Books and Living

I love to read. I get distracted easily, and I often put easier tasks above reading, but there’s not much I enjoy more than getting wrapped up in a good book. Most of my reading has been non-fiction, mostly spirituality/Christian living, and some theology.

Confession: I am often better at reading books than I am at living books.

I have a strange addiction to books that make me feel like crap. It’s like spiritual-sadism. Some of my favorites books have been one that rocked my world. The most striking examples (maybe these will be familiar?): Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne, Mere Discipleship by Lee Camp, White Like Me by Tim Wise, The Cost of Discipleship by Bonhoeffer, and Crazy Love by Francis Chan.

These books all have something in common. They are calls for the church to take Jesus’ call to radical discipleship seriously. They are challenges for the church to actually be the church in the sense imagined by the New Testament authors. They all make me feel like crap, because, even though I agree and underline and tweet and blog about stuff in the book, at the end of the day, I don’t live it. The books become sermon material and things to quote.

I was contemplating getting the book “Radical” by David Platt. A look of people have read it. A lot of people have been challenged by it. But few people are taking it seriously.

The same could be said of all the books I’ve listed.

The same is certainly true of our Holy Scriptures!

It seems that I’m not the only who has this addiction either. And I don’t think I’m the only who reads to books to find somebody to quote. In Amazon’s “Customer who bought this book also bought these” section for Radical, I saw most of the books I listed above.

I didn’t buy the book.

Because maybe it’s time for us to stop reading and start living it.

Spiritual Exercise

Here’s a short piece I wrote recently for publication at our church. Nothing profound—just an attempt using a small space to get people to begin thinking of ways to more deeply engage life with and for God.

    SPIRITUAL EXERCISE

One of my favorite sports in high school was track—I was a sprinter and a jumper. I’ve recently gotten back involved with the STC track program, and it has caused me to think about that oh-so-popular spring time topic of getting in shape… It used to be that I was in very good shape. I was running, lifting weights, eating smart. But over my college years, my fitness level has, shall we say, declined. When I was a few years younger, and zealous for athletics, I trained my body to be the athlete I wanted to be. But now…well…we’ll just say I’m not where I used to be.

I have always been struck by Paul’s advice to Timothy: “train yourself for godliness;  for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” (I Timothy 4 ESV)

Most of us desire to “get in shape” spiritually. We want to improve our spiritual fitness, to become the people God calls us to be…but what do we do to get there? Because spiritual fitness—otherwise known as spiritual formation—doesn’t just happen on its own. Just as we train to get in shape, we need to train to be God’s faithful people in our world. Growing spiritually requires intentional effort.

There are numerous spiritual exercises—what some call the ‘spiritual disciplines’—that can become part of our spiritual training regimen. What can you do to exercise your spirituality? Here are just a few to stir your thinking—there are plenty of practices to help us grow, but these are foundational and intricately connected:

  • - Prayer: coming to God, not just with requests, but in thankfulness, consistently (Philippians 4v6)
  • - Silence & Solitude: All throughout Jesus’ ministry, he took time to get away from the hustle & bustle of his hectic life. Even if it’s just minutes a day, it is important for us to disconnect from to-do lists, and rest in God’s providence and grace      (Mk 1v35)
  • - Meditation: Take time to “count your blessings,” and think on the ways God has been faithful to you physically, and reflect on the promises of Scripture (Ps 77v12)
  • - Scripture Reading: Scripture is God’s word to us. It’s important that we take time to listen to it, be challenged by it, and take comfort in it. Come to God’s word, not just to learn a new bit of information, but to be formed by it. (Ps 119v93)
  • - Service & Mission: We are most aligned with God’s will when we put it into practice in our world. It is the best form of training we have. (Eph 4v1)

—Brad Schrum

Essay: Christian Activism and New Creation

Here is a short essay I wrote for Dr. John Mark Hicks’ class (God, New Creation, and the Church) in the Missional Church Leadership Graduate program at Rochester:

In his book, The Cross in Our Context, Douglas John Hall opens by making the predictable claim (writing as a theologian) that theology matters.[1] The claim holds enormous validity because in the (post) modern world, what one thinks about god(s) greatly impacts life. Theology is not merely a lifeless discipline for select academicians that bears no relevance for life in the world, but it brushes all of life. In much the same way as theology broadly defined matters, eschatology matters. What one believes about the end of time can have an implicit effect on the way life is lived in the world, but the way in which eschatology affects life is greatly dependent on the nature of one’s eschatology—which is the reason an eschatology that deals faithfully with the trajectory of the Scriptural narrative is so crucial to the Christian community’s life in the world.

The belief that at the end of time God will destroy all things in a fiery ball of fury leads to environmental abuse. The justification is given that “It’s all going to burn anyway,” which makes way for a misuse of resources and an overall neglect for the Creation. An eschatology that portrays the eschaton as a disembodied existence of soul leads to diluted preaching and discipleship, and a devaluation of all things not related to evangelism (viewed as teaching the gospel of penal substitutionary atonement). This disembodied view scorns the physical or bodily aspects of life. Social justice and activism (the working toward human equality and justice), in these expressions of eschatology, are cast outside the realm of Christian mission and orthopraxy. A biblical eschatology, however, breathes life into activism, calls the church out of social complacency, and provides a holistic view of Scripture and mission.

A biblical understanding of eschatology embraces the biblical notion of New Creation—the idea that in the eschaton, there will be a union of heaven and earth, ultimately fulfilling the original telos (end-goal) of creation. There is a soteriological and ecclesiological component to New Creation. Fundamental doctrines like redemption are re-imagined because within the New Creation framework, redemption is, according to Middleton, “the restoration of God’s creational intent.”[2]—and there has always been a developmental aspect to that intent. The flow in Scripture is from a garden (Genesis 2) to a city (Revelation 2)–which is the ultimate dwelling place of the divine with his people. The creation is not destroyed, but is renewed, and God finally dwells with his people.

But what relevance does this New Creation have for activism? Activism and the renewal of creation may at first glance seem to have no relationship whatsoever. But this flows from a misconception about what “creation” is—the equating of creation solely to nature. This happens because, according to Middleton, the “fuller biblical conception of creation—which includes the entire human socio-cultural order—is ignored by many Christians in their reading of Scripture.”[3] Creation includes all aspects of human existence, not just the physical, and redemption involves more than the soul. Eschatology and new creation encompasses all of life in this world God has made—societies and cultures included.

In the New Creation, relationships will ultimately be made right. This is most clearly seen in the restoration of the creation’s relationship with her Creator. The trajectory of Scripture and the purpose of God was always presence with the people God had made. His people were always to be God’s “treasured possession” (Deut 7.6). In the New Creation, this becomes reality. Not only is the relationship between Creator and humanity restored, but relationships among humans are restored as well. Human life is given dignity, as they truly reflect the imago Dei. Oppression ceases to exists. Exploitation is no more. Divisions among humans are broken down ultimately and completely. It is what the Hebrew prophets called justice. In the New Creation, there is no place for the human greed and arrogance that leads to injustice and inequality.

It is also important to note that God is presently working towards that telos of redemption and restoration in the world. He has not removed himself from the milieu of human existence while waiting to redeem creation. Eschatological deism is not an option. The witness of Scripture consistently points to God’s involvement in the world. This begins to point towards the place of activism within ecclesial life. Activism is joining with God in his work of justice, as God pulls us into his future. If God is working in the world and has not left it to its own devices, the church should not either. Activism is important because, as Martin Luther King Jr. said in his letter from the Birmingham Jail, “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”

Activism in the name of the New Creation cannot just take any imperialistic form it wishes. The shape of God’s existence in the world must fundamentally mimic that existence. When God came into the world, he came to bear the cross. As the church goes into the world for the cause of justice, it must too bear the cross. “For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.”[4] The activism of the church must be a cruciform activism.

The activism in light of New Creation is different than activism of left-leaning political ideology because of holistic nature of the New Creation. Redemption is not, as is usually espoused by right-leaning ideology, just a matter of one’s disembodied soul, but it does include the redemption of the soul. New Creation is about the establishment of justice and equality, but it is always a matter of reconciliation between humanity and God. This cannot be ignored in Christian activism.

The prophet Isaiah provides the biblical imperative for work towards justice in light of New Creation: “Thus says the LORD: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed.”[5] Words from N.T. Wright captures the idea perfectly:

“. . . a proper grasp of the (surprising) future hope held out to us in Jesus Christ leads directly and, to many people, equally surprisingly, to a vision of the present hope that is the basis of all Christian mission. To hope for a better future in this world—for the poor, the sick, the lonely and depressed, for the slaves, the refugees, the hungry and homeless, for the abused, the paranoid, the downtrodden and despairing, and in fact for the whole wide, wonderful, and wounded world—is not something else, something extra, something tacked on to the gospel as an afterthought. And to work for that intermediate hope, the surprising hope that comes forward from God’s ultimate future into God’s urgent present, is not a distraction from the task of mission and evangelism in the present. It is a central, essential, vital, and life-giving part of it.”[6]


[1] Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003).

[2]J. Richard Middletown, A New Heavens and a New Earth: Journal for Christian Theological Research 11 (2006) 74

[3] Ibid., 74

[4] 2 Corinthians 4 NRSV

[5] Isaiah 56.1 NRSV

[6] N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 191-192

Michael Rhodes on Life-Giving Masculinity

This week has been hectic for more than a few reasons. In the next few days, I’ll be continuing to work our “The Gospel of the Sent” reflections on John.

In the meantime, check out this by Michael Rhodes, a lover and a fighter.

As a sociologist and a man, I am struck by the way masculinity is portrayed in the cultures around us—including our church cultures—and in Scripture. To me, the masculinity portrayed in Scripture is thicker and richer than what we have anywhere else. Too often, within the church and without it, we flatten and dull masculinity.

To pick up on a phrase from Rhodes’ post, what if our masculinity was a life-giving masculinity? How would that affect our leadership, service, mission, and our discipleship?

A Reply—Why Missional?

[I posted this as a reply here, on the cultural impetus for missional]

I am a young person (younger than Rex, even) who did not grow up “in the church.” I grew up around it, but not in it. I eventually came to Christ in high school, and God has since lead me into ministry. I spent my undergraduate years in a leading public university, that attracts students and faculty from literally all over the globe. I studied sociology (which is the study of people and societies), but I was actively involved in a dying church of Christ campus ministry.

It wasn’t long before I realized that it wasn’t just the campus ministry that was dying, but it was the church of Christ that sponsored it—and according to the research, this church isn’t the only that is dying.

It is a sociological fact that cultures in America today are vastly different than they were even a generation ago. All of us can feel the ways cultures have shifted since the 50s. Compare “Leave It to Beaver” and “Two and a Half Men.” The world (particularly the Western world) has been radically impacted by The World Wars, the Cold War, by Vietnam, the Gulf War, and by the current world on terror. People now are increasingly weary of trusting—they’ve seen too much violence to trust any assertions of power. Absolute truth claims are assertions of power. The 20th Century was supposed to be the most Christian age in history, and it was supposed to be the age of progress. The wars, the AIDS epidemic, the increasing wealth gap between the rich and power the world over have all lead to a hermeneutic of suspicion. People have seen the “the Christian age of progress” and have found it lacking. Because of this, Christianity has quickly lost its place of prominence in the world. It used to be that when someone was planning to start a new town, the two key structures where the courthouse and the church. The two were inextricably linked. That’s just not the case anymore. This is what is meant when people talk about the decline of Christendom. Christendom is state of prominence Christianity has had since Constantine. Again, its sociological fact that Christianity does not have the same place of prominence in the world.

So when encounter people who are all too familiar with the pain, death, disease of the height of Christendom and its “progress,” we can’t use the same methods of evangelism that we used during the height of the Christian age of prominence.

We are forced to go back to the witness of the early church, when the church lived on the underbelly of the empire. Their witness is what some have called “missional.” It is the understanding that we are not on top of the world, but at the bottom of it. It means entering into the suffering of the world, identifying with those “outside the gates” (Heb 13) and engaging the world through suffering love—not dominating a culture that already believes mostly like we do. We have been too much like the Pharisee and not the tax collector in Jesus prayer-parable.

It needs to be clear that Christendom is still holding on to its last breaths in a few places around the Western world. They process is not complete just yet, but if the church doesn’t accept the cultural, sociological shifts, then we will cease to exist as we know ourselves, and God will raise up a new, faithful community—as he always does.

 

Gospel of the Sent // 2

Part 1—Missionary God & the Missio Dei [background to the Gospel of John]

Scripture paints a picture of a god who gets his hands dirty in the world. The god of Scripture is not the god of deism, who is aloof to the suffering of the world and irrelevant to life in the world. God as portrayed in Scripture is fundamentally a missionary God. He has a mission in the world and an goal for the creation. In the Gospel of John, God is the One who sends Jesus into the world, and Jesus is the One who is sent from God.

If God has a mission, then Jesus becomes the agent of that mission. He is one sent “to do the work” of his Father. He is not in the world merely by his own volition, but is carrying out the purpose of God. Jesus is carrying out the mission of God in the world.

So, in Jesus, the mission of God  became flesh-and-blood and lived among us. In his very self, Jesus put hands and feet to God’s mission.

With John 3.16-17 as one of the foundational texts of the missio Dei in John, and with the incarnation seen as the embodiment of the missio Dei, what then becomes of Jesus’ actions and miracles in John. What does it mean if Jesus’ is in the world to save the world?

Here, we come to some atonement theology (an area I am by no means qualified to offer any substantial thoughts). In a thinly construed penal substitutionary atonement theology, Jesus is sent in the world so that God can vent his anger. Jesus needed to be perfect so that venting as particularly effective. But why then, did Jesus heal? Why did he call disciples? Why did he turn water into wine, forgive people, etc? If Jesus was in the world as a way to extinguish the wrath of God so that everyone could “have the hope of heaven one day,” then most of Jesus’ ministry seems pointless at best, or a pomp0us showboating at worst.  A life of quietistic withdrawal would have been enough for Jesus to fulfill the letter of the law. Jesus didn’t need followers for that.

But if we see John 3.16-17 as something bigger than God venting his anger so that he could allow some people into heaven, if the missio Dei is more encompassing, and if we see Jesus as the agent of God mission, then all those aspects of Jesus’ ministry (healings, forgivings, etc) are somehow putting flesh-and-blood on God’s mission.

Somehow a “Five-Steps-to-Salvation-in-Heaven-After-You-Die-(but little significance for your life now) Gospel Presentation” approach to ministry/mission/evangelism doesn’t seem to quite capture it. Nor does a “I’ll-Meet-Your-Physical-Needs-So-I-Can-Share-My-Five-Steps” method quite get it either….

They aren’t proving his divinity, but they are pointing towards the mission of God. And my hunch is, that this might somehow change our thinking about ministry and mission.

More later.

Thoughts “On Free People”

Freedom is one of those things, particularly in America, we are taught to value—sometimes to the point of having an ideological love affair with it. But freedom, in the sense of being spiritually free people, is an important component to the narrative of Scripture, and worth valuing. The problem with the way freedom is taught in many churches is that it is (1) tied too closely to American ideology, or (2) consists merely of an absence of legalistic religious expression. My friend Mitchell Powell has begun to paint a picture of, what is (I think) meant by the biblical idea of freedom.

on free people

peace.

Gospel of the Sent // 1

Last night, I preached at STCCC from the Gospel of John, and focused primarily on ch. 17. At the beginning of the week, I had a completely different sermon in mind, but as I spent time dwelling on select passages from John during the Daily Office, I was personally convicted.

Sometimes the sermons tagged “For myself” can connect best with the congregation, and this was one of those instances. My deliver wasn’t good. I stumbled, had awkward passes as I reached for my stashed-away emergency glass of water. I didn’t have dynamic illustrations are big stories. The sermon wasn’t in my usual narrative style. Still, it apparently connected with some people, and that’s all I can hope for.

As I’ve spent some time in John over the past weeks (it’s been part of the lectionary readings), something unique has jumped out to me about the nature of John’s story about Jesus. If Matthew is the gospel of the Jews, because of the way in which he uses the Hebrew Scripture, and if Mark is the gospel of A.D.D., and Luke is the gospel of logic, then John is the gospel of the sent.

The word send in its various forms occurs nearly 60 times in the gospel of John, usually referring to a key character in the story. The word send appears second most frequently in Luke, at around 45 times. To put that in proper perspective though, keep in mind the length of each of the gospels. In my bible, John is about 23 pages long, while Luke is about 32 pages long.

In John, Jesus is portrayed consistently as the One who is sent by God into the world, to do the work of his Father. But he is simultaneously portrayed as the One who sends on God’s behalf. I think this reveals something to us about God, about Jesus, and also about the believing community. (I’ll get to the last one in another post).

In John, we can clearly see one of the fundamental understandings in missional theology: God is a missionary God. God sends Jesus into the world, with a  task to accomplish—and that task isn’t just to die so God can vent his anger. Rather, God has a purpose—an end—in mind for the creation. Even through the mess of destruction brought into the creation through the Fall, God is working to bring about his purpose through the creation. This becomes what is know as the missio Dei (the mission/sending of God).

Jesus, as the One sent from God to do his mission, stands in continuity with God as a missionary God.

First God sends Adam & Eve into the garden with a task and a purpose. God then calls and sends Abraham to be part of God’s redemptive work. God sends Moses. God calls Israel to “be a light to the nations.” God sends the prophets to call Israel back to her mission. And God’s sending (& missionary) action reaches its climax in the sending of Jesus into the world—but it does not end there, because the church has a part to play in this story.

The fact that God sends into the world is incredibly important—because it is far to easy for us to fall into deism. One of the worst perversions of Scripture is the idea that God is unconcerned and uninvolved with the world, because Scripture always points to God investing himself in the world, often at great cost. Deism is more prevalent in the Christian church than what we often realize. It’s damaging, because if God is aloof the the struggle of this world, then we can be too. But the Gospel of John—the gospel of the Sent—shows us that the god of Scripture is a God who enters the mess.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but [he sent his Son into the world] in order that the world might be saved through him. —John 3.16-17 esv

More soon.

// 2

Anabaptism, the Restoration Movement, and Post-Christendom

Sean Palmer is beginning what I’m sure will shape out to be a very interesting series on his blog. It collection of posts providing an overview of Anabaptism. I commend to your reading his first two posts in the series:

What’s an Anabaptist? Part 1—On Baptism

What’s an Anabaptist? Part 2—Church and State

As we beginning the transition into what Patrick Keifert has described as a “new missional era,” and as we witness the crumbling of the empire that has been Christendom, the Anabaptism witness will be increasingly important for the church—and I think it will be especially important for Restoration churches (like churches of Christ/Christian Church) in American to reclaim some of its early Anabaptism witness.

John Mark Hicks and Bobby Valentine have written a book called “Kingdom Come” in which they weave history and theology together in a way that helps churches of Christ to recapture some of what is best about the fellowship from our early years. They tell stories about the grandfathers of contemporary church of Christ praxis—namely David Lipscomb and James Harding—that help us embrace their spiritual legacy in meaningful ways. I don’t recall if Hicks & Valentine address Anabaptism or not, but the Anabaptist witness certainly flows through (as it does through much of Restoration Movement history).

I have recently encountered a work I would very much like to dig into. It’s by an Anabaptism writer named James McClendon. The title of the work is Witness, and I can’t help but think it could be useful in navigating the leadership waters of post-Christendom America.