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Colossian Blog
January 29, 2019 | Michael Gulker

Imagine: Recovering our Desire to Participate in God’s Holy Life

We live in exciting times—times when the need for the reconciling power of the gospel is blindingly clear. Christendom is in retreat. The church suffers from a brand problem, rooted in its complicity with a divisive culture that it tacitly reflects. Young people, as well as old, are leaving the faith at an unprecedented rate.[1] Yet, there are pockets of beauty, faithfulness, and hope, as hunger for communion, community, and peace is becoming increasingly pronounced.[2]

Pockets of Hope

The work of The Colossian Forum (TCF) is privileged to be situated within these pockets of hope—as well as within the tensions among them. We recognize the depth of our society’s polarization and alienation, while at the same time, seeing that, by the grace of the Holy Spirit present in the body of Christ, the solution has already been given and indeed is embedded in the problem itself. Conflict, at its core, arises from differing desires, and those differences are perceived as threatening. Yet, the Christian tradition from Augustine onward has recognized that desire is always desire for communion—with God and one another. If this is the case (and we think it is), then conflict is that same desire for God and one another gone awry.

How so?

Well, we begin with our confession that humanity is created in the image of the Triune God, whose very life is constituted by self-giving love across three distinct, different persons. The Father gives himself completely to the Son, the Son gives himself back—unto death—to the Father through the Holy Spirit, catching up all creation into the divine and eternal dance of self-giving love and delight. This is ultimately who we are and how the world most truly is.

Harnessing Conflict

But in a world full of brokenness, hurt, and sin, rather than participating in the divine dance of pouring ourselves out through self-giving, our love has become self-protective and self-serving. Rather than experiencing delight and desire across different persons, there is defensiveness, fear, suspicion, and even violence. Yet the very desire powering conflict (all the energy of our desire gone awry) can, by the healing power of the Holy Spirit, be harnessed for our own redemption and the salvation of the world.

The conflicts raging across our society, denominations, churches, and even our families are driven by our deep and abiding desire for communion with God and one another, however distorted that desire has become. And we have, in the words of 2 Peter 1:3, “…been given everything we need for a holy life…”

TCF is an organization tasked with the recovery of the language, imagination, and practices that will help open up believers to the Spirit’s power to reshape our desires, moving us away from the fearful and combative desires of the self-protective “flesh” and toward active participation in God’s own holy life of self-giving love, especially in the face of the conflicts that plague our time.

Built for Communion

To our deep delight, we have found believers and non-believers alike are hungry for this way of being-in-communion-in-the-world. We are made for this. We are ready for this. We are built for communion, and even amidst the intense divisive language we experience in social media and elsewhere, we haven’t forgotten it.

Because of this deep longing, and because of the vision and faithfulness of people like you, TCF has had the privilege of being set aside—given the time and space—to walk with believers, churches, leaders, and Christian organizations from divisiveness to discipleship and to the first fruits of reconciliation. Through almost eight years of research, reading, writing, experimentation, and evaluation, we now have the clearest sense in our history of where we are as an organization and where we need to go next.

And with this emerging clarity, we are embarking on a five-year strategic planning process next month. Envisioning a five-year horizon will insure that near-term planning plots the appropriate trajectory. This is an exciting, yet daunting, time.

[1]Pinetops Foundation reported in 2018 that if the current trends continue, 30-50 million people will have left the church by 2050, never to return.

[2]Google’s NGram tool analyzing word usage across time marks a 46% increase in references to “community” from 1960 to 2000.

Suggested Posts
Praying with the City in View
December 31, 2019 | Emily Stroble
Praying with the City in View
I’ve never experienced peace as acutely than when I visited the tiny town of Assisi, Italy three years ago. The path that winds across the steep hillside behind the city takes hikers through olive groves, which give way to brush and cypress trees that frame a honeycomb of caves. In mid-January, early in the morning, even the light seemed to move gently. I was happy to be outside and excited to be traveling, and I smiled to myself as I made my way up the slope. I found it funny that I should be walking through olive branches in a little forest of peace when, in the village below, I could hardly order coffee in my American accent without receiving quips and comments about the recent 2016 U.S. presidential election. The monastery above Assisi has a remarkable story. Monks still live and worship there, and they always have, despite the rise and fall of the empires, kings, and dictators. The monks come from all over to live in this little cluster of low-ceilinged cells and chapels. As I walked up the hill toward the monastery with my tour group, the monastic life seemed an appealing path. How rich to walk up a mountain to sit in the presence of God and never go back to the noise and confusion of politics and the rest of civil life. As we arrived, a tall monk greeted us warmly. He motioned us out of the wind. He was shyly apologetic for his English, which was clear as a bell against the wind. He spoke softly, telling us the history of the monastery. I don’t remember whether someone asked him about the monastic life or if he was reacting to the curiosity in our faces. He said something to the effect of, “People seem confused about monks. We live apart from the city, it’s true. We devote our time to prayer. But we are not completely severed from the world. We are not ignorant of what is going on. We care deeply for our city. We chose this place to pray here for the city.” He straightened his hunched shoulders and swept a long arm across the valley with its steeples, farms, and domed basilicas. “We live apart from the city to pray with the city in view,” he said. That sentence has echoed in my head ever since. As we all can, I’ve grappled for years with the command to be “in the world and not of it.” And, in the political tension that’s defined the last few years, my uncertainty around what faith calls me to do politically has needled me more urgently. Yet, in all my wrestling, arguing, doubt, and looking for the petition I could sign or the party I could join that would align me with “Christian Politics,” it never occurred to me to pray for anything other than my preferred outcome in an election or vote. I think praying with the city in view is something different from praying for the city. First, when you are apart from the city but keep it in view, it’s easier to remember to which kingdom you belong, and you can care for the city in its proper place as a part of God’s kingdom. When you are in the city, the dramas and concerns of the human world fill your whole field of vision. When we stand apart from the city, we gain some perspective, and our desires align more closely to a sincere prayer of “on earth as it is in Heaven.” Second, the practice of prayer, rather than the desired outcome, becomes our path to closer relationship with God. Rather than getting to God through praying about politics, we become people primarily of prayer who are better formed to face political conflicts. What place should intercession have in our politics? It is a beautiful act of Christ-imitation. And if monastic prayer can inform politics, what other practices might hold us together as we wade through the muck of our most divisive issues, like immigration, recreational marijuana, and who should lead? These are some of the questions we begin with in The Colossian Forum’s Political Talk curriculum, launching in early February. You can visit colossianforum.org/politicaltalk for more information and to pre-order your copy. As we head into a year when politicians and parties will be competing vigorously for our allegiance, and political conversations have the potential to escalate and drive wedges between even longtime friends and close family, I humbly invite you to consider a set-apart posture like the one I learned in Assisi. In 2020, may you pray with the city in view and find hope in the opportunity for reconciliation that our conflicts – no matter their context – offer us.
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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