Monday, July 09, 2007

The Jesus Way and the Chaos in the Episcopal Church

A Kind of Applied Review of Eugene Peterson's book, "The Jesus Way" (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2007)

Like many others, during the last several years I have wrestled over what is the appropriate and godly way to respond to the crisis that has enveloped all of us in the Episcopal Church. Like many, I have explored a variety of options in terms of action and attitude, and come away dissatisfied. Sometimes it seems almost impossible to maintain a balanced commitment to revealed truth, countering error, reconciliation, grace, forgiveness, the unity of the church, and biblical moral and ethical values. I can't think how many times I have wished that there were some simple formula that could be readily applied.

For many years I have bought and read everything Eugene Peterson writes, for there are few theologians who marry, as he does, careful scholarship, perceptive pastoral insight and an abiding and tested commitment to catholic values of the faith. So, a couple of months ago I picked up Peterson's latest extended essay on pastoral theology, The Jesus Way.

I started into it thinking it would give me helpful insights into my own personal discipleship, which it has, but it has also given me clues to help me address this thorny ecclesiastical controversy in a manner that is worthy of my Lord. Certainly, Peterson does not come up with those illusive easy answers, but identifies patterns of believing and being from the Scriptures, the life of Christ, and his contemporaries that if taken seriously have the capacity to begin the process of breaking the present impasse.

And impasse it is, with none of the actions of any side within going anywhere other than digging us ever deeper into the mire. While fudging the issues before us is not going to be a solution, neither is the hand-to-hand combat which we are treated to each day. It occurs to me that Eugene Peterson's insights might help us find our way out of this dark jungle of our own making.

On the very first page he forces us to pay attention. "My concern is provoked by the observation that so many who understand themselves to be followers of Jesus, without hesitation, and apparently without thinking, embrace the ways and means of the culture as they go about their daily living 'in Jesus' name'... The whole North American ways and means culture, from assumptions to tactics, is counter to the rich and textured narrative laid out for us in our Scriptures regarding walking in the way of righteousness, running in the way of the commandments, following Jesus" (Pages 1, 3).

Straightaway, Peterson raises all sorts of questions not only about how we are immersed in our culture, but also how our own faith has been shaped as much if not more by the influence of the culture upon us than seeking to follow the mind of Christ. He talks of the eucharistic life to which we are called, which now should shape our whole being "as we give ourselves, Christ in us, to be taken, blessed, broken, and distributed in lives of witness and service, justice and healing."

Then he goes on ominously to point out that this "is not the American way. The great American innovation in congregation is to turn it into a consumer enterprise... We can't gather a God-fearing, God-worshiping congregation by cultivating a consumer-pleasing, commodity-oriented congregation. When we do, the wheels start falling off the wagon. And they are falling off the wagon. We can't suppress the Jesus way in order to sell the Jesus truth" (Page 6), and yet this is what we are trying to do.

That American way of church comes in all sorts of different flavors, liberal or conservative, traditional or progressive, Protestant or Catholic, and so forth, but all of them reflect our consumer mentality, so we pick and choose what we want, as well as our ways and means of being the church. Let's face it, in whatever shape or form it presents itself the American church is uncritically American. (It is probably true that in other parts of the world the church is uncritically British, Kenyan, Australian, French, Chinese, and so forth, but right now the challenge before us is our American blind-spots).

Yet we are called to live in the world by making Christ the King. "If Christ is King, quite literally, every thing and every one, has to be re-imagined, re-configured, re-oriented to a way of life that consists in an obedient following of Jesus. This is not easy." Indeed, it requires a lifelong work of total renovation beginning with the first word of Jesus's ministry, "Repent!"

I didn't become a Christian so many years ago just to prop up a decaying ecclesiastical structure. I became a Christian from the secular background in which I was raised because Jesus grasped me, and set about the process of reworking me into his own image. I have wanted to walk the Jesus way, but often have stumbled and fallen headlong. Then the word "Repent" has echoed in my ears and by God's grace I have been able to pick myself up and carry on. But I have to do this in partnership with fellow-travelers within the church, across the globe, and down the corridors of time.

A Christian is never a Christian in isolation, and as a follower of Jesus Christ I am called upon to function within this great continuum of God's salvation initiatives taken in history. The Jesus Way demonstrates the reality of this by spending a huge chunk of the first part of the book talking about facets of the way of faith of Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah, the Isaiahs, on the shoulder of whose insights and discipleship the way of Jesus is built.

Peterson introduces us afresh to great notions and concepts of Scripture, such as what it means to be God's servant, what is the nature of sacrifice, and the place of prayer in this momentous journey. Yet "the way of Jesus cannot be imposed or mapped -- it requires an active participation in following Jesus as he leads us through sometimes strange and unfamiliar territory, in circumstances that become clear only in the hesitations and questionings, in the pauses and reflections where we engage in prayerful conversation with one another and with him" (Page 18).

The question we are being asked by a statement like this is about how prepared we might be to pause, reflect, engage in prayerful conversation with one another and Christ, and whether we have it within us to continue forward on a path that might well be in process of diverging from the way, the truth, and the life. "To follow Jesus implies that we enter into a way of life that is given character and shape and direction by the one who calls us" (Page 22), and I wonder for how many of us this might be true. I know that I fall very far short.

This battle within the church is, I think, not so much about the issues, important as these are, but is about Jesus Christ and what should be the nature of the discipleship to which we have been called. Toward the end of The Jesus Way Eugene Peterson identifies several other ways taken when Jesus was incarnate upon earth, and as I read his descriptions of the contrasting ways of Herod, Caiaphas, and Josephus, I found myself squirming uncomfortably because the way many of us are carrying on compares more to the approach of these characters than the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Herodian way glorifies size and wealth. It is the way of power, influence, and conspicuous consumption. Yet the Jesus way stands in stark contrast to it and is reflected in the life of the young woman, Mary, when Gabriel brought her news that she was to be Messiah's mother, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38). Perhaps, Eugene Peterson surmises, the burden of this prayer was something Mary taught her first-born son. Certainly it is reflected in the Gethsemane prayer of "not my will but yours be done" (Luke 22:42).

If we are journeying on the Jesus way then we pray ourselves into the identity of slave (Greek: doulos). "The more exalted we become, the more prominent the position in which we are placed, and the more important we become in the economy of the kingdom of God, the more subservient we become. 'Servant' was the prayed identity for Mary," and by implication it should be our identity, too. In our battling I see little in any of us that tells me very much about servanthood, but a great deal about our fascination with power, influence, and making end runs on one another.

I do not pretend to know the right way forward, although I hope I am earnestly seeking it. Neither can I stand in judgment over the actions others might have taken, because there is much in my own record of which I am thoroughly ashamed as I seek to measure myself by the way of Jesus. However, it does seem that in the struggle for control and power the whole notion of Christian servanthood has been one of the casualties.

Having described the true task of the priest Peterson wants us to think about Caiaphas, pointing out that "sometimes priests, impatient with being servants of God and God's people, insist on taking control of the relationship, managing God's business and our salvation. When this happens... we end up with Caiaphas" (Page 224). He goes on to say that "priests are at their best when we don't notice them. The moment we begin to notice, we become wary. When he or she, whether laity or clergy, pretends to do God's work for us, an alarm sounds" (Page 226).

By Christ's time the priesthood had become as much about power, privilege, and influence, as it was about being the intermediary between the people and their God. Peterson gently reminds us that if following Jesus means walking the path of servanthood, then in no way can it be turned into a path of privilege rather it is about taking up the cross daily.

Jesus always accepted that healthy spirituality requires an institutional structure. Despite how compromised the structures of his day were, he did not separate himself from them. He didn't, like the Essenes sheer off and form his own exclusive, ascetic regimen isolated from the wider community, and when in Jerusalem he worshiped in the Temple the megalomaniac, Herod, had built, and that was governed by that sly old fox, Caiaphas. Certainly, there seems to be a lesson we can learn here.

The prayer of the Jesus way in these circumstances is the prayer of Thomas, "My Lord and my God" (John 20:28). "No matter how much we know, we don't know enough to know what Jesus is going to do next. And no matter how familiar we are with the traditions and customs and privileges that go with being on God's side, we aren't familiar enough to know how Jesus fits into it" (Page 242). Such a prayer should have us thinking twice and thrice about the words we say and the actions we take in the midst of so much confusion.

Finally we come to the way of Josephus, a man who was beginning well and then was seduced by the spirit of the age. He had, among other things, trained as a Pharisee, but he ended his days living the life of a wealthy ease in Rome having sold his soul and integrity for personal wellbeing. Josephus was an opportunist with natural charm and great charisma. Perhaps these are dangerous gifts in the hands of religious leaders, certainly we have seen much misuse of them in our day.

Force, in one way or another, was the flavor of each of the other religious and social alternatives of Jesus's lifetime, yet despite all the errors the early Christians made, this was not one of the traps that they stumbled into, for as the Epistle of Diognetus puts it, "force is no attribute of God" (Page 260).

No, the Christian way, that which sought to walk in the footsteps of Christ was one in which they prayerfully sought to find their way forward, seeking to be "of one accord." If you don't buy Eugene Peterson's book for any other reason, then I would encourage you to purchase it for his extraordinary exposition of 'homothumadon,' the almost untranslatable word that keeps cropping up in the Acts of the Apostles. It means roughly being of one mind, being of one accord, experiencing the fire of the Spirit in the midst of community.

"The difficulty of experiencing homothumadon is that typically we aren't paying any attention to the resurrected Jesus, and don't know what to look for, or are impatient in the waiting, or are distracted by more glamorous and riveting events and circumstances that promise shortcuts" (Page 263).

I would posit that at the heart of many of our problems is the reality that we have yet to even attempt to follow the Jesus way.

"What stands out as we consider all these dismissed options is that following Jesus is a unique way of life. It is like nothing else. There is nothing and no one comparable. Following Jesus gets us little or nothing of what we commonly think we need or want or hope for. Following Jesus accomplishes nothing on the world's agenda. Following Jesus takes us right out of this world's assumptions and goals to a place where a lever can be inserted that turns the world upside down and inside out. Following Jesus has everything to do with this world, but almost nothing in common with this world" (Page 270).

Yet our battles are being fought out using the goals and attitudes, ways and means, of this world. Maybe, just maybe, what we need to do now is to step back, and even if a few of us look to see how we might live the Jesus way in the midst of the confusion, something beautiful for God would be born, rising as a phoenix from the ruins.


Nick+ said...

Thank you Richard for this piece. It's both wonderful and convictingly close to home.

Anonymous said...

Fr. Kew --

I found myself getting very impatient reading Lost Icons by Rowan Williams. Of course, the prose is dense and the style diffident (at least to this American). But it was his hostility to markets in general and towards the spirit of consumerism tha most troubled me.

I hear some of that same critique coming through your review of this book. They say truth hurts. Maybe it makes Americans impatient as well.

All the best.

Dr. Bob said...

Thank you for calli attentiion to this book. It is the summer offering of the Episcopal Book Club. I received it ,from them and are about 2/3 through it. From all I see, it should be widely read and pondered. As an old retired priest, a life long Episcopalian raised in a rectory as a PK (Preacher's Kid) I never went through the trauma of a conversion as many did. Sometimes I find myself wishing I had but as my Father, a good and faithful priest and wonderful example brought me along I guess my experience in coming to the Faith is a bit different from many. Reading this book and some of Peterson's other books, I have foound great strength and assurance for my faith.

Anonymous said...

Fr Kew:

Thank you for this offering. From your brief review I believe you have found a keystone to a pattern for re-building our faith in the US. I spent most of my adult working years in a large international corporation that is highly orientated on marketing. After 35 years I took an early retirement to allow time and energy for a 3 year vocational deacon formation program. As I studied scripture, theology and church history I gradually became more and more aware of how my past life and its assumptions were not in line with the new life I was being formed into. Since my ordination 10 years ago I have become even more concerned about our free-market, profit oriented society that really does not reflect the value system that we have inherited from the teachings of Jesus.

I will be buying this book. Many thanks

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the insightful review. We have been reading this book as the same time and I am thrilled to see you were challenged and blessed at the same time, by Peterson's offering.

I have been equally blessed by Robert Benson's new book, The Body Broken. May I be so bold as to share a great quote?
"We are not called to be right; we are called to be his. WE are not called to be scholars; we are called to be students. We are not called to explain the Christ; we are called to follow the Christ. We are not called to build walls that keep his friends apart form one another; we are called to build the kingdom together: (pg 82)

Bless you my brother