no, really, it calls the church redemption so that it can be the church founded by Jesus.

There is no question which Jesus Francis speaks of: this is the Jesus of justice and peace and life and dignity and inclusion, unity, holiness, dialogue: Jesus, clearly, for others. Radically crossing nearly ever barrier imaginable to make God real in the lives and systems of his—and our—day.

The word of God also invites us to recognize that we are a people: “Once you were no people but now you are God’s people” (1 Pet 2:10). To be evangelizers of souls, we need to develop a spiritual taste for being close to people’s lives and to discover that this is itself a source of greater joy. Mission is at once a passion for Jesus and a passion for his people. When we stand before Jesus crucified, we see the depth of his love which exalts and sustains us, but at the same time, unless we are blind, we begin to realize that Jesus’ gaze, burning with love, expands to embrace all his people. We realize once more that he wants to make use of us to draw closer to his beloved people. He takes us from the midst of his people and he sends us to his people; without this sense of belonging we cannot understand our deepest identity.

I truly believe that every leader of every communion, fellowship, and denomination, especially in the West, should be studying this document: it is a flat out challenge not only to the Pope’s own church (our ancient Babylon) but also to anyone and everyone who claims Jesus as Lord. But it is especially a challenge to any person who assumes leadership roles in any expression of God’s church. I cannot help wondering why we seem incapable (or unwilling) to truly engage each other along the same lines.


The italicized comments are taken from a record of a conversation among eight church clergy, academics, and spiritual teachers that took place in Victoria British Columbia, Canada, during Lent, 2011. There are 12 observations about the “future of the church” that emerged from that conversation. These are two that I thought connected to my random thoughts:

The comments in bold are taken from the text of Pope Francis’s Evangelii Glaudium, which can be found at It is over 200 pages long and not all of it relates to our own story, but if anyone is interested you can download a .pdf of it here:

Sunday, November 24, 2013

First Cup—Lectionary Sunday

The Reign of Christ Sunday

Recently in chapel at Warner Pacific College, we heard some really fine poetry slamming by four young Christian poets. They were thoughtful, articulate, passionate—with a fairly heavy theological bent to what they were slamming. And that’s I want to do some ruminating, cogitating, considering, deliberating, meditating, self-reflecting about. It was a good slam—good stuff; at points quite powerful and moving. As I heard it, their primary focus was informed by a heavy cruci-centric, sacrifice-centric, blood-centric set of images. Jesus was crucified again and again that morning, in all the bloody splendor we often associate with medieval Christianity when the church used to “Dream of the Rood”:

Men carried me [the cross]
Upon their shoulders and set me on a hill,
A host of enemies there fastened me.
And then l saw the Lord of all mankind
hasten with eager zeal that he might mount
Upon me.

“O blessed cross. Oh blessed blood! Oh blessed gore”: the gore is important; all of the human emissions of Jesus on the Cross were celebrated. Sometimes, they are prayed to:

Blood of Christ, shed profusely in the Scourging, save us.

Blood of Christ, flowing forth in the Crowning with Thorns, save us.

Blood of Christ, poured out on the Cross, save us.

Blood of Christ, price of our salvation, save us.

Blood of Christ, without which there is no forgiveness, save us.

Blood of Christ, Eucharistic drink and refreshment of souls, save us.

The church once celebrated the fall of Adam and Eve because, through the fall, we came to experience grace—manifest in its starkest and loveliest ugliness in the bloody cross of Jesus.

I do not want to take down the cross. It’s central in my own understanding of my faith. I do not want to demean or diminish the Eucharistic table, which is at the heart of my own understanding of church. I do not want to suggest that the death of Jesus does not correspond to, build upon and in remarkable ways complete the whole Jewish system of sacrifice. In fact, it would be surprising if this understanding of Jesus’ death were not at the heart of how a predominantly Jewish people came to see and understand that event. (I have often wondered what form atonement might have taken had “the fullness of time” been another time and in another place? The guillotine? The gas chamber? C. S. Lewis explores this in his “Space Trilogy.”) But I am uncomfortable with the bloody theories of atonement primarily because I repudiate the idea of an offended God, who in his divine pettiness, must be made to feel better or whose offended honor must some how be placated.

I know that if anyone actually reads this blog, I’ll be taken to task for dismissing this millennia long set of arguments. I know that most theologians would say something like the vitality of the doctrine of atonement is essential and that the question of atonement is so large and mysterious that no one theory could ever fully address it—we need all of them and, probably, more, even old Bernard.

Years, no decades, ago, my Christian education professor, Dr. Irene Smith Caldwell, helped us to think about translating difficult theological concepts and the challenging realism of biblical stories for children. She answered the question, “How do you help children understand the crucifixion?” saying, “You tell them that because Jesus was unwilling to tell a lie, selfish and jealous persons put him to death.” Children understand the importance of truth telling. As an adult, I understand “unwilling to tell a lie” to mean that he was unwilling, ontologically, to be other than who he was. Period. I think this is the point: Even though the crucified Jesus does sum up the life and teachings of Jesus, it also allows us to ignore his life and teachings. We miss the point that it is how he lived and how he connected and how he related to highest officials and the lowliest non-officials.

These are the realities that brought him to the cross. To deny his identity—no matter how painful or consequential—would be a pain greater than death, akin to Jeremiah’s yielding:

Then I said, “I will not make mention of Him,
Nor speak anymore in His name.”
But His word was in my heart like a burning fire
Shut up in my bones;
I was weary of holding it back,
And I could not. (Jeremiah 6:20 KJV)

Or, in his own words, “He went a little farther and fell on His face, and prayed, saying, ‘O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will’” (Matthew 26:39 KJV).

I do not run from the cross. I run to the cross. I believe the Christian faith is most clearly expressed as cruciform. But what I see there is not my substitute, not my ransom, and not some satisfying sop thrown at the demanding throne of a little god. What I see there is the love (agape, khesed) of God—compelling and attractive and demanding and inviting and, yes, ugly and frightening and horrid and demanding. What I see there is the summation of a whole life; it is not the only moment; it is the fullest witness to the Incarnation, which I take as the most important idea. I see most clearly the extent to which God was willing to say, “I love you.”

I don’t think that’s sentimentality—how can one be sentimental looking at a cross (unless, of course, it is one of those pretty, shiny, golden Protestant crosses that have lost any compelling power and have become little more than costume jewelry). Sentimentality is a hallmark card. Sentimentality is telling a parent grieving over the death of a child that God must have needed another cherub. Sentimentality is a nostalgic longing for a time remembered as better. Sentimentality is “soap opera” love.

No, I’m writing about the crucifix.

Sentimental is not what the crucified Jesus is. Rather, the crucified Jesus is the hardest, most challenging, and most demanding, the most difficult to look at, the most relentless picture of the God who never gives up; the God who, as Lewis said, “Is utterly shameless in what he will do to bring a sinner into the kingdom.” This is the God who risks all 99 sheep to save one; who searches, sweeps, every square inch to find one lost coin; who runs shamelessly down the street of the village in front of “God and everybody” to welcome home the lost son who not many years ago spit in his face; the crucified Jesus is “the hound of heaven” God who refuses to give up and who most fully and more completely than any other picture or icon or theological principle shows the sacred heart of God toward God’s creation. As if God rips open God’s own chest and there, where the heart should be, is the crucified Jesus.

And the contemplative reflection on this heart leads us ever deeper into love; love that convicts and redeems, love that transforms and reforms, love that demands and enables, and love that binds and frees.

Laughter came from every brick.
Just these two words God spoke changed my life, “Enjoy me.”
What a burden I thought I was to carry—a crucifix, as did Christ.
Love once said to me, “I know a song; would you like to hear it?”
And laughter came from every brick in the street
and from every pore in the sky.
After a night of prayer, God changed my life when God sang, “Enjoy me.”

—St. Teresa of Avila

Friday, November 22, 2013

Second Cup—Dark Matter: Dark Teaching—and The Dance....

Those of you who know me--and the one or two of you who read my blog--know that most of the time I find myself perplexed. My life is that way.

Recently on NPR: It was Halloween, so NPR was being cutely relevant. Dark matter; dark energy: clearly a Halloween story, right? I heard talk of dark matter and energy. The speaker said that we can measure these so we know they exist but we have no idea what they are. He also said, we know the universe is expanding; we can measure it. But we have no idea why or where or how.

I think the entity called “The Faculty” is like that. We can measure it, weigh it, hear it. We know such an entity exists but are unclear about why or how—and to think about where it is going might be an argument for astrology. I think now that I’m being cutely esoteric. One thing that seems to be true of The Faculty is that is innately conservative, even though it would describe self as liberal; this is measurable. An initial instinctual response to nearly anything is to step back, question, assess, and doubt the efficacy of any new thing. Especially if that new thing requires change. Especially if that new thing is set before it by another entity—The Administration.

When this happens, a fairly predictable and measurable mechanism kicks in: The Resistance. The Faculty is certain that (a) it cannot be a good idea because (b) it did not come from The Faculty and (c) it did come from The Administration and (d) has not been fully vetted by The Faculty and, therefore, (e) needs more Time.

Another factor about The Faculty is that it will deal with this new thing, often, in ways that it would never allow The Student to behave. For example, rather than speak its opinion carefully and clearly, it passes around essays written by other people (often faculty from another academic institution) with a note to read this because it is pertinent. Rather than speak its opinion forthrightly, it speaks in the back alley, to the ally, in the parking lot, and, strangely enough, over the Internet. Rather than speak its opinion passionately and openly, it speaks it fearfully, sensing conspiracy (by The Administration), in a place called The Department Meeting. It is often silent in the public space it inhabits from time to time—The Faculty Meeting (oddly enough a meeting designed for public discourse but often relegated to a business agenda consisting of The Committee presenting its Report). In The Faculty Meeting, it is given to whispering what it thinks is a clever bon mot to its ally. When The Faculty does speak, it often utilizes faulty logic, rhetorical tools it does not allow its students, and poor grammar. If it writes on the board or on PowerPoint, it often can’t spell.

On the other hand, The Faculty is also the opposite of all of this. The Faculty is capable of amazing thoughtfulness and creativity. Sometimes blow your socks off creativity. This is especially true if it is galvanized by a driving vision, often a moral vision, by significant relationships, about what really matters.

Currently, such a discussion is underway at The College where I sometimes teach. The Administration invites The Faculty to provide a means for a disenfranchised student (and I do think this is an appropriate way to describe The Student) to attend The College. The invitation, which the faculty thinks has not been fully vetted, is to make use of the Internet as a means of providing online education for The Student. The primary response, as I understand it, is negative because of something called “Presence.” The assumption on the part of The Faculty is that one cannot be present to The Student on line and that something distinctly and qualitatively special about education at The College is lost.

While I agree that something often amazingly distinctive takes place in The Classroom (and the halls, cafeteria, Grind, perhaps even the restrooms) of The College that can be understood in terms of relationships and Presence, I do not agree that Presence cannot be found on the Internet (at least my own experience suggests otherwise).

Further, I don’t know that anyone has yet proven it one way or the other. There is a range of assumptions operating here and these assumptions need to be ferreted out and tested. I know the risks of the Internet. I’ve listened to Sherry Turkel’s Ted Talk, "Alone Together." I get that. It is an important cautionary tale. It is likely, however, that such conversations took place in the chapter houses of Cluny and Wells after the word about movable type reached them. I also know the power of unreflected assumptions—at least this is what I teach my students: they are very powerful and empowering and disempowering.

It does not follow, however, from all of this that the imaginative and creative and thoughtful Faculty of The College cannot find a way to address this. I think it should. I think it should be an “industry leader.” I think it can.

There was a time when the only way to think about higher education was geo-centric. If you want a certain kind of education (and a certain pedigree), you went to a certain somewhere—to a Location. In that Location, you “got” an education. When I was a student, “presence” was not a classroom question; knowledge acquisition was and the source of that was The Professor at the front of the room. Now it is a question, and I wonder, even, what we mean by Presence?

I think we are in a paradigm shift and, like all paradigm shifts, it is demanding and disconcerting—even painful. It seems to question the role of The Faculty. But The Faculty is always learning to think about what it does in very different ways. I know this has been my journey since returning to The College. This is—and is NOT—the place I left nearly two decades ago. Nowhere is that clearer to me than each time I walk into The Classroom: I have to be a different kind of teacher than I was when I left here. I think I am more present today in the classroom than I ever was during the 23 years that I taught here. I have to discover ways to be more “me” than I was before. I had to figure it out, and I am figuring it out. I talk with some of The Faculty; I read; I watch and listen. I talk to The Student. I set aside my assumptions—or, at least, suspend them in order to spend time in critical reflection on those assumptions. The fundamental assumption that I am still working on is about who am I in this classroom.

But I cannot conclude that it is simply and unequivocally true that Presence is only possible face-to-face. What do we mean by that word, anyway? I think it follows that I will have to ask about that assumption again—who am I in this virtual classroom? How am I present in this virtual classroom?

Why should I?

I think there is a moral imperative involved—at least, for me. I would frame the question this way: Why should I keep the distinctly mission-driven (faith, life, learning) vision and practice of higher education through The College unavailable to The Student who is otherwise unable to access it? Why should only The Student who can drive or walk or travel on Tri-Met be considered and The Student who cannot drive or walk (or travel the distance) be excluded? As I have recently asked my student, I think we need to ask ourselves about the common good. It seems to me—perhaps I’m guilty of hyperbole or even argumentum absurdum—but if I decide to not walk down this street, I may be making a decision that takes away an opportunity, does harm to the common good, and maybe even reduces my qualitative effectiveness—even my presence—in the classroom.

I think there is an educational imperative involved—for me. I would frame it this way: Why should I resist (refuse?) teaching (fill in the blank) in a new modality any more than I would refuse exploring how to adjust a class to allow for other new technology or new information? We make these decisions all the time, don’t we? Some of us say, no phones. Some of us say, use your phones. Some of us use smart boards and some of us use markers on smart boards. Some of us engage with our students via Facebook and some of us encourage students not to use it. We are always adjusting our syllabi, aren’t we? There is always a discussion about the canon, isn’t there? There’s always a conversation about methods, right?

I think, at least for me, there is also a personal imperative—one, frankly, this is more on my mind in my seventies than it was in earlier years. I would frame it this way: What am I afraid of? Am I afraid of being pushed aside, that is, replaced by new technology and new modalities? Am I afraid that I will not be able to figure it out or make it work? Am I afraid that I just don’t “get it”? Am I afraid that I will have to change in some more substantive ways than simply adapting to new functionalities?

Now, it may be true that The Administration has not properly included The Faculty. I honestly don’t know about that; I’m an outlier regarding most of these discussions. (Although I did just recently see a document that suggests this has been on The Faculty Agenda for a long time—an approved policy and philosophy statement about how online education would occur at The College.) But is that sufficient reason to walk away from the exploration of what might well be a “brave new world” or what might be the opportunity “to go where no man has gone before”? I think not.

Now, what does this have to do with dark matter and dark energy? I am continually impressed by the humility of science, a humility that is reflected in its willingness to look ridiculous in what it posits. Just look at the graphic I’m including; I mean really?

It’s a graphic that says, “Oh my, there is so much I don’t know. Dark Matter/Energy is there; I can measure it; but that’s all I know. But I’m not stopping: I’m going to put this graphic out as one model of what might be—and call it “dark” (the substance of comic book superheroes). There’s so much I don’t know—perhaps I’ll never know. But that’s not going to stop me.” I wonder why we can’t just name this “new” thing “dark teaching” (since most of us, when we’re really honest about this alchemy we call teaching, think it’s a wonder bordering on the miraculous that we ever teach anything). Let’s just put it out there and go to work to see if there is a paradox at play here: presence and distance are both, after all, the dance we dance in the classroom all the time with out students, with ourselves, with the subject, and with life.

Is the dance any less awkward or graceful in the “real” or “virtual” classroom?

I say, I want to dance.