The problem with essentializing the Brethren in Christ’s Core Values

This is a first draft of an essay I wrote for the BIC Core Course on History and Values.

What the most important Brethren in Christ core values? Which are the most difficult to follow? These are the questions that this author is assigned to answer. Within the question itself, one may find the answer. The question presupposes that the things that make up the identity of the Brethren in Christ, found at least in part within its core values, can be evaluated individually. It is the contention of this author that they cannot be.

The question of importance alone suggests that one might be more important than the other. In fact, it may seek to fundamentalize the Brethren in Christ, a denomination that has formed on the basis of a communal hermeneutic not an individual one. When one fundamentalizes the values that make up the core of the denomination, we dilute the distinctions that make the Brethren in Christ noteworthy at all. Such essentialization is at the heart of the reformation, and does have its merit. In fact, some degree of essentialization protects the Brethren in Christ from many things, not least of which is legalism. When one considers the core values, perhaps it is more significant and important to ponder their application collectively, as opposed to their individual merit.

If one evaluates the core values based on their merit, one might be left with nothing but generic Evangelicalism. Within Western culture, it seems like the most important values would be the ones that the Evangelical values, since that particular “stream” has influenced the Brethren in Christ most significantly as of late.

Furthermore, an additional problem presents itself because the core values themselves are already, simply by definition, value judgments on their own. The Brethren in Christ has already defined the essentials of its movement. That one would seek to further divide what has already been determined and set apart is a further reduction that threatens the very particularity of the denomination.

The core values are holistic. In other words, one leads to the other. How does one follow Jesus without valuing the free gift of salvation? How can one believe the Bible and not conclude that pursuing peace is at the essence of the Sermon on the Mount? The values create a delicate web that might be adulterated if reduced (not necessarily if altered, however). The core values are not perfect, and they should evolve in a discerning process; but they should not merely be simplified.

In this deconstruction, one finds precisely what is most difficult regarding the values: following them all. The Evangelical temptation may be to discern what values are important to each individual. And in fact, this may be the trend in the Brethren in Christ church. At least anecdotally, it seems like pastors of congregations are left to their own individual thinking, as the denominations’ bishops try to maintain order across dozens of congregations in the large swaths of land, which their unrealistic job description requires.

With that said, the most important values are the ones that make the Brethren in Christ distinct and identifiable. Perhaps it is more prudent to list the values that make the Brethren in Christ distinct so that we do not lose our identity in an era of atomization. What is it then that makes the Brethren in Christ a body at all? The commitment to the cross, to grace, to the Bible, to follow Jesus, to evangelism at large—these are the spoken commitments of any Christian—the application of these values are distinct in the Brethren in Christ. Not only are they distinct, they are crucial.

This era is so individualized that our mere existence is what makes us distinct at all. Nietzsche said, “What does your conscience say? You should become the person you are.” If the Brethren in Christ is to be that individualized, the cost may be its collective self. Certainly, such submission to individualism may allow for inclusion of many people, but the cost is too high. If the essence of the Brethren in Christ becomes flavorless, it may still be substantive, but it ceases to be notable among the ocean of churches that are identifiable only by their names, not their characters.

Both an important and difficult value is that of community. In fact, if there is not a great value placed on community, then one could simply elect which values are of important to him or her, and subsequently continue on with Western individualism, which has most notably been expressed in a preoccupation with a personal relationship with Jesus. Dialogue discerned in the Holy Spirit is what holds the Brethren in Christ together. Its hard-won agreements are the centerpiece to our denomination. If what one learns in the Scripture, and how one experiences the Holy Spirit, and what it means to follow Jesus is not something that is communally discerned and practiced, the world has won.

Moreover, it is its community that makes the Brethren in Christ a witness to the whole world. As the Brethren in Christ witnesses to the globe, it includes the world into its community. It is precisely this incarnational connection where Jesus is best revealed. Participation in the community is how people are most convincingly converted. If indeed every living person is someone to whom one can witness, how can one not pursue peace? How does not forgive his potential brother? How does one do violence to his sister? How does one claiming to follow the Risen Lord in the new creation pledge allegiance to another master?

Following the commitment to nonviolence, is the need to be compassionate. To treat every one of God’s children as if they were one’s own children is at the heart, not just of the Brethren in Christ’s core values, but of the Gospel itself. True Christian living, James wrote, is to take care of orphans and widows. As one witnesses to the least of these, one truly must live simply. The call to live simply is not just a call to be different, but rather, profoundly relatable. It serves as a witness not just against the wanton materialism of the world, but as a tool one can use to relate to those to whom he or she witnesses. Simple living helps one reach the least of these, and it does not ruin the witness to those of more means.

The brotherhood’s core values lead us to follow both the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. Like those great statements, it is difficult to completely and wholly follow the core values. Thankfully, it is not through a legalistic following that one finds his or her salvation. With that said, one must be cautious not to discard the values that most effectively threaten the powers that be and the institutions of the world. The temptation may be to align oneself with the values that least threaten the order of the world. The Brethren in Christ must guard itself against such temptation, for in succumbing to them, it may be left with nothing more than an empty façade.

Why I liked Justin Lee’s Torn

Earlier this year, Circle of Hope as a people, engaged in a lot of theology and discussion surrounding marriage and sexuality. For me, it was a stimulating time for learning and dialogue. We held a large group dialogue, starting off this year’s Doing Theology series around marriage. The pastors came up with a well-thought-out piece of theology surrounding our theology of marriage. It is a statement that our cell leaders can generally use to help lead others.

Over the course of those months, I read many books on the subject. Andrew Marin’s Love Is An Orientation, Jenell Williams Paris’ The End of Sexual Identity, Jeff Chu’s Does Jesus Really Love Me?, and, lastly, Justin Lee’s Torn.

They’ve been refreshing for me. They are deep reads written by earnest people trying to reconcile with one of the most dividing issues of the church today. I want to learn as much as I can about sexuality and marriage and I want to follow God as loyal as I can.

When I first started reading Torn, I honestly did not know what to expect. I knew Justin Lee was the founder of the Gay Christian Network but little else. The memoir-style of the book really lent itself to the subject. Rather than speak theoretically about it, I appreciated Justin’s story. The more he explained his experience, the harder it was for me to put the book down.

Justin’s book chronicles his life as a conservative Christian, who comes out, gets abused by the ex-gay camp (people who believe you can be “re-oriented”), and finally emerges as an advocate for Christians who also are same-sex attracted. The GCN does good work in building bridges and helping people meet Jesus.

Jenell Paris does the good work on unpacking why “gay” isn’t a term that is sufficiently description of something as nuanced as sexual attraction, orientation, and identity. Justin basically uses the term because people understand what it means, although he acknowledges how complicated its use can be.

Justin talks a little bit about the science of sexuality, but tells his readers it is rather inconclusive. I personally don’t care much about the science of sexuality because who you are now and how you feel now matters more to me than rationalistically determining how you got there. Although, I do think there is work to be done in spiritual and psychological discovery, so finding out one’s personal story is important. Scientifically determining it for everyone? That seems like a pipe dream.

It is a shame that we live in a world that demands such answers. Science isn’t a fool-proof mechanism we have for discovery. That level of rationalism should give way to some mystery.

It is precisely this mentality that causes people to hurt themselves over reading the Bible and trying to find objective answers to their moral dilemmas. Justin toils through the Bible to try and find the answer that God has for someone like him—gay and committed to celibacy. I know many people who have the same struggle and I appreciate his story. It is damaging and daunting to try to figure out exactly what a word means in Greek and how it applies to us today in the 21st Century.

Eventually, Lee tells the story of just going with his God-given instinct and creating a safe Network for people to explore and express God’s love. He does this for both so-called conservative and liberal camps. It seems to me like the Gay Christian Network is doing good work, and the conclusions that they have reached are not so different than the work we’ve done in Circle of Hope. I was kindly affirmed while reading it.

Lee is never judgmental, or resolute. He’s humble and gentle. Listening first, honestly and earnestly telling his story, while also asserting himself against evil. It is a hard balance, but he seems to have done it well.

The book is powerful because it shows how ugly the church can be, how judgmental, damaging, and difficult Christians can be. But it shows how hopeful, gracious, and welcoming the church can be. For people who have same-sex attraction, I want to include them in the church and part of our Body. It is the best place for anyone.

Should I vote?

“Should I vote?” Well, first, I’m not so sure we should “should” on anyone. I don’t think that’s the way of Jesus. I think he released us from the enslavement of making sure we do the “right thing” all of the time. It’s amazing, the Apostle Paul channels this through-and-through in his letters, which compose a large percentage of the New Testament. Paul’s main rule is Christ.

In Romans 7, Paul is saying that the rule-dominated life that the strict Jews lived was taken away with Christ’s death. Jesus said he came to fulfill the law. That law is basically summarized in the Ten Commandments. Paul says that those rules that dominated Jewish life were good, but they were manipulated for evil.

Jesus changed the world, gave us an opportunity to conquer death once and for all—to “marry” the resurrection life. And to witness to others through it. The problem with the old way of doing things is that people started to do as much as they could get away with. Now we are free from the law and free from sin, so we are free to live a new life of freedom.

We are no longer shackled to anything. We are free to live fully. So ultimately, if you are asking a question to find out what you should do, I am not so sure I can give you an answer that is sufficient. It seems to be against the way I’ve been transformed.

The voting question is a really hard one to answer. In the United States, we are told by the patriarchs of our civil religion to vote because that is elemental to our democracy and our voice being heard. The argument is that if you don’t vote, you can’t “complain.” You can’t protest. You can’t talk about issues that matter to you. Mainly because in our “representative democracy,” our voices are carried out by our legislators. I don’t think that’s the case, and I don’t really believe them when they tell me that. And if my voice is just limited to some symbolic vote? I don’t care that much.

And to be honest, I wouldn’t be the only one. In 2012, the big presidential election that re-elected President Obama, only 58.83% of voters turned out. That’s a big election. If you look at the next year’s election, when huge campaign dollars weren’t spent, it dropped to a measly 11.4%. It seems to me that many Americans aren’t super-interested in voting and even when the state tells us it’s important, it doesn’t seem to be a very important influential voice. So I understand the disillusionment that accompanies the hysteric cry to vote.

What does it actually do? I don’t really know. Should I vote? Well, no one else seems to.

But when we look at other arguments for voting, they are a little more compelling. Voting hasn’t always been everyone’s “right.” It was only in 1920 that women gained the right to vote. Black people in the U.S. truly didn’t have the right to vote until 1965, when racial discrimination was completely prohibited. Now, that’s questionable, since there is still a debate about whether voters should be literate or whether or not they should have an ID present when voting.

There’s been a lot of work done to ensure that everyone has the right to vote. With a battle fought very hard among many oppressed people, to ignore the vote seems like an affront to their work. So, I suppose it makes sense to consider that perspective too. Should I vote? Well, a lot of people have fought for your right to.

Perhaps, however, abstaining makes some sense because it could send the message of indifference that our elected officials need to hear. Not voting may be more powerful than voting at all. We are collectively indifferent because we don’t think anything changes whether you are empowered or not. This might not already be a conscious choice of the voter, but it is certainly in the nation’s unconscious.

There is a distinct belief among many Christians that we shouldn’t participate in elections because we are called to be set apart from the world. We don’t deal with the world’s affairs because we are under God’s kingdom and covenant. We are connected to God, and casting a vote for another ruler seems to be violating that. There is a good argument to be made that we shouldn’t participate in worldly institutions because we are so committed to making the alternative. You can clearly see this in the Old Testament when God repeatedly says that we are His people and He is our King.

For a long time in the Old Testament, the Israelites only had God as their ruler. When Israel demands a king, God and Samuel really try to convince them not to. They persist, and God concedes.

There is a cost to being ruled by a king. That warning is very noteworthy for us if we sell our souls to the state. People really have ideological reasons not to vote. They really think it is idolatry. They might even characterize it as a sin. And if we are empowering people in an unjust system, I see their argument. The entire system is built on violence, and for that reason it seems to be categorically the opposite of the Kingdom, which is built on grace. Jesus’ death and resurrection is the ultimate protest of the violent system—when given a chance to avenge himself, he didn’t. There is a very good theological argument to be made against voting at all, that is for sure. Committing yourself to a political party? That also adds to the idolatry.

Moreover, voting itself might not be the most Christian way to make decisions. I prefer consensus and agreement, occurring as a response to intense dialogue. I was demonstrating this at the BIC General Conference last weekend when I was engaging in dialogue. Some people thought I was talking too much, but I really believe in a dialogical process and I am talkative! I don’t want to just cast my vote and let it be still. In fact, sometimes I refused to say “yea” or “nay” on an issue we were voting on because I think the system itself is flawed. As if we need another thing to divide. Voting might just divide Christians and oppress the minority too!

Some people really believe that we vote to preserve our values (whether they are “Christian” or not is up for debate) in our government. There are a variety of issues at hand here, but there are those “issue voters.” I don’t want to get into the politics, but some people vote because there is an issue that is really important to them. The Brethren in Christ made exceptions to their typical non-voting stance, when it came to issues surrounding prohibition. Outlawing alcohol was important enough to curb their conviction not to participate. There are other issues like that today. Some people believe that we need to vote for the candidate that is most likely to offer equal marriage rights. Others might think it’s the people that are going to outlaw abortion. Still others think we should vote for the people that are not going to engage us in international entanglement, military or otherwise. Others think we should vote for people that will keep the government out of our lives. There are a lot of issues that people may vote for or against, because they are really important to us. And the truth is? Those actual laws and policies may affect a lot of people. Sometimes we will elect someone that’s going to influence the world positively, save lives, share resources, create justice, clean the environment, all sorts of things. It is conceivable that voting might do a positive thing. So there’s that too.

I personally vote. I read the newspaper (on the Internet, of course) and other news magazines. I try to stay informed, in part to participate as best as I can, leaving no stone unturned. But also because it’s a hobby of mine. I follow politics so that my dad and I have something to talk about, too. I do it so that my neighbors, who care a lot about who is in office, see me at the booth. They often introduce me as their neighbor and sometimes their pastor! I like that camaraderie. Like many things I do, I vote so I can be relatable. This a personal and relatively nuanced reason, to be sure.

If we get too ideological about it, I think we miss Paul’s point about being free from the law. Voting should probably occupy as much space in our minds as it takes to do it. And if we think our work for justice and for Jesus is done once we press that button that often produces all-too-familiar results. We might want to think a little bit harder. Vote or don’t vote, but our work isn’t done once we are out of the booth.

Truly, like Paul tells the Corinthians in his first letter in chapter ten: “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive.

For me, the question isn’t what is right or not. What is permissible or not. What you should do or not. But what is beneficial? What builds up? If you give it that level of thought and seriousness, I don’t think you can really go wrong. I think everything is worth that level of testing, so if you haven’t asked yourself those questions, it might be a good time to start.

Louie and reconciliation as entertainment

I’ve been catching up all of the seasons of Louie. Admittedly, I watched it because of Seinfeld’s cameo in the show and I’m a little bit of a super-fan (same reason I started watching Curb Your Enthusiasm and 30 Rock). The show is a little too vulgar, but there is an earnestness and honesty in Louie C.K.’s comedy that is quite compelling to me. He characterizes the trouble of a divorced 40-something in a way that is both hilarious and heart-breaking. Louie needs Jesus, of course, but it is amazing that he is being like Jesus to others throughout the program.

Although we see this as he relates to his friends and his daughters, Louie, despite his general narcissism and self-pity that is the key to his comedy, is a pretty compassionate person. It seems to me like he’s burned some bridges, but watching him try to restore them is quite amazing. Whereas, tabloids seem to get their sales by telling us all about celebrity relationship problems, Louie’s reconciliation processes are the entertainment. It is almost the opposite of my dear Seinfeld, which  makes most of its jokes at other’s expenses.

The most famous example of this is Louie C.K.’s conflict with Dane Cook. Several years ago, Louie’s friends, although apparently never Louie himself, accused Dane Cook of stealing some of Louie’s jokes. That Dane Cook and his brand of humor and target audience were much different than the typical comics is central to the issue. The comradery among other comedians, which the aforementioned Seinfeld exhibits in his Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, is special and not for everyone. I personally hate that  Dane Cook is the “jock’s comedian,” delivering the “bros humor.” The exclusion that the high school jock enjoyed in his high school with his football jacket and clique is reversed in this case. The inevitable social outcastness that is so many Woody-Allen-influenced have made very popular is that clique that now excludes Dane Cook from their cadre. Dane Cook is set up to be vilified for stealing jokes.

Louie had him on his show and they seemed to try and work out their relationship. The scene felt tense, and subsequently genuine. Apparently, it was dramatized and the tension between the two was never that high, but Louie seemed to do it to honor Cook, to cool down the community of comics who defended him.

A similar thing happened with Marc Maron, a longtime acquaintance of Louie, who had a major falling out that is showcased on the show. In fact, in the season four finale, Maron accuses Louie of being a particularly bad friend who is both unavailable and jealous. Maron invited Louie on his podcast. In a very long, almost two hour, interview, the two of them work out their relationship with a surprising level of vulnerability.Their candidness is contagious. It makes me want to work out all of my relational problems.

I’m not sure what it is about broadcasting reconciliation or apologies or why celebrities do it at all. (Remember earlier this year when Macklemore Instagrammed his apology text to Kendrick Lamar after he won his Grammy?) There is something about that reconciliation that is more entertaining for us than just the drama and the beef.

We want people to work things out. We want them to get through their problems. And it feels good when they do and they share their story.

Jesus works it out with us. We are reconciled to him and forgiven. His is the ultimate story of reconciliation. When we forgive each other and overcome our trouble, we are modeling Christ’s behavior.

We would rather avoid that difficulty than forgive the individual, I know. Louie demonstrates this when he so doesn’t want to see his father, than he starts spontaneously vomiting and breaks out in a rash. When the time comes to see him, he runs off and ends up on a boat in the middle of the bay. We want to run from the relationships that are a challenge to participate in.

Jesus has another way, and when we see the world modeling it, we are marveled. There are problems with a public broadcast of your apology, but it does lead others and it may cause them to do the same. Although these things can happen because of all of the eyes watching him and he wants to be the “good guy,” I’d rather just see the positive in it this time. For Louie, he might be changing how many of us perceive reconciliation and the importance to do it in our lives.

Six thoughts on the Brethren in Christ after our General Conference

For both of Justin and Aaron, this weekend was the first time they were at the Brethren in Christ General Conference. Both remarked on how enlightening is was—to learn about the BIC right from our leaders. Next week I’m talking a class about BIC history, and I couldn’t help but juxtapose what I learned from one of the assigned readings, Quest for Piety and Obedience, from what we observed at the conference. Here are six reflections.

First, it is good to be together. There is no doubt about this. The Body of Christ needs to gather together. We are a collective no matter what, but a meeting that is an expression of us is almost always encouraging. Smiles, laughs, and hugs abounded. It is fun to be back with the family and it’s necessary. With so many ways to connect other than in person (the GC was live streamed, for example), it is a joy to do it together. We have done it together throughout history and I’m glad we are continuing to do it. For that reason alone, I have to make it my business to be at General Conference. The meeting doesn’t define us, but it is great when we do meet. We need to keep emphasizing this body life, however, because there were only 378 delegates at the conference!

Dialogue is instrumental for the Body of Christ. Let’s be honest, our government officials don’t make it easy for us to talk. We are told we live in a democracy in the U.S., but the Emails and calls I place to my elected representatives are often returned with forms or merely marked down for voting purposes. The godless system that was live in sometimes leaks into the Body of Christ. We might be afraid to talk or disagree because we’ll be accused of being rebellious or disloyal or even not trusting of our leaders. And even though the conference had some classic Central PA shaming (at one point our leaders questioned our trust of their leadership when we were asking questions), Alan Robinson, the General Church Leader, encouraged us to dialogue and we did! I took him at his word and shared my thoughts regularly. I was very thankful for that opportunity.

We are an earnest and caring group. There are deep people in the Brethren in Christ. They share, they love, and they are convicted. As we shared ideas, listened to each other, both in and out of the “business” sessions, it was clear to me that we are surrounded by people who truly want to follow Jesus as best as they can. I am grateful to be among them.

Story matters, remember. The Brethren in Christ story is great! We have a Historical Society that is devoted to telling our story. I’m glad we have a heritage that is rich with a narrative. We have gone through many transitions and changes, and I’m glad our discernment process is noted. I noticed a lack of story-telling, however, in this General Conference. When we were reading the General Church Leader’s report, the dialogue began around the mysterious dismissal of one of our executive directors. We were confused. It wasn’t so long ago that two bishops in the BIC mysteriously resigned. Lots of questions were being asked, and our leaders seemed to be avoiding the obvious problem: they never told a story. When we asked why this director’s term was not renewed or whether or not she would be replaced, language around “confidentiality” and “personnel issues” were the best our leaders could muster up. They needed to tell a story, so that we wouldn’t just invent one on our own. Telling the Body what is happening is a crucial part of building trust and relationships and it is what we have done throughout history. Let’s keep doing it.

Words mean something. Of course they do! In fact, that is precisely their definition: “a single distinct meaningful element of speech or writing.” Much of our time was spent parsing minutia as we debated changes to our Manual of Doctrine and Government. Too much time may have been spent here, but for me, it was valuable because words matter. Even the little ones. Combing through individual sentences may not seem important, but all of these little changes come from a philosophical or ideological vision. Our leaders didn’t often know what that vision was, but it existed whether or not they thought the changes were merely editorial or not. At the start of the conference, our General Church Leader, was known as National Director. Although the General Church Board picked that title, we didn’t discern it together. Although he may lead the same way regardless of his title, it is likely that ones title may impact them more than they know. We eventually settled on the vague title of General Church Leader, which perfectly describes our unfortunate indifference toward such a debate. The BIC has historically debated the very name of its denomination, to good end, too. At our last conference we were debating whether or not “Brethren in Christ” was sexist because it excluded women. These things are of note. Everything matters, including the words we choose.

If distinctives are muddied, they cease to exist. What makes us Brethren in Christ? As I read the essays found in Reflections on a Heritage, it’s clear to me that the identity of our little denomination is fading. We know that the Anabaptists, Pietists, and Wesleyans influenced us, but the creeping evangelical influence seems to have diluted us (but to be fair, it’s empowered us to be on more of a mission–thank God we aren’t wearing simple clothing!). It seems to me like we are being influenced by Reformed doctrine (which is typical of most Evangelical churches), as well as the prejudices and politics of Republicans (the political party in the U.S. that has mobilized to use the American Evangelicals for its goals). I’m not sure that, after observing the dialogue in our business sessions, you would know that we were a radical group known for its loyalty to the Kingdom of God. We debated whether or not to use worldly institutions, like credit checks, to judge character! Not even a mention of peace was exhibited during the business sessions—even when our very website calls us, openly, a “pacifist denomination.” We are losing a battle and are being influenced unconsciously by a variety of worldly forces.

Ultimately, like I said above, the chance to get together and dialogue is important, but we are more than our biennial meeting. I think we need to stay conscious, engaged, and discerning all of the time. We need to be the church.

What if I’m too depressed or anxious to be in a cell?

In the United States, this really isn’t a surprise that our depressrion or anxiety might . The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in 2001 that one in ten individuals are depressed. That’s an amazing figure. According to the CDC, middle-aged, women, people of color (mainly Black and Latino), unemployed, and people without insurance are most likely to be depressed.

We don’t really know why people get depressed or anxiety. “It is likely that a complex interaction of biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors are involved,” according to Kathariya Mokrue, PhD.

NPR reports more than one in four U.S. residents have experienced “great deal of stress in the previous month.” Half of all adults have experienced a major stressful event this past year. That’s 115 million people, and that’s even not accurate because the poll NPR conducted only captures the stress that people are conscious of. Many of us experience stress or anxiety but are unaware of it.

The toll stress and depression take on us are huge. In fact, a recent study suggests that stress and depression may boost the risk of a stroke. It is life threatening if it goes untreated. Simply reacting to it based on our limitations may not be the best option. If we simply think “that’s just how I am” there might be a cost to that, and it could affect one’s very life.

Your consciousness of your emotions is important. Ignoring your feelings, even if you feel bad, doesn’t help them go away. I hope that we can confront them so that we can know we aren’t them. The emotions that we experience are part of us, but they are not the sum of us. That’s a danger with a diagnosis. Though it gives you a chance to name your illness and heal from it, that label may never go away. You might think you are the weather, when you are really the mountain.

The Christian life, filled with sufferings and trials, is bound to make us feel depressed or anxious at some point. Assuming that it won’t is going to cause trouble. We are sufferers. Like the man in black says in the Princess Bride, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” We are going to feel bad. And sometimes it’s not going to go away no matter how much we pray, how loyal we are to God. Healing may come and it may not come. Look at this passage from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.

Paul, who might be one of the greatest prayers ever, prays that God would remove a thorn from his flesh, what he calls a tormentor from Satan. What is that torment? We don’t know, but it might be depression or anxiety. Paul prayed, pleaded, that God would take it from him, and he didn’t. Paul tells us that The Lord responded with, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Paul’s point is that if we were perfect—thorn-less—we wouldn’t need God. Christ’s power is shown in us when we are weak and he is strong. I love that language: “Christ’s power may rest on me.” Don’t we all need that rest? Isn’t that exactly what we dream of in the midst of our crippling depression, or paralyzing anxiety?

Paul’s language about “delighting” in his weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, difficulties is generous. He is trying to be encouraging. But it’s important to note that it might take time to really believe when you are weak, then you are strong.

It’s hard to really believe that one should delight and feel joy when they really feel sad and overwhelmed. When your trial is a negative feeling, what do you do? How do you respond? Again, what if it keeps you from expressions of community?

Remember, cells and PMs are expressions of our community, not the sum of it. So the guilt about your disconnection may be ultimately more debilitating than the actual reason for your lack of participation. If you feel concerned about not being able to fully participate in PMs or cells or something, I want to reassure you that that is OK. It may not be where you want to be forever, but there isn’t a law that you need to follow.

That’s partly why Paul was delighted to feel his trials, because he was a slave to no one, including his emotions. He certainly wouldn’t feel guilt about his limitations. We are limited people, that’s OK. So if you can’t be at PMs or cells, that’s fine.

Try not to just be complacent, however. It might be easier to avoid the troubles that you feel, the ones that might be keeping you from getting close to God, but don’t ignore the parts in your life that are hard to think about. Your instinct might be not to think about the things that make you anxious, but truly consider them, especially without someone trained to help you work out your stress.

Try to ask the right questions. “What is the cause of my problem?” “Why does this problem persist?” That’s better than just asking stuff like “Why me?” “What is wrong with me?” Try to focus on the root of problem, not just yourself. That separation between who you are and how you feel is important. Differentiate. With yourself. But with others too. Remember, you are your own person, and the temptation to create triangles (among yourself, or with others) will fuel the fire.

Explore your past, consider your current goals and let them lead you, and talk to a professional. Therapy isn’t just for the severely afflicted. It could be helpful to many of us. And buy into it; Circle Counseling has a sliding scale, but paying for therapy and thinking about how you spend your money is an important part of the process. Invest in yourself. If you feel hesitant to do that, you might know why you feel stuck.

Take care of yourself. Sleep enough. Eat well and healthy. Try to set boundaries so that you are not overstimulated. Don’t use drugs that a psychiatrist isn’t talking to you about. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the drugs your shrink thinks you need.

Remember, that this isn’t only  personal battle. The community is going to play a part. Talk to your friends about how you are feeling; emote with your spouse. Try to talk through it and see what love you get. In fact, this is a reason you might want to be in a cell even if you instinct tells you otherwise. The Circle Counseling therapists are often saying that those in cells tend to work through their presenting problems more quickly than others. It’s hard to make a causal relationship here, but there is a connection for sure.

More than just a personal or communal process, it is a spiritual one. Remember to rely on God. To cry out to him. Have faith that he will protect you and nourish you, even when you feel like it might not happen. Paul’s words, “for when I am weak, then I am strong,” apply here. That level of faith might change your process.

Try to develop some spiritual resources that change how you see all of the bad stuff that’s happening. When you are at your end, when you burn out, rely on God to fill you up. Beyond mere self-awareness is literal strength from God. Turn to prayer when you are exhausted. Cry out to God with where you are easily injured, damaged, exasperated, or when you want to confront the things that make you want to avoid.

Venting might feel good, but the reason you want to write down some of your stuff, is so you can actually cry out to God at your end. Life is pain, the man in black is right, but to Live is Christ too. What if you’re too depressed to be in a cell or go to a PM? That’s OK. It’s normal to feel that way sometimes—Paul and James did! But take care of yourself, know your limits, be healthy, rely on community, make goals, and rely on God, because he can offer you real strength. He can really make you weakness, strength.

Frank Viola’s Pagan Christianity and the obsession with perfection

Hey! For the first time ever, someone famous commented on my blog. One of the authors of the book, Frank Viola, clarified some things that I now include in the post.

I’m looking forward to the start of seminary this fall. I got accepted to Palmer Theological Seminary and I am looking to earn a Master of Divinity. I feel blessed and fortunate at the chance to do it. It will be a serious commitment—my goal is to take about two classes a semester. We’ll see if that’s even possible! But one thing is for sure, couples with the courses and the reading and homework, my time for personal reading will be limited. But as Rod often points out to me, “leaders are readers.” So I want to keep my nose in a book all the time.

The pile of books on my desk seems to be getting longer, so as of late, I’ve decided to spent some time knocking a few out. The first one? Pagan Christianity? by Frank Viola and George Barna. I’m about halfway through the book as we speak and I might be ready to put it down.

The book’s premise is basic: leaders in the Church often say they are doing everything “by the Book.” That is, we want our actions to be Biblical, explicitly rooted in the Bible. This is the Evangelical mantra. I’m unsure that that statement, by itself, is even “by the Book.” Nevertheless, Viola and Barna present argument after argument as to why the modern church isn’t remotely Biblical and that the majority of the customs and traditions we’ve established are the result of outside cultural influence. The duo doesn’t leave any stoned unturned: the church building, the order of worship, the sermon, the pastor, music, tithing, salaries, baptism, seminaries, and so on. All of those topics are deconstructed, and an alternative that conforms to their fundamental premise dominates. A better question is whether such deconstruction is Biblical at all. Whether bibliolatry is something Jesus wants us to do. I’m not sure Barna and Viola are bibliolatrists necessarily–since theyossilates between things being “Biblical” (whether they are in the text of the Bible) or “Christian” (presumably, whether Jesus taught them or they are in the New Testament, depending on what matches his argument). I don’t mind determining what is best, and I don’t think we should be following rules to do that, but the premise is based on some modernistic rationality, and because of that, it is less convincing when he goes off that path.

I think we need to be wary of the negative influence the culture has on us, but I think an extensive effort to deconstruct what’s become the modern church is a little self-involved. The pair have good points and research their material well, that’s for sure. But the idea that “organic expression of the church” does it right, and the rest are doing it wrong, is the mess that got us into this in the first place. Everybody thinks they are doing it the right way. The examples the authors use are also limited to suburban Protestantism; in almost every case, I know of many churches, Circle of Hope included, that do it alternatively. I suppose the point of the book is to expose the truth that not everything in the Western Protestant Church is “neutral” or explicitly “by the Book.” That’s a noble endeavor, but I think the text overreached. Frank told me that the book wasn’t supposed to offer solutions, and a better book that does that is Reimagining Church.

Using the premise, let’s ponder whether it is fundamentally wrong to be influenced by something other than the Bible? I’m not so sure. Paul tells us simply to be all things to all people. Although I’m not sure the so-called pagan influence of the Church occurred to reach out to those who were used to that culture, it wouldn’t be so bad if that were a reason. We need to adapt to our culture in order to help people follow Jesus.

I hope that is the reason behind everything that we do in the church. The idea is that there is an ideal standard that we need to conform to is just too perfectionistic for me. If we all we do is deconstruct, what will we build up? I want to change the world, not just navel gaze all day.

Sure the first, second, and third-century Christians did it in one way. It’s important to read the Bible through first-century eyes. But why ignore the positive influence of cultures that have come after that one? Especially for mission?

For one thing, Jesus didn’t write anything down. So why is Viola? Second, there is a lot of progress that has occurred since the Bible was written. We should incorporate all that’s good. All that builds up. Not all that conforms to some standard that may not even be Biblical by itself.

I might be defensive when I read the text because Viola and Barnra are criticizing many of things that I strategically use. With that said, I’m not sure they are building up so much (the follow up to the book apparently does this better). With that said, the book is a valuable read if you think anything that we do today in the church is “sacred.” There are numerous problems with how we do church including glorifying the sermon, over-burdening the pastor (the pastor often does this to herself), over-emphasizing our buildings and how we dress, too much importance placed on higher education. All of these things need to be considered, retooled, and made into something new. That is for sure.

Ultimately, I want to be ready to do what’s next, not argue about what was.  There are many things that the Ancient Church did that I don’t want to copy! Ultimately, and I think the authors would agree with me, I want to do the most effective thing to help people follow Jesus today. That means, inevitably, incorporating what Christians have done before me, even if they were influenced by their godless culture.