I’m A Seminary Graduate (But)

I'm a seminary graduate

I’m a seminary graduate. See? It’s right there, on that nice piece of paper hanging on the wall.

It means I’m a leader; I’m confident and I’m capable. I’m informed and I’m persuasive in conveying my (so-called) wisdom about God and life. I can preach and I can pastor; I can build a church and lead it forth.

But wait… Can I?

Because I am a seminary graduate. CS Lewis lives on my bedside table, and NT Wright is what I might call a kindred spirit. But, honestly, sometimes I don’t give a damn about my person quiet times.

I’m a seminary graduate, and I been moved to tears while translating the book of Revelation from its original Greek. But later that same week at church, I couldn’t pay attention because I was counting down to when the service would be over and I could check my fantasy football score. God knows what the pastor was saying (but Jamaal Charles had one hell of a day!).

I’m a seminary graduate and I yearn for the unity of the church. But a snide comment or subtle remark in a blog post is not beyond me. Even when it’s aimed at another Christian. Because although I am a seminary graduate, sometimes I care more about the “like” button than I do about the well-being of another’s soul. (If I’m being truly honest, then that’s most of the time.)

I’m a seminary graduate. You can sit in my office and you can tell me about your brokenness and cry and swear God could never love you. And I will tell you something about how Christ’s grace can heal whatever you’ve done or whatever’s been done to you. But when you leave, I’ll remember that I have scars and skeletons which- deep down- I’m not convinced this Jesus I like to reference can actually handle.

I’m a seminary graduate and I’ve preached a sermon on “do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth.” But last year I saved about twice as much money as I tithed. Granted, I am a seminary graduate, so that’s not saying much. But it is saying something.

I am a seminary graduate. I can parse all the Greek verbs in 1 Corinthians 13. But tonight I got into a fight with my wife over- and yes, I’m serious- who should do the dishes. We made up just in time for me to start another one over taking out the trash.

I’m a seminary graduate and when I say a prayer in public my words flow eloquently; they fall like poetry off the tongue. But last night, when the hour was dark and my heart cold, I couldn’t pray. No matter how hard I tried.

I’m a seminary graduate, dedicated to living a life of moral uprightness, purity and fear of God. But I have internet filters on my computer; when I’m angry, I swear like a sailor; and- let’s be honest- sometimes I’d just rather have a drink (or two…or three…).

I’m a seminary graduate. I mentor younger Christians. I formulate discipleship plans for college students. Numerous people call me their “accountability partner.” But if I’m mad at you then I have trouble telling you to your face. I’m more liable to talk behind your back, and spiritualize by placing it between the parentheses of a “prayer request”.

I’m a seminary graduate but I might as well be Job’s friends. I tend to be quick to speak, slow to listen and – why should I be the one saying sorry?

I’m a seminary graduate. I’ve taken counseling courses and read endless case studies. But still don’t know what to say when you ask me: “why did God allow my miscarriage?” If I say anything it’ll probably be something cliché, stupid or even hurtful. Because I’m a seminary graduate, but my daily bread tastes a little too much like my own foot in my mouth.

I’m a seminary graduate. I know God is beyond my reach- yeah, duh. And I know that I’m no wiser than the next guy. Still, I like to talk about God in absolute terms, in subtle ways to inform those around me that I have a direct line to the Almighty, one they haven’t been offered. They don’t have a Masters of Divinity, you see.

I’m a seminary graduate. But there are a few bottles of pills at my bedside. I need them to get through the day.

I’m a seminary graduate and I wrote my own Statement of Faith. It was fifteen pages (and that’s without the footnotes!) and had words like soteriology, eschatology and dispensationalism. But if a stranger on the subway asked me what I believe about God, I’m not sure what I would say.

I’m a seminary graduate. See? It’s there on my resume. But I’m scared to death that you might actually hire me, call me ‘pastor’ or (dear God!) ask me to preach.

When I started seminary I had a great deal of admiration for graduates. Sure they didn’t have it all figured out. But more so than me. Still, I was getting there. At the end of each semester, I crossed off the classes and eyed the remaining requirements with an executioner’s stare. And I looked forward to when I would finally ‘get there.’

And now I’m here.

I’m a seminary graduate. I’ve got the letters by my name; I’ve got the classes under my belt. But I still look in the mirror and see the same puzzled, hurt, lonely, excited, wandering, arrogant, startled, and confused eyes staring right back.

Somehow I flew under the radar and I’m not the person I should be. I’m scared; I’m insecure; I’m arrogant; I’m greedy; I’m broken; I’m lustful; I’m stressed; I’m busy; I’m wrong; I’m right…all at the same time.

Because I’m a seminary graduate. But I’m not much different from you. Save for the fact that my ass is especially familiar with the cushion of a certain library chair. Save for the fact that I was called out of the world- like a toddler on ‘time-out’- to help me figure out how to then live within it. Save for the fact that I may be slightly more aware of how small I am because I’ve been granted a slightly longer glance at the vastness of the God we worship. Maybe I have sunglasses while you’re eyes are closed to protect them from the sun. But we’re both floating in the same lifeboat.

I’m a seminary graduate. And yes, you might hire me. And yes, you might listen to me preach. And yes, I might lead you and yes, you might pay me (…please?). But I’m a seminary graduate. No more though sometimes less.

I’m a seminary graduate. But I’m on the same road as you. So please, won’t you take my hand?

Let’s do this life together.

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Searching for Sunday, Finding Communion: The Refreshing Orthodoxy of Rachel Held Evans

searching for sunday

If hype is something to be trusted, then Rachel Held Evans’ new release Searching for Sunday promises to be one of the most influential publications in pop theology this year.

For a long time I’ve followed Evans’ career with abstract interest. I’ve not read much of her work for no reason other than a lack of available time. But I’ve admired Evans nonetheless. One does not need to be a football fanatic to appreciate the prominence of Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. And I’ve often felt the same way about Evans. She is unique. She’s different. She’s provocative in a love-’em-or-hate-’em kind of way. And she’s a necessary voice rising above the status quo, speaking into the realm of western theology which all too often is an Anglo-Saxon sausage fest. For that alone, I hold Evans in high esteem.

And in following the recent buzz around Evans’ new book, particularly in this interview with HuffPost Religion‘s Zach J. Hoag, I’m really excited. I’m excited because her views are refreshing. I’m excited because her insights are creative. I’m excited because her assertions are transparent.

But mostly, I’m excited because her theology rings of orthodoxy.

The backbone of Evans’ posture is her belief that:

“…the church in the U.S. is indeed changing and indeed losing some of its unchallenged dominance over the culture.”

This isn’t news. Or at least it shouldn’t be. Church attendance has been and is rapidly decreasing. Denominations are dwindling. A majority of what is reported as “church growth” is really church cannibalism; other congregations gaining the remnants of faltering parishes. The American church is dying. And denial can only bail the boat out for so long.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Says Evans:

“Death is something empires worry about…not something resurrection people worry about (…) my hope is that, if the American church must ‘die,’ let it ‘die’ to the old ways of dominance and control and be resurrected into the way of Jesus, the way of service and sacrifice.

It’s statements like this that incite a conniption fit to advocates of the Moral Majority. And it underlies a deep tension among older generations in American churches. We are moving out of the era of “Christendom.” The opinion of the church is no longer a commanding presence in society. America is no longer a Christian nation (not that it ever was).  Churches that once attracted converts are now in the headlines for their collapse and decay. 

Evans’ herself has experienced the cycle of church life through her involvement with a church plant that eventually closed its doors. The question is not whether or not the American Church will die, but too what will the church be resurrected? In other words: what will the death of American Christendom mean for the future worship of Christians who happen to be American?

Evans’ presents a vision by saying that, for starters, the American Christians need to come to to the realization that:

“…’right’ is not the point. What I (read: millennials) longed for with church, and what I think a lot of people long for, is not an exclusive club of like-minded individuals, but a community of broken and beloved people, telling one another the truth and taking it all a day at a time.”

At first glance, Evans’ statement rings of inclusivism, of relativism and everything (we’ve been taught is) evil about postmodernity. But, truth told, this is an orthodox way of approaching faith. Evans’ proposes a form of Christianity that does not die on our mountains of propositions regarding who God is (ie: pro-life, Republican/Democratic, pro-America, pro-family…etc) but is rather held by the faith that there are certain things God isn’t (evil, unjust, dead, absent, etc). We can say with absolute certainty that there are some things God is not but the nuances of who he is are simply questions that spend our lives trying to figure out- so why not ask them together?

Along these lines, Evans doesn’t hold any punches in outlining her belief that the resurrection of the American church is going to require a reassessment of our priorities:

“The gospel doesn’t need a coalition devoted to keeping the wrong people out.”

And perhaps Evans pushes the envelope a little to much at such points. But perhaps not. There’s something to be said for the American church needing more of Zaccheaus & Mary Magdalene and less of the Pharisees. And, on her worst day, I would align Evans with the former.

Evans’ goes on to say:

“Jesus doesn’t need a bunch of gatekeepers committed to keeping the ‘wrong people’ out of the kingdom. (We’re all ‘the wrong people,’ after all.) Jesus needs is a family of sinners, saved by grace, committed to tearing down the walls, throwing open the doors, and shouting, ‘Welcome! There’s bread and wine. Come eat with us and talk.’ This isn’t a kingdom for the worthy. It’s a kingdom for the hungry.”

And this lays the foundation from where Evans’ orthodoxy hits home. Being the disillusioned Christian that she is, the last thing I expected to find in Evan’s Searching for Sunday‘s Table of Contents was a book organized according to the seven sacraments!

As such, Evans’ book once again outlines a perspective on the next phase of the American church that is arranged on the framework of orthodox Christianity. Says Evans:

“I have found that it is in those moments when we recognize God’s presence in ordinary, tangible things — bread, wine, water, words, suffering, singing, a gentle touch, a casserole on the doorstep — that we create church, we create sanctuary.”

I left an Anglican church to go to seminary. Today I attend a beautiful church with beautiful people. We sing along to Hillsong renditions. We listen to thoughtful and profound sermons. But worship doesn’t feel complete. Because we only take communion once a month. We don’t use a liturgy. There’s no daily confession, no responsive reading of the Psalms. The service ends in time for us to grab lunch and catch the game. It ends with a benediction. It ends with us leaving the sanctuary- but there’s no body and blood for nourishment and no procession paving the way.

Which is not to say any of this is a bad thing. But it’s worth pointing out that I – and, statistics will tell you, many in my generation- leave these services, sometimes feeling a little empty. Because there’s an identity attached to the tangible nature of the sacraments.

The Lord’s Supper is a very real event. This is not a Catholic notion; Luther and Calvin both espoused the significance of the event in the life of a Christian. It was not merely a remembrance but an act, a celebration; an articulation of the grace of Christ into the practical, everyday needs (food and drink) of the believer. In the Lord’s Supper, grace has a taste, a feel, a scent. It’s something real that I can hold in the palm of my hand. If I come to church after a week of being unable to read the Bible, a week when I’ve sinned gregariously, a week following which I’m feeling undeniably broken, lost and stumbling, desperately looking for Christ, after that week I can still “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8) as opposed to just hearing a sermon about how good and great he is while my mind is wandering, preoccupied by the past week and burdened with the stress of the days to come.

Evans’ relates to this struggle. “Being a Christian,” Evans states, “was (presented to me as) all about believing the right things, finding the right denomination, living the right life.” American Christendom was founded upon the drawing of lines, the explanation and apologetics of salvation, and the “yes” or “no” label it attaches to life, regardless of it’s nuances.

But this black-and-white approach to faith fails to translate the reality of grace into a postmodern context. It is not tangible, just theoretical.

And what we’re coming to find is that the post-modern individual must be approached by the church as the post-modern person: body, soul, spirit, and mind. Too often the American church acknowledges and cares for the heart or the spirit but in discarding the use of and reliance upon the sacraments they’ve also discarded a spirituality that engages the entire individual, a spirituality that is pragmatic and heavenly. The sacraments connect the grand spiritual experiences of confession with tangible dunking in the water; they connect the sacrifice of Christ and the spiritual nourishment it provides with the actual bread and wine. They bring Christianity down from abstraction to real life. And if Christianity has a hope in a world that is increasingly relational, increasingly emotive, it has to find itself rooted, once again, in real life itself.

If Sunday is to be found, then it must be found within an orthodox communion of saints that evolves around the sacramental understanding of faith as a journey, a road on which we all must trod. The sacraments are the foundation from which a faith of open doors and feasting banquets is built.

As a colleague of mine once put it, the use of the sacraments present an environment in which: 

“…the edifice of belief doesn’t shift no matter who is inside the building. You don’t (personally) believe in the resurrection anymore? Okay. We do. Now come to the Lord’s Table with us and let’s learn together. You don’t feel comfortable calling yourself a Christian? Okay. But you’re still an Episcopalian (Lutheran, Mennonite…) because that is who you are. And we’re not going to abandon you.”

Which is comforting though, again, hardly revolutionary. Which should be taken as a compliment. For such sentiments echo Karl Barth’s reminder that:

“…everyone who has to contend with unbelief should be advised that he ought not to take his own unbelief too seriously. Only faith is to be taken seriously; and if we have the faith as a grain of mustard seed, that suffices for the devil to have lost his game.”

(Dogmatics in Outline, 21)

What Barth alludes too, my colleague articulated, and Rachel Held Evans is postulating, is that the way forward requires that first we to step back. The way forward is to return to the beginnings of a movement begun by a poor Galilean hanging on a cross. It’s to erase divisive lines and just eat at the table together. It’s to immerse ourselves in the water of baptism and let it’s cool drops remind us of his grace upon us all; to embrace the act of confession as personal laments, not legislative dogma. Which is where the sacraments become imperative. Because, the sacraments engage the whole person wherever they’re at.

Young evangelicals are entering an age of Christendom that is going to force us to settle for orthodoxy. In doing so, we are going to find that orthodoxy does not look like the Christianity we grew up with. Orthodoxy looks like a church that’s always dying. Granted, resurrection is in its future, but its dying nonetheless. It looks like a church filled with beautiful people but ugly sins- awkward sins, despicable sins, sexual sins, societal sins, broken hearts and weeping wounds. It looks like a community of lost people who went searching for Sunday, searching for faith, searching for home, and found ourselves dunked in the water, healed in confession, and feasting at a table in the communion of saints. Now we just want to tell the story in a way that everyone can hear. Because the journey is long but the feast is grand and there’s plenty room for all who may wish to join. 

I’m excited because Rachel Held Evans’ is searching for such a faith. And I, for one, want to join her in the journey.

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An Idol Called Peace

an idol called peace

 Peace is a good thing. God is described numerous times throughout the Biblical text as being a proponent of peace (Psalm 34:14, Isaiah 9:6, 1 Corinthians 14:33, etc.). Yet carnage, death and destruction also find their place within the Biblical narrative; many times the same God who claims to be the “prince of Peace” mandates violence. The most startling and significant of these examples was when God allowed his own Son to be crucified. Violence- it would seem- can be and has been utilized as an instrument of God’s wrath. Thus a Christian who claims or asserts “peace” as an end goal is entirely misguided.

Which is why I’m a pacifist.

On the one hand, this seems like a paradoxical statement. But if we examine the Biblical text we find that peace is not an end in and of itself. The (albeit, prominent) role of peace throughout the Biblical narrative is as a means to a greater end: that end being God’s glorification. For God is a God who “makes wars cease to the ends of the earth” in order that he “…will be exalted among the nations” (Psalm 46:9-10). The Psalmist does not desire peace but rather acknowledges it as an earthly testimony to God’s Lordship. God’s glorification is the chief end and purpose of not only the Biblical narrative but also the individual Christian life and corporate aim of the Christian Church.

Which is why I should specify in saying: I’m a Christian pacifist.

Just War Theorists excuse warfare as a necessary evil for the sake of peace. Under this view, war can be justified when its end is clear, its authority legitimate, all other options are exhausted and there is civilian or noncombatant immunity. In other words: if peace is accomplished, the violence must be regulated but can be justified.

The problem with this theory is clear. As Professor of Theological Ethics Dr. Daniel M. Bell states: “one would have to search long and hard to find a war whose supporters did not claim their cause was just.” Hence: World War II was a war against a genocidal regime; the war in Iraq was a preemptive strike necessary for the stability of the Middle East, and so on and so forth. The pacifist counter to this proposition is that it’s plainly (and cruelly) ironic: following the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, the entire city was flattened. At that point, there was no violence. But everyone was also dead. To call that ‘peace’ is just absurd. Peace must be attained- and can only be attained- with the absence of violence entirely.

But arrival at the latter conclusion brings a dilemma for the Christian Pacifist. Because one cannot argue that God is only a God of peace. Granted, Christ told Peter to put his sword away (Matthew 26:52) which the church father Tertullian took to mean that Jesus “in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier.” But, then again, the Israelites committed God-ordained genocide against many of their pagan enemies. And Christ also said he did not come to bring peace but the sword (Matthew 10:34). Lastly, we cannot deny the fact that Christ’s sacrificial purpose was centered on an act of violence- albeit as a recipient of violence- but violence nonetheless.

For a Christian, any theology in which peace is held up as the supreme end, whether directly or indirectly, cannot hold water. The pagan pacifist worships peace but for the Christian pacifist Christ is the king.

Therefore, Christian pacifism cannot be presented as different words plugged into the same rhetoric as our secular counterparts. Which, all too often, it is. The result is Christian pacifists bowing not to a God of grace and justice, of wrath and compassion, but to a one-dimensional God of peace. In other words, we must understand that God is the God of peace, but he is also much more.

And so the Christian pacifist acknowledges the nuanced possibility that God can and does utilize violence in his name. The Christian cannot implement pacifism for the sake of maintaining a utopian ideal. Rather, nonviolence needs to be adopted and preferred by Christians as a way of proclaiming Christ and his coming kingdom.

As such, Christian pacifism sees the violence and massacres of the Old Testament, not in juxtaposition to the New Testament, but as a dark foreshadowing of the wrath of God to be poured out upon sin and death itself, a judgment that is borne by Christ on the Cross. In seeing such continuity, there is no disparity in a God of the Old Testament who executes his judgment through the nation of Israel and a God of the New Testament who takes the sin of the world on and usurps it through the most inconceivable of means- beating death at it’s own game, rising from the grave on Easter morn.

What the Biblical narrative points to is that Christ’s defeat of death also defeated the purpose of violence and death in his inaugurated kingdom. Christ defeated death so the Christian might proclaim its end. For the Christian to claim otherwise is a denial of Christ’s opposition to sin on the cross. As a result of Calvary, human instigation of violence can no longer be excused as a Biblical notion; it does not embellish the continuity of the Biblical meta-narrative but breaks from it almost entirely!

Which gives the Christian pacifist an entirely different paradigm -a revolutionary perspective- with which to view the world. Here I will paraphrase Alasdair MacIntyre in suggesting that the Christian is called to ask not ‘what should I do?’ but rather ‘what is the story I tell with my life?’

As Christians, the story we tell has to be centered on the cross, the cross that commissioned Christianity with the glorious task of proclaiming Christ as King against which sin, death, violence and destruction cannot stand. In light of this reality, for a Christian to perpetrate violence against another human being is contradictory to our Christian nature.

We may excuse the violence as a means to end, the end being peace, but such is not service to God but service only to a facet of God’s being. Peace is not the goal; but God’s glory is. A square is a rectangle but a rectangle is not necessarily a square: God’s glory includes peace, but peace doesn’t always give tribute to God’s glory.

At the end of the day, it is the coherent testimony of the Biblical text that must guide a Christian’s ethic. The Old Testament texts all point to the person and life of Christ- God’s revelation in full human flesh. And the climax of God’s revelation was a moment in which he subjected himself to the violence of human hands and commanded his disciples to put away their swords. Though armies of angels surrounded him, he never lifted a finger against those who perpetrated violence against him. He did this, not in the name of peace, but for the end purpose of God’s glorification.

Which is to say that the Christian pacifist must allow for the (theoretical) possibility of violence as a Christian means. This is necessary. Because the Biblical narrative is not a dogmatic presentation for or against violence, but a story that tells of God’s glory coming about in his creation. And a story- as anyone who reads for a living can testify- is not dogmatic; it is nuanced. The Christian pacifist is dishonest to proclaim that God cannot be served through violence- or at least that he never has been. In the same breath as this admission, however, it’s important to understand that the Biblical narrative has brought the Christian community to a point where violence is no longer a testimony to the glory of God, in that it’s purpose was completed in Christ on the cross.

The Christian calling is not to be peacemakers; it’s to glorify God. The former is idolization of a characteristic of God which, when placed upon the throne, can have destructive demands (“the ends justify the means”). The Christian is called to serve God in his entirety, not cherry-pick attributes and serve as we please. And the climax of God’s revelation was Calvary. From the cross, Christ disallows a sword in the hand of the Christian. As NT Wright once put it, the Christian story is not a power story, it’s a love story. Love poured out on all humanity, all creation, not to be negated or overlooked for any idol. Even that of peace.

Thus, as Stanley Hauerwas states:

“Christians are not called to non-violence because we think non-violence is a strategy to rid the world of war. Of course, we would like to make war less likely. But rather Christians are called to non-violence in a world of war because as faithful followers of Christ we cannot imagine being anything other than non-violent in a world of war.”

Christians are not called to serve an idol called “peace”. But we are called to serve a God whose climactic moment of revelation was the death of death. The story to be told in the Christian’s life is that we’ve no use for violence because we’ve seen God in the flesh and we behold his glory – not as one who fights death, but one by whom death is already conquered.

 

Which is why I am a Christian pacifist.

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