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Mission | Noah Stepro

Noah Stepro

Noah Stepro

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Interstellar: The Burden of Vision

Last week I got to see interstellar… I still haven’t made up my mind about what I think… But I definitely think something.

Besides weirding me out and giving me that “don’t think about the space time continuum/ flux capacitor/cluster flub” – the film stirred up al kinds of thoughts about leadership.

Interstellar-Ending-Explained-Time-Travel

Interstellar spoiler

The most frustrating thing about watching interstellar was watching someone with clairvoyance of the future be impotent to change the present. There is a burden that comes with vision… vision is the nonnegotiable of good leadership. Good leaders see where a group, company, family or movement is and where they need to go and calls for changed birthed from vision. But if you are in capable of changing the current circumstances, choices, or prejudices, vision can be the greatest burden a leader can carry.

Many of us have been in positions where we’ve seen what needs to happen but have been a minority of opinion when it comes to how to move forward. The black hole scene where McConaughey is trapped viewing the past without a way to effect the outcome haunted me for days after viewing it. In terms of cinematic power, the movie could have (and possibly should have) ended there. The poignancy of the movie seemed to rest in our inability to change the past based on what we know in the present.

While the film focused on the future it played with the terms future, past and present to the point that they were all interchangeable based on the time in which we are talking about them. The frustration we all experience at wishing we could change the past is the same lament leaders go through in moments of clarity and foresight.

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So what are our options when we can see clearly into the future but realize we are powerless in the present?

1. We can escape. The maxim in poker is to know when to fold ’em. The sad reality is there are times when we need to stop trying to help people and just set up boundaries; when we need to leave the company that is fledgling; when we must stop supporting a movement or candidate because we can see where it will all end.

2. We can give in. Easily the worst of the options. This is when folks refrain from blowing whistles on corrupt companies because they will lose their paycheck; when countries become Nazi collaborators because they fear the consequences; when abusive leaders remain in power because no one wants to rick the boat.

3. We can form resistance. Just because we realize we cannot affect change where we are does not mean that we need to become apathetic and complacent. We can strike out in the revolutionary ways of rebellion: prayer, confrontation and reform.

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This isn’t just at a corporate or political level…I’m thinking of someone standing up to and resisting a group of friends bent on destruction, a spouse committed to dysfunction, a church no longer following faith, an education system committed more to bureaucracy than students. At the end of the day none of these options lessen the burden of leadership, but resistance does lighten the feeling of apathy, complacency and corruption that come with serving a group, person or system that we know to be wrong.

 

 

The End of Adulthood in American Christianity

Sunday morning has typically come to mean two things in America: Church or Sports. This bifurcation of leisurely and religious pursuits in our culture is a development of the past 20 years…and it is a major sign of the end of adulthood in the American Church. A. O. Scott recently published a profound and possibly prophetic article in the New York Times entitled “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture” in which he suggests that we have witnessed the death of the mature male lead in pop media. This is a long developing trend in American literature, film and tv in which we see fulfillment come through friendships and personal journeys of adventure and rebellion, not the deep challenges of relationship and responsibility. What started as organized rebellion against injustice and stifling of creativity mutates a generation later into “bro comedies” of idle consumerism.

Put another way:

“We are an immigrant nation. The first generation works their fingers to the bone making things. The next generation goes to college and innovates new ideas. The third generation snowboards and takes improv classes.” -JACK DONAGHY

 

The general malaise of adulthood in American culture manifests in Evangelical Christianity in pronounced ways. Scotts’ thesis perhaps clarifies feelings of decay that many in the church have sensed for a long time. Between the declining percentage of self-identified, practicing Protestants in America, the shrinking number of churches in our landscape and the feminization of religion (70% of church participation is female) in the West it is no shocker that things are amiss in the Church at large. For every reason the Church identifies for it’s decline we create solutions with buzzwords: Missional, (Neo) Reformed, Emergent, Social-Justice, Etc. While all of these groups/movements care about this pandemic and address various symptoms of decline, rarely do they penetrate to the cause of decline; perhaps the root cause of decline in American Christianity is a lack of maturity among Christians?

In Scotts article he identifies several signposts of perpetual childhood in American Culture; these signifiers are often alive and well in the American Church:

Fulfillment is found in among peers

Away from the overview of mothers and lovers, the modern “man” finds happiness in the challenge free environment of friends that “play” and “adventure” with their energies.

When we survey men in the church do we see something different? When we listen to men addressed from the pulpit do we hear another narrative offered? Preachers typically offer either a “try-harder spiritual chauvinism” that is found in the complementarianism of the Neo-Reformed, or the complacent validation of the status quo. Men need to be better, try harder and lead their families by making unilateral decisions and having lots of sex with their “smoking hot wives”; or they are offered a patronizing version of Christianity as a cultural rubber stamp that pats them on the back for drinking beer, watching football, voting republican and being “Christian”.

The problem with both of these narratives is that they envision maturity for men through the lens of individualism. Individually men are supposed to “lead their families” and take on responsibility. We are typically offered the unattainable challenge of being perpetually responsible and competent or the impotent invitation to validate the life of comfort we find easy, but unfulfilling. We rarely merge these together with the additives of guidance and wisdom from someone beyond our peer pool. For the church to mature we need formative and involved discipleship. We need peers, but we also desperately need mentors.

Adventure and rebellion prolong maturity

The American male protagonist is most at home on the road or embroiled in rebellion against a cause. Adventure and rebellion can be a great rite of passage but, as Scott outlines, when this becomes our place of abiding rebellion quickly erodes to tantrum and adventure retreats into irresponsibility. The riddled angst of A Street Car gives way to the “bro comedy” of The Hangover. The entropy of American Christianity is driven by the gravity of comfort…we give up on the challenge of the road but embrace its lawlessness.

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Where is this alive in the Church? Do we give up on the struggle of maturity, self-sacrifice and accountability but embrace the “journey” of spirituality…taking our time to “find ourselves”.  Scott argued that “grown people feel no compulsion to put away childish things.” Have we structured out the drive for maturity in our own churches? Paul warned against this to the Corinthians: “When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11). Has the idea of “spiritual journey” and “self-help” Christianity lead to a crisis of maturity in the Church?

I don’t mean to single men out in the spiritual “journey” of self-absorption…but we need to realize men and women, generally speaking, are at different points in their spiritual devolution (as it relates to and corresponds with American culture). Women are a step behind in their descent into egocentrism…the female of today is facing the same post-coming-of-age transition American men found themselves in during the 80s and 90s. They are encouraged to embrace the “me” mantra of feminism and find the self-actualization offered in contemporary spiritual traditions. As feminism meets our long standing belief that women are naturally more virtuous and faithful, biologically inclined towards religion, women become the heroes of the Church…selflessly pursuing righteousness, family and holiness while we celebrate their spouses just showing up on a Sunday. In the culture of Christian self-realization, family and “holiness” can easily translate into image, success and pride.

Where do we remedy this? In community! Experiencing faith, serving others, pursing reconciliation with committed friends pushes us out of the nest of self comfort and into the maturity of the other-centered-life. Making faith explicitly communal stretches us from our singular, individualized spiritual journey and places us firmly in the narrative of the Kingdom. We find accountability, leadership, challenge and guidance when we try to grow with others involved in our process of spiritual maturity.

Existentialism breeds contempt

I recently wrote a blog on the Maslow Hierarchy and our need to seek intellectual fulfillment , often at the expense of our physical and emotional  needs. In American culture we can see the digression from the existential quest of the 1960s and 70s into the narcissism and self-absorption of the 80s and 90s into the sarcasm and cynicism of the last decade and a half. It appears there as been a similar trend in Church sub-culture over the same period. The general openness and rebellion of the Jesus Movement gave way to the seeker-sensitive mega trend of your-best-life-now spirituality (see below). This inward focused narrative of Christianity then produced a now emerging generation of “missional” practitioners who are disillusioned with power-Christianity and self-actualizing, Jesus-is-my-boyfriend worship. Questioning these polemics of power and (sometimes) abuse/coercion is a health movement and deconstruction can remove toxic elements to the religion. However, the void of this discontentment often becomes a breeding ground for cynicism.

What this looks like in most churches today is the act of spiritual voyeurism – we watch from the sidelines, without engaging in the maturity process. Our intellectual development allows us to critique everything from worship music and theology, to community and transparency. When we engage in this trend of snarkiness we are grapes left unplucked, criticizing the tannins and fruits of every vintage safely from beyond the boundaries of fermentation. We are not called to have sophisticated language of critique or developed prose of argument, but to keep with repentance that will bear fruit. In an age where we are used to making judgments about  restaurants based on Yelp or classify people from a Tinder account without any encounter, is it any wonder we do this with God and community?

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Our voyeurism keeps us safe from engagement and challenge. Can we move out from our gated communities of ideas and join the neighborhood of practitioners? Embodying practices that aim at formation over information, experience beyond explanations. When churches first seek to live Scripture instead of memorizing it we see spiritual growth; when we seek to be mastered by doctrine, instead of master it we see transformation. When we stop passing judgment on entire groups of people and insist on engaging individuals, we are no longer free to distance ourselves from our neighbors and live in false self-righteousness. When we give guidance by the Holy Spirit priority over strategy and skill we remedy the cancer of cynicism with the treatment of vulnerability and the antidote of openness. Vulnerability…true vulnerability produces humility and openness to change…to repentance…something we need greatly if we are to grow.

There is no silver bullet

The actions and values we proffer as “mature” are often some of the most infantile of masks. We will never bear fruit that matures unless we seriously examine what we currently consider mature and healthy. If churches are going to be places that nurture, grow and reproduce the life of Jesus in their members we should stop offering diets of emotional candy and spiritual junkfood. Stemming the tide of consumerism is the beginning point to address immaturity in the Church, but we need a clear picture of what it looks like to be an adult in the way of Jesus…we need leaders willing to be vulnerable and transparent, willing to walk hand-in-hand with people through the adolescence of life, willing to live a life of shared community as an extended family on mission together.

We Want What We Don’t Need…And We Like It!

“What you want is not what your need”

I testify to this maxim with some many parts of my life:

  • Diet: I need to be healthy and fit…I want Animal Style Fires
  • Purchases: I need retirement and a savings account…I want a trip to Paris
  • Knowledge: I need to learn more about the Greenback party (for the class I teach)…I want to read more about the latest political scandal
  • Time: I need to finish painting my house…I want to finish watching the last season of Homeland

We could go on; you can plug your own needs and desires in here. The point is that what we want is often different from what we need. Abraham Maslow famously penned his hierarchy of needs in descending order:

The Maslow Hierarchy

  • Self-Actualization
  • Self-Esteem
  • Affection
  • Safety
  • Necessities

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The Maslow Hierarchy shows our level of need – with things like self-actualization (creativity, originality, morality) and esteem (confidence, relationship with others) taking much more space in our lives than the pursuit of our basic needs for survival (this is only true in developed countries of course). In our poorest moments we spend vast amounts of capital and time on existential pursuits at the cost of our basic needs…purchasing expensive rims for luxury cars when we don’t have health insurance or buying scratchers and top shelf liquor while our children wear tattered clothes. These are exchanges of safety and necessity for esteem and self-realization.

The Welfare Inversion

The twist comes in our modern welfare state. Our federal benefactor provides our basic needs in part through cheep imitations that leave us in a heightened state of insecurity and scarcity. For example, we receive the illusion of safety through the stimulation of foreign war and the abdication of our personal freedom; we receive the illusion of provision through subsides of GMO foods and agro-industrial manufacturing; we receive the illusion of affection through endorphin releasing simulations of sanctioned pornography or tariff free, globally produced goods. Whether it is a $100 iPhone that should cost $2000 dollars or a $1 burger that should cost $11 we mollify our basic needs through the cheap substitution of subsidized products and experiences. The production of cheep foods in the US liberates more of the average income to pursue the higher “needs”; however, these same productions cost us in the quality of our lives by causing obesity, heart disease and cancer. Without these subsidizations we would be forced to center a greater amount of our capitals on basic needs…which may produce a greater degree of happiness and satisfaction.

Spiritual Feudalism

The spiritual realm is not so different. The world of churches has often turned into a realm of spiritual benefactors…providing goods and services for a populace that eagerly consumes them. Mike Breen calls this spiritual feudalism…alluding to the dynamic of client/patron relationships that take place in Western Christendom today. Churches often provide the illusion of spiritual depth, genuine faith and Christian living that indebt the client to the church while pacifying the actual needs of the soul. The false provision the Church proffers often corrodes the living soul. Purchasing the product of premature spiritual authority and realization means we will never actualize our spiritual  potential through the longue durée of following Jesus; acquiring the goods of a self-help or prosperity Gospel directs that we will never ascertain the depth of character found in the spiritual sojourners life. In an age of online sermons, digital worship, NYT bestselling books, and multiple satellite services we can curate our spiritual oeuvre to own liking and to our own detriment.

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 The Solution

How do we overcome the malaise of our multifaceted, postmodern, spiritual mural?

  1. The Church: We must cease functioning as a platform of competition for the religious affection of clients. If we are concerned about numbers we can play games and fish in one another’s ponds. We can continue the illusions of growth and depth to the detriment of the “client”…attempting to ever lure Christians into a better system of goods and services.
  1. The Consumer: I was once told “we don’t know our needs until they are met?” If this is true, it means we are responsible for seeking greater spiritual depth…to test the merit of our spiritual intentions against the profundity of Scripture and Spirit. Are we content to satisfy our hunger on GMO $1 burgers or are we longing for the depth of Spiritual food? The Apostle Paul called the church in Corinth on this in his first letter: “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready” (1 Corinthians 3:2).

As long as we are comfortable with the provision of cancer creating, disease inducing food that is filling at a cheap price we will never be free of disease and premature deaths; As long as we are comfortable with the provision of cancer producing, spiritual pandering that creates spiritual dependents, we will never be free of the spiritual impotency and weakness that leads to consumerism and hypocrisy. If you look at the hierarchy that Maslow laid out…only after focusing on and realizing our basic (spiritual) needs will we realize our greater needs for realization and identity. We need a faith that is ready for the long haul of life in Jesus, awaiting the trials of trust and discernment and producing the determination of the committed, not the consumer.

(SLIGHT SPOILER ALERT…SLIGHT)

“Family supper at Burger Chef”…This is the brilliant, enticing line for the new fast-food franchise the men and (more prominently) women from Madison Avenue are selling America at the closing of season 7 of Mad Men. This is why we love Mad Men…able to sum up the allusive and leering reality so many of us feel by packaging feelings and fears in order to sell the hope of security, peace, family, and fulfillment we all desperately desire. The secret-sauce (slight pun) is that the sales people proffering such a dream are the very antithesis of the very product they are pushing.

 

For Mad Men fans, we have been through 7 (6 1/2) seasons of ups and downs (mostly downs) with these characters…and one consistent theme that emerged from the first time we saw Don giving his Kodak Carousel pitch to the melt-down with the Hersey’s rep…SPIRITUAL HEALTH MATTERS IN THE WORKPLACE. It is as if AMC created an 85 episode melodrama to convey the importance of soul care and the dangers of the pursuit of wealth, power and sex all any cost.

 

Some friends of mine at 3DM recently published a short book on the idea of Oikonomics…that is the economic exchange that places value in every aspect of our lives, not just our financial worlds. The premise is brilliant and it is one that the likes of Don Draper and Roger Sterling would do well to take note of. In the human economy we have at our disposal five capitals, or resources, to which we can spend and gain as we leverage one or two of them for greater quantity of the others. They are in ascending order:

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  1. Financial Capital (Dollars and Cents)

  1. Intellectual Capital (Concepts and Ideas)

  1. Physical Capital (Time and Energy)

  1. Relational Capital (Friends and Family)

  1. Spiritual Capital (Wisdom and Power)

 

We all poses in different measure and pursue these by varying importance. We are also called by Jesus to invest what we have and leverage it to gain the things that matter the most in life…The Kingdom (Mt25.14-30 and Mt13.45-46). I was not born with a high degree of financial capital, but was inherently given a great deal of relational capital from the church I came into as a teenager. I received investment from others and in turn invested in some folks around me…years down the road those relational investments have produced a return in financial, intellectual and spiritual capital. The people from Sterling Cooper certainly have a great deal of Financial and Intellectual Capital…but they are physical, relational and spiritual bankrupt. This is the ultimate ethos of the show.

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This is also why these capitals have an ordering to them…financial capital is very important, but if you don’t have the intellectual power to manage it, it is useless; if you have no time or energy to use your financial capital or relational equity to spend it with what good is it? If you gain the world but lose your soul what good is it? Is this the not-so-subtle message Bert Cooper gives up in the closing of our half season as he is singing “The Best Things in Life Are Free”? The idea behind Oikonomics is that the best things in life do not cost money, but they do require a costly and very worthy investment.

Don Draper and the Economy of God – Oikonomics

How Much Is Your Church Like A Mosque?

This past Friday I took the plunge and attended the local mosque here in the Antelope Valley. I’ve visited a few different religious houses of worship – a synagogue, a Buddhist temple, a Hindu temple, Catholic mass, many Protestant churches and some naturalist gatherings (does D&D count too?), but I’ve never been to a mosque. A friend of mine is in a comparative religions class right now and mentioned he was going so I jumped on the chance…telling him I have always wanted to, but was a little chicken to go on my own. I was surprised by the similarities and differences between Christian worship and Islam. Here are some similarities and differences:

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Similarities

No one listens to the announcements: is this not true of your church? No one listens…I often give announcements at Kairos and I don’t even listen. We have tried to stop doing announcements…but they are cancerous and return after you think you’ve eradicated them. No, it doesn’t matter what religion or creed you are…no one cares about your announcements.

Sermon trajectory: while this isn’t (I hope) true of my church, it is persistently present in many Christian churches…the sermon started with a note on love and being grace filled (my language) and moved swiftly to “you need to try harder”. Isn’t this often where Christian churches land…the “be better” sermon?

Reverence and irreverence: there was a very sanctified air walking in…it is silent, most people (men) don’t talk with each other but rather take a spot on the floor and pray. This is unlike evangelical churches…however, as the service went on people shuffled in late, not-so-quietly greeted the friend they were sitting by and then left early. This last part is pretty true of most every church and religious group around – there is always a mix of reverent and flippant followers. Wasn’t this true for Jesus?

Food: many churches have a potluck together, others have coffee, in our home churches we eat a meal together every week, the Lord’s Supper is a meal of sorts…this is a great element to have that many churches downplay. They have a full meal together after the service and a large space to eat at. There is a strong element of community and commonality that comes from eating together.

 

Dissimilarities

No shoes: quite an Asian element…as you enter the mosque you take your shoes of and enter barefoot. In face, many facets were culturally foreign to the West – incense, Arabic writings and spoken language, floor seating. Some of these (barefootedness, communal seating) could be wonderful in a Christian service if they were more culturally accessible.

No greeting: not in the Christian church setting – someone is waiting to tell you Asalaam Alaykum (peace be upon you) and you are to respond in-kind. But that is about it…there was no informal greeting or introduction, no place for new visitors to find out more information or fill out some communication. Actually, maybe that should go in the similarity section.

Acapella singing: there was the traditional call to worship, the adhan (Allahu Akbar), is lead by a male congregant. Outside of that there is no communal singing and no instruments. The entire service was beautifully simplistic. Made me feel that often we are over-produced and overly complicated in postmodern Christian worship.

No women: they were there, but not during the service they were sequestered in a different section. There is certainly no element of equality or equity of the sexes. Now, that is also true of many Christian churches (though, once again, not mine)…but they are too cowardly to own outright their misogyny. I wonder if this is actually an appeal to Islam…you do not have the same feminization of religion?

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There are my takeaways…there was no sense of darkness or evil, no hostility and no pressure to conform. Overall it was quite the tranquil experience. I was impressed with the seriousness that the community takes their rituals (purification, prayer, posture) and it made me wondering how contrite we are in the rituals of Christianity (singing, Communion, etc.) I think the biggest take away was the connection between religion and culture. Both Islam and Christianity are “universal” religions…i.e. they are not tribal or ethnically centered. However Muslims are tied to a geographical location (Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem) and to a language (Arabic)…this is evident in the religious service and the tenants of the faith. While it is clear to me as an outsider how culturally contained Islam is, it is not quite so clear how culturally defined and limited Christianity or my particular expression of it is. I don’t have enough distance to gain see things in parallax. Where are the “stumbling blocks” of culture in the Western church today? They are no longer adherence to Latin or Rome, they are no longer ideologies of a “new Jerusalem” or Victorian mores. But maybe they manifest in the ideas of democracy, gender ideologies, literacy, etc.? What do you think culturally constricts the church in the West today?

Christianity has achieved apparent success by ignoring the precepts of its Founder.

-H. Richard Neibuhr

Michael J. Fox, Imago Dei and the Church

The moment Michael J. Fox latched onto the back of a moving jeep and drifted his way on a skateboard to his band rehearsal my lifelong, man-crush began. He was the epitome of cool and every time I see his IMDB repertoire I sing to myself “That’s the Power of Love…”. Needless to say when NBC rolled out a new comedy centering on Fox I was thrilled. The show was a fresh take on the postmodern, family comedy because it incorporated a frank portrayal of adjusting to life with Parkinson’s. Watching the first episode I was mesmerized…in part by Fox and the sharp writing of the show, but also in part by the disorienting nature of watching a life-crippling disability honestly depicted on primetime T.V. As much as I love Fox and commend NBC for moving bravely in this direction, I was surprisingly uncomfortable the first time viewing it.

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Why was I in such discomfort? Why are we as a culture so unsettled by disability? I recall the controversy surrounding Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial several years ago. FDR was paralyzed from the waist down, but we chose to hide/ignore his handicap while in office. When it came time to erect a statue of the President there was a strong push to model him standing up instead of sitting in a wheelchair (how he actually spent his Presidency). We find this uncomfortable because disability calls into question our self-sufficiency and insolation like nothing else. Pop media (as well as “church culture”) has cultivated and reinforced the idea that we are worth what we (independently) produce and contribute to said culture. However, we are told in Genesis 1:26-27 that all humans are made in the image of God, the Imago Dei – but so often we misunderstand what that means. This is apparent in my response to Fox and his disability and I think it is endemic of our cultural and theological malaise. If Fox and any other human living with physical handicap is made in God’s image what does that tell us about our own design and purpose, our culture – both pop and church, and about the nature of the Creator? A theological paradigm that takes seriously those disabled amongst us presents a series of polemics to expand our spiritual depth and capacity:

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Hyper-Individualism v. Communal Love and Dependence (Trinity)

The Fox show seriously challenges our hyper-individualistic approach to spirituality by highlighting the dependence of the shows protagonist on his community and family. The basis for reorienting our understanding of the Imago comes through the very nature of who God is. Bishop John Zizioulas suggest the nature of the Trinity provides the key to a holistic paradigm to understanding the Image of God within all of us: ​

Throughout the entire history of Western thought the equation of person with the ​thinking, self conscious individual has led to a culture in which the thinking individual ​has become the highest concept in anthropology. This is not what emerges from the ​thought of the Cappadocian Fathers. True personhood arises not from one’s ​individualistic ​isolation from others but from love and relationship with others, from ​communion… This is true of God whose being is constituted and hypostasized through a ​free event of love caused by a free and loving person, the Father, and not by the necessity ​of divine nature.

Thus the paradigm of community is an integral piece to understanding the Image of God. The inverse could be stated that where we are driven into deeper isolation we are driven further from the Image and Presence of God. Disability becomes illustrative for understanding our design and purpose. Most physical and mental handicaps require a dependence on others…to be created “male and female” reflects the communal, Trinitarian nature of God. To live with disability is to live with others (family, doctors, care givers, support networks) in your life. The autonomy by which we typically define personhood is challenged when we are incapable of fully caring for ourselves. The communion and love of the Trinity then suggest three powerful ways to redress our thinking – they are represented by different members of the Trinity.

Self-Aggrandizement V. Humility in Worship (Father)

One of the greatest weaknesses in Western thinking is our idea of “blessing“. If we get a new car or a job we are #blessed and God’s providence reigns supreme. But when life is falling apart God is a distant watchmaker, we are surprised Deists. Historically many theologians embraced this convenient fatalism with a reductionist approach to the Imago Dei. Thomas Aquinas offered a definition of the Imago that only includes the mentally healthy –

it is clear, therefore, that intellectual creatures alone, properly speaking, are made to God’s image.

This echoes Augustine as well as many if the church fathers but of course (as Luther pointed out) this means Satan is more in the image of God than infants and those with sever mental impediments. Jesus challenged this inconsistent, perverse theology when addressing the man born blind from birth in John 9. Having a disability is not a sign of God’s disapproval, nor is physical health a sign of God’s divine blessing and direction. Fox challenges this fatalism by the fact that he is “good” at his job and “good” at his family. This perspective points to the absurdity of death and illness as it correlates to our spiritual prowess or theological alignment and it calls to a proper positioning between us and God the Father. Disability comes from dissonance with the Father, not as a direct or specific punishment or result of a failing.

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Presence v. Productivity (Son)

The word “image” in the Imago Dei means “idol” – (צֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים, tzelem elohim). This implies that first and foremost we are the shadowy representation of God on earth…if someone wants to encounter God they can do so through God’s image – men and women. As such, we share in a responsibility to rule and shepherd with God through our inherent gifts. But what does it mean when our ability to “rule”, or subdue, or multiply, or create is diminished or removed? Fox’s story on the show is in part about him returning to try his task as a top billed news anchor. He quickly realizes that while he can still perform his job, it will not be the same as it was prior to disability. One of the major hurdles Fox faces is the challenge of identity. Without being able to rely on his own abilities and skills the security of self-created identity, of writing his own story, disappears. That journey is so representative of our plight as humans. Don’t we equate “identity” with “duty”? We need to shift our perception of envisioning the image of God in light of disability by realizing we are more than our tasks, professions, spiritual gifts or ability to produce! The Imago Dei comes from all seven days of creation, not just the productive ones. We are called to abide and be present without producing. Jesus emphasizes this over and over again in the Gospel of John. Perhaps the cringe of living with the handicap begins by confronting our incessant need to link our value to our productivity.

Mental disability asks us to be present without always being conversant. Whether it is autism or trauma and attachment disorder, those with disabilities are not always able to communicate or socially relate to God and the Church in conventional ways. Does this mean they are not full members of the Body of Christ or fully able to encounter God? In prayer we are often presented with the challenge of conversation without response, listening without answers. In a church body, if we can’t contribute and function in the typical ways of leadership and volunteerism are we weaker members? Scripture answers a resounding NO! A theology of personhood in light of disability and the incarnation moves us away from the “vending machine” model of prayer…”I say these prayers; you give me this” (which is a form and practice of idolatry) and towards a model of spirituality that is more relational and incarnational. Jesus displayed the glory of God in a moment of absolute disability – God on the Cross is God with us…a model for our being.

Abstract Religion v Embodied Relationship (Spirit)

The very notion of an “image” implies embodiment – the personal nature of dealing with the embodiment is highlighted in the way we are invited to relate to God. Moses is told God’s name, Yahweh, when he is called to relate to him. I think one of the greatest let downs of the journey of Israel is that they replace the personal name of God with the impersonal “LORD”. Too often we keep God and others at arms distance, moving from the personal to the impersonal. In Western Christianity there is a propensity to abstract Jesus and wax esoterically and intellectually instead of worship personally. I’ve stopped asking people if they are “Christians” – I find the term ethereal and unhelpful. Instead I talk in language of “following Jesus” – it is a subtle shift, but one that changes the rules of the game. One cannot theoretically follow Jesus, you can only actually follow or not follow Jesus. To quote Scott McKnight:

Those who aren’t following Jesus aren’t his followers. It’s that simple. Followers follow, and those who don’t follow aren’t followers. To follow Jesus means to follow Jesus into a society where justice rules, where love shapes everything. To follow Jesus means to take up his dream and work for it. ― One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow.

When we encounter the disabled we are forced to move from an abstraction to a personal encounter. On the Fox show, all pomp and formality is challenged when Fox reenters the workplace. It is hard to take policies and procedures too seriously when people with physical and mental disabilities come into the picture. Fox challenges the Hollywood image of perfection and photoshop – demanding we look at him as a person, not as a personality.

Similarly we often engage matters of disability as abstract problems to “fix” – hence FDR and the Wheelchair. A half-century after his death we are still trying to “fix” the cripple. This can happen theologically as well…I’ve sadly heard Christians remark after a miscarriage or a small baby dies that we will meet them in heaven…AS A FULLY GROWN HUMAN! This get’s extend to those with mental disabilities…”they won’t have Asperger’s in heaven”. The problem is we have an underdeveloped understanding of the Imago Dei and the telos of the Kingdom. How do you magically replace someone’s personality in the afterlife? The telos we are moving towards sees all wrongs righted, but does it erase the wounds of our earthly reality? That would diminish the power of redemption – the scars in Jesus hands would suggest that is not the future reality.

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Jesus brought in healing and wholeness to the lives of those who approached him, but healing only happens in and through personal encounter (i.e. Jesus and the quadriplegic, Peter and John outside the temple). To locate the Imago solely in the spirit without including the body both denies our physical reality any true importance and promotes an abstraction that says “the Image is so distorted in the severely disabled that we need not take them seriously now” (but one day it will be restored). I suggest it is fully present in even those with the most severe of disabilities. The Holy Spirit beckons the church to engage one another personally and relationally and embrace, rather than deny the personhood in our disabled brothers and sisters. Living with a disability is a formative thing…while the physical may be healed, the marks or memories of it will be with that person…because they embody it. One thing I love about the Fox show is that there isn’t a strong focus on “fixing” him, nor do they reduce his role to that of someone living with Parkinson’s. I don’t think our heavenly father treats us that way, nor does he want us to treat his body (the one that was broken and crippled) with pandering abstraction. What does it say that pop culture seems to be more progressive and inclusive than many churches in America today? Conversely is it not telling that the show is now being cancelled. It is not for lack of talent, writing, production or advertising…could it be for lack of comfort? Is it hard for us to tune in on Thursday nights and face our own mortality and weakness?

 

I drew from some brilliant thinkers, scholars and practitioners such as John Goldingay, Stanley Hauerwas and Henri Nouwen

2-2-14 The Image of God Disabled

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If our community is to embrace the disabled as being made in the image of God we are called out of individual, self-relying, self-reinforcing “religion to a communal, dependent, embodied relationship with God and each other.

Leaving Your Church: 7 Road Signs to the Exit

I find myself having a disproportionate amount of conversations with friends discussing the benefits and pitfalls of leaving or staying at one’s home church. If you are worried about the divisive nature of this blog, it is actually the follow up to a post I wrote on “How to Choose a Church“. Having recently left a couple of churches and now church planting myself I have, what I hope will be, some helpful musings. I am not in any way trying to advocate people leaving their communities of faith because they are bored or their church isn’t perfect. There is no perfect church! As the maxim goes, if you find the perfect church don’t join…you’ll ruin it. However, the sad reality is that far too often local churches stop functioning as the living body of Christ and they become His corpse; the Bride of Christ can habitually become the harlot. When this happens an exit is usually (though not always) in due order.

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There are several helpful blogs out there on why people leave churches, how to leave a church and poor reasons for leaving a church (an odd source, but mostly good advice). If this is something you are considering, please peruse those first as this is not a light matter. However, I have yet to find a blog addressing the excuses we use when staying at a church we should leave. A good practice would be to ask yourself these questions to see if you are still at the church for the right reasons. Following are a few of the reasons given for staying at a dysfunctional church…I’ve tried to rank them from most understandable to least:

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  1. “I am staying to be an agent of change.” – Very admirable, but often foolishly optimistic. Assess your role in the community, the degree of influence you actually have and the type of polity your church practices. In top down groups that are not a part of larger denominations or networks with some oversight it will be next to impossible to change what the senior leadership does not see fit to change; in a congregational church it may be equally as difficult but for different reasons. If a church has not attained the marker of health it is typically because the leadership was derelict in leading – whether that is the senior team or the church elders or the congregation…more times than not, the people that got the church there will be the people that keep the church there.
  2. “I’m waiting for a sign.” – Nothing wrong with God giving us a sign…but sometimes the sign is called logic and common sense. My wife reminded me of the story of the man who drowned at sea and asks God: “Why didn’t you save me?” God replies, “I sent you three boats!”
  3. “It’s convenient.” – Whether it is geographic location or service times, what we are really saying when we put these things high on the priority list is: “I have a lot going on in my life God, if church can’t fit around my schedule it probably isn’t going to happen.”
  4. “I don’t like change.” – A valid, but sad reason. 80% of our population dislikes change…that means to some degree, 80% (if not 100%) of church parishioners make choices based on their comfort level.
  5. “There are still good people here.” – Unless you are involved in a cult of stupendous magnitude there will always be good people at even the most dysfunctional of churches. Leaving is not conveying your dislike of the good people; in fact it can be one of the most loving acts towards that community…especially if you are calling some of those good people out of dysfunction and into health. When I left as the youth pastor of the Desert Vineyard this was the hardest part of disembarking…but ultimately I had to trust God was leading me and trust that He would shepherd the students that I was leaving behind.
  6. “The Gospel is being preached.” or “People are still being saved.” – Many churches have excellent Theology, it is their Ecclesiology that is lacking. Don’t mistake theological accuracy (teachings on God and the Bible) for ecclesiological accuracy (the calling and equipping for mission and discipleship).
  7. “My friends are there/I’ve gone there forever.” – Tantamount to declaring the church a social club, you most definitely need friends in your home church- but, it should go deeper than that…your church should be your extended family. But friendships in and of itself are no reason to stay at a church.

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There are so many good reasons to stick it out at a church. In our culture we typically devalue commitment, fidelity and longevity. But that doesn’t mean you should continue living with your spouse if they systematically and repeatedly abuse you.

These are a few reasons/rationales I have heard on this subject…there are so many more…what are your stories and experiences?