What happens to creativity and to the ongoing work of the Spirit when dogma is elevated over faith? Justo González describes the theological climate of 17th and 18th century Europe and makes some pointed observations that are worth reflecting on:
there were others whose zeal for true doctrine was no less than Luther’s, Calvin’s, or Loyola’s. But this was no longer the time of great theological discoveries, leading up unknown paths. Theologians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries zealously defended the teachings of the great figures of the sixteen, but without the fresh creativity of that earlier generation. Their style became increasingly rigid, cold, and academic. Their goal was no longer to be entirely open to the Word of God but rather to uphold and clarify what others had said before them. Dogma was often substituted for faith, and orthodoxy for love. Reformed, Lutheran, and Catholic alike developed orthodoxies to which one had to either adhere strictly or be counted out of the fold of the faithful. 
If we compared the climate of the church in the 17th/18th centuries with that of today, I wonder what similarities we might notice? Is it possible that some church history could teach us (Anabaptists/Mennonites too) something beneficial for this moment of time we occupy right now?
Dogma is probably the simpler and easier path. But what do we lose if dogma > faith?
 González, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: Vol. II: The Reformation to the Present Day. New York: HarperOne, 2010. 174.
I recently had the opportunity to meet Ewuare Osayande following a message he presented to a group of local Mennonite pastors about investing in racial justice. One of the steps I wanted to take following that time was to read his book, Commemorating King: Speeches Honoring the Civil Rights Movement, and allow space for his and Dr. King’s words to sink in. I’m grateful for Osayande’s work, and gladly encourage everyone to visit the above link to purchase a copy of this book. In this short collection of speeches, Osayande highlights a number of Dr. King’s messages and highlights the prophetic wisdom and challenge contained within. He also makes clear connections to our current context in the United States, demonstrating how King’s prophetic message of peace, justice, and reconciliation still needs to be heard and embodied today.
Three major systemic forces which King repeatedly confronted in his life included 1) Racism, 2) Militarism, and 3) Materialism/Poverty. If we are to truly live as followers of Christ, we must develop that prophetic willingness to identify and oppose these oppressive systems and name them for what they are…anti-Christ. We may also need to look inward and see how we might be contributing to these systems which pollute the shalom God desires. And if you’re like me (a privileged, white, male, suburbanite) we might also need some help to understand-or see more clearly-how these systems are at work around us.
We Anabaptists are fond of saying that we interpret scripture by looking through the “lens” of Jesus. Lenses are a tool for correcting vision. They help make our sight clearer. Jesus and his life and teachings are a lens through which the Spirit helps clear our vision that we might demonstrate Good News. We strive to be shaped by Jesus because this faith is not simply something spiritual or for the future but rather something that’s real and for now (Luke 4:16-21). In his message titled, “The Fierce Urgency of Now: The Struggle for Racial Justice Forty Years After King,” Osayande points out another lens which can increase our vision for peace and justice:
Do we have the courage to view our world through the lens King provides? This is the challenge of our time. This is the choice we all must make. Social change does not require a particular gender identification, racial classification or sexual orientation. What it does require is an undying commitment to embody the revolutionary idea of justice for all. (34)
Dr. King was powerfully formed by the way of Jesus. Clearly he looked at everything through the lens of Jesus, and he was able to bring to bear the teachings of Jesus within a context where those three systems of oppression are still deeply rooted. His faithful witness offers a vital lens through which to both expand our vision for justice and understand Jesus’ life and teachings more clearly.
On the news today I learned that a local historian just discovered a recording of a speech King delivered at St. Joe’s, shortly before he was killed. I’m looking forward to listening to this message when it’s available to the public. So one way I will try to apply this “lens” of Dr. King to my life is through more regular reflection on Dr. King’s theology and teachings, in order that I may continue to learn and to live as a witness to Christ.
I have been participating in a year-long seminary class which is a survey of the Christian Tradition. We are using Justo Gonzalez’s two-volume The Story of Christianity as one of our texts. This week a particular paragraph in Volume II stood out to me, and also provided some good discussion material for our class time. In describing the atmosphere of the 16th century Reformation, Gonzalez wrote:
An old world was passing away, and a new one was being born. It was unavoidable that the church too would feel the impact of the new times and that, just as new ways of being human were emerging, new ways of being Christian would also emerge. Exactly how this was to be done, however, was open to debate. Some sought to reform the old church from within, while others lost all hope for such reformation, and openly broke with the papacy. In an age of such turmoil, many sincere Christians went through profound soul searching that eventually led them to conclusions and positions they could not have predicted. Others, equally sincere and devout, came to opposite conclusions. The resulting disagreements and conflict marked the entire age that we now call the Reformation of the sixteenth century. (14)
We noted in class that, if you changed just a few words in this passage, you could easily apply it to the time and place we find ourselves occupying today in North American, Western Christianity. We are living in the midst of a new and rapidly changing world, which is affecting how we think about and how we “do” church. The current atmosphere is causing some Christians to be excited, some to be hopeful, some to be inventive, while others are fearful, cautious, or just wondering what the heck is going on. Older, established church structures and institutions are engaging important questions and facing difficult circumstances. While at the same time fresh expressions of church are being born and developing. Similar to the previous Reformation, today seems to be a time of soul searching, of tension, of conflict, and of new birth.
What is the Spirit stirring in a time such as this? What might we learn from our history? What new ways of being Christian do we see emerging?
Using one word, could you describe how it feels to live in this time?
My oldest son (age 4) often shares the prayer when we sit down at the table to eat dinner. Tonight’s prayer was just awesome, so I tried to quickly jot it down while we remembered it.
Thank you Jesus for our food.
And thank you for this nice snack.
Thank you for (my brother) going to church.
In Jesus name…
And for (preschool friend) coming back to school.
And for (another preschool friend) coming back.
In Jesus name…
Our 2 year old son checked out by this point and just started eating.
For Mommy and Nona having a good exercise time.
For going to church.
For (my brother) making this (a craft) in Sunday School.
In Jesus name…
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. -Matthew 18:1-5 NRSV
Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near. (Rev 1:3)
Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. (Rev 3:22)
In September my congregation will begin a series on Revelation in our Sunday worship gatherings. I enjoy studying this letter, which I have been doing once again this summer in preparation for the series using Eugene Peterson’s Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John & the Praying Imagination. For some additional resources on studying Revelation please see this earlier blog post.
Peterson points out a spiritual practice that clearly stands out in Revelation’s messages to the seven churches (also vital for engaging the entire letter): listening. The instruction to each church includes a call to “listen to what the Spirit is saying.” Therefore Peterson provides the image of churches as “listening posts” (48).
How adept are we at listening? Do we regularly practice listening-to each other in our congregations, and also to voices in our local communities? Do we know how? I see a lot of “doing” in churches and each week I participate in more than my fair share of it. Might we at times neglect the use of our “ears” because our “hands” and “feet” are so busy? Whatever our experience is with this sense, the revelation of Jesus Christ gives a repeated call to listen to the Spirit. Which implies that the Spirit is speaking. Right now. Today. But to discover this instruction we will need regular practices that form us to have ears to hear.
Listening is an act of collaboration. It requires conversation. It’s an invitation to interruption. It’s a willingness to potentially experience discomfort or challenge. It’s a path to constructive engagement with those whom we disagree. It’s a chance to say, “I see your point” or “I hadn’t thought of that” or “Tell me more.” It means I’m not the only voice that matters. It’s an opportunity to patiently stick together. It (hopefully) leads to reflection and action. It’s slower than the fast-paced culture that often forms us. It’s an expression of peace. This is what life together can be in a “listening post.”
This John who we meet in the pages of Revelation demonstrates evidence of being a good listener-both to the Spirit and to the churches he obviously cared about and ministered to. As I try to comprehend what John meant by being “in the spirit” (1:10) I tend to imagine his expression as being some kind of spiritual and physical posture of listening.
Peterson sees churches as being,
the one place in the world where persons deliberately come together and uncover their ears so that the sounds of God’s word will be heard, accurately and believingly. (49)
That’s a lofty goal, and one that we will need to intentionally work at together to realize. Today I see much value in welcoming (uncovering our ears to) a wider and more diverse participation in the life of the church, trusting that through hearing one another we will be better able to discern the powerful voice of the Spirit as we listen together. As we follow Christ, may we develop as “listening posts,” communities willing to truly listen, to hear, and to trust the guiding voice of the Spirit.
Last Sunday was an important day in our congregation. It was the day we hold our annual congregational meeting, which is like the start of a new year for us. This context is one where we consider the “business” of the congregation (budget, team appointments, etc), but it’s also an important time to reflect on our life together. We take time to intentionally remember what God has done in us and in our local community.
Our worship gathering set the tone for this time of reflection, vision, and hope for the coming year. One of our scripture texts was 1 Samuel 7:12:
Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Jeshanah. He named it Ebenezer, explaining, “The Lord helped us to this very point.” (Common English Bible)
For this day it seemed appropriate to develop a new spiritual practice, a new tradition, something that could help us commit to God and to each other. But it wasn’t something new that fit this special day best. By investigating the scriptures, the practices of other congregations, and the landscape of our local community a direction emerged. The scriptures tell of ancient spiritual practices using stones. My friend Pastor Rose shared a meaningful Ebenezer stone practice that her congregation participates in annually. And our town of Spring Mount is literally full of boulders of all sizes and shapes (including some rock formations with interesting historical significance).
So “the work of the people” this day was to create an Ebenezer stone (“stone of help”). There was no sermon, but instead a series of communal practices that spoke a message. We considered the question, “How has the LORD helped us?”, and took turns sharing our responses which were written on the stone. We sang “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” And finally we shared in the Lord’s Supper.
The stone has been placed in the garden at the meetinghouse. During the course of the year, each time we approach the meetinghouse we will see this rock and have an opportunity to remember the ways God is helping us as we serve Christ. And next summer, after twelve months of weather have worn away the words, we will bring the rock back inside to reflect on new things God has done.
In our congregation’s 79th year we tried something new. Something which was actually pretty old. And in a meaningful way we were reminded that God is faithful, God is present, and that God is our help.
During his life, one of the (many) gifts my maternal grandfather gave his grandchildren was their own special name. It was a kind of like a nickname though it didn’t always resemble our proper name. I’m not sure exactly why or how he chose all the names, but I’m sure he had his reasons. And these names were the primary way he addressed us. I was named “Pal.” He called my brother “Schnitzel” (my grandfather was of German ancestry). Other siblings and cousins he gave names like “Pretty Girl,” “Tweeter,” and “Mike.” Never once did I enter his presence without hearing, “Hi Pal!” These names were very important to him (and to us), and helped form a wonderful bond in our family.
The sad fact is that naming is sometimes used in very negative and destructive ways in our world. So this is another reason I am so thankful for being formed by my grandfather through a very positive and life-giving practice of naming. Naming is a means of relationship, and if used as intended, can be a vital way to connect with God, with each other, and with God’s creation.
18 Then the Lord God said, “It’s not good that the human is alone. I will make him a helper that is perfect for him.” 19 So the Lord God formed from the fertile land all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky and brought them to the human to see what he would name them. The human gave each living being its name. (Gen 2:18-19 CEB)
In the first story in Genesis God is naming the elements of creation that God ordered from chaos. And in the second story humanity is invited to join the Creator in the act of naming. If naming is intended for such a cosmic purpose, then it is no wonder why naming can be so destructive and create so much hurt when it is abused.
Last Sunday in my congregation we reflected on the narrative in Genesis 2. Our Conference Minister Jenifer Eriksen Morales preached on this text and helped us explore the act of naming. Then in conversations around tables we engaged some questions she suggested to explore this story and the practice of naming:
What does your name mean?
Do you know how you got your name?
Does the meaning of your name describe who you really are?
What other names would people use to truthfully describe you?
What characteristics would Jesus use to describe how he wants his followers to be and act?
In what ways have people in the congregation helped to “name” or form you?
We ended our time, naturally, by giving each other a name. It came in the form of a blessing we personally shared with each other: “You are God’s beloved daughter/son.”
Jenifer Halteman Schrock wrote, “Naming is a celebration of diversity…”(1). We are part of a wonderfully diverse creation of God’s making. According to this Story we were created for relationship. Which means we have the opportunity, in how we name and address one another, to build relationship and form each other in life-giving ways.
Among other things, by giving his grandchildren a diverse collection of names, my grandfather helped us all to clearly understand that we were dearly beloved. And four years ago, when the time came to name our firstborn son, my wife and I called him William, after my grandfather.
May our “names” and our “naming” demonstrate the kind of relationship and shalom that God desires for all creation.