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Displaying all posts tagged "Prayer Letter".
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.
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.
Jesus Invites Us into “the Politics of the Trinity”
March 14, 2018 | Michael Gulker
Jesus Invites Us into “the Politics of the Trinity”
As we reflect on Jesus’ death and resurrection, my thoughts go to his disciples and their wild hopes to reign with the Messiah—hopes grievously dashed on Good Friday. The disciples were as ideologically diverse and divided as we are today, and they wanted power and victory to support their own priorities and agendas. Jesus, in obedience to God and through the power of the Holy Spirit, does something utterly new. He pours out his life for love. Forty days later, those same disciples gather together—hiding, afraid, and probably still divided—and something new happens to them, too. The Holy Spirit comes upon them and empowers them to proclaim and embody the good news. They become united to the cause of Christ. Today, at this particular cultural moment, so many of us are afraid that everything is coming apart. So many of us are arguing to protect what we have, what we believe, and what we love. We all believe, and argue, that ours is the right way and that Jesus is on our side. But Scripture shows us that the life that Jesus offers us is deeper than that. He doesn’t argue ideology or promote one political platform over another. He presents his own politics, and it’s the politics of the Trinity. Rather than power against power, this “politics” is characterized by an eternal and delightful self-giving love. Jesus does not just tell the truth about God’s love—he embodies it. His goal is not to win arguments protecting the truth—rather, he lays down his life so that the world might know and love God. Through self-giving love he demonstrates that he is from God and that he and God are one. He invites us into the eternal and delightful love of the Trinity. The love of the Trinity cannot be stopped by hateful division, fearful darkness—not even death. What if we were to live together that way? What if we were to love each other—love those who disagree with us—that way? What might happen? What new thing might break forth? What good news could we share? I can think of a thousand rebuttals to every one of these questions. Over the past seven years at The Colossian Forum, I’ve heard them all. I’ve thought them all myself. Like Peter, I follow Jesus to the courtyard, but then I turn away. I don’t want to follow where he is going. It seems insane. What good can it do? And I deny. But Jesus doesn’t give up on me. He lets my denial crucify him once again. But my betrayal doesn’t stop the love between Father, Son, and Spirit. I am still invited into the life of the Trinity. Jesus reflects “the politics of the Trinity” when he turns to me and asks, do you love me? Feed my sheep. Do you love your neighbor? Feed my sheep. There are so many lost, fearful sheep right now! So many people are afraid that everything is coming apart. So many of us are fighting to protect what we have, what we believe, and what we love. On Good Friday Jesus demonstrates that he doesn’t need to be defended. The church doesn’t need to be defended. Church doctrine doesn’t need to be defended. We don’t have to be afraid that the truth of the gospel will be lost by those who get it wrong. Rather, we are called to obey, follow Jesus, and lay down our lives and love both our friends and enemies. It’s a hard message—one that’s easy to walk away from through denial or distraction. Ultimately, it’s a message of the self-giving, delightful love of the Trinity—the politics of a new kingdom. My prayer is that together we will begin to embrace and embody this hard but joyful and life-giving message.
When is the Gospel "Fake News"?
February 15, 2018 | Michael Gulker
When is the Gospel "Fake News"?
We’re constantly bombarded by divisiveness within our daily news—the right calling the left “fake news,” the left dismissing the “news” of the right through quiet (or not so quiet) condescension. Whatever the case, neither hardly qualifies as news. It’s stale and unimaginative culture war posturing where everyone seems perennially angry. Yet underneath all the anger lays deep fear—fear that our world, our culture, our church, our family—everything—is tearing apart. But God calls his people to bring “Good News” of great joy. We are the euangélion of Jesus Christ—eu means “good” and ángelos means “messenger.” Believers are meant to be like angels bringing good news of what Jesus has done, is doing, and will do in the world. We should be the least fearful of all people because we believe in Jesus, who was born to fulfill “the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to set us free from the hands of our enemies, free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life.” (Luke 1:73-75) So, we must ask, “Is the story of our life in Christ good news or fake news?” Well, a couple of questions. First, are we doing and saying anything new? Second, does it embody the good? A quick glance at the way churches are mimicking the surrounding culture through bickering and partisanship, belies the notion that their posture in the world is either new or good. The church seems more a cliché of culture than a contrast to it. What makes this even more problematic is our claim to follow the Prince of Peace. If we are divisive and fearful then we’re not only cliché but hypocritically cliché. Doubly boring. Doubly bad. This sort of “gospel” is fake news, hardly worth the bits and bytes it’s communicated over. So, where’s the good news we long for and why are we having such a hard time embodying it in ways that are either new or good? Where is our confidence in our Risen Lord who has conquered division and death? What would it mean for you and I to have a renewed vision of the gospel as truly good news and to become confident messengers of its transforming power? So much of our imagination is now captured by the right or the left that it’s hard to think outside of these culturally prescribed categories. Perhaps that’s why it took a 500-year-old painting to jolt my imagination. I don’t remember where I ran across it, but there I was, confronted with DaVinci’s famous painting of The Last Supper. His masterpiece depicts a microcosm of God’s people past and present. And it struck me that all of the radical political and ideological differences (and inherent conflicts) of our own culture are represented by those gathered around that table. The disciples seated to the right and left of Jesus were as ideologically diverse and divided as we are today. A fractious bunch of infighters all vying for a slice of the new kingdom, whatever it might look like. Were the zealots arguing for insurrection against the damnable religious mainstream in cahoots with the deep state? Were the tax collectors and moderates more confident in the goods of compromise and stability in the market? Who knows? But it’s not hard to imagine them all claiming that God was on their side. Hardly news. It’s an old, stale story. So, who did Jesus side with? Right or left? Conservative or Liberal? Moderate or Revolutionary? Or did he opt for something more inclusive like a lowest-common-denominator faith where everyone should just get along? None of these options seem to fit. But when the pressure mounted, Christ died for each disciple while they were fleeing, cowering, or denying him—while they were “yet sinners.” I wonder how long they continued arguing with and blaming each other for the way things went wrong? Jesus doesn’t argue ideology with them. He doesn’t take up one political platform over against another. He interjects his own politics, the politics of the Trinity—a politics characterized by an eternal delightful self-giving love. This love can’t be stopped by any division, fearful darkness, or death. Jesus goes forward, not just telling the truth about God’s love, but embodying it. He does not win arguments. Rather, he lays down his life so the world will know the love of God. He displays the life he has with the Father and invites us into that life. I wonder, might Lent be the place for us to give up our well-reasoned and tightly-held ideologies for the sacrificial love of the other we so disdain? Wouldn’t that be good news?
Sharing the Light of Christ in the Darkness
January 11, 2018 | Michael Gulker
Sharing the Light of Christ in the Darkness
As I write this, the brilliant white Michigan snow reflects some rather unusual winter sunshine. It seems an appropriate reflection of Epiphany, the celebration of the "manifesting" of Christ's light to all the world. This light “shines forth” so that all the world can join us in singing, "Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her praise." The epiphany of God with us is always cause for praise and thanksgiving. Some days it seems easy to celebrate the light of Christ. But others, not so much. It seems that despite the brightness of winter, our world darkens. Wars and rumors of wars make the headlines every day. Wars between nations, political parties, news corporations, the sexes—to name a few. It seems a long way from the pastoral scene in Luke’s gospel of the Magi bringing their gifts from afar to bow at the feet of our infant Savior. The real-life context of this beautiful passage is filled with the political intrigue and brutal machinations that led to the slaughter of the innocents. The authors of the gospels were likely far less naïve than we are about the harsh realities of the world. That's a helpful reminder when my cynicism darkens my light. The disciples prayed the psalms, reminding us that while the nations rage, the Lord is King. But where is that kingdom made manifest? Where is praise breaking out? If the church is the body of Christ, then surely it ought to be the place where the light of Christ shines brightly in this dark age, right? But what if the church is as divided as the country and the world? What then? Is darkness overshadowing the light? A people walking in darkness have seen a great light. A light has dawned on those living in the shadow of death and has overcome the darkness. It's an odd thing, to be both the reflection of Christ's light AND an utter failure. Why doesn’t the light flicker? Why doesn’t our sin, the sin of God's chosen people, overwhelm the light? Perhaps it's because the light of Christ's victory shines brightest in his refusal to abandon us even when we refuse to receive him. In fact, it's through the utter rejection of Christ by the world and his people that God reveals the complete inability of anything in creation to alter his love for us. No authority, no power, no nuclear arsenal or conventional army will turn aside God's love for us. The light of Christ's love shines in our darkest places, our most profound divisions, and invites us to follow him in manifesting the love of God for the world in ways that lead the world to break out in praise. But what could this possibly mean today? Well, here's an idea. What if, as the body of Christ, we lived together across the differences and divides that the world can't seem to bridge? What if, in our shared life together, we could "manifest" the reconciliation of heaven and earth toward those opposite us on the left/right continuum? Right here, right now. What if all the strife and division and darkness were backdrops for the light of the gospel to shine brightly today? Ironically, most of us are already bridging divides. But we hardly acknowledge it, let alone, proclaim it. Just this Sunday, I received communion with folks well to the left and right of me; folks living in communion with each other in the name of Jesus. It was even on a day when the sermon was the first of four on immigration! Where else does that happen? We've lost our theological imagination, and we're missing the miracles right in front of our noses. While we're busy getting it wrong, God is in our midst getting it right. He is continually forgiving us and saving us, for which we can give thanks! One of the most delightful things that happens to us at TCF is that folks tell us that our mere existence is an encouragement. The simple reminder that "All things hold together in Christ" is enough to manifest just a little bit of epiphany light to the world. That's not a testament to us, but rather to the hope within believers—a hope that is often forgotten. So, this Epiphany, I want to thank you for making TCF a little reminder of hope in our world. Every prayer, every encouraging email, and every donation makes possible the manifestation of the hope and light of Christ in this dark, divided world. Thank you.
“Why is everyone struggling so much?” An Advent reflection
December 6, 2017 | Michael Gulker
“Why is everyone struggling so much?” An Advent reflection
Not long ago, my 13-year-old son Sam and I were attending our little Mennonite house church that we love so dearly. It wasn’t an easy Sunday. Nearly all of us, for a variety of reasons, were hurting pretty deeply—family struggles, concern for the gravely ill, loved ones who, for one reason or another, are no longer a part of us. People shared their pain so openly that Sam wondered aloud to me about it. He identified both with the struggles of others and his struggling teenage self, saying, “Why is everyone struggling so much? Why do we all go to church if it just means suffering?” While that is not the line of logic my years of theological conditioning provide me, on the surface it’s a pretty valid conclusion. Why do we bind ourselves to broken and suffering people? On our drive home, we were surrounded by billboards depicting happy, healthy, sexy people. Why not identify with them—the winners? Their super white smiles sure seem more convincing than our tears. Why can’t the faith be more obviously right? More visibly true? Why doesn’t God prove his Godhood to the world? I don’t have adequate answers to satisfy a teenage boy who is suffering from the terrors of adolescence. All I’ve got is Advent, and a God who didn’t come down in an undeniable blaze of glory but as a baby born amid scandal, political intrigue, suffering, and the slaughter of the innocents. The eternal Word of God, Logos of Creation, Wisdom of the Ages came enfleshed as an infant Jew, freely identifying himself with a broken, corrupt, suffering people. As with any word, this Word incarnate is eminently deniable, vulnerably open to multiple interpretations—not to mention murder. What are we to make of this? In his brilliant work on Dostoyevsky, Rowan Williams reflects on the theological nature of language and how Dostoyevsky “sees language itself as the indisputable marker of freedom: confronted with what seeks to close down exchange or conflict, we discover we can always say more.” Part of the freedom of being able to “say more” when we are confronted with Jesus—the Word of God—is that we can say more and deny its validity. Christ comes to us vulnerable, “unable to compel [us] since compulsion would make it impossible for the creator to appear as the creator of freedom.” This means that the “credibility of faith is in its freedom to let itself be judged and to grow. In the nature of the case, there will be no unanswerable demonstrations … apart from Christ.” Are there no unanswerable demonstrations apart from Christ? Because that’s exactly what I want most! I long for something provable, repeatable, tangible, undeniable. I want to be able to point to “something” and compel others to accept without having to embody it myself. I want to indisputably possess “something” without having to become like Jesus. But what we get is Christ’s hard-to-believe faith in the goodness of the Father. All done in the face of his betrayal and death—in the goodness and freedom of creation, just as that same freedom would be used to crush the one through whom it was made (John 1:3). Of course, living on the other side of Easter, we see that Jesus’ faith is vindicated in his resurrection and the lifting up of his name that is above every name (Philippians 2:9). Sam’s very correct intuition reveals this: our death is still before us, even if our resurrection is assured. I desperately want God to speak a word that would spare me from the vulnerability of death and the nearly unbearable freedom to live life in light of our certain death. Sam’s desire is my own—to avoid the suffering that comes to us because of the freedom we’ve been given and often misused. We’d rather buy into another false promise of billboard happiness with shiny, white-toothed smiles. We believe these false words—the false certainties that cause us to forfeit our birthright as children and heirs of the King and the freedom that comes with it—all for a cup of soup. It’s the cause of our suffering in the first place. It seems that only a few saints have not sold their birthright (said an isolated and depressed Elijah before God revealed that there were 7,000 such saints). But in our little house church, as in so many small and humble Christian fellowships across the ages, the birthright of the Kingdom has not been sold. Believers join their Savior in suffering the hurts of the world, in ways small and large. They do not shy away. They suffer the uncertainty of freedom. They participate in the passion of Christ, holding on to a sure knowledge of God’s goodness while uncertain about almost everything else. They aren’t sexy. They aren’t likely to be on billboards. When the Lamb who opens the scroll reveals what has mattered in the history of humanity, their names will be called out. And as John Howard Yoder, another incredibly broken believer, once said, history isn’t moved forward by cause and effect, manipulated by the powerful, but by the cross and resurrection of Christ and those who bear it. A deniable thesis to be sure, uttered by an eminently deniable human being. Quite frankly, there’s no place I’d rather be. No other people I’d rather be with, than with Christ and his broken, struggling body.