Friend of TCF Darrin Compagner recently preached about the Christian practices that help us to build healthy and faithful communities. He’s agreed to share some of his thoughts in the form of a four-part blog series, focusing especially on Christine Pohl’s book “Living Into Community.” Each week, we’ll also suggest one practice for you to try out – a Christian discipline that can help you, too, become the kind of person who can disagree well. For Week 4: Find one specific opportunity to extend Christian hospitality. Remember that this isn’t about entertaining, but about sharing friendship in a way that reflects God’s own love to your guest.
The fourth practice we looked at, following Christine Pohl, was hospitality. In some ways, it is in practices of hospitality that all these things come together. Hospitality plays a key role in Christian communities. It is a necessary ingredient to make the community authentically Christian, as opposed to self-interested and self-serving. It is a means of extending the life and friendship of Christian community, and the life and friendship of God, to others.
In the ancient world, both Jewish and Greco-Roman, hospitality was a high value. Hospitality provided for the needs of travelers, apart from which travel might have been impossible. It was also a tightly prescribed social convention, with fairly well-defined patterns of greeting, welcome, provision, and reciprocity (See Entertaining Angels: Early Christian Hospitality in its Mediterranean Setting by Andrew Arterbury).
And there’s plenty on hospitality in the Scriptures, as well. Hospitality is one of those themes where, once you see it in the Scriptures and in Christian life, you can’t stop seeing it. We looked at that foundational story in Genesis 18 where God comes as a surprise guest to Abraham and Sarah. In a paradigmatic way, the demanding practice of hospitality provides a context where God provides blessing and revelation. The surprise guest, the God who shows up, who visits, who knocks at doors and makes himself a guest, is a recurrent theme (Matthew 25, Hebrews 13:1-2, Revelation 3:20). Surprises await us when we extend ourselves in practices of hospitality to strangers of all kinds.
Eugene Peterson writes in his memoir (The Pastor) that “inhospitality is epidemic in America.” A lot of people are displaced, without a place to belong. People are increasingly mobile, cut off from tradition and community. The rapid proliferation of technology, while promising to give us all kinds of leisure time to be with one another, often replaces personal interrelations with machines, and the frenetic place of life leaves little room for slow, intimate connection and relationship.
Even so, we still have need for hospitality, but tend to put in its place one of two other things. On the one hand, there is the “hospitality industry,” which turns hospitality from a relational encounter to a consumer and contractual one. What we are left to practice ourselves is very often not hospitality, but entertaining (I called Entertaining the “evil twin” of Hospitality in a sermon, and got a wonderful picture from a child of our congregation of the two personified, with Entertainment a vile beast in pitched contest with Hospitality). Where hospitality is a genuine, humble, offering and opening of yourself to your guest, entertaining is prideful, a vain showing off to your guest.
True hospitality, to borrow from Tim Keller’s definition, is the heart and practice which turn strangers into guests, guests into friends, and friends into potential members of the family. In this way, it reflects God’s own gracious heart, and becomes not only one practice among many, but the purpose and orientation of so many Christian practices of worship, evangelism, justice, and mercy.
The Scriptures reveal a God who shows up not only as the Surprise Guest, but also makes himself the consummate Gracious Host. Christian hospitality, as a grateful echo of God’s own gracious hospitality, empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit, cultivates hearty and nourishing Christian community. Thank God for those who know how to welcome the guest in worship, welcome the neighbor in their home, and welcome spiritual sojourners to the table of grace and truth.
Friend of TCF Darrin Compagner recently preached about the Christian practices that help us to build healthy and faithful communities. He’s agreed to share some of his thoughts in the form of a four-part blog series, focusing especially on Christine Pohl’s book “Living Into Community.” Each week, we’ll also suggest one practice for you to try out – a Christian discipline that can help you, too, become the kind of person who can disagree well. For Week 3: Think about a commitment you’ve made that you may be struggling to keep. Maybe it’s a small project at the office, or a tea party with your daughter – whatever it is, take some time this week to follow through.
Christian community begins in grateful response to the grace and gifts of God. This grateful response, then, takes shape in practices of faithfulness and truthfulness.
Or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. In practice, we often find it difficult to speak truth, to make and keep promises, to give one another our trust, and to be worthy of trust.
Perhaps you’ve been in a setting where a group attempts a trust fall exercise. The idea is simple enough, to develop and build trust through a simple exercise of falling back and being caught. A Youtube video helpfully and comically, if painfully, chronicles a number of ways such exercises can go wrong.
For many of us, we know of and have experienced similar moments in Christian community. Someone attempts to build trust by telling the truth, only to speak wounding words. Another person gives us a promise that they will surely show up for an event, but fails to follow through. Each opportunity for telling truth and demonstrating faithfulness is a little exercise in building a trusting community. But it’s also an opportunity to undermine that very trust.
And there are other things that can undermine communal trust and truth. Culturally, we are often shaped towards anti-faithfulness by having unlimited options. We stay in consumer mode in ways that make steady communal relationships impossible. We feel jaded towards truth and faithfulness because we are subjected to such a steady stream of untruthfulness and broken promises in carefully crafted ad campaigns and politicians seeking re-election. In an often dishonest and unpredictable world, truth-telling and faithfulness don’t come naturally to us.
What Scripture emphasizes above all is the truth and faithfulness of God. God does not keep all his options open, but binds himself via promises. He did so to Abraham, and a longish section of Genesis traces the various trust falls and fails as Abraham haltingly grows in faith. But finally, as Hebrews 6 summarizes, Abraham “waited patiently” and “received what was promised.” In Christ, we have God’s faithfulness given in the flesh, our faithful high priest, who is for us an “anchor for the soul.”
So a people, anchored in Christ, living in the midst of an unsteady, commitment-averse culture, can be steady enough to make and keep promises, big and small. Apart from this the work of Christian community is consistently undermined, like building a sand-castle within reach of the waves.
As with practices of Gratitude, Christian communities can call one another to practice Truthfulness and Faithfulness in counter-cultural ways. Sometimes it is little promises made and kept, like signing up to help with a clean-up day and, wonderfully, showing up to do so. Sometimes it is naming difficulties early and clearly, and eschewing the posturing and constant image-maintenance expected in a consumer culture. Such acts build trusting and trustworthy communities, and they make the faithfulness and truthfulness of God, too, credible.
Friend of TCF Darrin Compagner recently preached about the Christian practices that help us to build healthy and faithful communities. He’s agreed to share some of his thoughts in the form of a four-part blog series, focusing especially on Christine Pohl’s book “Living Into Community.” Each week, we’ll also suggest one practice for you to try out – a Christian discipline that can help you, too, become the kind of person who can disagree well. For Week 2: Last week you practiced gratitude by thanking God for your community. This week, try to extend that gratitude to those around you – take advantage of every opportunity you come across to say “thank you.”
Following Christine Pohl, the first theme we explored in our fall sermon series was “Thankfulness.” We began by looking at 2 Corinthians 8:1-9. It’s a fascinating passage with three communities on the horizon. One is the Macedonian Christians, who Paul notes are living in “deep poverty.” The second is the community back in Jerusalem, enduring a famine with devastating effects. And the third, the audience for the letter, is the community in relatively well-to-do Corinth. Each community is lacking something: the first two, obviously enough, are lacking money and food. The third, the Corinthians, have money and food, and even good intentions for generosity. What they lack is follow-through. They had pledged a big gift to help out, but a year later, hadn’t signed the check.
And so Paul holds before them the Macedonians, who out of their poverty, gave generously to help the Jerusalemites. And now it is the Corinthians, Paul urges, that can prove the “sincerity of their love” through generosity. Their poverty is one of joy that leads to generosity, and Paul’s response is to highlight “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”
Here, Paul meets the deep need of the Corinthians with the deep message of the grace of God. Jesus Christ set aside wealth, stepped into our deep poverty, and through his poverty we are made abundantly rich in communion with God. Apart from the grace of God, we tend to tell our stories, and view our world, as one of scarcity. This leads us to give, when we do, in a cautious and calculated kind of way. What Paul calls for is another way, one rooted deeply in God’s abundant grace, that leads to an abundance of joy and generosity capable of giving freely and fully.
Human hearts and communities have a kind of cavernous emptiness about them. In Christ, God has spoken into this emptiness with an abundant and resounding Word. What comes echoing back is gratitude. When we know our emptiness and need, our sin and misery, we appreciate also the Word that fills our emptiness. When we know our poverty, we are primed to be receivers of grace, and then to echo God’s grace by extending gratitude to one another.
This rooting in gratitude is absolutely vital for Christian community both in theory as well as in practice. Practicing gratitude requires taking time and developing the capacity to notice those little things that build communal life without drawing attention to themselves. This means noticing the one who does the dishes, noticing the one who delivers the meal, noticing the one who lends a listening ear. In relation to the other practices, it means noticing and giving thanks for the one who knows how to speak the truth in love, and for the one who demonstrates faithfulness, and the one who provides gracious hospitality.
Without gratitude, all these other practices will die on the vine. We may not notice Gratitude’s functioning in a community, but are sure to notice if it is absent. If gratitude greases the wheels of life together, ingratitude grates and grinds. People develop a cultivated sense of score-keeping and entitlement. Envy, what Pohl calls “anti-gratitude,” and grumbling can spread through the system and the result is toxic.
Fortunately, Christian communities have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to cultivating Gratitude. Historic patterns of Christian worship emphasize this back and forth of Grace and Gratitude. The Psalms are full of thanksgiving that is both broad and specific. The communion meal is one of Eucharist (“thanksgiving”) rich with themes that carry over into receiving all of life as God’s gracious gift. Every person present contributes some gift to the body that can be noticed and appreciated. Above all, God’s actions and gifts through Christ and the Holy Spirit inspire and enable grateful living.
And so God’s grace echoes on and on in Christian communities of Gratitude.
Friend of TCF Darrin Compagner recently preached about the Christian practices that help us to build healthy and faithful communities. He’s agreed to share some of his thoughts in the form of a four-part blog series, focusing especially on Christine Pohl’s book “Living Into Community.” Each week, we’ll also suggest one practice for you to try out – a Christian discipline that can help you, too, become the kind of person who can disagree well. For Week 1: Consider the Christian community of which you are a part – be honest about both the joys and sorrows of life together. Then each day this week, thank God for one specific aspect of your community.
“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” So claims Psalm 133, and it is the verse Dietrich Bonhoeffer chose to start his classic book, Life Together. The Psalm goes on to evoke what an altogether lovely thing it is, what a bounteous blessing it can be, when human lives interweave in holy harmony.
Genuine experiences of community are beautiful, indeed. When we experience a group of friends, family, neighbors, or co-workers who care for one another, give and receive, extend grace and welcome, we know we’re in the presence of something to be savored. Psalm 133 uses some ancient images for these experiences – oil on the head and dew on the mountain. A quart of Pennzoil flowing down your hair and neck may not sound like a blessing, but in the ancient culture scented olive oil was a means of cleansing, moisturizing, and giving a good smell. It was refreshing, renewing, and pleasing: lotion on chapped hands, a good cup of coffee on a cold winter’s day.
Just about everybody is pro-community. It’s such a buzz word that some think the word itself has lost its meaning and can be avoided. Still, there are communities of every stripe and flavor, from the very thick to the very thin. When community is right, when it is “good and pleasant,” there’s nothing like it. We look and even long for it.
But we also know that true community can be a pain. It can be hard to find. It can be difficult to participate in. Being in community means being with people who are self-absorbed, inconsiderate, power-hungry, or desperately needy. Instead of aromatic oil on your head, life together can be like getting gum in your hair. Instead of gentle refreshing dew, it can be a field of slick mud where you spin your tires.
Cultural trends suggest that in North America, while we talk a lot about community, we experience fairly little of it. In Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam outlines some of the statistical trends. The title of the book comes from a study that showed that from 1980 to 1993, the number of individuals who bowled in American went up by 10%. But in that same timeframe, bowling in leagues declined by 40%. More and more, people were bowling alone.
That’s really only significant if you’re a bowler (or own a bowling alley). But here are some of the broader trends. Over the last 25 years, family dinners have declined by 43%. Having friends over has dropped 35%. Church attendance has only dropped by 10%, but participation in events outside of services has dropped 50%. More than just bowling, people are living more and more isolated, trying to fill the gaps with social media that tend to offer more community than they’re capable of delivering. Putnam suggest that this results in a lack of something very real if intangible, something he calls “social capital,” a trust, reciprocity, cooperation, and connection that enables so much that is good.
To be Christian is to be called into community with others who are Christian. And last fall I had the opportunity to preach through a sermon series at our church exploring the foundations of Christian community, the practices which sustain community and the forces that undermine it. I drew especially from Christine Pohl’s book, Living Into Community: Cultivating Practices That Sustain Us. Pohl both evokes the good possibilities of community, but also explores attendant practices that make it possible. Following her lead, we explored these four: thankfulness, faithfulness, truthfulness, and hospitality. We spent two weeks on each of these four, sinking the roots of our thinking into Scripture and Christian wisdom.
But at the start, we began with this passage Bonhoeffer’s points to. And while there are many kinds of community, he emphasizes that we begin by recognizing Christian community not as something we seek, or dream up, or manufacture, but as a gift. Christ is given to us together, and thereby we are given to one another. So he adds: “‘Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity’ – this is the Scripture’s praise of life together under the Word. But now we can rightly interpret the words ‘in unity’ and say, ‘for brethren to dwell together through Christ.’ For Jesus Christ is our unity. ‘He is our peace.’ Through him alone do we have access to one another, and fellowship with one another.”
Thankfulness, Faithfulness, Truthfulness, and Hospitality, then, are the fitting habits and practices for receiving and participating in God’s good gifts of community in Christ.
For some time, now, friends in the Grand Rapids area have been asking for the opportunity to join one of our forums. So far, we’ve been primarily focused on building partners from coast to coast, but this spring, we’re bringing forums home.
Please consider joining us for one of two local events:
March 24: A one-evening “Listening Forum”
This evening focuses on some of the topics that you feel need a little more “airtime” in the church. This will be a safe space for you to raise questions, talk about matters that concern you, and join us in considering how we might work for greater unity in the body of Christ.
May 1, 8, 15, 22: A four-part “Forum Series”
Each Thursday evening between May Day and Memorial Day, we’ll gather to discuss a difficult issue. We at TCF believe that divisive, painful topics actually provide fertile ground for spiritual and communal growth, and this month is your opportunity to join us in this experiment. We are looking to build a group with as much “difference” as we can find, so please join us if you’re old or young, male or female, right or left. We trust that Christ holds us all together!
We’re excited to be doing this work in our own backyard, and we hope that you’ll take the time to join us for either or both of these events! If you have any questions, please contact Lori Wilson, Director of Community Programs, or Jeanna Morrison, Administrative Assistant.
…It is not a forum for apologetics – a discourse that all too often brings division to the body of Christ, and in so doing, fails to convince the skeptic. TCF is, though, a place of hospitality where we lessen tensions while seeking the unity of all things in Christ.
…It is not a site in which to satisfy a need for certainty. Rather, TCF works to help deepen faith, build community, and expand knowledge by engaging Christians in the educational mission of the church and through its grounding in the assurance that in Christ, all things hold together.
…It is not a think-tank to solve all the issues that arise at the intersection of the constantly changing spaces of contemporary science and the confession of the historic Christian faith; it is, though, a place in which we can engage such issues faithfully, as we are formed through worship and the spiritual disciplines to which the communion of saints gives witness.
We do this work so that together, we might be transformed into the image of Christ, and so witness to the unity of God’s church.
TCF recently hosted the third in a forum series on the origins of human existence, this one held at the site of the Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, TN. The four-day event included a private gathering of scholars in related fields, as well as a public forum at the Rhea County Courthouse featuring TCF Fellows Todd Wood and Darrel Falk.
During our time in Dayton, TCF and our partners were also invited by Bryan College to lead a chapel service for their faculty, staff and students. You can read about the service on the student news site here. The college has also made available an audio recording of the event, posted online here.
We are grateful to Bryan College for creating space for this important and difficult conversation.
You may have noticed how quickly conversations can get contentious when politics come up, even (or especially) among Christians. In a bold effort to change the way we go about these difficult issues, friend of TCF Harold Heie has just released a book that models a way of holding respectful conversations in the midst of political disagreements.
In Evangelicals on Public Policy Issues, Heie addresses concerns ranging from immigration to marriage to gun control to foreign policy. In a unique approach to these issues, he begins by drawing on posts from an online conversation he hosted at respectfulconversation.net. Over the course of nine months, Christians who hold a broad variety of perspectives on these matters interacted with one another thoughtfully and respectfully, modeling a civil mode of engagement. As the online conversation drew to a close, Heie collected these contributions and worked to synthesize them, highlighting commonality or majority opinions and proposing next steps in working together for resolution. The result, Evangelicals on Public Policy Issues, invites the reader to follow the example of these thinkers, and to engage in difficult political conversations with grace and respect.
While TCF has not yet hosted forums on the topic of political discourse, we realize that the church desperately needs tools to engage this challenge more fruitfully and charitably. Evangelicals on Public Policy Issues presents an approach that complements our work for hospitable conversation, and suggests a variety of entry points into this difficult arena. We are grateful to our friend Harold for modeling a better way and for challenging Christians to a more respectful conversation.
TCF recently hosted the third in a forum series on the origins of human existence, this one held at the site of the Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, TN. The four-day event included a public forum, featuring TCF Fellows Todd Wood and Darrel Falk. Friend of TCF Don Huizinga graciously agreed to share the following reflections on his experience that evening.
Recently I had the privilege of listening in on a thoughtful, gracious conversation between a young earth creationist and an evolutionary creationist, a rare treat indeed. One can quite easily find debates between the two, but respectful dialogue is rare. Questions were answered head on, no evasion, no trying to score points, no reciting the party line. I simply experienced two people being authentic with one another, seeking reconciliation and seeking truth. Those who attended recognized this is the way things are supposed to be and were inspired to go and do likewise.
Surprisingly, this particular conversation took place in Dayton, Tennessee, inside the very courthouse where the Scopes Trial was held eighty-nine years earlier. Although the courthouse crowd was large enough to be standing room only, they were not drawn to what they expected to be a circus-like, hyper-adversarial, media-pleasing conflict. Rather, they were drawn to something spectacular, perhaps one could even say historic: a virtuous conversation between two individuals whose common allegiance to Jesus trumped their strong convictions to opposing truths about the nature of Scripture and the scientific origins story.
Two Christian scientists engaged in this conversation: Todd Wood and Darrel Falk, each committed to following Jesus, each committed to the authority of the Bible, each committed to doing good science. Nevertheless, their common foundational commitments led them to draw quite opposite conclusions about the age of the universe and the nature of God’s creative processes.
Why have this conversation then? The answer begins with confession. Unfriendly Christian divisiveness has been the norm concerning origin issues. Defending turf with more passion for one’s position than for civility has been the norm. Humility—the willingness to admit one may possibly be wrong—has been absent. Expressed dire consequences of holding the opponent’s position have been exaggerated.
Besides, they both love truth. Could it be possible that conversations between those who hold opposing views could advance truth? May seeking truth together with those who hold divergent ideas have significant advantage over a more parochial approach?
They also both love Jesus. They believe Jesus is through whom and for whom creation was made. They believe Jesus is reconciling all things to Himself, and they need to be part of that reconciliation process. They trust that He is at the center of the truth. All things hold together in Him.
This was the third of three extended conversations these two scientists have had. I’ve had the privilege of listening in on portions of the first, which occurred last July, and the third, this month. The difference was striking. Their first interchange had a raw edge to it; this one did not.
Todd Wood, a young earth creationist, impresses me with his vulnerability and transparency. In July, Todd confessed that many creationists find it easy to see Darrel, an evolutionary creationist, not as a Christian brother, but as a ‘dirty rotten compromiser.’ As one who claimed to be evangelical only to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It is difficult, Todd explained, to refrain from stereotyping when you don’t know someone personally. He wondered, “If Darrel is a Christian, why doesn’t he agree with me?” He asked the attendees, “I don’t know how to pray for Darrel, help me.”
At the same time, he complimented Darrel on his answers, praising him for appealing to Scriptures rather than to science as the final authority. Later he professed that after intense interaction with Darrel, he had come to a place where he could tell his friends that there are real true evangelicals who believe in evolution. (Emphasis his.)
Darrel Falk recognized Todd as a bright scientist, one who published in peer-reviewed journals. So he asked Todd, “With all your knowledge of the science behind evolution, why don’t you just accept it?” Todd was an enigma to him. He listened carefully to Todd’s answer and respected it. In fact, Darrel’s response was, “I admire your willingness to be non-mainstream. Your answer enables me to pray for you.” Darrel emphasized more than once that conversation about origins without the presence of young earth creationists is unhealthy; in addition he believed that the headship of Jesus expressed in Colossians 1 demanded inclusive conversation.
In contrast to their first conversation, during the third Todd and Darrel seemed much more relaxed with one another. They used the word “friendship” to describe their relationship. I witnessed a profound trust I had not seen the first time. That atmosphere of trust enabled tough questions to be asked without the need to “tiptoe.”
Todd asked of Darrel, “Do you feel the primary problem underlying Young Earth Creationism is ignorance? What do you think about the lack of progress evolutionists have had in finding satisfactory natural answers for the origin of life from non-life?” At the same time, Todd felt safe enough to admit to sometimes thinking he may be wrong, that some of the best evidence for his position remains to be found. And he acknowledged that even among creationists, for example, there remains some disagreement about the Fall, the curse, and death. Wood agrees with other creationists that the curse resulted in physical death for humans and some animals – but in some senses the “jury is still out” as to whether there may have been death among some in the animal kingdom before the Fall.
For his part, Darrel felt free to ask Todd for the best scientific evidence for ‘no macro-evolution’ rather than asking for his biblical reasoning. He felt safe enough to admit that he does not doubt the ‘overwhelming and beautiful’ evidence for biological evolution even though tough theological questions are raised and remain unanswered as a result. Darrel boldly stated that physical death was not necessarily a result of the Fall, although spiritual death was.
All three conversations between these two Christian scientists were hosted by The Colossian Forum, this last one in partnership with the Core Academy of Science. The Colossian Forum is committed to facilitating charitable conversation among opposite though Christian points of view on controversial topics such as origins. The Core Academy works to help Christians better understand science, including – but not limited to – educating about young-earth creationism. This co-hosting is evidence of a reconciliation, a building of trust that honors Christ. Many of those who attended this conversation were students at Bryan College. For these young people, and for the rest of us who were present, the model of friendship and trust that has grown between these two men, and the respectful but difficult conversation they had were powerfully inspirational!
The evening began with worship. We listened to Scripture, not as proof text, but with encouragement to submit to its teaching, allowing Scripture to shape us rather than us manipulating it to prove a point. Then we prayed, bound together by the Spirit of Christ.
At the end, Rob Barrett, representing The Colossian Forum as moderator of the event, asked this question of each of the participants, “What good is coming from this kind of conversation?” Darrel emphasized that Christians on any side of this issue benefit from worshipping together. “We owe it to each other to ease misunderstandings,” he said. “We need to work through issues differently than those not in the body of Christ.” Wood explained that Christians must let go of the need to win: “[We] have to trust the outcome of this process to the Lord.” He recognized that the difference between six thousand years and thirteen point eight billion years was too great for both of them to be right.
This irreconcilable but very pragmatic difference, this recognition that one perspective is closer to the truth than the other, points to something else we hope from these events, which does not yet seem to have happened. Has progress been made toward increased understanding of origins? Todd and Darrel have accomplished amazing things in their relationship, but has the content of their understanding of origins changed? Maybe it’s too early in the process. Maybe it’s not a proper goal? Can we hope that this conversation/friendship will lead to an understanding of the truth about our origins that is a step forward, taking advantage from but not identical to either of their current positions? These tensions were alive and well at the end of this conversation, and will continue to demand the attention of The Colossian Forum and its partners. However, as Todd reminded the audience, this work can move forward with confidence and hope: “The Spirit of God won’t let us go! He is bigger than wrong answers.”
We listeners experienced all that Todd and Darrel hoped for: Easing of misunderstanding. Letting go of a desire to win. Trust that the Holy Spirit won’t let us go because He is bigger than our wrong answers. Thank you, Colossian Form; thank you, Core Academy of Science. Thank you Todd Wood; thank you Darrel Falk. You are the models we need. You are an inspiration!
TCF recently hosted the third in a forum series on the origins of human existence, this one held at the site of the Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, TN. A central part of each forum is joint worship, and participants are invited to contribute short meditations on each day’s lectionary reading. The following reflection was offered by Iain Provan, who serves as Professor of Biblical Studies at Regent College.
Luke 23:26-56 tells the story of Christ’s final hours on earth (see the full text below). A famous and important passage from Luke’s Gospel, and there are many things that could be said about it. Our focus in all our Scripture reading this weekend, though, has been on the question: How does this passage help us to become the kind of people who can engage difficult problems well? And if we ask that question of the passage, let me suggest that this is a passage that, in the midst of difficulties, gives us perspective, and also gives us hope.
It gives us perspective because most of our problems in life are remarkably small when compared with the problems faced in this passage by our Lord himself and also by his followers. Here is Jesus, crucified with criminals at the place called “the skull” – Jesus who had only a little while ago entered Jerusalem with cheering crowds lining the streets. Now he walks to his place of execution, still followed by a crowd – but this crowd is mourning and wailing. They had hoped for so much, and now all their hopes seem to have come to an end. On the cross Jesus endures cruel taunting about his powerlessness, and biting sarcasm about his claim to be a king. Even one of his fellow criminals hurls insults him. And all of this even though he has done nothing wrong – as the other criminal reminds us. This is a devastating ending, it appears, to his story, and the darkness that falls on the whole land seems to suggest that all of creation has empathetically entered into the disaster. The last that his own followers see of him is when his body is laid in a tomb. It is a very bleak moment.
When we consider this apparently final act in the life of our Lord and Saviour, we realize among other things just how trivial are so many of the things that we refer to as difficulties, or problems, and just how much we make of them. That is not to say that we do not genuinely suffer – of course, we do, sometimes directly because we are disciples of this same person, taking up our own cross and following him, and sometimes in very painful ways. Some of us suffer greatly for much of our lives. But all too often, if we are honest, we make an awful lot of quite small matters – a disagreement; a slight, or a hurt; an angry word. And whereas our Lord, even in great distress, moved outwards in generous love, even toward his better enemies, asking the Father to “forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” we often make no such moves, outward, toward understanding and reconciliation, even with those who are not really our enemies, but are only irritatingly different from us in their opinions, or who have criticized us in some way, or have misrepresented us to others. Small matters! We take up our cross, but only as a weapon, either to defend ourselves or to attack others. We are called to do better, surely, by the one who laid down his life for all of us. We are called to a Gospel perspective, centered not just on the life of Christ, but also in this narrative about his death. And we become the kind of people who can engage difficult problems well, essentially, by first becoming the kind of people, in Christ, who can engage small problems well. We cannot run unless we first learn to walk.
Beyond perspective, this passage from Luke’s Gospel also gives us hope. We all need hope. One of the reason we need hope is because we so often fail, and failure leads to discouragement, and soon we stop trying, because after all, what is the point? We open our hearts to our neighbor, and even to our enemy, and what happens? Do things necessarily get better? Well, not necessarily! In this narrative from Luke, Jesus opens his heart to others, including his enemies. And what follows is sneering, and mockery, and insult. And after all these, painful death. The life of the disciple of this same Jesus is no different, often. Christian faith does not guarantee that if only we put enough cash in the great Coke machine of life, great Coke cans of success will come tumbling out of the machine and into our hands. Opening our ears and our hearts to others can be excruciatingly difficult and painful. The ministry of reconciliation to which we are called in Christ can be tough. It can appear hopeless. And we need hope to keep us going – the hope that is centered on this same Jesus, who not only died, but also rose from the dead to reign over the entire cosmos. Out of death came life, and we ourselves are caught up into this life, knowing that every seed of reconciliation and understanding that we sow, even if it appears to result in nothing at all, will one day bear fruit, and that all our small actions in following Christ are caught up in his big actions, and in his entire person, and that they cannot ultimately fail. How do we become the kind of people who can engage difficult problems well? We need a hope that is grounded in Christ’s death and resurrection.
Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.”
The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”
There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.
The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man.” When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away. But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.
Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea and he was waiting for the kingdom of God. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body. Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid. It was Preparation Day, and the Sabbath was about to begin.
The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.
Late last year a high school teacher approached TCF with an idea: he wanted to host a lunch-time forum with his students about the interplay of faith and science. After a conversation with our president, he began to make plans, and wrote recently to tell us about their first gathering: a dozen high school students gave up their lunch break to talk with their science teacher about creation and evolution. Stepping back from some of the more standard (and heated) starting points of this particular conversation, he introduced the notion of “unexamined presuppositions”: what are the things we believe to be true before we even begin to make a scientific claim? This kind of thoughtful approach gives students the tools to engage potentially difficult issues with patience and confidence.
Shortly after the teacher announced this gathering, he began to receive requests from other students to join the lunchtime conversations. So many young people crave a safe space in which to ask questions about issues that matter deeply to them! Part of TCF’s founding vision was to help young people move from fear of these controversies to a sense of freedom for exploring God’s world. We’re not at all surprised that this friend of TCF has found a ready and anxious audience, and we’re deeply grateful for the time and energy he’s investing to create a safe space for his students to ask difficult questions.
Dear friends of TCF,
This week’s lectionary reading includes Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” – a sometimes perplexing passage that presents a striking vision of life in God’s kingdom. Jesus describes the counterintuitive fruit of faithfulness: loss becomes gain, poverty becomes wealth, emptiness is filled to overflowing. His words confront our everyday ways of seeing, and call us to live in light of a very different Way.
“Blessed are the peacemakers.” We all know that peacemakers on the global stage don’t have an easy time of it. Their work can be physically risky, emotionally grueling, and unrewarding for weeks or even years at a time. Peacemaking closer to home isn’t all that different. It requires of us hard work, courage, and patient yet unrelenting persistence. Peace isn’t something we stumble into, it’s something that we make as we participate in God’s Way. God has in fact gone before, breaking down barriers, inviting us into the peace He’s already established. So our work to make peace is a grateful expression of our identity as God’s children; when wemake peace we are in fact revealing a sort of family resemblance.
At TCF, I’m deeply honored to work side-by-side with Christians who are committed to this difficult business of making peace. In the thick of intense disagreements, I watch brothers and sisters exercise courage and patience and intense effort to pursue Christ’s peace together. And paradoxically, among children of God who see a great many things very differently, the peace of His kingdom is strikingly revealed.
Thank you for praying with me for God’s peace in the Church.
When we introduce folks to TCF’s work, it doesn’t take any time at all to convince them that our work for unity in the body of Christ is sorely needed. It takes a bit longer to persuade them that this is more than an idealistic dream. But as they begin to grasp that it’s actually possible to carry on difficult conversations in a way that draws us together rather than forcing us apart… well, beautiful things begin to happen.
As this vision continues to spread, we want to equip Christians to work with us for reconciliation in the midst of divisive issues. We’d of course love to host forums for any group, anywhere, who’s ready to take on this work. But we realize that often, the most effective leader will be someone in the community—someone who already knows the particular issues, the people, and the history. So, we’ve worked to develop a booklet to help leaders run their own forums (and soon, we’ll offer a forum leadership to accompany the book).
Start a New Kind of Conversation lays out a step-by-step process for setting up a forum: how to bring together the right group; how to identify and articulate a pressing issue; and how to host a fruitful and charitable conversation on a difficult topic. The process itself is relatively simple, and we hope this little book encourages Christians to engage a challenging issue with courage and grace.
If you share our vision and hope and are considering hosting a forum in your own community, we’d love to hear from you! Drop us an email or call us at (616) 328-6016, and we can talk about how you, too, can Start a New Kind of Conversation.
The Adam Quest, recently released by Tim Stafford, has shown itself to be both a source of conflict and an opportunity for transformation. One of its featured interviewees, TCF fellow Todd Wood, blogged yesterday about his response to the book, including his disappointment over what he feels is a misrepresentation of himself and of his young earth creationist perspective.
Wood’s frustration with this project—the book was initiated and supported by TCF—leads him to question his ongoing collaboration with our efforts to facilitate dialogue about divisive issues. We’ve been grateful for his willingness to enter into conversations, hosted by TCF, with scientists who openly support an evolutionary theory of creation. We also understand, however, that any attempt at such dialogue is fraught with fear and defensiveness, and that motives on all sides are apt to be questioned.
Which is why this post is such a beautiful picture of God’s in-breaking kingdom. Wood doesn’t shy away from the pain and fear that characterizes much of this difficult work. But in the midst of his frustration and disappointment, he embodies the persistence and hope without which we can’t possibly participate in God’s work of peace and reconciliation.
If you read one piece online today, it should be Wood’s post.
Dear friends of TCF,
As the holiday season slowly winds down, the church calendar leads us into a time of reflection and of renewed insight. Epiphany reminds us that there’s much more going on than “meets the eye,” that sometimes it takes quite a lot of effort on our part to discern what God is up to. It’s a season that calls us to look carefully, with openness to the surprises which God may hold in store.
One of the gifts of my work with TCF is the opportunity to watch, first-hand, as Christians catch a glimpse of the surprising unity we already share in Christ. In our forums, former opponents suddenly “see” one another in a new light—as brothers and sisters, as faithful followers of Christ. While those who were adversaries still maintain their differences, they nevertheless discover the deeper commonalities they share in pursuit of God’s kingdom. The difficult work of disagreeing well begins to open our eyes to how in Christ, all things truly do hold together (Col 1:17). And that vision is compelling indeed!
It is TCF’s goal to help Christians prepare for Epiphany year-round. We work to cast a vision and create space for unity in the church, to help Christians see one another not as threats but as gifts. And as we earnestly seek God’s truth, with honesty about our differences yet still in love, we come to see God’s gifts revealed in surprising ways.
Your prayers support this work, and I thank you for sharing with us in the joyful revelations of Epiphany!
Please note: if you would like to pray for TCF on a regular basis, please contact admin@colossianforum and ask to receive our monthly prayer letters. Thank you.
As 2013 comes to a close, our friends over at RespectfulConversation.net conclude their seven-month project with an exploration of the future of American Evangelicalism. Throughout the series, contributors have offered a wide range of perspectives – and of course this month is no different. There is, however, a recurring theme in this final set of posts that resonates with the work of TCF. As these writers look toward the future of evangelicalism in America, many of them express a deep hope that the church will find ways to pursue reconciliation across difference.
Amy Black writes longingly of a church that, in its unity, presents a compelling vision of God’s love for the world. A church united, she suggests, will create a welcoming space for the many young people who are leaving the faith. She suggests:
Our faith communities should seek to build the strong and lasting multigenerational friendships that are so essential for helping young people learn the faith and continue to follow Christ into adulthood.
Sarah Ruden calls the American church to pursue unity with the church worldwide. She describes the ways in which US Christians might learn from – and be challenged by – their brothers and sisters in the majority world.
In a similar vein, Amos Yong writes of the impact on the church of globalization, migration, and post-denominational Christianity. He suggests that as the body of Christ comes together to pursue obedience in the face of these significant shifts, the church will continue to grow and bear much fruit.
Kyle Roberts contributes the final post, in which he calls on the Evangelical church to find both its identity and vocation in the Gospel – the “unparalleled story of God’s project of reconciliation.” He writes:
The vocation of evangelical Christians, then, is to proclaim by word, deed, and life the story of reconciliation and to witness to that story of redemption. On the corporate, communal level, reconciliation with God becomes, by natural extension, reconciliation with others.
For us at TCF – a ministry of education and reconciliation – these posts present a hopeful call to the church. Differences abound, to be sure – but ultimately, the call on our lives is to respond to God’s love. We do this by pursuing the truth in love, and while this is no easy task, it does indeed hold out hope for our future together.
Worship is more than a form of expression to God – it’s also nourishment to form us as God’s people. Craig Dykstra describes worship as, “a tangible, embodied, communal rhythm that is a conduit for the Spirit’s transformative power.”
We encourage you to take time during this last week of Advent to reflect on the coming of our Savior. One resource you may find helpful is this 10-minute selection of The Advent Project called “Zachariah’s Song.” Drawn from A New Liturgy, this compilation of scripture and music attempts to create space to honestly engage with God and each other.
Click here to follow along with “Zacariah’s Song”:
TCF recently hosted a gathering of scholars whose vocations have led them into the arena of the creation/evolution debates. This very diverse group represented a broad range of perspectives, most of them articulated with a great deal of conviction. These folks have made significant career and church decisions based on their understandings of the interplay of faith and science, and many of them have suffered for the stands they’ve chosen.
It was nothing short of astonishing, then, to see these scholars articulate their hard-won perspectives with patience and selflessness, drawing on their differences as an opportunity to work for unity in the body of Christ. Over shared meals and joint worship and deep conversation, participants worked hard to listen well, to assume the best about each other, to seek to understand before being understood. They extended God’s love to one another in very real ways – from asking insightful questions to sharing chocolate.
Our gathering coincided with the second Sunday of Advent, a day to celebrate and anticipate the coming Prince of Peace. As we worshiped together with a local congregation, we were reminded that our efforts are in fact grounded in God’s work – that as we struggle to reconcile with one another, we are joining in the peace which God offers us in Christ – and then sharing this same peace with one another.
May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 15:5-6)
The opportunity to work for peace in Christ’s body was indeed a gift to each of us. As we concluded our time together, talk was of “what’s next”—this may have been hard work, but participants were energized to continue and extend it! Just as this event grew out of an earlier gathering, we expect to be surprised by where this latest encounter might lead.
At one of our TCF Discovery Events this fall, I was introduced to a biology teacher from a local public high school. This past summer, he traveled with his geologist son to investigate the oldest rock in the world, considered to be billions of years old. Unlike his son, this teacher is uncertain about the age of the earth, but inclined to espouse a young earth view; as a result, he found himself in wonderful yet sometimes strained conversation with his son. He is confident in his son’s faith and confident in his own. They have a strong relationship, but they have lacked a framework for talking about their differences. After hearing about The Colossian Forum, he felt like he had been given the gift of a new vocabulary for exploring Christian faith. He now had a way to explain why the tensions he had experienced with his son didn’t threaten their relationship or their faith, but served as an opportunity to learn to love God and one another more deeply.
Excited by this possibility, not only for his son but for his students as well, he asked me to consult with him on how he might run “Colossian Forums” with his students during his lunch hour. Many of his students share a young earth creation perspective, but because he teaches in a public school setting, he finds teaching about evolution and Darwinism to be a particular challenge.
I invited him to join me for a conversation about his experience with teaching the Bible in a non-Christian setting, and we discussed a number of ways in which Christians might be able to have this conversation in unique ways, since we confess that “all things hold together in Christ.” I shared a draft of an upcoming publication that outlines some TCF methods for engaging divisive issues while deepening our Christian virtues, as well as a number of web resources and forum examples to support his work. He left our meeting exhilarated and empowered to run the kind of conversations we have been inviting people to join. We look forward to staying in touch with him to hear how these conversations unfold and to support him in prayer.
The Colossian Forum is pleased to announce that we have been awarded a generous grant by the Equitas Group, whose focus involves “Seeking justice for the vulnerable and oppressed as well as encouraging holistic and responsive thinking toward that end.” This grant will support our work to foster communities of sustained and hospitable dialogue, rooted in the practices of the faith. In particular, it will underwrite a project to gather church leaders and academic experts to explore holistic expressions of Christian faithfulness regarding human sexuality. As TCF learns from scholars and practitioners, we will develop resources to help equip the church to receive cultural challenges like this one not as threats that divide but as gifts by which the Holy Spirit deepens knowledge, builds community, and strengthens faith.