God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious.
Whoops. No commentary needed. Read on...
The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with demands, sets up his own laws and judges the brethren and God accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds people together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to pot. So he becomes first an accuser of the brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.
Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into the common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for what he has done for us. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by his call, by his forgiveness and his promise. We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what he does give us daily. And is what has been given us not enough: brothers, who will go on living with us through sin and need under the blessing of his grace? Is the divine gift of Christian fellowship anything less than this, any day, even the most difficult and distressing day? Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life, is not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom I, too, stand under the Word of Christ? Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ?
Thus the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by the one Word and Deed which really binds us together -- the forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus. When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
I just finished reading my friend and missionary colleague Chris Payk's great little book, Grace First: Christian Mission and Prevenient Grace in John Wesley. It is the product of his master's thesis a few years ago, with a foreword by Howard Snyder. Chris and family are have been living in Taipei, Taiwan for some years and he is starting work on a Ph.D -- courses conducted and dissertation to be completed in Mandarin Chinese.
According to Wesley, prevenient grace is given by God to draw, enlighten, and convict persons. Church leaders would be wise to analyze the church's ministries in order to determine whether or not the divine-human relationship in each ministry is the primary concern, so as to identify where ministry energies are being mobilized, and to what extent the church's social, cultural and worldview models are culturally sensitive in light of the transcultural character of prevenient grace. This would help the church to be as effective as possible in communicating the realities of the gospel. (p91)
These Wesleyan insights have helped shape content for the study curriculum that my colleague Jared Siebert and I have developed over the past couple years, Bearing Faithful Witness. One of the sessions explores the Cornelius story in Acts 10, where God had been preparing him in various ways for the visit of Peter, who had likewise been prepared in advance to engage with this outsider to the Jewish tradition. Chris Payk urges us to "pay attention, to notice" where God has already been at work, because that helps us to shape our conversations as we build bridges between God's prevenient activity and the fuller revelation of the Jesus story.
Actually I should like to say that in this case too the words you utter or what you think as you utter them are not what matters, so much as the difference they make at various points in your life. How do I know that two people mean the same when each says he believes in God? And the same goes for belief in the Trinity. A theology which insists on the use of certain particular words and phrases, and outlaws others, does not make anything clearer (Karl Barth). It gesticulates with words, as one might say, because it wants to say something and does not know how to express it. Practice gives the words their sense.
I have been reading Alan Roxburgh's book, Missional Map-Making: Skills for Leading in Times of Transition. He makes some interesting connections to the field of biomedicine. Dr Arthur Kornberg received the Nobel Prize (1959) for his work in isolating the first DNA polymerizing enzyme. A long-time professor at Stanford University, in 2000 he had this to say:
With regard to medical research, the best plan over many decades has been no plan at all. ... the pursuit of understanding the basic facts of nature has proven throughout the history of medical science to be the most practical, the most cost-effective route to successful drugs and devices... Investigations that seemed irrelevant to any practical objective have yielded most of the major discoveries in medicine: X-rays, MRI, penicillin, polio vaccine.
He suggests that the way to "discover" solutions is to:
Of course, we should probably apply those insights to how we need to imagine the way forward for Christian witness in these in-between times that we find ourselves in.
Last week I had the opportunity to spend 5 days and 4 nights living in community with a small group of pastoral leaders wrestling with understanding intentional disciple-making through a Wesleyan lens. We read some books in advance of gathering together (Invitation to a Journey by Robert Mulholland and Making Disciples by Sondra Higgins Matthaei). We wrestled with statements like this: "when holiness is your goal, you do evangelism differently" (Richard Heitzenrater). And this one from John Wesley himself:
That part of our method, the private weekly meetings for prayer, examination and particular exhortation, has been the greatest means of deepening and confirming every blessing that was received by the word preached, and of diffusing it to others, who could not attend the public ministry; whereas without this religious connection and conversation, the most ardent attempts by mere preaching have proved of no lasting value. (Works, VIII:252)
We talked about the de-toxification/de-construction that is required of our first formation in the patterns of our culture (consumerism), before we can be formed by the new patterns, habits and practices of the life in Jesus. This is where Wesley's "method" is particularly helpful, the means of grace (acts of piety and mercy) are habits and practices that open us up to the ongoing formation of the Holy Spirit -- a rival formation to the patterns we have already been shaped by. We liked this video clip from Alan Hirsch.
We recognized that all the various "discipleship" resources are not solve-all plans, but just helpful tools if we already have an understanding of what it means to grow up in Jesus, following the Jesus Way, which we suggested is a journey, a path, rather than a particular destination, or set of beliefs. A key insight was to recognize that much of our ministry activities lead to mushy, anemic Jesus followers (the kind who struggle with Luke 14:25-27) rather than active, surrendered, Jesus-centred, others-oriented, disciples. The goal of the experience was that participants would discern a way forward for their own intentional disciple-making within their own ministry contexts.
This is the fourth group of pastors that we have entered into this kind of learning experience with. It's not a "course with students," but a multi-dimensional learning experience with co-labourers/learners.
John Wesley Haley (1878-1951) was/is a relatively unknown Canadian Free Methodist missionary who served as a church-planter and pastor in Saskatchewan and Ontario as well as in Mozambique and South Africa (1902-1934), finally initiating new ministry in Burundi and Rwanda (1935-1946).
A new book, John Wesley Haley and Building the Indigenous Church, has recently been published edited by John McCready, Haley's grandson. McCready came across a manuscript that Haley was writing at the time of his death in 1951. He decided to bring the manuscript to life with some fresh reflection on Haley's life and ministry.
Haley has intrigued me for decades because of the attention he paid to the work of mission strategist Roland Allen. McCready knew of my interest and asked me to write a chapter for the book reflecting on Haley's influences and the significance of his work in light of present missiological thinking.
My chapter is, "The Mission Temporary, The Church Permanent," from a phrase Haley wrote emphasizing that the role of the missionary is only temporary, for proclamation and initial catechism, giving free reign for the Holy Spirit to direct the development of indigenous methods and structures, while the missionary moves on to a new, unreached, location.
When Haley wrote or taught about his approach in the 1930s and 40s he was seen as unusual, but respected. This manuscript may have been prompted by his invitation to speak at the EFMA/NAE conference in 1949 about his method in light of colonial tensions at the time particularly in East Asia, with the removal of all missionaries from China in the wake of Mao's revolution.
Dr Howard A Snyder writes a foreword where he states that Haley "is timely and prophetic today because of the way he conjoined theory and practice in pioneering deep church planting in Central Africa -- and reflected on this in his writings."
Over the years I have been involved in numerous faith "communities." Some lasted for a summer and were profoundly formative. Some lasted for a year or so and taught me stuff about myself that I would have rather avoided. Some lasted for years and didn't form me or teach me anything.
The last 7 or 8 years I have been part of a small faith community that has challenged me, formed me, taught me stuff about myself that I would have rather avoided, provided for times of receiving forgiveness and giving forgiveness, been full of great joy and deep anguish. And given me glimpses of what God was imagining with this business about his kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven.
I came across this article by Karina Kreminski entitled: Four Everyday Practices you must have to Experience Community, that I found helpful and challenging.
She starts the article by saying: "I'm tired of Christians using the word community without meaning it."
Her 4 practices:
The Discipline of Stubborn Loyalty
How can we practice this “stickability” in a culture which is distracted, transient and essentially does not value loyalty? Can we express a kind of faithfulness and a constant reliance on one another and to the place where we live that will make the world gasp at our manifest fidelity?
The Discipline of Kenosis
We have to be willing to let go of our own selves in order to create true community. Truly surrendering to each other feels like we are losing our sense of self to some extent, and in our narcissistic society where individualism reigns, this is anathema.
The Discipline of Interdependence
what I found impressive was the awareness that each person had regarding fostering community. They realized that they affected one another. It was not just about the individual but each person keenly observed that the individual was a part of a community and so had responsibilities towards that community.
The Discipline of Welcoming "the Other"
We have a long way to go in order to learn the discipline of truly welcoming the other. Women, singles, marginalized people, ethnic minorities, refugees, these should be feeling at home in our congregations. Yet usually I hear the opposite. Many of these groups of people I have just mentioned crave community yet they leave the church gathering often feeling more lonely than when they walked in.
Pete Scazzero shared this helpful graphic and a few thoughts on disciplemaking in a recent newsletter.
Yet we have programs to run, meetings to lead, people to pray for, money concerns, attendance to monitor, administration to be done, messages to prepare, strategies to execute, visions to cast, and crises that won't wait till tomorrow.
We live in the great tension of the big and the small -- a tension I carry with me each week as I set priorities. How do I focus on the few, my Twelve, when modern culture demands the big! and now?
It helps me to remember that so much in and around me resists focusing on the few. Why?
Discipling the few is slow. The kingdom of God is a mustard seed and always will be.
Discipling the few is hard. People are complex and formation is messy.
Discipling the few is limiting. Limits and rebellion are closely related. We have been resisting limits since the Garden of Eden.
Discipling the few demands a lot from me. I cannot give what I do not possess, and cannot help but give what I do possess. It requires I keep growing and learning.
Recently I was visiting with friends in Sri Lanka; friends who live in a very different world. Where to live as a Christian is to be part of a despised and suspect minority. Where being relevant to the society at large is not the goal. Where "success" is about living faithfully as a Jesus-follower, not about measuring the result of marketing campaigns. Where Donald Trump seems like just another version of the power-hungry leaders in their part of the world, who will say anything to anybody to get votes. [Actually, mostly, they could care less about the Trump]
In the course of that visit I was reading Brian Zahnd's book, Beauty Will Save the World (a reference to a line from Dostoevsky's The Idiot). I was caught by the imagery he uses of Cain and Abel, Romulus and Remus; brothers who kill brothers for the sake of greed (wanting what the other has) and power, ultimately building civilizations "founded upon an axis of power established by murder and enforced by violence." The present state of world affairs (let alone the history of world affairs) confirms that civilizations continue with the same methodologies.
But we tend to shrug our shoulders at it all. We tell ourselves it's just the way it is. It's the way the world is run. It's why we fight our wars. We do it to preserve our "precious" -- our freedom, our rights, our race, our religion, our nation, our economy... we commemorate in statues, memorials, poems and anthems. But it is a glory and beauty that for all its heroism is too often a facade to hide the bodies of Abel, Remus, and Deagol -- our slain brothers.
Zahnd goes on to talk about Abraham, leaving an advanced civilization with all the amenities of a sophisticated city to become a wandering nomad living in tents. "Abraham was looking for a new way of organizing human society, a new civilization." He was looking for a city that instead of killing Abel, Remus and Deagol, made room for them. "Abraham was looking for God's city to come, for God's will to be done on earth as it was in heaven." But Hebrews 11 tells us that he "did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better." In fact Jesus says 'your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad' (John 8:56). "For those who long for a better way to be human and look for a better way to structure human society, Jesus is the searcher's end."
"Unlike Cain and Romulus, Jesus founds his city, not by killing, but by dying! ... who instead of slaughtering his rivals, becomes the slaughtered lamb." Again, Hebrews: "but you have come... to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel" (12:24). Interesting... one of the conversations I had in Sri Lanka was regarding why would Buddhists and Hindus turn to Jesus -- "in our religion there is no story about forgiveness, about letting the evil people kill you as a demonstration of love."
Over the last year or so I have read a series of historical fiction novels by Robert Low, about Vikings in Eastern Europe, and another by Bernard Cornwell about the Norse invasion of England. These authors record the overlap between the age of the Norse Gods and the new religion, Christianity. The authors/Viking voices commonly use descriptors like "the wounded God" or "the nailed Christ" as epitaphs of derision; this is a weak god, this Jesus, who is continually defeated by his enemies. I like this image because it reflects the core issue in the kingdom of God -- evil "comically defeated by a little lamb - a slaughtered lamb that lives again." [the work of Rene Girard is helpful for this perspective]
Zahnd then takes us to the challenging outcome of this story -- "the chief vocation of the church is to faithfully replicate the way of the Lamb... to follow Jesus is to undertake a profound rethinking of dominant paradigms in order to see the kingdom of God... the society at large should be able to look at the church and get an idea of where this thing is headed... if we are only a religious version of the shared cultural assumptions of our age, we are chaplains to the status quo and no longer a prophetic people."
In this Easter season, this story of a god nailed to a cross as an act of love and then is resurrected to prove its all true, goes against everything we know about how humans live and function together. A natural theology version that says we'll all get there eventually (i.e., being good human beings without Jesus) ignores all of human history, and our own personal bent toward self-interest.
"For those who long for a better way to be human and look for a better way to structure human society, Jesus is the searcher's end."