Thoughts on ‘Operating Without a Net’

Look Ma, No Net

God told Abram [later called Abraham]: “Leave your country, your family, and your father’s home for a land that I will show you. (Genesis 12:1, emphasis mine)

I wonder if Abraham, leaving for a land that God was yet to show him, felt like he was operating without a net.

You know what I talking about, right? Have you ever been there … without a net I mean?

Like in the movies when the bad guys are chasing the good guys and the good guys come to a scary looking chasm too wide to jump over with either a raging river or jagged rocks below (or both). There’s a rope bridge linking the sides of the chasm. Either the good guys get halfway over and are met by more bad guys on the other side (you know, like in Indiana Jones) or the rope bridge is old and in disrepair and won’t hold the weight of people trying to cross. Either way someone usually ends up hanging precipitously over that raging river or jagged rocks … and there’s no net.

You know what I’m talking about now, right? This has been normal for Christie and I for some years now. Abraham, Indiana, and us on that rope bridge with no net. Now, just to clarify, I’m not complaining. Actually, I’m not sure that Christie and I ever really realized we were supposed to operate with a net. The major evidence of this is that I can think of at least five major moves/transitions we’ve made without having a source of income waiting for us – stepping out on faith, without a net.

This is how we went to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth. At SWBTS I first had the ‘Southern Baptist system’ explained to me by the guy in charge of the placement office there. He said there are three tiers of students. The fortunate get hired by larger churches in some capacity … maybe even senior pastor. The less fortunate get taken by smaller churches … maybe even as pastor. The third tier end up working bi-vocationally. The ‘system’ I was then told was designed so that once you’re in you had the chance to work your way up the tiers and hierarchies. Youth and education ministers could become senior pastors and pastors at smaller churches could work their way to larger churches. I was told the system serves as a ‘safety net.’

To me though, the system and the language used to describe the system seemed more like the Southern Baptist version of the corporate ladder. We learned again, and have learned many times over since then – that the traditional ‘system’ for staffing churches, designed to support and maintain traditional structures, does not fit us and we do not fit it. So, we opted out of the system. There was a Southern Baptist system for planting churches too. But it seemed too much like the traditional Southern Baptist system to me – just with a more ‘contemporary’ feel. Before we left SWBTS I took a church planting class and I was offered a chance to go to one of three very large yet to be determined cities. They had no interests in doing anything in a small town – but Christie and I felt called to go back to Plainview, TX … so we went.

And this has been our mode of operation ever since … largely opting out of the traditional way of doing church (and life), opting out of Southern Baptist systems and structures (we landed in more moderate BGCT waters), and operating without a net. It grieves me that some feel this is because we hate traditional churches. This could not be further from the truth. We deeply love the churches that have given us roots, the Texas Baptist schools in which we have been educated, and the Texas Baptist churches that support and fund these schools. Christie and I have gone without a net, not because we are against traditional churches but because this is the direction God showed us and we are all about following wherever the missio Dei takes us. It has been a long journey. Despite the challenges and hardships, along the way I have sought to live…

A life that makes no sense if the God we Christians name and worship as Trinity does not exist…

A life that is intelligible apart from the life, kingdom, and mission of Father, Son, and Spirit…

A life of worship and faithful presence that quietly subverts the consumerism, individualism, and deistic secularism of our western culture…

I think that we have tried to live out this kind of life as consistently as we could. Little did we know that this would lead us into two periods of exile. The first was when we were living in Portales, NM and found ourselves suddenly without employment. We were forced to accept the community and hospitality offered to us by our church and we lived in an RV for six months – a time of refinement. The second, most recently, is when we moved to Carlsbad, NM to live with Christie’s parents – a time of discontent as well as discernment.

The Blessings of Exile

The discontent that I have felt since we arrived here I have made no secret of and have detailed in three full posts. However, there has also been blessing in exile through a further discernment and formation of a pastoral and theological identity and imagination. The fact that one opts out of the ‘system’ and goes without a net doesn’t mean that one has everything figured out where vocation is concerned. In fact the exact opposite may be the case. As we neared the end of our chaplaincy residencies I sensed that the process of vocational discernment begun as a resident would be continued in the following season. When we got to Carlsbad I knew that I had work to do. I went about this work by reading two memoirs: one by a theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, called Hannah’s Child and the other called The Pastor by Eugene Peterson. In the accounts of their own vocational formation, they equipped me with formative narratives and stories that helped me make sense of my own story … they gave me the gift of their lives (I should probably say more about this sense of ‘given-ness’ and ‘giftedness’ in the future).

The shape of my vocational formation became even more apparent through my employment at a mental health center by being placed in a context in which I did not fit. I had already experienced a pastoral and theological disconnect during the CPE portion of my chaplaincy residency. Much of the time (but not all) I felt that we were being trained to be more junior therapists than pastors that provide spiritual direction and care to the suffering. Knowing the tensions that I had felt with the therapeutic I wondered just what working for a secular mental health organization would be like. Mental health professionals do an important job and I want to be fair. However, as one who has studied postmodern philosophy and theology I have deep tensions with the entrenched modernistic assumptions behind the bulk of behavioral health.

I have never worked someplace or in a system that so readily defines persons by their problems, or reduces them to a diagnosis, and is so thoroughly un-holistic in that it reduces the spiritual aspect of care to a question on an intake form. Furthermore, it is my observation and opinion that the mental health system takes with the left what the right hand gives (ie, the system is designed to give the appearance that we are helping people with funds on the front end but then does all it can to deny payment for services with those same funds on the back end). I have found that these are pronounced tensions for me. Additionally, my specific formation as a pastor and theologian has made it hard for me to do the work of a ‘Community Support Worker’ or ‘Psycho-Social Rehabilitation (PSR) Specialist’. I’ve felt like a square peg trying to fit in a round hole.

I’m learning by experience what my theological instincts told me – that pastoring is not simply another one of the ‘helping’ professions. We really do need good social workers and therapists, I sincerely believe that. Their work is vitally important, and we especially need social workers and therapists committed to the missio Dei. But I also believe pastors betray their unique vocation if they allow themselves to become amateur social workers or junior psychologists. Still, I’m grateful for my time as a CPE/chaplain resident and at the mental health center because the tensions I experienced in these places have been the occasions to further integrate my theological and pastoral sides. The patients and clients I’ve had the privilege to give my presence too have been my greatest teachers. Since arriving at Logsdon Seminary in January of 2007 I have learned so much about the intersection of the theological and pastoral and how the two should not be torn asunder. This experience of exile has been the occasion for the further discovery and integration of my pastoral and theological vocations. This is a journey that I look forward to continuing.

Here We Go Again

As our journey continues, we again find ourselves once again keeping good company with Abraham and Indiana Jones … operating without a net. The difference though between ourselves and Abraham is that God has shown us where we are to go – Abilene, TX. We’ve been pleasantly surprised that as we have shared the news that we are going back to Abilene, back home, at how many people express a similar affinity for A-town. Abilene seems to have its fair share of admirers. We are looking forward to the opportunity to re-invest our lives in this place called Abilene and among the people of Hardin Simmons University/Logsdon Seminary and Crosspoint Fellowship. With our move to Abilene there are some inevitable questions that come up. I list here three (there are probably more)…

Does this means that we were wrong to go off to Houston for chaplaincy residencies? I don’t think so. Like I said, we have always tried to follow the missio Dei wherever it leads – and this is where it led. I can’t begin to describe the valuable (if not exhausting and at times almost debilitating) pastoral experience we gained and that changed who we both are. Our decision to go was confirmed by God and our community – I think it would be unwise to second guess that now. This exile we have found ourselves in now did not last forever and has had its purpose – and so did our residencies. Within the experience as chaplains, and within the experience of being in ministry together in such an intense manner, are embedded pastoral formation, integration, and skills we will need in the future. We need to be patient even if we don’t know where these experiences ‘fit’ right now (I will most likely need to be reminded that I said this later, so feel free).

What of my plans to get a PhD and my vocation as a theologian? Well, I still plan on getting one. I just no longer have the desire to move to California or North Carolina to do one. Its nothing against the schools in these places for they are top notch. I simply feel the need for my research to be situated in our common life together with our Crosspoint and Logsdon families. I can’t describe it much more than that right now … it just doesn’t ‘make sense’ anywhere else. The good news is there are distance programs I can do. But then there is also the question of where I will teach? I would relish the opportunity to teach at Logsdon more than I can put in words (this shouldn’t be surprising to those that know me).

I think we are going to see the numbers of students opting out of the traditional denominational paths and systems (much like we I did which and how we ended up at Logsdon in the first place) increase greatly. More and more, I think, are going to go without the traditional nets. These students will need profs who can relate and help shepherd them, which is something I believe my experience base equips me very well to do. But I make no presumptions. Whatever happens I want to be doing the work of theology (in some form or fashion) in a particular context whatever job I may have. Is there any other way to be a theologian than in a particular ‘place’?

What about my pastoral vocation and how does it mix with my theological vocation? I also get asked often, “Don’t you see yourself pastoring your own church at some point?” The answer is frankly “No, not really.” Unless God surprises me, I do not feel called to be a paid solo or senior pastor at a ‘traditional’ church (in fact, I have become uncomfortable with the whole idea of a solo or senior pastor). This is not a statement against traditional churches per se, just a statement of my own theological/pastoral convictions and where I feel called vocationally. I also feel the need to be attentive to finding the place where my vocation and Christie’s vocation come together and mutually compliment each other. Neither of us can leave the other behind, we are in this together (and we make a good team I think).

If I had my wishes I would feel vocationally at home working at HSU (staff of some sort, theology prof perhaps when the time is right?) and using my pastoral/theological gifts at Crosspoint. I would envision myself as a pastoral theologian, an ecclesial theologian with the responsibility…

1) to develop a storied imagination which emplots us into the biblical narrative and story of Christ,

2) to develop a theological imagination which draws us into the life and activity of Father, Son, and Spirit, and

3) to develop a liturgical imagination through ecclesial practices which form us into a missional community.

Again, I have no presumptions, but I can’t think of much else, twenty five years down the road, that would be more missionally or vocationally fulfilling than to have been ‘placed’ in this manner and with these people.

There are other questions I’m sure. There are always questions that don’t always need answers right now. The important thing is that, here we go again, setting off in a week without a net to the place God has shown us – relying on the provision God provides in community with others. The amazing thing is that in this period of exile I have been able to dream again. This move feels like a new chapter … like a beginning. I don’t yet know what I will doing for a job once we get to Abilene (hence the metaphor of going without a net). I interviewed with Hardin Simmons for a position, and this would be a major source of divine provision. I really want the job, but haven’t heard yet either way as of yet. As we prepare to set off on this new chapter and beginning in our story, we covet your prayers and are thankful for your expressions of gospel shaped community and hospitality.

May the shalom our liberating King be with you all.

Jesus vs Religion [1] – What Do You Think?

Evangelicals love their clichés. No, they really do!

We hear them after a huge disappointment, “God obviously has something better in store for you.”

We can hear them at the break up of a longstanding relationship, “Well, he/she just wasn’t the one. You just need to wait on God’s timing.”

We can hear them at the death of a child, “God just needed another angel in heaven.” (This is but one of the many well meaning, yet completely unhelpful and theologically vacuous clichés offered to C.C. and I as we suffered through losing three babies to miscarriage.)

And we can hear them from tracts meant to supposedly explain the gospel, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.”

I’m sure that many find clichés helpful. I don’t. In my perspective clichés (like these above and others floating around out there) reduce faith to mere self help motivational pseudo proverbs that claim the look and feel of wisdom but lack any of the substance. To often clichés run rampant over the realities of human experience, dismissing pain with a few words, and sucking the mystery out of God’s activity in our lives. Clichés lack any real theological promise to narrate us into the story of our suffering and liberating Messiah. While it may be true that each cliché is based on a ‘truth’ or represents a ‘truth’ they fail to account for how ‘truth’ is lived out contextually in the lives of real people and their theological shallowness twists and distorts whatever ‘truth’ might be embedded in them.

In the evangelical circles that I grew up in there were two clichés that were absolute favorites…

“I love Jesus but hate religion” and “It’s a relationship … not a religion!” Oh, and let’s not forget, “Religion says ‘do’ but Jesus says ‘done!” (ok, so I guess that makes three not two).

These were even favorites of mine when I was in high school and as a newly called minister after high school. There is even another variety that has popped up that goes, “I’m spiritual but not religious” (which is thought by some to more inclusive than the standard evangelical clichés). The fact is that this sort of thing still seems to resonate with the experience of a great many people, as the response to the spoken word video by Jefferson Bethke that recently went viral shows.

This video has garnered a kajillion views. Many of my facebook friends shared this video on their wall and had nothing but the highest praise saying things like, “This guy gets it!” But Bethke also drew a host of responses in the form of critiques of what many of these persons saw as the promotion of a false dichotomy.  These are some of my favorites:

1) From Jamie Arpin-Ricci, Why St. Francis Loved Jesus AND Religion.

2) From Christianity Today, The Business of Jesus vs Religion, and “why you can’t reconstruct a stripped down, organic, anti-corporate version of what you think Jesus should be.”

3) A Catholic response in the form of a spoken word video:

4) The ‘Internet Monk’ blog on Why I Just Can’t Hate Religion, Though I Love Jesus.

5) Brian LePort at ‘Near Emmaus’ responds with two great posts: Remember, Jesus Practiced Religion too! and Christianity Against Religion.

6) The normally peace loving folks over at the ‘Mennonite Weekly Review’ pull no punches with: The ‘I hate religion but love Jesus’ approach (and YouTube video) is simplistic, unbiblical and dangerous.

7) In addition to the Catholic spoken word response above, here is a Lutheran version (my apologies that we are still waiting on the Baptist version):

8) The ‘Tall Skinny Kiwi’ himself, Andrew Jones, has the skinny in his post: Religion: Love it and Hate it. He summarizes, “There is such a thing as dead, empty, powerless religion which God rejects” … “And there is also religion done right.”

9) Mike Morrell in a rather comprehensive post, Jesus and Religion’s Relationship Status: It’s Complicated.

10) Christian Piatt at ‘Red Letter Christians’ on Hating Religion, Loving Jesus: A Well-Meaning False Dichotomy.

11) Kevin DeYoung at the ‘Gospel Coalition’ blog asks, Does Jesus Hate Religion? Kinda, Sorta, Not Really (see here for a Follow Up on the Jesus/Religion Video with some interaction between DeYoung and Bethke).

12) And finally, Ed Cyzewski at ‘in.a.mirror.dimly’ with a wonderful post on Why Theologians Should Buy the Religion-Hating YouTube Guy a Fruit Basket.

Nowadays, even while trying to understand where Bethke is coming from (having been there once myself), I tend to agree with many if not most of the points made in these critiques (but not all, just because I link to it does NOT mean I agree 100% with it). My contention though is that there are even deeper concerns at the heart of this conversation about Jesus vs religion (as far as I can see) that most people are completely missing. I am going to get these in another post that should be up in the next day or two. For now I think we can say a couple of things completely clearly. First, Bethke is not the first to say these sort of things. The pitting of Jesus against religion has a long pedigree in modern evangelicalism. Second, its very clear this is a conversation that’s long overdue (and that needs some definite theological, philosophical, and hermeneutical thickness to it).

So, before I add my critique and response let me ask:

Do you love Jesus but hate religion? What is the relationship between Jesus and religion? Or do you think Jesus vs religion is an unhelpful false dichotomy? What do you think?

I look forward to reading your comments. Play nice though.

May This Be Our Prayer

Bapto-catholic…that was what the Catholic trauma chaplain at the hospital where I did my residency in Clinical Pastoral Education called me. He was intrigued that I made use of the lectionary, had an interest in and used liturgy, and made use of the prayers in the Book of Common Prayer. He told me I wasn’t like other Baptists he had ever met. I think his description of me is accurate and I think I was probably set up for it. Though I grew up in Baptist churches my whole life, until I went out to west Texas for college (at a Baptist university) I lived in a small Catholic community known as Lindsay. Lindsay was down the road from the slightly larger Catholic community known as Muenster (yes, these were German Catholics).

The result of this was that I grew up around Catholics my whole life, but at church I often heard about how Catholics weren’t really Christians. They were just caught up in religiosity in which they were trying to earn their way to heaven. There was no way that their faith was genuine. This may sound harsh (and it was) but this was the sort of thing that I heard from Baptist pastors, deacons, and church members alike. One deacon used to tell me that the phrase ‘vain repetitions’ was invented just for Catholics.

I am thankful for the few (like my mentor Donnie York) that did tell me that many Catholics actually were capable of genuine faith and it was probably about same percentage as Baptists – maybe a little more! As a chaplain/CPE resident I had ample opportunity to speak with Catholics as they faced traumas and many times death. I am grateful to these Christian brothers and sisters for teaching me about their deep faith in Christ during these times of deep grief and lament. Yes, we have theological differences, but this does/did not cancel out the depth of their faith in Jesus. I cringe whenever I hear fellow Baptists or other rather ‘conservative’ evangelicals say that Catholics can’t possibly be Christians.

In the sermon yesterday morning the pastor told a story about when Giuseppe Melchiorre Sarto became Pope Pious X in 1903. Sarto apparently did not want to accept the position of pope initially but was encouraged to do so by his friend, Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val y de Zulueta (that’s quite the name!), who would become Pious X’s Secretary of State. Merry del Val gifted the new Pope with a prayer that would become known as the Litany of Humility, and one which del Val was said to have prayed every day after the Mass. The full text is below. Read it slowly and meditate on it.

O Jesus, meek and humble of heart, Hear me.

From the desire of being esteemed, Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the desire of being loved, Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the desire of being extolled, Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the desire of being honored, Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the desire of being praised, Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the desire of being preferred to others, Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the desire of being consulted, Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the desire of being approved, Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the fear of being humiliated, Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the fear of being despised, Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the fear of suffering rebukes, Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the fear of being calumniated, Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the fear of being forgotten, Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the fear of being ridiculed, Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the fear of being wronged, Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the fear of being suspected, Deliver me, O Jesus.

That others may be loved more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be chosen and I set aside, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be praised and I go unnoticed, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be preferred to me in everything, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

Can I just say that I think that Baptist deacon was wrong? There is nothing ‘vain’ about this prayer. If you can pray this prayer and it falls under the category of ‘vain repetition’ … well, my friend, don’t blame the prayer because that’s not where the problem resides. Church father John Chrysostom said that the lack of humility and the search for ‘popular praise’ was (in a reference to the ancient Hydra slain by Hercules) an ‘invisible and savage monster’ that needed its many heads cut off, or better yet, to have prevented them from growing altogether. Those that are able to slay this monster of popular praise and esteem and the lack of humility will enjoy the ‘quiet heaven of rest’ while those that don’t will suffer ‘manifold struggles, personal confusion, deep dejection, and a host of other passions.’

We Protestants (of all flavors) can learn much from our Eastern Orthodox (represented here by the ancient wisdom of Chrysostom) and Catholic brethren. May we take Chrysostom’s advice and slay the monster of pride and the lack of humility. Oh that the Litany of Humility were prayed more often in ALL expressions of the ekklesia!

May it gradually shape and form us into the humble image of our Liberating King.

‘Deliver us, O Jesus’ … ‘Jesus, grant us the grace’ …  may this be our prayer!