Jesus

Why Neighborhood Matters: Christian Conferences, Consumption & Everyday Life

IMG_1152As I sat on my porch overlooking the streets of my urban neighborhood and the sparkling lights of downtown San Diego, I thought to myself, “There is no place I’d rather be. THIS is where life happens and where peace is made real.”  

Just 30 minutes before, I had gotten off a plane from a 24 hour trip to Chicago for the Justice Conference where Jer Swigart and I co-hosted the Faith and Peace Track representing our organization, The Global Immersion Project.  

The time was incredible as the room filled with pastors, leaders and practitioners from countries spanning the world who created a dynamic environment of collaboration, excitement and activism. The mysterious and enlivening story of Jesus was palpable. 

As we taught through our content on Everyday Peacemaking, we told story after story of ways peace -- which we define as the holistic repair of relationship -- is not only being realized in the midst of global conflicts, but on the streets of our neighborhoods. With each story I told about my kids, wife and faith community (all whom have committed to live the Jesus Way on the streets of our neighborhood of Golden Hill), I was stirred more and more with gratitude for the gift of a community of practice.

Teaching, training and inspiration matter, but only in so much as they move us to everyday practice in place. That is the discipleship challenge. Jesus wasn’t one who gave a sterling sermon, got folks fired up and then retreated to the hills (although he would do that too). Jesus LIVED the content he taught in the muck and messiness of everyday life on the streets of his Galilean neighborhood. 

We live in a culture that values hype. It may be the best intentioned hype in the world, but if it only stirs excitement for a one-off experience and doesn’t train and mobilize people into the not-so-glamorous realities of everyday life, I question whether it does more harm than good. 

When we strive for some lofty “ideal” that never translates into reality, we’ve missed the point. And, that’s why a neighborhood and community of practice is a necessity for everyday discipleship (peacemaking). Our neighborhoods (whatever the may look like!) are the context in which the Jesus Community is called to embody the Resurrection life in a broken world.  

The day after I got home from the conference, my community came together for our weekly worship gathering that rotates between our homes in our neighborhood. We spent the whole evening pausing to reflect on different places in our neighborhood where we have seen and experienced God’s kingdom made real in both the beautiful and broken realties of everyday life. We looked at pictures and shared stories that have come to life in our rec center, local parks, back ally’s, yoga studio, coffee shops and front patio’s. 

It was a cathartic experience. When you’ve given yourself to a place year after year, it is easy to get discouraged and forget how much life has transpired and how much transformation taken place.  

In that moment, I thought, “I’m all for participating in conferences…but they must remain a means to an end that looks like transformed people and places.”

So, let’s celebrate moments of collaboration, teaching and training while putting them in their rightful place as a means to fuel our everyday life and practice. Just like anything, Christian conferences can become yet another opportunity to simply consume for consumptions sake. Sadly, that actually distracts and demobilizes the Church from being the Church. 

Friends, we were made for so much more than a one-off high. And, the world desperately needs the Jesus Community to live into its vocation as an instrument of peace every single moment of every single day in the unique contexts we inhabit.  

What a gift to come together and celebrate our common hearts and vision. Now, let’s go get after it. 

————--

NOTE: Pic is on our patio with my wife 34 weeks pregnant with twins!  

The Bible (Part 1): Tool of Violence or Liberation…or Both?

Holy-Bible-by-Steve-Snodgrass-Accessed-August-4-2014.-Used-by-Creative-Commons-Licence.-httpsflic.krp79AtF3The Bible is one of the most misunderstood books in the history of humanity. Yet, it is the most read book in the history of humanity.  

It has been used to produce beautiful and broken realities:

  • The Bible has been used to silence and dehumanize women as “less than” and inferior. Some scholars have gone as far as saying women lack the image of God. Obviously, this leads to abuse and exploitation.
  • The Bible has been used to affirm the enslavement and exploitation of complete races of people who look different than those in power.
  • The Bible has been used to justify some of the bloodiest and unjust wars in human history.
  • The Bible has been used to isolate segments of society as though they are modern day lepers who are trying to infect the rest of the society.
  • ON THE OTHER HAND, a massive number of human rights and liberation movements throughout history have been fueled by a community who held the Bible as their sacred text. To name a few: The civil rights movement, modern unearthing of the sex trafficking industry, global reduction of poverty and increased access to clean water, overturning South African apartheid, etc…

This begs the question, “Is the problem the Bible or the way in which we have interpreted it over centuries of Church history?”

The other day, our church community started a series focused on asking hard questions about the Bible; where it came from, how it was written and assembled, what it contains and what are faithful ways we can begin to interpret its seemingly beautiful and broken contents. 

Let’s be honest, many folks have been reading the Bible since they were small children and now approach it will so many assumptions around interpretation and application that our engagement with the living text has calcified. On the other hand, many of us are new to following Jesus and asking where this book containing violence, infidelity and tribalism fits into liberating love and faithful discipleship.

We have two choices: 1. Continue with our assumptions about the text and stay comfortable (and potentially resentful), or 2. Engage the text critically seeking a renewed understanding of its place in our Christian story.   

I would endorse the latter. We don’t honor the Scriptures by dancing around the hard questions that force us into the muck and messiness of this complex story. No, we honor the Scriptures when we push into them with an eye toward understanding where they fit in God’s story of reconciliation with humanity and redemption of all the cosmos. It should make us squirm when we read about God endorsed genocide in the Old Testament and dehumanizing endorsements of “slavery” and gender inequality in the New Testament. We can let that squirming fester and lead us to resentment or withdrawal, or we can jump right into it seeking to understand beyond a surface reading that fails to invite us into the depth and breadth of the text in context.

A Couple Thoughts to Frame this Conversation

We don’t follow the Bible, we follow Jesus. When those get inverted, bad things happen. Yes, the Bible is one of the primary resources for faithfully following Jesus, and we are commanded to obey Scripture, but it is a means to an end…not the end in and of itself. When we follow the Bible (or, more accurately, our interpretation of it…) rather than Jesus, we may get the “right” answers while failing to live, love and lead in the way Jesus did and calls us to do. We can’t prooftext our way to right relationship (e.g. 1st century Pharisees or modern street preachers holding hate signs that may -- or may not -- have the “right” answers but in no way reflect the love of Jesus for humanity). We must enter into relationship and allow the Spirit to lead and guide us in the middle of it. 

The Bible wasn’t written ABOUT us, but it was written FOR us. We have to understand context and genre because most people writing the Bible and/or whose story the Bible was telling lived in a radically different context that we do today. The vast majority of the Biblical canon is written about a people (Israel) who are seeking to rightly follow God (Yahweh) and reflect his love to the world as they live as a migrant community wandering the Middle East or as a community in exile under the heavy yoke of Empire (of course, they had seasons in power as well). Bottom line, as Western Christians who have the most “power” in the world, there is very little we can relate to about the realities of who the Bible was written about. We’d be wise to ask our immigrant neighbors or our brothers and sisters living under the reign of a violent regime how they may help us intrepret the Story of God told through Israel. Lastly, it was written FOR us in as much as it is a story of humanity’s (which includes us) journey back to God and his mission of reconciliation and redemption of all the cosmos. 

Infallibility, Inerrancy and all that fun stuff. This is where things often get a bit sticky. The Bible is a book written by human beings with stories, agendas and literary techniques unique within their context. Yes, the Bible was God-breathed, but we have to understand both the human writing and human reading of the text. Inerrancy is a modern concept; not applied to Scripture until the Enlightenment when truth became primarily associated with science, logic and rationality. Infallibility doesn’t lead people astray, it leads people into the middle of the human story (with all its muck, mess, beauty, hope, tragedy, doubt, etc) and of God’s willingness to meet them right in the middle of it. 

The Art of Interpretation. There is a long history of brilliant people trying to decide how in the world to interpret this wildly complex and sacred text. The way in which said brilliant people have chosen to interpret represents a really, REALLY wide spectrum. Some have chosen to see Scripture as allegorical (Church Father, Origen, being a leading proponent), which proposes that the deepest truth of Scripture isn’t found in a literal reading, but in the space where the words are pointing us (beyond and below a literal reading). On the other end of the spectrum, some argue that a literal reading of text is the only way to faithfully interpret the truth being conveyed by the biblical authors. In short, it is important to note that there is no such thing as reading the Bible without interpreting it. There are many ways to interpret and we trust the Spirit to guide us to those ends, but all is interpretation and we’d be wise to embrace that as a gift rather than a threat.  

PRIMARY THEME: It is important to enter our reading of the Bible with an eye toward the meta theme of God’s Story, which is God’s Reconciliation with Humanity and Redemption of all the cosmos (New Creation). Amid all of the potentially confusing, complex and confounding pieces of Scripture, this is the theme our interpretation must point back to (unless, of course, you view the primary theme as something radically different…). It is a story of right relationship, grace, selfless love, unfolding liberation and a relentless pursuit of all things being set to right.  

CENTRAL CHARACTER: Israel. Yep, this is not the answer most people expect to hear and, sadly, I don’t have space to fully unpack the nuances here. In short, the whole of the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures) is the story of Israel’s covenant relationship with God (Yahweh) and their vocation to reflect good news to the world. The Bible isn’t a story of autonomous stories that are fun to read. No, they are all placed within God’s redemptive plan for humanity as seen through its central character, Israel. “Well, what about Jesus?” one may ask. Yes, Jesus is the more important character in the story, but we MUST understand Jesus in the context of his role in Israel’s story. Jesus is the long awaited messianic deliverer of Israel (second “Adam”) who finally liberated them from exile and expanded the identity of the people God to the ends of the earth. Jesus is central to Israel’s story and to understand him outside of the context completely neuters the story and his decisive role within it. 

In my next post (part 2), I’ll seek to answer the question, “Where did the Bible come from?” by offering a brief recap of how the content was captured over a couple thousand years leading up to the final canonization of our current Christian Bible. 

 

4 Tips for Following Jesus in Election Season

Donkey-elephantWell, here we are again. The season that seems to come around all too often and stick around far too long. Some of our dinner table dynamics are still trying to recover from “conversations” that percolated during the last election season and our “unfriend” counts have finally slowed. 

We have come to embrace the fact (whether we like it or not) that the political process in this country involves mudslinging, political posturing and combative debate. With that said, I’m yet to meet a person who finds that reality helpful. Most alarming, the Jesus’ Community often falls prey to this failed political discourse though its participation or fueling of an unsafe, divisive environment.     

So, how does the Jesus’ Community live in this election season as a signpost of the kingdom rather than a pawn in a political power play?     

1. Spend AT LEAST as Much Energy Advancing the Kingdom as You Do Your Candidate

Based on one’s core convictions and values, there is no doubt that some candidates are a better choice than others. The championing of a candidate becomes problematic when we find ourselves spending more emotional and physical energy advancing the cause of a candidate than we do advancing God’s Kingdom which has both come and is coming. Championing a candidate and championing the Kingdom are certainly not mutually exclusive, but they are far from the same thing.

A good question to ask in this election season: “Does my life’s energy more reflect a desire for “God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven,” or a desire for “my candidate to get elected and his/her agenda implemented?”

2. Be Careful Where You Place Your Hope

I don’t know how many times I have heard Christian’s say something like this about their political aspirations, “If my candidate (insert name) isn’t elected, the United States will fall apart and I’m not sure I even want to be here when that happens.” Or, “If my candidate (insert name) is elected, our next generation will finally have somewhere to place their hope.”

Both sentiments are problematic. First, no candidate or system is perfect, so we must not (ever, EVER) claim as such. We can get so caught up in the political game that we white wash the corruption that is marbled into our political system and place our candidate/party/system on an unwarranted pedestal. This blind hope reduces the Jesus’ Community to pawns in a politically partisan drama, rather than signposts for the hope found in the upside-down Kingdom of God. Second, we can celebrate and endorse our political institution without worshiping it. As one who came to upend and reorient the power structures around a system of love and selfless sacrifice, it’s hard to imagine Jesus entrusting the hope of his kingdom agenda to the agenda of Rome’s political systems and power players. Our hope isn’t found in a political party or system, it’s in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. 

3. HOW Someone is Elected is as Important as BEING Elected 

This is often where things get pretty ugly. As our Facebook timelines, Twitter feeds, family reunions and conversations at the park fill up with political rhetoric, mudslinging and dehumanizing language, the Jesus’ Community has a choice. We can either join the chorus of unhelpful sound bites seeking to “win,” or we can model constructive discourse that places relationship ahead of political agenda. The discipleship challenge in the midst of a heated political climate is to embrace a posture of curiosity that seeks to understand rather than to be understood. “Winning” an election while losing our prophetic witness as a community shaped by the cross is not “winning” at all. We don’t have to fall victim to this game of rhetoric and political posturing. It IS possible to stand for our core values without being jerk in the process. 

4. Remember Your Primary Allegiance and Live Like it is Real

In the end, our primary allegiance isn’t to the United States of America; our primary allegiance is to the Kingdom of God. Yes, we are US citizens with a corresponding set of responsibilities (voting being one of them!), but we are first and foremost Kingdom citizens. It is a Kingdom without borders whose values often run in direct opposition to many of our cultural values of acquisition, power, prestige, control, peace through violence or winning at any cost. When our allegiances get inverted, bad things happen and we fail to live into our call to be salt and light in a world desperately in need. 

Friends, we live in a system where elections matter because they determine who will make decisions that impact people. People created in the image of God and with infinite worth. So, in so much as that is true, elections are worth our attention. BUT, getting our candidate elected isn’t worth compromising our witness. And, in the end, whether our candidate is elected or not has no bearing on our call to live, love and lead in a way that reflects God’s heart for the world amid the muck and messiness of everyday life in our homes, neighborhoods, nation and world.  

Why I’m Giving Up Peace for Lent

atomicholocaustThe violence of our world seems to be spiraling out of control. Every news outlet is filled with the latest tragedy and for many, the violence has struck closer to home than they ever imagined. Sadly, much of the violence is being done in the name of religion. Religion -- at its best -- is designed to be a conduit for right relationship. At it’s worst, used as a tool for manipulation and violence. While the former is certainly happening, the latter appears to be one step ahead at the moment.  

If ever there were a time where the work of peacemaking seemed soft and unrealistic while proposing some kind of fairy tale future reality, it is now. If ever there were a time to set aside the way of reconciliation for the way of revenge, it is now. Peacemaking appears to be a royal waste of time reserved for the ignorant idealists. 

Yet, if ever there were a time the exact opposite case could be made, it is now. In recent history, there has never been a time peacemaking is more necessary. In fact, the moment we deny the necessity for peacemaking, we deny the very mission of God and the vocation of God’s people. God’s work is peace -- the holistic repair of relationship -- and the vocation of God’s people. We aren’t pawns in a divine drama that will end in an atomic holocaust allowing us to apathetically put our hands up in resignation because “everything is going to hell.” No, the Jesus’ Community is to announce the reality of God’s kingdom and participate in God’s activity of making all things new. And not just in some future world, but NOW. 

Where do we start and how do we keep hope in a world of war?  

We need to give up peace for Lent. 

When the world is filled with violence, it is easy to get so caught up in evaluating and critiquing big picture, systemic issues (and the figure heads they represent) we often don’t make any effort to look inward; to do the hard work of unearthing the lies we believe about God, ourselves and others. The “peace” we need to give up for Lent is the pseudo-peace that says we are immune from contributing to the violence we see around us. When we tell ourselves that all the violence in the world happens “over there” because of “them,” we give ourselves a free pass from confronting our own evils that overflow into the world. 

To wage peace, we must first (and continually!) wage war on the evil within that keeps us from embracing our vocation as ambassadors of reconciliation (II Cor 5). 

Our prejudice.

Our isolation.

Our “othering.”

Our paralyzing fear.

Our stereotypes. 

Our insecurity.

Our need for revenge. 

I was recently sitting with a friend, a leading Muslim scholar and teacher, who adamantly denounced the corrupted definition of “Jihad” proposed by extremists and amplified by our fear-funded news-outlets. He said, “True Jihad is simply to face the evil within so that we can better reflect love to the world around us.” I was deeply convicted both of my falling pray to stigma and stereotype and by the long process inward that would be required to face the evil within. 

Jean Vanier, practitioner and seasoned guide on Christian community, says, “We create enemies because we haven’t confronted the enemy within us.” This begs the question, who are the “enemies” I have created as a result of my inability to face the “enemies” within?

Today marks the beginning of Lent, a 40-day pilgrimage of introspection, repentance and re-alignment that leads to Holy Week on the Christian calendar. It is a season of confronting the evil within so we can wage peace in the midst of a broken world. It is a season of reflecting on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and acknowledging the decisive peace God waged in Jesus. The evil has been dealt with and the Kingdom has broken through. It is now our job to acknowledge and live into the reality of a Kingdom of peace despite the kingdoms around us that promote the opposite. The Jesus Community is called to be Salt and Light in THIS world, not some distant-future reality. It is to live as a reminder of the way things were meant to be all along. To seek the holistic repair of relationship. To be an instrument of peace. 

During this Lenten season, may we turn our sights inward and confront the evil within that keeps us from embracing and living out the decisive peace waged on the cross and embodied in the resurrection.

May we put to death the evil that creates and confronts “enemies” with revenge and be resurrected with the weapons of transformation, reconciliation and sacrifice.

May we seek the forgiveness of those we have harmed -- near or far -- and repent (turn) toward a life that reflects the one we follow. 

Owning My Dysfunction and the Freedom of Dependence

unnamedIt was nearly five years ago that Janny and I moved to Golden Hill, a neighborhood in San Diego, to be part of a little faith community committed to love God and neighbor in some of the most tangible ways we had ever encountered. As you can imagine, we were curious as to what all this would mean for us as individuals, as a young family and for our role within the Church as a whole. It was a great unknown, but we were willing to “role the dice” and did so with much conviction. 

We could have never foreseen the beauty and richness that would birth forth out of a community of people committed to share life together as we stumble towards Jesus on the same streets, parks, homes, pubs and coffee shops. There was nothing flashy about it and I can remember thinking early on, “So this is it? Life just keeps happening day after day after day after day?”

I would soon realize that’s the beauty of it. Church wasn’t something we attended on our own time and at our own convenience, it was something we participated in every moment of everyday.

In fact, that was our path toward discipleship. It’s not an event, it’s nothing flashy and it certainly doesn’t lift our names/titles/roles above our neighbors. We can’t pat ourselves on the back after a successful event that brought in the masses; we can only love in such a way that we stand in each other’s pain and joy on Monday…and Tuesday…and Wednesday…There is no day off from discipleship or our commitment to a place and a people who inhabit it. And rather than grab for power or prestige, the road to discipleship requires we give it away for the flourishing of others. 

When the preverbal sh*%t hits the fan in one of our lives or our neighbors lives, we sit in the middle of it. We certainly don’t always do this well, and we have a ton to learn, but we do our best to contend for one another in costly and creative ways.

Why? Well, because that is what we think Jesus meant when he said to love God and neighbor (Jesus went as far as calling us to love our “enemy”). In Jesus, we see that contending for others might even look like giving up your life.

In the end, embracing the Jesus’ way of the cross is really freeing. When I realize life isn’t about “me” (which I still struggle with EVERYDAY…ask Janny) and my flourishing, but about advancing the good of those around me, I am free to truly love and be loved. Because faithful discipleship doesn’t require that I am comfortable, that I will “succeed,” or even that I will survive. 

It. Just. Doesn’t. 

And when I spend so much of my time and energy seeking my personal advance, it highjacks my ability to follow Jesus and it does harm to those around me. 

After three years of learning and being mentored by trusted guides, our little faith community was no longer little and had grown to the point where we needed to multiply (rather than get bigger, we multiply and start new faith communities). It was then that Janny and I were entrusted to lead one of the new communities.

We’ve now been leading and walking with this community of Jesus’ followers for over two years and this past Sunday night, we created some space to reflect and celebrate. Sitting around a bonfire, we shared what we have learned about God, ourselves and our neighborhood over the past couple years. It was beautiful and reminded me of the value of simply acknowledging and celebrating the good gifts of this life. 

We shared about the times we helped pay each others rent when one of us was struggling financially. 

We shared about the gift of new friendships with neighbors where we learned about Jesus in the most unexpected and beautiful ways. 

We shared about the gift of vulnerability and transparency. 

We laughed at the many days where we took care of each other’s kids because we were all sleep deprived.  

I confessed that I simply can’t follow Jesus alone and that this community has helped me own that. We all know the point isn’t community in and of itself, but that community is a means and context for us to all more faithfully follow Jesus. 

Bottom line: I need a community of practice that requires me to live the stuff I spend so much time talking about. If I don’t have a community and neighborhood that invites me to give myself away in the way Jesus gave himself away, I miss out on living into who I was created to be. And, those around me miss out on the gift I have been created to give to the world. 

We concluded the evening by offering prayers of blessing and sending over our community as we move towards the start of another year. Mine was simple and I think it was meant more for me than anyone else: 

“May we receive the gift of community we have been given with deep gratitude. And may we not see this way of life as a list of obligations to fulfill, but as an opportunity for each of us to be fully human.” 

———--

NOTE: Paul’s words in Philippians 2:1-11 offer a beautiful picture of the above based on the life of Jesus and the activity of the early Church. 

1 2 3 4 11  Scroll to top