Tag Archives: Anabaptist

Why we are Catholics and why we are not

What is a better term for “multidenominational?” The other night at our quarterly Doing Theology a few of us searched for a good word to describe how we identify with the genius of every stream in the broad river of Christianity, even the Catholics.

My journey into Christianity made me very fond of Catholics. For instance, I think of Francis of Assisi (who we celebrated yesterday) as one of my first mentors. I was a history major in college. While I was exploring history I ran into Francis. It was great to find him. He cut through the nonsense of the Church and lived with Jesus. He was just what I needed, since I almost left Jesus because of the Church’s nonsense, especially the Catholic part. I was so poor in college, I never missed the free movies they showed. One night, someone showed Brother Sun Sister Moon, which is all about Francis of Assisi and his friends. Watching his rebellion against war and self-serving authority and seeing his utter obedience to joy and Jesus helped seal my deal with God. I almost became a Franciscan and have been an almost-Franciscan ever since.

As a result, I am a Francis-kind of Catholic. Even through I think the rules say I don’t qualify, whenever the priest offers me communion, I take it like I am a member of the tribe. I figure I am more of a Catholic than a catechized fifth grader and, besides, I don’t care about most of the laws any more than most of the Catholics I know. So I’ve done a lot of travelling with the Catholic Church over the years. I even went on pilgrimage to Santiago de Campostella, which is one of the most Catholic things a person can do.

So why aren’t I and why aren’t we Catholics?

Continue reading Why we are Catholics and why we are not

The Great Commission: Facing threats to fulfilling it

My last seminar at the Mennonite World Conference was one my friend told me I needed to attend, since it was by Wes Furlong, pastor of an unusually large Mennonite Church in Florida. I was eager to see how the Anabaptists were trying to come to the megachurch picnic.

final tent meeting in the Farm Show Complex
final tent meeting in the Farm Show Complex

I was disappointed because Furlong did not show up. The replacement said he was still with his family after his vacation and felt it was better to stay with them. This was ironic, since part of his material included  asking a good-hearted skeptic to tell you what your church is like after they attend a meeting for the first time. I was the good-hearted skeptic at his meeting this time. Not showing up made a big impression. Come to find out Furlong has gone to quarter time at the church and started hiring himself out as a consultant and as one of the architects of the new splinter-group Evana. When I googled him, the first thing that came up was Wes Frulong.com. He’s his own brand.

There is a lot I learned from my seminar experience, but let’s give the material his substitute offered some respect. He wanted to explore how Anabaptist assets can serve the cause of fulfilling the Great Commission.  This is always a good topic of discussion. We do well to think about it because, I think, Circle of Hope and BIC assets are deep, but they are often poorly delivered in service to the cause. In the case of the BIC, I think the assets are well described, but the organization has been talking about itself for a decade or so instead of mobilizing for action. The BIC has hired a lot of Wes Furlong types to get ourselves going, but the denominational culture has become even less about our historic or actual assets, it seems to me.

The teacher talked about three things that are special threats to Anabaptist types if they want to fulfill the Great Commission. These are threats to most other churches, as well.

1) The original vision of a founding pastor/formation team or of a denomination tends to move toward institutionalization. The goal line might be clear and the way to get there might even be clear, but the requirements of the institution are too distracting to make enough good plays to get the ball over the line. To get anywhere, the homeostasis needs to be disrupted, but the system is designed to preserve itself.

2) Fear of authority. The baby boomers are in charge and they have taught their children to be even more suspicious of anyone in charge than they are. Unless you are an especially skillful or charismatic person, a leader in the church spends a lot of time figuring out who is in charge at a given moment and making all their many bosses happy. They never succeed in making everyone happy so they are on a hamster wheel of failure until they burn out. Nothing can be mobilized.

3) The lack of clarity between modality and sodality. This is about being a people and being a mission. Obviously we should be both: a missional community. But often the modality (the church as a means to the end) is more important than the sodality (that singular cause for which the church exists). Churches get on the bus and then decide where to go rather than being invited onto a bus that is already scheduled for a destination. We end up with a covenant to confab rather than convert.

In the face of these threats to meeting the Lord’s goal, what must be done?

1) Trust the Holy Spirit to start a movement. You can’t do anything right enough to make the plant grow, but you can prepare the soil, sow, and till.

2) Understand that a lot of it depends on the hearts of the leaders. If they don’t want to go where Jesus is going and they can’t bear the rejection they will bear when they go with him, there is not going to be enough passion to sustain mission (like enough of THE Passion).

3) Our perception of ourselves in Christ will probably need to change. The teacher gave a metaphor of the Mennonites (and I think the BIC have this disease a bit) as being the quiet people of the land because they have the tongue-screw still applied from their days of being quieted by persecution. It is hard to get the assets on the road if you can’t talk about them. People are worried about how the gospel is communicated but that can’t be the main concern; we should know who we are and let the communication be contextual and variable.

4) The organization will need to change to facilitate the goal, not vice versa. The Cape Christian church went to local officials and other neighbors and asked what big need in their area was going unmet. They found out that it had to do with families, especially foster children. They took on the task. They built a new building that included a splash park. Soon families were coming to their church after going to the splash park. What’s more, they got committed to fostering and ended up responsible for 50-60% of the foster family placements in their city of 175,000 people. Their goal changed everything.

What does it take to help people know Jesus and become fully-functioning members of the body of Christ — not abstractly, but in our location? Serious answers to that question could arrive at serious goals that are worth our lives – the lives Jesus gave us to live, not to waste while we aspire to live in some more-perfect future – like the future when some renowned presenter shows up to encourage you to show up.

Imagine something beyond your "state."

you can't killWe often sing this revolutionary song at the PM: “You can’t kill the Spirit; she’s like a mountain; she goes on and on.” But even so, it sometimes feels like the Spirit is quite dead —  particularly in our own hearts.

So what kills the Spirit, if in fact it can’t be killed? I think we don’t feel alive enough sometimes because we can’t imagine not being dead. We can’t imagine not being subject to what is killing us. We can’t imagine being alive because our dominant image of where we live is in a “state” and not in love. It is so often that “state” that is killing the Spirit, who just goes on without us. So let’s imagine.

Revolutionary imagination has always been basic to radical Christianity. The Anabaptists honed their distinctives on 1) their basic refusal to live in the arbitrary construction of nation states and 2) their basic conviction to live in the kingdom of God. They resisted and restored. Everybody else crammed their Christianity into the idea of the nation state and let their faith be ruled by whatever king or political philosophy ruled the state. Most people still do that and get mad at you if you don’t. It might sound like basic Bible to be ruled by God, not by humans. But even when Anabaptist practice sounds like an obvious and attractive idea, it is hard to realize.

Continue reading Imagine something beyond your "state."

Why I Love (but might not altogether like) Narcotics Anonymous

In 2010 the Philadelphia Weekly gave a shout out to the NA group that meets in our building. The headline: Best Place to Embrace Punch-Drunk Love.

The shout out: “We can’t think of many Narcotics Anonymous meetings that are more enjoyable to hang out at on a Friday night than the neighborhood bar. The Eleventh Hour, however, which convenes at the South Philly Circle of Hope church, is just that. Every Friday at about 10:45 p.m., the same sort of tattooed and bike-obsessed hipsters you may have gotten drunk with congregate outside the church’s front door. The meeting itself happens in a wide-open gallery-like space that’s illuminated by dozens of flickering votive candles, and after most meetings a small group retires to the nearby Melrose Diner [now they can go to Broad St. which is run by the Melrose people]. The Eleventh Hour, by the way, is known in N.A. parlance as an “open meeting,” which means that even non-addicts are welcome to attend. It might be something to consider when you’re making your wild-night weekend plans.”

I had no wild-night plans one Friday so I finally got to a meeting. I was impressed. I was moved. I want to be friends.

stop cheatingIt seemed like a very large attendance for Friday night at 11pm: about seventy people! As soon as I walked in two of them hugged me. Many others entered to the same unfettered affection. The chairperson was orderly and friendly. All the basic NA statements were laminated and various people read the 12 Traditions, How it Works (the 12 steps) and other material. A woman made a rather long, articulate speech to tell her story. People were moved by what she said and responded enthusiastically with their own stories. There was lots of honesty and vulnerability. The love, generosity, affirmation and openness in the room was impressive. The fact that they have home groups, took an offering and called for commitment was also impressive. I was impressed that we were having church without Jesus! – at least Circle of Hopish church.

For some reason I thought the AA, NA, Al-Anon, OA, etc. groups were trying to not be too religious. I was not paying attention. While I was planting a church, they were planting a church, too. They were planting a spiritual movement! Not long ago a convict went to court to prove that NA was religious. A circuit court judge reversed a lower court ruling and said, “The state has impermissibly coerced inmates to participate in a religious program” by forcing drug addicts to attend NA meetings in prison. The court says they are religious — must be true, right?

I love how the NA people act and I love the results of their religious movement, but I am not sure I like what they think (at least what people say they think). I recently caught up on the development of AA spirituality by reading a book called The Spirituality of Imperfection. The good thing about this spirituality is that it faces up to everyone’s inability to live up to the societal image of the perfect person who is self-controlled, self-sufficient, and a paragon of physical and emotional health. They have unmasked the demand that everyone be a person who can rapidly accumulate material possessions while simultaneously increasing mastery of the world around him or her. They rightly say that such people try to “play God.” The authors say that “trying to be perfect is the most tragic human mistake.” That sounds like a sound bite from a few many of my speeches, doesn’t it? Maybe we should call the PM the “Seventh Hour.”

na convention
NA World Convention Aug 29-Sep 1, 2013, Philadelphia

Accepting imperfection is possibly the greatest truth behind NA spirituality. We need a “higher power.” But postmodern philosophy, like that behind AA and NA, often seems to unwittingly substitute something like “imperfection” and the philosophy of it as a new anti-coercive coercion. They put it down in twelve steps and convince you to “follow them or you’ll relapse!” (and they were just trying to get away from “don’t sin or you’ll go to hell!”). Their depersonalization of spirituality (“God” is a “higher power;” everything is in quotation marks waiting for you to decide what the words really mean to you) turns “spirituality” into another modernistic ideology without admitting it.

Besides, how did someone miss that accepting one’s imperfection was basic to Christianity? It’s not like this is a new spirituality. What’s more, Anabaptist groups from the 1500s could be considered early adopters of what NA calls the “spirituality of imperfection,” rejecting the proto-modernism of the reformation, living in what amounts to 12-step groups, and forming a theology complete with an emphasis on what amounts to steps three (We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him) , seven (We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings), and eight (We made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all). It looks like NA finally caught up with the Anabaptist  reaction against European Christianity, which became as controlling as the empire it replaced. I’m not trying to do the book justice, but that’s some of why I can’t say I altogether like what’s going on.

That being quibbled, the point about imperfection remains a good one and seemed useful to the participants. They could tell stories about how releasing control was a daily, good struggle. The meeting I attended reflected much of the best of what NA spirituality is all about. It was emotional, relational and openly spiritual without being oppressive. There was a recognition, it seemed, that there would be no “magic,” but that there was the potential for “miracle.” There was potential, as Jung wrote to Bill W. that “Spirit could overcome spirits” (that is, alcohol). The miracle was happening in all those stories they told. The NA meeting focuses on “story” just like our cells do (and just like the Bible does!). The storytelling creates community, builds mentalizing and gives a context for experiencing recovery, just like it makes a place for us to grow up in Christ. Our transformation point is coming to know Jesus, theirs is entering a commitment to sobriety. But we are all talking about what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now.

I love that, as the authors of the book say, “the language of recovery that is storytelling involves not dogma, or commandment, not things to be done or truths to be believed, not theory, conjecture, argument, analysis, or explanation, but a way of conversation shared by those who identify with their own imperfection.” That is very Christian. And it is very Circle of Hope. We are always bent on conveying an experience rather than merely teaching concepts. I think the risen Lord is very interested in filling us with the Spirit so we are experiencing the grace of God expressed to us in Jesus. Lots of people in our NA group seem to be right there, too. I love that. I am not sure I like the movement’s attempts to muddy that up and leave Jesus out. But let’s be friends.

Let’s look at this cohabitation thing again — You’re married, right?

I heard a common story from a new friend last night. As far as she knew about church people, “living together” was so frowned upon that she and her boyfriend suspected they would be ostracized if they got involved in Circle of Hope.

I said to her, “You guys are married, though, right?” She said, “Yes.” (This is not a transcript of our conversation, but that was the gist).  What stood in the way of the official ceremony was money. They did not have wealthy or supportive parents; they did not have the money for a big party, money for the ring, the dress, etc.; plus, she wanted to feel more established financially before they made a commitment. This story is so common it seems to represent a new rite of passage into adulthood.

cohabitors

Care about people where they are

The “principle Christians” sometimes criticize Circle of Hope, as a whole, for our acceptance of people who are “cohabiting,” like my friend is. The implication is that we should consider these people taboo until they get themselves corrected. Instead, we apparently just let people have sex, willy nilly, and encourage people to sin. (Really, that’s gotten back through the gossip chain).

But, in truth, we’ve come up with an alternative. We care about people the way we meet them. So we usually get to know people who are cohabiting and ask them if they are married. Most of the time, if they aren’t just sharing an address, they say “Yes.”

I think people need to make a public covenant and have the benefit of a church-sanctioned marriage for any number of reasons. I’m not sure they need the government involved in their marriage at all – if they see that as an advantage, fine. But if they have taken one another home, and we all know they are a “they,” I don’t feel out of line by acknowledging their marriage.

Cohabitation facts

Like I noted in a former post, cohabitation has increased dramatically in recent decades in the United States. It climbed from 500,000 couples in 1970 to nearly 6.8 million couples in 2009. It looks like most young adults today will, at some point, live with a sexual partner outside of marriage. The stats say that a majority of couples now cohabit before they marry. Often their parents encourage these “trial runs.” It looks like a generation with so many divorced parents is deciding not to get divorced by never getting married.  It is a new era with a host of new issues to sort out.

Many Christians think the 21st century increase in cohabitation without legal, covenantal or public recognition devalues marriage and undermines its goals. If recent research is a true indicator, Americans, as a whole, have not fully decided whether they agree or not.  Sex is easier now. The capacity to marry for love (as well as be unfaithful) provided by birth control shook old foundations and new foundations are being built in response. Divorce is easier. In 1900, two-thirds of marriages ended with the death of a partner, particularly when women died during childbirth. By 1974, divorce surpassed death as the most common way to terminate a marriage. By the end of the 20th century, divorce was considered both a common and culturally acceptable way to terminate marriage. It is easier to be “abnormal” now. Since the 1960’s, cohabitation, premarital sex, and out-of-wedlock childbearing have become increasingly common and culturally acceptable.

Although the contours of marriage have changed over time, the definition has not.  Americans still overwhelmingly define marriage as being sexually exclusive and lifelong, even though many break their vows. They are pulled between opposites and are still sorting things out. They want the connection of marriage, but they have slowly become accustomed to being individualistic and consumeristic. They want the security and safety of marriage, but they still want all their choices unencumbered. They want to marry or exclusively cohabit, but then have extramarital sex or divorce, even though they no longer have to get married. “Freedom” is the slogan, but they seem to still be pondering with the Apostle Paul: “Yes, everything is permissible. But not everything builds up!” (1 Corinthians 6:12).

What is the best way to marry?

Even though there are very few negative social consequences for breaking former sexual codes by not being married, Americans overwhelmingly choose to marry, eventually. Even same-sex couples want to marry and thirteen states will allow them to do it legally. I don’t think I can answer all the reasons why people mate the way they do, but I do want to respond to what is happening with grace and discernment.

It is an interesting era. I am watching it as something of an outsider, since I and my Anabaptist tradition do not tune our faith to the varying pitches of government music or the society’s dance. As far as I am concerned, state and federal government definitions of marriage do not necessarily serve to increase the integrity of marriage as an expression of faith. I don’t think legislation on sex, finances, or even procreation will protect marriage enough to make it work. It takes commitment. I don’t think couples need an excessive wedding ceremony or a legal document to make a commitment. But I do think they need the sanction and participation of a living community in Christ to make a long-lasting covenant that is centered in the covenant we keep with the Lord.

As a church, we have not fully answered all the questions (including the ones that come through the gossip chain): Do believers need a wedding ceremony or a legal document to make a commitment? Does the covenant need to be made in traditional ways — especially now that many of those mostly-extra-biblical ways are becoming discredited?

A new look at the spectrum of how people, in general, are changing marriage from contract to cohabitation might come up with some advantageous ways to adapt:

  • Maybe we could free some people from the ceremony trap — some people don’t marry because they are saving for the bling and the spectacle! Just stand up during the Love Feast; we’ll marry you and you can have a big party on your fifth anniversary.
  • Maybe we could honor people by acknowledging their cohabitation before they enter their covenant publically. That would be something like the way we embrace people as members of the church community before they make a covenant with the body.
  • Maybe we should more clearly express our understanding that people who have sex are, essentially, married, albeit poorly and dangerously. But then, some of them are better married than some people who live together with a publically affirmed covenant.
  • Maybe we should stop keeping secrets. Why should someone feel like they are secretly married just because they have not jumped through all the sometimes-arbitrary hoops? Why shouldn’t we help people have healthy, godly relationships with the people they are living with?
  • Maybe we can help people who are getting married to relax about it and not try to meet the demands of the wedding industry. That might encourage others to celebrate the relationship they have made with more freedom and less stress.

Here are some more blog posts and pages about marriage:

The Marriage Story (August 2012) http://rodwhitesblog.wordpress.com/2012/08/06/the-marriage-story/

Sorting out cohabitation and marriage (August 2012) http://rodwhitesblog.wordpress.com/2012/08/13/sorting-out-cohabitation-and-marriage/

Keep Talking about How Your Lover Is Doing with Jesus (April 2012) http://rodwhitesblog.wordpress.com/2012/04/16/keep-talking-about-how-your-lover-is-doing-with-jesus/

Monica and the new marriage (June 2011)http://rodwhitesblog.wordpress.com/2011/06/06/monica-and-the-new-marriage/

Mating Choices (May 2009)
http://rodwhitesblog.wordpress.com/2009/05/14/mating-choices/

Love (January 2009)
http://rodwhitesblog.wordpress.com/2009/01/12/love/

Go Ahead and Marry (2000)
http://rodwhitesblog.wordpress.com/info-and-articles/go-ahead-and-marry-2000/

Burned-out Evangelicals and Millenials

As I was praying this morning, I realized I might be overly preoccupied with two groups of people I seem to love more than others — even though God does not show favoritism (Acts 10:34).

I am very concerned with the burned-out evangelicals I meets who are super sensitive to being marched around by narcissistic leaders.

I am also concerned about the slavish millennials who are like hunter-gatherers living in small tribes feeding off the cast-offs of society, with little hope of the future.

Of all the people who were worshiping with me last night: successful professionals, immigrants, hard-working teachers, dutiful parents, etc., I tend to hone in on these two subgroups. I think that is because they need to be saved and are oh so close to getting there but often have the deck stacked against them.

"If someone tells you that you are “on fire,” and your first thought is not to stop, drop, and roll...you might be an evangelical." -- Elizabeth Kaeton
“If someone tells you that you are “on fire,” and your first thought is not to stop, drop, and roll…you might be an evangelical.” — Elizabeth Kaeton

I’m not a burned-out evangelical because I never really was one. I had plenty of opportunities to travel with them (I was even trained by Campus Crusade before they coolified their name to Cru), but when I was making a decision about who were my people, I found the Anabaptists. I liked the Brethren in Christ because they added on “Pietist” and “Wesleyan,” to their Anabaptist roots, and basically refused to be too strongly affiliated with some past description because old labels don’t make that much sense in the present. But even though I don’t live in the mainstream, I still meet many skittish people who grew up in a mega church or a conservative, little, strangulation-by-Bible church. They don’t always have a live relationship with Jesus, but they do know a lot of Christian stuff. It is often like they are inoculated against any real relationship with Jesus because they were trained to be suspicious of every wrong way one might have one!

They need to be saved rather than just be deserters of the bogus faith of their past, or mere critics of what others say.

Click pic for positive look at the "millenial" generation
Click pic for positive look at the “millenial” generation

I’m not a millennial, either (according to Pew, I am a GenXer). But nobody really knows what a millennial is, anyway, which is probably what makes someone a millennial. They appear to be less “white;” they can’t remember a time without the internet; they can work devices and act technologically savvy. They don’t care as much about success, and that is good, since they will probably be less well-off than their parents. Under their parents’ watch, their future wealth was stored up in the 1%, the government became more like a corporation and started selling off public assets to businesses, and people became so fearful of terrorists and of losing their jobs that they stopped trying to change things. The younger one is, the more likely she is to feel like it is “all up to her” and maybe she will be helped by a few close friends. For many of these people, the church is just another huge institution they sometimes hover around looking for scraps of meaning to put in their personal identity backpack.

They need to be saved rather than left isolated and suspicious, being injured by the huge forces that use them like raw material, like slaves sent to make bricks without straw when they speak up.

My life is filled with students, children, parents, and Christian leaders — all sorts of people. I love them all. But these two groups seem to make my heart break and my conviction stir. I think they represent what is hardening the hearts of the next generation. One of the things I want to do most with my days is work with God as he softens us up for love and truth. Most days I am not sure what I am trying to do makes a bit of difference. Most days I am content to let God make of it what he will, since he is part of every generation and his mercy is new every morning.