Emerge and Restore

Exploring faith, God, and church in the 21st century...

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Location: Kansas, United States

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Community and the Trinity

While I am breaking absolutely no new ground with this post, I think I did get several funny looks this Sunday when I taught that in order to get a better foundational grasp of relationship and community, we must familiarize ourselves with the doctrine of the Trinity (many in my particular heritage have been subtly taught that right thinking in and of itself leads to righteousness and salvation; community is a secondary goal to be worked toward after we've figured everything else out - or worse, that right doctrinal answers lead to community). It didn't really make sense to me either when I stumbled on to it for the first time a few years ago, but it goes something like this:

Our One God mysteriously exists in three separate personalities: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This isn't a stretch biblically - read the whole book and look for separate references to each, or for simplicity's sake just read the account of Jesus' baptism (Matthew 3, Mark 1, or Luke 3). Each "person" in the godhead share immutable qualities such as holiness, embodiment of perfect truth, perfect love, etc. But each also have differing roles (for instance, see Jesus' discourse in John 5:16-47). So in the Trinity we've got three separate identities that exist as one God. These identities live in relationship, a perfect relationship that is so close-knit, so ideal, that they are the same being. There is mutual submission (thus our imperatives to submit in Ephesians 5 & 6 flow not from being inferior to God, though we certainly are, but from emulating him) and love that flows between them...in fact such perfect love that He created the universe as we know it out of an overflowing of that love. We exist because of relationship, and we exist to be in relationship. Our mission is to emulate that same love and submission and caring to those around us. It's to involve the world in that relationship. Law-keeping and being right were never the point...relationship is.

In my own terribly amateur perception of basic Eastern Orthodox beliefs, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist as One through sort of a cosmic dance, acting and living and existing together, but in perfect harmony with one another. Their relationship is a beautiful dance, and God has invited His creation to join it. Sin is the spiritual equivalent of stepping on toes, and inhibits everyone's ability to continue in the relationship; because of us, the dance falters, although of course God continues on perfectly. I've said that learning from the Celts would enrich our theology...learning from the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity would be a valuable asset as well. Partly because it makes faith about relationship.

And one reason that I won't resort to charts and graphs and illustrations to describe the Trinity (water/ice/steam, apples, trees, families, triangles etc.) is because those concrete quantifications can't fully define or contain God, and because you don't describe relationships with charts and graphs and illustrations (although I do like Tony Jones' describing the Trinity to his daughter by pointing to her 3-bladed ceiling fan, then turning it on high and saying, "There."). You know what a relationship is by participating in it. And we must understand theology and ecclesiology from a relational standpoint. If we make our faith legal or transactional, we've missed the boat. Our theology must flow from a relationship with Jesus (as I believe scripture does). And the point of being "the Body" is also to be in relationship, or community with Him.

"Because God is the social Trinity, a plurality in unity, the ideal for humankind does not focus on solitary persons, but on persons-in-community. God intends that we relfect his nature in our lives. This is only possible, however, as we move out of our isolation and into relationships with others. The ethical life, therefore, is the life-in-relationship, or the life-in-community."

- Stanley Grenz, Theology for the Community of God

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Community through Stress

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the reason we are so community-impoverished is because community is difficult. It calls us to a high standard. If we are to live in community, we have to live lives that are worthy of community, lives that are intentional and honest and giving and real. And that’s a tall order for any group of people at any one time.

Efforts to build community, particularly in a church setting, will generally be met with resistance, not only because it flies in the face of the institutional leanings of our current church culture, but because it’s messy. After experiencing an act of community a woman came to me with tears in her eyes and asked, “Why isn’t this what we are striving for? Why isn’t this what the church is about?” And I hugged her and said, “Because it’s going to require tears…and we’ve taught people that church should be easy and tidy and systematic…people don’t come here to face things…they don’t come here to cry.” And I asked if she thought the two of us could be brave enough to model this new style of behavior for the rest of the body. She replied, “Maybe…”

We’ve designed our church services to be clean and stress free. You enter the professionally decorated, climate controlled comfort of your worship center, are handed a newsletter by nametag-wearing people who have been trained to smile all the time and open all the doors for you. You sit in a padded seat or pew and watch good-looking, well-groomed people instruct you in how to worship and tell you what to think. Everything starts and ends on time, with no room for spontaneity or the moving of the Spirit (an elder at the church I previously served once told me, “You went two minutes over schedule…there are visitors in there who are never coming back because of you.”...I'm not kidding...two minutes). And so, community will never take place in that setting. Community requires time and freedom and challenges and bumps and bruises.

And thus, community will bring stress. Not just the stress that your own life entails, because community requires you to be present in the stress and tragedy of others' lives. And such a process will never be formulaic or bound by rules. The journey to becoming a community must be ruled by our hearts and our consciences…and by the love that I think is supposed to be the point of our faith anyway.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Community on purpose

One of the first things we have to recognize and work on when it comes to community is that it never happens by accident. Put all the devout, godly people you know in a room, and although they will be genuinely great people with a genuine desire for God, a close-knit community won't magically appear. Perhaps that's because often when we are part of a group, our goal within the group is implicitly to not cause strife, to refrain from hurting feelings, to avoid getting on anyone's nerves. But with all due respect, that's not good enough. Avoidance of harm does not communicate love. Coming to your aid when harm has come your way does.

Community is never, cannot ever be passive. We can't think that by inserting our body into a church building and pasting on a false smile does anybody any good. Not being rude to the people we come into contact with isn't enough. We've been called to build them up. We've got to step up to build community. It's not enough to avoid gossip, we've got to slay gossip and confront gossipers. We've got to have ZERO tolerance for people who come to us complaining about a third party if they haven't brought this the other person's attention first. We've got to actively squelch griping and whining, as if our motives weren't selfish in the first place. Community will never grow until we realize that we haven't done our job by being harmless...we won't be accomplishing our purpose until we are helpful. Until we are the Barnabas of our time. Until we are builders instead of avoiders.

...but those are all nice words, good thoughts until I try to apply them to my life. Then things get sticky and I get cranky. I WANT to be intentional. I want to be the most loving, caring, transparent person in town. I psyche myself up and then...I get scared, I back off. How do I intentionally build a relationship with the man in my church who didn't want me to be appointed as the minister, who my teaching/preaching never connects with, who thinks teaching ecclesiology is actually wrong and improper because that word isn't found in scripture? How do I connect with the older lady to whom church is a place of comfort and stability, a link to her past and her deceased husband, and to whom my style of faith presents a destabilizing force and is something of a threat? How can I be present in the life of the sad-faced woman who sneaks into every worship just as it gets underway, and flees before the final Amen...come to find out that her former husband used to have my current job (decades ago), but left her and ran off with the church secretary, and she's so beat up and scarred by members of the church that she wraps herself in a veil of silence to protect herself? How do I impact the church leader who has the authority and influence to fire me at a whim...yet needs to be lovingly corrected? How do I do that? I know people that could succeed in those situations...but I don't feel like that person...and yet this effort...this brief wisp of fresh air has to start with me. I have to do it on purpose and forget my insecurities and reach out and touch them and do it for their sake and for the sake of Christ. I've got to love them enough that I can't let them wander through the builidng unnconnected, untouched, unloved. Lord, help me to be who I need to be...help me to love...on purpose.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Community...but how?

In a class I’m teaching on Sundays, we’ve been studying ecclesiology and this week we talked about the Church as a community of faith. So I’m standing up front giving what feels like a very workmanlike and rudimentary lesson on the concept of community and I look and see people start tearing up and dabbing at their eyes. Which confuses me, because while I care a lot about this, after last week, I’m not pushing very hard. People are talking and discussing, but others are squeezing Kleenex really tightly and looking as if I shot their dog. So I wrap up class, shut down the projector and laptop and head to the back of the building for a glass of water. And suddenly I’m surrounded by people, and they are…weeping. Weeping for a community that we can talk about, but doesn’t exist in our lives yet. Mourning a church that obligates them to attend, yet doesn’t fill this burning need within them. Crying out for relationship that goes deeper than “how are you?”, “I’m fine.” Asking, begging, “How do we DO that?” These people are hungry. Not for another class, which they’ve been taught makes them good Christians, but for relationship and faith lived out in community. They are desperate for people who they can be real with, people who they trust enough to confess to, people who will provide a soft place for them to fall. They are longing for us to be the church.

But unfortunately, I had to admit to myself and to my brothers and sisters that I’m not a man who can really answer there questions of “How do we get there?” I can teach the theology of community in informative and convicting ways…but when it comes down to living it, I am impoverished as the rest of them…maybe more. I want it as much as they do…maybe more…but when it comes down to it, I’m still hiding behind my masks, afraid for anybody to see past them. We can transform the congregation into a real community...but I'm going to have to grow as much or more than anyone.

Last night we even took a baby step in the right direction, getting together with a few of the "weepers" to discuss how we can go about this, lay down some ground rules, and practice going deep with each other by pouring out our hearts a little. It felt good to actually be able to say to someone (other than my beautiful, supportive wife) how much I hate ministry (the job, not the action) sometimes, or at least the political games we sometimes turn ministry into, and how fake I feel when I have to confidently stride to the podium and act like I've got it all together, sit at my feet and learn from me. But this feels like an opportunity...I hope it's the first step on a long journey.

Thursday, June 09, 2005


One reason I'm a huge proponent of the concept and language of mystery in the life of the Church today is because of the way that certainty and absolutes have been abused in the past and are still being abused in some circles. But beyond all my postmodern arguments and the smallness of our intellects compared to God...there's another reason a quest for certainty is sure to be disappointing: Ultimate Truth is not a thing...it's a Person. Truth IS God. Thus he is the subject of such wonder and glory and splendor and dignity and holiness that knowing him is to love him and worship him and delight in him and seek to please him with everything that we are. Those who are on a quest for certainty through the Bible are missing the point. Leaving out mystery in our search for God attempts to put God in a very small box, therefore making truth very small, very knowable. But God never says 'Ask, and Seek and Knock for objective, absolute, propositional truth'...he said, "I am the way, the truth and the life..." Coming to know God is a lifelong journey, the quest is a relationship...one that I hope will never end. Certainty has an end-point.

Friday, June 03, 2005

"A Footnote To All Prayers"

He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable Name, murmuring Thou,
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.
Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshipping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless
Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert
Our arrows, aimed unskilfully, beyond desert;
And all men are idolators, crying unheard
To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.

Take not, O Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in thy great
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.

- C.S. Lewis

I've been thinking, conversing, reading, and writing a lot lately about our desire for certainty, and what I believe is a more appropriate alternitive: Mystery. The biggest challenge I face is communicating this lovingly to those who are certain about certainty. Maybe this poem by Lewis does a better job than I ever could (no, I don't know what "Pheidian fancies" are...). Certainty is largely an illusion not because God fickle and arbitrary, but because we are human, our intellects are prone to failure and selfish motives, and the language we use to communicate is so limited and open to misunderstanding. Even a brilliant communicator like Lewis could see that he was not able to contain God in language, that even his prayers were incomplete, and only meaningfull because God is great enough to make sense of our childish babble. We don't even have the intellectual power to really comprehend the God we attempt to worship. Lord, don't take me at my word...words can't contain you...take me at my heart...it's the only thing that can come close to knowing you...