Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Reflections After Traveling: Cautious Hope and Real Need

Spent Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of last week visiting some friends in my hometown of Memphis, TN and helping with a camp their ministry, Nations Church, was putting on. The camp was a pretty awesome concept- they took a couple of youth groups totaling about 80 kids and sent them each day to different work projects in inner-city Memphis helping with things like restoring houses, working on a neighborhood garden, and teaching refugees English to help them get started in this country. I feel like I contributed very little if any to this camp, but just the experience of observing what was happening there and of being privy to the many discussions of the church leaders surrounding the events of the camp and the vision of the church was a really fantastic experience! I am not kidding when I say that a part of me has seriously considered the last few days dropping everything I am doing to move back to Memphis and join their ministry there...

Also got to talk with Duke, the lead pastor of Nations quite a bit. Duke is a really cool guy. He has a Ph.D. in Old Testament, which is one of the things that I have thought about doing a doctorate in (my problem is I am interested in too much to narrow down the field…). So he is very knowledgeable of the "academic" side of Christianity. But he has also been very involved in ministry, specifically missions, and has a very practical perspective. So in a lot of ways he is, I think, someone who is traveling down a path very similar to the one I am traveling down but who is much farther down that path. So it was really great to talk with him and learn from him. It has been a really beneficial, edifying experience, I think.

Another member of their staff that I talked with a good deal was Paul. I have a feeling Paul and I may be a bit more different in our thinking, but we certainly I think share a disillusionment with many aspects of the Southern "Church Culture" and a heart for seeing the church really engage the serious issues that our world is facing. As we talked about this Paul asked a very interesting question- whether from my perspective I have hope for the church or am moving to the outside of things?

I think my answer is that I am cautiously hopeful. I am hopelessly prone to try and understand causes in terms of ideology/philosophy/modes of thinking, and hence my draw toward academics. But in academic circles I am seeing a shift that I think is cause for optimism. In my view the things that cause my disillusionment with church culture is largely based on very bad understanding of the relationship between the physical and spiritual realities we acknowledge as Christians. There are two ways to understand those things- as largely parallel or as closely connected/intersecting. If we take the spiritual and material realities to be largely parallel and separate, then it becomes very easy to put all our emphasis on the spiritual reality in "religious" circles. This is what I run into very frequently in highly conservative "Baptist" circles in the South- a view of religion that says that the sum total of Christianity is about what happens after we die and that wants to ensure that our soul ends up in the right place when that happens, a thing that can be ensured after a single "moment of salvation." Thus, engaging the challenges of this life, the difficult issues that face our society and our world, is something that maybe is nice to do but certainly not essential or necessary (and thus this kind of religion can be very easily paired with ultra-conservative politics that refuses to engage these issues). This kind of thinking is in my opinion nothing more than Gnostic Heresy reemerging in our contemporary churches. If we view the spiritual and physical as connected and intersecting, however, then we will take a different approach in dealing with our world. Now, our world and the issues that face it matter and dealing with them is part of our duty as Christians who are representatives of a spiritual kingdom that is breaking into the material world to give hope to the poor that one day justice will be restored and what is broken will be set straight again! My studies of history lead me to believe that this view is the view of Orthodox Christianity, the view of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and every other major Christian leader throughout history until very recently when for a variety of reasons the more conservative strains of Christianity in America began systematically disengaging from the world around them.

So we have two very different philosophies/theologies. The first is the source of my disillusionment with the Church on many levels and the reason that Churches like Nations may at times feel frustrated that the call to do the work of God goes unanswered in such a heavily churched culture as the one we live in. However, in my opinion, the second more Orthodox view is making a comeback, especially in Anglican and Methodist and to a certain extent "Reformed" circles. It may take a while for this comeback to be fully realized to the extent that we would like, but seeing this at least makes me cautiously optimistic that things are getting better, that the church is trying to reconnect with the world in a meaningful way, that our vision is coming down out of the "lofty clouds" to deal with real life.

So this sense of cautious hope I think makes me a bit slower than the crew at Nations to strike out on my own, though in a way that is not entirely true. They are coming from the same "Baptist" culture that I came from, a culture that I have largely abandoned for Anglican/Methodist thought. So I am certainly in the same position as they are in saying something in our thinking desperately needs to change. There are challenges and problems that we desperately need to face, both in our own lives and in the larger world, in our neighborhoods and around the world. There is a real need for change. But I think the tide is turning a little and the change is coming. Part of what I want to be about (and this week I have been very convicted that I am not doing nearly enough to contribute to this) is fighting to ensure that the tide continues to move in this direction, change continues to happen and real engagement with our world becomes the norm for the Church.

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