Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Spirit'ed Dialogue

A common adage in our culture is that when you have a conversation with someone, you should stay away from two things: religion and politics. I think this is a reaction to how polarized these two issues have become—and perhaps always have been. In a way, though, it’s unfortunate that religion and politics have become such divisive issues, because if we come at things from the right perspective, conversations about these “controversial” topics can be quite interesting and informative. Sometimes, these conversations can actually bring people closer together, rather than drive them further apart.

Taking the risk and engaging conversations about such controversial topics—as opposed to avoiding them like the plague—might give us all some much-needed perspective on many of the issues that so often polarize and divide our secular and spiritual communities.

When we surround ourselves with like-minded friends, and never really associate with anyone who holds religious or political views different than our own, we tend to “paint” pictures of “the other side” using broad brush strokes and become convinced that our crude pictures are accurate representations of reality—i.e., it’s much easier to demonize someone when you don’t know them personally.

As long as things remain impersonal, the divisions between us and them can remain clear-cut—there is white and there is black and never the two shall mix … We are thus free to cast judgment on these faceless others; we can devote all of our time and energy to defending our ideology at all cost, winning arguments with our opponents, and clinging relentlessly to our version of the truth on a given issue—no matter what.

But the minute we start to get to know the living, breathing human beings on “the other side” it complicates everything—in short, it makes life messier! All of a sudden the boundary between us and them blurs considerably. We begin to see all kinds of nuances of gray that we never saw before when we were so consumed with defending the gospel according to us. We realize the people that we previously rather callously classified as them are actually honest, hard-working, intelligent, and sincere people a whole lot like us—their only “crime” is that they happen to see a particular religious or political issue differently than we do. In this new context, winning an argument doesn’t seem nearly as important as it used to; now searching for common ground with our new friends seems far more important.

Engaging in this kind of honest and transparent dialogue with others is not always easy, but doing so helps us realize that someone is not inferior to you simply because they don’t share your specific views on a particular religious or political issue.

In a specifically Christian context we might call this kind of dialogue Holy-Spirit-led debate—or if you like, Spirit’ed dialogue. (We United Methodists actually refer to it as holy conferencing.) Sometimes through this kind of inclusive conversation, we come to realize that the differences we thought were so irreconcilable aren’t nearly as big as we made them out to be. But many times, even after such Spirit’ed dialogue we still end up divided at the end of the day. Hopefully, however, even when we can’t reach an agreement on the issues that divide us, we can agree to disagree while at the same time maintaining civility, dignity, and respect for our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ on the “other side” of the argument[1].

This kind of Spirit’ed dialogue or conversation seems to be a hallmark of the so-called “emerging” Church. The emerging Church is really more about a conversation than it is about forming a new denomination[2]. As the word emerging suggests, it represents something that is not yet fully born—it seeks to give expression to a new form of Christianity that has been emerging in the late 20th and early 21st century.

There is recognition from most Christians today that the world is rapidly changing and the church must also change in response[3]. The question we don’t all agree on is: How do we do it? The emerging Church invites everyone who calls upon the name of Jesus around the world—be they Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, or “other”—to come together and wrestle with this very complex question. We don’t have to sacrifice our individual denominational identity to join this emerging conversation (in fact, we as we interact with people from other faith traditions we may actually find that we appreciate what makes us unique all the more) but as we get to know people whose beliefs and practices are different than our own, we discover something interesting. We find that the denominational labels that used to rigidly define us and thus divide us in the past aren’t nearly as important as what we all have in common—our core identity as followers of the way of Jesus.

Some accuse the emerging Church of rejecting all that has gone on before and trying to start over from scratch—throwing the baby out with the bath water if you will. They argue that the emerging Church goes too far to try and accommodate our post-Christian world. But as someone who considers themselves to be emergent[4], I don’t find that to be an accurate characterization. I think that often times the people that make these accusations never actually take time to find out what the emerging Church is all about. As mentioned earlier, when we don’t have personal experience with someone—or in this case, something—we tend to “paint” a picture of them using a broad brush. And as is often the case, a picture “painted” with such broad strokes may be insufficient to provide an accurate representation of the emerging Church.

I would argue that the emerging Church is simply doing what followers of Christ have done since the very beginning. They seek to learn from the Christian traditions and rituals of the past and apply them in new and innovative ways that are relevant to the context of the present.

I believe that the Spirit’ed dialogue that the emerging Church has begun has the potential to infuse new life and vitality into the Church universal. The wind of the Spirit is blowing—the world is changing around us. The question is: How will the Church respond? Will we open the windows and allow the Spirit’s freshening breeze to blow through our midst, or close up the shudders tightly continuing to breathe the same stale, stagnant air we’ve breathed for decades? One choice focuses on securing a future with hope for future generations; the other seeks only to preserve the status quo.

I believe that it is through engaging in this kind of inclusive dialogue with other Christians—some of whom may at first glance seem very different than us—that we become more well-rounded followers of Christ who are better equipped to follow the way of Jesus in our rapidly changing post-Christian world. My personal experience suggests that as we expose ourselves to the beliefs and practices of other Christians, we stand a better chance of becoming the kind of people who actually do the things that Jesus did on a regular basis, as opposed to simply learning about those kinds of people on Sunday morning. We become people who more naturally live as Jesus would if he were living in our time and place, and who are ready to be sent forth to live out the Great Commission [Matthew 28:18-20] today—baptizing others and teaching them to obey Jesus. We can then invite these people to add their voice to the Spirit’ed dialogue that has been going on among followers of Jesus for over 2000 years, and by God’s grace will continue for many years to come.

[1] For a good discussion of finding common ground on a number of these divisive religious (moral) and political issues see the book Seeing Gray in a Black and White World by Adam Hamilton.

[2] Many movements that eventually became denominations actually started out as conversations within the existing church of their day. For example, the Methodist movement in England began as a conversation within the Anglican Church. It remains to be seen whether the emerging Church can successfully plot a different course.

[3] Christians believe that the message of the Gospel transcends time, but that we must constantly adapt how we deliver the unchanging message of Jesus in a world that is constantly evolving and changing.

[4] Being emergent is less about the church you attend on Sunday and more about your mindset all week long. There could be emerging Christians in every local church—emerging Methodists, emerging Catholics, emerging Presbyterians, etc. On the other hand, some emergents wouldn’t identify themselves with any denomination.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Breathe Deeply and Live Again

"[Christianity] has two lungs, it will never breathe easily until it uses both of them".

Pope John Paul II (1988)

Human beings need air to live; our lungs provide play a pivotal role in keeping us alive. We inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide about 20,000 times in an average day. Imagine how many times you’ve done it just while reading this paragraph. J

We usually don’t think consciously about breathing unless for some reason our ability to breathe is impaired. A frequent expression we use to indicate that after you practice a given activity for a while, it becomes easy to do—e.g., riding a bicycle—is to say: “it’s as natural as breathing”. When you think about, is any activity is more natural than breathing? It’s so fundamental to whom we are that, most of the time, we do it without conscious though.

Human beings have two lungs, and we are designed such that we function best when both of them are functioning at full capacity. While we can survive with only one functional lung (or even less) we cannot operate at our full capacity. We learn to compensate for the reduced airflow; we adjust our lives accordingly—but it gets harder to breathe.

As an example, my wife has mild asthma. Most days she is fine, but her breathing capacity is more limited and thus she has to pay more attention to breathing than the average person does. It’s much harder for her to do aerobic exercise than it is for me, a non-asthmatic. There are days (such as when air quality is poor) her breathing is more impaired; she even occasionally has to use an inhaler to help clear her lungs. Colds and other respiratory ailments impact all of our breathing, but they are especially challenging for those with asthma. Again, it’s harder to breathe when our lung capacity is limited.

There’s another organism that breathes. It has two lungs and it functions at its best when it breathes deeply from both of them. But for a very long time it has been only using one of its lungs. It’s been going on so long that the organism has learned to compensate and get along “pretty good” on the one lung; it doesn’t even realize what it’s missing. In fact in many cases, the organism is living on just a small portion of one lung. It could breathe in so much more life and vitality if it simply recognized and learned to utilize the full capacity of the one lung—much less if it actually realized that it was born with two fully functional lungs and made an effort to reconnect to the missing one.

You’ve probably guessed that the organism I am speaking of is the Church. The two lungs I refer to are the Western and Eastern branches of Christianity[1]. The Western lung has been carved up into Roman Catholicism and the many Protestant denominations—hence I say that many Western Christians actually breathe from only the small portion of the Western lung that constitutes our particular denomination. Truly, we are handicapped! The Eastern lung comprises the Orthodox Church and while it has remained more unified over the centuries than the Western lung, for over 1000 years it too has been breathing with limited lung capacity.

The two lungs of Christianity have been separated for so long, that for the most part, we have all but forgotten that we ever had two lungs. Most of us living in the Christian West have very little concept of or contact with Orthodox Christianity—including the author. Likewise, Orthodox Christians aren’t familiar with Roman Catholic and/or Protestant practices. Like the human being who loses the use of one of their lungs learns to compensate for the handicap over time, so we Christians have learned to compensate and “make do” with the limited lung capacity we had. Each branch developed independently and had different theological emphasis based on the culture in which they developed[2]. There is much to commend (and yes, criticize) in both Eastern and Western Christian thought and practice. But overall, considering the limited lung capacity of each, both branches of Christianity have done remarkably well.

Many of us realize that our churches are less than we wish they were; many are a shadow of their former selves. The reasons for the decline, especially in mainline churches, are complex and multi-faceted. We have lost members, we struggle to attract youth and young adults, and we struggle to keep up with the rapidly changing post-Christian world outside our doors.

Can this damage be repaired? As God once asked the Prophet Ezekiel: Can these bones live again[3]? Those of us who have been in the church for many years ask the same question. We hope the answer is Yes, but to be honest, we aren’t sure what the future holds for Christianity[4].

Consider this: Is it possible that our limited breathing capacity has contributed in some way to some of the long-term decline in our churches? Consider what might happen in our churches if we all learned to breathe more fully? What might we learn from other denominations that could enrich our experience of God and breathe new life into “dry bones”? What buried treasures might we unearth as we study the beliefs and practices or our own denomination in greater detail?

For Christians in both the East and the West, the other lung has lied dormant for so long that it’s hard to imagine learning to breathe through it. It wouldn’t be easy to learn to breathe through a lung that we’ve never used before. Like anything, new it would take some getting used to—and lot’s of practice! But imagine the good that might result if we did—for us and for our world. Do you think it might be worth putting forth the effort to learn?

This summer, the churches I attend are doing a preaching series based upon a book called Christianity’s Family Tree: What Other Christians Believe and Why? In this series we are looking at what a couple of United Methodist congregations in Southeast Baltimore might learn from other Christian denominations—as well as from our own.

We’re hoping, as a result of this series, to gain a deeper appreciation for our fellow Christian “family members”. Some of them are already fairly familiar to us—like close relatives we see fairly frequently—wile others aren’t nearly as familiar—they are more like distant family. However, if we go far enough back on the family tree, we discover that all Christians share common “ancestry”—i.e., we have common roots in Christ. In fact, as we get to know these more distant family members a little better, we might find that we have more in common than we ever realized. And even those things that are different don’t have to divide us. (It depends on what we choose to focus on.) We can learn from them—and they can learn from us—and in the process, perhaps we can all embrace a more generous orthodoxy[5] without ever compromising our unique identity.

Perhaps your church could benefit from the kind of study that our churches are doing right now. You may wish to consider doing something similar in your faith community. Surely every one of us could stand to “stretch” ourselves theologically and develop a more generous orthodoxy—to use the terminology we have used in this article, we could all stand to have our lung capacity increased.

So I encourage you to take a deep and cleansing breath. Ask God to open your lungs and help you breathe more fully. Try to exhale all the preconceived notions you may hold about those “other” Christian denominations; open yourself to what God wants you to learn from them. I hope by doing so we will begin to discover the beautiful diversity of God’s family, and the unity we all share in Christ, and that this helps us each appreciate our unique place on Christianity’s family tree all the more. As we inhale deeply, I pray that the Holy Spirit will breathe life into us again, transforming our desolate valleys of dry bones, where the stench of death and despair abound, into places teeming with life and hope that carry the sweet and unmistakable aroma of Christ to all the world around us.

Can these bones live again? With God’s help and by God’s grace let it be so…

[1] I borrow this terminology from Pope John Paul II (see quote at top of the article) who actually put forth considerable effort during his tenure as leader of the Roman Catholic Church to heal the centuries-long breach between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches that has existed since the Great Schism of 1054 AD.

[2] Differences between East and West have been present since the very beginning, but became exacerbated after the fall of Rome in ~476 AD and climaxed with formal separation between East and West in 1054 AD.

[3] See Ezekiel 37:1-14 for the story of Ezekiel and the Valley of Dry Bones.

[4] To be clear I believe God’s Church will go on, but I think many local churches will not survive as presently constituted. To frame this more positively, when the “dry bones” come to life, the walls of our existing churches won’t be able to contain them. “Church” is perhaps returning to its roots; it is less about a place we go and more about a life we live

[5] Orthodoxy means correct belief. In this context, I refer to what we believe and why, and how those beliefs shape our perception of God. The term generous orthodoxy—from Brian McLaren’s book A Generous Orthodoxy—is just another way of suggesting that exposure to the beliefs and practices of other Christian denominations—and maybe even other religions—doesn’t have to be a threat to our identity, but rather can help enrich us, broaden our perspective of God, and give us a better appreciation of our unique identity.

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