Monday, October 25, 2004

Back from the Pit

No, this isn't a blog about a recent spiritual struggle from which God rescued me in psalmist fashion. Last weekend Zach, my 13 year old son, and I traveled to the Grand Canyon for what appears to be becoming an annual pilgrimage for the Brantleys. We met up with my mom and dad, and sister and brother-in-law at this historic site. Everyone but my mom (she has the brains in the family) set out to hike down the South Kaibab trail to the river and out via the Bright Angel trail in, once again, one day (yes, there are reasons why signs warn folks from attempting this).

We started down the South Kaibab trail at 5:55 a.m. and dragged ourselves out of the canyon at 7:30 p.m.--it was a pretty long day, but well worth it.

Last year, we went down to the Colorado river and back via exclusively the Bright Angel trail. While it provides some great views of the Canyon, it doesn't compare to the South Kaibab trail in this regard. Unlike the Bright Angel trail which follows a fault line down into the canyon, the South Kaibab follows a ridge line, offering spectacular views.

Zach and I had a great time together. Standing on a precipice with him, looking into this magnificent wonder of nature, you sense a bond of mutual experience that is inexplicable. You know that you are in the presence of something large, mysterious, powerful. I'm glad that my son and I could share this experience together. We have stories that we forever will tell.

I'm attempting to upload some pictures taken of our trip. I hope I'm successful. If not, it's great to be back from the pit...though priorities become much clearer when your at the bottom with those whom you love. I think I'll blog about that in the future.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Blue Like Jazz

Last weekend, I had the privilege to experience once again the ZOE worship conference. Greg Miles wrote his typically articulate thoughts about this great event. The theme Desperate captured in many ways the status of our postmodern culture. It appears that many worship leaders, as evinced by the Worship Leaders' track, are acknowledging this desperation, not only in our culture but in churches as well. This is good. Too often we've attempted to press hurting hearts into a thanksgiving worship mold.

Don't get me wrong. Sometimes, just as the psalmists, the turn toward thanksgiving in the midst of alientation, hurt, and suffering, is a necessary step toward healing. At the same time, the hurt must first fully be embraced, and expressed to our God. Hence, the imprecatory psalms (those that actually pray for the defeat or death of the psalmist's enemies, e.g. 109), throb with human emotions of vengeance. Only until these adequately are expressed, is there a move toward trust in the God who holds sole governance over the province of vengeance. So, language of lament, brokenness, alienation is legitimate in our worship.

Since I wrote a doctoral dissertation largely dealing with postmodernity's impact on the modern foundations of evangelical Christianity in general and Churches of Christ in particular, Brian McLaren's thoughts were especially of interest to me. I applaud the ZOE group and Woodmont Hills for including in these events those who emerge from divergent Christian tribes. As Brian said on several occasions, each denomination holds certain treasures that need to be shared with the larger body. Amen. Unfortunately, church history has not been one of sharing our portion of heavenly treasures, but of arrogantly assuming no other treasures exist beyond our own denominational troves. Thanks to Brian for sharing his treasures with us.

Typically, when I leave the ZOE conference, I'm on a "high" from the weekend. Not this time. I really couldn't put my finger on it either. (By the way, I've grown beyond thinking if I didn't get this nebulous "high" feeling after a worship event that, somehow, the event was deficient. The Church has entirely too much of this self-absorption, and I still struggle with it, though.) No, God worked mightily on me during this event, and still is.

I began identifying what I was feeling (or thinking or experiencing) when, after the conference, I read through Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz. This is a book on Christian Spirituality, very much postmodern in approach. It's not a "how to" or "self help" book so typical of many Christian books (many of which are excellent). The feel of this book is messy, authentic, raw. Real struggles with real people attempting to come to grips with Jesus. I highly recommend this book--it gives a depiction of the culture to which we have been called to minister.

Miller states his dislike of institutions, but also admits his personal benefit from their existence (like a Starbucks on nearly every corner). Miller struggles with how one lives consistently in a messy world. Answer? Despite one's best efforts complete consistency is an elusive goal.

In our weekly staff meeting (more like conversations), I referred to this aspect of Miller's book. It seems that we're always (and legitimately) struggling with how to reach each emerging generation. It appears to me that, among other things, the emerging culture is much like Donald Miller's description in Blue Like Jazz. They're not easily impressed. Can spot a fake a mile away. Neither do they care much for institutions. They're not so much interested in being entertained, as they are participating in something larger than themselves. Yet, this generation suffers from the same infection of self-absorption as those before it.

So, how do we respond? CrossBridge, and other emerging churches, have taken a more "contemporary" (what does that really mean?) direction. For this, I'm personally thankful. It's so refreshing as a minister to be able to share God's word without forever having to parse words to keep them within the prescribed parameters of "orthodoxy." Further, worship, under the capable direction of Greg Miles, is a meaningful experience in which God truly is encountered.

At the same time, we must be careful that we're not just exchanging one form for another. I think this was where I've been struggling. It kind of reminds me of the current Hardy's commercials (that's a fast-food chain in this part of the country). Understanding the suspicious nature of the emerging generation, their current marketing strategy is self-deprecating. They admit that Hardy's is not the place most people think of when they want a great burger--and they're right. Seems pretty authentic. And, there's the rub. Authenticity is now a great marketing strategy. When will one's (or a church's) authenticity become just another empty strategy to hook folk?

A paragraph in Don Miller's book nudged me down this path, and helped clarify my recent struggle:

A friend of mine, a young pastor who recently started a church, talks to me from time to time about the new face of church in America--about the postmodern church. He says the new church will be different from the old one, that we will be relevant to culture and the human struggle. I don't think any church has ever been relevant to culture, to the human struggle, unless it believed in Jesus and the power of His gospel. If the supposed new church believes in trendy music and cool Web pages, then it is not relevant to culture either. It is just another tool of Satan to get people to be passionate about nothing (p. 111).

Believe me, neither Miller nor I am suggesting the removal of cool Web pages or trendy music. They have their place. If, however, the church once again supplants the power of God's gospel for another human strategy, what real good have we done? And, unless we fully embody this good news, few folks will take notice. Perhaps the first place to start, before we break out the latest music, and create the coolest Web site, is for all Christians to repent of our self-absorption and fully enthrone Jesus in our hearts as Lord. I suspect that this action would put the church in a the best position to love our world, even as God does. When this happens, the world will know we are Jesus' disciples. And, then, we actually can be relevant to our culture and real human struggles.