Mission, Theology, Church, Grace

I like to connect the dots – doesn’t matter the subject, that’s how my mind works. I had a bit of a revelation a few weeks ago about how the mission, vision, and overall work of our church life fit together with our Methodist convictions about grace and theology. This is my attempt to put into words the connections that I see quite clearly. To be sure, nothing is intended to be as linear as it necessarily appears on paper – but doing justice to the interconnected workings of the God, church, and individuals is not my intent. What seems worth trying to articulate is the sense of a discernible structure that I see for the what and the why of church life and disciple making.

The UMC defines our mission as “Make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” It’s a great step to clarify why we exist as a denomination and individual churches, but the obvious next question is ‘what is a disciple and how do we make one?’ To both embody our quest to fulfill that mission and answer this most obvious question, FUMC Texas City has discerned a systematic and operational definition of that mission that correlates to our theology of grace. That wasn’t exactly our intent, but the result came into sharp focus for me. Our mission is to do what disciples do and make more in the process – Encounter Love. Grow Together. Inspire Change. Putting theology, discipleship, and church life into relationship with one another looks something like the following:

Screenshot 2017-08-15 at 2.56.20 PM

 

Put more into sentences – the grace of God goes before us, making God’s love present in our lives long before we know to turn and look for it. When we encounter the love that has been there all along, our immersion into God’s immersion into us sets all things right and draws us back to fellowship and relationship.  That fellowship invites us to grow in our relationships with our neighbors, near and far. As we begin to move forward from the moment of encounter that sets us right and makes growth possible, we receive sustenance at the table as God’s grace continues the work of making us more holy and more like Christ. The more we become like Christ, the more we embrace God’s invitation to join in God’s mission to change the world and experience the kind of life God makes possible. We change the world by creating the spaces in which our neighbors encounter the love that is made present by the prevenient grace of God.

Given this framework for understanding God’s nature and action in relationship to our response and lives, we have explored the following question – Where does God’s work to change the world intersect with our heart for doing ministry? That process of discernment yielded a clear focal point for our ministry in the coming season.

Our vision for ministry in our next season of life is to ensure that a) every child in our neighborhood will find in us a place of love and acceptance, and b) every parent knows they have a partner in us for the difficult journey of raising a child. In directly missional terms, we hope to create spaces in which our neighbors will Encounter Love in a deeply meaningful and lasting way. If we can be that kind of presence for our neighbors, we can change the world.

The Cycle

1280px-Cycle_of_Abuse

If you add “Refusing to respond to the overt harm someone else causes” to number 2 of the cycle and remove “apologizes” from number 3, you have a pretty good summary of the presidency so far. To understand why his leadership is so destructive and yet so hard to specifically call out for some, I can’t think of a better framework than this cycle. Replace “of course racism is evil and the KKK is repugnant” with “of course I didn’t mean to hit you and I never will again” and you get a sense for how the (news) cycle plays out. Having someone like him in power is so insidious because most of the worst acts of violence that actually affect people don’t look anything like the ‘stranger danger’ or the ‘foreign terrorist’ that we’ve been taught to fear; they look exactly like what we see every time he takes just about everyone who isn’t like me on a ride around the cycle of abuse. Intelligent, well meaning adults can disagree about all kinds of policies, priorities, and prerogatives – we cannot abide an abuser-in-chief.

Perception and History

[This essay developed from a conversation in seminary during a class in which we explored Jesus and the Gospels. I don’t recall the exact point made in the class, but we were pondering a reference to Leo Tolstoy and the day he witnessed a man being guillotined. The discussion sparked some debate about the reality and effects of historical events and became an interesting lens for me to explore what makes events/history real and/or meaningful. How we understand the nature and point of history goes a long way toward determining how we understand the Jesus we find in the gospels. This is not my most concise or well developed set of thoughts on the topic and my thoughts have certainly evolved some over the years since I wrote this, but it gives a glimpse into the background of how I’ve developed my view of the ‘happened-ness’ of story, history, and writing.]

How do we understand our perceptual differences if we both witness the guillotining of a person and disagree about the results? I might see that happen and have (what most would define as) a mental breakdown. I could still believe I am conversing with that person and may not be able to discern any difference in my life or his death. I might even steal the body to fill in the gaps and make it more real. You might, on the other hand, accept his death and do (what most people would define as) the appropriate thing. You might have a funeral, pay respects, and move on in light of the fact that he is no longer with you.

The clear difference between the two (at least what I think almost any modern person would say) is that my mind has created hallucinations that exist only in my mind, whereas your actions are a reflection of the effect that something which is real outside your mind has had on you (and something others would experience as well). The fact that there are similarities between what you’ve experienced and what others have is proof enough for me that there is a reality to the world that exists outside any particular person’s mind, which is influenced but not controlled by that person (I’m thinking about MacIntyre’s insistence that we come onto a stage that is not of our making and we all play some partial roles in others’ dramas as well as our own – the world is not simply what we make of it internally but there are many co-authors to what happens). But once I begin to question what it is about the thing which is outside the mind that makes it possible for me to say that one of us is right and the other wrong, things get fuzzy.

The reason I don’t think you can ignore science, in the broadest sense, is that to begin a definition I think you have to say something that at least vaguely resembles empirical observation. What thing outside my body causes the specific section of my sensory perceptions to which I refer as the man (dead or alive)? Even setting aside my case of delusion above, is there a sufficient overlap in everyone’s perception such that everyone has to agree on certain things? I don’t see how to measure that overlap apart from noting at least basic things like “he has two arms and legs” or “his voice is lower than mine.” And to prove that what is overlapping is real by virtue of what the man is rather than by something that we all just so happen to perceive in the same manner would require us to identify the real thing that constitutes his arms and legs or the air that is vibrated by his voice. In other words, we must speak of how it is appropriate to experience certain bundles of real things. By appropriate, I don’t mean to make a moral judgment (like is it appropriate to kiss a corpse) but a judgment of in what sense my experiences and yours are actually of the same ‘thing’ – what is the thing which exists outside both of our minds and is affective on our minds.

If by a ‘thing’ we simply mean that everyone has seen that which I would define as a two armed man with a deep voice, then we haven’t said anything necessary about the thing that warranted my definition. I may just be delusional or wrong. Qualities like ‘old’ or ‘skinny’ are clearly based upon the relative age and size of the man, but do bring us closer because to call them relative is still predicated upon the ability to reference a real thing that is being related to another real thing in a particular way. The only way I can think to describe that ‘thing’ in terms that should be acceptable to all would be to speak of the building blocks of that thing and how they are arranged so as to cause my perception of them (irrespective of what my actual perception is or how my perception matches up with anyone else’s). The most ‘neutral’ way to speak of something like weight is to say that he is 60 kilograms (for instance). But then you pull in the need to define what the blocks are that constitute what ‘he’ is that has that mass. To say what the boundaries of his ‘body’ are you must say things like arms, legs, head, etc. But until you can neatly define the boundaries between one constituent part of the body that is outside your mind and the world outside that body, you still have not given a real referent distinct from that which you perceive to be his body and that to which all persons must be referring to speak of the same thing they also perceive (though perhaps in different ways).

To attain a precise result, I suspect you have to get down to some level of atomic forces and the constitution of atoms; of what makes one force constitutive of making two things united and what other forces define the inner workings of another ‘thing.’ When you get down to this level, you begin to push the envelope of what scientist believe we can and can’t say about what is actually present, but you do not arrive at any definable boundary to which you can point to say ‘this is undeniably part of one thing and not the other.’ If in fact there is a real boundary between the things that exist at the most basic of levels and which constitute the things we believe to be real and distinct entities, those boundaries are so imperceptible and strange as to be distinct from anything we actually experience in the world (such is the case for the many ‘dimensions’ necessary in string theory or the idea that matter has no location until measured in quantum mechanics). Assuming for a moment that something like those theories is correct, my ability to precisely know what I mean when I say that I perceive a man is reduced to a long and complex set of equations that mathematically define where the ‘building blocks’ (if it is even still fair to use the term) of me are in relation to the ‘building blocks’ of the man. Anything beyond that is in some way my interpretation of how that which is really outside of me is related to other ‘thats’ and to whatever it is that constitutes me.

This may seem like unwarranted skepticism and speculation, but I think this way of understanding what is going on in the world is important because it seems that to do ‘critical history’ people often dig just deep enough into an explanation of what ‘really’ happened in order to show that what is recorded about history is an interpretation. The historian then proceeds from whatever part of the foundation they have arrived at and constructs a different (even if internally consistent) history without the recognition that their method for critiquing an ‘interpretation’ of what ‘really’ happened could extend all the way down until all that is left is mathematical equations showing what ‘blocks’ were ‘where’ and that ‘they’ ‘moved.’ If what ‘happens’ is math, history is only representable in equation form – equations which show things happening that are nothing like what I perceive.

Of course, this is all still assuming there is something going on in the reality outside of our minds that can be coherently represented through math. What it would mean if there were nothing coherent is way beyond what I can even try to conceive of. I think we simply have to assume there is something rational and contingent about the world in order to make sense out of the fact that there is something outside of our minds.

If what is more real about the thing outside my mind has no resemblance to the way in which I perceive that thing, then can there be any meaning to my attempts at describing that thing? To get at ‘what really happens/happened’ how can I avoid simply writing down a bunch of equations and walking away? Perhaps that which is real is not best understood as and represented by some complex math equation, but by a particular perception of it. The shape of our perception of that which is outside our minds but affective on our minds is the means through which we can relate to the world and one another – it’s what the conscious mind is and does. It may be the case that math is the most accurate or consistent way to represent the world outside our minds, but that representation in and of itself yields no intelligible information about the world apart from the assurance that the world really is there, it really affects us, and we influence but do not control it. In the broadest terms, I think people tend to take this type of thought process in a more ‘eastern’ mindset and deny that the world is fundamentally real or more ‘western’ and put blinders on to the fact that our common perceptions so greatly diverge from the results of our most challenging experiments. The former would say all that exists is perception. The latter would say all that is real is obscured by perception.

However, I think it is more accurate to ascribe the constancy and mystery of the world to the fact that I am a part of a reality that is not of my making, but with which I have been placed in relationship. If this is the case, I can choose whether or not to dig down into the particularities of ‘in what sense the world runs by laws’ and seek to define it by those laws (while never arriving at a final answer that is fully outside of but accessible to my mind) or I can accept that the power to remove all mystery from the relationship between myself and the world does not reside in my mind; I can rely upon the way my perception has been shaped as the best way to relate to the world and accept that my perception of that world (of what happened, happens, and will happen) can only get better by means of something that is outside my mind but affective upon my mind. It is the shaping of my perception wherein grace renders the lens of faith in such a way that what I perceive and what is actually outside of my mind correspond. God’s good creation is that which is outside our minds (and constitutive of our minds) but by the effects of sin we cannot perceive it properly except by the renewing of our minds through the power of God effected in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and perfected in us when we are raised in glory.

If all of that is in fact the case, then it would seem all we can know that everyone would know by observing the guillotine is that there is a real world outside the mind that has some effect upon the mind.

Perhaps the historical study of sayings more readily illustrates what I mean. We often ask, for instance, what Jesus actually said. To move towards an answer we look to criteria such as the types of sayings most likely remembered, the similarities with language patterns, and what types of things fit into the program we believe him to be working out. Without considering whether or not these are valid criteria for getting back to his ‘actual’ words or worrying about the problems inherent in applying those criteria, I suspect that at some level we mean to determine the actual shape of the sounds that came from the mouth of Jesus, the actual syllable combinations he uttered. Even ignoring all problems with translation from Aramaic to Greek or the differences between Judaism pre and post Hellenization, I would still question the possibility of arriving at an objectively meaningful conclusion through the quest.

Within such a quest, we hope to gain knowledge of something like the frequency and rate at which the air was vibrated by the voice box of Jesus Christ such that the inner ear of his hearers was affected in a particular way. We know that people can hear things and take them to mean many different things; being misunderstood is a risk taken by any and every person who uses words (or any form of language for that matter). Instead of trusting accounts of what Jesus said, we want to know exactly how his voice vibrated the air (exactly what was the reality of his voice before it was perceived and thus shaped or affected by another mind) so that we can then compile a list of those syllables/words/sentences and decipher his actual teaching. Ignoring the potential differences between seeing the shape of ink on a page that would be necessary for sharing Jesus’ words with future generations compared to having your ear tickled by the actual and specific air waves Jesus affected, the precise vibrations of the air formed by Jesus would not affect me in precisely the same way as they would you. The whole range of presuppositions and baggage that we each bring to the table would necessarily shape the meaning we draw from whatever Jesus ‘actually’ said. Is it, then, more important to know the shape of the air vibrations coming from the mouth of Jesus or to have a mind shaped in such a way that whatever sounds you hear reveal the voice of the Lord? Is it more important to know what the ‘historical Jesus’ said, or to hear what the living God reveals through the telling and retelling of Jesus’ story?

I don’t mean to say that there was no Jesus on Earth or that he didn’t say things; nor do I mean that it is unimportant what he did say. I mean that placing the burden on what Jesus said becomes an incoherent project when we attempt to separate out what was said from what those words (and actions) effected in the world. And again, it’s not that what Christ effected in the world is the exact same thing as what he said, but that both become incoherent when separated from each other. The sayings are shaped as ‘prophecy historicized’ precisely because that is the only way to speak of what Jesus ‘actually’ said; it’s the only way to connect the vibrations of the air with the Word of the Lord; the only way to speak the Word that God chose to reveal through the human voice and language by scripture and in the power of the Spirit.

Still Small Voices

In the still small voice of the cross of Christ, God declared once and for all that there is nothing we can face in life – nowhere we can go – no fear we can feel, no challenge we can face – where God has not already gone before to bring us back to Him and make abundant life possible.”

1 Kings 19:9-15

This has to be the single most challenging sermon I’ve given – both for how difficult it was for me to get through and also for the sense in which it undermines a lot of popular assumptions about what the Christian faith is and is for. A bit of background you should know before listening to the sermon – last summer we had a variety of really stressful things happen all at once. You’ll hear enough to gather a lot of the details, but what may not be evident is that this sermon came just after our last appointment with an infertility specialist. After trying for a couple of years overall and for several months or so with the specialist, we had just found out our last round of treatments didn’t work. This sermon came in the midst of grappling with what to do next.

Since that time, we’ve decided to adopt and we’ve gained a great deal of peace with that decision; but this sermon came at one of the most chaotic and challenging times of my life. In many ways, it is the most deeply personal way I could articulate an answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” Between this and the previously posted sermon, “Here is the Lamb of God,” I think I’m finally beginning to articulate an understanding of my own theory of the atonement – one based on vulnerability and relationship far more than debt, victory, substitution, or ransom.