Archive for the ‘community’ Category

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.

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more east boston friends

UPDATE: Today, I, Steve, was hired by Vantage Global Travel to be their newest copy writer! Praise God! This position is perfect in so many ways, which could only mean our Creator is responsible. He is the giver of every good and perfect gift. So thanks to those who have been praying diligently for this…your prayers were felt — and answered!

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We ate dinner last night with a young couple that also recently moved to East Boston (in the last year) with the purpose of joining God’s work here. They moved from San Diego, where Matt (the husband) was involved in an organic, simple through-and-through, and completely incarnational ministry to the poor.

Here’s what it looked like: Christians living in six houses at the end of a cul-de-sac in a neighborhood known for its poverty, exemplifying Christ in word and deed. One day, they began handing out PB&J sandwiches to homeless people out of one of the homes, and after a few years, they were serving 250 families food every week. But that’s not all: They had huge “love feasts” every Saturday, where they would invite the poor, the homeless, the marginalized into their homes to sit at big tables and celebrate Jesus with them. They had an “open door policy” for the houses, where people could walk in and out. Now that’s extreme hospitality. Similar to the quote to which I referred a few months back. Very simple. Very relational. Very Jesus-centered.

Well, Matt met his lovely wife (Mary) in San Diego, was married last Fall, and soon after felt called to return to the Boston area (where he grew up). They have a vision for seeing God do in East Boston something similar to what He did in California. They are a Spirit-led couple who will become three next January with the addition of a new baby.

We have been praying with them and asking God what He wants to do in East Boston, and specifically what He wants to do through the four of us. Praise God for the ways in which He is leading us and confirming East Boston as the place we need to be right now.

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Thanks for your prayers about the job hunt. (or “job delivery,” as my friend Matt says…since God is going to “deliver” the perfect job…) The interview on Wednesday went OK — no big blunders, I was relaxed — but even better was the interview I had yesterday morning. It was to be a copy writer for a travel company, and I honestly couldn’t find any negative aspects about the job: easy commute, close to Chrissy’s school, flexible hours, fun team, great supervisor, deadline-driven, on-site fitness, travel benefits, good pay, opportunities to advance, yada yada yada… From what I could tell, I’m the leading candidate for the position. Don’t want to get the horse before the cart, but I’ll keep you all posted on any new developments. Keep up your prayers, though! They are certainly felt…

DMV, temping, evening walk

Our Neighborhood from the Today began kinda crappy. Chrissy and I were at the Mass. Dept. of Motor Vehicles as they were opening (8:30 a.m.) to get our new driver’s licenses. Chrissy had checked out what all we needed to bring, of course, and we were definitely on the ball. After getting a number, filling out our paperwork, and waiting for about 20 minutes, they called 218 and 219. Chrissy had brought our townhouse lease as our proof of address, which, apparently, was her only (and most crucial) mistake. They couldn’t accept the lease. They need a utility bill or updated check (as if someone couldn’t fabricate that…) or basically anything besides our housing lease to confirm our address. Geez. One more example to prove my theory that the seventh circle of Hell is, in fact, the DMV.

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It got better, however. We went to order checks from Bank of America and ended up getting them from a delightful Colombian man named Andres. He helped our day get better, for sure. Plus our checks were free.

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It got even better… I got a call from my contact at the staffing group I joined yesterday saying that there was a company needing a copywriter to work a.s.a.p. today only. I wasn’t doing anything, so I decided to take it (plus, the fact that the hourly pay was more than four times what I made at HR Frontline at ACU didn’t hurt…). The company was young, intimate, and so, so cool. I seriously did my dream job today. Basically, this company works for HUGE companies providing hook-ups, favors, and perks to company VIPs. You name it, they can do it. They even got an autographed Babe Ruth game ball for one of their members. I spent the day boiling down their biggest “finds” (Brad Pitt’s sunglasses, rare jewelry, discontinued Salvador Dalí perfume — things like that) into a paragraph each for an upcoming Merrill Lynch benefits brochure. It was loads of fun.

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But the highlight of the day, believe it or not, was yet to come. We walked Damon around the park down the street (the one that looks out over the harbor and skyline — click on the above photo), and EVERYBODY was out in the park playing some kind of sport or another or just enjoying the evening. There were latinos playing basketball, two groups playing soccer, an Arab woman eating a boxed dinner by the water, a group of old Asian women sitting under a tree… You get the picture. We live in a cornucopia of people. We met a little boy named Enmer, attracted to us at first by Damon (of course). He walked with us twice around the park, telling us that he plays soccer, will be in kindergarten next year, and lives in our neighborhood. He kept hugging Damon and talking to him, which was hilarious. When we told him that we needed to get Damon back to the house and he couldn’t come, he asked if we would be back. “I want to see you guys back here, OK?” he said. It was adorable. We are seeing that connecting to the community in real ways might be as simple as walking the dog in the park.

Ironic.

a couple things…

First, here’s the link to a Christian Chronicle story that profiles the simple/organic/house church movement in Churches of Christ. Chrissy and I were interviewed by the author.

Second, I had a great “emergent cohort” meeting with several new friends who are modeling kingdom life in Beverly, Mass., which is about an hour north of the city. They call themselves “Sinners and Saints,” and the community worships, plays, works, studies, prays, and — in one case — lives together. We met at a Boston establishment known for its…um…burgers to talk theology, life, whatever. I was refreshed by the rawness of these men — their propensity to ask tough, even “taboo” questions about God, their rejection of simplistic answers. It’s nice to be around guys who are unabashedly verbalizing the questions that come to mind and bringing them to the community. It was pure fun. I think I’ll do it again.

apart, but not separated

(from left) Cara and Travis Fry, Chad and Katie Allen, Houston and Kelly
Shearon, C & S

The human person is not an individual, not a self-contained being who at some stage in life chooses or elects to be in relationship with another and others. From the very first moment of existence, the infant is toward the other, ordinarily the mother or father, who is in turn toward and for the infant. From our origin we are related to others. We are from others, by others, toward others, for others, just as it is in God to exist in the relations of interpersonal love. — Michael Downey, Altogether Gift: A Trinitarian Spirituality

It began as a one-time thing. A prayer and discernment get-together for a graduate school couple we didn’t really know that well, Travis and Cara Fry. Five couples were there back in August 2005, worshipping, praying, and asking each other and God what to do next.

It went so well, we decided to do it the next week. Almost 10 months later, we’ve met every Wednesday night with three other couples to talk, pray, discern, and eat. Man, has the eating been good. We have celebrated communion together from time to time around the table. We have, at times, taken these gatherings very seriously, sharing tears or “firm discernment,” and have often allowed the Spirit to direct the gatherings as the Spirit willed.

But our group was not about gatherings, first and foremost. The initial gathering led to something so much deeper: Life together. It was about brake pad replacement on our Corrolla. It was about mountain biking every week down at “the trails.” It was about coffee together in the mornings. It was about “girls’ night” and “guys’ night.” It was about countless prayers that we lifted up for each other on a daily basis. It was about sharing together the frustrations, the joys, the anger, the sadness, the love of life.

Wednesday marked the last formal gathering our group will have (in its present state). On Saturday, Chad and Katie Allen will go to Atlanta to spend some time before they travel to Dubai, U.A.E., for a research trip in July. Chad is an accountant who wants to do bi-vocational missions in an Arab country. Travis and Cara Fry will leave next week for a backpacking trip in Colorado and New Mexico (including some much-needed spiritual “filling up” at a retreat center in N.M.) before they move to Tanzania in June to join God in his work there. Houston and Kelly Shearon will finish out a Vista internship with a local non-profit before pursuing further education in international development; they dream of creating sustainable development partnerships in some of the poorest nations in the world. The Holts, of course, will leave June 3 for Boston to join God’s “work already in progress” there.

We have seen God in this group over the last 10 months. We have drunk deeply from the well of Christian community, realizing for the first time the power of the Acts 2 account of the “fellowship of believers.” We have come to see one another as fellow travelers — pilgrims — on a Way that doesn’t promise safety or comfort, but does promise “life abundant.” Traveling with other pilgrims makes the uncomfortable times bearable — even sweet. While we may not gather as regularly from here on out, our little “fellowship of believers” will stay connected by the Cross. Across oceans, time zones, and cultures, we will be connected in our status as pilgrims on this narrow Way and in our passion for introducing others into this most perfect Way.

Beyond Brokerage

This is an amazing passage from Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. There’s so much to glean from this little section of the book, but please read it all if you can. Allow it to shape you as it shaped (and challenged my socks off!) me when I read it yesterday.

Beyond Brokerage

Layers of insulation separate the rich and the poor from truly encountering one another. There are the obvious layers like picket fences and SUVs, and there are the more subtle ones like charity. Tithes, tax-exempt donations, and short-term mission trips, while they accomplish some good, can also function as outlets that allow us to appease our consciences and still remain at a safe distance from the poor. Take this poignant example you may have caught wind of: it was revealed that Kathie Lee garments, which have earned Wal-Mart over $300 million in sales annually, were being produced in Honduran sweatshops. These girls, as young as thirteen, worked fifteen-hour shifts under the watch of armed guards and received thirty-one cents an hour. But the great irony is that the garments they were making for Kathie Lee were sold under a label that promised that “a portion of the proceeds from the sale of this garment will be donated to various children’s charities.” More recently, Kathie Lee has been an advocate for workers’ rights. Charity can be a dangerous insulator.

It is much more comfortable to depersonalize the poor so we don’t feel responsible for the catastrophic human failure that results in someone sleeping on the street while people have spare bedrooms in their homes. We can volunteer in a social program or distribute excess food and clothing through organizations and never have to open up our homes, our beds, our dinner tables. When we get to heaven, we will be separated into those sheep and goats Jesus talks about in Matthew 25 based on how we cared for the least among us. I’m just not convinced that Jesus is going to say, “When I was hungry, you gave a check to the United Way and they fed me,” or, “When I was naked, you donated clothes to the Salvation Army and they clothed me.” Jesus is not seeking distant acts of charity. He seeks concrete acts of love: “you fed me…you visited me in prison…you welcomed me into your home…you clothed me.”

With new government funds and faith-based initiatives, the social-work model can easily entangle the church in the efficiency of brokering services and resources in a web of “clients” and “providers” and struggling to retain God’s vision of rebirth, in which we are all family. Faith-based nonprofits can too easily be the mirror image of secular organizations, maintaining the same hierarchies of power and separation between rich and poor. They can too easily merely facilitate the exchange of goods and services, putting plenty of professionals in the middle to guarantee that the rich do not have to face the poor and that power does not shift. Rich and poor are kept in separate worlds, and inequality is carefully managed but not dismantled.

When the church becomes a place of brokerage rather than an organic community, she ceases to be alive. She ceases to be something we are, the living bride of Christ. The church becomes a distribution center, a place where the poor come to get stuff and the rich come to dump stuff. Both go away satisfied (the rich feel good, the poor get clothed and fed), but no one leaves transformed. No radical new community is formed. And Jesus did not set up a program but modeled a way of living that incarnated the reign of God, a community in which people are reconciled and our debts are forgiven just as we forgive our debtors (all economic words). That reign did not spread through organizational establishments or structural systems. It spread like a disease — through touch, through breath, through life. It spread through people infected by love.

Often wealthy folks ask me what they can do for the Simple Way [the neo-monastic Christian community of which Claiborne is a part]. I could ask them for a few thousand dollars, but that would be too easy for both of us. Instead, I ask them to come visit. Writing a check makes us feel good and can fool us into thinking that we have loved the poor. But seeing the squat houses and tent cities and hungry children will transform our lives. Then we will be stirred to imagine the economics of rebirth and to hunger for the end of poverty.

Almost every time we talk with affluent folks about God’s will to end poverty, someone says, “But didn’t Jesus say, ‘the poor will always be with you’?” Many of the people who whip out this verse have grown quite insulated and distant from the poor and feel defensive. I usually gently ask, “Where are the poor? Are the poor among us?” The answer is usually a clear negatory. As we study the Scriptures, we see how many texts we have misread, contextualized, and exegeted to hear what we want to. Like this one about the poor being among us, which Jesus says in the home of a leper and after a poor marginalized woman anoints his feet with perfume. The poor were all around him. Far from saying in defeat that we should not worry about the poor, since they will always be among us, Jesus is pointing the church to her true identity — she is to live close to those who suffer. The poor will always be among us, because the empire will always produce poor people, and they will find a home in the church, a citizenship in the kingdom of God, where the “hungry are filled with good things and the rich sent away empty.”

I heard that Gandhi, when people asked him if he was a Christian, would often reply, “Ask the poor. They will tell you who the Christians are.”

“forget about evangelism”

“Forget about evangelism,” Larry told us.

I was shocked. Jim blurted, “I cant!”

“Well, you’re a good Campbellite,” Larry said.

Jim Clark (Director, Christian Service Center), Chrissy and I were meeting with Larry James, CEO of Central Dallas Ministries. We drove over to tour and learn from one of the most effective and cutting-edge justice ministries in evangelical Christian circles. CDM started as a clothes closet run by white suburbanites, and now their clothes closet &emdash; which is run by folks from the neighborhood who utilize the non-profit’s services &emdash; is the smallest thing they do for Dallas’ poor. The clothes closet expanded to medical and dental clinics, law offices, a community center, a church, and two affordable housing units (with one more on the way), among other things. Larry said things started rolling for CDM when he asked the people of the neighborhood what their needs were instead of assuming he knew.

But when Jim asked Larry about the synthesis of justice and evangelism, Larry’s answer surprised us.

“You’re not going to like this answer, but forget about evangelism.”

Gerald Britt, the executive director of CDM, was sitting in on our conversation with, and apparently noticed that Jim and I were struggling with Larry’s statement.

“Evangelism is best done in relationships,” Gerald chimed in. He added that many who want to serve the poor simply assume that because someone is in poverty, they don’t know Jesus. Larry added that in all the years he has worked at Central Dallas Ministries, he had maybe encountered five people who didn’t “claim Jesus as their Lord and Savior.” Admittedly, this definition of “knowing Jesus” is broad, Larry said, but the principle is generally true: We think that if someone is poor, they can’t be a Christian (and sometimes even think that they are poor because they aren’t a Christian).

They have a point. We aren’t rushing down to our Kiwanis Club or school board meetings with tracks and Bibles to “evangelize our middle- and upper-class friends.” I also understand where Larry and Gerald are coming from with regards to forgetting about evangelism. I don’t think they are advocating forgetting about being the incarnation of Jesus with people, but suggesting we forget about “doing evangelism” the way we’ve done it. They are advocating a focus on community formation, from which discipleship can occur. Larry found that when the locals from the neighborhood began running his food pantry, a community formed. He said that the church CDM started tripled in size when they gave the pantry to the community because people felt like they were “at church” all week.

Sometimes I think all we (meaning many Christian non-profit agencies “serving the poor”) are doing is congratulating ourselves for “serving the poor,” unconcerned with their everyday plight or walking with them as friends. We lock them in their holding cell while they wait “to be seen.” We secretly resent many of them for continuing to return to our agencies for help. We distrust them, fearing that they will make off with something that isn’t theirs or worse, assault one of our volunteers. When it comes down to it, many of us view the poor as less than human. But we still love to decorate our corkboard with all the newspaper clippings that inform our town of all the good we’re doing.

I don’t think Larry wasn’t saying “forget about God” or “don’t say anything about Jesus.” He was saying that when “evangelism” (in the traditional, “I have something to offer you” sense) is the focus, we will always be at arm’s length from the people Jesus loves most. When we look at people who might have a little less than we do in terms of their needs (what they are missing), we’ll never notice their assets (what they have to offer).

So here’s a recipe for “evangelism” that seems to be working in Dallas:

Create community. Make friends. Love the poor. This is the way of Jesus.