To be a "city within a city"* (an alternative Boston) that passionately loves JESUS, thoughtfully seeks JUSTICE for the oppressed, and intentionally forms a diverse FAMILY that serves and reflects our community.
*The imagery of a "city within a city" comes from the words of Jesus in the Gospel according to Matthew (5.14-16). Jesus tells his followers that they are a "city on a hill" whose relationships, character, and way of life show the world what God is like.
To be the "city on a hill" Jesus spoke of, the church must be a countercultural, alternative society of people who model the way life works in the kingdom of God. While, in the kingdoms of the world, race, gender, economic class divide people, in this new city, those divisions are destroyed. Instead, Jesus himself unites us in peace.
Being an alternate city means that we model alternate ways of doing life. We ask questions like, “How do we use our money, sexuality, and power? How do we treat the poor? How do we think of art, commerce, and education?”
When Lost was on the air I was heavy into the show, and was one of the many people disappointed by the "lack of answers" at the end. I felt like the writing on Lost promised the viewer a deep and profound mythology that it never delivered. Lindelof defends against this criticism by saying the show was always about the characters and not the mythology. That may satisfy some, but not me.
In any case, it wasn't Lindelof's defense of Lost's ending that made this interview fascinating to me. No, it was Lindelof's discussion of his position as Lost's writer and his relationship to the audience. His brief description of this dynamic at work while he was in charge of Lost, serves as an illuminating metaphor for our understanding of God's providence.
If you don't already know, Osheta and I are planting a church in Boston this year. The first 9 months we will be gathering interested, missional people to be part of our launch team while I serve on staff as a "Church Planting Resident" at Highrock Arlington and CCFC. After that we will be organizing launch team gatherings. Our goal is to have 30 committed adults by this Fall.
On this day of national remembrance for a minister of the Gospel, I thought it appropriate to write a piece that both honors Dr. King's memory while also issuing a fresh challenge for today to the church in the US. I'd like to briefly reflect on the Gospel in the New Testament with an eye toward how it might have implications for race, power, and table fellowship in US churches.
After Jesus' ascension, and after the church was endued with the power of the Holy Spirit, God used Peter to share the Gospel with the Gentile centurion named Cornelius. Peter initially objected to this mission (Acts 10.9-23). He was a 'good Jew.' He obeyed the Torah, including the call to be undefiled, separate from "the nations." Father Abraham was promised that his offspring would be a blessing, would reveal the Most High God, to the whole world—including the Gentiles. But by Jesus' time, those who called themselves Abraham's children saw the nations as enemies to be despised and avoided (Luke 10:25-37). Those who taught the Torah sought to justify themselves with the Scriptures (v. 29). But Jesus taught that even the despised Samaritans are 'neighbors' whom God's people are to show mercy (v. 36-37).
Peter was slow to catch on to Jesus' program, but eventually he got it. When he saw that the Spirit had led him to Cornelius, he said,
"I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right." (Acts 10.34-35)
And after he witnessed the Holy Spirit being given to Cornelius' household, just as He had been given to Jesus' Jewish disciples, he said,
"Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have." (v. 47)
Peter's declaration that these Gentiles should not be prevented from receiving water baptism is highly significant. Water baptism is initiation into the one Church of Jesus Christ. Peter was so thoroughly convinced that Cornelius and his family were true disciples of Jesus, that he was willing to welcome them into the church and join them around the Lord's Table in fellowship.
"I would like to offer an analogy for additional consideration and discussion. Divorce is permitted and even ‘ordained’ in God’s law. But Christ makes it clear that divorce was ordained only as a concession to our hard-hearted wickedness. It is not God’s preference or ultimate intention by any stretch of the imagination, even though it can bring a measure of “peace” to a warring couple. God hates divorce, even though he has it as an option in is law, and even Jesus permits it, in limited cases.
How much is violence, even violence by a human government, the same as divorce in God’s eyes? Consider how much God was willing to take upon himself in order to have real reconciliation, not just between sinful man and himself, but also among “warring” men?"
Whenever election time comes around in the US, the air is filled once again with polarizing partisan rhetoric. It is the candidate's job to paint his or her opponent's views, policies, administration in the starkest of terms when contrasted with his or her own. It's the candidate's goal to convince you and I that he or she will "do a better job," understands the "founding principles of America" better, or isn't an "Washington insider," etc. etc. Furthermore, candidates tell the story of the American dream again, selling us on hope that this is the "land of opportunity," that we can "make it, if we work hard." Each candidate wants us to believe that their election will ensure this outcome, remake the world.
I have a confession: I've bought into this sort of thinking more times than I'd like to admit. I confess that I have too often believed that the election of a particular candidate is the determing factor in my well-being or the well-being of those for whom I care. I've believed that if "those guys" are in office, the world will go to hell in a hand-basket. But if "my candidate" is elected, there will be justice, peace, [add your utopian ideal here]. I confess that I've fallen prey to the seductiveness of political coercion.
Reading Countdown to Sunday by Chris Erdman felt like a blessed ambush. It's difficult to express just how timely this book is for me. I stumbled upon Countdown, seemingly by chance, from a recommendation on a pastor's blog. Little did I know that it would reinforce much of what God has been teaching me for nearly the last 6 years, and reinvigorate my passion for ministry.
I'm reading this book just before beginning the awe-inspiring task of church-planting. On the one hand, the confluence of all my experiences and passions in church-planting gives me confidence that it is precisely what God has been preparing both myself and Osheta for. On the other hand, it is also a terribly intimidating feat that no sane person embarks upon with immodest self-confidence. Therefore, this word of encouragement is no small blessing.
Preaching has been one of my life’s passions since I was seventeen and felt the call to serve as a leader in God's church. My pastor discipled me as a preacher, and preaching has characterized my life ever since. But since moving to Boston, preaching opportunities have not been as plentiful as they were in New Orleans. I have felt stifled, bottled up. Perhaps that is biggest reason I have taken to blogging. Communication is like air for me, and writing has replaced preaching as my primary means of expression. I'm not complaining; I've grown to love writing. Nevertheless, Erdman's book cut me to the heart in a most fantastic way. It brought me right back to my love for preaching, and energized that love. Erdman reframes preaching as the adventure, the risk, the challenge, and the joy that it once was for me. Erdman also reminds me that preaching is God's chosen method of remaking the world. And before anyone misunderstand what he means by that, I’d recommend you read the chapter in which Erdman writes about social justice as street preaching (chapter 24).
I'm not entirely sure I will be able to capture just how inspiring I've found this book in such a brief review, but it's my hope that I can highlight at least a few aspects of this book I found brilliantly compelling. And if you find yourself in need of energizing, I hope this review compels you to pick it up and read it—whether you're a preacher or not!
A Brief Preliminary Note on Note-making
There comes a point when underlining passages in a book becomes nearly pointless. I'm not entirely sure I didn't underline more lines than I left unmarked. Every sentence of this short book is carefully crafted to provide maximal impact—and it delivers! It's quite possible that I've added as much ink to my copy of Countdown as did the printer. Each time I'd underlined a thought worth returning to, I'd end up continuing to underline the next two or three or four lines. Before long, I'd underlined half the page, and it would have been easier to just draw a big bracket next to the whole section. If you do end up buying Countdown, just go ahead and buy yourself a couple highlighters too.
First off, I am not at all unbiased in the infamous Calvinism v. Arminianism debates. In fact, I've been more than a little complicit in making them contentious at times. In the past, I have spent many a night, up late, "debating" with both Calvinists and Arminians about the particulars of divine providence, human responsibility, divine foreknowledge, and the ontological status of the future—both in person and online. Therefore, I won't pretend that I come to Olson's book as a neutral third-party. However, the reality is, none of us do! We all come to Olson's book, all books, perhaps especially the Scriptures, with our preconceived notions firmly in hand, as much as we'd like to deny it.
Secondly, I am neither a Classical Arminian nor a Calvinist—nor any sort of "moderate" or "nuanced" Calvinist (whether such a thing actually exists is debatable). I'm more than happy to locate myself within the broad and historic Free Will tradition of Jesus Christ's Church that includes Christians from nearly every stripe (many Roman Catholics, many Greek Orthodox, Wesleyans, Methodists, Pentecostals, Anabaptists, many Baptists, and all who call themselves "Arminians"). And, by the way, this tradition predates both Calvin and Arminius. But, specifically, I will even further identify myself with the label "Open theist." Some will not gladly accept such a label, and as a result, I know many who I'd call "closet Open theists." As Olson himself has argued, a particularly militant and vocal coalition [wink] of Calvinists have succeeded in convincing a dishearteningly large group of gullible evangelicals in the US that Open theism is "controversial." They haven't proven that Open theism is heretical—far from it! Instead, their arguments have been blatant caricatures. They haven't been required to show Open theism's actual error. They have only needed to claim the view contains error loud enough to convince enough people not to investigating the view for themselves.
[Sidenote: In a course I took this semester on conflict in Christian organizations, one of the authors we read had a term for leaders who lead by creating a false enemy and produce group cohesiveness by vilifying the Other. He called them Demagogues. …So…there's that.]
Third, what drew me to Olson's book most wasn't his deliberate attempt to refute Calvinism. I've read lots of books and articles that refute Calvinism. Heck, I've written some! No, what drew me to Olson's book was his deliberate attempt to finally lay to rest a retort I hear constantly from Calvinists. I call it the "You-Just-Don't-Understand-Calvinism" retort. Calvinists are notorious for claiming to be victims of caricature. Even while they are also notorious for caricaturing other views. I can't tell you how many times, after backing a Calvinist into a philosophical corner, their response is: "You just don't understand Calvinism." Apparently, Calvinists are convinced their views are incredibly complex and esoteric. (In case you were wondering—they aren't.) But Olson leaves no room for this defense. He demonstrates on nearly every page that he has gone directly to the sources, read them, studied them, understood their arguments (often better than most Calvinists do), and nevertheless comes to many of the same conclusions we Free Will theists have held for centuries:
1) Calvinism is theological determinism
2) Calvinism relies solely upon carefully-crafted proof-texting
3) Calvinism renders God morally ambiguous
4) Calvinism does not reflect the character of Christ
Special thanks to Tom Oord for providing a review copy of this title.
The God Biographers is a fascinating book about the way God's story has been told in doctrines down through the centuries of religion and philosophy. Perhaps the grand irony is that the book itself becomes a biography of God as it attempts to tell this epic story. Larry Witham, the book's author, described as a veteran journalist on the book's jacket, sets out to, "[look] closely at the cultural and scientific context of each age and how these shaped the images of God." He argues that, "Each biographer labors under the influence of a particular cultural milieu." Therefore, the book becomes primarily a journey through historical theology dating from the Classical period in Greek thought to present day Open and Relational theisms. However, Witham's survey is not merely a general overview. The author specifically details the views of God's biographers as they relate to one of the single greatest tensions in theism: the relationship between divine providence and human volition. In the service of this very specific focus, the author employs the book, and figure, of Job as an overarching theme in which to ground the discussion. This odd yet often-cited ancient Hebrew text stands apart as one the clearest examples of this essential antinomy. Yet, for as many biographers as have attempted to tell God's story, at least as many interpretations of this book have accompanied them.
The God Biographers is also a book about two competing biographies of God that have remained enmeshed in a struggle for the hearts and minds of theists since the very beginnings of philosophical and religious thought. The first biography is that of an aloof and "unchangeable monarch," while the second tells of a God who participates in a “dynamic relationship [with] the universe." (p. 2) Astute readers will recognize these two biographies as classic summaries of the competing visions of God developed by the Greeks and the Hebrews. Early Greek philosophers warred against the oppressive myths of capricious gods, who meddled in the affairs of humanity, often for sport, and inflicted meaningless suffering upon helpless victims for their own amusement. In their place, Plato, Aristotle and the like exalted a view of the Supreme Being as an impersonal, static reality that neither felt "passions" nor "changed" in any way. By contrast, the Hebrews exalted a view of God as utterly personal: a living, dynamic presence who revealed himself to their people through the law and prophets, led them out of slavery in Egypt, and responded to their prayers. Over the millennia since humanity began to think and write about the divine, Greek, Jewish, Islamic, and Christian scholars have all had to grapple with these diametrically opposed biographies and account for the realities of daily life, advances in human understand of the world, and the sacred texts of the Bible (and Job in particular).
Job is a fitting theme since his story is one of a righteous man who is suddenly stripped of everything. He is depicted as an innocent victim of tragedy at the hands of an enemy: the satan. God's relationship to this calamity has always presented God's biographers with a primal trilemma often called the "problem of evil." And its exploration in relationship to God is called "theodicy." Attributed to the Greek philosopher Epicurus, the problem can be summarized thusly:
"willing but unable to take away evil (impotent)"
"able but unwilling (malevolent)"
"both willing and able—so why is there evil at all?" (p. 27)
Theists since Lactantius have felt compelled to address this “problem,” but perhaps no century has been more filled with reminders than the twentieth. Two World Wars and the explosive advancement of science brought theism and evil into sharp contrast. Appropriately, then, Witham spends a good portion of the book in this period.
Theological Graffiti is a blog written by T. C. Moore @tc_moore ...a Jesus-disciple, husband, father, Associate Pastor @NewCityChurch of Los Angeles, sometimes web designer, writer, and theology geek. For more about me, visit my Personal Website or my Online Profile. Otherwise, enjoy the graffiti.