Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Faith AND Obedience

I've been struck recently how polemics have upset a tendentious balance in our rhetoric about belief and practice. These polemics see an overuse of a term in their opponents and so overcorrect on the other side (the opponents can be anyone from liberals to conservatives to modernity itself). The problem with these over-corrections is that they ignore a very important logical dictum and its corollary, a dictum, by the way, which I think is more wisdom than logic:

Abuse does not bar use.

The solution to abuse is not disuse but proper use.

In the polemics (generally between liberals and conservatives) there is an over-emphasis on either Faith or Obedience to the point where, rhetorically, it's stated, rather baldly, that one could be had without the other. Such a patently absurd statement is not what most of the polemicists actually believe, but they continue along their rhetorical path because they haven't heeded the above rules. Examples: since all those 'orthodox' talk about is faith, then we can't talk about belief, only practice, or belief subsumed into practice, OR since all those 'liberals' talk about is social justice, we should stay away from talk about justice, only faith, or practice subsumed into faith.

What both sides miss is the inherent relationship between faith and obedience, one that's typified in a relationship of unity and distinction. For the Christian, faith and obedience can be distinguished from one another, but they cannot be separated. Faith without work is dead (see James). Work without faith is meaningless.

And all this was prompted by the Psalm (119) from the Daily Office today:

98 Your commands make me wiser than my enemies,
for they are ever with me.

99 I have more insight than all my teachers,
for I meditate on your statutes.

100 I have more understanding than the elders,
for I obey your precepts.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Listening to the Mundane

In the Daily Office readings yesterday, I came across the story of Naaman the Syrian coming to Elisha for healing of his leprosy. I was astonished how readily Naaman turned away from Elisha when he commanded him to do something easy. Take a look at this from 2 Kings 5:

9 So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elisha's house. 10 Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, "Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed."

11 But Naaman went away angry and said, "I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. 12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than any of the waters of Israel? Couldn't I wash in them and be cleansed?" So he turned and went off in a rage.

13 Naaman's servants went to him and said, "My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, 'Wash and be cleansed'!" 14 So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.
Naaman's servant really understood his master (and, I think, us). He understood that we want to really contribute to our salvation. We want to do a "great thing" (v. 13). We want it to count. We don't want to be told to go take another bath. In our case, we don't really want to be told to repent and believe the good news (Mk 1:15), but as we stand at Elisha's door, we are told to do just that. How many of us go away angry from our wounded pride with no one to bring us back? How often do we refuse to listen to the voice of God when He commands the mundane?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

That word...

I've been reading Richard Rohr recently and find myself repeating Inigo Montoya's famous line:

"That word, you keep using it. I don't think it means what you think it means."

Of course, he is a Catholic which doesn't help this Protestant very much. If you want this delightful experience yourself, you can read Rohr, or maybe this guy, for yourself.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community, and Small Groups, by Joseph R. Myers

I just finished reading Joseph R. Myer's The Search to Belong (at the suggestion of Dixon Kinser), and I have to say that I found this book extremely helpful in thinking about how communities form and how organizations can help promote community space.

Myers describes four different spaces in which we can experience significant belonging: the public, social, personal, and intimate. He argues (based on the work of Edward T. Hall) that human beings need significant connections in each of these spaces in order to be healthy. Myers contends that the "chemical compound" of healthy belonging is 8 parts public, 4 parts social, 2 parts personal, and 1 part intimate.

Here's how he defines the spaces (142-143):

Public Space
Public bleonging occurs when people connect through an outside influence. Fans of a sports team experience a sense of community because they cheer for the same team. They wear official garb, buy special broadcast viewing privileges, and stay up too late or get up extra early just to see the results of the game. These relationships carry great significance in our lives.

Social Space
Social belonging occurs when we share "snapshots" of what it would be like to be in personal space with us. The phrases "first impression" and "best foot forward" refer to this spatial belonging. You belong socially to your favorite bank teller, your pharmacist, and some of the people with whom you work.

Social belonging is important for two reasons. First, it provides the space for "neighbor" relationships. A neighbor is someone you know well enough to ask for (or provide) small favors. Second, it is important because it provides a safe "selection space or sorting space" for those with whom you would like to develop a "deeper" relationship. In social space we provide the information that helps others decide whether they connect with us. We get just enough information to decide to keep this person in this space or move them to another space.

Personal Space
Through personal belonging, we share private (not "naked") experiences, feelings, and thoughts. We call the people we connect to in this space "close friends." They are those who know more about us than an acquaintance would, yet not so much that they feel uncomfortable.

Intimate Space
In intimate belonging, we share "naked" experiences, feelings, and thoughts. We have very few relationships that are intimate. These people know the "naked truth" about us and the two of us are not "ashamed."
Having a language to describe these relationships and knowing there might be a "harmony" among them (in that 8:4:2:1 ratio) is extremely helpful in thinking through church dynamics. It helps answer the question about why, if true belonging is every congregant in a small group, the highest success rates for small group participation is somewhere around 30%. Part of the problem is that for many the 'ideal' for small group space is intimate space. But, it's difficult for human beings to handle having so many people in intimate space! Churches that have the "move in or move out" mentality to their small group ministry promote only the Public and the Intimate. No wonder that people get lost--there's hardly any social or personal space for them to connect!

Myers argues that social space is especially important and that we should all try to develop "front porches," neutral social spaces where people feel welcome but safe. Our society creates these spaces in places like Starbucks or some strip malls. They are easy places to be with new people. It's neutral ground, neither entirely public nor private. It's social space that keeps us from rushing headlong into the more personal or intimate spaces of the home.

For me, this has helped me think about GCF's small group ministry. The current "backbone" of our work is small groups and large group. Small groups meet 3x a month, and the fourth week of the month, everyone gets together for large group. Small groups are for spiritual formation and large group is for community. But, I needn't think that small groups have to be either personal or intimate to help with individual spiritual formation. Many of our grad students are adults with established significant personal and intimate relationships. If we can help them connect with other Christian scholars in social spaces, then we'll allow them the freedom and space to grow spiritually and in community with others.

I'm very grateful this book came along when it did, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is thinking through issues of personal or communal relationship. You'll be freed and helped by the discussion!

Friday, September 07, 2007

Following Christ 2008

Mark your calendars. InterVarsity's triennial Graduate and Faculty Ministries conference, Following Christ, has been announced for Dec 27-31, 2008. The convention theme is "Human Flourishing." Here's a brief excerpt from the announcement:
The good news of the gospel brings with it the promise of vocation, a calling to good works that God has prepared for each one of us as we follow Christ. In finding and fulfilling this vocation, we are led to human flourishing, not only for ourselves but also for our neighbors.

If you're interested in learning more about the Following Christ conference, be sure to check out this announcement.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Evangelism and Service: The Alpha Course

InterVarsity and the Vanderbilt Graduate Christian Fellowship are committed to evangelism and service. We believe that people who are being spiritually formed and who are joining in transformative community should be oriented towards sharing the Gospel both in word (intentional, verbal, etc.) and in deed (acts of redemptive service). It's a commitment we believe in but one we struggle with in the university where we fare much better hosting discussion groups around our commitment to the integration of faith, learning, and practice.

Which is why we are so thankful for the body of Christ! In the body, the weaknesses of one part are helped by the strengths of the others. For GCF, this means partnering with others in the body around Nashville.

St. George's Church, starting Sep 12, is hosting an Alpha Course. Alpha was developed in England, and is a safe way for people curious about Christianity to learn more. I'm happy to announce GCF's partnership with Alpha. If you're a Christian grad student who is struggling to share your faith with your questioning colleagues, invite them to an Alpha course. Send me an email ( to get more information.