How do we as young adults and church leaders engage with social media sites? While this might seem like an innocent enough question at first, with seemingly easy answers (I use site x not site y, etc.) in actuality it’s much more complex.

I was recently at a local blogging workshop where they were discussing institutional involvement in social media (aka social networking). The presenter was speaking out of his experience working with colleges and universities that are trying to be more active in connecting with prospectives, students, and alumni using current and emerging social media sites. One example that he gave was how the chancellor of our regional campus of Indiana University (IU East) is using Twitter to make a personal connection with people, in addition to several other IU East-related Twitter feeds.

While I was impressed by how well IU East has integrated social media into their public relations, I immediately I started thinking of how different this is from how I use social media on a regular basis.
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We’re halfway through the season of Lent, and a recent conversation with a friend has me thinking about the purpose of Lenten fasts and practices. “It just makes me so mad,” he said, “that people would give up something for a few weeks only to hit it harder when Easter comes.”

I get the cynicism, but I am a fan of Lent. Honestly, it’s my favorite liturgical season (and yes, I realize that having a favorite liturgical season makes me fatally nerdy). Lent seems to create an atmosphere of anticipation – as if, were we able to dive deeply enough and honestly enough into the pathos of the journey to the cross, then we might just be able to experience the unspeakable joy of the resurrection.

Barbara Brown Taylor talks about Lenten practices as wandering out into the wilderness:

…if you have spent a lot of time and/or money trying to acquire whatever it takes to grow your soul without seeing any new buds, then maybe a little spell in the wilderness is worth a try–a few weeks of choosing to live on less, not more–of practicing subtraction instead addition–not because your regular life is bad but because you want to make sure it is your real life–the one you long to be living–which can be hard to do when you’re living on fast food and busyness…

Brethren have long embraced the idea of living on less. We practice simplicity – I think – because it keeps us mindful of “the life that is really life.” In that light, a Lenten fast might be a very Brethren thing to do. Are you keeping a fast this year? Is it growing your soul?

Hey y’all.  First of all, registration for YAC is up – be sure to sign up, it would be great to see you all there.  For that, and for the Spring edition of the YA newsletter Bridge, I was asked to reflect on our scripture for the weekend – Romans 12:4-8 – and the idea of community.  I thought this would be a good place to share that – and I would love to hear your thoughts.

“For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another (Romans 12:4-5).”  What in the world does it mean to all be members of the body of Christ – to be individually members of one another?  At first glance, it sounds like an odd sci-fi flick.  The image that pops right into my head is something out of the Matrix, with all of humanity hooked up to a machine to make it function.  But that can’t be right – there is no individuality there.  So, what does this look like?

Here is how I like to picture this, and it is grounded in how i think about God as Trinity.  I imagine the Creator, Son, and Holy Spirit, all in one space, dancing around each other.  The energy created between them, the way you can’t Identify one without seeing the other – that is the essence of God.  But they each serve different roles in bringing the reality of God to us here on Earth.  God the Creator, maker of heaven and earth.  The Son, the redeemer, through whom Creation is brought back into relationship with God.  And the Holy Spirit, sustainer, giving us the real presence of God through which to live out our call as followers.  God is, in God’s very essence and being, a community.

In much the same way, we are called to be a community – the community we create and live out is the real body of Christ on this earth.  And much like God, we all bring different gifts to the table.  Some of us are missionaries, some of us are teachers, some of us are preachers, some musicians.  Some tend the buildings and grounds, some make sure the day to day operations happen.  But what happens when we all dance together, unable to be identified without each other, is that the energy between us brings forth the living Christ and the Kin-dom of God.  We each manifest that reality in our own ways, with our own gifts – and when brought together, we can do amazing things.

But, goodness, this is not easy.  Not a chance.  It is hard, it is radical, and it takes an incredible amount of trust and love for those around you.  It is especially hard for young adults – we rarely stay put long enough, for one thing, to build this kind of community with those around them, and we are also trying desperately to live into our own individual identity, to carve out our own lives, that the community can often get lost in the mix.

Yet, we know it is what we are seeking – it is what fills us, sustains us, and gives us hope.  It is when we feel and know the real presence of God among us – when we are involved in that intricate dance with others, calling God forth.  It is what it means to be church – anytime, anywhere.  William Placher writes, “The last word about things cannot be power if God is love.  And in love, equality need not imply identity.”[1] We are called to live into the love of God that runs so deep, it is the energy that is who God is.

So, join us for YAC 2010, and walk with us as we explore exactly how this happens – trying to define what it is, how you seek it out, how you build it, and how you maintain it.  It is what it means to live in the presence of the Triune God – Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.  It is the calling forth of God’s kin-dom on Earth, and witnessing to the risen Christ.

[1] Placher, William C.  The Triune God:  An Essay in Postmodern Theology.  Westminster John Knox Press.  Louisville, KY:  2007.  pg. 151.

My son is at that stage where he loves to ask questions. We can’t sit through a single minute of an Olympic event without engaging in a dialectic about what “that man on skis” is doing. Some times its fun. And at others, well, its a little annoying.

What I love about it though is that nothing can be taken for granted. This past week, I had my theological limits put to the test at my uncle’s funeral. You can’t pull anything past my son, and it only took a few minutes for him to catch on that “Uncle Bill” wasn’t sleeping. I was glad he asked. And I am glad I could be there to answer what he wanted to know. That way I knew he was getting a real answer and not some pithy dismissal that are too frequent at funerals.

Those exchanges pushed me to think about where we get our theology. Because my son was asking similar questions about heaven and death, I listened to how the adults in the room were talking about God. It was amazing to me how the least religious in the room could conjure up a theological vocabulary. Where did their language find its roots?

As I think about discipleship and theology in the Brethren tradition I can’t help but ask the same question. Where are our pastors, lay leaders, and congregation members getting their theology. I would venture a guess that it isn’t just one source. But as soon as I think that, I shudder to think of the types of sources Brethren find helpful in thinking about God.

What scares me the most is that the preponderance of sources are from outside Brethren circles. In other words, our members are more likely to get their devotions, theology, and personal guidance from the local Christian bookstore or radio station than they are to find Brethren sources. If nothing else, shouldn’t their spiritual and theological vocabulary be coming from the congregational community in which they participate?

I know I am barely scratching the surface, but I still wonder- “from whence our theology”?

This past fall I co-taught a course on Protestantism. Of course in the midst of preparations I had to re-study the sacramental debates of the early reformers. At the risk of oversimplification the positions ranged from an elaborate theosophical argument for real presence to an equally intricate spirit guided memorial understanding.

We as Brethren have tended toward, if not staked our claim with, the memorial camp. This can be confirmed in the 20th century work of Vernard Eller, titled In Place of Sacraments. Though a bit polemical at times, the sum of Eller’s critique follows the Reformation critiques of the economics of salvation (Luther and the Indulgences) and crude physicalism (Zwingli and memorialism).

To be sure, I do have some sympathy with these critiques. Yet, in an equal measure, I balk at the wholesale rejection of the idea of sacraments because of a nearly 400 year old controversy.

Let me explain. At the heart of sacramental thinking is the conviction that God is active in the material world. The prime expression of that action is in the Incarnation, in Jesus the Christ. When we dismiss the sacramentality of the Eucharist, along with the other sacraments, we effectively limit God’s actions to the past. We have no means to remind ourselves that God is indeed working here and now. In effect we are forced to expect extraordinary miracles rather than a seemingly mundane moment of worship.

Its even more important given our HIGHLY incarnational view of our work as the Church. When we see our times of worship as so one dimensional (earth centered, aimed at God) rather than just as incarnational as our service (where the Divine and the human co-operate within a hurting world), what foundation do we have? Put another way, we lack the spiritual grounding for ethical activities.

How do you understand the relationship of Incarnation and Service?

Maybe it’s my exposure to a disproportionately large percentage of Church of the Brethren folks who are seminary trained and highly ecumenically involved, but it seems to me that there is a growing interest within our tradition in more “liturgically-oriented” worship practices.

I can think of several examples of this: more Brethren pastors following the Lectionary, increased interest in special, more liturgical services like Ash Wednesday, Tenebrae, etc., and even movement toward a more high-church style of worship on Sunday mornings.

I’ll admit that I too find myself appreciating and being influenced by such liturgical expressions, especially as they relate to more ancient Christian practices that pre-date the Protestant Reformation. Still, I’m left wondering, “why?”

Despite my opening statement, I don’t think it is just the highly ecumenical and the seminary folks who connect with this trend. In my own congregation we’ve begun having more of these small gatherings, like tonight’s Ash Wednesday service, and it’s a relatively broad demographic that generally attends. Another good example of this is last year’s Tenebrae service, when a group of about 20 local college students came and participated. It seems to me that young adults and youth particularly are finding deep connections with these kinds of worship.

My questions for you are: Does any of this ring true in your experience? What are your thoughts as to why we might be witnessing this shift within our tradition which has been very “low-church” for many years? How do you personally find yourself connecting (or dis-connecting) with more liturgically-leaning worship?

Friends, let me first apologize for not posting last week. Between travel and the snow here on the East Coast, it slipped past my calendar that it was my turn to post!  What i means is double the posts for you this week, so enjoy!

The role of the Church in public life, and in particular in political life, has long been a question debated within the Church of the Brethren. Set up to be a community apart – in the world but not of it, the church for a long time stayed outside of, and not involved in, the political world that surrounded it. In the last century, however, that relationship has changed dramatically. As the church has become more and more involved in the society which surrounds them, the political realm has been no different. We are now elected officials, and consistently participate in the political process.

The question, then, is what this means. Alan Storkey, in his text “Jesus and Politics: Confronting the Powers” writes,

But there is more to it than that. The disciples started to learn, but knowledge of the rule of God means far more than this central insight. It would systematically change every area of politics. It means submission to God’s law, seeking justice, meekness rather than assertiveness, addressing disputes we have caused, keeping rulers humble, redistributing wealth, reconciling nations and classes. It requires leaders to be put in their place, with no ruler worship. The humble are to be lifted up and the arrogant cut down to size. In its scope, this is the greatest political revolution ever, as the gentle rule of Christ voluntarily settles on humanity, with its structural principles and insights (280).

Especially in light of the closing last year of the Brethren Witness/Washington Office, what does this mean for the future of the CoB’s witness in the political realm? What is the appropriate role of the Church in politics? In what way should we participate? These are the questions on my mind as I consider the question of faith and politics. And, as a way of suggesting a possible answer, as a part of Ecumenical Advocacy Days in DC, this coming March, there will be a Church of the Brethren lunch centering around the role of peace churches in the immigration conversation. So, what do you think is the appropriate role for the church in the politics of this world?

From John Howard Yoder’s “The Politics of Jesus”:

Jesus was, in his divinely mandated (i.e., promised, anointed, messianic) prophethood, priesthood, and kingship, the bearer of a new possibility of human, social, and therefore political relationships. His baptism is the inauguration and his cross is the culmination of that new regime in which his disciples are called to share. Hearers or readers may choose to consider that kingdom as not real, or not relevant, or not possible, or not inviting; but no longer can we come to this choice in the name of systematic theology or honest hermeneutics […] No such slicing can avoid his call to an ethic marked by the cross, a cross identified as the punishment of a man who threatens society by creating a new kind of community leading a radically new kind of life (52-53).

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.