neighborhood

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

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. 

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

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.

When Good News Looks Like Something: 5 Ways to Engage Your Neighborhood

StreetFair3I love my neighborhood. It’s not that it is all that glamorous or cool or “safe” or whatever. It’s that it is full of people who actually want to experience some kind of community together. There is a building sense that we all have some skin in the game and that our thriving is somehow connected to the thriving of our neighbor. Whether talking with fellow parents at the park, young students at the dive bar or our friends in the local Mexican bakery, words like community, neighborhood and integration seem to be finding their way into our everyday vocabulary of conversation.

It’s not always been this way in Golden Hill.

It wasn’t too long ago that our neighborhood was known as “Heroin Hill” because of the drug presence and violent activities that regularly surrounded it.

Before that, it was known as the “Garbage Dump” because our numerous recovery homes would house societies “garbage.”

Well, there is a new narrative bubbling to the surface on our streets, storefronts and in our homes. It is a narrative of new life, renewed hope and a common vision for a shared future. 

Just two weeks ago, we had our second annual Golden Hill Street Fair. The same streets that have endured years of crime, segregation and hopelessness began to spring to life. This early Sunday morning, like a garden showing its first signs of germination, 25th street (which is right outside our front door) started sprouting to life as tent after tent took their place. Stages were being set up and the smell of a dozen different ethnic foods began to fill the air. The beer garden was taking shape as three local breweries brought out their finest, and resident volunteers were running a million miles a minute, the majority of whom had huge smiles on their faces.

The anticipation was palpable.

And then people started streaming in. By noon, there had probably already been about 5,000 people that had come through and by the end of the day, close to 20,000.

20,000 people. That’s more than our neighborhood’s total population.

IMG_6317I volunteered to work the event (with my 3 year old by my side watching Dora the Explorer and dancing to the mariachi bands) selling customized Golden Hill t-shirts. As the line grew with each passing hour, I realized something about my neighbors and the neighborhood we share. Golden Hill was receiving a new identity. No longer a place to be ashamed of or viewed only as a holding area until we could afford to live some place better, our neighbors were proud of our neighborhood. Not because our real estate values went up or because our crime levels had dropped, but because we were sensing the type of community humanity is designed for.

We were moving towards a common good together and that made the impossible seem possible. These types of spaces encourage the lonely widow to experience the joy of new life. They allow the single mother to realize they aren’t alone. They create space for isolated families to engage with one another and dream about shared life.  

For a number of years now, I have been apart of a community of about 30 people who all live in Golden Hill seeking to stumble towards Jesus together. We don’t have it all figured out, but we deeply care for our neighbors and our neighborhood in general. Between all of us, we have established hundreds of relationships within these 7 X 10 blocks. Over the course of the day, I saw nearly every person we have experienced life with over the years. From a distant acquaintance to a dear friend. From the liquor storeowner to my community league basketball buddy. From my farmer’s market colleagues, to local pastor friends.

Within each interaction, there was a common spark in our eyes. A spark of celebration of what has been unfolding and anticipation for what is to come. 

Having helped start our neighborhood Farmer’s Market a few years ago and now finishing my first full year on the board of our Neighborhood Council, my perspective on what is unfolding in my neighborhood is much different than at any other time in my life. These kinds of Kingdom moments don’t just happen randomly. They are not moments we can simply sit back and hope create themselves. No, these are sacred moments the Community of God is called to be right in the middle of.

Here are some ways we can begin to engage our neighborhoods redemptively and link arms with others for the common good:

1. Stop spending so much time at church

Before you walk me down the Plank ‘O Heresy, here me out. I’m not saying we stop gathering as the Church. No, no, no. What I am saying is that, 1. It is easy for Christians to think the best ministry happens at a church building. As a result, we get so busy going to a building (that usually is not in our neighborhood) to do ministry, that we don’t have any time to share life with those right outside our front door. In the words of my friend, Jer Swigart, “We can live in our neighborhoods without actually ever living life within it.” 2. See your neighborhood as your local parish. These are the people you have been called to live, love and lead alongside. Having hosted many formal church sponsored events in my day, I can’t tell you how freeing and transformative it was to help host an event that wasn’t put on by a church, but could be intimately engaged by the Church. People don’t know me as “Jon the Pastor,” but as Jon the dude who plays basketball in the rec center or Jon the guy who works at the farmers market or Jon on the Neighborhood Council. We don’t have to have a “Christian” title to do ministry. In fact, those titles can often be the greatest hindrance.

2. Identify the assets in your neighborhood

What does your neighborhood already have to offer that you can simply come alongside and support? We don’t need to start our own “Christian” version of things, we simply need to follow Jesus into the places he already is at work and join him there. What are the public spaces where your neighbors already gather? Join your local sports leagues, take your kids to the same park everyday, shop at the same businesses, build relationships at the local pub/bar/coffee shop, support the local church in your neighborhood (even if you don’t like the preaching or music or whatever), etc…

3. Connect with influencers in your neighborhood

Whether they are long time residents, business leaders, local politicians or artist, there are people who carry a lot of influence in your neighborhood. Seek them out and take them to coffee. You will be surprised at how thrilled they will be to hear of your common heart for your neighborhood and begin to form a collaborative relationship. They will give you access to people and systems that would take you years on your own.

4. Immerse yourself in the areas of brokenness

We are taught to only see either what is right in front of us or what is pleasing to the eye. If we are to follow Jesus into our neighborhoods, we must be agents of reconciliation. This means we have to intentionally walk off the beaten paths and see what is happening below the surface that is in need of healing. This may be a hidden population in your neighborhood who is either being oppressed/forgotten (whether intentionally or not), a political or economic injustice or a sociological reality like isolation, depression or workaholism. These must take a human face. Immersing isn’t simply identifying a problem, but entering into it redemptively (think Incarnation).

5. Contend for the broken to the point of restoration. 

Jesus followers are to live in the reality of Resurrection. Even though things may look impossible and the hope of New Creation far off, we must remain in the game even when things get tough. While things will not always end how we’d hope, we are to walk with people and systems with a vision for restoration. The Good Samaritan didn’t put a Band-Aid on the broken down pilgrim and walk away. No, he walked him, sacrificing his own good to the point of restoring the pilgrim back to community. This is where most of us want to jump ship, but this is where the world needs us most.

In the late 1800’s a poet had a vision for my neighborhood beyond what most could see at that time. It is a picture that lifts our site line from a broken past and gives us a glimpse of a hopeful future.

As the sun rolls down and is lost to sight,

Tinting the scene with its golden light,

The Islands dim and the fading shore,

The ebbing tide through our harbor door,

The drooping sails of an anchoring fleet,

The shadowy city at our feet,

With the Mountains’ proud peaks so lofty and still,

‘Tis a picture worth seeing, from Golden Hill.

 

Jesus’ Name is Alecia. Really??

Ruby and I were going for a long stroll as Janny put in one of her last long days of work before going on maternity leave.  Because I know that our time as a family of three is quickly coming to a close, I walked hand in hand with my little gal with a bit more sacredness.  

She stopped regularly to smell flowers, sang songs and was convinced it was Janny’s birthday, so she made sure to pick the perfect bouquet of flowers (most of which were just pretty weeds) to surprise her mom with when we got home. 
 
As we yet again stood on the sidewalk stalled by another “distraction” -- this time it was the plants growing out of the dirt in the cracks of the concrete -- I saw an older woman walking towards us with two shopping carts full of all sorts of useful contents.  Getting closer to us, I noticed that she had to push one about 20 yards and then walk all the way back to the other and pull it up even with the first.  This happened over and over and over.  It was her reality.  There was nothing strange about it to her, it was just one of life’s necessities.  
 
With Ruby still captivated by these mini-gardens sprouting from the concrete road, I said hello and we shared a smile.  Ruby then looked up and said hello as well.  Ruby and I were in no rush (clearly!!), so I asked if I could pull one of her carts for her as she slowly trod to her next destination.  She didn’t hesitate for a second as she nodded her head smiling. 
 
Ruby pushing her stroller, the women pushing a cart and I the other, we slowly moved down the streets of our shared neighborhood.  She didn’t speak English, but quickly asked if I spoke Spanish.  I knew enough tell her that I didn’t know it well, but would love to give it a shot.  As we walked, we stumbled through a conversation that ranged from what I do for work to how old her six kids are and where they live.  Ruby never seemed to flinch at the surprise interaction and remained focused on her newly important responsibility of pushing her stroller.  
 
Pulling in front of one our neighborhood coffee shops, I told the woman that Ruby and I were going to head in and I asked if she’d like a drink.  Extending a beautiful, almost transcendent smile, she shook her head and we began to part ways.  Mustering up my best Spanish skills, I asked her name and formerly introduced myself and Ruby.  Her name is Alecia. 
 
Alecia, Ruby and I all share a neighborhood.  In many ways, we share life together even if we don’t often realize it.  As Ruby and I sat in the coffee shop, I realized the significance of knowing our neighbors names.  For some, it is act of being known.  For others, it is an act of assigning dignity to one that may otherwise not have much offered to them based on their race or socio-economic reality.  It is what it means to see all people through a shared humanity.  A humanity illumined by the image of God resting within each one of us. 
 
It is sacred ground.  It is Kingdom ground.  It is learning the many names of Jesus that we choose to engage or ignore in our everyday coming and going.  
 
I started a note in my phone called “Names to Remember” after our interaction.  Because next time Jesus walks up to me with a one too many carts to push on his own, I want to be able to call him by name and celebrate our time together. 
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