Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Sacred Year by Michael Yankoski

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware I would relish the chance to give a bad review in exchange for a free book. If I've failed to do so, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

I read Yankoski's first book - Under the Overpass - quite recently, even though it was written something like ten years ago. In it, Yankoski recounts his journey, with a friend, to experience homelessness in cities across the US. It is a powerful look into both homelessness and the spiritual journey of youth.

The Sacred Year finds Yankoski a decade later: married, attending graduate school, and living a successful career as a writer and speaker on the Christian conference circuit. He has, essentially, an existential crisis, retreating to a monastery for reflection and serious spiritual direction. A monk there recommends emergence into some historic practices as remedy. Yankoski dedicates a year to exploring and embracing things like attentiveness, contemplation, simplicity, confession, service, and pilgrimage, among others - finding new rhythms and balance in his life and faith.

It's a beautifully written book, with poignant narratives. Dealing with dense topics can be difficult, but Yankoski manages to mostly achieve proper depth without overwhelming the reader. By the end, Yankoski is practicing and advocating some things he and many of his readers may have written off or ridiculed near the beginning of the journey; it is a testament to God's faithfulness and Yankoski's talent that these fall perfectly in line with the narrative thrust of the book.

Perhaps I find this work more important than it is because I resonate so well with the author. I gather we are of similar age; his story is familiar. I was dealing with many of the deep faith issues he touches on in Under the Overpass at the same age; I am learning to appreciate my faith in greater depth and context now. If nothing else, it is important to see the real and often difficult process of spiritual formation present in Yankoski's (accidental?) chronicle from one book to the other. For that reason alone, it would be worth his continuing to write. Thankfully his prose and perspective are even more worthy of our continued attention.

There's nothing simple here, although The Sacred Year is immanently accessible, yet there is also a refreshing simplicity - an exploration of faith far more about personal development than goal-oriented self-justification. This should be a benefit and blessing to any who attempt to journey with Yankoski through his sacred year.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the® book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Necessity of Alternative

I, once again, got into a little argument about the death penalty this week. There are plenty of people who believe in the death penalty - and usually I have no moral or philosophical beef with their reasoning. The tension usually arises when I speak with Christians about the theological message of such a system.

In respect to those who disagree, I do have a pretty strong stance. I can't see any way to justify killing anyone without violating the core Christian claim that Jesus Christ is Lord. There's a much longer post about that somewhere - maybe I've already written it (you'll have to check). This week, I've become more curious about why and under what circumstances Christians became so assuredly and avowedly supportive of capital punishment.

It used to be a topic on which Christians were either adamantly opposed or seriously conflicted. It's been a relatively recently (recently in a historical sense, not a personal one) that the inverse position arose so strongly.

I wonder if it has something to do with the rise of democracy and the subtle, but definite loss of Christianity as an alternative community.

Early on, Christians were an alternative community by necessity. Their refusal to worship the emperor and the proclamation that Jesus Christ is Lord (and thus Caesar is not), led them to be excluded from society and often killed. They had to look out for one another, because no one else would do it.

Ultimately, they grasped onto the notion of God's people - as Paul teaches, Christians are grafted onto the tree of Israel and remain a community "set apart" for a different life - an example to the world of how God created us to live.

This became slightly confused when the empire adopted the faith. It's only slightly confused because, while everyone was baptized from birth, the idea of fervency or serious faith existed mostly in the monasteries. There was still a set apart community. There was also still an empire. They may have been Christian in name, but the empire operated in the same manner it always had: control through coercion and power.

This separation, though, is quite necessary. While Christianity is a voluntary community (meaning the is free entry and exit), society is involuntary. As much as we'd sometimes like to live in the woods, off the grid, that existence doesn't exempt us from the rule of society. Everyone is necessarily involved. Being expelled isn't an option.

Well, expelled from society means killed. Empire has always practiced capital punishment, and no one has ever really objected to it. It is a necessity of societal rule, a requirement of empire. And empire has always been the counterpoint to the Church. Our prisons have "cells" because one of the early forms of societal punishment was for criminals to be sent to the monastery (where monks live in cells). It was thought that the rhythms of service, discipline, and devotion found there could help people to learn the ways of humanity from those dedicated to practicing forgiveness and humility. It was an attempt at reformation.

Of course, this often worked so well because the alternative was the empire. If you didn't learn the rhythms of the monastery, you were sent back into "the real world," and left at the mercy of society, which often meant death. Even before we had formal societies, when we were roving the hills as bands of hunter-gatherers, the threat of expulsion was real and life-threatening. As individual could literally not survive in the wild without the help of a tribe.

I used quotes for "the real world" above, because one of the tenets of Christian practice is that God's way is indeed the real world - the narrative of empire is fantasy. It is love, not coercion that changes the world. Discipline, in Christian practice, is one of sacrifice and patience. It may cost us something, perhaps our own lives and definitely suffering. An angry person may steal or injure or kill; our response is love and self-sacrifice. They may steal or kill again. Our response remains love. We do so in imitation of the God who allowed us to kill him, rather than force change upon us.

It's a strange notion for the world in which we live, but it is the very alternative-ness of the Church that allows it to thrive. You see, Christianity works on the concept of eternity. This life is not the end. If loving people, even difficult people, requires our lives, while it is a difficult and tragic sacrifice, it is not the end of the story. We can have patience because we have literally all the time in the world. We can toil away at seemingly fruitless love of enemies because we have faith that God will bring all things to completion in the end.

Society doesn't have that luxury. It is required to keep the peace now, since now is all it has. We may live 80 years if we're lucky and there is some urgency for society to get those 80 years right for the largest number of people. Society is unwilling to sacrifice for the possible redemption of a criminal. Instead, society locks people away, thinking a few years of dehumanization will suddenly make people more human. If all else fails, we kill them. Time is just too short.

What I fear, though, with the advent of democracy and especially the merging, for many Christians, of the Church and the State at least ideologically (the US as a new Israel, the religious undercurrents ascribed to the founding of the US, etc) is that we've lost (or given away) the Church as an alternative community.

Most people think the notion that society can be perfected (the Social Gospel movement) died out with the horror of WWI, but it remains alive today in the hearts of so many Christians who expect empire to operate on "Christian" principles. We merge the necessity of empire with the hopeful ideology of the Church and produce some bastardized version of life.

This replaces the stark contrast of Empire and Church with what amounts to the deification of sanctified practicality.

There is a real difference between saying "society is justified in executing people" and saying "Christians can and should justify this behavior as right." For many modern, Western Christians, we've ceased to treat our faith as primary and relegated it to one aspect of our lives, thus making the Church and society indivisible in our minds and lives.

Our churches have largely become one thing we do in the midst of our life in the world. We are subject primarily to the structure and authority of the society in which we live; the Church is secondary. It is one aspect of our lives; it no longer defines our lives.

With this comes our own association with the requirements of power. It's not just "them" who have responsibility for peace keeping, now it's us. We're included. We take on this mantle and necessarily revoke our ability to be an alternative.

I am not saying we must divest ourselves entirely from "the system" to be an alternative. Christians can advocate for more human responses to crime, but we must do so from a position of alternative. If we're not offering other ways of being in the world, we have no right to speak to changes in the world around us.

We must reclaim the notion of Christianity as alternative community. Yes, it is difficult to live in a society that willingly asks us to participate, without forgoing our allegiance to Christ - but it is not impossible. The ultimate message of the cross is that the way of the world, the way of empire: violence, coercion, selfishness, is not the way to live. Christ overturns those notions with radical self-giving and proves them in resurrection.

We participate in society, but our allegiance lies elsewhere. That's often been a dangerous position (which is why we've largely abandoned it), but when lived in peace and with patience - it has the power to change the world. The alternative way of Christ may not work out well in the world of empire, but it is the only way to live in an eternity which has already begun.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Christians on Parade

So, this week I had the chance to hear two podcasts I don't often listen to. I'm not a huge fan of Marc Maron's whole persona, so I've never listened to his very popular and well-respected podcast. This week I heard part of an interview with Jay Bakker (pastor and son of Jim and Tammy Faye). Additionally, I got to hear two and a half hours of conversation with Rob Bell on "You Made It Weird" with Pete Holmes.

Both guys are comedians who usually talk to comedians. Both found something compelling in these Christians who have a non-traditional perspective on the world. This seems like the kind of philosophical immersion Jesus spent his life doing. I found myself asking why the sort of comfort level required to engage in this way happens on comedy podcasts and not so often in the arena of the Church? Here are two guys who want nothing to do with the Church, but want desperately to talk of spirituality and life.

The Church absolutely needs to be evangelized; we need to confront ourselves with our own inadequacy and need for grace - to be pushed and challenged the way Jesus challenged the religious people of his day.

At the same time, the Church needs to be living in the midst of the world, because the message of Jesus Christ is universal, it is, at it's very basic core, a (the) way to live in the world - which is pretty important to most people.

I'm not sure why Christians are afraid of uncertainty. When the Bible says to have an answer to anyone who has a question about your faith, it doesn't mean have a reason their question is wrong. If there's something you can't answer honestly (even if the answer is "I don't know"), then you haven't dealt with it for yourself.

I can explain why I believe; that doesn't mean I have an answer to every question. It shouldn't have to.

Maybe I'm strange, but I want all the questions. I want to make sure I've explored the most lost and forgotten corners of the haunted mansion that is my psyche. The only truly scary question is the one you've never heard before - but it's also the most exciting.

The more time we spend pondering the world in which we live and the way in which we choose to live in it, the better able we are to move forward with confidence. I love hearing these guys in "regular" settings - in this case, both speaking on podcasts with comedians who've had difficult experiences with the Church in the past.

This is where Jesus spent his time. Interaction with religious leaders only arose when they showed up in the out-of-the-way places Jesus chose to live and work. Usually his responses to them were, "What took you so long?" and "Why don't you stick around for a while?"

Yes, these particular Christians may espouse beliefs contrary to your own or my own in some ways. Of course, if Christians are going to flee even from fellow Christians with differing views and difficult questions, then there really is no hope of engagement with the world at large. It just won't happen. We need people to engage on whatever terms are available or the whole message is lost. It's not about being right or making converts, it's about seeking truth - and you can't force anyone to believe something they're unwilling to believe.

I'd love to be part of a Christ-centered community in my neighborhood, but I don't want it to be some place where I try to convince people it's the right way to live. I'd much rather it be a group of people who've wrestled with reality and chosen to continue exploring together. I'd rather offer a Christian perspective on life to people who aren't pressured to choose, but challenged to think.

This can certainly happen in a traditional "church," but frankly, these days, it's far more likely to happen elsewhere. The kinds of conversations exhibited above are the kinds of conversations I want to have - they're the kinds of conversations that might just change the world.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

I Support Narrative

I thought I grew up a Yankee fan. I mean I did, I guess. I knew all the stats, had posters and pennants. I know who Snuffy Sternweiss is, for crying out loud. My favorite all-time baseball player remains, to this day, the great Lou Gehrig - and I can explain to you all the reasons he was far more valuable than Babe Ruth.

I became aware of baseball in the 1980's and adored Don Mattingly - the kind of guy who just showed up day after day and worked hard. It was easy to transition seamlessly to the late 90's Yankee dynasty, full of similar guys. Some of my favorite baseball moments are Jim Leyritz out of nowhere three run homer and, of course, Charlie Hayes catching the last out in 1996.

For all the Yankee history and dominance (and arrogance), they hadn't won or really been very good at all, in my lifetime.

I thought I grew up a Yankee fan - then I met some. Now, obviously there are plenty of fine people who root for the Yankees, but a lot of them are ridiculous, condescending jerks, people who really enjoy the sense of superiority that comes with being a historic winner (and fans always forget, they aren't actually on the team). I thought I grew up a Yankee fan - then Steroids and Steinbrenner. The team just wasn't fun to watch anymore. I still revere the history, but the present didn't have much pull.

I gave up. I became an unaffiliated fan. I found watching the games with no real investment in the outcome was so much more fun. I was able to follow my heart, choose a team to root for in each individual contest or just root for no one and enjoy the game. It literally made my life better.

Then I heard an interview with Malcolm Gladwell - who, despite his erudite, intellectual reputation, is a pretty big sports fan. He talked about how he followed the local teams growing up, but that he had no compunction to stick with a club simply out of loyalty. He said the names and narratives change all the time - why wouldn't our allegiances.

Gladwell, essentially, challenged the underlying assumption of sports: pick a team and stick with them. He asked why - and the answer is really: for no reason at all.

Now there are certainly some reasons. People who've lived in the same place their whole lives have connections to local teams. In some places - like Liverpool, in England - the sports team has taken on an epic connection to the fans far beyond what happens on the field.

But, for most of us, there's really nothing tying us to a team outside of obligation and peer pressure.

Gladwell talked about enjoying the early Kareem Lakers and the Bill Bradley Knicks, even though those teams played in the same era and often against each other. It's not a marriage, he said - you like who you like. Some stories are just compelling.

Ultimately, that's what sports is - a story. We don't actually know any athletes. We know the narrative they present to the media or the media concocts to explain them. We know image. We know story.

I've gone into games with an intellectual rooting interest - I want Clemson to win this game because of Steve Spurriers smugness at South Carolina (despite the fact that I really enjoyed his 90's Florida teams - Go Danny Wuerffel!) for example - only to find myself drawn to the opponent during the course of the game (although never to South Carolina-era Steve Spurrier).

The heart wants what the heart wants.

There are some sports I enjoy watching, especially when they're being played well. Cycling, skiing, track and field, soccer, baseball, basketball, whatever. Sure, I have favorites, but they're really just narratives built up over time.

I was rooting for the Red Sox to lose against the Yankees in 2003, when Pedro Martinez got left in too long - and I was rooting FOR the Sox the next year, against the same Yankees, because they just seemed the team of destiny. It was an extremely compelling narrative.

It doesn't always mean your a front-runner - but, let's face it, if your team is at the bottom of the standings, you pick a contender to root for through the playoffs. Underdog stories are often far more compelling, especially in this day and age where rich men buy championships (or, more appropriately, championship contenders) so often.

The sport I follow most fervently these days is soccer - or proper football, you could say. I don't have a particular team I like, although I have my inclinations. That doesn't keep me from rooting for Everton one week and Liverpool the next, because ultimately I root for the narrative.

Call me a hopeless romantic - or perhaps just a hopeless hopeful - but I like seeing something play out in ways that can only be described as beautiful. There is something quite satisfying in witnessing cosmic justice (at least as defined by my perspective), there's something comfortable, grounded, in the fruition of a well-lived narrative.

So, "Go Team!" Just don't ask which one.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

The Next Reformation?

I swear I started this yesterday before the news came out. I was in the middle of writing this post when I learned the Nazarene Publishing House was firing all its employees, effective December 1st (and none of our denominational leaders saw fit to show up for the announcement, even though most of them were across town at a preaching conference). For those outside our closed Nazarene loop, this is just another in a long series of tragic happenings, resulting from the gross mismanagement of the denomination by leaders in a position of trust.

Whatever systems and structures we have in place to govern us are either insufficient or have been sufficiently eroded to the point of ridiculous chaos. There are a lot of people for whom this is the last straw. So many of my young friends are running swiftly from denominations. I am part of a generation with no trust in institutions; those younger than me, even more so. It's difficult enough to get young people to understand how long it takes to affect change in big organizations, let alone when they're lead poorly.

I was, and often am, considered one of those impatient young people.* Although I've been following the administrative and legislative workings of this denomination since 1993 and at best things have stayed the same.

In thinking about this generational - philosophical - social - cultural shift, I have to wonder if this isn't one of the hallmarks of the next Reformation.

As I said, I was thinking about this anyway - yesterday's mind-blowing screw up (and I use the word "screw" there, to be as gracious and conciliatory as I can right now) was simply an unfortunately timely example.

There's this narrative about the development of Western thought - that just about every 500 years, something big changes the way we live and process information. Starting with the birth of Christ, there follows the Fall of the Roman Empire around 500, the emergence of more-or-less modern nations under Charlemagne around 1000, and finally the Enlightenment around 1500. There have been corresponding religious upheavals at the same time as response to such epochal changes.

So, we're due for the next one. Surely this is the transition from modern to post-modern eras. That is a given, even as we're not entirely sure what it means. Thus, there is a similar shift occurring in Christianity as these changes filter into western religious life.

One of the basic elements of the Protestant Reformation was the challenging of mediated religion. For many centuries the Church told people they needed a priest to go between them and God. Martin Luther (and others) rejected this mediated religion and thus ushered in the modern age of individualism (for better or worse).

Certainly this is not an all-encompassing claim, but I suspect that one of the notable elements of this next transition will be a parallel rejection of mediation by religion.

I've written before about religion, and the ways in which we all have religion (which is really just the things we do based on our beliefs about the world). In this post, I refer primarily to organized religion, an organized system of belief and practice designed to create boundaries between membership and non-membership.

Lately I've been wondering if perhaps the mediation of Christianity itself detracts from the universal nature claimed by Christian narrative and theology, that our attempts to define and distinguish orthodoxy is, in fact, limiting the scope and effectiveness of God's work in the world.

Ultimately, the earliest Christian creed was, "Jesus Christ is Lord," everything else is simply interpretation. From that point, we've splintered and broken off into our own little groups based on how we define what that means, largely in the context of right and wrong. What's resulted is essentially an extra layer of mediation - we have a group, theology, denomination, etc through which we view and participate in Christianity (or, more broadly, interact with God).

Perhaps the next phase of religious development is the removal or rejection of those mediating lenses?

This is not a new concept, to be sure. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about "religionless Christianity," although he was martyred before he could really flesh out his idea in practice. I've seen other thinkers in recent years (most notably, to my perspective, Peter Rollins) who have attempted to continue exploring Bonhoeffer's vision.

The ultimate question each person asks is "how do I live rightly in the world?" Our answers come from all over the place, with varying degrees of respectability. For Christians, the answers to this question come filtered through not only a specific narrative, but a specific interpretation of that narrative. It's very easy to be bound by the narrative or the interpretation and miss the question entirely. It's also easy to defend the narrative rather than address the question.

More specifically: I am part of the Church of the Nazarene, which has a very specific set of standards and practices in an attempt to unify those everywhere who call themselves Nazarene. I, however, and I suspect, most Nazarenes, have unique perspectives on even the interpretations of our interpretations of what it means to have Jesus Christ as Lord. In other words, we don't all agree on the things upon which we claim to agree. It devolves into semantic games pretty quickly.

The typical response - and certainly the modern response - is to double down on debate. We fight over what is really right and true and enforce that orthodoxy on all who carry the name.

That sort of thing, though, just doesn't fly so well in the emerging post-modern context. People are leery of calling anything true or right or wrong, because we understand the bias of perspective. Instead of debate, which implies a winner and a loser, we must have discussion - which implies the freedom of each party to learn, grow, change, or not, based on information and ideas presented.

This can sound an awful lot like relativism - we can't know anything for sure, therefore anything goes; I'm ok and you're ok - and it can certainly become that (although, I think the I'm ok, you're ok message was pretty similar to what Jesus told sinners, but that is a discussion for another day). What I am hoping to arrive at is the importance of relationship to this process.

When we cannot be sure of the principles or ideas, the articles of faith or the systems of belief, we can rely only on the relationship we have with people. I can only trust you because I trust you. We can't have real agreement or cooperation with people we don't know. You simply have to have some overarching authority for that to occur.

This is why I wonder about the mediation by religion. Organized religion is really an attempt at power - bringing enough people to one position by which to exert influence on others and thus gain more power. This was the sort of religious competition inherent in 1st century Palestine that Jesus spoke so vociferously against.

I've long believed that Jesus didn't come to found a religion, but to free people from religion (after all, that is what Paul is talking about in the war between law and grace, isn't it?). I'm not sure what that means going forward or how exactly faithful Christian life will adapt and evolve, but I certainly see it moving along these lines.

That doesn't mean we won't have denominations and movements and large groups of people loosely affiliated together, but it does means those affinity groups (for lack of a better term) will not be part of the mediation process, but likely ancillary elements to foster local relationship and life together.

Just something to be thinking about, I guess, as we ponder the future.

*It's a sad statement on the Church when "young leaders" applies to people who are 49, let alone 33 - I have peers who serve as General Managers of professional sports teams and CEOs of major companies, for crying out loud!

Also, a heart congratulations to anyone who made it through the whole post. This has got to be one of the most dense and confusing things I've ever written; even I don't know if it really makes any sense. I do believe it, though, and I'll continue to process it further (and hopefully with more clarity) in the future. Cheerio, and good day!