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Our Blog
January 31, 2018 | Michael Gulker

Our Desire for Hope

Our new book, All Things Hold Together in Christ, is more than a collection of essays from leading scholars on the conversation between faith and science. This book gets at the essence of who we are at The Colossian Forum, and the bright hope that shines through even the toughest of conflict. TCF’s president, Michael Gulker, shares in this video our desire for hope and helps outline the “more” that people keep asking for. 

Our Brand Problem

We live in a time when the church, because of it’s endless bickering, has a serious brand problem. The rise of the nones, of those people who identify as spiritual but not religious, not tied to any particular body of believers or historical faith – these are the casualties of the culture wars, of establishment Christianity desperately trying to cling to power. At that brand of Christianity is fragile, fearful, and ugly. As one of my friends likes to say, “The church may be right, but it’s no longer beautiful.”

And that’s what people want – they want beauty and not just any beauty, but the beauty of Christ, the beauty of the divine dance across difference that is the Trinity, into whose life we’re invited. So when a new, hopeful possibility comes along, one that confesses, from the outset, that we’ve already been given everything we need to be faithful, that within the Christian faith and tradition already have everything we need to extend that tradition faithfully and beautifully in the present and into the future, people want to dive more deeply into the ideas behind that hope.

Our Desire for Hope

It’s that desire for hope that is really the origin of this anthology  – when you go around saying things like, “the culture conflict you’re most afraid of, or tired of, doesn’t have to be a threat, but it can actually be an opportunity for discipleship and witness, when you tell people that the things they’re most fearful of discussing with the people they most love – those are the places where the gospel shines most brightly” – folks want to know more. Well, this anthology – All Things Hold Together in Christ ­– it is that “more” people have been asking for.

So this anthology was our attempt to remember and thank the friends and teachers who helped Jamie and me formulate what became The Colossian Forum. And The Colossian Forum is really just the application of their ideas in the face of the church’s brand problem.

The anthology, then, lays out four critical pieces of our response to this dilemma.

Creating a Community for the Conversation

In part one, Creating a Community for the Conversation, we try to set out to remember who we, as Christians, are and what we’re after. As folks like Rodney Clapp reminds us, the Ekklesia of Christ, we’ve been called out and set aside for a certain kind of public work, and that public work is to practice the politics of Jesus together as his peculiar people – for the world to see. This is otherwise known as “worship.” Our job is not to grasp the strings of power but to testify, by our lives together, to a different form of power put on display at Calvary and remembered every holy week since.

Our job is to display a corporate life more interesting than that of Apple or Google or The United States of America – which are all driven by the competing interests of individuals eternally alienated against each other in the contest to secure enough of the world’s resources to escape death and finitude.

Well, that game’s played out. It’s not interesting. It’s not beautiful. And it’s been revealed for the sham it is in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In Jesus’ life, in the life of the Trinity, there’s no competition, no scarcity, no fear – only the eternal self-giving delight and desire across difference. And when the church sets aside the world’s economy of scarcity and enters into worship, into the gift economy, we get a taste of heaven, a taste of eternity, and we want more. The world wants more.

Putting on Christ

But getting more, living this life eternal takes practice, or practices, which leads to the second part of the book, Putting on Christ. Following the work of Alasdair MacIntyre and some of his best interpreters, we remember that in the practices of the church we’ve been given everything we need to put on Christ. It takes time, it’s bumpy, messy, ugly, but the practices of the faith invite us to live into Christ’s life, a life of sacrificial love across difference, across distorted desire and damaged souls in ways that lead to healing and life by the refusal to perpetuating the pain and brokenness of the world but letting it end in our flesh, in the flesh of Christ’s body.

This is hard and at times painful work, but something amazing happens when we “put on Christ” in these ways, we begin to see the Holy Spirit do new things in our midst, we begin to see new possibilities we couldn’t see before.

Come Let Us Reason Together

In short, practicing the faith, putting on Christ allows us to enter into and extend a tradition of rationality called Christianity, which leads us to the third part of the anthology, Come Let Us Reason Together.

In this section, we get a glimpse of the exciting possibilities of how we might go embody a tradition-based rationality, how, as Robert Barron says it so well, the epistemic priority of Christ changes everything – how we see the world, how we see scripture, how we see tradition as the gift we’ve been waiting for to live faithfully into the future: a gift that calls us to become a gift in return, participating in and extending the faith in the face of our present difficulties in ways that smell like Jesus.

All Things Hold Together in Christ

Part four, All Things Hold Together in Christ, is an exploration of what a tradition based rationality might look like in one major conversation of our day, the conversation between faith and science. If all things hold together in Christ, faith and science can’t ultimately be competing forces but rather, as Mark Noll says, science is the embodiment of our human response to God’s invitation to come and see that he is good. Yet our modes of investigation, habits of objectification and commodification that easily abuse that gracious invitation need to be checked against the character of Christ.

This can only be done by a people gathered together, putting on Christ, reasoning from Christ and for Christ and through Christ in the fearless confidence that all things already hold together in Christ. We of all people are freed to pursue the truth of the world without fear because that pursuit is the pursuit of our lover, our heart’s deepest desire.

This anthology is an attempt to share just a bit of how we’ve been blessed by those who have gone before us in this same pursuit. I hope it’s a blessing to others as well.

All Things Hold Together is published by Baker Academic, and is 40% off through the end of today

Suggested Posts
The Veggie Burger Church
May 7, 2020 | Michael Gulker
The Veggie Burger Church
Church feels different now. The seating might be more comfortable in our living rooms, but the sanctuary is smaller. Over the past couple of weeks, I have talked with 22 church leaders—17 pastors and five denominational leaders with a bird’s-eye view of hundreds of churches—about how they are leading and seeing others lead congregations differently now. Across the board, it seems the novelty of online church has worn off. Just as pastoring is more than delivering a weekly sermon to a camera, congregations are expressing that online church seems to be missing something. The image of a veggie burger comes to mind. There are good veggie burgers out there, maybe even some that are better than a hamburger. But a veggie burger is not a hamburger. And if you order one and get the other, you will be disappointed. The available ingredients for worship have changed. We are all struggling with worship taste buds that are not satisfied by live streamed services and Zoom fellowship. So, rather than trying to make online church “taste” just like in-person church, how can we faithfully make “veggie burger church” that actually nourishes our souls? Applying the Colossian Way to this question, we should offer our praises alongside our laments, and chart what we hope for in and on the other side of this time. Praise. It turns out there are many reasons for joy in this new style of church. We have drastically simplified church liturgies and orders of service: singing, sermon, prayer, online fellowship. Families worship together instead of disbursing children to Sunday school classrooms. One pastor of a mega-church told me he has seen people who are not typically involved in the life of the congregation beyond Sunday services are asking about ways to serve. People have more time and energy to serve and connect in new ways. Lament. Some pastors I spoke with shared that roughly 80% of the church activities we aren’t doing right now, in and beyond worship services, don’t seem to be missed by congregants. In fact, some thought those activities may be gone for good. Several pastors confessed avoiding the difficulties of change by hoping that everything will go back to normal soon. But many congregants may not return to church, even when the governor says it’s OK. “Normal” seems increasingly distant, and pastors sense some changes may be permanent. The life of the Church centers in community—the communion—of the Body of Christ. Leaders are wondering how to be relational, while social distancing, and offer connection and discipleship that go beyond one-sided preaching and pre-recorded content, especially in response to the intensifying toll on mental health. In our veggie burger metaphor, it would seem the “meat” of the church we’re hungry for is embodied relationships. Hope. We do not need to choose between lament and hope. Lament can nurture hope. Lament, after all, is a kind of negative image of heaven, illuminating those things that are not right now but will be resurrected and redeemed in eternity. We hope now for a Church rebuilt into a stronger, more resilient, more beautiful witness. Post-Pandemic Church How do we live now then, as a Church of hope? The leaders I spoke with had a few ideas. Though physically isolated, each church doesn’t need to figure it out alone. Several pastors I spoke with expressed a desire to learn from each other and discover the best way through together. We can imagine together what new possibilities could emerge if we dropped some of the activities most churchgoers don’t miss. We can begin to imagine new possibilities for small, in-person fellowship in the interim before large gatherings resume. We have a unique and exciting opportunity now for “micro-churches,” small gatherings for discipleship and fellowship. In fact, according to Christianity Today, 44% of over 1,500 pastors are looking for practical tips on how to construct online small groups. In a second survey of nearly 2,000 pastors, the top two resources pastors identified as needing to help them lead are ways to create engaging online conversations and gatherings (61%) and practical ways to be on mission in this season (55%). While online right now, future smaller gatherings, with the right infrastructure and staff support, can provide a very different but still spiritually nourishing diet of worship and discipleship. And the new forms of fellowship that current constraints make possible can diffuse a deep, rich sacramental life across your congregation. We know many of you will face hard decisions in the near future about when to reopen sanctuaries, which programs and activities to resume, how to engage faithfully in matters that were already tense before the pandemic. These necessary conversations will spark conflict, and, we hope, help cultivate discipleship. If church must change—if we must change—let it come in the form of growth toward Christ. If you are searching for deep, scriptural resources that lay leaders, elders, and families can use, I invite you to learn more about The Colossian Way. One pastor told me in our conversation that, “the best work The Colossian Forum does is help think theologically about practices and complex issues that locates the work in the Church rather than the ivory tower or [with] academic pastors.” We designed Colossian Way curricula in the hope that they would foster new life in the Church in times of crisis and tension, like those we experience now. It brings us immeasurable joy that these tools in the hands of faithful Christians continue to do just that.  We pray for you daily, my brothers and sisters, as you do the hard work of lament, hope, discipleship, and engaging conflict in the Church. How are you experiencing church now? What are your praises, laments, and hopes for your/the Church? We’d love to hear and learn from you. Feel free to email me at mgulker@colossianforum.org and let me know a good time for us to talk.
The Vulnerability of God
December 24, 2019 | Chris De Vos
The Vulnerability of God
Upon being born, a baby presents problems—problems that seem so manageable during the nine months of pregnancy. Rude cries for food in the night, raw soiling of blankets throughout the day, and utter dependency upon us in each passing moment drain our energy and, for some, test the limits of our patience. Although we are programmed to respond a certain way when a baby smiles (a gesture that releases pleasant chemicals into our central nervous systems), her piercing cries have the power to render nothing short of sheer frustration from the best of us. For me, it was the daily, unrelenting dependence upon my wife and me that led me to wonder what we were thinking when we decided to have a child. Well, we thought about the future. About the future of this world. After all, there is no future without babies. As grandparents now, we see this even more profoundly. I wonder whether Mary and Joseph had similar reflections. After all, the birth of Christ was always about the future. From the moment Adam and Eve acted in self-defiance against God’s wishes, the future of creation itself was in question. God spoke of the future when blessing the nations through Abraham, when establishing a throne for David, and when anointing a suffering servant king that Isaiah foretold. The future of everything hinged upon God’s decision to conceive a child in Mary. The logistics of all this have produced stretch marks in the minds of the best thinkers in history, and many have rejected the reality or deconstructed its power.  But the message proclaimed in Christ’s birth begins with the reality of God, incarnate in a baby. God, emptied, to some extent, of God’s pure divinity, born as any human baby is born – to a woman crying out in labor and a father pained by the agony in his wife‘s face. A child, smeared with bluish-white goo, wiped perhaps by a rough muslin rag and washed while breathing in his first breath of air. A couple questioning the sense of having a child in this world, let alone one with such strange prophecies about it. God took a chance at the right time, we’re told. But it all seems so full of vulnerability, ready to fall apart at any moment. Salvation depended on Joseph and Mary trusting in God’s idea of the future. The whole plan rested upon those two parents and their openness to the possibility of Jesus -- “God with us.” And to a great extent, the future still does. My theological muscles are not strong enough to understand the fine points of human-divine natures co-mingling in the person of Jesus, but I do believe it and believe that Jesus’ birth is our greatest hope for the future. For to deny it, or turn from it, or go about life as if it didn’t happen means to turn life over to ourselves. It means to say that God never has come to live in our skin. That God is distant, uninvolved. It means to say that God does not exist, or if he does, he does not understand us. To trust in this story is to keep the door open for new possibilities for the future, despite our fears, doubts, weaknesses, and divisions. To believe this story is to accept vulnerability as the starting point for new life. In our cultural moment, in which we’re so deeply polarized, this hope for renewal and reconciliation is more meaningful to me than ever. At Christmas, we reverently and joyfully remember that the vulnerability of God leads to the viability of a renewed creation – a new you, a new me, and a new relationship, even with our enemies!

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