Thomas Merton

13 12 2008

Please avoid reading anything written by Thomas Merton – you will probably not sleep well. Thomas Merton exposes more than most of us want to see – he looks at life very seriously in stark contrast to most of us busily being busy. I’ve started reading Merton and not I’m sure what would be safe to post … well – here’s something short that may not cause much harm:

If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I think I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for. Between these two answers you can determine the identity of any person. 

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the end of Thomas Merton’s life (1915-1968 ) which is being commemorated, in part, by a documentary produced by Morgan Atkinson that will air on PBS beginning tomorrow. Locally WFSU-TV didn’t place it very well on their schedule so set your DVR to record at either 2 or 4 am Monday.

Are we finding our way out of the cold cellar?

28 10 2008

In The Root of the Righteous, A.W. Tozer begins the chapter “Christ Died for our Hearts” with the following: “The human heart lives by its sympathies and affections. In the day that will try every man’s works how much we know will not come in for much consideration. What and whom we have loved will be about all that matters then. For this reason we can never give too great care for the condition of our inner lives.

“The vital place of the moral sympathies in human character has not in recent times received from our religious teachers the attention it deserves. We are only now emerging from a long ice age during which an undue emphasis was laid upon objective truth at the expense of subjective experience. The climate in evangelical circles was definitely chilly. We made the serious mistake of taking each other as criteria against which to judge our spiritual lives instead of comparing notes with Bible saints and with the superior lovers of God whose devotional works and inspired hymns linger like a holy fragrance long after they themselves have left this earthly scene.

“The reason back of this huge error is not hard to discover. The movement toward objective truth and away from religious emotion was in reality a retreat from fanaticism. Bible-loving Christians half a century ago were repulsed by certain gross manifestations of religious flesh on the part of some of the very ones who laid claim to the most exalted spiritual experiences, and as a result fled from wild fire to deep freeze. Bible teachers became afraid to admit the validity of the religious sympathies. The text became the test of orthodoxy, and Fundamentalism, the most influential school of evangelical Christianity, went over to textualism. The inner life was neglected in constant preoccupation with the ‘truth’, and truth was interpreted to mean doctrinal truth only. No other meaning of the word was allowed. Objectivism had won. The human heart cowered in its cold cellar, ashamed to show its face.”

Small groups need a mission

23 10 2008

Scott Boren knows what works and what doesn’t when it comes to small groups.  Both of his books are excellent resources for anyone engaged in forming or leading small groups.

I recently read his latest book, How Do We Get There From Here?: Navigating the Transformation to Holistic Small Groups – here are a few of the points that really stuck with me:

♦ Small groups only work when they exist to change the world.

♦ The only way to train leaders is to mentor.

♦ The focus of small groups must be to expand the group ultimately to start new churches, train new pastors and impact the world.

♦ Small groups will not work if they are just about deep knowledge without reference to practical ways the group can live out what they discuss.

♦ Small groups have three core requirements:
    1) Members must be discipled
    2) Leaders must be coached and invested in
    3) The church must value small groups above all other church activities/functions

♦ Effective small groups need to:
    1) Be holistic in nature
    2) Meet for a task
    3) Have a stated purpose of reaching nonbelievers
    4) Be intentional at raising up new leaders and multiplying groups

You can read the Introduction here and a second sort of introduction titled Navigational Hazards here (where Scott discusses eight typcal hazards encountered by churches intentionally moving toward small groups).

Missional renaissance

9 09 2008

I just received an email from Leadership Network featuring four churches who have decided to move in a more missional direction.  I found the brief summaries of their stories both encouraging and motivating.  Change is not only possible but it can also bring more life to the congregation and the community:

Some strange and wonderful things are happening at Rivertree Christian Church.

After praying for 12 years about purchasing a local 85-acre farm and finally coming to a point in the congregation’s history where leaders thought they could pull it off, the church took a different direction.

Greg Nettle, senior pastor for the Massillon, OH church, explains: “When we announced that we’re not going to put up a $40 million campus…that we’re going to be committed to being generous as a church and give money away…people cheered in every service,” Greg says.

The announcement and the congregation’s response were unusual because such a turn of events is counterintuitive to most pastors’ dreams of growing a church, buying land, attracting even more attenders and seeing new Christians invite friends to help the church grow even larger.

Instead, some churches today are pursuing a different course that takes them out of the four walls of their church buildings and into surrounding communities. This adventuresome spirit is sometimes even taking them to other continents.

This shift toward first motivating church members to serve in their communities, rather than initially inviting community members into the church buildings is what some ministry leaders around the country are calling a missional impulse. And because this is not a new desire, but the revival of an old one, this ongoing transition is being called a missional renaissance.

The motivations leading today’s missional churches to adopt a more incarnational approach vary. And the leaders of these churches are motivated by a variety of influences – both internal and external – including Scripture, books, the example of other Christian leaders, or the success of a particular ministry within their own church.

Tim Senff, director of ReachOut , a ministry of Crossroads Community Church (Cincinnati, OH), identifies 2004 as the year his church began a serious movement toward more missional involvement with its local and extended communities.

The catalyst for the change was a building campaign in which church leaders decided to dedicate a percentage of the money raised toward practical assistance for others. Most of these designated funds helped the church build an AIDS hospice in Mamelodi, South Africa. Brian Tome, Crossroad’s senior pastor, had visited South Africa in 2003, and brought his passion for the project back to Cincinnati.

Crossroad’s leadership was surprised at the people’s response to the challenge and it began a season of change in the ministry emphasis of the church. Tim Senff reports that the congregation’s “Go Mamelodi” trips have “rocked the church” and “helped them to see the power of what the local church can do when they come together as a team.” Read the rest of this entry »

What is the church for?

18 07 2008


Problem: so many books – so little time.

Solution: google and blogs.

It is easy to become overwhelmed with all the good books and clearly unrealistic to read very many of them.  But when we don’t read we place ourselves in a vacuums place – detached from the world of ideas and I think from an important lens to see the activity of God in our broader culture.

I came across a few thoughts about a book titled A Community Called Atonement by Scot McKnight (©2007) on Paul Littleton’s blog.  In his book Scot tackles the meaning of the atonement in a more holistic way (regarded by some as inflamatory because he challenges (the limitations of) some long held perspectives).  Here’s a short quote from the book before the thoughts from Paul Littleton:

“To be forgiven, to be atoned for, to be reconciled – synonymous expressions – is to be granted a mission to become a reciprocal performer of the same: to forgive, to work atonement, and to be an agent of reconciliation. Thus, atonement is not just something done to us and for us, it is something we participate in – in this world, in the here and now. It is not just something done, but something that is being done and something we do as we join God in the missio Dei.” (p. 30-31)

(A)ny theory of atonement should keep the end in mind – what was atonement meant to produce? In answering that question McKnight notes that the atonement was not just meant to produce forgiven people, but that “the work of God is to form a community in which the will of God is done and through which one finds both union with God and communion with others for the good of others and the world.” Thus, the atonement was meant to produce a certain kind of community. I like his approach. I think it is very helpful in formulating a well-rounded and holistic view of the atonement. It avoids getting “stuck” in one particular place, overemphasizing one aspect of atonement to the neglect of others. In fact, he mentions the various views of atonement and likens them to a bag of golf clubs. A golfer might make it through a round with just one club (I think there are even friendly golf games that might involve just such a feat), but don’t expect to shoot par, or probably even close.

Perhaps McKnight’s approach would benefit our understanding of the church as well. Ecclesiology, or the study of the church, is becoming pretty popular these days. One age-old question about the church is, “What are the distinguishing marks of a true church?” Historically the answer to that has been 1) one, 2) holy, 3) catholic and 4) apostolic. To that the Reformers added that a true church is one in which the word is faithfully preached and the sacraments are faithfully practiced. Books on the church tend to proceed from there, describing what one, holy, catholic, apostolic, the word and the sacraments mean. In addition, there has been added to those things such as the fourfold ministry mentioned in Ephesians 4. Those are all valid questions and worthy of our attention and serious thought, but we might be helped in asking the question, “What does God intend to produce in this thing we call the church?”

Why we are disconnected

3 06 2008

As leaders there is not only a need to understand our culture (so we don’t make decisions that result in bridges built to nowhere) but to also understand ourselves (to be effective at leading people over those bridges).  Effective leadership is clearly a mix of many qualities and gifts but the importance of connecting with others relationally is absolutely critical – especially in this period of liminality. 

For us moderns we are all about fixing stuff and we can often do a better job when we understand how stuff got broke.  The following few paragraphs are a perspective on how, some of us at least, got broke – disconnected.  Perhaps if we understand why we are disconnected it will help us first see that reality and then lead to spaces to develop meaningful relationships.  That’s step 1.  Step 2 is leading others to those same places – but if we don’t know the way I’m not sure we have much business leading others.

“The modern congregation is not a coherent context which can teach us how the abstracted aspects of our lives fit together to create a unified reality. It is itself an abstraction, that institution which has the function of servicing the “spiritual” aspect of life…

“These modern conditions produce a different kind of person and a different kind of piety. I have insisted that in our past one’s basic individuality was constituted by the interrelations which in turn made deeper levels of self-consciousness and freedom possible. What is left, the interrelations of the nuclear family, is now being discovered to be incapable of completing the task of the healthy formation of character that was once shared by the clan, tribe, community, and ethnos.

“Moreover, the modern individual moves through the day and the week from one functionalized secondary association to the next, playing in each the role which it elicits. Since no context embraces these roles in a “comprehending” way, the modern treats these relationships as external, as “layers” of one’s consciousness which have to be peeled away to discover the true “inner” self which supposedly retains its integrity from one context to the next and from birth to death. Though radically freed to move at will from one “space” to another, moderns are at home nowhere. They can “have” experiences, but self-transcendence as comprehension is almost impossible.

“Therefore the meaning of holiness and piety also changes. Holiness loses its connection with wholeness, either the wholeness of a completed life story or the stewarding of a concrete people of God. Instead of the comprehension of larger wholes and the care of them for God’s sake, piety is sought in “focus” and in “centering” into one’s purported “inner core.” External relations are shut out in the attempt to feel “one thing” intensely, for conversion is not so much the beginning of a larger story as the initial occasion in which the divided self feels coherent. The Christian life to which such a modern looks forward is more the search for contexts in which to repeat this emotional intensity than a life-long process of working out the upward-reaching rhythms of an “organic” spirituality.

“The end result of our modern pieties is the addictive personality. Since the whole of life is no longer comprehensible, we seek to focus on one thing and, in mastering it, to experience ourselves as wholly a single being…”

Is it possible for us to create space for people in our church and community to live in a “coherent context” in which to comprehend the whole of life that comes through the Gospel?  I think it is – but that context can only exist in meaningful relationships “beyond church services.”  

Quoted from an article written by Delbert Wiens, “Mennonite Brethren: Neither Liberal nor Evangelical,” Direction Magazine, Spring, 1991.  Delbert Wiens teaches philosophy and is active in the Mennonite church.  He holds a B.D. from Yale University and a Ph.D. in Hellenistic philosophy and religion from the University of Chicago. He has taught at Tabor College and, since 1969, at Fresno Pacific College.