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Displaying all posts by Michael Gulker.
Gathering: Accepting God’s Intimate Invitation
April 15, 2019 | Michael Gulker
Gathering: Accepting God’s Intimate Invitation
We’re losing our ability to gather as Christians. In our polarized culture of contempt, rather than gathering in person, in unity, and around our faith, we do so in echo chambers along racial, socio-economic, and political lines. And from our preferred news and social media outlets, we’re continually bombarded by messages—both subtle and overt—that compel us to fight for our side and to isolate ourselves from opposing views, making it easy to compromise our morals and our faith in order to win. Personally, I experience this daily. I have to fight the temptation every morning to check my news feed first thing rather than rest in God’s word. I feel a constant pull to see if my people won—a pull to feed my addictions to those ideologues whose views align with mine. But when I take a moment to remember God’s intimate invitation to gather—around his word and with others outside my echo chambers—it changes the tone for my day. This year, The Colossian Forum is exploring the nuances of gathering, including illuminating our struggles with it and how we can overcome the obstacles that prevent us from deepening our relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ who look, sound, and vote differently from us.     Gathering in the name of Jesus rather than in the name of our favorite media outlet starts us on a firm path to participate in God’s love when we disagree. While we are free to choose Fox News or CNN instead, there is a high price when we do. The missed opportunity may seem imperceptible in the moment, but over time, we lose our ability to gather in Jesus’ name. And when that happens, we lose our way. We lose the chance to participate in God’s reconciling narrative in the world. We lose our ability to imagine how our lives intersect with God’s and how God has given us each other as gifts to learn to love as he loves, even if it’s costly. And unless we gather a variety of voices—male and female, young and old, black and white and everything in between—we miss out on the multiplicity of gifts that reflect the multifaceted nature of God’s infinite glory. Accepting God’s invitation gives us the opportunity to participate in a different news story, and—for once—it’s Good News. It allows us to uncover the story of God and live more fully into it—into the conflicts and into the complicated but rich joy of our shared life together. It’s when we gather amidst the messy realities of our communal life—and keep gathering—that we find ourselves participating in God’s self-giving love in and to the world. Every time we assemble in the name of Jesus, we’re reminded of who we are and where we’re headed. It grounds us in our shared faith. We’re reconstituted from being creatures of the left or the right into being part of the new creation—the people of God. When we gather in our brokenness, the Spirit transforms us. And when we gather in our difference, yet as one in our worship of God, the more deeply we experience and reflect Christ. We may be susceptible to adopting the trappings of other identities that have been pushed on us, but our primary goal as Christians is to gather as the people of God. Instead of engaging, as the wider culture does, primarily as members of the left or the right, let’s engage first and foremost as members of the body of Christ, people created in the image of God and expecting to find the image of God in the other. If we do this, if we follow Jesus when we gather, especially with those with whom we disagree, new creation bursts forth. And instead of running from the church when conflicts emerge, people will run to it—drawn by the beauty of Christ made manifest in our imperfect but persistent life together. This is our opportunity. And it is my prayer that you find ways to step into it. Gathering is at the heart of The Colossian Way, a spiritual discipline that enables Christians to engage conflict and difference as a catalyst for growth in faith and witness. The Colossian Way creates worship-filled spaces for Christ-honoring engagement on the most divisive topics. Gathering is also part of the theme for our 2019 Annual Conference. We believe that in order to live together well in ways that reflect the beauty of Christ, we need both to recognize our diminished view of gathering and to work toward a fuller experience of gathering—filled with grace and truth. We invite you to join us and others seeking a community committed to love of God and neighbor. It is our hope that this event will provide you the space and encouragement to accept God’s intimate invitation. We also invite you to share your experiences with gathering, whether negative or positive. Please visit colossianforum.org/stories to do so.
Uncovering the Beauty of Christ in a Messy World - A Journey toward Hope
March 15, 2019 | Michael Gulker
Uncovering the Beauty of Christ in a Messy World - A Journey toward Hope
February proved to be an especially painful month, watching so many profound, encumbered church conflicts play out on a global stage. The Catholic Church and the United Methodist Church held global summits on sexual abuse, and faith and sexual orientation, respectively. And the Southern Baptist Convention convened to decide the fate of churches accused of covering up widespread sexual abuse. While the illumination of these issues is essential, the path toward hope and reconciliation for all involved seems dim and rife with deep division. As we pray for all those involved and mourn victims’ sufferings, we also pray that churches around the world can, by God’s grace, get better at engaging these conflicts in ways that reflect Christ. A Community that Acts Christian At The Colossian Forum, it is our deepest desire to remind churches of a rich, beautiful vision of unity in Christ and to foster a community that acts Christian, especially in the face of conflict. I know this is possible. I know because I’ve seen it. This beauty was pervasive — palpable even — at our first public conference, Moving from Fear to Hope: Christian Practices for Polarized Times. We’d hoped the event would create awareness of the gift of conflict as a God-given opportunity for spiritual growth. We also hoped to foster a Community of Practice that would fuel ongoing personal and church culture transformation. But we discovered much more. The enthusiasm and encouragement of our participants revealed an acute, gaping hunger for a more attractive way to live in this fragmented and fearful world. And more than that, we actively shared in the hope-giving wisdom within the Christian tradition which can help us live out that beauty. Christ's Beauty in Ordinary Places Yet, we’re also learning that we can’t always expect beauty to show up in some revolutionary way, because, so often, it’s radically ordinary. It shows up in pedestrian practices — those daily rituals of relating to one another that we tend to take for granted. This is why much of our conference was dedicated to introducing one particular set of very ordinary practices that we call The Colossian Way.  The Colossian Way isn’t rocket science. It’s just our way of engaging conflict as an act of worship instead of an act of war. We do this by reminding ourselves that when we as Christians gather in the name of Jesus, we’re doing something markedly different than the rest of the world. When we gather in Jesus’ name, our primary job isn’t to make sure our side wins—because Jesus has already won. It isn’t to make things come out right in the end—they already have, and will, but not because of us. It isn’t even up to us to make sure that God is glorified. After all, we can’t glorify God unless the Spirit moves among us.  Instead, when we gather in the name of Jesus, our only goal is to practice Jesus’ own way of life in the manner in which we relate to each other. Traditionally, we practice breaking bread together, we practice sharing the cup, we practice hearing his Word — all in remembrance of what Christ has already done for us through his sacrificial love. And because of this, we now have the privilege of doing this for one another. It is in the midst of these practices that we open up a space within ourselves for the Holy Spirit to do a new thing — to transform us, who were divided, into the image of Christ for the sake of the world. Beauty in Transformation I was honored to hear of one such transformation a few years ago from one of our Colossian Way participants. After completing the 10-week journey, a woman found herself caring for her ex-husband’s aging parents because in addition to abandoning her, he also had abandoned them. When her ex-father-in-law became ill, she was there. When he needed Hospice care and eventually passed away, she was there. When her ex-mother-in-law later also became ill and needed care, she was there. One day, her ex-mother-in-law asked her why she chose to care for them. The woman explained that her experience with The Colossian Way had opened up space in her heart to hear the Spirit’s call and to ask the question, “What does love require of me?” Instead of being revengeful and right, she chose to lay down her life and take up selfless love that is reflective of Christ. It is this kind of story that fuels me and leads me to return to the simple, beautiful practices of our faith, especially amidst conflict. A Journey toward Hope God has already given us everything we need to be faithful right in the heart of conflict, and yet (surprise!), we didn’t quite achieve world peace in our single, three-day conference last fall. But we did scratch the surface of an intriguing possibility. Now, we need to practice. Fortunately, no—providentially—for us, our world, our churches, and our families give us all the opportunities we’ll ever need to get that practice! If we begin to live into a set of ordinary practices like The Colossian Way, we join a story started long ago—a story forming within us the right fears and the right hopes, and opening us to the call of the Spirit. But moving into the beauty of Christ right in the heart of conflict isn’t a one-time affair. It’s a journey toward hope.  That’s why we’re entitling this year’s conference—Gather, Practice, Witness: A Journey toward Hope. It will take place September 12-14 at the Prince Conference Center on the Calvin College campus in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Between now and then, we will be thinking, writing, inviting, and crafting workshops along these lines to empower individuals, leaders, pastors, parents, business people, students, and scholars to gather in the name of Jesus, to practice loving each other across difference, and to witness the body of Christ built up and give witness to the deepest desire and reality of the world. Gather, Practice, Witness are at the heart of The Colossian Way. I invite you to join us along this journey toward a better way of living together—a journey toward hope. 
Imagine: Recovering our Desire to Participate in God’s Holy Life
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.
Conflict and Christian Discipleship - Michael Gulker Interview with Faith and Leadership
January 24, 2019 | Michael Gulker
Conflict and Christian Discipleship - Michael Gulker Interview with Faith and Leadership
The church today has a poor record in helping people navigate conflict, but conflict can be the very thing that can heal them. In fact, we can harness it to be better disciples. Learn more in Faith and Leadership's interview with The Colossian Forum President Michael Gulker here.    
Somber News for the TCF Community
December 7, 2018 | Michael Gulker
Somber News for the TCF Community
Last week we received tragic news of the death of our treasured friend and colleague, Phil Thomas, in Nairobi, Kenya.  Phil was an internationally respected negotiator and peacemaker, as well as an adjunct professor at Goshen College. Phil generously shared his expertise in conflicted conversations with us, introducing new thoughts and extended practices. Most recently he was a presenter at our Annual Conference, September 2018, in Holland, Michigan. We grieve his loss and ask you to pray for the Thomas family and community. Phil will be greatly missed.   Read the Goshen College  announcement for more information.
Wrestling Toward the Promise...
November 19, 2018 | Michael Gulker
Wrestling Toward the Promise...
 “Your name will not be Jacob anymore. Instead, it will be Israel. You have wrestled with God and with people. And you have won.” Genesis 32:28 As most of us are painfully aware, our county is reeling from ever-deepening political factionalism. This factionalism doesn’t stop with the evening news but invades our workplaces, friendships, homes, and churches. We want to sidestep this ugly fact about our lives, but I ask you to take a risk and follow me in an exercise. Take a moment to think about a person you love and long to be in relationship with, but from whom you are now alienated. Hold this person in your mind. Don’t avoid the brokenness or the hurt. Just sit with this person and your feelings for a minute or two. When we, as God’s people, can’t seem to be reconciled with those we most love, it’s hard to find a way “to give reason to the world for the hope that’s in us.” (I Peter 3:15) The Colossian Forum is an experiment, a possibility, an idea with which to wrestle. What if we used all the energy surrounding these political conflicts, not to deepen division and warfare by our desperate need to win, but to deepen discipleship and witness? What if “that person,” (the one you can't talk to) has been gifted to you for your sanctification, motivating a renewed and authoritative witness to Christ’s gospel of reconciliation? As we ponder the possibility of personal sanctification, I would like to wrestle with a biblical text—the story of Jacob as an overtly political act. This text opens a window into two different politics, two different visions of “the good life.” (Genesis 25 to 33) Before their birth and throughout their lives we see the politics of Jacob and Esau on display—brothers wrestling, angling, and seeking dominance over one another to attain blessing, wealth, and security. Esau comes first and is the perfect specimen to carry on and extend Isaac’s worldly holdings. He’s not dependent upon God for his wellbeing, nor does a transcendent vision guide his life. He’s privileged enough to despise his birthright, even selling it for a cup of soup.  Then comes Jacob, the heel-grabber, usurper, deceiver. He envies and despises the status and success that come naturally to Esau. Jacob’s a wannabe, the weaker brother, who must use his brains to manipulate Esau to steal his birthright and blessing, even though God already sovereignly bestowed it upon Jacob before his birth. Jacob can’t depend on his natural ability or the social order to provide worldly security—he needs God’s promise and blessing. But as the younger brother, the blessing is not naturally his. Instead of conserving the social order, he spends most of his life scheming to subvert it for his gain and Esau's loss. And Jacob pretty much succeeds. Until years later, as he flees from his father-in-law Laban, God sends him into the heart of conflict to face Esau. As confrontation with Esau draws near, tension mounts. Is Esau going to forgive him or slaughter him? Will he be able to outfox Esau again? Will God’s promise be fulfilled? By every measure, Esau appears to be the child of blessing—the natural and social order are in his favor. That night as Jacob rests alone by the Jabbok river, he discovers that he has company. Someone is wrestling with him. He’s always wrestled, hasn't he? Since before his birth, he jostled with Esau in the womb, and throughout his entire life, he’s competed with Esau for his father’s love and blessing. In this late-night wrestling match, neither he nor his opponent get the upper hand. He then realizes that he is wrestling with heaven—with God himself, and acknowledges his defeat. His opponent touches Jacob’s hip, and the fight is over. Jacob is crippled. From another perspective, however, the fight goes on. The now-crippled heel-grabber caught up in the mystery of divine-human agency, continues to grab, not letting go. If Jacob lets go, he has nothing. He is nothing. It’s his name, after all. It’s who he is. By refusing to let go, he desperately tries to extort one last blessing as, perhaps, the final ploy to escape his conundrum with Esau. But his opponent, immune to such manipulation and compelled by Jacob’s refusal to let go, gives him far more. “What is your name?” asks his opponent. Who are you? What are you? What constitutes you? Hip out of joint, pinned down, and Esau approaching, Jacob can no longer evade the ugliness of his scheming, lying self. Wrestling by the river Jabbok, he replies, “My name is Jacob, (heel grabber, deceiver, usurper)." He has lied, cheated, and stolen what God has already abundantly given him. Trickster is Jacob's identity. But . . . no longer. Jacob will no longer be the heel-grabber. Instead, he is given a new existence, baptized into the fulfillment of his true identity. Jacob, the heel-grabber, is now Israel—the God-grabber. He is named one who wrestles with God and the world. It’s the politics of baptism, death, and resurrection, as well as the politics of promise and abundance.  Through Israel’s struggle with God and the world, we also have been grafted into this identity and bear the name of Israel—God-grabber. In Jacob’s destiny, as fulfilled in Christ, we find our destiny. In the politics of Jesus, we locate ourselves in the promise. Perhaps “that person”—the one we love, who is so wrong—gives us a chance to live out our identity and be more than a cliché. Perhaps we wrestle with God as we wrestle “that person”—refusing to let go even when we disagree. We encounter brokenness that mirrors our brokenness.  Perhaps it’s when we grasp God and “that person,” we encounter God in “that person.”  I suspect this is our hope—holding on to God while holding on to one another. Only as we wrestle will we move from fear to hope, and be capable of “giving reason for the hope that is within.”

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