Monthly Archives: January 2011

Being Friends with an Ex-Con, Future-Con

There are 6 other guys living in my house.   We’ve had a variety of guys live with us– a Hungarian Ballet dancer, a student from Ireland, a lab worker from China, many grad students, even a couple undergrad students, and once a guy who had been living at the Salvation Army before finding a home with us. 

A couple years ago I got a call from a guy named Chris who had seen my ad on Craigslist for a roomate.  He explained that he had been in prison for a number of years, was now around 30, and was on the sex offender list.  He had been having trouble finding a job and a place to rent to him, and felt like he needed to be around others to help him get a feel for life not behind bars.  

Chris turned out to be a responsible roomate, and he adjusted well to life with us.  He ended up bringing his little brother here from Iowa, to get him away from the small-town troublemakers he was starting to hang out with.  Chris was a good older brother, making his brother think through budgeting, responsibility, and about how to keep out of trouble. 

Chris had a temper sometimes, which had been his undoing originally when he went to prison.  But we never experienced any of that.  After having lived with us for over a year, Chris asked if he could rent one of my houses, and I did let him.  He’s been there over a year, with his brother also living there with him. 

Chris buys and sells cars– thats how he makes his living.  So that green house always had a bunch of cars on the lot.  He had been talking to me a lot about buying it, because he loves that house.  Its a huge 4000 sq foot place. 

Last week I got a call from the Sheriffs office that they had a warrant for Chris and were looking to get into the house where he lived, and they didn’t want to break down the door.  Evidently he had made some threats to his girlfriend who is pregnant by Chris.  She had told him he would never get to see his son again, and he had said some things he shouldnt have on her voicemail.  Given his background, this was serious stuff and she filed charges and the sheriff went looking for him. 

I was gone Thursday, the day that a swat team and a bunch of police swarmed on the green house looking for Chris.   They broke in the back door.  He wasn’t there. 

I got back from Milwaukee Sunday night and got a call from Chris’ little brother, asking if it’d be OK if he still kept renting the house, even though Chris wouldn’t be around.  I said that’d be fine.   He said Chris was gone for now, in Iowa.

Then a half hour later Chris called, from a blocked number.  He wanted to make sure that his brother could still stay there at the house.  He said he was planning to turn himself in, soon. He also said he would give me his number, but didn’t want me to have to have that info and possibly lie to the police to protect him (which I appreciated).  He also asked if I knew a lawyer that could help him, because he said he was fearful that he could possibly get 50 years for his behavior, given his previous record.  Last, he asked if I would be willing to be a character witness for him if he did stand trial.  I told him I would. 

I like Chris.  He certainly has made some dumb choices here and there, and he lets his temper get the best of him at times.  But I have seen him be very disciplined with himself and seen him love his brother and others in a very fatherly kind way.  

When Chris first came to me and told me his story there were a lot of risks we were taking– an ex con, whose living in our house would put our house on the sex registry list– and just the general unknowing of having someone like that in your house.  But we felt called to have him stay with us, and it worked well.  I hope that he will turn himself in soon, and that the judge will have mercy on him.  Its complicated to get involved in the lives of those who really need our help, but its definitely worth it. 

May God have mercy on us all, especially Chris.

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Rituals of Starbucks, Liturgy of Mall-Shopping: Bodily Practices, Habits, and the Molding of Ourselves

Is drinking Starbucks coffee a ritual?  Is Mall-Shopping a form of liturgy?  This is a question that I hadn’t considered carefully until I started reading James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom recently.   There is a practice to shopping at the mall, which mirrors religion in some ways: there are icons out front  (mannequins) which draw us into the ‘temple’; we have a sense of need, and seek through the racks to find the ‘holy object’ which we proceed with to the altar (cash register) to consummate our sacrifice.  Smith says: “And this is  a religion  of transaction, of exchange and communion.  When invited to worship here, we are not only invited to give’; we are also invited to take.”  Of course Smiths description is tongue-in-cheek– a way of poking fun at our consumeristic tendencies while also making a point about how shopping is in some ways like a religious practice. 

But the point isn’t that shopping is religious–  it is that shopping and religious practice and anything we do with our body train us affectually and habitually to learn certain practices and connections in our spirit.  For example, I just started going back to spin class this weekend– and the good feelings I get when I do that intense exercise started again.  I have not intellectually learned that exercise makes me feel better– my body has realized that affectually– through my affections or feelings.  In his book Desiring the Kingdom Smith is pointing out the importance of our bodily practices and habits– how these form how we look at the world, and what we know.  He says that Christians often focus so much on believing the right information and theology that they don’t pay enough attention to affective ways of knowing– learning through habit and bodily practice.  

The Christianity I was raised with was in some ways intellectual– focused on learning the right thoughts, ideas, theology, correct Biblical understanding.  The most intense affectual learning came, I think, through singing– which is why some of those hymns still bring tears to my eyes– as well as the ardent prayers.  At any rate, there wasn’t a whole lot of outward bodily worship or practice involved in the Christianity I had– there may have been intense inward experiences at times that were not merely intellectual– but those were not bodily (except for the singing, or audible prayers with mouths)– generally they were emotive, inward, not bodily.  But still those were affectual training of the heart. 

While some Christians lay prostrate when they pray, or lift their hands, or use smells and bells or kneel, for many evangelicals, these bodily practices are distracting.  Many of us Christians are kind of like the ancient Greeks in our thinking– Plato and Socrates saw the body as a distracting nuisance from pure thought.  We have bought into a postivistic modern notion that real learning comes primarily through intellectual enlightenment and correct information. The gnostics who Paul sometimes preached against also thought that gnosis– i.e., knowledge– was the path to salvation.  So in some ways that kind of  faith is a gnostic Christianity– focused primarily on intellectual knowledge sometimes.  The real way to be a better Christian is to learn about Jesus and then implement that knowledge.  We focus on the cognitive ways of learning, but in doing that sometimes we ignore the bodily practices which can help us to be more fully Christian.  

But I grew up in a pietist Christian heritage, who tried to guard against an overly-gnostic overly-intellectual Christianity (although not using the body much in the process).  Pietists practice a form of Christianity which especially seeks to ‘walk in the spirit’ or follow the leading of God.  Historically pietism was in some respects a response to the overly academic and scholastic tendencies of the Reformers.  You need to feel Jesus in your heart, to experience the true freedom of God in your soul, to hear the call of God on your life, to respond in faith to that call and wholeheartedly devote yourself to sensing the Spirit’s guiding and direction. 

Now that kind of attentive listening to the Spirit can lead to some strange behaviors.  I remember guys sometimes telling the Christian girls in high school “God told me we are supposed to be together” and of course its kind of hard for a young girl to argue with that– what evidence could she provide in opposition to this guys voice of God?  And people sometimes get a little carried away, claiming that they were given a parking spot close to the building by God, or claiming other such events were divinely orchestrated.  No doubt God can help practical details work out well– but to use such happy circumstances as a basis for faith may be overreaching.  But while this listening to God can be and has been misused, that does not give us license to reject it in all circumstances. 

But I digress: Smith’s point in this book of his is to help Christians think more of their life practices as the means by which they can be affectively educated.  How we live, what we pursue, what we give ourselves to, what we habituate our hearts towards– these are all means of educating our heart towards the good– or the bad.  

Vices and virtues are learned, and not only learned to be done, but learned to be loved.  When I first begin to go back to spin class (where we do intense stationary bike riding) I intellectually know that this is good for me.  But my body also knows in a different way– its gotten used to the patterns of getting back in shape and it knows good things are coming.  Our spiritual lives are like this as well– we develop habits of prayer and devotional reading which train our hearts towards God.   This is the whole point of what Pietists so often direct us through– spiritual practices which help us to get in the good healthy spiritual habits helping us to know God and to love God– not merely intellectually– but with our hearts and feelings. 

Is this self-manipulation?  No more than forcing yourself to jog or gaining a taste for healthy vegetables and curbing your desires for Cheetos is self-manipulating.  Like training a vine to go where it will be healthiest, or training a child to not develop habits which will be self-destructive, we likewise can train ourselves– our hearts– towards the right and good ways of being in the world– the right loves.   One important difference between Humans and rabbits or squirrels is that we have reason– which allows us to be more free.  We can make choices as a result of consideration and reflection.  Generally rabbits and squirrels go on instinct (good instincts often, but not reasoned considerations).  The fact that we can think and reason is really the foundation of much of our freedom– we have real options because we can consider those options and then make decisions accordingly.  So our head and our heart can work together.  And as I make right choices to direct my will, my willing the right thing can over time become more ingrained and in some ways easier.  Its much easier to go out for a 5 mile run if you’ve been training for 3 months than if you just get off the couch after being lazy for years.   

So we should take seriously the ways that our bodily practices develop affectual habits of the heart, as well as the ways our intellect can shape those habits.  We should seek not only to know intellectually about our God and our faith, but make sure also to seek after right feelings, right loves, right devotions for God.    We are good at training ourselves to love the mall (or menards or home depot in my case)…we are habitually directed ritualistically (maybe addictively) towards Starbucks coffee– how are we at training our loves toward our God?

May God have mercy on us all.

Hermeneutics of Charity, Eyes of Grace (On Richard Mouw)

Richard Mouw is president of Fuller Seminary in California.  I’m halfway through his nice little book “Consulting the Faithful” which essentially is a book arguing that Christian academics need to pay more attention to what laypeople think, rather than dismissing the views of people who haven’t studied theology. 

I like Mouw, although I’ve never met him.  What I like is his approach to life, his generosity.  He is charitable, and seems to have eyes to see value in places and things others would dismiss.  Although an evangelical and Calvinist, he sees great value in Cardinal Newman and Catholic thought.  Mouw sees Vegas not just as a den of iniquity, but as a representation of the New Jerusalem, and he sees fundamentalism positively as a refusal to allow highbrow intellectuals to dominate theology.  

As he points out, “laypeople have often served as guardians of a tradition that might otherwise have been lost to the church…” 34    He quotes from Nathan Hatch’s great book, Democratization of American Christianity: fundamentalists have refused to “surrender to learned experts the right to think for themselves…[and] have taken the faith into their own hands and molded it according to the aspirations of everyday life”.  In this sense, fundamentalists Mouw positively describes share something in common with self proclaimed ‘enlightened’ humanists (who maintain a worldview oriented around humans rather than God)    who are critical of religion– both fundamentalists and enlightened humanists demand to not be told what to believe. 

Now we tend to often think of fundamentalists as people who dogmatically believe certain fundamentals regardless of evidence for or against them.  But a more positive (and gracious) way of seeing them is as individuals who will not surrender their real lived experience of faith to academic theorizing. 

Mouw describes the experience of Abraham Kuyper, the famous Dutch Calvinist theologian and thinker who went on to be Prime Minister of the Netherlands for a time.  Kuyper graduated from seminary a card carrying liberal theologian, but his parish experience and encounter with authentic believers in the pew led him to a conversion experience:

When he entered his first pastorate in the village of Beesd, he encountered some pious Calvinist parishoners, especially Pietje Baltus, an uneducated millers daughter, who strongly opposed his liberal preaching.  Much to his own surprise, Kuyper was attracted by the faith of these simple folk and experienced a profound evangelical conversion.

As Mouw puts it: “Only God’s grace can rescue us.  We are all in the same condition…Theologians have no better access to God than do farmers and waitresses.  We all desperately need God’s mercy.  And we all need other Christians, to encourage and admonish and nurture each other in our attempts to respond appropriately to God’s sovereign grace.” 28

Mouw makes it clear that his point is not that laypeople don’t need and benefit from trained theologians.  His point is rather that trained theologians and Christian academics need to learn from people in the pew. 

Mouw writes a bit about “tacky theology”  First, he brings an example of the former Bishop of Edinbugh in the Scottish Episcopal Church, Richard Holloway, who said once that evangelical litugical and spiritual tastes tend toward “Fast food rather than haute cuisine…” and goes on to say that “one of the courageous things about evangelicals is their ability to embrace bad taste for the sake of the gospel”.  In place of evangelical low-church pragmatism, Holloway suggests to the Catholic tradition as a corrective, whose incarnational approach has “bred in Christianity, at its best, an affirming and generous attitude towards human beings, their struggles, their joys, their tragedies and their sorrows.”  Mouw critically responds to this Anglican advice.  What is more incarnational?  To be aloof from the everyday world of discos and fast food, or to bring Christ and the gospel into that world?  Does an incarnational Christianity keep itself at a distance from the ‘normal culture’ of society?  Does incarnational Christianity look down its nose at the ‘little people’ who are too poor (culturally or financially) to join the aloof perspective of the theologically enlightened?  “A more intentional focus on the incarnation will not by itself, then, cure evangelicalism of its low aesthetic proclivities.” 6 

Mouw also highlights David Wells book No Place for Truth where Wells chastizes evangelical culture for alligning itself too closely to popular culture, saying that Jesus never did his ministry by first seeing which way the fickle changing winds of cultural preference were blowing.  While Mouw does not entirely disagree with Wells general point, he thinks Wells went too far in criticizing the popularizing tendencies of evangelicalism in its attempt to reach people for Christ.  Referring to Augustine’s point that Jesus and the disciples seemed to use miracles to gain the attention of the crowds (in a popularizing fashion) Mouw wisely concludes ‘”Blanket statements about whether we as servants of Christ are to take popular sensitivities into account in the way we communicate do not really get us very far.  What we need is a more nuanced understanding of how the gospel speaks to the impulses of pupular religion.”

Mouw refers to  an experience of one new believer describing his relationship with God as “God is my CEO”.  While some of Mouws colleagues shook their heads in derision over this ‘tacky theology’ Mouw says we shouldn’t be so quick to criticize.  “Let me make it clear that I am not willing to settle for tacky theology…But I am willing to live with a little tackiness for starters as a pedagogical strategy.  My hope for the yound middle manager is that he will soon outgrow the CEO analogy for God.  Mangement and profit are not good organizing principles ina theology for the long haul.  But as entry level concepts, they are appropriate.” 11

Many of my friends find evangelicalism difficult for exactly these sorts of reasons: they find it overly pragmatic– willing to sacrifice anything for the sake bringing people to Christ– which thereby leads to evangelicalism having a pretty low bar aesthetically.  Anything goes for the Gospel.  This instrumentalistic Christianity seems crass, too simple, too lowbrow, and devoid of the majesty and transcendence of God.  But it is useful I think to bring the full tension of the Trinity into perspective here.  God is as father transcendent and majestic and awesome, and as Jesus: human, infant, broken, killed, dirty.  The incarnation of God in Christ brings God to earth, into the world.  Christ did criticize certain parts of culture (particularly the arrogance, pride and hypocrisy he saw in the religious culture), and we should too.  But he also embraced culture and the world of the rest along with them in many ways– ways many of the religious of his day would not.  

All of this is to say that we must beware of confusing having high brow aesthetic tastes with having a higher level of Christian understanding or relationship to God.  As pointed out in the conversion of Kuyper, it is the steadfast ardent real-Christian witness of true believers which really has the transformative power to change minds and lives, and one does not need high level aesthetic or intellectual tastes to achieve deep relationship with Christ.  This is the great leveling belief of Christianity– that it is not by our works or knowledge, but by acceptance of the grace of God in Christ which brings us into real relationship with God.   

I really have found Mouws insights and perspective helpful and encouraging.  He has a heart for bringing theology and Christian thought to the people in the pew, and in my view, he does a great job of it.

May God have mercy on us all.

And if you want to read any of Mouws other stuff, he has a lot: http://www.amazon.com/Richard-J.-Mouw/e/B001HD17QU/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1295270044&sr=8-1

Speak Life

This Post by Emily Hunt who is in SFC

It’s been a few weeks after New Years, the point of tension whether New Year’s resolutions are either kept or broken.  Deep down most people are really grateful for a chance at renewal, the promise that you are even allowed to give grace to yourself. It’s a season to perhaps to focus on the present and not the past, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

 

This holiday break I was, as I usually am, wading through lines at airport security, trying to catch up with family and friends, and finishing off some reading from the past year. One of my favorite authors is Parker Palmer. Not only because of his bent towards an educational vocation, but because of the holistic understanding he portrays in his writing, and assumedly his life as well. While specifically geared towards educators, his book “Let your life speak” is available to anyone who finds deep passion and commitment to their work, and seeks to incorporate a spirit of living by pushing a little bit of soul into the tasks of the day, even those deemed mundane or monotonous.

 

As a community at simple free we all finds ourselves at various walks of life and of work. We share in common a commitment to Loving God and neighbor, and redeeming moments that have been lost in great anticipation of what lies ahead, a new kingdom. Palmer defines leadership by saying “for better or for worse, I lead by word and deed simply because I am here doing what I do.” Regardless of position or title, each of us is called to set an example in speech, life, love, faith, and purity, just to name a few. Palmer boldly states that a leader (read, a human) is someone with the power to project either shadow or light upon some part of the world, and upon the lives of the people who dwell there. A leader shapes the ethos in which others must live, an ethos as light-filled as heaven or as shadowy as hell. A good leader has high awareness of the interplay of inner shadow and light, lest the act of leadership do more harm than good. I like this. Living in a community I tend to be hyper sensitive to others shade casting and they tend to be highly in tuned with mine.

 

As peculiar people (a term regularly used by Jamie Smith author of Devil Wears Derrida, see Andy’s previous post for another stellar author), we are called to lean into the light and push away the shadows, in ways both big and small. Here are a few practical things we could all implement in our daily lives specifically at our places of work or dwelling. Palmer quotes a variety of individuals including a favorite of mine, Annie Dillard, as he implores that we as people learn to let our lives speak, and to lead from within. Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks…and the life lives…so does the worker works…you get the point.

 

Impending shadows that may come by default (if we don’t make a conscious choice to work these out) include:

 

·        Insecurity about identity and worth. You can easily impose your own insecurities on others and thus cause chaos for them and yourself. Hit the pause button before you let this go further and choose to regard the dignity of that individual and consider them better than yourselves.

·        The belief that the universe is a battleground. Everything is a competition and battle to be won. You are either on one side or the other. Instead, Palmer exhorts us to strive for collaboration and mutual growth and the sky will be the limit.

·        Functional atheism. Palmer defines this as the belief that everything that happens is up to you, and if you don’t do it, it won’t get done. Supposedly this leads to burn out. I could see that.

·        Fear of the natural chaos of life. We believe in the efficiency model; that everything must be in order, have its process and its place, and if we miss things, then it failed. I appreciate his comparison to a the failure of a scientific hypothesis- which is actually a success since it showed you what didn’t work! Sometimes, the most creative ideas come out of pure chaos. Don’t be afraid of it.

·        The denial of death itself. We hold on to things that probably should have been let go awhile back for fear that when we they die, part of us dies as well. This relates back to the first point about identity and worth.

 

If we are serious about living in another kingdom, and living out freedom, then the way we go about evoking a new reality should be intentional. It comes down to the moments and not just the big decisions. May our lives speak of what is to come, and continue to lead by doing what we are here doing.

 

 

Mark 4: 18-19 “Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.