Friday, May 19, 2006

A Reflection on Mother's Day

It was not too long ago when virtually every American celebrated Mother's day. We all went out to store the night before or the day of and bought our moms something special (usually potted flowers, hanging flowers, or some other assortment of flowers). We bought cards and wrote sappy, but sincere, messages about how much our moms mean to us and how they have influenced our lives. For many Americans, there was another way to commemorate Mom: a Mother's Day service at church.

Mother's Day services are expected. The worship leader will typically mention something in his chatter or prayer about moms. Someone will usually pray and mention all the mothers, and the service culminates in a sermon that revolves mainly around the topic of mothers. Most of you reading this have gone to such a service and probably went to one just a matter of days ago. Let me be clear: I am not attempting to malign such services, discredit them, or discuss whether we ought to even have them at all. The question of whether Mother's Day services are appropriate will have to wait for another day. In this post I am raising the question: why do we (evangelicals) follow the secular or civil calendar staunchly, but fail to follow the Church calendar?

Granted, we celebrate Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and perhaps we'll throw in a few other "Church" days. Yet predominantly we ignore the larger calendar that the Church has historically followed. This post is not an attempt to convince us, either, that we ought to be following the Church calendar. Rather, I wonder what it is that has pervaded our churches to the point where we value the civil religion of this country over the traditions and ceremonies of the Church?

I think perhaps the question may be answered by many evangelicals affinity to associate themselves first as Americans, and subsequently as Christians. Oh, don't get me wrong. We say that we are Christians first, but our praxy often proves otherwise. So we become overly politicized and hold up a particular political party as being the "Christian party." For many evangelicals, this is manifested in their utter devotion to the Republican party. For others, it shows through in their insistence on having the American flag on the church platform alongside the Christian flag. Ultimately, we American Christians have to ask ourselves who is our true ally: the Church or the American nation? I am not saying that we have to divorce ourselves from our American identity. But we do need to reevaluate where we have placed our priorities.

Can we faithful be members of two antithetic polities? Can we be faithful Americans and faithful Christians? Perhaps we are members of the Church who happen to live in a certain locality and in a sense, subversively influence it. Not by scare tactics or political platforms; but by love. Perhaps we remember that we are the manifestation of Christ's presence and love. Perhaps we do castrate our American identity for a while, only in order to recognize that we are loyal to a much greater polity: the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ.

What do you think?

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Congrats to Matt!

Congratulations to my brother, Matt, who has just graduated from Michigan State University! We love you and are proud of you Matt!

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Friendships of Convenience

I lived off campus for the first time this past school year. It was an interesting phenomenon. I learned very quickly that in the IWU community, if you are not a part of the immediate (on campus) portion you are quickly forgotten. This is not the fault of any individuals in particular nor am I saying this to elicit pity. It is the reality of the beast. When things happen at IWU, they happen on campus. If you're not on campus, you miss things. People don't see you everyday and in some ways they forget you're still around. Yet I have had some fantastic interactions/conversations with some of my friends and have grown in friendships despite my social-disability due to off-campusness. Interestingly, this year has also allowed me to reflect upon the relationships that are formed at this university, and to an extent, how relationships are formed in general.

I have expressed my ostensibly cynical attitude to some about the basic life pattern that many of us find ourselves upon. We spend our early life growing up and being educated with people who become close friends. Yet when high school graduation arrives, people go their seperate ways and most of the friendships formed there will be radically altered in some way. Some students enter university life, where they spend another four years being educated, forming bonds with others, and then leaving to pursue jobs or graduate school. Many lose touch with their college friends and only a few close contacts remain regular. For those of us who opt for graduate school, we settle down in another educational atmosphere and begin the process anew of creating meaningful relationships. As the cycle becomes incredibly repetitious, we graduate and lose contact with many of the people we became quite close to.

Granted, that is a vast generlization of the pattern which ensues in many of our lives. But it is a pattern that perhaps ought to be considered seriously. The question which has arisen for me is what type of relationships are we forming? Has the sporadic course of our early lives truncated our ability to form relationships which last beyond our circumstances? In other words, are we merely founding friendships of convenience? I have noticed at the WU (and I'm sure other collegiates could give similar experiences) that the web of friendships shifts somewhat dramatically from year to year. Certainly people retain the most significant of these friendships and those friends grow gradually closer as the four years of university life progress. But as housing arrangments change, so do friendships. The people you live with become your closest friends. This is perfectly understandable and natural. Those who I lived with last year and those on the RA staff quickly became my steadfast and loyal friends. As corny as it sounds, we laughed together, we studied together, we held each other accountable, we stayed up late talking about girls, or most often, problems with girls. We even (literally) cried together. My friends and I were truly a band of brothers, brought together in a bond that is closer than some siblings.

I cherish those people to this very day, and those experiences. The normative shifts, though, have occured and people go their seperate ways. Some connections are still strong. Other are waning.

Life, it seems, is consumed by relationships. It is relationships that hold cultures and societies together. It is the relationship God has initiated with his Church that promises hope for this world. Even the Triune God by nature is relational. What it seems to me is that relationships are a large component of what it means to be a human; created in God's image. Then why do so many of the relationships we form become obsolete? Why does this cycle of life changes draw us apart? As we become busy with the next aspect of our life we tend to forget how we even arrived there in the first place. As aforementioned, there are many exceptions to this. Many friendships will indeed last a lifetime, and continue into eternity. But why do so many relationships errode and dissipate? Do we truly rely upon convenience as the basis for our relationships? If so, I'm surprised we keep any deep relationships; and I am as guilty as anyone.

I want my life to impact others. I want the relationships I form to be ones which are continuously efficacious even amidst seperation. I want relationships to last longer than my housing vicinity.

Perhaps this post seems odd. It does not follow the typical subject matter or writing style that accompanies me. These are my random thoughts and do with them what you will.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Really? Theology is Irrelevant?

I'm a student of theology. My entire undergraduate education is focused in the area of theology and biblical studies. I live and breathe theology. The primary subject of the books I read is in some way related to theology. I love theology and no subject is of greater interest to me both in literature and in conversation (whether casual or particular). Yet sometimes I am presented with the question, "Why theology?" Does theology really matter?

I have had a number of persons tell me they don't believe theology is all that important. "Christians don't need to be acquainted with the theological minds of the Church Fathers. Christians don't need to read Oden's Sytematic Theology. The writings of Wesley are largely inconsequential. When it comes down to it, all we need to know is the basics." Or so the argument goes. Evidently, theology is for the academics and has relevance for the ivory tower but not for the local church. So what are we budding theologians to do? Are we a dying breed? Is our art insignificant?

This issue has truly been one that I have spent countless hours ruminating upon. If the average Christian doesn't care about theology, what am I doing? Why am I spending hours upon hours of my life studying and researching this subject? A rather radical insight came upon me as I read the Credo of Thomas Oden's first volume of Systematic Theology. In it he states: "Christians have a right and a responsibility to know the meaning of their baptism. This is the purpose of Christian theology and of this study: to clarify the ancient ecumenical faith into which Christians of all times and places are baptized. It is expected of all who are baptized that they will understand what it means to believe in God the Father Almighty, in God the Son, and in God the Spirit (Gregory of Nyssa, The Great Catech., prologue, NPNF 2 VII, p. 474; Luther, Sermons on the Catech., ML, p. 208)."

Why do we study theology? It is the right and the responsibility of all Christians to understand the faith they adhere to. Understood this way, the teaching of Christian theology is not an option, it is necessary to the very definition of what it means to be a Christian. To be a Christian requires one to seek greater understanding about the entirety of their faith. It is not just a responsibility, but it should be celebrated as a beautiful right that we are able to even speak of these things concerning the Almighty God. We have been given a great gift in this right yet unfortunately many American Christians have forsaken this opportunity. Instead, they have chosen the route of "all I need to know is the basics." Here ought to be the shocker for the average American Christian: You don't know the basics. The basics are what is contained in a series such as Thomas Oden's "Systematic Theology." At least, that is what the basics has been for the majority of Church history. Catechumens were delivered fascinating lectures that followed the pattern of the Creed throughout the Lenten period leading up to Easter. Cyril's Catechetical Lectures are a fabulous expression of the depth and sincerety with which the Early Church undertook the task of theology. Augustine's lectures "On Faith and the Creed" are beyond the capacity of most laypersons.

What has created this vast chasm between the theological integrity of the Early Church and our current theologically bankrupt churches? Clearly there are great differences in the cultural influences. Modern society does seem, in a sense, "dumb downed" by the prevalence of television and video games (not that either are bad things but merely they have occupied our minds and intellectual stimulation has been pushed to the background). But it seems to me this regression has been occuring for much longer than simply the technological revolution. At some point, the Church forgot one of its primary responsibilities: to teach and preach theology in the context of the Church.

Perhaps you remain unconvinced. "So what. Just because the Early Church considered theology important doesn't mean we ought to." Considering the often myopic tendency of some evangelicals to completely reject any source of authority but the Bible, let me point you to a biblical example of this.

In the letter to the Hebrews, in chapter five the author begins one of his central arguments: Jesus is a priest of the order of Melchizedek. While he desires to discourse upon what this means and the ramifications for his audience, he first says the following. "We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil." (Hebrews 5:11-14)

The author wishes to teach the audience things they ought to be able to apprehend by this point in their Christian maturity. However, they have failed to mature and require the "elementary truths" again. He then continues with the following. "Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And God permitting, we will do so." (Hebrews 6:1-3)

May I be so rash as to propose the following: The majority of American Christians do not have a solid understanding of what the author of Hebrews considers to be "elementary truths." If this was something worthy of chastisement in the first century, it is even more worthy in our current age. We have literally had centuries upon centuries to mature in our theological understanding. Not only have many failed to do so, but many fail to care that we ought to be maturing!

This has put the developing Christian leaders in a precarious position. We see the need and the value of theological integrity but we are concerned that our congregations will refuse to press forward. It has also greatly weaked the impact of Christianity in America. I will boldly proclaim that the claims of hypocrisy leveled against the American Church, the lack of "authentic" Christians, and the negation of Christianity's efficacy are rooted in the devaluing of theology. We are not changed by what we proclaim because we don't truly apprehend what we proclaim. We preach false gospels of wealth, prosperity, and material blessings because we do not grasp the Kingdom ethics. We do not understand the depth of salvation because we are content with believing that all that happens when a person converts is that they are forgiven of their sins.

I used to think that what has consumed my life for the past three years may be irrelevant. I don't believe that anymore.

So what do you think?
Do you value theology?
Does your church value theology?

Let's hear what you have to say.

(Take a look at this newly posted related blog by Kevin Wright.)