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 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.”


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.

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?


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. (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, caf├ęs, 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 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.



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.


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 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, 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:

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 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, 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 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!