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At the Church of the Brethren staff retreat last week, former Bethany Seminary president Gene Roop led an awesome biblical study of texts on “Radical, Compassionate Discipleship.” I forgot how fun it is to have texts broken open like that, and to read them in community!

We studied a couple of narratives, and then turned to the poetry of Isaiah 55. It was, for many in the room, a rough transition. Poetry is harder to get into, harder to understand, and besides, we were attempting it right after lunch, during prime nap time.

But something Gene said made everyone in the room perk up: “Discipleship that dissolves into duty,” he said, “will never last. But discipleship grounded in poetry can not end.”

I love that. It says to me (much like the content of Isaiah 55 – check it out) that God’s plan for the world and for the church is not always linear, does not always make immediate sense, and takes a little extra effort to get into. It reminds me that God works in ways that are not always what I would prefer, but in ways that – once broken open a little – make such a beautiful and unending pattern that its grace is almost incomprehensible.

It reminded me, again, that I participate in the life of the church not because I am duty-bound to do it, but because I continue to believe and expect that God is doing beautiful and transformative things through Her poetic presence in the world, and that I get to be a part of that.

What reminders of poetic discipleship have you encountered recently?

In her new book, Lit (which I highly recommend), Mary Karr details her path to sobriety and faith. She stumbles into God, prayer, and the Catholic church at the insistence of both her sponsors and her 8 year old son. The practices that finally embrace her are the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises – including the Examen (for a low-key Protestant introduction to this, check out Sleeping with Bread).

I love the Examen, and when I share it with young adult volunteers, they latch onto it immediately. But I’ve been working on a project with a couple of young Catholic women, and at the very mention of Ignatius or the Examen, they let out immediate groans of boredom. Raised in Jesuit practice and attending Jesuit colleges, they’ve been Examen’ed out. For them, spiritual practice is old news, but for me and for a lot of young Brethren, it’s not something that I learned much about in Sunday school.

So, my question for y’all is: What spiritual practices have you found and incorporated in your life? How do Brethren pray?

I heard it again today:  The Church of the Brethren is more anti-intellectual today.  I have to admit, I don’t buy it.

From the beginning, Pietism contained a reaction to overly intellectualized belief.  The egalitarianism of the Spirit countered the elitism of scholastic thought.  Yet, this was hardly a rejection of rigorous critical thought.  Even the quickest read through the Pietist writers of the 17th and 18th centuries reveals a tradition in the hands of an intellectual class.  To have read scripture and written with such attentiveness required a standard of education above the social norm of the day.  Even if there was sentiment against learning, clearly today’s level of education would be far beyond that of the early Pietists.  Just because the typical pew sitter cannot define hermeneutics, identify the latest theological terms, or even know the ideas Derrida or Hauerwas does not mean they are anti-intellectual.

Such a historical review is a task for another time.  Rather, I would like to explore the impact of perceived anti-intellectual on the tradition of the Brethren.  What if this anti-intellectual turn, if there is such a thing, is really a failure of leadership?  I am not suggesting that each pastor or DE should be publishing in the latest peer reviewed journal, but simply that there are fewer and fewer forums for clear intellectual and creative expressions of the Brethren tradition.  Here are some questions about this “Anti-Intellectual” effect:

  • As we in leadership set the bar below our congregants, what will they learn?  How will they grow intellectually and spiritually?
  • If we in leadership are not presenting a model of faithful thinking, who are the models for their spiritual and intellectual formation?
  • Is the “anti-intellectual” card a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, which ends up reifying a divide between the laity and the elite?

As an alternative, I want to present a new theory of counter-intellectualism.  There is clearly a wider phenomenon of “simple folk” in American culture.  I do not think this is a rejection of critical thought but rather a push-back against elitism, against a way of being critical which imposes on the other.  In this interpretation the “lay” response is a means of protection against a learned class which “knows what is best” for the populace, and imposes that vision on it.  In the Church this is like a cancer.  It freezes the laity into a stagnancy and locks the intellectuals in their heads.  A fissure becomes a chasm, and the unity of the Church prayed for by Christ disappears into the resulting darkness.

A similar phenomenon was recored in the early desert literature.  As the second generation of desert ascetics was maturing, a question arose about the nature of God.  Basically, two camps emerged.  The first, following the Genesis narrative, believed God to have a human form.  The second, and more philosophical, rejected that idea.  Instead, God for them was best thought of as beyond human form.  After a pronouncement by the local bishop condemning the first group’s theology, a monk emerged from his cell in tears.  His reply was simple.  “They have taken my God away from me.”

In our present dilemma, that is the result to be avoided.  Our choices are not between thoughtfulness or simplicity, but rather between spiritual transformation and bifurcated isolation.

Friends, this is partly a self serving post. I am beginning a Doctorate of Ministry program at Wesley Theological Seminary in a few days, titled Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue. But it is also true that as we move through the liturgical seasons, I am reminded of the unity of the church that Christ brought into this world. Advent is no different. Christ brought the reconciliation of humankind and God into this world. So, as I delve into readings for this program, and also consider this message, my thoughts also turn to the role of the Church of the Brethren in the larger picture of the movement toward the unity of the church, and the ecumenical movement as a whole.

Many of you also know that this is my day job as well, working for the National Council of Churches, of which the CoB is a member communion. But just what does this mean?  What does being a member of a council of churches mean?  Michael Kinnamon, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches (who spoke at this summers Annual Conference, continually insists, “the NCC is not an organization (churches) have joined; it is a covenant they have made before God with 34 other communions to mankfest the oneness that is our gift – not our achievement, but our gift – in Christ.”

So, my questions: as members of the Church of the Brethren, what does this actually mean?  What do we gain by striving for the unity of the church? What do we bring to the table? What does it mean for our unity, our oneness, to be a gift we are seeking to make manifest?