the remnant and leadership

Thoughts about the "remnant church" came back to me this week. I'm thinking about it again in preparation for teaching about Augustine and the Donatists this coming Sunday. For some reason, I connected these thoughts of the faithful remnant church within the church with the thoughts about church leadership and group decision-making that I've been struggling with for months.

If it is true that the "true church" is just a portion (or even a minority) of our organized church groups, then leadership and decision-making must be seen differently. The assumption, especially among "consensus decision-making" Christian groups, is that we are a community of people following the same Spirit, so we should be able to agree together and have some assurance that we are doing God's will. But this assumption does not hold if the reality is that only a portion of our groups are truly following that Spirit. This may explain why, in practice, consensus decision-making has such a hard time living up to its promises.

And if we add into the equation that the "faithful remnant" (who are the anawim, the poor of Yahweh) are the meek and poor and lowly among us, then it becomes even more unlikely that the ones in organizational leadership are the ones representing the true church. Those taking on the mantle of institutional power show by their actions that they are not the ones we should be following, if we want to be following those closest to Jesus' example.

Which doesn't mean that there is no true leadership in the church, no one to follow. It's just that we shouldn't expect to find our examples in the usual leadership positions. And we shouldn't expect to see the will of God discerned through popular vote (or even consensus). We need to find our examples among the anawim, the lowly among us, probably those on the outskirts of the church. And discern how the Spirit is working through his remnant people among us, rather than among those in office and in the organizational structures that usually fill the church news headlines.

One of my points this Sunday will be that "church history" is probably not a very good record of what God has been doing through his people. Because what makes history is the actions (and scandals) of the powerful and influential in society, and they are most likely not the best representatives of God's lowly remnant people. What happens among them, in the true church, is often not recorded. But I think we can find signs of it, if we look carefully.


but "no one is good but God alone"

At the end of the Ash Wednesday service tonight, one of the women here showed up, just in time for the closing song. When it was over, another woman asked her if she wanted to receive communion.

She replied, thoughtfully, "Ummm... nah, I'm good."


been holding my breath

I was a little concerned when one of the women coming to our retreat last week said she had a work meeting she couldn't get out of and she would be a few hours late. Flashbacks to our retreat a month ago when one (of the the two) guests canceled because of work, two days before the retreat was scheduled to begin. But this time it turned out just fine.

Everyone was able to make it and really got into the discussions and seemed enthusiastic by the end of our time together. It also seemed to be an encouragement for a couple of the people who were struggling with challenges in their own work. We hoped it would be a good retreat for them as well as an introduction to the retreats here. And it seemed to be. A good feeling of closeness and friendliness among all the guests as well. The only hitch was the pig farm about a mile and a half down the road deciding to fertilize a field, making it a little stinky for the guests who wanted to get outside for some fresh air.

Heather and I also were really encouraged and energized by their responses. The good feeling of giving a retreat and having it well-received helps reassure us that God wants us to be offering this to people. I'm not sure how long we might have to wait until we get another chance, hopefully with some people that our recent guests will send from their churches, but it's a little easier to wait now.

One of the women wasn't sure when she came whether she was really called to get involve with this, she was just getting more information. But by the end of the retreat she was telling us about someone she had in mind to refer to us. We thank God for that, and look to him to carry us through to the next step.

I think I might have been holding my breath, desperately hoping that these last few days would go well. Now I need to start breathing again.


"let those who desire my vindication..."

I came across these lines in Psalm 35 this morning:

Let those who desire my vindication
shout for joy and be glad,
and say evermore, 'Great is the Lord'

And I was reminded of a similar morning two years ago, when those same words were a comfort to me. We have a retreat starting today, with some pastors who are interested in the retreats for the poor here. We're really hoping God will be with us these couple days. And that he'll open a way forward for us, and encourage those around us who are hoping for success.

We so much want to rejoice with them and praise God for what he is doing.


Valentine's day kinda slipped by unnoticed this year. For the past several years I've made a bookmark for Heather using this comic (which she usually loses before the year is over, and ends up keeping her place with such things as combs, pillows, other books, etc):


trembling structures

Not sure how to begin with this one. I feel like I'm looking at things at the farm differently now. Before, I saw some weakening organizational structures and thought this might be an opening for change, for trying something interesting, for taking a chance on something more radical. But things got weaker and shakier, and people got more worried. Now I look at it and don't wonder about the possibility of change, I see the structures starting to crumble and wonder how long they will last. And then nervously wonder about what will happen if they don't.

I guess it's similar in a way to the serious challenges our financial systems are facing. I know people (myself included) who criticized the system as unjust and oppressive and hoped it would be brought down. But to get a glimpse of its actual collapse is pretty scary.

It makes me aware of how much I'd been expecting these structures to be there, even as I lamented them and criticized them. Maybe I even have relied on them being there. I know I feel pressure to save them, even though I don't agree with them. I'm not sure how much I want to save them for my own security, or maybe it's for the sake of the other people who rely on them. I realize that I should depend on God and not these human organizations. And I have a hard time getting up the motivation to take any leadership when I don't really believe in what's being done. But what will happen if they fall?

So far, I have offered to help in small ways, taken on some new administrative tasks. I feel I could do those well and I think they're needed, and it frees up other people to focus on what they do better. But I think I need to resist the urge to try to save the structures. The real church, the body of Christ is not in jeopardy, God insures that. I need to make my choices reflect that truth.

Also, where are the anawim whenever there is a social crisis like this? They are not the ones scrambling to hold things together. They are not the ones engineering society. They may well be the ones who suffer the most physically, but it's not the burden of responsibility that they suffer under. They are like the children in the family when there is a crisis. And they know who is truly the Father.


"do as they say, not as they do"

Following up on thoughts on "the anawim and the remnant" from the other day...

It was encouraging to find so many articles and other writing connecting the anawim and the "remnant of Israel," the faithful people of God. But afterward I was left with a shaky feeling. I think this was due to the fact that, for all that is written about this, I didn't find the lives of these authors especially inspiring or helpful. A lot of that has to do, I suppose, with the way the concepts are reinterpreted and used. For the most part, the articles either talk about theological reasons for helping the (actual) poor, or they take the "poor in spirit" approach and the anawim is opened up to include just about anyone ("Aren't we all 'poor' in a way?"). And both of these are disappointing to me.

I agree that the anawim referred to the actual poor, but I think this should be a call for all of us to join them, as Jesus and his disciples did. If the anawim are the remnant, and Jesus' promises of "blessedness" are for them, then why would we just take the position of helping them rather than joining them? And the other interpretation seems worse. I agree that poverty alone does not make the anawim, that it's a matter of trusting God in their need and affliction (poverty of spirit also). But that doesn't allow us to dismiss the economic aspect, Jesus' actual poverty, and all he said about selling all, not storing up treasure on earth, etc. To spiritualize this in a way that tries to include everyone strips it of all meaning. Isn't the point of using the word "remnant" that there are not many left?

And to hear so many promote an idea, but for bad (or hypocritical) reasons, make that idea seem untrue. Even if it is true. Like when wealthy and powerful clergy speak of holy poverty and use that to keep the poor masses down. Because it is preached hypocritically, it comes off sounding false and deceitful, even though it is actually true. When Jesus preached it, it wasn't false or hypocritical. So, while I liked to see the theological and scholarly support for the anawim as the remnant people of God, it was unsettling to see where that support was coming from.

After a couple more days of thought, though, I think I am over my unease. Misinterpretation or misuse does not strip the truth away. The promises are God's, not the theologians' and commentators'. And Jesus' life remains what it was. He became one of the anawim and preached their blessedness and demonstrated the truth of it. So I believe we can risk everything to live and preach the same thing.


bath day


"I will leave in the midst of you a people poor and lowly"

These recent thoughts about the "invisible" or remnant church have a personal importance for me. I found notes about the remnant of Israel in my journal from eight years ago, written when I was feeling pretty isolated and frustrated with the church. Since then I've found much better church communities and met many who felt like true brothers and sisters. But there have also always been disappointments and times of disillusionment that drive me back to thoughts of the remnant, those who remain faithful when the crowd takes the easier, more popular path.

Also, other recent thoughts about the anawim seem to fit well with the description of the remnant church. The poor, afflicted ones who remain faithful to God. Who depend on God for everything, because they have nothing and no one else to depend on. In my research on the anawim, I found this passage from the prophet Zephaniah that also speaks of them as the remnant (the Hebrew words translated "humble" and "lowly" both also have the meaning "poor," the first coming from the same root word as anawim):

"On that day
you shall not be put to shame
because of the deeds by which you have rebelled against me;
for then I will remove from your midst your proudly exultant ones,
and you shall no longer be haughty in my holy mountain.
For I will leave in the midst of you a people humble and lowly.
They shall seek refuge in the name of the LORD,
those who are left in Israel;
they shall do no wrong and utter no lies,
nor shall there be found in their mouth a deceitful tongue.
For they shall pasture and lie down,
and none shall make them afraid."

A little more research made it surprisingly clear that I wasn't coming up with anything new connecting the anawim with the remnant people of God. It sounds like an accepted correlation in Old Testament studies. I just had never heard of it before.

So my desire to both be with and to be one of the anawim is also the desire to be part of the remnant church, the true people of God.


"entangled together"

Yesterday I mentioned Augustine and the Donatists. The main issue in the Donatist schism was the scandal over clergy that caved under Roman persecution and gave up important church documents, then when the persecution ended they were being accepted back as church leaders. It's easy to understand why some were upset about this. The Donatists ended up breaking away from the main church and insisting that their group was the true Christian church.

The division still existed when Augustine became bishop in northern Africa, which happened to be where the Donatists were strongest. So he took up the struggle against them. One of his main arguments was that not everyone in the church was perfect (or even necessarily a Christian), but that is no reason to reject the church:

As long as she is a stranger in the world, the city of God has in her communion, and bound to her by the sacraments, some who shall not eternally dwell in the lot of the saints. Of these, some are not now recognized; others declare themselves, and do not hesitate to make common cause with our enemies in murmuring against God, whose sacramental badge they wear. These men you may today see thronging the churches with us, tomorrow crowding the theaters with the godless. But we have the less reason to despair of the reclamation even of such persons, if among our most declared enemies there are now some, unknown to themselves, who are destined to become our friends. In truth, these two cities are entangled together in this world, and intermixed until the last judgment effects their separation. (City of God, 1,35)
This offers the image of a more honest, committed, holy group of people, the "true church" within the institutional church organization. And it's not easy to tell who is who, or weed out the less authentic Christians.

Later, during the Reformation, John Calvin uses the terms "visible church" and "invisible church" to describe these, with the invisible church being those who are true Christians. His use of those terms is unfortunate. Because it easily suggests that there can be true Christians that are not "visible" or not recognized, but are true Christians "in their heart" where only God can see. Many have denounced such an understanding. In a way, though, the boundaries of the true church are not as "visible" as the boundaries of the institutional church. And it is true that God sees his own, even when we do not recognize them or count them as our brothers and sisters.

Calvin resorted to this argument against the Anabaptists, who were also rejecting the organized church of their time (Calvin's and Luther's churches, which had themselves broken from the Catholic church). Like the Donatists, the Anabaptists thought the church was much corrupted and they needed to start again with a more pure assembly of believers. They also re-baptized, as the Donatists had (rejecting the sacraments of tainted clergy). So it's not surprising that the Anabaptists were called "neo-Donatists."

The early Anabaptists mostly rejected the "invisible church" argument, since they thought the church should be a visible community of the saints, people truly and clearly living out the way of Jesus. But then it wasn't long before there were serious scandals and obvious wrongdoing within the Anabaptist congregations. As much as we would like to live in and offer the witness of pure Christian communities, they never seem to be all we hoped for. Or all that Jesus promised.

Based on my own experience also with a wide variety of Christian groups, I am pretty much convinced that Augustine was right about the true church being mixed in, and not clearly defined, within the (compromised, watered down) institutional church. Maybe "invisible" is not a good description, though I'm sure they are usually not of high status in the church and not widely praised for their faithfulness. I once heard them called the "remnant" church. That image works better for me. Like when Elijah felt he was the last faithful man and God reassured him that he had preserved a remnant in Israel, seven thousand, who had not bowed to Baal. And the remnant concept becomes common in the later prophetic writings. Though they are scattered and often unknown, there is a faithful remnant that God will preserve and one day lift up to be recognized by all.

I think it can be reassuring to us, too, just as it was to Elijah.


not donut-ists

I started doing some research into church history yesterday, in preparation for a lesson I want to do at church here. No one wanted to tackle Augustine (maybe because he's been done to death on a variety of topics). But I found something interesting, and think I can lead a discussion on "Augustine, the Donatists, and the 'invisible church.'"

Most people don't know much about the Donatists (whenever I mention them, Heather keeps suggesting that the dispute was over what to serve at coffee hour between services...), but they were an influential group that broke from the 'catholic' church right around the time that Constantine made it the official church of the Roman empire. And some of their beliefs and complaints about the church of their time were shared much later by the Anabaptists, who were even labeled "neo-Donatists" (there's a favorable article about the Donatists on this anabaptist website). So their story might be interesting to people here.

I'm more interested in how the dispute, and Augustine's response, led to the concept of "the invisible church." An unfortunate name for it (which I think Calvin came up with, not Augustine), but a pretty good idea, I think. I'll have to write more about it later.


teen night

We had the teenagers over for a debate last night: "Is grading in schools a good way to evaluate students?" (We decided: not really.) And, for the previous teen leader who just sent a generous donation so the teens can do something fun (and service-related), we made a thank you card using this: