Sunday, January 24, 2010

Other Stories! What is the commom denominator?

This week we had an interesting “sermon”. Instead of the usual, we watched a video from Willow Creek produced about 10 years ago. Pastor Bill Hybels presented a series of questions to a panel of representatives from some of the world’s most influential religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and Christianity. The questions were designed to highlight differences between Christianity and the other faiths represented. I noticed a common denominator that ran through all the stories of those represented; be good to your fellow man! This indeed highlighted a basic problem of humanity; unkindness to one another, in all its various forms. The flip side of this is really selfishness and pride, thinking of oneself more highly than others. I saw some truth in each of these world views, and an honest attempt to deal with that truth. For several years I have been contemplating the “essentials of the faith.” What is the minimum one needs to know and do to be acceptable to God? Coming from a fundamentalist Baptist background, we had quite a list of doctrines and practices that were essential to agree with if one wanted to “belong” to the congregation or denomination. For me, and possibly for many others, that list became a distraction from the core or basic beliefs of Christianity. The list had value, but was assembled by men in a systematic way, with the intent to help us be acceptable to God, just like the Pharisees did in Jesus’ day. The list was to guard our purity, and that it did for me, at least outwardly, during my formative years. For this I am grateful! It was my “school master”. As a missionary in Honduras, I hosted several visitors over the years, with whom I engaged in discussions of faith and practice. I often asked our guests to list the essentials of their faith, comparing theirs with mine in a sometimes spirited discussion. I found that over the years, my list of essentials became shorter and shorter, as I interacted with people from various backgrounds who demonstrated a vibrant faith, but lacked some of the points that I had on my list! How could this be? Maybe my essentials were not quite so essential after all! That has led me on a quest to find that common denominator, the basis of our faith, the bare essentials that are necessary to make one acceptable to God. Being a Christian, much of my search has included the Bible, and a sorting through many of its various interpretations. What intrigues me most at the moment, is the faith of the “outsiders” to the mainline lineage of Abraham. We can begin with Abraham, the Father of many who have faith throughout the world. Abraham had a revelation from God, and responded appropriately with obedience. We have a great bit of detail about Abraham and his descendents. But there are others, on whom the story of the Bible does not focus, yet intersect with the story of Abraham and his descendents. What is the rest of their story? What about Melchizedek? What an intriguing individual! A priest king, out of nowhere! What drew him to God, and elevated him to a position of religious leadership? What was his source of revelation? He had Creation, but did God speak directly to him? He certainly was acceptable to God! What did he teach his followers? What did he believe and do? His faith was outside of the Judeo-Christian norm and lineage. Then we have the magi of the Christmas story. Another group of very interesting men whose faith was so strong they undertook a sacrificial journey to present costly gifts to a king whom the rest of the world missed, even those with the sacred scriptures in their possession! What was the source of their faith? They certainly were acceptable to God, or I must assume so from their place in this amazing story of God becoming man! Then, we also have Cornelius, the pagan, Roman military leader, in the book of Acts who prayed and gave alms to the poor. Cornelius understood that there was a God worthy of his recognition. He also somehow knew that he had a responsibility to the poor. He clearly was noticed by God! What he was doing was acceptable to God! Is this a hint at the common denominator, a recognition of a Creator God who we are responsible to, which results in beneficial actions toward the creatures that bear the image of that God? Some might argue that Cornelius wasn’t quite yet acceptable, that he yet needed to accept the message of Jesus, which was presented to him in a pretty dramatic fashion. But I wonder, was he acceptable before he knew the name of Jesus? He knew the Creator Jesus, just didn’t know his proper name and some details. So, I continue to wonder what the common denominator is! What are the basics one must know / do to be acceptable to God? I have a few ideas. Thoughts from Athens, Dave Drozek Jan 24, 2010

Sunday, January 17, 2010

"Journey to the Center" considered As I read this article, which my former mission supervisor shared with me, I saw great potential for discussion, and wanted to pass it on! It brings to mind many questions, some which have been raised before in our discussions. Please read the article, and add your thoughts to the blog ! Questions that come to mind: 1) Does Jesus show up in pagan worship? Can someone be worshipping Allah, for example, and encounter Christ? 2) Is there something deceptive about being covertly Christian, or is this simply contextualization? 3) Is there essential vocabulary to Christianity that can’t be avoided, such as “Jesus”, “sin”, “the cross”? 4) How might certain Christian concepts be contextualized, such as “sin”, “redemption”, “incarnation”? 5) What is the next step? Now there is a following, should there be a church? Should there be an invitation to commitment, to baptism, to membership? What should this church look like?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Evangelism Revisited

As I continue along my “conversion” journey I once again am visiting the idea of evangelism. I refer to this as my “conversion” since this is indeed a restructuring of my world view. This is what God is calling us to when we are told to repent, to be converted; to change our way of thinking, to realign our thoughts with God’s thoughts.

I must first pause and acknowledge some of those who are so vital and influential in this process: my students. I meet for breakfast with several groups of students who graciously discuss the various topics that I am wrestling with as I progress in my pilgrimage. They may think they are learning from me, and maybe they are, but I am benefiting from them far beyond that which I give! Their intelligent, insightful, thoughtful and critical ideas have brought to light many flaws in my thinking and given direction to new avenues to investigate and consider.

Most recently, as we have looked at the conversion experience of Paul, as discussed in Foolishness to the Greeks by Newbigin, my paradigm of evangelism took a comforting turn. I have long been dissatisfied with the canned approaches of evangelism that I have been taught and used, such as The Four Spiritual Laws, The Romans Road, and Evangelism Explosion, to name a few. I believe we are to be about the business of making disciples and spreading the Kingdom of God, but something seemed amiss. Bringing someone to a point where they said a prayer, asking Jesus to be their “personal” savior seemed to be missing something. It seemed to ignore or minimize the Kingdom message of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere in the Gospels. Of this I have written elsewhere, and won’t here review in detail. (see A Different Paradigm attached)

But, from looking at Paul’s conversion, a couple of important things surface. First, we need to communicate Jesus words in the heart language of future disciples. Unfortunately, we who have been Christians for any length of time have adopted our own vocabulary and lingo with words like saved, blessing, fellowship, sin, repent, etc. which we throw around, expecting others to understand. Some even go so far as to quote antiquated translations of the Bible that have little resemblance to the way anyone speaks today. Yet we expect people to “catch our drift” and join the effort.

Secondly, we need to broaden the scope, or change the focus of our call to conversion. The canned presentations mentioned above focus on personal sin. Jesus message certainly includes confrontation of personal sin, but goes far beyond this, dealing with community / global issues as well. As I read the Sermon on the Mount, I see some serious discrepancies between what Jesus is teaching and what many “Christian” individuals and organizations are promoting, supporting in the political process or modeling in practice.

So, what should evangelism look like? Here is what my current thinking is.

As followers of Jesus are about the business of living out the Kingdom, living lives that are so in contrast to the world about us, living in Christian community, caring for the needs of those around us, and also living lives of integrity, we will attract attention from people who are curious or sympathize with some of our efforts and causes. (Could this interest be the image of God within them that seeks fulfillment, or maybe the call of the Spirit of God, depending on your theological bent?) When we see interest in those who are not followers of Christ, let’s invite them to cooperate with us in the work of the Kingdom. As they become curious about Christ, let’s direct them to the Sermon on the Mount in some contemporary version, like The Message (attached above). A discussion could then ensue including questions like, “Is this the Jesus that you thought you knew about? Does Jesus’ teaching challenge / fit your world view? Is this a Jesus that you want to learn more about?”

I would not “push” the issue of “sin”. I would rather wait for a discussion on discrepancies between what we see in society around us, and how we personally participate in the world view that is in conflict with Jesus’ teaching. This sense of discrepancy leads to a definition of sin: things that don’t measure up to God’s standard. This then should naturally flow into a discussion of conforming ones thinking or world view to that of Jesus (conversion or repentance, without the strange vocabulary). This would include a discussion of personal choices that are in conflict with Jesus’ program for humanity (sin).

What about the cross? That comes later as one explores Jesus’ life and teaching. This, after all is the sequence Jesus followed as he presented himself to his disciples. He invited them to follow his Kingdom teaching before they even knew he was the Messiah, and certainly before the cross!

So, at the risk of replacing one canned presentation with another, this is how I currently would invite someone to consider becoming a follower of Jesus. This first of all requires a commitment on my part to be exploring and living out the life of Christ in community as an example. Secondly it requires a de-emphasis on a point in time decision or prayer, at least early on in the process. At some point there hopefully will develop a desire to make a commitment as one explores the Christian story, but let’s not rush this or see this as the goal, or as an endpoint! Discipleship doesn’t have an endpoint. Thirdly, and possibly the most difficult and uncomfortable element for U.S. Christians, this requires a commitment of time in a relationship.

I welcome your thoughts and criticisms as I continue to explore and refine my world view, hoping that it continually becomes more like that of Christ!

Dave Drozek

December 2009

What is Truth?

As I begin reading the New Testament and the People of God, by N. T. Wright, I need to process the information that I am presented with. This is my attempt to summarize what I think I am reading. I don’t know if I fully agree with this as of yet, but it is intriguing, none the less.

Biblical interpretation can take several directions. Ways to classify the Bible include as 1) literature, 2) history, or 3) theology. Each has its strengths and its weaknesses. There are nuances to these approaches that differ depending on the age (pre enlightenment, modern, post modern) in which the interpretation was performed. (This is a very simplistic approach to many pages in the book!)

N. T. Wright supports an approach that draws from the strengths of each of these, which has been entitled “critical realism”. This method recognizes that the interpreter always has presuppositions which influence his approach to scripture. A wise interpreter will recognize this, allowing himself to reevaluate his presuppositions in light of his interpretation, which will likely change his presuppositions, which again will change his interpretation, and so on in a never ending spiral. Interpretation then is a dynamic process, influenced by ongoing encounters with the text and by the environment (education, culture, associates, etc.) of the interpreter.

But how does the interpreter determine truth?

The process described is actually similar to the scientific method, but without the “objectivity” we usually think of. There are a series of narratives, or stories that we live by, that describe our world view and influence our actions. We are presented with a world view by our upbringing, which we (re)evaluate throughout our life. We may recognize that our story has some weak points that don’t quite explain our experiences or “facts” as we see them. We may ignore these discrepancies and cling to our story, we may modify our story, or we may possibly look for a new story to adopt or adapt.

This is a dynamic ongoing life process. As we live, we form a series of hypotheses on how things should work based on our story. When we see that a hypothesis works, it strengthens our loyalty to our story. When it doesn’t work, and we are honest about it, we reevaluate. We are in effect putting together the jigsaw puzzle of life, seeing how the pieces best fit together to create the final picture. When they don’t quite fit well, we have to keep looking for a better fit.

More technically, we see the process as an interaction and tension between data and simplicity. Our hypothesis needs to consider all the data that pertains, including or rejecting the data as relevant, and then developing the simplest story that fits the data. As more data becomes available to us, we need to evaluate its applicability, and modify our story accordingly.

In the end, or at least for the time being, we each declare loyalty to the story that in our experience and with our presuppositions, works best for us. Our faith then, is really fairly pragmatic, but hopefully moving us toward the ultimate truth that exists in the Creator.

This is not to say that all roads lead to God, and that all stories are equally valid. If there is absolute truth, only the stories that are in alignment with truth are valid. But the only way for us to determine which stories fit the data, is to try them on for size, or as N. T. Wright says, “the proof is in the pudding”.