Doctoral Work Reflection

On March 15th I defended my dissertation assignment, bringing to conclusion a three year process to receive a Doctor of Ministry degree… what a relief!

As I think about this phase of my life coming to an end, I had some things that I thought were important to “name” and to share. Perhaps this may help others who are considering enrolling or pursuing something that they have been considering doing.

1. This degree was not done in isolation. More than any other occasion in my life, I recognized that “me” getting a doctorate meant that “we” were getting a doctorate. I can’t imagine the amount of hours that were spent away from my family, hours where Ginger had to play 1-on-2 defense with our kids. I had to leave for a 10-day study trip a mere 3 days after my son Ezra was born.

I remember my brother-in-law Aaron remark as he read one of the drafts of my paper, “I feel like we’ve been talking about this for months. When I read your paper, it is like you are talking inside my head.” Slight additions were made from short conversations with Sterling College students from 2011-2012. The dissertation idea itself springs from an interaction with two characters that are in my life.

Don’t be surprised that if you get to (want to) read my dissertation to discover a piece of a conversation that we might have had over tacos one night. Maybe I wasn’t a dissertation writer, but a curator of meaningful conversations over the past 3 years.

2. This process has been one of the most meaningful formation experiences of my life. Learning at this level can either inspire vulnerability or isolation. There is no doubt that both are apparent. But, what I found time and time again is that the environment that George Fox created allowed for a healthy amount of vulnerability. I have no doubt in my mind that the 11 other cohort members I have shared time with are healthier than when we began the journey together.

The dissertation itself was a transformative exercise. In short, my paper considers the current Evangelical crisis and the reactions to trying to recover it. Each solution to the crisis represented a faith group, leader, idea, or experience that I have had in my faith journey. I realized that I have been living though this crisis, that the Evangelical dilemma is not something I study, but it is something that I am living. Because I am living it, I have little room to critique it from a removed distance, but I get the opportunity to love the people involved with it.

3. The dissertation also helped me discover an important value of human life, curiosity. Curiosity can be closely connected with criticism. Indeed, one of the attributes that one has to bring along in doctoral work is to be critical and skeptical. Unbridled skepticism, however, leads to elitism, isolation, and angst. Curiosity, however, allows one to enter into the intellectual world of the “other” without the primary occupation of “deconstructing the argument, finding the flaw, etc.” Curiosity can investigate how something “plays” within it socially-comprehended context, even if the argument, thought may not be completely shared by the curious one. Curiosity has the ability to create a beautiful, mosaic community.

As I reflect upon the last few years, I think that this might be the greatest attribute that I might have learned. The world is large; Christianity is large. Over a several centuries people have been practicing, studying, worshipping, praying, and proclaiming concerning the good news that Jesus is the crucified and raised Messiah and true Lord over God’s creation. Far it be from me, and any of us, to conclude that our “preferences” represent the full-arrival of Christian practice and thought. Instead, may we discover that God-infused curiosity might just change the world.

Thank you to everyone who played a part in the past 3 years. I’m extremely grateful and pray that God’s kindness that you shared with me would return to you in time.

Metaphors for Christian Formation

St. Francis of Assisi once said, “True progress quietly and persistently moves along without notice.” I’m discovering this idea to be helpful as I investigate my own journey of Christian formation.

Much of the discussion of orchestrating Christian formation in the local church in N. American seems to be adapted from cultural expectations. Some speak of a discipleship path, a four-phase process that any member can follow to ensure Christian maturity. The authors of Willowcreek’s Move, the solution to REVEAL’s problems, compare Christian growth to graduating from high school, passing through four phases (like four grades) to arrive at the destination. I don’t know about you, I’ve found a lot of high school graduates that don’t act like they’ve emerged into adulthood, but have found a way to pass through the different requirements, by the skin of their teeth.

Another rendering of Christian formation has more of a pessimistic tone. I read a blog post recently that said, in hyperbolic theorizing, “If I take my eyes of the gospel for one minute, I know that I am doomed.” A popular Acts 29 pastor’s version of Gospel-centered discipleship promotes “fight clubs” or small groups that help his congregation/friends be real about their struggles. In my opinion, “fight clubs” promote an acute martyrdom, “we are taking sin seriously, unlike these folks over here… we go to a fight club.” This author shared a case study from a “fight club” in which he confessed that he appeared to be converted by the gospel for the 1000th time. (Really: it didn’t stick before… maybe it is the gospel you are rehearsing) It is interesting how sometimes our talk of transformation appears to say, “It’s all up to God… and it is all up to me.” Which is it? As I mentioned earlier, the undertone of pessimism of whether growth can really happen at all without a ferocious focus on the gospel every minute or fight clubs is disturbing and impossible to maintain. It usually leads to guilt or cranky legalism.

Dallas Willard provides a different approach. He says that Christian formation is “relaxed obedience.” This does not imply one does not apply practices in character formation. Willard is famous for the axiom, “effort (towards Christlikeness) is not earning (as if someone is trying to earn favor from God).” Willard employs numerous practices and rhythms to stimulate Christian formation. Willard notes that growth is rarely recognized in the moment, which is God’s design. If we could measure growth in the moment, we’d be tempted to say it was something we did, like keeping our eyes on the gospel every minute, attending a fight club, or graduating through the discipleship path.

John Ortberg is helpful, here, as well. Ortberg argues that there is a flow that helps create the qualities of a follower of Jesus. This flow is something that one can step in and out of, regardless of their maturity “level.” This flow is the work of the Spirit, whose main objective is to make us fit for God’s new heavens and new earth. The Spirit provides us justification in the present (the hope that we are in Christ and therefore, in the right before God). Because we have justification presently, we should already begin to act like we are in the new kingdom in the present, as well. Christians find themselves in a time-warp, enjoying the bliss of a future kingdom, currently, all the while engaging in training to enjoy it fully in the age to come. Therefore, the flow is a good image to consider while engaging this time-warp.

The flow appears to answer the awkwardness of the graduation option, and is more optimistic about the work of Christ is our lives than the ferocious “not so sure where I stand with God unless I lose my voice during prayer or allow my accountability partner to lose his temper while confronting me about my sin” idea.

White Apple Ear Buds and Silly Bluetooth Devices

I’m typing Section 3 of dissertation today, and the rest of the month, and I’m listening to music with my iconic white Apple Ear buds. I’m actually listening to one of the greatest Pop albums ever, Cartel’s Chroma.

The white ear buds are iconic for Apple. When one is listening to music with these in, there is no doubt what they are up to, and to whom they belong to. These are Apple’s; they are fully-devoted disciples to Apple. Without even asking, you know that they belong to a particular group of people.

I loathe the Bluetooth ear pieces that people wear. At least 100 times in my life, I’ve come across folks with these ear pieces in and you cannot tell exactly what they are doing. Are they on the phone? Are they trying to look as if they are busy and important? I must admit several times I’ve wanted to do them a favor and tear the phone out of their ear and say, “Make up your mind if you want to be present in this room/conversation… life with everyone else.”

This narraphor (hat tip to Len Sweet) represents, in a peculiar way, the religious climate in North America.

Streaming out of the chaos of the Protestant Reformation, Western thinkers wanted to discover a more “civil” way of experiencing religion. Leveraging the chorus lines from Modern philosophy and the pursuit of reason, they found it best to keep your religion private, at home or in the church building, and leave it behind in public discourse. Along came some snarky French philosophers who declared that such division is impossible; how can people simply leave a vital part of who they are “at home” and expect to fully dive into the important work of public discourse?

However, these French Postmodern philosophers, even though they appealed to the admission of one’s faith into the public discourse, said only a generic kind of faith was allowed, not one’s particular faith. So, they said it was great to be religious, but not particular to any certain religion.

So, it appears that they were playing both sides of the chess board. “You can have faith, but only the type of faith that I prescribe.” This is why Chuck Conniry says Postmodern may be “Most-modern”.

So, as James K A Smith defends, these French philosophers are not really “Persistent Postmoderns”. They exchange the opportunity for orthodoxy for a generic spirituality. So, Smith announces, what if “Persistent Postmodernism is actually the greatest opportunity at Orthodoxy?”

This generic form of faith is the allergy that Pragmatic Evangelicalism has adopted. “Make a personal faith commitment, have a personal ministry within the church, and shape your own, private Christian home.” In essence, wear a Bluetooth device, you can keep it in, take it off, ignore calls, take calls, at your leisure. We also have tiny Bluetooth devices that will make it difficult for anyone to know that you even have it in.”

A Persistent Postmodernism, or a cycling back to Classic Christianity (Robert Webber), ignores the temptation to embrace a generic faith. It says, “In the midst of all of the options out there, I stand by the unique and particular (even peculiar) shape of historic Christianity. This is who I am. Now let’s party.”

Persistent Postmodernism is the White Apple Ear Buds; “you know who I belong to, and it’s all good!”

 

Well, just a few thoughts from my dissertation… Hope you enjoy more than you loathe, here.

 

Believing, Behaving, Belonging

For my dissertation, I’m working through Diana Butler Bass’s Christianity After Religion. She is investigating the idea of the North American culture seeking to be “spiritual” without being “religious.”

One of the things she brings to the table that I’ve thought about since reading is the idea of “believing, behaving, and belonging.” These are the three signifiers, traditionally, of religion. (Or of any “thing” people devote time/heart to)

Bass says that Western Christianity has ranked these themes in this order: believing, behaving, belonging. This is the way we frame the hope of personal transformation. Bass contends that the reverse order, belonging, behaving, believing, may be the pattern of Jesus and his disciples.

For instance, Jesus asked his disciples to “follow him” before he ever said, “believe in me.”

Jesus shows them the kingdom life, in many ways, before we hear of a literal confession of faith.

Peter does mutter an orthodox statement of belief, (Matthew 16), but we’d have to agree that a lot of water has passed under the bridge before this moment, and we’d have to admit that Peter doesn’t have it all together at that moment in the story. Peter, like all of us, needed some time to straighten out the believing and the behaving.

But, perhaps the reason Peter hung in there was because he knew that he belonged. He didn’t mind the long pilgrimage of transformation.

Do we create the idea of belonging in our local communities of faith? Wouldn’t be interesting if, under the “About Us” tab on the church’s website, along with the “We Believe” tab there was a convincing argument that people could really belong, even if their behavior and belief wasn’t quite square, yet?

3 bodies of Christ

Henri de Lubac, a Roman Catholic theologian, writes about the 3 bodies of Christ in Christian theology.

First, the literal, physical body of Jesus of Nazareth. The bod that was wounded, pierced, buried in a tomb, and resurrected on the 3rd day.

Second, the body of Jesus that is passed and celebrated during worship through the Eucharist. Jesus said, “this is my body… this is my blood.” The body of Christ is shared among one another, thinking back to Christ’s death as we await his appearing, colliding past, present, and future into a single moment in time.

Third, the body of Christ as the Church. Paul, among others, uses different imagery to communicate the Church as Jesus’ body, re-presenting him on the earth through the announcement that the tomb is empty and that Jesus is Lord.

David Fitch has noted that among the 2nd and 3rd bodies of Christ, one will be a “literal” body of Christ and the other will be “invisible” body of Christ. During the Medieval period, the “literal” body of Christ was emphasized in the Eucharist and the “invisible” body of Christ to the Church. This translated into an idea of, “We know Christ is here among us as we worship, but we are not sure where he is at among the dark world around us.”

In my mind, this idea runs parallel to something I’ve mentioned before about the “shadow” of the Reformation description of “church”, where the word is properly preached and sacraments and church discipline are properly administered. Though this was not the Reformation’s intent, it became assumed that all of God’s business happens in the Church. Therefore, Christ is present among us as we worship on Sundays and we are “kinda” on our own throughout the week until we can gather again.

Sounds familiar. Isn’t this a common issue in our church climate today?

One of the worthwhile tasks of the Church today could be to rediscover Christ’s literal presence in God’s world. Where is Jesus? What is he up to? God is a sent God and a sending God (missio dei– John 20:21); we have to believe that God is working in us and in spite of us in his own world.

CJ, a good friend of mine, mentioned during one of our early Sunday morning caffeinated beverage conversations about the wild idea of corporate worship only being “an appetizer” to the week of God’s people, rather than the main (or only) meal. One of the primary needs for this idea is to stress again the literal body of Christ that is scattered among us, as God’s people scatter between Sundays. I wonder what amazing things God would do if we realized that his business is done everywhere, even in the places the steeple shadow does not touch.

 

Need Your Help- Test Subjects for a Formation Model

I’m in the process of preparing to write a dissertation for my D.Min. The overall idea is to put together a formation/discipleship model fit in the 21st century.

This model will seek to incorporate Christian practices that will help open someone up to God, self, and others. These practices will be ancient, current, and invented.

However, I need to know if this model would even work. I’d love to find some folks who would be interested in seeing it through for a few months and note if it is making a difference in your personal life and/or corporate community.

There is probably a good chance that I would also have you write a paragraph review of the model and your experience with it.

If you are interested, please send me an email, joeskillen@hotmail.com, or reply with a comment or Facebook reply.

Thanks!