Wednesday, February 20, 2008

I'm not writing you a new orthodoxy but an old one

This post (and the others in this very interesting series) by Michael Patton got me thinking about "orthodoxy." The term literally means "right teaching" or "right thinking", though Patton gives some more thorough definitions according to various camps of Christianity. If you look at the lists of beliefs that constitute orthodoxy in Patton's post (and he did a great job assembling these), you can see that most Christian camps refer to "orthodoxy" not really as "right teaching" of Christianity as a whole but rather right teaching of specific, so called "essential" teachings of Christianity. Several questions immediately come to mind, but a few that I want to discuss here are:
  • What teachings, thoughts, beliefs are "essential" to Christianity?
  • How (and by whom) are such "essentials" to be determined?
  • How are people's beliefs to be determined for purpose of measuring them against the orthodox ones that are selected?

Along these lines, here are the guts of my comments at Scot McKnight's blog about this:

I fear that [these lists] represent what I hate to see (but frequently do) in discussions of “orthodoxy”–we don’t use Jesus’ life, ministry and teachings as the plumb line, we use some favorite [or historical] interpreter(s) of him, which leads to deeper divisions in Christ’s body, just as it did in Corinth and continues to do today. . . These lists of beliefs are, therefore, better used as history of past battles over particular pieces of reality than as wholistically accurate pictures of orthodoxy. Let’s not measure men by lists. Let’s measure men by the Man. The lists, at best, present a very partial picture of orthodoxy. Whereas, the best wholistic picture we have of who God really is and wants to say and do is in Jesus’ teachings and actions. And of course, there are very good scriptural reasons to believe that God will use Jesus own life and teachings as the means of measuring everything that needs measuring. . . . We . . . may not like that putting Jesus at the center messes with our theology and puts more mystery in the whole issue of orthodoxy than we’d like, but let’s at least be express about the plumb line and let the cornerstone be the cornerstone if we’re going to measure who “lines up.” . . . Where on these lists, for example, is the belief that love of God and neighbor are the most important guides to life? Isn’t it at least a little disconcerting that the very teaching that Jesus said was the most important of the entire revelation before him isn’t mentioned in these lists of “essentials”?

What I'm getting at is that one would not likely get the same list of "essential" teachings by studying primarily the teachings of Jesus himself; in fact, some of the teachings that were thematic for Jesus and even the apostles are not considered "essential" to teaching Christianity rightly. I'm thinking, as I mentioned in the comment, of the command that Jesus said summed up all the law and prophets--loving God with every facet of our existence and our neighbors (and enemies) to boot. It is difficult to argue that this was not "essential" according to Jesus' own thinking, or even the thinking of Paul or John or Peter, if their letters are to be believed. One could argue pretty easily based on a casual reading of the New Testament that teaching this "love" is even primary in the faith. And there are others, such as the teaching that one's conduct shows what one truly believes.

So, I'm wondering, first, what would a list of 'essential teachings' look like if we based our list on what appeared to be Jesus' own "essential" teachings and actions (and secondarily those from the rest of the NT). That would be interesting and maybe helpful. But I'm wondering even more, what if we made Jesus himself--his life, his "walk" and his teachings--as our standard for evaluating how far or close a given person or group is to "orthodox Christianity"? Isn't he the plumb line, the cornerstone? Isn't he the walking and talking definition of orthodox Christianity?

If we use him as the Standard instead of a partial list of teachings for determining orthodox Christians, we'd get at least a few benefits:

  • We'd find that he's the only one being perfectly orthodox in his thinking and acting, which will give us all a more graceful tone when evaluating someone else's "orthodoxy" (which not coincidentally will make us more obedient to one of Jesus' own teachings).
  • We'd be more appropriately and equally concerned with a person's actions as we'd be with their stated "beliefs" when evaluating what they actually believe (which again, Jesus seemed to think was a good way to think about such things).
  • We'd be more concerned about our own deviation from the Standard than other people's (yet more obedience to Jesus' teachings).
  • We'd realize that Christianity is more of a Path, more of a growing (or fading) relationship to a Person, than a checklist of right beliefs that can be verbally affirmed and checked off. More important than a snapshot of beliefs is the direction one is heading and whom one is trusting to proceed with life.
  • We'd encourage and make more 'learners of Jesus' than 'affirmers of lists'.
  • We'd be less likely to end up with whole groups of supposedly "orthodox Christians" who are content, even entrenched, to act in direct opposition to several of Jesus' teachings.
  • We'd be using the Standard that God himself will use to judge us all.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Our response to God's offer, part I

The twin invitations of entering God's government on earth and becoming Jesus' apprentice beg the question: what is an appropriate response to such invitations? Ironically, if a prayer was going to be the response, it would be the one Jesus taught us to pray (the "Lord's Prayer"). But is a prayer, even that prayer, the kind of response that "Follow me" is intended to illicit? I think prayer is certainly part of what following Jesus means, but prayer alone, even his own or one in which we call him 'lord', doesn't seem to be what "Follow me" is all about. Talk of any kind certainly isn't what the government of God is about; it's about power, right dealings with others, and joy, all through the Holy Spirit. God's invitations are invitations to get oneself on board with a leader, a God, who has a definite agenda and direction. It's about ceasing to be part of the problem and becoming part of God's healing solution through really trusting and following his son.

While there are perhaps an unlimited variety of plans of action that embody a wise response to God's kingdom/discipleship offer (for a fantastic article on the subject, check out this one from Dallas Willard; it's a really a short book, but really worthwhile), the 12 steps continue to impress me in so many ways as an appropriate and thoughtful response to the invitations into Jesus' kingdom and apprenticeship. The steps are about changing one's path and who controls it. They're about honestly facing the causes and effects of our own management and acquiring the humility on which all other virtues can be built. And letting God build those virtues is expressly named as a necessary goal. In a nutshell, they're about actually letting God reign instead of us. They're about God having his Way in us.

So, some friends and I (more on that later) are taking some version of the following 12 steps together, slightly modified from the current steps of AA, as a structured response to what God is offering us all through Jesus. The bold words highlight what's different from AA's current version; they're not for emphasis. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the point is not the steps, they're just suggestions, hopefully wise ones. "The goal is Jesus, the means is Jesus."
  1. We admitted that something was wrong, in us and in the world at large, and that we were powerless to fix it.
  2. Came to believe that Jesus has ultimate power, goodness, and wisdom, yet is available to all.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of Jesus, God's choice of king.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character and become like Jesus himself.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings and to give us His Spirit.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Looking at Jesus, we continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through several helpful practices to improve our conscious and cooperative contact with God.
  12. Having witnessed Jesus' work personally, we shared him with others, and tried to practice Jesus' ways in all our affairs.

First, the gospel

I said a few posts back that I'd give more on what's been stewing and happening lately. Here's the first bit. Both in time and importance, it starts with the gospel. Actually, the starting place for me has been Jesus, which got me thinking about his 'gospel'. Most that know me know that the favorite message of Jesus, the good news of God's government, has been messing with me for last 6 years or so. Without going into that full journey, here's a summary of where I am now:

The gospel, according to Jesus, is about accepting, trusting, the leadership and provision of God right now. Importantly, this government of God is led by his son, the 'christ'-ened king of heaven and earth, Jesus. Even though God could have sent the representative of his government to judge and toss all the human rebels and just start a 'new heaven and earth' from scratch--one in which the two dimensions were united under his leadership, he opted instead to offer amnesty to anyone that wanted give up their own doomed agendas for life and get on board with the king, Jesus, and the 'new creation out of the old' agenda of his government. To accomplish this, God sent Jesus to do certain things (to be discussed later) and with basically two invitations: the gospel ("good news") of the government of God and the invitation to become Jesus' 'disciple'. To me, these are the same invitation. Why? Because Jesus is the king of the government of God; apprenticeship to him, the king, is to give up your own agendas and ways (repent) and to trust instead that God is working through Jesus as God's own chosen leader for people (trust that the kingdom of God is at hand). Different language, same outcome when the 'discipler' is also the 'king'.

This king showed up teaching, healing, and generally undoing Satan's leadership (instead of, say, executing a just and terrible judgment on a world largely run amuck--this difference actually disappointed some). His goal is still to produce a 'new heaven and earth' that is united and holy and good--completely untouched by contrary leadership and its effects. But in order to include us in this new creation project, the cross was necessary. Thanks to his substitutionary death, all humans can actually be welcomed into this great plan God has for (new) creation instead of being thrown out as part of the problem. We can, thanks to Jesus bearing the cross and death, be given amnesty and become part of God's solution, part of re-creation of the world. He rescued us so that we could be his co-operative subjects and family.

But an important caveat: We have to decide now if we want to enter and receive the government of God personified by Christ's own leadership. "Why call [him] 'lord' and do nothing that [he] says?" Is that what biblical or even practical 'trust' is? Is that what it means to "receive" and "enter" the government of God--to stay hostile to what the king of that government says to do? No one who continues a life of rebellion against God's leading, against his annointed leader's priorities, has any part, certainly no inheritance, in the kingdom of God. "The time has come. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and trust this good news!", or, another way Jesus put the exact same choice, "Follow me." To "receive" him is to receive his right and qualifications to lead; to trust him is to do what he says; to love him is to obey him. Those who do the will of God will live forever. Eternal life is to know God, and Jesus whom he has sent, but the one who says, "I know him" but lives contrary to him does not know him.

SO, if the invitation is not to "receive a free gift" of eternal life but to receive Jesus and his government (which has life within) . . . man! Does that change things in church world!! How do we invite people into that--into what Jesus was inviting them into!? Perhaps more importantly, for those of us that want to receive ourselves what God is offering in Jesus, how do we structure our response? To me, Jesus' invitations are more 'path' invitations and require 'path' responses.
The invitation always structures the response. More on appropriate responses to God's invitation soon.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Needed to be said

I dig this piece; saw it yesterday. And Scot McKnight is looking for feedback on it. For my part, I agree with the guts of it completely. As a registered republican (barely, I admit), I am proud of the ways McCain has, at times--not frequently--bucked his own party. I'm thinking of a few: immigration, campaign finance reform, torture, & certain tax bills. Of all these, his direction on immigration and torture impress me the most. They impress me even more given his personal history and his awareness of the seriousness of the national security issues we now face. His take on torture is historically informed, future-looking, and, frankly, far more respectful of the Judeo-Christian ethic so many of his detractors are so concerned about a President implementing.

Here's something I see going on here as well: many evangelicals voted for W because he was one of us; we had an idea of where he was coming from, how he made his decisions, and we felt confident about someone who made decisions that way. Many such people, myself included, don't trust that reasoning as much now because of several of W's actual decisions, such as his initial decision to go to war (ignoring the advice of C. Powell, who should have had the most clout of any cabinet member in any such discussion), and his support for various torture techniques (the end justifies the means?), and other decisions, even the deficit. I personally was also discouraged by his hamstringing of the bankruptcy code which is a much-needed form of institutional mercy that this country picked up from our Judeo-Christian heritage. At any rate, for various reasons based largely on the actual decisions of the President, many evangelicals aren't quick to vote for someone now just because the candidate is evangelical and can talk that talk. That selection method has hesitations now, and there are as many competing methods now as candidates. Now, a candidate's sincere 'evangelicalism' is just one factor among others, which is unfortunate for Huckabee, but likely a good thing for the Republican Party and definitely a good thing for the country. But as a new selection process settles in, there's a little confusion on the right, and fewer easier answers. We're growing as citizens and voters, even though it results, for now, in many traditional conservative mouth pieces, who have preached their various conservative litmus tests for years, having to accept a candidate who's never had much use for such tests. Change is hard, especially for 'conservatives'. It's harder to make decisions with so many factors to consider. It's also part of growing up.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

A guiding principle

As I mentioned earlier, I'm working with Urban Youth Impact to re-orient our own lives and our ministries around God's goals for people, ourselves included. The result so far has been a shift toward inviting ourselves and others into a shared direction, into similar, practical plans for fruitful marriage to Jesus, rather than inviting anyone into getting singular "decision(s) for Jesus" with plans for marriage that are secondary or tangential or even non-existent. That may not make much sense, but more on that to come. For now, I will share one of my favorite phrases that has emerged as we have been making this shift and contemplating various "workout plans" for healthy living as Jesus' disciples:

"Remember, the goal is Jesus; the means is Jesus."

Kyle made me do this

I've been tagged by Kyle for a "what are you reading now" meme. So, Kyle, since you're very far away, are expecting your first child, and are now probably brainwashed to never use a 6th grade level vocabulary for more than three consecutive sentences, I will give you two -- that's right two -- answers on this: one business and one non-business.

I'm practically surrounded by books at work, but they are the technical, lawyerly kind. The one that was on top of the stack today doesn't even have typical page numbers. I'm not kidding. The pages are "1-7" (for the seventh page of chapter one), and "2-22" (for the twenty-second page of chapter two), etc. Which means I had to actually do math to find the 123rd page of the book. Well, I don't do math, I do Excel. But you get the point. And here's what the 6th through 9th sentences were on the 123rd page of Practice Under the Florida Probate Code:

Trial courts have jurisdiction over the trustees of a trust when the situs of the trust is in Florida, and both statutory requirements and the constitutional minimum contacts requirements have been met. Chereskin v. Branch Banking & Trust Co., 705 So.2d 955 (Fla. 1st DCA 1998). The 1993, 1995, and 2001 legislatures passed important legislation in the area of trust law that significantly changed probate proceedings, relating to certain trusts, and the 2006 Legislature enacted the Florida Trust Code (F.S. Chapter 736), effective July 1, 2007, which created a new body of trust statutes more closely modeled on the Uniform Trust Code. A complete examination of the legislation is beyond the scope of this chapter; the following is a partial summary of the changes.

Just enough to whet your appetite about those changes, huh?
I'll post on from my "home" reading and who I choose to tag next . . .