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Our Blog
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!

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.
Refusing to Separate – Post-Conference Reflections
October 16, 2019 | Michael Gulker
Refusing to Separate – Post-Conference Reflections
Last year, our Annual Conference brought together Christians desperate to find ways to move from fear to hope in polarized times. A year later, it’s no surprise we find the world still divided, ourselves still held captive by our political and cultural ideologies and still struggling to remember the promise of the gospel. These are the challenges of our time. But as Christians, we know the Holy Spirit is calling forth something new in Christ’s resurrection, and at The Colossian Forum, we’re eager to participate in it. We’re in for the long journey—a journey toward hope. Last month, at our second Annual Conference, we spent three days traveling that journey with experts and friends from around the world. As you’ll see from the presentations of our remarkable plenary and workshop speakers, we journeyed through The Colossian Way, gathering in the name of Jesus, practicing engaging our deepest conflicts with receptivity to the Holy Spirit and to one another, and witnessing what new thing God is doing in our midst. We gathered across deep disagreement—as brothers and sisters, Republicans and Democrats, activists and businesspeople, pastors and laypeople, students and senior citizens. We practiced worshipping together in the face of conflict, which is present “…where two or three gather in my name…” (Mt. 18:20). And we witnessed the body of Christ flourish. Gather Dr. Robert Chao Romero helped us remember that great eschatological vision of all nations and all peoples gathered before the throne of God and the Lamb, proclaiming in every language and through every culture the manifold glory of God’s beauty. But he also shared the hurt of the Brown Church, of the American-Hispanic community, at the demeaning of their ethnic brothers and sisters. He helped us name the very real barriers this hurt creates to gathering together in the name of Jesus. Through his gentle hospitality and receptivity to us, he called us to repent of our ideologies and false allegiances. He reminded us that while we are not practiced at listening to the unique cultural honor and treasure of those who come from places different from our own, we can, through the power of the Holy Spirit, learn to listen to one another across difference and hurt. He helped us see that to hope honestly, we must hear these voices. He reminded us that Christ has already torn down the dividing wall and that we are family. Practice Dr. Ruth Haley Barton ushered us through the next steps in our journey. She reminded us that unless we develop intentional practices to welcome the Holy Spirit into our conflicts, true reconciliation will remain beyond our reach. She introduced practices uniquely suited to our polarized times and challenged us to leave behind the secular, Spirit-starved ways of engaging difference, where self-protection and suspicion prevent us from becoming vulnerable to the Holy Spirit and one another. When we welcome the work of the Spirit, we can imagine our lives together as one in Christ, even across our differences, and experience a new thing being done in our midst—between Chinese and Congolese Christians, Trump defenders and haters, border wall opposers and supporters, persecutors and persecuted.   Witness Then Dr. Bungishabaku Katho challenged us to be honest about the nature of our witness. He shared a story of Buta Seminary, the only school in Burundi where students from both Hutu and Tutsi ethnicities lived together amidst horrific civil war and genocide. In 1997, after several years of living through tribal hatred and violence, a Hutu militia group attacked the school. Three times, the commander ordered the students to separate by tribe. Three times, they refused. After the third refusal, the commander opened fire in reckless slaughter, murdering over 40 students. One wounded boy ran to find the rector and proclaimed just before he died, “Father, we have won. They told us to separate, and we refused. We have won.”   Because of their brave witness, this horrific event became the building block for healing and the reconstitution of the Burundi government. These martyrs, these witnesses, have become a wellspring of national unity. Officials and citizens alike regularly visit their gravesite. Their courage and sacrifice redefine what it means to win. To be faithful witnesses—to win—we must become weak, vulnerable to one another and the world. It can be costly—even deadly. This is the way of Christ on the cross. Our opportunity to witness to the resurrection begins when we’re willing to lay down our lives, rather than be separated, as the boys in Butu did. How are we to stand and reject our imposed, worldly loyalties as these martyrs did? Answering this question is beyond the minds of mortals, for only by the power of the Spirit can we proclaim Jesus, the Lamb who was slain, to be Lord, and follow him. And following him begins with repentance, with recovering our imagination as to how we might belong to God’s kingdom more absolutely than to the tribes into which we’re born or adopted. Robert reminded us that even in our context of division, the river of life that conquers all sin and death flows from throne of the Lamb. And it leads to the tree of life, the leaves of which God has given for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22). With a view from heaven, a view given for the healing of our country, we’re being invited into this story—just as the Hutu and Tutsi students’ story began the healing of Burundi. If we don’t participate in this story—in God’s grand work—we risk becoming the walking dead, ideological captives of the left and the right. Our conference speakers reminded us how to live into this story. As long-time TCF friend and partner Dr. Joe Liechty reflected after listening to Dr. Katho, “I’ve been present to hear the latest chapter of the New Testament, the epistle from the apostle Katho to the church in North America.” Moving toward this hope of healing, the TCF community will continue to gather, practice, and witness, opening ourselves to God and one another, to voices we might not normally encounter. Because we cannot, from within our own echo chambers, overcome the polarization that has us by the throat. But by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can be a part of a new thing and live into a space beyond enemies[1], where all things hold together in Christ. We humbly invite you to join us. Together, we can reflect Christ’s shining light by refusing the idolatry of the left and the right, remembering what it means to win, and refusing to be separated. [1] Fitch, D. (2019). The Church of Us vs. Them: Freedom from a Faith the Feeds on Making Enemies. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press. Excerpt available at http://cdn.bakerpublishinggroup.com/processed/book-resources/files/Excerpt_Fitch_Short.pdf?1561576116.

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