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…]
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.
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.
This sermon was for the opening worship of our retreat for incoming freshman at the University of Indianapolis.
I rarely enjoy a wedding as much as I did the wedding of Phil and Kelly Hassman. Part of it was my relationship with each of them. Kelly was one of my first students when I started teaching at the University of Indianapolis. She isn’t like every other college student. She speaks with depth and conviction about her commitment to Jesus. And she makes these terribly grounded decisions well beyond the maturity of woman in her early 20’s. She is the kind of young adult that makes you ready for where the church is heading.
She married this brilliant young man that I have had the joy of sharing life with for these last four years. Phil is one of the rare students that understood a call on his life to minister to me even as I ministered to him. His smile blesses me and his difficult questions challenge me. To think of these two amazing young people in mission and witness together is a hopeful thing.
But the pure joy that I get from my friendship with these two wasn’t the only reason that this weekend was so special for me. Both Kelly and Phil were commissioned by the Lantz Center for Christian Vocation that I serve as director. The climax of this formation process is a commissioning service just before they graduate in which I and my chaplain colleague, Lang Brownlee, wash the feet of the commissioned students following the example of Christ and calling them to follow Christ’s example as well.
I have washed both Kelly and Phil’s feet. I don’t know if they have ever washed one another’s feet. But I know that both of them have washed other’s feet both literally and spiritually many times. All of the high school students from Herron High School’s YoungLife, where Phil and Kelly serve, was a great testament to their commitment to service.
The pastor that married them, Jeff Krajewski, brought the image of foot-washing right to fore of their wedding. He challenged Phil and Kelly that one of the greatest ministries that they can have will be the proclamation of Jesus’ Good News as they wash one another’s feet. It will be the ground of their marriage. And their service to one another will tell us all something about Jesus’ love for the Church.
I haven’t had a chance to talk with Phil and Kelly about what was going through their mind as he talked about washing feet. I suspect that they were thinking a great deal more about the person that they were about to marry and wondering what they looked like as they stood in front of those several hundred people gathered. But I’d like to think that as Jeff challenged these two with the Gospel that is both embracing them and calling them to a deeper life, they were remembering the times when they have stooped at another person’s feet, washed their feet, and carefully wrapped a towel with care and compassion.
The call that Jeff gave to Phil and Kelly was also a call for me and lots of other pastors that the mundane things that we do to form persons….eating bread, drinking juice, serving soup, saying the Lord’s Prayer, memorizing Scripture, confessing sins, and washing feet…may come back into their lives as the most opportune time. Don’t forsake the disciplines of the faith, because washing feet may be the best way to learn how to model Christ love for the Church.
So this post is a response to a friend’s request to look at some Bible verses on a related post. I call her a friend, but I have really only met this woman once and exchanged some words on a mutual friend’s thought-provoking blog.
I call her friend because in spite of our minimal relationship I can easily see that she is an absolutely delightful person, the kind that wears her heart on her sleeve and that heart is made of pure gold. The thing about wearing such a precious thing out in the open is, some people just want to steal it. This is the dilemma of the human condition. A golden heart is even more beautiful when it is held close by another. Have you ever noticed that gold is even more brilliant when it is around your finger or around your neck or wrist? It is as if gold is just meant to be held close to the skin. Such a precious heart should be as well.
But we all have this deep abiding corruption of sin, says the Christian tradition. We were created good and in the core of our being we still are. But sin has invaded every part, like yeast in dough, as the Scripture says. So if we are to witness to redemption by living with honesty and openness, how does my friend know that her golden heart won’t be stolen or just simply vandalized like so many other precious things are? Sinful people do sinful things.
Really, that is what this post is about. Can my friend wear her heart on her sleeve safely? Maybe she is only so open and honest with me because she knows that she can trust the chaplain. I don’t think so, I think this is just the way she is. What will be the consequences of this openness?
In our previous blogging conversation, we agreed that Christians should make it a goal of having open and honest conversations without any hidden agenda. The question is: With whom should we have those kind of relationships? Can we simply live that way with everyone as a witness to our faith and a desire to life virtuously and be willing to take the injury that might come from that? Is that even a goal? Or, do we find a close group of friends that can be trusted and live that openness with them? Like most things, I think the answer is somewhere in between. We live with as much openness as the maturity of a person or relationship can handle. But that is still a judgment call and we need some guidance.
My friend said we need to look to the Bible for our guidance. I probably should have thought of that.
How about Matthew 7:6? “Do not give to dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.”
I guess Jesus thought some people’s sin was pretty bad. “Dogs?” “Pigs?” Wow.
Honestly, the passage isn’t easy to interpret. It is right in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount and the passage right before it is about pulling the plank out of your own eye. Not sure what that’s about. So I have to say that just reading it for what it is, we would probably have to say that Jesus is instructing that the most precious things must be protected from those who would take no regard for them. Dogs and pigs can’t appreciate the value. Ever had a puppy, you shut the bedroom doors to avoid shoes getting chewed and you set anything really valuable just high enough to not be reached. That should give us some advice about what to do with our hearts with people who have no regard.
What about Jesus? What did he do? Well I think he was willing to say the hard thing when he needed to, regardless of what it would cost him. That is obvious from his frequent exchanges with the religious leaders.
But Jesus also had a keen ability to hide his answers among little parables and riddles. He didn’t just say things exactly as they are. “Hey temple administration, your sacrificial practices are keeping poor people from being able to eat AND worship; they have to choose one or the other.” But then again, he did turn tables in the temple and called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers” when he didn’t like their evangelism practices.
I tend to think that Jesus’s tendency to hide the truth in parables had more to do with the conversation and teaching practices of his period than a prescription of a way of being. I had a great philosophy prof in undergrad that ALWAYS defended every philosopher that we studied as if he agreed with them. He is a Platonist and I dare say that he thinks Enlightenment rationality is bankrupt, but he defended them nonetheless. It was a teaching tool. Jesus did the same thing. That doesn’t make him dishonest. It made him a good Rabbi.
Paul was a little more straightforward with people. Read the Corinthians correspondence and his harsh rebuke in places which is often preceded by a sincere expression of his deepest love. His introduction to most of his letters expresses deep love and respect for his spiritual “children”. But, then he also tells them what he thinks when he needs to. And when he is in prison, he doesn’t hide his emotions or his pains. Paul wasn’t a Rabbi and he wasn’t speaking primarily with Jewish people. He talked like a Greek to Greeks, which is exactly what he said he would do.
Generation X/Y/millenial/busters, or whatever I and my colleagues are called, tend to be sick of slick advertising and slicker productions on television and at church. We like reality TV because the drama there at least pretends to be real dilemmas of real people trying to achieve a real goal (remember that most of them are games and a game is real!). We also are not interested in our leadership giving us half facts to get us to do what they want or media contriving a false dilemma to make us mad at something that doesn’t matter. This is what made me so angry at Karl Rove’s work in the 2004 presidential campaign. That election should not have been about gay marriage, but he made it about gay marriage to rock the vote. Gay marriage matters, but a lot of other things should have mattered more in that election. That lacks honesty, but it wins elections.
We crave real relationships (and leaders) that don’t hold back info so that we don’t have to interact with each other.
Ever had this conversation:
“How are you doing?”
“I’m fine” — when really you have had a horrible day and your most precious relationships are on the rocks and you aren’t sure how you are going to make your next month’s bills.
We want honesty. I think Jesus would have sat down and told us how he hurt for us. I think he would have told us directly what he thought we should do next. He would have journeyed with us in exploring how others would react to our choices.
At least I imagine that is how Jesus would have taught us and discipled us and been in relationship with us. But of course I may be wrong. But my thinking Jesus would be in relationship that way today is why I conduct all my relationships that way. I try to say exactly what I am thinking and try never to manipulate people with half truths or deflections. Some people tell me that this just means that I lack tact. Maybe I’m not kind enough in soft-pedaling hard opinions. I have heard that in recent years. But, for me that can only go so far because I value this kind of openness so much. One of the ways that this has worked itself out is my refusal to go by titles like Reverend/Pastor/Professor/Chaplain. I am Jeremiah, a person struggling to serve Christ who has had some experiences on this journey…many of them on what not to do.
I should put a good quote up that would give guidance away from how I want myself and others to live. It should challenge my proposal here. And as part of my honesty/full disclosure policy, here it is. This is from Henry Nouwen:
“There is a false form of honesty that suggests that nothing should remain hidden and that everything should be said, expressed and communicated. This honesty can be very harmful, and if it does not harm, it at least makes the relationship flat, superficial, empty and often very boring. when we try to shake off our loneliness by creating a milieu without limiting boundaries, we may become entangled in a stagnating closeness. It is our vocation to prevent the harmful exposure of our inner sanctuary, not only for our own protection but also as a service to our fellow human beings with whom we want to enter in a creative communion. Just as words lose their power when they are not born out of silence, so openness loses its meaning when there is no ability to be clsoed. our world is full of empty chatter, easy confessions, hollow talk, senseless compliments, poor praise, and boring confidentialities” (Reaching Out, 32).
Nouwen thinks that we need to protect ourselves from being too open because we need some things private to be able to engage in honest community. Uhhh…maybe he is right. I just don’t think so. Notice that his concern is too much idle talk and poor praise.
I agree with him on this, and I get the sense that my earlier colleagues in this discussion would as well, which is precisely why the three of us want to have open and honest dialogue and heartfelt discussion. I intentionally don’t give free compliments. I don’t try to flatter people. In fact, I am tired of people telling me nice sermon without telling me how they were changed. I am tired of every other senseless compliments without substance as well.
And you know what I have noticed? People that have known me very long know that I don’t try to flatter people and I don’t give away compliments that I don’t mean. They learn that my compliments come from the heart. And then these words have power because they are honest words. My new friends at UIndy have not known my long enough to know that I don’t pull punches. But my longtime friends know that I can be trusted, if nothing else. I know that my honesty has hurt people in the past. Some of those pains have stuck with them for a long time. But, unlike Nouwen, I think the answer is not to close one’s self off from the other. I also don’t think the answer is to return to empty compliments. For me, the answer is complete and open honesty. That doesn’t mean you say everything that you think, but it does mean that you mean what you do say.
That makes you vulnearble. Returning to my friend. I happen to believe that if someone takes her beautiful heart and steals it away or vandalizes it, her practice of opening herself to others will mean that she has a community around her to give her strength and endurance. More importantly, the grace of God will give her strength and healing from what others have done. At least, this will be my prayer. I think the rewards are greater than the costs.
But, I may be wrong. That is the reason I have included Jesus’ words and Nouwen’s words here. Maybe you have some words to add that I need to hear. What do you think, honestly?
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.