missional living

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.” 

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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. 

In A World of ISIS, We Need More Muslim Friends

I can remember when I was scared of Muslims.

I don’t think I would have ever uttered those words, but subconsciously, they were true. 

As a good, Bible-Believing-Evangelical-Christian (that’s all one word, right?) who could recite the two greatest commandments to love God and love others before I was out of diapers, how had this fear developed in me?

Our Daughter Ruby w/Afghan Family

Our Daughter Ruby w/Afghan Family

Well, it’s easy. Stories we are told about Muslims are often related to terror, oppression and violence. And, to be honest, it is far more comfortable to remain in a place of isolation and ignorance than it is to engage in the intentional work of education, experience and relationship. 

Further, I used to think the only way to meet Muslims was to fly half way across the world and enter into a reality completely foreign to my own. “They” are somewhere over there and “we” are over here, so let’s just agree to keep our distance and allow our politicians and power brokers to work things out.

That all changed for me when my wife and I joined a faith community committed to Jesus’ invitation to love our neighbors. We quickly realized loving our neighbors required we know our neighbors. And, living in a city that is home to tens of thousands of international refugees, we discovered that “they” don’t only live across the world, “they” are at “our” baseball games, in our neighborhood and our parks. It wasn’t that our Muslim friends had just moved in, it was that we hadn’t had the eyes to see them, let alone enter genuine friendships. 

Over the years, I have discovered that the only way to love and be loved by my neighbors (locally and globally) is to be in relationship. The reason I used to be scared of Muslims was simply because I didn’t know any. I had never heard their stories. I had never been to their sacred places. I didn’t understand their traditions. I hadn’t even shared a meal with them. 

I have come to realize what an incredible opportunity I had squandered. Interestingly, what I had squandered wasn’t primarily what I had to offer my neighbors, but what they had to offer me. 

As ISIS fills the headlines, Islamphobia spreads like the common cold and sound bites trump human interaction, there is no more important time to build friendships with our Muslim neighbors. Here are five reasons why:

1. A Cure for Fear

Fear is one of the most toxic diseases hijacking Christian’s ability to live as salt and light. Not only do we often tell ourselves that everyone is out to get us, we think relationships with those different than us leave us open to falling down the slippery slope of compromise.

I have never met a Muslim who asks me to compromise my commitment to Jesus. If anything, they encourage me to take it more seriously. Being in relationship with people who are different than us doesn’t compromise our faith, it reflects the very best of it. A mentor of mine recently said, “The deeper our roots are in Jesus, the wider our branches can extend into other traditions.”

2. An Expanded Worldview

I recently sat in a West Bank backyard with a collection of 20 Christians and Muslims. Having just spent a few days together, we sang, danced and shared what we had each learned about the other’s religious tradition based on our experience together. It was sacred. The worldview of both the Christians who were with me and the Muslims who lived in this village will forever view the “other” in a more helpful, human way.

In many other parts of the world, Christians and Muslims don’t see themselves as enemies, but as dear friends, partners and fellow humans. When we extend past our inherited worldview, we may see a very different landscape of interfaith collaboration. What media sources, experiences or influencers are we allowing to inform our worldview? How might that become more diverse?

3. An Antidote to Isolationism

We, the Christian community, can fall victim to becoming insulated and isolated, which inherently puts us in a posture of defense rather than invitation. When our relationships remain only among those who think, look and believe like we do, we run the risk of becoming exclusive and tribal. Which, ironically, is so much of the West’s critique of regimes like ISIS.

The antithesis of Christ-like love is to only be in relationship with those who are like “us,” while excluding “them.” As we begin to build relationships with those outside of our tradition, we break out of our little bubbles and are able to truly love like Jesus. Jesus never ran in fear from those who were different than him. No, he ran to people who were different. Our inherited theology may distance us from those of other religions, but Jesus never does.

4. A Solution for Our Need for Mutual Relationship

Our Christian tradition hasn’t historically done well at entering relationships with those outside of our tradition in a posture of mutuality. Our tendency has been to enter relationships as the hero rather than the learner.

As we build friendships with our Muslim neighbors, we must do so seeking to understand rather than be understood. Genuine friendship is not a project. Get curious. Share life and space. Spend long hours around the dinner table. Take each other’s kids to school. Accept their love in the same way you would expect them to receive yours.

5. An Understanding of Misrepresentation

I just got an email from my friend, Jarrod McKenna, who as a Jesus follower, is doing remarkable work reassigning dignity to the Muslim community in Australia. Sadly, his email was to tell me that a Muslim family was violently attacked, not because of their actions, but because of their religion.

In my city, a Muslim mom was recently killed outside of her house for similar reasons. These are just a couple acts of hatred and prejudice of our Muslim neighbors are enduring as a result of our inability to differentiate between Islamic extremists (ISIS, etc.) and the majority of Muslims.

The Christian Community must understand that the vast majority of Muslims are embarrassed and concerned for their own safety as a result of ISIS, and we must advocate for their humanity. If we are in genuine friendship, our advocacy will become a non-negotiable.

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NOTE: This piece was first published on RELEVANT Magazine

 

 

Pastoring in the New Parish

IMG_3448The longer we live in our neighborhood and enter into deeper relationships with a handful of the 13,000 people who live within the 10 X 7 blocks of Golden Hill, the more we become aware of the importance of the faithfulness of our little faith community in this place. We are discovering that the majority of our neighbors would never consider attending a traditional church (for a variety of reasons) and many others who have attended churches in the past have been deeply hurt, disillusioned or disconnected from the church communities of their past.

So is that it? Game over?

No, far from it. As we find ourselves invited (and inviting) deeper into the lives of our neighbors we are discovering it is just the beginning. Whether walking with women through pregnancy and supporting them in the intimacy of child birth or officiating weddings of those who wouldn’t otherwise have a “pastor” in their life or sitting on our patio with the war veteran enduring PTSD or checking in on the elderly man next door or sharing a meal with a friend in the park who doesn’t have a home or simply offering a warm greeting to those on our sidewalks, we are embracing the fact that our neighborhood is our parish and we are its pastors.

So, if we believe Jesus is the hope of the world and that the Church plays a role in God’s mission of reconciliation, then how might the Church express itself in a neighborhood like ours?

There must be a movement of us that rise up not to impose our beliefs on our neighbors, but to simply walk with them, care for them, encourage them in the realities of everyday life and empower them to live more fully into who they were created to be.

Doubts.

Loss.

Career transition.

Children.

Marriage.

Play.

Those who embrace this pastorate can’t reduce our congregants to those who come in our buildings once or twice a week. No, our congregants are the people we share life with everyday. There is a building movement of those who are retracing our pastoral roles back to the ancient idea of parish. The neighborhood (the physical place where we live, work and play) is the new parish and we are its pastors.

We have meals in our homes. We take care of each other’s children. We offer marriage support and counseling when they’re in need. When our neighbors are the most vulnerable, we hold space for them to experience the gift of simply being present. In those spaces, both the presence of Jesus and the presence of the Jesus Community is made real.

Further, in this pastorate of everyday relationship, we open ourselves up to be pastored by our neighbors. Genuine relationship doesn’t run one direction, it is an act of mutual submission that frees us to fully share and receive love…even if from the most unexpected people and places.

This isn’t a walking away from formal leadership in the Church, it’s our faithful act to fully embrace the pastoral vocation we have been called to live out each and everyday. 

It’s hard. It’s ambiguous. The metrics are difficult to calculate at times. The pain often outweighs the hope. We don’t get a platform or a microphone. Instead, we are given the gift of genuine relationship. Relationship where we are as formed as those we form.

In this pastorate, there will be no title that assumes leadership or authority. No, our only authority comes when we have fully submitted ourselves to our neighborhoods and lead with tangible acts of humble presence and long-term commitment.

I’m not saying the role of pastor in a “traditional” sense is bad or wrong or unnecessary. It is surely needed! What I am saying is that it’s time we expand our definition of pastor and begin to create tangible pathways for those of us called to this form of pastoring to be mobilized, equipped and sent to participate with God in the people and places far off the beaten path of most churches influence.  

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NOTE:

1. Our Thresholds Missional Community Cohort -- of which I’m on the leadership team -- is committed to the coaching, training and mobilizing of this very kind of pastor. A pastor who is leading embedded communities of faith and reconciliation.

2. My dear friends of the Parish Collective recently wrote a book that fills out the theological, historical and practical implications of taking seriously this form of pastorate. It is called The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community.

Pentecost and the Freedom to be in All the Wrong Places

0This Sunday, the Church concludes the 50 day Easter season with Pentecost. Pentecost celebrates the giving of the Holy Spirit and reminds us that our story isn’t static, but dynamic, alive and unfolding. It reminds us that we are a people marked by both what has happened AND what is happening. It reminds us that our primary work isn’t to defend and isolate ourselves from the world around us, but to move into it as ambassadors of hope and reconciliation. In the same way that the disciples moved out from Jerusalem after Pentecost, we are to move out of our places of comfort and complacency as we join God in the world he is making.

We are no longer captive to fear, but enlivened by our freedom. Freedom to love the outcast. Freedom to listen to those we disagree with. Freedom share tables with those of different faith traditions. Freedom to encounter violence with creative alternatives. Freedom to love our enemies. 

We don’t have to fear what “bad” might rub off on us. Instead, we live in the freedom to move forward with both humility and confidence that the Holy Spirit does her best work when we intentionally move into the places she is already present. And often, those people and places don’t fit into any of our tidy categories. Whether hanging out with friends in my gay basketball league, discussing the reality of God around a backyard bonfire in the West Bank with a collection of Christians and Muslims working for peace, sharing an Iftar meal with my Muslim neighbors during Ramadan or helping my undocumented neighbor sort through my recycling, I am more convinced than ever that the Holy Spirit was already present…she just needed me, and the Church as a whole, to join in the work already underway.

If we are content sticking around the comfort and certainty of Jerusalem, our doctrine and dogma will suffice. If we take seriously our call to Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth, then we must embrace the glorious mystery of the Holy Spirit and join her in participating in the healing of a broken world. 

Owning Our Role in Gentrification & the Bible

IMG_7340What is the role of a community of faith in a gentrified or gentrifying neighborhood? Is what we see as good actually good for the whole population of a neighborhood? How do we become aware of those issues? How do we promote a common good of both the haves and have not’s?

In developing a biblical framework for the reality of gentrification, there are two themes that we see helpful in highlighting.  First, how we enter a place is as significant as how we end up living in it.  In other words, we can move into a neighborhood or city in the posture of the colonizing hero or we can enter it with humility and a willingness to embrace the already established ethos.  Second, and requiring we hold the first theme in radical tension, we are to live in neighborhoods as advocates of the Kingdom of God and with the hope of God’s reign being made manifest in this place.  

So how do we enter a place with humility as a learner, while still advocating for a hope found in the reality of the Kingdom of God that was inaugurated in Jesus?  

As the physical place where all three monotheistic religions share a common history, Hebron is one of the most volatile cities in the Middle East today.  Home to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, Jews, Christians and Muslims are able to trace their roots back to their father, Abraham.  Today, there is a daily struggle for the acquisition of more land and better access to the cities’ religious sites to the point that land is being stolen from one another.  Rather than working with one another in common respect for the land, there is a posture of domination and acquisition that trumps their ability to celebrate a common bloodline.  

The irony of today’s struggle is that their father, Abraham, gives us one of the most important insights into how we are to enter into a neighborhood that is already inhabited.  After his wife Sarah died at the beginning of Genesis 23, Abraham enters a time of mourning and preparation for her burial in Hebron, which at the time was inhabited by the Hittites.  Having a significant reputation among the people, Abraham could have easily taken land for Sarah’s burial or assumed that it would be given to him.  Instead, he says, “I am a foreigner and stranger among you. Sell me some property for a burial site here so I can bury my dead” (23:4). Over the course of the narrative, he is offered the land multiple times for free, but Abraham insists on honoring the inhabitants by paying a fair price for the land.  

At a later point in Israel’s story, God’s people find themselves in exile under the heavy hand of Babylon.  They no longer inhabit their neighborhood and their understanding of a rightly ordered world is a distant dream.  Yet, despite it all, the prophet Jeremiah shares the word of Yahweh to his people in exile;

“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” -- Jeremiah 29:5-7

It is here that we get a picture affirming our second theme that we are to be advocates and participants in the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom in the places we inhabit.  No matter how we land in our neighborhood, city or suburb, we are to seek the good of our place.  We are to embody and advocate for the reality of God’s reign because the good of our place will equal the good of our family.   

After hundreds of years, exile had become Israel’s primary reality when Jesus, their deliverer, finally arrives.   For Israel, the Messiah was to bring about three realities: 1. Restoration of the Davidic throne through military conquest, 2. Rebuilding of the Temple and 3. Reoccupation of the Holy Land.  While Jesus comes bringing a message of hope in announcing the reality of the Kingdom of God, such hope wasn’t always realized in the way they would have anticipated.  In fact, because Jesus didn’t bring about any of these three realities in the way Israel expected, the majority of God’s people considered Jesus a failed Messiah.  He had moved into the neighborhood of humanity with the hope of the Kingdom of God, but rather than establishing God’s reign through military conquest, he established it through suffering and selfless sacrifice.  For Jesus, the common good of the human neighborhood required that he make himself last in order for others to be first.  

While Jesus was viewed as a failed Messiah by the standards of the Jewish community of his day, we know that his upside down approach was actually the means through which the Kingdom was made manifest.  Jesus did have some “short term” wins throughout his ministry, but there was a longer-term impact he came to bring about that wasn’t as easy to see or measure. 

As we faithfully inhabit our neighborhoods with the hope of the Kingdom of God inaugurated in Jesus, maybe our goal isn’t to fix everything right now, but to seek a longer-term good.  In fact, what might look like failure in the short term could be the sowing of seeds that lead toward a long term good.  Maybe just being with the people in a neighborhood can offer a long-term good that transcends some of the short-term realities of gentrification.  Maybe moving towards a common good with our neighbors out of the tangible hope of God’s Kingdom reign will redeem some of our apparent short term “failures.”

If there is anything we have learned, it is that transformation is slow and often comes about in ways we would never have expected.  Such is the life of Jesus and such is life as a follower of Jesus.  While committing to find our hope in Jesus’ enthronement as King of the Kingdom, we live, love and lead in our neighborhoods with curiosity, humility and a listening ear that leads us towards a common heart and life with our neighbors. 

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NOTE: This is an excerpt from a chapter I contributed to a book published by The Urban Loft called Vespas, Cafes, Singlespeed Bikes and Urban Hipsters: Gentrification, Urban Mission, and Church Planting. 

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