December 28, 2007

Rule of Life Essay

This was written for VOM this past semester. I really like the paper, for the most part, but you'll have to pardon a bit of hokey "this is what I do next" type stuff that's mixed in. Otherwise, enjoy. [The Management]

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"The most important human endeavor is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance and even our very existence depend on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life.” [Albert Einstein]

On Pendulums: A Word on Balance

It was upon visiting a friend’s church plant that I first started thinking about pendulums as more than large weights, but as symbols. During the dinner after the service (their expression of Communion), the discussion turned towards balance, and one guy expressed how it seems to be that each time a turn in culture happens, it turns towards the opposite extreme. He compared it to a proverbial pendulum, always moving back and forth, resting at the peak of its arc, then cascading back towards the middle and swinging back up to the other extreme. As a metaphor, it works well to describe balance, that point somewhere in the middle at equilibrium between two extremes. Balance is as much a cycle-in-motion between extremes as it is a resting place. The pendulum thus carries with it a connotation of both “settled-ness” as well as motion, a metaphor which I believe describes balance quite well. It is a metaphor that is working in my life, and one that best describes the rule of life toward which I currently strive.

Mind and Body

It is remarkable how much the mind and the body influence one another. It is here that I wish to begin because it is here that the concept of balance is most intricately illustrated. The mind and body are tied together more closely than most of us would like to believe. The two are mutually interdependent; the mind controls the body, but the body houses the mind. While the two are obviously distinct, together, they form a complete organism. The mind is, for me, the easiest place to overshoot a pendulum. It is in this realm that we find academics, thought, concepts, and ideas (also, incidentally, all things in which I take great comfort). Without the mind, the body is lost; it is just an animal guided by instinct, thoughtlessly surviving. It is without a doubt the mind that gives us life that is worth living. It is by the mind that we can even conceive that God might be there to relate to, but it is also the mind that has been so deified by western culture for the last five hundred years (and at other times in history[1]). The body, on the other hand, is of a baser level. It is crude, instinctual, physical, but it is the body that sustains the mind. Without the body, the mind cannot exist.

Balance comes in the recognition that theology must inform praxis and that in turn, praxis will inform theology. When we separate the two, problems occur, called “dualism”: too much focus on the mind, and faith becomes an exercise in the “uber-spiritual,” downplaying the body’s actions to the point that they are barely tolerated and even evil. However, too much focus on the body, and all that happens is thoughtless action, guided by little more than baser instincts and the spur-of-the-moment. While I do not usually go to either extreme, I tend towards a version of the first, namely ignoring my body and letting it do it’s ‘thing’ however it pleases, so that I can focus on the more pleasurable and stimulating ideas to be thought. Instead of allowing an extreme to dominate my life, I must take care to balance thought with action, scholastics with exercise (I have to take care to schedule myself some gym time several times weekly instead of spending all my time reading), and theology with mission (constantly asking myself, who have I helped lately? Does my theology match my money and time and actions?).

Organic and Synthetic
One of the tendencies in our western culture is towards one of the organic or synthetic extremes. The organic is the world of nature, of the environment, even of the spiritual; we were born into this world naked and with nothing, and likewise from it we will pass. The synthetic is the world of the material, the concrete, of “stuff.” The present culture affirms the synthetic quite a bit more than it acknowledges the organic; it is enthralled with the material. I find myself caught up in this imbalance more than I usually care to admit; I want the latest computer gizmo, the best that money can buy, and in general, more stuff (and better stuff than my neighbor or family or even my wife). This world values noise and imposed schedules over the organic ebb and flow of time, leaving instead of coming, things instead of people. If I am to become balanced between the two, I am going to have to start giving up my desires to buy, to accumulate, and perhaps even start giving away what I have. However, there can be a tendency in some cultures to go to the other extreme, to give away so much that at some point they can no longer survive but for the charity of others[2].

Balance, once again, is found towards the middle; it values people but also values appropriate amounts of time with them. It celebrates the body as a creation of God and values the products of human ingenuity as useful, but rejects consumerism and materialism
[3]. This means I must buy less, and give more. It means that a proper amount of material goods is ok, but acknowledging that the amount might differ from person to person and that if what I have is different from another, I must understand that God is choosing to teach that person differently than me[4]. It means I must watch for those in need and then not hesitate to give up what I have for them. It means letting go of my tendencies to hold onto things I “might use again someday” and give them to others who need them and can use them now[5].

Solitude and Community
“In the secret, in the quiet place // in the stillness you are there…” When I first started listening to contemporary Christian music, this was one of my favorites. It’s by a band named SonicFlood, and the song describes the strong desire of the singer to better know the God he loves so dearly. While the song is very particular in describing the very personal relationship the author has with his God (and neglects the communal relationship), this has still been a big challenge for me. At times, I have been very solitary in my relationship with God; it’s Him and me, and we do coffee without anybody else, and there’s no place for others in my walk. But at other times, I’ve swung the pendulum in the other direction and spent little to no time alone with God (this seems to be the current trend; as Dr. West says, I’ve become a “quivering mass of availability” to others). I can always tell when I’m in one or the other by what I do with my Bible; in my solitary times, the Bible sits on my nightstand by my bed, and in my communal times, it sits on my desk ready to be put into my backpack. Western Christianity wants its adherents to focus primarily on solitude, the discipline of spending time alone with God[6]. Perhaps this merely highlights western culture’s individualistic drive. But the point is that it’s about the individual growing (because God is already as grown as He’s going to get; being outside of time has its advantages).

On the other hand, community is also important. Scripture emphasizes this point throughout; at the very least, scripture itself was intended to be read in groups
[7]. What we call the New Testament did not exist for the first chunk of “Christian” history; with a few exceptions, the books involved were letters to groups of people (the epistles) or were documents written to educate groups of people in the story of Christ (the gospels, with the notable exception of Luke’s gospel, written for his wealthy patron Theophilus[8]). Community includes several groups of people; family (immediate and extended), friends, mentors, mentees (“disciples” of both Christian and non-Christian flavors), small groups, work groups. But in every case, they are all “the other;” the person not-me – the woman, the impoverished, the black-skinned, the widow, the sick, the alien. In these cross-cultural experiences I must find my community.

It is fitting, then (in light of the line used to begin this section), that in my mind, the closest image I have to fit with this is that of music. Music requires both silence and sound in order to be music. The balance changes for each style of music, but in the end, both sound and silence are required to make a piece of music that is worth listening to. Silence is even called a “rest” in classical music. It is much the same in real life. The sounds of life must be offset by periods of restful silence, meditation, contemplation, prayer, and the like in order to lead a balanced (yet full) life. It is these periods of rest that enable a person – me – to continue functioning. Too much silence and I become apathetic and slothful, but too much sound and I will eventually become numb and deaf to the beauty of the music

Past, Present, Future

Time is an important indicator of spiritual health that must also be balanced. While I must balance my times of solitude with my times of community, I must also balance my preoccupations with time in its three iterations: past, present, and future
[10]. We learn from what has already transpired, but it is in the past that we cannot dwell, for the past is dead and gone. Likewise, we look towards the future expectantly, and it is into the future we move, a succession of present moments whose planning is today's responsibility but in which we cannot dwell because it has not yet happened. We are creatures of the present moment. But the three must be balanced.

My tendency is to live in the future; I have to have everything planned out so that when it gets here, nothing unexpected happens to throw off my plans. The trouble with this is that I always seem to be planning and spend little time enjoying what sits before me. I have so far tried to balance this with a commitment for learning history, about what has already happened. Despite my best efforts, what seems to keep happening is that I end up applying what I learn towards what will eventually happen, to better my plans. I need to learn to let go of my plans. Plans are good, don’t get me wrong, but if my plan is allowed to overrule God’s plan (and I do not allow myself to follow the momentary impulses of the Holy Spirit because they fall outside my schedule), I remain in a self-made trap. The trouble is that I cannot plan to be spontaneous nor can I plan to follow the Holy Spirit because, as the scripture says, the Spirit is like a breath of wind; nobody can guess where He’ll move next
[11]. Thus, the only solution to this is prayer; prayer that God will see fit to show me how and when to move, that I’ll be listening. I must be ever mindful of the present moment, wondering if in it God is speaking to me, speaking back. For as Lewis writes, it is in this present moment that we most closely touch the infinite; thus, to balance the extremes of past and future, a present-minded reality is the remedy[12].

Art and Science
Science might be best described by words like hierarchy, mechanical, artificial, revealed. It is the world of the rigid order that cannot be broken, the world of language and structure, of order. The world can be understood and controlled, the world of logic. The artistic, on the other hand, is movement, mystery (the unexplained), naturalistic, or fluid. It is the world of the aesthetic and the ascetic, the artist and the poet, constantly celebrating that which is greater than I and cannot be understood in language alone; it cannot be controlled, only expressed and emoted. I find myself at these crossroads quite often, my pendulum swinging wildly. On the one hand, I grew up in the western enlightenment culture of logic, of science, and I often find myself drawn to explain everything, to know everything (or if I don’t, I don’t admit it and make something up to sound like I know everything). On the other hand, I have always had a certain talent for music; I play eleven instruments, I sing, and I compose. The artist in me is always fighting against the scientist, constantly telling him to give up on explaining that which is best left to awe and wonder.

But neither is truly without merit; we should try to explain the world, complicated as it is. However, there comes a point where even the most brilliant Einstein or Hawking cannot make heads or tails of something (where do emotions come from? What do women want?) and must turn to poetry, art, music to begin to make sense of it, and failing that, to express our frustration at our bewilderment yet our inexplicable joy at its mystery. Though both struggle within me, I have, as of late, erred on the side of science, of logic, of academics. I do this unintentionally, but when I realized that I had begun pushing the pendulum too far, I made it a point to join the Asbury College Jazz Ensemble and spend some time with music for a while. It is something I have decided to continue through seminary; instead of allowing my academics to completely dictate my schedule, I will be a part of at least one music group each semester (more if I think my schedule can handle it) and will make time to spend playing music with my wife. Aside from the fact that our daughter likes to listen to us and that we both enjoy it, the music moves in my soul to worship and thus should not be repressed, as it has been. I cannot let it overtake my academics either, but this is a danger far from my present circumstances.

When it comes down to it, it doesn’t much matter that I don’t yet know my calling; balance is something that must be a part of my life regardless of my circumstances. For if the path of holiness is the imitation of Christ, then certainly balance must play a key role; the Trinity Himself is the personification of balance: three-persons yet one God, mutually-submitted to one another, complimenting and reinforcing one another, growing together, creating together, relating to one another, dancing together. Mission, then, is an outpouring of that dance[13]. Balance is but a means to an end; relationship with the triune God, the mission dei, its purpose. The relationship means I participate in the dance! This means that participation in the Kingdom of God – the path to Holiness – means the furthering of the Great Commission in all its expressions, moving with the Holy Spirit to whichever culture He leads. In C.S. Lewis’ classic words, it is ever moving “onwards and upwards!” into the mountains[14]. It is the ever-present journey, the journey that death can no longer stop. It is for this that I was born, and it is for this that I continue to live.

Works Consulted

Barton, Ruth Haley. Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation. IVP Books: Downers Grove IL, 2006.

Claiborne, Shane. The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. Zondervan: Grand Rapids MI, 2006.

Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters. HarperCollins Books: New York NY, 1942 (2001).
------------. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Last Battle.
------------. The Great Divorce. HarperCollins Books: San Francisco CA, 1946 (2001).
Seamands, Stephen. Ministry in the Image of God: The Trinitarian Shape of Christian Service. InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove IL, 2005.


[1] I can’t help but noticing that our western culture is quite similar to the last time this happened: Greece, and Rome. The two cultures (summed up in the word “Hellenist”) were very mind-centric in the meta-culture that dominated politics, academics, and philosophy (all concepts which find their lingual roots in the same time period). I also notice that the counter-cultures that sprung up during these times were very action-oriented, the proverbial pendulum swinging the other way. Truly, we have much to learn from the comparison between the two.

[2] Though they are few and far between, a notable example is the ascetics of the second and third centuries who would emaciate themselves because it was considered “spiritual” and moved them “closer to God.” I can’t imagine how these practices actually helped anybody, as it certainly didn’t help the participants. The Gnostics, as well, were preoccupied with this heresy to the point that the body was itself evil.

[3] Gluttony (overindulgence) in any form is sinful. See Dr. Martyn’s October 10, 2007 lecture on the deadly sins.

[4] In the story of the Rich Young Ruler (Luke 18:18-29), Jesus obviously values material goods in their proper context (for example, he says to the ruler to sell all he has, but never says to give it ALL to the poor, only to give to the poor). However, to the one who has everything yet still yearns for more, Jesus asks him to die to his selfishness and embrace the moderation of the kingdom of God.

[5] Perhaps cleaning out my closets of that which I do not use anymore and giving it to the Salvation Army is a good place to start on this one.

[6] Am I the only one that finds it ironic that we call it “solitude”? Isn’t it really supposed to at least be some sort of conversation with God, which means that we’re not really alone, nor are we ever?

[7] Think about it: who could afford to have their own copy of the Torah except only the wealthiest of Pharisees? Scripture was memorized by Jewish boys by the time they were ten, and then they spent the rest of their formal education (those that ended up as priests) working through scripture in the company of a Rabbi and his other disciples. In fact, this trend continued right up into the sixteenth century when Gutenberg invented the printing press; it was only after this that society was able to truly become individualistic. Scripture and community are intimately tied together.

[8] Luke 1:1.

[9] Barton, 133-145.

[10] It was through C.S. Lewis that I began to understand this concept, when I read his wonderful text (yet strangely chilling, given that it’s a series of letters from a demon), The Screwtape Letters. See pg. 75-79.

[11] John 3:8.

[12] Naturally, to be ever-mindful of the present is next to impossible; there are far too many stimuli in the world for this. Yet it is this towards which I strive. That is why I must do what I can and allow God’s grace to work in me, showing me the most important things to which to pay attention, and abandoning the rest as useless; I only have so much time, and so there really isn’t time to have both what I (the sinful I) want and what God wants. Nothing to it then but to replace what I want with what God wants. I’m pretty sure that’s in scripture somewhere (Luke 22:42).

[13] Seamands, 157-178.

[14] The Chronicles of Narnia: The Last Battle and The Great Divorce.

December 24, 2007

The Scandal of Christmas

Something unusual has struck me about this particular Christmas season. Aside from the fact that it's been another unusual one for our family (last year we were in Melbourne having a picnic in 95-degree heat on Christmas eve, this year we're back to NY but we have a baby), I've been reading the Christmas story a bit differently.

It started the other night when Liz and I decided to open our gifts from each other early so we wouldn't have to try and fit them into the already overly-stuffed car to get to NY. But we decided to read the Christmas story first. Being our first year doing this sort of thing alone, I (somewhat foolishly) decided we had to be different and read the Matthew account of Jesus' birth rather than the Luke account which is traditionally read. I know now why everybody reads Luke - he was a lot more interesting.

Anyway, what struck me (and continues to mess with me each time I read it this year) is the scandal of Christmas. It's not the sort of story you'd expect to begin the foundational story of a world religion. Sure, you can dress it up however you want, but when you start looking into it, lots of things don't really add up.

Let's start with the fact that Mary is an unwed teenager who suddenly finds out she's pregnant. I imagine nobody's ever used the "Holy Spirit" excuse before (though I imagine many have since), but what must the neighbors have thought? Her parents? We know what her fiancee thought, because he (Joseph) first decides that he's going to divorce her "quietly". Which, given the culture, was awful nice of him because the penalty for her impregnation could have been stoning. But Joseph is an unusually nice guy for his time and says no, he'll divorce her quietly so as to preserve his own righteousness and maybe spare her (who he obviously adores) a stoning and the humiliation it gives her family.

But no, an Angel appears to him in a dream and tells him that Mary's legit, and to go ahead and marry her anyway. Oh, and by the way, name the kid - who will be a boy - Jesus. There's all sorts of things messed up with this one. First off, we've got the angel in a dream; I've dreamt some wierd stuff, but never an angel. And most of the time I wake up with an unsettled feeling that my dream was wierd, but I don't remember much of it. Joseph? Nope. He wakes up, remembers, and then actually FOLLOWS the advice of the angel in the dream. And what's the advice? Allow himself to be associated with this social travesty, and to name the kid (who is, by the way, not really his kid) one of the most common names of the day. Oh right. And he's not allowed to consummate the marriage until after the kid (who isn't his) is born. That means he's married, but no sex. Again, imagine that today! If you think it was hard then, that last part might be even worse now.

Ok. So the Romans have a census (just for the fun of it) and Mary and Joseph wander off to a tiny town in the middle of nowhere and due to overcrowding in the local Motel 6, they hole up in a cave or shed that houses animals. That one's pretty self-explanatory; no epidurals or pain meds, not even a nice cozy hospital bed or midwife to help: Joseph has to do this more or less on his own. I've been there when it wasn't my job, and that was stressful enough.

But what about the guys who all come and visit? First off, poor Mary (remember, she's a young teenager) is so exhausted after giving birth that she puts the kid the only place she can - the feeding trough for the animals. But soon after, a bunch of the local shepherds wander in, looking somewhat dazed, and ask if this is where God became man. Who are the shepherds? Peasants, first of all, but the lowest of the low. They're the guys with no social skills, who spend their whole days watching the sheep so everybody else can have wool and the occasional lamb dish. They're dirty, haven't showered ... well, ever, and now they wander into your stall in the stable and ask to see your kid. Why? Because an angel appears to them and tells them to "be not afraid."

Seriously? An angel? Think about it; put yourself in their shoes. They're doing the same thing they do every night. It's a boring, BORING job; the sheep are mostly laying down by this point, and the shepherds are trying to keep themselves awake just a little longer. Nothing out of the ordinary. Tomorrow is going to be the same as today was, or so they think. But no - a being the likes of which they have never even dreamt (at least Joseph had dreamt of one) appears out of nowhere. Now, ok, I have no idea if he was standing or flying (the scriptures never actually say), but the shepherds are "terrified." Not "mildly discomforted" or "a bit freaked out," but "terrified." I imagine even "terrified" doesn't quite describe the "I-just-soiled-myself" feeling of seeing an angel appear out of nowhere. But then the angel has the gall to say "be not afraid." As if. But the story he tells catches their attention and they listen to what he has to say. And what happens next? MORE angels appear out of nowhere! The shepherds soil themselves again. But then they abandon their posts and (hoping the angels might keep an eye on the sheep for them) run to Bethlehem to see the child the angels described.

How about the other visitors? I've heard different accounts of these guys. Some told me that they came when Jesus was still in the manger, others say it was even when Jesus was two or three years old. Regardless, a bunch of "wise men" (no, not necessarily three; there were three gifts though) "from the east" come to visit Jesus because they followed a "star in the sky" that told them to. I mean, let's just say it: they were Iraqi Astrologers. They saw a new star and decided that it was so important that they up and left their jobs to come and find its cause. Notice: they assumed a person (that they assumed they could find) caused it, or at least, that the stars were telling them about a person.

So uncomfortable on a number of levels. First off, they were probably from Iraq ("from the east"), which doesn't have so good a track record here in the good 'ol USA these days. No, they weren't Muslim, but they were quite possibly pagan. Regardless, they were Gentiles, the "don't associate with them because they're unclean" bunch for any Jew. A bit like Iraqi Muslims these days for lots of American Christians.

Second, they were astrologers. Yes - they read the stars to tell the future. They were making their living at this! But notice: God still spoke their langauge. He still put the star there even though they had the nerve to be all New-Agey and read fortunes and tell the future from the stars. I love what Erwin McManus says - "Christians need Jesus just like Buddhists and Hindus and Muslims do!" The star was there in the sky and the magi up and followed it to its resting place: Jesus. I sometimes wonder if that star is still around. Is it one we take for granted (like Polaris or maybe one of the brighter stars in the sky?), or did it go away after Jesus ascended?

The Christmas story is not something we'd like to tell in a church these days if it happened on our turf. We wouldn't really like to tell of a plumber's son who was born in the back room of a McDonald's to a pair of Mexican immigrants. We wouldn't want to talk about how the mother wasn't married to the father yet, or how the visitors to the kid weren't the academics or the theologians but were some hippies or maybe some alcoholics or alley-dwelling bums telling crazy stories of aparitions and angels. Nor would we want to tell how the only gifts the parents were given had been given by some gypsies who said that their crystal balls mentioned the exact time and place of the kid's birth and how they had to see for themselves.

This year has been a year to see the old familiar story with new eyes. God came here. But He didn't come the way we wanted. From the start he spent his time with people nobody else would; an unwed teenage mother, a stepfather, pagan astrologers from a distant land, and peasant outcasts telling outrageous stories. The next thirty-three years wouldn't be that predictable either.

The Christmas story is not for the faint of heart. Have we forgotten that?

Merry Christmas.

December 23, 2007

Lost on the Young

We're finally back in NY after a month. It's good to be home, though it's definitely colder here. Not as much snow as we were hoping (it was all rained away this week), but family is here and that's good. Free babysitting.

So much has happened this semester, but it's all sort of a blur at this point. Rori has grown by leaps and bounds (she's doubled in weight, for starters). I know I was at work a bunch, and I know I was in class a bunch, and I'm pretty sure that I slept at some point, but eventually it all started to blend together. My report card would seem to indicate that I did ok, but at this point I'm basically still trying to process all the stuff I supposedly learned. It was good stuff, full of large words and important concepts, and yet ... I think my next task is learning how to translate it all into words that most highschoolers could understand. The ones that cared, anyway.

I think if you can't explain what you're talking about to a high schooler, you're probably using words that the rest of the (Western) world won't understand and you'll lose their attention. I want to use big words like "contextualization" and "incarnation" and such, but something tells me that there's a better way to explain it. We academics can get so stuck in our little bubble that we forget that what we do has to somehow translate into something the rest of the world can use. So that's my task for the next week or two before I travel to India and try to relate to orphans and high schoolers (some of whom might be both).

Anyway, I've had these lyrics buzzing around in my head today, and thought I'd share them with you all.

Left His seamless robe behind, woke up in a stable and cried
Lived and died and rose again: Savior for a guilty land
It's a story like a children's tune, and it's grown familiar as the moon
So now I ride my camel high; I'm aiming for the needle's eye
I chased the wind, but I chased in vain; I chased the earth, it would not sustain

There's only One who never fails to beckon the morning light
There's only One who set loose the gales and ties the trees down tight
When all around my soul gives way, He is all my hope and stay
There's only One, only One
Holy One

Lord, You are my Prince of Peace, but this war brings me to my knees
See, there's a table You've prepared, and all my enemies are there
But where my Shepherd leads, where else can I go?
Who else fills my cup 'til it overflows?

There's only One who never fails to beckon the morning light
There's only One who set loose the gales and ties the trees down tight
To the Solid Rock I fly, though He bids me come and die
There's only One, only One
Holy One

[from Share the Well by Caedmon's Call]

December 20, 2007

Sweet Victory

And THAT is why I haven't written anything very interesting here for months. Woo hoo!!

December 15, 2007

Decentralization in Christian Missions

The Decentralized Church
Reclaiming the Spirit of the Heterarchy for Mission

By Chris Logan

In 2006, a remarkable book was released called The Starfish and the Spider. Its authors posit that there are movements in which large groups of people behave less like organizations with a clear chain of command and more like organisms. While these organizations might have clear spokesmen, distributed power and leadership (even no discernable leader), making them hard to kill, but even more so, giving them the ability to do far more than most hierarchies, to survive harsher environments, and to proliferate at astonishing rates. They called these movements “decentralized,” and there is a remarkable correlation between this concept and the many churches through history that have succeeded where others failed.

Decentralization and the Heterarchy

The Starfish and the Spider: A Metaphor
The authors of The Starfish and the Spider use the metaphor of two animals to illustrate the nature of centralized and decentralized organizations: spiders and starfish. The spider represents a concept called “hierarchy.” It is an animal with clear structure; it has a head, a body, glands for web-spinning, legs, etc. If you were to remove, for example, a leg, the spider would be clearly wounded and have a very hard time surviving at the level it had previously enjoyed. However, remove its head, and the spider would die instantly, as the head gives life to the entire organism, directing every activity in the body. Without the head, there is no spider.

The starfish, on the other hand, represents a concept called “heterarchy,” or “decentralization,” and it is much harder to locate than a hierarchy. While the starfish and spider hold similarities in their basic shape, this is where any common thread ends. The starfish has no head. It has a varying number of arms, in which organs exist in multiple redundancies. In fact, to find the most distinct commonalities of one part of a starfish to another, you have to zoom-in to the cellular level. Instead of a brain, the starfish has a neural network spread across the entire starfish

If an arm is removed, rather than damaging the organism, something remarkable happens: the starfish grows another arm to replace it. And the severed arm grows another starfish. Since there is no distinct head (and thus no distinct brain), this works to the starfish’s advantage – the organism cannot be killed in a conventional fashion. Beyond this, the starfish defies our most basic assumptions; it is a simple organism, but time and time again proves it can survive much more readily than a spider can. Cut a starfish apart and you have as many new starfish as you had pieces.

Yet often, we try to find hierarchies where there is actually heterarchy
[2]. This is not to say that a heterarchy has no organization, only to say that the organization is at a different level and of a different sort than the hierarchy. In a heterarchy, units are organized at a “cellular” level, in basic units rather than in a dominating structure that requires uniformity. Each cell is unique in some way, but all are connected in a way that turns an otherwise random conglomeration into a functioning whole.

Qualities of the Decentralized Organism
Autonomy and Adaptability of Individual Units
The decentralized organism allows its individual units (called “cells”) autonomy. It is this autonomy that makes the decentralized organism so mysterious; instead of what we usually expect, the units, despite no central organization, continue to work together. For the spider-hierarchy, there is a clear structure, a clear procedure by which all things are done, a clear pathway of information. The head dictates and the body moves. In contrast, a starfish has no such pathway, rather, has multiple smaller pathways that form a network. Every part of the network has a say; in order for the starfish to move, one leg must move and convince all the others to move as well. Yet it happens at a speed that defies conventional wisdom

Because cells operate with their own autonomy, the decentralized organism can be much more flexible than a hierarchy. Units at the cellular level can respond to crises on their own (re-growing a severed limb, for example), rather than spending valuable time to seek authority from a central command. In other words, they have permission to act on their own, granted by the nature of the organization.

In a hierarchy, the head requires a standard set of operating procedures for the whole organism; in a heterarchy, each cell customizes the basic operating procedures for its unique circumstances; this is called “contextualization,” the indigenization of the concepts that are common to the whole. As a result, the decentralized organism is much harder to detect than the hierarchy because it blends into the culture much more readily. In effect, a heterarchy is the result of many individual units functioning in the harmony of an organic whole. The cells become less visible, and instead of cells, we see an organism
[4]. Thus, each network can be readily identified as if it were a whole greater than the sum of its parts, yet the parts themselves are just as important.

Proliferation and Contextualization
The hierarchy grows by addition, because that is the speed at which growth is possible. Because of the greater size of the “canon” that must be replicated into individual units, with greater accuracy, replication becomes slow, and time- and resource-intensive. In addition, all the additional flaws of the hierarchy are replicated into new units, and if, for some reason, new flaws occur in the replication process, these flaws are replicated into every subsequent addition to the organism. Once the cell has been “indoctrinated,” it becomes another part of the chain of command in the hierarchy. It is then encouraged to grow as big as its surrounding environment will allow. Reproduction only happens when the head of the organization allows it; thus, cells are added one at a time, rather than many at once. When decentralized organisms centralize, for example, they are effectively castrated.

Small family farmers throughout Asia have for many centuries joined together to build and manage their own irrigation systems, some of which are marvels of engineering ingenuity and operating efficiency. Yet when government programs inventoried irrigation capacity, they counted only irrigation systems built by the government. They then proceeded to replace village-built and village-managed systems with more costly, less-efficient centrally managed systems. Commonly the new systems were financed by multimillion-dollar loans from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, which the children of farmers would one day be taxed to pay.

Heterarchy, on the other hand, relies on multiplication of much smaller units. Instead of requiring a lengthy indoctrination process, each cell is encouraged to divide and grow, divide and grow. The size of each cell is limited in size, and the amount of indoctrination required is minimal; only the basics of the core traits of the larger organism are communicated, allowing the organism to shape itself, customize itself to its environment
[6]. As a result, the cells of a heterarchy tend to be much more outwardly-focused than the hierarchy, which spends much more time focused on indoctrination and internal growth than it does on expansion. In essence, the hierarchy makes new units “like us” while the heterarchy allows new units the freedom to allow the new path they’ve chosen to inform (but not dictate) their expression of the organization within their culture. Since each individual unit is focused on expansion, the organism grows by multiplication (sometimes, exponentially), rather than addition. And because each (new) cell is distinct from other cells, we call this “proliferation.”

The Rallying Point
The trouble with autonomous individual units is that they can easily go in whatever direction they desire. What forms them into a unique whole is the shared bond of the rallying-point, the collective thread between them. In our starfish example, the cells have coalesced into a whole because they share a common “DNA” that allows them to do so
[8]. In some organizations, this common element might be a mutual enemy, in others, a philosophy or morality[9]. In many, it is combinations of these. Regardless, decentralized organisms require something common throughout all cells in order to be an organism.

Power, Rank, and Decentralization
The distinction between hierarchy and heterarchy is one of power and its uses. The hierarchy centralizes power into a chain of command; power is concentrated in one place, while the majority is simply expected to do as they’re told. The individual (or small group of individuals) at the “top” of the organization dictate what the organism is to do, and an order of rank decides who has what power and in what degree. Each level of subordinates participates in a “trickle-down” process that eventually communicates goals and procedures to the entire organization. The proverbial turning-radius of a centralized hierarchy, then, is equivalent to that of the Titanic with its three large propellers and single hull; it cannot change its direction very quickly when it sees an iceberg, and once it hits, there is no saving it.

The heterarchy is the equivalent of a fleet of speedboats. Not only does each boat have a very tight turning-radius, but as a group, they can swarm around the iceberg and meet at the other side. The mass of the organization is distributed into small units with many motors, and even if one or two were to hit the iceberg (and die), the group as a whole would be largely unaffected; their boats wouldn’t sink because one or two others did. In a heterarchy, power is distributed throughout the group. While this means that each cell must take individual responsibility for its own continuation (which involves a certain element of risk), it also means that the organization can respond much more quickly to icebergs and other maritime threats.

However, this is not to say that there is no rank among decentralized organizations. Some of our speedboats might be closer to the front of the pack than others, some might be able to hold more people, some might have bigger or better motors, but all are still at liberty to point out threats and help the entire group to move to avoid them. While hierarchies are breeding grounds for rank-based abuse of power,[10] heterarchies are about the beneficial use of the power used by each cell. Each unit is responsible for its unique territory or specialty. It is its own expert in that area, which predisposes other units to defer judgment about that particular area to that cell. This is a form of rank, but because power has been delegated away from any one particular center, it is decentralized and thus accountable to its peers (rather than its superiors).

The Church as a Decentralized Organism
Ideally, this is the way that the church functions. Through history, it has been when the church decentralized that the most beneficial expressions of church have happened. This happens on several levels: individual churches have a better grasp of their local culture than do the bishops or executives or reigning body supposedly “in charge,” and at the local church level, the “laity” has a better chance of impacting its culture if the local church government allows them freedom in communicating the gospel to their peers, and instead of acting as a direction agency (telling the peon-like laity what to do, which often translates into nothing), acts as an empowering agency for resourcing its laity for their mission. Perhaps some examples will clarify.

Models of Decentralization in the History of the Church

From Old Testament to New Testament: The Apostolic Church
It is interesting to note that the chosen people of God were not always decentralized. The Kingdom of Israel began in its lowliest origins as the nomadic extended family of Abraham, wandering from place to place. Throughout the Old Testament, what we see is a kingdom, a centralized entity. While there are certain elements of decentralization present (accountability between the King and the Prophet, the practice of the Jubilee), the people of Israel have long been ruled
[11]. Along came Jesus and changed all that.

By this point in history, the Kingdom of Israel had a puppet king who was directed by the Roman Emperor; the ultimate abuse of rank. Jesus made a connection between Israel, the Gentiles, and a New Covenant; the Kingdom of God was at hand, and it included the whole world! No longer would the newly re-birthed Israel be ruled by puppet kings or powerful rulers. The Kingdom of God would belong to the meek, the humble, the poor, the servants. Jesus, in effect, distributed power across the kingdom in these very simple statements
[12]. No longer were the few powerful in God’s kingdom; earthly power of kings and rulers held no sway. If you wanted to lead, you were to become a servant to others: “In humility consider others better than yourself[13].” It is in the theology of servant leadership that we find the primary decentralizing tendencies of the church. To serve one another in humility distributes power amongst everyone. If everyone plays their part, the needs of everyone are met. But it only works so long as it is intrinsically motivated within each person, so long as it is chosen. If it is forced, if it is externally-motivated, the power begins to centralize to that which is external, and the organism becomes a hierarchy (and thus loses any identity with the Kingdom of God).

Nowhere is this more evident for the first-century church than in the writings of Paul. Paul understood the church as a leveled playing field where power has been redistributed. “Neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus
[14].” Paul took a common focus – Christ Jesus – and marked it as a rallying point for what is otherwise a random assortment of people and peoples with little in common. Likewise in Ephesians 4, Paul writes that the many are to be one, united in their common goals though different in their expressions.

However, the first church did not always follow this model. Its mandate was given by Jesus in Matthew 28: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the father and of the son and of the Holy Spirit
[15] …” And yet the first thing the disciples (now apostles) did upon receiving the Holy Spirit was to remain in Jerusalem and centralize. In chapter 6 of Acts, the apostles begin appointing position of authority, a sure sign of centralization. It took a “great persecution” to scatter the church away from their comfort in Jerusalem[16].

At this point things start to get interesting. Philip went to Samaria, and while there, encountered an Ethiopian. The Ethiopian, upon conversion, went back to his people (presumably the ancient kingdom of Ethiopia)
[17]. Peter also began preaching as he traveled, making it as far as Joppa. Others also traveled to Antioch, Cyprus, and Phoenicia[18]. However, once again, we see the church attempt to centralize. The council at Jerusalem in Acts 15 sparks a debate about the Gentiles that have converted; are they to become Jewish before they are allowed to become Christian? This debate shows that the Jerusalem church was trying to take power itself; instead of allowing contextualized expression of the truth learned by many Gentiles, the Jewish Christians wanted to mandate their way of doing things as the universal norm. Fortunately, the prevailing opinion was that of Peter and Paul, who were in favor of the indigenous church[19]. It is after this period that the greatest growth happens, as Paul has converted and embarked on his missionary journeys, planting churches all over the Roman world. Thomas even made it to India[20]. Various persecutions rocked the Christian world yet the church was not diminished; in fact, it grew[21].

It is unfortunate, then, that in the early fourth century Constantine centralized the church by making it the official religion of the Roman Empire. He appointed positions to priests and bishops, but most importantly, funded the church and began building structures (both physical and social) in which it could settle down. It is after this period that Christianity turned from persecuted to persecutor, decentralized mass-movement to centralized conquerors. With centralization – and thus power – the church did not forget its original mandate, but instead embarked upon it with revised methods. Instead of proclaiming the truth and allowing it to transform people(s) from within (including the benevolent humanitarian work so despised by the Emperor Julian
[22] and others), the newly centralized Christendom began preoccupying themselves with conquest (mission by force, as it were) and theology (the council of Nicaea and others) rather than contextualized mission for the propagation of the church.[23]

The Celtic Church
The Celtic Christian movement, begun by St. Patrick in the fifth century, is another example of decentralized Christianity at its best. From the start, the movement was promising, as there were several native factors working in Patrick’s favor: the tribal nature of the Irish, well known for their rivalry, predisposed them to a decentralized model (tribes are akin to cell-groups). Patrick himself had been a slave in Ireland for several years, learning the native language and customs and building credibility with the Irish through both
[24]. Combined with Patrick’s exceptionally creative skill as an orator and singer/storyteller (in Ireland, called a Bard), the Celtic movement became a movement of the people, rather than that of the ruling classes forcing their will. The British Bishops were upset with Patrick for the very reason that he spent so much time “’pagans,’ ‘sinners,’ and ‘barbarians.’”[25]

Most importantly, the Celtic Church did not allow power to centralize in one place. Rather, power was distributed across many different tribes, each to their own, and the movement took hold as each tribe sent out missionaries to the next; it proliferated, multiplied. Patrick took special precautions not to be the person in charge; rather, he sent evangelists out who could not report to him (for example, Hilda and Brigid
[26]), who he could not control. Furthermore, these evangelists worked in teams. As George Hunter writes, “Celtic Christians usually evangelized as a team – by relating to the people of a settlement; identifying with the people; engaging in friendship, conversation, ministry, and witness – with the goal of raising up a church in measurable time[27].”

Patrick, thus, was simply a catalyst, a figurehead that bore out Celtic Christianity in its natural form, not the charismatic leader of a centralized structure. And it was this movement that was responsible for reaching an entire people! The Romans had sent missionaries, but it was Patrick (and others, not the least of whom were the Celts themselves) who led the charge in an entirely new (yet ancient) method of mission that succeeded. By decentralizing their approach, by trusting the teams to their tasks, by spreading power around through networks rather than centralizing in one place, the Celtic movement reached Ireland for Christ.

The China Inland Mission
Until the opening of China to the west in the early 19th century, the Chinese interior had not met Christian missionaries since the early days of Christian expansion. The Chinese, notoriously xenophobic, had isolated themselves, claiming a certain cultural superiority over the rest of the world, and decided to remain “pure” from outside influence. That is, until the second European war with China ended in 1858 and, among other things, granted safe passage for Christians beyond the trading ports on the coastline
[28]. An onslaught of mission followed, the most notorious of which was led by one Hudson Taylor.

The Chinese Inland Mission (CIM) has long been regarded as different from every other missionary movement in China, and with good reason. Taylor founded the movement on revolutionary principles, the most unique of which was that the CIM society’s headquarters were to be located in China (a first for the 19th-century mission societies). However, central to our interest is the makeup of the CIM missionary body: anybody could join; the proverbial door was opened for those with little or no formal education. All that Taylor asked was that the missionaries adopt Chinese dress and the local dialect as their own, and that the society be ever-focused on the evangelization of the Chinese

Here we see many decentralized tendencies. Though he did have a headquarters, Taylor could not control the expansion of the CIM into China; it spread like wildfire. The constituents were of every class, and while few mass-movements were ever recorded, the mission truly targeted the largest groups of people. Power was thus spread across a wide group. Those that did convert were not removed from their villages and placed in mission compounds (as had been the practice in so many places), but instead became missionaries themselves. About a patient healed from a cystic tumor, Jennie Logan, a CIM medical missionary in Changteh (now Changde, in Hunan Province), wrote, “In three weeks she went back to her country home and told what had been done for her, and that it was at the “Jesus Hospital” where she had been healed. She was preaching and telling about the Gospel all day long.
[30] …” In other words, the movement proliferated.

The last telling sign comes at the advent of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. When the call came from Peking (from the central government) to kill all foreigners within China, the nation rose up and obeyed. Many of the converted Chinese Christians did their best to protect their missionary comrades, but in the end, the only thing that stopped the rebellion was a military force of several different nations making its way to Peking to quell the violence
[31]. Most telling, though, is that many Christians survived the uprising (though many also perished)[32] and the movement continued until the Communists took over beginning in 1927. Even today, a strong movement has resurfaced in China among the house churches, which are proliferating at an astonishing rate[33]. In any case, the Chinese indigenous church has withstood the test of time, despite many persecutions, because of its decentralized nature.

The Masai and Vincent Donovan
The last movement I’d like to explore is that of the Masai in Kenya and Tanzania in the late 1960s. Vincent Donovan, a Spiritan priest of the Catholic Church, moved there in 1965 as a young man ready to do the work of the church. But scarcely had he been there a year when he realized that nothing of much significance was happening at the mission compound. Standard practice was to help the Masai with their material needs, but little else. While the priests of the Catholic mission visited the Masai villages often (called Kraals), they did not see fit to mention the gospel. Only in the safety of the mission compound and missions schools was the gospel ever mentioned, and at that, very few Masai graduates ever retained the new religion
[34]. The centralized nature of the mission compound was affecting its primary calling: to evangelize the Masai.

Instead of work through the hierarchy of the Catholic Church to enact change, Donovan decided to take it upon himself to take the gospel to the Masai personally. He packed up a Ute and drove across the plains to meet the Masai face to face in their own context. He spoke their language, and he used local culture and illustrations to teach. His basic strategy was to spend one day a week with a particular tribe, teaching them what he knew of the Gospel in whatever form was required for their understanding, and then move along a circuit to another tribe (to repeat the process). At the end of a year, he would ask the tribe as a whole (Masai culture is community-oriented, not individual-oriented) whether they would accept Jesus as Lord. If they did not, then he would move on to the next Kraal. If the tribe did accept (which ended up being far more frequent than Donovan expected), first was baptism of everyone in the kraal, then an announcement: the kraal would be responsible for teaching itself, and for evangelizing the tribes around it
[35]. Donovan told them he would no longer come back to teach, but would move on to another group of kraals (though he would return occasionally to check on their progress)[36].

Once again, Donovan had several advantages going into his mission that seem to appear so rarely throughout Church history (though it is possible, however grievously, that the church simply hasn’t noticed them). The Masai are a decentralized people already; spiritual, nomadic, and used to communal life, they are ideal candidates for a decentralized church. Donovan also had the trouble of distance to cover between kraals, meaning he could not simply plant himself in one place and invite the Masai to him. In addition, because Donovan was alone, he could not rely on his own inexhaustible supply of teaching energy, knowledge, and wisdom to evangelize the Masai, but instead was nearly forced to rely on the locals to begin teaching themselves. The power, then, was in the hands of each kraal, not in some central location. Donovan’s decentralized method, though it did not convince every tribe he visited (some said “no,” as was their right
[37]), it was remarkably successful in its aims.

Why the Church Resists Decentralization

While I wish I had more space to talk about the Wesley Networks (mid/late 18th century), John Williams and the South Pacific (early 19th century), the CMA Organic Church movement in California (present day), and others, the real issue is why this seems to be the exception, rather than the rule. Despite the many advantages of a decentralized heterarchy, the Church still, to this day, resists the change. Decentralization is about power, and those with power are rarely persuaded to abandon it, even those in positions of authority within a church, the place where servant-hearted leadership should be the norm, not the exception.

It is when one person’s work becomes more important than another’s that a church begins centralizing and eliminating the dignity of its constituents. Sadly, this has been the pattern throughout history. The very existence of two groups (the clergy and the laity) proves this point: we still do not see our laity as missionaries, and we see our clergy as more holy, more spiritual than the unenlightened masses that go about their daily jobs blissfully unaware of the structure that has been taught them since birth. That movements of a decentralized nature have been revived through history is a note of hope, that the church can still recover its ancient mandate, but the process is slow and painful. In some respects, the reclaiming of their apostolic authority by the people is of utmost importance.

The people are stronger than their leaders, by sheer numbers, and if they change their minds as one, there is no stopping the cascade that follows. However, people can be tricked into submitting to authority by empty promises or the sheer charisma of the occasional leader, or by our human nature as “sheep,” which prefer to be led rather than to lead
[38]. The few that do stand up to lead often become drunk with the power they’ve been given, and abuse their rank.

To decentralize the church, then, requires a miracle of God. It requires us to lean on the Holy Spirit like never before; it is not by our own power that heterarchy can work. Yet it has happened, when those with power and charisma have led those in their influence to greener pastures and then given away that power to the people. Decentralization is dangerous, it is messy, and it is uncontrollable, but when the rare leader sees its potential and hears the whisper of God in his ear, a movement is unleashed that will once again change the world.

Works Consulted

Church and Mission History

Bevans, Stephen B, and Schroeder, Roger P. Constants in Context: A Theology for Mission Today, Third Edition. Orbis Books: MaryKnoll NY, 2006.
Neill, Stephen. A History of Christian Missions, Second Edition. Penguin Books: London England, 1986.
Tucker, Ruth A. From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions, Second Edition. Zondervan: Grand Rapids MI, 2004.
Walls, Andrew F. The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith, Tenth Edition. Orbis Books: MaryKnoll NY, 2005.

Decentralized/Missional/Organic Church

Claiborne, Shane. The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. Zondervan: Grand Rapids MI, 2006.
Cole, Neil. Organic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco CA, 2005.
Donovan, Vincent J. Christianity Rediscovered. Orbis Books: MaryKnoll NY, 1978.
Frost, Michael. Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture. Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody MA, 2006.
Hirsch, Alan. The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church. Brazos Press: Grand Rapids MI, 2006.
Hirsch, Alan and Frost, Michael. The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century Church. Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody MA, 2003.
Hunter, George G. The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West … Again. Abingdon Press: Nashville TN, 2000.
Hunter, George G. Radical Outreach: The Recovery of Apostolic Ministry & Evangelism. Abingdon Press: Nashville TN, 2003.
Logan, Jennie Manget. Little Stories of China. Self-Published, No Publishing Date Available.
McLaren, Brian. A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am a Missional + Evangelical + Post/Protestant + Liberal/Conservative + Mystical/Poetic + Biblical + Charismatic/Contemplative + Fundamentalist/Calvinist + Anabaptist/Anglican + Methodist + Catholic + Green + Incarnational + Depressed-Yet-Hopeful+ Emergent + Unfinished Christian. Zondervan: Grand Rapids MI, 2004.
Seamands, Stephen. Ministry in the Image of God: The Trinitarian Shape of Christian Service. InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove IL, 2005.

Group Dynamics

Brafman, Ori and Beckstrom, Rod A. The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations. Penguin Group: New York NY, 2006.
Fuller, Robert W. All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc: San Francisco CA, 2006.
Korten, David C. The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community. Berrett-Koehler Publishers: San Francisco CA, 2006.
Lencioni, Patrick. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco CA, 2002.
Walker, Danielle; Walker, Thomas; and Schmitz, Joerg. Doing Business Internationally: The Guide to Cross-Cultural Success. McGraw Hill: New York NY, 2003.

Human Psychology

The Arbinger Institute. Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc: San Francisco CA, 2002.
Deci, Edward L. and Ryan, Richard M. Intrinsic Motivation and Self Determination in Human Behavior. Plenum Press: New York NY, 1985.
Langer, Ellen J. Mindfulness. Da Capo Press: Cambridge MA, 1989.


Bible Gateway:


[1] Brafman, 35.
[2] Ibid., 36.
[3] Ibid., 35. It is remarkable the similarities that can be drawn to a flock of birds, or a school of fish, or, closer to home, a riotous mob of people.
[4] For example, instead of a set of individual birds flying around, we see a flock changing direction as one.
[5] Korten, 10.
[6] Cole, 124.
[7] Brafman, 54-55.
[8] Cole,113-121.
[9] If what appears to be a decentralized group coalesces around an individual, he is usually a figurehead only; his power is like that of others, but his gift is the ability to disseminate a message. In other words, he is not in charge. The best way to tell if such an organization is truly decentralized is if it continues in like fashion after he dies or leaves, or if it disintegrates. If the organization continues, the individual was a figurehead, if the organization dies, then the individual relied on his charisma only to centralize the organization.
[10] Fuller, 7.
[11] At some level, this was self-inflicted. Recall the request of the Israelites for a king to rule them in 1 Samuel 8.
[12] Matthew 5-6, Luke 6.
[13] Philippians 2:3-4.
[14] Galatians 3:26-29 (TNIV).
[15] Matthew 28:19 (TNIV).
[16] Acts 8:1-3.
[17] Acts 8:26ff.
[18] Acts 11:19-20.
[19] Acts 15:
[20] Neill, 45.
[21] Ibid., 35.
[22] Ibid., 37.
[23] Ibid., 41, 43; and Radical Outreach, 60.
[24] The Celtic Way of Evangelism, 91.
[25] Ibid., 24.
[26] Radical Outreach, 103.
[27] The Celtic Way of Evangelism, 47.
[28] Neill, 274.
[29] Ibid., 283.
[30] Logan, 36. I am fortunate enough to have come by this manuscript because it is a family heirloom. Jennie Logan was my Great-Great-Grandmother, and in addition to this testimony, her work is the only I have read so far describing any sort of mass-movement in China during the period between 1850 and 1950.
[31] Neill, 287-288.
[32] Logan, 29.
[33] The Forgotten Ways, 19.
[34] Donovan, 12-13.
[35] In some instances, this had already begun taking place. As he instructed them, certain individuals began standing out from the group who picked up on the message more quickly than others. Donovan began using these to help teach their brethren. See pg. 84.
[36] Ibid., 72.
[37] Ibid., 81.
[38] My friend Troy once gave a sermon about this. He was confounded that there are so many illustrations of the church as a flock of sheep, given that sheep, in his eyes, are so dumb; they stand where they shouldn’t, they move away from the shepherd where there is danger, and they’ll lag behind the flock to much on one more tidbit of grass. It takes a strong shepherd to keep a flock moving in the right direction. Then he realized how much like sheep people can really be, and he made it a sermon illustration.

November 30, 2007

Onward and Upward

I wrote this paper for VOM. Sorry it's been a while, but I've been busy with papers, reading, thanksgiving travels, more papers, more reading, the usual. Thought you all might like a peep into my recent line of thinking. Actually, what I've really been thinking about is due next week, and I'll post that when I'm done (decentralized church ... don't worry, it's way more interesting than it sounds). Cheers!

* * *

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if people claim to have faith but have no deeds? Can such faith save them? ... In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder. ... As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
[James 2:14, 17-18, 26, TNIV]

It seems that a lot of people like to read theology, talk about theology, write about theology for other people to read and talk about. They go to church on Sundays; they are good volunteers on the worship team or in the church office. Sometimes they like to tell the occasional coworker why they give up Wednesday evening for a small group bible study. But it seems there are fewer and fewer people these days who live out what they say they believe. I can say this because I think that a lot of the time, I’m one of those people – I’ve done all of those things. I’m not sure if it’s simply because I’m a human being and it’s just built into the structure of the world I live in, or maybe it’s because of some inherited sin condition, or maybe it’s just me. What I do know is that it’s there and it’s something that has to be dealt with in the most final of ways in order to be moving closer to God, not away. But to ‘deal with’ this problem, however one speaks of it, is no small matter, for movement towards God is about moving towards the character of Christ [1]. This life of integrity can be summed up along a path of four virtues: Wisdom, Fortitude, Temperance, and Justice. They are expressions, if you like, of three virtues described in scripture: faith, hope, and love [2]. If personal and social holiness are to be found, it is in the outward expression of these virtues, and it is from these that one develops a life of integrity.


I remember, as a teenager, praying for wisdom almost nightly. Not that the two are equivalent, but this might explain why I have spent so much of my life searching for knowledge; I was taught that knowledge leads to wisdom, through experience. I always loved Solomon’s story, how he prayed for Wisdom and how God told him that this was a right and true prayer, and granted his request [3]. Then I found out that God would answer that prayer with a very definitive ‘yes’ to anyone that would ask it of Him [4].

It strikes me as ironic, that after all of Solomon’s mistakes, after all of his experiences experimenting in different religions, with different sorts of living, that he still came back, in the end, to God. After all his searching, God was still the answer to all of his questions. In the end, all of his experiences, all of the things he had learned about the world, still pointed back to the truth of God, the I Am. And after all my years of learning (ok, all twenty-four of them), of seeking new understandings of the world, I too continue to turn back to God with my questions. If this be the bud of wisdom beginning to bloom, then I don’t know if I’m ready to accept it yet: like Solomon, I feel like there are still more places to search, more questions to ask, a sense of “not knowing” as Dr. Martyn so eloquently put it [5]. And yet, I think this also marks the true disciple; a person who seeks truth all of his days. Jesus said, “go and make disciples of all nations [6].” What is a disciple if not a seeker? One who is not contented with merely knowing of God, but wishes to know God, who in faith steps out beyond the boundaries of what his elders have told him to be true and seeks God with all his heart and soul and mind and strength. This, I believe, must be the beginning of my walk towards holiness. It will never be the end (for it is a lifetime journey of itself), but it is a glorious place to start.


As my wife and parents can attest, I am a terrible liar. You’d think, by now, I’d have learned not to lie at all because I’m so bad at it. It might be because my emotions tend to be written all over my face. In a journey towards God, fortitude – strength of character, honesty, integrity, and ultimately the courage to do what is right – is next. With wisdom, even in its infancy, comes an acute awareness of one’s responsibility. Yes, there is responsibility with wisdom, for what one does with it shows his character! It is through the experiences that foster wisdom that one will learn to trust God.

I lived in Melbourne for a year, and in that year I believe I experienced the true nature of fortitude far more than I ever had in my previous twenty-three years on this earth. In my time there, I depended on God far more than I ever had before. I remember the first two weeks there, how scared I was, to the point I refused to leave the house of our host family unaccompanied. It’s remarkable how fear can grip a person, bind him until he can’t even move. I remember one day, my wife wanted to go buy something at a local mall, and it took me two whole hours to work up the courage to go with her without our Australian friends to guide us. It took everything I had – and I’m quite sure, lots of God’s energy – but I went (after two hours sitting idle on a mattress attempting to garner the courage to even stand up). It was a turning point for me. I realized that I could depend on God. It’s something I had known, in my head, but I hadn’t really known. For all of the times when God had come through financially for us in the past, for all the times somebody had said it to us in a sermon or over coffee, for all the times I’d read it in a book, I had never really known God’s faithfulness.

After that, so much began to fall into place; little things, like trying new kinds of pizza that wasn’t simply plain cheese (it turns out that Hawaiian pizza is my favorite, followed closely by a BBQ-sauce-based Chicken pizza), and bigger things, like volunteering at a social poverty alleviation center in the central business district, a place way outside my comfort zone [7]. But through all of this, God was faithful, and I learned a thing or two about Him I hadn’t known before; and with that came fortitude, courage: the knowledge that fear cannot drive me. I still struggle with this but when I do I can look back on my time in Melbourne and remember, and know that the present trial will soon be conquered (that this too shall soon pass), and God will once again prove that He is faithful [8]. Fortitude is the act of looking back to the past to remember God’s faithfulness and allowing it to build a hope for the future by driving away fear, that He will once again prove His faithfulness.


From fortitude comes temperance, an awareness of the need for balance in one’s life. It is with this that I currently struggle the most. God has proven faithful, but now I must prove myself faithful to Him in my personal life. Do I take four courses next semester or three? Will I ever exercise again? Will I have time for the job to which I’ve committed myself? For my family? For my music? For silence? For God? [9]

Reflecting, I have always struggled with balance, as do we all. There are often days that are filled to the brim with activities, and I simply cannot spare a second thought for anything outside those tasks. But there are also other days abundant in time. Balance, I’ve learned, must be achieved holistically, over time. My wife and I agreed that Sundays will not be spent with schoolwork of any sort, nor with jobs of any sort. Earlier this year, I quit my second job because it was interfering with this policy, and I must say, it has helped immensely. But still, balance often eludes me. It is easy to fill the void left by jobs with something else, anything; stillness is so hard to come by in American life. I detest silence. But as a musician I should know better; the only reason music can be moving is because there are times without music, without sound. Each note is surrounded by silence, making the note special, unique, pure. It is from the balance between sound and silence that art, beauty, and truth emerge. The path of holiness must then incorporate temperance into its fold; for example, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve stopped working on this paper to help my wife with one thing or another. Pardon me, I have to go help her with something else.


There’s this family, good friends of mine, who uprooted themselves and moved to Thailand to work with the Karen refugees out of Burma. When I think of justice, I think of Ruth and Colin and their four kids; they, every day, live out that passage in Micah that has become so famous these days but so meaningful to the six of them [10]. I remember hearing Ruth say that verse, with her wonderful Aussie accent, and wondering what it would look like to see such a person. And then the Harrisons just up and did it.

I think justice is probably the hardest of the virtues to live out. That’s not to say that wisdom or fortitude or temperance are easy – by no means – but that is to say that justice deals with an area of society – especially American society – that is very uncomfortable for me and for a lot of people [11]. It is through justice that the other three virtues find their way beyond the self; in fact, it might be said that justice is so hard for the very reason that it deals with people that are not ME. But a life of holiness means death to self. If I were to characterize the imitation of Jesus in one word, it would be “justice” because of the four virtues, justice is most like the accounts of Jesus in the scriptures. Sure, Jesus is described as wise, as being of noble character, and of achieving a balance in his life equal to none. But Jesus, more than anything, practiced justice with every waking breath. He healed lepers and forgave prostitutes and ate with tax collectors in a time when those were socially forbidden. He practiced an unconditional love towards anybody within earshot, and ultimately, for everyone on the planet, who ever was, and will ever be. A life of justice is this sort of life; a life of faith, lived outside of myself trusting that God will take care of me as I take care of others with little regard for my own safety. It means a life of hope, allowing hope to kindle inside of me as I bring the hope of the gospel – tangible and in words – to the world. And it means a life of unconditional love, loving those who are unlovable, loving even my enemies.

As Erwin McManus says, “we die first, so that we may then live [12].” For me, it means that I have to stop thinking first of myself before I think of others, a daily process at which I more often fail than succeed. As little as two months ago, it meant little things like getting out of bed at 4am because the baby was crying (so my wife could sleep). Now it means spending more time with my family when I haven’t had a day to myself in weeks. In the future it may mean more than this: it might mean uprooting my family of comforts to spend time with the poor in the inner city, it might mean moving to Bangalore or Changdeh or San Francisco or Bong Ti to work with the poor or with refugees [13]. Sacrifice is a part of every calling, but as a Christian, I am called to practice justice wherever I go.

Onward and Upward: Towards Humility

Ultimately the quest for truth is never a linear process. One does not stop growing in wisdom as one begins the journey towards fortitude; all four are simultaneous, feeding off of one another (for example, I can both practice wisdom and learn it as I practice –and thus learn – justice). In this quest to imitate the triune God (and in so doing grow in relationship with Him), the greatest ally will be humility. In humility we reach beyond ourselves to God [14]. In humility we deny ourselves and serve others. It is in humility, I believe, that the four virtues are fully expressed. In humility, we stand naked before the throne of God, all our faults and sins laid bare, and in that place we are made whole, and take a step closer to the life that is the imitation of Jesus.

[1] Ephesians 5:1-2.

[2] 1 Corinthians 13:13.

[3] 1 Kings 3:1-15.

[4] James 1:5.

[5] Martyn, Stephen. Vocation of Ministry, lecture dated October 17, 2007.

[6] Matthew 28:19.

[7] The place was called “Urban Seed,” and they give a free lunch to anybody that will come. It’s a remarkable place, and you can regularly see lawyers eating with heroin addicts.

[8] I could tell you of India, a trip I’m going on in January, and how nervous I am on some days. Sometimes I worry that it will be just like Melbourne was, at the start. But I also remember that I have learned much from Melbourne, and that usually is enough to help me assuage my fears, to pray that God will once again work within me, to transform me, to show me His faithfulness again in new ways that I can once again remember for the future.

[9] I found a statement of Ruth Barton’s most comforting: “When we pay attention to our longing and allow questions about our longing to strip away the outer layers of self-definition, we are tapping into the deepest dynamic of the spiritual life. The stirring of spiritual desire indicates that God’s Spirit is already at work within us, drawing us to himself. We love God because he first loved us.” Sacred Rhythms, pg. 25.

[10] Micah 6:8, TNIV: "And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."

[11] While my current struggle is one for balance, I do find that, since justice is somewhat dependent upon a balance in one’s life, expressing this virtue has yet eluded me in conscious thought and deed. This is not to say I haven’t practiced justice, but it does mean that I’m not entirely aware of the times I have.

[12] McManus, Erwin. “The Character Matrix”. Willow Creek Leadership Conference DVD, 2003

[13] I can’t say for sure what it will mean, since God has not yet revealed my calling.

[14] Ethridge, Shannon. Every Woman’s Battle, pg. 139.