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Colossian Blog
June 12, 2018 | Michael Gulker

On Loneliness and Resurrection Moments

A year ago, I wrote a prayer letter in response to a surprising outcome of Christians engaging conflict together in the presence of God as an act of worship. Over and over, leaders trained in The Colossian Way tell us that they’re not only discovering the ability to live faithfully amidst conflict, but also how just being together through conflict reveals a deep and abiding loneliness afflicting their lives.   

In a spate of recent news articles triggered by a health report, loneliness is back in the spotlight (see e.g., USA Today, US News & World Report, and Comment). In the report, the physiological effect of loneliness is equated to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness is a disease ravaging our nation, churches, and families. Especially concerning is the reality that the primary victims of loneliness are those most awash in an endless stream of digital communication—our youth. 

I was struck by these articles, in part, because just the week prior my wife and I confessed to some of our closest friends that one of our deepest spiritual hurts is indeed loneliness. This seems a strange affliction for two people who constantly feel overwhelmed by endless email, tweets, posts, texts, and phone calls. How can we be lonely amidst all this noise? Loneliness, disease, poverty, sickness. These are not words we associate with America or the American church, but they afflict us nonetheless. We feel vulnerable and silly even saying them out loud. Perhaps we’re not the only ones feeling alone—oddballs who need to get it together. According to Jamie Smith’s Comment editorial:

“You are alone. Except there are hundreds of thousands of you. You’re not alone in being lonely—not that that makes you any less lonely. Loneliness—often a factor of social isolation—has become a societal epidemic in late capitalist societies. The Centre for Social Justice provides a succinct snapshot in the United Kingdom, for example:

      As many as 800,000 people in England are chronically lonely and many more experience some degree of loneliness. 17 percent of older people interact with family, friends or neighbours less than once a week, while 11 percent do so less than once a month. It is linked to cardiovascular disease, dementia and depression and according to some researchers, its effect on mortality is similar to smoking and worse than obesity. One study revealed that it can increase the risk of an early death by as much as 30 percent. In addition to this there is a strong link between isolation and poverty: having two or more close friends reduces the likelihood of poverty by nearly 20 percent.”

So, what’s the relationship between conflict (our fear of it and our incapacity to engage it well) and loneliness? My own experience and the experience of hundreds of Colossian Way participants has been that despite ubiquitous digital communication, we are cut off from communion with those we love because of our fear of getting conflict wrong. Ironically, we are most in need of fellowship and friendship at the very places we are most afraid. Hence, we suffer spiritually, emotionally, and even physically from a poverty of friendship.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Mother Teresa said years ago that, “The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty—it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.”

When asked by an American reporter to name the poorest country she’d visited, Mother Teresa responded, “I have been to many countries and seen much poverty and suffering. Everywhere I go people tell me of their hardships and struggles, and ask for help, and I give what I can. But of all the countries I have been to, the poorest one I have been to is America.” Somewhat shocked, the reporter informed Mother Teresa that America was one of the richest countries and questioned how it could be the poorest. “Because”, she replied, “America suffers most from the poverty of loneliness.”

Let’s face it, our engagement with conflict as an act of worship won’t fix the world any more than Mother Teresa’s cup of water for the dying. Yet, as captives of hope we believe these small acts testify to a reality bigger and more beautiful than we can imagine. Even though we only see “as through a glass darkly” these little eschatological foretastes of what will be enable us to participate more fully in the deepest truth of the world, in contrast to the endless news cycle of violence and conflict. 

We can say this with confidence because we’ve seen the kingdom break forth already through our Lord’s death and resurrection, and in multiple iterations of that resurrection in our own lives of worship and witness. As we risk laying down our lives, or at least our arguments, we become a cup of water to a dying world—marking the inbreaking of the new world. And what better way to quench the thirst for relationship hidden at the core of our deepest conflicts.

Suggested Posts
Losing Faith in Church
December 12, 2018 | Rob Barrett
Losing Faith in Church
A young man in the circle decided to be vulnerable: “I have never seen an example of a Christian life in church that I want to follow.” What happened next shocked me. One by one, the others in the circle nodded their agreement. I shook my head in astonishment and they shook their heads in wonder that I found this unanimous sentiment surprising. We had gathered a group of young people to talk about their experiences of church. The conversation had started off with the expected themes: the sermons, the music, the youth group, and the conflicts. But the mood changed when the “I have never seen…” voice spoke up. I reflexively brought up mental images of the many faithful exemplars who had invested in me. I couldn’t imagine my own life apart from all that they had taught me by their (very different) examples. So what was I to make of this poor young man who hadn’t been steeped among such saints? Was he just blind to what surrounded him? One of the “me, either” voices elaborated on the theme: “It’s not just church. My parents are Christians, too, but their messy divorce said something very different to me.” Stories and experiences began to flow, with one common element: The Christian lives around them hadn’t reflected the words preached, the Scripture read, and the professions spoken. These young people perceived that something was terribly wrong with the faith spoken or the faith lived…or both. (Im)plausibility Structures Christian doubt doesn’t always stem from intellectual puzzles or encounters with evil. Those sorts of difficulties are real and serious, but I focus here on a different, and perhaps more pressing, reason for doubt: disappointment with lived examples of the faith. Something was missing around the circle that evening. There was no compelling vision for Christian living. These representatives of the next generation were looking for a pattern to step into, and what they saw as available to them, both individually and corporately, was unconvincing. Upon hearing such complaints, it would be easy to accuse them of hypocrisy or laziness. Shouldn’t they attend to their own spiritual lives rather than judging those around them? We might do well, however, to listen carefully and ask ourselves how their doubt could be a gift that challenges us to live a more plausible faith. In a recent book, Walter Moberly incisively explores the importance of the lived existence of the church as a plausibility structure for faith.[1] Drawing on Peter Berger’s sociology of knowledge, Moberly argues that the church “is indispensable for giving content to, and making accessible, the enduring and universal significance of the biblical witness.”[2] For us to become Christians in the first place, there must be a community that persuasively embodies the faith. We come to faith not merely by evaluating the Christian worldview as philosophically viable, but through significant people in our lives who live it out in rich, compelling, and beautiful ways. Beyond our entrance into the faith, these models are also required for remaining in the faith. As Berger puts it, “To have a conversion experience is nothing much. The real thing is to be able to keep on taking it seriously; to retain a sense of its plausibility.”[3] For the young people in that circle, the church’s performance of the faith was a crumbling plausibility structure. One doesn’t need to look far for possible sources of disappointment in the church. We are assailed almost daily by headlines of sexual abuse by Christian leaders from all strands of the church. As horrible as the abuse itself is, the more damning parts of the story are the follow-on efforts at keeping everything quiet, image control, and protecting leaders and institutions. As the holy-sounding words of confession, repentance, and forgiveness are trotted out, young people are watching carefully, and they have sensitive baloney detectors (to put it mildly). When the secular media lead the way in caring for the downtrodden and naming the problems, and when the state decides it must enact mandatory reporting laws to force church leaders to do the right thing, is it any wonder that these other secular structures of life have more plausibility? While not everyone has a connection to sexual abuse (though far too many do), most young people today have LGBT friends. They know that many Christian sexual minorities are struggling to faithfully bring their inner experiences into harmony with their religious commitments. Are the adults in their churches offering a pathway to Christian flourishing for these friends? Dogmatic proclamations must sometimes be made, but also important is the manner of life that leads up to, through, and beyond such proclamations. If the church fails to provide a plausible vision for these friends, no wonder doubt about its plausibility for one’s own life, which is similarly complex in its own way, might not be far behind. Examples could be multiplied. Research by the Barna Group has revealed six themes young people cite in their explanations for their disconnection from the church. They characterize the church as overprotective, shallow, invalidly exclusive, anti-science, simplistic and judgmental about sex, and intolerant of doubt.[4] One way of drawing this together is that they find Christians unwilling to engage the complexities of the world as it really is.[5] What do they see Christians doing when the uncertainties and pressures of life mount? Do we, at that point, leave our faith at the door and tap different resources to make sense of the world and guide our action? If we do, we inadvertently testify to the implausibility of our faith. A Way Forward In such times, what might it look like to testify to the adequacy of Christ? Has God truly given us everything we need (2 Peter 1:3), even when facing the truly complex challenges of life? If it is indeed true that the lived experience of the Christian community is important for making the claims of the Christian faith plausible, then our first responsibility to those doubting their faith is clear: We must be the church. We must live as the Christian community we claim to be. If we are to be persuasive about the truth of the Christian faith, we must live true, persuasive lives.  But what could this possibly mean? Our first reaction to such a mandate might well be to humbly confess that we have both failed to do so and, then, that we cannot help but fail. A truly faithful life “worthy of the calling with which we have been called” (Ephesians 4:1) might well seem to be beyond our grasp and even our comprehension. Who can live out the mandates of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7)? When has anyone lived up to the “simple” command to love one another as Jesus has loved us (John 13:34)? Which Christian community has fulfilled Paul’s summons to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” as he emptied himself and became a servant unto death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-11)? If the plausibility of the faith depends on our performance, we may well wonder if the faith must remain forever implausible. However, the challenge we face is not to become what we cannot be. Rather, it is to speak honestly as we continue our pursuit. We can speak truthfully because we are confident in Christ, not ourselves. That the church is filled with flawed disciples should surprise no one. That such a church might dare to tell the truth about it, just might.  Moberly acknowledges that the people of God make the faith plausible despite how “disappointing and frustrating their performance often is.”[6] Where does that leave us? If we accept our first obligation of “being the church,” our second obligation is then to invite others, perhaps especially the doubting, to observe and participate in this life of the church. As Moberly observes, this shared life of the church will always be under negotiation,[7] which is a nice way of saying it will be filled with conflict. If our faith is to truly intersect with reality, the complexities and conflicts must be received as part of that truth. It must be that Christ will, somehow, graciously glorify himself exactly there. We don’t have the option of inviting doubters into an unspoiled church, only a conflicted, challenged one. This is exactly the place where plausible testimony to Christ originates. The New Testament church was filled with conflict and failure. Even a quick scan of Acts and the epistles reveals this plainly. The scriptural testimony assures us that Christ isn’t defeated by conflict within his body. Rather, his presence in the midst of it opens up new possibilities for witness even amidst the brokenness. Indeed, perhaps the beauty of the gospel shines most brightly in the midst of our conflicts handled openly and honestly, with full trust that God will work alongside us to restore what we have broken. Recapitulating the examples above, perhaps Christian faithfulness is not negated but becomes apparent particularly in the midst of our pained attempts at responding honestly to the plague of sexual abuse within the church, our faltering handling of our sexuality, and the crucible-intensity that can arise within marriage. In our hard-pressed situations, the life of Jesus is revealed, if only we will testify truthfully (2 Corinthians 4). I was formed as an adult Christian in a church where it was well-known that marriage was a difficult road. This was talked about in sermons and by couples who were taking it one day at a time. Marital challenges were one of many places where Christian commitments became decisive on the journey of life. This was important to me, not only to prepare for marriage, but as a plausibility structure for the way of Jesus, which sustains the inevitable collisions between covenant love and human sinfulness. What shouldn’t be an option for us is lying and covering up the difficulties and conflicts. The real church—the one that gives plausibility to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—is messy, complicated, contested, and plausible. My mother likes to tell the story of my 5-year old commentary on her scurrying around to tidy the house for guests. I am said to have asked, “Why don’t we let them see how we really live?” Yes, why not let the doubters see how Christians really live? Even if this sounds like a good direction, in my experience it is always difficult at any given moment to take a step toward vulnerable transparency. Each messy situation has its own excuse. “We should wait until we know better what we are doing.” “Being honest about these particular things would only tear people’s faith down.” “There is too much at stake in this case to say what is truly going on.” But it is exactly in these toughest of situations that the opportunity is richest. Are we willing to testify to the difference the way of cross and resurrection makes when we are facing our own crucifying challenges? For some reason, we too often think that faith is bolstered by hiding the difficulties Christians face. Quite the opposite. Young people can sniff out hypocrisy from a mile away.  The world is filled with people offering quick fixes and easy answers. Christian communities have the possibility of offering a richer vision of human flourishing, one that rings truer. When we confess our lack of easy answers and vulnerably invite others into our difficult places of struggle, the difference the gospel makes becomes apparent. The little miracles we so often overlook—humbly asking for forgiveness, praying without seeing results, receiving communion, caring for an ailing spouse, and on and on—become apparent as the miracles they are when they flow from Christ’s presence in our midst, especially when we’re simply doing what Jesus commands and not trying to impress anyone. When we invite doubters to “come and see,” to come up close and inspect the body of Christ, wounds and all, we offer a testimony that is more than intellectual argument and manicured image. We offer an example of Christian faithfulness fit for the real world. Such a faith marks out a pathway worth following as it points forward to Christ as the only one truly worth following. [1] R.W.L. Moberly, The Bible in a Disenchanted Age: The Enduring Possibility of Christian Faith (Baker Academic, 2018). This concept was suggested earlier by Dennis Hollinger, “The Church as Apologetic: A Sociology of Knowledge Perspective,” Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World, ed. Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm (IVP Academic, 1995), 182-93. [2] Moberly, 101. [3] Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckman, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Anchor, 1967), 158. [4] David Kinnaman, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church . . . and Rethinking Faith (Baker Books, 2011), 91-93. [5] Kinnaman, 98. [6] Moberly, 101. [7] Moberly, 153.   Rob Barrett is the Director of Forums and Scholarship at The Colossian Forum.   We rely on the faithful support of those who envision a more beautiful church, especially in the midst of conflict.  Please consider making a year-end gift today. 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Giving Reason for the Hope that is Within Us
September 19, 2018 | Michael Gulker
Giving Reason for the Hope that is Within Us
In my previous post, I posited the possibility that we as believers have lost our “theological imagination.” Such an imagination opens doors to new ways of thinking, especially when we are engulfed in deep cultural divides and unable to envision anything beyond the tedious FOX & CNN polarities. I suggested that our ability to be a hopeful people is rooted in our capacity to imagine and live in God’s faithfulness to us through Christ. Because of Christ’s sacrificial death, we are freed from sin and the fear of death to love as he loved—sacrificially. I left you with this question to ponder: How will others experience resurrection hope if we don’t follow Christ by shouldering our cross and loving even those with whom we disagree? Perhaps you, like me, have found that the call to love sacrificially is quickly silenced in the din of our postmodern world. It’s easier to blame our lack of hope on those across the cultural divide rather than our own fear and failure to live into God’s kingdom now. We often lose sight of the resurrection and its power to free us from the hopelessness that seeps in from the endless rancor of warring rhetoric. Might our culture’s “zombie apocalypse” narrative be a direct result of Christians failing to witness to a real resurrection hope? This world’s only hope—our only hope—of experiencing Christ’s sacrificial love is to witness Christians willing to lay down their lives, or at least their arguments, for their enemies. Are we willing to embody that hope? If we are, we will slowly and almost imperceptibly begin to represent the good news and become a tantalizing morsel of the hope for which our world is desperate.  What if the cultural polarization evident in our globalized and fragmented age turns out to be our best opportunity to let the reconciling power of the gospel shine most brightly? What if this fear, polarization, and division is creating a new, post-Christendom appetite for the ministry of reconciliation given to us by Christ?  Bland optimism? Perhaps. Or maybe it’s the gospel opportunity set before us each day. We are made to hope. We long to hope. We need to give a reason for the hope that is in us (1 Pet.3:15).  Ironically, it’s only as we learn to resituate other forms of hope—wealth, success, personal ability, physical beauty, offspring, a long life—pouring them out for those we have been called to serve, that we come to know the genuine hope found in our risen Lord.  Even when we do this effectively and faithfully, the world doesn’t suddenly reshape itself in the image of our hope. Instead it requires, as it did with Jesus, that God vindicates our lives in the resurrection. No, that’s not quite right, is it? God has already vindicated our lives through Christ, and his resurrected life—the life that was, and is, and is to come—is our life. That’s why The Colossian Forum’s mission is to equip the church—to equip you—with concrete practices that will train and free you to walk confidently into places of brokenness and alienation, and love sacrificially. Our prayer is that you will both taste and be a taste of the hope we have in Christ. Moving from fear to hope is our task. And that is the theme of our first conference to be held this week, September 20-22, 2018. Over 150 attendees will gather to learn more about practicing hope in the midst of cultural despair. We’re all struggling toward hope. I hope that you’ll continue on this journey with us—practicing, praying, loving, experiencing Christ’s power—as, together, we persistently move from fear to hope.