Walking as Jesus Walked

Having the Mind of Christ

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Death Our Future

The two books below help clergy and laity deal with a wide-variety of issues with respect to the practice of funeral and end of life care.

This review will appear shortly in Reviews in Religion & Theology.

Death Our Future: Christian Theology and Funeral Practice, Peter C. Jupp (ed.), Methodist Church House: Epworth, 2008 (ISBN 978-0-7162-0638-5), xxiii + 272 pp.

Living Well and Dying Faithfully: Christian Practices for End-of-Life Care, John Swinton and Richard Payne (eds.), Foreword by Stanley Hauerwas, Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009 (ISBN 978-0-8028-6339-3), xxiv + 287 pp.

The scene has become familiar: I was asked to lead the graveside service of a person I did not know. The funeral director instructed me upon arriving at the cemetery that a twenty-one gun salute would precede the ceremony. This would be followed by a family member reading a poem about the afterlife. Another family member would sing two stanzas of Amazing Grace, and somewhere in the mix I would share scripture, prayer, and words of commendation. Hopefully, I would have the chance offer the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection and provide a modicum of care!

At the intersection of above situation lie several collisions of narratives: military honor guard and rites, belief in an afterlife, mix of folk religion with working class mores, grief work and pastoral care, local funeral customs, and a pastor charged with preaching the gospel! A whole network of experiences and practices come together to shed light on what persons who offer care at the end of life may encounter as they ‘practice the presence of God.’ It is the occasion for a great deal of theological reflection.

Two books about Christian practice at the end of life call attention to the challenges pastors and caregivers may face when dealing death and dying. Both are works in the area of practical theology, and both attempt to set death within the larger narrative of God’s abundant love in Christ. Both offer insight into the tensions with which pastoral practitioners contend when confronting the reality of suffering and death and the communication of the gospel in late modern culture. Both supply resources to those who share the hope of the kingdom and the promise of life eternal.

In Death Our Future, Peter Jupp assembles a wide-variety of voices to discuss changes in funeral practices in Great Britain over the last ten years. Responding to the Princess Diana phenomena the book sets ‘the funeral in the changing context of death, bereavement and funeral organization,’ exploring critical aspects of death in five key sections: modern death and bereavement, theologies of death and the afterlife, the disposal of the dead, funeral liturgies, and regional cultures (p. x). Though addressed to caregivers in Britain the book serves as a vital contribution to persons who are ‘dealing with the challenges mortality poses for all societies’ (p. xv). The ecumenical nature of the material makes it a helpful tool for ongoing theological reflection. It is by no means a ‘how-to’ book. Caregivers who are dealing with cremation, for examples, will want to think through the essays in the section on the disposal of the dead (p. 141); others concerned with issues pertaining to the environment will want to consider the ways in which funerals are becoming ‘green’ (p. 148). Western culture’s fascination with the afterlife also figures prominently throughout the work, along with the need to comprehend the importance of context for the practice of ritual (p. 212). In bringing together these essays, Jupp provides helpful yet additional work to the growing field of practical theology and the church’s ministry of contending with the ‘commercialization of death’ in the West (p. 12). There is much in this book that forges a truly Christian theology of death in a highly secular culture.

Living Well and Dying Faithfully also explores how Christian practices contribute to our understanding of death and dying. Though not focused on funeral practices as such, the work extends the conversation Cupp and others carry on with respect to the importance of practices in the Christian life and the continuing debate on appropriate end-of-life care, especially as that care pertains to theology and medicine (p. xvii). In fact, the essays collected in this volume make a critical contribution to the way we imagine care at the end of life and in the face of suffering (p. xvi). Indeed, throughout, there is the foundational argument that ‘there is another way in which we might approach death and dying, a way that is rooted in the Christian tradition and that offers transformed understandings and practices that can work alongside current knowledge to bring healing and hope’ (p. xvi). In other words, as Swinton and Payne ask in the Introduction, why is our first response to death and dying medicine and not theology (p. xvi)? It is important to remember ‘not simply what medicine does but where it does what it does – within creation’ (p. xvii). Key to reframing issues of death and dying is to consider that ‘we do medicine in a theological context rather than doing theology in a medical context’(p. xviii).

Living Well and Dying Faithfully is a concentrated effort by persons in theology and medicine to supply an imaginative theological response to the ‘techno-medicine’ narrative which has come to define much of Western approaches to death and dying in modernity (p. xv). The three primary sections of the work elucidate this theme and explore how practices such as compassion, prayer, lament, healing, and hope, to name a few, help us to attend to God and life’s ultimate purpose both during and at the end of life. As a work in practical theology, the book offers the kind of wisdom that can assist with understanding that end of life care begins not only at the graveside but with our worship of God throughout life (p. xiii).

Both of these works offer worthwhile reflection on Christian practices in the face of death and dying in Western culture. Throughout, there is an intentional effort to counter the narratives of late modernity with the wisdom of the Christian tradition. As Swinton and Payne suggest in their Conclusion, utilizing insights from Walter Brueggemann and Stanley Hauerwas, there is a strong need to ‘re-fund’ the Christian imagination with respect to end-of-life care: that is, to envision care in the face of death and dying imbued with God’s abundant grace, and, in doing so, to ‘remind those who work within the field of care that the primary task of care giving is to enable people to love God in all things and at all times’ (p. 275). There is a need to re-examine the assumptions out which the church has dealt with death and dying and to challenge the dominant medical model of care and knowledge that has preoccupied the modern era, all the while acknowledging medicine’s contributions to life and well-being. How to re-imagine end-of-life care by listening to what both medicine and theology mutually bring to the table is what makes their volume of essays compelling. Likewise, Cupp’s set of essays lifts up the unique ‘vocabularies and rituals in the Christian armory’ that give personal support to individuals and communities in their specific needs (p. xv). As a work in practical theology, it encourages the kind of ‘reflective dialogue’ that continues the conversation on the church’s mission in Western culture.

Both of these works address numerous issues regarding end of life care and the practice of ministry: the rise of different funeral liturgies (both secular and sacred), the rise of green funeral practices, the traditional debate of the resurrection of the body versus the immortality of the soul, the role of grief and mourning, the growing commercialization of death coupled with the increasing consumerism of the funeral industry, to name a few. All of these aspects of death and dying and care at the end of life impinge upon ministerial practice and theological reflection; and all call for the kind of deep and abiding wisdom the Christian faith offers with respect to how we rethink and re-imagine what it means to live and die well.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Cultivating a Culture of Call

For several years now a selected group of seminarians seeking ordination in Indiana have met in a new venture in theological education and leadership formation. Rooted in the church’s mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ, the Wesleyan Connexion Project provides a place for those who are preparing for ministry to rediscover the rich heritage of Wesleyan doctrine and practice, as well as encourage future leaders in the life of the church. A new experiment in theological education it is in the best Wesleyan sense of the term a project in “practical divinity.”

The Wesleyan Connexion Project grows out of a response by denominational leaders in 2003 for new approaches to theological education. The document entitled “A Wesleyan Vision for Theological Education” encourages seminaries, conferences, church-related universities, and churches to engage in creative forms of leadership formation and theological study (go to www.gbhem.org for more info).

The purpose of the Wesleyan Connexion Project is to find these creative ways of building bridges between seminarians and annual conference, as well as foster excellence in ministry. It is to discover how the Annual Conference may encourage future efforts to support those who will give leadership in the Wesleyan Way.

One of the most meaningful aspects of the Wesleyan Connexion Project is the importance of dedicating one’s heart and life to God. Through the “Covenant Renewal Service,” participants share in a time of reaffirmation, praying together the Covenant Prayer that is to characterize commitment to Jesus Christ:

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou will, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low by thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things
to thy pleasures and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

I don’t think it is too difficult to imagine that those who provide leadership in the church are to make this prayer a significant part of their devotional life. Nor do I think it is too difficult to imagine that John Wesley would want to see persons throughout the church pray this prayer with a deep sense of purpose: to live in joyful obedience in the power of the Spirit. As we contend, God’s grace not only frees us from sin and guilt, but also frees for service to others.

Recently, Bishop Coyner has challenged churches in Indiana to cultivate a “culture of call.” By focusing on God’s call, we realize again Christ’s claim upon us through baptism; we recognize again that we are not own but God’s servants. It’s a powerful witness to what the Holy Spirit can do in writing a new covenant on our hearts (Jer. 31:31-34). Doing all the good we can and doing no harm flows out of a deep and abiding relationship with God.

As we move into a New Year, I can see more and more how projects like the Wesleyan Connexion Project and how efforts like the “culture of call” can work together to assist us in fulfilling our mission to make disciples. I can also see how both clergy and laity will want to pray together the prayer that can help us all reaffirm our covenant to have “the mind of Christ” and “walk as Jesus walked.” Surely, regardless of who we are, we will want to follow in this Way, knowing always that the God who knows our hearts will give us more than we imagined.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Pastor as Wider Theologian

There is a new society in Chicago taking up concerns with respect to the pastor as theologian. The name of the group is The Society for the Advancement of Ecclesial Theology (SAET). Persons interested in this kind of work may check out the website link at the right.

A new article about the pastor-as-theologian may also provide stimulus and conversation: go to http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2011/01/the-pastor-as-wider-theologian-whatrsquos-wrong-with-theology-today.

Gerald Hiestand asks, Whatever happened to wider theologians like Wesley, Luther, Calvin, King, Bonhoeffer? All were pastors first-and-foremost, yet all were theologians of the first order.

Persons reading this article will come away with good solid insights. I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Rembering King

I can remember at the University of Evansville writing a paper on the nonviolent strategy of Dr. King. I don't know if I could find that paper, but I would imagine it would reveal a great deal about the beginning of a pilgrimage I still continue today. Remembering Dr. King is important for the renewal of the church, especially in a culture of death and violence such as ours.

This week we will also remember the life of Eunice Hutchinson at Grace Church. Her passing in many ways marks a transition from those who knew and marched with King personally to those who now carry on the struggle years latter. Knowing Eunice and Hutch over the years has provided a great deal of inspiration and determination. It has also provided a moment to reflect on the mission yet to come. We can only hope that the words and legacy of Dr. King will not become mere sentamentalism but a couragous call to witness and reconiliation.

Memorable Quotes by Dr. King

“A lie cannot live.”

“A right delayed is a right denied.”

“The person who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as the person who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

“I am not interested in power for power’s sake, but I am interested in power that is moral, that is right and that is good.”

“I look forward to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”

So be it...

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

On the Way with Jesus

On the Way with Jesus: A Passion for Mission Richard Showalter, Foreword by Ralph D. Winter (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2008).

At the beginning of On the Way with Jesus, Eastern Mennonite Missions president Richard Showalter writes how a new realization emerged concerning the church’s mission in western culture when Bishop Newbigin returned in 1974 from India to England: the true missionary situation now begins here, at home (17). The rising importance of new movements of evangelization, specifically the “missional” and “emergent” movements, now only confirms this insight (17). Thus the mission of Jesus truly takes off when the Holy Spirit awakens the church to this new landscape (105). The church is now in a unique place to engage western culture with the passion and truth of the gospel.

Showalter’s book offers a critical stimulus to the church’s mission in the west and around as it learns to follow Jesus. It sums up his reflections on leadership and service in the Anabaptist tradition over the course of his lifetime, revealing nuggets of practical wisdom. It provides wonderful perspectives to the new missional environment the church faces as it comes to grips with practice the gospel both locally and globally. Helping the church make these connections is what Showalter accomplishes throughout (19).

Showalter breaks down On the Way with Jesus into five main parts. Each part contains short chapter summations of what he has learned during his experience as missionary and educator. A Foreword by Ralph Winter and a list of questions and activities near the end provide solid bookends to what Showalter communicates about local and international missions. In fact, Showalter writes his book with pastors, missionaries, and educators in mind, both laity and clergy, as he expresses in winsome and encouraging ways how churches may engage in evangelism and outreach. His turn of phrase and easy access approach to the material is not lost on the reader. Indeed, his work will undoubtedly appeal to a cross-section of the Evangelical community, especially within the Anabaptist tradition, though he certainly stresses unity in the wider ecumenical church body – not only doctrinally but also ethnically (89ff, 135ff). His passion for mission is apparent on every page.

One area this passion is demonstrated is in Showalter’s turn of phrase. For example, regarding developing a heart for missions, Showalter states persuasively how “the passion to introduce others to Christ is born from what he is doing for me” (39), and reflecting on his own ministry, he writes reflectively how “If I were young again, one of my top two priorities would be to go into short-term missions” (57), or, writing to the importance of local missions in the Mennonite church, Showalter contends how the whole of Christ’s church needs to develop a strategy where the “nearest missionary is only thirty miles away” (108). There are many places or gaps in the culture (in fact, in any culture) where the church simply must “go” to offer Christ (108). Again, the mission is now here.

But there are also a few questions students of missiology will want to ask Showalter. One of those questions concerns matters of historiography: Are the Anabaptists the forerunners to the Pentecostals? Surely, there are theological connections, but Wesleyan/Methodist Christians may want to contest this move (28). Showalter’s chapter of the Global Christian Movement definitely sounds the trumpet for the Anabaptist tradition. Second, can the church really disconnect Jesus’ sacrificial life from his passionate vision? Yes, Jesus was a man of vision and passion. He did what he said (Matthew 7:21). But he was also a person through whom God’s kingdom-vision broke in, renewing and transforming life. Showalter states that it was Jesus’ life that made the difference, not necessarily his vision. True, but can vision and life be so easily separated? As Proverbs states, “Without a vision the people perish” (29:18). Certainly, there is a deep connection between vision and mission. As Showalter states, a true vision is realized in the midst of life (21). At some point, the church must do what it says. As Jesus enacted the vision he cast in announcing the kingdom of God so must the church. Vision and mission are distinguishable but never separable. Vision and mission collide in history, and where they remain separate God fills in the gap with Christ’s incarnate love. God works for creation’s good in spite of humanity’s sinfulness (Romans 8:28).

Surely this is what Showalter contends. The vision guides the mission on the way with Jesus. It gives hope and promise to the church. Showalter amply demonstrates this throughout his collection of reflections: the problem is not with vision per se, but with passion. The passion for mission must come from Jesus; it must come from the One who changes hearts and leads the church on the way: Jesus is literally the crux of the matter. As readers will discover, Showalter’s work is a helpful step in this direction.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Methodism in Recovery

Methodism in Recovery: Renewing Mission, Reclaiming History, Restoring Health, William B. Lawrence (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008), 137 pp.

A number of new books on the renewal of the United Methodist Church have hit the shelves to coincide with General Conference. Leaders across the connection have offered a wide range of diagnoses on what ails the church at this moment in history and on what solutions portend hope. Former Bishop Wilke’s The Tie That Binds, Bishop Larry Goodpastor’s There’s Power in the Connection, Charles Yrigoren, et al., Methodism at Forty, Bishop Robert Schnase’s Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, Craig Kennet Miller’s The Seven Myths of United Methodism, and Tom Oden’s Turning Around the Mainline: How Renewal Movements are Changing the Churchare but a few of the works now speaking to the renewal of United Methodism in particular and Methodism more broadly.

Add to this list another work: William Lawrence’s Methodism in Recovery: Renewing Mission, Reclaiming History, Restoring Health. Dean of the Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Lawrence offers a sobering diagnosis of the United Methodist Church’s current condition and prescribes a number of items essential to its recovery. The book is a thoughtful portrayal of Methodism’s plight in North America, with specific attention given to the United Methodist Church and the history of this particular limb of the Methodist body (viii). With scalpel in hand, Lawrence cuts through the varied levels of Methodist history, doctrine, and politics as he pinpoints the key ailments and hopeful prognoses he believes will bring about renewal and recovery (xiv).

Lawrence divides his book into eight Chapters, with Introduction and Preface. The primary metaphor tying the work together is the metaphor of recovery (p. 4ff). Lawrence makes preliminary distinctions between recovery, rescue, and renewal, noting how the task before the church is not to rescue the church (which is limited in scope) but recovery (which can be grim but is necessary). Recovery speaks to a range of meaning but its central aim is healing (p. 7). This is why, as Lawrence argues, recovery does not necessarily mean renewal (p 7-8). Instead, recovery must move toward a deeper level: it must move toward a level of purpose that is not afraid to face the past and claim the future and that understands how exposing the “sore spots and tender places” of the Methodist tradition can lead toward healing (p. 12). In short, Lawrence contends true recovery must “transcend any medicalization of the church and embrace the mystery of the faith” (p. 12). Lawrence’s work is a plea that Methodists will approach the task of recovery in this fashion as they move courageously into the future and as they embrace the three criteria of the church’s mission – Word, Sacrament, and Discipline (p. 13). Therefore, the mission of Methodism is not so much to rescue an institution as it is to serve the present age with passion (p. 15).

This is the overall argument throughout Lawrence’s book as he identifies a number of themes essential to Methodism’s recovery:

Learning again how to define what “church” is
Facing the need to offer confession
Finding better ways to make decisions
Seeing negative circumstances as positive opportunities
Offering a distinct voice in the public arena
Placing congregations in the context of connectional mission
Connecting with all social classes, including the poor and the rich
Changing the paradigm for debate from the political to doctrinal
Changing the practices of discussion from legislative to theological
Forming a financial system beyond apportionment limits
Listening to one another more than talking to ourselves
Opening our spirituality to the power of silence
Restoring the role of oversight to the episcopacy
Renewing the place of Christian conferencing
Making the mysteries of faith more accessible
Linking hope with vision (pp. 16-17)

Again, Lawrence is clear that the recovery of Methodism may not require the survival of The United Methodist Church per se but that the mystery of faith must remain front and center in all diagnoses and solutions.

Methodism in Recovery presents several noteworthy areas for discussion and conversation. First, Lawrence’s diagnosis of what ails Methodism in general and United Methodism in particular is sobering. This is not a work that people will put down and jump for joy. Instead, it is a thought-provoking analysis of the church’s current condition. There is a hardnosed realism that punctuates every page. It is not a book for the faint in heart.

Second, Lawrence provides and interesting analysis of the church’s state from a wide variety of perspectives. Having served as a local pastor, a district superintendent, a seminary professor, and a seminary dean, Lawrence is able to give insights others throughout the connection may not have. This serves the argument of the book and the church well. Lawrence is passionate about the church he loves.

But upon closer analysis there are also key observations about the overall thrust of Lawrence’s work. First, it is not clear what Lawrence advocates with respect to the relationship between conference and congregation. For example, he notes how there is a strong affinity in American culture toward congregationalism and how such affinity works against Methodism’s connectional identity (p. 100). In fact, earlier he states how insidious congregationalization is (p. 71). Surely, the task is to avoid “a loose confederation of congregations” (p. 57). And yet, Lawrence makes a series of moves that suggests otherwise. When describing how a denomination may decide on matters regarding homosexuality, for example, citing the Conservative Jewish Movement as a model, he states how “a congregational system can live with the flexibility that legislation for a denomination cannot restrain a local church’s right to decide its own policies and practices; the majority may decide but it cannot dictate; in fact, the majority may not be the true voice of the denomination” (p. 57). Suddenly, the conference is seen not as a means of grace but as a “hierarchical” system that “imposes” legislation (p. 57). It seems Lawrence does not want the church to move toward congregationalism, but he also does not want the conference (i.e., the General Conference) to dictate to the local church want it can or cannot do. Is this simply congregationalism through the backdoor? Lawrence appears to want it both ways.

Second, there is the logic expressed about division and the role of doctrine in the church. Here, Lawrence shares how “inconsistent it would be with the doctrinal history of Methodism to insist that, for the sake of theological purity, the denomination must divide”; “neither schism nor the avoidance of schism will lead to the recovery of Methodism” (p. 61). And yet, earlier Lawrence writes that “churches recover from schisms (Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy have thrived in separation for a thousand years” (p. 8). Interesting! Other churches can thrive amidst schism, but Methodism can not? To be sure, Methodism has certainly had its share of division over doctrine, notably the doctrine of sanctification. And, yes, there is the concern over “theological purity” (a pejorative term?). And yet, the question remains: Would schism mean that Methodism would no longer thrive? History suggests otherwise. Schism is certainly not what the church wants, but schism does not necessarily mean the church’s faithful witness will cease. In fact, could it not increase?

These observations are not meant to distract from Lawrence’s contribution to the conversation now taking place throughout United Methodism. The whole metaphor of recovery and health is apt. Lawrence realizes that there is more than a “numbers” game with respect to the influence Methodism has had and will continue to have. The way Methodists have influenced the wider church and world is well-known. Lawrence understands that Methodism is more than the United Methodist Church (though it is curious as to why he doesn’t speak of the EUB or holiness roots at this point). He understands that the Methodist heritage is cumulative, especially with respect to the role of women and African-Americans. Here, Lawrence shines the light on Methodism’s less than healthy and faithful past!

Along with these positive insights, it is important to stress that Lawrence’s work on Methodism is a valuable diagnosis to what is happening throughout the connection. The recovery of Methodism will not simply involve what he is prescribing (as important as it is), but also a renewed emphasis on the significance of the sacraments (the mystery of the faith) and the return to catechesis (the centrality of doctrine). In addition, it will also involve the heart of Methodism’s passion: the workings of the Holy Spirit and the transforming power of God’s grace. Without these Wesleyan distinctives in the medicine chest (curiously omitted in this text) the recovery prescribed by Lawrence will remain short-term at best.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Perplexed about Wesley

The review below of Jason Vicker's book Perplexed about Wesley appeared in Good News Magazine last year.

“What makes John Wesley so perplexing?” That opening question sets the stage for Jason Vickers’ stimulating book. Associate Professor of Theology and Wesley Studies at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Vickers asks: How do we read Wesley today? The question has implications beyond academia.

What makes John Wesley so perplexing? For Vickers, three things stand out: First, despite Wesley’s insistence to preach “plain truth for plain people” interpreters over the years have argued otherwise. For example, though Wesley said he would not leave the Church of England many scholars believe that his actions pointed toward establishing a new movement, if not denomination; and though Wesley said he was a “High Church Tory” in a confessional state several recent interpreters maintain that he was really a proto-liberal democrat all along. Inconsistencies persist as well as suspicions.

The second thing concerns the age in which he lived. Scholars disagree about Wesley’s interactions with his times on several fronts, seeing him either as a reactionary who sought a “primitive” Christianity with miracles and demons to boot, or a thorough-going progressive adapting the faith to modern trends. Both perspectives buy into a common secularization theory regarding eighteenth century English society; however, as Vickers notes, both also fail to see the nuances and complexity of the age.

The third thing that perplexes the study of Wesley is the extent to which we fail to recognize the unity in Wesley’s theological, ecclesiastical, and political commitments. Here, scholars have difficulty with what they see as Wesley’s democratic impulse on the one hand and his hierarchical style of leadership on the other. Indeed, as Vickers states, Wesley was quick to say that Methodists were “no republicans and never intended to be.” In fact, often overlooked in this debate are Wesley’s skills in maneuvering Methodists between competing political loyalties and philosophies. It is difficult to know, for instance, given our own democratic proclivities, what to do with Wesley’s statement “mark the man who talks of loving the Church, and does not love the King.” Similarly, it is also difficult to know how to interpret his commitment to the monarchy with his view of unlimited atonement; that is, “the people have no role,” but “salvation is for all people.” Coherency in Wesley studies has been difficult to find.

Enter Vickers’case for the unity of Wesley’s ecclesiastical, political, and theological thought. Vickers opens his work with a brief overview of Wesley’s life. Students of Wesley will find nothing new here, though they will notice how Vickers navigates the terrain of eighteenth century England,depicting Wesley as a man of the Church of England and a monarchical constitutionalist. Again,nothing new,but it supplies a helpful review.

Chapter Two is the pivotal section, revealing how Wesley was a man of his times. Vickers states why reading Wesley out of context only leads to more inconsistencies while reading more into Wesley fails as well. Vickers’ key here is the Anglican stabilization thesis as a way beyond the perplexity: As an Anglican priest and supporter of the crown, Wesley exhibited a keen awareness of the need for the stability of a confessional church and state. By placing the Trinity and sacraments at the center of the Christian life Wesley not only sought to renew the church but cultivate stability beyond it. Therefore, Wesley’s political theology combines the essentials of orthodoxy with the spirit of generosity, maintaining both church and state on the one hand while allowing room for toleration on the non-essentials on the other, avoiding extremes on all sides. A thread of consistency begins to appear.

But the thread is woven tightly. Here, Vickers picks up Theodore Weber’s latest work, arguing how convincing Weber’s thesis is with respect to Wesley’s theological politics of a confessional state: Wesley’s High Church Anglicanism supports his Tory inclinations. However, Weber’s proposal also perplexes: Pointing out inconsistencies in Wesley’ political theology, Weber notes how Wesley’s hierarchical vision of God does not cohere with his understanding of constitutionalism; that is,if Wesley affirms that God is ultimately bestowing authority from above through the King, how can he also affirm authority from below through the people? If God has provided the benefits of salvation to all, how can only a few have rule? Vickers’final chapter sets the stage for his closing argument.

What makes for consistency in Wesley’s thought? The answer is covenantal Arminianism – the view that God intends salvation for all but that through Christ’s covenant on the cross repentance and obedience are also necessary; for without obedience there is no real faith, and without faith the universal scope of salvation goes unrealized. Therefore, as Vickers states, a strong compatibility exists between Wesley’s view of the atonement and his constitutional monarchianism: “Just as the constitution restricts the absolute power of the King, so the atoning blood of Christ constrains the absolute power of God. Moreover, because the constitution precedes the birth of English subjects, the rights and liberties that it grants can in no way be thought of as deserved. Similarly, because the covenant of grace precedes the birth of all people, its benefits are a matter of sheer generosity. In both cases, the appropriate response is "gratitude and joyful obedience.” Covenant, church, and constitution are all matters of divine gratuity, offering forms of grace before our faithful response.

What are the benefits of reading Wesley in this way? The first is honesty. Wesley resists easy conformity to the whims of our age. Dealing with Wesley on Wesley’s terms is a first step toward understanding Wesley’s gifts and limitations for the church’s renewal. Hijacking Wesley for narrow theological and political purposes is a non-starter. The many portraits of Wesley, while illuminating, must be kept in balance, whether dealing with Outler’s “folk theologian,” Rack’s “reasonable enthusiast,” or Synder’s “radical renewalist,” to name a few. Wesley resists historical conformity. The same goes for applying other frames of reference to Wesley as well; e.g., viewing him either as a proponent of “process theology” or as a proto-liberal of democracy. Vickers’ book helps in this regard.

Second is the link between covenantal Arminianism and divine providence. As spiritual director and evangelist, Wesley was able to discern God’s hand in the church and world; the Spirit was being poured out on all flesh. And yet, seeing God’s hand in all things, including Wesley’s theological, ecclesiastical, and political commitments, lends credence to the argument as to why Wesley stayed in the Church of England and yet led the Methodists: He realized that leaving either would be tantamount to turning against God.

At the core of Wesley’s faith was a robust vision of God’s grace, being realized in faithful obedience. It’s a vision that resonates today.

Vickers states in the Introduction that this volume is intended for a broad academic audience, especially students of church history, theology and politics. Fair enough, but it would be too limited. Wesley: A Guide for the Perplexed needs thoughtful reading among leaders in the church; that is, it needs the kind of reception that will rekindle our imaginations, reminding us all that what ties the various pieces of Wesley together (as well as ourselves) is God’s transforming grace, and that such pieces, while often in tension, do not have to be so perplexing.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Beyond Maintenance to Mission

Beyond Maintenance to Mission: A Theology of the Congregation (Second Edition), Craig L. Nessan, Fortress Press, 2010 (ISBN 978-0-8006-6326-1), 178 pp., pb $20.00

The focus on the church’s mission in a post-Christendom context continues to bring to the surface new questions about the church’s identity and the need to reflect on that identity within a theological framework. Craig Nessan’s second edition of Beyond Maintenance to Mission supplies a helpful resource to this growing conversation on the missional components of congregational leadership, practical theology, and pastoral ministry. As Professor of Contextual Theology at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Nessan builds upon his first edition by articulating a ‘theology of the congregation’ that revolves around two central foci: identity and mission (p.xii). His primary thesis is that ‘Christian congregations in North America are uniquely situated to serve as ‘centers of mission,’ both ministering to the needs of their members and carrying forth the gospel beyond themselves to their communities and world’(p. xii). Allowing theology and praxis to inform one another mutually is at the heart of how Nessan believes congregations may build upon the foundation of worship and how they may actively engage in vital missionary outreach to the world (p. xii).

Nessan structures his argument by outlining a model of congregational life that is centered in the worship of the triune God. As he states in the opening chapter: “all of a congregation’s identity and mission is grounded in what we profess and enact at worship’; ‘worship is given central place in this theology of the congregation’ (p. 7). Therefore, all the rest of congregational life needs to be understood as serving this core: with respect to identity by faithful practice of prayer, teaching, life in community, and stewardship; and with regards to mission by evangelizing, making global connections, building ecumenical partnerships, and engaging in social ministry (p. 7). Taken together, these nine components offer a comprehensive and dynamic approach to congregational ministry. As Nessan puts it, they offer the nine key criteria to measure and develop wholeness in ministry, with worship the thread tying them all together (p. 11).

After describing his basic ‘model’ of a theology of the congregation, Nessan moves on to offer the ‘method’ by which leaders may engage in the kind of contextual theology he envisions: listening (p. 15ff). Utilizing insights from Douglas John Hall, Tex Sample, and Robert Bellah, Nessan puts forth insights into how leaders may ask the right questions about congregational life in a North American context and how they might go about listening to the multiple stories involving congregational life, cultural situation, and biblical word (p. 17). All three of these stories intersect as leaders discern the Spirit’s movement amidst the warp and woof of congregational-cultural-biblical life settings (p. 23). And yet, according to Nessan, it is the mission of the Holy Trinity that undergirds the theology of the congregation (p. 29). Speaking out of his own Lutheran tradition, Nessan instructs readers on how they need to pay attention to God’s own activity in the sending of the Son and to the Holy Spirit’s movement in the shaping and guiding of the church (p. 30). Thus the real presence of Christ in Word and Sacrament forms the basis of congregational identity and mission (p. 30); the real presence of God’s instruction and exhortation through the Spirit is crucial if the congregation is to thrive (p. 36).

Nessan’s emphasis on the centrality of worship to congregational identity and mission provides several points for reflection. First, Nessan’s provocative chapter on worship as ‘imagining the kingdom’ supplies a refreshing basis for recapturing the power of the imagination in pastoral leadership. While others, like Walter Brueggemann and Craig Dykstra, have lifted up the importance of the imagination in terms of leadership, Nessan rightly connects the power of the imagination to the life of worship: to imagine is to enter into an alternative world that can profoundly shape and alter the ordinary world (p. 41). Imagination rests at the heart of ritual(p. 43). We are at the same time those who can imagine and those who actually receive the kingdom (p. 45). The interplay of these two factors engages both leaders and congregations in a powerful and life-changing ways. Nessan’s work invites more study in this area.

Second, related to this point is Nessan’s appropriation of the language of epiclesis. By the very invocation of God’s presence, we enter into ‘kingdom reality’ (p. 45); that is, the very mood of worship is one of epiclesis, invoking and imploring the Spirit of God to come and enliven us by its presence (p. 47). This is why worship is the single most important factor in forming Christian identity: worship mediates God’s energy that transforms congregations into centers of mission (p. 49). Thus the church’s ‘one long epiclesis’cannot be separated from the church’s practice of paraenesis, or instruction (p. 49). Worship and making disciples go hand-in-hand.

And third, with these above points in mind, Nessan’s book raises important questions about the immediate challenges facing the church in a post-Christendom context. Using Loren Mead’s ‘apostolic paradigm’ as a tool to understand our current ecclesial-cultural situation, and seeing the relevance of Bonhoeffer’s use of a disciplina arcane(literally ‘secret discipline’) for the making of disciples, Nessan’s work helpfully illustrates the significance of how the church in a pluralistic, often non-Christian world, needs to reconstitute its identity and initiate persons into the way of discipleship (p. 73). In short, there is an urgent need to recover the mystery or otherness of the Christian faith as evoked through the practice of an arcane discipline (p. 73). Such awareness can assist the church in a time of cultural transition. It can also assist in raising the right questions (p.81).

Nessan’s book is timely. The theological framework within which he operates is refreshing. Though this reviewer would have liked to have seen more emphasis placed on the ‘evangelizing church’ as an ‘initiating church,’ there is still a great deal Nessan’s boo does to connect worship with disciple making and reaching out and learning to speak the faith. He nicely outlines how all the various components of identity and mission ‘fit’ together. He is very good at drawing the ministerial connections to the Trinity and Incarnation. This alone is worthwhile.

Nessan’s book provides much food for thought among those who are currently seeking to discern the signs of the times and find solid theological substance for ministerial reflection. In addition, it supplies a much needed correction to the missional and emergent church movements that often get wrapped up in technique or trends. His work definitely can be used in seminary classes in the areas of missiology, congregational studies, practical theology, or pastoral ministry. As a second edition, it creatively reveals the kind of pastoral and theological wisdom we all wish more churches will come to embody.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Covenant Prayer

One of the most meaningful prayers in the Wesleyan tradition is the Covenant Prayer used in many renewal services at the beginning of the year. It is a prayer that reminds us of the importance of dedicating one’s heart and life to God:

I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt. Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside by thee. Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and heartily yield all things to thy disposal.

And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it. And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

We don’t think it is too hard to imagine that as Christians we are to make this prayer a significant part of our devotional life. Nor do we think that it is too difficult to imagine that we would want to see all people throughout the church pray this prayer with a deep sense of purpose: to live in joyful obedience in the power of the Spirit.

As we begin a New Year, we pray that we in the church will want to pray the above prayer in such a way as to reaffirm our covenant to walk as Jesus walked; for regardless of who we are, we believe we all seek to find ways of following the God who knows our hearts and who will give us more than we imagined.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The New Monasticism & New Methodists

Longing for Spring: A New Vision for Wesleyan Community, Elaine A. Heath and Scott T. Kisker, Forward by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2010), 104 pp.

It was amidst the ruins of World War II that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about the need to practice “a new kind of monasticism” in the church. With the churches in Germany seriously comprised Bonhoeffer realized how the church had lost the capacity to view “history from the underside” and the ability to speak in defense of the voiceless victims of terror. There was a need, he wrote, to find creative ways of practicing “life together” in community.

That need still persists. In Longing for Spring professors of evangelism Elaine Heath (Perkins) and Scott Kisker (Wesley) write about the importance of the new monasticism in the church today. Writing within the Wesleyan tradition, Heath and Kisker speak to how the church must not simply strive to ride the turbulent waters of change and strive for self-preservation but must also find meaningful ways to embody the good news to share with the world. The new monastic movement must develop imaginative ways of navigating these waters and explore new avenues of sharing a robust vision for Christian discipleship. Heath and Kisker want to engage the church in how the new monasticism may contribute to this ongoing conversation in the church and how the new monasticism may deepen life among what they call the “New Methodists.” Their work grows out of ongoing contact with this movement, along with a deep desire for renewal in the church.

Heath and Kisker divide their work into six chapters. They begin by sharing their own stories of faith (Chapter 1) and then move to offer two helpful chapters on Intentional Community and Renewal (Chapter 2) and Protestant Models of Intentional Community (Chapter 3). Persons familiar with the new monasticism will pick up on the Rule of Faith developed by Saint Benedict and the other forms of intentional community practiced throughout the church’s history – e.g., the Beguines, the Brethren of the Common, the Pietists, and the Methodists, to name a few. The next major section of the book deals with “What the New Methodists Want” and the need to develop a “Rule of Life” within the Wesleyan community (Chapters 4 & 5). Here, the focus is on the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition and the resources this tradition can provide for renewal in the church. With honesty and integrity, Heath and Kisker address what the “New Methodists” want and what they will mean to The United Methodist Church. Nothing less than developing a new monastic order is at stake, along with the concrete examples of what this order may entail for the future (Chapter 6). Heath and Kisker provide three helpful appendices and bibliography at the end that groups and churches can utilize.

Heath and Kisker’s Longing for Spring raises several issues that persons involved in the teaching of evangelism will want to note. First, with a great deal of resources now available with respect to the missional and emergent church movements, professors and practioners of evangelism will want to learn how the new monastic movement converges and diverges with these current streams of renewal in the church. Here, the notion of trend or fad comes to mind: Is the new monasticism something that will “stick” or will it come and go along with other forms of spiritual formation? Time will tell. Second, how may those within the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition converse with those who are part of the “New Methodists”? Heath and Kisker’s work opens up several doors for further discussion. The question now is, “How may this discussion continue in the days ahead?” Their ideas about the role of “anchor congregations,” their re-appropriation of the General Rules, their focus on the “marks of conversion,” their stress on integrating the new monasticism into theological education – all point to a promising venture. We can only hope others will hear what they are saying.

It is at this juncture, however, that an observation arises with respect to Heath and Kisker’s proposal: Longing for Spring reflects a deep yearning in the church for the retrieval of those treasures or practices that will assist in renewal. There is a sense in which they want the church to rummage in the attic to retrieve what has been lost. And yet, what is striking, at least with respect to the listings in the bibliography, is the advocacy of Phyllis Tickle’s metaphor in her The Great Emergence of the church having a “rummage sale” every five hundred years as new forms of church emerge (p. 82). Not to go down the road of total disregard of Tickle’s argument with respect to her underlying Gnostic assumptions regarding history, but a concern does arise over how the church wants to situate itself along the ancient-future paradigm: What are the governing metaphors that can assist us today in the work of renewal? That is, might we not want to have a moment when we clean out the attic to discover what we have lost rather than have a sale to sell off what we need? It would be a shame if the church put out signs saying “closed” or “half-priced” before seriously realizing what treasures are there to salvage and use.

Heath and Kisker’s work needs to be read in local churches and seminaries. It is part of the ongoing journey toward renewal that the church longs to see.