Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Hope for the Future

"How does one know that God is good if not through the actions of people who claim to know him and the inactions of those who claim not to?” - Jim Rice, Charlotte, NC Emergent Cohort member

At left: Archbishop Desmond Tutu

I was asked to say a few words about “Christmas Hope for the Future” as part of the Christmas presentation last Sunday at church. Here’s what I said:

By the third Chapter of genesis, we’d blown it so bad that God said to Adam, “You are banished…from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which you had been taken.”

But God wasn’t done. In the second chapter of Luke, God bypasses the religious authorities and sends a messenger, an angel, to shepherds in the fields. That would be like sending the message straight to homeless people today:

"Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord…Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."

God turned it all around. In His grace and mercy He sent us a savior. A savior not only to reconcile us to God, but as Jesus said of his own mission:

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

In thinking of Christmas hope for the future, just like the writer of Hebrews reminds us, we do well to remember our great cloud of witnesses and the acts of faith they were commended for, from the time of Jesus right up through the present and into eternity.

So many of us have our own testimonies, of salvation, healing, reconciliation, and awakening. And God’s Spirit has been at work through the centuries …

Preaching good news to the poor.
Sending His church to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
and releasing the oppressed.

When have we seen this?

When tens of thousands of Christians stood by candlelight in the town squares of Eastern Europe until the Iron Curtain fell.

When Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer stood against Hitler, who was defeated, and Israel was born.

When Mao tried to eradicate Christianity and religion in China by killing millions. But now the church of Christ in China is one of the fastest growing in the world.

When Archbishop Desmond Tutu worked to end South African Apartheid. When Christian Member of Parliament, William Wilberforce worked for the abolition of slavery in England. When slavery was then ended in America, followed by Jim Crow laws and segregation through the work of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., through to the election of an African American US President.

God calls each of us to carry Christmas hope to the poor, the imprisoned, the blind and the oppressed. Who among us will be a Bonhoeffer, a Wilberforce, a Tutu, a King or a president?

Our Christmas hope for the future is in the Kingdom of God, that Christ ushered in, spreading as a light in this dark world until Jesus returns.

Christmas hope is in the atonement brought about by the Christ child, reconciling us with God, with one another in community, making us whole within ourselves and reconciling us to the world, and the world to God.

Christmas blessings!

Steve

Saturday, December 20, 2008

December 08 Meeting

“Relationship is the essence of God…intimacy with God and each other.” – Anthony (BEC Meetup Member)

(Pictured at right: BEC Christmas gathering at Robin & Melissa’s)

Twelve of us gathered for our December Broward Emerging Christians (BEC) Meetup at Laura’s Cuban Restaurant in Hollywood to continue our discussion about emerging / missional ways to do church. We started, as has become our custom, with one of us sharing our story of what led us to the emerging conversation and to this table. This time, Kelly shared. Although it was his first time joining us (due in part to his travel schedule) he offered a unique perspective of having left a local mega-church to start “Epic” which began as, “An Emergent Church Community” in North Broward, but now prefers to eschew even those labels. You can find out more about Epic here: http://www.epic-remix.org/

Kelly grew up as a missionary kid (“MK”). After spending time in Peru he and his wife settled back in the U.S. in a mega-church and loved it and eventually went on staff. At the same time, he found himself asking questions about what the essentials vs. the non-essentials of the Christian faith are (see also Scot McKnight's discussion on this topic at http://blog.beliefnet.com/jesuscreed/2008/12/friday-is-for-friends-96.html#more ). And he found through ongoing global missions work that even other missionaries in Africa were asking many of the same questions. These questions involved matters like the Second Coming of Christ, rules related to tithing, expectations of how Christians are supposed to vote, and many others. He questioned the millions of dollars it cost to run the mega-church with its hundreds of staff, compared to the benefits for the Kingdom of God. In the mega-church, the answers were pre-packaged, and if you didn’t like the package being offered, there was push back.

Kelly decided that God may be speaking through his questioning, and if He was, he wanted to be listening and push through and not look back later and regret that he hadn’t. This process of asking, listening and reading is what led him to the emerging conversation. He tried to share what he was learning with leaders of the mega-church and after two frustrating years simply got a firm “no.” Opposition from the mega-church to what he perceived to be a process of spiritual growth led him to “step off a cliff” into bi-vocational ministry in the emerging church movement and to start the “Epic Re-mix” community in North Broward County, FL. While scary, this move was also exhilarating and allowed him to be part of a community where people were free to ask questions and wrestle with the answers and where it would be OK to disagree. He wonders if that is part of what being “one” means as Jesus describes it in John’s Gospel.

Now, Kelly found less of a disconnect between what he represented to those around him and who he really was. He also found less of a disconnect between the church community and those outside of it. On the one hand, he often observed people outside of church acting like better Christians than those in the church. At the same time, the emerging / missional church community was freer to embrace those on a journey, without focusing so much on whether they’d “arrived.” In the extreme, he summed up the divide viewed by many of those “inside” the church, compared to those “outside” the church, with this slogan, “Good for us, to hell with you.” This resonated with others in the group. Kelly now no longer felt he had to “sell” something to people and could focus more on authentically loving God and loving others.

Reactions, and more discussion on how we do “church”…Anthony observed that when Jesus was here, “He caused a ruckus” and reminded us of his conflict with the “religious system” to the point of using a whip to drive the money changers out of the temple area. He also said, “Church is not a building. We are church.” And he posed this question to us, “What if we treated each other with the same reverence that we treat sacred temples with?”

Matt, Robin & Steve F. looked for balance and the way forward. Emerging / Missional Christians don’t look to “attract” to a church per se but go out to “be” available as the church, as the Body of Christ in the world. At the same time, “Generous Orthodoxy” means we don’t have to get other Christians to stop going to their inherited/institutional churches. But we are available there too to help promote re-missionalizing or “re-traditioning” (Described by Phyllis Tickle as staying in one’s inherited church while energetically wishing to make it more fully what it originally was) in the church. The thrust is to broaden the reach and definition of church from 2 hours on Sunday to a 24/7 way of spiritual life (See also Rob Bell’s “Everything is Spiritual” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Poi3imQkQsQ ).
We also need to be careful not to take on an air of superiority in pointing out shortcomings of other church modes, but to be about the business of humbly suggesting and living out solutions.

We returned to discussing Alan Hirsh’s book The Forgotten Ways http://www.theforgottenways.org/intro/ in the area of leadership ethos. Here, Hirsch compares post-ConstantinianChristiandom Mode,” defining it as “Leadership by institutionally ordained clergy, thus creating a professional guild operating primarily in the pastor-teacher mode” to early church and “Emerging Missional Mode” where “Leadership embraces a pioneering-innovative mode including a fivefold ministry-leadership ethos. Noninstitutional by preference.” Are these legitimate demarcations? We agreed that both modes have always operated in the church but there have been times when one is dominant over the other and that there is often conflict between modes.

The downside of a professional ministerial guild is that it can serve to maintain the power and financial status quo for the professionals while withholding significant leadership roles from other Christians. It promotes hierarchical religious systems (similar to those Jesus confronted) including state religion. With such strong systems in place, the Holy Spirit can easily be sidelined without it being apparent to many.

On the other hand, the benefit of fivefold ministry described in Ephesians 4 (Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Pastor, Teacher - known by the acronym APEPT) is that all Christians use their gifts. Leadership is distributed and church spreads as an organic, grass roots Jesus movement. If a church stays in a box just to survive, it is actually sowing the seeds of its own death. Scott commented that churches often reach only for the safe, for the probable and possible, when we should be going for the impossible.

Finally, Anthony concluded with these thoughts, “Relationship is the essence of God…intimacy with God and each other.” And he asked, “Why does the pastor have to invite people to their home? People should invite people to each other’s homes." Wendy and others agreed and after some discussion, Robin & Melissa did just that and invited us all to their home for Christmas fellowship which was held on December 19th. You can see some of the comments and pictures here: http://emergentchristian.meetup.com/29/calendar/9288939/

We’ll meet again at Laura’s Cuban Restaurant on Three Kings Day, Tuesday, January 6, 2009 and continue our fellowship and our discussion of “The Forgotten Ways.”

Peace and blessings this Christmas and New Year,

Steve

Friday, November 28, 2008

Who's Your City?

“The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty---it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God… In the West there is loneliness, which I call the leprosy of the West. In many ways it is worse than our poor in Calcutta.”

- Mother Teresa

I am writing this on “Black Friday,” the most important shopping day in the American economy. My wife (who is shopping with a relative as I write this :^) shared with me a little bit from a book she is reading this morning. We share what we are reading with each other a lot.

In his book, Who’s Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life, Richard Florida counters some of the theory that the world is “flat” (that you can succeed anywhere you live due to the Internet) and says that innovation and investment tend be clustered in what he calls “mega-regions.” (He counts “So-Flo,” including Miami, Orlando and Tampa, as such a region.) Why is that? One reason is relationship. Even with the Internet, entrepreneurs and inventors want to see what they are investing in and who they are sharing ideas with in person, and they don’t often like to travel far to do it.

Florida talks about why place matters in a variety of contexts. Here is one fascinating bit of data he includes:

“A 2007 study by economist Nattavudh Powdthavee of the University of London used survey data to estimate the monetary value of frequently seeing friends and relatives. The study found that seeing friends or relatives in person almost every day is worth more than six figures in additional income. For example, Powdthavee found that if you relocate from a city where you regularly see your family and friends to one where you would not, you would need to earn $133,000 just to make up for the lack of happiness you feel from being far from those people. Powdthavee drives home the importance of making a conscious choice about your time when he writes, ‘Since it normally requires both time and effort to achieve either higher income or a stable social relationship with someone, the weight attached to each individual’s investment decision thus depends on the type of possession - money or friendship – that he or she believes will yield a larger impact on happiness than the other.’”

How does this relate to our understanding and practice of emerging and missional church? Can "critical mass" for mission be jump started in our church communities through the idea innovations and interpersonal time investments of the spiritual entrepreneurs in our friendship networks? What ideas are we sharing, and who are we investing in? Also, as our consumer driven Western society continues its economic melt down, maybe it is time to reassess our priorities. In his book Everything Must Change, Brian McLaren writes, “First, Jesus addresses the law of progress through rapid economic growth. In its place, he offers the law of good deeds for the common good….Second, Jesus overturns serenity through possession and consumption. Instead, he envisions satisfaction through gratitude and sharing.” That can be our vision this Thanksgiving and Christmas (otherwise known as the great retail season) and that can be our vision for God’s church. How do we invest our time…in people or things? What is the result, not only to our own happiness and effectiveness but to the happiness of those around us? I am not saying that reward for hard work is wrong. I think what the Gospel tells us though is that there might be something missing from the so-called “American Dream” that can be found when we truly seek first the Kingdom of God, starting with Jesus and His people, our relatives and friends, and extending through an ever expanding social network to those on the margins of society.

My wife will come home and it will be a big deal if she bought even one ridiculously discounted garment (she rarely buys much of anything when she goes shopping, and she doesn't go shopping much). But the time spent with our relative will have been (in the words of the commercial) priceless.

This week, a friend of mine shared his yearning to be more intentional about having a time of regular worship with his wife and kids. Just such a place and time can be where the spark of revival starts.

Join us this Tuesday http://emergentchristian.meetup.com/29/calendar/9151159/ as we continue to share our thoughts about Alan Hirsch’s The Forgotten Ways and “community around natural discipling friendships, worship as a lifestyle, and mission in the context of everyday life.”

Steve

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Sisters, Brothers

One love, one blood, one life, you got to do what you should.
One life with each other: sisters, brothers.
One life, but we're not the same.
We get to carry each other, carry each other.

One...life

U2 - One, from their album Achtung Baby

We often hear this phrase, and variations, “Jesus is all you need.” While no doubt true in its context, have you also seen cases where this notion became an excuse to cop out on relational responsibilities Jesus expects of us in regards to one another? What did Jesus tell us? On his last night, Jesus left us with these words, "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." - John’s Gospel, Ch. 13:34-35. In the next chapter, Jesus repeats this command two more times, and elaborates with the metaphor of the vine, and then says, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends…”

On Veterans Day, I drove my wife Kathy and a friend of ours to a book signing in Miami. We got to talking over lunch and our friend told us about a book she was writing. Turns out our friend grew up in a non-Christian home but was attracted to the message and way of Christ at an early age through people in her neighborhood. She recently became Catholic. She sent us a couple of chapters in her book and I had a chance to read them this morning. Her main character is Bobby, a boy who is basically good, but because he is going through puberty is getting in trouble in ways that confuse both him and his parents. After one incident where everything comes crashing down and Bobby runs crying to his room, a family friend, Rev. Jacobs, counsels him then says, “‘I have something that might help you see that even in our greatest moments of despair, we are never alone.’ He reached into the pocket of his jacket. He pulled out a bookmark and handed it to [him]. Written on it was a story titled, ‘Footprints in the Sand.’”

You know “Footprints,” where it says, “The times when you have seen only one set of footprints in the sand is when I carried you.” My question for our friend, and for us is this: Was Jesus carrying Bobby, or was He using Rev. Jacobs to?

Our friend, by the way, LG Putzer, said that if she answered the question she’d give away the secret message in her third book. (The title of the book is called Stuck in the Friend Zone. It's part of the Bobby Isaacs Chronicles.)

Who will we carry?

Steve

Saturday, November 15, 2008

November 08 Meeting

Nine of us met to continue our discussion on decentralized networking and start looking at Alan Hirsch’s excellent book The Forgotten Ways – reactivating the missional church.
http://www.theforgottenways.org/%20 (Thanks Flavio for the loan.) Jerry and Kennedy joined us as newcomers, both of whom are current or former ordained ministers in mainline denominations. I also took a turn to “tell my story” of how I came to the emerging conversation. I include that re-cap at the end of this post since it is longish. (Please forgive me if my lack of objectivity makes it harder for me to condense my own story than those of others.)

Jumping right in, Hirsch says, “Existing relationships with believers and nonbelievers alike become the very fabric of the church. There ought to be nothing artificial about it. Planting a new church or remissionalizing an existing one, in this approach isn’t primarily about buildings, worship services, size of congregations, and pastoral care, but rather about gearing the whole community around natural discipling friendships, worship as a lifestyle, and mission in the context of everyday life. As a living network “in Christ” it can meet anywhere, anytime and still be a viable expression of church. This is a much more organic way to plant a church or to revitalize it.” In my frustrating quest to find a sound-bite to describe the emerging / missional church movement, I could stop right here.

Hirsch compares the phenomenal growth of the persecuted church in China to that of the first three centuries of the early church. He tells an ironic story of a meeting between Chinese leaders from the underground church and a group of Western leaders. The Chinese asked for prayers in several areas: 1) The government still did not allow them to meet in groups larger than fifteen people. 2) The government did not allow them to have their own building. They were forced to meet in homes, cafés, karaoke bars, and social clubs. 3) They were forbidden to develop separate organizations to train leaders; they were forced to train leaders in the local church. While no one advocates state control of religion, the Western leaders had a hard time praying in these ways and concluded that the Chinese government was unwittingly helping the church there to remain “more true to itself.”

We started to look at several of Hirsch’s charts comparing the “Organic Missional Movement” (AD 32-313 and past 10 years) to “Institutional / Christendom” (313 to current). We got as far as the first item, “locus of gathering,” and discussed the role and need for (or not) dedicated “church” buildings. How do such building impact: size of gatherings; how we use limited financial resources; how we worship collectively; how we relate to one another; how different people can feel included or excluded? Some felt that different venues could be good for different purposes at different times, depending on the purpose of the gathering. Many agreed on the importance of small, relational and missional groups, regardless of the venue. And many agreed that some of the unintended consequence of “buildings becoming central to the notion, and experience, of church” is depersonalization and usurpation of resources that could be used for missional purposes. Kathy asked if church is supposed to connect us to a “church family” on an ongoing basis, or be a constantly changing group of people. My own answer is that we all need a core group of friends, for which we are the wind in each other’s sails, but that we always need to reach out to others.

Finally, Jerry asked me, “Where is this all headed?” This question has come up before. My answer continues to be “I have no idea.” That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. I shared how our “cohort” was inspired by nearly a hundred other such cohorts found at http://www.emergentvillage.com/ where they are described as “[Friends who] meet of their own accord, at their own time and place, and discuss what they choose. What binds the cohorts together is a common desire to be in robust and respectful conversation about things that matter.” I said that I am a facilitator. "Where we go" is up to the group. Some have suggested more frequent meetings. Some have suggested additional gatherings with a more relational focus. Some have asked if we should “become a church?” My answer has always been that we are “church” when we gather, and we all have many talents and abilities. But I see no reason that our gatherings need to replace attendance at a “church” where anyone feels led to attend now.

At the same time, it is my hope that we all continue to grow in the areas of, “community around natural discipling friendships, worship as a lifestyle, and mission in the context of everyday life.” And if this gathering can help that growth in each of us, that is an end in itself. I would add that for me, this journey is an exciting and at times scary experience, somewhat like driving up a narrow, curving mountain road in the fog where you can only see as far as your headlights reflecting off the next rock.

Ok. Here’s “my story”…

I attended Presbyterian Sunday School as a child, was baptized at a Baptist Church as a young teen (after having read The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsay) and eventually joined a non-denominational charismatic church as a young adult. In the 80s I I worked doing fund raising for a para-church group at churches of all denominations, both Protestant and Roman Catholic (where I also had opportunities to visit El Salvador, Colombia and Germany). Through the experience of meeting sincere “Spirit led” Christians in every denomination, and studying their histories and doctrines, I came to the conclusion that there was no longer a rational basis, for me as a Christian anyway, to choose allegiance to any one denomination. After we were married, my wife and I decided to attend The Salvation Army Church, which is the church she grew up in and which began as a missional movement in the mid-1800s. However, I remain a non-denominational, evangelical (now emerging) Christian.

As a teen, I struggled with the legalism of the fundamentalist church I attended. Finally I came across Romans 13:8: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellow[human] has fulfilled the law.” This verse, and the verses following, have become “life verses” for me on this issue.

Always interested in the “human problem,” (Why do humans, including me, have so many struggles?) I majored in Psychology with a minor concentration in Political Science and courses in New Testament. But I struggled with choosing the best approach to lead to solutions (Personal? Systemic change? Faith?). Having grown up on the edge of the Everglades, and Hollywood Beach before that, at the age of 18, I co-founded a local environmental coalition and later led a political action committee to help elect conservation oriented candidates. Afterwards, I started working with the homeless, first through a para-church group, then as a mental health outreach worker, later as an advocate and shelter director and finally in my current job as an administrator.

A few years ago, a friend of mine who had gone to seminary started sending me emails and having conversations with me which challenged assumptions about how we do church, how we relate both as Christians and to the “unchurched,” and how we truly grow in our journey in Christ to love God and one another. Another friend gave me a book for Christmas, Brian McLaren’s “The Secret Message of Jesus.” I read the book with my heresy meter turned all the way on. I found no heresy, but did find an eye opening adventure allowing me to see the Kingdom of God all around me, when I take the time to look.

I soon found in the emerging / missional church movement that:

There is a de-emphasis on waiting for the "rapture" and a renewed sense of wonder in the Kingdom of God here and now, and our responsibility today for doing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.

I could reconcile the false dichotomies I had set up between psychology, politics (systemic change) and Christ-following. God can and does use all of the above to reconcile us, and the world, to Himself and each other. As Scot McKnight puts it, Atonement goes in four directions: Reconciliation with God, within oneself, with others and with the world.

That reconciliation with the world included creation care, which is unfortunately devalued in many evangelical churches and relegated to “liberal politics.”

That my growing frustration with not finding a niche in the church I attended had more to do with how church had become institutionalized than it had to do with me. Our pastor gave me the book, The Present Future by Reggie McNeal, that spelled out the shortcomings of institutional church in stark terms. At the same time, I was learning more about missional, organic and house church movements where relationship, empowerment, community and worship as a way of life are emphasized over programs, “pulpit to pew” teaching, capital campaigns for church buildings and church being defined as a one hour meeting on Sunday morning.

I found in his book Generous Orthodoxy, how Brian McLaren celebrates all that is good with every denomination, while recognizing the limits of denominationalism.

I found that the emerging church movement advocates a “purple politics” (Jim Wallis, McLaren, Sojourners, Shane Claiborne) which does not assume that evangelical Christians need to embrace either a conservative (Republican red) or liberal (Democratic blue) agenda to follow Christ.

That, while generally evangelistic and Christ-centered, the emerging church movement questions legalistic absolutes, while promoting freedom in Christ, along with accountability as a natural outgrowth of friendships. And that accountability can be more horizontal than hierarchical. The Body of Christ is organic and living instead of mechanical.

And I found a missional emphasis which calls the marginalized (the homeless, the rejected, the outcast) to the table of fellowship in Christ with us.

So, the answer to what has led me to this conversation is simply every experience in my life. They have led me to what Phyllis Tickle calls, “The Great Emergence,” both in my journey and the journey of the church.

Blessings,

Steve

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Instruments of God’s Love

"A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." - John’s Gospel 13:34-35

I have always loved listening to music of all kinds. As a teenager, I once took guitar lessons, and was contemplating learning to play the piano, when an accident with fireworks left me without several fingers on my left hand. (I was also very self-conscious about the physical scars at the time, and am no longer, but that’s another story.)

I soon gave up any dreams of playing a musical instrument, especially ones like the guitar or piano, and saw that even brass and wind instruments required pretty complicated dexterity with one’s fingers.

A friend of mine is a musician. He plays all kinds of string and other instruments, and plays them well. Recently, I watched him playing an instrument known as an “Appalachian” or lap dulcimer. I casually shared with him that it looked simple enough even for me to play. I forgot about it…but he didn’t. A couple of nights ago at a fellowship gathering we regularly have, he invited me to play the instrument. He had tuned it in preparation and planned to give me a short lesson, and even loan me the lap dulcimer to practice with. I was amazed at how the simplicity of this dulcimer made it easy for me to play. And I loved its sound. My friend left me alone in the room as I plucked away…and imagined. In his simple and intentional way, this friend not only prepared a gift to reintroduce a certain kind of beauty into my life, but to restore possibilities I had long ago abandoned.

In his book, Christ-Following – Ten Signposts to Spirituality, Trevor Hudson, a Methodist pastor in South Africa, writes, “This great commandment [found in John 13:34-35] is given us for our wholeness, the well-being of our relationships, and the healing of our societies. Shaping our lives into instruments of God’s love breaks the tyranny of ingrained self-centeredness and narcissism. We step out of our cramped and suffocating worlds into the spacious milieu of the kingdom. …Our lives come alive with renewed responsiveness and fresh meaning. We discover how loving others releases within them immense possibilities for growth and change. And we realize that only the power of God’s love, manifest in the lives of ordinary people, can heal our broken world…There is no higher priority for the Christ-follower than learning to love.”

Hudson continues, “The ways in which we commit ourselves to be channels of God’s love are usually down to earth. Characterized by thoughtfulness, creativity, and kindness, they are within reach of us all: cooking a favorite meal, buying a surprise gift, writing an overdue letter, remembering an anniversary, giving space for a loved one to be alone, and … creating a homemade birthday card. [I would add, surprising a friend who thinks he has a disability, with a music lesson!] Simple actions like these are sacramental.”

Hudson urges us to think of those close to us in our daily lives and consider their hopes and needs. Then consider what practical expression of caring would most contribute to his or her greater wholeness…and to put these intentions into practice.

Steve

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Seeking the Peace of the City

Public policy: “The set of decisions that we make as a society about how we care for one another, our communities and the land.”

This definition was taken from a workshop on “Getting to Justice” as part of the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) 20th Annual Conference in Miami http://www.ccdamiami08.org/ last Saturday. I joined Robin, Matt, Beth & Flavio there for the last day of the conference, along with other friends from Love Bags.

I am committed to avoiding expressing partisan political opinion on this blog. This post will be as close as I get to doing that on the Saturday before a historic election, but still remaining consistent with that guideline. However, any discussion of making decisions about public policy inevitably leads us to think about politics, and how Bill Moyers once described it: “Ideas are great arrows, but there has to be a bow. And politics is the bow of idealism.” Partisan comments are welcome by the way, as long as they are respectful.

I was asked to summarize my first experience at CCDA for a new colleague who wanted to know what went on there. I told her that 2,300 persons for faith came together to learn about, and put into practice, such things as racial reconciliation, social justice and how to advocate for issues based on principles such as that “government budgets are moral documents.” Here are some take-aways:

John Perkins (pictured at top) is the founder of CCDA. He spoke about racial reconciliation and shared a story from when he was a pastor in Mississippi in the 1960s. He said he started meeting with two white pastors in his community to discuss ways to work together to share the Gospel in their small town. They knew that only the Gospel (in its fullness) could lift people out of the various forms of bondage they saw all around them. Racism is a huge form of bondage and the two white pastors were confronted with such vicious hostility from their congregations to this simple idea of interracial Christian cooperation…that they both eventually committed suicide.

Brian McLaren, http://www.brianmclaren.net/ provocative as ever, followed Perkins and asserted that, “The God of the scriptures is primarily a God who liberates slaves.” I think of Egypt and Babylon and Rome and the many in bondage who Jesus healed. He led us through some stark data on war, poverty, consumerism and pollution and said that the dream of God is a world restored to “shalom.” Shalom was the big word of the conference and the closest thing I could compare it to is Scot McKnight’s “Atonement in all four directions,” - peace with God, within ourselves, with one another and with God’s creation. McLaren said, “We’re looking for a plan, and party, a program, a candidate or a strategy to get us to shalom. And we need them all. But above all we need to live in the way, the heart and the attitude of Jesus: with our families, our parents, our children, our churches, in our denominations and movements, in our community and our nation.” He closed reminding us of Philippians 2, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” I later thought of where it adds, “…in which you shine like stars in the universe...” when McLaren applied exegesis to the lyrics of Woodstock by Joni Mitchell to help us understand the situation we find ourselves in: http://www.lyricsfreak.com/j/joni+mitchell/woodstock_20075381.html

We are stardust
Billion year old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devils bargain
And we've got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

In the “Getting to Justice” workshop, a Baptist pastor (I arrived late and didn’t get his name) with Sojourners http://www.sojo.net/ challenged us to go beyond soup kitchens and also work for systemic change. He listed kinds of “faith” that keep our focus too narrow to do so:

Privatized faith: It’s just me and Jesus
Prosperity faith: Conspicuous consumption is evidence of blessing
Apolitical faith: Withdrawal from the the process
Apocalyptic faith: Exonerates us from responsibility in the here & now
Constantinian faith: Religion of the empire

We were reminded that the Gospel is not just “fire insurance,” but an ushering in of the Kingdom of God now and for eternity, and of the words of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.” We’re not called to create a “religious left” as a balance or counter to a “religious right,” he said, but to interject our faith perspectives to help transform politics. One speaker hit home when he told us, “We all capitulate to a system that says it’s O.K. to be mentally ill and living on the street.”

Finally, Shane Claiborne, http://www.thesimpleway.org/shane/ author of Jesus for President, told us to ask him who he voted for on November 5th, but suggested we listen more often to our neighbors on such matters (Shane moved into inner-city Philadelphia). He started out comparing the symbols used in the Gospel of Mark with symbols of the Roman Empire at the time when “anti-imperial” talk could get you imprisoned or executed. The symbolism used during Roman occupation was reminiscent to me of spirituals sung by slaves in the American South which allowed them to communicate secret messages and information to each other about the Underground Railroad. He also reminded us of some of the criticisms leveled at the early Christian church, such as, “They love each other before they even know each other!” That should be the kind of rap we earn today. Instead, I learned that 90% of Rwandans, in both tribes, were “Christians” at the time of the horrible 1994 genocide. Shane told of growing up in East Tennessee in a Christian family and how he learned to be “anti-gay,” until one day when he met a gay kid who told him that God had made a mistake when He made him and that he wanted to kill himself. Shane reminded us that the closer we get to God, the less we should want to cast stones.

I am not normally among the paparazzi but I did take some pics http://emergentchristian.meetup.com/29/photos/466828/ and I did (with some help :^) ask Brian McLaren to sign my copy of The Secret Message of Jesus. I loved what he wrote, “to Steve – plotting goodness!” That’s how we should all want to be remembered.

So, informed by Christian values, these are some of the kinds of issues we don’t commonly hear from North American Evangelicals around election time. If you haven't been a part of the work of CCDA before it’s worth checking out. Their 2009 conference will be Oct. 21-25 and the theme is, "Kingdom People Pursuing Kingdom Priorities."

Plotting goodness!

Steve

Friday, October 24, 2008

Oct 08 Meeting

Ten of us met at Laura’s Cuban Restaurant last Tuesday night. Wendy and her husband Tarlton were newcomers, both to this area and to our conversation. We all enjoyed getting to know them.

After a brief re-cap of the article we’ve been discussing, “Five Streams of the Emerging Church.” Steve F. and Flavio shared their “stories” of the spiritual journey that led them to this table tonight. While neither this writer, nor this format, can do justice even to a ten minute summary of a person’s life’s journey, here were some themes:

Steve F. spoke about his “radical” dedication to the cause of Christ since “saying the sinner’s prayer” at a young age – living in community with other young Christians who were recovering from any variety of life’s scars, touring with a Christian rock band, and spending so much time “being all that” for Christ that he missed some of the basics along the way. In fact, he was stopped in his tracks one day when he discovered that one true meaning of the word “radical” was not what he thought. It actually meant “basic…fundamental.” He took a break from all the activity to explore the basic fundamentals of Christianity: to learn to love God and others and to grow to be more like Jesus. Ironically, in doing so, he was criticized by those in his church. Maybe that’s because now he really was being radical according to another definition, “Favoring or effecting fundamental or revolutionary changes in current practices, conditions, or institutions.” Steve shared how he’s “served” the church for many years, but one reason he came to this table is that he simply wants friends. How radical is that?

Flavio grew up as part of a missionary family in Brazil. By the time he got back to the U.S. he discovered that although he was American by passport and heritage, he was “an invisible immigrant” since he didn’t know the ways of American culture. So, you know how kids get treated when they don’t quite fit in. Flavio’s experiences gave him a greater empathy for the marginalized in society, as well as an analytical mind. He’s seen church done all kinds of ways, and can rank them according to a number of attributes: doctrinal purity, worship, community, missional focus, hospitality to strangers and how decisions are made – ownership (with the later becoming more important and the earlier less so as time goes by). The question of how we can participate in and impact the Body of Christ (the “church”) and through it, those around us, is one thing that led Flavio to the emerging conversation. But his continues to be a journey which has not reached a destination. Should we ever feel we’ve “arrived?”

Flavio and Steve both shared of themselves, and we got to know them better. Church is relational. We’ll try to have one person share their story each month.

How we participate in the life of the church led us to the next part of the discussion, about “leaderless organizations.” Flavio and Matt shared some of the principles found in The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom who applied their business know-how to promoting peace and economic development through decentralized networking. In short, “spider” organizations are characterized by top-down hierarchies and communication, centralized knowledge, power and resources, rigidity and clearly defined membership. One major weakness? If you thump it on its head, it will die. By contrast, starfish organizations, like the animals they are named for, can regenerate if one part is cut off. In fact, these are their strengths: Distributed knowledge, power and resources, direct communication (not depending on intermediaries), flexibility, fuzzy boundaries and interchangeable roles based on the participants’ abilities, talents and giftings.

How then do we apply starfish or spider models to the “church?” We just got started on this fascinating topic. It was pointed out that starfish organizations can make decisions by consensus. Participants are then more invested in the decisions of the group, which makes it stronger. Wikipedia is one model here. Common goals are key. What are our goals in the church?

If church can be a decentralized network, how do we deal with “error?” What happens if participants start to embrace downright harmful beliefs and behaviors? Well linked communication is vital. Who are they talking to? Who’s talking to them? And where do we all get our instructions from? Jim pointed out that none of Paul’s epistles were addressed to “church leaders.” Is there really a Holy Spirit “…whom the Father will send in my name, [who] will teach you all things and … remind you of everything I have said to you.”? What is the Holy Spirit saying to you, and to us?

I know many of us are looking forward to continuing the conversation. We’re planning to do so again back at Laura’s on Tuesday night, November 11th.

Steve

Friday, October 3, 2008

Sept 08 Meeting

Seven of us braved the rain last Tuesday night to continue our discussion on what emerging or missional church should look like. Steve F.’s wife Linda joined us along with Flavio’s friend, Shannon, as newcomers. Robin M. started us off by introducing church boundary concepts from “Who is in? Who is out?” http://files.meetup.com/1198907/Who%20is%20In%20Who%20is%20Out.doc based on Stuart Murray’s book Church Planting: Laying Foundations, paraphrased below:

Bounded set – there is a clear line between the church and the world outside the church. Church members are required to subscribe to these boundaries and violation leads to exclusion.

Fuzzy set – there is more room for ambivalence, where doctrinal and ethical issues are open to debate rather than being resolved. There are still boundaries that can be violated, but these are less clear.

Open set – There are effectively no boundaries except those which are self-imposed. Belief and lifestyle are not matters of community concern.

Centered set – a dynamic, rather than static model, where the direction in which a person is facing is more important than their distance from the center. With Christ as the center, where a person is in relation to them is not as important as the direction that their life is traveling. This idea may result in someone whose lifestyle seems good, but is moving away from Christ, while someone who is new to the faith (or even still seeking) is moving towards.

While knowing Christ, and being a disciple or Christ-follower, is still paramount, some said churches can overemphasize the boundaries rather than the journey (Centered set). This can result in a de-emphasis on the importance of community, once someone is “saved,” along with an overemphasis on conformity to the “club rules” as opposed to growing in the direction of loving God and loving others - the “Jesus Creed”. One person reminded us that from God’s perspective, “we’re all out,” (except for Christ in us).

Shannon, who works as a DJ, said he was “saved” (and glad he was) a few years ago in a mega church, but found himself not only alone in a crowd but being told he could no longer associate with the friends he used to have. He explored a small local emergent church community (which was rejected by the mega church) and found real friends. How so? They are authentic, open, non-judgmental, and rather than having all the answers, “…can disagree at times, but all stay centered in God.” Shannon said being part of such community helped him…grow closer to God and to others.

So, do numbers matter? If mega churches can miss community, is church growth important? We were reminded of the fellowship of believers in Acts 2 where, “…the Lord added to their number daily…” When Shannon did meet up with his old friends, now as a Christ-follower, his love extended to one friend who he allowed to detox on his couch. The hope is that one day this friend can similarly reach out to others in need of God’s love and healing. Steve F. reminded us that God’s love starts with those closest to us, and that we can be more intentional about how we relate to those our own homes. He gave an example of how he relates to Linda. Church is in the end relational: Us toward God, and toward each other.

Flavio mentioned a "community experiment," "Buy Nothing New in October" ("NoNO") http://mennohaus.com/ which led to a discussion on social justice. How can American Christians look at global poverty and justify lifestyles of consumerism? Jim offered that “tithing” can be graduated: the more you earn above median, the higher you go above 10%…”giving to those as have need.” (Acts 2:45)

We also talked about how some “club house” churches can create barriers to ministering to the poor and homeless. But can it work the other way? Can there be churches where persons of upper socio-economic status might not “feel the love”? Its possible congregations can become “boutique” churches, catering to certain ethnic, age or socio-economic demographics rather than the diversity found both in our communities as well as in the Body of Christ. This led us back to what’s important. In “Five Streams,” Scot McKnight writes, “First, the emerging movement becomes missional by participating, with God, in the redemptive work of God in this world. In essence, it joins with the apostle Paul in saying that God has given us "the ministry of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:18). Second, it seeks to become missional by participating in the community where God's redemptive work occurs. The church is the community through which God works and in which God manifests the credibility of the gospel.”

McKnight would, “…ask churches to begin by spelling out outcomes (and [he’d] want them to be loving God and loving others) and [he’d] ask pastors and leaders and churches to shape everything in that direction. How often have our churches been taught ‘how’ to love and ‘what loves looks like’ and ‘how we can become more loving’ (of God or others)? If this is the Jesus Creed, then why is it not more central to our focuses?”

What has love looked like in your life, and in our broader church?

Peace & Blessings,

Steve

P.S. Since Tuesday night, the after-conversation has been provocative, and I think ultimately bodes well for future discussion and Kingdom building. Some people have suggested that at our next meeting, a few of us “share our stories” of what led us here, in some depth. This will no doubt lead us into a variety of topics. And after all, “church is relational.”

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Watch The Skies

“Most people think, Great God will come from the skies,

Take away everything, And make everybody feel high.

But if you know what life is worth, You will look for yours on earth:

And now you see the light, You stand up for your rights.”

Bob Marley & Peter Tosh – Get Up Stand Up

Another lunch…another post. This time, while the Wailers’ eschatology is not exactly my cup of Soursop, I am reminded of the lyrics to Get Up Stand Up when confronted by the following quotes from conversations I’ve had:

“The quicker the environment is ruined and WWIII comes, the sooner Jesus will return.”

“The Anti-Christ? We should vote him in! That means the Second Coming won’t be far behind.”

And, “We have to be careful not to make people too comfortable in this life, they’ll miss that they need Christ.”

I find the last paraphrased quote that came up in a recent lunch with another good friend especially ironic considering Jesus’ announced raison d’être in the 4th chapter of Luke’s Gospel:

“And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.’”

I also thought the quote suggesting that we hasten environmental degradation and war on behalf of the coming Kingdom of God ironic since it was stated by the social services director of a large homeless shelter in our community. I asked him, so why help the homeless? Wouldn’t it follow that the more homeless people we leave on the streets the sooner the Lord’s return? We reached an impasse.

I fully grasp that hardship often opens people up to spiritual realities, and to reach for things beyond our material lives, but at its worst, this approach reminds me too much of the abuses of the Church of England during the Irish Potato Famine. That was when Irish Catholics were only fed once they converted to Protestantism. More recently, I have sat in the back of missions with homeless Rastafarians as they muttered curses under their breath because they had to endure one more, long, ranting “sermon” before they could get a meal.

I wouldn’t be writing this post if these weren’t real conversations I’ve had with real Christians of late, or even if they were isolated ones. But they’re not. I grew up in the Late Great Planet Earth generation where Hal Lindsey’s book predicted the imminent return of Christ...say, oh, by the late 1980s. And that got a huge amount of traction and influenced evangelical thinking to this day. There is a real school of thought out there that if we hasten the collapse of western civilization, we’ll simultaneously hasten the rule of God. What if that’s wrong?

In their book, Adventures in Missing the Point, Tony Campolo and Brian McLaren weigh in on the “Second Coming.” Campolo writes regarding the “end times” that, “It has traditionally been perceived as a time when Christ would return, join the efforts of his people who were trying to bring in a just social order called the kingdom of God, and thereby bring those attempts to a glorious completion (Philippians 1:6).” This a very different approach than letting the world “go to hell in a hand basket” in order to somehow hasten our redemption. While he struggles to integrate them, McLaren writes, “When I read the Bible, I see a mingling of both streams of prophesy. One stream plants in us a dream of a just and peaceful society on earth (as in heaven), a hope within our history. The other stream emphasizes an eternal destiny, a hope beyond history as we know it.” These two streams are not mutually exclusive. They are parts of what make up the whole, and consistent, narrative. Or as Scot McKnight says in A Community Called Atonement, “…the atonement is designed for both an earthly realization and an eternal destination... [it] is not just something done to us and for us, it is something we participate in – in this world, in the here and now. It is not something done, but something that is being done and something we do as we join God in the missio Dei.”

Campolo continues, “Rather than the Dispensational idea of fighting battles in a war that ultimately goes so bad that Christians must be raptured out of it, the Second Coming promises that if we do not grow weary in well doing, in due season we shall reap (Galatians 6:9)…'Jerusalem' [in Revelation] is the kind of society that Jesus promised when he declared the Jubilee, the city in which [getting back to Luke 4] the poor would have good news, the oppressed would be set free, and the broken hearted would be healed. This ‘Jerusalem’ is the social system that the whole of history points toward, that is in fact the very goal of history - a kingdom that will be realized at Christ’s physical return.” In the meantime, to Camplolo, we are part of the mission, “…the history of the world is infused with the presence of God, who is guiding the world toward becoming the kind of world God willed for it when it was created.”

So, rather than waiting for “Great God to come from the skies,” maybe our focus should be on being the type of missional church that Rick Meigs (“The Blind Beggar”) describes at Friend Of Missional http://www.friendofmissional.org/ One that “…is evangelistic and faithfully proclaims the gospel through word and deed. Words alone are not sufficient; how the gospel is embodied in our community and service is as important as what we say.” So, let's not be afraid of making people "too comfortable." Maybe in comforting them, they will come to recognize the face of Christ. And maybe in doing so, "our redemtion draweth nigh."

What do you see when you look up?

Troddin down Babylon,

Steve

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Organic Church

I had another great lunch conversation with a good friend, Rob, last week. We talked for an hour about finding common ground on “emerging Christianity,” and the continuing discussion from our August meeting on “How we do church”.

From my perspective (and I won’t speak for Rob but I believe this was true of his) we found we agree on the centrality of Christ, but have different perspectives…different lenses... through which we see experiences, expressions and framing stories of the Gospel.

Take church authority for instance. First, we agreed on the need for Christians to look to authoritative sources in their life’s journey: Scripture, pastors, church tradition, the Holy Spirit, that “still small voice.” But we clarified the distinction between our sources being “authoritative,” meaning we yield respect because of the inherent qualities we trust and admire in the authority, versus “authoritarian” power which demands and coerces obedience regardless of the quality of leadership or the respect of those yielding.

Then we also discussed the “relationships” of church authority in our lives (Here I also include some references that another good friend, Robin M., sent me after the lunch). “Institutional churches,” according to author Frank Viola http://www.housechurchresource.org/ are characterized by a top-down hierarchical organization. For some, there may be a fear that unless this type of top-down control is in place, chaos ensues. For me, having no authority allows us to stray, but relying too much on hierarchical authority dismisses the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, which is here to teach us, and it can dismiss our uniqueness and freedom in Christ, along with many other legitimate ways that God speaks to each one of us. Viola proposes an alternative he calls “organic church.” He says, “By ‘organic church,’ I mean a non-traditional church that is born out of spiritual life instead of constructed by human institutions and held together by religious programs. Organic church life is a grass roots experience that is marked by face-to-face community, every-member functioning, open-participatory meetings (opposed to pastor-to-pew services), non-hierarchical leadership, and the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ as the functional Leader and Head of the gathering.” Viola goes on to use different types of plants as an analogy for different types of organic churches.

I compare organic church to a grapevine. Jesus said, “I am the vine, and you are the branches.” Grapevines, as we know, are disorganized tangles of trunks and leaves and stems and grapes. They are not straight, tall trees with neat radial branches. My “church authority” might include all of the sources mentioned above, and I might add to that, my friend who the Lord led to start a men’s fellowship in his home. At another time, it might include a different friend who recently graduated from seminary and has demonstrated his pastoral care for me… and then he might yield authority to me in other areas where I have matured more. At other times, my church authority might extend to trusted authors or bloggers who have sewn into my life. I've quoted or gleaned from many of these different sources in this post. So here, church authority is not “linear” but “distributed.” Much like the grapevine.

Speaking of plants, this also makes me wonder about fig trees and the incident in Mark 11:12-14 and other Gospels where Jesus curses the barren fig tree and it withers. Some have said this could symbolize the barrenness of the teachings and authority of the Temple priests due to their lack of true faith, and being cut off from the true vine... Jesus.

Grapevine relationships then become not just vertical (me and God) or even additionally horizontal (me and others in God’s house) but now includes personal wholeness and relationship with the world and all others around me. Or, as Scot McKnight puts it in his book A Community Called Atonement, redemption goes in four directions, “…resolving sin and bringing humans back home in their relationship with God, with self, with others and with the world.”

Rob is faithful to remind me that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) when he hears certain “emerging church” expressions about things like "organic church," "simple church," "house church," etc. (I'm reminded here of David Bowie's line, "...same old thing in brand new drag"). But while God is steadfast in his love, there are again new perceptions, lenses, experiences and framing stories that I believe help us to grow closer to God, and keep reforming, in each generation. There were even “new covenants” and “new commands” throughout the thousands of years of the Bible. And there will be “a new heavens and a new earth…and a new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven.” Ultimately, if we simply dismiss new conventions, we discount the value of any religious writing, art, thought, or practice after the last words in Revelation (or even the four Gospels).

What then do we do with church tradition, including its modern “institutional” paradigms? The fear of change on the one hand is of, “throwing the baby (Jesus in this case) out with the bath water” vs. pointing to the baby (the church, the “body of Christ” in this case) and saying, “the baby’s sick, we need to change the bath water and take the baby to the hospital for diagnosis and treatment." Baptist author Reggie McNeal says in his book Present Future, “The current church culture in North America is on life support. The plug will be pulled either when the money runs out or when the remaining three-fourths of a generation who are institutional loyalists die-off, or both….The church established by Jesus will survive until he returns…[but] the church culture in North America is a vestige of the original movement, an institutional expression of religion that is in part a civil religion and in part a club where religious people can hang out with other people whose politics, worldview and lifestyle match theirs.” Powerful words these (and this is but a sample from McNeal) but words that are resonating with an increasing number of Christians and that is probably one reason you are reading this post.

But what of the many good church traditions through the past two millennia? Want to drive a Catholic-basher crazy? Tell them there were Christians, real saved going-to-heaven Christians, around a thousand years before the Reformation began. And that they were Roman Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox). The church has always had rich and wonderful spiritual meat for its members. And still does. But which denominational "doctrine" do we follow?

In Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy, he extols some of the best of nearly every major Christian movement since the church began. McLaren “celebrates orthodox doctrine-in-practice,” and “while not burying doctrinal distinctives, puts them in their marginal place.” This has been my approach, and it has made it impossible for me to rationally choose to adhere to one denomination over all others. It used to be that “full Gospel” referred to the charismatic movement. Perhaps now this term could apply to a non-denominational, emerging church movement that embraces every expression, perception, lens, experience and framing story of Biblical narrative - focused on the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Balance again is the key. In some ways we can minister to, or with, institutional churches. In some ways we must work around them, as the Lord leads us, to…the “full Gospel," and to the true vine.

Deriving the benefits of church authority in our lives, using a distributed authority model, naturally requires conversation. Such conversation can often be hampered by strict denominational constraints, and when “church” is limited to a lecture format (pastor-to-pew services). Again, what McKnight says about atonement is useful here, “Our grasp of atonement is partial; the God we are grasping for is complete and whole. In God there is absolute truth; in our articulations there is always something lacking, something partial, and something still yearning for yet more. A proper confidence in God who atones reminds us of this and keeps us humble – and in conversation as we work this atonement thing out in each generation.”

Steve

Friday, September 12, 2008

Stones

“The people worked together
And they lifted many stones.”

Neil Young - Zuma

I’ve had some amazing lunch conversations lately. One of them was with Gordon. Gordon is a retired gentleman who I see whenever I join with other Christians during the one hour a week on Sunday many call “church” (I am also blessed to have “church” frequently, throughout the week, whenever two or more are gathered in His name. And they are wonderful gatherings). I am sharing this with Gordon’s permission.

While we were having lunch after “church,” Gordon was telling me how it is hard for him sometimes to have faith in Jesus as a friend, and to know that Jesus will always be there for him. I compared having this confidence to how a friend is gained, through memories of interactions we have with a person who proves through life experiences to be loyal and faithful to us (and we to them), and whose company we enjoy.

Gordon brought to lunch a purple velvet pouch full of stones. He explained to me that he has been buying polished river stones at the local Dollar Store that remind him of specific instances of God’s intervening in his life. He related this to passages in the Bible such as in Joshua 4 where it says, “…and [Joshua] said to them, …Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder, to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, 'What do these stones mean?' tell them …These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever."

Gordon shared about both physical and emotional pain he has endured for most of the past fifteen years. He said that after a Catholic doctor examined him once, he told him he was “blessed,” because of his pain. Blessed are those in pain, for they shall be healers of others. Gordon showed me a kidney shaped stone. He said it reminded him of when he asked for the gift of healing because of the suffering he has known for so long. He said that the only thing that relieves his pain is when he serves others. He said he prayed once for someone who was sick, and they were healed.

He next showed me a “pretty white rock” which reminded him of Joshua 21:45, “Not one of all the LORD's good promises to the house of Israel failed; every one was fulfilled.”

Gordon then showed me a flat dark rock. He was visibly upset as he shared that it reminded him of a time that he wished someone ill … and ill came to them. Now, he always remembers that there is power in our words, and that we can use them for good or ill.

Gordon showed me a white stone, with an indentation, where some power had worn away a hole. This stone reminded him of the power of God to wear away seemingly solid surfaces.

Then he showed me a small black stone, smaller than all the others. That reminded him of life’s storms.

Finally, Gordon showed me a round stone. A lighter mineral formed an “s” shape right through the middle. It reminded him that he and God are inseparable. One side was light and pure, but the other side had a dark area that reminded him that he is “not there yet,” but the two halves together remind him that in spite of that, Jesus is with him... all the time.

I gave Gordon my Prayer of St. Francis bookmarker, because it reminded me of some of his stone stories.

In his book, Ancient-Future Faith - Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World, Robert Webber writes in his chapter titled, “Recovering Symbolic Communication,” “…in these symbolic ways God’s presence and truth are mediated to us.”

What are God’s stones for your life?

Steve

Saturday, September 6, 2008

What's Left?

As of this writing, Category 3 Hurricane Ike is trending ever so slightly south and away from where many of us live in South Florida. But still, by early next week, a little jog in course could result in the buildings we see around us being flattened, our stuff getting blown away and drenched, and our finances and how we spend our time all changing for years to come. Injury… and even death… could happen to us, or those close to us, as a result of a natural disaster.

What’s left?

Such uncertainty was also the rule of the day in Judea 2,000 years ago. The Roman oppressors, and their surrogates, could at any time take your money, your freedom, or even your life. How, in such conditions, could Jesus challenge us not to worry and speak about inner peace, and even inexplicable joy?

Well, here are a few thoughts…I was having lunch the other day with a friend and the conversation turned to poverty. We agreed that while there is real injustice that God would have us work to make right, poverty, or wealth, can also have a much broader definitions. I recalled a trip to El Salvador in the 1980s when I saw so many people living in houses made of sticks, thatched roofs and dirt floors. What did they have left? By contrast, at least to my North American eyes, they wore the cleanest, brightest clothes and the happiest countenances. What did they have, but God and each other? What else did they…need?

In his book, A Community Called Atonement, Scot McKnight writes, “…atonement is only understood when it is understood as the restoration of humans – in all directions – so that they form a society (the ecclesia, the church) wherein God’s will is lived out and given freedom to transform all of life.” Or, as Dallas Willard puts it in The Divine Conspiracy, “Jesus came among us to show and teach the life for which we were made. He came very gently…and set afoot a conspiracy of freedom in truth among human beings. Having overcome death he remains among us. By relying on his word and presence we are enabled to reintegrate the little realm that makes up our life into the infinite rule of God. And that is the eternal kind of life.” (Emphasis added)

Again, for McKnight, “Jesus’ kingdom mission …comes to fruition in Christian community described in Acts 2…The same can be said for Acts: 32-35. Here we have a society in which God’s will is understood in terms like equality, social justice, economic availability to and liability for one another, and fellowship. Jesus’ vision was coming into existence in the growing clutch of Jesus’ followers who were experiencing the empowering graces of Pentecost. The church is the alternative society to the structures of power found in the Roman world.”

So, if we find ourselves next week with as much…or as little…as the campesino families in El Salvador, is that really all we…need? Immanuel, God with us, and each other, from which nothing can ever separate us. Is that what’s left? And is that all there really is, for which we can be joyously thankful every day?

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Community

Pictured at right, the Agape Community in Brockton, MA.

“One thought about community: wherever you are, right now, look around and figure out how to love those who are with you. Don't think about how to attract them, convert them, save them, or change them. Think about how to love them. Then do it: Love them. Talk to them, care for them, help them, challenge them, laugh with them, pray with them, love them. …You will be in community.” - david

During our August meeting (see 8/27 post) we continued a conversation about how we do church and what Chrsitian community means. I was “saved” (thank God) and baptized at 13 at a local Independent Baptist Church here in Hollywood. Shortly afterwards, that church hosted what was billed as “the longest banana split in the world!” At 13 years old, I found the whole thing cheesy (and messy) and realized even then, it was a gratuitous attempt to get me to invite my 13 year old friends to get more of them “saved” and baptized. Today, I looked up this church (which I no longer attend) online. The chuch has re-packaged itself, but is now hosting a “Community Fun Fest - Come enjoy a fun filled day that includes a free International food court, live music, petting zoo, pony rides, bounce house, dunk tank, community displays, giveaways & more!”

“Community” in the Body of Christ has been one of the topics of late that holds a lot of interest for me. This is true especially since reading a book by one of Kathy’s religion professors at Trinity College titled, “Community – A Trinity of Models” by Frank G. Kirkpatrick. I want to understand how community happens in my own life, in my (broader) “church,” with friends and family, and in my neighborhood. On August 20, David Fitch posted, "When They Will Not Come - Community: The anti-attractional process of beginning a church with community.” Here are a few excerpts:

“’Community’ is an overused word in American churches. It is used to describe any number of ideas that all seem so elusive. And no one really knows what ‘it’ means. Has anyone ever seen community? Even with all this baggage, I firmly believe ‘community’ is a non-negotiable essential defining the very heart of what it means to be church in the world. We therefore must push for definition and concrete practices when it comes to community. ‘Community’ should be that much of a defining issue for we who seek to follow Christ and His Mission in the world.”


“I believe a host of problems in American evangelicalism originate in our disregard for community. Indeed, our hyped up attractional approach to church has put the individual first in such a way that community becomes an afterthought which creates problems for discipleship, catechesis of our children, as well as evangelism. We seek to draw the individual in, sell him/her a message, and then provide communities. Community by definition becomes commodified.”

“The church holds no special place as a community. It is but another social services agency or distributor of spiritual goods and services. As a result, there is nothing more oxymoronic than to try to ‘attract people to our church for its community.’ The question then is this, in a post Christendom context, with something so essential to the church as community, where do we start? How can we begin a community without first attracting people into it? What do you think?”


You can read the whole post, and comments, at: http://www.reclaimingthemission.com/2008/08/when-they-will-not-come-2-community_20.html


The comments are fascinating. Again, excerpts:
· "Church planters should work in a team, practicing and modeling community within their own relationships" – smokin joe
· “But I think what I am beginning to realize that community is about is relationships and those relationships are not always easy. There can be conflict within the community - so does that mean the community is not functioning properly? I don't believe so – that’s probably when things get real and authentic - when life is messy but grace, truth and love are present perhaps that is what community is about.” - esther
· “I can't help but be reminded of Bonhoeffer's work on this in ‘Life Together.’ Christian community originates, grows, draws it's life and is centered on Christ. Coming together to see, hear, speak, know, touch and fellowship with Christ in our midst is what makes a ‘Christ-community’ so unique. Are we growing in an intentional desire and practice to know Christ who comes to me and he thru me to my brother/sister?” - Mickey
· “… I feel that ‘authentic community’can only really be attained if and when preceded by ‘authentic cause’- the cause of Christ, of course. I think that is where it starts. How this cause is carried out may vary in different churches I guess, but I think that ultimately, CAUSE is what ‘attracts’ and brings people together in a way that will foster authentic community.” – Denise
· Or as Nate said, “If we are trying to avoid the whole bait-and-switch pitfall of the attractional model ("You should come here to get what you want...ok, now that you're here, it's really not about you."), don't we form missional communities by starting with mission?”
And I think “david” nailed it in the comment at the top of this post. I was actually looking for a comment that articulated his view.


My own take is that “church,” and “community” and the “Kingdom of God” are so intertwined, that the lines get blurred for me. This is even more so if you take into acount the missional aspect of church. The writer of Hebrews simply says, "And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together...but let us encourage one another." My church community, then, becomes for me all the close friends who walk side by side with me on the journey with Christ, whether I see them on Sunday mornings or hopefully at other times as well. Church happens when we talk and joke and laugh and get serious 1:1 and in groups of 3 and 4 and 5 and 7. And church is when we have glorious conversations with wait staff in restaurants and with bartenders and co-workers and homeless people. And church is when we are intentional about finding ways to minister to the poor and disenfranchised in the name and in the cause of our savior. And church is being with our family in the park on a Sunday, and watching U2 in 3D and having conversations with friends who are not as far along on the journey as we are. And church is when we struggle at work every day with “administrivia,” but know that what we are doing is ultimately in some small way furthering the Mission of God. And church is reading and blogging and talking and doing and loving and confessing and celebrating and crying and praying and praising God every day.

This is not to say that one shouldn’t have that hour on Sunday and/or the hour on Wednesday, to gather with a local “congregation,” be it large or small, to “praise and worship” and preach and learn and fellowship and make it the best hour or two it can be. But never mistake those two hours, or that building, as defining the boundary of “church.” When you keep that in mind you’ll take a lot of pressure off that hour or two as being the “be-all and end-all” of church and community and see it instead revealed more and more as part of our day-to-day, hour-by-hour, “eternal kind of life” in Christ.


How do you define “Christian Community”?

- Steve

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

August 08 Meeting

Eleven of us met last night at Cancun Mexican Grill. The food was spicy, and the room was a little hot, but the conversation was warm and friendly. There were several “first-timers” including Jennifer and Steve F.’s daughter Lauren. Beth, her husband Flavio and their friend Matt also joined us from “Love Bags” (see 8/13 post) and Epic Re-mix Emergent Community (see "resources"). “Regulars” included Kathy, Robin L, Steve F. and I. And Robin M. was a great co-facilitator. Interestingly, there was a disproportionate number of psychology and social work majors among us. We talked more about “how we do church,” from "Five Streams of the Emerging Church." Why are some worship services boring? Why do we need “worship services?” (I have to confess that a disproportionate number of U2 fans found each other when we got onto this topic :^) Why are sermons the center-piece of Sunday mornings? When can we ask questions? And where do we get our answers? Do churhces teach in the ways that people learn? Check out: http://www.emergentvillage.com/weblog/unlearning-church-engaging-the-whole-person

Can “church” happen outside of the church building on Sunday mornings? Several said it does. Relationship is key. Small gatherings are key. Anthony lamented that “breaking bread” together (like we were doing last night) has too often been reduced to anemic, sanitized wafer and grape juice rituals rather than celebrations of Jesus among us.

Some expressed frustration with the modern era church “machine” (impersonal church/growth/building campaigns) that sucks up time, money and energy, and they are looking for alternatives. Check out http://collaborativechurch.net/ for some amazing stats. Jennifer, a Christian who organizes a yoga Meetup, shared about Quaker tradition, which was cutting edge in its day but became watered down and codified. The Salvation Army started as an out-of-the-box “missional” church in the 1860s and is struggling to re-claim its missional roots after 130 years of industrial era mass production and hyper-structuring. So, even the emerging church movement could one day succumb to the “calcification of charisma.”

Even in discussing the negative impacts of professionalizing of the pastoral ministry (see 8/2 post) we shared an appreciation for big gatherings of believers and the historic Body of Christ which, starting with Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, has carried the Gospel message forward to us today. So, is emerging Christianity in the post-modern era an either/or proposition compared to modern church convention? Or is it an “and,” added to the modern church where we are “always reforming?”

We also touched on the topic of what’s un-attracting some people to Christianity and how we can plant seeds with those not in the church, rather than constantly pulling at the weeds that divide us (see “unChristian” and “Finding Common Ground” under “recently read”). Robin L. shared about Rick Warren’s PEACE Plan (link under “resources”) and about the concentration of poverty in the neighborhood near his office. Matt gave an update on Love Bags’ Monday night homeless outreach in Pompano Beach.

We officially ended around 9 but a few of us hung out for some fun “after-conversations.” I’m beginning to think that our journey is one of long “after-conversations,” and loving it :^) We plan to meet again Tuesday night, September 30 at a place TBD (check http://emergentchristian.meetup.com/29/ soon for details), and keep the conversation going until then.

Peace & blessings,

Steve

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Missional - "Love Bags"

Robin and I joined Ed and the crew of “Love Bags” tonight on the streets in Ft. Lauderdale. “Love Bags” is thirty or so Christians from various churches, mostly young adults, putting what they have been hearing in church for a long time into action. They are going to where the poor and destitute gather to help them with basic needs, and to give them a lot of love. The group meets every Tuesday night at 7:30 in the Ft. Lauderdale area (and on different nights in other cities) to make up bags containing food, water, and socks, and then use those gifts as a means to begin a conversation with homeless persons they meet. Robin said, “It’s wonderful to see that they build relationships with those they’ve met over time, and greet them by name.”

The men and women we met were appreciative of the donated chicken and sandwiches we brought and gladly stayed to talk and hang out. I spoke to Charles, Jack and Armando. Armando saw my camera and shared that he used to be a photographer. How he wound up on the street was too personal for him to share with me just yet. Several of the guys are thinking about taking the next step to get off the streets. We met at Starbucks afterwards to fellowship and talk about ways to be more effective in reaching out. It was a great night, and I hope to go back.

Ed, the organizer tonight (and pictured here, with Jack wearing a cap) attends Epic-Remix, an Emergent Church Community in North Broward (linked to this site under “Friends, Resources…”)

The Good News did a great story on Love Bags back in May. Here are a few excerpts:

“What’s in the ‘Love Bag’ is really insignificant,” says Bob Denison, one of the group’s founders. “We just try to use the Love Bag to start a conversation. And we hope that these conversations turn into relationships and that through these relationships people meet Jesus. And, hopefully, through meeting Jesus, their lives will change forever.”

“As a result of the relationships forged through these ministries, a few people have gotten off the streets in Broward…”

“If you are feeding homeless people for the trend, it dies off once you get tired of it,” [Jacob Kaetterhenry] says. “But if you love people and you hate poverty and injustice, that’s enough to make it grow.”

You can read the whole article at: http://www.goodnewsfl.org/local.asp?page=bc/0508/front/homeless.asp

See more photos from tonight, and learn more about where to meet up with "Love Bags," on our Meetup site: http://emergentchristian.meetup.com/29/

"...for God is Love" I John 4:8

Steve

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Professionalizing of the Pastoral Ministry

Thanks to Scot McKnight at http://www.jesuscreed.org/ for sharing these posts. I found this article on "Professionalizing of the Pastoral Ministry" to be stunning in that it includes many themes I have heard a lot of people telling me, but written for the first time in a clear and concise article. And it points to a way out. I’d be especially interested in comments by clergy and current or former “church leaders.” I included a few excerpts below, written (or quoted) by David G. Dunbar, PhD, President and Professor of Theology at Biblical Seminary, to give you a flavor:

"We pastors are being killed by the professionalizing of the pastoral ministry. . . . Professionalism has nothing to do with the essence and heart of the Christian ministry. The more professional we long to be, the more spiritual death we will leave in our wake." - John Piper

“The NT presents the church as an organism comprised of many diverse spiritual gifts, all needed for the healthy function of the body. For much of the history of the church this picture of unity-in-diversity has been threatened by a clergy-laity distinction which suggests a qualitative distinction between the ministerial class and the 'ministered-to' class. The modern turn toward professionalism only serves to increase the distance between these groups. Little wonder many pastors report that they are lonely, isolated, and without close friends.”

“Church members who view the gospel primarily as a promise to meet their felt needs will find it hard to conceive of pastors as less than professional providers of spiritual goods and services.”

You can read the whole article on Missional Journal (also linked to this blog) at: http://www.biblical.edu/images/belong/PDFs/vol2no6.pdf

Peggy's "Freedom Dances" http://www.theporpoisedivinglife.com/porpoise-diving-life.asp?pageID=500 compliments the above nicely where she writes, "When hierarchy uses power to compel, stifling freedom and courage, it, um, misses the mark. When the Church rejects the gloriously creative responsibility that accompanies freedom in Christ by grasping for the security (irresponsibility?) that comes with hierarchy or power, the Bride of Christ becomes quadriplegic…She cannot get up and dance with the Groom. The members of the Body are just not properly connected to each other—they have not allowed the Holy Spirit to inspire and empower them to dance together."

Blessings, Steve

Monday, July 28, 2008

July 08 Meeting

Nine of us gathered at the Moonlite Diner for our July conversation. A few newcomers fit right in to our discussion of Scot McKnight's article, "Five Streams of the Emerging Church," which we plan to continue next month. It was amazing to hear the same themes from so many of those gathered, some of whom had just met. I enjoyed both the insight and humor that everyone shared! We discussed how emerging conversations are prophetic (or at least provocative) concerning how the "church" needs to change. Change how? One aspect is that, while we have a basis in Christ, "no systematic theology can be final." We say, "This is what I believe, but I could be wrong. What do you think? Let's talk." And talk we did. But it doesn't stop there. "How a person lives is more important than what she or he believes...This holistic emphasis finds perfect expression in the ministry of Jesus, who went about doing good to bodies, spirits, families, and societies. He picked the marginalized up from the floor and put them back in their seats at the table; he attracted harlots and tax collectors; he made the lame walk and opened the ears of the deaf. He cared, in other words, not just about lost souls, but also about whole persons and whole societies." We discussed the importance of living "communal lives," by serving and loving God and one another as an expression of "church." We plan to continue the conversation in a month at a place to be determined. Join our Meetup Group for upcoming notices and details http://emergentchristian.meetup.com/29/ We also decided in the meantime that we would share missional opportunities in the community that any of us might participate in, through Meetup, so that others can join in if they choose. And we decided that we would continue to encourage each other, through these conversations and in any way, and any time we can, "in the way of Jesus."