Tuesday, June 09, 2009

A mirror blog . . . kind of.

I probably should leave well enough alone . . . but I'm not gonna.

I'm starting a new blog at http://gettingfree.wordpress.com/. Whether it becomes my new permanent blogging-almost-once-a-month home remains to be seen. But I will be posting there a bit for a spell.

It's got more columns. Which is what I really need in my life. More columns.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

AA, the Church, and the Mission of God (pt. 3 - AA & the Gospel)

I think being raised Southern Baptist has helped give me a lifelong curiousity in 'the gospel' and I hope to always keep it. As I implied in the last post, I have come to see Jesus' gospel of the kingdom--the news that the government of God has come near by virtue of Jesus showing up to assume his rightful role as the 'Christ'-ened Lord of heaven and earth)--as the central message, with Jesus' own story (a.k.a., the gospels) as the specific reports of how he, among other things, took that rightful place without immediately judging all of humanity for their ages-long resistance to his rule of love and selflessness. Thank God, Jesus comes announcing how we can be transformed into his cooperative friends, restoring the whole creation with and through him, rather than continue to be part of its destruction in large or small ways.

Now, you may notice that a fair summary of the gospel I've described in this post and before has the feel of a story of a very gracious king coming to his people who had been in various stages of rebellion against him. Instead of giving them the penalty for their treason and their other crimes against him and others, he took the consequences of their rebellion upon himself in the hopes that his people would cease their destructive rebellion and finally join with him in caring for each other and the whole creation as he envisions. Or, to put his hope another way, that they would 'repent and trust him' as his apprentices and constructive co-workers, that they would 'enter' and 'receive' his government as grateful and willing participants, joining his family business of making all things new though his love and power.

What you may notice is lacking from this description is any central concern about where one might be headed after death. My summaries of the gospel are focused on bringing humans back into participative, and increasingly constructive cooperation with God's chosen king--right now in this life for the good of all we effect. Now, the implications for the after-life are clear enough. As Todd Hunter has said, if there are two options for the after life, where do you think God takes his friends? With him, of course, to finish what they have worked toward together--the new heavens and new earth. And the negative implications are also clear: what of the person who has remained hostile to Christ and to his rule of love and self-sacrifice? Out, tragically, with the rest of the trash that is committed to death. But--and this is the salient point--the focus of the gospel of the reign of God is how one wants to go forward in this life. Specifically, the issue is whether we want to 'receive' the new management. Do we want to actually ask God to let his name be honored above all (including ours), his government to come (not ours), his will (think, great commandments) be done in our particular corners of the earth--at least through us, or do we want to pray for and continue to seek our name, our reign, our will be done. It is a directional choice. It is a 'how we want to live and for what?' choice. It's a day-by-day choice. It's the choice God has laid before us when he sent his son proclaiming that 'The time has come. The reign of God has come near. Repent and trust this good news' as he healed and took apprentices, teaching them his Way.

Now, as that gospel started to get hold of me, I started looking at the 12 steps and thinking, "Is there a better way to respond, or rather, follow through in response, to that gospel, then this?" I encourage anyone to think about this gospel and what God is seeking to do in the world--really search the whole NT on that question-- and ask the same question. I will go into some of the specific strengths of the steps as a kingdom-gospel response in later posts, but for now I will simply say that the steps are, in a nutshell, about turning the practical reigns of our lives over to God, especially as they inevitably involve our dealings with others. What's more, the path of the steps aren't taken alone, but in truly helpful relationships with others who are on the same path. The steps are about learning to actually live the way Jesus lived and taught, not just hear about it. They are a communal path to entering the reign of God, one day at a time, ceasing to be an instrument of other, darker powers such as our own selfishness and the idols we've counted on and followed for so long.

Monday, March 02, 2009

AA, the Church, and the Mission of God (pt. 2 - the Gospel)

About 9 years ago, my wife and I were preparing to leave Gainesville, Florida, and the Vineyard church we had come to deeply love was preparing to host a regional pastor's conference. I was finishing a long academic career with a take-home final exam the very same week of the conference. Needless to say I couldn't attend the meetings, so I got the tapes of each session. Four of these tapes focused on the kingdom of God, but in markedly different ways. Two of them were from Don Williams in which Don combined (i) N.T. Wright's scholarship, particularly regarding God's work in the Exodus as a prototype of God's kingdom with (ii) his personal and pastoral experience with the idols of our day, which are often better understood and dealt with as addictions. The other two sessions dealing with the kingdom were from Todd Hunter, who had been serving as the head of Vineyard USA, and in fact was just announcing his resignation from that post. Eugene Peterson and Dallas Willard had been influencing him strongly, and he gave a session on the Pastor's inner life, calling pastors to learn how to draw their energy from Christ and his kingdom (and warning of the addictions and infidelities that inevitably come if we don't), and another to the youth—the PKs—challenging them to ponder whether they really had ever heard or positively responded to the gospel that Jesus announced—that of entering the Kingdom—or if they had instead been trying to receive 'eternal life' without any intention of letting Jesus actually reign over them in this life. Now, although I had been part of a Vineyard for years, even leading small groups and eventually the college ministry, those tapes, which I nearly wore out, made me realize that, despite being in churches and/or Christian schools my whole life, the topic of the kingdom of God was a giant, giant hole in my understanding of Christianity generally and Jesus in particular. It knawed at me. So, as I began my career in the practice of law and felt the pain of separation from the church that had become my home, I read. I read Dallas Willard's Divine Conspiracy (and later, Renovation of the Heart & Hearing God), I read Missional Church by Guder & friends, I read N.T. Wright's Challenge of Jesus. I read Eugene Peterson's pastoral books and much of his Message. I read Andrew Murray's Humility. I read Don Williams' Jesus and Addiction. Some friends and I visited the Servant Leadership School a la Church of the Saviour in D.C., so we listened and read some from them, too. I'm pretty sure there are others that I'm forgetting. But what all these folks said in common, and often emphasized, was that
the kingdom of God is not a place but a dynamic.
Specifically, it was an intimate and productive dynamic with the Father and his people in which God got to actually lead and provide for humanity in the way he intended. Looking at the verbs of the NT, it was a dynamic with God and others, which we entered, or failed to enter, received or failed to receive. It was a dynamic that Jesus perfectly modeled for us and invited us into as his apprentices. The government of God had come and was looking for a people to govern and provide for.

This was amazing to me. I'm still dealing with the implications. But my first question was where does the cross fit in? As I read, I became aware of a long-running debate of which I had been totally ignorant—was it Jesus' gospel (the kingdom) or Paul's gospel (forgiveness via death and resurrection) that was the gospel? How exactly does "The kingdom of God has come near" fit together with "Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures?" Where does forgiveness of sins fit in with the kingdom of God, or vice versa? One of the benefits, though, of coming late to a debate is that you get to hear, immediately, some of the better ideas that often only come after others have done much work. Another common theme that kept popping up in my reading was the narrative flow of Scripture. God doesn't do everything all at once. There is a story at work here, with characters, large and small, along with plots, subplots and more than one twist and turn before the end. As this big picture started to sink in, I began to see Jesus, his kingdom, his cross and his resurrection within this Story, and everything started to make sense. First the central character and the basic context of the NT: one cannot talk about the Jewish "Messiah" or "Christ" without simultaneously talking about "the kingdom of God" he is "Christ-ened" to lead. The Christ is a king, the King, who was to come, "restoring the kingdom." Jesus tended to talk about the kingdom (implying he was the Christ), while Paul focused on the main character—Jesus is the Christ!—assuming that everyone knows that the "Christ" leads a kingdom, the kingdom, God's kingdom. I started to understand that the historic connection between Paul's "Christ" and Jesus' "kingdom" is strong enough to bring substantial congruity all on its own. Second, though, the (messianic) plot: this king will, among other things, rescue God's people from their enemies, rebuild God's temple, bring God's justice to bear on the whole world . . . but how? The way I have come to see it, the early church saw the cross and the resurrection as the guts of the "how." It's how God's choice of king saved humanity from the dominance and fate of evil. It's how he rebuilt the temple of God. It's how he fulfilled the calling of the Jewish nation in general and the vocation of the Messiah in particular. It's also "how" a holy God can invite ordinary, messed up humans into an intimate collaboration. It's how Jesus brought the government of God near to humans in the form of an invitation instead of a death sentence. The cross and resurrection is the big climax, the ultimate surprise plot twist, of how the kingdom of God came to earth with peace and goodwill instead of a sword, even while the enemies of God and humans were completely dismantled! It's also the heart of how people will follow this king and become his people in this world, living examples and agents of his ongoing (and growing) rule. It is also the sign to the whole world, just as the Exodus was through superpower Egypt, that Yahweh is more powerful than the ultimate weapon of the most powerful human government on earth. God turned the symbol of Roman power into the ultimate ad campaign, into another stepping stool: Jesus is Lord with a capital "L.", everyone else should govern themselves accordingly. Jesus and Paul were indeed telling the same story of God's kingdom coming to earth, telling the same "good news" but Jesus was himself the main character--the king--living through the unexpected and intense climactic battle, and Paul was telling his story--which he understood as the story of the kingdom of God coming to earth, rescuing peoplefrom the kingdom of darkness.

And what was "the gospel" of the Old Testament? "How blessed are the feet of those who bring good news, who say to Zion, your God reigns." There are many gods and powers in the world, neutral at best and hostile at worst. The people of God in the OT and NT come to Yahweh and his Christ, enter and receive his reign over and for us, in substantial part, if at all because they believed he alone can treat the great powers of the world as podiums to stand upon or whatever else. He is the ultimate and highest Power in the world. He reigns, not least of which over the things which are the most menacing to people. And we rejoice, and jump at the chance to enter his government, his society, his never-ending administration on the earth. Eventually, it will be the only administration/society at work on the earth. Next will be how AA relates to this "gospel."

Thursday, February 19, 2009

AA, the Church, and the Mission of God (pt. 1 -Introduction)

Convergence. In a word, that's what I've been experiencing—and been amazed by—over the last couple of years. The Christian faith contains many mysteries, some of which are intended by God himself, while others are just unfortunate failures to understand, hear or communicate what God intends to be obvious. I feel as though most of my questions of the last decade or so fall into the latter category, but have been substantially addressed by a variety of people whose insights and experiences have converged to help me see—and enter—the whole Christian faith in a different and much more cohesive and compelling way. The 'gospel' of the Old Testament, the gospel of the kingdom of God, the gospel of Paul, the invitation to discipleship, the Great Commission, the greatest commandments, the cross and resurrection, the larger mission of God led by Jesus, the new (and old) monasticism, holiness, worship, service, idolatry, addiction, righteousness (or justice), the practices of the Church, and even the work and methods of Alcoholics Anonymous—to name a few—all of these have a much deeper, complementary, and more mutually refining relationship than I ever would have imagined when I first encountered them individually. In fact, some of these things were totally mysterious to me when I first heard and thought about them, whether separately or as part of a larger whole, and it has been wonderfully satisfying, not to mention extremely helpful to see each of them fit together, overlap and even explain each other in often surprisingly simple and inviting ways, ways that shed substantial light on the heart of God's own intentions as well as the most typical of human problems and obstacles.

For those in the Church, especially those who have not personally been part of a 12-step recovery group, AA's inclusion in the above list of topics is likely surprising, and maybe even suspicious. As one who grew up chiefly in the Southern Baptist camp of Christianity, I think I understand at least some of that surprise and suspicion. Perhaps mentioning 'the gospels' (plural), of the Old Testament, of the kingdom of God, and of Paul only adds to the suspicion! If so, my point (which I'll eventually post about) is that each of these, while seemingly very different in their bare verbal content, contain much, much more of the same substance than most Christians realize. Indeed, the various ways 'gospel' is used in the scriptures have no conflict at all, but come from different angles and from different points in the story of God's good actions, often with more details of God's work available at the later points of the story. And it's when that shared substance of "the good news" of what God is doing is understood that one can better appreciate why AA's program has worked and continues to work so well for so many people around the world, and why AA can repay a very old favor and help the Church, particularly in the West, with her current task. In essence, each post in this series will discuss a different way in which one or more of the above highlighted topics converge or fit together, often in a way that ends up making AA's program, with surprisingly few adaptations, look more and more attractive as a way to respond to God, faithfully, appropriately and with the kinds of results God is seeking.

In the fashion of classic Christian witnessing (and AA tradition), this series will not be the explanations of an expert in any of the areas mentioned. I'm sure I've misunderstood some things and not yet even seen other important pieces. But these posts will be the reports of my own experiences, my own testimony of what I, a person in the process of following Jesus, think I have seen and heard, offered in the hope that they may be helpful to others and even generate conversations that will help me make progress in the Way.

The next post will look at the way the Old Testament and the New Testament talk about 'the good news' or 'the gospel', some of how they fit together, and what that might mean.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Dallas Willard on the Steps

For some time I've thought of putting together some quotes from Dallas Willard relating to using the steps and workout groups in the way we are (as a communal path toward Christlikeness), and then Jim put me over the edge with his comment to the previous post. Because of his depth of work in the areas of (trans)formation, spiritual disciplines, what being a disciple of Jesus means and requires, the gospel of God's government, and how all these interrelate (not to mention his experience in living these things out), few people have been as influential on me through their writings as Dallas Willard. So, here are just a few excerpts from Dallas' works (there are many, many more), which I think help explain how the steps can help people with receiving and entering the Government of God; the strength of the first quote--especially given Dallas' depth with the disciplines--really surprised me the first time I read it, and has stuck with me ever since:

"Any successful plan for spiritual formation, whether for the individual or group, will in fact be significantly similar to the Alcoholics Anonymous program." Page 85, Renovation of the Heart [hereinafter, Renovation].
The following adaptation of the 12 steps is found in the Renovation of the Heart Leaders' Guide, page 5A:

    1. I admit that I am powerless over sin and that my life has become unmanageable.
    2. I believe that God—through His action and those of His Son Jesus and the Holy Spirit—can restore me to sanity.
    3. I will turn my will and my entire life over to the care of God.
    4. I will make a searching and fearless inventory of my life to discover all the ways I have engaged in self-worship (by being in control instead of living surrendered to the will of God).
    5. I admit to God, to myself, and to another human being the exact nature of my
    6. I am entirely ready to have God remove all the defects in my character and replace them—through His presence—with the thoughts, emotions, will, behavior and relationship patterns of Christ.
    7. I humbly ask God to help me become willing to deny myself—and the desire to live life on my terms—and to remove my shortcomings.
    8. I will make a list of all the people I have harmed and become willing to make amends.
    9. I will make direct amends to all I have injured.
    10. I will continue to take personal inventory, and when I wrong someone, I will promptly admit it.
    11. I will, through prayer, meditation, and the practice of other Christian disciplines, attempt to improve my conscious contact with God.
    12. Having experienced some measure of authentic transformation as a result of surrendering all aspects of myself to the power and presence of Christ, I will carry this message to others and continue to practice these principles in all my affairs.
"The familiar means of the traditional AA program—the famous "twelve steps" and
the personal and social arrangements in which they are concretely embodied, including a conscious involvement of God in the individual's life—are highly effective in bringing about personal transformation." From Living A Transformed Life Adequate To Our Calling, http://www.dwillard.org/.

"So the problem of spiritual transformation (the normal lack thereof) among those who identify themselves as Christians today is not that it is impossible or that effectual means to it are not available. The problem is that it is not intended. People do not see it and its value and decide to carry through with it." Renovation, p. 91

"Now I must say something you can be mad at me about. A fundamental mistake of the conservative side of the American church today, and much of the Western church, is that it takes as its basic goal to get as many people as possible ready to die and go to heaven. It aims to get people into heaven rather than to get heaven into people. This of course requires that these people, who are going to be "in," must be right on what is basic. You can't really quarrel with that. But it turns out that to be right on "what is basic" is to be right in terms of the particular church vessel or tradition in question, not in terms of Christlikeness . . . . As a result they actually fall far short of getting as many people as possible ready to die, because the lives of the "converted" testify against the reality of [Christ's power and character]. The way to get as many people into heaven as you can is to get heaven into as many people as you can - that is, to follow the path of genuine spiritual transformation or full-throttle discipleship to Jesus Christ. When we are counting up results we also need to keep in mind the multitudes of people (surrounded by churches) who will not be in heaven because they have never, to their knowledge, seen the reality of Christ in a living human being." Renovation, p. 239, 239

Monday, November 10, 2008

Reconciliation to a God on the move

"Be reconciled to God!" Paul urges, and the Church has long echoed him. Many have said that the key here is to accept or appropriate Christ's sacrifice through a prayer to God. Essentially, "the gift" of God is forgiveness (which can be important coming from the God who made and fills heaven and hell), and our job is to simply receive this gift. That's it. That's the "good news." And if God wasn't an object in motion, and we humans weren't objects in motion, I'd pretty much leave it at that myself. But we are all on the move; and not just random movements, either. Does "reconciliation to God" have anything to do with the nature and direction of my movements in life compared with his?

Years ago my wife and I had a long, good talk about intimacy. Specifically we talked about whether our intimacy level as husband and wife was limited by the extent that our direction or goals in life differed. Essentially, we agreed that it was. I keep thinking about this regarding God. If God had no particular goals for the world or for me; no real agenda for what I became, what I love, what I trust, what I hate, what I do from day to day--absent, say, really harming someone--then getting a blanket of forgiveness for any particular offenses in the past or future would pretty much complete, our 'reconciliation'. I'm okay, he's okay, we're okay--reconciliation done.

But God does have a very definite goal for me--and not just me. He has a dream for the whole world and heaven as well, and he is passionate about it, willing to go through the crucifiction for it. He has a clear direction and he is very, very active--every moment, around the world--in bringing his dream to pass, training and working with those who become his children and co-workers in his great dream.

So, I agree, "Be reconciled to God!" But I'm convinced that's going to mean more than just receiving his forgiveness for past and future wrongs. It's going to mean learning to love what he loves, learning to work with him for his dream and making it our own, giving up our alternative plans and dreams that don't fit in. It's going to require following his lead. In a nutshell, it's going to require a process of becoming, or discipleship. Because we all, God willing, are going to continue to live and act in this world, affecting everyone around us in various degrees, towards various ends. So is God. The question is, are we working with him, towards his goals, or not. Jesus put it this way: "If you're not working with me, you're working against me. Either you're helping me gather things together, or you're scattering them further apart." Let's learn to be part of the Solution, and learn to stop being part of the problem. Also, let's know that this is what it means to be reconciled to this God who is in motion--receiving his forgiveness, absolutely, within the context of learning to move and act with him, from his Son who knows all about his Father's intentions and plans and ways of acting.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Prayer & Meditation

Alright. Let me just say that step 11 has been a surprise. I'll be straight up honest. I kind of expected, as a long-time Christian now doing the steps as a tool in my apprenticeship to Jesus, that I had already been working step 11 for years, so I'd just kind of jump right into 12 once I got there. Then I got to step 11 and felt like God just made it an inescapable question: "Don't you need to improve your conscious contact with me? Hasn't your inner life gotten weaker and weaker over the years in many ways?" The Holy Spirit and the habit of greater honesty with God and myself that the previous steps had just instilled has kept me from saying "no" to either question. So I'm now in the middle of seeking to improve my conscious contact with God through prayer and meditation. And I'm very grateful to be doing so.

On that front, some of the online Christian Classics, particularly Jeremy Taylor's Holy Living, has been really helping me, along with listening and reading the Message, as well as a more typical bible.