Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Risks of Community

About a week and a half-ago our community learned that a painting had been stolen from Ed's No Name Bar.  Ed Hoffman, the bar owner, first posted the news on the bar's Facebook page and then slowly it was shared wider as the local news outlets picked it up.

Now, I try to go to Ed's every Thursday night that my schedule allows because I have found that the people there are genuine, real, and the music is great.  The atmosphere is one that I enjoy because of Ed's love and support of the arts.  So it isn't a surprise that to have a painting stolen would be heart-breaking and very saddening to Ed and the community that enjoys the bar.

One particular paragraph that Ed wrote has stuck in my mind and I have been thinking about it ever since:
I have been open and offering free gallery space to regional artists for 3 years now and never has any one damaged or stolen a painting or work of art. I have always felt comfortable hanging my own work here. I volunteer and support local art in every way that time allows. I let my guard down and who ever did this made a fool of me. Personally, I am embarrassed that this happened, and have not gotten much sleep as my mind races about who, on a slowish night when I was familiar with most if not all of the people in the pub, would do such a thing.
Ed writing communicates the pain and anguish he felt (feels) over this loss, not only for him but the loss for the artist.  I have been thinking about that emotion for over a week and trying to understand it within the context of the community I am called to serve, the faith community.

What caught my attention the most was the fact that on the night when it disappeared Ed "was familiar with most if not all of the people in the pub."  It seems to me that this fact is what makes the situation hurt even more.  It doesn't seem that it is just a "random" person, but rather someone who knows Ed and therefore would know why Ed's is the way it is with the infusion of art and music in the atmosphere.  The hurt is magnified because it is possibly someone known by Ed, but also because it dealt with damaging the very source of passion for Ed.

I admire the way Ed reacted to the situation: he shared the hurt caused with the larger Winona community and asked for help, but just as importantly he didn't let this instance of violation stop him from continuing to share art at the pub.  That can be a hard thing to do, when we get hurt as people the usual reaction is to want to put up walls of protection to ensure it never happens again.  It would be understandable if Ed had decided to stop sharing art because of this instance, but I admire him for not doing that and I think that is something that people within faith communities could learn from.

Those who enter into a faith community, or any community for that matter, open themselves up to risk.  Any relationship brings with it inherent risks and loss of control because we cannot control another person's decisions and that can bring hurt.  In faith communities we open up our lives and everything that goes with it to other people.  We become vulnerable by sharing our joys, our hurts, our passions, etc. because we believe that God has called us to be unified.

But guess what: people are broken and that means that faith communities are no exception to people getting hurt.  As someone who has been called to serve a faith community, this means that I open myself up to hurt also.  If people disagree with me that sometimes means that people will attack me or badmouth me within the community.  The fact is this happens whether you are a leader or just a regular member of the faith community and when that happens it hurts and people react to that hurt differently.  Some people react by doing the same thing to the other person.  Some people react by leaving the community to ensure they never get hurt like that again.  Still, some people stay in the community confront the hurt by bringing it into the open and grow from the experience.

It is this third reaction that I believe we are called to live into as members of a faith community.  The first reaction, to get revenge, does nothing more than multiply the pain.  The second reaction protects the person who is hurt, but in some ways I think it helps neither the individual hurt nor the community.  The individual never confronts the hurt and therefore will enter any new situation without healing and with their guards up to protect them.  The community loses out because they no longer are able to experience the gifts that the hurt individual brings to the community.  The third reaction deals with the hurt, confronts the wrong that was done and moves towards healing.  The individual is able to heal and grow, the community continues to experience the gifts the hurt individual brings to the community, and hopefully the one who caused the hurt realizes their own brokenness and is able to make amends and change so that they don't hurt others in the same way.

As I reflected I couldn't help but believe that Ed responded the way that I believe members of our faith communities should when we are hurt also.  We don't stop being who we are and sharing those things that make us who we are, but instead we confront the wrong and work towards healing and through that trust that the entire community is able to grow.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Self-Reflection on Baptism

So I am moving towards ordination this upcoming annual conference session in June.  It is an exciting event along the journey of following Christ for me.  As part of the process they asked us for our baptismal date.  Guess what, I don't know when mine was.  I know I was baptized sometime within the age range of 12-14, but I can't remember exactly and the church where I was baptized is now closed and the classis does not have its records (nor do the archives).  I can remember my baptism clearly in my head.  I can picture the whole event from the location in the church to still being able to remember how the water dripped down my face.

I have been asking myself a question over and over in my head today in response to an article by Andrew Thompson about communion and the talks that have ensued on some blogs about "open table."  Here is the question and it is a total chicken-egg conundrum:  Was I a Christian before my baptism or was it after my baptism that I was a Christian?

The reason I ask this is because it causes me to wonder about how we approach doctrine and the sacraments.  Assuming that "open table" is no longer applicable, it would require me to be baptized in order to partake at the Lord's Table.  So in my instance I would have been excluded from the table until I was 12-14.  However, I had given my life over to Christ and decided to follow him from a very young age (I prayed the prayer when I was two, but really began to understand what I had committed to around 5 or 6 thanks to my mom and my Christian pre-school education).

At what point would Christ have invited me to dine at Christ's table?  Would Christ have said, "Sorry Justin, but to eat here you have to be baptized first."  To me that seems to be what we as a community of believers have constructed.  Participation to the table is by "invitation-only" and that invitation comes with baptism.  To me this seems like it confines the movement of Christ within the "practices" of the Church.  Now this might come as a surprise to some of my friends since I am a good Duke Divinity student who believes that practices are an important part in the life of faith.  I do believe they are important and that the sacraments are some of the primary means by which God imparts grace on individuals, but I can't get past how things don't just happen in strict order at times and to demand that they happen in a strict order seems contrary to what I have experienced.

Of course as a good Wesleyan, I have to take into consideration reason, experience, tradition, and Scripture (Scripture being primary).  So here it goes:

My own personal experience shows me that one need not necessarily be "baptized" to be a follower of Christ and to follow in the way of Christ and to have God move in one's own life.  I have also seen how friends of mine have been follower's of Christ and have had a dynamic relationship with a living God that moved them to be who they were without being baptized.

Tradition is a sticky one.  Traditionally it has been the understanding of the church that baptism proceeds being allowed at the table.  It is a rather new understanding (since the Reformation) that allowed for a distinction in practice.  Of course those also go down to understandings of exactly what communion and baptism are too.  What has been held by many is that "baptism" is a a mark of being a Christian.  I can't deny that.

But what about Scripture?  Scripture really seems to side with the tradition of the Church.  Paul's writings speak of the importance of baptism and even his own conversion story points to the importance of baptism.  However, both Paul and the Gentile believer's in Acts 10 were filled with the Holy Spirit before being baptized pointing and Cornelius seemed to be a devout follower of God before he and his family were baptized (of course the followers of Christ had to work through some understandings such as the requirement of circumcision to be a Christian).  It does seem to be appropriate to be baptized in response to the new understanding of identity as a Christian.  That I will no doubt affirm, however I don't see how that means it is a necessity.

To put my wonderings into pointed questions:  Is it "baptism" that incorporates us into the Body of Christ or is it Christ who incorporates us into the Body of Christ?

(Yes, I know that we understand that God is the primary actor in baptism and incorporates us through the act of baptism, but the question pushes me to try and resolve whether the "act" of baptism the one and only way God incorporates)

Monday, April 19, 2010


I am just going to lay this out there:  one of the things that I struggle with as a pastor is brokenness.  I struggle with the Church's brokenness.  I struggle with the local church's brokenness.  I struggle with congregant's brokenness.  I struggle with my own brokenness.

Brokenness means pain.  Someone is always going to experience pain in the brokenness, either it is the person who is broken or another person because of that brokenness.  We can't escape the brokenness we can only surrender either to the brokenness or to Christ.

Let me explain.  Often I think we surrender to the brokenness.  It is easier.  We can avoid it on our own terms or we can try to control it on our own terms.  In both situations, the brokenness wins.  There is another way and that is surrendering the brokenness to Christ.  Opening oneself up to the guidance of another is tough, it means facing our own brokenness and realizing we can't do it on our own.

I had a wonderful and painful conversation with someone recently who posed the inquiry on whether things were being done out of fear rather than faithfulness.  It really got me thinking about how often we surrender to brokenness because of fear from the individual level all the way up to the institutional level.

I speak of this from a personal level.  My own brokenness around issues with my father dominated my life for 25 years.  I surrendered to the brokenness rather than surrendering to Christ and trusting that my faithful response would lead me towards a better way of living.  I wanted things on my terms and I wanted to heal myself.  Of course that reaction was nothing more than surrendering to my own brokenness and how it had shaped me to want to have control over a situation in response to my inability to have control over what my father chose to do.  It wasn't until Christ broke through via the guidance of a supervisor at my field placement that I began to surrender to Christ.  Once I surrendered and said okay I am going to do something Christ is leading me to do even though I don't want to do it internally, then things began to be healed.  What if I hadn't responded faithfully (doing something I didn't internally want to do)?  How would my brokenness in that situation continue to control me?

These are questions I ask of myself, but I also wonder how often our choices as communities and as institutions are done out of fear rather than out of faithfulness.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Book Review: Different Eyes: The Art of Living Beautifully

I found this book a fascinating read.  Chalke and Mann have constructed a very engaging book dealing with Christian Ethics in a way that anyone interested in Christian living can understand and engage with.

For those of you who have read Stanley Hauerwas or Samuel Wells, Chalke and Mann are of the similar position (in fact the writings of both are referenced within the book).

Academically, this book is about setting forth "virtue ethics" as the best form of Christian ethics.  In the first two chapters, the framework is set for why virtue ethics are the best option over "deontological ethics" or "consequentialist ethics."

For those who may not be familiar with Christian ethics jargon, this book is still a great and must read.  Chalke writes in a way that engages the mind and opens up the messiness of life and all its ethical choices by pointing to a living and dynamic faith that comes from following Jesus Christ.  

Chalke writes, "The development of character traits or habits, such as honesty, justice and integrity, enable us to act wisely and in line with our beliefs.  Therefore, the question we should ask of any action is, What kind of person will I become if I do this?" (pg 39) and "But discipleship is not primarily about rules; it's about the development of habits and practices." (pg 76)

Chalke sees Scripture as the Story of God and God's choice to be present in the lives of people.  Through the story, God's character is revealed and a vision is cast.  Discipleship then is the action of developing the practices and habits that come from that vision and allow the disciple to enter the process of becoming more and more in-line with God's character.

If you want to gander at a section of the book yourself, check it out here.

My favorite part about this book is the inclusion of the "Thinking Christianly" section at the end of each four parts of the book.  These sections include two letters of differing views about some controversial topics.  Each letter is thought out by whoever wrote them and points to the messiness of discipleship and how answers aren't always easy as both letters often can be convincing.  The inclusion of these sections invites the reader to start "practicing" the "art of living beautifully."  After the two letters there are some questions that engage the reader to begin thinking about the topic individually or as a community.

That brings me to my advice:  If you read this book, read it with a group of people.  Don't just read it as an individual disciple but read it as a group of disciples.  The "Thinking Christianly" sections bring about great dialogue and create an open atmosphere that seeks to discover who God would have us be.  After reading this book for review, I was so excited about the communal possibilities that I am using it with the college students involved in the campus ministry I lead and ordered each of them a copy.