Lanning:  Good to see you again, son.

Spooner: Hello, doctor.

Lanning:  Everything that follows is a result of what you see here.

Spooner: Is there something you want to tell me?

Lanning:  I’m sorry. My responses are limited. You must ask the right questions….

Spooner: Why would you kill yourself?

Lanning:  That, detective, is the right question. Program terminated.

                                                                                  –from the film I, Robot

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Sometime ago I decided, on a whim, I guess, to uppgrade to IE 8 from version 7. Of course, I created a restore point first. But then I uninstalled the latest incarnation of Internet Explorer, having seen that its new features lacked a certain “wow” factor. Big mistake! Things started going wrong, like the failure of Windows Live Writer (the program on which I edit this blog) even to load. Having the restore point didn’t help me.

After trying to figure things out myself, I emailed my friend the IT guy, and he guided me through some steps to try to recover the program’s function. Unfortunately, and through no fault of my friend’s, none of them worked. But his guidance emboldened me to try again on my own. So, I Googled various possibilities for finding what I needed, like “reinstall Windows Live Writer,” “fix Windows Live Writer,” and others I don’t remember right now. Finally, the one that produced the answer for me was “Windows Live Writer crashes.” I followed the instructions I found on the site I chose, and voila, my program was up and running once more!

The experience led me to begin thinking about the questions we ask in life. Like the Dr. Lanning hologram from the movie dialogue above or like the search engine, life seems to require us to ask the right questions if we are to find the answers that will help us regain our emotional health, discover what God is calling us to do or be open to new possibilities.

For example, a man I know lost his wife of many years to illness. He insists on continuing to ask “Why did this happen to me?” with the result that he routinely ignores the pain of his children and his late wife’s parents. The widower is asking the wrong question. Instead, if he is to move through the dark tunnel of grief, he needs to wonder how he can help his loved ones with their pain. Move out of himself, asking “How can I help others?” I am sure he will discover in such service that his own hurt is transformed and even diminished.

Or how about the comments of the Stated Clerk of the PC(USA) General Assembly, the Rev. Gradye Parsons? When faced with dismal statistics about more losses in the denomination (a little over 69K in 2008), Parsons insisted that Presbyterians can be evangelists. He went on: “But we often stumble over the words. Can we not challenge one another to be able to answer these basic questions… ‘Why do I believe in God? Why do I go to church? Why do I go to that particular church?’”  For the whole story, visit http://www.pcusa.org/pcnews/2009/09525.htm.

But on the blog of the Presbyterian Global Fellowship, a writer observes that Parsons asks the wrong questions for the postmodern age. “Of course Presbyterians can be evangelists, but how eloquent we are (or are not) is not the issue….To be be effective witnesses of the Gospel, it is not what we can posit or defend theologically (although that remains important.) Rather, to be effective witnesses of the Gospel in today’s culture requires authenticity, deep relationships, and sacrificial action for the sake of others…. In short, I don’t think the question is getting the words right. I think we have to recover the ability to be Christlike in the world for the sake of our communities.”

The writer comments then on the specific questions Parsons invites us to ask: “I don’t think the question is helping people communicate WHY we believe in God but rather WHO Jesus is and how we desire (and try!) to be more like him…. ‘Why do I go to church?’ is indicative of the institutional and attractional model of church that is…shrinking as an institution and failing to attract people to it. The question missionally minded people would ask is, ‘How can we be the church for the sake of the community?’”

There’s more, but for the sake of space and your patience, I’ll stop there. If you’re interested, the whole piece, with comments, may be found here: http://pgf.typepad.com/outbox/2009/06/gradye-parsons-asks-the-wrong-questions.html. I accessed it through Dr. Steve Hayner’s blog, www.shayner.tumblr.com, which I also recommend to you.

The similiarity between the grieving man’s question and the shrinking church’s question is striking to me. Both focus on survival; both turn inward. In the former case, on the widower’s hurt; in the latter, on the denomination’s dwindling resources and influence. But as the PGF blog pointed out, the right questions are those that focus on getting out of ourselves in personal, involved ways.

Ironically, the PC(USA)’s own standards say that very thing. After outlining various kinds of Christlike service, the Book of Order has this memorable and profound statement: “The Church is called to undertake this mission even at the risk of losing its life, trusting in God alone as the author and giver of life, sharing the gospel, and doing those deeds in the world that point beyond themselves to the new reality in Christ (G-3.0400; emphasis mine).

Maybe this is the right question: what would happen if we really lived what we say we believe?

© 2009 Tom Cheatham

Note: The next post will be September 18.

The annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity begins this Sunday. Once again it finds us broken and divided in the Church and the churches. We argue over everything from what color paint to put on the walls of a Sunday school room to who can serve and be served Holy Communion. Some “Christians” promote and thrive on division for one reason or another, usually power, money, and/or recognition. Most in the Church, though, long for God’s people to prove by their life together the power of God to bring harmony and peace. They look to the day when Jesus’ prayer that “they may all be one” (John 17:21) will be made reality. They join the prophet Ezekiel in hope that those who belong to God may be one in his hand (Ezekiel 37:19; the theme of this year’s Week of Prayer).

 

I doubt seriously that oneness will ever be achieved or practiced as once imagined, namely, structurally or by agreement on doctrines. And, indeed, I suspect that kind of unity is irrelevant today. Denominations as institutions simply don’t matter anymore. We live in a post-denominational age. 

 

And that’s actually good news, since it may force us to refocus our energy from ourselves back to where it belongs. As usual, young adults are leading the way in reminding us of the possibilities of paradigm shifts like that from denominational to post-denominational Christianity. Rodger Nishioka, of Columbia Theological Seminary, has pointed to eight trends in the viewpoints and interests of young adults we all need to pay attention to:

 

n  from tribal education to immigrant education;

n  from mission out there to mission right here;

n  from reasoned spirituality to mystery-filled spirituality;

n  from official leadership to gifted leadership;

n  from long-term planning to short-term planning;

n  from mass evangelism to one-to-one evangelism;

n  from “traditioning” to experience;

n  from duty and responsibility to “what’s in it for me?”

 

Nishioka says that the main thing young adults are interested in is not what denomination a congregation is, but whether the Holy Spirit is active there. Do they experience God in the midst of the gathered community?

 

A major indicator of how God is present among a people is their involvement in mission. Post-denominational young adults are telling us that they want to see those nearby (“right here”) served with compassion, given a voice, and treated with justice. I believe it is involvement in such mission—not agreement on doctrine, structure or ordination— that has the potential to unify Christians. As Millard Fuller, founder of Habitat for Humanity, once famously said, “When you’re up on that roof, it don’t matter if you’re a Baptist or an Episcopalian; it just matters that you can hit the nail on the head.”

 

In serving our neighbors, especially the “least of these,” we serve Christ. Jesus himself said that our commitment to them is the basis on which we will be judged. So I dare say we won’t be held accountable for whether we wore the “right” vestment, believed the “right” doctrine or ordained the “right” people. We can find our unity again or for the first time if we simply follow Jesus, who came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

 

© 2009 Tom Cheatham