Searching Together 2011 (Elgin, IL)

When I got back from my first Searching Together conference in 2008 I told my family that the conversations with people that take place after and between the presentations were even more enjoyable than the presentations themselves. This has remained true for me in 2010 and 2011. Purchasing audio or video of the conferences will not capture the best essence of being there. Summary notes like mine will even less convey why I look forward to returning.

I had a foreboding about this year’s conference when I set out that I would not feel it worth all the driving. For me it was about 750 miles or 13 hours of driving, if I had run it straight through. I made diversions to visit friends from previous conferences who live along the way, so my total driving was more but broken into more manageable segments. But it was still a lot of driving for me to handle alone. Despite my repeated efforts I was unable to convince anyone to come along with me, which makes for some tedious driving. (Bring audio books. I meant to, but failed to prepare according to my plans.)

Jon Zens has contributed tirelessly to the work of pointing the people of God back to Jesus Christ. In 1997 Jon published his flagship work, “This is My Beloved Son, Hear Him”: The Foundation for New Covenant Ethics & Ecclesiology (Searching Together vol. 2-4, 1997). His message is still as urgently needed as ever, addressing the vast problem in Christianity of basing a way of life on assembled Biblical teachings and missing the point of strength where all truth comes together, in Christ. For this and for many other writings we owe Jon a great debt.

Jon’s recent work has been getting harder for me to appreciate. One of the difficulties of creating a masterpiece is forever being measured against it. I am forever fretting about being found short of my prior achievements, and perhaps my anxiety reflects my own overly critical attitude of others. I hope and intend that it is more than the perfectionist (vain pride) speaking when I say these things. Perhaps, too, it is just my proximity talking; up close you see the whole man, pimples, warts, and all, whereas distance can be a cosmetic.

However derived, my worry about this year’s conference was that certain strains of how to live might dominate rather than where from we find life. It is a difference I find rather hard to explain off the cuff. Obviously Christian teaching should affect how we live. But focusing on the ‘how’ is the path that Jon has himself very often rightly rebuked. In their various ways numerous groups of God followers have wandered away from living in Christ to follow a way of life; the Pharisees, the Amish, the Baptists. I speak of the movement of the group; in all of these groups there remain those whose life is hidden in God. But the group becomes identified by their way of life rather than their source of life.

With such misgivings I prepared for the conference. I spent the last leg of my trip before the conference with the conference organizer, Jodi, and was thus present to help with the initial setup. Jodi was concerned with getting the kitchen going on the first meal and Jon was concerned with getting his books and other merchandise laid out, and in the middle of it all I was happily busy. And then it seemed that everything was in order and the first presentation was about to begin.

Unexpectedly, I was asked to help with the filming. I don’t mind helping, but this is not work I have done before. If you get video of the conference and some of it is rather rough that would probably be me; overcorrecting, forgetting to watch the frame, and whatever else you would expect from someone unused to running a camera.

Then Dan Thompson began the first presentation, “Married to Christ, not the Law,” and I was glad I had come. Dan explained Romans 7 with an enthusiasm I have rarely seen joined to such a careful regard for the text and the intent of the original author. His chief contention was that Paul’s “wretched man” discourse referred to the unregenerate man, not the believer as Augustine made popular. By itself this hardly matters, since Dan still agreed that the believer cannot be without sin in this present life. His purpose in insisting on this point was to clarify a literary organization in Paul’s thought which contrasted the union of the unregenerate man to law or works–out of which wedlock only stillborn, dead works can come–with the union of the believer to Christ, and the life which is the fruit of it.

Working the camera, I could not follow all of what Dan was trying to cover so thoroughly in such a brief 40 minutes. I mean to get over to the website where his work is available and look it over further, for he seemed to be working from a larger understanding of the entire book of Romans that I would like to get to know.

George Greene led off Friday morning by talking on two topics, “Spiritual Covering Nonsense” and “Touching God’s Annointed.” I have not personally run into the worst of the “touch not God’s annointed” bondage that’s used to defend the “leader” from criticism, but George made his points well and was easy to listen to. He ran low on time to say much about the “spiritual covering” issue I am more closely acquainted with. Even people who don’t overtly teach that every person must align themself into a hierarchy of power still frequently teach that one or two key people have spiritual jurisdiction over “their” followers. Parents, particularly the father, and local pastors are often awarded special regency in this thinking.

Someone asked in the discussion afterward about Hebrews 13:17, the most strident “spiritual authority” verse in the Bible. Jon gave a really good critique based on the Greek text, saying that no word that would be commonly translated “authority” is in the text. According to Jon the more natural translation has to do with “being persuaded,” with the sense of willingly following the example of those whose live according to the teaching of Hebrews. You can see a bit of this in some translations. I am not a scholar of Greek to say with any authority what is in the text, but Jon’s explanation aligns far better with the broader teaching in the New Testament that I alwas found in conflict with the sharpness of expression in Hebrews.

After George, Kat Huff gave a presentation titled “Christ in Us, the Hope of Glory.” The previous presentations proceeded on a rational basis, working in terms of logical conclusions and contradictions. Kat spoke emotionally and experientially, from and to the feelings. The closest comparison I have is to the Song of Solomon. When I asked how she understood that book, though, she said that she had not read all of it.

This was the first presentation I had more difficulty appreciating. I cannot feel right in saying that all talk of God must proceed on a rationally and rigorously proved basis. To enjoy God is not wrong. It did, though, feel too personal to share publically, as Lorraine said. I am not saying that it was. It may have only been too different from my personal manner for me to be completely comfortable. Since we are most certainly enjoined in scripture to expect and appreciate the differing gifts that God employs, and I had earlier in my trip been remarking that genuine Christian art is hard to find, I do not want to get in the way of aesthetic expression unless I am sure there is something amiss. So I appreciate the challenge Kat presented, even if it was the mode and not the message that I have to think about.

Third on Friday was my own presentation. I expect I will get it up here shortly. I had a great many things that I wanted to talk about and wound up talking about too few of them too briefly (I even left ten minutes of my speaking time unused!). I started preparing too late to do it well. I wanted to defend the practice of rational, intellectual, Bible-based teaching in Christian fellowship, while admitting that much worthless and lifeless teaching has occurred in the same form. But a Christ-based teaching, I meant to show, is literally vital to fellowship; that Christ and his teaching are inseperably, together with his Spirit, the life of the church. And having done this I meant to go on to show that we do not always recognize the life of Christ for what it is, and we ought to be careful not to overlook the life-sustaining fellowship he does give us. The exciting sensation of “being alive” is often a deadly counterfeit for the real thing.

I don’t think I said half of what I meant half as well as I could have, but several people thanked me for it so some of it got through.

The last session on Friday was Dan Thompson again, this time speaking on “Jesus is our Sabbath!” Dan spoke with the same passion as in his first presentation and dismantled the idea that Christians have a ritual obligation to any day of the week. Along the way he took a pretty good crack at the notion of the Ten Commandments being divisible into “ceremonial” and “moral” segments. I feel as though I have forgotten one of his larger points, though, so again I want to get another look at his thoughts in writing.

Saturday morning began with Rich Rutherford describing his change of life from an apostle of violence and hatred to an ambassador of grace and forgiveness. Personal testimony stories are easy to reduce to a cliche and often get flogged around as a marketing tool to attract customers. To a jaded audience I am not sure I can fairly retell Rich’s story. Rich’s testimony included being saved from things such as swearing and cigarettes as well as far more serious and darker matters. I have gotten to the point where I regard salvation from bad habits about the same as salvation into money and toys; I believe God has power over these things to do as he wishes, but I don’t think he wishes them on everyone alike. But in the substance of Rich’s life was that precious grace, so undeserved and so badly needed. Whatever else I might say, I listened to him with great rejoicing.

Anthony Kasper presented second. He spoke on “Questioning the System – Loving the People.” He made the point that along with all the wrongs he suffered in what we at the conference call the “institutional church,” there were also people who loved him truly and helped him freely. He pointed out that when we focus on the problems of the other system, we gradually define a system of our own that is just as prone to failure, or rather warped and misleading to the core. For it is Christ we follow, in to, out of, and through any system you care to name. I agree with Anthony and have thought the same thing, but that hasn’t kept me from using the cliches and tropes about “the institutional church.” You’ll see it in my presentation.

Third on Saturday was Waneta Dawn’s presentation on “The Fabric of Husband Authority.” Waneta used various fabrics as visual aids in her presentation. The technique may have meant more to others. It was unnecessary and a bit distracting for me. (This is probably the same reason Rundy kept telling me to get rid of my verbal illustrations in my own presentation, which I did not entirely do; so either Waneta is fully justified or I am entirely condemned.) I heard from someone that Waneta was newly acquainted with Searching Together. I mention this because I am not sure it was fair to ask her to present.  Not that anyone has to attain any kind of “seniority” in Searching Together to have standing, but often people new to Jon’s work are still getting used to what it means to put Christ first. I was dissappointed and a little disturbed that Waneta’s message on the prevalence of wife abuse by husbands seemed to focus on “mechanical” ways to detect and defeat abuse.

Jesus and his apostles clearly teach us to do what we can to help the hurting and needy. But “what we can” in the New Testament is always defined in terms of sharing what we have of Christ, not calling on the laws and wisdom of men. To say that men in power abuse those they should protect, and call upon men in power to fix the problem, seems to be the very deception of Satan; more poison to fix the illness!

I do not know what Waneta has experienced and I hestitate to offer a fairy tale about Jesus as a salve for the reality of what she has endured. But we gathered there to testify to the reality and power of Christ’s suffering grace. His grace is real, and I have known a little of it in relation to my little experience in suffering. I am so glad to have known it because I can offer nothing else. Nothing else can I recommend with any hope of true power and life! Waneta’s remark that I felt most confident in came during the discussion when she suggested that grace offered to the sinner, the abuser, might help as much as anything else. Is that not the gospel?

Jon Zens presented the final Saturday session on “Desiring Unity – Finding Division.” He said that the people of God have failed to be the example of enduring, patient, self-deferring love to which we have been called. He cited the proliferation of denominations and competing church organizations within denominations as evidence of the gulf between what can be seen and what should be seen. I took exception to Jon’s message, asking him, had not God honored the request of his Son when Jesus prayed for the unity of believers? And Jon emphatically agreed that the prayer of the Son had been heard and God kept the unity of his own people. But, he insisted, we ought to live more in keeping with the calling we have recieved and make visible the grace that God has given us.

This kind of a message is partly what I had wanted to address in my presentation. The contention that the church ought to be better than it is reflects, I think, a stubborness of heart and unwillingness to accept that God is well pleased in the present condition of the church as the revelation of his own son. Certainly particular groups are in need of particular rebukes, and every individual can be found in sin; but God has always insisted that his own purpose is carried out despite the omnipresent failure of mankind. In other words, the work of the church is as contrary to the expectation of human wisdom as was Jesus’ own ministry. People don’t know what they are seeing when they see it, and so they think that God has not yet revealed it. The work of God is more pathetic and more powerful than you imagine.

On Sunday Jon’s wife Dotty gave the final presentation on human trafficking, particularly the sex trade in the Phillipines. Dotty shared her experience of God’s assistance in her work and, actually, in her not being able or needed to work. Dotty’s evident delight can be encouraging all of itself. As with the other two women, though, it was hard for me to see a revelation of Christ to which I could respond “Amen.” I don’t mean that God was absent from Dotty’s work, but in contrast to some of the other presentations what I heard did not inspire in me a “Yes!”.

For me the issue of all three women speaking in a way hard for me to relate to prompts me to continued watchfulness of myself in not rejecting things merely for not liking them as much. Very often when we go looking for “contributions” from others we are really looking for a confirming echo of ourselves; to find the whole world agreeing with us would please us very much. “I didn’t like that, there must be something wrong with it” is a much easier conclusion than “I didn’t like that, there must be something wrong with me.” But by the same measure I have learned that as much as God expects us not to ignore others, he also expects us not to ignore ourselves; we are not to throw out the sense that God gave us merely to go along with someone who might be right. That’s the mantra of man’s religion always: ignore what you know, someone else knows better than you!

We are called not to submit to the “better” wisdom of another man or woman, but to submit to the perfect wisdom of God. We want to resolve a troubling thought by either accepting or rejecting it wholesale, when far more often God intends us to suffer with the incongruity a good long while until we understand what he is doing.

I will not give an unqualified endorsement of the Searching Together conference as “good teaching.” In the end the point is not to go and fetch a good teaching that you can take back home and put on the shelf. Every Christian I have met has been half-baked; never yet one in whom Christ is formed completely. It is not only the strength of other Christians from which we are to learn, but also their weakness–which is to say, Christ’s grace. This is why I treasure most the whole time of being with the fellow believers: to see that God is giving us all grace upon grace. To be able to share with others from my experience always makes visible to me more grace in what I have experienced than I saw before. Sometimes the other people have to tell me so explicitly, but more often it’s a welling up of awareness and gratitude, which also happens when I listen to others tell of the grace they have received.

The final good thing about going to these conferences is the coming back. This is when I must contemplate that the grace of God which was for a while made so evident, even in part artificially, is truly present still. It is not the feeling of God’s grace that really strengthens the soul, but the searching for it; or better put, waiting for it to be revealed. To drink the wine at Cana is to be called to the wedding feast at Zion. Come, Lord Jesus! You who have come and are with us still, Immanuel, may we see your work in your light.