This month: 187 - The Importance of Relationships
Exploring the Heart of Restoration

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Alan Howell

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Deanna Thompson describes herself as a “digital skeptic,” but that changed while undergoing the isolation imposed by a serious cancer diagnosis. During that difficult time, friends and family members connected with her through virtual tools, and that care and assistance caused her to rethink the power of digital relationships.  She highlights an insight by Jason Byassee that “the body of Christ has always been a virtual body.”  The Apostle Paul, rarely physically present with other members of the same body, is connected to the Church spread throughout the Roman world through an important technology of his day – letters. Virtual presence presented real challenges, but it also possessed real advantages.

Thompson states that “while conventional wisdom tends to view virtual spaces as disembodied and therefore inferior to embodied,” we must learn to appreciate the ways that our virtual gatherings are deeply meaningful and real.  As a fellow “digital skeptic,” I’m trying to recalibrate my perceptions and not see digital connection merely as a cheap, temporary substitute, but appreciate it as timely and substantial.  How can being an Online Church meet important needs today and provide real connection?  Are there aspects of community involvement that work better online than in person? I want to think differently about Christ’s virtual body, Christ’s virtual church.  I want to keep in mind the way that virtual connectedness can offer something to us even as we are disconnected.   

As 2020 and COVID have taught us, human beings are much more likely to make decisions based on stories than science.  So, as we approach the challenges of “Online Church,” let’s be sure to get our story straight – the Church has always been a Virtual body. Being a virtual body is not something that the Church has to “pivot” to, instead it is a principal part of who we are – it’s in our DNA, it’s in our source code.

Thompson’s main example for exploring the way the Church is a virtual body is through the Eucharist.  While the practice of communion is certainly a place to find and remember this truth, there are other parts of Christianity, beyond the Lord’s Supper, where it is evident as well.  It is also essential to see our virtual interconnectedness in pneumatology.  Our virtual connectedness through the Holy Spirit is both real and powerful.  

Leonard Allen notes that “to enter the community of Christ is to enter the sphere of the Spirit’s power.  One of Paul’s fundamental convictions is that the Spirit of God is active among groups of Christians (Rom. 15:19; Eph. 3:16; Gal. 3:5; 2 Tim. 1:7,14, etc.)” (Poured Out, 175).

As we approach the challenges of being an Online Church, it is important to remember that our connectedness is not based on Zoom, Facetime, or Google Hangouts.  The interconnectedness we inhabit through the power of the Holy Spirit means that Christ’s virtual body is a deeper truth about who we are.  What if we saw the Holy Spirit as the great facilitator of virtual connection? How would that help us continue to be the virtual body of Christ today?  May we not give into despair at the challenges of “Online Church,” but lean into this as right in our wheelhouse as the people of God.  May we have greater hope today that God continues to weave worshippers together in relationship to each other through the activity of the Spirit!

Sources:

Alan Howell

During the middle of last year, I imagined that turning the page in our calendar into a new year would mean that we’d finally left our “unprecedented” season behind.  But, it seems clear that as we enter into 2021, challenging times are still ahead of us even though 2020 is (thankfully) in our rear view mirror.  One of the real challenges still facing us is what it means to be an “Online Church.” Even though so many among us have become quickly functional or even fluent in tools like Zoom, the fatigue that has set in is making us reconsider our approach to “Online Church” – it may need to be more like a marathon than a sprint.

Since our recent celebration of Advent, just a few weeks ago, I’ve found myself considering how the Candles of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love really matter for a world in darkness.  Advent is about adopting a posture of waiting & watching for the arrival of Jesus Christ.  Fleming Rutledge reminds us that, “every year, Advent begins in the dark” (Advent, 251). Advent is a season of waiting – waiting on God to act, waiting on God to come. There’s Israel waiting for 400 years in slavery for Exodus and Deliverance. There’s Israel waiting for 400 years after Exile for the coming Deliverer. “Every year, Advent begins in the dark.” 

And the truth is – being in the dark can be hard.  It’s scary.  And 2020 has been a year of darkness for a lot of us. We’ve lost loved ones, we’ve been socially distanced, and we’ve experienced loss of connections. We’ve grieved cancelled plans and loss of income or security. It sure seems like we’ve spent much of this year “in the dark” … “in the dark” about what’s really going on, how long it will last, and what things will look like on the other side of COVID. So, especially in dark, discouraging times what we need is some light to help us through the season of Advent-like waiting and beyond.  

In considering what it means to be an “Online Church” (an idea that has a lot of uncertainty and darkness surrounding it), I think we need the Advent Candlelight of Joy to help us find our way.  Advent Joy has some important competitors out on the market today – I’m just going to name two of them in this short space:

One cheap substitute for Advent Joy is a fake joy – a pollyanna, unrealistic joy, pretending that everything is great, minimizing our suffering.  A label for that kind of joy substitute could be the word “jolly.”  Jolly is a Christmas word – and it’s not necessarily a bad word, but people sometimes wear “jolly” like a mask in order to plaster on a smile, to cover up the pain and pretend it isn’t real. That doesn’t work.  The truth is we can’t breathe under that “jolly” mask – and instead of helping us look nice and neighborly, it actually ends up making other people nervous about what we may be hiding and often they decide to walk away.  Some of us may feel tempted to adopt a jolly mask related to the challenges of “Online Church,” but we can’t wear it for long before we’re worn out.  In contrast, the light of Advent Joy is so much deeper and richer than fake jolly.  Advent Joy doesn’t hide the pain and the problems, instead it’s a light that reveals joy right there in the midst of sorrow.

Another response, often in opposition to the fakeness of Jolly, is the rejection of Joy as a reality or a possibility altogether – let’s call that being “Jaded.” What does it mean to say someone is jaded?  They’re too cool for what other people care about, they’ve “seen too much,” they’re cynical, and tired, they’ve stopped being excited about something that probably used to matter to them.  The dictionaries tell us that this term may come to us from the term “jade” – a tired, worn out, exhausted horse.  This word jaded is on my mind because in spending time with college students, some of them take a jaded position of being “over faith” or “done with faith,” by which they usually mean rejecting a simplistic, childish faith. And I can appreciate where they’re coming from – “being jaded” can happen to adults, too.  Sometimes when people get “burned by Church” or “burned by other Christians,” they lose their joy, they get jaded and check out emotionally because they’ve “seen too much” in that it leads them to reject joy and become jaded.

So if some people wear fake jolly as a mask, others reject joy as unrealistic and may end up wearing their “being jaded” in a way they think makes them look sophisticated, wearing their status of “jaded” as jewelry.  Being jaded can feel interesting and exotic and cool, but real joy is so much more beautiful.  Advent Joy is “Past-Jolly” & “Post-Jaded” in that an Advent Joyful person says, “Yep, it’s true, there is suffering and darkness in the world, the Church is broken, but ‘I’ve seen too much’ of God’s faithfulness to walk away from faith.”  That kind of real, authentic joy comes from God!

As Dallas Willard says, God is the most joyous or joyful being in the universe (Divine Conspiracy, 62).  So, while the world offers us cheap joy substitutes – and it pokes fun at real joy and labels us as naive.  What we need is a “second naivete.”  We need faith like a child in a joyful God.  We need joy like a child.  Followers of Jesus practice the discipline of recapturing a child-like joy.  Maybe capture isn’t the right word here…  Joy that comes from God is wild & good – something that in its purest form can’t be tamed or captured, instead joy is something that captures & captivates us!  

What does this mean for being an “Online Church”?  It means that while there are best practices that we certainly should learn and adopt, those will not get us very far unless we are captivated by something (or someone) greater.  We need to be practicing joy and approaching the challenges of being the people of God in challenging times with a posture of joy, living in the light of Advent Joy, instead of wearing Jolly or Jaded.

I’ve heard that Landon Saunders has said, “Joy is not an end we pursue, but an energy we apply.” So, while joy is not a good “end goal,” it is a rather pretty terrific “process goal.”  Joy is more of a practice than a place – more of a “how” than a “where”… Joy is how we get where we want to go in our journey to and through the good life – even the good life mediated online!  The more we live in light of God as the most joyful being in the universe, the better we can apply and practice what the true, good life is all about.

So, my hope is that we can approach these challenging times of trying to be an “Online Church” in the light of real Advent Joy. That light can inspire us, increasing our endurance and resilience as it helps our eyes adjust to the darkness and see ways to glorify and honor God in a continued season of waiting.

Alan Howell

This poem was inspired by a trip to Carlsbad Caverns. In my mind it plays out like a Pixar Short or a children’s book in the Dr. Seuss style, but since I lack both the technical and artistic skill for those types of projects :-), right now I need to rely on a more powerful resource… your imagination. While it may have some educational value for helping kids remember the difference between stalagmites and stalactites, my bigger hope is that it could serve as a tool to chip away at the contest that the powers of darkness love to keep us trapped in – the “us vs. them” endgame scenarios that lead mostly to despair and destruction. May this open our hearts and imaginations to Jesus’s Kingdom of God future.  Here goes…

Once upon a time, buried deep down in the earth
was a place sadly absent of joy, hope, and mirth.
It wasn’t the darkness, the dampness, or the mold,
not the stillness, the silence, nor even the cold.
There deep in the cave lived tension so thick,
anxiety and fear accumulating with each loud, echoing drip.

You see, long before anyone could remember, those two tribes had been at war.
One camped on the ceiling, while the other defended the floor.
Looking down from above, looking down their long noses – The Stalactites.
And way down below, crouched their mounting foes – The Stalagmites.

Who knows how it started? Their eternal conflict.
One thing was for certain, though, it would not… end… quick!

“They’re sending down bombs! Dropping water on our heads!”
“No, you’re stealing our water! Leaving us nothing but shreds!”

Stalactites, stalagmites, full of venom and spite,
in a quest to be right, further filled them with fright!
Charging toward one another, determined to win,
It seemed rocky violence was how this would end.

These two groups, bent on conquest, acting so “brave,”
Would likely bring an end to their shared home, the cave…

But, then… out of nowhere, a new song arose,
a love song – growing slowly, as the two sides almost froze.
A stalactite, looking down into the eyes of its mate,
saw beauty, and grace in the stalagmite, embracing its fate.

And as they joined hands, a column was formed,
uniting the cave, a new future was born.

So, consider carefully the cave we find ourselves in,
it’s not perfect, but it’s home to all creation’s kin.
The secret, you see, is not making sure that “we” win,
but approaching our opposites not as enemies, but friends.—

Alan Howell

Esther Perel, a therapist and author, in talking about the impact that this season of lockdown is having on couples and their relationships, notes that “some people might come out of this wanting to get married, while others will come out wanting a divorce or a breakup.” That observation may not surprise us as we’ve considered the way the CoronaVirus could potentially affect people in the world today, but the reason she gives for this impact is thought provoking: “disasters generally operate as an accelerator in a relationship.” https://www.thecut.com/2020/04/esther-perels-advice-for-couples-under-lockdown.html

Wow – “disasters generally operate as an accelerator in a relationship.” That’s certainly an important concept for couples to be aware of, but it also may apply to other relationship spheres, as well. For example, how will this event be an accelerator for people in the communal relationship we call “Church”? Will CoronaVirus accelerate people’s journey to faith… or away from it? Will COVID-19 accelerate the growth of churches that were poised to expand their impact and influence? On the flip side of that, will it be the final straw for churches in decline, accelerating those on the verge of closing their doors to go ahead and “move on”?

But, Perel’s idea could actually hold our attention for a different reason in this Post-Easter season. How can this idea help us understand the disaster that was/is… the cross?

In considering Jesus’ death we see that the cross was actually an accelerator for resurrection life. That disaster, in fact, did not bring Jesus’ relationship to life to an untimely end – it did the opposite! And for the powers of darkness, death and the devil, their “victory” at the cross was short-lived, the cross ended up spelling disaster for them and putting a final nail intheir coffin.

So, what will this COVID-19 experience accelerate in us?  For some, it may reveal the darkness and selfishness inside us that, if left untreated, would be disastrous.  If death has a hold on us in the present age, this event should serve as a warning that it is time to hit the breaks and not continue down that path. 

The almost-too-good-to-be-true good news is that God seems especially talented at working good things out of bad situations. God turned the disastor of slavery in Egypt into an Exodus story. God turned the death of the Son into Salvation. God has a long history of working good out of bad situations – somehow accelerating them towards Kingdom of God purposes. So, when we follow the way of Jesus and are filled with his life, the different expressions of the disaster of death and brokenness around us can actually, amazingly, accelerate the good inside us, moving us towards unending, everlasting, overflowing life.

So, if “disasters generally operate as an accelerator in a relationship,” the fact that we live in a Post-Easter world means that God’s resurrection power can be at work in us accelerating new life and new creation… shaping us into who we, as disciples of Jesus, were meant to be.

Alan Howell

Why do we lead the way we do?  How does that impact disciple-making?

For Christian leaders to respond to the lack of discipleship/disciple-making in the Church (what Dallas Willard referred to as The Great Omission), we’ll need to think critically and carefully about our own leadership framework.  It may be helpful to consider the cultural symbols that shape our understanding of power and influence.  By pulling back the curtain on the symbols that shape us, we may be able to lead in a way that is more conducive to developing a culture of disciple-making (living out the Great Commission). 

Erwin McManus reminds us that, “Cultures sing their own songs, tell their own stories, and carry their own aromas.  A culture is a beautiful art piece that uses people as its canvas… In every culture you’ll find essential metaphors that define and shape its ethos.  Your symbols hold your secret stories.  The metaphor causes an eruption of images, ideas, dreams, beliefs, and convictions all at one time.  The story of an entire people can be contained in one symbol.  A culture often has two or three symbols that are fundamental to the identity of the people.” (An Unstoppable Force, 112-113)

When I think about cultural symbols that shape an American ideal of leadership, Mt. Rushmore looms large.  The faces of these ideal Presidents were carved in stone on the side of a mountain – a good indicator of how much we value and honor their example!  I’ve had a goal over the last few years of reading biographies about each of the Mt. Rushmore Presidents to help me better understand how they shape our image of ideal leadership.  While I’m certainly not a historian and have more reading to do, I’d like to share an admittedly half-baked hunch to see if unpacking this symbol can help us lead more effectively.  Reading about these four Presidents’ leadership styles, it seems that each of them hold a symbolic place in the American imagination as an ideal leader in a particular way: Washington has been idealized as having the proper heart; Lincoln is the soul of America; Jefferson’s intellect and his role as the architect of the Declaration of Independence are the standard for the mind of a President; while Roosevelt embodies something of the strength we value most in a leader.   The U.S.A. has carved her greatest leaders in stone, the ones who model for her people what leading out of heart, soul, mind and strength are all about.

Now… is my simplistic interpretation of how Mt. Rushmore matters for our cultural perceptions of leadership shaped by what Jesus has to say about the greatest commands in Mark 12:28-31? Certainly.  Could this viewing of that national symbol potentially aid us in choosing who to vote for in an upcoming Presidential election – helping us evaluate our candidates based on how well they lead out of heart, soul, mind and strength?  I hope so.  But, more important than that, is my conviction that churches should take their leadership cues from the one who lived out a life that best honored God with heart, soul, mind, and strength.  A King who knew that there would be no crown without the cross.  A King who made disciple-making the crux of his work.  A King whose leadership focused on empowering those he discipled, entrusting them to take his Kingdom project to the ends of the earth. By unpacking the influence of national symbols, like the stone images of Mt. Rushmore, on our conceptions of leadership, we may begin to see how Christ, the living stone (1 Peter 2), calls us to put disciple-making at the center of our leadership strategy.  If a symbol like Mt. Rushmore matters for the shaping our leadership ideals, how could we lift our eyes to our Savior, who offers an even better leadership framework, and let that guide our own identity and influence?

This past summer, our family got to visit Colorado National Monument.  At one of the visitor centers, a ranger talked about the different animals in the park and showed us a skull of a Bighorn Sheep.  He pointed out how the horns curved around the skull, but were broken off at the end.  The ranger described how the horns tend to curl around, passing directly into the rams line of sight. So, to keep safe from predators and not let horns get in the way of its vision, the Bighorn sheep will stick the tip of the horn in a crevice of a rock and break it off and then rub it on a sandstone rock to round off the rough edges. This practice is called brooming.

This surprised my wife and I because, honestly, that seems like very intelligent behavior for a sheep!

It made me think about the way horns serve as symbols of power, authority and leadership where we lived in Mozambique, Africa as well as in Scripture (for example, Psalm 18:2 and Jeremiah 48:25).

Maybe these sheep have something to teach us about the ways that horns/authority can obscure a leader’s vision.  They remind us that when we let authority go to our heads(!) we become more susceptible to predators.  Leaders need to be intentional about not letting their power and influence impede their vision.  That’s true for individual leaders and for institutions, as well.  We need to be deliberate about making sure that authority and tradition don’t grow so large that we actually do lose sight of what’s around us.  For bighorn sheep, without proper brooming, these horns could be dooming them to an early death, blinding them to dangers and threats.

To live out a 2020 vision effectively will require us, as leaders, to take stock of our own authority and influence to make sure it has not obscured our sight.  That doesn’t mean that we reject the use of power and influence, instead it means using authority and leadership properly.  One of my favorite resources on this topic is Andy Crouch’s book, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power.  May we have the courage to practice brooming, keeping leadership and authority in its proper place.

May we as fellow sheep, join the Chief Shepherd in leading the flock well, awake to the ways that power, influence and authority have the potential for good as well as the ways that they can impede our vision. 

Principal Cook, of the West Side High School in Newark, New Jersey, had a problem.  Some students resisted when security officers tried to check their bags.  While one might assume they resisted because they were carrying drugs or a weapon, when Principal Cook started asking questions, he found that some students couldn’t afford to wash their clothes and were carrying dirty laundry in their backpacks.  They didn’t want people going through their bags because they were ashamed – in fact, the smell of dirty clothes was connected with bullying which was, in turn, connected with chronic absences.  Aware of the problem, the school addressed it by making washers and dryers available so that dirty laundry wouldn’t get in the way of an education. 

Christian Scharen’s book, Fieldwork in Theology: Exploring the Social Context of God’s Work in the World (2015), examines the relationship between theology and social situation – the connection between the story of the church (ecclesiology) and culture (ethnography).  Scharen summarizes the significance of the task this way: “In order to engage ministry with vitality, perceive the new things God is doing, and ‘participate in God,’ leaders have to get out and learn what’s going on and how to relate to the people and context where they are. Fieldwork in theology is that simple—and that complicated!” (30).  By asking questions and not assuming we know the answers, we may be able to get to the root of what needs to change in our ministry contexts.

Living in Mozambique, Africa, from 2003 to 2018, it was impossible for me to assume that I really understood the culture, the context of my ministry.  This appropriate sense of desperation led me to ask questions to learn their systems and how life worked in “their world.”  I used qualitative interviews to investigate different parts of their culture in order to learn how the gospel can bring good news into that reality.  Over time, that desperation turned into fascination as I began to see not only the problems, but also the solutions or connections that could be made.  In moving back to the United States, I’ve needed help again, and I am now leaning on the university students I work with to help me understand this new (to me) “foreign” culture.   

While Fieldwork in Ministry might be formally described as “qualitative interviews and triangulation of the data in small groups,” in our ministry contexts it may look more informal, although still very intentional.  It doesn’t mean trying to be amateur or armchair ethnographers, but it may look like keeping a notebook with some questions in it and paying attention to the answers we get over a meal or a phone call.  It may mean being purposeful in having conversations salted with phrases like, “I’ve noticed ____ happening… why is that?” and “Tell me more about that…;” “How’s that working for them?… for you?” “I’m curious to hear what you would say keeps _____ from happening?”  A Fieldwork approach can be the right tool in our ministry toolkit when we need to: Revisit a problem; Revamp a program; Augment our preaching/teaching; or Engage a challenge.  Fieldwork may take various forms, but it is effective only when we truly have eyes to see and ears to hear.   

Scharen tells a story of one interviewee, a woman who had a beautiful response to being really listened to, “You heard me. You heard me all the way… I have a strange feeling you heard me before I started. You heard me to my own story. You heard me to my own speech.” (29)  Powerful things, Kingdom of God-type things, happen when people are truly heard – things like clean clothes and an environment where learning and transformation can happen.

For more on Principal Cook’s story, see these links:

CNN – When students were bullied because of dirty clothes, a principal installed a free laundromat at school

NJ.com – Students were bullied because of dirty clothes. Washing machines in the locker room will change that.

NJ.com – Newark vice principal goes ‘old school’ to keep kids out of trouble

It all started with back pain.  At first, it was annoying and I figured it was just part of getting older.  But, as the pain got worse and interfered with my ability to function, we realized that this wasn’t normal.  My wife, Rachel, and I did some research and were surprised to learn that with my kind of back pain, the real root of the problem was a problem with my… breathing. I wasn’t breathing correctly and other muscles in my back and shoulders were trying to compensate.  We learned that attempting strengthening strategies without addressing my breathing wouldn’t fix the problem.  Honestly, it felt embarrassing, laying down on the ground trying to relearn how to breathe and having to admit a lack of competence in that supposedly basic part of being alive.  But after just a few days and weeks of breathing properly, most of my pain and discomfort went away.  I am now a big believer in the importance of breathing correctly!

The breathing process is a helpful analogy to our life in Christ.  Both breathing in and breathing out “are necessary for life; one without the other is indeed problematic.  Breathing out is only possible by breathing in; whereas breathing in is only possible by breathing out.  In this analogy, breathing in is likened to the contemplative, or spiritual communion that fosters a deeper relationship with Christ, as we are being conformed into his image (Rom 8:29).  On the other hand, breathing out is likened to reaching out in mission in the areas to which we are called.” (Finn and Whitfield ed., Spirituality for the Sent: Casting a New Vision for the Missional Church, 173.) 

Another way to frame this topic, is to think about two important words from the Gospel of John.  In his new book, Abide and Go: Missional Theosis in the Gospel of John, Michael Gorman notes that, “John is a gospel of profound spirituality and expansive mission.  It is the gospel whose motto is ‘abide and go’” (26).  He reminds us that, “spirituality and mission are not only related; they are inseparable: the verb ‘abide’ or ‘remain’ … appears eleven times in 15:1-16, and the verbal phrase ‘bear fruit’ … occurs eight times” (96).  These important ideas of abiding and going and inter-connected in John 15.  We can’t have one without the other.

The Gospel of John wants to teach us to breathe well.  We need to “abide” (Breathing in) and “go” (Breathing out).  If we as ministers and those we serve don’t get this right, we will experience more than mere back pain.  Failing to breathe correctly, trying to only breathe in or only breathe out, leads to serious health problems.  When we focus only on abiding in Christ, we can develop an ingrown spirituality.  When we put all our attention on going and doing, we will quickly run out of energy and pass out (as Jesus told us, “apart from me you can do nothing” – John 15:5).  The key is developing the proper pattern of breathing in (abiding) and breathing out (going and bearing fruit) and seeing that as the rhythm of our life in Christ.  It takes practice, especially if we’ve developed bad habits of breathing incorrectly!  The truth is, abiding leads to abounding – bearing fruit only happens when we are connected to Christ.  And being connected to Christ means that we will be people who bear fruit.  May we be a people who learn to breathe well and live well – a life of abiding and going.

“So, what’s church like in America?”

It’s a question we’ve heard a lot in the weeks since our return from furlough in the United States.  And it’s a hard one to answer.

Since 2003, my wife and I have been part of a mission team serving the Makua-Metto people in Mozambique, Africa.  Our context here is predominately Muslim; Protestant churches make up less than 1% of the population. The Mozambican believers asking this question typically worship with only a dozen or so people in their villages each Sunday, so hearing about hundreds of Christians gathering regularly to praise God is difficult to process.  They smile in wonder; it sounds amazing and incredible.

But, this past year as our family traveled around the U.S., what my wife and I sensed a lot of was tension and anxiety.  It is common knowledge now that Churches of Christ in America are in decline (http://www.christianchronicle.org/article/165-000-fewer-souls-in-the-pews-five-questions-to-consider) and this recognition has left the church with some serious questions:  Didn’t we used to be the “fastest growing church” … Why aren’t we growing like we did in the past?  How should the church interact with a culture that seems to be moving away from vestiges of a Christian heritage? Why are so many of our children leaving the churches of their youth? What do we do now? Which way do we turn?

There are a number of different ways to approach these questions. Outlining the seven steps or five changes that churches should implement could be a useful exercise, but it seems to me that what would actually be most helpful for our fellowship as a whole would be finding a story that helps us find our bearings in the present context.

And there’s a story from the history of God’s people that I believe is extremely relevant to American Churches of Christ today.

The most famous event in Elijah’s life happened in 1 Kings 18.  Elijah set up a contest on Mount Carmel, a power encounter between Yahweh and Baal to see who would send down fire to burn up a sacrifice and offer definitive prove of divine status.  Baal’s representatives begged their god to no avail, but after a simple prayer from Elijah, Yahweh sent down fire from heaven to burn up the sacrifice.  Israel immediately recognized the identity of the true God and dramatically rejected the deceiving prophets of Baal. Elijah’s first mountain top experience was unlike any other.

The previous story has appropriately received a lot of our attention, but I’d like for us to consider the next chapter of Elijah’s life and the next chapter in 1 Kings – chapter 19.

After the deaths of the prophets of Baal, Queen Jezebel declared her intention to kill Elijah.   Even though he had borne witness to dramatic proof of Yahweh’s supremacy, Elijah still ran for his life.  He fled to a cave on Mount Horeb (otherwise known as Mount Sinai).  In what was likely the deepest valley of his life, Elijah went straight to the Mountain of God.  Elijah (whose name means “My God is Yahweh”) ran to the place where he was certain that Yahweh had been before. And God spoke to him there, asking: “What are you doing here, My-God-is-Yahweh (Elijah)? Why are you in this cave?”

It was then that the prophet lodged his complaint: “I haven’t broken the covenant that you made with your people right here – and now I’m the only one left.”

After a series of divine displays of power, God’s presence was presented to his prophet in a whisper.  Elijah was asked again what he was doing there, and his response was to repeat his practiced speech. It was then that Yahweh gave the prophet a task (anoint a new king and a new prophet) as well as an important truth (that he is, in fact, not alone –there are seven thousand people who have not bowed their knee to Baal).

There are a host of potential messages for us here: We could reflect on God’s grace, coming in a gentle whisper and reminding Elijah about the meaning of his name.  We could consider how God consistently provided for Elijah’s needs throughout his life (food and shelter, and then later, community and colleagues in his mission). We could note the need for more than just God’s power, but also a deep necessity to encounter God’s presence (That was the real gift, the real present in this story, God’s presence.  Idols, Jezebel’s gods, on the other hand offered power without presence.  But as Mount Carmel taught us – they have neither).

What I’d like us to consider, though, is how this story could provide a vision for what it means to be the Church in our time and in our world today.

With the shift in the way Western cultures relate to Christianity and the observation that the Church seems to be losing skirmish after skirmish in the “Culture War,” Christians are increasingly nervous.  Many feel marginalized by the culture, like we’re either being given the cold shoulder or left out in the cold altogether.Maybe it’s not persecution that we are receiving, but it certainly seems like pressure.

Some advocate that the church should retreat in fear in the face of all these changes.  There is a strong pull to run back to the past, to places and times that felt more secure – like the way Elijah ran back to the mountain of God to hide out in a cave.  But I wonder… if we, also, follow the path of running back to a “safe time and place”… would God say to us something similar to what he said to Elijah?

“What are you doing here? I’m still the same Powerful God who knows you by name. Your name is Church of Christ. You are a member of the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of God is never in trouble.[1] You have a mission – and there are 7,000 or 70,000 or 700,000,000 who have not bowed to other gods.”

Let’s try a different metaphor.Elijah ran to a mountain; let’s imagine that instead of running to a mountain we headed for a beach.  There we find like-minded people who care about Christ and his Church and we decide to build a ship to handle the rising tide of adversity and animosity. What kind of boat will we build?[2] How should we think of the Church? What do we do?

  1. We could choose to fight and begin to build a battleship: finding our purpose in fighting the culture wars and following the agenda of some trustworthy captain.
  2. We could choose a “Flight of fancy” and spend our time and energy to build a cruise ship: focusing on building an exclusive community centered on filling our time with a variety of fun activities.
  3. We could choose to stay fixed and build something sturdy and motor-less that would stay anchored in the port: hoping that by staying in place we could ride out the changing tides.
  4. Or we could get in a sailboat or a deep sea fishing boat and go into “uncharted waters,” trusting God to keep us afloat and keep us flowing in the right direction. Shroyer reminds us that “sailboats rely primarily on the wind to propel them forward. Despite the unruly waves of the sea, we try to trust that the wind of God’s Spirit will get us where we need to go.  I mentioned this thought to a friend of mine who sighed as she said, ‘That’s probably true, but it sure feels rickety sometimes out on this boat,’ and I have to agree with her.  It probably explains why we often do so many things to try to make this journey toward God’s horizon feel more secure, but I wonder if that doesn’t keep us from having to do the very important work of remembering the promise, even if we’re a little breathless sometimes out here on the waves.”[3]

It may sound nice to run back to the past, to ride out this gathering storm in a cave, or to run to build for ourselves a cruise ship or a battle ship.  But instead, what if we followed Christ’s lead and ran into our community… ran into the world, empowered by the Task and the Truth we’d been given.

Elijah walked out of that cave with courage and determination.  My-God-is-Yahweh went out and did his job: witnessing to Yahweh, completing his God given tasks, and training Elisha (discipling the next generation of leadership).

It seems that the powerful “Mount Carmel moment” has passed for our fellowship (and for the Western Church in general!) and we have now entered into a “Mount Horeb/Mount Sinai” season.  Taking inspiration from God’s counsel to Elijah reminds us that a journey back to the past is unlikely to be our way forward.  Faithfulness in our current climate may look more like persevering in the face of despair, believing the whisper that God is present and discerning the truth (the number of the “faithful” is larger than we may think) and the task we’ve been given(to make disciples of Jesus).

Early Christians who experienced pressure/persecution were reminded of the truth that Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb. 13:8).  It will take courage to follow where the Spirit’s wind blows, charting a good course; rightly perceiving how to be the Church in a changing world.  I think we will need to listen to our brothers and sisters from around the world who already know what it means for their faith to marginalize them within the surrounding culture.  If we have ears to hear I think we could hear them calling us to join them in faithful witness to those within the culture who are longing to know a powerful and ever-present God.

My hunch is that faithfulness in this “Mount Horeb/Mount Sinai”season will look like people possessed by a commitment to: (1) the truth that we are not and never were alone in this endeavor and (2) the task of discipling the next generation of leaders.

May the American Churches of Christ take inspiration and counsel from Elijah’s other mountaintop experience and have the courage to engage God’s world in meaningful ways.

[1]I’m borrowing this helpful phrase from James Bryan Smith.

[2]I’m adapting ideas here from Shroyer, Boundary-Breaking God, 123.

[3]Shroyer, Boundary-Breaking God, 123.