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Life Together in Christ

Two of the most “overpromised, underdelivered” aspects of church life are community and transformation – so says Ruth Haley Barton in the opening pages of Life Together in Christ: Experiencing Transformation in Community, and I’m inclined to concur.

Barton has learned from experience, as you likely have as well, that “it is possible to hang around other Christians a lot, meet regularly for worship, study our Bibles, join a church and even call ourselves a community but not change at all in ways that count.”

Rather than settling for life without community and transformation, however, Barton makes the case that our best chance at experiencing a measure of both is to pursue them in tandem, as two sides of the same coin. “Spiritual transformation,” she writes, “takes place incrementally over time with others in the context of disciplines and practices that open us to God.”

Life_Together_in_Christ_1024x1024Fundamental to spiritual transformation, she goes on to say, are three things held in common: shared understanding about what it is we’re pursuing; shared language for speaking about the process; and a shared commitment to making transformation a priority in how we orient our lives.

If transformation is to be Christian in any meaningful sense of the term, it will not end with us. In other words, it will not only be a matter of the heart, though it may very well begin there. That’s because, in Barton’s words, “Spiritual transformation results in an increasing capacity to discern the will of God so we can actually do God’s will in the world. This is how spiritual formation and mission come together in fruitful synergy for the good of all.”

And as we become the kinds of people who are able to discern and do the will of God in the world, we’re able to help others figure out what God has called them to do and support them as they accept “God’s risky invitations.” She continues:

We might even discover that there is a shared mission God has in mind for us as well – something we are called to do together for the sake of the world. Then together we will learn how to live within a constellation of beautiful paradoxes that are held together in creative tension. Love for God and love for neighbor. Solitude and community. Silence and word/Word. Prayer and action. Work and rest. Discerning and doing the will of God. Formation and mission. Just like the disciples who journeyed from Jerusalem to Emmaus and back again, we will learn how to move into the center and out and then back again; and at every point along the way, Jesus’ presence is there, causing our hearts to burn within us as we walk the road together.

That’s a beautiful picture of what “life together in Christ” looks like, if you ask me. It doesn’t change the fact that Christian community and spiritual transformation are woefully elusive for so many of us. But if nothing else, let it remind us that our longings to experience life together are God-given. As such, we can move forward in faith, believing those longings are not in vain.

Header image: “The Road to Emmaus” by Daniel Bonnell via fineartamerica.com

Responsibility and Reform

“The saints are responsible for the structure of the social world in which they find themselves. That structure is not simply part of the order of nature; to the contrary, it is the result of human decision, and by concerted effort it can be altered. Indeed, it should be altered, for it is a fallen structure, in need of reform. The responsibility of the saints to struggle for the reform of the social order in which they find themselves is one facet of the discipleship to which their Lord Jesus Christ has called them.”

— Nicholas Wolterstorff, Until Justice and Peace Embrace

Header photo via faxo.com

Making Violence Untenable

One of the best, most important books I read in 2014 was The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence by Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros. My review appeared in PRISM, and I followed it up with two posts here as well.

The book was warmly and attentively reviewed by publications like The Economist, Stanford’s Social Innovation Review, Books and Culture, and outlets across the spectrum, ranging from The Gospel Coalition to Sojourners. It’s a rare book that manages to do that.

But in case such commendations from me and others don’t bump the book to the top of your reading list, here’s the next best thing. In a TED Talk just released this week, Haugen effectively conveys the gist of the book. I don’t think you’ll regret taking 20 minutes to watch it.

Guaranteeing a Respect for Mystery

“I have heard it said that belief in Christian dogma is a hindrance to the writer, but I myself have found nothing further from the truth. Actually, it frees the storyteller to observe. It is not a set of rules which fixes what he sees in the world. It affects his writing primarily by guaranteeing his respect for mystery.”

— Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose

Header photo via photoforbeginners.com

Six Lessons from MLK

Earlier this year, around the time I saw the unforgettable film SELMA and while many of us were doing some soul-searching following the tragic deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, I read the autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the weeks since I put it down, I’ve continued to reflect on King’s remarkable life. It may have made more sense to post this on a day when #MLK was trending, but better late than never, I thought I’d share six lessons that have stayed with me.

1. Faith. First of all, I was reminded of the central role that religious faith – and Christian faith in particular – played in the civil rights movement. This is a point that was driven home to me a few years ago in Welcoming Justice, a wonderful little book by John Perkins and Charles Marsh, the latter of whom argues: “Only as long as the Civil Rights movement remained anchored in the church — in the energies, convictions and images of the biblical narrative and the worshiping community — did the movement have a vision.” Thanks to King’s leadership, the movement maintained that foundation for many years.

MLK-BOOKS-autobiography2. Restraint. During SELMA I marveled at the remarkable self-discipline that was evident among so many of the civil rights movement’s leaders and participants. Think of the restraint of Annie Lee Cooper (played by Oprah Winfrey) in the scene when she tries, once again, to register to vote. She does everything the law requires of her and then some, but the registrar – who personifies a racist, unjust system – continues to intimidate her and thwart her efforts. He can deny her the right to vote, but he is unable to take away her dignity. At several points in King’s autobiography, I was struck by the transformative power of “turning the other cheek” – something that so many contemporary movements in the name of “rights” completely miss.

3. Specificity. One of the underlying aims of the civil rights movement – if not the aim – was to say and demonstrate that, in King’s words, “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics” are made in the image of God. As such, every man, woman, and child is a person of equal value in the eyes of God. But in order to reach this aim, King knew the movement had to get down to specifics, so they marched and went to jail and were killed while emphasizing specific things that served to dehumanize and oppress – hence targeted campaigns involving buses and lunch counters and so on. Vague generalities about human dignity wouldn’t get local officials to budge. But campaigns with tangible economic ramifications – coupled with vivid images in newspapers and TV screens – did. And what started small and city-specific soon changed the national landscape. “Cities that had been citadels of the status quo,” King wrote, “became the unwilling birthplace of a significant national legislation. Montgomery led to the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960; Birmingham inspired the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and Selma produced the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”

4. Rhythms. When considering everything the civil rights movement accomplished during a relatively small window of time, you might assume that King and other leaders worked nonstop. In his autobiography, he doesn’t go into a lot of detail about what he did to relax and recharge, though there is no doubt that prayer was instrumental. But when you consider the timeline of his adult life, you notice that there were months, and even years, between major campaigns. Even if these periods of time weren’t spent vacationing in the south of France, it seems he understood the need to periodically retreat from the limelight.

5. Leadership. During marches, King was at the front of the pack. This was good for photo ops, to be sure, but it also meant he was the first to receive blows from police billy clubs. He was the first to go to jail and in many cases the last to leave. True, it does seem there were some issues and conflicts between him and other leaders of the movement, and those are as essential to King’s story as his virtues. But at his best – at the movement’s best – King led by example, not from a cozy command center in some secure location. A leader is not greater than the movement.

6. Personhood. King understood that victims and perpetrators of racial injustice were both enslaved, and therefore both were in need of being set free. He put this eloquently in his speech in Montgomery, which is portrayed near the end of SELMA: “Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man but to win his friendship and understanding. We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. That will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man.”

Header photo via thenewjazzarchive.com