Friday, June 22, 2012

N.T. Wright, the New Friars, and a Small Town Church

I've had time to do a bit or reading over the past few weeks. We've moved north, to Saskatoon following a job for Cindy that will start 1 July. Because we opted for a moving company (for the first time ever), we weren't sure when in the four-week window of June our goods would show up. So we've been waiting, eating off a card table, sitting around on folding chairs, sleeping on an air mattress. I like camping, but I was pretty happy when we got the phone call last week that truck was due in on Tuesday. It came, and now we're gradually unpacked. All to say: I've had some time to read.

Public libraries are great! Even for recent immigrants (like me), libraries offer immediate access to a near-boundless and haphazard collection of books and DVDs. You never know what you'll to find.

For instance: Wandering through our new local branch, I found Scott Bessenecker's The New Friars. I remember hearing about this book shortly after it came out in 2006. I remember meaning to find it and read it, but never quite getting around to it. Now, it seemed, it's time had come. So I checked it out with my brand new Saskatoon library card.

The New Friars is a good read--conversationally written, informative, challenging. I'd recommend it especially to students and twenty-somethings puzzling out how their lives fit into God's good desires for this world. That's the part of me, at least, that I felt it speaking to.

Bessenecker uses five words to characterize the praxis of those he dubs "New Friars"--Jesus' followers who become poor in order to serve the people Jesus loves. They are incarnational, devotional, communal, missional, and marginal. He fleshes each of these out with both stories from practitioners today and also those of their historical forerunners: the desert mothers and fathers, the Celts, the Franciscans and the Poor Clares, the Anabaptists, and the Moravians. Each chapter finds the right mix of personal confessional and prophetic discontent.

The New Friars struck me, got stuck in my mind and my heart, toward the end Bessenecker's discussion of the devotional aspect of the New Friars' work. He tells a story about shoveling snow (something and should get used to) and wrestling with his commitment to Jesus and his mission:
"You love my mission more than you love me," Jesus said to me. At first I found this a bit offensive. I suppose Peter might have felt the same way when Jesus kept asking him later, "Do you love me?" (John 21:15-17). How can this be? I wondered. Of course I love you, Lord. But then I began to ask myself, what was it that motivated me . . .
As wonderful as it is to bring the kingdom of God to the hollow places on earth, even this is rubbish in comparison to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus. Intimacy with Christ must be first. Without it, mission is empty and self-serving.
I hit these words like sparrow hits a window. I went back and re-read the paragraphs. Bessenecker was insisting on a distinction that I simply couldn't comprehend. I read and asked myself, how am I supposed to differentiate between my love for God and my love for God's purposes? If I love God, I want what God wants, right?

I eventually picked myself up and made it to the end of the chapter and the end of the book. I enjoyed it, but I keep returning to this question about what I love. I have a half-forgotten memory of a time in my Evangelical youth when this distinction would have made a bit more sense to me. At times, I feel a vague sense of loss or perhaps even regret that I can't find that conceptual apparatus or feel those feelings at this point. Other times I feel a sneaking sense of superiority or an adolescent air of maturity that I've "grown past" that capability. I'm not sure what I feel, but I keep feeling it because the question stubbornly keeps bobbing to the surface of my thoughts.

Reading The New Friars began to dredge up question about how I am joining in on God's project. Recently I've been talking with a small town congregation near Saskatoon. They need a pastor of a sort. They need someone who will do the things small town pastors do: sermons and committees and weddings and funerals and Children's Moments and the like. Set against the stories of saints and students giving their lives away in urban slums, a small town pastorate looks pretty far removed from the frontiers of God's kingdom. I doubt the church wants someone who spends more time "sitting with" the community than working in the church office.

So I began googling urban ministry opportunities around Saskatoon. I began making lists of the reasons why God wouldn't call me to a small town pastorate.

But the unanswered question of John 21 stopped once again: Do I love Jesus, or do I simply love what looks to me like his mission? Small town churches don't look like the frontline of mission. But maybe I'm seeing things incorrectly. I remember Jesus telling a story about people at the last judgment asking in disbelief when they served him, fed him, ministered to him. And Jesus responds tells them appearances can be deceiving (see Mt 25). Maybe there is a frontier running right down Main Street (even though it doesn't have a single stoplight). Maybe Jesus is forgotten somewhere amid the semi-affluent homes.  If I love Jesus, I have to go when he says go, right?

Which brings up N.T. Wright. After I finished The New Friars, I picked up Wright's Surprised By Hope. This one's been sitting on the shelf since I got it as a gift a few Christmases back. So when I was grabbing a few books to read while we waited for the moving truck to arrive, I slipped it into my bag. I'm glad I did.

Wright's basic argument runs that a revitalized eschatology will give us a more robust political ecclesiology.

Most of us have a pretty foggy personal eschatology. We know we will die, and we're confident that then we'll be with Jesus eternally. For most of us, this is what the good news is all about.

We may or may not have strong feelings about hell (thanks to Rob Bell and the barrage of books responding to his Love Wins).

Some of us (if you grew up in a certain kind of Evangelical church, like me) also have charts and diagrams about the particular of general eschatology. We're familiar with the various interpretations of "time, times, and half a time"; we've read Christian pulp fiction about the end of the world; we've debated pre-, mid-, and post-trib raptures scenarios. But most of us feel that it's best to hold onto these, if we do at all, with a pretty loose grip.

To all of our muddled feelings and convictions, Wright brings a solidly researched biblical theology. He confronts us with the unanimous early Christian hope in a bodily resurrection after a disembodied intermediate sate with Jesus in heaven/paradise/Abraham's Bosom. Because of Easter, he says, we have more to hope for than a spiritual exit from a sin-sick material world. Jesus has not just made us a nice place to go after the traumatic and unfortunate experience of death; no, he's conquered death. And his own resurrection--his own bodily return back from the dead--proves that death no longer has the final word.

And from bodily resurrection, he draws a clear line to concern for and action on behalf of the present social-political-ecological-material world. God called creation good, and God's intent has always been to redeem, to buy back the good in it. Jesus' resurrection shows us the "how" of that redemption.

Wright returns again and again to 1 Cor 15.58: "Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain."At the resurrection and renewal of all the world, God redemptively validates what we do in the present, just as Jesus' resurrection validated Jesus' work.

Wright doesn't want us confusedly to think that our responsibility now is to "build God's kingdom by our own efforts." There is no way for humanity, Christian or otherwise, to progress from here and now to the resurrection new creation. As Wright insists, "God builds God's kingdom."

Wright follows up this important disclaimer with the following: "But God ordered his world in such a way that his own work within that world takes place not least through one of his creatures in particular, namely, the human beings who reflect his image. . . . God intends his wise, creative, loving presence and power to be reflected--imaged, if you like--into his world through his human creatures." This is the key point: God chooses to usher in God's kingdom, at least in a preliminary way, through human agency. As Paul says to the believers in Corinth, "We are God's co-workers" (1 Cor 3.9). We wait for the final day, the day of general resurrection for the world to be made entirely new. But until then, we declare the glorious goodness of the God who saves us by building for God's kingdom (see Mt 5.16).

But how do we partner with God in this work? The kingdom for many of us includes only the souls of the saved. Others may steer us toward government offices and the need to legislate morality. Both these answers, I think, shoot wide of the goodness of God's kingdom. Look at Jesus: how did Jesus herald the arrival of the kingdom?

Wright suggest three pursuits for the church as we build for God's kingdom: justice, beauty, and evangelism. He concludes, "This is the good news--of justice, beauty, and above all Jesus--that the church is called upon to live and to speak, to bring into reality, in each generation." Then he asks, "What might the life of the church look like if it was shaped, in turn, by this hope-shaped mission?"

Wright develops this beautifully, and I can't urge you strongly enough to read it for yourself.

This comes back around to the small town church. Our strongest witness to Jesus' good news, our fullest participation in God's mission, is how we live together as church-communities. We herald the kingdom Jesus inaugurated by how we live and love as a community. Wright devotes final third of Surprised By Hope outlining this sort of ecclesial politics found in the New Testament. 

The work of the new friars, if we look past its (un)glamour, the strangely attractive unattractiveness of it, is primarily to demonstrate the way Jesus lived among the world's poorest people. There work is less one of social development than one of accompaniment. Their expectation seems less to be that they will end poverty than that they will live faithfully with poor people, welcoming them, eating together, sharing their resources.

My work (whatever the outcome of conversations with the small town church) is to love Jesus. In Jn 21, Peter answers Jesus three times that, yes, he loves Jesus. Jesus responds three times telling Peter to care for Jesus' flock. Earlier in John, Jesus said, "If you love me, keep my commands." And what is his command? Jesus continues on to say that his command is that we love one another as he loved us (Jn 15.12).

Loving Jesus (not just Jesus' mission) means, for me, loving as Jesus loved. This is first an ecclesial reality, something that we do together in the church family. If I am not willing to share table with my partners in this body, if I do not care for the, if I cannot forgo my own interests in order to attend to theirs--I have not love. I have not yet experienced Jesus' reconciliation of all things because I am not reconciled to my sisters and my brothers in this gathering. But if I do love them, then the kingdom of God is truly among us.

But as Wright and Bessenecker would both insist, a good congregational life is not enough. Just as my lone wolf activism for the kingdom falls short of God's desires, so also our in-group comfort and harmony does not bring us to the goal God has for us. No.

Instead, our church-community must build for the kingdom in this world. Our mutual love must spill over into love for the entire world, especially those places where justice and beauty are hardest to find. Remember, Jesus says, "As the Father sent me, so I send you." Sent from love to love.

And because we are a community--not just individuals--we can love more robustly. The lonely not only find a friend, they find a family. The movers and shakers of the world are confronted not only by a vote but by a grassroots movement. Politics (ecclesial or otherwise) gains force when enacted by a community, a polis.

So perhaps I'm still struggling to understand Bessenecker's distinction. Loving Jesus seems to entail loving as Jesus loved, which, in turn, seems to be the essence of mission. But I think the struggle is good for me, so I hope it continues.

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