Friday, January 29, 2010

Contemporary Christianity - what might this look like for us? Here is a fresh approach which deserves some conversation.

This is a fascinating review by Gladys Ganiel -- a Lecturer and Coordinator of the Reconciliation Studies Programme at the Belfast campus of the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin. Please see her blog at

Dave Tomlinson is one of the keynote speakers at the Belfast Re-Emergence Conference, ‘The Church is Dead, Long Live the Church,’ scheduled for March 16-18, 2010, at the Irish School of Ecumenics (Trinity College Dublin at Belfast). In his most recent book, Re-Enchanting Christianity: Faith in an Emerging Culture, (Canterbury Press, 2008) Tomlinson dissects all that is unattractive and downright revolting about contemporary Christianity in the West. From there, he offers some insights on how Christians can engage more wholesomely (I deliberately do not say ‘effectively’) with the challenges of post-modernity.

As I read the book I couldn’t help thinking of the American Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas, who once said something to the effect:

‘The church in the West isn’t dying, God is killing it.’

Hauerwas’ remark casts ‘secularization’ and Christianity in the West in quite a different spiritual light than they are usually seen. Christians usually feel a deep unease about declining church attendance, and all that secularization is supposed to entail. Among the faithful remnant, there has been some mourning for the ‘death’ of church institutions, and lament over the fact that the great and the good don’t seem to listen to the churches anymore.

But Hauerwas’ comment – and much of Tomlinson’s book – force Christians to ask whether the church institutions to which they cling are really worth saving in their present form. Could it be that the ‘religion’ of Christianity that has been constructed in the West is something that ‘God’ might quite like casting away?

For Tomlinson, aspects of contemporary Christianity that we would be better off without are what he sees as damaging and inhumane beliefs about how the bible should be read, the meaning of the atonement, whether or not the resurrection actually happened (and if it matters!), the uniqueness of Christ, the efficacy of prayer, and the existence of hell.

The debates and questions that Tomlinson raises around these and other issues will be especially familiar to people from evangelical and charismatic traditions. Most of his critiques are aimed at debunking the common answers to such questions offered within conservative evangelicalism.

This is not surprising, given that Tomlinson himself is the original ‘Post-Evangelical,’ the man who gave us that very term in his 1995 book of the same name. He is a former charismatic house church leader and is part of the wider ‘emerging church’ movement, which itself is a child of the discontented daughters and sons of modern North Atlantic evangelicalism.

Tomlinson offers alternative perspectives on these issues which reflect his genuine engagement with people in the culture around him (through his work now as a parish priest in North London) and a wide reading of major theologians and philosophers of the past generation, including Thomas Merton, Walter Wink, C.S. Lewis, Paul Ricoeur, Walter Brueggemann, Marcus Borg, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rene Girard, and more.

Tomlinson handles these thinkers with a confident and light touch that is appropriate for a popular audience. But in a relatively slight book (148 pages) with 15 slim chapters, the reader is often left longing for more meat from the bones of their works. Here, an annotated bibliography would have been helpful for those who are new to some of these theologians and philosophers, or seeking further directions for reading.

In the 15th and final chapter of the book, ‘Mission Statement,’ Tomlinson identifies five areas that he thinks should ‘really matter’ to Christians in the 21st Century. When I began to read this chapter I was disgruntled about this exercise, as it seemed to me too formulaic considering the relatively free-flowing approach to faith that Tomlinson advocates throughout.

But once I got over that, I did recognise value in Tomlinson’s five observations:

Christian mission in the 21st century requires a kingdom orientation, rather than a church orientation
Christian mission in the 21st century needs to be focused on spirituality, rather than apologetics
Christian mission in the 21st century needs to be holistic rather than dualistic
Christian mission in the 21st century needs to be dialogical rather than monological
Christian mission in the 21st century needs to find expression through open, empowering church communities
These five points of course draw on themes Tomlinson develops in the earlier chapters, and include examples of and ideas about what holistic and welcoming groups of Christians might look like.

Tomlinson’s choice of the word ‘mission’, and the ways in which he thinks it should be exercised, also resonate with the international conference my school is hosting in Dublin, June 16-18, 2010, ‘From World Mission to Interreligious Witness: Visioning Ecumenism in the 21st Century.’

Like this conference, Tomlinson urges us to push beyond the easy association of mission with evangelism or proselytization, and to replace the negative association of mission with something empowering (page 130):

‘… for me, mission is not about trying to get people ‘saved’, or trying to get them to join the Church, or even about trying to get them to convert to Christianity. Mission is about making God’s liberating love and peace and justice a flesh-and-blood reality in ways that can potentially transform people’s lives, or potentially transform a neighbourhood, or potentially transform the world.’

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Dream Manager - Jan 3, 2010 - Dream, Trust, Act!

So, 2010 has begun…a whole new decade.
still seems strange to me, saying 2,010.

Nevertheless, here we are –
the beginning of another New Year…
and this always seems to be the perfect time
to dream.
Dream new dreams.

Of course, many folks like to dream or make yearly resolutions
about such things as dieting, more family time…

but I would guess,
most of us probably have our own list of things
we’d like to change in our lives
and the world around us.

Discovering a new sense of security and peace
for ourselves and those we love,
would most likely make the short list for all of us.

Including, I am sure both Mary and Joseph
who must have had similar thoughts so long ago
following the birth of Jesus.

No question, the birth of a child
is the beginning of a new adventure,
a time to dream
and yet, at the same time,
it’s a time to consider what it means
to take on this responsibility.

Matthew’s Gospel says,
An Angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream
and the Angel had something very direct to say
about this new responsibility.

In fact, the angel came to Joseph and said
the child was in great danger
and the Holy Family must flee right away into Egypt.

And so guided by an Angel from Heaven,
Joseph trusted God
and obeyed…he took action.

Recently, I discovered a fascinating little book called –
“The Dream Manager” by Matthew Kelly.

Kelly’s book tells the story of a company called:
“Admiral Janitorial Services.”

Basically, other companies contracted with them
to provide the staffing to vacuum, scrub floors and clean toilets.
Lots of companies used them.
In fact, they had about 400 employees, and business was good.

But this company had a problem –
they had an annual turnover rate of some 400 percent.

On average, people left the company every 90 days.
Turnover led to inconsistent cleaning and poor morale.

Some of the executives,
who had put a lot of their time and money into this business,
began to think this problem was insurmountable.
They certainly saw these jobs as dead-ends, too.

But what happened next is amazing ---
apparently a middle manager type came to work one day
and told the executives -- an idea had come to him in a dream –
and he now believed there was a way out of all this.

His idea was simply to help other employees build a bridge
between their here and now to a better future.
So they created a position called a -- “Dream Manager.”

The Dream Manager would meet with individual employees,
ask them about their dreams,
and then using a mix of financial planning
and pragmatic counseling,
help them achieve their dreams.

The dreams these employees had were relatively simple,
and with encouragement,
they were achievable.

As employees felt valued and supported,
they began to bring in new business for the company.
And turnover went from 400 percent down to almost zero.

So, what are your dreams?
During this year ahead of us,
how can you and I take on the responsibility of
bridging the here and now to our future?

And maybe along the way ask,
where do we need to feel valued and supported in this?
how will this be achieved and
not just left in a dream…

Actually, what I really want to know is –
where can I find a good “dream manager”?

Joseph, knew where to look, didn’t he?
He recognized God’s messenger in a dream…
and then he Trusted God and acted.

But the trouble is most people are uncomfortable
with living out their dreams,
because we have so many "what ifs" aboard.

And, by the time we throw all those "what ifs" overboard,
what we have left is a well-defined plan
that arcs considerably lower than the dream
we started.

What's missing when we do this is Trust…Faith.
We can lower ourselves into being satisfied with the safer,
smaller arcs, than God or our dreams, intended.

But, when the Christian Church continues to teach –
“just be satisfied and don’t question or doubt”…
take a risk of faith.
When the church becomes self-satisfied with a plan
instead of a dream…

When the church steps away from pushing us
to be more than we currently are,
THEN it truly becomes,
in one thinker's words,
the opiate of the masses.

But, as long as the church –
that is you and me…disciples of Jesus Christ,
remember HOW to dream,
how to stretch and grow,
how to follow whatever dream God sends us,

then, and only then…
can we truly witness to the world
the transforming message
of Jesus’ Love.

May God give us grace to be like Joseph,
who trusted God
and who followed his dreams.

The Work of Advent

John said: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths . . . The winding roads shall be made straight and the rough ways made smooth." Luke 3:1-6

According to an Associated Press article (Sept 17, 2009), a Muslim congregation in Reston, Virginia had outgrown its facilities and was looking for a place to meet for evening prayers during Islam's holy month of Ramadan. When a Jewish synagogue heard that the Muslim congregation was looking for space, they offered the use of their hall.

The synagogue was not just tolerant but welcoming to its Muslim neighbors. Members of the mosque greeted their Jewish neighbors with the Hebrew greeting Shalom, and the synagogue community responded with its Arabic equivalent Salaam. The rabbi spoke at the Islamic community's Friday afternoon prayers; the imam spoke at Friday evening Shabbat services.

The relationship has grown between the two congregations. The Muslim community has been invited to continue holding their Friday prayers at the synagogue. The rabbi and imam are planning a trip together to the Middle East.

The imam, who grew up in the Sudan, said that he had never met a Jew until he moved to the U.S. in his 20s nor had he ever imagined having a close relationship with a rabbi. His congregation's experience with the synagogue had shattered stereotypes. One member of the Muslim congregation said, "I will not look at the [Jewish people] the same."

The rabbi said the relationship works both ways. "You really only get to know someone when you invite them into your home . . . you learn to recognize their faces. You learn the names of their children."

There are so many wastelands and barren places into which we can bring the life of God, so many crooked roads that we can transform into highways through our charity and forgiveness, our sense of humility and gratitude.

The work of Advent is to bring light to the dark chasms of ignorance, to fill in the valleys of poverty and want, to make low the mountains of injustice, to straighten roads made impassable because of mistrust and hatred.