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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.
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.”
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.   
Recovering Our (Theological) Imagination: A Call to Hope
July 25, 2018 | Michael Gulker
Recovering Our (Theological) Imagination: A Call to Hope
My work provides me near-daily occasion to interact with thoughtful, passionate, and culturally engaged Christians. Whether I’m talking with pastors or leaders regarding concrete relational challenges generated by our political climate, wrestling with scholars or public intellectuals on more abstract questions of engaging post-Christian culture faithfully, or just executing the quotidian tasks of The Colossian Forum with my rather extraordinary co-workers, I’m perpetually immersed in fascinating questions of how to authentically live out our faith in today’s culture.    Yet, there’s a shadow side to this work. Despite their energetic engagement with culture, many folks with whom I interact are plagued by doubt and fear. And despite enthusiastic involvement with The Colossian Forum, some friends candidly share, “You know, ‘all things holding together in Christ’—I’m not feeling it. I’m not seeing it. I’m not sure it’s real.” And they may continue: “I love Jesus, and I love the church, but I’m not sure I belong in the Christian world anymore. I don’t know where I belong.” These comments aren’t from disillusioned youth expressing a faddish critique of religion. Rather, they’re from . . .       ~ mature, long-suffering Christians who hurt because today’s political           and religious divisions cut them off from conversations with those               they love;        ~ parents wrestling with the fear that their kids may leave the faith;       ~ pastors questioning whether or not the church really is the body of             Christ given all the senseless polemics ripping their congregation or           denomination apart; and       ~ young people pondering their identification with religious                             institutions that mirror the secular culture.  As theologian Rich Mouw aptly remarked in a recent conversation, “Zombie movies and dystopian future flicks seem more pertinent to life than the Gospel.” We’re woefully short on hope these days. The future feels dark. What do we make of this? And what do we have to show for all our effort to pass on the faith to those we love? Scripture exhorts us to “give reason for the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15),” yet we are short on hope.   Hope doesn’t exist in isolation. It’s not an act of will. Nor is it merely an optimistic view of the future, the fruit of a cheery disposition. Instead, our shared hope ought to be the natural outcome of our faith in what Christ accomplished for us in the past. Christ’s life, death, and resurrection reveal the depth and power of God’s love—a love that overcomes every barrier between heaven and earth, you and me, and the ultimate obstacles of sin and death. By faith, this reality gives us hope. While we were yet sinners (and, as such, enemies of God) Christ died for us. This is our reason to hope.    And because of this hope, rooted in God’s faithfulness, we are freed from sin and the fear of death. We are freed to love others sacrificially, as Christ. “Now these three things remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)    Given this heritage of sacrificial love, why do we lose hope? Let me try out an idea on you, and I’d love to hear your reaction.    We’re called to imitate Jesus’ self-giving love. We’re called to pick up our cross and follow his example by loving our enemies. What if we don’t? What if we refuse? What if we’ve lost our theological imagination for imitating Christ’s sacrificial love? What if we’ve forgotten all the practical ways we could embody self-giving love in our culture?   Could it be that our failure of hope—to be a hopeful people—is related to a failure of theological imagination? Perhaps it is a failure of practical wisdom on how to embody hope. Or, even worse, a stark refusal to love sacrificially, especially across political and cultural disagreements.   While we were yet sinners—while we were yet Republicans or Democrats—Christ died for us.    Will we avoid risk and love only those who agree with us?    This is what FOX and CNN offer us. If we lose our theological imagination we will imitate the broader culture by erecting barriers that Christ has already demolished. If we erroneously believe that ideological agreement is the condition for fellowship, then despair and division will be our heritage.   Hope is rooted in God’s faithfulness revealed through Christ’s sacrificial love. How will others experience resurrection hope if we don’t follow Christ by shouldering our cross and loving others sacrificially?   I welcome your thoughts around this topic of deep division, sacrificial love, and our longing for hope. I look forward to engaging with your responses in the upcoming part two of my musings on hope in a divided world.
Giving Testimony to Our Unity in Christ
June 29, 2018 | Michael Gulker
Giving Testimony to Our Unity in Christ
Just as the fall football season launches, we at The Colossian Forum will be hosting our first annual conference at the Haworth Conference Center in Holland, MI, September 20-22. Can a theologically rich conference compete with our national obsession? We believe It can, especially when its theme—Moving from Fear to Hope—addresses the mounting cynicism and despair within our shared public life, overflowing into our closest relationships and faith communities. Scripture speaks of “the hope we have within us” (I Peter 3:15), but at times hope’s pulse is faint amid cultural wrangling and confusion and difficult personal interactions.  So, let’s stir up the hope within us. We invite you to join us for two days as we engage together in the practices of our faith that fuel hope and enable us as Christians to live beautifully and faithfully together. Let’s rediscover a simpler, more profound, discipleship that recreates a Spirit-empowered community that acts like Jesus in the face of post-Christian complexity and conflict. Consider the following reasons to attend our Colossian Forum Conference in September. Grow a deeper understanding of “conflict as opportunity for spiritual growth and witness” Discover a fresh approach for engaging divisive issues within your church or faith community Learn practical skills from others following this new mode of discipleship Engage in joint worship that returns you to the heart of the gospel Renew your vision of hope—a vision built on Jesus Christ alone Take part in a two-hour Politics Forum, where Christian thought leaders will guide our reflections on current political divisions Perhaps the most compelling reason to attend is the conviction that, as believers, we must be of all things, “reconciling people.” Stanley Hauerwas says it so well:  “That conflict is part and parcel of Christian unity means that the unity of the church is not a unity based on agreements, but rather one that assumes disagreements should not lead to division but rather should be a testimony to the existence of a reconciling people.”* While September 20th seems a summer away, our early registration discount will disappear, June 30th.  Venue size limits attendance, so we encourage you to commit now before seasonal activities intervene. Register now for a discounted $125 fee for this two-day experience that includes four meals and an opening reception. Student discounts (50%)  and scholarships are available. Our speaker lineup—including workshop presenters—is not to be missed.  Dr. Richard Mouw, President Emeritus of Fuller Seminary will be both speaking from his personal commitment to pursue peace and the unity we have in Christ. Dr. Mouw emphasizes the “spirituality” that must undergird our efforts toward unity—spiritual traits such as empathy, curiosity, teachability, and humility. How we cultivate these traits through Christian practices is a significant focus of content provided by our gifted cadre of speakers:  Jenell Paris, Messiah College; Mwenda Ntarangwi, Nairobi, Kenya; Michael Gulker and Rob Barrett, The Colossian Forum.  Workshop presenters include Rebecca DeYoung, Calvin College; James Calvin Davis, Middlebury College;  Chris DeVos, The Colossian Forum; Joe Liechty, Goshen College; Trisha Taylor, Counselor; Parisa Parsa, Essential Partners.   Centered strategically within the conference is our Public Forum, Political Division: Moving Toward Hope held nearby at 14th Street Christian Reformed Church. For two hours, the public will join us for this timely conversation.                         You will enjoy Michigan in the fall. Haworth Conference Center is on the campus of Hope College and within a winning football pass to fantastic dining and shopping in Downtown Holland. If you need lodging, we’ve arranged special rates at three local hotels, including Haworth. We look forward to welcoming you in September! Questions? Please email or call  616-328-6016.  * Hauerwas, Approaching the End, p109, as quoted in Forbearance by James Calvin Davis, p17