Thanksgiving 2009

Happy Thanksgiving Daddy!

I woke up this morning with a very eager daughter wanting me to see the Thanksgiving card she had made us. Here is a sampling of her handiwork. I especially like the hand turkeys that she drew. Christie and I really liked it.

But what really warmed my heart was the note she wrote on the white part of the card. It says:

Dear Mommy and Daddy,

I have been learning about colonial times and I realize how fortunate I am to have everything you give me. They didn’t have much then, so I am thankful that I have food and water, family and friends, clothes to wear, and shelter to live in. I am thankful I can be thankful, for the love you give me, and last but not least, I am thankful for you.

Sincerely, Damaris

I think that every parent has certain values that they want their kids to understand. And it means a lot when they show evidence that they “get it.” For us we have intentionally sought to not get entangled in the consumerism of American culture and instead have pursued a life of missional living and the pursuit of simplicity. I wonder more and more whether the pursuit of the “American dream” is compatible with following Christ. It seems to only complicate our lives and produce with us a longing that every wants more and more. I think perhaps the “pursuit of liberty” part might fit, but it would require I think the pursuit of liberty (and justice) for others who don’t have it than rather my own liberty. Anyways, in the back of my mind I have always wondered, “does Damaris get it?” Is she learning about being grateful, because compared to many others she and we are still a very blessed family? The very first thing I thought was, “she gets it!” It feels good that she knows she is a fortunate and blessed little girl.

What I’m thankful for…

  • I’m thankful for being married to the best wife in the world.
  • I’m thankful for Damaris. She is growing up way too fast though.
  • I’m thankful for Thanksgiving which means food, family, and football.
  • I’m thankful the Dallas Cowboys won today.
  • I’m thankful for good books on theology.
  • I’m thankful for hugs and kisses from my wife.
  • I’m thankful for hugs and kisses from Damaris.
  • I’m thankful for being able to remember the babies we lost: Jordan Taylor, Micah Jayden, and Noah Avery. We hold them in our hearts daily.
  • I’m thankful we will be able to see them one day in the new heaven and new earth.
  • I’m thankful for Kerioth Cherie. She only graced us with her presence for a little while but we treasure the time we had.
  • I’m thankful for the season of Advent and the opportunity to connect more with the Christ story.
  • I’m thankful for a God who blesses us beyond measure and loves us without condition.
  • I’m thankful for a God that does the seemingly unthinkable and includes us in His mission.

A challenge…

In light of Thanksgiving I have a challenge I want to issue. While its good to be thankful on an individual basis, in the coming year don’t be content to just be thankful by yourself. Instead multiply your thankfulness with others in genuine community. And don’t stop there. Don’t be content to keep your thankfulness to yourself. Instead in the coming year further multiply your thankfulness through participation with others in outwardly focused missional community. Take your thankfulness to others. There are many in the world that genuinely find Thanksgiving and the holiday season hard. Some are poor and have little to be thankful for while others are consumed with grief during this time of year (something that we at the Almon house have experienced ourselves). In case you haven’t noticed, the consistent testimony in the Bible is that such people are close to the heart of God. The thankfulness we as a community have in Christ should move us to care deeply about what and who God cares about and into participation in God’s mission to those that have nothing to be thankful for. In my opinion the church needs to be distinguished as a genuinely thankful missional community centered around Christ. But I have found many times that quite a few don’t understand this vision of what it means to be the church. And its understandable really. Such a vision requires a total paradigm shift, or should we say many paradigm shifts. So, if you read this and you’re not sure whether others will understand the idea of a thankful missional community, then my challenge is to be the one to spread the vision wherever God may have you.

Finally, today we stand on the verge of the “start” of the Christmas shopping season (although I was in Wal-Mart the other day and it really appeared to already be in full force). I feel the sad reality is that in the name of “giving” to others many Christ followers (perhaps unintentionally but no less substantially) will participate full force and contribute to the consumerism that has come to mark the season. I have spoken to many that seem to think we know it’s a good Christmas season when we can find the stuff we want to get and be sure that the cashier says, “Merry Christmas” to us and not, “Happy Holidays.” Now, I don’t have anything against cashiers saying “Merry Christmas,” but I do seriously wonder if Christ continues to want his name attached to the rampant consumerism of the season. Seriously, what kind of witness is it when businesses are forced (by threat of boycott) to say “Merry Christmas” and then Christians stand at the register and participate in the same consumeristic ritual as everyone else? What good does it do to boycott business that refuse to say “Merry Christmas” when it doesn’t mean Christians are going to spend less. No, it seems that most would just go somewhere else and spend just as much! Have we reduced Christ’s name to simply a matter of determining who gets our business?

Some may want to push back on me here and contend its not as bad as I’m making it out to be. However, I have worked at Wal-Mart and all I can say is that the holiday shopping season is disheartening. Black Friday is indeed a dark day. I have worked Black Fridays (at both secular and Christian retail stores) before and have found them to be gross displays of consumeristic gluttony. I can tell you that one’s spending habits reveal a lot about what’s in the heart and one’s values. Now I realize that we all have to buy stuff and to an extent its nice to have stores available to get the things we need. But sadly, the spending habits in general and Christmas shopping habits in particular that I saw from fellow professing Christians weren’t all that different, and sometimes even more consumeristic than non-Christians. In fact, I had a manager when I first started at Wal-Mart who did not have a favorable impression of Christians. But right before Thanksgiving my first year he told me that at this time of year he really liked Christians. Noticing the sarcasm in his voice I asked why. He told me, “Its because during this time of year Christians show just how hypocritical they are. They spend just as much, and even more, than everyone else and then complain about how consumeristic all the non-Christians are. But at least they spend their money right? After all, that’s the really important thing.” As a manager at a big box chain store this guy obviously reflects the values of consumerism. But I am afraid that he hits way too close to home for many American Christians. Honestly, let’s say it for what it is. His statement was based on first hand experience of Christians complaining about one thing and then going and actively participating in that very thing!

In the present state of things I believe we have more pressing concerns than whether others want to say “Merry Christmas” or not. We all need to look at ourselves and see how we contribute to the proliferation of consumerism. I say this with all seriousness: maybe the best way to “reclaim” Christmas is not to force others to say “Merry Christmas” but to repent of our consumerism and change the way we spend our money and Christmas shop – to connect ourselves more fully into the Christ story. I’m not saying that gift giving is a bad thing. In fact, the act of gift giving can be an awesome reflection of the heart of God. God calls us to gift giving and gift giving can itself be missional. But in the present holiday “shopping season” gift giving has been co-opted, distorted, and deformed. Instead of revealing the heart of God and participation in the mission of God, gift giving far too often reveals the depths of Christian consumerism, which then gets passed on to our kids and so the cycle continues. I want to propose the redemption of gift giving! My challenge to any who might read this is, as you venture out into the full swing of holiday shopping (and perhaps even Black Friday) is to rethink your gift giving this year. I’m not in the position to make demands but if you would, ask yourself some questions. Does my gift giving this season reveal the heart of God or the heart of consumerism? Does my gift giving produce more consumeristic longing in the one receiving the gift (my children perhaps) or does it connect them to the shalom (peace, holistic well being) of God? Does my gift giving proceed from and produce more consumerism, or does it create space for shalom? Is there such a thing as missional gift giving? If so what might it look like for you and your family? May our thanksgiving today lead us into the peace and shalom of the Christ child!

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Why DesperateTheologian – Part 2

Why call yourself desperate theologian? (continued)

In part one I shared how my previously propositionalist faith did little to help in the wake of the grief Christie and I experienced after the loss of our first child (Jordan Taylor) to miscarriage when we were at SWBTS. We moved back to Plainview during the summer of 2000, after only two years at SWBTS. Having already lost our first baby in 1998 we had already tasted the grief that comes as a result and had some time to work through the grief. We had also been blessed with the birth our daughter, Damaris, in October of 1999 and while we still grieved the loss of JT we moved back to Plainview (believing it was God’s will) with a great deal of optimism and hope for the future. However, even though we still believe it was God’s will for us to move back, our time in Plainview turned out to be way harder than we had ever thought. In 2001 and 2004 we lost two more babies (Micah Jayden and Noah Avery) to miscarriage. This time served as an extended “dark night of the soul” for us both (and making things even more difficult, we also had a couple of adoption attempts fall through, struggled to plant a church, all the while I was finishing up my first Masters degree at WBU). The grief from the loss of our babies will always be with us (it can be no other way for a parent that has lost a child) but it was during this time that it was the deepest and most profound. It was also in the depths of this dark night that my desperation grew stronger than before and the propositions made even less sense. In a very real sense, in the deconstruction (to put it in postmodern terms) of my propositional/systematic form of theology I had to do theology out of the context of my experience with the dark night and desperation: in essence “desperation theology.”

  • I was desperate for a theology that could hold my doubt, depression, questions, and unbelief. [As a note here, our struggle with desperation and doubt made a lot of people noticeably uncomfortable. I think a part of this is that we have to relieve ourselves of the pressure of always having the right thing to say…especially when there is no right thing to say. I believe that in pursuit of a propositionalist theology many evangelicals have neglected developing a theology of presence – a theology that can equip us to sit in silence, if need be, with those that suffer and/or doubt. While most seemed ill equipped to do this with us we were blessed with friends whom we are indebted to like the Efrain and Jennifer Gonzales who did offer us their presence without pat clichés. Also, while this probably deserves its own blog post, here I’ll just say that I think that most Christians have a hard time with doubt because they too readily assume that it is the opposite of faith, or what we might call “unfaith.” But doubt, questioning, and unbelief are not the same thing as unfaith nor do they necessarily lead to unfaith. Doubt is not the opposite of faith but rather a part of the faith journey. In the midst of doubt faith is all one has to hold on too.]
  • I was desperate for a theology that has as much to do with spirituality as academics.
  • I was desperate for a theology that was connected to real life, one that could bridge the gap between the academy and the church.
  • I was desperate for a theology that could enable the body of Christ to be a genuine incarnational community.
  • I was desperate for a theology that went beyond the propositional; however, at least in the beginning, I did not know what such a theology would look like.

(re)Discovering the Triune God

My theological journey took me right through the middle of desperation and doubt theologically. There was no going around, up, over, or under it…only through it! I know it seems counter intuitive but instead of driving me away from theological study, my doubt and desperation drove me into more theological study. Really, the study of theology was how I coped; it was in essence a form of “therapy” for me. And it was in this journey that I came to totally redefine my approach to theology in response to my points of desperation (listed just above). During this time I read, read, and I read some more. Along the way I rediscovered the richness of the church fathers (whom I just glanced over as an undergrad) as well as more contemporary theologians. Those who know me know that my favorite theologian is Stanley Grenz. It is through Grenz that I discovered a theology, and a theological method, that is grounded in and centered around the triune God as the Divine Community. For too long God as Trinity had been diminished in systematic theology to the point of being reduced to the equivalent of a propositional doctrinal safeguard (much like even what happened with Christology and Pneumatology). For some theologians the Trinity only appears as little more than a footnote while still other modern systematics have a section on the Trinity but which seemingly has no interaction or impact on the other doctrinal sections. In other words, while these theologians believe in the Trinity we can not properly call their theologies “Trinitarian.”

This seeming absence of the Trinity certainly was evident in my experience growing up in church. I can not remember hearing even one sermon, nor any reflection at all on the Trinitarian nature of God, or any discussion of the importance of Trinity for ecclesiology or people made in the image of God. It seems that the modern church suffered as much from the absence of the Trinity as did modern systematic theology! There are many reasons for this I think. One is that while God doesn’t really fit into anyone’s propositional box in general, the very idea of God as Trinity totally obliterates our propositions as ever being adequate to hold who God is. I found this to be ever so true. While in the beginning my propositional faith could not stand up in the presence of my experience with grief and doubt, when I (re)discovered God as Trinity I found that propositions in general were way too small in the face of the triune God. Second, I think that in the rush to propositionalize everything many Christians fail to accept the mystery of the triune God. I mean, there’s not much mystery to a powerpoint or a “5 steps to ????” sermon series. I can not overstate how much we need to learn from our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters, who never lost their Trinitarian grounding, and speak often in their music, worship, and liturgy of the mysterium tremendum involved when we tiny, puny humans approach the triune God of the universe.

Grenz though presents us with a theology that is intentionally structured and shaped by the triune reality of God in which Trinitarian concerns are not relegated to a footnote or single section but instead permeate all areas of theology. It is in Grenz’s writings that I discovered the idea of perichoresis (which I also glanced over as an undergrad), or our participation in the divine Trinitarian life of God, articulated first by the church fathers but seemingly lost in modern theology. I found that Trinitarian theology (and the reality of participation in the Triune life) spoke directly to my desperation and doubt. I found Trinitarian theology to be immensely practical while at the same time not sacrificing, well, the theological. In fact, through my study of Trinitarian theology I became convinced more than ever of the overwhelming majesty, beauty, and sovereignty of God even in the midst of my doubt and grief. In the process I found a desperation for God I had not known previously. Though hurting, grieving, and doubting I was like a moth led the flame. In essence I went in search of a theology, and a way of doing theology, and ultimately (re)discovered the triune God. In this sense Trinitarian theology has also played a large role in the shaping of my spirituality into a Trinitarian spirituality that can not be separated from and is bound up in Trinitarian theology. I had not (and still have not) captured all of who God is, but instead the situation was reversed: I became captured by the triune God. I think that may be a pretty good definition of what we might call “desperation theology” (and theology in general perhaps), not trying to somehow propositionally capture God but being captured by God. Maybe we should all be desperate theologians!

Concluding Theological Primer

When I have discussed this with certain people in the past they have not only been concerned about my experience with doubt but also about my views on propositionalist theology (believing that propositional truth is somehow the highest form of truth). So, it occurs to me that some may come across this and wonder, “Why is this guy saying all these terrible things about propositions?” or, “How can this guy claim to have faith when he clearly dismisses propositions?” or even, “How can he claim that he holds to biblical truth saying some of the things he says?” If you are reading this and you find yourself with questions like these, its ok, I have been asked questions like these more than once in person. And hopefully, I can put you at ease. My plan is to of course unpack this more over time but here some brief statements concerning my approach to theology.

First, I embrace what might be called a post-propositionalist theology. This does not mean that I have summarily done away with propositions but simply placed them in their proper context. The move from propositional to post-propositional is a move from propositions as the sum and substance of theology and faith to a narrative theology and a narrative faith. The issue is that all of the propositions we believe about God and theology in general are embedded within and share an organic relationship with a larger narrative or story. We do a great disservice when we treat theology as “whatever the Bible says about ???” and then proceed to draw (or rip!) out propositions from there. I am not saying that there is no propositional or cognitive element to theology or faith, that propositions do not exist or are not important (I have plenty of propositions I believe). What I am saying is that these propositions come to us through narrative, specifically the biblical narrative and narrative of the incarnation of Christ who can never be reduced to any proposition, and must be lived (not simply formulated) out in the context of our personal narratives. In short, without their narrative contexts propositions are at the least in danger of distortion and at worst dead.

Second, in my move to a post-propositional, narrative theology I came to treat the Bible differently…as well, narrative. In this I no longer see myself as looking at the Bible in order to glean somehow timeless propositions (and thus, in a sense, standing over the Bible in authority), but see myself as looking along the Bible as narrative, seeking to conform my personal narrative with the narrative of biblical triune discourse (thus seeking to be under the Bible in posture and shaped by the biblical narrative in practice). This narrative of living along the biblical narrative naturally leads to missional living as we participate in the missio dei (or mission of God) and the narrative of the kingdom of God. [As a historical note: I am indebted to Logsdon Seminary and Crosspoint Fellowship in Abilene for their embodiment of missional living and giving me a place to develop and embody my theological reflections.]

Third, as a result of this I could no longer view the theological task as simply gleaning propositions from scripture as is often the case in traditional systematics. In a sense we are all theologians because we all believe something about God (“theo-logy” literally means “words about God” or “teaching about God”). But we are also all theologians in how we live (our narratives), not just what we say (our propositions). Our lives are inherently theological! In view of this I have taken to theologian Miroslav Volf’s view of seeing the task of theology as a involving a whole way of life. Most specifically I have come to see the theology as my/our participation in the divine Trinitarian life of God that is Trinitarian, narrative, and missional in nature. I don’t have the time to unpack this presently, but this is what I see as the thrust of the theological task: theology as participation in the divine life; exhibited and lived out in Trinitarian praxis, narrative praxis, and missional praxis.

Urgent Prayer Needed – Update

Many thanks…

Greetings all! I thought that a little update was in order from my last post for all that have been praying for us. First, C.C. and I want to express our deep gratitude and appreciation for those that sent us money since my last post. I don’t know of anything else to say other than we are incredibly humbled and indebted to you all. I feel that far too often we followers of Christ settle for generalities when what we need to do is share specifics of whatever may be a struggle for us or what needs we may have. I was very tempted to take another route besides the one of authenticity and not be so honest about our/my struggles since we got to Houston. But the more I prayed about it the more I felt God telling me to share specifics and to let Him and the body of Christ do the rest. I am, for one, greatly inspired when the church does what the body of Christ is supposed to do. Most of what we received was totally anonymous and because of that we can’t give you a direct thank you. Whoever you are please accept our thanks. And we also received assistance from our small group and church back in Abilene, Crosspoint Fellowship. Some of you are presently at the BGCT meeting in downtown Houston and it really kills me that we probably can’t get in to see ya’ll. When someone is a part of Crosspoint they are truly a part of something I feel is special and unique. It was a privilege to be a part of a church such as Crosspoint that is committed to the missional journey and living in the story of Christ as a community. Honestly, I think Crosspoint may have spoiled us and in my opinion we need a Crosspoint Fellowship in SW Houston. 🙂

Updates…

Just briefly here are some updates from some of the requests that I shared in the last post.

  • The gifts that we received enabled us to be able keep our bills up to date. Technically, we should probably still be behind, even with the gifts that we received, because the math still doesn’t totally add up. But, and I confirmed this with my personal accountant (which would be my lovely wife), that not only are we current with ALL our bills but we are actually about 2 weeks ahead of them! All I know to say is, praise God!
  • C.C.’s foot is doing better. We found out is not a stress fracture as we were told to begin with but a form of tendinitis. She is out of the walking boot (which I’m quite sure was not made for so much actual walking) and had some special inserts made for her shoes. Another praise here is that these inserts aren’t likely covered by insurance but we have had an offer from someone to pay for them for if the aren’t.
  • We were able to get the oil changed in the car.
  • And a really big praise is that it looks like I finally have a job. It contingent of course on the background check and a health screen, but those shouldn’t be a problem. I will be working for the St. Luke’s Hospital in Sugar Land (C.C. is at the one downtown) in the kitchen preparing food and delivering meals to the patients. It will be primarily a weekend job but it should provide enough to make the ends meet (and its NOT retail!). I should start at the end of this month.

Present needs…

These are some of the specifics that we would still like you to keep in prayer:

First, continue to keep our finances (car payment, rent, food, etc) in prayer. One thing that is for certain, as we all know, is that the bills will come due again next month. We are thankful for the provision thus far, but we also appreciate your continued prayer.

Second, unless something drastic and unexpected happens we won’t be able to make it for graduation at Logsdon in December. As I said in the previous post, it could be a totally sentimental thing, but C.C. and I worked hard to help get each other through our Logsdon degrees and it would mean a lot for us to be able to walk together. However, this is one of the things that we haven’t been able to take care of yet and it looks like we may have to see if we can walk in May (though I would personally prefer December).

Third, there has been a development concerning my plans to pursue a PhD. No, I am not chickening out or anything. However, due to a combination of me misjudging application deadlines (they were coming up way sooner than I expected) and not being able to have taken the GRE yet I/we have decided it is best to wait, instead of just putting together applications and a GRE at the last minute. By waiting I will be able to give the apps the attention they deserve and I will be able to study more for the GRE in order to get the best score possible. Thankfully, I have been extended a very generous offer from someone to pay for the GRE cost for me. In the meantime, Christie is looking at trying to get into a 2nd year CPE program and we have also decided that I should go ahead and apply to do a first year CPE residency myself next year, so I am in the process of getting that application filled out. Next year has to potential to be very busy.

The Search for a church…

Finally, we are still searching for a church. I have to admit my frustration here. For one thing, I don’t like the idea of church shopping but it feels like that is what we have been doing. The idea of church shopping seems to conjure up images that have become common of peoples looking at churches only for “goods” and “services” that they can consume. But the reality is that this is the exact opposite of what we want to do. What are we looking for in a church? Well, in short, we are looking for a place that does not feed into this consumerism. We are looking for a church that is an incarnational, holistic community that has an awareness of living within the deep narrative of Christ and Scripture (and that hopefully has at least somewhat of an awareness of the lectionary and liturgy). Far from a consumeristic focus we are looking for a church that has a missional focus, a missional community that seeks to journey and struggle together in figuring out how to embody the gospel in and through the natural rhythms of life (and that is hopefully comfortable with the fact that C.C. is ordained). This is the kind of church that we feel like Crosspoint is, but something that we have not really been able to find here.

It seems that the area of Houston we are in is the land of the megachurches and while some are admittedly better than others, at least one church that we went to could aptly be described as “Six Flags over Jesus.” It seemed, at least to me, to be overly concerned with slick production and entertainment, the worship set was basically a concert complete with light show, smoke, and the works. A concert is fine every so often but a steady diet of this kind of entertainment candy can’t be good for anyone! So, yes, I’m pretty disenchanted at this point. This same church as above had no scripture reading at all until twenty minutes into the “talk” – almost 50 minutes into a service that only went 70 minutes. It just strikes me how “conservative evangelicals” want everything to be “biblical” and will absolutely go to mat for inerrancy, but scripture makes up so little of our corporate worship. These same evangelicals will often accuse liturgical types of having a “low” view of scripture when actually the corporate reading of scripture plays a central role in their worship.

In my opinion this should make one wonder. When scripture IS used (in the churches that we have checked out here) it is usually in the form of 1) reduce it down to bullet point doctrinal propositions with a powerpoint, 2) reduce it down to a bullet point “application” with a powerpoint, 3) or some sort of individual self improvement or self-therapy (aka 3 steps to whatever) with a powerpoint. [I should state here that it’s not that I think that powerpoint type things are bad, just the poor and reductionistic use of these things is what frustrates me.] My belief is that much of this flows from what might be called the McChurch template, it’s all the same. Each one is like the other, individualistic, and actually (again in my opinion) consumeristic in nature. Some of these churches may use the word “missional” but it’s not really what we know as missional. There is no corporate wrestling with Scripture in community, no seeming awareness of the lectionary or liturgy, no living in the story of the Bible as God’s people. But then again, once scripture has been boiled down to bullet point propositions, applications, and self help therapy then where is there even a need for the Bible? If this is what it means to be “evangelical”, I may have to reconsider (though I’ve never been overly concerned with labels as such and there may be more important labels than this one)…how can a church (and I ask this with all sincerity) claim to be “evangel-ical” (of the gospel) when it has such a superficial, individualistic view of scripture?

I should specify that I don’t think it’s that many of these churches are not sincere in what they do. But I do think there is a level of individualism, consumerism, and a superficial use/view of scripture that goes unnoticed in the seeker model that most of these churches have adopted or at least copied and adapted to a certain extent. Also, I think that churches should really try to better understand what missional means before using it as a descriptor for their church. Well, I’ll just close by asking for prayer for 1) a genuinely missional community that we can be a part of, 2) for this new job since it is weekends which means that I’ll probably have to work Sunday mornings which would throw a kink in things (though we could go to Ecclesia’s 5:30 service but the drawback is that it is a pretty good drive downtown to get there), and 3) for us just attending a service once a week is not enough, we need a group we can do life with. So pray that we will be able to find a small group soon.

Many thanks!

For His Kingdom.