Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Single-File Parade

Last night I dreamed of a parade, and a strange affair it was. Interminably long, an odd single-file line of marchers walked past, each person a virtual twin of the one before them, yet with only the slightest differences. After a thousand or so had passed by the small changes had added up to someone who looked very different from the marchers so far ahead. On and on went the line: 25,000 long, perhaps 30,000 or more before I woke. Above each one arched the sun and the moon in their turn, casting golden--then silver, light upon each person. Some marchers danced, others wept, still others trudged in dreary sameness. 
Through the night I dreamt and the parade continued by, each member ever-so slightly older than the one before. As I began the transition between sleep and wakefulness I realized I had witnessed the march of a single lifetime: 70 years, or eighty if our strength endures. I was awake, and the revelation was complete: we experience life in a single-file parade of 25,000 days or more, each one so much like the day before, yet unique as if a new creation.
Which of us has ever lived life backwards? Even Benjamin Button, who grew from old to young, lived his life in a succession of days, one after the other, never two together. The days march in line, each one connected to the previous, linked to the next, but never overlapping.
It is a quiet revelation, but no less true: God created the march of days and has ordained that each one of us will experience them in the same manner. Which of us has ever lived two days simultaneously? Or jumped from day 4,000 to day 7,000? It is beyond us to do so, though in our hearts and thoughts we may try. It may seem like a no-brainer, but we all are given the gift of life one day at a time, and our attempts to live them out of order come at great expense.
“Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself,” said Jesus. Then he added one of the strangest promises found in scripture: “Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6: 34)
Yet some people are obsessed with future days. The financial advisor pushes his chair away from his desk after reading these words and thinks, surely he can’t be serious. The student facing final exams in the coming weeks wonders if Jesus has lost his mind. The family trying to find the money for the next mortgage payment are convinced he never had a bill to pay. For each of them, sleep is a fair-weather friend. Meanwhile Jesus rambles on about birds and flowers. He instructs us to seek first God’s Kingdom and everything else will be magically “added to us.” Clearly, he doesn’t get the same emails we do.
The Creator, who exists outside of time and space, has ordained that should live in a world mediated by the passage of time. God set the whole thing up: we live our lives in the succession of days one after another because he wanted it to be so. Have we ever considered the fact that God chose this manner of living for us? He designed our minds, our hearts, our bodies, and our souls to live in this moment and not any other. He demonstrates his wisdom and care for us in the passage of time: we do not have to drag the past along with us nor bear the burden of future days on our shoulders all at once.
The past can store the treasures of lessons and memories, the future can be the repository of hopes or fears, but both of them are inhospitable homes for our hearts--or his Spirit.
He is the Eternal Now. God’s presence is available to us only in the now. We cannot experience his presence in the future because we do not live there. We cannot experience his presence in the past because we have moved on. His presence is here for us today. We do not need to worry about the future because he is not bound by time. He sits in the future and awaits our arrival. He’ll be there when we get there, but wouldn’t it be a shame to miss him in the now?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Monday's Meditation: The Defense Calls Dr. Dallas Willard

Abraham, or Dallas Willard?
Over the last three weeks we’ve been talking about the power of imagination applied to the scripture. Surprisingly, many people are skeptical about such a “subjective” approach.
One of the best defenses for a near-heretical position is to cite an authoritative source, so this week’s Meditation calls to the witness stand Dr. Dallas Willard, ordained Baptist minister, PhD in philosophy, and all-around nice guy. The following segment (used with permission) is from his devotional, “Hearing God:”
The word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: "Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward." . . . When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces [of the sacrifices]. Genesis 15:1, 17
One way in which people are addressed by God within the biblical record is with a phenomenon plus a voice. A phenomenon is an occurrence that can be perceived by any of our senses. For example, it might be an appearance of something unusual. God often accompanies such phenomena with a voice. Such divine-human encounters are richly represented in the events of Scripture, and we need to use our imagination to identify with them.
God's covenant with Abram, a major foundation of the Judeo-Christian tradition, was solemnized when fire from God passed through the air to consume Abram's sacrifice while God intoned the promise to Abram and his seed (Genesis 15:17-18).
MEDITATE: Read Genesis 15:1-17. Notice Abram's questions within the conversation between God and him (vv. 1-9). Now imagine Abram preparing sacrifices and desperately driving away the predatory birds from them. See the setting sun and the dreadful darkness as Abram falls into a deep sleep. Once again God speaks to Abram and the torch-laden firepot lights the sacrifices. Reread the passage and sit quietly basking in Abram's experiences.
Thanks, Dr. Willard. The defense rests--but not before recommending his iPhone app, Hearing God, available for $2.99, which comes to just under a penny a day to have morning devotions with formidable spiritual director.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Guest Post: Leaving Our Home Church After 20 Years

Based on the post “Do You Need to Go Home?” I invite you to tell your stories of leaving your home church. In this guest post my friend Rebecca Archer describes the process that lead her and her husband, Tony, away from their church-home after 20 years.
My husband and I were leadership, pillars in the church. It was “home” in every sense of the term. We were there for 20 years, participating in every level of ministry from preaching to cleaning the toilets and changing diapers in the nursery! Our identity was entwined there. Twenty years! But those last eight were pretty hard. Yes, eight years of difficulty.
To the congregation we stood in our places, confronting gossips and malcontents, soothing wounds made by the Senior Pastor and his wife, and counseling everyone to follow the Matthew 18 principle: “If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you've made a friend. If he won't listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again.” (The Message)
However, in the leadership meetings? Whoa Doggie! Look out! We were confrontational! “What about this? What about that? You promised this, where is it?” Several times, when we started with our questions, one of the other elders would say, “I think we need to stop and pray.” As if asking questions and holding the leadership responsible was some sort of crime! 

We didn’t know what to do! Pillars do not leave. We figured that we would pray and that God would fix it somehow. And pray we did! We did NOT want to be a part of the malicious gossip or to participate in the destruction or division of a church! Christ paid a big price for His church and we feel it is a shame and sinful to carelessly harm her.
Finally, we realized that this two-faced stance had become a deception. What had begun, rightly, as a protection of the leadership had changed into a cloak to hide the sins of the leadership. Oh, not that we could see any overt sins! That was a pretty big factor for us. There was no great sin that we could identify or we would have done so! (Later, some of those sins became known….) Our silence to the congregation about our growing concerns about the ministry had been interpreted as agreement with them! To the leadership, we were the rebellious, cantankerous ones! To the congregation, we were a confirmation that “all was well.” The situation came to a breaking point.
After the eight years of buildup, there was no great explosion! Yet one more unjust micro-management situation came up and we said, “This is not correct. You must either acknowledge that you are in error, or we cannot continue to walk together.” My husband had a short, quite friendly “hallway meeting” with the pastor and it was agreed that our time together had come to an end. A few arrangements were made as to the particular details, and a date was set to bring us before the congregation and to “send us out with prayer” and so it was!
As we prayed about where our next church would be, both my husband and I felt the same – we did not want to float around churchless, nor did we want to “go shopping”!  That could take MONTHS because one visit isn’t enough to understand a pastor or a congregation.  We felt the Lord directing us toward a specific new work in town.  While we were awaiting our “farewell prayer” at the old church, we arranged a meeting with the new pastor and his wife in their home, asked a few important questions concerning doctrine, ministry theories, and emphasis, and we were “home” again! It took us awhile to heal from the shock and from the manipulation and control we had grown accustomed to, but then, we plunged into ministry again with joy! The new “home” opened doors to mission work and many other exciting relationships and experiences!
I wouldn’t trade those 20 years for anything. Home was a great “nursery” for us; training us in the Word, to worship, to minister, to lead, to follow, to confront, to stand against adversary and to hear God’s Voice. Leaving home was a very painful experience. However, it was also the doorway to a great, new adventure!
There are times when we must separate! We are human. It is part of our nature to disagree! Abraham and Lot, Paul and Silas, Jacob and Esau, they are all are biblical examples of human relationship separation. But it shouldn’t be the first thing you do! It shouldn’t come easy. It shouldn’t destroy the thing that God loves – His Church.

Thanks, Rebecca! Do you have a story about leaving your home church? I'd love to hear it. It doesn't have to be posted on the blog--I'd just love to hear your story. Drop me a note at Ray dot Hollenbach @ gmail dot com.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Reflections on Good Friday's Cross

Not so very long ago you’d have to search far and wide for contemporary reflections on Good Friday. Ancient reflections were available in a strange medium once known as “books.” Thanks to the ultra-modern InterWeb Thing, there are some wonderful reflections at your fingertips.
This year I’ve posted my Good Friday reflections over at Church Leaders, where I contribute regularly. If you’re looking for fuel for thought or prayer, you can head over there and check out my four reflections on the meaning of the cross.

If you have a recommended site, leave a comment and a link. We can all use help reflecting on this ambivalent, holy day.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Why His Physical Resurrection Matters to Me (And You)

From Gandalf the Grey to Harry the Potter, resurrection is all the rage. Anyone can do it, as long as you’re a fictional character.
Reality is another matter: God became man: daring, but commonplace among the gods of the ancient world. God suffered the shame and agony of a torturous death: more scandalous, because when the gods become men they usually stack the deck in their favor. But God--risen from the dead? Still fully Man and fully God? That’s off the charts.
There is a Man seated on the throne of heaven: born of a woman, toiled in sweat, bled and died, risen in body, seated on the throne, and still human, always divine. God begot himself, and he sits enthroned, surrounded by humanity worshipping the image of God in a Man, because that Man is God.
Not everyone thinks so. Consider theologian Marcus Borg: What would it mean to say that the risen Jesus is a physical/bodily reality? That he continues to be a molecular, protoplasmic, corpuscular being existing somewhere? Does that make any sense? How can the risen and living Jesus be all around us and with us, present everywhere, if he is bodily and physical?” I’m not fit to carry Dr. Borg’s theology books, but yes, Marcus, it makes sense to me.
Perhaps you’ve never taken time to consider the possibility: there’s a Man on the throne of heaven because a Man was raised from the dead. He is the Last Adam and the firstborn over all creation. He completes the work of creation in the Garden, and begins the work of the New Creation, anticipating the day when there is a new heaven, a new earth, a new Jerusalem, filled with people, each born of woman, each worshipping their Older Brother. This means that Easter is not only about the Father has done in Jesus Christ, it is also about what awaits us.
The Apostle Paul riffs on this very idea in First Corinthians:
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. ~ 1 Corinthians 15: 20-22

Anticipating Mr. T by nineteen centuries, Paul pities the fool who only follows Jesus in this life, without hope for a life to come--a literal, physical, “corpuscular” life in the next age. He assures us that the bodily resurrection of Jesus is not only Jesus’ victory over sin and death, but also the Father’s promise that we, too, will be raised up in the same manner as Jesus: that is, in a corpuscular body. (In my disagreement with Marcus Borg I’m grateful that he has taught me a new word. I learned, too, that some of us are more corpuscular than others. And it’s fun to say. Try it: “corpuscular.”)
In this resurrection chapter Paul teaches us that every kind of body has a “splendor.” Animals, birds, fish, and men had splendorous bodies. But the world has only gotten a short preview of the most splendorous body of all: the body of  Jesus, the risen Lord. It is an amphibious body, capable of operating in this age and the age to come. The body of the risen Jesus could walk, talk, eat, and drink, yet it was not constrained by bothersome things such as doors and locks. The body of the risen Jesus was frightening, beautiful, and strangely unrecognizable--until he spoke your name or broke the bread of life, after which you wonder why you didn’t know it was him from the start. It is a body that can be seen with human eyes, hugged by human arms and touched with human hands.
The body of the risen Jesus exerts dominion over sickness and death, yet strangely bears the scars of it’s earlier existence. I have marveled at this for decades: the Father raised the body of Jesus to life, but chose to leave the scars of crucifixion in place. It tells me that we will carry the memories of our suffering from the past into our resurrected life, but the pain will be gone. In fact, the scars will become part of our testimony to the greatness of God. There is hope for every suffering person that their pain will be fuel to burn with testimony for Jesus.
Paul tells us that the good news of the Resurrection is first about Jesus and the glory of God, but that good news teaches us that we, too, will have a splendor and glory of our own, which we can offer to him in the age to come. This weekend, when we consider the majesty of Jesus: God, Man, Savior, and King, we can also catch a glimpse of the place he is preparing for us as well.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Monday's Meditation: The Color of his Eyes

At the close of William Sampson’s wonderful book, Meeting Jesus, he asks, “What was the color of Jesus’ eyes?”
The literal-minded person will immediately answer, “The Bible doesn’t tell us. We cannot know. At best we can only presume that because Jesus was born to Jewish parents blah, blah, blah.”
Sampson’s answer is more compelling: “No color is mentioned. But they were not colorless, like Little Orphan Annie. They were human eyes. And that they were human and could be looked into like any human eyes can make a big difference in getting to know Jesus.”
It’s like the stuff of a romantic comedy when the unappreciated girl traps the smooth-operating guy with a question as they talk on the phone: “Oh, you think I’m great? Really? What color are my eyes?” Long silence: the smooth operator is busted. He doesn’t really know her, he simply likes the idea of wooing and winning yet another conquest.
Can you imagine looking into the face of Jesus? Have you brought your imagination into the service of following him? In my experience too many Christians are taught to avoid subjective experiences with God.
Sometimes unbelievers grasp the power of imagination and Spirit more freely than cautious believers. In his play Joan of Arc, George Bernard Shaw--an infamous critic of Christianity--depicts a scene where Joan is questioned by church authorities for the heresy of hearing God’s voice. Her critics tell her the voice comes from her imagination, and Joan replies simply, “Of course. That is how the messages of God come to us.”
Joan would still be considered a heretic today, burned at the modern stake of the blogosphere. True, the Bible is our anchor. In the happy phrase of the King James translation it is our “more sure word of prophecy,” yet that implies there are other means of hearing his voice. I believe we were meant to engage the scripture in all the particulars--even the ones not mentioned, right down to the color of his eyes. It does not matter that we get the answer “right.” It matters that we enter into the real world of the scripture. As William Sampson says, “We do not know the particulars of his life, but we know it was filled with particulars . . . Jesus lived out his life as we do--from one concrete setting to another, one choice to another.”
To imagine Jesus in this way is to position ourselves to live from one concrete choice to another with a chance of making the choices Jesus would have us make. For this week’s meditation, can you imagine the color of his eyes? Why not spend some time alone with him and gaze upon his face?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Guest Post: Why I Chose to Leave My Home Church

Based on the post “Do You Need to Go Home?” I invite you to tell your stories of leaving your home church. In this guest post my younger friend Kathleen Smith Manning describes the process that lead her away from the church-home of her youth.
I left home at twenty-three. Not from my parents’ home, from which I’d moved away at eighteen, but from my church, which had been an anchor since fifteen years of age. Eight formative years, including the last two years of high school in the church school. There was lots of history, familiar faces, personal turf. It was, for the most part, a comfortable place.
The decision wasn’t easy, and took over a year to make. It was predicated by several events and the realization that there were other great, God-fearing churches out there. A good number of people had left, and some were chatting it up with those of us who stayed, trying to influence us that it was time to go. Not wanting to deal in innuendo or gossip, I (and many others) made attempts to avoid them.
More credible allegations of spiritual control and manipulation ran rampant, but I’d been spared much of the abuse by sound-minded parents and a profoundly influential mentor couple. My question was more forward thinking: Where was I going? If God would show me the way to move ahead within this congregation, I was willing to do that.  Lots of prayer later, it seemed right to have conversations with people with whom I had anchoring relationships. Some of them knew why; some did not. There was both grace and heartache in that dialogue. And ultimately, there were more reasons to go than stay. 
And so I left and started the search for a new home. Unexpectedly, there arose an uneasiness that revolved around my own spiritual walk. Some people who’d parted ways with our congregation had fallen apart. A nagging fear moved in: Was my love for Jesus simply rooted in my church culture, or did I really have some spiritual depth? Never, never did I want to be a floating, rootless Christian, unbonded from community. After a somewhat awkward search, my landing place was a large denominational church where I had some acquaintances. It was a setting for new relationships, healing, and deep affirmation.   
Years later, as a pastor’s wife in a loving smaller church in the Midwest, I have perspective from the other side of the coin. Yes, people get offended, sometimes at things that are frankly ridiculous or simply misunderstood, and leave, taking their open wounds with them. Failing to work it out can be sinful, and often is. But there are others that need to leave in order to deal with life as God leads them. At a reception when our church in Texas was sending us out, an older retired pastor told us “When people leave, don’t take it personally.” We try not to. 
Stay home if you can. Work it out if you are at all able. But if you are so inclined, get into a conversation with the Holy Spirit. Ask Him to show you your place where you are. And if He leads you to do so – no, only if He leads you to do so – leave home.

Thanks, Kathleen! Do you have a story about leaving your home church? I'd love to hear it. It doesn't have to be posted on the blog--I'd just love to hear your story. Drop me a note at Ray dot Hollenbach @ gmail dot com.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

What Makes God's Word Living and Active?

In Monday’s meditation I suggested it’s not enough to read the scripture with our mind, because we are body, soul, and spirit. Hearing God requires all of our being. What makes God’s word “living and active?” I’d like to suggest it’s something more than our intellect.
We’ve explored what it means to bring our imagination to bear in narrative portions of scripture, but what about those didactic letters of Paul and his friends? This is where so many theologians like to live: defining words, developing systematic theology, and generally being the smartest guys in the class. May I speak plainly, and perhaps heretically? I have a basic distrust of systematic theology. I don’t like either word at all. Put them together, I find myself in full rebellion. Count me in the camp with Thomas a Kempis: "I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it."
I want to read the scripture with my heart: engage the Word body, soul, and spirit. I want to love the Lord with all my heart, soul, mind and strength without allowing my intellect to dominate the other three. I joyfully put myself in the camp of emotionalism because the Creator of the universe is never impressed by our intellect, but he is moved by our heart and our faith.
Here is a passage from Paul’s letter to the Colossians:
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. ~ Colossians 3: 12-14
I’d like to suggest five ways to engage this passage imaginatively, and, should I say it? Creatively.
1). There’s a ghost in the book. In fact, the Ghost wrote the book. The first step in imaginative reading is to ask for the Holy Spirit’s help. It’s no mere formality: Paul, Peter or James may have written the New Testament epistles but behind the human agency is the loving heart of God. John, the disciple Jesus loved, wrote these amazing words to his followers: As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. (1 John 2: 27) Amazingly, John was dealing with the issue of false teachers in the church, and his solution was remarkably subjective! The same Spirit that hovered over the waters of creation is available to hover over us as we come to God’s word. Does this mean we are infallible interpreters of the word? No. But it does mean we have a loving guide.
2). Feel the love: this passage in Colossians opens with the description, “God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved.” You may not need to go beyond these seven words. If we are dearly loved, shouldn’t we feel it? One of my friends engaged in this exercise: he sat alone in his office and expressed his love to the Father, then waited for the Father to answer. He quietly spoke the words, “God, I love you” and sat in silence, attending to the Lord. A moment later he felt a subtle physical sensation of God’s presence--a still, small voice or the subtle movement of a draft upon his skin. Too mystical? Too subjective? Perhaps we’ve been trained to avoid the experience of his presence: if the text directs us to the love of God, why wouldn’t he respond lovingly?
3). Clothe yourselves: why not extend the metaphor? He presents us with the image of someone preparing to move from private to public. No one leaves home naked! He invites us to extend the metaphor and see ourselves preparing for the day. How do you get dressed in the morning? What decisions do you make? No one puts on every article of clothing they own, but rather they select the clothing appropriate to the day’s tasks. Infants and toddlers must be clothed by others, Paul calls us to the mature response of clothing ourselves. It takes imagination to extend the metaphor into a practical vision for the day. There, in my prayer closet, I ask in advance: Where do I need to show compassion for the day? What kind of compassion will I need? Compassionate tears or compassionate sweat? How should I dress my heart? How can I prepare to meet the needs of others?
4). Imagine what the text does not say. I know: this is dangerous: every Bible scholar tells us not to make “the argument from silence.” Except I am not coming to the scripture to argue: I’m coming to hear the heart of God. Paul provides a representative list of what we need for life together; compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. But not necessarily intelligence, wit, or smarts. By imagining what is not on the list I understand that character trumps intelligence. That God desires mercy, not education. The Holy Spirit might even remind me that knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.
5). Finally, I’m invited to consider the mysteries of incarnation. As one friend commented on Monday’s Meditation, “I'd say the life in these passages is all from the same source: Jesus. Who is the Word; Who is Love; Who is Life. I think I'll remember this every time I'm thinking, What will I wear? I am putting on Christ.” I love this observation because it started me thinking about what it means to put on Christ each day. I started me wondering how Christ put on his humanity, and whether we can put on divinity in return. In short, it started me thinking of how I can be like him.
Some will think I am against using reason and intellect with the scripture. But I’m truly not. I only want to ensure that what comes into my mind will also travel 12 inches to my heart. How about you?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Why Run with Only One Leg? A Review of "Half the Church"

The winners of the book give-away are, appropriately, two women! Stephanie wins the "clean" promotional copy of "Half the Church" and Adrienne wins my review copy, "dirtied" with pencil marks and notations. Stephanie and Adrienne: please contact me at Ray dot Hollenbach at Gmail dot com with shipping addresses and I'll send you your books!

Christian books for women usually fall into one of two dreadful categories: either a North-American evangelical perspective that sees women as little more than a marketing niche within Christendom, or a feminist-driven perspective that contains a Rosie-the-Riveter “I’ll show you” subtext. Books about the role of women in the church usually fall into a dreary debate between highfalutin words like complimentarianism or egalitarianism. Carolyn Custis James’ Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women falls into “none of the above.” That’s refreshing.
James invites North American Evangelicals to lift our eyes and see women’s issues in global and Biblical perspectives. “I was determined to find out if God’s message for women was universal,” she writes, “encompassing the full spectrum of every woman’s life regardless of her demographics or circumstances.” In fact, much of our gospel presentation--beyond gender issues--would benefit from James’ perspective. Is the good news good news for everyone? Prosperous or poor, socialist or capitalist, male or female?
Half the Church challenges the comfortable reader to think not only globally, but Biblically as well. While avoiding the tiresome debates over whether the opening chapters of Genesis are meant to be “taken literally,” this book focuses instead on the meaning of the creation account, especially the meaning of how humanity bears God’s image. “[God] gives both male and female the exact same identity--to be his image bearers. He gives both the exact same responsibilities when he entrusts all of creation to his image bearers.”

Even if creation is broken (and it is) God’s purposes and methods remain unchanged, and we would do well to excavate the foundations again. James does so by challenging traditional interpretations of the phrase “suitable helper” found in Genesis. She points out that the problem is not with the Biblical record, but rather the meanings we have attached to these words, applying culturally-bound meanings to what should be culture-changing revelation from God.
James borrows heavily from the work of Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn, creators of the Half the Sky movement. Kristof and Wudunn would never fit into an Evangelical mold yet they are about God’s work, sometimes to the shame of the prosperous North American church: “Like quarreling siblings,” she writes, “we are arguing over how to divide a pie so everyone gets their fair share while the neighbor’s house is on fire.” The fire she describes is the systematic negation of the value and role of women around the world, and the opportunity wasted by Christians, who possess a universal answer. James is aware of the debate over women’s roles in ministry, but refuses to allow herself to be pulled into that swamp: the world of the church is too big for both men and women for us to ignore our missional call while settling matters of doctrine--especially doctrine that is secondary to the mission God has given us. She calls for a “Blessed Alliance” of the sons and daughters of God, who will focus on their creation-mandate instead of culturally-generated arguments.
If there are weaknesses in the book, they are weakness of technical merit, not heart or mind: some illustrations she provides may come across as trite, while others perhaps too emotionally laden. Yet her call to action is unmistakable and the larger vision of the Church is laudable in every respect.
James states her case clearly in the introduction and stays on point throughout the work: “When half the church holds back--whether by choice or because we have no choice--everybody loses and our mission suffers setbacks. Tragically, we are squandering the opportunity to display to an embattled world a gospel that cause both men and women to flourish and unites us in a Blessed Alliance that only the presence of Jesus can explain.” Who could argue with that?
You can earn a chance to win a free copy of Carolyn Custis James’ "Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women" by leaving a comment below. A winner will be chosen at random on Saturday.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Monday's Meditation: What Makes God's Word Living & Active?

For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. ~ Hebrews 4: 12 

Since my earliest days as a follower of Jesus I’ve heard this passage quoted. The same night I came Christ someone put the Bible in my hands and told me God would speak through the book. Yet my experiences with the scripture were decidedly uneven. Sometimes it felt as if the secrets of the universe were unfolding before me. Other times I was clueless as Republican at Burning Man. 
Why is this book so special and such a mystery at the same time? What makes the word of God living and active? How can we enter into the life of the word?
It’s not enough to read the scripture with our mind, because we are body, soul, and spirit. Coming to the scripture is more than reading literature. If we want to hear the words of God it requires all of our being. Last weeks’ posts explored the power of imagination in reading the scripture and suggested some avenues to stimulate the imagination. Perhaps these posts helped some to engage the narrative and poetic passages of the Bible, but other people asked me if it’s possible to bring our imagination to bear upon the letters which make up such a large part of the New Testament.
This week’s Meditation invites you to engage the Epistles with your imagination. Consider this exhortation from the Apostle Paul:
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. ~ Colossians 3: 12-14
We know Paul is giving us more than good advice. These are life-giving commands. “Do you want to please God?” thunders the PreacherMan, “Then follow the instructions!” Perhaps you’ve even seen someone shake the book, declaring that the Bible is God’s Owner’s Manual. Yet I've never seen an owner's manual capable of changing my life.
I'd like to suggest there are at least five pathways to use your imagination--inspired by the Holy Spirit--as you come to this passage. To help get you started, why not live with this passage in the coming days, and ask these questions:
  • If the Word of God is living and active, where is the life in this passage, and how is it acting upon me?
  • What doors are open to me through these words--and what doors are closed?
  • Can I apply my imagination to cut-and-dried commands such as the ones in this passage?
  • How can I engage these words with something other than my understanding?
I invite you to suggest some possible answers in the comments below, and come on back Thursday as I share a few pathways I’ve found as well.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Four Hopeful Imaginations: How to read the scripture with your heart

The hillside is bathed in golden light as pilgrims walk up the dusty hill. They gather and sit as the Teacher begins to speak. The camera pulls back slowly from the Teacher, revealing a vast multitude of listeners, fixed upon every word of the Sermon on the Mount. Still the camera pulls back. The crowd is very large. There, at the very back of the crowd, at the edge of the desert hillside, one family strains to hear the blessed words.
“Eh? What’d he say?”
“I think it was ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers?’”
“Aha, what's so special about the cheesemakers?“
“Well, obviously it's not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”
Did you ever think about the people in the very back of the crowd, trying to listen to the Sermon on the Mount? John Cleese, Terry Gilliam and four of their friends did, and their imagination grew into this famous scene from The Life of Brian. Such frivolity provides an example of listening to the word of God with our imaginations as well as our intellect. Monday’s Meditation suggested “Godly hope springs from a Biblically informed imagination,” and while some would dispute whether Monty Python qualifies as a Biblically informed imagination, Cleese and the boys will act as our spiritual formation guides today.
I’d like to suggest four ways to engage the inspired text with our imagination.
Imagine the setting: Jesus worked and taught in a real world. He walked real hillsides and felt the heat of the day on his body. The Son of God sweat. He thirsted. One way to hear the word of God anew is to put yourself into the setting. You needn’t be a Biblical archeologist to do so: the important thing is to take the words off the page and wrap yourself in the setting. Monty Python imagined what it must’ve been like for those who found themselves on the edge of the crowd. Their imagination inspired laughter. What could yours inspire?
Join the party: You don’t need an engraved invitation. Come in, sit down, and put yourself in the setting. It does no disrespect to the Biblical narrative to add one more person to the scene. You could be the thirteenth disciple. Or the woman with five husbands. Or the rich young ruler. Dallas Willard observed that one of the first steps in hearing God in the scripture is the ability to recognize that the people of the Bible were real people, no different from you or me. Even the narrative sections of the scripture are addressed to us personally. The trick is to re-create the setting, then accept the invitation to the party.
Stay yourself, be real: Jesus isn’t speaking to other people, he’s speaking to you. Each person who heard the actual words of Jesus was a real person with a real life. This one was fisherman, who thought and responded like a working man. That one was a wife and a mother, who thought and acted in ways very different from a fisherman. If the words of Jesus are truly the word of God, they should speak to us where we are: man, woman, rich, poor, depressed, confident, gay, straight, black, white, Asian, Latin, rested, fatigued, desperate or self-sufficient. Some people engage in conversation while others ponder words in their heart. How would you have reacted if you were actually there, listening to him speak? A stained-glass answer will not do, only a real answer prepares our heart for the word.
Respond to the word. Perhaps you’ve never noticed it, but everyone in the Biblical narrative responded to the word of God. The rich young ruler went away unhappy; the woman at the well returned to town and told everyone how her life had changed. The implicit message of the Biblical narratives is simply you cannot walk away from the word of God unchanged. Yet modern readers of the Bible close the book and walk away unaffected. It’s the difference between an intellectual exercise and experiencing his words. It’s the difference between reading and living the word.
Hope comes from an imaginative engagement with the word of God. If we place ourselves in the text, be begin to imagine ourselves as real people, engaging with a real Lord. After all, we’re real, aren’t we? He’s risen and real, isn’t he? An imaginative encounter with the text produces hope because we imagine ourselves differently as a result of meeting Jesus. It’s just another way of saying, “the inbreaking of your word brings light.”

Monday, April 4, 2011

Monday's Meditation: Dreaming of Reality

Some people are realists, others dream. I want to be both kinds of people: first I want to dream, then I want to bring reality to what I’ve seen. I have a dreambook, more popularly known as the Bible.
Jesus understood the power of imagination and dreams. His teaching invited people to combine their thoughts with his words and imagine a world born anew. I believe this is how we should listen to the word of God: combine our imagination with his words, producing Biblical dreams of the way things are in heaven and should be on earth:
Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Luke 12: 27-32
Can you imagine living a life convinced of the Father’s good intentions toward you? How would such a life differ from one in which we worry about daily needs? It’s like throwing your anchor into the future. With each passing day you are pulled closer to reality, swayed less and less by the currents of this life. But hearing his words requires that we engage our imagination, and see ourselves living such a life right now. It produces hope: Godly hope sprung from a Biblically-informed imagination.
Walter Brueggeman emphasized the idea that our dreams must spring from a source other than our wants and desires. He reminds us we are not free to imagine just anything. We receive the Biblical witness and become invested in the vision. Nor do we do it alone. Brueggeman suggests that the church becomes “a place where people come to receive new materials, or old materials freshly voiced, which will fund, feed, nurture, nourish, legitimate, and authorize a counterimagination of the world.”
Both realists and dreamers face the same questions, the same meditation for the week: What is the source of your reality? What is the source of your dreams?

What dreams have you derived from God's promises? How have those promise-dreams changed your life? I'd love to hear your story.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Hanging Out With the Cool Kids

The actual Rachel Held Evans!
Yesterday I guest-blogged over at Rachel Held Evans’ place. She’s the author of Evolving in Monkey Town, a spiritual coming-of-age memoir.
The post is about the tension between our desire to follow Jesus and our certainty that we cannot live up to his example. It’s become the central focus of my writing over the past year because I see so many believers convinced that their spiritual walk must be characterized by failure.
I was intrigued by the comments of Rachel’s readers, which ranged from deeply insightful to incomprehensible. But then, I’m a bear of very little brain. My thanks to Rachel, and Sunday blessings to you all!