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.
[God] will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
…Let us walk in the light of the Lord.
In this week’s lectionary reading, the prophet Isaiah paints for us a rich picture of life in the kingdom of the Prince of Peace. He instills in us a longing for this vision of shalom—of peace and wellbeing, of a world where all is well. And as Christians, we are invited to participate directly in its coming to be. While we trust in hope that one day this vision will be fully realized, we also give thanks that in Christ, this kingdom is already “in our midst”! (Luke 17:21)
We at TCF are profoundly aware that our project depends entirely on God’s work to “settle disputes for many peoples.” We realize that our efforts cannot bring about this shalom, but that as we walk in Christ’s light, we are invited to share in the peace that God brings. And we rely on our sisters and brothers—that’s you—to walk with us in prayer, asking together for Christ’s peace amidst the conflicts we encounter day by day.
Over the past month, I’ve been inundated by requests to continue the conversations begun at our local Discovery Events. These new friends have enthusiastically embraced the vision of TCF, and are eager to join us in this work.
Their gracious reception of our work affirms my conviction that Christians not only long for God’s shalom, but they also actively hope for it! I’m grateful for a growing circle of partners committed to this work.
Thank you for your prayers throughout this year. We trust that as the church enters the season of Advent, you will enjoy time to stop and reflect on all that Christ’s coming means for us.
Peace of Christ,
Note: TCF sends out a monthly update for those who wish to support our work in prayer. If you’d like to receive this directly, please contact email@example.com.
We welcomed historian Steve Nolt from Goshen College for a recent gathering of local leaders. Drawing on his research into Amish culture and tradition, Nolt introduced our group to one particular model for the adoption or rejection of new technologies.
As was also the case with the 19th-century Luddite movement, the Amish approach does not reject new technologies out of hand. Instead, the tradition maintains a strong sense of priorities which influence if or how new tools will be adopted. A new technology is not ignored, but closely scrutinized for the likelihood that it will either reinforce or undermine the values of the community. Over time, and on the basis of observation and intentional communal discernment, the community will then decide to reject, adopt, or perhaps even adapt the new tool. As one Amish writer summarizes, “Plain people [the Amish] do not oppose all new ideas and practices. There is a need to choose only those that will be of genuine benefit, and to reject those that break down the values we uphold.”
As we discussed this approach, one element that stood out was the communal nature of discernment. So often, we as Christians try to make the best decision we can—individually—and trust others—on their own—to do the same. This might get us a good distance down the road. But what would change if we found a way to invite one another into the discernment process? How could we help one another to make wise choices – and then support each other’s efforts to live faithfully?
The Amish no doubt live a life very different from most of ours. But they hold out for the rest of us a vision of life that draws on the riches of community and the wisdom of deliberate discernment. As the rest of us juggle the competing buzzes, dings, and flashes of a digital age, we can perhaps in some small way learn from their model, helping one another to more thoughtfully “reject, adopt, or adapt.”
 The Amish and Technology, p. 333.
Educator and author Kester Brewin recently wrote a piece for HuffingtonPost.co.uk about the need to discern wisely how and when to adopt new technologies. He describes the ways in which much of Western society has now joined the rank of “geeks,” as we increasingly inhabit a world that is technologically mediated and dominated. By uncritically adopting new “tools,” he warns, we run the risk of overlooking the significant (if unintended) side effects of their use.
One corrective, Brewin suggests, is to also incorporate the wisdom of the Luddites. This implies not so much a naïve rejection of technology, but a well-informed decision to intentionally structure its use. Luddites, in this sense, aren’t those who blindly refuse to adopt technology, but the visionaries who foresee some of its riskier implications and take precautionary steps to establish healthy parameters.
We tend to think of geeks and Luddites as inhabiting different ends of the spectrum, but it’s perhaps more accurate to say that both draw different conclusions from their intense focus on technology. In fact, Brewin suggests, elements of each can inform healthy decision-making in the technological arena. As we at TCF work to help Christians make wise choices in their adoption of technologies, we also strive to find the gifts inherent in diverse and even conflicting perspectives. Brewin’s insights help highlight the ways in which all of us—even, or especially, the geeks—can benefit from the wise legacy of the Luddites.
As I sat down to write a different post, this news flashed across my screen: “Facebook Down: Users Unable To Update Status Or Post Pictures.” I was at work, so of course had been blissfully unaware of the catastrophic event. The headline caught my attention, though, so I jumped over to Facebook to corroborate the story. Apparently it’s true, so the post I was planning to write will have to wait for another day. Facebook does have an uncanny way of derailing my plans.
I’ll be honest: I’m happy to be counted among the legions of Facebook users. In fact, if my kids are right about this, I’m a little too happy about it. (“Too many posts, Mom!”) There’s no question, in fact, that I struggle to find a healthy balance of facetime vs facebooktime. No doubt, my appreciation for fb’s gifts is not an unproblematic one.
That’s why I welcome insights that help me think through how to get better at this social media thing. Even from folks with whom I don’t see eye-to-eye. In a recent post on his Study Hacks Blog, Cal Newport writes, “My philosophy [is] to only adopt tools that solve a major pre-existing problem.” This rationale has kept Newport from joining Facebook – in fact, from even marginal interest in doing so.
That same rationale, on the other hand, confirms my decision to join up. I’m an extrovert with friends on multiple continents, and as a result – for better or for worse – many of my relationships will always be technologically mediated. I want to know when a friend has a baby or gets a new job, and my joy is multiplied by sharing in hers. A couple generations ago, my great-grandmother would have heard news like this while she stood in line at the market. But I don’t live in a small town in Kansas – there’s no single “public space” like the market where I go to hear the news and share my own. FB solves my contemporary conundrum of a geographically-distributed community, offering a digital version of the by-gone market queue. Geographic distance from people I know and love has been a problem for me since my family moved overseas when I was three years old. FB helps solve that problem.
FB solves another problem for me, as well. I’m an organizer. I like people, and I also like to get them together around causes that matter. My Franklin planner was great in the 90s, and email still works pretty well. But fb events and messages coordinate and streamline, and spare us all the curse of “Reply all” threads that never end. FB solves more than a few of my organizational problems.
By Newport’s standard, then, using FB makes good sense for me. However, his thoughtful “sieve” suggests some ways in which I might re-evaluate just how I use this tool. He suggests, implicitly at least, that technology essentially creates a demand for itself. In what ways, I wonder, have my own uses of FB been changed in service to FB’s needs, rather than vice versa? In other words – what problems is FB creating for me, so that I will then turn to FB for the solution? Furthermore, can I find ways to limit my use to just those ways in which FB actually does solve my problems? Can I use it to maintain friendships and keep things organized, without pouring hours of my time into pointless browsing?
Hm. Kind of makes me wonder if there’s a tool out there to help solve my FB problems…
Note: one of the issues we’re exploring at TCF is the need to discern well how we employ new technologies. This post is intended to present one (personal) perspective on a complex issue.
Around TCF, we devote quite a lot of attention to the ways in which we can develop an “unanxious presence.” By this we mean simply the ability to live faithfully, trusting in God’s goodness and redemption. This does not mean that we ignore our worries or stifle our fears—but that we entrust these to God in such a way that we can live in freedom and peace in their very midst.
This theme surfaces repeatedly in RespectfulConversation.net’s topic for November: “Evangelicalism and Higher Education.” Professors, administrators, and church leaders write about ways in which they are working to sort out a healthy relationship between robust evangelical faith and the challenges of rigorous academic pursuit.
In the comments section of Sarah Ruden’s post, she describes the capacity of Christian students to resist the temptation of academic hubris, instead humbly acknowledging their human limitations:
[A] great strength in Evangelical institutions seems to be a student attitude along the lines of “I’m just a person, but God is God; so it doesn’t shatter me to admit when I’m wrong or need help.”
As these students acknowledge their dependence on God, they are freed up to take risks and admit their mistakes—their egos aren’t tied up in the obligation to get everything right. Ruden explains that in her experience at secular institutions, her students are less likely to exhibit this sort of “unanxious presence,” as they lack the robust foundation provided by a vibrant—and humble—faith.
On the administrative side, John Hawthorne provides a striking example of “unanxiousness” as well. Whereas the questions and challenges of young students can often be perceived as threats, he chooses to interpret these instead as gifts to the institution:
Christian universities need postmodern students because they will help us address the central questions these students have. This is not to provide them with easy answers but to enable them to engage the questions with the complexity the world sees. This means that Christian universities will have to wrestle with all of the difficult questions the broader society is wrestling with, maybe even wrestling harder and earlier than the rest of culture.
In a sense, Hawthorne explains, evangelical schools are equipped with the resources to lead our society in working through difficult cultural issues. And he suggests that among the key assets are students themselves: thoughtful, honest, and question-asking young people who can encourage their institutions to fearlessly engage academic and cultural challenges. It takes remarkable “unanxiousness” on the part of an administrator to invite students into such a role!
As we at TCF work to foster a sense of “unanxious presence,” we are grateful for these brothers and sisters who willingly engage difficult issues with humility and grace. Their embodied “unanxious presence” transforms potential conflicts into striking opportunities for the church and academy to pursue the Truth together.
“I pray that God … may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that … you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.” Ephesians 1:17-19
“I pray that God … may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that … you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.”
Dear friends of TCF,
This weekend brings us to the traditional celebration of All Saints Day. On this day, we are reminded of the rich inheritance we share with countless Christians who have gone before us. And we are invited to join in their faithful obedience, strengthened by the hope we find in God’s great power.
Our Christian history of working through conflict and disagreement has no doubt been a sketchy one, characterized by an unpredictable mix of success and failure. Controversies have sometimes contributed to beautiful manifestations of unity, and at other times have bitterly fragmented the body of Christ. Our work at TCF fits right into this stream, as we strive to honestly recognize the ways in which the church falls short – and to hopefully persevere in this hard work of reconciling our lives to the reality that in Christ, all things hold together. Amidst discord and conflict, we are called to remember God’s faithfulness to generations past, and to trust God’s goodness toward generations yet to come.
As we consider our place among God’s many saints, we are grateful that you too share a part in Christ’s body. We rely on the wisdom and revelation of God’s spirit to guide our work, and we rely on your prayers on our behalf. Thank you for the part you play in our participation in God’s good work.
Peace of Christ,
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 this month’s conversation wraps up over at RespectfulConversation.net, I’d like to point out just a few pertinent issues that have surfaced in the discussion about Evangelical faith and its relationship to science.
Karl Giberson writes about the parallels between Galileo’s time and ours – but suggests the comparisons may be different than the ones we typically envision. He writes:
Today’s controversy over evolution and the historical Adam is best understood as the ongoing controversy over the Copernican revolution because of the great degree of overlap between the central concerns raised by each—concerns about how the overall Christian understanding of the world and its history, especially the central theological role played by humans, fits with the reality disclosed by science.
In other words, the struggle may actually be less about “hard science” and more about its specific significance for people of faith. The “particular concerns” which Giberson references have profound implications for the church, and the conflict surfaced by the evolution/creation debates brings these to the fore. In a sense, however, we might choose to view these controversies as a gift, insofar as they press us to continue the work of understanding God’s work in our world – in both scientific and theological terms, of course.
Difficulties of course arise when these two arenas fail to neatly align. In each instance of incongruity, we are confronted with the challenge to faithfully respond: How might we integrate challenging new scientific advances with a robust theological understanding? How will we handle the threats we perceive to our faith or to our intellectual integrity? Might there, perhaps, be another way through?
Sarah Ruden suggests one possible alternative:
To think of a wound that we can trust God to heal in the fullness of time might be better than insisting that we, with our mere human abilities, can somehow work everything out and soon reach a state where there isn’t considerable distress and dissonance over the issue.
This sort of confidence – in God’s ultimate goodness rather than in our human reasoning – grounds the work of TCF. It also serves as the foundation for the difficult work of maintaining charitable conversations, like the one at RespectfulConversation.net. Take a few minutes to visit the site and by all means, join in!
This week’s conversation with our gathering of local leaders took a bit of a twist, as we explored how the church has wrestled with and “solved” a wicked technological problem. The Pill – a technological innovation that has occasioned no small amount of controversy – presents a sort of case study for both positive and negative ways of engaging new tools. The Roman Catholic church has of course maintained a strict position on this issue, which, if it suggests a number of troubling questions, is nevertheless a well-thought-out and consistent approach. The Protestant church, on the other hand, has largely relegated decisions about the Pill (and contraception, more broadly) to the private sphere. While this allows the individual believer to adopt what she or he believes to be a faithful response, it tends to leave some of us floundering, trying to sort out on our own the ethical and even theological implications of human sexuality and procreation. Many of the questions engendered by this technology remain largely unaddressed.
- As we continue to grapple with the fallout of the Sexual Revolution, might we need to reexamine the “unbounded freedom” promised by the Pill?
- What are the effects on a church community when we absolutely privatize these decisions?
- What does it mean to remain open to God’s leading while practicing “family planning?”
This contraceptive “tool” has typically been either categorically refused or uncritically embraced – and in either case, considered a problem solved. One of the hallmarks of a wicked problem, however, is that it has no one single, permanent solution. These various ways of thinking about a single contraceptive technology illustrate the ways in which we might make progress on an issue, while nevertheless discovering along the way that questions remain unanswered.
How then might we hope to make headway? One practice might include committing ourselves to the uncomfortable task of keeping the conversation alive. Silence may be a less awkward approach, but it guarantees that, as a church body, we will fail to make progress in wisdom or obedience regarding this particular issue. As one of our participants noted, perhaps marital counseling should encourage couples to consider these difficult questions. Another commented that our congregations ought to be places where folks can work through difficult ethical tensions like these.
Furthermore, for problems like these, the faithful Christian response involves learning how to live faithfully “in the midst” of the problem. As this group continues to meet, our conversations are helping us develop some of the virtues that will help us do this well – among these honesty and patience, a willingness to confront our own blind spots, and to trust God’s goodness with the “wickedness” of what we don’t yet understand.
TCF is pleased to announce that we have been awarded a grant to continue our work to develop “.” This generous gift will help underwrite two Forum series, designed to help participants sustain difficult conversations in the context of long-term engagements. Each series will address an issue that presents unique challenges to the church; we launched the first of these in September, addressing the need for discernment in our use of emerging (and established) technologies. Our goal with these series includes equipping participants to foster these sorts of conversations in their own contexts; this grant allows us to provide support as they bring to their congregations and institutions a vision for building community, expanding knowledge, and deepening faith.
Have you ever attended a committee meeting where it seemed like no one in the room could actually agree on a plan of action? Can you remember a family discussion where you just couldn’t break the gridlock? Or – to take an instance with which we’re painfully familiar these days – have you noticed that sometimes our politicians get tied up not just solving a problem, but even defining it?
At TCF, we’ve come to refer to conflicts such as these as “wicked problems.” Coined over 40 years ago, the term involves situations in which complexity, diversity of opinion, and high stakes (among other factors) combine to create a problem with no one clear solution. In fact, wicked problems present a challenge in their very definition, for the multiplicity of concerns and values defy a clear consensus on the issue being addressed. The term was initially introduced in the field of social planning, but there’s no question it also fits a number of situations which we regularly confront in the church.
Last week, with a gathering of local leaders, we began to think through some of the ways in which technology use can – or has – become a wicked problem. The long list of questions that surfaced was telling; whether or not we’re directly addressing these issues, they’re definitely simmering away beneath the surface.
- Should we use overhead projectors on Sunday morning? If not, how do we communicate effectively with a visually-oriented culture? If so, are we simply catering to our already distracted tendencies?
- How can families cope with the ubiquitous onslaught of technological devices? Should we limit “screen time” for our children? If so, how?! What about texting – where and when is it appropriate? How might families make decisions between competing values surrounding these issues?
- Technology can be a tremendous asset in the classroom – it can also distract and undermine the formation of a healthy learning community. Should classrooms be Wi-Fi enabled? How can twitter or texting be used to facilitate learning? What does learning look like in an age when information is so readily available?
Needless to say, we didn’t answer all these questions last Thursday. But we put a few of them on the table, and started to think about them as “wicked problems.” Furthermore, we continued to build the sort of community within which we have the freedom – and challenge – to explore these issues, and to formulate a faithful response. Our shared work will involve discerning what sorts of people we want to become, and reflecting on how technology can help or harm the process of becoming more and more like Christ.
This month’s conversation at RespectfulConversation.net ventures into the territory of faith and science, specifically “Evangelicalism and Scientific Models of Humanity and Cosmic and Human Origins.” Here at TCF, we hear story after story of the painful fallout surrounding these particular issues. We hear of young people, seeking career advice, being warned that they can become scientists or remain Christians – but not both. We hear of awkward holiday dinners, family members doing their best to skirt the antagonisms that have flared over differing perspectives on creation and evolution.
All that to say, this month’s topic is near and dear to our hearts. Dr. Peter Enns brings to light a theme we’ve seen surface time and again. The disagreements – ostensibly about the mechanisms by which our world and life came to be – in fact reflect much deeper matters. Because where we line up on these “scientific” positions has significant implications for how we understand God, and our place in God’s world. The two are inescapably intertwined – and our job, as faithful Christians, is to work out how that entanglement might be understood as God’s good gift.
We at TCF are convinced that the church can work this out – that in fact, all things already “hold together in Christ,” and what remains for us is to find what that might mean in the arena of God’s creative work. The conversation at RespectfulConversation.net brings together Christians – from widely divergent backgrounds and perspectives – to begin to sort some of this out. Please join in!
Communities are eroding. The American Dream and cultural pressures that go along with it–individuality, self-sufficiency, productivity, and efficiency–are impacting our interactions with one another in ways that many of us are just now starting to recognize. Most of us still live in a mode of better-faster-more thinking that we believe will bring us fulfillment. Many of us are starting to feel the pain of deception when confronted with the reality that the promises of prosperity and happiness are not actually attainable; perhaps they aren’t even the goal after-all.
One suggestion for moving forward is the practice of intentional limitation. In this virtue-forming habit, we learn to discern our priorities and make decisions for our spiritual well-being. Jeanna Morrison, Administrative Assistant at TCF, has written more about this for Conspire Magazine.
Michael Gulker recently reflected on his personal history, told through the lens of technology use. His experience sheds light on the need to discern how we, as Christians, might use technology well.
We know that technology is always evolving, but when you’re a kid, this is hardly self-evident. I do, however, have a very distinct memory of one particular evolution in technology early in my life. It was the morning of June 4, 1978, 10:11am – to be precise (I don’t remember the seconds). I was 5 years old. I had just realized we had something called “cable.” I had no idea what cable was, except that when I turned on the TV, channel 2 had a list of 13 channels, each of which had listed next to them the current shows playing. I don’t know if I could read the list or not, but I do remember looking at the “time/date” at the bottom of the screen realizing that for the first time in my life I knew what month, day, year, hour and minute in which I was living. Fascinated, I watched the seconds tick by…
As I grew up, I began to tinker with computers, doing a little software hacking for fun, messing around with the old computer equipment my dad would bring home from work. In fact, when I went off to college I thought it would be for engineering. I seemed to be good at it, it would allow me a productive and possibly even prominent role in my dad’s company, and it seemed pretty interesting. But those philosophers and theologians at Calvin put an end to that – Plato and Calvin were way more interesting to me than digital circuit design. Beyond a brief (if lucrative) stint writing software and providing tech support, it became clear that my vocation was not a technological one.
So my wife and I headed off to Duke, where I fell in love with Wendell Berry and was surrounded with a band of lovable luddites for whom technology was passé. Sure, I needed a computer to write my papers and check my grades, but that was about it. I remember the advent of Facebook and quickly all my friends were on it, but when the first invite came to me from a good friend, I was pretty put off. I went to her page and I didn’t recognize the person the page conveyed. I knew her as a quiet, thoughtful, rather plain-looking person, but her Facebook page made her out to be a supermodel with a social life to die for. Perhaps it was a valid and liberating expression for her, but it has left me wary. I still don’t have a Facebook account.
When we moved to Des Moines to serve at a Mennonite church only one generation removed from farm culture, Berry’s critique of technology sank in deeper and the joys of gardening grew with ease in the fertile prairie soil. Mennonites are conservative, to say the least, when it comes to technology. And being set aside as a pastor allowed me the privilege of steeping myself in the scriptures, theology, and people’s lives. Technology was very much at the edge of my consciousness, though I increasingly used it research sermons, look up lectionary texts, communicate with the congregation and with family in GR. I also got my first cell phone then, since the church didn’t have a central office. I hated the phone. My wife Jodie hated it even more, as congregants took advantage of the easy access they had to their pastor. On the other hand, I was happy to be busy about “God’s work,” especially when diapers had to be changed.
When I returned to Grand Rapids 3 years ago and found myself running TCF, I quickly found myself overwhelmed by spreadsheets, emails, texts, voicemails, IT infrastructure issues, bad phone connections with crucial contacts – Wendell Berry wasn’t doing it for me anymore. I could no longer pretend to be immune to the role technology played in my life. I’m up to my eyeballs in technology and extremely vulnerable to promises of how it will save me time and make me more effective at just about whatever I’m currently feeling ineffective about.
That said, Berry’s critique of technology seems as pertinent as ever. If TCF is about becoming the kinds of people we need to be to engage difficult issues well, there hardly seems to be a more difficult issue than the proper discernment of technology, especially when that technology comes at us so fast that it’s often part of the warp and woof of our lives before we even have a chance to think about it. That’s why I take TCF’s work, and specifically face-to-face gatherings where we seek the shape of faithfulness together, to be so crucial – we have to take time out from our lives to pray, think, discern and practice the faith in ways that does more than simply accede to the pressures of our technophile culture.
Use of social media and the internet can help us network and learn at an unprecedented rate. It also threatens to undermine face-to-face connections and our individual capacity for attention and focus. At the first in a series of local forums about technology, we adapted a framework from Pippa Norris’s Digital Divide, identifying ourselves as cyber optimists, cyber pessimists, or cyber skeptics. Loosely defined, optimists are those who emphasize the positive potential of the internet; pessimists are those who more clearly identify with the losses implicit in its use; and skeptics are those who believe that the internet is more or less a reflection of society, rather than a transformative agent in its own right. Our group is composed of internet users who locate themselves all along this scale.
Our different perspectives fueled an animated conversation about what it might look like to develop a healthy, wise, or faithful approach to the technologies available. We turned to the broad definition of technology as “the application of knowledge to the practical aims of human life,” and together considered how we, as Christians, might articulate our “aims” and use them as a way to frame our approaches to internet use. If my goal, for instance, is to develop and sustain a healthy “community of learning,” how might the internet (or cell phones, for that matter) help my classroom achieve that? In what ways might such technologies hinder my efforts?
Most of us, it seems clear, will continue to differ in regards to where we land on the optimist-skeptic-pessimist scale. However, it also seems apparent that we need each other’s perspectives to help define our shared “aims” and to sort out how technology might help us to achieve them.
Dear Friends of The Colossian Forum,
Before I share with you our thanksgiving and prayer requests, I want to situate the work of TCF within the story of Jesus and his people. This week’s lectionary texts begin with Jeremiah’s seemingly insane real estate purchase just prior to Judah’s exile into Babylon (Jeremiah 32:1-15) – a radical sign of hope in the face of God’s radical judgment upon Judah for its failure to heed God’s call to justice and mercy. From Luke, we hear a warning from Jesus about the dangers of wealth through the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31) and in Paul’s first letter to Timothy (1 Timothy 6:6-19) we hear again a warning against the dangers of wealth and a call to use our riches to do good, thus storing up treasures in heaven.
Now, back to TCF…. We’re in the middle of launching a major year-end fundraising effort. I spend my days thinking about how to accumulate cash for TCF. Just what I am I supposed to do with that? I don’t know about you, but when I feel financial pressure or a need to secure myself against want, I’m tempted to capitalize my relationships, seeking to secure my future through material goods. Yet the call of the Gospel is exactly the reverse – to use our own material gifts to store up treasures in heaven.
Just what are those treasures? What are those goods that neither fire nor moth nor rust can destroy? They include friendships – bonds rooted in Christ that are stronger than the scarcity and death that sometimes seem so overwhelming. Because we have the privilege of living on the other side of Easter, we know that Jeremiah’s real estate investment was a good one and that seemingly ill-advised investments in friendship in the face of apparently overwhelming opposition is actually the wisdom of God revealed in Christ.
So what’s the “payoff” of this reflection for TCF and for all of you? I think it is as simple as this – whatever pressures and temptations we face to secure ourselves through material means, there is something more interesting Christ is calling us to: namely, using whatever we have been given to show mercy – to invest in friendships that not only survive death in the future but give life in the present. I’m grateful for the opportunity to use TCF’s “riches” to build friendships and witness to that most beautiful and foundational truth that in Christ, all things hold together.
I would invite you to join me in thanking God for:
- The “riches” which we share in Christ
- Friendships developing in local and national networks
- The remarkable affirmation of our board members after our last board meeting
- The return of Lori Wilson to our office staff (yeah!)
And please join us in praying for:
- Wisdom as we plan next year’s programming
- The capability – individually and as an organization – to expand our network of friendships
- Growth in our ability to work as a team
- Wisdom and discernment as I invite friends to invest in this mission.
Thank you for your prayers on our behalf and on behalf of those we serve.
Peace of Christ,
This month’s topic at RespectfulConversation.com ventures into the potentially hazardous territory of Evangelicalism and politics. As Kyle Roberts writes, “There are no quick and easy answers to the questions of political involvement.” The complexities of Christian involvement in politics stir up conflict in many quarters, and the writers don’t steer clear of these difficulties.
Some writers support robust political involvement, others defend a deepened sense of participation in God’s kingdom, rather than an earthly one. It becomes apparent that not all writers share the same concerns, and even where similar issues are addressed, perspectives range from conservative to liberal. Perhaps surprisingly, however, a thread of commonality runs through the majority of the posts. These writers exhibit a shared and profound sense that, as Amy Black describes it, “The problem is not political engagement in and of itself; the problem is that many Christians fail to demonstrate Christ-like character as they engage in politics.”
Evangelicalism’s political strength, these writers suggest, is its continual call to integrity, to reflecting the character of God in all that we do and say. In other words, our political involvement – whatever form it takes – must be grounded first and foremost in our faithful obedience and commitment to a loving God. Any hope of discerning how to wisely engage political controversies will begin here. Black describes the challenge this way:
At their worst, Christian political movements become triumphalist and power-seeking; their leaders are arrogant, contentious, and condescending. At their best, however, Christian political movements can offer a powerful witness of Christ’s upside-down kingdom, modeling humility, grace, and repentance in the public square.
TCF envisions a church in which Christians – regardless of their political stance – can offer this powerful witness. We’re grateful to this month’s contributors for modeling such a charitable conversation.
I’d like to direct your attention to a recent post by Harold Heie, TCF Senior Fellow and founding director of RespectfulConversation.net, suggesting, “It’s Time to Cool Down the Rhetoric.” His online project was initially devised as a means to bring together thinkers from a variety of backgrounds to discuss matters on which they (as well as their readers) might significantly disagree – and to do so in an intentionally respectful way.
However, in this piece Heie expresses disappointment with the contentious tone of some recent posts, as well as with commenters who have responded in less than gracious tones. As moderator of the various conversations, he has carried the responsibility of accepting or blocking contributions, and sometimes struggles to weigh the value of new content against the rhetoric within which it is framed. As a result, he has now introduced an updated set of guidelines for moderating posts, in hopes of promoting more edifying interactions.
One particular challenge referenced by Heie and a number of commenters are the numerous difficulties presented by an online format. The obstacles to establishing a personal connection are significant, and as a result contributors perhaps find it too easy to slip both off-topic and off-tone. Name-calling seems to come more instinctively in this disembodied format, as does the tendency to slight or ignore comments with which authors disagree.
These difficulties with web-based interaction don’t necessarily come as a surprise. However, for Christians who are called, in love, to “always hope” (1 Cor. 13:13), the antagonisms are nevertheless disheartening. Harsh language does not reflect well on our calling, and it certainly does not honor the goals of this virtual space, in particular. In his post on Evangelicalism and Politics, contributor Corwin Smidt reminds us: “When we treat our … opponents with disdain, we publicly dishonor God.”
What then, is the future of this conversation? Will contributors and commenters alike fall back, defeated by the negativity that has surfaced? Or will they instead find renewed strength to work this out? TCF sustains the hope that the current controversies will serve as an opportunity for deepening commitment to our shared calling in Christ. We trust that in the midst of these difficulties, patience will be extended and new friendships forged. It is our sincere prayer that writers and commenters alike will find the capacity to reflect – in word and deed, online and off – that in Christ, all things hold together.
My grandmother turns 97 today. She lives in a tiny town in the middle of the American prairies, not far at all from where she was born. She moved away at one point, early in life, only to return when war broke out and my grandfather – rather than take up arms– returned to farm the land on which they’d grown up. She’s traveled far and wide, and has visibly regretted the increasing geographical limitation that has come with age. However, now that she is no longer venturing out, I’m continually astonished at the steady stream of visitors who find their way to her tiny mid-western room. Teens from across town come by to read to her; nursing staff stop in for a chat on their days off. Friends on cross-country trips routinely drive hours out of their way for a visit; some guests come from as far away as Honduras or Perú.
At one time, it might have been Grandma’s cooking that drew folks from far and wide (her zwiebach were the best in the state, hands down). But now that she’s shared her recipes and trained us in, she’s taken a rest from baking and cooking. And it’s been nearly two decades since she sold the house with enough guest rooms for all the grandkids. Folks who visit her now don’t come for a good night’s sleep or a fabulous Mennonite meal. They come to see her. And I suspect it’s because, all along, she wasn’t offering just physical gifts – her welcome went much deeper than that. She listened well, laughed easily, and brought joy into the room with her. Her open and generous heart overflowed in remarkable, profoundly loving hospitality.
This sort of hospitality is precisely what TCF works to practice and provoke. Controversial issues – not unlike long road trips through the US plains – often bring out the worst in conversation partners. However, we’re firmly convinced that Christians who work to welcome one another – with physical and spiritual gifts – will be better equipped to alleviate one another’s discomfort and engage these difficult topics well.
One outstanding resource on the topic of Christian hospitality is Christine Pohl’s book Making Room. Since the earliest days of the church, Christians have extended hospitality as an active sharing of God’s love. They have extended welcome to both friends and enemies, to guests in positions of great power as well as to society’s most vulnerable. This practice certainly continues into the present day, but it faces new challenges in a high-paced consumerist society. As Pohl traces the history of Christian hospitality, she hopes to re-familiarize her readers with this time-honored practice, helping them discern how it might be applied in their current context. She writes:
“Recovering the tradition of hospitality suggests the ironic possibility that in revitalizing an ancient practice, we may discover some radical and fresh responses to contemporary difficulties.” (p. 9)
Beginning, then, with the early church, Pohl surveys not only theological works, but actual Christian practices. She traces the gradual transition from hospitality centered in the home to medieval-era hospitality as an institutional practice (in settings such as hospitals and monasteries). She ultimately weaves in stories of contemporary “practitioners” of hospitality, including L’Arche communities, the Catholic Workers, and others. Pohl’s emphasis on a practical depiction of hospitality is immensely helpful, as it helps paint a picture of the sort of life to which we Christians are called. Her specific stories help cast a vision for the historical importance of hospitality, while simultaneously challenging the reader to adapt those practices in everyday life.
Following on from her historical accounts, Pohl lays out a theoretical framework for hospitable practice. She suggests that hospitality involves a deep respect for the dignity of the guest, and that it demands of us a sort of holistic “presence” to the other – involving not only time and expense, but emotional and relational investment, as well. She makes the case that Christian hospitality, specifically, will primarily be directed to the underprivileged and vulnerable – gladly accepting the stranger who is not elsewhere welcome.
Finally, Pohl addresses some of the day-to-day concerns that surface in the practice of Christian hospitality. She suggests ways to create hospitable places, as well as means of developing our internal resources for extending hospitality. This includes a frank discussion of boundaries to hospitality that can or should be instituted in recognition of our own human limitations.
Throughout, Pohl is clear in her claim: “Hospitality is a way of life fundamental to Christian identity. Its mysteries, riches, and difficulties are revealed most fully as it is practiced. (p. x) We at TCF couldn’t agree more. We are convinced that this practice helps create space for patient, thoughtful, and loving conversations. As individuals and corporately, we are committed to working to establish hospitable spaces. We are indebted to people like my grandmother, who have made it their life work to embody hospitality, and in a sense to point us in the right direction. Furthermore, we welcome resources like Pohl’s Making Room – an outstanding introduction to hospitality – and a compelling encouragement to get working.
A recent article in the Huffington Post Religion section, What I’ve Learned from Scientists (So Far), tells the promising story of a pastor currently participating in the Templeton Foundation’s “Scientists in Congregations” project. Rev. William Lovin, a pastor in Iowa City, writes about the revitalized conversation between scientists and other members of his congregation.
The program was designed to help break some of the gridlock in the faith and science arena, as individuals from diverse backgrounds enter into conversations specifically situated within the context of the church. In Lovin’s case, the developing dialogue has helped him better understand the scientists in his congregation. He respects their staunch commitment to asking questions and working for the truth – all the while choosing to “keep their faith.” Notably, most of these scientists do not experience irreconcilable differences between their work and their faith – as Lovin writes, “the ‘war’ between science and religion [is] being waged someplace else.”
As a short piece for an online news source, this article necessarily leaves open some questions for a theologically-minded reader. How, for instance, do these scientists reconcile some of the “problem” questions which often trouble many Christians? How might the evolutionary biologists to which Lovin refers engage with Scripture’s creation narratives? How, in turn, might the church respond to claims made by scientists that seem to undermine significant elements of faith?
What I’ve Learned from Scientists (So Far) may not answer all our questions. It does, however, tell the story of Christians committed to working together on difficult problems. It inspires hope in the possibility of congregations not divided, but united, in seeking a common life and faith. It tells the story of a community of Christians who embody the confidence that “in Christ, all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17).