Dorm Room Discipleship

I wrote a similar post on this theme a few years back.

Living in a tiny room with another person is one the greatest joys and greatest headaches of college life. I’m convinced that it is also the greatest opportunity for becoming a better Christian. [Read more…]

To a New College Freshman: An Open Letter from the University Chaplain

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Dear Student,

This is one of the most exciting times of your life. You are moving out of mom and dad’s house. You’re done with answering to curfew. And you are meeting more new people and getting to know them better than you ever have.

But I know you are also really anxious. You’re afraid that you won’t get along with your roommate. You’re afraid you won’t be able to pay the bills. You’re scared that you won’t fit in. You don’t know what to do when your car breaks down, your bank account is empty, or even when your clothes need washed. Most of all, you’re afraid that you will disappoint people when you don’t live up to expectations.

[Read more…]

To the Parents of a College Freshman: An Open Letter From Their Chaplain

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Dear Parent,

I know that this can be a really difficult day/week/month. Sometimes it is made sad by your son/daughter’s excitement. It is always ridden with anxiety.

Today your relationship changes. You are still their parent. You always will be. You don’t have to worry about “losing” them. And don’t let the fear of losing them cause you to not let them grow up. They are ready to not have curfew, ask permission to stay up until 2 AM, or tell you whether they did their homework. They NEED to make decisions about majors, classes, and roommate choices on their own. If you give them enough freedom on these decisions then they may even take joy in asking your opinion. And they may even learn to do that for big decisions for their entire life.

[Read more…]

Dorm Room Monasticism

So a few things have changed in the last two months. Most notably, I accepted an offer to become chaplain for one year at the University of Indianapolis. Since this is only a one year position I am trying to learn as much as I can in a short period of time.

Here is what I have learned so far:

College life is about as close to the monastic life that most of us will ever be. One student that I met this week is having a problem sleeping because of a problem with her roommate. She went three days without sleeping. When I met this student, a young woman of no more than 19, she shared how she really liked her roommate. She said this woman was quite nice and knew about the problem. But she still had not been able to sleep. Amazingly, she had not one bad word to say about her roommate even after a very difficult first week at college.

Another student had to endure the pain of broken relationship in the opening days after arriving on campus for the year. Though she admitted that it had been a very difficult week, she couldn’t help but talk about how supportive her friends had been and how much they loved her.

And then there was a group of young women, mostly from small rural towns where they had little experience with people different than them, who were seriously distraught because an international student was eating alone as he had done every day that week. They said one day he was willing to join them, but on the whole he had been unresponsive to their offers. They didn’t let their feelings be hurt. They devised ways so that he would accept their offer in the future so that he wouldn’t be alone anymore.

Most of our lives we have little reason to step outside of our needs and the needs of our immediate family. We don’t have to encounter people in all of the ugliness of their life and call them friend. Living together in physical community, as these students are doing, causes you to engage people in whole new ways. I dare say that this young woman who responded with such maturity to the roommate who had caused her such frustration will be far better prepared for the challenges of a young marriage than most are. Covenanting to live together, whether for a lifetime with someone you love or for a year with a complete stranger in a single room, causes you to be willing to give up something of yourself. Selfishness cannot have its reign in that place.

This is really what monastic life was intended to do. The early church determined that the best way to become a disciple of Jesus Christ was in covenant community. For some that meant marriage. But the early monks became very suspicious of marriage. On the other hand, they knew that simply going out in the desert without human contact (which some did) lacked accountability. So they began to cloister together and submit themselves to the more mature members of the community. And working together to prepare meals, do work, and worship God meant that they had to encounter whatever pride and selfishness that was left in the other. I think that in some sense these undergraduates have cloistered together for a similar kind of life, at least the ones that take their Christian discipleship seriously have.

Anyone who has married knows that much of the early days and years of marriage are about discerning what is the best brand of toothpaste and who’s bank is really the better one to keep the checking account. These answers are never completely resolved. But one does learn how to give up their own desires for the sake of the one they have covenanted to live with. This is part of what true community is about.

It isn’t all negative of course, which is why we all do it so willingly. There is great joy in friendship, especially when we see that our friends are willing to be there for us in the most difficult of times. When a friend holds your hand as you grieve loss or goes out of their way to make sure that you aren’t alone on THAT night (you know which one I am talking about!), something changes about those difficult times. Somehow they become holy too. We usually don’t see them as holy in the moment. Looking back years later we begin to see that those were the days when we really became Christian disciples. We also can look back on those days and realize that we never knew closer companionship and never took so much joy in it.

Those are the kinds of things I have seen in just one week of watching college students learn to live together. Lifelong friendships have formed in just 10 days or so. They don’t know they are lifelong, of course, but they are.

I don”t want to overstate what I am saying here.

Many of the relationships on a college campus are superficial and destructive. Not every undergraduate is interested in living like St. Benedict.

But a few of them are. They are serious about becoming disciples of Jesus. And I have the pleasure of learning from them.

“May this be only the beginning, Lord.”

The Church is a Social Ethic

The following is a paper that responds to the statement: The Church is a Social Ethic. Much of how I understand the church is found here. Let me know what you think.

Again, the footnotes are deleted in the copy and paste. I am willing to give you where some of these arguments can be found if you are looking for further research.

Alasdair MacIntyre convincingly argues in his After Virtue that the Enlightenment’s ethical project has failed. Whether one bases their ethical program on the foundation of the existence and nature of God or a desire to alleviate pain, these ethical programs eventually end in emotivism. The most important failure of these systems is not, however, their failure of a priori reason to discern ethical practice. Certainly these ethical systems are relatively rational, for who can refute the categorical imperative on the grounds of its own logic. Kant was a wise enough man to anticipate questions and propose an ethical and logical solution to those who challenge him. According to MacIntyre, the real failure of the Enlightenment is that “Reason can supply, so these new theologies assert, no genuine comprehension of man’s true end.” The problem is not the logic or the conclusion of the ethical systems, for they all basically conclude on an ethics that looks very much like a Judeo-Christian ethic. The whole of their conclusions will surely not be doubted by those who hold to Christian virtue. However, what is lost is the telos of these ethical systems. When the direction of humanity is disconnected from the ethical systems that are created to obtain it, the ethical systems fail when brought against one another at points of contention.
The illustration of this point can be seen in American Protestantism. American conservative Evangelicalism, where I find my theological home, is based primarily on a deontological argument for the inerrancy of Scripture as a moral handbook. The common argument would consist of something like, “The Bible says, ‘Do not steal,’ therefore I must act ethically and not steal.” While the conclusion is actually quite like the ethical system that would guide humanity towards the Christian telos of peace within God’s created order, the sense of right and wrong has overtaken the purpose of the command, which is avoiding offense that will set man against man in warring conflict. On the other side of the American Protestant church is the mainline liberalism. This group proposes something like Mill’s utilitarianism when it argues that the consequences of acting unjustly is that people get hurt. Wendell Berry makes this point when he argues against war as a means to achieving peace. “Any victory won by violence necessarily justifies the violence that won it and leads to further violence.” While Berry may have reached a true conclusion, a logical argument can certainly be made to the contrary. In either case, this ethics presumes that some kind of moral preference exists that desires peace rather than war. This preference can only be effective within a community-wide definition of the state that includes peace-making as the telos.
The hope that the church brings to the discussion of ethics is not a new ethical system, for the Enlightenment had many of those from which we can choose. The church offers a telos that an ethical system can attempt to realize. Stephen Long argues that “Ethics is always subordinated to theology, for it requires us to discern what the church is to be and do as we constantly seek to live into our baptisms.” Whatever the church decides on some particular topic, whether it be radical pacifism or just war, celibacy or marriage, or communism or capitalism, each of these decisions will be based on the telos that is worked out in the faithful community of the church. The nature of 21st Century denominationalism does not allow that these decisions be truly catholic in nature, for each community’s polity will provide a different means for understanding the telos. But, this does not prevent individual communities from performing the interpretive task that is the call of the Church universal. For the Roman Catholic church, the interpretive task falls to the authority of the papacy. For the Evangelical churches, the interpretive task often falls to the little popes called pastors. For the Presbyterians or Anabaptists, the interpretive task falls to some form of a democratic process. In any of these cases, the only effective social ethic derived will be the one that is lived out by the faithful community, no matter where the interpretive task is focused. If the telos is never undertaken by the community, then the force of the community is lost.
Once we understand the importance of a community-wide telos, the interpretive task must be more clearly defined for the sake of the interpreters. First, the telos must be understood and agreed upon. Second, the means of achieving the telos must be discussed and argued with some end in sight. This second of the tasks, the means, is at least partly accomplished in the proclamation of the telos. This is to say, for a Christian to proclaim that life and justice are Christian virtues that must be our telos, the goal has already been set before the entire Christian community, hopefully with some influence on those outside of the community because of admiration of the Christian’s moral accomplishments. With the clear telos in mind, some might conclude that justice will require war, while others might conclude that life will require peace. Certainly the means to achieve justice are important and the goal of the interpretive task is to find a means that can be agreed upon by the community, but agreeing upon the telos does not necessitate that the community will agree upon the means. Even in the proclamation of the Christian values of justice and life something of the telos has been achieved.
With this in mind, we turn towards the telos of the church. As Stanley Hauerwas has said, “there can be no separation of christology from ecclesiology, that is, Jesus from the church.” The telos of the church is found first in Christ, specifically in the proclamation of the coming Kingdom of God. In the cross of Christ, the Church finds not only the hope for victory over death and the grave, but a model for all future cross-bearing activity. This is the first installment of the promises of the coming Kingdom. The Church is called to realize the eschatological vision of the Kingdom in its communion with one another and with God. The Church does this with the understanding that full realization is only in the parousia. By recognizing that fulfillment of the Kingdom is only found in eschatology, the ethics of the Church are freed from looking to effectiveness as a measure of faithfulness. Hauerwas argues,
Service is not an end in itself, but reflects the Kingdom into which Christians have been drawn. This means that Christians insist on service which may appear ineffective to the world. For the service that Christians are called upon to provide does not have as its aim to make the world better, but to demonstrate that Jesus has made possible a new world, a new social order.
Even as Hauerwas argues that changing the world is not the aim (telos) of Christian service, he does not deny that we can hope and pray that this change will occur. The telos of this kind of living is demonstrating the Kingdom of God to the world, not just making converts to this way of living, but we must certainly hope that the whole world will see that this is a better way of life. In summary, a christological ecclesiology demands that the church demonstrate the Kingdom of God that Christ inaugurates on earth, while recognizing that this Kingdom is only fully realized in the eschaton.
Now we must turn to the second aspect of the interpretive task, which is the means by which the Church will demonstrate the Kingdom of God. Within 21st Century denominationalism, I reluctantly conclude that no catholic understanding of demonstrating this ethic can be reached. In fact, I am belligerently confessing the previously stated christological ecclesiology in light of the fact that the denominational church has no means for even agreeing on this essential telos. The most that can be hoped for at this juncture is a communal agreement of both Christology and the means of demonstration. By this I propose a particular community, primarily the local congregation, must work out this Christology and means within their context. This follows from my understanding of the Incarnation. If Christ came to a First Century Jewish world as a First Century Jew, then we must do the same in inner-city Chicago or American suburbia or the rural south. This is not to say that the story of the historical Jesus is irrelevant to 21st Century American ethics. In fact, understanding Jesus in his First Century Jewish context becomes all the more important in this incarnational understanding. How Jesus responded to Roman imperialism must inform how an American Christian responds to American imperialism. What Jesus said about the institution of marriage and family has significant impact on how we understand marriage and family in America (which is, incidentally, relatively little other than to say that the family of God takes priority even over biological families). How Jesus responds to the economic oppression of First Century Jews by the Roman occupation should inspire us to take action in the ghettos of South-side Chicago. None of these statements are meant to say that we should try to do exactly what Jesus did in any of these situations. Jesus never took a wife or encouraged his disciples to marry, for example. But, it might be that 21st Century American Christians most faithful demonstration of the Kingdom of God is to embody the relationship between Christ and the Church in selfless marital relationships.
In what way does the Church or a congregation embody the Incarnation within its context? This is the interpretive task that I must admit will not be universal or catholic until the Church recognizes a mechanism to work these things out as a community. For the medieval church this mechanism was ecumenical councils. Maybe this is an option that the catholic Church can explore again. Until this mechanism is found or created, the community of the local congregation is the place this work will be done. And, I do suppose that a Christian can have some faith that the Holy Spirit will work as that catholic mechanism, though this has not been realized since the Protestant Reformation. These voices can also be in constant conversation with one another. This is to say that Congregation A might have something to add to the Christology and demonstrative means of Congregation B and vice versa. Only their conversation with one another can facilitate that exchange of ideas.
A proper proclamation of this ecclesiological ethic must recognize the weaknesses of the system. First, I would argue that the inability to agree upon central tenants of the telos and the means is debilitating to the influence of the ethics, as I have already argued above. But, as Hauerwas reminds us, the ethics of the proclamation and demonstration of the Kingdom is not dependant on effectiveness. Secondly, I also acknowledge that some will understand this as a sectarian ethic. Certainly this accusation has been leveled at Hauerwas, McClendon, and Long. Since I follow them closely, I anticipate the accusation will be thrust towards me. I answer with this: the communal nature of ethical practice and agreement does not necessitate separate living. I can interpret the telos and means of my ethical system in a relatively small community and yet live out this ethic in the public sphere. This is precisely what I am suggesting. The same transformative nature of the Jesus narrative that attracted me to Christ and Christian living can be found in the narrative of the Church that demonstrates the Kingdom. This transformative narrative can change society to be like itself, but even if it does not it has not lost its telos, therefore it has not lost its ethical identity.

Christian Marriage: An Image of the Church

The following is a disputation I wrote on Christian marriage. The form is like Aquinas’ Summa. If you are unfamiliar, only the “I answer” section and below are my arguments. The previous are common arguments that I am in discussion with.
The footnotes are lost in the copy and paste from my word processor. If you would like the full document, then just comment in this post with an e-mail address.

Whether it is better for a Christian not to marry
Argument 1 It would seem that it is better for a Christian not to marry. The ascetic practice of celibacy is considered not only an act of worship unto God, but also prevents the body from becoming dependant on lustful desire. Denying the body of pleasure seems to strengthen the spirit and bring one closer to God.
Argument 2 Again, the goodness of procreation that is found in the command to be fruitful and multiply is not necessary for the Christian. New Birth has replaced the biological birth as entrance into the people of God. New Birth is how you entered the Kingdom of God and how all who will believe shall enter the Kingdom, therefore procreation is no longer necessary.
Argument 3 Again, as the Apostle has said, “the time is short” and “the world in its present form is passing away.” It is better for a person not to marry because the aim of one who is unmarried is to be devoted in both body and spirit. The married Christian is devoted to pleasing his or her spouse. The devotion of a Christian should be undivided.
On the contrary, marriage is one of God’s holy institutions founded at the creation of the world. It is good for a person not to be alone. For this reason, marriage is like a sacrament of the Church. For in marriage the grace of God is shown in and through the marriage partner. Marriage has three goods: the restraint of sexual lust, faithfulness is nurtured and grown, and procreation and the blessing of children. It follows that it is better for a Christian to marry.
I answer: Christian marriage functions as a smaller and more intimate form of the Church in both mission and function. When God created man He said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” He created woman and brought them together so that neither man nor woman would be alone, and He said that the two should become one flesh. It is also written that “the man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” God had created them in perfect union with one another in such a way that no enmity was between them. When the created choose to sin, the consequence was that perfect fellowship was broken. For God spoke to woman, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” It is also written, “God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.” Therefore, God created humanity with a desire that they would be in close community with one another and those relationships would be a blessing to them.
God instituted the church to be the reconciling agent in humanity. For the Lord Jesus Christ said, “by this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” The relationships that Christians have with one another would be a great testimony of God’s love for the world. When Jesus taught His disciples to pray, “let (the) Kingdom (of God) come on earth, as it is in Heaven” and He said “the Kingdom of God is at hand,” He proclaims that the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated and that is still to come. The Kingdom of God is here, and the Kingdom of God is yet coming. The perfect restored Kingdom of God on earth would have creation in perfect harmony with itself, as in the Garden of Eden story. This New Heaven and New Earth is the blessed hope of all who call Jesus “Lord.” He is coming to make all things new. If the Kingdom of God is yet coming, in what way is the Kingdom of God already at hand? This is the role of the Church in the earth. The Church is to be loving one another and trying to achieve that perfect fellowship of God’s created order. As God’s chosen communion, the Church is to be a reconciling agent of God and a witness to God’s love.
In the same way, marriage is to function as a witness to God’s perfect love for the church. For the Apostle said, “For this reason a man should leave his father and mother and be united to his wife–the two will become one flesh. This is a profound mystery–but I am talking about Christ and the Church.” God’s plan for marriage is to be like a small cell of the church that gives testimony of God’s love. Where the Church gives testimony to the whole world, it is surely flawed and will surely give testimony to the sinfulness of humanity as well. The marriage has a smaller witness, for it is limited to those who know the man and the wife, but the small is able to be greater, for the intimacy of the marriage is greater than that of the Church. The husband and wife are able to trust one another more fully and give themselves to one another more wholly, for “there is one flesh, there is also one spirit. Together they pray, together they prostrate themselves, together they fast, teaching each other, exhorting each other, supporting each other.” Even our local congregations recognize a need for greater intimacy to give a more full testimony of God’s love, for we continue to make smaller and smaller groups in which the church is represented, so that the levels of intimacy are greater. Where the modern church institutes small group ministries, God has already instituted the smallest group ministry of all, marriage.
On the first point: Ascetic denial of the body is acceptable for a time for the Apostle, to devote one’s self to fasting and prayer, but, unlike the Gnostic, the Christian professes the inherent goodness of both sex and the body. God created the body and he gave marriage for the two to enjoy perfect fellowship with one another. Only in this relationship can the two be truly “naked and not ashamed.” The sexual relationship of husband and wife brings glory to God as the two exist in perfect fellowship with one another.
On the second point: While it is true that the Kingdom of God no longer advances by the biological growth of the Church, growth is the inherent effect of a healthy, thriving Church. The telos of the Church is not growth, but rather loving one another and restoring that community that was lost at the fall of humanity. However, a healthy Church that is moving towards its end of loving each other will grow as an inherent effect of that healthy community. In the same way, procreation is the inherent effect of the healthy, thriving marriage. In modern times, certain people are unable to have children because of physical abnormality. This does not negate the good of the marriage, for its telos is love and witness. This inability to procreate is a consequence of the deterioration of creation that was caused by the fall of humanity. For some congregations, growth has become their telos, causing those congregations to lose their true telos. For some marriages, procreation has been said to not be a inherent effect of their relationship, denying the need for or blessing of children. Neither of the these positions participate in God’s full intention for the institutions of sacramental community.
On the third point: Celibacy is a viable option for the Christian, precisely because the telos of neither the Church nor marriage is procreation. As the Apostle has said, celibacy is a gift of God that allows the gifted the opportunity to give his or her whole self to the larger community. When the celibate gives themselves wholly to the community, the celibate fulfills the call to fellowship of marriage and the Church. The Apostle does not argue for celibacy so that the celibate can be alone for reasons of selfishness. Celibacy provides the celibate the opportunity to better serve the church, because the need is urgent. But, the Apostle recognizes this as a gift of some, not all. For he says, “I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God.” In their service to the whole community, the celibate is also able to give witness to the world of God’s great love for creation. “Both marriage and monasticism are for sanctification; both involve a commitment to living with others in which one cannot escape being transformed.”

Related Post: Double Standards, Women, And The Church

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