Monday, December 28, 2009

Spiritual But Not Religious

To extend Christmas a little longer, my wife and I attended the Radio City Christmas Spectacular at the Opry House on Saturday. The show was well done with great staging, music, and choreography. The finale was the adoration of the Christ Child with shepherds and Wise Men present. It was beautifully done but the show’s producers followed the typical approach of taking great liberty with Matthew’s account about the visitors from the east.

Matthew’s gospel tells us about the coming of magi (probably Zoroastrian priests) to worship the Christ child. They were both astrologers and astronomers who connected happenings in the heavens to those on earth and vice versa. Given their interchange with a very troubled King Herod and the fact that they found the child and his family in a house, their visit would have been at least two years after Jesus’ birth, so they would not have been present at the manger.

The interesting thing about this story is that Matthew includes it at all. The gospel writer has a great concern in the book to show how Jesus’ coming was the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. Throughout his account, he shows that Jesus is of the lineage of David, the one who came to bring in the Kingdom of God, and the Anointed One of God. But he seems to be stretching a bit when he includes a group of star-gazing gentiles in his story. When he contrasts the worship of these pagans with the terror and disbelief on the part of Herod and his advisors, the reader is certainly expected to identify with the gentiles rather than the Jewish leaders.

By including the account, Matthew pursues another theme that carries throughout the book, God’s desire that all nations, not just the nation of Israel, may be blessed through the Son of God. Matthew’s radical message is that Jesus came for all of humankind.

As I think about the wise men (and they were surely all men), I am reminded of the many in our day who proclaim themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” This generally means, “I am interested in spiritual things but I am not part of a faith community and certainly would not have anything to do with a Christian church!” Matthew embraces the spiritual commitment of the wise men and uses it as a means to attest to the universal appeal of Jesus. There is no indication that these foreign religious leaders became “born again” believers, but their spiritual insight is certainly highlighted. Although the Jews rejected divination (including astrology), the gospel writer grasps the spark of truth attested to by these gentiles and affirms it.

Perhaps the lesson for believers today is to meet unbelievers where they are. If they manifest a spark of truth, let us encourage it rather than extinguish it by rushing to unload more than they need at this point in their spiritual pilgrimage. If we try to dump the whole load of orthodoxy on these seekers, they will be overwhelmed.

Matthew reminds us that God is already at work in the larger world and God invites us to join in that work.

Monday, December 21, 2009


James Cameron’s Avatar is THE blockbuster holiday film. I saw it in 3-D and wish that I could have seen it in the IMAX format. This is a beautiful, exhilarating film that invites the viewer to suspend his or her imagination and enjoy the ride. The invitation is easily accepted.

The story is not new or unique. Although some reviewers have charged that Cameron plagiarized Dances with Wolves, his inspiration is more from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter, Warlord of Mars series (something that Cameron himself readily admits). Although the writer/director strives for a fresh take on colonialism and biodiversity, this is a swashbuckler about an outsider who becomes immersed in an alien culture and becomes its savior—a common theme in science fiction and fantasy. Cameron also introduces a love story but that too is standard for this genre.

In the film, an avatar is a body controlled by a “driver” or human controller. The body itself is a cloned hybrid created by combining the DNA of the Na’vi, the race indigenous to the moon Pandora, and that of a human. Although the avatars were designed as a medium for scientific and sociological research, the managers of the company plundering the moon’s resources have other ideas.

The real focus of this film is the production itself. Much of it was digitally created. The integration of live action and computer-generated characters is nearly flawless. (We saw a computer-generated Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator: Salvation. I wonder when someone will resurrect a deceased star like James Dean or John Wayne for a cameo in a film.) The visual effects are realistic and breathtaking—animals, the Na’vi tribe, and the landscape. The viewer feels that these are real and not simply virtual world created by computer.

Cameron’s team also goes to great lengths to create a native culture with its own language, customs, and religion. This culture stands in sharp contrast to the mechanical, militaristic culture of the mining company.

Although the story is hardly original, many of the characters are strong. Sam Worthington as Jake Sully, a disabled Marine who becomes part of the Avatar program, is convincing (he was good in Terminator: Salvation and is even better here). Stephen Lang as Colonel Miles Quaritch is a strong villain, although rather one dimensional. Joel David Moore is Norm Spellman, a biologist who studies plant and nature life who fills the “sidekick” role well. If there is one thing we can count on from Cameron, it is strong female characters. In this film they are portrayed by Sigourney Weaver as Dr. Grace Augustine, a botanist with an attitude; Zoë Saldaña as Neytiri, a native princess; and Michelle Rodriguez as Trudy Chacon, a Marine pilot. One of the fun things is to see Weaver in the form of an avatar.

Some will put be off by the violence, others by the Gaia or “mother planet” idea, and some by the simplistic storyline, but this is not a philosophical or “message” film. This is a popcorn film with characters that are easy to like. Sit down, put on your 3-D glasses, pick up your soft drink and popcorn, and enjoy.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Responding to the Spirit

Economic downturn, midlife crisis, or work of the Holy Spirit? Whatever the reason, seminaries are welcoming a new type of student to campus. This student comes with life experience, a background in a profession (such as business, education, law, or medicine), and a desire to make a difference in the world.

Many of the students that I relate to at the Murfreesboro center of Central Baptist Theological Seminary fall into this category. They have families, jobs, and church responsibilities, but they are seeking something new for themselves and for the Kingdom of God. They have a vision that may not fit into the usual parameters of church-related ministry. Some want to be part of a ministry that does not exist already. This is a work of God's Spirit.

This is happening at other seminaries as well.

In a Religious News Service article, David Worley, director of admissions at Iliff School Theology in Denver says, “Our big push is recruiting folks who want to be social entrepreneurs and advocate for social change.”

In the same article, Arthur Holder, dean of the Graduate Theological Union in the San Francisco Bay Area observes, “More people see this [seminary study] as an entrepreneurial venture. They’re saying, `I want to start something. I want to start a new kind of church, a virtual religious community that meets online, or an urban retreat center...’ They’re not expecting the denomination or church organization to do this for them. They want to get the training, the skills and the knowledge (so that) they can create it as they go along.”

Many seminaries are responding to this opportunity with alternative delivery systems for the Master of Divinity program or new degrees. The Shawnee campus of Central Baptist Theological Seminary has inaugurated a new Master of Divinity program called CREATE designed especially for ministry entrepreneurs. The seminary also offers a Master of Arts in Missional Church Studies with an emphasis in urban ministry.

I think we will see more such innovations as seminaries and theological schools provide for this new type of student. The wind of the Spirit is blowing and calling us to respond in creative, responsible ways.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Making Many Books

We read in Ecclesiastes 12:12, “Be warned, my son,. . . of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” I am not sure exactly what the writer was getting at here, but my initial response is to say “Amen” to the first part and “So?” to the second.

Anyone who knows me realizes that I like to read. I have certain categories that particularly appeal to me, but I occasionally venture outside of those areas to consider other genres. The greatest gift that someone can give me is to recommend a book that has been especially meaningful to that person.

I like to share books that I find interesting, helpful, formative, or instructive. At the top of my blog page, you will see a banner with “Ircel’s Recommendations.” If you follow that link to, you will find several categories.

First is a list of books that I am reading right now. Some of these are in progress or may just be sitting on my shelf (or on my Kindle) waiting their turn. These have usually been recommended by a friend, written by an author I respect, or I have stumbled across the title in an article or online and the topic sounds interesting.

I have suggested books in six other categories. “Missional Church” addresses the work of the church as the missio Dei or “mission of God.” These include classics in the field and some new additions. “Leadership” lists books that address this topic in the church, in secular organizations, or both. In the “Emerging Church” list, I have tried to highlight seminal thinkers who are not only observers but practitioners as well. “Postmodernism” means different things to different people, but the books listed here are accessible even to those who have little or no background in the subject. “Vocational and Spiritual Formation” books address the idea of what it means to be a Christian and how one can grow in discipleship. This has been an interest of mine for a long time, but my approach to it has evolved over the years. The books here reflect where I am now on the topic. Finally, I have always had an interest in how people work (or fail to work) together, so the “Organizations” category addresses this from a number of perspectives.

I hope you will take a look at these lists and give me some feedback. And, if you want to recommend a book, I would welcome it!

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Vision is Just the Beginning

President George H. W. Bush (”41”) was widely criticized when he commented that he did not get the “vision” thing. For the last several decades, if you have read anything about personal or organizational development, you will realize that having a vision for yourself, your organization, or your church is mandatory. I don’t disagree with this idea, but vision is just the beginning. You can have a magnificent and compelling vision and fail in the pursuit of that vision!

There are other things to consider—values, strategies, etc.—in building an effective organization or church but I affirm that the biggest challenge that a leader faces in the 21st century is obtaining resources. When I used the term, I am using it in a very broad sense. Resources include (but are not limited to) people, finances, spiritual insight, time, and technology. In fact, it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between these four; they tend to blend into one another.

For a church or church-related organization, there must be a focused attempt to marshal spiritual resources. This is done through prayer, discernment, study of scripture, and dialogue in the community of faith. For believers, this is the beginning point. If we cannot find the spiritual resources to do what we attempt, then we better stop at once.

People are a vital resource. Personal commitment to any organization, including the church, is much more transient than in the past. We can cite any number of reasons. Some people leave the organization because “their needs are not being met.” Others question the commitment of the organization to them, so they “jump ship” first. Organizations can be part of the problem as well by failing to adapt to the gifts and skills of those who are part of the organization. Without people, we will do little to move toward our vision.

Time is also at a premium. This and the people resource clearly overlap. People will not invest their time in something that is not effective, helpful, or rewarding. On the other hand, individuals will give a great deal of personal time to something in which they believe. From another perspective, people may be impatient and unwilling to give the organization the time it needs to accomplish its mission

The organization that fails to adopt and use technological resources will not survive the 21st century. Sure it takes time to set up digital systems, but once they are established they enable us to use our people and time resources more effectively. Communication, administration, and education benefit from proper use of technological resources.

When we use the term “resources,” finances are usually thought of first, but money is only one ingredient needed to achieve a vision. I would argue that spiritual direction, people, and technology may be higher on the list of priorities, although money can help maximize the effectiveness of the latter two.

Resources allow vision to become reality. The problem is not that resources are limited. This goes without saying. No matter what resource we discuss, there is always a finite supply (including time). Allocation is the issue. The challenge for the leader of the 21st century organization is to persuade and challenge those with resources to invest them to accomplish the vision. This is an art that comes from passion and practice.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Are You Saved?

One of the classes I teach from time to time is titled “The Basics of Contemporary Christian Witness.” The scope of the course as taught at Central Seminary includes a study of the nature of salvation (especially as expressed in the Gospels), the missiology of the church through the ages, and an understanding of the missional church.

One of the papers required of the students is a personal statement of their soteriology or doctrine of salvation. Students sometimes argue that there is certainly only one approach to salvation, but the history of the Christian faith shows otherwise. How and why we are saved by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ has been interpreted in many ways in the history of the church. The doctrine has even led some Christian to persecute other Christians!

Each of us brings his or her own perspective to this doctrine today. Because of our background, the teachings to which we have been exposed, our study of the Bible, and our life experiences, we each develop our own understanding of salvation even if we have never fully articulated it.

My personal perspective on salvation has changed. In my experience, the idea of salvation has usually centered on either being saved from something or to something. For example, one is saved from the fires of Hell and/or saved to eternal life with God. Too often such approach comes down to an eternal “fire insurance policy” for the believer with little implication for life now.

It may be an oversimplification, but I am coming to see that I am saved for something. For me that something is the Kingdom of God (some prefer to call it the “Reign of God”). When Jesus was on the earth, he talked a lot about the kingdom: “it is already among you.” “It is coming,” “this is a sign of the kingdom.” With Jesus’ advent, the Kingdom of God broke into the world. That same kingdom is still breaking into the world today. It is an “already, but not yet” reality.

Believers are called to be citizens of that Kingdom. We are called out of life as we know it into life in a new culture or way of being. Our lives are reoriented with a new set of values, priorities, and opportunities. To me, this is a pretty good definition of salvation.