"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Some September Snapshots

I thought I’d give some snapshots of some of the standout moments of life of late. I’m in such an exciting season of so many beginnings. I’ve only been married for just under seven weeks, and I’ve moved into a bi-vocational situation, not only co-pastoring this church plant but now working part-time as an ESL teacher to international students at Evergreen State College.

The happenings of late and the way this season has taken shape for both Joann and I—both now involved in jobs that allow us to do what we love—have been a huge gift to me. I say a “gift” because I’m trying to receive the good things in my life as such.

Some snapshots…

• Trinity Community Church continues its “becoming.” We’ve met for Bible study three times and had our first Sunday gathering this past weekend, with fifteen of us gathered for worship, prayer, sharing, and lunch. As each week goes by, the vision the three of us pastors have continues to become reality. The Sunday experience felt very intimate, organic, relaxed, and holy, as I think we all savored and were moved by the beauty of people gathering to remember our identity and to celebrate and honor the One who has given us that identity. The gathering felt highly participatory and not leader-focused, which I hope and believe will continue.

• One of our hopes as leaders is that our church would be a continual presence of light and hope in Olympia, in simple ways that are within our reach. We’re still trying to find where those regular “outlets” will be for us, though we also want to honor the spontaneity and creativity and initiative of our members, who may have a specific way they want to do some good in our city. I’m excited that this church culture is already emerging, as we have a member leading our church’s second pancake feed for homeless in one of the downtown parks in a few days. It’s a desire he’s had for some time, and he seemed to just need an encouraging push from the church community. So he’s going for it. I feel like this captures the active- and mission-minded culture we hope to see emerge in our small community.

• I spent several hours the week before last watching the Twilight series. Joann loves the books and movies, and has been waiting for me to come around and watch them with her. Joann is getting good at not saying “points” instead of “runs” when referencing the score of a baseball game. Point: we’re learning how to be good spouses to one another.

• As I have to fight the depression that comes with watching a historically bad offense continue to show few signs of life, I simultaneously am thankful that I’m privileged to “watch” (MLB Gameday) one of the greatest pitchers in the game every five days. And I hope that Cy Young voters can look past mostly irrelevant stats like W-L record and give Felix his due credit this year.

• I’ve been in observations this week for the new ESL job I mentioned above, and have had my appetite whetted for the exciting and thoughtful interactions that I’m sure lie ahead with my students. Today I was in a classroom that had a mix of Taiwanese, Saudi, and Venezuelan students, and watched a Venezuelan girl and Saudi guy attempt to Salsa together as class was winding down. That’s the Kingdom of God right there—the Peaceable Kingdom, Paradise, a glimpse of what I believe to be life-as-it-could-be-and-ultimately-will-be.

• I got to mediate an interesting disagreement between two Muslims earlier this week while I was observing a class. The teacher was leading a discussion on horoscopes, the main point of which was to expand the students’ vocabulary of personality descriptors. One guy in the class refused to participate because he didn’t believe in the legitimacy of horoscopes and felt that as a Muslim he could not participate. Another Muslim girl didn’t see the big deal and told her classmate that she didn’t embrace them as truth but still could do the lesson. They seemed to be talking past each other, so I stepped in and tried to state back to each student what they were saying, trying to turn the conversation into more of a dialogue than an argument. The guy eventually decided he could participate, finding value in the language learning aspect of the exercise, and I think realizing he could discuss an ideology he didn’t embrace as his own without abandoning his loyalty to his own faith. I don’t know that there is a role I love to play to more in others’ lives than this—developing others’ ability to learn from, welcome, receive, and value what is “other” to them, be it a person or an idea. I’m working on that same challenge myself.

• I’ve really enjoyed my fellow faculty at the international school, and have been pleasantly surprised by the level of intrigue in our church plant. A couple conversations especially stand out where I’ve had the opportunity to not only affirm the importance of Christ in my life but also talk about TCC, to which some have responded with interest. The shared leadership of our church seems to be one thing that really intrigues people. I also find people are intrigued by the aspects of faith that seem to really excite me, such as being a source of reconciliation and healing between people and people groups who are in conflict. One woman in particular who seems to have a non-Christian spirituality and hasn’t been to a church (in a while or ever, not sure) has shown serious interest in being updated on our ministry and possibly visiting us some week, repeatedly affirming various aspects of what we’re attempting as a church.

• My Grandma, who is thrilled beyond belief that I’m now married, asked me yesterday if I wanted some advice on sex. I politely declined.

• I walked across Evergreen State College the other day with my lunch in a plastic Safeway bag. I felt embarrassed the entire time, fearful that everyone around me was either judging me or pitying me. Evergreen has a national reputation for being eco-friendly or “eco-cool” as I read somewhere. I made a point to not repeat this mistake the next day, bringing a reusable bag.

• I’ve been extending the distance of my runs lately, pushing myself a bit more, including a 12-mile run recently, and am most likely going to sign up for the Olympia marathon in May. I’ve been considering a marathon for a couple years now, and am ready to take the plunge. Training is extensive, but I think the endeavor will be a worthwhile disciplining of not only my physical life but also my emotional, mental, and spiritual life.

• I got to speak Chinese yesterday! I am a bit amused at how genuinely excited it made me feel and still feel. I really do miss being in China a lot—miss the lifestyle, the culture, and my dear, dear friends. It’s nice to feel like the experience continues through such encounters with my Chinese students here at Evergreen.

• Although, staying in touch via email with my student friends from Xiaogan does yield some great quotable lines. Here are some about Joann and I:
  • “You are definitely "A Doomed Couple"(i do not know whether i use it correctly, haha...) I admire you two so much.”
  • “Say ‘hi’ for me to your wife, please. Wish you have a baby tomorrow.... hehe.”
  • “Your honeymoon was very funny? You did what? :) Tell me something....Haha.”

• A Hauerwas thought that has challenged me this week in my own life and in how I understand some of the goals of church leadership: “Peacemaking as a virtue is an act of imagination built on long habits of the resolution of differences. The great problem in the world is that our imagination has been stilled, since it has not made a practice of confronting wrongs so that violence might be avoided. In truth, we must say that the church has too often failed the world by its failure to witness in our own life the kind of conflict necessary to be a community of peace. Without an example of a peacemaking community, the world has no alternative but to use violence as the means to settle disputes.”

• It’s amazing how long the smell of garlic smells with you. I overloaded some pasta sauce with chopped-up garlic on Tuesday evening, and I could still smell it today at work. I have a sensitive nose, so I doubt anyone else noticed it. I hope no one else noticed it. I’m new there, and don’t want to be unfairly branded “Garlic Guy” in the first week.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Am I violent?

I’ve been thinking a lot in the past few days about violence and its subtle manifestations. When I begin to see something, have that “aha” moment and begin to gain clarity about something, it can be both energizing and convicting. “The truth will set you free.” Agreed…gaining a clearer understanding of “how things really are” and seeing my self-deceptions crumble can be a kind of freedom.

But encounters with truth usually come with a call—a call to change, to make adjustments, to repent, to humbly admit my picture of truth was inadequate and that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did. Discovery—of self and of truth—is like that for me at least: it kind of astonishes for a while, then makes me realize that if I’m to have integrity I must change in light of such an encounter.

We use metaphors to helps us articulate the human predicament and what can be done or needs to be done about it. We are broken, and need to be fixed. We are sick, and need to be healed. We are divided and need to be united. We are lost, and need to be found. We are dying, and need to be saved. All these are true and useful, and illuminate different aspects of our condition.

But I think the way of articulating our condition that has been at the forefront of my mind lately is violence. Humans are violent and have violence done on them, and need to find peace—as individuals and as a global community. I think this has traditionally been a less helpful metaphor for me, mainly because I’ve failed to identify with it. Broken yes, lost, yes…but violent? I don’t really think of myself as violent. Football didn’t work out so well for me as a teenager (though golf did).

But I’ve begun to reconsider this self-assessment. One aid in this have been writers like Stanley Hauerwas, who emphasizes in his writing the centrality of nonviolence to Jesus’ life and ministry—his nonviolent approach toward making the will of God known, his nonviolent political methods, and his nonviolent way of interacting with various kinds of people.

Another source was last week’s uproar surrounding pastor Terry Jones and his intentions to burn copies of the Quran. Thankfully and movingly, a great deal of interfaith conversation began to happen and pleas were made from Christians and Muslims (and I’m sure others) to cancel his plans. Jones changed his mind. But the situation underscored how naturally we respond to what we don’t understand and what is “other” with fear and violence rather than a hospitable, curious, and peaceful spirit.

While Jesus calls us to love our enemies, it seems different followers of Jesus, to different extents, qualify what love means. We define love in ways that allow us to feel like we’re being obedient to God while in practice doing things that don’t really resemble what we intuitively know to be loving.

Thus people like Jones make the mistake of assuming that dealing with others who are not like-minded should be done with a violent, confrontational spirit. (I do think Jones should be extended compassion and forgiveness, even if he only reluctantly changed his plans; rather than labeling him a villain, it’s probably more helpful for all to see him as misguided and in need of grace and an encounter with the truly radical love of God for all people.)

And I think this is the case—that we often deal with others with a bit of violent spirit, a spirit that perhaps comes from a place of fear. Hauerwas writes: “This love that is characteristic of God’s kingdom is possible only for a forgiven people—a people who have learned not to fear one another. For love is the nonviolent apprehension of the other as other. But to see the other as other is frightening, because to the extent others are other they challenge my way of being. Only when my self—my character—has been formed by God’s love, do I know I have no reason to fear the other.” (The Hauerwas Reader, 137)

The Western world is increasingly aware of the foibles of the colonial attitudes that have generally marked the ways powerful nations have historically (and presently?) interacted with others. The colonial spirit looks out for its own interests, seeking to Jabez-ify itself (can I say that?) by advancing its own interests and values while paying far less attention to the interests and values of the advanced-upon. When a powerful nation wants something it often (always? need to read more history…) uses violent or coercive methods to obtain what it seeks. Peaceful and nonviolent methods are not usually our go-to, as other nations can be perceived as threats, either because they too are looking out for their own interests, or simply because they are not “us” and thus pose a threat to our own way of life.

Could it be said that individuals possess this same colonial spirit in our interactions with others? I think so. Others can pose a challenge to our “way of being,” as Hauerwas says. We fear others because they pose a challenge to our ideas and habits. I think this feeling of challenge happens in different ways. It can happen on an ideological level: if others hold fervently to their beliefs about what is true and good and right, and such beliefs differ from our own, we might be wrong. And the possibility of being wrong makes us feel anxious, out of control.

It does me, at least. Challenges to my understanding of God and life and ethics and people can be scary because it means I’m not as in control and in-the-know as I thought I was. Which I think can often lead people to (irrationally) assume they’re right about nothing, or right about everything.

So we fear others who seem convinced of their truth. We fear Muslims. We fear homosexuals. We fear atheists. We fear Mormons. We fear people whose very existence or beliefs pose a threat to our world, our views. And the result is that we often then shut down any possibility of real dialogue and partnership and relationship with these people because we won’t listen to them, won’t give any credit to their opinions. We argue, defending with all our might our point of view, not really respecting what others have to say but seeking only to advance our views that we’re convinced are 100% true and in no need of re-thinking and adjustment.

I think this spirit is violent. It does not create peace, nor unity, nor reflect the understanding and hospitable spirit of Jesus. Rather, it excludes, and reacts to others like a violent animal, protecting its territory. But it’s not just about the beliefs and ideas we share with the communities we are a part of. I think we act violently toward others in ways that are not always so overt.

This is what has really hit home with me. I recently watched the movie “To End All Wars,” which I’d never even heard of until very recently. Some of TCC (our fledgling church) gathered last weekend to watch and discuss the movie. It was a profound look at life in a POW camp during WWII, and the transformation of the men in this camp.

The movie gave several moving portraits of men choosing nonviolence, forgiveness, and sacrifice. And it revealed so clearly the ultimate ineffectiveness of violence, while also underscoring the epic challenge it had to have been for Jesus to be completely obedient to God and not harm those who were harming him.

As my friends and movie-watchers and I discussed, pacifism is an irrational viewpoint. To respond to violence and aggression by not repaying that violence with equivalent or greater violence, but by “turning the other cheek” and allowing our oppressors the opportunity to further harm us can sound foolish at times.

People who are much smarter and more articulate than I can find easy arguments to seemingly invalidate a general pacifist stance. There’s the classic: “If someone is about to harm your child, wouldn’t you use violence to prevent it?” I think I’ve walked pretty far down the pacifist road, but not because I think it’s easy. But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t contradict a hard pacifist stance in a situation like this. I guess don’t really know what I’d do; I don’t have kids.

But I don’t think these unique situations discredit a general nonviolent response to violence. Jesus didn’t strike back against his oppressors. Is this because God gave Jesus a unique mission that involved letting people harm him to his death, a mission not intended to be replicated by his followers? Or do we have in Jesus a portrait of how to confront violence?

It would help I guess if the gospel writers had recorded an instance of someone striking Jesus’ mother, to see how he would have responded. Then again, he did find a solution to those who nearly stoned an adulterous woman, intervening with a creative, nonviolent solution, rather than throwing rocks himself at the violent accusers.

But I’ve digressed from the heart of my point. I do think using nonviolence as a general policy of dealing with other nations is legitimate, though I recognize the challenges and dilemmas this creates. But I don’t know how anything but nonviolence and non-retaliation can end the cycle of violence, in the world and in our more personal relationships.

I believe nonviolence is an act of trust and faith and obedience—it is a way of leaving judgment in God’s hands, and giving others a glimpse of God’s true Kingdom where peace and love reign instead of conflict and aggression. I’d also suggest it requires a strong eschatology that believes God will ultimately eradicate evil and its effects and that is not our job to use violence as a means of bringing about good in the world. In this way Christians should be people of hope—a hope that allows the future to sustain and empower us in the present.

But what has hit home for me is the ways I need to be more of a pacifist in my own mind and heart. For I think I too am a “colonizer”—threatened by others who challenge me, defensive and reactive when I feel I’ve been challenged or exposed in some way. If I’ve been shown to have made a mistake, or shown to be inadequate in some way, my instinctive response is often more violent than nonviolent. I can begin to resent others. Or if someone appears in the wrong or foolish, I will point out their fault to assert my own correctness or superiority.

This is violent. It pushes people away. It is not loving. It fails to appreciate the other. It reflects a fear that I’m the one who might need to change, that this illusion of my own goodness I believe in is crumbling and that I must act out with violence toward others to keep my world intact.

Sometimes this violence comes out in words. Sometimes it comes out in more passive-aggressive ways like silence. My opinions about someone can become negative, which ultimately affects how I treat them. My fear of finding that I’m human and being humbled and shown to be less than I want others to perceive me as prompts me to violently defend myself.

We have great power to harm others. Our violence can happen in such subtle ways. Choosing to respond nonviolently is hard. I think sometimes it means letting someone say something we think is “stupid” and just letting it sit. Sometimes it means not pointing out others' faults when we’re tempted to do so. Sometimes it means valuing someone’s critique of us rather than writing it off, and welcoming their feedback.

Sometimes it means patiently enduring mockery. Sometimes it means not holding someone’s past mistakes against them, choosing to essentially not remember what they’ve done (rather than “cautiously” remembering how someone has hurt us, which maybe is a protective instinct but can sour our attitude toward and treatment of another).

I think we need to consider the ways we need to be freed from violence. And it is bondage—we can be caught up in a vicious cycle of repaying evil for evil or of anxiously trying to protect the “territory” that is our selves, our views, our priorities, our values from those who would threaten to challenge us and possibly change us or require us to change, rather than living with a more humble, hospitable, non-anxious, and free spirit.

I desire to be so rooted in the love and forgiveness of God that I can deal with other people nonviolently—accepting them and the truth of their words rather than resisting, allowing myself to appreciate others as brother and sisters, as partners, rather than as enemies. And I desire to see people who act in violent ways—overt and subtle—as not simply bad people, but as people who are broken, lacking, hurting, missing something, and who only know fearful, protective, and harmful violence as a means of coping with their condition.

I desire to pray for my enemies. And I desire to deal with my own violent heart and find peace and forgiveness, that I might nonviolently extend the love that has been poured out on me to others, not with a coercive but a gentle spirit.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Top Ten Rejected Status Updates From Yesterday

I updated my facebook status yesterday, which I don’t do that often, mostly because of time, and I guess I’ve been one of those who has felt it a bit presumptuous to assume others care about what I’m doing throughout the day. Then again, I blog. And assume people care.

But I guess even avid facebook updaters need a filter for some of the more uneventful happenings of their day. Here are the top ten potential updates from yesterday that I deemed too uninteresting to post:

10. Matt is contemplating whether or not “qi” is a legitimate Scrabble play.

9. Matt just thought he smelled cotton candy. But wait, nope…not cotton candy.

8. Matt is considering making a turkey sandwich.

7. Matt is trying to find a way to concisely articulate the meaning of “plausibility structure” for a 5-year old.

6. Matt just cleared his throat, with no one around. Then he became aware of this fact, and said out loud: “fascinating.”

5. Matt just prepared and consumed a turkey sandwich.

4. Matt is looking over there.

3. Matt just heard Joann say: “Eaahhooobeeedallaaa.” Matt replied, “what?!” Joann said, “I said, ‘add paprika, you (expletive)!!!’”

2. Matt just showered while eating dark chocolate.

1. Matt just incorrectly strummed a G chord instead of C chord while playing that James Taylor song. Now Matt is stretching his calves again.

As you can see, I’m not sure the daily events of my life warrant regular facebook updating.

(Note: some of the above are slightly fictitious.)

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Church’s Identity: A Stab at Articulating my Ecclesiology

There’s been a lot of talk between me and the other pastors of this church plant lately, and even more talk in my own head, about values and mission and beliefs and purpose…the kinds of things that a church uses to express its identity—both for those looking for a faith community to join, and for the church body itself, to give it some sense of accountability and direction.

The process is fun for me. I enjoy concepts, and believe that right practice usually requires right understanding (and I suppose that practice than can inform understanding…really kind of a two-way street). Concepts without practice are fun but probably a bit lacking, and trying to act without a solid theology can potentially lead to actions that push people more away from communion with God than toward it.

Darrell Guder, in Missional Church, suggests that problems in the American Church are not to be found in its methods and practices but in its understanding of its theology and identity. And as most Biblical scholars acknowledge, when Jesus speaks of belief and faith, he is describing an inseparable unity between thought and practice. To believe is to not merely give intellectual assent to, but to act differently. To follow Christ is not to associate yourself with his values or theology about him, but to speak, think, act and prioritize like Jesus did, to care about what Jesus cared about, to imitate him.

In other words, actions usually flow out of belief. If a person believes in the value of exercise, they are exercisers. If a person believes in big government, they vote for the candidate who will make government larger. If a person believes in contemplative prayer, they pray contemplatively, likely quite often. Same more generally with Christ: a person who believes in him believes not just certain doctrine about him, but believes in the value of the call he makes on humankind so much that he or she responds to that call.

And it is a call. We are called to something. I don’t believe we’re just offered something. A strong emphasis on the grace of God and our Protestant disdain for "works" has had, I think, the unfortunate effect of crippling the church a bit, teaching us that we are merely recipients, beneficiaries. While I don’t deny the Reformed tradition’s emphases on our depravity and God’s greatness, I don’t like a faith that essentially says: recognize what God has done for you, and continually remind yourself of this fact by devotion to your church (pardon the slight caricature). I think this misses the point.

The point is that while God has done something so gracious for us—a grace that I think is even more extravagant and inclusive than I think we Christians (myself included) often give it credit for—Jesus’ continual emphasis was a call. A call that came in many forms. "Repent. Open your eyes to God’s new creation, God’s new Kingdom. Realize that all people will be judged one day. Look around and see the needs of the poor, oppressed, disheartened, hopeless, and do something about it. Give up your misguided, ultimately unfulfilling priorities (idols) and care about the things God cares about. With the Spirit of God’s help, do as I have done." Or however else you/we might articulate Jesus' multifaceted call.

Being a Christian, in my opinion, is a response to some kind of call to action, to the beginning of a new kind of journey, to the process of having our whole being transformed. Understanding our identity as a church is so essential because it helps direct what the Christian life actually looks like in practice.

And I think both the conservative and liberal sides of the theological spectrum answer this question in different ways, both ways that I think are ultimately inadequate. A more conservative answer has tended to look at the depth of human brokenness and, put harshly, given up on the world, looking to the life to come as the only relief from the sinking ship that is humanity. Here, the identity of the church becomes a people who are saved for another life to come, but gives little direction for how to live the life of Jesus now. A Christ-like life is given lip service, but the urgency of true, deep spiritual transformation that leads to acts of love and service is not really felt.

On the other hand, the liberal answer to the question of our identity, rather than being detached from the world, can become a bit too utopian, assuming that with the right amount of thought, social collaboration and organization, and willpower, we can bring about the paradise that God has promised. I suppose in ways this is an outdated perspective that perhaps faded as the obviousness of human depravity and conflict and hate grew over the last century, though this ambitious attitude remains strong in many circles. But it is a perspective that is too optimistic (even for me, the "eternal optimist"). Such an understanding of our identity believes we can “take the world” for Jesus and bring about God’s new Kingdom with enough religious fervor. But I worry about this attitude because it seems that it makes the church (or humankind) the Savior of the world. But I don’t think that is our identity.

What’s left then? How do we understand our identity? What’s the happy medium, the “third way” that values the truth and sentiment in each of the above extremes without becoming so polarized? What might be a more truthful picture of the relationship between God and the Church?

The best answer I’ve found to this question by someone who is not Jesus and is also writing in relatively contemporary times comes from theologian and missiologist Lesslie Newbigin, one of my theological mentors (whom I’ve never met). Throughout his work, Newbigin continually returns to a triune statement of our identity as a church that I believe is a truthful picture of what it is we are called to as a church. We are to be a sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s future and present reign.

A “sign, instrument and foretaste.” To understand Newbigin’s meaning, the importance of eschatology (the study of “last things”) has to be stressed. I’m not concerned here with a historical timeline of what will happen at the end of human history as we experience it, as much as with the more basic reality that God, in Jesus, has promised that he will return to earth and essentially fix, restore, renovate the entire cosmos so that the world will live in the kind of peace and harmony and love and submission to God that God desires (this is historic Christian belief, though it seems to get minimized and underemphasized in favor of talk about heaven and what happens immediately after a person dies).

But the Jewish people, Jesus himself, and the early church wholeheartedly believed and placed their hope in the ultimate righting of all wrongs and the healing of the world, this world. And this could only be something that could be accomplished by God; all human projects, no matter how grand, will fall short.

In my understanding, this is part of the good news of Jesus Christ: humankind has been saved from its inevitable destruction, and promised that God will one day reign and, in some real sense, is at work in the world now preparing the world for the eventual fulfillment of this promise at the end of time. It is to the ending now that we look with hope.

This “orientation of hope” is expressed well by Newbigin in A Word in Season :

The hope of which the Church is called to be the bearer in the midst of a famine of hope is a radically otherworldly hope. Knowing that Jesus is King and that he will come to reign, it fashions its life and invites the whole community to fashion its life in the light of this reality because every other way of living is based on illusion. It thus creates signs, parables, foretastes, appetizers of the Kingdom in the midst of the hopelessness of the world. It makes it possible to act both hopefully and realistically in a world without hope, a world that deals in illusions. If this radically otherworldly dimension of the Church’s witness is missing, then all efforts in the life of the community are merely a series of minor eddies in a current that sweeps relentlessly in the opposite direction (44).

If we are looking forward to some later time with hope, what does that mean for our lives now? Rather than being something that detaches us from the world, I think it thrusts us into the world, empowered to be agents of hope, making known to the world what God has done in Jesus and what ultimate future we have to look forward to. The key that keeps us engaged in the world now I believe is found in this idea of our identity that understands the Church to be a sign, an instrument, and a foretaste of God’s coming Kingdom. So what do these terms mean?

We are a foretaste. The church, in its life together and in the world, is to be a glimpse, a sample, of what is to come. To use another metaphor, God’s desire for the church is that it be a sort of “deposit” that will come “in full” in the future. This is a lofty claim to make, I recognize, one that puts a lot of pressure on the Church. Because if we are really to be a glimpse or foretaste of what is to come, than the world should be able to look at the church and catch a glimpse of God’s Kingdom. They should see a community that is defined by its love of one another, by its desire to do good, to observe and create beauty, to give itself away in selfless love, and to be living in constant gratitude for all that God has given to humankind.

This, to me, means much more than simply saying that the church is “not perfect, just forgiven” (as the bumper sticker goes). It means the Church is doing the hard work of obedience and devotion, allowing God to re-shape the lives of Christians so that the Church can really be a light to a dark world by living in such a way that people can get a glimpse of the love and purposes of God by watching the Church.

Is this the experience people have when they look at the Church today? Is this the experience people have when they look at your life? Or, my life? Rhetorical questions. There are certainly those who take away from this experience, be they chauvinistic, arrogant preachers who speak more hate and exclusion than love and inclusion, or Fox News talk show hosts who adamantly discourage the church from the kind of social action and pursuit of justice that was characteristic of Jesus’ ministry. But there are people out there who live this way, or are at least trying.

We are an instrument. This is the second element of Newbigin’s understanding of the Church’s identity. To flesh this out a bit: the Church is an (not the) instrument that God uses to bring about God’s reign of love. God is a craftsman forming a masterful creation; the Church is a tool used to bring this new creation into existence.

Though I recognize the feelings many have about Calvinist/Reformed theology, I’ve really appreciated the God-centered emphasis in this stream, as opposed to a theology that makes God out to be our servant, eager to meet our every need. This is God’s narrative, God’s stage, and we have been invited to play a part. As Christians, I think our prayers should generally sound less like “God, assist me in my purposes” and more like, “how can I assist you in your purposes?” (Though I think there is a place and a time for the former).

The Church is an instrument God uses to carry out God’s purposes (though not the only instrument…I think we get a bit exclusivist and narrow-minded when we assume only Christians can do the will of God). Do people outside the Church experience the will of God being done through us? Are we the kind of people through which God can reach the world with compassion, kindness, attentiveness, grace, and care? Do we put our efforts into readying ourselves to be used by God?

Or put more bluntly (and maybe too abrasively): are we useful? Do we have use to God? Are we the kind of people that God can use for good, or are we hardened or closed off or indifferent to such use? Maybe a question the Church can be asking itself is: are we, in our current state and practice, useful to God?

We are a sign. Much like a warning or an exit sign on the highway, indicating what lies ahead, I think Newbigin’s point is that God calls the Church to be a body of people that, in some sense, prepares people for a reality beyond death. God has made some incredible promises to the world through Jesus about what lies in store for the world at the end of all things. I think it is God’s hope that the Church directs people toward this eventual paradise by living now in a way that reflects what is to come.

To be clear: this doesn’t mean we should be detached from the concerns of the world; rather, I think it is a call to a radical kind of discipleship that takes seriously the pursuit of holiness and love. It is a call to action, to be an active rather than passive Church. God is letting the world know, in Jesus and those show seek to carry on his mission, that God’s love wins in the end, and has the power to transform lives now.

The next question seems to me to be one of practice: how do we do all these things? How do Christians, individually and corporately, live as a sign, instrument, foretaste of God’s reign, which is a future reality but a future reality that is breaking into the present?

Well…I think this is where the excitement of an active, dynamic church comes in—a church full of creative and compassionate people, filled with a burning desire both to put their gifts and strengths and passions to use for the good of others; a church that knows its cultural context well enough to be living out its mission in ways that are truly relevant and meaningful to those in the receiving culture.

Inherent in this sign-instrument-foretaste notion is an active, mission-minded church, a church responding to a call. Here is why our ideas and concepts mean so much. If we believe God has called us to be the kind of Church I’ve tried to describe here, than I think right action will follow. We’ll need help, for sure…from God, from one another. Ideas don’t always just automatically translate to action. But at least right ideas have a better chance of translating to right action than wrong ideas. And a church that doesn’t understand this kind of mission or call as central to its identity has a harder time encouraging its congregation to be active, ministry-minded people.

If Christians believe that we’re capable of creating heaven on earth without some supreme, miraculous act of God, we’re going to frustrate ourselves and others. But I think if we follow the advice of people like Glenn Beck and give up on being active at all and turn our thoughts toward our own personal salvation and eternal home, we misunderstand what God is doing in the world and what following Christ wholeheartedly really means.

I don’t really know yet what kind of language our church (Trinity Community Church) will use to articulate its purpose/vision/mission/etc. But I’m optimistic, based on my conversations with the other pastors, that the theology and identity behind what we do as a church will be one that recognizes that not only has God graciously welcomed us as loved ones, but has graciously invited us and empowered us to be a part of his “cosmic renovation project” that has begun long ago and continues in the lives of those who point to God’s reign in the way they orient and live out their lives.

I hope the church can accept its call with gratitude. The world needs a Church that cares about the right things and does more good than harm in the world, builds bridges rather than destroys, includes rather than excludes, loves rather than hates, unites rather than divides, heals rather than harms. And, more simply, and within my reach, I hope the church my friends and I are forming can be this kind of church.