Monday, November 14, 2011

Last day thoughts

Today is the final day of my sabbatical. Tomorrow morning (I'm kind of excited!) I get to go back to work, see my colleagues and start the long processes of 1) catching up on what's going on at Central, and 2) catching up on the emails and projects I need to be pursuing.

Today I am evaluating. Part of tomorrow will be a conversation about this time, what it's been like, what I have gained or lost or learned.

About a month ago I walked into a favorite coffee shop -- Dunn Brothers in Elk River -- and Micki behind the counter asked me, "How is the hunting sabbatical going?" I suppose I have been guilty of thinking and talking about this sabbatical in those terms, giving myself and others the impression that this was an extended two month hunting vacation. This morning I'm realizing that's not entirely fair and not entirely accurate. (If it was accurate, I would hopefully have more meat in the freezer than I currently do. But bowhunting season runs through December, so hope springs eternal.)

I realized early on -- as I've said before on this blog -- that God's priority for me during this two months seemed to be "rest." I have tried to honor that by taking time to be outdoors (my most restful place), hunting, being physically active in the fall in Minnesota, which has to be pretty close to heaven now that the mosquitoes are gone. The only thing that could make Minnesota this time of year better is if the Vikings had a record like the Packers, but I guess it's still a fallen world. There has to be something left to yearn for. Vikings fans, you need to be praying for the game tonight at Lambeau Field. Packer fans, your team doesn't need prayer.

So I've spent some time hunting, and I've spent some time at home, both quiet and working on a few projects, both necessary and just-for-fun. I've spent a lot of time driving, which has allowed another pursuit: Along the road I have (as I've mentioned before) listened to a ton of great theology -- mostly N.T. Wright but also a lot of other people. I tallied it up and realized that in the last two months I've spent about forty hours listening to theological material. It's been incredibly fun to be affirmed and challenged in my own thinking as I listen to some of the evangelical world's greatest current thinkers in theology and history and missions and more. I've also invested a lot of time along the way reading the Bible. During these two months, I read through the gospels twice, read the book of Ephesians four or five times, and spent good chunks of time on other passages, notably Romans 8. One of the things I could easily do, if I happened to have another two months, is spend more time in scripture. Lately I've been thinking I'd love to do an in-depth study of Romans. So much of the theology I've been listening to lately has come to roost one way or another in the book of Romans, and it would be fun to re-read it with a fine-toothed comb to consider some of the claims and counter-claims.

Hopefully in the next month or two, some of the topics I've been thinking and learning about will make their way into this blog. Here are a few of the big questions I've been thinking about in the last few days:

What is the relationship between salvation and the church? Does a person become "saved" by God's grace (Ephesians 2:8-10) and then go out and decide to join a church? Or is there something else going on? What, in fact, is the church? Is it a voluntary association of all those who choose to join themselves together? Can you be "in Christ" (to use Paul's phrase) and not be part of the church? Can you be part of the church and not be "in Christ"?

What is the legacy of the Reformation? What needs to be recovered from the 1500's that has been lost? What needs to be lost that has dominated protestant churches in the last 500 years? For example, is salvation mostly (as Luther seemed to assert) about individual guilt? Or is there more to it than that? How did the Reformation get derailed by the Enlightenment and by rationalism, and what can we do to recover a biblical Christianity that is not dominated by these ideas?

Related to that, what happened to some of Martin Luther's early idealism about the church? For example, at Central we've talked a ton about "Luther's third preference for worship." This is an extended statement Luther wrote in (I think) 1523 about the three forms worship should take. The first was the Latin Mass, the second the German Mass, and the third sounds remarkably like the house churches that are such a rage today. Yet later in his career -- after about 1527 or 1528, perhaps coincident with the Diet of Speyer, Luther's visitation to evangelical churches in Saxony, the publication of the Small Catechism, or other related events -- Luther seems to pull back from this idealism about ecclesiology. So the church that came out of the Reformation was not so much an outpost and forerunner of the kingdom of God as it was an institutional lowest common denominator with princes in the place of authority instead of the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church. This led to the state churches of Europe and eventually to the incredible drought of authentic faith that pervades northern Europe today.

Taking a page from Phyllis Tickle for a moment, what will the church look like in the next 500 years? Phyllis claims (on good authority) that we're in the middle of a huge transition of authority in the church, and that we go through this kind of transition every 500 years. What will be the source and vision of the church's authority in the next centuries? How will it relate to the surge of Pentecostalism in the global south? How will it relate to the waning individualism of protestant northern Christianity? How will it relate to the burgeoning house churches and informal leadership of China and others like them?

So you see, I don't feel like I got all my questions answered. There are lots more -- these are just a sample. These are huge topics and all focus laser-like on where the church is headed today and how we can best pursue the mission Jesus has put in front of us.

In some ways, it might be a relief to go back to work and not have to think so much about these things.

Seriously, thank you all for your prayers these last eight weeks. It has been such a privilege and a gift to have this time to rest, renew, and learn. I am very grateful!

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