Note to Readers: My historical fiction novel Prester John and the Brigand King is once again available to read in full. Just click on the novel's title in the "Full Series" menu on the sidebar.

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.