How does one measure an experience? Is there a scale or a spectrum we can place our experiences on that would allow us to compare with one another? What if my experience of faith is different from another person’s experience of faith? Is it less valid? Is it more valid? Let’s at least be honest that the idea of measurement always means we intend to
compare what is measured.
In a continued effort to examine the merit in measuring what we do in the church, I want to ask: can we measure an experience of faith? Before we attempt to answer that, perhaps we need a couple of caveats to begin the discussion.
Much of 20th Century spiritual formation tended to be individualistic and information-oriented. If a person sought to be formed in a spiritual community, it was generally emphasized that formation came down to a matter of the individual’s relationship with God. If you had any hope of growth, then it was expected that information about God and faith would eventually form you into the Christian you were meant to be. Knowledge is power and, therefore, it has the power to form the individual.
On the contrary, if you were not growing it could be assumed that you were not receptive to the information provided that would naturally form you into the Christian God called you to be. Surely there was nothing wrong with the basic knowledge presented in the narrative of faith.
I think there are a couple of problems with this type of outlook on spiritual formation.
First, a community of faith is not simply a collection of individuals gathered in a common space. It is not simply the sum of its parts. Instead, the community itself carries a certain flavor based on the collection of people gathered, a shared history together, and a shared context in which it exists. The community itself inevitably shapes the individual who encounters the community just as much, if not more, than the individual will shape the community. There is an implicit faith found within the community that continues to form an individual, even if they’re stunted in their possession of their own personal explicit faith.
Secondly, faith is not just something we agree with intellectually, but rather it’s something we experience together. To treat spiritual formation as simply an intellectual endeavor would rob it of the existential value that faith in God naturally carries. We live in a society where freedom is the ultimate good in life. The problem with taking this approach with faith assumes that faith is similar to consumer or political choices. The truth is, if we profess a belief in the Risen Christ, faith will naturally have a active and embodied quality that transcends intellectual freedom. This comes through the active presence of the Holy Spirit. You can’t think your way into being transformed by faith you have to embody and experience it enabled through a power beyond your own.
Thirdly, a community of faith is called a community that shares more than just ritual. To simply worship together falls short of what it means to be a community o faith. A community must find ways to grow through shared experience that touches the life of a disciple beyond just worship. Communities must learn how to risk together. After all there is more to the life of a disciple than just ritual observance. A community must be innovative enough to allow space for the entire life of disciples to be shaped together.
All of this is to simply ask: How do we measure an experience? Is it theologically correct to measure arbitrary categories by the individual or should w emphasize the priority of the community—even if this means we can’t measure as easily?
As you may know by now, Oprah ended her run of daytime programming last week after 25 years on the air. But Oprah was (and is) so much bigger than merely an afternoon TV show. She’s become her own brand—a force of nature, if you will. Her endorsement can make or break the career of potential entrepreneurs.
The city of Macon has a special love for Oprah and she came here a few years back to film on of her “Favorite Things” episode. As a newer resident of Macon, it took about two weeks before someone shared the “Oprah in Macon” story with me.
After all of the build up from weeks of celebration, Oprah’s final episode was a simple and unique hodge-podge of thoughts similar to what those in academic communities know as “Last Words”—where a retiring professor will share what they’ve learned during their career.
As she shared some of the wisdom learned throughout the years, Oprah confessed that she could not have accomplished anything over the last 25 years without God. She gave credit to God in saying, “because nothing but the hand of God has made this possible for me.” She would go on to share more of her faith woven within a beautifully honest and human backdrop of love rooted in the human experience. When it came time, she ended her show, she earnestly proclaimed, “To God be the glory.”
And yet you don’t have to go far to hear from those of us who would be skeptical of the validity of Oprah’s faith. Why is that?
There have been certain authors and religious personalities who have made a good living selling books and sharing thoughts using Oprah as the embodiment of the so-called “secular spirituality” that seems to pervade the American religious experience. Many of these use Oprah as the counter to what a good, solid “Christian America” looks like. And that’s very sad.
But please hear me, I don’t think Oprah is a saint by any stretch of the imagination. She would be the first to admit that. However she has helped us see for the last 25 years that one can be both a follower of Jesus and a lover of all things beautifully human. In her final episode she demonstrated that the Christian faith doesn’t have to begin by opposing those outside of the faith, but rather it begins by including all of God’s people in love and acceptance as the very expression of our faith.
I have lots of admiration for Oprah. She’s a smart businesswoman who knew she couldn’t preach day in and day out if she wanted to be as big of a success as she is. But I think she also knows deep down that God loves all people no matter what. And she showed us that God’s grace is demonstrated best when we resist beating people over the heads with narrow expressions of faith. It’s something all Christians should try from time to time.
Oprah reminds us that we can “love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength” but we also have to “love our neighbor as ourselves” even when that neighbor is not Christian or not even like us at all. God’s love is very real tangible. It’s a message all people probably need to hear that now more than ever.
[This post will run on Candler’s blog soon. I wanted to give a “first-run” on here. Enjoy!
They say all jokes have a hint of truth in them. That’s what makes them funny. There was a joke I heard when I started seminary three years ago that goes something like this:
Seminary is much like the Easter Story. The first year they’ll crucify you and things you believe in. The second year they’ll bury you in the tomb of major classes, lots of reading and papers. And the third year you’ll finally be resurrected.
It seems like yesterday I was in my first semester of classes at Candler. I can remember the conversations about classes, professors, and all of the work required to pass. If I think about it really hard, I can remember the feeling that three years would be an eternity. Graduation wasn’t even on the horizon—it was nowhere close to conceptualization.
Over that year, I can remember seemingly endless hours of reading and writing. I can remember assignments that made no sense at all and being asked to write papers on matters I could hardly spell, much less articulate with any sort of coherent or precise thought. All the while I was asked to sit through some of the most uncomfortable, and seemingly unending, sessions with people I did not know from Adam’s house cat (I’m from South Georgia so you’ll have to forgive the colloquialism) as we reflected on things we were experiencing at our Contextual Education sites or in the classroom.
I can remember the first time I was asked to critically consider some of the quant Sunday School lessons of my childhood in a classroom setting. It was as though someone had the audacity to walk right up to me and ask for the cloak off my back. How dare they ask me critically examine the stories of my childhood! But engaging in such critical thinking caused me to have a wonderfully scary encounter with foundational beliefs beginning to crack. I intentionally mean that it was both wonderful and scary all at once. It became clear early on that who I was when I came to seminary was not going to identical to who I would be after the rigors of the program. And that was simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying.
By my second year I began to experiment with trying on various voices. Amid the burying underneath mounds of materials and thinkers, one begins to find that some of the thinkers resonate with them. Some have special qualities that tickle the fancy of budding theologians in such a way that often, you try their voice on for size. It’s okay to do that. Some voices fit better than others. Some you will quickly outgrow like a child can outgrow clothes in a single season. Others stay with you, like old friends. Either way, the array of voices has the ability to cause mass confusion in the life of the “in-process” seminarian. But you continue to listen for in the middle of the confusion are sometimes subtle, yet profound moments when they surprise you and sing in a melodious chorus together.
And then comes the glorious possibilities of being in your final year. By this time you have successfully questioned and re-questioned much of what you came to seminary believing and thinking. Some you have kept because, after all, Candler will never take the easy road of simply telling you what to believe. You will form relationships with professors and peers and, dare I say it, you will enjoy classes. As the end of seminary comes closer and closer you will even have days where you’re sad that what seemed like such a distant possibility is slowly, but surely becoming an all-too-close reality. You are, all at once, a bumbling mess of mixed emotions. Job possibilities hang in the balance. Ordination pressures arrive. The end of school means the exciting end to deadlines and never-ending papers. And then it hits you—you will soon no longer be able to hide under a guise of safety at Candler. You will learn that you will soon have to enter the world and do this ministry thing on your own.
You realize a couple of important things after your time at Candler is finished. First, after I realized how scary it will be to finish and “do this ministry thing on my own,” I remembered, “I’m not on my own at all.” God is with us no matter where we go. And we have the opportunity to be a valued member of a division of the “communion of saints” at Candler. And so you are never, ever alone in the world. Secondly, there will come a day that you will speak and it will not be the voice of Barth, Luther, Luke Timothy Johnson, Tom Long, Carol Newsome, Athanasius, James Cone or Howard Thurman. It will be you. And it might scare you the first time you hear it. It will sound like you, but not the you that you once knew. And it will also sound like those wonderful conversation partners you developed in your studies, but not exactly because none of them will ever be a perfect fit. It will be a you that is not finished developing yet. In fact, you’ll realize that seminary is only the beginning this new you.
But don’t let me spoil the ending too much. Enjoy your ride and know that you have a community of saints, both past and present, lifting you up in prayer through the deadlines, pressures, all-night study sessions, and exams that will ultimately lead toward a transformation that you never thought possible.
Maybe folks are right in that all jokes have a hint of truth in them. Maybe seminary can and will reflect a smaller version of the grand and glorious story of redemption in the lives of each and every student ready to embark on the journey.
We live in a complex world where it’s often difficult to know what exactly is deemed as “good” and what might actually be “evil.” Were there ever simpler days, ones where the lines between good and evil were not so blurry? And if so, how did we know what belonged in which camp?
Our world has seen its share of violence over the last hundred years or so. It seems that technology only feeds our propensity toward violent reactions and responses. Our world has advanced in weaponry from the days of guns and knives to that of tanks, missiles, and atomic weapons. Over the last fifty years or so, we have had to reckon with the notion that we could, if we so pleased, destroy the world and most everything in it multiple times over.
And so it begs the question, how do people of faith live in such a world? How do we exist and practice our faith in a world where the law of the land seems to be that might is always right and at the end of the day, strength is best displayed through a powerful, and violent, response?
I awoke on Monday, May 2 to the news of the death of Osama bin Laden. And I have to confess, my first response was something like, “heck yeah! We got him!” Honestly, I’m sure that statement (or something along those lines) resonates with many people. I know it does because my Facebook News Feed (which I check most every morning after a few minutes of morning news) was full of similar reactions. However, as I sifted through the news from Facebook, I happened to notice other reactions as well. Some of my friends were praying for peace. Others were happy and sad at the same time. Would this escalate violence against our country? Would our troops get to come home or would they have to stay in Afghanistan longer? Could this event be both good and bad? Is it okay to celebrate the loss of human life, even when that person committed despicable acts?
It’s a strange irony that such events happen a week or so after we observe Holy Week and celebrate Easter—the ultimate conquering of death and evil in our world. And we’re reminded that we confess to follow a Savior who, in the face of torture, humiliation, and injustice, chose to pray for his enemies. He did not hold their wrongs against them. On the contrary, he loved them in spite of it.
Just in case you’re concerned, I’m not about to try to make a case for pacifism and peace at all costs. The world is much too complex to simply try to offer the other side of a reductionistic argument. The mixed emotions and reactions that people express tell me that an “either/or” analysis of responses to world events would be unjust in truly expressing the depth of confusion and despair in the face of violence around the world.
In a world where violence begets more violence, justice comes in funny shapes and sizes. What is justice for one may not be so for another. And in spite of all of that, how does such justice measure up to justice as God sees it? I can’t help but be reminded that Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Unfortunately, this sounds nice but it doesn’t settle the argument at all over whether we should celebrate a so-called victory wrought by violence or not. On the one hand, there is a sense of justice and vindication felt at the demise of Osama bin Laden. On the other, there is a fear that perpetuating violence will never end violence; it might even increase it. And then there’s that nagging detail about a God who, in the form of Jesus Christ, showed not violence, but forgiveness in the face of hate.
I wish the answers were easy—but they are not. I wish the lines between following God and being a loyal American were more symmetrical—but they are not. And so in these times, the only thing we can do is pray. We must pray for the safety of our soldier putting their lives on the line to defend our national freedom. We must pray for the innocent victims of wars being fought. After all, what we call “foreign lands” is someone else’s backyard. But we must also pray for our enemies. And we must pray for ourselves. The temptation will be great to get swept up by the tides of the sea of violence celebrated as “moral” victories. May we, in these confusing and emotionally-driven days, remember the words of that most powerful prayer, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done; on earth as it is in heaven.”
[This article was published in the April/May 2011 edition of Macon Magazine]
The proverbial cat is out of the bag in many of our churches. The collective hair of the people in our pews is well on its way to being gray and everyone has noticed. Some would like to begin to sing the swan song of the Church as we know it.
I’m a pastor in the United Methodist Church and various stats place the median age of our membership at around 58 years old. Folks are living longer these days and quite often 58 is the new 48. But what do you do when most of the folks who make up our churches are 55 and older?
There have been a lot of trees killed to consume the paper needed to pen various words on how to reach out to what is being labeled by some as the Emerging or Millennial Generation. Some may think of us as Generation-Y. For those wondering at this point, this generation would include those transient and complex beings in their 20s and early 30s who might wander in and out of your congregations on any given Sunday. It’s my generation. We’re here one week and gone the next.
But despite all of our complexities, we may not be as alien as we may appear at time. To help with this, I would like to offer just a couple of statements, clues if you will, on where to begin understanding our generation and how we might view faith.
[For some of my categorical language I lean on a great article written by Scott McKnight for Christianity Today found here]
We are Postmodern (The “New World”)
You don’t need a Ph.D. to know that the world has changed dramatically over the last 20 years or so. We whimsically muse about the “simpler days” when folks went to church and no one dared to push back on the institution that upholds our society and way of life. However, these days have long left us.
We live in a reality where people question everything. Many of us in this generation can’t help it. We’ve been raised to be skeptical of everything we come into contact with. Things can actually be both right and wrong. We don’t always have to pick sides. And Christianity, at least as it’s been historically practiced in America, frankly deserves a little questioning lest we lose the edgy qualities of what life with God actually requires.
We Long to be Prophetic (or at least Provocative)
Church as an institution of the status quo will no longer suffice. Language of self-help and self-gratification cannot carry the freight of the problems of our world. Thus, Christians in my generation are seeking to not only worship and observe faith, but also to live the faith they speak of. Issues of justice, righteousness, radical care for creation and mission take center stage in this understanding of faith. And living such a faith requires a language that dares to ask questions, doubt authority, and ultimately transform the world we live in.
Praxis-Oriented (“Walk the walk”)
Speaking of living the faith, the Emerging Generation is much more interested in practicing faith than adhering to doctrine. In other words, faith cannot simply be a set of principles or doctrines one adheres to in order to gain membership. It has to be a process, a journey of sorts. And this journey is experienced together in a community that knows one truly becomes a Christian after they act like one.
Inclusive (All must be welcome)
Much of what has historically made up the Church has been ways to define “in versus out.” We work to put up barriers to separate those who are in our churches from those who are not in. You can see the obvious disconnect here. Too many of our churches say that we’re not exclusive but we don’t dare advertise ourselves as inclusive. Emerging Christians have lived in a world where public schools and colleges have long been diversified. We are among the first generations to truly have friends of different races, ethnicities, and religious backgrounds. It’s no wonder we disengage from churches where exclusivity is a normal practice.
I guess you could say that my generation, the Emerging Generation, is searching for a church as courageous as we long to be, one more interested in following Jesus than upholding institutional standards or finding new ways to establish our moral superiority through the politics of exclusion. We’re looking for a church where the community is more important than the individual because, after all, it is.
In the end, I suppose we might seem like an impossible generation to reach out to considering our diversity along the spectrum of lifestyles, beliefs, and practices. But, I can testify to the fact that we are all on a journey, searching for a place to belong, to practice faith, to grow spiritually, and to make the world a better place. That’s why I truly believe that if churches can open up to the perspective of this Emerging Generation and their ways of practicing faith, well, the impossible might just become possible.
I’ve always felt like my prayer life was lacking. Maybe you’ve never felt this way. But I can’t help it. Every time I would go to pray, my mind would wander. If I prayed at night I would often fall asleep. I hear people talk about how deep their prayer life is. They tell me how they can just spend so much time in prayer, they can get lost in it. Meanwhile, I can’t seem to even find an opening line to say. So during the season of Lent this year I have decided to do something about it. Rather than sacrificing something out of observance, I decided I would add daily prayer to my life in the hopes to make it a new discipline.
I’ve always been taught that prayer is some sort of spontaneous conversation between you and God that wells up within you and just gushes forth in reverent, and yet moving fashion. That’s a great image unless your prayer life is more like a yard hose someone stands on that can’t ever seem to get enough pressure to water the grass, much less burst forth like a river whose dam was broken.
I decided for Lent that I would pray with help. The Book of Common Prayer offers Daily Offices of prayer one can observe throughout the day. In these offices, you can pray Scripture, including Psalms and Gospel lessons, and you have petitions, laments, and collects that guide your prayer. For those not familiar with the daily offices, they include Morning Prayer, Midday Prayer, Vesper Prayer (evening), and Compline (night) Prayer.
I found a few books that would help give me some variety in prayers as well as my new favorite way to pray: via Twitter. Virtual Abbey offers multiple opportunities for daily prayer via Twitter. You can pray live as they post or you can come back later and read through their postings for your prayer.
A strange thing has happened this Lenten Season as I’ve carried out this practice, missing some days or even doubling up on others. Prayer is no longer a means to an end–praying for reward; to get out of bad places; to feel more righteous. No. Something much more profoundly subtle has taken place. My life has quietly become oriented around prayer. On the days I forget, and that happens from time to time, I notice. And on days when I do observe an office (or even have multiple observances in a single day) nothing more happens than knowing that I’ve prayed; that I’ve had a short experience in a world that the pace of my everyday life can make me miss.
And another thing. I’ve become much more comfortable with mystery. Praying everyday and participating in a framed practice that is much more ancient than anything I know has actually helped me cope with (and dare I say, enjoy) the mystery of life. Becoming comfortable with not being in total control of my life has been one of the most liberatingly transformative experiences of my life. But that’s a post for another day.
Until then, as faithful person (or community) more ancient than I has said:
Lord, have mercy
Christ, have mercy
Lord, have mercy
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever. Amen