Absorbed

Hello to those of you who still surf by Wonderstuff from time to time.

I wanted to remind you that I’ve got a new blog and a new site, and it has basically absorbed the kind of thinking and writing you find on Wonderstuff. I hope you’ll add www.bobowenblog.com to your reading list, and check out the new site. As always, I welcome comments and enjoy the conversations that spring from them.

See you over there!

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The Hall of Fellowship: Disagreement and Humility in Church (Part One)

Every church I have ever attended has had a “fellowship hall.” Even the Anglican church in Basel, Switzerland that my wife and I belonged to for three years had one (though they didn’t always call it by that name). If you’ve ever attended or belonged to a church in America that has its own building, chances are you’re familiar with the concept of a fellowship hall.

Fellowship_Hall

A fellowship hall is a room designated by a church for a variety of activities, the majority of which are meant as a celebration of community life. The descriptor is “fellowship,” a concept which harks back to the Greek word, koinonia, found over forty times in the New Testament. It means to be in communion with one another. And in our fellowship halls, we do just that, don’t we?

We put on prayer breakfasts and potluck lunches and appreciation dinners.

We use them for graduation recognitions and Bible studies and AA meetings and ministry events and leader workshops.

We rent them out for both wedding receptions and funeral receptions.

We hold special worship services in them. And youth rallies. And Vacation Bible School activities.

We organize community outreach events in them. And in the halls that double as gymnasiums, you’ll find church-league basketball games, all-night lock-ins and aerobic classes.

Fellowship. The communion of saints. Given the wide range of activities that take place in a fellowship hall, is there any reason to question its essentiality within congregational life?

After all, to be in fellowship with one another is a foundational precept of the Christian church. Our earliest creeds include the belief that believers exist in communion with one another. The early Church operated off of the model established in Jerusalem following Pentecost (Acts 2:43-47, 4:32-35). The Apostle John reminds the churches to which he ministered that those who “walk in the light” with God naturally “have fellowship with one another” (1 John 1:7). Like the old hand-folding rhyme reminds us, the church is indeed the people.

Some are tall, some are short, some are in dire need of a manicure.

Some are tall, some are short, some are in dire need of a manicure.

And yet, almost from the start, differences of opinion entered the church. Despite the the first believers being described in Acts as “of one heart and mind,” the people began to take sides on a variety of issues.

In Jerusalem, it had to do with nationality and cultural identity, the Hebraic Jews versus the Hellenist Jews.

Later, in Thessalonica, it was between those who continued working and those who retired early in expectation of the Second Coming, the breadwinners verses the idlers.

In Philippi, it was two influential women holding a grudge against one another, Euodia versus Syntyche.

In Galatia, it was theological disagreement between Jewish law and Paul’s teachings, the circumcised versus the uncircumcised.

And in Corinth it had to do with which visiting preacher you preferred … and which side you stood on in various lawsuits … and whether or not you believed it was okay to eat food sacrificed to idols. Yeah, Corinth had a lot of problems.

Okay, where to begin? "Dear Corinthians ... are you TRYING to annoy me?!"

Okay, where to begin? “Dear Corinthians … are you TRYING to annoy me?!”

Now, in some cases, the church leaders were able to settle the disputes and work out the problems that arose from these disagreements. However, in other cases, there is no evidence the disagreements were ever fully settled. But while a few became significant theological issues for Christians throughout the region, most others simply remained within particular communities. In other words, the presence of disagreement between believers was never fully eradicated.

This is why, for instance, Paul does not spend time in his letter to the Philippians hashing out the details of the disagreement between Euodia and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2). Instead, he simply writes, “I urge [them] to be of the same mind in the Lord.”

On the one hand, that seems an almost impossible statement. We might think that for these two women to achieve such like-mindedness, one side would ultimately have to be proven right and the other side wrong. That, or both parties would have to simply forget about the matter on which they disagreed.

"I am sending to you my beloved Jerry, a co-laboror with me in the Lord's service. Receive him as you would receive me."

“I am sending to you my beloved Jerry, a co-laboror with me in the Lord’s service. Receive him as you would receive me.”

On the other hand, though, I don’t believe this is how Paul viewed the issue. I think he had come to accept certain disputes as inevitable. It is part of the nature of all communities. When you get different kinds of people together, disagreement happens. It happens between siblings, between spouses, between parents and children, between relatives, between neighbors, between townspeople, between citizens… the list goes on.

Disagreement is not an impairment of community; it is a symptom of it.

Now, over the centuries, we know that there have been monumental issues in the Church that have moved beyond mere disagreement and civil dispute. We know of many churches, as well as and many denominations (i.e. churches functioning in community with other churches), that have cracked apart and divided. Sometimes bitterly, but many times essentially. In fact, my very faith tradition is named for the Middle Age protestors who disputed the way the Church had been doing things in that time. History seems to show that every once in and while, division is necessary. It’s sad but true. However, I believe such monumental disagreements are far less prevalent, and such necessary divisions far less necessary, than we think they are today.

I’m not denying that disagreements can’t get out of control in this day and age. Nor am I advocating a fuggedaboudit ideology in which Christians avoid all manner of conflict in order to prevent division. Like I said, disagreement is a symptom of community, and we shouldn’t fear its presence among us. We will disagree from time to time. We’ll sometimes see things differently, even when it comes to seemingly important issues like interpretation, theology, moral conduct, politics, culture…

For instance...

For instance…

But here’s the thing. I’m only thirty-three years old and I have already witnessed first-hand two church splits. Both divisions were incredibly tragic and surprisingly nasty. I’ve also served in several churches that have experienced crippling scandals that saw many members turn their backs and walk away. I don’t want to negate any of the difficulties the people of these churches dealt with, but in each case it seems to me that what pushed the dispute into full-fledged division was a lack of humility.

What do I mean by “a lack of humility?” I’m talking about a shortage of individuals who have learned how to admit they don’t know everything about the issue at hand. Who are comfortable with the possibility that their opinions might not be fact, no matter how clear it seems to them when they open up their Bibles in search of proof.

When I was serving in my first youth ministry position, I remember arriving at the church on a particular night only to be waylaid by an elderly deacon who adamantly insisted I take a ride with him so we could talk. We ended up parked at a Sonic and after adamantly insisting I order a drink, he spent the next hour and a half telling me all the reasons why the young pastor who had hired me, and whom I dearly loved, was actually a selfish, envious power-hungry false teacher. The most frightening thing I remember about that night was not his fiery vehemence for our pastor. It was when I realized he was living beyond the range of argument. Not only could I not change his mind, but any difference of opinion was met with more frustration and adamant insistence in his rightness.

Welcome to Sonic Drive-In. Would you like fries or tater tots with your terrifyingly righteous indignation?

Welcome to Sonic Drive-In. Would you like fries or tater tots with your terrifyingly righteous indignation?

These experiences have made me sensitive to the paucity of humility in our churches today. Sometimes it takes the form of disagreement without a desire to compromise. Other times, it is revealed by a general indifference to actively participate with those people, (but that’s more for part two of this post). Ironic, considering how many activities still take place in our “fellowship halls.” Fellowship – from the Greek koinonia – means to coexist, and to do so in a tone of celebration. But genuine fellowship will not happen without a healthy level of humility.

This is what I believe Paul was advocating to the Philippian church. Urging Euodia and Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord was Paul’s way of saying, “Hey, I know you have your differences, and I know you think the other one is wrong on some significant issue. However, that disagreement in no way prevents your mutual belief in the salvation of Jesus. So find a way to coexist in that hope, not because we all need to get along but because getting along is part of experiencing the koinonia we are meant to have with God himself. So, remind yourself that while you know some things, you don’t know everything, and stop allowing a difference of opinion to rob you of fellowship with each other and with your Creator.”

Paul wasn't as long-winded as I am.

Paul wasn’t as long-winded as I am.

The Church is filled with disagreements, but it is about so much more than those disagreements. We are not meant to be defined by what we disagree on. We are meant to be defined solely by the God who has called us and saved us. We’re meant to be defined by Jesus’ love for us.

Perhaps the churches that have fellowship halls should begin using them in ways that point its members back to this reality. In addition to the dinners and rallies and lock-ins and league games, maybe we can begin using those spaces as venues for patient dialogue and safe places for disagreement. Maybe these multi-purpose rooms can someday reclaim the true meaning of their names.

When They Just Don’t Get It

Yesterday, I received an unwelcome glimpse into the future of my vocation.

Recently, I’ve had the privilege to deliver the sermons in the morning and evening worship services while our interim pastor has been out-of-town. I don’t take these invitations lightly.

I love preaching. I love the preparation – the choosing of a text, the meticulous research. I love to jot down notes and good lines and phrases turned in captivating ways. I enjoy writing the manuscript. And, despite the unavoidable pain that comes from revising and cutting it down to size, I relish the way slashing paragraphs and removing unnecessary repetition seems to grant freedom to the whole enterprise. I even enjoy practicing the manuscript out loud, contending with it until I’m able to leave it behind without losing point or pace.

Cheater.

Cheater.

Preaching is as much of an art form, a specialist’s craft, as poetry, painting, playing an instrument or writing a short story. And even though I know I still have a long way to go before I can consider myself an accomplished craftsman, each opportunity afforded me is practice I need and practice I crave.

But yesterday, following the worship service, I came face-to-face with one of the drawbacks to the art form and to the choice to make preaching part of my career.

It wasn’t criticism. By now, I’ve preached enough sermons and taught enough Bible studies to receive a fair share of negative responses. A few have been called for, a few have not, and still there have been a handful of comments that were, without a doubt, the most selfish, insensitive and tactless attacks I’ve ever heard leveled against a human being. (That last group usually comes by way of e-mail, one of the many ways the Internet allows us to wage bloody trench wars against people we disagree with.) Criticism can be discouraging, and a few times it has sapped my sense of accomplishment, but, ultimately, negative criticism only makes the preacher work harder and pay more attention to the words and illustrations he chooses.

"Okay, so how can I keep this point from sounding like the vapid, ignorant utterings of a pea-brained liberal jackass with the common sense of a monkey throwing feces?"

“Okay, so how can I keep this point from sounding like the vapid, ignorant utterings of a pea-brained liberal jackass with the common sense of a monkey throwing feces?”

No, what left me so disconcerted with the preaching life was found in some of the conversations I had with people at the close of the service, no more than ten minutes after I’d finished delivering my sermon. Almost exclusively, they offered me positive comments and praise. However, the reasons they gave for why they enjoyed my sermon came directly from a viewpoint that I had spent the last half hour arguing against!

Yesterday’s sermon focused on the fact that the gospel of Jesus Christ erases all manner of distinction between a person and others. Drawing upon Galatians 3:28 (“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”), my main premise was that while a lot of professing Christians continue to abide by the myriad of cultural, political, racial and economic classifications present in our modern world, the truth of the gospel is that salvation abolishes that way of life. And if we want to live as authentic Christians – rather than by a mere societal definition of the word “Christian” – we must submit to this radical new way of thinking and speaking and doing. There’s no argument here. The gospel of Jesus robs us of the permission to figure our identity by worldly standards.

Somehow, despite so carefully preparing my sermon and practicing the delivery, some people just seemed to hear the exact opposite message than I had intended. They spoke to me from particular cultural, political, and/or social perspectives, brazenly unaware that bad-mouthing or lamenting people who were different from them was the very thing I had spoken out against.

It was the presumptuousness that bothered me most. Some of these people simply assumed that I shared every one of their views, when, in reality, all I was thinking was, “Well, that’s not what I meant at all,” and “Were you even listening to the part where I said _________?”

Ah! He's saying something that sounds impactful. Quick, plug your ears!

Ah! He’s saying something that sounds impactful. Quick, plug your ears!

Look, I’m not a fool. I understand that I can’t expect one sermon to completely change every heart and mind, no matter how much preparation goes into it. And I realize that God is patient, and that he calls his children to be patient as well, and that changing minds takes time. In fact, that was one of the main points of my sermon – that sanctification is a struggle because we are constantly being pulled backwards into the old way of life, into cold legalism and the convenience of social distinctions.

However, there is something deeply disconcerting when the words you speak are not only heard incorrectly, but the people who most need to hear a message of deliverance interpret what you say as encouragement to keep on living the way they’ve been living. It made me wonder if this is always going to be an unwelcome aspect of the preaching life. Will anything ever break through to such people? Will the Spirit ever be able to convict them?

And how am I to respond? Granted, I was a substitute – a guest speaker. Communicating truth comes as one-shot opportunities for me right now. I’m not so sure it’s my place to stop the well-meaning commenters in the middle of what they’re telling me and say, “Wow, you just didn’t get it at all, did you?”

"C'mon, be honest. You were just doodling in your bulletin the whole time, weren't you?"

“C’mon, be honest. You were just doodling in your bulletin the whole time, weren’t you?”

As I ponder the next step and whether or not I’m really up for this kind of life, I realize there is not much difference between receiving negative criticism and receiving misguided praise. It still just makes me want to work harder – to meticulously pour over that next message (whenever the opportunity to preach comes my way again) and consider even more deliberately the audience to whom I speak.

And I realize something else, too. It occurs to me that it’s one thing to stand up on a stage or behind a pulpit and preach a good sermon. It’s a whole other thing to live as that very model of grace and Christ-filled patience in the midst of post-sermon conversations.

God have mercy! There’s no greater art form than that.

Resurrection-minded

Our culture teaches us that everything out there is hostile. We have to compare, dominate, control, and insure. In brief, we have to be in charge. That need to be in charge moves us deeper and deeper into a world of anxiety. As with our attachment to the system of producing and consuming, this anxiety gets worse as we get older. – Richard Rohr (Everything Belongs)

I stopped posting to this blog back at the beginning of 2012. The reason for this hiatus was that I was deep into a long job search and my wife and I feared that certain church search committees would find my freely expressed views too controversial and toss my resume into the recycle bin. I still believe it was a good kind of caution. When you get right down to it, who would you want heading up ministries in your church (if indeed you belong to a church)? A wide-eyed contemplative with a seemingly never-ending list of questions about the very faith he professes, or a minister whose cyber footprint is more professional and whose articles adhere to a straightforward, amenable style? Let’s be honest – nine times out of ten, you’re opening door number two, and that one remaining time, you’re hoping nobody’s home behind door number one.

"Yeah, I found this guy's blog - what a nutjob! Next."

Now that I’m over a month into my new job and free to blog carte blanche again, I’m reflecting on this decision. And then, this morning, my wife gave me the standard once-over before I headed out the door and, as is sometimes necessary, commented on the outfit I had chosen to wear. It wasn’t her favorite. At the core of her displeasure was the polo shirt I was wearing, which was a recent Goodwill acquisition and one she had intended for more casual occasions. As I drove to the church, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the plan to hold off blogging during the job search stemmed from the same general issue as my lamentable cluelessness with clothing.

Comparison. Whether we mean to or not, we have all been swept up in a worldwide system of comparison. The quotation above adds more words to this system, such as domination and control. It might seem a bit drastic for me to state such a thing, but the more thought I give to the idea, the more I recognize that this is indeed the firmly fixed reality in which we operate. Especially Americans. So much of what we know about ourselves – what we would call our “identity” – comes from what/who we compare ourselves to. Physical appearance is a given, but this grand form of comparison goes much deeper than the merely cosmetic. Often even our religious convictions are born out of a desire to be right, to be in control, or at least to feel in control. Our identity rises and falls based on our sense of judgment.

This changes everything.

No wonder it is so hard to truly, authentically, unconditionally love other people. In such a cruel, status-obsessed system, I can hardly believe the notion of love still exists at all. It’s a dreadful realization, and figuring a way to escape it seems pointless. It seems to me that we will never find a way out of such a system on our own. There’s no hope for escape, really. Only rescue.

“They found the stone had been rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body” (Luke 24:2).

The world, with its system of shrewd judgment, power-grabbing, comparing, grasping, dominating and securing will always call belief in the Resurrection foolish. It’s pathetic wishful thinking. A half-baked myth. An opiate for the masses. A waste of a mind. A pipe dream. Then again, if the Resurrection is true (and I believe whole-heartedly that it is, crazy as it sounds), it makes sense that such a system would spurn it. Because the Resurrection means that all the comparing and controlling and dominating has been squelched by a God who is about the business of redemption and reconciliation and mercy. And love. Real love. Before such radical grace, even the starkest comparison or ruthless reach for control crumbles to dust.

“Thy will be done on earth at it is in heaven.” Dare we choose such a radically new way of life?

Top Five Posts of 2011

In lieu of taking the time to actually write a new post (something I’ve determined to refrain from in the interest of staying focused on my current job search), I thought I would at least offer a slight update in the form of a retrospective on the gone-but-never-to-be-forgotten 2011. So, here are the five most viewed posts from last year.

#5 – Four Things You Don’t Want to Hear When Looking for a Ministry Job

Click HERE to read this entry. I wrote this piece back in April, prior to the horrible month of May that found me laid up in a German hospital for two and a half weeks only to come home and be rejected from two different church positions that same day. I’m thankful it was written before that day, though, because otherwise this piece would have reeked of cynicism. Instead, I really tried to shed some light on what it feels like for a minister without a church to face rejection, and the unintentional faux pas a pastor or search committee should avoid when turning away a candidate. I’m particularly fond of my cheeky picture captions – I guess I was reading a lot of Cracked.com back then.

#4 – God Willing, You’ll Read This Post

Click HERE to read this entry. This one was another piece born out of frustration (a common method of conception for writers). October was another rough month for the job search – a lot of confusion and assumptions that did not pan out and left me feeling ridiculous and wondering if I was cursed. A lot of those days seemed like a wrestling match with God, asking for His provision to secure me a job, but then feeling like it wasn’t right to just sit back and let God solve all my problems for me, especially considering He blesses us with minds of our own and problem-solving abilities. This piece was one of those lofty attempts to examine that wonderful, but often nebulous, thing we refer to as God’s will.

#3 – Thoughts from My Hospital Bed

Click HERE to read this entry. I’m really not sure why this one found so many readers, unless a lot of those were my students and colleagues in Germany who were simply wondering whether or not I had died. Long story short, I broke my foot in November 2010, underwent two long, non-surgical treatments that did not heal it, and then an awkward surgery that repaired the bone but resulted in a severe infection that, as I mentioned above, further resulted in a second, emergency surgery and landed me in the hospital for two and a half weeks with a wound vacuum affixed to the gaping hole leftover in my foot. I was never able to return to my teaching job and missed out on the chance to bid most of my students farewell before they graduated or left for the summer. It took until the beginning of September for my foot to completely heal. I wrote this piece on one of those May afternoons lying in my hospital bed.

#2 – Should Christians Celebrate Bin Laden’s Death?

Click HERE to read this entry. This short piece was written in reaction to how so many Americans seemed to lose their minds in the throes of elated vindication at the news that Navy SEALS had stormed Osama Bin Laden’s compound and killed him. While there was obviously a profound sense of relief that such a wicked individual would no longer be able to inflict his wickedness on the world, I found the number of Christians who seemed to be reveling in the terrorist leader’s death appalling. “Love your enemies,” Jesus said, “and pray for those who persecute you.” At no point in his famous Sermon on the Mount did the Savior add, “But when a commando makes him eat lead, you have my permission to dance in the streets.” This was a somewhat controversial piece, but I stand by my position on how Christians are supposed to respond to the death of our enemies.

And the most-viewed post of 2011 was…

#1 – What’s the Deal with Atheism?

Click HERE to read this entry. Was there any doubt this would be the winner? This post incited multiple comment-section conversations, both on this blog, several commenters’ blogs, and even my Facebook page. It was to be expected, of course – more than any issue, it seems the theism/anti-theism debate compels us to offer our opinions. A few people found this piece incendiary (against atheists), but that was never my intention at all. I am always eager to talk with people who claim to be atheists – I want to hear their stories; I want to know why the very thing that has transformed my entire life has been spurned by them. More than anything, I want them to no that just because they don’t believe what I believe doesn’t mean I don’t respect them or their viewpoint. I am devoted to the Great Conversation, and this post was simply an attempt to examine a few of the motivations for non-belief from a Christian’s perspective. It certainly wasn’t meant to be an end-all treatise on my views of atheism or how Christians and atheists can still – and should still – interact.

______________

Thanks, beloved readers, for making 2011 such an enjoyable blogging year. I hope to return to regular posting again soon … just as soon as I find gainful employment.

Peace in the new year.