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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.    
Epiphany
January 9, 2019 | Andy Saur
Epiphany
Glory always fades, just ask Moses about the bag over his head. Or inquire with anyone whose fifteen minutes have come and gone. A star may rise in the east, but sooner or later it will set in the west. It’s been said that famous people die in threes; perhaps this collective dimming eases us more gently into the night. The Magi also traveled as a trio, played their gig in Bethlehem then dissolved into the pages of history. But they didn’t return the same way they came. Maybe that’s true of us all as we journey from darkness to darkness. We find a different way home or a new home all together— one beyond the horizon, beyond this business of day and night, rising and setting.   AJ (Andy) Saur is The Colossian Forum’s poet laureate and matchless Executive Coordinator.
Your Christmas Sign
December 20, 2018 | Chris De Vos
Your Christmas Sign
A few days from now we will be evaluating our Christmas celebrations. Many will feel that Christmas was complete because everyone liked their gifts, all the meals were satisfying, and the church services were beautiful.  But for me, Christmas isn’t Christmas unless I experience a pleasant moment of divine dissonance.  It happens when I least expect it. But, in retrospect, I find that I am somehow wonderfully prepared. For instance, a few years ago in a Sunday School Christmas program, midway through the first act, the lead shepherd walked up to the lead angel (his sister), and “got in her face.”  For less than a minute (which felt like ten to mom), there was a heated conversation between the two that abandoned the storyline but followed a script they had rehearsed earlier at home.  It was a celestial showdown at the Christmas Corral. The wings didn’t come off, and the shepherd’s staff didn’t become a sword, but I was "sore afraid" that the manger would be toppled.  After the program, their good-natured mother told me the argument was about who was supposed to say “peace on earth to all people.”  “Ah,” I thought, “I had seen the sign that this was indeed Christmas.” Alongside our holiday celebrations, there is a radical side to the message of Christmas.  God took on our flesh.  In the midst of our spats, our misunderstandings, rivalries, and stubbornness, Jesus was born. “God with us” means God among us, just as we are.  God took on our character and spoke the lines we cannot get ourselves to believe: “Peace be with you.”  The child grew to tragically fulfill the role we were never able to play: a human being in perfect union with God.  God did not come into our world by lightly brushing up against us.  As one Confession states, Jesus came, “born in time, completely God, completely human.” The Gospel story of Jesus’ birth includes colorful detail, like angels announcing the birth of a king to shepherds.  Shepherds were looked down upon in society. Shepherds never dressed up as cute Sunday School children.  They were more likely to be spotted in the detention hall or the principal’s office.  Today, if we still thought of shepherds the way they did in Jesus’ day, there would be a Shepherd Locator Website where you could plug in your address to see how many shepherds lived in your neighborhood. One scholar suggests that if real shepherds ever encountered angels, they would expect a message of judgment or at least a guilt trip (“You’re still a shepherd? I hear they’re accepting applications at carpentry school.”) A shepherd would certainly not expect to be invited to the home of a newborn king. And yet we find angels and shepherds conversing with grace. We find angels telling the shepherds that there would be a sign for them: “You will find the baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”   Peasant shepherds wrapped their babies in cloths and laid them in mangers. Kenneth Bailey says that this would have been a personalized sign for them: “That is, they would find the Christ child in an ordinary peasant home such as theirs.” Suddenly, their disheveled souls found hope. There is a Christmas sign for you, one tailored to your life, one that says, “You will find the child wrapped in the garments of your life, living in the same sort of home you do.”  You will recognize that sign, for you know the details of your own life:  your doubts, your struggles, your victories, and your dreams.  It is within your own life that God will speak to you about the love and the new life that he has in store for you.  That sign will come when you least expect it; yet you, too, will be wonderfully prepared.  It is a sign you must “go and see.” You can do this by reading the gospels or by attending a church service.  But you must go yourself.  And Christmas won’t be complete until you do.   Chris DeVos is the Manager of Church Partnerships and Care at The Colossian Forum.
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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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.
Words
November 29, 2018 | Chris De Vos
Words
For years I kept a handwritten note in the pocket of a coat I wore on Sundays.  A young child in my church made this card, probably in the middle of one of my sermons, and handed it to me after the worship service.  “Pastor Chris” is the simple greeting on the front.  Inside, these words are written in clear letters: “Thanks for preaching! From Sarah.”  There are days when I doubt the power of words.  And there are times when a sermon seems to go over the pulpit, in the words of one great preacher, “like a wingless dove.”  Touching that note in my pocket was like sticking my soul into a warm glove on a cold day. Preaching is an odd vocation.  In my particular tradition, the Christian Reformed Church, many preachers are expected to deliver two sermons a week.  So, each Sunday I’m responsible for about 5,000 words, many of which will be lost on even the most dedicated listeners, let alone children.  It is a humbling job, one that can leave a preacher soaring on the praises of a good Sunday and sinking the next week below the surface of his or her self-doubt.  “You're only as good as your last sermon,” a friend of mine once joked.  Do my words matter?  Or, more to the supposed task of preaching, “Is my preaching anywhere close to God’s Word?” These days we are re-discovering the power of words-the sheer power of words to build up or to tear down, to heal or to hurt.   Early in life, we hear that “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”  But that is playground philosophy not the wisdom of the ages.  It is primitive training in rugged individualism.  The truth is, if you think that words are inert, you had better find body armor for your spirit. Words have potential energy.   When delivered to another human being, they act with force.  That force can bring devastation or delight.   When a public servant is recorded using a racial slur, a tsunami of racist hurt washes over what we expected to be higher ground. We all should have warning labels pierced to our lips: “this vehicle has been known to transport hazardous waste.” Nevertheless, one word (or five, for that matter) can stir up joy.  A quiet comment of appreciation uttered by even the least among us can cure a soul.  Words have potential energy.  The least practiced potential these days is to bring life.  It’s counter-cultural to encourage.  The gospel of John describes Jesus as “the word become flesh,” a word that came “not to condemn, but to save.”  In the Christian tradition, God’s Word is considered alive and active.  In contrast to the condemning urges of the human heart, the goal is life and renewal. One of our culture’s greatest ironies is that we highly reward people whose language is caustic and judgmental, while so many of us quietly suffer from lack of encouragement, hope or love.   A profound revolution would occur if we all began slipping notes of appreciation into each other’s coats.  Or changed the channels we listen to and think of something truly good to say.  Here’s a start: “Thanks for reading! From Chris.”   Chris DeVos is the Manager of Church Partnerships and Care at The Colossian Forum.

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