Being (and Needing) a Village in a “Lone Ranger” World

In last week’s post (REVISTING “LIBERATION THEOLOGY”… AND REPENTING),  I made reference to a favorite passage from Justo Gonzalez’s Liberation Preaching—focused on what I’ve come to call “Lone Ranger spirituality.”

I thought I’d posted on it before but was surprised not to find it in the archives.  It do note that it was the focus of an article in the Pentecost 2020 issue of our quarterly-seasonal resource, Ruminations—focused on “Community and Spiritual Companionship as a Means of Grace.”

I share it here—not just for the ways that it connects with last week’s discussion but for the ways that it emphasizes the crucial point (which can not be emphasized enough) that we are in this together!

I first encountered it in seminary—through the writings of Justo Gonzalez as he bemoaned a certain type of “Lone Ranger Bible Study”:

The Lone Ranger himself did not roam the West alone. He had Tonto with him. Tonto, whose name means “dimwit” [or fool], as any Hispanic in the Southwest would know. Tonto, who hardly ever spoke, except for an occasional, either enigmatic or meaningless “kemo sabe.'” And in spite of this the white hero was called “lone,” because his Indian companion, who repeatedly saved his life, simply did not count. (Gonzalez, The Liberating Pulpit, p. 50)

Admittedly, when I first read those words, I reacted (and I still can react) with a certain defensiveness: “The Ranger wasn’t that cold or curt with Tonto, was he?!”

However, even if the Lone Ranger wasn’t “that bad,” Gonzalez’s point is not to be lost—not just in regards to Bible Study, but the entirety of the Christian walk: that there are too many that conceive of the Christian life as an individual enterprise in which the value and necessity of others in our spiritual formation and health is downplayed or dismissed.

To be sure, it is one of those paradoxes I embrace.  On the one hand, I can entirely empathize with those who are disenchanted with and nauseated by organized religion.  To be honest, there isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t imagine walking away from some aspect of the Church as organized religion.  And yet, on the other hand, I believe, that there is “no salvation apart from the Church” – that there is no salvation apart from the loving relation-ships and community which God calls forth and inspires.  (The great commandments seem to be joined at the hip: loving the Lord our God… and [“like unto it”] loving our neighbor.) Yes, it’s just one more paradox in which one has to be very careful not to “throw the baby out with the dirty bath water!”

Revisting “Liberation Theology”… and Repenting

Among the discussions last weekend — at a spiritual direction training program I am attending (via the Episcopal Diocese of Texas) — was one focused on liberation theology.

Among the assigned readings at Perkins School of Theology in the early 80’s was Justo Gonzalez’s Liberation Preaching. Many of those I have served through the years will “know” Gonzalez and this book — as it is the source of musings on “Lone Ranger Spirituality.”

For those who have never heard of it before, LT explores the ways that power brokers in the world (including the Church) have and still can oppress and neglect and abuse individuals.  Enough individuals in a given demographic finding their voices and you have movements emerging—as, for example…

  • Feminist theology (represented in the writings of Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza),
  • Black liberation theology (represented in the writings of James Cone), and
  • Hispanic/Central American Liberation Theology (represented in the writings of Justo Gonzalez).

I recall of a seminary theology course (some 40 years ago)— with an intensive focus on these theologies and authors.  Nearing the end of these discussions and readings, I found myself raising my hand and asking, “As a white, American male, what should my posture and response be in light of all of this material?”

“The appropriate response of white, American males,” the professor responded, without pause, “is to work out a theology of repentance.”

I’ll admit to defensiveness as a first reaction.  “I’m certainly not the problem here!,” went the thinking.

In time, the truth soaked in – or at least some of the truth. Eventually, over the course of the ensuing 30+ years of teaching and preaching, it would take the following standard form:

  • In various settings, I’d recall my question and the professo’rs response from that seminary course.
  • And then I’d add, with firmness, “Yes, I need to repent. But, truth is, we all need to repent!…  If I need to repent of the high horse I have been on, then there are those out there who need to repent of their failure to get up on any horse at all!”

I can still remember many lily white congregants nodding in agreement.

Recalling this personal history with classmates this last weekend (in that discussion on liberation theology), I came to acknowledge the shallowness of (indeed, I came to repent of) that standard reply from across the years.  It (this response) seemed to imply that it’s all about getting on a “high horse.”  And if, indeed, if it is about getting on a horse, my response seemed to suggest that everybody had a horse to get on!  Truly, among the many insights I’ve gained from 2020 (and now 2021) –not just from Black Lives Matter discussions but clear reports about inequities in education and health care across America –it is that, in America (great as it might be), everyone does not have equal access to a horse!

From this brief review, the gifts of liberation theology are clear: not just a legitimate suspicion of the agendas and practices of the power structures of this world but an acknowledgement of the subtle (if not unconscious) ways they can play all around (and in) us – including in our churches and pulpits and studies and souls.

And, too, there’s the essential reminder that there is no such thing as personal salvation apart from social-communal salvation.

Here, I am reminded just one more time, of an essential tension in spiritual formation – represented in the name of Richard Rohr’s ministry: namely, it is a matter of contemplation and action!  Spiritual formation is internal work, yes.  But, it is internal work that reaches the surface of our lives and living (as individuals and as communities).  To paraphrase the epistle of James: “contemplation without action is dead.”

Lenten Ruminations Re-Visits “The Art of Pilgrimage”

The Art of Pilgrimage was the title I gave to a “stages of faith” study (especially focused on the work of Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich in their book, The Critical Journey) at A&M United Methodist Church during Lent 2018.

One unexpected insight from the course was that of needing to be careful about names and titles.  In spite of the small print of the course description, one attendee signed up – anticipating and expecting a course focused on medieval paintings and sculptures.

It forced an unpacking of the title in our first session together:

By “art,” we are ruling out a science with set laws but a dance. Too, we are suggesting an element of “inspiration”

By “pilgrimage,” we are suggesting a journey, yes, but a journey in which the means is as transforming as the destination.

The Art of Pilgrimage seeks to explore the inspired craft which is our journeys of transformation back home to God.  (At least, that was my hope and intentions.)

It’s certainly our focus and objective in our newest issue of Ruminations—titled more clearly, A Lenten Review of the Stages of Faith (including the “Dark Night of the Soul”). Here, we’ve transferred a host of materials from that course offering (part of practicum work I was about on my way to a professional certification in spiritual formation at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary) and put it in a form that we believe is conducive to individual and small group study.

To engage this newest edition of Ruminations, click here.

As you have any questions or comments (including thoughts about additional resources or movies/media that might inform each stage of faith), we’d love to hear from you!

Review: Conversations Worth Keeping

Through the years, amidst a variety of formation-related googlings, I’ve stumbled upon a variety articles from — and, in a few cases, entire issues of —  a now defunct periodical entitled Conversations Journal.

Found one such issue still out there via the oneLifeMaps website – focused on “Flourishing.”     I’m sharing it here to give you some sense of what Conversations was… and still is.  (As you engage it, note the rich diversity and depth of those who variously serve in editorial capacities… on page 3 of the pdf!)

Descriptors of the Journal still exist out there – like this one from the Dallas Willard Center for Spiritual Formation at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California:

Imagine a table where representatives from each of the major tributaries of Christian spirituality can sit and talk openly and honestly about what matters most, authentic transformation into the life and character of Christ. That’s Conversations, and you’re invited to pull up a chair.

Conversations Journal was founded in 2001 and began publication in the spring of 2003. Its founding editors were David Benner, Larry Crabb, and Gary W. Moon. The publication was built, in large part, around the key spiritual formation ideas of Dallas Willard and Richard J. Foster. Throughout the journal’s history, there has been an attempt to hear from a representative of each the six “streams” (the great traditions of Christian faith) in each issue. The structure of the journal is built around Willard’s model of the person. The Martin Institute and Dallas Willard Center has collaborated with Richmont Graduate University to continue its publication.

Sounds enticing and promising, huh?

Sadly, though, the journal was retired in 2016.  Various articles speak of back issues one can get.  But, like the Journal’s Facebook page (with its most recent post occurring in January, 2017), things are outdated – with dead ends abounding.  Yes, there’s a new site they’ve created [conversatio.org] which promises a release of back issues.  But, I could only find two such issues.  (Even then, they’ve been stripped from their journal format – being posted as a list of links to engage.  Nice to have the content, yes, but I sure do like the layout and “feel” of the old “magazine.”)

In one of those wild-haired moves, I did write editor, Gary Moon.  (Finding his email wasn’t easy!)  He informed me that “We plan on putting all back issues on the Conversatio site. The third of the 28 ‘books’ should be up this month. However, it’s a pretty labor intensive project, so I doubt we ever find a pace of putting up more than 4 to 6 issues each year.”

Yeah, a little disappointed.  As suggested above, I really like/liked the magazine “feel” of previous issues.  And then, there’s that rather adolescent emotion that “I want it all… and I want it now!”

There’s a spiritual formation lesson in all of this, to be sure.   It’s a recurring one, in fact, for me – going something like this: “don’t forsake what you need [and what’s readily available] because you aren’t getting what you want!”

In the case of Conversations, you see, Conversatio is proving to be a boatload of quality materials.  Already, the featured class on “Glittering Vices” – featuring significant sharing from Dallas Willard and Rebecca DeYoung, especially focused on anger – has prompted profound stirrings and prayers.  (No surprise to those who know me at all: but, when Young invoked Shawshank Redemption at key juncture, she had me!)

And the “vices” class is but the tip of the iceberg!  It doesn’t take much rooting around in the site to realize what a true mine Conversatio is!  Just take a look at the site’s index of media, exercise and classes!

Given the fate of its predecessor in print, my biggest concern, hope, and prayer for Conversatio is that it will not lack for the resources that are clearly necessary for it to be viable and sustainable for a much longer haul!

Taking Jesus as He Is

Reading Mark 4:36-40 the other day, I had one of those “never-saw-that-before” moments. At the end of a long day of teaching, Jesus is ready to push off to the other side of the lake. And then it comes (this fresh line… or at least fresh to me): 36 And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him.

The disciples took Jesus “just as he was.”

What does that mean? They took Jesus in his tired condition? Or, they took Jesus… landlubber that he was, without a life preserver? No real clues to what it means. The commentaries don’t really help either. We’re left guessing.

For my part, I am learning what it is to “take Jesus as He is.”

Here, I will admit to the assortment of roles that I have assigned to Him over time. Caddy. Lackey. Cosmic shopkeeper – with a home delivery service. Garbage collector. Life & fire insurance provider. Just to name a few.

To be sure, he functions to some degree in each of these roles. That’s part of the problem, in fact. He does represent and embody the God who carries our loads, who hears and answers our prayers, who forgives and “save” us,…

Others have been honest enough to comfort me (not sure if that’s the right term or not)… comfort or assure me that I am not alone in this idolization.
Looking around, in fact, I see other functions and identities into which Jesus has been conscripted – functions and identities that I have resisted… at least, so far. (Admittedly, I am tempted to itemize and describe these other Jesuses. But, doing so, would take me too far afield of my real focus here.)

“Detachment”: that’s the word that some teachers call this concept of taking Jesus (and God and others and life) as they are – dropping pretenses of being in control and wanting to domesticate life and living. In many respects, it has us rejecting… or counteracting a dynamic that goes all the way back to the Garden: refusing to take forbidden fruit, trusting that we don’t need to take things into our own hands, believing that life is more – much more – than the presumption of knowledge.

“Taking Jesus as he is,” after all, is admitting that he (along with the rest of us) is a mystery. And taking Him as He is  – indeed, ourselves and others and life as they are: these mark our settling down into the flow and unfolding of life as it is. “Taking this world as it is and not as I would have it”: that’s the way Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer puts it.

As the Markan passage before us unfolds, the boat Jesus and company have left in is caught up in a terrible storm – with Jesus soundly asleep in the bow. As panicked disciples wake him up (so that he can save the day, stilling the storm), I, myself, am left wondering: was Jesus the man that exhausted… or was Christ the God feigning sleep (to see how the disciples would respond)?

Truth is, I’ll never know – at least this side of Heaven. And that’s okay – or it’s becoming “more okay.”

It’s part of taking Jesus as He is.


Postscript….

Only came across this quote from Thomas Merton — the day after I made this post.  Seems too fitting and appropriate not to share: