Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Blessings and Pains of a Quiet Soul

As I'm now in the middle of finals week, I won't be posting a major piece this week. Instead, I've posted below a poem I wrote a few weeks ago, about some of the trials of being an extreme introvert in a culture that applauds boisterous extroversion. I wrote it in the midst of feeling emotionally spent after a few hours at a social event. It isn't always the case that long social engagements overwhelm me, but it happens often enough that I'm beginning to learn my boundaries and my need for seasons of silence. But even though it's tough at times to be an introvert, I certainly wouldn't trade it. I'm here at seminary in part because I believe that the church can benefit from learning the blessings of silence and reflection, and that leaders who are uncharismatic (in the sense that the world uses the term) can embody a powerful and surprising blessing to the people of God.

"Quiet Together"

I can laugh with you

Alone, in the beauty

Of a silent moment.

I can lift up my hands

And dance for joy

And fall down on my face

In the wonder of being yours.

But with others

I am slow to laugh

Slow to speak

And slow to show my heart.

Why do I feel a stranger here?

Why is my heart weary

Of being among those you love

And those I love as well?

Why do I long for silence and peace

When everyone else

Cries out for frenzied interaction?

I feel like a cripple, Lord,

Vainly struggling to raise myself

From the dusty earth

As my friends run past

In the frantic delight

Of being together.

Sometimes I wish I could rise

And join them,

And sometimes I wish

They would hurry on past

And simply allow me

To smile blessings on them

From the peace of my patient reserve.

Lord, I know your silence

More than I know your face.

Do you too feel full of peace

When the world is full of action?

Are you wearied by the frenzy of it all?

Fellowship is a gift from you,

But silence is a gift as well,

And one we too often throw away.

Are you like me at times, O Lord?

When you rested on the seventh day,

Was it truly resting?

When you withdrew on the mountain

To be alone and pray,

Was it your heart that forced you away?

Or are you like the others,

Who smile and laugh

And speak and act

Without a moment’s hesitation,

Without the pauses that keep me

Lingering far behind?

Do you sometimes wish our prayers

Would be less of frantic asking

And crying out,

And more of simply resting

And being with You?

I find comfort

In the lonely peace of Christ,

In a fellowship that needs nothing

Of echoed laughter

Or forced conversation,

But simply of being friends

And being quiet

Together.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Awestruck Musings: The Incarnation

As the Christian calendar turns over to a new year with the advent season, we turn our eyes and our hearts to one of the most wonderful mysteries of the faith—the Incarnation. Here we dance along the edge of the ineffable, and every attempt to put it into words falls short of capturing the fullness of this incredible truth. It seizes our imagination and leads us far beyond what we can even understand. To say that Jesus of Nazareth was both completely God and completely human is a beautiful paradox, perhaps even an absurdity which, upon close study and reflection, surprises and stuns us with its truth. Logic is not broad enough to contain or explain this mystery. And while that may be troubling to some, it is logic that has brought us, dancing with joy, to the edge of this very paradox. We have seen and understood the possibilities, and this is the only one that remains: Jesus Christ, a simple builder from the Galilean countryside, was and is God in the flesh. It was this same unshakable conviction that led the men and women with whom he walked as a friend, these fervent Jewish monotheists, to hail him as Lord and God.

What must it have been like for them to look back and be consumed with breathless wonder? This man Jesus, their friend and teacher, whom they laughed and joked with and even reprimanded, was the very God who had created all the spinning galaxies. They hadn’t understood it while they were with him. Only later, in the dawning awareness of what the resurrection meant, did they remember what Jesus himself had said. And only then did they know—they had seen and heard and touched the God of the universe.

I wonder, too, how Jesus himself came to be aware of this mystery. We focus so much on his divinity (and often rightly so, for it is the basis of our faith) that we tend to forget that he was also fully man. St. Luke tells us that he ‘grew in wisdom’. Surely his true identity wasn’t something that he could have known from childhood, not in its fullness. He clearly knew early on that he had a special connection with God that no one else had. But how did he come to know even this much? It seems hard to claim from the Gospels that Jesus was actively omniscient. He couldn’t be a real human child with that kind of knowledge and awareness. There must have been a process, an awakening, in which he slowly came to believe that he was indeed the active and only agent of God in the world. By the time of his ministry he began dropping tantalizing hints that he actually believed himself to be the incarnation and representation of God. N.T. Wright describes this process as Jesus coming to believe that the work set before him was the work that only God himself could do. Perhaps the events of his baptism awoke him to a fuller understanding of his identity and mission—we just don’t know. But to assert that Jesus always had a cool and calm assurance of his own divinity and eternal pre-existence is to take only a partial glance at the rich and beautiful portrait in the Gospels. Here we see Jesus weary at times, frustrated at times, often in prayer and silence, agonizing in the garden and longing that his friends would be strong enough to support him in that hour. It seems that he knew that he was God, or at the very least that he was the exclusive, divine representative of God in the world, but that this knowledge was reached through prayer and struggle and action, a dawning conviction that he was bringing to culmination in himself all the promises and actions of God throughout history.

We don’t know how far his knowledge extended during that time. He had wisdom and spiritual perception beyond any other man precisely because he was God, but he also emptied himself of his divine prerogatives in taking the form of a man. His knowledge wasn’t limitless, as he himself admitted—there were some things, like the timing of the Last Days, that the Father knew, but he didn’t. And yet he still had a deep awareness of his calling and identity as the voice of God among men.

What would it have been like for Jesus to hear the Old Testament prophecies as a young man and to realize with terrible wonder that they were speaking about him? What would it be like to grow in the knowledge that the Creator God was his Father in a way that no one else had ever experienced? I wonder if he remembered anything from before his birth in Bethlehem. Did he ever come to remember being there at creation, of being the agent of the Father’s spoken word and birthing the universe with his power? Did he remember guiding a nation of slaves through the wilderness in a pillar of fire? Did he hear the words of the histories of Israel and in his mind recall tearing apart the walls of Jericho and pouring out fire on Elijah’s altar? Did he hear about the glory of God filling the Temple and realize that that glory, that Shekinah, was the radiance of his own soul?

In the end, all our attempts to psychoanalyze Jesus fall short. It’s good to remind ourselves of these questions at times, to remember that the doctrine of Incarnation declares him to be a human being, not a mystical superhero. What we do know is what the earliest affirmations of the faith tell us, the message that John wrote of his old friend and traveling companion: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” God himself became an ordinary man, and the Omnipresent became radically present to us. The All-knowing became knowable. God’s love is so boundless that he bridged the gap between us of his own accord, becoming like us so that we can become like him. This astonishing message, this endless and ever-refreshing epiphany, is the heart of Christmas.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Part VII: Why I Need Monasticism

Now to many, the idea of neo-monasticism which I’ve set forth might sound more than a little odd. The reason for this, besides a general reticence to try something so innovative (and, at the same time, so archaic), is that not everyone is cut out for monastic living. Though I think we’re often too comfortable in our American Christianity, for some people monasticism might bring an unhealthy level of discomfort to their spiritual lives. It’s not wise to try to revolutionize a deeply-ingrained culture of individualism in leaps and bounds. Or it might be the case that some Christians are more effective in their discipline and witness under current models of the church than they would be in a monastic community.

I would certainly like to suggest that neo-monasticism could be a spiritually healthy and powerful new way of doing church for most Western Christians, and it’s heartening to have heavyweight Christian thinkers like John Stott and Stanley Hauerwas backing me up in that assertion. But beyond any hopes of transforming the Western church, the real reason that drives my desire for neo-monasticism is that I need it. I said in one of my first posts on this subject that to join a neo-monastic community would in itself be a confession of weakness. And in my case, that would be wholly true.

I’m not very good at being consistent in the classic disciplines of the spiritual life. The power of a focused Christian community would help make up what I lack in accountability and drive. To have a communal schedule for entering the disciplines of prayer, worship, and study would be a powerful motivator. It would no longer rest solely on my own anemic self-discipline to pursue moments of intimate connection with God.

It’s too easy for me to get sucked away into temptations and sinful patterns of living, and the structure of the church as it is now, compounded with my own pride, keeps me from living out any genuine and consistent confessional repentance. I need a Christian community that allows for, expects, and encourages open and honest confession, as well as a community that rigorously and compassionately holds me accountable. Small groups are a step in the right direction for most churches, but even these fail to bring me to the heart of the matter. They often don’t address directly the deep brokenness and sin I bear in my heart. In most cases, the confessional accountability I have in mind would be out-of-place and uncomfortable in a small group setting, and the only place suitable would be a one-on-one friendship with a spiritual counselor. Unfortunately, in American churches we leave the prerogative for arranging such a relationship with the individual himself, and actively entering into such a relationship is so foreign and terrifying to my personality that I wouldn’t do it unless it’s forced on me. A monastic community would do just that—force me into one-on-one relationships with mentors who will expect me to be a broken and sinful man, and to walk with me in rearranging my actions and my heart. Denver Seminary does have a program which forces me into mentoring relationships, and though I have high hopes for the program, I get the sense that it’s often more of a practical mentoring, focusing on building up ministry skills and personal devotional habits, but not necessarily an open venue for heartfelt confession and spiritual direction. And unless my mentor directly guides me down that path of confession, I doubt I’ll have the courage to breach that level of relationship on my own initiative. I wish I did have that courage, though, and perhaps God in his mercy will provide me with it.

Further, I find myself largely unable to escape cultural influences that shape the use of my time. For many people, our culture generates a hectic and frenzied productivity in the chase to do and accomplish more. For me, though, I often find that the culture of individualism, consumerism, and constant entertainment makes me lazy and a poor steward of my time. Now everyone, including me, needs some ‘down time’ in the day, but given the choice, I often take far too much and spend it all on rather frivolous and unenlightening activities. I’m sure a lot of people consider me to be a fairly productive individual, especially when it comes to writing, but in all honesty, if I were to be even remotely conscientious in the use of my time, I could at least double that productivity. The schedule of a monastic community, which would regulate access to entertainment and hold members somewhat accountable for the use of their time, would be an incredible boon to me.

Though I’m passionate about evangelism and outreach, I’m miserable at it. I love to pray and speak about it, but I don’t very much like to do it. A large part of that is the natural tendency of my personality, and so I must continue to seek out ways to minister within the gifts and abilities God has given me. But my apathy and cowardice play a large part, too, and I’ve found from experience that when I have a community that consistently fosters a missionary mindset, I become a much better missionary. My fears, though still present and immense, are not nearly as crippling as they would normally be. I actually come to enjoy outreach. This power, for me at least, comes from the motivating influence of a community that has set its heart on reaching others for the sake of the Gospel. Moreover, a communal focus on evangelism allows us to work together, harnessing one another’s gifts and talents, so that the whole dreadful onus of being an outreaching witness doesn’t rest wholly on my shoulders alone, but on our shoulders together. As someone who both loves and fears outreach, that’s a blessing beyond measure.

Some of the richest times in my spiritual life have come in times of close, accountable community. This was especially true with my work in Angola this past year, in which we missionaries really did live as something of a neo-monastic community. For most of the time, there were just four of us there in Menongue—two Papua New Guineans, a South African, and me, living in voluntary poverty of a rather extreme nature. We shared devotions and prayers every day. We had our meals together. We worked together in building a mission house. We planned and carried out ministry trips together. We kept one another accountable for where we were and what we were doing every day. We were honest and loving enough to confront one another. We joined together to do outreach by harnessing our individual gifts in a concentrated, communal effort to run a discipleship course. It wasn’t always smooth sailing for us as a group, but I wouldn’t trade those times in Angola for anything.

This stark assessment of my own failings probably isn’t the best motive for advocating a new way of doing church, but at least it’s an honest one. Perhaps, though, it’s good for me in a way to learn some self-discipline on my own first. It’s not an easy battle, but I’m learning, and, by the grace of God, slowly getting better. In any case, I know that I for one would benefit greatly from deep, accountable Christian community, and I believe that it’s a model of the church that has great potential for our culture. I don’t know if I’ll ever really get the opportunity to be a part of an authentic neo-monastic community, but if I do, I’ll probably jump at the chance.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Ode to a Brave New World

I still have one final installment of my neo-monastic discourse to post, and that should be up sometime later this week. But for now, here, as promised, is a poem that actually employs a clumsy sort of rhyme. It's a little different from any other poem I've ever done, but I was pleased with how it turned out. It was somewhat inspired by reading Wendy Shalit's A Return to Modesty, a common-sense critique of the current extremes of the sexual revolution in American culture.


The world is dark and gray and cold,
And I am backward and I am old.
The sun has set, it seems to me;
The bleak dusk mutes our misery
Against the twilight of our souls.

We are wasted, we are gone,
We are lost amid the throng.
We sigh with weariness and care
For the freedoms we now bear,
The delights we sought so long.

Daring we! who tore the veil,
Who noble ways of old assail;
We loosed the joy of liberty
With unrestrained ferocity
And opened paradise’s vale.

No more need and no more fear,
No more shame will be felt here.
Morality is of the past;
We are free and we will last
Beyond the universe’s years.

Virtue judged repressively
And vice is much more fun, you see.
Just glance around the painted smiles,
The joy of all our fads and styles,
This carnival of ecstasy.

We need no shame, we laugh and taunt
Our fathers, now that they are gone,
And we congratulate ourselves
On all our happiness and wealth,
For all our rights which once were wrong.

Who needs beauty? Who needs truth?
We are contentedly aloof.
A little lust, a little lie,
And we can surely get on by,
Secure in undeclining youth.

Honor was a pleasant thought,
By fanciful delusions wrought,
But no one’s evil and no one good;
We are all misunderstood,
And scarred from wars our fathers fought.

The world is filled with happiness
From our intrepid selfishness.
We’re free to laugh and sing aloud,
To hide our heartache from the crowd,
To revel in our aimlessness.

But now I wonder oftentimes
Why birds still sing and words still rhyme.
Beauty hasn’t fled away,
And sunsets crown each passing day;
This world is breathlessly alive.

Unfettered lust is fun, it’s true,
But romance can be wild too.
Perhaps honor isn’t meaningless,
Perhaps there’s mystery in a kiss,
A wonder too intense to lose.

Lust will wither, pride will fade;
These visions vanish from my gaze.
Pale they danced before my eyes
In lilting steps and tempting guise,
But now they end their loathsome days.

I dream again, and what a dream!
A dream that silences the screams.
A new world dawns with brilliant hue,
A world that beckons me and you,
Where virtue recklessly redeems.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Part VI: Becoming Celtic Franciscan Moravian Jesuits

In a brilliant display of procrastination from my seminary homework, I’m presenting you with yet another neo-monastic discourse. Now we move from some of the cultural connections of evangelical neo-monasticism to discuss its practical application and historical precedents.

One questions demands our attention above all else: Is this sort of Christian community possible in this day and age? The answer is, of course, yes. Neo-monastic communities are already popping up all over North America. The real difficulty comes in considering the makeup of these communities. I’ve said several times that it would be good if neo-monastic villages could embrace a wide range of ages (and, if possible, subcultures and ethnicities), but most of the emerging communities are largely being formed by young adults, usually no older than their late 20s. But, practically speaking, I think that’s how it would have to start. While it shouldn’t be a great surprise if Christians of other age groups decide to join once the community is up and running, the fact is that young adults have the greatest flexibility and independence of any group. Many are just coming out of college and haven’t put down permanent roots in a particular place. They also tend to be somewhat poorer, again because of college (and to that I can attest from personal experience). These factors make it easier for them to commit to a communal lifestyle of voluntary poverty. Older age groups, however, already have houses and properties of their own, and so the sacrifice would be greater for them. If the movement is to start from the grassroots of American evangelicalism, it would probably have to be the young adults that start it.

We need now to turn our attention to historical precedents. The very first comes in Acts 2, in the initial form of the early church: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer….All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (vv. 42, 44-47).

A number of things need to be noted in conjunction with this. First, there is no evidence that any of the other New Testament churches operated on such a communitarian basis. In fact, there is no evidence that even the Jerusalem church continued in this pattern (but, on the other hand, there’s no evidence that they didn’t). Second, none of the regulations given for church organization in the pastoral epistles require this sort of organization. The point is that the New Testament allows for an incredible breadth of expression when it comes to ecclesiastical organization and leadership. We should not remain in the rut of thinking that the current paradigm of pastor/deacon board/church body is the biblical model. In fact, the evidence would suggest that ultimate leadership is more properly held by a group of elders rather than by a single pastor. My contention, however, is that since the NT allows such fluidity in organizing the church, and since the first model of the church (a communitarian one) seemed to work pretty well for them, why not give it another shot? My argument for neo-monasticism comes down to this: it’s not the only way, and quite possibly not the best way, but it’s a way that deserves to be tried.

Now that I’ve rushed through the relevant Scriptural connections much too quickly, let’s get on to the really exciting stuff: church history. Though there are numerous groups throughout history that have exemplified in one way or another the model I’m attempting to resurrect, I’ll only highlight four here: early Celtic missional monasticism, especially the form used by Columbanus; the Franciscan and Dominican movements; the Jesuits; and Zinzendorf’s Moravians. All four of these groups share some combination of a communal lifestyle, a devotional emphasis, and a missional passion.

In the latter years of the sixth century, as the western Roman Empire continued to become more and more of a memory, the territories of Frankish Gaul, originally evangelized by intrepid missionaries such as Martin of Tours, Samson, and Aredius, fell into a spiritual languor. The ruling warrior aristocracies were largely rural-based, and felt no deep connection to the urban Christianity of the old Roman provincial cities. The spark that re-lit the evangelization of Gaul came from an odd source—not Rome or Constantinople, but Ireland. During that period the Irish church was flourishing and sending out missionaries all through England and Scotland. One of these missionaries, Columbanus, crossed the English channel and began planting monasteries in northern Gaul. Columbanian monasticism appealed to the rural culture of the Frankish patrimonies in a way that other forms hadn’t. The monasteries became missionary bases, at which new monks could be trained and sent out, and they in turn would found monasteries in unevangelized territories. Within Columbanus’ lifetime this explosive spread of Celtic monastic Christianity brought him all the way across Gaul and into northern Italy. The dynamics of early Frankish Christianity are too complex to be explored here, but I’ve chosen this example to show that even in its earliest forms, monasticism did not preclude missionary outreach. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that monasticism was the vehicle that brought Western Europe to Christ.

Our second example is more familiar—many have, at one time or another, run across the delightfully enigmatic St. Francis of Assisi, who is well known for a number of things, including stripping down before a bishop, chatting with birds, fish, and wolves, and joining a crusade in order to preach to a Muslim sultan. St. Francis appeared on the scene in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, but even before his advent monasticism had sparked an incredible revival of devotional fervor across Europe. The monastery at Cluny had been at the forefront of this movement, bearing in its wake such spiritual giants as Bernard of Clairvaux. Then came Francis and the mendicant orders. The Franciscans were troubadours for God, going out into the streets to find men where they were and to preach the gospel. Their fellow friars, the Dominicans, were also a preaching order, and together these two groups of Christians captured the imagination of the European church. Francis in particular had a passionate desire to minister to Muslims, trying several times to go to Morocco before finally finding a way to visit Egypt instead. One Franciscan, Raymond Lull, is now remembered as perhaps the greatest missionary of his age to the Muslims.

In the turbulent years of the Protestant Reformation and Counter-Reformation of the sixteenth century, yet another order arose in the Catholic Church—the Jesuits. The Jesuits were inspired by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the author of the Spiritual Exercises, and it was their outreaching (and sometimes hostile) action that reenergized Catholic Christianity and stalled the geographic progress of the Protestant Reformation. Jesuit missionaries flooded Europe, but they didn’t stop there. Hundreds of years before Protestants even began thinking about missions in the global sense, Jesuits were carrying the gospel and the Catholic Church all over the world—in eastern Europe, Africa, India, the East Indies, China, Japan, as well as in North and South America, in conjunction with French and Spanish colonialism. One of the greatest missionary heroes of all time, St. Francis Xavier, from the founding circle of sixteenth-century Jesuits, pioneered missions in India and China before dying in a final push to reach Japan. The Jesuits' passion for missions was unmatched until the Protestant surge three hundred years later.

The final example, and perhaps the best, comes from a Protestant group popularly known as the Moravians—Protestant refugees who had fled from persecutions in Bohemia and Moravia in the early eighteenth century and settled on the property of a nobleman named Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf. Zinzendorf, a man with Pietist leanings, organized these refugees into a village called Herrnhut, and he became the bishop of their church. But this little village of Protestant refugees would soon shake the world. They began a daily round of prayer in which there would always be someone in the community at prayer, no matter what hour of the day. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, they prayed. Popular tradition has it that this prayer cycle went on unbroken for a full century. Zinzendorf soon caught a vision for global missions, and members of the Herrnhut Moravian community began going out to serve the Lord overseas, something almost unheard of in Protestant circles at the time. Moravian missionaries showed an admirable zeal for the work, some even going so far as to sell themselves into slavery in order to preach the gospel to slaves in the West Indies. Later the Moravians’ piety would be a major influence in the spiritual journey of John Wesley, one of the key evangelists of the Great Awakening.

These are just a few examples, but they illustrate the neo-monastic vision well. There can be a wild and beautiful power in intentional Christian community, a power that we have largely lost here in American evangelicalism. In a generation where more young people are going more often around the world but at the same time speaking less about Jesus, neo-monasticism could be the spark for a new evangelistic missions movement. It’s worth a try.

Friday, November 03, 2006

The Mirth of Heaven

Here's another poem. For some reason I've been feeling poetic lately. Maybe one of these days I'll post one that actually rhymes.

Sometimes

When no one else is around

I feel laughter welling up inside

Like a fountain of crystal joy

It spills over in a clarion shout

And I rush to the window

And embrace the brilliant sky

Where the bright sun shines

In a field of azure joy

Where wild falcons

Wing their way

Into the blue horizon

And my spirit flies ahead

To meet them there

My feet begin to move

To rhythms all their own

The primal pounding

Of some ancient dance

Of pure delight

The mirth of heaven overtakes me

And for just one moment

I dance with all the angels

And the saints

Caught up in the splendor

Of the God we all adore

Here I taste the exuberance

Of the incomparable Christ

Here I discover again

The wild, secret joys

Of this beautiful adventure

Of life

Monday, October 30, 2006

Part V: Against a Tangible Superficiality

In our present-day American culture, we’ve lost a great deal of the robust and life-giving fellowship that forms the core of church life. For many Christians nowadays, fellowship is what you do in the foyer of the church immediately before or after the Sunday service. It wasn’t always this way, even in individualistic America. Only two generations ago, houses were being built with big front porches and it was expected that community members would visit one another. But that cultural heritage is fading quickly, as we discover that it’s easier to keep company with our televisions than to go out of our way to make connections with our neighbors.

A neo-monastic community would be able to recapture some of that lost sense of fellowship. There would be the opportunity not only to share the informal camaraderie of life together, but to join in worship as a daily event. Wouldn’t it be great if Christians began to find themselves in a place where seeking the Lord, rather than entertainment, was the first priority for ‘down time’. In many places around the world there persists a myth that ministry is merely what pastors do. But it just isn’t so. Ministry is the work of the whole congregation. A less widespread notion (but still prevalent) is that there are 'Christian' things to do—like going to church or prayer meeting—and 'ordinary' things, like cooking a meal or watching TV. This is also a lie. Christianity is 24-7. It’s about identity before it’s about action. Christianity is the absolute center, the focal point of life, and everything we do flows out from it.

Having a regular, daily cycle of worship can serve to remind us of this. Further, it opens the door for God to do incredible things in our midst. We serve a God great enough to shake all the nations through our prayers and actions, and it is in committing ourselves daily and corporately to that end that we enter into the reality of that amazing possibility.

Another benefit of the life of fellowship is the opportunity for genuine, heart-level confession and accountability. How many of us regularly practice the apostolic command of James to confess our sins to one another? I know I don’t do it often enough. In practice I tend to assume that if I confess to God (1 Jn. 1:9), that’s good enough. It’s also a whole lot more comfortable for me, because God already knows what a hypocrite I am. He’s probably come to expect it by now. I can still fool others, though, so I walk around with a happy fa├žade of spiritual togetherness.

While such comments have a facetious edge, they are unfortunately all too true. And I don’t think I’m alone. Though church should be the safest place in the world to share our failings and hurts, it has become for almost all of us a stage on which to play out our joyful acting for the benefit of all the holy people around us. And none of us pause long enough to consider that everyone else in church is playing the same game we are, and we never get to the heart of the matter. We never actually know each other. We’re often so neurotically afraid of conflict and tension that we gloss over the difficult and unsightly things, desperately trying to manufacture ‘the peace that passes all understanding’ from our own flighty happiness. There is a tangible superficiality among many groups of American Christians. It isn’t true of all groups, but in my experience the majority, including myself, fall more often than not into this category.

It is a difficult thing to confess, to bare one’s soul to another person. One of the most amazing things I witnessed in the Sudanese churches was that in each Sunday service a time was set aside for people to come forward and confess their sins before the Body. And, to my continual astonishment, people always came up, often in tears, and confessed aloud sexual sins, hatred, unforgiveness, and all other kinds of wrongdoing. I wondered what would happen if the pastor gave time in a Sunday church service where I come from for people to confess their sins. My guess would be that there would be a long, uncomfortable silence. Maybe one or two brave souls would confess, and though we would all respect them for it, most of us wouldn’t dare to join them.

A neo-monastic community could provide the networks of relationships to allow confession in a safe and mutually supporting environment. One of the classic designs of monasticism, especially in its Celtic and Benedictine forms, was to have mature believers assigned as spiritual guides and counselors to every member of the community. Such a relationship provides a free place to speak and to be understood, and it is expected and acknowledged that everyone comes with sinful baggage. The counselor would provide guidance, wisdom, and practical accountability, and every counselor would in turn be accountable to another member for his or her own sins. Hopefully the community would also allow for public confessions during corporate worship, and from time to time a counselor might recommend that the mentoree confess in that venue. The counselors would also have some authority to prescribe methods of coming out of sin, plans of action, and perhaps even symbolic penitential acts to draw the mentoree away from a sinful lifestyle. There would be an expectation that specific sins are something that we can be freed from.

But sometimes our shallowness and superficiality extends even beyond the matter of sin. There are uncounted thousands of believers in American churches who are starving to death emotionally, constantly struggling with depression and loneliness. Brothers and sisters, it need not be this way! How many millions of dollars do Christians pay out to the psychiatry industry every year? I’m not saying that Christians shouldn’t see psychiatrists, but I am saying that we as believers could be doing so much more to utilize the gifts in our midst to reach out to the hurting ones among us. There is no good reason why any Christian should have to suffer from perpetual loneliness. We, as a church, are simply not doing a good enough job when it comes to authentic fellowship.

The level of confessional honesty required in a neo-monastic system, though, would be difficult for most Americans. However, I believe that its merits far outweigh the difficulties and discomfort of the system. We can’t expect the Christian life to be a comfortable thing all the time, and we have to learn to acknowledge that we are broken, sinful people, and stop painting the church in bright and beautiful colors. The American church is riddled with countless cancers of private sin because we are too afraid to tell anyone else that we aren’t perfect. Or if we do acknowledge weakness, we usually try to make sure it’s a fairly ‘small’ sin, like feeling slightly bitter against someone. Or if we do choose to speak openly about a ‘big’ sin, it tends to be one that no one really considers big, like gluttony, selfishness, or pride (because they’re tragically so common).

I believe we need to come to a place as Christians where we can speak honestly and openly about the sins that plague us—about gluttony, materialism, pornography, sexual infidelity, entertainment addiction, and so on. The list could go on for pages, and though we don’t see these things on the surface, they are everywhere in the church, including the clergy. We need to be able to speak openly about these things, to expect to find sin in the lives of our fellow believers and ourselves, and to have a system through which we can deal with that sin and work towards healing and holiness. The fellowship of a neo-monastic community could provide one paradigm for a solution.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Even the Wind Obeys Him

Greetings, all. This is another poetical hiatus from my neo-monastic pieces (though I do plan to add another in that series this weekend). Recently I've entered into an informal sort of debate/dialogue with one of my professors here, a senior faculty member who has taught theology and spiritual formation for many years. I respect him greatly, but we differ on our perspectives regarding the proper response to the global advance of Islam.
The tendency in many evangelical circles is to view radical Muslims as the enemy, and often this degenerates into a paranoid sort of worry that Islam will soon take over Western Europe, and eventually America itself. Many Christians fear that radical Muslims are at the heart of a conspiracy to turn the world into a global caliphate under sharia law. This sort of idle worry troubles me. Though I admit that radical Islam is an obstacle to the work of the church, Muslims are not our enemies. The church has no enemies but sin and Satan. I yearn for the day when we hear more about how to show love to Muslims than about how they're such a threat to us. This poem, called "Even the Wind Obeys Him," addresses that sense of worry and helplessness as we observe the growing influence of the Islamic faith.
(Charles Martel, referenced in lines 3 and 4, was the grandfather of Charlemagne who in 732 won the Battle of Tours, effectively halting the expansion of Muslim forces from Spain into Western Europe).


Towers smoke in the distance
And slowly, slowly
The feat of Charles Martel,
The Hammer of the West,
Is undone.
They come, unstoppable now,
With quiet words
And prayers
And violent mobs
With guns and bombs.
The shadow of the minaret
Falls upon the West,
The Christian West,
Upon America itself,
The bright city on a hill.
In churches we gather,
Bewildered and afraid,
And speak of the rage of nations
And the clash of civilizations.
Our words have not stopped
This wild, violent mob,
Nor have our prayers
Or our songs
Or our armor-plated tanks.
We tremble and cry aloud
As the Last Day dawns for us,
The fall of everything we treasure
To the sword of the Arab Prophet.
Vainly we fight against the storm,
Vainly we hope to survive.
We cry aloud to the God of our hope,
And wonder why he sleeps,
Why he allows us to tread
So near the brink
Of utter decimation.

And the Savior wakes
To the frantic cries of his friends,
His chosen followers.
The sea rages around them,
Tossing them on waves of terror,
Driven by winds so fierce
That hope itself
Has been blown away.
All that remains
Is the stubborn inclination
To fight, to beat at the water
With a lashing oar,
To conquer the tempest
With the strength of their arms.
And then he rises among them,
The Desire of all Nations,
His eyes ablaze with furious peace,
And they all fall silent.
He stretches out his hands
And speaks one breath to the sea,
And the chaos of the deep obeys him.
The waves are calmed,
The violence ended,
As he stills the world
With a single word.
Turning then, he regards his friends
And softly shakes his head.
“Where is your faith?”

Monday, October 23, 2006

Part IV: Living Generously

Okay, back to monasticism. The point of cultural contact discussed here, which could be called simplicity, is fairly straightforward, but I believe that it’s one of most important benefits that neo-monasticism can bring to American Christianity.

From the genesis of the very first Christian monastic movements, a renouncement of all worldly wealth was central. Poverty was one of the three basic vows which all monks took upon entering the monastic life. This voluntary surrender of wealth is not necessary for a healthy Christian life, but it is certainly helpful. Of all the things that now threaten Western Christianity, materialism probably tops the list. It is our narcotic against the normal, healthy pains of life.

I’m not trying to idealize poverty as spiritually meritorious, nor am I saying that wealth is a sin. The point here is that within wealth and materialism lie the dangerous barbs of a spiritual trap that can blind us to the fullness of Christian life. It is simply too easy to run away from the convicting voice of God, surround ourselves with new comforts and luxuries, and let the world pass us by.

Voluntary poverty has no spiritual merit in and of itself, but it is helpful to the spiritual life. It takes our eyes and hearts off of the ‘stuff’ that surrounds us, and sets our treasure in heaven. Unattached to material things, we are free to focus on the work of God in our lives and in the world. We in America have become a culture of consumers, but the church must learn how to be a culture of radical givers.

My main objection to wealth, though, is not merely that it softens us to temptation and dulls our spiritual senses. Rather, the global economic inequity we see in comparing America and Western Europe to the rest of the world is horrifying. Many Americans are incredibly charitable and give a great deal to development projects across the world. But it obviously isn’t enough, because the inequities continue to loom larger than ever. I am convinced that nothing will do more to promote peace in the world than to raise the standard of living in the Two-Thirds World. It is largely (though not completely) from the economically disenfranchised that most militant movements, regardless of faith, draw their followers. And even beyond mere political incentives, the Bible is replete with commands to give to the poor and the outcast. It is an integral part of Christian discipleship.

C.S. Lewis, in his classic Mere Christianity, advises us concerning wealth and giving: “I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small.”

Lewis is right on the mark. The great benefit of voluntary poverty is that the church will have so much more to give away. In the new monasticism as I envision it, poverty wouldn’t be primarily for our own spiritual nurture, it would be for enabling us to live generously. If all American Christians, even for just one year, decided to live in voluntary poverty and give away all excess resources, we could change the world so resoundingly that it would shift the very course of history and bless every nation on earth. In my opinion, that’s something worth shooting for, and I’m more than willing to give up my excess comforts toward that end. As Rick Warren notes, “It’s not a sin to be rich. But it is a sin to die rich.” God endows us with blessings so that we can bless others, and the American church, while not totally complacent in this area, could be doing so much more. Our economic vitality is an incredible window of potential blessing and witness to the world, and neo-monastic poverty could help us harness and direct that blessing for the good of the nations.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Sacrament of the First Snowfall

For those of you who aren't as wild about monasticism as I am, here's a little poetic intermission from my monastic treatises. Today we had our first snowfall of the season in Littleton, and I had forgotten how much I missed it. So, delighted fool that I am, I went out for a long walk on the trails behind the seminary. Here's a poem I wrote about it:

I wander wearily out of class today

And am greeted by gentle joy

That floats down, soft and white,

From the heavens.

I cannot stay too long

In the warmth of my apartment;

The wildness of the day calls me out

To embrace it,

To laugh in the wonder of its beauty.

I don my red hooded sweatshirt

And venture out into the cold.

My nose and cheeks begin to numb

Almost instantly,

But I stop and fill my exultant lungs.

I love the biting freshness of the air

And the gentle fury of the snow.

I am the only one on the trails today,

So I wander alone,

Hands tucked in my sweatshirt pouch,

Like a vermillion monk from a bygone age.

An otherworldly mist hangs over the pond

And over the rushing creek,

Swirling in the chill breezes

Where the water meets the wind.

Four geese fly overhead in formation,

Then break off, two to the east and two to the west,

Opening the curtain of the world’s stage before me.

The stolid heron regards me strangely

As I greet him at the water’s edge,

His long neck pulled back

Against the warmth of his breast.

But he wants no visitors today,

So I wander on, into the little wooded strip

That graces the banks of the stream.

And there I pause,

And watch as the busy, raucous world

Is blanketed in the quiet peace

Of the winter’s first snow.

There is laughter in each snowflake,

A silent delight in the turning of the days,

As God welcomes me home again.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Part III: Mutually Empowered Evangelism

This post will represent my greatest passion for neo-monasticism, and at the same time will make a stand against the greatest misrepresentation of the system. Perhaps the most resounding criticism of traditional monasticism is that it generally does not allow Christians to be ‘salt and light’ in the world in a very effective way. Traditional forms of monasticism have often been separatist and isolationist. But those forms are not the model for neo-monasticism. Rather, neo-monasticism will exist to make the Christian presence and witness in the world more effective.

These observations won’t be true for all American Christians, but they are certainly true for me. In general, though, I’ve found that most evangelical Christians (myself included) aren’t doing a fantastic job when it comes to evangelism of any kind. As the church, one of our greatest duties, privileges, and joys is to reach out to those around us with the love of Christ. But, cumbered by fears of offending others, we seldom if ever speak the message that is closest to our hearts. For my part, as an introvert, the idea of evangelism in the traditional Western form of door-to-door witnessing frightens me more than almost anything else in the world. I’ve witnessed to strangers before, in moments when I felt the Lord was calling me to that witness, but those were some of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and I’ve run away from that call far more times than I’ve obeyed it.

First of all, I should make clear that I believe evangelism to be of preeminent importance to all Christians in their contacts with the world. Many Christians nowadays either don’t believe that or choose not to think about it. We’ve stopped preaching the truth about eternal destiny, and so it becomes easy to forget that many of those we meet are moving swiftly on their way to hell. If we could experience just one glimpse, just one taste of how much the Lord loves these people, we would sell away our lives and journey to the ends of the earth if only to have a single chance to tell them about Christ.

That said, I don’t think all evangelism has to be done by the traditional forms of witnessing to strangers. If some Christians are gifted for that ministry, they should do it with all their hearts. For those Christians who aren’t gifted in that way, it would still be a valuable spiritual discipline to undertake from time to time, and we should always be openly and actively watching for the possibility. However, the most effective evangelism will harness the individual’s specific spiritual gifts, and not all of us are gifted for evangelism in the traditional sense. This is why I think the most effective Christian witness is a witnessing church. As John Stott said in a recent Christianity Today article, “I believe that evangelism is specially through the local church, through the community, rather than through the individual. That the church should be an alternative society, a visible sign of the kingdom. And the tragedy is that our local churches often don’t seem to manifest community.”

The local body of believers should be arranged so that we can work together in the task of evangelism. In a neo-monastic community, the members would plan out ways to employ their gifts to that end. They would set up public seminars where those gifted to teach could teach. They would serve public meals in which those gifted with hospitality could minister their outreach. They would encourage and uphold those gifted specifically for evangelism, helping to foster relationships with the outside world.

The neo-monastic community would not be a closed system intended to keep the world out. Some areas of life might be regulated by the community, but members would be encouraged to continue their jobs and relationships outside the community. Children, upon the discretion of their parents, would be encouraged to go to public schools. The life of the community itself would be geared towards renewing and recharging the members daily for their mission in the world. Outreach would be constantly set forward as the goal of the community, making it an unforgettable part of daily life.

I know that for me, witness is much easier when it is constantly emphasized and encouraged by those around me. It is far easier for me to live a bold and consistent outward witness on the mission field in Africa than it is for me here at home. Why is that? I’m the same person in both places. The difference is merely one of mindset. On the mission field, I know I’m a missionary. Witness is what I’m there for, so that’s what I do, and the other members of the mission team remind me of that and encourage me in it. So that’s what I think we need to do here in America. We need to develop a communal system of mutual support and encouragement that will help us build conscious identities as missionaries. And then I think we’ll find to our surprise that witness and evangelism are much easier than we supposed them to be. More than that, outreach will become our constant aim and our highest joy. There is no greater delight in the world than being used as an active witness for the sake of Christ.

The missional neo-monastic community would also seek to model the consistent love of Christ to a watching world. It’s been said that the best gift a father can give to his children is to love their mother well. I would say the same of the church—the best gift that we can give to a watching world is to love one another well. The best witness of all is the love of the church, a redeemed community that, despite all its struggles and differences, works to live together in harmony for the good of all people. As the old song says, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” That is a picture of the church that is rarely seen in our culture, and I think it’s one we need to pursue. We settle too often for so much less than we could be as the Body of Christ, and that is one of the great tragedies of every church in every age.

Finally, this focus on evangelism as a part of every believer’s life would also help to correct another unconscious error of contemporary Christianity—that ‘ministry’ is just what pastors do. This is a dangerous misconception. Ministry is what every Christian does. Ministry is a word that should characterize every aspect of our relational lives. The pastor is a specially-appointed servant of the Body of Christ, a leader and guide for a community of ministers. All believers must be engaged in the tasks of ministry, using their gifts to the glory of God and the good of those around them. If we close ourselves off from this incredible mandate, we are missing out on the greatest adventure of all. Ministry and outreach might frighten us from time to time, as they certainly do me, but in the end I wouldn’t trade the privilege of ministry for anything else in the world. In the words of Paul Tournier, “If something isn’t fearful, it probably isn’t worth doing.” Ministry is fearful, but there is almost nothing else worth doing more than this.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Part II: The Family of God

One of the benefits of a neo-monastic system of organizing groups of local Christians would be the contrast it formed with the Western culture of radical individualism. As Americans, the primary lens through which we view our identity is that of the individual. If we were asked to describe ourselves, we would all probably begin by talking about our occupations, our personal preferences, and so on. Even if we spoke about our participation in church, it would probably come out as individually-focused—this is the church I attend, and this is what I like about it…

But the biblical picture, coming from a very different cultural perspective, insists that the basis of our identity does not rest in ourselves, but in Christ and in the church. The biblical view of life is as much communal as it is individual, and here in America we have largely missed out on the communal aspects of Christianity.

I should qualify the issue, though, by saying that individualistic Christianity isn’t all bad. It’s an authentic shape of the faith, contextualized to the culture around us. Because the surrounding culture is individualistic, people will probably feel more comfortable (at least at first) in an individualistic church-setting than in a communal one. And in some measure, the New Testament does take the almost wholly communal view of the Old Testament (focused on the entire people of God) and move it in a much more individualistic direction.

My argument, though, is that by ignoring the communal aspects of the biblical view of life, we are missing out on some of the richest depths of the Christian experience. Even our view of Scripture becomes skewed. Letters that were written for a communal audience are taken and applied almost solely to individual circumstances. We begin to view church as something that we attend, not as something we belong to, body and soul. Church becomes more of a social club and less of a family.

Though much of the evangelical Christian community recognizes and works against these cultural influences, we have not carried it far enough. Many Christian groups do emphasize a communal basis to the Christian life—that of the nuclear family. The ideal type of the family is presented as the lifelong husband-and-wife partnership and the children they raise. Whether or not this represents the ideal base unit of family, it is not the base unit of communal living as presented in the Bible. Rather, the New Testament continually presents the church as the communal basis for Christian life. There are a few references to family relationships sprinkled here and there in the apostolic letters, but the larger focus of the Scriptures is unceasingly on the communal life of the church. In fact, the traditional family-type in the ancient world—the ‘household’—would have been much more flexible than our present ideal, since it included extended family, servants (and possibly slaves), as well as friends and guests. Though it’s good to hold up the ideal of the Christian nuclear family, if we focus on that one ideal to the detriment of understanding the true nature of the church, our communal life as Christians will suffer. Numerous groups of people will begin to feel a bit estranged because they don’t fit into the ideal paradigm. The unmarried, the divorced, and single parents will all be made to feel uncomfortable in evangelical churches. If, however, we present the local church as the communal base of Christian living, fortified in the practice of mutual love and grace, all people will be able to find rest and fruitfulness within its embrace.

Neo-monasticism could help correct some of the cultural errors of the American church. By living communally and drawing one another into the intimate embrace of our daily spiritual lives, we would come to a greater understanding of what it truly means to be the Body of Christ.

Supposing that such a movement could attract a wide age-range, neo-monasticism would offer a way to garner from the wisdom and experience of those further down the road of life. In many (but certainly not all) of our churches, we split apart by age-groups and tend to function as nothing more than a once-a-week convention of smaller, more isolated churches. It’s certainly easier to make connections with our own age-group, and no doubt there would still be a place for that within neo-monasticism. But living in constant community would also lead us into engaging with those who are very different from us, whether we want to or not. Teens and young adults could be raised up to minister to the whole body with their gifts, no longer being treated as a separate species. And they could, in return, receive the ministry of the elderly, a depth of resource I’ve been blessed to receive, humbled and rejoicing, in my own life. Traditional nuclear families would also receive the added support of community. Children and teens would, in most cases, benefit from being raised by the monastic village as a whole. Adolescents going through crises of identity and rebellion against parental authority would be given a broader social foundation for growth and maturation.

It should also be said that communal living will not always be pleasant. In fact, it might be unpleasant more often than not. We can probably all think of a fair number of people (or at least types of personalities) that we would not want to be engaged with on a day-to-day basis. But if we come into such a community knowing the difficulties and believing that the rewards are greater than the struggles, I think we will come to the place of discovering a deeper and richer expression of the faith than we could have thought possible. In an individualistic society, it's too easy for us to run away from those Christians we don't like. We seldom have the chance to push through our rifts and grudges to discover the stretching blessings of authentic community.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Part I: The Neo-Monastic Vision

At the outset, I want to give a brief outline for the pattern of my discourses on ‘the new monasticism’, to be written over the next few weeks. I’ll begin in this post by describing my somewhat shadowy conception of what an actual community might look like. The following blogs, which are the heart of the argument, will address areas of current tension between American culture and the church as it should be. I’ll attempt to show that monastic-patterned communities would allow for greater depth of fellowship, strength in evangelism, power to walk in personal holiness, and a God-glorifying use of wealth. After that, I’ll attempt to answer potential questions that skeptics would raise, as well as pondering the practical outworkings of this system, especially in American culture. Then I’ll examine Scriptural and historical precedents, and conclude with a somewhat more personal application—gleaning from my own experiences to show why this is so attractive to me.

The vision for these monastic-patterned communities is fairly simple: a group of Christians who live together for the purpose of spurring one another on to love and good deeds. This is probably most easily done in urban situations, where Christian families can buy or rent an apartment complex together and minister to the immediately surrounding areas. But there’s no reason why it couldn’t also be applied in a rural situation, in which Christian families would buy or build houses near one another and create a 'monastic village'.

Obviously, I’m not using ‘monasticism’ here to imply that only unmarried, celibate men can be a part. There’s no reason why that more traditional form of monasticism couldn’t also be carried over into evangelical circles, but for now I’m interested in a system that would be able to integrate anyone who is a part of the larger Christian community. This movement should be able to embrace families and singles, young and old alike. In a word, it should simply be a deep expression of what it means to be the church.

These communities would share life together—fellowshipping through some common meals during the week, regular worship together, and discipling-relationships within the group. There would have to be an organized system and a code of conduct to be followed (a valuable benchmark of every monastic order throughout the history of the church). The focus would be to know and love one another in a deep and meaningful way, as well as to know and love God in a much deeper way—through prayer, worship, and mutual service.

The aim of this community would also be wholeheartedly outward—to bring the light of Christ into the immediate areas. Members would still have jobs and relationships outside the community, and the togetherness of communal life would serve as a constant reminder and encouragement to use those times of contact with non-Christians in a missional way. This is one of the main reasons the church exists, and I believe that the encouragement that could come from having a mission-focused community would empower many Christians to be much more outreaching in their individual witness. Not only so--having a community of love would also make witnessing itself easier, because it would not simply be a matter of forcing everyone into the mold of an evangelizing witness (door-to-door style), but of utilizing everyone’s spiritual gifts in order to be an evangelizing community. It would be a joyfully synergistic outpouring of proclamation, witness, and service to the world.

The system would require the sacrifice of a great deal of personal liberty, which is why it will be such a tough sell here in America. Members and their families would have to give up some significant say in how to order their lives, turning that prerogative over to the church. Such communities might, in order to pursue their goals more fully, limit the amount and content of mass media entertainment members can view. They might directly oversee the use of finances of the individual members and families. Some such communities might even decide to completely pool their finances.

In any case, there would have to be some sort of authority structure to which members voluntarily submit. This was another benchmark practice of traditional monasticism, and a good one. It doesn’t sit well with our fiercely independent Americanism, but I believe that conscientious, God-glorifying leadership of this type may well be what the American evangelical church is lacking. In many churches today, there is no real authority to correct or guide in the manner that was practiced in the early church. This authority might be wielded by a single individual, such as an abbot, or by a council of leaders (or, better yet, by a cooperation of the two). In either case, the system might stand or fall on the grace and skill of these leaders—to be able to lead in a way that inspires and nurtures the members, not in narrow legalism. Discipline and communal self-denial need not lead to a lessening of grace, and we would need leaders who understood that. From that hub of communal leadership would extend a hierarchy of mutually accountable disciplers, who would manage and nourish relationships in small groups.

This paradigm, roughly-sketched as it is, probably wouldn’t work with large groups of people. It might be more effective if it was kept to the size of a small rural congregation, and after it exceeded that limit, it could split off and plant a sister community somewhere nearby.

A final important point is that this system would be voluntarily entered into by its participants. If such a neo-monastic system were ever put in place, it would be intended as a complement to the local church, not a replacement. Members would be humbly expressing their spiritual need by joining the community, not their spiritual superiority. Many Christians, probably most, would elect not to join such a community, and it would have to be stressed that in no way would they be ‘lesser Christians’ for doing so. These monastic orders would be for the building up of local church members and for extending witness to the world in a powerful way. Again, it would simply be a deep expression of what it means to be the church.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Monasticism!

One of the peculiar things that fires my imagination and makes me really excited is monasticism. So, as if this blog wasn’t already too exciting to handle, I’m now introducing a series of articles on why I think monastic-patterned communities could revitalize the Western evangelical church. No doubt this is what you’ve been waiting for from me. Well, let me tell you plainly, it hasn’t been easy to hold back and find other things to write about the past few weeks.

I have a dream of someday joining or leading an evangelical monastic community. Let me first clear up a few misconceptions about the sort of monasticism I’m referring to, because we’ve all been trained to imagine a certain stereotype. The conventional image of a monastery for many of us is a community of sad and lonely men living separately from the world, focusing on prayers and self-flagellation in an effort to attain some sort of inside track to sanctification. Many people regard monasticism as something that would better be left in the Dark Ages. Some of these misconceptions are well-founded historically, others aren’t.

Monasticism was and is a broad movement throughout various cultures and periods of history, and not every incarnation of the monastic model was the same. Some separated themselves completely from the world in order to better pray and avoid temptation. Others were passionately outreaching and evangelistic. Some made a clear division between monks—those who could live a more fully ‘spiritual’ life—and the laity. Others embraced laypersons and sought to guide them to spiritual maturity through discipleship and example. But traditionally, Christian monasticism in general is a movement which seeks to follow Christ in constant community by adhering to the ideals of poverty, chastity, and obedience. And given some thought, I don’t think any Christian would venture to claim that that is a poor goal.

I’ve always had an attraction to the monastic lifestyle. Most of the heroes in my stories are either warriors or monks, or some combination of the two. In fact, all three of my historical fiction novels have the main characters eventually forming or joining some sort of quasi-monastic movement. But until about eight months ago, I never seriously considered the possibility of a modern evangelical monastic movement.

The idea first struck me in Angola, during a conversation with Kevin, a lone-wolf YWAM missionary currently living in Menongue. He was describing the current crisis of the Angolan church, how young people were turning to drinking and violence as urban culture began to transform the traditional village lifestyle of the Angolans. “We need to give them something more,” he said. “It just isn’t cutting it to have Sunday morning services and nothing else. They need something more than a youth choir to keep them involved in the church.”

“What about monasticism?” I asked, surprised at the idea myself.

He wasn’t too enthusiastic about it, having been trained to think of monasticism as a separatist movement. But the thought stuck with me. What if we could form Christian communities that lived together—families as well as single believers—worshiped together, and daily encouraged one another toward outreaching service and evangelism? The members of this community could still have outside jobs and be intimately involved with the surrounding neighborhoods, and the arrangement would empower members to see ministry as the task of the whole congregation rather than just the pastor.

And as I thought about it, I began to consider whether it could work in America. In the next few weeks I’ll be posting pieces that address this point in particular.

On returning to the US, I’ve been encouraged to find that this isn’t merely some wild fancy of my own. There are evangelical monastic groups popping up all over North America—families living together in simplicity and concentrating on outreach. These movements often call themselves ‘the new monasticism’. Perhaps the most well-known is a group in Philadelphia called the Simple Way, who live in an inner-city environment and minister to the people and areas around them. (One of the founder/leaders has a memoir-style book out, The Irresistible Revolution).

But one of the most encouraging things to me was to find an article from Christianity Today which spoke directly to this idea—that evangelicalism could benefit from a ‘re-monking’. The article opens with an anecdote about the respected pastor and church statesman John Stott, who, now in his later years, had been asked what he would do differently if he could go back to the beginning of his discipleship and start again. The article then gives his answer: “He would establish a kind of evangelical monastic movement.”

I’m not saying that this is the only way to go or the best idea out there for how to organize the church. But I am saying that it’s a good idea, and it deserves to be tried.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Culture Shock

The US is a weird place. Most things run smoothly most of the time. Most people speak the same language, and are fairly inable to speak anything else. Most places are very clean. Most people have enough money to live a life of relative comfort and be constantly entertained.
And all of this irks me intensely. I've always been a bit critical of some facets of American culture, especially in the ways that it encroaches on the church, but recently that emotional thrust has become fiercer than usual. America is starting to annoy me. I'm finding myself more and more resentful of the people around me for being American, especially in regards to their use of money. I find myself thinking back longingly on my days in Sudan and Angola, when every day was an adventure. There was no telling what would happen. Would the truck start, or would we have to cart bricks by hand? Would we be able to get enough radio bandwith to send an email or two within the space of a few hours? Would we be able to motivate our workers to work today? I find myself missing the delicious uncertainty of life. I'm never completely happy unless I'm sitting on a dirt floor, talking to someone in a language I don't understand.
There's a term for all this: reverse culture shock. I've never really experienced culture shock during my travels in Europe and Africa, but on returning to America this time, it's hit me like a load of bricks. It helps to at least understand that this is normal psychological process, and that most Americans really aren't scum just for being wealthy and self-centered. But it also gives me a window to examine American culture more closely, before I get sucked back into it. I find myself having clearer vision on the life-draining effects of constant entertainment, yearning to find ways to encourage those around me to live more simply and to give more freely, and simply becoming more passionate about living a life of radical discipleship. I find myself praying for more churches that will abandon the consumerist pull of suburban Christianity--churches that choose to build cheaper, low-grade buildings in order to support the mission field better; churches that draw people to costly discipleship rather than to entertaining programs; churches that actively seek out the lonely, the suffering, and the despised. It isn't a sin to be wealthy or well-entertained. But it is a sin if those things keep us from living out boldly the imitation of Christ.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

More Than the Glories of the Endless Sky

(This is a poem I wrote a couple months ago, inspired by a Matthew West song)

Look at the sun, My child;
Watch it dance across the sky,
Endlessly, unerringly,
Spilling forth its blazing joy
Across a billion miles
Of the trackless void.
It is constant, it is wild,
It is fierce in its delight,
Burning in the heavens,
Pouring forth the warming radiance
Of its love for Me.
A thousand generations
Have watched it rise and fall
And rise again,
And it has seen every moment
Of every age
That passed on this embattled sphere.
Look at the sun, My child,
And know how much I love you.
More than the eternal lights
I suspended in the sky,
More than the ever-circling moon,
More than the chorus of the stars—
More than these do I love you.
They are radiant and true,
And they will always shine for Me.
But the way you shine
When you smile and laugh
And think of Me on a cloudless day—
That is the sight that steals My breath.
I will always love you;
Though sometimes you forget,
Though sometimes you despise Me,
My love for you will never wane,
Never hide its face like the darkened moon.
So when you raise your dazzled eyes
And look at the brilliant scattering
Of celestial jewels above,
Remember that it was these glorious lights
That shouted out a thundering chorus of joy
When I made you.
More than all these do I love you;
More than the glories of the endless sky.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

A Militant Peacefulness

An interesting point came up in the first session of a church history class a few weeks ago. The professor was speaking of our tendency to look back and judge the Christians of certain eras by the horrors of their time. It is difficult for us to look back at the late medieval church, which took to arms in the Crusades, and understand their motivation. Or consider the churches of the southern United States in the nineteenth century--many of their theologians actually produced biblical studies supporting the practice of slavery.
But then the professor brought the point home. He looked over the class, and then said, "We live in a world where tens of thousands of children die every day from hunger and preventable disease. I would not be surprised if the church three hundred years from now looks back and wonders how on earth we could have called ourselves Christians."
And he's right. We're living in the richest and safest country the world has ever known, lavishing ourselves with extraordinary comforts while most of the world's population has to struggle just to survive. How is it that we can let this kind of reprehensible inequity go on? And let me say plainly, this shameful neglect of the poor is even less defensible from the Scriptures than were the Crusades or slavery.
But the principle extends even beyond the problems of hunger and disease. Take, for instance, the appalling history of violence in the twentieth century--the bloodiest by far in world history, and by all signs it may well continue at the same pace into the twenty-first. I've been following closely the continually degenerating situation in Darfur, Sudan, where some of my friends are working. It's looking unlikely that the UN will issue peacekeepers there, and now the Sudanese government, which is probably responsible for most of the genocidal war crimes of the past few years in that region, has launched a major offensive against the Darfuri rebel groups. There are a number of reasons why situations like Darfur still exist today, but one of them is that we, as the church, have not been doing our job very well.
One of the doctrines I hold to as a Christian is the practice of peace. However, I believe that we have lost the power of this word. It would probably be better put as the practice of peacemaking. The peace that Christ commands of his followers is not the absence of violence, it is an all-out engagement of the world to spread his peace to every people and every land.
Those of you who know me know that I'm generally quiet and laid-back. Those of you who know me well know that my spirit can be somewhat militant at times. And to be honest, for a long time the doctrine of peace didn't appeal to my emotions at all. It seemed that peace was a little bit boring, a little bit tame, and that all of the vigor and courage and intensity lay somewhere else. I don't think I'm alone in this misconception. Even though most Christians probably don't share my love for violent spirituality, I have noticed (even when it's not articulated in these terms), that to live a peaceful Christian life tends to be equated with laying back and enjoying the comforts the Lord has blessed us with here. It's not wrong to enjoy those comforts, but it is wrong to choose those comforts over the active peacemaking of the Kingdom. Peace is something powerful and intense, the fullness of the Gospel, and if we equate peace with the absence of conflict and confrontation, then we have been mistaken. Peacemaking can be very confrontational, perhaps even conflictual, and it requires more courage than anything else I know of.
If we as Christians truly believe in the doctrine of peace, then we should be living it. We should see Christians moving into the inner-city to engage the gang culture, not running away from it. We should see the church running from every corner of the globe to the hardest places in the world--to Darfur and Iraq and the Congo, there to give all our energies in the enterprise of the Kingdom. Do I think that all Christians should sell their homes and move to the inner cities or Darfur? Certainly not. But I do think that more Christians should be doing it, and I think that if we choose to remain passively in the peaceful comfort of our homes, we should seriously consider why we are doing that. The Christian life is an outward life, and if we are not actively engaged in bringing the peace of the Kingdom into a war-weary world, then we must re-examine our lives. I would love to see, both in my own life and in the American church, more of the passion that William Booth had in founding the Salvation Army: "While women weep, as they do now, I'll fight; while little children go hungry, I'll fight; while men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now, I'll fight--while there is yet a drunkard left, while there is a poor lost girl upon the streets, where there remains one dark soul without the light of God--I'll fight! I'll fight to the very end!"

(A number of organizations have marked this Sunday, September 17, as an international day of prayer for Darfur. Please remember the people of that region in your prayers this week).

Monday, September 11, 2006

Reflections on the Harvest

The anniversary of the 9/11 attacks should prompt us to reflection. It is a signpost of the times, and we must consider how it relates to the ongoing mission of the church in the world. Christians throughout the ages have had different ways of judging the state of the world and the progress of the Kingdom of God among men, but in these days it often seems that to be realistic about the work of God in the world is to be a bit pessimistic.
Europe, once the most vigorous stronghold and champion of Christianity, is now in many ways its chief adversary and one of the most challenging mission fields in the world. Many Muslims, who form the largest non-Christian religious block in the world, are more violently opposed to Christianity than ever before. Places like India and Japan, after hundreds of years of active mission work, remain vastly untouched by the Gospel. The Christianity which is blossoming all over Africa and Latin America often appears weak and shallow, a largely surface phenomenon. And all the while, our brothers and sisters are murdering each other with stunning efficiency in hundreds of killing-fields all around the world--Darfur, Israel, Iraq, and the Congo, to name a few.
I have a heart that cries out for the redemption of the world. God has put within me the capacity to dream large for the sake of the Kingdom, and it breaks my heart to see how far away we are from realizing those dreams. It is a crushing agony of the spirit to cry out with compassion for the lost and then to understand just how staggering is the task of reaching those lost. It brings me to the place of humility, of realizing that the mission before us is too enormous for me, too enormous for the church as we are today.
Nevertheless, I find my hope in the fiery delight and confidence of the promises of God. This is always his mission before it is ours, and he will be faithful to see it through. The Great Commission itself rings with this incredible anthem of the surety of victory: "All authority in heaven and earth has been given unto me....therefore go." I don't know if the world will get much better in the years to come, as the postmillennialist tradition of Christians had hoped, but I do know what the end result will be: every knee will bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. No matter how dark the battle seems, we are on the winning side. Someday, and oh! how my heart longs to see it, the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, just as the waters cover the sea.
I believe we do stand on the brink of a momentous surge of life in the church and her mission. The harvest is still ready, though the workers are few. The God we serve is already at work, even in the darkest corners of the earth. Muslims are coming to Christ in greater numbers than ever before. The church is exploding across the two-thirds world, and though it is still young, it has the promise of a blossoming and fiery maturity in the days to come. Our generation might well see the fulfillment of that ancient promise, that the Gospel will finally be brought to every tribe and tongue and people and nation in a way that allows them to understand and respond and embrace the beautiful hope of eternal life. This is what every missionary throughout the ages has longed to see--the church taking root in every corner of the world. And we, unworthy yet joyful, look now upon the flowering consummation of all their hopes and dreams and prayers.
Christian mission is an exercise in indefatigable optimism. All the power of heaven is behind us, and even one life surrendered to the power of God has the potential to change the world. Oh, that I would live to see it happen!

Friday, September 08, 2006

A Lament for Darfur

The Blood of Abel

The world spins down,

Falling in its perpetual arc

Toward a dark and empty grave.

We scramble and we plead,

Violently at times,

Yearning for peace,

For an escape from the stubborn incursions of hell

Into our war-weary realm.

We are glory and light,

The children of the dawn,

But the crimson river of a crucified race

Testifies against us,

Crying out from the slumbering earth.

And the One in heaven hears.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Toward a More Monastic Education

Well, my first week of graduate studies at Denver Seminary is behind me now. It was a good week, all in all, and it certainly looks as though I'll be busy enough here. Perhaps the common theme I've picked up on in conversations about beginning seminary is the expectation of an almost insurmountable workload of reading and writing. And while it certainly is a fearsome amount of work, I think it should be manageable.
What struck me as ironic, though, was that one of the first articles we were given to read for a monthly scholars' forum was "The Contemplative Pastor", by Eugene Peterson. In it, Peterson argues and urges that pastors should not, at any costs, allow busyness to dominate their schedules. The pastor, he says, must always find and make time for contemplative prayer, for those soul-forming moments before the throne of God. It is there that character is born, and there that the peace of God can settle into our souls in a whole new way.
This is good advice from Peterson, and hopefully when I become a pastor I will have the discipline and the desire to journey into prayer like that. But the irony of it is that here at seminary, many of us are being trained to be pastors. If having time for contemplative prayer really is one of the foundational practices of ministry (and I believe it is), then why does seminary, with its sizeable workload, almost preclude that possibility? I say 'almost' because most students can and should be able to find at least some time for a rich devotional life. But seminaries, in focusing largely on the academic side of pastoral preparation, do foster a 'busyness' that makes time for rich contemplative prayer a difficult asset to find.
Part of it, I think, is that in American culture we value our independence, even come to expect it. So the seminary assumes that its students should be able to organize their own priorities and strike a balance between studies and devotional practices. In some respects that's good, but speaking for myself (and I doubt I'm alone in this), I have to confess that I don't have the sort of self-discipline it takes to consistently measure up to that kind of mandate. And in some ways, if we are to do the amount of work which seminary demands of us and do it well, some other aspects of our life--relational or devotional--will suffer. This is true even in a terrific place like Denver Seminary, which really does strive in many ways (such as mentoring programs) to provide spiritual guidance and formation for is students.
To my mind (and probably not many would agree with me), the ideal situation for pastoral training would be much more communitarian, a little more authoritarian, and significantly more balanced. That is, I would like to see seminaries become a whole lot more like missional monasteries, fervently dedicated to solid academics, passionately seeking a deeper devotional life together, and consistently reaching out to the world around them. This would mean that academic studies would have to take a lower priority, or at least that some way would have to be found to reduce workloads while preserving the quality of the education. But beyond academics, it would mean that students would submit to the spiritual authority of the teachers and mentors, and that time would be allotted every day for both communal and individual devotions. If that is the sort of daily round that will build us up into better pastors, then we ought to be beginning it now. It probably won't happen here in the States (though some Bible colleges and seminaries overseas work more along those lines), but I think it would be grand if it did.