Archive for November, 2007

catching up

OK, so it’s been a few days since the last post, which isn’t a bad one to camp out on. Intimacy is everything, right?

We spent three full days in Austin, Texas, for Thanksgiving at Chrissy’s parents’ brand-spankin’-new house on Lake Travis. Their place is unbelievable, with a huge deck off the back overlooking the lake. It was the perfect place for 15 people to enjoy Thanksgiving together (perhaps the only place where that might be possible). Perhaps the best surprise of the week was seeing my dad get hop out when my brother’s car pulled into the driveway. We knew my mom, brother, and Lindy (Mitch’s sweet girlfriend) were coming, but my dad — being a truck driver — couldn’t get the time off approved with his supervisor. Or so he — and we — thought. Turns out he was only scheduled for two days of driving during Thanksgiving week, and he was able to switch a day around to make the Austin trip possible. It was so great seeing him step out of that car.

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“Church” for us these days looks like this: On Sunday morning, we’ve begun taking the newspaper over to “Sylvia‘s” house, where we spend a relaxing morning talking about what God is doing in her life, playing with her precious children, eating a wonderful breakfast while sipping coffee and looking through the paper, and just being. She asked us a few weeks ago if we’d be willing to make this a Sunday tradition, and this past Sunday was as refreshing as we thought it’d be. In fact, I can’t think of a better way I’d like to spend my Sunday mornings. She is an amazing neighbor and great friend, and she can teach us so much about desperation for God and the meaning of family.

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27)

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Going to see Rob Bell — author, teacher, storyteller, and pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich. — speak tonight on his “The Gods Aren’t Angry” Tour. The subtitle of the tour is “How Humans Invented Religion to Make Themselves Feel Better.” Should be interesting.

intimacy

Our great friend and mentor Kent Smith stayed with us for the last few days. I had the privilege of studying under Kent for two years during graduate school as part of the inaugural class of the Missionary Residency for North America (MRNA). Kent has preached, planted churches, taught, and now dedicates his life to the raising up of missional leaders to spread out over the continent and join God in his work in simple, reproducible ways.

On Saturday evening, Kent shared some reflections with a group that included the two of us and a church planting team working in Quincy (south of Boston). His words were both simple and disturbingly profound. Inspiring and convicting. Encouraging and piercing. They spoke (and speak) to a few of the great shortcomings of those who claim to be working for and with God, and they cut many of us to the core of our being.

Kent started by surmising how our efforts (in ministry, in particular) would be different if we were to take seriously — dead seriously — the words of Jesus on two different occasions:

“…I will build my church.” (Matthew 16:18)

“…apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

These are profound statements, to say the least. Tucked into stories or passages that are remembered for other verses, these passages reveal truths about Jesus and His vision for His followers that are not often talked about. Jesus said that HE will build his church. Not us. In fact, we really don’t have a clue how to build Jesus’ church, and Jesus is not interested in sharing that responsibility with anyone. How often do we in “ministry” attempt to build Jesus’ church for Him? Scary.

“Apart from me you can do nothing.” Wow. It didn’t say “…you can do very little,” or “…not as much,” but nothing. The John 15 verse really explains the Matthew 16 verse, doesn’t it? Jesus is the one building his church, so if we want to be a part of that project, we’d best remain “in Him.” Intimately “in Him.”

Back to these verse in a few.

Kent continued by saying that in his 30+ years of training, coaching, teaching, and observing ministers in a variety of contexts, he’s noticed two primary motivators for entering the kind of simple, incarnational work to which many of us have committed. The first is ministry, or the desire to do something great for God. We want to make an impact, see lives changed, see churches planted, see communities develop, see the Kingdom break in. These are all great things, but Kent suggests that oftentimes, the propensity for ministry is born out of an internal desire in our own lives to matter. We are often seeking to fill a hole in our lives that will give us some sort of meaning or significance. Ministry — or the propensity to “do great things for God” — is not sufficient, all by itself.

The other motivator Kent has observed is the desire for community. This, too, comes from mixed intentions, he suggests. A deficit of community in church experiences in our past, or even an internal emptiness and loneliness, might lead some to pursue a life of ministry. Moreover, many people carry into ministry settings a specific vision of the “perfect community,” for which they will squash any and everyone in their path to realize it. In this case, the desire for community — and specifically, a certain type of community — outweighs all other motivators. He reminded us of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together: “Love community, and you will kill it. Love your brother, and you will build it.” Community alone, Kent suggests, is not enough.

In fact, Kent suggested that ministry and community often become idols.

If ministry and community are two corners of a triangle, he suggested the need for a third corner, the base angle: intimacy. Going back to the words of Jesus, we must remain in Christ. This is an active process, not one that occurs once and is over. If we believe that Jesus is still building his church, and that he still speaks to his people, we must — we must — seek intimacy with Him. Every day. Ministry will fall apart and lives will be crushed in the process if we are not seeking intimacy with Christ. Community will self-destruct and lives will be crushed in the process if we are not seeking intimacy with Christ. So simple, and yet so disturbingly profound.

I confess that I have often been driven by one or both of the false idols of ministry and community. I have strived to do great things for God, but so often this drive comes from feelings of inadequacies in my own heart. I have desired to see “authentic community” built up, but so often this is derived from a lack of community in my own life and a selfish idea of what “perfect community” looks like. When it comes down to it, I confess that I have acted in a way that suggests I can build Jesus’ church better than he can. And looking back, the times in which that sin was so apparent, things have failed, fallen apart. Those times when I have been desperate for Christ and sought intimacy with Him first and foremost (for the reward of Christ himself), He has worked through me to build his church and reveal his kingdom.

I don’t want to go another day in which I am not desperate for Jesus. When I — when we — become desperate for Christ and seek after him daily and relentlessly (paying close attention to what He is saying to us, and obeying those words), the ministry and community will fall into place. We were put on this earth not to do great things for God or form community, but to draw close to our Creator.

All too often, I miss this. Thanks, Kent, for allowing yourself to be God’s mouthpiece to a living room-full of young people who really, really needed to hear these words. Your plea for us to capture and live into the need for intimacy now — in our 20s — as opposed to 10, 15, 30 years down the road did not fall on deaf ears.

Father, make me desperate for you. I confess that my ways are not your ways, and I want to dial into your life, and thus your ways. May Christ be my one and only true Desire.

a minister lives here

…and the Senate wants to know why.  Read to the very end of this piece in the LA Times.

Sylvia

Because they are our neighbors and friends, I have changed the names of the mother and children in the story below to protect their identity.

Tears streamed down her face, which was just inches from her son’s.

“I love you so much, Jose,” she said, squeezing him tightly against her. “I love you with everything that is in my heart. My whole heart. I would do anything for you, son.” She shudders and closes her eyes with every word. I’ve never seen anyone mean anything so sincerely.

Her tears were joyful tears. She was hugging the son that just minutes earlier she thought she might lose. In fact, she left her house with her 3-year-old son that morning knowing that she might not return home with him. The courts had caught up with her and sent a DSS social worker to her home with orders to be in court at 9 the next morning. The social worker made sure to remind Sylvia that she could have come with the Boston Police and taken her son away from her. Amazingly, Sylvia held it together through the unexpected visit, the intimidation, the fear.

OK, the other side of the story. It’s long, of course. A story full of abuse, allegations, missteps, coping mechanisms, and pain — lots of pain. Sylvia has six kids, only two of which she has custody of. Jose, the aforementioned 3-year-old, and Penelope, who is 2. She unjustly lost the other four, all older, several years ago, because unsubstantiated claims were made about her and her children. She had Jose just after she lost her other kids (three of whom, she found out last week, are now adopted and will never again be in her custody). He wasn’t supposed to live, and was in fact expected to be stillborn or have major birth defects.

But when he was born healthy, Sylvia called him her “miracle baby.” She also knew she couldn’t allow this miracle baby to be taken from her, as her other children had. This is where things get fuzzy: The short of it is, though, that for the next three years, Sylvia intentionally flew underneath the radar of the courts and the DSS that would rather her not become a mother again. She knew better, after all — she was a good mother. She gave Jose to her sister when things became too rough to manage. She had only done drugs as a way to cope with her children being taken from her. She was getting help for her anger. Everything she did — good or bad — was with them on her mind and heart. She knew she was no match for the bureaucratic juggernaut that is the Justice System, so she subverted it. Whether this was right or wrong, maternal love and instincts always win. I’d challenge any mother in a similar situation to say, without a doubt, that they wouldn’t have done the same thing.

But Sylvia was alone.

Her husband was unsupportive at best and malicious at worst, and would eventually — after giving her little Penelope one year after Jose — end up in prison. His family made outrageous claims to DSS about Sylvia’s competence as a mother and, to this day, stands as her main barrier to that quiet, undisturbed life with her children that she so desperately desires. Her family was downright backstabbing. When Sylvia refused to sell drugs for her dealer dad as a way to provide for her children, her father basically disowned her and turned her entire family against her. Dysfunction defined.

To this day, Sylvia has no family support to speak of.

But last Tuesday, a family stood beside her in an airy courtroom before a cynical judge as advocates for the woman and mother Sylvia has become. In situations like this, the chips are stacked against poor, Hispanic, single moms with no education or family. The only hope, as Sylvia knew when she prayed the night before in her living room, that God be the judge, not man.

The family that waited with her for five excruciating hours in court, and stood next to her in front of a judge wielding the power to destroy her life, was not a blood family, but a hodge-podge collection of neighbors who showed up to say that Sylvia is a good mother. She loves her children and would never hurt them. She has made mistakes in her past and has so far to go, but goodness gracious, so do I. So do we all.

But Sylvia is a wonderful mother. Jose is in Head Start and takes special classes for a slight speech impediment. They both are up-to-date with medical and dental care and eat about as well as WIC children can. Sylvia prays with and reads to Jose and Penelope before bed, takes them out of the house despite the difficulty, and is working toward her GED in order to go back to work. She is completely sober (over a year now) and has a 24-7 support system comprised of what might be the best neighbors on the planet. “It takes a village,” after all, right?

None of that mattered in front of that judge last Tuesday, though. “Is this Jose? Where has he been the last three years? We’ve been looking for him,” the judge called down callously and condescendingly. This judge had never visited Sylvia at home, seen her children happily playing on the living room floor or bouncing along on a pumpkin patch hayride. She had a limited scope of what had happened in the previous years and only had one concern: Where has Jose been the last three years and is he OK now? A fair question, but one deserving of a complete answer. If only Sylvia could sit down with the judge and tell her story as she had told us the previous night, with the same tears. Then, maybe, the judge would rule with compassion, or at least treat her like a human.

The judge’s ruling was that Sylvia will have temporary custody of Jose until the next hearing in January, when she’ll get to do it all again. The waiting, the praying, the crying, the confusion, the judge. In January, after home visits and reference checks, a final decision will be made as to Jose’s final destination. He’ll either stay with the mother who has said she would sacrifice her own life for his or go into the custody of the cold, bureaucratic State. Tuesday’s tears and emphatic declarations of love for her son were a result of two more months with a son with whom she thought she had just a few more hours. That’s grace.

You haven’t seen agony until you’ve seen a mother awaiting word on whether or not she’ll keep her child. There’s no description befitting of that scene, and no mother on Earth — I don’t care what she’s done — that deserves it. For the last two years, and for at least the next two months, Sylvia tucks two angelic children into bed each night, but every time with the sobering knowledge that four more out there are going to bed without her touch. As happy as she is to have Jose and Penelope, Sylvia yearns to have all her children underneath one roof, eating at her table, growing in love for each other and her.

Sound familiar?

hi, nice to see you again.

We’re back, folks. (read: “you two”)  Apparently my hosting service decided to switch servers, knocking all its customers offline for the better part of a week.  That is simply unheard of, and I’m guessing it’s a mistake that will ultimately sink the company.  I, for one, will be switching hosting services, and others who’ve been affected are saying the same thing.

But alas, the hiatus is over, and I can get back to posting regularly (read: once or twice a week).  I have had a thing or two come to mind this past week that I’d like to share, so look for a new blog (with substance) over the holiday weekend.

Everyone got big Veteran’s Day plans?

will d. campbell

So, I just discovered Will D. Campbell. I picked up one of his books — Soul Among Lions: Musings of a Bootleg Preacher — for $0.50 at the Salvation Army in Central Square yesterday, and I bought it after reading the following quote on the inside of the book jacket:

Why can there not be a one-sentence peace treaty: “It shall be a violation of international law for any nation to kill a child of another nation.” What nation would not sign the treaty? And how would war then be waged?

I read half the book on the train ride home, then I looked deeper into the life of the author. Campbell was a notable white supporter of civil rights in the ’60s, a Baptist preacher in Mississippi, a WWII veteran, the spiritual life director at Ole Miss for 2 years in the ’50s (before giving it up because of the heat he took for his support of civil rights), and a celebrated writer. He is now 83 years old and still writing and speaking, still active in calling out injustice in plain terms and prophetically bringing a new message (with refreshing simplicity and innocence).

Soul Among Lions is basically a book of short “blog posts,” written in 1999 before blogs were big. I’ve found myself nodding emphatically at nearly everything I’ve read of it so far, so you can expect some of it to reappear here on this blog, starting today. If you haven’t checked out Campbell’s stuff, it’s as relevant in 2007 as it was in 1999 (Soul Among Lions), 1978 (when he wrote Brother to a Dragonfly, a finalist for the National Book Award), or 1962 (when Race and the Renewal of the Church, Campbell’s first book, was published).

I’ll start with this piece, the 11th chapter in Soul. Keep in mind this was written in 1999. Enjoy.

Recently in Salt Lake City a passel of souls of my religious declension resolved that wives should submit graciously to their husbands. I don’t recall that being an issue of any gravity in our family. For example, I am totally irresponsible with money, so my wife handles that. She gives me pocket cash and I don’t complain. (I reckon I’m not a leader!) But she doesn’t know about farming, so in the little bovine cul-de-sac we inhabit I decide what variety of seeds to plant, when and where to plant — things like that. It’s worked pretty well for this first fifty-three years of marriage.

Even so, I’m glad to see my Baptist brethren — yes, brethren — taking a solid, literal stand on biblical interpretation. Maybe next year they will do the same with the passages where Jesus and Isaiah said they had come to proclaim opening the doors of prisons and letting all the prisoners go free. That would rescue us from the prison-industrial complex that threatens to bankrupt us with ever more costly prison construction.

Or they could pass a resolution about Romans 12, where St. Paul tells us to feed our enemies. Since the president, vice president, and Senator Jesse Helms are all Southern Baptists, we’ll lift the sanctions on enemies like Cuba, Iraq, and Libya and send them food for their crying babies. We could even quit spending so much time trying to put prayer in the public schools, because Jesus unambiguously taught that when we pray we are to go to a secret place and pray in secret.

So I’m glad to see my brethren taking scripture seriously. I await even more resolutions.