Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

Churches can use some imagination.

Not imagination as a flight of fancy (although that can be good), but imagination that carries Christians into the hard places where reconciliation and transformation are most needed.

“Imagination gets us in touch with what is most real,” says Kerry Dearborn, a professor in the School of Theology at Seattle Pacific University. However, Dearborn adds, imagination is a “tool we haven’t allowed God to access.”

During a recent presentation Dearborn joined with Chris Hoke, who serves with Tierra Nueva Ministries in Skagit County, to explore the meaning of imagination in Christian life. Both have just published books that explore Christian imagination: Dearborn’s “Drinking from the Wells of a New Creation” and Hoke’s “Wanted,” a reflection on his work within prisons and among immigrants.

Hoke (who appears above in a CBN profile about a man cared for by Tierra Nueva) pointed toward the imagination as he read from his book:

Growing up in many churches, I never found them to be raw or extremely honest places — not places where you could show the worst side of yourself. But I found the jail to be a place where inmates didn’t have the option to hide their problems … Here, people are left staring — innocent or guilty of the specific charges — at the wreck of their lives. And in this place, in these rooms of unadorned life, I found something that clergy call sacrament, mysteries I could feel.

In light of Hoke’s experience, perhaps it is no surprise that in researching her book Dearborn found the most striking examples of imagination and grace among the marginalized, who are open to the Holy Spirit in a way that cannot be matched by those of us who are more affluent, more respectable — and who feel like we have more to lose.

Imagination, Dearborn says, can work like a solvent that washes away old, false truths and renews one’s faith — and one’s ability to see the “other” in fresh new ways. But Christians in Western culture too often fail to use this gift.

“In a very cerebral culture we demean imagination,” Dearborn says. But that is to our loss.

At a time when the culture wars promote false choices, when churches are too often complicit in the injustices of this world, and when congregations crumble because they can’t adapt to a changing culture, the need for a renewed imagination shines brighter than ever.

And the words of Dearborn and Hoke feel much more daring than they ought to be.

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My memories of Christmas Eve all go back to a sensation, a tingling sense of anticipation, about what was to come the next morning. It always seemed to make sleep impossible and the night never-ending.

And that was just about the presents.

Beyond the gifts, my family wasn’t particularly observant about the baby Jesus, who was treated as a nice story that lingered in the background while the wrapping paper flew about the living room. And Advent? Well, that was a word I never heard at home, and I was never particularly attentive to it in my early days as a Christian.

Then I got married – to a preacher’s kid from hardy Lutheran stock and a family that lived by the church seasons. Particularly Advent.

For my wife, Christmas would be amiss without Advent, and she challenged me to make that season a real part of my Christmas.

And then our children arrived, along with the Advent calendar. For 16 years now, the nightly ritual has been the same, with each of our children taking turns reading each of the booklets about baby Jesus. And if mom and dad somehow forgot to read one night, they were the ones who set us straight. They loved, and still love, to read the stories. 

Yes, they still anticipate the presents that will arrive Christmas day. But their anticipation is different from that of my youth, shaped by those little booklets that remind us that the story of Jesus’ arrival on Earth is the transformative moment in human history. That is why Advent, this time of anticipation, this time for hope amid the darkness, carries so much more for me than I ever felt as a child.

Thanks to my wife and children for teaching me this lesson. Thanks to God for the gift of His Son, and the redemption of our lives.

May God bless you all this Christmas.

Note: This post also appears at my church’s blog, Calvin Voices.

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I first encountered John Stott some 40 years ago, when a Young Life leader gave me a copy of “Basic Christianity.” After reading of Stott’s death last night, I searched in vain for my copy of that book and the memories that it carried.

Like so many other Christians, I encountered Stott through that book and many others through the years. I learned a great deal about the foundations of the faith through him; I can recall devouring his discussion of the Sermon of the Mount in “Christian Counter-Culture,” even as the book’s title and text strained for post-1960’s relevance.

But it’s not Stott’s specific theological teachings that stayed with me the most through the years. What I remember above all else was the spirit of grace that animated his writing. Stott was a man of deep conviction and even deeper faith, but generosity and humility permeated his words. In this way, he led by example. David Brooks recognized this in a 2004 column about Stott:

When you read Stott, you encounter first a tone of voice. Tom Wolfe once noticed that at a certain moment all airline pilots came to speak like Chuck Yeager. The parallel is inexact, but over the years I’ve heard hundreds of evangelicals who sound like Stott.

It is a voice that is friendly, courteous and natural. It is humble and self-critical, but also confident, joyful and optimistic. Stott’s mission is to pierce through all the encrustations and share direct contact with Jesus. Stott says that the central message of the gospel is not the teachings of Jesus, but Jesus himself, the human/divine figure. He is always bringing people back to the concrete reality of Jesus’ life and sacrifice.

I am less confident than Brooks that evangelicals and their leaders have truly emulated Stott, especially as I see all the self-inflicted wounds of the culture wars. It certainly grieved Stott to see how Christians could turn on one another, which spurred him to write an essay titled “Balanced Christianity”:

One of the greatest weaknesses which we Christians (especially evangelical Christians) display is our tendency to extremism or imbalance. … My conviction is that we should love balance as much as the devil hates it and seek to promote it as vigorously as he seeks to destroy it.

Stott penned those words in 1975, but his warning feels no less relevant for Christians who now occupy the public sphere in these oh-so-unbalanced times.

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In each of our lives, grace tries to intrude continually, attempting to shape our story into an infinitesimal but uniquely valuable part of God’s story. God can certainly do very well without any one of us. That’s a message the Reformed heritage has proclaimed with vigor. But God also delights in each one of us.

When we ask what to do about Jesus, we are invited into an inner, transformative journey that allows the unique combination of DNA that shapes our being to be joined with the foundational movement of God’s love. This seeks to shape the world into the home of God’s glory. And for any one of us, that is a story worth telling.

— Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, “Rediscovering Jesus,” from Unexpected Destinations

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Shaping our world is never for a Christian a matter of going out arrogantly thinking we can just get on with the job, reorganizing the world according to some model that we have in mind. It is a matter of sharing and bearing the pain and puzzlement of the world so that the crucified love of God in Christ may be brought to bear healingly upon the world at exactly that point.

Because Jesus bore the cross uniquely for us, we do not have to purchase forgiveness again; it’s been done. But because, as he himself said, following him involves taking up the cross, we should expect, as the New Testament tells us repeatedly, that to build on his foundation will be to find the cross etched into the pattern of our life and work over and over again.

— N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus

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After all the buzz surrounding this past weekend’s non-Rapture, I remembered a story that a youth group leader shared with me back in my high school days. All I can remember is a rough paraphrase, but the message has stayed with me to this day:

A group of believers approached a famous theologian one day and asked him: “What would you do if you knew that Jesus was returning tomorrow?” He replied, “I would tend to my garden, just as I do every day.”

We don’t know the day or hour for a reason — tending to our gardens is more than enough of a challenge. Now, back to those weeds …

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Is there anything more pure, more full of wonder and hope for the future, than the prayer of a child? We find it difficult to imagine what that might be. For a child’s heart, when it forms a prayer of thanks or praise or petition, has none of the self-consciousness and ambivalence of adulthood; it is a laser beam of light and love — focused, clear, and burning with urgency.

— Gregory and Suzanne Wolfe, Circle of Grace

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It takes spiritual discipline to forgive others; it takes a different, though related, spiritual discipline to forgive myself, to echo within my own heart the glad and generous offer of forgiveness which God holds out to me and which, if I’m fortunate, my neighbor holds out to me as well.

Here, too, my sense of self-worth comes not from examining myself and discovering that I’m not so bad after all but from gazing at God’s love and discovering that nothing can stand between it and me. …

This astonished and grateful acceptance of the free grace and love of God is what some traditions have meant when they echoed Paul’s language about “justification by faith.”

— N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God

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I was in a meeting at church Sunday night when the text arrived from my daughter: “Osama bin Laden is dead everyone is reporting it everywhere.” A few minutes later I learned that other parents in the room were receiving similar messages from their kids.

I spent the rest of the evening at home watching the coverage, a nonstop cavalcade of celebrations in New York, D.C. and elsewhere. I never anticipated how cathartic this moment would be for the nation. I certainly felt some relief at the demise of someone responsible for so much bloodshed. But that relief was — and is — tempered by uneasiness over the intensity of the celebration over bin Laden’s death.

When I perused the blogosphere today, I found I wasn’t alone. One rabbi, while expressing gratitude to the U.S. military, nonetheless added:

When hearing about the downfall of an enemy, the rabbis remind us of the verse from Proverbs:  “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles.”

This is in line with the tradition that no matter how wicked our enemies are their destruction is not a cause for celebration.  The Talmud tells us that “God does not rejoice with the fall of the wicked.”  As the rabbinic teaching goes, as the Children of Israel were crossing the sea and the army of Pharaoh was drowning, God rebuked the angels for showing excessive joy.  And to this day, our liturgy reflects that by limiting the psalms of joy that we recite to commemorate that event.

Perhaps this is why videos of celebrations at Annapolis, which received considerable traffic on the web earlier today, have now been taken down at YouTube. (See this post as illustration). The chants of “I believe we have won!” are now gone — though one can still find video of midshipmen singing the Star Spangled Banner.

The New York Times, meanwhile, found reservations among  reflections from a Buddhist:

My initial reaction is like everyone else’s — this is a good thing. But Buddhism says there is no monster that exists on his own, without cause. And that every living thing is sacred, including monsters. So I would chalk this up as one of the most intensely confusing moments for Buddhists so far in the 21st century.

Another Buddhist told the Times:

This should not be a joyous occasion. There is no way of hurting or killing someone without creating a karmic come-back. You may believe that killing a man who is intent on killing others is a necessary act, as I believe it was in this case. But you cannot escape the karmic effects of the act itself.

Another reason I’m with Bono in preferring grace over karma.

Thankfully, Christianity Today also posted several essays urging restraint. As one essay notes:

Not everyone who reads what I write here will agree with me that the actions of the American government in the killing of Osama bin Laden were just. Neither will everyone agree with me that rejoicing over that death, understandable as it is, is inappropriate for those of us who know the depth of our own sinfulness and the scope of God’s grace. But once again these events illustrate the tension in being both citizens of the United States of America (or any political community) and citizens of the kingdom of God.

When I watch the celebration, I see too many expressions of vengeance, when we should reflect on the meaning of justice. I see too much tough-guy nationalism, when we should be humbled and reminded of so many lives needlessly lost. I see too much triumphalism, when we should be realistic about the threats that remain in a dangerous world.

Above all, however, I worry that when we celebrate the death of another, even an Osama bin Laden, we lose more than a bit of our own humanity. Karmic come-back, indeed.

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What happens in prayer is that an awareness develops: a lot more is going on the world than I am conscious of when I am disappointed, or hurt, or frustrated, or embittered. The feelings that I have at any one moment, while important and actual cannot be interpreted accurately apart from the context of God’s action.

Meditation is an intensification of awareness, of perception. When the focus of meditation is narrowly bound by feelings of self-pity, the self in isolation, the result is an intensification of misery. But if the focus is on God in the self, on God  in history, on God in creation, the result is a magnification of grace.

 — Eugene Peterson, Where Your Treasure Is

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