Room at the table...

Douglas John Hall places this quote from Rudy Wiebe at the start of his life's work, the three volume systematic theology for the North American context he calls:Thinking the Faith (as well as Confessing and Professing the Faith.) It reads:

Jesus says in his society there is a new way for (people) to live:
     you show wisdom, by trusting people;
     you handle leadership, by serving;
     you handle offenders, by forgiving;
     you handle money, by sharing;
     you handle enemies, by loving;
     and you handle violence, by suffering.
In face, you have a new attitude toward everything, toward everybody. Toward nature, toward the state in which you happen to live, toward women, toward slaves, toward all and every single thing. Because this is a Jesus society and you repent, not by feeling bad, but by thinking different.

As I made the long drive yesterday from Maryland to Massachusetts, three thoughts about why this continues to appeal to me kept playing over and over in my mind:

+  First, as I have posted before, I am exploring a reborn and/or reawakened childlike encounter with my faith. I am not tired of deep thinking. I am not weary of profound insights. But I am exhausted by the posturing that takes place within both liberal and conservative clergy circles re: who is the most radical, the most provocative, the most faithful to the politics of Jesus. I find such posturing exhausting because I don't see anything even resembling a systematic political agenda in the life and words of Jesus. John Howard Yoder and many of my liberation theology friends to the contrary, what I see in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus is the Messiah made flesh who brings a whole different social agenda to his followers than what often passes for politics.  

To my mind, Jesus is mostly the master of compassion - pure and simple - mixed with radical hospitality and an embodied spirituality of God's grace. This has a demanding social impact, to be sure, but it is fundamentally personal at its core. As the Hall quote suggests, each act of personal compassion/grace turns social relations upside down. Call it moral jiu jitsu or the upside down ethics of God's community, what I have come to affirm is a way of "following" that emphasizes how I personally "pick up my Cross and follow." Yes, as Jesus lives into the prophetic poetry of Israel's ancient prophets, there are real demands placed on his followers - this is NOT an "I'm ok, you're ok" self-help project - but neither is it politics. Rather, it is social transformation empowered by the Holy Spirit and life in the body (community) of Christ.

+ Second, it is my hunch that so much of the posturing that takes place in public about politics has something to do with the fact that for at least 75 years, our churches have done a miserable job of forming authentic adult disciples. We obsess on Sunday School for children - and congratulate ourselves by saying that our youth are the future of the church - when most of our youth disappear mostly forever after confirmation. What's more, too many of our adult members have come to believe that being "nice" is that same thing as being faithful. So, rather than do the internal hard work of reclaiming the church's culture of formation for Christ, we make demands that the social order enforce the commitments of discipleship. 
Again, don't misunderstand me: Dr. King was right when he said that "laws cannot change a person's heart, but they can keep them from wounding me." And there is a solid place in the world for bold and challenging Christian social witness. But never in place of assertive and life-changing adult Christian formation. In David R. Ray's helpful book, The Indispensable Guide for Smaller Churches, he cites a 1989 survey of 563 different congregations by the Search Institute of Minneapolis. The depth and breadth of this survey included the Southern Baptists as well as the United Church of Christ, the Methodists and well as the Episcopalians. When the results were tallied six denominational 
representatives sifted through the findings to articulate characteristics of a mature Christian faith.  

They all agreed on the following 8: trust in God's grace, experience of God's inner peace, the integration of faith with real life including work and politics, a desire to life-long learning, participation in a faith community, values that affirm life and reflect a personal concern for the well-being of others, advocacy for social and global social justice, experience in serving others with love and compassion.

When the researchers applied this definition of mature faithfulness to the adults surveyed in the six denominations, only one out of three qualified as mature in their faith. (Ray, p. 132)

We have a lot of work to do internally before we have earned the right to speak in public. And while I am personally committed to advancing the cause of faith-based community organizing, it is all too clear to me that without a more lively drive for adult Christian formation, not much will really change. 

+ And third, most of our churches have disqualified themselves from
being listened to or taken seriously when it comes to matters that effect the public good. We are ripe with hubris and afraid of humility. We want to tell others what is right and wrong without helping our own people practice radical hospitality. We ache for the social prowess of our long past establishment status without exploring the freedom and creativity we now posses having been pushed to the side-lines. Small wonder Pope Francis
strikes so many as a breath of fresh air: he embodies servanthood as a simple man of faith. Hall puts it like this:

One thing is certain: we shall not be able to do this (living as servants) without experiencing at first hand what Chesterton calls the “difficulty” of the way of Jesus Christ. There can be no easy transition from sixteen hundred years of Western Christendom to the church of the future. It is evident that a large number of Christians are unprepared even to attempt such a transition.

Hall goes on to say that for whatever reason, most Western Christians believe that our calling is to repeat the past - to reinforce by dominion and politics - a big is better way of institutional life "so that we may conquer in the name of Christ." This is a self-important dead end that will not bear anything resembling the fruits of the Holy Spirit. So, I have found myself energized and focused again by a growing encounter with the "childlike" aspects of faithful living. I will keep you posted.


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