Let’s have more interest in keeping up with Jesus in the times we are in than in “keeping up with the times”

The colonial mission was one of spreading a Jesus gospel stamped “Western.” We are calling the church to spread a Jesus gospel stamped “Human.” | by Leonard Sweet

I live on a small, horseshoe-shaped island called Orcas, which floats precariously on a 25,000-mile horseshoe-shaped arc of volcanoes. That connection of trenches, belts, plates, and subduction zones that encircle the Pacific basin is called the Ring of Fire. It boasts 75 to 80 percent of the world’s volcanoes (452 active and dormant). Of the twenty-five largest eruptions in the last 11,700 years, twenty-two are located here.

Moving fault lines on the Ring of Fire generate earthquakes and eruptions multiple times a day. Most are too small to be felt or observed.1 But sometimes the earth rocks and blows. The volcano that erupted in Hawaii in 2018 created rivers of fire that, when they hit the ocean, provoked dangerous chemical reactions, including a steam cloud of “laze” filled with shards of glass and toxic chemicals. As if the lava, acid rain, volcanic smog, sulfur dioxide, lahar, caldera, explosions, eruption plumes, debris avalanches, and fissures weren’t enough, now Hawaii residents had to deal with the laze.

The world is now one global Ring of Fire.

Twenty years ago, I wrote SoulTsunami for the church as it entered the twenty-first century. Rings of Fire is written for the twenty-second century. Actuarially speaking, a child born after 2000 has a greater than 50 percent chance of living well into the next century, which means that right now our families and churches are forming and norming a twenty-second-century faith.

How are we doing?

Everyone is asking questions like “What is going on out there?” “How in the world did that happen?” “Why are we so polarized?” These are global questions, symptoms of structural shifts in society that impact the whole world. We are living on the other side of a cultural tsunami.

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Truth is a matter of eternity, whether it is truth evaded or truth faced. | Peter Kreeft, HEAVEN: THE HEART’S DEEPEST LONGING

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We live in a world that is constantly, simultaneously, solidifying and liquefying. In spite of our best efforts, the church is unprepared for the future and unpleasant when asked to think about it.

We are like the Haitian family so traumatized by the January 2010 earthquake that they fled to Chile—only to go through an even greater earthquake a month later. Or the Mitsubishi engineer Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who fled the bombing of Hiroshima during World War II, taking refuge in Nagasaki. Society is unraveling, and when you try to escape, turn your back on the unraveling, or join the denial lobby, you go from bad to worse.

I believe God is already present and active in these erupting volcanoes. The Way through and around and over them is already in the midst of them. Jesus calls his disciples to be first responders, those who run toward, not away from, the future.

This book is designed as a kind of first responders manual to help you assess the situation and assist the Spirit as the situation requires. The volcanic metaphor finds its inspiration in perhaps the most astute interpreter of the US in our history: the politician and writer Alexis de Tocqueville. In 1848, he addressed the French National Assembly with these words: “We are sitting on a volcano. Can’t you see that the earth is trembling again?”2 The church needs to be more fiery than its culture. Only fire beats fire.

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In a volcanic world, hot pockets are ready to blow and erupt at any minute, with constant explosions and sudden power surges. This kind of world needs the tribe of Issachar to re-form and rediscover their role in reading signs and knowing what to do.3

Ready or not, the future shows up. A default future arrives willy-nilly. A desirable future is birthed in blood, sweat, and tears. A faith that finds God in the past boasts roots, but a faith that finds God in the future bears fruits.4 It is our prayer that this book will help the church thank God, not just for what has been but also for what is coming as the church ventures forth into this volcanic culture with a red-hot, eruptive faith, bringing old and new together in innovative, probing, playful, and paradoxical ways.

The Dead by the Side of the Road

When it comes to the future, the church is in the dark—not only unable to see the forest for the trees but also lost in the bark. The church of the future will be impossible to locate on a spectrum of left or right, only forward or backward. It is apostasy not to be in one’s own time, both for the disciple and for the church. The ecclesiastical equivalent of sinning against the Holy Ghost is not to be open to the future.

In this book we take a fresh look at the global megatrends affecting the church of the twenty-first and twenty-second centuries—the “hot zones” worth keeping a watchful eye on, the “hot topics” that we can’t avoid discussing, and the front-burner issues making for a “hot church,” along with some “hot takes” to stimulate further consideration down the road. We approach these megatrends from a faith-based rather than a fear-based posture. We have no interest in “keeping up with the times” but rather in keeping up with Jesus and opening up to God’s presence in the times we’re in. Jesus the Bread of Life is unchanging—the same yesterday, today, and forever—because the Bread is constantly changing, freshly baked for every time and clime.

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Most Americans write hundreds if not thousands more words a day than they did ten or twenty years ago. | Anne Trubek, THE HISTORY AND UNCERTAIN FUTURE OF HANDWRITING

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The church is in the state it’s in partly because it has mistaken the Zeitgeist (“spirit of the times”) for the Heilige Geist (“Holy Spirit”). Every time-and-technology “sign” opens up a biblical way forward and a “sign of the Spirit.” A church that incarnates the timeless and the timely at the same time yields timefulness.

Mark Chironna made an addendum to an old adage: “When one door closes, another door opens. But the hallway is a hellway.” Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest and the founder of Homeboy Industries, reflected that revised adage when he adopted the phrase “line the hallway” as an image statement for Homeboy Industries:

At Homeboy Industries, I tell our senior staff that part of our task is to “line the hallway,” to make that distance stretching between the old and new versions of one’s self a comforting one. We encourage and cajole with a constant tenderness as the tentative soul takes steps toward the fullness of becoming. The hallway can be long and the lure to return to an old, tired, but known and safe version can be compelling. And those who line the hallway haven’t arrived fully either. Our mutual accompaniment with each other along the way pulls us all over the finish line. It’s about the “rehab of the soul,” as one of our senior staff puts it. We all line the hallway on this good journey with only gentleness in our rucksack and our own brokenness within reach.5

Rings of Fire shows how a Christian can walk that hallway and line that hallway, all the while looking for doors to open that will let the Kingdom future “in.” As Jesus uses the term, the Kingdom is that desired future where God reigns in justice and in peace.

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We call for the cultivation of semiotic awareness and a prophetic role for all disciples, what we might call (in the spirit of Issachar) the “prophethood of all believers.”6  If a prophet is one who speaks for the future, we must somehow all be prophets now.

This prophetic role of the laity was recognized by the Second Vatican Council (1962–5). There is a prophetic role, which is a matter of “ends” from a religious perspective; there is a pragmatic role, which is a matter of “means” from a political-economic-social perspective. We need both the prophetic and the pragmatic. Most often there is a tension between the two. Seldom do the prophetic and the pragmatic elide into one calling, or one book.

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Reality helps by terrors which transcend the parrot-wisdom of trivial experience. | Søren Kierkegaard, THE SICKNESS UNTO DEATH

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Hence the concluding call for a new order of Issachar. Even though Ossip Flechtheim coined the term futurology, Jesus is its original inventor. Jesus comes to his disciples from the future and pulls us forward more than pushes us from behind. When Jesus taught us to live abundantly, he taught us to live out of the past, to live in the present (not in the past), and to live into the future. You can’t live in the past and go forward. To study Jesus is to study the future.

“I have a thousand and ten thousand things to say to you. My heart is full of futurity,” wrote William Blake to Thomas Butts.7 How many of our hearts are “full of futurity”?

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As the world—not just the West—wobbles on its axis and smoking volcanoes flare up all around us, Rings of Fire comes as the main course of this now-twenty-year meal: How do we distinguish our state from our fate? The state, as observed by Bill Emmott in his The Fate of the West, is “demoralised, decadent, deflating, demographically challenged, divided, disintegrating, dysfunctional, declining.”8 In such a world of decivilizing forces, when civilization itself seems to be blowing up, the path to the future must be one that recivilizes life and culture.

We are aware of the colonial baggage that the phrase “civilizing gospel” carries, but our emphasis now is not on the subjectivity of civilizing but on the bedrock strength of gospel, which teaches us all how to be human again, which was at the heart of Jesus’ mission. The colonial mission was one of spreading a Jesus gospel stamped “Western.” We are calling the church to spread a Jesus gospel stamped “Human.”

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Every historical era is . . . multitemporal, simultaneously drawing from the obsolete, the contemporary, and the futuristic. | Michel Serres, CONVERSATIONS ON SCIENCE, CULTURE, AND TIME

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God’s church will always have a future. It is God’s mission, not the church’s mission, and God’s mission will be carried out, with or without our tribes and traditions. This is made uncomfortably explicit in the story of Hosea, who has three children by Gomer: Jezreel (“God will sow”), Lo-Ruchamah (“No Mercy”), and Lo-Ammi (“Not My People”).9 Hosea’s second and third children were living reminders that God is not captive to our capitulations, not an accomplice to our idolatry.

Sometimes God works not by addition, nor even by multiplication, but by subtraction. The children of God were still the children of God, even after the ten northern tribes were lost. The divine seems to enjoy working through a faithful remnant, the critical mass of “two or three,” not a mishmash gabagool of majority-rules compromise or middle-of-the-road mediocrity.

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The mountains quake before him and the hills melt away. The earth trembles at his presence, the world and all who live in it.  Nahum 1:5

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God’s mission now takes place on a landscape where volcanoes are erupting all around us, eruptions that bring in their wake lava flows, magma rock, and vents and fissures that open with unpredictable flurry and fury. You can live on a territory carved out by volcanoes. Just visit Iceland. In Iceland you can even walk on lava.10 But it’s a very different life and walk.

You can survive mega seismic quakes and tsunamis too. Just ask Tokyo, which felt a major seism registering 9.0 on the Richter scale, the biggest in Japan’s history and the fourth largest recorded in the history of the planet, that occurred off the Pacific coast of Japan’s Tohoku region on March 11, 2011, and rocked central Tokyo for six minutes. Tokyo survived relatively unscathed, but only because they were prepared by decades of strict building codes, shake-proof innovations in construction, broadcast alerts, and evacuation drills.

In this book we don’t give models or blueprints or fill-in-the-blanks formulas for moving into the future. What we do give are strategies, schemas, scenarios, story lines, and metaphors. Much of what we say will be sweeping. But some “sweeping” arguments are as necessary as brooms. In a book that is by definition sweeping, we did not feel bound to solve a problem. It’s enough to call attention to the breakage and warn people not to step there.

When accosted with new information, the women in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved “fell into three groups: those that believed the worst; those that believed none of it; and those, like Ella, who thought it through.”11  When confronted with new technologies or information, the church has fallen mostly into the first two groups. It reflexively believes the worst of it or believes none of it would ever happen. Each ring of fire in the pages that follow is a summons for the Ellas to emerge.

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We have enough scientific knowledge and enough technical means to ward off the threats that are said to hang over the world; now all we need is to actually want to ward them off.  | René Girard, WHEN THESE THINGS BEGIN

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The last prayer of the Bible is “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”12 This prayer is how the first Christians greeted one another—a departure from the conventional Jewish greeting “Shalom” (“Peace”). They knew their times were troubled and tormented and that the only shalom they might find in this life was the peace of the coming Christ.

Oh, my loving brother,
When the world’s on fire,
Don’t you want God’s bosom
To be your pillow?
“Fire Song” (Appalachian chorus)

Wake up! The world’s on fire! “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”13


Taken from Rings of Fire by Leonard Sweet. Copyright © 2019. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries.

1 This is especially true of the San Andreas Fault zone.

2 Alexis de Tocqueville, quoted in David Ohana, The Intellectual Origins of Modernity (New York: Routledge, 2019), 80–82.

3 See 1 Chronicles 12:32.

4 See Roger Scruton, On Hunting (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2001), 155. Scruton is right on about the past while missing the mark about the future, at least in the church: “Nostalgia is an unhealthy state of mind. But the study, love and emulation of the past are necessary to our self-understanding. All that has gone most wrong in our century has proceeded from a morbid obsession with the future—a belief in ‘new dawns’, ‘revolutionary transformations’, and resurrected nations on the march. The past, unlike the future, can be known, understood and adapted to our current uses. When we cast ourselves free from it, we are swept away by outside forces, adrift on the oceanic tide of happening. The future, which we cannot describe, begins to seem inevitable. This surrender to the unknown persists, despite all the crime and destruction that have been wrought in its name.”

5 Gregory Boyle, Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017), 117–18.

6 Borrowed from Roger Stronstad and J. Deotis Roberts, The Prophethood of All Believers: A Study in Luke’s Charismatic Theology (Cleveland, TN: CPT Press, 2010).

7 William Blake, Letters from William Blake to Thomas Butts, 1800–1803 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1926).

8 Bill Emmott, The Fate of the West: The Battle to Save the World’s Most Successful Political Idea (London: Profile Books, 2017), 207.

9 See Hosea 1.

10 Some scholars believe a volcanic eruption led to Icelandic Vikings leaving paganism and becoming Christian. For the metaphor “walking on lava,” see The Dark Mountain Project, Walking on Lava: Selected Works for Uncivilised Times, eds. Charlotte Du Cann, Dougald Hine, Nick Hunt, and Paul Kingsnorth (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2017).

11 Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Knopf, 1987), 255.

12 Revelation 22:20, nkjv.

13 Ephesians 5:14.

CGM

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