In the Covenant: Curiosity Wed to Certainty

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Covenant Theology classmates – partners in curiosity and certainty

I’ve spent a lot of time seeking. Looking. Perusing. Questioning. And then smiling when I found what I was looking for (or thought I was looking for), whining when I didn’t. Either way, I loved the pursuit.

I am at root a ridiculously curious guy. A poster-boy seeker. The entire world is fascinating to me in some way. As a kid I collected everything from rocket and dinosaur models to rocks, books, musical instruments, record albums (remember those?), jade things, Scotland trinkets and memorabilia, maps, miniature totem poles, strange friends, and much more. I was fascinated by astronomy, theoretical physics, geology, ornithology, folklore and mythology, quantum mechanics, languages and cultures, world religions, time travel, metaphysics, and the funky ideas of weird people.

I never doubted the universe was a grand, spacious, and basically good place. It was a veritable playground of cool stuff to discover; full of mystery and mayhem and magic and material to gaze upon and wonder. I saw God everywhere. And I believed God saw me. We had a thing. Buddies. It was a sort of comfort between two schoolyard pals with utter trust for one another.

I knew no theology, at least in any book learnin’ way. I had no language with which to describe this experience, this thirst. My discoveries of the world gave me all the words I needed to understand what hidden hands might have molded it all into being. I was perfectly happy just being curious and finding out stuff on an as needed basis. With anything close to an answer, I was gifted with a hundred new and better questions that got me started all over again.

That curiosity grew into something rather epic by the time I made it to high school. A gangly, broody, class-clowny, artsy guy, I was clever enough to hang out with most kids. But, I was more interested in the periphery. It was one great social experiment. Like a chameleon, I changed to suit my environment and, like a sponge, soaked up all I could. 

I hung out everywhere. Belonged nowhere. It was fun. It was lonely. It was confusing. But, it all led somewhere. I was about to make a huge discovery, perhaps the biggest yet. Christianity. Not God necessarily. I knew God already. Well, someone I believed to be God. I suppose I met God, specified in Jesus; Jesus, housed in the church.

At first it was deliriously wonderful. I made the assumption, perhaps erroneously, that I was finally among kindred spirits with whom I might share the wonders I’d seen in the visible world. More so, perhaps this was where all my fellow curiousers were to be found. My peeps. This was to prove only partly true.

Those early days were full of acquiescing to the authority of church teaching and the closely protected parameters into which it was meant to be understood. I gobbled it up like I had everything else. My gigantic study bible became a holy junk-drawer for copious margin notes, underlining, highlighting, circling, questions to pursue, books and articles for further study. The Internet would have been handy back then!

Life became about not just consistent, but constant, church attendance. It was bible studies, prayer meetings, small group discussions, college and career cookouts and church campouts, discipleship training, evangelism training, and learning all those Christian songs I had no idea even existed. Friendships that once mattered now were to be discarded in the interest of holier pursuits. My extensive collection of apparently demonic record albums, totem poles, t-shirts, and socio-cultural ideas were summarily hurled into the salvation garbage bin. My life was changed. I knew it. Everyone around me knew it.

A problem began to present itself, however. Once one had a good enough handle on the manual for this Christian thing there seemed little left over for my curiosity, which only continued to grow. It grew well beyond the subject matter of my recent conversion.

I was still fascinated by other religions. Jesus was the only way. Alrighty, toss that.

Spirituality and metaphysics. Hellish new age nonsense. Okay, ditch that.

The far-flung reaches of space and the cosmos. Five days in the making. One for us. One left over to catch his breath. A few thousand years old. Headed for destruction. Fair enough, moving on.

My numerous artsy, gay friends with whom I’d always shared life and laughter. Distracted and damned, respectively. Hmm. Now what?

As I’ve grown older in years and wisdom (c’mon, work with me here), I’ve come to see that much of what passed for faith in my experience was saddled up to a rather small donkey called Evangelicalism. To be fair, that little steed was more accurately called Fundamentalism. But, as I’ve walked this faith road now for some thirty-five years, the former is, sadly, well suited to bed itself with the latter.

Why? One word: certainty. Well, one more word: information. For the post-Reformation, contemporary Evangelical, theology is the equivalent to the right information in pursuit of certainty of salvation. My problem? I’m not really interested in certainty. And, for me, information alone doth not wonder bring. I’m less interested in being a dictionary than I am a children’s pop-up book, full of surprises and gurgles of joy.

This is my longstanding love-hate relationship with Evangelicalism, at least as I’ve come to experience it. To overstate my case, it is like the cosmos being shoved through an eye-dropper. The vastness of God stuffed into a propositional, mechanistic framework designed for pragmatic outcomes. Like writing a paper about sex without ever getting laid.

The intervening years have seen my spiritual journey take me on a wild ride through numerous faith iterations and denominational platforms. I discovered, to my chagrin, that, again, I hung out everywhere, belonged nowhere. It was no less baffling than any other pursuit. At least, in some of those settings, hearty questions – many without good “answers” – were encouraged.

Theology that doesn’t breed curiosity is merely ideology with God words affixed to it. It is platitudinous porridge that shows all its ingredients at once in a quaint, glass bowl. If my only aim is to say some creed from memory and attach that to my existential experience of the cosmos, then religion isn’t for me. I’d rather just be a euphoria-seeking hippy who prefers singing to studying, casual running to constant repenting. At least “God” is big enough to handle my doubts, questions, fears, heresies, and all the rest that comes with being human.

Then, I met the Covenant. Well, the Evangelical Covenant Church to be specific. A spunky little group of exceedingly friendly folks (they were originally called Mission Friends) who love the bible, Jesus, personal conversion narratives, culture and justice, a broadly-lived gospel, and the freedom to disagree. Then, as a bonus, I discovered their love for good beer, wine, laughter, connection, and passion for peace in the family. And, better still, the overweening requirement of picture-perfect theology generally expected in denominational religioso, gives way to the well-lived in shoes of narrative theology. Questions that belie quick quips are tossed about like hacky-sacks. But, they never wander far from the few simple items which unite them.

So, in my journey of questioning everything, accepting little as definitive except the asking itself, I can still be more curious than certain. Or, stated differently, I’m certain enough of the main things to be footloose and fancy-free in the cosmos-at-large. The whole bibliocentric Evangelicalism thing is old for me. I think it will always feel like an ill-fitting hat, holding TV personality hair at bay.

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But, if that is where I’m to live and move and have my being, then I can think of no better place to do so than the Covenant.

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North Park University, Chicago – ECC book learnin’ headquarters

Learning to Live Dis-Labeled

Today, I proudly welcome my wonderful writer wife, Rae (her nom de plum: Wren Kenny) as guest blogger. What follows is a prayer she spent many hours composing to pray during the “Prayers of the People” segment of our liturgy. 
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These are always tricky, especially in our present environment of toxicity and constantly germinating hatred. But, she wrote it. Prayed it. And the people – well, at least the many who showered their praise – loved it.

So, with that, I give you:

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The first time I visited a Covenant Church, I adored the blend of liturgy and evangelicalism. A man I spoke with after the service told me, “the Covenant allows for differences of opinion over non-essential theological issues.” He gave the example of baptizing both infants and adults.

This really appealed to my moderate personality, which bristles at extremes in either direction. I fact-checked with Pastor Dean. This denominational principle is called The Reality Of Freedom In Christwhere we focus on what unites us as followers of Jesus instead of what separates us.

It’s with this spirit I bring the prayers of the people this morning. 

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Dear Lord, as we pray for the world, a popular culture phrase resounding through our nation right now is Lordy. And Lordy, what a time we live in!

We might be sitting in the pew next to a leftist, a rightist or an orchardist. The news, the Internet and social media have splintered us into tribes where we seek affirmation to support our own world-views rather than for information or friendships.

Everywhere we turn, there is division and labelling. Our Presidents have been white, black and orange. Our States are red, blue, or purple. Our parties are elephants or donkeys. The elephants have Liberals, and Blue Dogs and Progressive Dogs and people concerned we’re culturally-appropriating-cats-for dogs. The donkeys are divided over conservatism. If you’re not conservative enough you’re a RINO and excluded from a Tea Party. Then there’s the Alt Right suspicious of the Deep State and the newly formed Republicans for the Rule of Law. Amidst all of this we have a growing number of Independents and third parties and people of the just-make-it-all-to-go-away-so-we-can-party party.

Lord, how do we pray for the leadership of our nation, fraught with such divisions? Borrowing words of U2‘s Irish prophet, Bono, we pray: Lord, “Heaven on Earth. We need it now. Jesus can you spare a dime and throw a drowning world a line. Peace on Earth.

Conflicts escalate around the world. Most recently we think of chemical weapons attacks on the people of Syria—and we know that “no one cries like a mother cries when her children are living in the ground.” We turn on the television and the pundits fall everywhere, from ramping up military action, to peaceniks worried about a war because of a tweet sent from a toilet. For the leaders in governments around the world, we pray,

Jesus can you take the time and throw a drowning world a line. Peace on Earth.”

In our National leadership, we have those energized to seek election for the first time and others gearing up or fearing for their re-election campaigns. We have an unprecedented rate of retirements, resignations, firings, and indictments. The news comes at us fast and furious, and it’s spun to fit every ideology.

And it’s exhausting.

The days ahead only guarantee they’ll be filled with more division. For the principalities and powers that govern us we pray,

“Jesus can you spare the time and throw a drowning world a line. Peace on Earth.”

Lord, your word in Galatians 3 tells us: “There is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, for we are all one person in Christ Jesus.” But in our nation, we’re fighting over whether black lives, blue lives, or all lives matter. We fight over the rights of the unborn, and the born. We fight over the rights of school children and guns. And then we have gay lives and straight lives and Muslim lives and Christian lives and alternative lives.

“Jesus can you take the time to throw a drowning world a line. Peace on Earth.”

Our sports are divided over standing or kneeling. Our bakeries may or may not serve you a cake. We avoid our friends and relatives if their views don’t align with our brand. Your word tells us to encourage one another and build one another up, to be kind, tender hearted, and to forgive one another in Christ. If we’re honest. We’ve failed.

Bigly. For those estranged from others we pray:

“Jesus can you take the time and throw a drowning world a line. Peace on Earth.”

And we pray for those who once dwelled among us but are struggling in their faith. The divisions around us have affected the church. But today, let each person present think of those people who are no longer seated beside them. They might have been elders, deacons, singers, scripture readers.

Many find their faith shipwrecked by the challenges in our nation. From conversations, we’ve gleaned these words which will sting – the word Evangelical in the public perception has become: evangelical – all those associated with Twitter rants, adult entertainment, and attacking teenagers whose friends are laying in the ground.

The church across the nation is hemorrhaging members. “Evangelical” is not a word with which they want to be branded. Instead, life gets in the way and they give themselves an I-have-better-things-to-do-on-a-Sunday mulligan. 

Help us, Lord, to find ways to address the palpable anxiety, put aside our petty differences and reach out to those we no longer see. Help us embrace the freedom in Christ to be comfortable with differences of opinion.

Please, dear Jesus, throw your drowning church a line and let us remember that the gospel is not fake news. It’s the good news, because your word teaches us that “there is nothing in death or life, in the realm of spirits or superhuman powers in the world as it is, or the world as it shall be, in the forces of the universe, in heights or depths—nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Peace on Earth.
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Rae is presently putting the finished touches on her debut novel, Miss Adventured, published likely this year. Stay tuned!

 

Turning up the lamp – finding a convergence

In much of the incendiary debate (a generous term, frankly) surrounding matters of human Rainbow crosssexuality in the church, one is often led to believe that there is now and has always been a single view with which all faithful souls must immediately and consistently adhere. This is an unfortunate proclivity for the prevailing church, to make assumptions out of a majority view and, on that basis, unquestioningly consider it biblical.

When my wife and I first moved to the U.S. from Canada almost fourteen years ago. I recall numerous conversations that went something like this, “oh, you’re a Christian. So, you must be pretty happy about getting a Republican in office then, huh?” Now, given that we are not American citizens and cannot vote, and wouldn’t automatically vote one way or the other dependent on a party name, this still strikes me as disingenuous at best, dangerously misinformed at worst.

The Church has disagreed on almost everything since Pentecost. Even the big stuff. The great Councils helped build a consensus, not a unanimity on matters of deepest concern to the gospel. Even the very scriptures from whence we derive our most treasured theology was a canon of strife and woe until well into the fourth century C.E. There is not even universal agreement to this day on what books even belong in the canon!

Perhaps the most diverse “rag-tag fugitive fleet” of souls ever assembled were the original twelve. Levi/Matthew, a materialistic, corporate yes man on one end and Simon, the Zealot, a leftist revolutionary on the other. It certainly was not ideology that united these two apprentices of Jesus! It was their Rabbi, and the self-giving love he exemplified that cut through to the core of all matters. 

Since the Reformation, something I see increasingly as The Giant Overreaction, the church has fractured into 40,000 denominations, more or less, most claiming sola scriptura of one form or another. Hence for me, the question becomes not if sola scriptura but whose? It leads us to ask the yet bigger questions related to the spirit in which we disagree on secondary matters. Is there room for loving disagreement, or “faithful dissent” as my colleague would say?

Despite the fact I’ve spent my entire Christian experience in that narrow hallway of Protestant enterprise, in at least one of those 40,000 denominations, the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC), I’m finding hope that, in the LGBTQ discussion at least, there may be room for such faithful dissent. And it is here where Dr. Clifton-Soderstrom is at her best, bringing home her point within that shared context where we both live, move and have our being.

This has been a threefold exercise for me in stretching my spiritual legs a bit. It is a rarity for me to engage in these, shall we say delicate, matters on a blog designed more to journal my journey than document my ideas. That said, I can think of few better to assist me as I stick my head out of my cell long enough to sniff around and discover places suited to engage the world with what I’m learning down there. 

You can find her final installment here. I did, and Dr. M…it’s been an honor.  

MichelleCliftonSoderstromTallDr. Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom is Professor of Theology & Ethics at North Park University in Chicago, Illinois where she has served since 2002. 

 

 

 

Rainbow pic found here