In my experience growing up in evangelical circles, generally speaking, repentance was understood as an individual choice that was done or not done in a moment. The power to make this choice came, if at all, directly from God (the Holy Spirit) to the individual. That’s simply what repentance was and how it happened. One sealed the deal by walking an aisle, or raising one’s hand (with all heads bowed and eyes closed) or telling someone about our decision. Then it was up to whatever measure of individual, God-given willpower one had to “walk it out,” just me and Jesus.
One of the things that I have come to deeply appreciate in 12-step/support group wisdom and practice is the recognition that repentance–real change of one’s life that sticks–is generally neither instantaneous nor ‘lone-ranger’ style; it’s slow and, more importantly, communal. In fact, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that the 12 steps are themselves 12 “steps” to effective repentance and that the meetings are there to “support” each person in this most challenging of all processes.
Here’s my question to my fellow church folk out there: How do you do repentance? Solo or communal? Do you have a Christian community, large or small, that actually encourages you to admit failures and take steps to repent/change without shaming you? In other words, do you have a community to run to for help as you are faced with your failures, or do you generally attempt to implement/pursue change alone?
I’m entering into a “looking back/looking forward” series of posts regarding the Vineyard, inspired in part by the guys I mentioned in the last post (check there for links).
Our church (though not a Vineyard) welcomes people to receive prayer for anything at the end of the Sunday service. I’m one of the leaders of the prayer team. In fact, I just led our last training, which was very ‘Vineyard-esque.’ So I listen to the Holy Spirit when I pray for folks, and just about any other time I can remember to do so. I “do the stuff” as much as I can and the stuff is good and the stuff is very rewarding. Think woman at the well–who wouldn’t be jazzed about that? But you know what? I don’t just do what Jesus did in that story. The Vineyard legacy in my life isn’t just to “do the stuff.” It’s first and foremost a willingness to “receive”: receive the kingdom like a little child, receive the Spirit, receive help from God through others and through any other means he sees fit to give help. The priesthood of all believers and the great mercy of God means that I not only get to play the part of Jesus in that story in John 4, but also (thank God!) the role of the woman: religious but broken, and in increasing need and fatigue, plagued with some kind of pain or weight or task or shame or all of the above, and being the one largely to blame for my condition. Then God meets me, usually through a fellow clay pot who knows my pain and is full of his Spirit. Together, God and this humble pot don’t just give me big important truths (regarding the true nature of worship, for instance), but also the little known truth about me. As God’s awareness of me becomes obvious, all of a sudden my hope and faith are renewed, and instead of wearily lugging heavy jars of water over and over, springs of living water start welling up in me, and I am totally lightened, refreshed and refreshing others with quickness and ease in my steps. That’s just from receiving from God, often via a clay pot like myself. Isn’t it interesting that even though Jesus tells this woman one of the most theologically significant truths about worship–announcing to her a momentous shift in how/where worship will happen in the covenant that is now being made–it’s the little known truth he gives about her that transforms her into an energetic, believing missionary: “Come see this man who told me everything I ever did.” It’s not the big truth about right worship and temples, hot as that topic was at the time, that sent her running with joy, it was the smaller truth about her.
I have needed (and continue to need) God to talk to me that way–personalized, customised, through other people, circumstances and Spirit to spirit. Is there a greater need in the thirsty, agnostic West? It heals me so deeply. Energizes me so dramatically. Convinces me of all kinds of ‘big truths’ so convincingly. The Vineyard is going to need to hang on to and deepen that legacy and practice in the post-modern era. My main caveats would be these: 1. experiences like these aren’t mutually exclusive with more traditional means of growth and spiritual disciplines; they are complimentary for disciples; and 2. Get intentional about pursuing “the stuff” outside of the meetings. Make it missional, make it a way of life, not a way of church services or even just outreaches. The latter will rot from the inside-out, the former, the way of life, will be like a garden in spring time, teeming with more life than can be contained.
I mentioned in my last post that we’re planning a training on working with the Spirit. Well, Serving with the Spirit Training is the latest draft and outline circulating among our local prayer team for questions and feedback. The content is largely, though not exclusively, dependent on John Wimber’s training on this subject.
You’ll see in the outline that there is time set aside in both sessions for folks to actually do what we’re talking about. These parts are the most helpful and exciting. The first session we have experienced folks doing this as led by the Spirit, and the attendees are encouraged to give it a shot in the second session. I’ve done these a few times now, and there’s always some really great stuff that God does.
Questions, thoughts and other feedback are welcome, from experienced practitioners and novices alike, as we finalize the training. Merry Christmas! May we all experience more and more of the incarnation of God among us.
When I discuss healing and prophecy and the miraculous with Christians who have hesitations about those practices, one of the recurring objections is the concern that people who are sick or handicapped or the like not be blamed for not being healed, usually for lacking faith. This morning I was reminded of that as I was thinking through a few of the stories in which Jesus rebuked the disciples for having little faith in him. The first thing that leapt out at me as I thought about such stories was that when it came to the miraculous, it was so often his disciples — the insiders, the co-workers with him — whom he rebuked for lack of faith, not the needy folks coming to be healed. As I thought of the many times and ways Jesus did this, including when the disciples failed to cast a demon out of a person during his transfiguration, it dawned on me that Jesus does rebuke his apprentices for lack of faith (evidenced in a variety of ways), but never does he rebuke a person acutely aware of their need for healing. With those that are hurting or on the outside–the bruised reeds, the smoldering wicks–he may still discuss their faith, but he is much more gentle, even commending or praising the faith that he finds in such people. Think of the interchange which climaxes in the now famous “I believe; help my unbelief!” That’s as close as Jesus gets to correcting the faith of someone in a felt need. Of course, that interchange is so non-condemning, so honestly helpful, that it rivals if not outstrips his dealings with Thomas as the most loved among us doubters.
He was more blunt, corrective or even confrontational not only with his own students, but also with those who had more official training in the Jewish faith that didn’t believe, and with those communities who personally witnessed him doing signs and wonders but still didn’t believe him as “Christ.” The latter folks are given not mere correction but “Woes” and warning. But you never see Jesus being short or harsh with those who are about to lose their daughter, or just lost their brother, or in some other way are, in that moment, in the middle of experiencing some the real poverty of the human experience, even if their faith in him is weak. With them he is more gentle, even if still urging them, pulling them, to believe. It seems he is even more gentle with his disciples when they are personally experiencing loss (look at the Lazarus incident). Therefore, I think it is safe to say and teach that a practice of the miraculous that is modeled after Christ is not going to create any blame or burden for those who personally need healing or rescue from one of life’s tragedies. We might call this the “smoldering wick” principle and it seems to extend even to Christ’s disciples when he might otherwise be more blunt about their lack of faith.
But this led me to a second, related thought especially concerning his disciples. Clearly, Jesus wanted everyone he encountered, even the smoldering wicks and especially his disciples, to “believe” in him, and, what’s more, he expected their faith in him to include his power over death, over demons, over disease, over nature (and rebuked them for lacking it). And it goes farther still: he even commanded them to do the same things on his behalf and rebuked them and occasionally seemed exasperated when they lacked the faith to do it. But my question is this: Can we effectively argue (or should we even try) that Jesus wants us to have a materially different faith than that which he obviously sought to instill not only in the disciples, but in everyone he encountered? Can we read Jesus’ rebukes to the disciples and to the religious community of the day and exempt ourselves if we lack in our faith what they lacked in theirs? When Jesus tells someone in the NT that they have little faith or great faith, what exactly is the content of that faith that they lack and should ours be different?
It is obvious from the NT that Jesus wanted his disciples to have faith that went well beyond whether or not he forgave them (and whether they could forgive on his behalf). Yes, he does want us to know that “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” and that “if [we] forgive anyone, they are forgiven.” But if Jesus himself or the gospel writers are to be believed, God seemed at least equally concerned that Jesus’ disciples knew that he had authority on earth [and they through him] over diseases, demons, death, and over nature, as well as forgiving sins. He wasn’t happy with their “faith” when it didn’t include any one of these things and when they lacked the faith to do the same things on his behalf. He summed it up in his final great commission to them: “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me, therefore, make disciples . . . [.] His authority over everything (as God’s anointed, the “Christ”) as richly demonstrated in the gospels, is the basis of the Great Commission. Our “faith”, according to Jesus, needs to include not only his authority and willingness to forgive, but his authority over all things in heaven and earth, and in our authority from him to do the same things he did, as he said that anyone who believed in him would do. If our faith in him, and the actions that flow from it, should be markedly different than what he was so insistent on his first followers having, what’s the basis? I really don’t think that’s a search with a happy ending. We’d be better off, I believe, to let the gospels transform our faith and practice than justify our own. I’ll be posting the content of an upcoming local training on that topic soon.
While talking with my good friend, Berry, the other day, I think I found a great way to express some of what I’ve been thinking about the importance of which questions, which prayers, we routinely ask. Point #2 in Scot’s post today reminded me of it. I hope this will help evangelicals such as myself shift our focus. I’m of the opinion that the question that has shaped evangelicalism more than any other (on the basis of how often and emphatically it is asked relative to others) is “if you died tonight, do you know where you’d spend eternity?” or something very similar. I base that on the number of repititions and on the climactic positioning of the question.
Now imagine a married couple. Imagine further that one of the two people — the husband or the wife — were routinely asking the question of themselves and maybe of their spouse as well, “How can I keep my spouse from divorcing me or be sure they won’t?” If this question was constantly or even routinely in this person’s mind so that it became the lens through which that person viewed their interactions with their spouse, what kind of marriage, what kind of relationship will the couple have? Take a moment think about it.
I personally don’t think the marriage will be very good or healthy or nearly as enjoyable as it should be. Unfortunately, I believe that the constant asking of “If you died tonight, do you know where you’d spend eternity?” or its equivalent has exactly the same effect. Our most often repeated question concerns our legal status with God, and it has shaped our paradigm for all that we do and all that we think about.
We would hope that spouses would be dominated by the questions of how they can serve their spouse, love their spouse, join with their spouse in their worthy goals. We would hope the same of children regarding their parents or friends regarding friends. Not surprisingly, the prayer Jesus teaches us to pray has this kind of focus regarding God, asking above all that God’s noble dreams would become reality and his desires be fulfilled. Now of course, admitting wrongdoing and asking for forgiveness is necessary for any good relationship, and it is also a component in the Lord’s prayer. But mere forgiveness, mere justification, cannot remain the central focus over time; it cannot be our driving question, our most common prayer, to ask that we not be thrown out. At least for me, the perrenial question of my legal status with God created in me a near constant sense of a relationship in crisis. What’s more, the gospel I was given that focused only on the same issue of justification (whether from a free grace or more exacting perspective) reinforced this focus on my legal status. Others’ experience with this may be different. Mine, though, was marked by a backdrop of paranoia, denial, and the idea that God’s will and gospel basically equalled people getting justified before God.
Again, it is no surprise, that Jesus announced and embodied a gospel that concerned God’s larger intentions regarding the world and not just our legal status being repaired. It appears from the gospels that Jesus didn’t just want to forgive the world, but also include people in the work of healing one another and the larger creation as his apprentices and co-workers. God’s government was coming through him not just to forgive, but to restore shalom on the earth, to do “all that Jesus began to do and teach.” This is our husband’s vision. This is his good news. This is what we are to seek, to think about, to trust, to announce, and to pray for. Our driving question should not be about our forgiveness or minimum legal status, necessary as that will be in our life together with him. Our most often repeated question and prayer–the one that should most mark our individual and corporate lives–should be for his dreams for earth to become reality, for his will (the will revealed by Jesus’ actions and ideas) to be done more through us and others. This is more like the prayer he taught us to pray, the question he taught us to ask, the good news he announced and embodied. That focus will lead to a more fruitful and more joyful and healthy relationship as well as a better world. Asking for God’s dream, his will, is to ask for our forgiveness and so much more as well.
When it comes to doing the things Jesus did and that Jesus sent the 12 and the 70 out to do (preaching, teaching, and even healing–in churches that still do that), churches tend to be like one-man hamlets–most of the parts are still there, but with only one guy on the stage. There are still lots of backstage jobs that need doing and get done, but I think it’s fair to say that few modern congregants resonate with Jesus’ prediction: “Anyone who believes in me will do what I’ve been doing.” Most of the “what-Jesus-did-jobs” in each church are reserved for the sacred (the sacramentalized) few–the reverends, the priests, the ones set apart for God. Doing what Jesus routinely did was not my experience of mere “faith in Jesus,” having been in churches and in Christian schools from birth. It certainly wasn’t what church was like. Church was more like going to watch Michael Jordan talk about basketball than getting into a scheduled game or even drills with him and some friends. That is, until I joined with a Vineyard church.
“Everybody plays” was the phrase. By this they meant that everybody who wants to can learn to work with and through the Spirit to “do the stuff” that Jesus did, namely, be an instrument of the Spirit to prophesy, to heal the sick, to cast out demons, etc., for the building up of the Church and the redemption of the world–no degree required. While many churches affirm this, the Vineyard was the first church I had been a part of that actually practiced it so intentionally and so widely when it came to doing the things Jesus actually did. In this sense, the Vineyard took a unique sacramental view of each believer as a priest and a temple of God’s Spirit, and of participation with (or obedience to) Jesus in the ministry he modeled and led in the gospels and Acts.
As always, the proof is in the practices. Vineyard churches, because they sacramentalize the believer, routinely make space in their gatherings (usually called ‘ministry time’) for large teams of people (generally not including the pastor) to “do the stuff” with/for anyone that wants someone to pray and listen to the Spirit for them, for one kind of healing or another, and routinely offer trainings/workshops (I have given them myself) for people who want to participate in this kind of ministry both in the church meetings and outside of them.
I should probably also mention here that the practice of actually seeking or asking for God to be uniquely present or active is also viewed as sacramental in the Vineyard, in that it is commonplace in the Vineyard to expect God to be uniquely active when people ask or welcome him to be. Even though the Vineyard does not teach that God’s response is at all dictated by people, they do teach and practice that sometimes God is not “uniquely present or active” because we don’t ask, expect or really want him to be. Therefore, in the Vineyard, the practice of “asking, seeking” goes hand-in-hand, often literally, with the sacrament of “anyone who has faith” in Jesus.
Next post will be AA’s unique view and practice of the sacrament of “the priesthood of the believer.”
“I will offer you a simple litmus test to determine whether a person has healthy or unhealthy religion. What do they do with their pain—even their daily little disappointments? Do they transform their pain or do they transmit it?
We all have pain—it’s the human situation, we all carry it in a big black bag behind us and it gets heavier as we get older: by betrayals, rejections, disappointments, and wounds that are inflicted along the way. If we do not find some way to transform our pain, I can tell you with 100% certitude we will transmit it to those around us.
At the end of life, and probably early in life, too, the question is, ‘What do I do with this disappointment, with this absurdity, with this sadness?'” — Richard Rohr
If we don’t see how Jesus came to transform our pain, and thereby our relations with each other, and not just our relationship with God, then we have missed a big part of what he was doing. Even the cross is about more than going to heaven when we die; it’s also about dealing with the hell that’s here.