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?
There’s a long story here, but I’m going to skip to the end (maybe give a pre-quel later). 🙂 The other day, I was emailing a friend, Pat Loughery, and said this in response to a question he asked me:
The actual shape of my life day to day matters so much more than I used to think. Realizing this has brought me to more of a “one day at a time” approach, and makes me more appreciative of friends who support me in really pursuing a life of love.
When I typed the last three words, an idea–and a strong motivation–to start a support group built around the purpose of pursuing a life of love, in the way of Christ, hit me hard. I spoke to a few close friends about it, and a couple of other folks that I think the Spirit highlighted for me. We had our first meeting this last Tuesday, and I was really, really encouraged, and I think many were.
For those who aren’t familiar with support groups, the below outline may not give a clear enough idea of what we do (and why and how), but I figured I’d post it anyway. I’m a little jazzed, too, that after having just our first meeting and giving out this outline, someone else volunteered to facilitate the next meeting. Here’s to Love.
LIFE OF LOVE GROUP – Proposed Meeting Format
A Support Group for People Who’s Highest Goal Is To Make Real Progress in Living a Life of Love in the Way of Jesus
- Hangout, snacks, etc.
- At the appointed time, the facilitator calls everyone to the meeting; someone reads: “The purpose of this group is to support each other as we seek to live lives of greater love in the way of Jesus. The desire for such progress in love is the only requirement for membership.”
- Someone reads a scripture chosen by the facilitator in keeping with our purpose. (e.g., I Cor. 13, various I John passages, various Psalms, John 3:16, etc.).
- If there are any newcomers, the facilitator gives basic outline for the meeting and the closing time.
- The facilitator (i) introduces a time of silence to give everyone the opportunity to stop, think and/or pray, and (ii) closes the time with a simple “Amen” or the serenity prayer or another appropriate prayer to the group’s purpose, whether scripted or spontaneous.
- If there are relatively new people, the facilitator may go over the basic rules of the discussion time, which are born out of our common purpose: +++ Respect for other members: This is a space for people to “work out their own rescue” from lovelessness in the presence of God and others. Each person is chiefly responsible for his or her own progress in love or the lack of it, therefore, each person is welcome to share or not in turn as they deem best. Feelings and/or personal experience are preferable to theory. No hard rules on length, but we want in general to be considerate so that others also have time to be heard. Listening is our primary way to love each other in the discussion time. So that each of us can avail ourselves of this time without being shamed, we do not give feedback or advice to other members unless they specifically ask for it (even then, it may be best not to give it during discussion, but rather to share your own experience and pray!). Affirmations or gratitude for what someone else has shared is always welcome. +++ Confidentiality: Everything said in the meeting is confidential, and will not be disclosed to others.
- The facilitator introduces the topic of discussion as well as the freedom (and encouragement!) to deviate from the topic. Each person is encouraged to talk about whatever they feel will help them make progress in love. If there are any (relatively) newcomers, the facilitator should ask each person to introduce themselves by first names at their turn to share. More than one “round” of discussion is totally fine, as are additional, related topics or questions by the facilitator until time is up.
- At the agreed time, the facilitator announces the end of discussion time, invites all to make note of any particular items that they want to “take away” for their own progress, allows each person a quick opportunity to share their take away or not.
- [optional] Time of singing to God. The facilitator encourages people to approach this time within the context of our goal of learning to love God and receive love from him. Try not to simply sing out of habit. Each person is free to sing, , listen, stand, sit, kneel, etc. as each deems helpful toward our goal.
- Close by leading all in the Lord’s Prayer or Psalm 23 or other group prayer appropriate to the purpose. The facilitator encourages anyone who wants to pray further or receive prayer to do so. Same for discussion, snacks, helping to clean up, or leaving the meeting.
First let me admit, I’m fairly ignorant regarding the Lord’s Supper (a.k.a., communion, a.k.a., the eucharist). I grew up Baptist; what can I say? In any event, I’ve ‘celebrated’ communion with Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Charismatics, non-denomers, third-wavers, home groups, and even Catholics. I’ve even led communion a few times. I get it more than I used to, but to quote U2, I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. But I think this post from Scot, and the book he’s reviewing, is on to something. What do you think?
Here’s my comment on Scot’s post with a question I honestly think about from time to time, and wonder if what I’m looking for isn’t somewhere close by:
We’re considering starting an Alpha course at my church, and as we’ve been going down this road, I can’t help but think that no small part of the success of the Alpha course is the theological and redemptive power of the shared meal in Jesus’ name (often underestimated in Western evangelicalism). I honestly wonder which is more “Eucharistic”–the shrunken and ritualized wafer and juice of church ceremony, or the full meal of pasta prepared by the saints for sake of outsiders and newcomers to the faith, which we all eat together as we talk about Jesus.
. . . I’m honestly really wondering about the spirit and intent of communion, the size of the meal vs. the specifics of what’s served, the presence or absense of conversation with others, and even the tone and setting. With all of the editorial differences b/n the last supper and current practice, I wonder if Alpha has hit something, or several somethings, significant that the Church has edited out of its modern translation of the practice.
Anyone who’s read this blog more than twice knows I’m big on a big gospel. Another way of saying it is that I disagree with reduced modern usages of the term “gospel” or “salvation” that are significantly narrower in scope than the usage of that term in the scriptures. I’ve said it before and I say again, the gospel of the New Testament is more than “God forgives/justifies sinners.” Likewise, “salvation” in the New Testament, let alone the whole bible, is more than forgiveness and justification; just do a New Testament word study on the greek word “sozo” to see what the NT writers think when they think about Jesus “saving” people.
So here’s what I’m wondering: When we narrow the concept of “salvation” to a smaller concept than the biblical one, how does that also narrow our ecclesiology, our ideas of what a church is and is called to be? How does our idea of “gospel” shape our idea of “church?” How would a more robust gospel change our idea of church and our practice of it?
“If anyone [gay] wants to come with me, let him deny himself [the rest of you are already good to go].”
Dave Fitch is hosting a difficult and important conversation at his blog, and with much grace all around. The following is my latest comment, which I probably should have posted separately here in the first place. Sorry Dave! Looking forward to future posts in the series!
One of the things I’m getting (and liking) in this conversation is a small taste of what I hope David means by “welcoming and mutually transforming.”
By David’s and Isaac’s conversation, I’m already seeing how I have taken so many of my own practices and desires and even parts of what I consider my own identity as givens, or rather how I’ve attached to them a sense of entitlement that is beyond questioning, even by Christ’s purposes.
I find the last comment by Isaac particularly interesting (Isaac, I don’t want you to feel like you have to address it if you’re growing tired of the conversation; you’ve already given a great deal.), especially as it ends with the idea that sexual orientation seems to be much larger than sexual desire.
As you guys mentioned, there are several ways in which this is true. There are almost always communal bonds at stake, not just with one’s partner but also one’s “people”, one’s community and friends. People frame their identities not merely as persons having this or that sexual “desire” but also as people who are faithful to their particular communities. I wonder which pulls us and shapes our sense of identity more, especially on this issue, our desires or our ties to our communities?
As I think about all these things, I’m reminded of Jesus’ call to priortize him and following him even over our communal ties to parents or children or spouse. Not a favorite passage of mine. We often think of or present Christianity as saying “you have to give up or resist this or that desire to be loyal to Jesus.” But it’s really more radical, more exacting, than that. It’s much larger than our desires. Jesus’ call to follow him is clearly a call to subrogate our desires and our identities and the communal bonds that form and maintain them to Jesus. Everything that would come under the broad definition of “our life” (everything we would lose by death) is what is up for transformation and redirection by Christ.
But I don’t think this is what the LGBTQ sees the largely hetero Church doing or even saying Jesus is actually about in America. We have implicitly said that Jesus doesn’t have any serious correction to give to the typical American way of life, other than to add tithing and church attendance. It’s a club with a cross on the building, claiming to be formed and frequented by God himself, and it discriminates on the basis of sex and sexual orientation for who can join.
Maybe part of these discussions in real life has to be particular and personal confessions by hetero Christians of how they’ve flatly ignored Jesus’ Lordship because it has threatened this or that community bond or standing, or some other part of what we want “our” life to be like. Isaac and the LGBTQ community are right in that there is a double standard for what is required at the door of the Church, what’s required to “be Jesus’ disciple” as we’ve implicitly redefined it around us. That has to change, and it has to start with those already in the building, those claiming to be God’s friends. We’ve got to have a few more serious stories of our own about what we have given up to have the pearl. We have to reframe our own discipleship.
Love him or hate him, Bill Clinton spoke the language of this generation. And no where did he do so more profoundly as when he famously dodged a flat question with the reply,
“It depends on what the meaning of the words ‘is’ is.”
I remember how shocked I was when I first heard him say that. When I look back at that quote it takes me right back to that shock. And it reminds me of the tortured way some people, even some ministers, talk about the resurrection of Jesus and whether Jesus is alive.
On that last point, I want to say one thing before the obvious central point of this post. I’ve learned some great things from “liberal” Christians, some of whom would no doubt launch into a Clinton-esque tortured exploration of “is” if asked if they think Jesus “is” alive. If my learning from such folks shocks you, let me briefly say there are several theologies in conservative Christian circles that tend to undervalue the power and genius of Christ’s teachings and example, while there are some on the left that do the opposite. Search this blog for my “Don’t call it grace” posts to begin to see what I mean. It’s not just his blood, but also his words that give (and are) life; and sometimes Christians, ironically, miss this.
But my second point is this: People who say they are Christians but want to talk about what the meaning of the word “is” is when confessing that ‘Jesus is Lord’ look just as silly as Bill Clinton when he tried that tack. There ain’t no debate about what “is” means when the scriptures say “Jesus is Lord.” In a word, we’re talking about, and affirming, the resurrection. Interestingly, Jesus himself actually makes the argument that the dead are raised by the usage of the “is” concept. The fact that Jesus “is” as opposed to merely “was” is absolutely central to the Christian faith, and a big part of what it means to confess that Jesus is Lord. I’m okay with folks having honest questions about that as they peruse the faith and even as they are on the long journey of the Way. But let’s be clear what the “is” means in the original Christian creed and in any Christian creed worth having: ‘Jesus is Lord’ means in no small part that Jesus is alive.
Years ago, N. T. Wright and a review of the biblical texts convinced me that “Jesus is Lord” was the irreducible core of the gospel message; it is the centerpiece of what the Church believes and has to tell the world (whether we all realize it or not!). (This isn’t going to be a post or series to prove that, fyi; if you’re interested in that find some N.T. Wright to read and also read all the ways that Jesus and the NT generally talk about gospel, and try to synthesize them.) Many others have noted this, along with the idea that the phrase was also the first “creed” of Christianity. I’ve also used the phrase personally as a meditation, as a defense to temptation, as worship, etc., etc. and with much, much benefit.
Alan (see the link above) makes a very interesting point about creeds: namely that while “Jesus is Lord” initially served to unite Christians and be the dividing line b/n those who were and were not part of Christ’s ekklesia/church, the more current (and longer) creeds were used to distinguish Christians from other Christians. I’m not sure if Alan is right, or that things are quite that clean, but I do know that creeds have tended to get longer as more and more doctrines have been added by this or that group to the supposed “essentials of the faith” with corresponding heresies being catalogued.
While I agree with all of the ancient creeds, I can’t help but think every time someone says we need to use the Nicene or some other ancient creed more often in worship or as a basic confession (essential for membership) in our churches, that we lose something, that we distort Jesus and his own emphases somehow. For example, I believe that Jesus was born to a virgin. I find it unhelpful, though, that this point gets included as “an essential” while the teachings that Jesus said summed up all the law and the prophets (Love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind & strength, and one’s neighbor as oneself) gets no mention. Do the creeds create a different set of “essentials” than what Jesus taught? If so, is everybody okay with that? I keep thinking that the shorter, “Jesus is Lord” would better serve; that it would focus us on the Man himself and his priorities; that in this case, less really is more. How about you? I’m going to post a little on each word of that creed and see where it leads.
By the way, for those looking for another Vineyard post, I’d also credit the Vineyard for this holistic Jesus-focus in my life. I credit my S. Baptist upbringing for telling me that the Bible is God’s word and we do well to treat (all of) it accordingly. But when it came to Jesus and the good news about him, they really only gave me the last third/half of the gospels as “gospel.” Only Jesus’ death was gospel, when push came to shove, because that was the act of substitution, that’s what allowed me to go to heaven, and that was the good news. It was the Vineyard’s influence that started me wondering if everything else in “the gospels” was also good news, that Christianity was about more than surviving judgment, though that was pretty darn good. Thanks significantly to the Vineyard, I started to see that Jesus was talking about the gospel in terms of God’s reign coming to earth, and that Jesus was the embodiment, in word and deed, of what God had in mind to do as the rightful King of the world. Good news, folks: “Jesus is Lord (over everything threatening humanity, within and without).” More to come.