A personal view of the emergent conversation

I am more of a blog reader than a blog writer. That means I get to learn from sources of all kinds on just about everything, the criss-crossing currents of active minds. They write in blogs, book reviews, web-linked articles, and Facebook comments. While just about every faction and school of thought in Christian faith can be found on line, there are two groups that steer most of the conversation: Emergents and neo-Calvinists. I’ll go into the neo-Calvinists some other time.

The Emergents come under all sorts of names now – collectivists, communitarians, missionals, progressives, post-modernists, and so on.  They see the church as it is today, and as it was in the past, and find it wanting.  Most (not all) of them are people who were raised as US Evangelicals or Fundamentalists, who discovered that much of what they were taught really did not make any sense.

  • They were exposed to science in schools, so they questioned creationism and found it lacking, even from a Biblical point of view.
  • They saw their gay neighbors and colleagues, and found them to be the same mixed bag as straights are – they’re people, not a category hated by God and damned to hell.
  • Most of them had (gasp) sex long before marriage. While the after-effects were sometimes very bitter and made deep wounds, even then they were usually able to move on from it to start a journey to something really good – sex *in* marriage.  While the act itself wasn’t very smart, it also wasn’t the road to lifelong ruin as their pastors taught.

Most importantly, they saw that at least some of the church systems in which they were raised were designed for rigid order, engineered to be micromanaged by petty dictators whose wisdom and motives were not allowed to be questioned. The order put pastors over elders over laity, men over women, husbands over wives over children, famous people over unknown, white over black, rich over poor, Christian over outsider, one brand of Christian over other brands. That’s the sort of thing Jesus in the Gospels constantly spoke out against, so they asked, why was it being done in the name of Jesus?  When they said what they saw, they faced the fiercest of fire from people they had come to respect and even love. They got burned. No one was listening, so they left to find people who were.

While it’s impossible to define emergents, the one common link is that they are mainly people who are emerging from a strict Christian background, evolving into people with more open-hearted and thoughtful beliefs and practices than before. Plus a few fellow travelers they’ve picked up along the way. Truth be told, everyone else is evolving too, but not in the same way to the same extent. Most of us don’t emerge from what we were raised to believe; rather, we evolve within it.

Why is it so hard to write about emergents?

I have a great inner reluctance to write about emergents. Why? Because their most important spiritual task right now is asking more than it is finding, and I don’t want to preempt their asking process with premature guidance from someone who is still himself asking. Also, I must remember our difference in background. As a mainline Lutheran from the Northeast, I didn’t have to deal much with pastors who would sooner hang an African-American than have one as their leader. My childhood background included all sorts of Christians, as well as Jews, Sikhs, Sufis, Buddhists, atheists, straights, and the most flamboyant of gays. I was taught evolution and progress in school and in church, even though I could not believe they were relentlessly positive or always bore the will of God. I was constantly asking questions, and while the church did not always encourage this process, I was never thrown out of one for asking. The world at large was less kind about that than the churches I knew. Few of the pastors I knew were abusers of power; in fact, it was more common that they lacked enough power to carry out their responsibilities.

I also see from a different viewpoint what the emergents emerged from. Even though I can’t be silent about the wrongs of Fundamentalisms, I won’t go into a war against Fundamentalists.  I was raised to see people, not -isms. I know quite a few Fundamentalists who are truly driven by their love of Christ not by fear, despite what their -isms tell them. The more open Evangelicals have shown me so much about both the faith and the world that I am bound by truth to give them far more praise than anger. Some of them really do think, but think in a different pattern. Some of them are now on the fringes bordering on emergence, but are spending more time living their faith than thinking it, so their questions end up being put forward in a different way.

It’s hard to write about the road the emergents are on. Why? In part because I’ve already been down much of that road. Many of them have taken to questioning everything, even the most basic of Christian truths, practices, and resources. That’s good. But when I was on those roads years ago, it didn’t take me long to discover that many of the ‘new’ discoveries that seem so wonderful are not what they seem.  I found that I could avoid slavery of mind only when I questioned the value and method of being radical, of the ‘progressive’ myth, of scholarly methods and consensuses, of being ever-suspicious, and even of constantly pursuing one’s doubts and questions. Otherwise, the methods become a trap and an idol, and the method starts to dictate the faith rather than help give it shape.

I guess I have to be engaged in the emergent conversation (…oops, another hip cliché…).  That is where so many of the questions are, and my mind spends most of its time in the asking mode.  But I find myself having to do so as an outsider. I am changing, even evolving, but I’m not ’emerging’ from anything. I’m not someone who’s in it to engineer proofs for a point of view, nor to write refined critiques of the church as-it-is – although I have that ability. I’m here to testify and to tell stories, including ones that aren’t my own. I must keep listening, for that is how I learn. But I also must speak. I’ve been through too much not to share with you what that has taught me.

(more later…)


Good Friday: Nothing and Everything

Nothing and Everything

John 19:17-42

The soldiers at the scene of the cross were dividing up the spoils, as was their way. But this time, the pickings were slim. Some small wrappings. A pretty good seamless robe. No money.

Jesus had lost even the clothes on His back, exchanging them for some wood and some nails. He had no home of His own. His only visible means of support had been His network of friends – but now they were mostly scattered or hid. Alone. No power. No last will, nothing to probate. His short burst of fame had now run out. He’d given over the care of His mother to someone else. He had no children — no legacy, as this culture saw it. And now, He was being stripped even of life itself.

Nothing left but a corpse,

in a grave,

the stony end.

Nothing. The perfect place to start for someone whose task it is to renew everything. The end. Of the beginning.

And what of us, who live our lives in a world stuffed with stuff, putting our treasures in the retirement account of earthly life, some of us with families, some with friends, some with at least 15 minutes of fame? What of our life of blessings and curses, and dreams fulfilled and broken? Why would we want a new beginning?

Because as it stood, it all came to the same stony end. And all that’s left then is what had been there all along, hidden beneath all the stuff of life. A loving God who is with us and for us. A God who was left with nothing, who went into the tomb, but didn’t stay there. Nothing became everything. And we can share in that everything now, while we still live, whatever we might have.

Lord, You are at the end of everything. You are at each new beginning. You are in between, where we are now. You make something worthwhile out of nothing. Help us be part of the Kingdom for which You have set us apart. Amen.

Bob Longman

Maundy Thursday : What is Love, Anyway?

(also in an audio version)

Love, v. 3.0

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Whether we’re Christian or not, we’ve all been taught the Golden Rule: “do unto others as you would have others do to you“. Jesus said it too, in a positive restatement of something in the Jewish oral tradition. It makes life’s decisions a lot clearer by putting you in your own harm’s way. Think like that, and you won’t be so eager to do in your main rival at work or to stomp on someone to get what you want. We might pull up short if we felt in our own back the knife that we just started to twist into someone else’s. This is a good place to start: there actually is a standard for us to look to. Yet there are some things missing in the Golden Rule. There is, of course, the sado-masochist twist — someone doing unto others the torture he so craves from them. A more important problem, though, is that the Golden Rule keeps you in the center of it. No matter how many lessons you learn from doing unto others, they’re still your lessons, and it all still depends on your human capacity to love. That capacity is more like a dinner plate than a deep well. It’s too shallow when compared with the task at hand of living a different, loving kind of life.

Jesus takes us beyond the Golden Rule. The first step past it is when Jesus commends Deuteronomy 6:5’s Great Commandment about loving God, and the second like unto it, originally from Leviticus (you know, the book everyone loves to avoid), to “love your neighbor as yourself“. Jesus then looks at this not through one’s own love, but through what is meant by ‘neighbor’. Jesus calls on us to be a neighbor, moving the focus from ourselves to others, especially another who is in need.

But one more step is needed. For while this approach redirects our capacity to love, it is still our human capacity to love that is being given out. In John’s Gospel, Jesus makes the final step to setting this right, by giving a “new commandment“: “that you love one another, just as I have loved you“. This isn’t a plea, but a final charge to the believing few — a command (Latin mandatum, Middle English maundy). There is a new description: to love as Jesus loved. Right after He said that, He went on His way to setting a standard of love beyond our wildest imaginings : to the cross and the tomb. And there’s also a new power to love in a manner like that: He emptied that tomb, and went back to what is beyond death, sending the Holy Spirit to us in His place. What the Spirit puts into us is Christ’s love. That’s the bottomless well of boundless love. No longer do we have to dish out our own love in saucer portions, we can now drench everybody with love from beyond ourselves, so much so that it seeps into them. No longer must we be a better kind of person first; we can start loving from where we’re at, right now, because it’s not just our love, but also Christ’s. We can now dare to live the life of holy love, trusting that in the end there is no loss where that kind of love is found.

Father, you told us to love. But we are weak. We do not love as Jesus did, or anything like it. Send us your Spirit to change us and to make us love like the Crucified and Risen One, that we may carry out your mandate. Amen.

Bob Longman

A Maundy Thursday challenge: I’m not going to dump a load of guilt on you by telling you that you haven’t loved like this. You’ve heard that over and over again, you know it’s so, it’s become one of those ‘wish-you-coulds’. So, try something much simpler as a starter – think of just one person in your life, and then write down some new ways you can be more loving to that person. Then do it; you’ll learn how in the doing. After that, you can start working on doing the same thing for other people. But at least you’ll have begun.

Fifth Sunday in Lent

Ezekiel 37:1-14;
Romans 8:6-11;
John 11:1-46

“This wouldn’t have happened if you’d been here!”

Martha said it. Mary said it. Some of the mourners were likely to have said it. Lazarus had taken ill. Surely if Jesus were there, He would have healed him. After all, He had healed all sorts of strangers — many of them were the strangest of strangers. Now, the brother of two of his most devoted followers gets deathly ill, and what does Jesus do?

He waits.

And waits..

And waits

… until Lazarus dies. Jesus lets him die!

It would seem unseemly to talk about a purpose behind the act of not acting to heal Lazarus. But Jesus Himself raises the issue. He says, “It’s good that I wasn’t there.” Huh?? How could that be?? Jesus had something bigger in mind than just another run-of-the-mill, everyday, amazing sensational miracle healing. It was time to show that His power extended beyond the grave.

But even knowing that, even with so strong a purpose behind it, it still was not a matter of Jesus’ just going there and popping Lazarus out of a tomb. He still had to face a large number of mourners. Lazarus was far from being a loner. His death brought much grief to many, and especially to two of Jesus’ closest followers, Martha and Mary. Jesus had to come face-to-face with their anguish and their blame, one-on-one. And they were right — it was anguish which wouldn’t have happened if He came when He was told about the illness. Jesus could’ve healed Lazarus. There was no arguing about that stone cold fact. The delay had such a mighty price in sorrow that He was moved and troubled, so much that He wept, even though He already knew what He was about to do. There was only one act even He could do to make it worth that price. He had to call Lazarus out of the tomb.

Death is no small thing, even to Jesus. (Think of Him at Gethsemane.) But that just makes victory over death even more essential. Jesus’ victory over Lazarus’ death. Jesus’ victory over His own death. Jesus’ victory over your death.

Lord, I do fear death. I will fear death. Help me to trust you through the fear, so that I might confidently live according to Your will. Amen.

Bob Longman

Hear the above, as an mp3.

Ash Wednesday: It’s Not What, But Why

Ash Wednesday Scriptures:

Joel 2:12-17

Psalm 51 or Psalm 103

Hebrews 12:1-14 and 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

Gospel : Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21; or Luke 18:9-14

Ash Wednesday, the Start of Lent

On Ash Wednesday and throughout Lent, it’s time to take stock of the truths about ourselves that don’t sit well in our guts. There’s one truth in particular that leaves the people of today’s world most uneasy: the universe does not revolve around you. Psalm 103:14, like Ecclesiastes 3:20, reminds us of what we were at the start. Psalm 51 says that we’ve gotten all fouled up. Amos writes about the two-faced trickery of his generation. Our self-obsessed era is no different. We were made very good, but we keep mucking it up. Because you’re not all that good, God demands that you be truthful about it. God says ‘deal with it’. (After all, God did; look at that cross.) Many of us turn to religious behavior in order to deal with it, but alas. There’s no magical solution. Good thinking leads to good excuses. Even by doing good things, you can’t ‘do’ your way around it.

Most of all, we can’t pretend our way above it. What others think means nothing to God. In Matthew 6, Jesus calls on all people to be at least as spiritual as we seem, instead of seeming more spiritual than we are. How do you follow that call?

  • not by wearing your forehead ashes for days, protecting it like a badge of holiness;
  • not by fasting for Lent so that others see how holy you are;
  • not by taking the role of Simon the Cyrene in the stations of the Cross, so others can see you bearing a holy weight;
  • not by ‘going Celtic’ to be devotionally ‘hip’;
  • not by writing Lenten devotionals for the Web or Facebook, where thousands can ooh and aaah over your supposed ‘wisdom’;
  • not by filling your cubicle walls with photos of all sorts of charitable work you’re somehow involved with;
  • not by copping Francis of Assisi’s dress code;
  • not by making sure your eyes are red with tears or your mascara runs during devotions with others;
  • not by crossing yourself so often that you’ll develop carpal tunnel;
  • not by name-dropping the Desert Fathers;
  • not by copiously blog-journaling throughout Lent to draw the instant-message crowd;
  • not by chanting Gregorian throughout the work day;
  • not by proving how long you can wear sackcloth without scratching;
  • not by showing off the wear holes in your prayer shawl and the dog-ears in your Bible;
  • not by being the first on your block to go through the whole Easter Vigil in worship at the altar.

The God who sees all isn’t fooled for a second. What does Jesus say? ‘You’ve got your reward now — the attention, the short-term praise. But that’s all.’ Those who seek to be treated highly will be brought down, and their deeds turn to ash. Those who get real about their humble place before God and others will be treated highly. A simple, helpful rule: if you love the Jesus of the cross and of the empty tomb, then don’t draw attention to yourself or boast about how good you are – draw it to Jesus by actually following Him.

If we really were what we pretend to be, others could see something of what God’s kingdom is like. That Kingdom is what people need to see.

Father, please help me to remember who I am. And please help burn into me the truth that I will die, and Your Son already has — and He shows me that death is not the end of it. Amen.

Bob Longman

A challenge: take up a devotional practice, and do it in a way nobody can know about.

(More stuff throughout the season. Stay tuned.)