missional

Shrinking Our World’s: Presence in a Polarizing & Painful Season

neighborhoodThe other night Janny and I sat on our front patio after getting all the kids down to listen to the sacred silence and debrief our day. We talked about our new neighbor hanging out in our yard to help out with the twins and reflected on the life of our little faith community while meeting another new neighbor who happened to be on an evening walk with her dog, Nelly. 

We also talked about the state of our world; hostile political campaigns fighting for power, refugees caught between violence and barbed wire, our friends in the Middle East who are discouraged and exhausted, our immigrant neighbors who are growing in fear as the political climate further dehumanizes their existence, and on and on and on. 

Then another neighbor would walk by. We’d say hello, chat for a few minutes, say goodnight and the stillness of the evening would settle back in. 

While there is no more important moment to be deeply engaged in the realities impacting our global family, there is also no more important moment to be fully present to the world that is pulsating right in front of us in our homes and on our streets. 

There are currently dozens of national and global realities swirling around us that can cause us to fear, worry and pour our precious energy and attention outward. Our smart phone notifications go off and we are once again a screen away from the other side of the globe or at the center of another partisan debate. What can be used as a critical asset in our global engagement quickly becomes the source of our paralysis and distances us from what is right in front of us. 

What if we quiet the noise while occasionally practice putting on blinders by choosing to see only the life unfolding in our homes and on our street? What if we tune out the political posturing and tune in the laughter of children playing kickball in the street until their parents call them in for dinner? What if we spend less time debating political party’s and spend more throwing parties? What if we tune out our role in being a hero to the world and tune in to our role of being a hero to our family and neighbors? What if we release our need to recite our candidate’s party line and embrace the gift of generous conversation and curiosity? 

We aren’t abdicating our global responsibility, we are simply pausing to steward the life we have been given each day. We are re-centering ourselves in the soil and story of the unique neighborhoods where we are called to live, love and lead in the beautiful and mundane of everyday life.

Our world’s need to get smaller if we are to engage well in the world’s bigger issues. 

There is an interdependence to living as global citizens and neighborhood practitioners. We can’t be understanding and engage our world without being rooted in the identity of our own unique context. Similarly, we can’t be embedded in our increasingly diverse neighborhoods without understanding the larger world in which we inhabit.

The monastics throughout Church history offer us a beautiful model of this local-global paradox and practice. Many of the most globally engaged activists were monastics who would take entire seasons of their lives to cloister themselves in isolation to allow the Spirit to re-engage their senses, calling and identity. Thomas Merton, Julian of Norwich and John Dear to name a few. 

When we are daily exposed to all the worlds’ problems without being rooted in our own soil, it’s as though a collective numbness takes us over. We lose touch of our senses, priorities and relationships. We become more irritable. Our relationships become more mechanical and forced. Our attention span shortens. An anxiety about our individual and collective future breads paralysis. The distance between those of different cultures, traditions and ethnicities grows. We pour more time and energy into our political allegiance than our Kingdom allegiance. We miss seeing the sacred even when it’s being displayed on the faces of our kids, sidewalks, parks and pubs. 

Maybe a Lenten practice isn’t to remove ourselves from the world, but right size our engagement of it so the numbness fades and we can feel again.

Tonight, I’ll look forward to hearing my kids breathing slow as they fall asleep, sit on the patio with Janny and wait for our neighbor to walk by while trying to keep Nelly from peeing on our grass. Because if I don’t live fully present to what is right in front of me, I won’t have anything of substance to contribute to my friends on my street or on the other side of the world. 

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

6 Myths of Community

IMG_9601As we move into a new year, our little community of Jesus followers is taking some intentional time to individually and collectively reflect, evaluate and consider the implications of committing to each other and God to our shared life in Golden Hill for another year. One of the practices we have committed to in this time is to confront the unhealthy or unrealistic expectations we have of each other. We have found that dreams, visions and hopes for our community are good, beautiful and necessary. While that remains true, they can be the very things that destroy community before it starts. 

When I was going through seminary, I talked with countless leaders who had had big visions for the type of community they would lead, yet most didn’t last past 8, 9 or 10 months.  

What keeps many communities from sustaining for the long haul?

We all carry ideals and expectations with us into community and when they aren’t realized, we often assume our community isn’t “real” or that it is a failure. If we can identify the myths we carry into community, we can confront our unrealistic expectations and choose to willingly submit some of our personal one’s for the larger mission God has for our community. 

Here are 6 myths we have identified over our years as an intentional community committed to follow Jesus together:

Myth #1: Perfect Harmony

This myth says that we’ll all get along really easily and naturally with little to no conflict. After all, we all showed up here, so we must all be on the same page, right? This myth means that we assume that we will all be naturally interested in each other’s lives and we’ll discover things about each other with which we strongly connect. We also assume that we’re in similar places in our maturity, experience, and readiness, and since we’re all equally committed to the same things, we’ll all be willing to make similar sacrifices.

However, the reality is we’re not all at the same place, and we may never be. That’s okay, though. There will always be some dissonance in a community. Dissonance doesn’t mean you don’t have community; in fact, it might actually mean you do! Or, as we saw in the stages of community, you’re at least on your way there. 

Myth #2: Absolute Agreement

This myth does not refer to harmony in relationships, but to harmony in decisions and direction. It is the myth that we’ll always agree or arrive at a consensus because that’s what happens in community. This myth is the naive belief that no one will ever have to yield their opinion to the group because we’ll always end up on the same page if we just talk long enough. It is the belief that if we’re yielding enough to each other and to the Spirit we will never have to agree to disagree. There’s another assumption in this myth that’s a little more subtle but pretty significant: it’s the assumption that we won’t need distinct roles or responsibilities because we’re a community and everybody will decide on everything together, and we won’t move until we do. When we do that, we flirt with a denial of the gifts and roles with which God has gifted his church. The reality is, there will always be disagreements and differences in perspectives. There will be differences in gifts and responsibilities. In our communities, we’ve found that the answer isn’t agreeing on everything; it’s finding a way to go forward even when we don’t agree. 

Myth #3: Raw Pleasure

This is the myth that being honest, raw, or authentic means we have the right to say whatever we’re feeling whenever we want and thinking that people will actually appreciate that. This myth leads to thinking that unbounded authenticity is always good and welcomed. In fact, it is thinking that unbounded authenticity is community. Further, the myth of raw pleasure is the belief that now that we are in community, the door is wide open for us to say whatever we’re feeling whenever we’re feeling it—because healthy community requires complete honesty 100 percent of the time. It’s concluding that messiness and confusion are the reality of community life and that people actually prefer messiness over harmony, peace, and light-hearted adventure.

The reality is that community is not—and never has been—a green light to be mean or insensitive. Chaos is not synonymous with community. In healthy communities, love and kindness will always trump raw, self-serving disclosure.  

Myth #4: Truth At All Costs

While raw pleasure is more about personal disclosure, this myth is more about the idea of speaking “truth” to others. This is the myth that in community, we have a duty to point out people’s faults as soon as we see them. It is the assumption that we need to deliver the truth that we know as soon as we know it. It’s the belief that people want and need to hear truth more than they want and need to feel loved. This myth assumes that we can freely share our convictions and opinions at just about any time because being in community gives us a green light to address people’s “ignorance” or their personal issues at any time.

But, the reality is there is still a right time and a right way to share convictions and people will always have different convictions . . . and you may even be wrong!

Myth #5: It’s All Fixable

This myth is the common assumption that communities are miracle workers—that if a need is shared in community, the community must have the ability to fix it. Those who hold this belief often assume that if we need help beyond our community, we’re not a “true” community. Believing this myth also leads us to jump to the conclusion that people share things openly because they want us to fix their problems. Maybe they do, but maybe they just need us to listen and empathize with them.

The reality is that we’re human and we won’t be able to meet everyone’s needs. There are many great resources outside of our community (pastors, counselors, spiritual directors, coaches, and so on) that we would be foolish and arrogant not to access.  

Myth #6: True Community Is Always Communal 

When people visit our community, they are often surprised that we don’t all live in one house. The assumption seems to be that true community requires a common roof. Many communities have chosen that form, and it has worked well for them. It certainly brings people together, and we agree that proximity is vital to organic community. There are also obvious environmental and economic benefits to shared living that should not be discounted. However, there are downsides to communal life as well: the biggest negative is probably the time and energy that are required to maintain peace and order in communal space. Sharing space is not the same thing as sharing life.

We have opted for a slightly different approach while still valuing proximity and a sense of shared space. We made the decision to live close to one another (all within a ten-minute walk) and to inhabit the same neighborhood rather than the same house. Some of us do share houses with each other, some of us live in separate apartments in the same building, and some of us live in our own homes. We share our lives, we share our neighborhood, and we share a common covenant to do life in a particular way. For us, making these choices has created real community. 

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Note: The majority of this post is an excerpt from my book with Rob Yackley, Thin Places: Six Postures for Creating and Practicing Missional Community

 

 

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. 

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.

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