Living Story

A Theology from Below (and Subterranean Book Review)

subterraneanYear after year as my community seeks to live well in the unique soil of our little neighborhood, we discover how much our neighborhood has to teach us about ourselves, each other and the One we follow. Because real life is textured with both the beautiful and broken realities of humanity, we find ourselves formed and informed in new ways that we couldn’t have ever expected. For this reason, we make plenty of space for our theology to be shaped not only from “above” through our intellect, study and empirical insight, but also from “below” through the realities of God’s presence in the mundane of everyday. In fact, it is often this lived theology that most clearly reveals to us where we fit in God’s story that is unfolding in our place. 

The reality of having our theology developed from below means we regularly expose ourselves to darkness, disappointment and failure. The stories don’t always end the way we want them to. In our heads we may have the perfect theological formula, but in reality, the formula is often as unhelpful as our freshman algebra class. What happens when that friend you’ve been walking with for years falls back into addiction and violence? What happens when your seemingly perfect family reality get upended by tragedy? Or when despite your best efforts, your vision for what is “good” in your neighborhood turns out being the exact opposite? 

In Practicing Locality -- chapter 9 of Dan White’s new book, Subterranean: Why the Future of the Church is Rootedness -- he argues that despite the cost and potential disappointment, we have to give ourselves to everyday practice because it is only there that we will develop a “living theology.” To do theology faithfully, we must participate in the social realities of our broken and beautiful places“(pg 95). This is a theology not only informed by a textbook, but by the breath of the Spirit moving in and through a community of practice. It is for that reason Dan opens the chapter by describing the necessity of imagination. When we give ourselves to the everyday, we have to carry with us an imagination for God’s dream for the world in the midst of the inevitable disappointment, failure and darkness. As one who is part of a faith community committed to a “living theology,” we experience as much heart ache, failure and brokenness as we do joy and “success.” An imagination for not only what is, but what will be, is often the fuel that sustains us.

Dan goes on to offer a couple “tools” that can help faith communities experience a “living theology” by participating in the fabric of their neighborhood as a reflection of renewal and rooted presence. Without going into the nuances of his suggested pathways here, it is clear that Dan is a practitioner whose stories and insights could only come forth out of a life of practice. Not only does he encourage us to hold our theology accountable to a lived set of practices, he reminds us to remain in the posture of learners rather than hero’s. “We speak from where our bodies are situated. Too much theologizing and Christian living techniques are formed in the ivory tower of the Christian world, telling us what people need and how they should receive it(95).

In contrast to many “church-planting” books, he continually highlights the necessity of learning from and being loved by our neighbors in a mutually beneficial relationship. We aren’t the hero’s who have come to conquer or correct, we are simply participants in what God is already doing for the flourishing of all.  We must take a teachable posture as we are confronted by our ignorance and misplaced judgments. We must recognize our own blindness and limitations in the spaces we dwell in. We must behold, not just look (97)…walk gently and quietly so as to not stomp all over others’ sweat-soaked work. Innovation happens when a community humbly comes together to discern how to be in a place in a way that blesses the lifeworld of a neighborhood(98).

If there is a liability to this chapter, it is the introduction of so much new language. This is not only true of Dan’s book, but characteristic of a whole moment of theologians and communicators who are seeking to offer a renewed vision for how the church can be in the world. While fresh language is vitally important, it can also be confusing and a hurdle rather than an asset. I have been guilty of this myself and would love to see a growing movement with common language so as not to require the continual interpretation and reinterpretation of shared ideas. 

In the end, Practicing Locality is a refreshing reminder that we must live the stuff we talk about. Theology means little (if anything at all) if it isn’t lived out in the context of everyday life in neighborhood. Further, this chapter serves as a helpful guide to onramp individuals and communities into a lived set of practices that reflect a Jesus who didn’t come to conquer, but to give himself away for the flourishing of others. May we go and do likewise. 

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This review was part of a Subterranean Book Blog Tour, which is offering a unique 40% off discount code that expires Oct 23rd if purchased at http://wipfandstock.com/subterranean.html Here is the code: ROOTED

To My Four Kids, From Dad

IMG_1571After five days in the hospital filled with overwhelming joy, paralyzing fear and complete exhaustion in the wake of the birth of our twins, I finally found a moment to walk outside the florescent lights and sit under the bright moon. Sitting on a small patch of grass outside the hospital doors, the reality of being a father to four kids finally hit me. 

I was both overwhelmed and overjoyed by the gift and responsibility of raising four kids in a world so desperately in need of mustard seeds of hope that one day blossom into healing and beauty.

As I sit in relative comfort and begin to dream big dreams for my kids, I was struck by the reality that most father’s around the globe are forced to welcome their kids into a world where there is no “ladder” to climb because it has been knocked out from under them by broken systems that are breaking people. 

A world where many kids are born into families fleeing violent persecution and being nursed on the trauma of war in battered refugee camps; places where the thought of hope is a distant second to simply fighting to survive.

A world where one’s value is more closely associated with gender (male) than with the beautiful uniqueness inherent in every new life.  

But it is also a world pregnant with possibilities. A world where former enemies move beyond their past, share tables and begin to imagine a future together. 

A world where the blossoms of new life begin to sprout in the shadowy corners of forgotten neighborhoods.  

A world where the diversity of God’s kingdom begins to awaken our eyes and hearts to the new world God is making. 

It is in this world -- a world that is both beautiful and broken -- that I offer this prayer over my four kids. 

May you see the humanity, dignity and image of God in everyone. Regardless of documentation, orientation or association, may you choose to see the face of Jesus in all those put in your path. May you see those who are different than you not through the lens of judgment, but with a spirit of curiosity and posture of invitation. 

May you immerse into the the muck and messiness of everyday life seeking to understand rather than be understood. May you move toward broken people and places catalyzed by hope rather than paralyzed by fear. And, finally, as you move deeper into relationship with these people and places, may you stick around for the long haul offering radical presence in a world of hurry.  

My dear ones, may your relative comfort and inherited privilege not lead to complacency, but instead be used to contend for the flourishing of others. May you be willing to sacrifice your reputation, finances and time in order to stand in front of any bulldozer that is flattening people. Like the Jesus we follow, may you return evil with good and choose not to get even, but get creative in love.  

May you lead out of your identity as ones first and foremost loved by God, so you can give yourselves fully to God and others. If you get anything, please get this: your identity is not based on what you do, but who you are. All is grace dear ones and you are God’s beloved. As such, your mother and me will always love you, contend for you, pray for you and stand with you no matter what choices you make or what you “do” or don’t do.  

Whether you join God’s mission of reconciliation in the halls of power or the back allys of forgotten neighborhoods, may you see and participate in the restoration made real in Jesus death and resurrection. May you taste, feel, see and experience a Kingdom where the last will be first and the first will be last. For it is there that love lives. 

And, day in and day out, may we be parents who live and model the kind of lives we are inviting you to live. 

Much love to each of you; Ruby, Rosie, Hank & Lou. 

Dad

 

A Celebrated (Yet Toxic) Addiction & the Gift of Today

IMG_0833I’m a doer.

Not only do I feel pretty darn good about myself when things get checked off my “to do” list, it actually gives me a weird high and offers a really tangible grid for success. 

Interestingly, once I get stuff done, I almost immediately turn to the next thing to get done. 

Family admin. 

Household chores. 

Finances. 

Meetings. 

Neighborhood initiatives.

Work Projects.

The list could go on and on. 

I’ve been studying the Enneagram a lot lately, which is a unique (and ancient) tool for understanding how you’re hardwired to function in the world. I’m a “3” on the Enneagram which is known as the “achiever” or “performer.” In short, I’m designed to do stuff. 

This can be really good and really bad.

While I can make things happen, contribute to long term movement and rally folks around a vision, I can also overwork, form my identity around the things I do rather than who I am and, in the end, miss out on the sacredness of being present in the beautiful mundane of everyday. 

This is an important realization (and a hard one!) and I’m having to do a little extra evaluation of it in my current season of life with nearly four kids, a non-profit and a household that requires the attention of a Fortune 500 CEO.

I was recently on a walk to the park with my girls Ruby (4) and Rosie (2). While I was distractedly responding to an email on my “smart” phone, I looked over and noticed that Rosie had fallen behind and was bent over starring at the ground. As I circled back around to speed her up, I noticed that she was looking at a crack in the sidewalk admiring the little twig that was sprouting between the concrete slabs. 

For her, she wasn’t at all concerned about arriving at a destination, but about being fully present along the way. In this tiny twig, Rosie found beauty and she wasn’t about to miss it. 

I was at a conference this past weekend and one of the speakers (Rob Bell) shared a rich insight that completely ruined me (in all the best kind of ways). He said, “Success means you wake up and ask what you can get. Wonder means you wake up and say, I can’t believe I get to do this.” 

Head and heart explosion. 

In the midst of the seemingly endless “to do’s” of life, it’s easy to miss the beauty and wonder. There are insurance calls, diapers to change, mortgage/rent payments, dentist appointments, deadlines, dirty dishes and emails to respond to. 

Yes, that stuff has to get done, but friends, it will get done.

Maybe there is a way to get all this stuff done and not miss out on opportunities to wonder. Opportunities to be fully alive to ourselves, the world and those around us. Opportunities to be reminded that we aren’t what we do, but who we are.  

Maybe when we release our addiction to doing, we can begin being the types of people the world needs most.

When I slow down long enough to look at my life, I can honestly say, “I can’t believe I get to do this.” 

May we wonder. 

 

 

My Dad, Grief and Groans of New Creation

10485921_10203840097473557_4389962877608429835_nI’m sitting in my dad’s hospital room as a write this. Having just endured open-heart surgery, I have never seen or experienced him in this current state. Last night, as my sisters and I stood with him in the ICU singing, praying and telling him stories of his grandchildren, the only form of communication he could muster was a pained groan. He could hear us and was mentally strong, but to those with whom he loves most in the world, he could only offer a groan. Albeit, even a groan was a heroic effort on his part.  

Anyone that knows my pop, knows a man who is physically strong and extremely healthy. When he got out of surgery, one of my best buddies joked, “He’ll be hunting elk by morning. I’ll bet he’d bag one and carry it six miles in a blinding snow storm too.” 

As I watched him struggle for each breathe and squirm in pain from the torment his body had just endured, I thought to myself, “Surely, this is not the way creation was intended to function.” My dad, the one who is always the strong (yet compassionate) rock for his family, friends and coworkers is reduced to a groan? Really? If ever I thought there was something wrong with the world in its current iteration, it is this moment.  

And then I was reminded of something the Apostle Paul said some 2000 years ago. After Jesus had come to bring about a whole new reality (kingdom) as was embodied in his life, death and resurrection, Paul describes this reality as New Creation (II Corinthians 5). While the rightly ordered Creation was undone in Eden (and the following cast of characters in the Genesis story), it was re-ordered in Jesus. Jesus is the first born of this New Creation (rightly ordered world) and we not only anticipate what is to come, but begin to catch glimpses of it in the here and now (see note at bottom of post). 

Back to the Apostle Paul. He described this anticipation as a “groan” (II Cor 5). Not only are individuals “groaning” to be healed and restored, but the whole of creation is “groaning” to be rightly ordered back to its original design. 

Indeed, creation is not fully functioning in the way it was originally created to function. We don’t have to look far for this reality to be made real. 

Broken families.

War.  

Natural disasters. 

Economic inequality.

Individual and systemic racism. 

…my dad lying on an operation table. 

But, the story isn’t over. In fact, it is just beginning. 

And in the meantime, we groan. We groan for families to be reconciled. We groan for wars to end around conference tables rather than battlefields. We groan for the earth and its systems to be restored. We groan for all children to have an equal opportunity for employment. We groan for the day when diversity is seen as an asset rather than a liability.  

For us, we listen to my dad groan and imagine a day where his grandchildren cover him like a blanket. We groan for his physical strength to once again match his emotional, mental and spiritual strength. We groan for the making of many more memories that remind us of who we are and who we are becoming as we join God in healing a broken world. 

In our groaning, no niceties or clichés will do. Groaning is painful. It is deep. It is real. It is not about creating false assurances. It is about pouring out our guts in the hope of what is to come. It is about looking for signposts of a new reality. A reality where tears are wiped away and hope is found. 

Until then, we groan and trust that the New Creation brought about in Jesus will be the New Creation we begin to see, taste and experience today. 

——

NOTE: A better interpretation of “New Creation” in the New Testament is “Renewed Creation.” In the same way that Jesus body was not destroyed and resurrected as some other worldly creature, Creation will not be destroyed and replaced with something different. What we see now is what heaven/New Creation will look like. But in this reality, all the busted and broken realties will be renewed to their original form. 

Smoking What We’re Growing: 8 Things That Happen When We Live (or Don’t Live) What We Talk About

1009756_10151692062394929_1314313101_nI was down in Mexico a few years ago for a gathering of peers who are leading faith communities around the world. It was a rich time of conversation, encouragement and visioning. 

Walking through a local Mexican neighborhood between sessions, something struck me. While those of us in the Minority World (often called the 1st or Western World) are thinking and talking about our theology, most of the folks in the Majority World (often called the 3rd World) have no choice but to simply live into their theology. Talking about our theology, faith and practice in lecture halls, church buildings and conference rooms is a luxury that the vast majority of Jesus followers in the world have no opportunity to participate in. 

It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is reality. And those of us with this luxury better own up to it, because it is easy for us in the West to think we have a corner on the market of theology, which we then project (whether consciously or subconsciously) onto the rest of the world. But whose to say theology built in academia is any more valid than theology build in the realities of everyday life?

When I’m hanging out with my Jesus following friend who lives and serves in a West Bank refugee camp, it would make no sense for me to debate atonement theories, eschatological interpretations or the latest “hot button” issue. There is no time for my friend to concern himself with those things when right in front of him people are committing suicide from depression, going hungry on the streets and feeling the endless effects of war. My friend believes in the crucified and risen Jesus and is doing anything he can to live out the Jesus’ story in the place he has been entrusted. 

In this context, theological debates not only seem secondary, they seem like a distraction from faithful life and practice. 

Now, I’m NOT saying that academia, study and debate are bad things. No, they are essential for a robust faith than fuels the community of God for mission in the world. Personally, I am enlivened by academia and some of my most formative development has come about in this context. With that said, the classroom of real life relationships -- with those who live and practice in context FAR different than my own -- have been much more significant to my development than any lecture, book or debate. 

In short, I would argue that our theology must be as much formed and informed by everyday practice than it is by academic research. Now, I know there is no prefect balance here, but those of us in the West would do well to at least keep this in mind as we speak and write in our somewhat insular reality. 

Since I had this realization on the streets of Mexico, I have committed to only/primarily communicate “lived content.” “Theoretical content” is somewhat easy to come up with, it doesn’t require a lived expression and, to be honest, there is already WAY too much of this floating around. I want to be known for smoking what I’m growing (I’m sitting in Denver as I write this, so this metaphor seemed especially relevant. Don’t be offended).

As communicators (and we are ALL communicators whether we like it or not), producing “lived content” is an act of discipleship. We have to submit our words to the lives we are actually living as we stumble toward Jesus. 

Are we to be marked by our compelling words and thoughts or by our transformative actions embodied in the realities of everyday life? I don’t think it’s an either/or, but a both/and. 

Lists seem helpful, so here you go:

Damage of Communicating Only/Primarily Theoretical Content

1. We fall victim to a war of rhetoric. It’s easy to have strong opinions if they are divorced from embodied practice in the realities of everyday life. Think of all the ridiculous “debates” we see on social media that not only take away time from real life advocacy, but create the illusion that we are actually offering something constructive and helpful to the community of God. For example, it’s easy to “talk” about abortion or war or whatever. But are we walking with the single mothers who are most prone to abort their babies or just telling them not to do it? Are we only calling out militarism in our culture or actually living out an alternative?

2. Theoretical content is removed from reality and its implications for our global village. What happens as a result is we come out of our “classrooms” (seminary, churches, etc.) with all the “answers” and begin to project our words and opinions on others. It is not formed in the context of relationship and it is not only narrow-minded, it is destructive. 

3. Creates in us a false identity of who we’ve convinced ourselves we are rather than who we actually are created to be. When we talk more than we live, there is a temptation to form our identity around what we think or say rather than who we were created to be in the world. 

4. We live through others opinions of us rather than through a rooted set of practices that create space for us to live out true self and calling. When we communicate more than we live, we will inevitably open ourselves up to the opinions of others, whether positive or negative. If we aren’t rooted in everyday practice, it is easy to begin to believe we are who others say we are rather than our true identity as sons and daughters of the Father. 

Gift of Communicating Lived Content

1. Keeps us rooted in a community of practice. We can’t “go rogue” and begin to live an autonomous life than produces a bunch of content that hasn’t been refined by the fire of real life. 

2. Holds us accountable to lead with a way of life rather than an articulate vision. There are ALOT of good communicators today. While that is a gift, it can also be a curse. A good vision is only as good as the positive implications it has on the lives of those around us. 

3. Ignites the imagination and practice of those who hear you communicate. The world and the Church is STARVING for content that is actually being lived out. There are more resources based on theoretical proposals than ever before. What we need are stories that inspire and practices that sustain for the long haul.

4. Ultimately, we get to actually experience and live life to the fullest. Our most faithful expression of following Jesus is not spoken, but embodied. 

Producing “lived content” is not only my commitment, it is my struggle. And I don’t think I’m alone. Will you link arms with me and stumble forward together?

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