New Book on Paul’s Gospel – I got it and am into it already!

Transformation-the-heart-of-pauls-gospelIt would be undeniable and a VAST understatement to note that the Apostle Paul's letters in the New Testament have not only changed lives but also history.  As a person who has grown up in mainline Protestantism, I have been steeped in Paul's thought and ethos.  I am forever grateful for his encouragement and teaching.  Yet, there's always been something missing for me in many of the expository writings on Paul.  Yes, I am "into" justification, grace, law/gospel," etc.  But what about transformation?  In other words, are Paul's writings more than just a summary of what one must do to have a restorative relationship with God through Jesus?  Is there more?  Is that sufficient?  In other words, who and what is a Christian?  

David deSilva at Ashland Theological Seminary has a new book called Transformation: The Heart of Paul’s Gospel (Lexham, 2014) that pretty much answers the question in the title.  I'm so excited to jump into deSilva's work.  Just to give you a taste, here he opens with a realistic assessment about how we understand Paul’s gospel:

What was this “good news” that he announced throughout Syria, Turkey, Greece, and eventually even in Rome and possibly in areas further west? “You can be sure that, if you were to die tonight, you would go to heaven”; “If you trust Jesus, all your sins will be forgiven, and you’ll be guaranteed a ‘not guilty’ verdict at the Last Judgment”; “Jesus died in your place, so now you don’t need to be afraid of God, of judgment, or of death”; “All you need to do is to confess Jesus as your savior and believe in his name, and you can be sure that you’re saved.  There’s truth in each of these statements, supported by one or more passages from Paul’s writings…. 

God offers you the means to become reconciled with him and to become a new person who will want and love and do what is pleasing to him because the Spirit of his Son will live in you and change you. The result of God’s kindness and activity is that you will live a new kind of life now and, after death, live forever with him.  As I have come to understand Paul’s message, it is all about change. The good news is nothing less than that God has set in motion the forces and factors that can transform all of creation and make it new, good, and right once again—including us. This transformation remains from beginning to end a work of God’s favor or “grace,” for it begins at God’s initiative; it transpires through the working and the power of the gift that God has given, namely the Spirit; and it is brought to completion because of God’s commitment and faithfulness. But the accent remains on transformation as God’s goal for God’s gifts and as the result in our lives and churches if we have not “received God’s grace for nothing,,” to borrow a phrase from 2 Cor 6:1, or if we do not “set aside God’s grace,” to borrow a phrase from Gal 2:21.

As I make my way through the book, I'll keep you posted! 

Semiotics and Change Dynamics in local churchworld

AlexrichardsondesignOk, be prepared for the deep, complex and challenging.  I'm still processing these thoughts that I have been entertaining based upon an insightful book, Changing Signs of Truth by Crystal Downing. Change and Transitions in ministry involve so much more than mission statements, programs and knowledge of the dynamics of organizational realities.  

Semiotics and Church Transitions and Change

Semiotics is the Study of signs/processes.  At first you may wonder, “what is important or significant about a study of Semiotics?” but let me assure you, so much of what we do and how we communicate has to do with signs and symbols.  In addition, culture communicates through signs and symbols (both verbally and non-verbally).   All signs take their meaning from a particular culture or sub-culture in which they embedded.  One author wrote, “the less we understand how signs work, the more powerfully they can control us” (Crystal Downing, Changing Signs of Truth). A sign is something that stands for something else.  In many respects, Jesus followers in contemporary culture are called to Re-Sign, to retranslate the signs and symbols of the “good news” of Jesus.  Here are some examples:

Examples of biblical signs = Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, “you have heard it said…now I say.” In the Old Testament, “a sign” referred to the Word of God.  In Luke, the angels “re-sign” a sign by quoting the angels when they say, “and this shall be a sign for you…” referring to Jesus’ birth.  Or how about the “X.”  It can represent a “multiplier” (2 x 3 = 6), an erotic film or book, OR the Greek letter “chi” which over time came to be a letter used to refer to Christ. 

Example of the Cross as symbol.  In the second century in Rome, Christians did not use crosses to depict faith.  In the Roman catacombs there are no crosses because early Christians saw the cross as ICON not a symbol.  The Cross was an icon which depicted the gross and horrible death of Jesus. What DID appear as a sign or symbol was Noah’s ark.  It appears 41 times because Noah’s ark was a symbol of the victory of Christ’s exit from the tomb.  It was a story that acted as an Index pointing to the resurrection.  Only when early Christians were able to re-interpret the cross and “re-sign” it was the meaning of the cross transcendent of the actual gruesome death of Jesus.   

Example of the Lord’s Supper.  To some, the Lord’s Supper is an icon that “signs” one to understand or remember Jesus’ sacrifice.  For others, the Lord’s Supper is beyond sign, symbol or icon but a NEW experience of the presence of Jesus (sacramental theology).

My contention or thesis in the study of Semiotics is that communication and even the resistance to or embracing of change in local churches is not simply a matter of management or leadership but also a matter of VERBAL and NON-VERBAL communication.  For example, for centuries the pastor or priest was a “sign, icon or symbol” of the presence of the church/Jesus in marriage ceremonies.  In the 21st century, more and more weddings are being facilitated by non-clerical people thus “re-signing” or reinterpreting the presence of church or spiritual presence.  This change, though subtle, is profound in implication.  Another has to do with clerical leadership in worship utilizing liturgical dress.  As much as the pastor attempts to communicate collegiality and approachability, the “sign” of the robe/alb communicates something different.  For many, the presence of clerical garb is a barrier or distinguishing factor that presents a barrier between the worshipper and worship leader.  Signs and symbols are powerful in terms of communication and impact. 

What other signs/symbols do we utilize in the ministry of the local church?  How might there be a conflict in past/present understandings of those signs?  How might they actually be impeding or promoting faithful ministry?

Here are some more technical definitions of Semiotics:

  • As soon as the brain connects with an object – representamen
  • As soon as the person interprets the object – interpretant
  • Experience MOLDS our interpretant and Communities SHAPE our interpretant. 

A Collateral Experience is a previous acquaintance with what sign denotes. All of us have previous experiences with signs.  A good Communicator knows that collateral experience affects perception and actually “translates” any sign into an index, symbol, or icon.

  • An Icon is a likeness or physical resemblance of an object that helps us visualize an object (think, photograph).
  • An Index is a sign that points to what caused the signs origination (think, camera that takes the photo or is responsible for the photograph).
  • A Symbol is a human construct that looks nothing like ideas or things they represent but capture the essence of the sign. 

Most people interpret signs:

  • Emotionally – there is an initial awareness or intuition that is NOT learned that sets up personal meaning.
  • Energetically – there is a marked effect that a sign has on person – e.g. how different color roses effect a person or what they communicate to a person.
  • Logically – there is a growing personal conceptualization of a sign overtime that a person owns.

There are many theological signs or symbols that are LARGER or richer in meaning beyond simplistic understanding.   Examples…

For example, the Trinity.  The transcendent Trinitarian reality of God’s nature is a core teaching of Christianity but ALSO is God’s immanent work and presence in the world/ministry.

For example, the REFORMATION.  The Reformation reality is a sign that is “stuck” in the 16th century communicating a hearkening to the past without embracing the biblical concept of TRANSFORMATION.  You would be hard pressed to find the concept Reformation in the bible whereas you will discover the transformational power of the Spirit (effect of ruach or pneuma). For example, the Apostle Paul was not a reformation theologian despite being “owned” by Reformers and Reformation scholars.  Paul’s theology of grace was one that embraced a transformational power and purpose. In other words, personal life change is always implied in Paul’s letters. 

For example, there is a real life problem with a theology (sign) of the cross and grace perceived as the “free acceptance” or “no strings attached” faith gift which as a mode of redemptive communication actually demotivates or pulls plug from an ACTIVE OR ENGAGED faith.  Yes, Jesus has DONE for us through His grace but He is also DOING something in us through His grace and spirit.  Grace can become trapped in a past experiential mode without releasing a follower of Jesus to pursue grace in the moment for new life.  Remember, signs, icons and Symbols speak louder than words.  Often one sign images authoritarianism and compliance vs. personal ownership and accountability.  Being a Christian in not static concept.  Salvation was never meant to be a one-time event but rather a process of transformation.  Transformation is the dynamic concept of becoming like Jesus.  One aspect of theology that was “lost” in western (roman) Christianity through Church history was the concept of theosis (Orthodox).   Theosis is seen as a sancification process where the believer participates and cooperates with and in the grace of God.  The spiritual “aim” of Orthodoxy is mystical union with God (true sacramental mystery of “God Himself is discovered within me” ).  The word is “enhypostatic – Jesus is “personally formed in me" (ongoing experience of sanctification through grace).  "Theoria" is the Orthodox version of sanctification which is a vision of God and God’s glory (illumination) whereby we come to know and embrace our TRUE imago dei.

In Semiotics the concept of Abduction means literally to place “a coin on its edge.”  There are two sides of coin that must be maintained to create a healthy balance or what Semiotic scholars call, “Coinherence.”  Instead of looking at all of spiritual and ministry reality as an “either/or” or “good/bad” dualistic proposition, Semiotics teaches a “both/and” strategy.  For example:

1 – Our embedness in language and culture

2 – Our embrace of the transcendent nature of Jesus Christ

1 – Our tenacity in formulating individualized assumptions

2 – Our robotic adherence to authority that trumps the individual 

1 – God’s truth

2 – Our understanding/interpretation of that truth

1 – Individual subjectivism

2 – Abstract objectivism 

Again, “Coinherence” battles duality.  There is no right/wrong or good/bad. There is no one side of the coin or the other whether they be in ethical response to relationships, theology, practice or even personal and corporate change. Instead of saying, “we must adhere to church history for contemporary practice OR we must re-sign or transform contemporary practice by serious study and application of the bible, Coinherence says, “we can do both.” Instead of listening to political commentary at the expense of sermonic challenge, again Coinherence says, “we can do both.” 

There are a few imperatives in understanding and implementing change to which Semiotics can speak. 

  1. In understanding the signs of the culture we must be students of “Context.”  Once we understand context (a common location, shared knowledge of the situation, shared evaluation of situation) we will grow in our understanding of that context and be able to be strategize on change.  In other words, CONTEXTUALIZATION is critical (Christians placed in different contexts will see and endorse different signs – speaking in tongues vs penance; immersion vs. sprinkling; beautification vs. bible memorization; icons vs. flags in church;
  2. We must avoid the arrogant mystification of ourselves as more enlightened than people in past.  Past lessons can teach us anew.  – we have to understand others in their contexts in order to have been relationships and dialog.  We have to see why different Christians at different times and places understand truth differently
  3. Even so, we must avoid naïve idealizations of the past as more authentic than the present
  4. We must recognize that all humans, past, present, and future communicate out of embodied contexts.
  5. We must work toward incarnational dialog with those who differ from us.
  6. We must be committed to becoming over being…growth vs. survival.
  7. Openness to the other also must include openness to otherness Establishment of the non-negotiable of community. 
  8. Pluralism (not religious pluralism but Body of Christ diversity) has got to be seen as a gift.

Here’s another Semiotic reality – Ironically, the word tradition is etymologically related to the word treason.  The Latin root tradition of the word contains connotations of betrayal and is closely related to words like traitor, defector or turncoat.  The word Tradition’s best connotation is “the handing over” of truth to the next generation where the former no longer controls thus allowing for change and new interpretations.  

Since the dynamic of communication is critical in the process of change and transition, a working knowledge of Semiotics will aid a leader or leader team in understanding complexities and paradigms associated with that process.  

R.I.P. Human Responsibility – A Funeral Homily

16703-Grabstein_Skull_Rip-Halloween_Dekoration-Horror_Dekoration-Halloween_GrabsteinR.I.P. Human Responsibility

Born: Beginning of Time. Died: 2015

A Funeral Homily by Robin Dugall

Grace and Peace to you through God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I have to admit, I haven’t known Human Responsibility (H.R.) in a personal and intimate way all of my life…but over the last number of years, we’ve built a very good relationship. It is my honor to be able to reflect with you over the next few moments as we talk about his legacy. For in one way or another, all of us have to confess honestly that HR has made at least a small impact on our lives. For many of us we would not be the people we are today without his illustrious influence…so, those of you who are here to honor his memory but you don’t know him that well, please forgive those of us who have known HR well as we become a bit indulgent with our recollections of someone who has made a life-altering impact on who we are today.

H.R. had a bright beginning from the moment he was brought into existence. In other words, it was an illustrious start to a long life as HR was birthed as the twin sibling of H.F., Human Freedom. Both HR and his twin were born in a place called Eden. HR and HF started to grow and flourish as other creatures inhabited their world…a tender relationship was carved out between HR and HF and those who would become their close neighbors, human beings. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for these neighbors to start playing favorites when in came to the twins. It soon became more than obvious to HR that these humans much preferred HF…it was that relational damage that would go on to chart a specific and eventually destructive course in HR’s life as time went on. When his life journey began, the Creator put H.R. in charge of key decisions. He was a partner with human beings in taking care of the world and engaging in life-giving work that made life purposeful and enjoyable. HR gave these human beings a sense of value as they took him seriously and he taught them how the balance their relationship between the he and his brother.

Then, in a pivotal moment that we all remember, two of HR and HF’s friends, did something that went on to test their relationship with the twins. As I briefly alluded to a moment ago, this moment in HR’s life would go on to be the defining moment for the rest of HR’s years on this planet. I don’t want to belabor a very trying and destructive time in HR’s life, but the decision that A and E made to actually start to abuse HR’s twin brother, HF, was the moment that forever hurt their relationship with HR forever. It would never be the same again…the moment HF was abused, A and E tried to avoid HR. They ran from him like he was an infection preferring rather new friends like Blame, Shame and Death. After a while, this story began to be tragically repeated over and over throughout HR’s life. He was the easy one to try to avoid…it was easy to pick on HF and get away with it because all anyone ever had to do was run away from HR and ridicule him.

I don’t want to go and on about this – but let us suffice to say that HR’s life from that moment on became one of loneliness and desperation. All the years that HR was alive could have been best summarized by the word, “pain”. Every time his brother, HF was abused, which became an addiction for all of Creation’s creatures, HR was more and more isolated. Yes, he had some good friends…Confession and Repentance were close to HR but they too soon became the butt of jokes and appeared as “old school” or “old fashioned” to those who thought they knew better. Over the past years, Individualism, Excuse, and Relativism joined HR’s old nemeses Blame, Shame and Death as those who took precedence over the influence that HR desired to make on life. Apparently, they had slicker and more attractive personalities especially since H.R. was so old. Add that to the fact that HR was, frankly (we all know this) a bit forthright, cranky, and a bit of a pain to deal with, people slowly started to embrace new relationships.

Over the last few years, HR experienced most of the debilitating effects of his loneliness. Governments with HUGE and UNSUSTAINABLE debts decided that they would be more popular to leave to that debt to future generations… famous people looked to their problems as addictions or psychological disorders which gave them permission to embrace Excuse rather than be HR’s friend…others would spend time with Blame looking to genetics, upbringing, the past, the color of their skin, ethnicity or place of birth rather than visiting HR. People learned from “Sponging off the System” and from “It’s your Responsibility not mine” and lastly from “You take care of Me” rather than give HR the time and attention he deserved. And friends, we all have to admit right here and now that we’ve taken advantage of him as well. Let’s face it, we all neglected HR and in so many ways, our lives are worse off because we didn’t spend more time paying attention to him and his message in our lives. For many of us, we’re stuck, dead on the inside and lifeless because new life always comes as a gift from God by way of a relationship with HR.

HR passed away from a broken spirit over the last several years. His deteriorating influence and health finally caused him to succumb to deadly forces that sucked the life out of him and left him a lonely, broken, and empty shell. I must say, that I wish there were more like HR in our lives…we needed him and he was the first person we ignored. Heaven forgive us…and may we find some way to honor the legacy and memory of Human Responsibility at some time in our lives!