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    Entries in Christianity (92)

    Thursday
    Mar312011

    Check Out The Apprentice Series

    I work with a great team of people who want people to follow Jesus.  A great deal of the vision and the groundwork for our group is a credit to Jim Smith.  Jim has written three books that have been released over the last year plus that many people have found to be very powerful.  I'd encourage you to check them out.

    Just this week a friend of mine posted an awesome testimonial on her Twitter feed.

    If you'd like to learn more about spiritual formation and what we're trying to accomplish with The Apprentice Series, visit the website.  If you'd like to partner with us, and with the Aprentis Institute for Christian Spiritual Formation at Friends University, click on the link.  There are many ways churches could partner with our team to learn more about Apprentice and to introduce this vision for following Jesus within the context of different ministries.

    Thursday
    Feb032011

    Work and Christian Commitment

    Today I was a guest of Faith and Learning, a chapel-like forum at Friends University in Wichita.  I spoke to somewhere around 300 to 400 college students.  Below is my manuscript from today's talk, though I did ad lib at times.  I enjoyed my time at Friends, and am deeply grateful to Jim Smith and Friends for having me as their guest.

    §1 Introductory Remarks 

    I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity to speak here today at Friends, and I am particularly thankful for Jim Smith and the Apprentis Institute, for it is through the work of people like Jim that I have found my own commitment to Christ and his Kingdom strengthened and renewed.

    Today I’ve come prepared to talk to you about work, because, like most of you, I recognize that work is and will be a significant part of our lives.  The significance that work holds, however, is often unexamined, and therefore I hope that today we can raise a number of questions, and together seek a few answers, concerning how we think about work, and how we might undertake our work in a way that is informed and guided by commitment to Christ.

    Many of us will work, and as we work, we will be challenged by the demands work places upon us.  Work is a reality all of us face, either as part of the warp and woof of our own lives, or in our relationships to those near to us, as they punch the clock, collect their pay, and toil away.

    Today, we’ll reflect on four aspects of work through the lens of Christian faith: work and excellence, our experience of work, our expectations of work, and, finally, the redemption of work.

    §2 Excellent Work

    Tim Keller, Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, once relayed the story of a man who became a Christian underneath his car.  The man was an actor.  During a pastoral visit, the man asked Pastor Keller a question pertaining to his work  He said, “I’ve been having a tremendous struggle.  You see, in acting there is a debate about a form of acting called ‘method acting.’”  In method acting, you don’t act angry, you get angry, creating in oneself the thoughts and emotions of one’s character.  As a Christian, should I pursue method acting as a valid approach to my craft, or not?”

    Keller replied, “I have no idea.”

    Keller then had an epiphany.  He realized that he spent most of his time trying to get his people out of their work world and into his church world, rather than equipping his congregants so that the church world might somehow be integrated and revealed within the work world.  The question then became, “How could he help his people to do their work with a Kingdom focus, in a way that brings glory to Christ?”

    The book of Colossians 3:17 says, “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”  If we take these words to heart, then we must take “whatever you do” to include our jobs, our work.  And if this is the case, we will need guides who are able to instruct us not only in the competencies required for us to perform our work excellently, but who also can instruct us with regard to how we might offer such excellencies as an offering of thanks.

    Work, as a realm that will require much of our time and energy for most of our lives, demands critical reflection as a subject of inquiry.  How might we work in a way that is excellent; that brings honor not foremost to ourselves, but to the one in whose image we have been created?

    My current line of work is in the transportation industry.  I am a “student transportation specialist.”  Everyone knows what that means: I am a bus driver.  The job is not glorious.  But everyday my job fulfills a requirement.  I serve young people by delivering them safely to and from school.  And everyday, an excellent day of work does not happen without training, preparation, focus, and intentionality.

    As an aside: one day, while driving students to school, I looked up in my mirror, only to see one of my students removing a hot dog from his pocket, not the bun, only the frank, and waving it through the air.  The middle school girls on my bus were disgusted.  But this is my reality.  And how does one do excellent work in such instances; work that brings glory to God?

    Dallas Willard, with whom I am certain you are familiar, once wrote these words: 

    We have to come to terms with the fact that we cannot become those who ‘hear and do’ without specific training for it.  The training may be to some extent self-administered, but more than that will always be needed.  It is something that must be made available to us by those already further along the path. 

    Fortunately for you, Friends is a University that might offer you just such a form of training.  The training you receive will then be put into action.  Which brings me to our second topic of concern, the experience of work. 

    §3 The Experience of Work 

    My own experience of work has been varied.  Some experiences have been positive; others negative.  My employers have given me both encouraging and disciplinary reviews.  I’ve been fired.  Once.

    Has anyone here worked at a  coffee shop?  I have.  I probably shouldn’t reveal the company I worked for, for if any of you are hipsters, or have worked in locally owned places, you will associate me with the evil Galactic Empire.

    Confession: I worked for Starbucks.

    I’ve had other jobs as well.  I worked as a lawn man, having teamed up with a friend in high school to start a business and generate income, so that I could frivolously spend my earnings on car stereo equipment and music.  I worked as a cashier and sales associate for Service Merchandise, a one time box-retailer that now does business exclusively online.  I also worked as an office aid in the Department of Religion during my undergraduate work, as a special assistant to a retired history professor by the name of Robert L. Reid, and, at different times and in different places, I have worked as a minister to children and youth.

    As you have already discovered, I have also worked as a bus driver.  Each of my jobs could be described in different ways.  Yard work was hot, satisfactory, and hot.  I grew up in East Texas.  My work as a cashier and office aid were transient and fleeting, responsibilities I held for a short while, collected my paychecks, and moved on to other things.

    Starbucks was relational, irksome, and deeply revelatory of the human condition, particularly concerning sin.  It’s hard to discern the image of God in a person who orders a Ventí Green Tea Frappuccino with a glaze of chocolate drizzle over the top of their whipped cream.

    Our experiences of work shape us.  We either walk away from our jobs with a sense of satisfaction or disappointment.  Whatever our experiences have been, it is likely that those experiences, combined with other narratives that have been supplied by our families, electronic media, or other sources have informed the expectations we have of work.  Work is expected to fulfill us, to serve us, to satisfy us, to signify our lives as valuable, or as worthless.  For example, tt isn’t often that the son of upper-middle class attorney can imagine and embrace an occupation such as a garbage collector as dignifying and worthy of one’s upbringing.

    Our experiences and our expectations of work constantly inform one another in a kind of feedback loop.  Whether those experiences are first-hand or if they are gained by observing one’s parent or other adults as one matures, our expectations begin to crystalize into expectations, informing our identities and our lives.

    §4 Expectations of Work

    Let’s think more broadly for a moment.  What do we expect of work?  What do our peers expect of work? 

    In his book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Alain De Botton investigates a number of industries: aviation, accounting, logistics, entrepreneurship, art, and even “biscuit manufacture.”  He marvels that in an industry that we would associate with Nabisco (Oreo, Ritz, etc.) or Pepperidge Farm (Milano, Bordeaux, etc.) a vast range of specialized jobs exist, whether it be in marketing, research and development, or quality control, to cite three areas.  The jobs become highly specialized.

    As an example of specialization, de Botton observes a pair of women who have the responsibility of picking out the occasionally mal-formed cookie that emerges from the oven.  He wonders what affect such a job might have on the one who performs it.  Might it lead these people to wonder “how meaningful” their lives truly are?

    We want our work to be meaningful, and it should be.  Rightly so.  In addition to meaningfulness, we expect our work to make us happy.  Our jobs are burdened with the expectation that they will leave us satisfied and content.

    De Botton again writes:

    However powerful our technology and complex our corporations, the most remarkable feature of the modern working world may in the end be internal, consisting in an aspect of our mentalities: in the widely held belief that our work should make us happy.  All societies have had work at their centre; ours is the first to suggest that it could be something much more than a punishment or a penance.  Ours is the first to imply that we should seek to work even in the absence of a financial imperative.  Our choice of occupation is held to define our identity to the extent that the most insistent question we ask of new acquaintances is not where they come from or who their parents were but what they do, the assumption being that the route to a meaningful existence must invariably pass through the gate of remunerative employment.

    Do you see what he is saying?  Over any other distinctive, work has come to define us.  But if work is our source of ultimate definition, ultimate meaning, and ultimate happiness, that, my friends, is a danger.

    §5 The Redemption of Work

    So how can we approach work in a healthy way?

    After talking with numerous young adults, it seems that many of us have jobs that differ little from the type of work that Jesus did for the majority of his life.  Yet I imagine that Jesus’ attitude toward his work differed greatly from yours and mine.  Jesus surely took pleasure in a job well done.  His small accomplishments were surely something in which he delighted.  Jesus went about a craft (carpentry), and as he became more skilled with his hands, I am certain he found that work was enjoyable.

    Jesus spent three years of his life, the part of his life we know the most about, carrying out a different type of work.  He taught us about the Kingdom of a good, loving, and beautiful God.  We ask, “What does Jesus’ teaching and ministry have to do with the time that he invested as a common day laborer?”  The answer: more than you might think.

    In the Incarnation, you see, Jesus not only redeemed human souls through his death on the cross and his resurrection three days later.  He redeemed human work by working.

    Jesus has given us the resources to do “everything” by himself doing “everything” as human and divine.  Therefore, whatever work we might do, we can do that work redemptively as Christ is in us.  Work then goes beyond simple utility or hedonism; it is neither only useful or capable of bringing us pleasure and happiness.  Through work, we are given an occasion for praise, “giving thanks to God the Father through Him.”

    We would be mistaken to believe that the life-with-God that Jesus described for us in the Sermon on the Mount and demonstrated for us in his numerous miracles was anything other than the type of life-with-God Jesus knew and experienced while carrying out the daily tasks of carpentry.  There is no doubt that his experiences as a common laborer influenced and shaped how he talked about life in God’s Kingdom.

    Today, I have suggested that the preparation and training that you receive here at Friends is not only so that you might matriculate and move on to a job, a career, an occupation, and begin collecting your pay.  

    Rather, you are being prepared to enter into the workplace as an agent of the “new creation,” an evidence of a Kingdom that is coming, and, indeed, has come, a signpost to a reality and a grounding for identity that imbues your work with a sense of meaning that transcends all occupations, ranging from the highest to the lowliest of jobs.  

    You do this by performing your work excellently and through having right expectations of work.  These expectations have been shaped by your experience of Christ and your experiences of learning from those who follow after Him, those who prepare you to enter into and excel in the world of work in a way that gives witness to the redemption of the world.

    Therefore, your work is not an end in and of itself.  Rather, it is a means through which the glory of God might be revealed.  May your life, your work, be a conduit through which people see Jesus and the redemption he has brought, and that he brings.

    Tuesday
    Jan042011

    The Void of Knowledge

    In his book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't, Stephen Prothero tells the story of the void in religious knowledge in America, chronicling the reason for decline and what can be done.  Prothero writes many things in this book that are of great worth, and could be seen as a great resource for those seeking a better understanding of the history of religion in America.  Much caught my attention in this book, particularly his words on the correspondence between the decline in religious knowledge and the rise of populist style evangelicalism that minimized the importance of doctrine.

    Prothero writes:

    Many have remarked on what was gained when doctrine became antiquarian.  As preachers spiced up sermons with stories, converts crowded into the pews, particularly in denominations such as the Baptists and Methodists that embraced wholeheartedly this new homiletic style.  But what was lost in the bargain is not often noticed.  Whereas the pulpit had served as a key link in the chain of memory binding American Protestants to their religious past, by the end of the Civil War few preachers were offering robust religious instruction.

    [...]

    This legacy is with us today in the narrative preaching style, which according to one historian of the sermon now aims "to achieve a happening rather than an understanding."  It is with us as well in the "seeker-sensitive" megachurches, many of which have decided to stop preaching the basic teachings of the Christian tradition because marketing research has indicated that "seekers" find that kind of thing to be a turnoff.

    Unfortunately Prothero's assessment is accurate.  Calls to shirk doctrine in favor of marketability still ring forth today.  There is a need for doctrinal preaching--robust, sound, biblical, and historically relevant preaching.  This type of communication can be evocative, in that doctrine can be intellectually stimulating and compelling.  It can provoke the imagination and equip the believer to respond creatively in a diversity of challenging situations.  Rather than relying on three (or more) principles or core applications derived from the text, doctrine can serve as a reservoir from which to draw in everyday life.

    Monday
    Jan032011

    Questions, Not Answers

    It's nice to have a little downtime from the day to day of the job to immerse yourself in thought and the ongoing conversation that is the art reading.  I came across this nugget from Peter Rollins, and thought it was worthy of sharing:

    In contrast to the view that evangelism is that which gives an answer for those who are asking, we must have faith to believe that those who seek will find for themselves...If this is true, then the job of the Church is not to provide an answer--for the answer is not a phrase or doctrine--but rather to help encourage the religious question to arise.  In contrast to the type of sermon that aims to answer thought by providing a clear explanation of a passage or area of Christian life, the emerging community is in a unique place to embrace a type of communication that opens up thought by asking questions and celebrating complexity.

    --How (Not) to Speak of God, 42-43

    Minus the eloquence, I shared this exact sentiment to a pastor about twenty years my elder two or three years ago.  She found it to be a completely fresh, exciting, and altogether different way of taking up the task of the sermon.

    I've since come to a place where I would contend that the question is itself a form of answer, and the questions themselves do lead to solutions which the preacher can propose.  There is merit in what Rollins says here, I think, but I also think that the proposal in and of itself represents a case where the pendulum has swung too far.

    So, do we provide questions or answers, or both?

    Tuesday
    Dec282010

    Book Review :: Charles Foster's The Sacred Journey (The Ancient Practices Series)

    Pilgrimage is a concept seldom reflected upon within modern Christian discourse, particularly for Western, evangelical, Protestant types, which represents myself and countless readers of this weblog.  With all the emphasis on journey as a metaphor for the life of faith, there isn't much of a charge for us to go anywhere.  Rather, we are told that following Jesus should result in a transformation of the heart that can be chronicled much like a choose-your-own-stay-at-home adventure, even if the setting and backdrop remain static, and the only challenges that emerge are those common to life in suburbia.  The mountains to traverse, the trails to walk, the streams to observe, and the dark monsters we face reside only in our imagination.  Wilderness wanderings, like those of the ancient Hebrews, are things we read about in the travelogue that is our Bible, not the stuff of our lived experience.

    Though rarely addressed, pilgrimage is no less important.  That is why Charles Foster's The Sacred Journey is such an insightful and helpful read.  Foster describes the practice of the transformative movement from here to there.  He invokes the importance within the Christian tradition of sacred, or thin, places, places wherein we pray or experience God more poignantly, more precisely, and that there is value in physically visiting a site possessing a history, a place imbued with spiritual significance long before we arrived on the scene that is likely to endure long after we have gone.  His book testifies powerfully to the physicality of our existence, the embodiment of our faith, and the deep connections that exist between earthly and heavenly realities.

    The final installment in The Ancient Practices Series, Foster's contribution stands above a number of the other volumes for quality of prose and readability.  It is a blessing to read a volume that delights, and this is one.  However, there were elements I found contentious; for example, if I were to sit down with Foster, I would debate with him at length God's preference for the pilgrim and disdain for those who settle.  I would point out that cities themselves serve a purpose in God's economy, and while God may do much formative work in the wilderness, refining the character of a people, God also establishes a land wherein cities might spring up, serving the purposes of government, justice, and oversight for those who reside within God's community.  Cities are places wherein culture is developed and produced, either for God's glory or for the denigration of the human race.  Cities are places where God can work just as mightily for the transformation of a people as God can in the rough and tumble of the wilderness.

    In addition to my critique of Foster's claim that God hates the city (with the exception of one reversal at the conclusion of Revelation), I also found myself unsettled by the frequent invocation of the writings and insights of other religious traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam in his account of the pilgrimage.  While I agree with Foster that there are numerous parallels between Christian and other conceptions of the value and purpose of the journey for the life of faith, I questioned why Foster could not put those accounts aside for the sake of constructing a distinctly Christian account of formation by way of the pilgrimage.  This is an overall critique of the series, not only of Foster.  With the exception of Scot McKnight's volume on fasting, many of the works in The Ancient Practices Series made certain to demonstrate that none of these practices are exclusively Christian.  However, unlike McKnight, other contributors to the Series did not make a strong enough case for the difference practicing these disciplines or exercises (biblically, theologically, or otherwise) makes when observed in a particularly Christian way.  There was not enough done to establish what difference these practices make for the Christian in distinction from the "spiritual person."  This does not mean that I did not find the work done by Foster and others to be of value.  However, it does mean that I thought that these volumes could have offered an even greater value to the Christian community, and, thus, I think that a greater opportunity may have been lost.

    I'd recommend reading The Sacred Journey.  Even when placing my critiques aside, Foster's writings made me want to go somewhere, and wherever it was that I would be going, my desire was to go there with Jesus.

    DISCLAIMER: I received this book as a participant in the Thomas Nelson BookSneeze program, meaning, I got it for free in exchange for a review. If I love the book, I will say so. If I hate it, I will say so. Free is nice. But programs like this give books away for free to generate conversation, and I'm glad to help generate some buzz.