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Embarking Blog

...on the journey towards restoration of all things

Filtering by Category: Theology

Gordon Cosby


I'm not sure how I missed this (I guess it's been a hectic week), but Gordon Cosby from Washington DC passed away a couple of days ago. [Read Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove's article on Patheos here.]

I spent a little time with Gordon at the Church of the Savior in the past couple of years, and those few moments were transformative for me. Not only was I introduced to a truly missional church, but was amazed at the power of a small group of people to serve so many through self-sacrifice and deep commitment. From the planting of several churches and several non-profits ranging from a retreat center, a transitional home for women and children, Christ-based Child Care Centers to an innovative art center for inner city kids to a jobs placement center to a hospital for the homeless to a theological school to train servants of the gospel to a hospice for the homeless and those with AIDS and other illnesses to an affordable housing organization to one of my favorite coffeeshop/ bookstore/ diners (you can find a more comprehensive list here). This little band of gospel centered people discipled and shepherded by Gordon have loved the least of these in ways many of us merely talk about, and their impact is incredible. Their commitment to Christ, to each other, to the spiritual disciplines, to prayer, and to service is inspiring.

Gordon taught me many things in our short conversations. I heard him speak passionately about being people formed by the essence of Jesus, about the importance of the inward journey, about doing the gospel and the outward journey, about downward mobility, and about the power of a simple act of love done in the name of Jesus. Gordon talked about our addiction to culture rather than to seeking the essence of Jesus. He spoke of pursuing the questions and pressing into the God who is the answer rather than seeking answers in themselves. I was impressed by his ability to hold the evangelical power of gospel transformation together in practice with a deep commitment to social justice - a marriage so often divorced in the contemporary church. As we talked about that issue, I asked him poignantly about the loss of spiritual fathers and mothers for my generation, and he looked deeply into my eyes and pointed his finger... "You be a spiritual father to the next generation." Quite a challenge, and not what I was looking for. I was comfortable lamenting the lack of spiritual fathers, and he gave a simple call to action. He reminded me to stay focused on Jesus as the center - what he called "the essence" - which so easily gets lost in our doing and our addictions, and we so often don't realize we're losing his essence. I was privileged to have spent a few moments with him, and know that Jesus has said to him, "Well done, Gordon, good and faithful servant."

"We are addicted to knowing and doing, and I wish we were addicted to being."

"Let the artisan shape you."

"If we are going up the rope, and Jesus is going down, then we've missed him."

-Gordon Cosby, March 2009 and April 2010

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There is a lot of suffering in the world.

You can't miss it if you have your eyes open. There are people around us every day suffering from various things - heart-brokenness, loneliness, bone cancer, job loss, chronic pain, hunger, divorce. Someone I know just lost her baby while 7 months pregnant. Someone else I know just lost their job. Even here in America, there is suffering, but we haven't seen anything compared to the rest of the world. I don't mean to be callous in any way, but my cynical side chuckles a little when I think of the fiscal cliff language and the doomsayers, especially when it's compared to the Great Depression. Just remembering a few chapters of the Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck would tell us that we have a ways to go before we get even close to that kind of reality. Right now, the fiscal cliff sounds more like a concern over having to cut back on our daily Starbucks or having to wait to buy the next iPhone when it comes out. That's not Depression. We sound more like the whining rich kid than anyone dealing with real suffering.

My heart goes out to those who are really dealing with real-life suffering through some of the things I've listed above. Or those around the world (and this includes our neighborhoods) who are worried about not getting food for their children or clean water to stay alive. I think about people who die from easily preventable diseases and millions of people who live in garbage dumps. It's real to them. They have already suffered loss or are suffering or continue to suffer it or are daily living a life of suffering.

Part of the problem comes from the world we have made for ourselves - a world in which we spend billions of dollars to avoid suffering at all costs. We try to get out of it as fast as we can. We avoid it. I've been reading a book lately about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (BTW... did you know his name was actually Michael... and his father got baptized and renamed himself and his son after a trip to Berlin and the land of the original Martin Luther?) Anyway, here are a couple lines I read that struck me:

...he would make much of unmerited suffering as a means of spiritual redemption.

...Evil must always be resisted, but any suffering, however undeserved, that facilitates the good of the whole must be embraced. The acceptance of unmerited suffering identifies the victim with the purposes of God.

"Unmerited suffering is a means of spiritual redemption." "Suffering... must be embraced." Think about that for a moment. Those are not the kinds of values I was necessarily raised on.  I was talking to a friend the other day whose husband had cancer, whose best friend had cancer, and who lost another really close friend to cancer in her early 50's - who was also a teacher to my kids. How do we make sense of this battle against suffering that comes as a result of the broken and fallen world in which we live and yet embrace this sufferings as a part of our spiritual redemption? I've always struggled with this idea in the writings of Paul. Here is what he says in Romans 5:2b-5:

And we boast in the hope of the glory of God.  Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

Clearly to Paul, suffering is not something to be avoided at all costs, but is to be embraced as a part of our spiritual redemption. In fact, Romans 5 goes on to talk about the unmerited suffering of Jesus - the suffering servant - who bore the unmerited suffering caused by our sins upon his shoulders at the cross for our redemption.

In a world in which we do our best to build lives that guard us from all suffering, in which we seek to remove all suffering from our families and our bodies, in which we design every possible system to relieve us from suffering, we are called to a gospel - good news - that embraces suffering. And in many ways our suffering is merited because we have sinned, and we experience the consequences of sin all day long. Paul again reminds us in Romans 8 that even though we experience death all day long, we are still more than conquerors through our God who loves us in Jesus Christ who saves us.

I'm not sure we are to seek after suffering. I'm no sure we should embrace suffering as a great friend. But I do know this, that through the seasons of suffering, our faith is tried and tested and refined. I know that you can't manufacture the kind of character that is fashioned in the crucible of suffering. I know that you don't need a Savior unless there is something you need to be saved from.

One last thought: violence. Violence - even defensive violence - is often a natural response to fend off suffering now or potential suffering in the future. King's non-violent response to oppression and unjust suffering placed upon blacks during and before the Civil Rights movement (and still today) is born out of a deep theological commitment to join Jesus in the embrace of unmerited suffering as a means of spiritual redemption not only for the one suffering, but also for those who might be causing suffering or those observing. How we respond to suffering in itself is witness to our trust in the one who suffered much and overcame (King Jesus, not ML King). When we respond to suffering by violence, it may just be that we are missing a powerful opportunity to empathize with Jesus and so to become forged in a similar fire as he was.

Or maybe it's just late at night and I'm rambling.

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To Change the World or Not, that is the question (sort of)


That's not exactly how he phrases it, but James Davison Hunter in his recent book To Change the World: Irony, Tragedy, and The Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World questions the possibility of Christians really changing the world through intention.   It's not nearly that simple, particularly for this brilliant sociologist, but Hunter argues - among other things - that changing the world is a long, complicated process involving cultural elites and centers of power, particularly in politics, that run contrary to the biblical vision given to us by Jesus.  I've been reading this book over the past couple months and have finally brought it to conclusion, although I think I'll read it again.  In a nutshell, Hunter challenges the assumption that aggregated individuals through grassroots efforts can make any lasting or significant change in culture, particularly without wielding the very power of coercion that Christianity rejects. I think Andy Crouch from the Christian Vision Project sums it up well when he says, "The irony is that there is no phrase more beloved to a certain kind of Christian than 'to change the world.' But in Hunter's persuasive account, the strategies those very same Christians have pursued are, by themselves, woefully incapable of changing the world..."  "...the very idea of 'changing the world' is rooted in a quest for dominance that fundamentally misunderstands the Christian gospel and the way of Jesus."

Hunter goes on to critique the Christian Right (conservatives), The Christian Left (liberals or mainliners), and what he calls the "Neo-Anabaptists" made up of folks like Hauerwas, Yoder, Claiborne, and the New Monastics.  In this critique, Hunter betrays his philosophical (or sociological?) postmodernism in agreement with the likes of Foucault, Nietzsche, and others about language, power, and the coercive nature of culture creation.

There are several people who engage Hunter's work, not the least of which are Andy Crouch and Chuck Colsen (see the posts below) who ask some great questions.  What I found interesting was that nowhere (I'm sure it's out there somewhere) have I yet seen someone challenge the philological, linguistic, postmodern philosophical assumptions of Hunter's work.  Don't get me wrong, I actually agree with Hunter on these points about power and cultural transformation, but he doesn't fully tip his hands about the philosophical foundations of those ideas, choosing instead to shroud them more spiritually in the non-coercive, non-violent leadership of Jesus.  I happen to think these two things are very compatible, but haven't seen much work done to connect the two (which I'd love to do if I had the time).  Hunter does his sociological work as a Christian within a postmodern philosophical framework, but only acknowledges his indebtedness to the likes of Foucault at a cursory level hidden in the endnotes (yes, some of us do read them, cf. endnote 1, Chapter 4, Part I) and to Nietzshe with a short explication ofressentiment from Nietzsche and its relationship to Christianity in Chapter 7 of Part II.  Generally I find most Christians merely lambasting postmodern thought and philosophy without a) really understanding some of the seminal thoughts, b) seeing the ability to be a Christian and acknowledge some of these realities, or c) understanding how deeply these ideas affect issues of hermeneutics, missions, and even contextualization.

Don't get me wrong, there are serious problems with postmodern philosophy, postmodernity as a cultural project, unthoughtful "postmodern churches" and edgy "postmodern pastors".  But some of the more serious questions about our embeddedness in cultures of understanding based on would help us think through contextualization in mission, understanding of  power and language might help us avoid our sometimes coercive tendencies (in marketing, preaching, the use of guilt, etc.), and a greater honesty about our presuppositions and framing stories might help us get closer to real conversation with people about basic beliefs without mere condemnation and help our evangelism.  Recently Tim Keller told a group I was a part of that we need a new approach to apologetics, and I think this is part of it.  Hunter, in my opinion, opens the door to some of these conversations in a different (and potentially less volatile) way than Brian McLaren.

So, here are a couple wrap up thoughts on Hunter's book:

  1. This is a wonderful, scholarly work on how cultural change actually functions.
  2. This work requires additional study on these issues by Christians and non-Christians alike.
  3. There is much more work to be done in helping Christians to wrestle with some of these underlying issues of power, language, and culture (which, honestly, postmodern philosophy is mostly about).
  4. This analysis is extremely helpful in understanding many of the drawbacks of the Christian Right, Christian Left, and the Neo-Anabaptist approaches and their rooting (or not) in ressentiment (which, interestingly enough, was the subject of one of my senior seminar papers in 1994 dealing with Neitzsche and the will to power.)

Enough of that for now.  I have more to say, and if I find the time I'll write more.  Here are some helpful articles that give some more information about the book and Crouch and Colsen's responses.

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Poets, Prophets, and Preachers #pp09


I've spent the last couple of days in Grand Rapids at the Conference Poets, Prophets, and Preachers by Rob Bell.  Today is the last day, I'm really looking forward to it.  This is a preaching conference, and it's been great to be around mostly young pastors from around the world because this is a representation of the next generation of preachers - and they are on fire.  It's been a delight for me, too, to see some friends from our time in Ann Arbor who came up from Georgia and Alabama to be here, as well as to see friends from seminary and a bunch of other local friends, too. To the conference:  I remember when I first began hearing about Rob Bell.  I was a pastor in Ann Arbor, Michigan, working with college students when Mars Hill was really growing in the early years of this decade.  Many of my students were from Grand Rapids, and sometimes they would go home for the weekend - and their home church was Mars Hill.  They would often come back and say, "You gotta hear this Rob Bell.  You guys think about and say a lot of the same things."  That was fine and dandy, but I didn't realize then what an impact Rob was beginning to have and would eventually have on the future of the church.  These students would bring me stuff from services and I started to listen to his podcasts and eventually read many of his books.  So, I've been reading and listening to Rob for years.  3.5 years ago I moved to West Michigan to serve in a church just a few miles from Mars Hill.  Interesting thing about the history of this church.  During the rise of Mars, this church went through a huge crisis in leadership and well over 1000 people left the church.  Many of them went to Mars Hill.  In the last 8 years, we've lost many young adults to Mars Hill, not to mention many disaffected with the church.  Though I heavily lamented the loss of so many young adults to our church (remember, I was in campus minsitry in Ann Arbor for years), 2 years ago, I remember just being thankful to Rob and Mars for providing a place for our disaffected young adults and those who were hurt by leadership division.  So I thanked Rob and the church in a sermon for this, and called for a greater unity among the churches and our brothers and sisters in Christ who are seeking the same things.  I hope to see greater unity and cooperation with one another in our community in the future.

Now, I know that Rob has gotten a lot of criticism.  I, too, don't agree with all of his theology - even if I thought I could know what it always was or is.  I would venture to guess that my friends don't always agree with all my theology either.  But let me say this.  On a number of fronts, Rob has taken some hard hits.  One of those is that Rob doesn't believe in the resurrection, that he preaches just from the Old Testament and avoids speaking of the resurrection.  Now, let me just say this to my conservative evangelical friends (and I don't mean that tongue in cheek, you are my people in so many ways):  that's slanderous.  I have not heard recently a preacher more passionate about the resurrection than Rob Bell.  His teachings at this conference on the place or resurrection, the power of resurrection, and the lamb who was slain seated on the throne are in my mind orthodox without question.  Where some of you miss the point is that Rob is teaching a more holistic gospel rather than an often prefered abbreviated, truncated gospel of the contemporary evangelical church.  He is preaching way better than I could about similar things that I've written about often in these blogs concerning the holistic gospel.  Rob understands and is teaching what was visceral to me in my conversion through Paul's words "In him [Christ] all things hold together."

Sometimes Rob is alsosometimes said to be a universalist.  I'm sorry, that's also slander and just not true as far as I can see.  Sure, he believes that all truth is God's truth wherever it shows up, and that all beauty and all goodness are from his good creation and under his reign and attributable to him.  So do I.  That's not universalism.  In fact, those of you who are reformed should recognize the Kuyperian resonance and reformed theology that undergirds this as well as Rob's understanding of the wide breadth of the sovereignty of God.  Don't mistake innovation in words, culture, or even sometimes theology to necessary mean heresy.  Fear is the enemy of the good.

I have a lot more to say, but maybe later.

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