Archive for May, 2006

We’re Dumber

The federal government on Wednesday released results showing that fourth- and eighth-graders in Indiana in 2005 fared worse than their counterparts five years earlier. Indiana was one of four states (along with Alabama, Arizona and Nevada) that recorded a significant decline in eighth-grade scores.

Three out of 10 fourth-graders in Indiana do not have even a basic understanding of age-appropriate scientific concepts. Only 27 percent of fourth-graders were graded as proficient in science. Indiana’s eighth-graders scored worse than younger students. A mere 62 percent have a basic grasp of science; 29 percent were judged as proficient.

So you know what it’s time to do? Start casting blame.

ISTEP misses the point of the true tragedy: the inability of teachers to teach the test, because that’s what we’ve reduced the job of teachers to. Teachers teach for the ISTEP and serve as (under) paid child/teen daycare. Without parental support (unrealistic expectations and scape-goating, yes; support, no), without administrative support (top heavy management bureaucracy who have teachers’ back … way, way back, yes; support, no), and without government support (dictates and strings, yes; support, no). No wonder so many young teachers burnout within three years.

We might want to rethink how we go about teaching, transmitting knowledge. It’s hard to be teachers and fill roles as parents. It’s a lot to ask, though so many do it and do it well. Sometimes, if little Johnny’s not succeeding at school, little Johnny may be an a-hole whose parents need to step up. News of declining test scores will most likely lead to more parents considering home-schooling.

Schooling is underappreciated. You know what? I’m done with everyone has to go through twelve years of school. Education should be there for those who want it, but if you’re determined to screw up your life because you know everything already, good luck to you. Quit taxing our limited resources by being disruptive. Unfair? Black folks used to be lynched if some people found out we could read. Now, to paraphrase Chris Rock, a book is like kryptonite to some folks.

-I have no problem weeding out those who don’t want to be there and sending them to a different program that emphasizes structure and discipline.

-I have no problem de-emphasizing sports in favor of a greater arts and science program.

-I’m good with mandatory school uniforms. If my boss wants professional dress because it leads to more professional behavior, school can prepare kids for this.

-I’m good with richer schools “adopting” poorer ones by sharing their resources.

-I’ve been a long supporter of vouchers, if we could figure out an efficient way to do it.

I’ve started telling my boys, though they are only 4 and 5, that, no matter their other grades in other classes, they must master English and math. If you ace those, you can do just about anything you want in life.

However, you couldn’t pay me enough to be a public school teacher.

I don’t have time to always check the comments all the places where this rant is posted. If you want to make sure that I see it or just want to stop by and say hi, do so on my message board. I apologize in advance for some of my regulars.

Follow the North Star Part II

Last time we set out to explore the metaphor of discipleship being akin to the journey along the Underground Railroad. The journey from slavery to freedom is one that many attempted on their own to varying degrees of success, but was best accomplished within community, within a network of like-minded people (and by like-minded I mean they all have the same pursuit and goal).

The power and purpose of community is demonstrated in many ways. It helps combat the self-absorption that tends to shape us. For instance, while we can learn on our own, there are times when we need to come together in order to do so. No one has mastered theology. In its ideal, community allows checks, questions, and conversations as we try to muddle through life and pursue Christ together.

To make the journey one had to have a map, a lay of the land marking the terrain (hills and valleys; woods and water) in order to hide or move along in secret. Guides were as important, people who had made the journey ahead of the fugitives and knew the signposts and safe haven markers. Now don’t forget, reading was a luxury, more of a punishable offense, for a slave. Another valuable component to community is coming together to prayerfully read the Scripture. Scripture tells us the truth about life. It isn’t an end unto itself, but, rather, points to God. Guiding us in how to live and God’s teaching for our lives, it’s the food that nourishes us on our journey. Scripture acts as our map that keeps us on the path of the faithful. Through it we learn about and grow to know our faith, though more importantly, we need to live out what we know.

The importance of coming together also applies to worship. In communal worship we “do” the truth: we sing it, read it, preach it, live it. It takes the focus from us, moves it outside ourselves, and points (confesses) to God. In the context of the Underground Railroad, worship songs took on a more practical dimension as well. Songs like “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” for example, contained code words for an escape route from Alabama and Mississippi.

Another thing forgotten about following this path is the reality that there is an inherent danger to the journey. While the bounty/slave hunters, with their blood hounds, were fairly easy to spot, other dangers weren’t. Law-abiding citizens were obligated to turn in fugitives. It was hard to know who to trust. To say nothing of the extreme conditions the fugitives had to travel through. The weather, having to move at night through often freezing temperatures, proved its own obstacle.

Likewise, there is a danger to following Jesus. Faith is trust (in Jesus and his death and resurrection to do the will and mission of God) and belief (in certain truths about Him). From family members turning their backs on you, friends distancing themselves from you, and mocking by colleagues to true persecution for following your religion. There are all manner of traps can discourage or derail your journey.

We have continual struggles with sin. We often have it in our heads that our spiritual walks should be this steady climb in holiness. However, spirituality is often much more messy than this. We have ups and downs, occasionally following the odd rabbit trail. Though we’ve been freed from it and no longer have our identity in the system of slavery, it’s easy to be ensnared by those old values and ways. Sometimes you will fail and sometimes you will have setbacks.

While we journey through this more committed phase of our journey, we have to remember that we are walking with the Spirit. Journeying with someone implies a certain level of dialogue, friendship, sharing, and an overall deepening of relationship. Walking with God is no different. Though there may be times when you may still feel alone, when God seems distant or especially silent, He is there, guiding you. During this leg of our trip, we may undergo the rite of baptism, symbolizing your death to sin and being raised into a new life. Making a covenant of discipleship with Christ.

Eventually the fugitives reached Canada, assuming they didn’t choose to stop and settle along the way. Either way, they had made it, they were truly free. At the end of their journey. However, even when they had “made it,” they weren’t done. Yes, the fugitives, now free people, could breathe free, vote, and own land, but they still had to find a home, a job, and adjust to a new place. In other words, they had to begin to learn the disciplines of experiencing a free life – a lifelong calling.

Discipleship is not instant. In truth, the journey has just begun as you attempt to develop your new rule of life. See what gifts you bring to the community and figure out how to be a contributing member of the body. Finding a place is a critical part of your journey. How many times have you felt on the outside looking in on a group? It leads to feelings of aloneness, alienation, which eventually lead to anger and bitterness. You may even become resentful of the journey itself (what’s the point of following Christ if it only leads to a group you are excluded from or is itself exclusive?)

All the while knowing and learning how to serve God’s creation. Our life because service to God and each other. At the same time, we need to tell others about the need to make the journey. We don’t want to leave anyone behind, trapped in a system of slavery. As Robert Webber put it “discipleship is a long obedience in the same direction.”

Or as those on that long ago journey put it, we need to “Follow the North Star.”

Follow the North Star Part I

A few years ago, I had a chance to participate in an experience called “Follow the North Star.” Basically, each participant is a slave seeking to escape their master’s care. Conner Prairie re-created the kind of settings, towns, and houses that the escaping slaves would encounter, including slave-owners, bounty hunters, and folks who may (or may not) help you along the journey. When I did it last time, it amazed me how quickly everyone fell into roles and how hard your heart can beat (and how loud every snap of a twig could be). All told, it was an intense and emotional experience, but I wanted to get a taste of what it must have felt like as I was doing research for my first novel.

I was reminded of this memory recently when a friend of mine wanted to know if it was possible to draw a parallel between the underground railroad and discipleship. In his words, he didn’t want “to allegorize the seriousness of what Harriet Tubman did but I would like to show the seriousness of the steps of discipleship and what it’ll cost.”

The simple profundity of this parallel stuck with me. Baring a traumatic event, people don’t change quickly. Slavery as practice in the Americas, however, had two distinguishing features. The dynamic shifted so that it was a matter of capital motives moreso than conquest; and was practiced along racial lines, justified by the inherent inferiority and dehumanization of African peoples. As a slave, your name, your body, your time, your mind, no aspect of your life was your own. You were born into the system and you very well expected to die in the system. However, whispers of escape, the hope of freedom, would light up your soul.

Christianity is a journey from slavery (from this world’s systems, notions of individualism, self-sufficiency, empire) to freedom (to be fully human in the way of Christ, living as we were meant to live). The spiritual formation that molds us to Christ-likeness, to more naturally have the ways of gentleness and love, takes time. Discipleship.

And discipleship is like the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad was a vast network of people, consisting of black folks and white people alike, who helped runaway slaves escape to the North and to Canada. Discipleship is about deepening your walk in spiritual maturity, spiritually formed into a disciple of Jesus. It’s done as a part of the community of believers as we participate in worship and the rites of covenant that mark our journey and progress.

The Underground Railroad network used terms familiar to the railroad setting:
-“stations” and “depots” – homes and businesses where fugitive slaves could rest and eat
-“station masters” – ran the “stations”
-“stockholders” – those who contributed money or goods
-“conductor” – responsible for moving fugitives from one station to the next
Likewise, discipleship is not done along, but rather within community, a network of believers from mentors to more formal gatherings. At each leg of the journey, fugitives from slavery, literal and figurative, must decide whether or not to move on to the next stage. Many people make commitments but don’t keep them. They may start out well, but may drop out.

A slave set out on an often dangerous journey, starting with having to escape the slave owner. The slave typically had to rely on his own resources, as the Spirit moved them, though sometimes a conductor would pose as a slave to enter the plantation and guide them northward. To become a disciple means to start a new life, a new journey – to find a new way to understand yourself, treat others, and see the world. Freedom isn’t easy. The same thing could be said of the spiritual seeker who has made the decision to become free. They experience that spiritual longing to be free, when their longing is met by the call of God. This leads to what some call the rite of conversion, a public profession of faith, as they begin their arduous journey.

The path of the Underground Railroad was a slow journey, usually 10-20 miles from one station to the next, places to rest, eat, and hide. While the fugitives waited, a message would be sent to the next station to alert the station master so that they might prepare for the coming of new arrivals.

The journey to freedom was not one easily made alone. A fugitive often needed a conductor, a mentor of sorts, to help them along the way. Harriet Tubman, “Moses” to over 300 slaves during her 19 trips into the South (having “never lost a single passenger”), became our model of a mentor. Each journey being different, she was prepared as well as flexible. Stern when she had to be (often carrying a gun to wave at weary fugitives as encouragement to move on and be free, or die), creative when needed (carrying drugs to give to babies should their crying risk the group), and at all times provided instruction as well as be a beacon of hope. For any who set on the path of discipleship, a mentor is any Christian who is willing to provide spiritual guidance for you, to help answer questions or point you in the right direction. The spiritual fugitives become hearers during these early steps of discipleship.

From Quakers to freed slaves, fugitives found themselves in new relationship with people. Fugitives had to sometimes travel by train or boat, either of which required money. For that matter, money was also needed to buy clothes, since being black was suspicious enough, but being black wearing tattered clothing was doubly so.

You don’t do the journey alone. You need others who help and encourage you in Christian faith and practice as you move away from a self-centered life to one of learning new ways of serving others and what it means to be free. As hearers, you seek out a new body, a new family, what we call the community of the church, an idea we’ll explore more next time.

Friday Night Date Place – Biblical Loopholes for Sex?

Oddly enough, people feel comfortable coming to me with questions about sex. I guess when you run around saying the church needs to talk about sex more, folks feel that you’re the one to go to with their questions. So one day a couple comes to me for some counseling. They wanted my opinion on the idea of sex before marriage. As far as they were concerned, the sex felt right and was beautiful and thus had to be God’s will. Of course, if they were truly convinced of this then they wouldn’t have come to me asking what I thought. Now, this wasn’t a dumb couple. Far from ignorant, they had both sat under the same ministry that I had and listened to the same pastors I did for a number of years – more evidence that we, as the church, aren’t communicating effectively, that there are some truths we aren’t passing along effective.

I hardly enter into these discussions as some paragon of virtue. The whole peer pressure of sexual activity never really affected me. I don’t buy that “all teens are doing anyway.” I got high school doing what all good males did: lying. I lived in a sexually charged household, where my father and his father collected and traded porn quite openly. The mechanics of sex weren’t exactly a mystery. While our sexuality is a powerful drive, like any of our other drives, it can be disciplined as well as abused.

Our “just say no” approach to talking about sex leaves much to be desired. As I drive around town, I see billboards reading “Sex Can Wait – You’re Worth It.” And I know plenty of folks who have taken the “True Love Waits” pledge: “Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate, and my future children to a lifetime of purity including sexual abstinence from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship.” While these campaigns convey truths, they miss some critical questions that eventually come up. “What am I waiting for?” “When is it going to come?” “Is it going to come?”

I lost my virginity in my early 20s to this line of reasoning: “we’re going to get married anyway.” (At the risk of losing my guy card, I wasn’t the one making the argument). When I proposed to her, I got the friend speech. [“Let’s be friends? You see us more as friends?!? Five years of us dating and we’re only friends? You don’t want to jeopardize our friendship by … getting married?!?” I’m not still bitter about that. I’m not. Really. Luckily, it all worked out in the end and I found a woman who fell madly, and often regretfully, in love with me, but still … friends?] “True love waits.” What happens when true love disappoints? Or when true love fails?

Being perfectly frank, biblical reasons rarely top people’s list of reasons for waiting. Part of this is due to the fact that when we do anything, but the larger reason is biblical ignorance period. We hear that sex before marriage, or better said, sex outside of marriage, is a sin, but we have no idea where it says so in the bible and “because I said so” doesn’t sit well with us.

Once again I return to our basic questions: how does this behavior form us and into what does it form us? Chastity is a discipline, the earlier you start to master this discipline the better off you will be. Teaches us control before marriage which helps with fidelity within marriage. [As an aside, it can be a handy discipline within marriage. For those singles who still live under the delusion that marriage equals sex all the time, when my wife was pregnant with our second child she was diagnosed with placenta previa. Practically this meant eight months of no sex, or as she so delicately put it, “if I get none, you get none.” Believe me, I got the feeling exegeting the passages about how we’re supposed to surrender our bodies to our spouses would only end up with the better part of the New Testament being rammed up my backside.]

Now we turn to what the Bible has to say on the topic. As I mentioned earlier, we hear that the Bible says that sex outside of marriage is a wrong. Paul is clear that extramarital sex is a sin. Really? Where? If he’s so clear, why is there such confusion? Rarely have we been shown where it says this or explained why. As usual when posed with these sort of dilemmas, I go scouring the Bible with a certain amount of skepticism (read: looking for loopholes).

“There shouldn’t be even a hint of sexual immorality” –Ephesians 5:3

This sounds pretty clear cut, yet at the same time, this simple line is the source of much confusion. People point to this verse, but I don’t see anything about don’t have sex until you’re married. This is a long way to go to say that there is a context for sexual expression. Like many things, sex is good. Great, even. However, it is something that should be taken seriously and not entered into lightly – which runs contrary to how our culture likes to treat it.

“Porneia” is the word translated as “sexual immorality”. Originally it meant the practice of consorting with prostitutes, but it came to mean habitual immorality. Porneia includes adultery (Matthew 5:32, 19:9), incest (I Corinthians 5), prostitution (I Corinthians 6), the “burning” (I Corinthians 7). It includes pederasty (I Timothy 1:9-10). Porneia, therefore, is the idea of fornication or any kind of extra-marital sexual relations. In its most general sense, it covers all types of sexual sin between male and female. In some passages, usually when Paul is listing various characteristics that we are to excise from our lives, “sexual immorality” is expanded on by words like “impurity” or “lust”. The word that translates as “impurity” has a broader reference since it includes uncleanness in thought, word, and act. “Pathos”, the word for “lust”, essentially means feeling, though in the New Testament it is used to denote uncontrolled desire.

However this sin devastates at least two Christians every time lines are crossed, leading two down a path away from the holy life we are called to. The sin goes deeper than just physically crossing lines with another. There are few sins that so specifically cause us to “forget” about God during the course of it. It affects our walks in a multitude of ways, like a cancer creeping into other areas of our spiritual journeys, slowly atrophying it. This is an area that I personally continue to struggle with. Fidelity is a discipline. I want to learn the Joseph lesson of running from temptation (Potiphar’s wife) and avoiding setting my own traps that may cause me to stumble. I want my relationships with my friends to be edifying to all of us, not a source of disruption. I want to develop character traits of faithfulness and discipline. That is my continuing prayer for my life. Next week we’ll explore more of what the Bible has to say and why this area is important to even think about.

I don’t have time to always check the comments all the places where this rant is posted. If you want to make sure that I see it or just want to stop by and say hi, do so on my message board. I apologize in advance for some of my regulars.

Monastic Communities

What I needed, and continue to need, is a safe place to work out my answers. A place that would allow me and my faith to have these sort of questions and, more importantly, my doubts. You see the point of my faith isn’t Christianity; it’s knowing, following, and becoming more like Christ. Nor is the point to have unwavering faith. More often than not, our belief is mixed with our unbelief and not the perfect, unquestioning thing some people have made it out to be.

One of the things about being a writer is that it has helped developed an appreciation of the importance of being a story-teller. The artist’s ability to capture people’s imagination using image before word. Spiritual discussion can come from art, since art pursues and thus reveals truth. It’s about how we perceive and create reality, versus our logic-engineered reality. It’s about asking a different set of questions from a different social and historical context. It’s about developing a parallel culture, one where you can learn to live the truth and live your lives differently.

We are looking for a story to define us, a community to belong to, be it punk (the anarchist story), militia (the story of ”patriotism”), gang (the story of street families). When institutions fail to do what the were created to do, be what they were supposed to be about, other places–not often looking like one expects–will spring up to do their job. People are going elsewhere to fill their spiritual needs. Churches can’t just “survive” – mere survival turns churches into museums and us into curators. Though sometimes withdrawal brings renewal, the church has to be a part of the culture and we have to make church a safe place for people to work out their spiritual questions.

Such spiritual safe havens involve first being a community, allowing people to have a sense of belonging before believing.

Unfortunately, a lot of historic church practices fall by the wayside along the way. So when I say that we are non-denominational, it points more to us drawing on all church traditions. So when people ask me what kind of church The Dwelling Place is, I say that we are missional and monastic. For one thing, too often churches emphasize their differences, drawing lines in the sand over doctrine. By monastic, we mean being a community of practice. We want what we’re about to revolve around what we do, how we live out our faith (to know it then do it).

I know it sounds basic, like what every church should be and is about. Yet, it continues to stun me how so many people can sit under good pastors for years, getting filled with all sorts of head knowledge, yet can’t even manage to figure out how to love their spouse. As a church, we must not be doing something right, if the message we preach can’t impact people’s lives. And I think that goes a long way in explaining why Christianity has lost its place of privilege and influence in our culture. Maybe it is in how we pass on and practice what we know.

Being more naturally a people of grace and love takes training. Spiritual formation that focuses on one thing, God, to develop a faith that is holistic, affecting all parts of our lives. To be so devoted to God, so saturated in His presence, that we orient all aspects of our lives, our work, our play, our talk, such that they revolve around Him.

As a community, we gather to know God better and live life together.

Don’t Call It Mo*Con

Okay, some of you have heard about this, so I thought that I’d go ahead and mention it here. It’s true, horror writer, Brian Keene, will be the “guest pastor” for a special service at my church, The Dwelling Place.

No, this wasn’t my idea of a resignation letter. Let me explain some of my thinking.

One of the things that The Dwelling Place values is the arts. Far too often, evangelicals have been suspicious of art, convinced that unless the art is about or related to Jesus, it is “worldly.” We believe that art should be engaged with and in its own way explores truth – and we shouldn’t be afraid of truth. Another thing we want to be is a safe place for folks to work our their spirituality and ask questions. As the church “facilitator” (again, from the Greek meaning “a meaningless title that we gave me so that we don’t have to explain to people why one of our leaders writes scary stories), I try to put these values into action.

So you maybe wondering “why Brian Keene?” One day during one of our periodic tea and crumpets sessions, where intellectuals such as ourselves discuss the issues of the day, the topic of the comic book Preacher came up. Brian convinced me to read the book saying that the book covers a lot of how he felt about God and mirrors his own journey in a way (which is why I ended up writing that review). It also made me think of how spirituality is one of the themes that run through his work. So I posed the idea of him doing a sermon at our church, to let him discuss his spirituality, warts and all. Afterwards, I’ll be leading a Q & A time with him. There will also be a reading, signing, and refreshments.

Yes, we will videotape this. And Brian may be posting a transcript of his comments.

June 11th
The Dwelling Place
7440 N. Michigan Road
Indianapolis, IN 46268
Speaking: 6:00pm to 7:30pm (book signing and refreshments afterward)

End of official announcement.

On the DL, since I know no one is reading now that the announcement is over, this all assumes that we survive Saturday. The inimitable Chesya Burke has dubbed this weekend “Mo*Con.” It begins Saturday since that is when Brian gets into town (as will Mrs. Burke). The Indiana Horror Writers will be hosting a cookout at Chez Broaddus. You see, my wife has always wondered what goes on at a con, because for some reason she thinks that I leave out details from my con reports. I have no idea what she means. At any rate, we will bring a con to her. Chez Broaddus will be the con suite.

There will be the cookout, more tea and crumpets, and non-stop … networking.

Drop by the message board if you want to let me know that you are coming. E-mail your host at maurice @ if you will need directions.

On the plus side, the prospect of Brian Keene speaking at church already has people from all spiritual backgrounds praying for me. This will either go well or will be my swan song at the Dwelling Place. Of course, if this goes well, next year I’ll really try and get fired and bring out Wrath James White.

I don’t have time to always check the comments all the places where this rant is posted. If you want to make sure that I see it or just want to stop by and say hi, do so on my message board. I apologize in advance for some of my regulars.

Black Theology – Liberation Message

Young blacks contend that the black churches of today, with very few exceptions, are not involved in liberation but primarily concerned with how much money they raise for a new church building or the preachers anniversary. This critique of the Black Church is not limited to young college students. Many black people view the church as a hindrance to black liberation, because black preachers and church members appear to be more concerned about their own institutional survival than the freedom of the poor people in their communities.

A friend of mine was asked why James Cone’s ideas of black theology didn’t seem to get as much play within the black community. I’m not sure how I would answer that question although maybe “black theology” only puts a label on what the historic black church has been doing from its inception. Ever get that feeling that you are about to expose your ignorance by writing on something you’ve got no business writing about? After my previous blog, my “ignorance sense” is tingling, but I wanted to engage this conversation on Cone’s ideas at some level.

The over-arching story of the Bible is one that specifically resonates with oppressed people. The poor have the Exodus gospel/model to look to. How the Israelites rise up, decry oppressive powers, looking to Yahweh as savior to an oppressed people. As slaves in Egypt, He heard their groaning. We see in the story of Israel the history of our own people – from their Exodus out slavery to their Exile in a land not their own, with their hope of future Exaltation.

Black theology is liberation theology. It understands theology as social, shaped to affect our present situation. It understands evil as systemic (not only individual as the American brand of gospel is prone to promulgate). It understands financial ascendancy, money, power, and politics; how money can be a means of oppression while reminding us that God is for the oppressed, the marginalized, the forgotten – or, as James puts it, the widows and orphans.

There is a tradition or story or understanding of how God shares in our suffering (because this is the story of Jesus’ suffering on the cross) as opposed to reaching down with power and rescuing us from our suffering. Jesus’ story is the story of poverty: God humbling himself, becoming poor and weak. Human. In order to free the oppressed from poverty and powerlessness. Becomes a victim in our place (at the hands of a corrupt justice system no less) and transforms the condition of bondage. A new vision, a new paradigm.

Though make no mistake about it, God, at least as I read the Bible, is involved in history, the story of us. His revelation is intertwined with the social and political affairs of Israel. So much so that the Israelites looked for their Messiah to do much the same and Jesus wasn’t what they were looking for, say, to speak to the oppression and rule of the Roman Empire. The gospel is accepting freedom. Rejection of role of revolutionary messiah, at least as military leader or political ruler. Instead adopting revolutionary methods of peace and love. We rest and are moved into action by the fact that God hates injustice and that He is the ultimate Judge.

Black theology or liberation could be easily seen as “Broke ass theology” (my term, not Cone’s). Those without wealth don’t hear the same message as those in poverty. American gospel often interprets poor as a spiritual condition, as opposed to those who were really hungry, really persecuted, really afflicted, really without clothes, without shelter, without hope. When you are poor and a preacher talks about being thirsty and hungry, it takes on a more immediate dimension. American Gospel preaches sacrifice, the need to pick up your cross, and die to your self – things that are easier to do for the entitled.

Have no illusions, there is a difference between being poor in America and being poor in India, for example. Think about how the sermon on the mount sounds to those who are oppressed or poor: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth … Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3-10). Even the lyrics to the familiar hymn, Amazing Grace, have a special resonance from the vantage point of the poor. When Paul writes in Galatians about the freedom found in Christ, it goes much deeper than whether or not I can have a beer if I want.

The Gospel speaks to the disinherited, the poor, the disenfranchised , the oppression of the weak by the powerful. The gospel is an offense to the rich and powerful. It’s the death of their ideas of wealth and power, those priorities. The greater the gap between the rich and the poor, with any erosion of the middle class, liberation theology gains a greater resonance.

Black/liberation theology starts off as a reactionary theology, however it’s not to say that God has a fondness for the oppressed regardless of how they live. There is no carte blanche to act immoral or unethically. It is easy to let built in advantages breed built in resentment. Call (systematic) evil what it is, evil, but don’t use the same means to combat it. Call for justice, equality, peace using Christ’s revolutionary tactics of peace and love.

From the deliverance of the children of Israel to the Civil Rights Movement. Christ is the Liberator with a mission of liberation. Maybe the reason why the historic black church is adrift and without focus is because we have lost sight of whom and what we need liberation from. When the struggle/enemy is clear, like slavery or Civil Rights, it is easy to rally around. To free us from the bonds of this world and its systems, it’s not as simple a fight, but it is one equally worth struggling against.

Black Theology – Understanding Cone

The black church of this country and beyond has been at the center of that struggle from its inception, because it was born to bring salvation to an oppressed people. The black church was tied to, but not bound by a black theology.

Allow me to recap where we are in this conversation. This began with some random musings about ghetto crackery and values which led to further musings about likening the journey of black folks to desert wanderings. Next came a meditation on ontological blackness, nigrescence, and looking at race as story. The story needed examining from the beginning, so we looked at an evolving theology of slavery and the subsequent miracle of the black church (and a black ancient-future faith). On the flip side of that story, we looked briefly at postcolonialism and what it means for mission trips, the colonizers, and the colonized.

Rod Garvin’s introductory quote sets the stage for what I wanted to talk about. Once we move past the illusion that there’s some way to be truly objective about anything, we can realize how much theology arises from our context of experience. I’m uncomfortable with the postmodernist (read: hypermodernist) tendency to make all truth an individual truth, but truth (note the small ‘t’) does have perspective. And if you don’t think truth changes over time or within a given cultural context, once again, let’s look back at the theology of slavery.

As mentioned before, black people had to have permission to marry and permission to have kids. The power of ownership extended not only to a lack of power over our own names, but also in our choice of religion. Christianity, the white man’s religion, was foisted upon black folks in the guise of evangelizing the heathens, but more to continue the mental and spiritual conditioning already at work inherent as a part of the institution of slavery. Many folks, understandably, couldn’t reconcile their religious faith with reality of their current bondage, seeing religion as an opiate meant to keep them passive–praying to a silent, indifferent God for refuge … Christianity was co-opted as a means of mental and spiritual survival. We saw the creation of the black church, believing that God is relevant to black life in a white society. God’s ways, while mysterious, would vindicate the unjust suffering. The key was to start kingdom living now. Jesus inspired courage and strength to hold on, representing God’s active presence in our lives.

There was a gospel message that was presented to slaves, a message that was both rejected and co-opted. Somehow a message was internalized that took folks from the condition (mentally and physically) of slavery and gave rise to the black church. A message transformed into something that met them at the reality of where they were and the condition they were in, yet held a promise, a hope, for what could be. A message that said kingdom living starts now, needs to be transformative now, needs to impact the world, the culture, the political and economic systems now – while pointing to a better reality.

So, is there such a thing as black theology? No. Theology is theology. Yes. Theology arises from life, reflects a people’s struggle, creates meaning in life. And, yes, I’ve been reading James Cone and feel where he was coming from when he said “I was within inches of leaving the Christian faith, because that faith as I had received it and learned it no longer explained the world to me satisfactorily.”

People hear the words “black theology” and let’s face it, we’ve been conditioned such that images of an affirmative action savior come to mind. Thus minds close because “there is only one gospel truth.” While that’s true, the idea of a “black theology” is not that strange or large a leap. You can’t separate ideas from social reality. There is a sociology of theology, what you think about God/Christ can’t be separated from your socio-political status in (your) society. Culture impacts the Gospel message (as presented and understood) as much as the Gospel hopes to transform society. It has to because in order for the Gospel to be transmitted into the culture, it has to know the markers of the culture.

The modern era of theology sprang from the age of the Enlightenment. The paradigm of modernism permeated the consciousness of the West. The church reacted to, then embedded itself within this paradigm. From Jonathan Edwards to Billy Graham, the Gospel adapted to spread to the culture and mindset it hoped to reach. The rise of systematic theology, that attempt to be culturally neutral arose from this: a discipline to expound and interpret Christian truth for any age or culture, reducing it to its essentials and dissecting its parts in order to organize it – laying bare the Christian truth for the church.

To a degree almost not discussed, theology is a reflection of class, interpreting the Gospel according to the cultural/political imperatives of the day. I’ve seen it first hand in my church planting experience. Our mother church is located in the fifth richest county in the country. Our church plant, though only a couple miles south but into the neighboring county, might as well be in another state. Completely different demographics, different modes of being a missional church. In other words, same Gospel message, different cultural context.

Clearly the Bible can speak across cultural lines, but it also needs a cultural context from which to speak. Theology is the subjective, human conceptualizing about God. It cannot be separated from culture, history, and experience. And it often tells us more about those who do the conceptualizing than about God. Black theology thus (explicitly) comes from our history, our faith, our cultural activities. It’s transformative into a new consciousness, one that moves us beyond race and into family. Community. Again, let’s be clear: Christ transcends the idea of race. In Christ we have a model for reconciliation as we have a starting point outside of our race/story, a meta-story that is the culmination, the resolution, of all stories. Specific to the story of black folks in America, Christ became the embodiment of hope, the Truth pointing out the lies of how black humanity was defined.

This sets the precedent for the case that black experience and Scripture combine for a “black theology”. Black theology is a hermeneutical principle for exegeting Scripture. A guiding principle of examining the meaning of the text. Christ as Liberator of the oppressed from social and to political struggle. Free from the system, join in Christ’s mission to subvert the system. Theology has to
be more than getting your own butt into heaven. The kingdom is now. So there is a call to social action now. However, part of my caution with the idea (label) of black theology lies with the fact that you can’t disentangle “black theology” from the teachings of the historic church. That’s like a tree trying to grow without its roots. We can’t just read anything we want into the biblical story, putting our (socio-political) agenda first with the Bible to prove it. While tradition is not the Gospel, it is an important bearer of an interpretation of the gospel through history.

Theological systems have to repeatedly go back to the essential truth of the Christian message and interpret that truth for every generation and cultural context. In other words, each generation, each culture must answer the question: what is the gospel? The practices and beliefs of the church need to spring from that understanding of theology. As I wrestle with the idea of “black theology,” the thing that I keep in mind about any systematic theology is that a theology, a hermeneutic, only avoids heresy by how clearly it points to Christ. Christ transcends culture, yet can only be communicated through culture – divine revelation within history. It becomes a liberating theology of survival, as a practical application. Theology provides a way, a rule of life, hope, and a sense of transcendence. The reality of our grasp of the truth will always be reflected in our actions.

God’s Unconditional Love?

Sometimes it feels like God doesn’t love us.


We’ve heard the marketing: “For God so loved the world, that he sent his only begotten Son…” If we accept that God created from the overflow of love that He was as the Trinitarian community (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) then we know, or have the head knowledge, that God loves us. His love is unconditional, free to all if we’re willing to accept it. Yet, it doesn’t always feel like he loves us. Even buying that love can come in a variety of forms, I’ll just say it, sometimes it feels like He doesn’t like us. Like we’ve done something to earn His wrath.

That’s the rub, isn’t it? We’ve come to feel like God’s affection, that day-to-day sense of Him caring about us is somehow dependent on what we’ve done or haven’t done. Those of us married or with children–though I suppose any sort of relationship will do–know the duality of “I may love you, but I may not always like you.” And that’s how we sometimes feel God is with us – the angry spouse giving us the silent treatment. Or we being the children sent off to our rooms to thing about what we’ve done wrong.

I’m not saying that feeling is unwarranted. Heck, we’ve probably stumbled onto a theological truth. His silence can make it feel like my spiritual life amounts to little more than me talking to my imaginary friend. Or like a child chasing after the affections of a withholding parent.

It’s hard to see the greater good to the silences or the profound truths that await discovery in the feeling of absence. Nor how hard times might be prods driving us to further dependence on Him. What we do see, however, is the circumstances wherein we typically derive our sense of happiness going to pot. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s doubly tough, and feels like God doubly dislikes us, when it seems like we are being punished with continual life setbacks while He seems to be rewarding those that have screwed us. While we have no insight as to how God is working in their lives, we end up wondering what sort of love He promises to give us.

You know what? It’s okay to wonder about this. I guess for me, faith boils down to this: to understand mystery, you have to think with the heart. I want to make the most of this gift called life. I remember what gives my life meaning. Friends, family, loving people period. Autonomy is not all it’s cracked up to be. And I do this in light of something bigger than myself. A belief in God. Because believing in people–in our ability to do right if left to our own devices–seems so ludicrous that believing in God seems downright rational.

Wrath James White gives an interesting insight into his views of what’s life all about as an atheist.

I don’t have time to always check the comments all the places where this rant is posted. If you want to make sure that I see it or just want to stop by and say hi, do so on my message board. I apologize in advance for some of my regulars.

Adoption Daze

The Indiana attorney general said today he will ask the Indiana Supreme Court to hear a case that opens the door to adoption by unmarried couples, including same-sex couples. Two trial judges have disagreed on the case of Infant Girl W. v. Morgan County Office of Family and Children which revolves around the issue of whether two people who are not married may jointly petition for adoption. The Indiana Court of Appeals split 2-1 in their ruling last month in favor of allowing the adoptions.

I distinctly remember when I decided that two kids were enough. It was another 3:55 a.m. feeding and I had just fallen asleep (at 3) for the night. Young Malcolm woke up and I knew that I had a half hour of his voracious appetite to satisfy with my 6 am wake up looming all too near. There I was, bleary-eyed, watching a re-run of the X-Files wondering “how do single moms do it?” That was when my respect for my sister sky-rocketed.

I’ve spoken before about how I have a couple sets of friends who have adopted trans-racially. Both couples are looking at adopting another child. Though the process is expensive, the odds are pretty good that they’ll soon be adding to their respective growing families. In fact, my wife and I had talked about adoption as a way of fulfilling our original dream of having 3 – 5 children. The laws and rules favor us, making the process much easier. However, should one of us find themselves widowed, yet still wanting to pursue our dream, we would be barred from adopting.

I have another friend in her early forties, unable to have children of her own, with the prospects of her “finding a man” dimming (in her mind). Part of her doesn’t want to “wait on a man” to have kids and share the love she has to offer.

Yes, as a society, the two parent, mother and father, model is the best model for structuring a family. However, let’s not confuse it being the best model with being the only model of a family. America clings to such a narrow definition of family. Interesting for a culture that values kicking their young out of the nest as soon as possible and shuttling their parents into nursing homes at their earliest convenience. So let’s not pretend we have the final answer on what it means to be a family. Blood does not make you family. My circle of friends is more family to me than most of my blood kin.

There are far too many unwanted and discarded children out there now. We can’t in one breath say “give kids up for adoption rather than abort them” then in the next say “you may have love and fiscal means, but you don’t fit our idea of what a family is.” Family is about community. Family is about support. So if a single person has the love to give, the financial means, and a(n emotional/physical) support system around them, then by all means, let them adopt.

I don’t have time to always check the comments all the places where this rant is posted. If you want to make sure that I see it or just want to stop by and say hi, do so on my message board. I apologize in advance for some of my regulars.