Why Food Tells the Story of God

Why Food Tells the Story of God

How is it that so many of my own profound experiences with God happen when food is around? Is it just coincidence? I don’t think so. There’s something deep, profound, and mysterious about the role food has in the story of God.

When I was in my 20s and I’d shipwrecked my faith, it was weekly meals with a caring family that I experienced firsthand the hospitality of God. Community dinners that I’ve experienced both in the context of a church small group and in my neighborhood have been some of the most significant spiritual experiences of my life.

In fact, we might say that as we pay close attention to God’s story in the Bible, wherever God is, there is a snack, a meal, an overabundant feast. At every major plot point of the story, there you find God and food. Alexander Schmemann, in his book of sacrament of Eucharist, begins with the line, “You are what you eat.”

Here’s how the story of the Bible unfolds.

Creation

In Genesis 2, we find God’s first command and prohibition. Before Moses, before the 10 Commandments, before even sin and death enter the world, God gives Adam one thing to do and one thing not to do: “You may freely eat the fruit of every tree in the garden—except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If you eat its fruit, you are sure to die” (Genesis 2:15–17).

In other words, God’s first directive to a human being is, “Eat this. Not that.” Of all the things God might provide instructions to human beings about life, God begins with eating.

Fall

Likewise, food plays center stage when everything goes terribly wrong. There are three curses found in Genesis 3—first to the serpent, second to the woman, and third, and most extensively, to the man. The Hebrew of verses 17–19 is three lines of poetry with the verb “to eat” central in each line.

“Since you listened to your wife and ate from the tree
     whose fruit I commanded you not to eat,
the ground is cursed because of you.
     All your life you will struggle to scratch a living from it.
It will grow thorns and thistles for you,
     though you will eat of its grains.
By the sweat of your brow
     will you have food to eat
until you return to the ground
     from which you were made.
For you were made from dust,
     and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:17–19).

Acquiring food, eating, having enough to eat—it will be a struggle. Just take notice of all the places in story of Genesis 2 and 3 that the words “eat” and “ate” show up. There’s something fundamental about the both the right and wrong orderings of universe that have to do with eating. It’s what’s broken, and it’s what’s being restored.

Passover

We come to the book of Exodus and story of God’s people in slavery. God, one by one, clobbers the Egyptian deities, and at the grand conclusion, just before the big finale at the Red Sea, we find an interlude around a meal.

“These are the instructions for eating this meal: Be fully dressed, wear your sandals, and carry your walking stick in your hand. Eat the meal with urgency, for this is Yahweh’s Passover” (Exodus 12:11).

Again, take note of every time the word “eat” shows up in Exodus 12, outlining instructions about how to celebrate the Passover meal as an annual holiday. God wants to commemorate this victory with a yearly party.

Torah

God leads his people to Mt. Sinai where they’re given the Law. Among the more obscure individual laws for modern people are the food laws found in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. Most notable in these lists is no pork.

Why does God care what Israelite’s eat? Of all the things a deity could make seemingly arbitrary rules about, why food? In one sense, it echoes the Genesis story (“Eat this. Not that.”) Another way of considering is God placing limits on humans’ consumption of God’s creation. As if God might be saying, “I really like these. Don’t eat these.” Notably, it’s only animals that get ruled out. There are no prohibitions about eating plants.

Sacrifices

And yet another, and perhaps more significant way of considering it, is that the animals that are prohibited from being eaten are also excluded from being offered on the altar as sacrifices to God. If it’s not appropriate on the altar, it’s not appropriate for the human body.

And the sacrificial system given to Israel was concerned with what they ate but also who they ate with. To being a sacrifice to the altar was to initiate a meal both with God and with the community. As John Goldingay writes, “Israel’s worship thus combined the order of a banquet and the celebration of a barbecue.” Eating was central to the worship of Israel.

Jesus

And then we come to Jesus. I’ve heard it said that Jesus eats so much in the Gospels that if he hadn’t walked everywhere, he would’ve been fat. The Gospel of Luke, especially, portrays Jesus as eating everywhere he goes, a bit like Brad Pitt’s character in Ocean’s 11.

When a crowd of 5,000 follow him to a rural place, Jesus is most concerned about what they’re going to eat, and he feeds them all. When he tells a story about what the end of everything will be like, he describes a banquet. He eats with the wrong people. He invites himself to a meal at Zacchaeus’s house. When the disciples walking to Emmaus encounter the resurrected Jesus, somehow, they don’t recognize Jesus until they all sit down to eat. Jesus and food go together like peanut butter and jelly—or maybe better, bread and wine.

Eucharist

Most important in the Jesus story is the Passover meal that Jesus shares with his disciples the night before the crucifixion. The death and resurrection could have happened at anytime, but it gets tethered explicitly to the Passover story and the Passover meal.

And so, it’s the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Eucharist that has become central to Christian worship ever since. Each week we rehearse the words, “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ is coming again,” all while remembering the meal that Jesus shared with his disciples. We remember the eating in the garden, the eating at Passover, and we look forward to eating at the banquet in the kingdom of God.

Revelation

Finally, we come to the end of the story. Sure, there are a lot of crazy images throughout Revelation, but the most significant one is where it all lands—an epic feast.

Let us be glad and rejoice, and let us give honor to him. For the times has come for the wedding feast of the Lamb, and his bride has prepared herself” (Revelation 19:7).

The story begins with two trees: Eat this, not that. The story ends around banquet table. How fitting.

It’s with this in mind that church potlucks are one of the most spiritual and theological things we can do together. They point us towards the imagery of Exodus 25:11, Isaiah 25, Luke 14, and Revelation 19.

It’s with this in mind that we make space to eat with one another. We make space to eat with our neighbors. We make space to eat with strangers. We make space to eat with them and with God.

I once visited a Jewish Shabbat service, and the rabbi closed with my most favorite benediction ever:

They tried to kill us. God saved us. Let’s eat.

If you want to go deeper, you should check these out:

Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating by Norman Wirzba

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Don't Let Your Mission Trip Sabotage Your Spiritual Life

Don’t Let Your Summer Mission Trip Sabotage Your Spiritual Life

It’s summertime, and you know what that means? Mission trip season. Having the opportunity to go on a mission trip—whether across the country or across the globe—can be an eye-opening, life-changing event. It can also be something that sabotages your spiritual life, and you don’t want that.

I was 5 years old when my parents went to Jamaica on our church’s first ever mission trip. They got bit by the missions bug there. Hard. And so did the church.

A year later, my dad took a six-month sabbatical from his job and moved our family from Tulsa to El Paso, Texas. Our church sent a series of teams to build a dormitory for an orphanage across the border in Juarez, and my dad acted as something like the project manager. I started the first grade there, and some of my earliest memories are these people from our church coming and going through our home.

As a teenager I went with our youth group to partner with a ministry in San Diego working among the poorest barrios of Tijuana. The ministry had relationships with missionaries across the globe, some of whom were on furlough there. One spoke to our group and that opened a whole new world to me. That’s what I wanted to do. As a college student I was able to go to Estonia and Chad and Cameroon. Later in life, as a college minister I led students on trips to Honduras, Ghana, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and north Africa.

In all those experiences, I’ve seen the profound ways people are transformed and grow deeper in their life with God. I’ve also seen how these trips can undermine and short-circuit a person’s spiritual life. Jesus’s parable of the four soils is an appropriate illustration for the various ways we may respond to a mission trip. Here are a few real obstacles you’ll want to watch out for.

You come to despise home after your mission trip.

In other words, you become dishonest about the weaknesses of the local culture and dishonest about the strengths of your home culture. It’s so different and exotic and exciting. You decides that different is better. You compare cultures and you judge. But this is unhealthy.

Culture is a complex and dynamic thing. We often take it for granted. Imagine a fish attempting to describe water. But when we encounter a different culture, like we do on a mission trip, we begin noticing things about our own culture we may have never noticed before—things like who makes decisions, avoiding uncertainty, or primarily finding identity in community. You come to have different eyes for your home culture, for better and worse.

Traveling overseas can also highlight to us ways that being a Christian and a being from our home culture are not the same thing. They can even be at odds with one another. The Gospel affirms and speaks the native language of every culture. The Gospel also critiques every culture, exposing it’s sinful systems. Jesus tells the truth about humanity in every culture. Every culture reflects God’s image, and every culture is corrupted by human sin.

You leave your experience there.

You don’t let it change you. You took a lot of pictures to broadcast on social media, and you consumed an experience. You had warm fuzzies in the moment. You can go back to life “as normal.”

The call to “change the world” lures us like a siren song. But if we don’t give ourselves permission to be vulnerable and be changed ourselves, we’re simply tourists. And a tourist is the last thing we should be on a mission trip.

Some years ago I took a group of students to the Dominican Republic. One day we visited an orphanage for physically disabled kids. I was wrecked as I fed a little girl her lunch, and I raced a boy in his wheelchair up and down the long hallway. There happened to be another group there from the United States, and I watched as they “oohed” and “aahed” from bed to bed, room to room, as if they were at a petting zoo. And I remembered thinking that’s the last thing we need to be doing.

We want to open ourselves so that our humanity touches the humanity of another person. When that happens, God transforms us both.

You loved a place more than people.

I heard one of my students on that trip quote our host saying, “You’re not called to the Dominican Republic. You’re called to Dominicans.” The commandment in the Torah, that Jesus underlined, is “love your neighbor,” not “love the nations.” A neighbor is a person, with a face and a story. A place is an abstract concept.

It’s much easier to fall in love with “the nations” or a particular country, even neighborhood. It only exists in your head, so you can control it. It exists on your terms, but people aren’t like that. Loving people is harder. Loving people is slow work. Loving people is messy work. Loving real people exposes all of our selfish places, and that can be incredibly uncomfortable. And we can very easily build walls to protect ourselves by retreating into loving our abstract idea of a place.

You put the “Great Commission” before the “Great Commandment.”

Why on earth would we spend so much time and money to go on a trip for the sake of the Gospel but never cross the street where we live for the sake of the Gospel? Why go across the world if we won’t go next door?

The Gospel of Matthew closes with the words, “Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you” (Matthew 28:19-20). These are words often called “The Great Commission” and referenced as why Christians do mission trips.

But in the very same gospel, when Jesus gets quizzed about the most important commandment, he responds, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37–40).

When I led trips, I often ended them by reminding my students that everything we did—being with kids, building a house, feeding the poor–all of these things need to be done in our own community. Poverty and illiteracy and violence and injustices of so many kinds exist right where we live, and God is actively doing something about it. And they can join in and participate without having to learn a different language to do them. Yes, it’s fun and exciting to travel and see new things, but loving our neighbors, as God adventurously invites us, also means our next-door neighbors.

You take discipleship out of the “Great Commission.”

You cannot forget the one thing is to like and to do the things that Jesus likes and does. Talk like Jesus talked. Think like Jesus thought. God’s dream for you, his will for your life, is that you reach maturity in Christ, that you become a person full of the love of God. A mission trip is one piece of that puzzle.

A mission trip is a way you submit to God in your own discipleship. A mission trip provides an opportunity to learn to listen to others, to stretch to the breaking point your humility muscles. One point of a mission trip should be to grow deeper into becoming a person who is always on mission. Mission should not be an extracurricular activity of Christians. It’s who we are.

Jurgen Moltmann says, “It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church.” We don’t have a mission to do something. God’s mission has us.

 

Mission is not a function of our being Christians. It is our nature. God is a mission God, and entering the life of God makes us mission people. This is a part of what makes us Christians.

The adventure doesn’t begin when you got off the plane in the foreign country. The real adventure begins when you got off the plane at home. A mission trip is an extraordinary opportunity to wake up to all that God is doing around us everyday. Don’t waste it.

If you’re looking for something to read as you prepare for or process your trip, I recommend these. I’ve led groups through a couple of them:

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13 Books for Joining God on Mission

13 Books for Joining God on Mission

Franz Kafka writes, “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?… A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”

Dead center in the middle of the Torah is the command: Love your neighbor. When Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment, he responds with love God. And then, even though he’s not asked, he adds that the next one is love neighbor, as if the two are deeply intertwined.

When we talk about spiritual formation, we dwell in that space of “love God.” And when we talk about mission, we dwell in that space of “love neighbor,” in your neighborhood, every day. These are two halves of one whole. We attune ourselves to the work of God in ourselves, so that we can attune ourselves to the work of God in the world. We shouldn’t, and we can’t, do spiritual formation work without then being propelled out into God’s activity in the world around us. So, to read a book about spiritual formation in one hand, we should have a book about God’s mission in the world in the other.

Numerous books and writers have shaped my thinking about God’s mission in the world. Here are 13 that have made a particular impact. It’s not an exhaustive reading list. Several of them are books that have come my way as I’ve spent the last four years in a program focused on missiology in changing culture.

Earthing the Gospel: An Inculturation Handbook for the Pastoral Worker by Gerald Arbuckle

We don’t become students of mission without becoming students of culture and students of the people who form cultures. “Inculturation” is a big word for talking about the back and forth between ethnic cultures and the story of God, that is, the Gospel. Arbuckle is a Catholic priest from New Zealand and anthropologist, and much of this work is focused on cross-cultural ministry.

 

Christianity Rediscovered by Vincent Donovan

Donovan, also a priest, spent 17 years in Tanzania. What he found among the Catholic missions there bore no resemblance to the church he read about in the New Testament. This led him into a deconstruction of faith and re-learning how to tell the story of Jesus in meaningful way to the Maori people.

 

Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines That Shape the Church for Mission by David Fitch

I remember while in seminary the first time having a conversation with my pastor about what are the things that Christians do. Fitch is a pastor, church planter, and seminary professor after a similar question, but with a twist: What do Christians do together that define them as “church”? These practices we do as a means of participating in God’s mission in making the world new. (You can read my review of this book here.)

 

Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith by Eric Jacobsen

In the United States in the 21st century, we are largely a “place-less” people, meaning we rarely, if ever, consider our immediate geography in relation to our place in the world. But the ways that we live in suburbs and cities have a profound effect on how we interact and connect with one another. This is just a little of what Jacobsen, who’s a pastor, is exploring here.

 

The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods by John McKnight and Peter Block

How do you love your neighbor? How are you a neighbor available to be loved by others? This approaches the questions from more of a sociology and community organizing angle than theological. Most often, being good neighbors involves healthy doses of uncommon sense. Here are some online resources related to this work.

 

Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture by Lesslie Newbigin

Newbigin spent his clerical career as a missionary to southern India in middle of the 20th century. He retired to his native England to find himself home but not home as he discovered the church marginalized in a secular culture. Having spent his life on the mission field, he found his home country to be a mission field. In this series of lectures, the big question he’s asking is “What would be involved in a missionary encounter between the gospel and this whole way of perceiving, thinking, and living that we call ‘modern Western culture?'”

 

The Gospel in a Pluralist Society by Lesslie Newbigin

In the early 1990s there was a resurgence of academic study about God’s mission (or missio Dei) based on these works Newbigin had produced in the 80s. This academic work eventually evolved into popular literature about the “missional church.” There’s an essay in this book entitled “The Congregation as Hermeneutic of the Gospel” that’s been particular influential on subsequent writings on church and mission, calling the Church a “sign, instrument, and foretaste” of God’s work in the world. All sorts of Newbigin resources can be found online at Newbigin House of Studies.

 

The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door by Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon

The authors are pastors in Colorado and relate a story at the beginning about how they’d attended a meeting with their mayor. The question was posed, how can churches help serve the cities? And the mayor responded that most of the city’s issues could be resolved if people were good neighbors. I preached a sermon several years ago referencing the tic-tac-toe grid the authors describe, and people still come up to referencing that sermon and what they got out of it.

 

Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood by Alan Roxburgh

I grew up in an evangelical setting that emphasized Matthew 28 and the Great Commission as the springboard for our involvement in “missions.” Roxburgh leans heavily on the work of Newbigin and offers an alternative text for shaping our imagination for mission: Luke 10, Jesus sending the 70. Throughout the book, he unpacks many of the implications of this text as a springboard for our joining God in the places where we live.

 

Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World: The New Shape of the Church in Our Time by Alan Roxburgh

This reads more as a field guide and is a great resource for a small group, missional community, or church plant. Here Roxburgh takes many of the ideas from Missional and breaks them into simple, actionable steps to do together, while avoiding making it feel like a program.

 

Doing Local Theology: A Guide for Artisans of a New Humanity by Clemens Sedmak

Sedmak is a professor in Austria and this brief book unpacks 50 theses for doing local theology. Talking about God, and therefore, loving God, takes on the dialect and accent of a particular local place. Places matter, as we often learn doing ministry in another country. I would have found this helpful when I was 22 and moved from Tulsa to Seattle.

 

Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus by Chris Smith and John Pattison

Taking cues from the “slow food” movement, the authors explore ways that cultural values of efficiency, consumerism, and individualism that quietly undermine meaningful spirituality. They imagine an alternative. Patience is counter-cultural. In many ways, this provides the theological ballast for a book like The Abundant Community. Online resources related to the book can be found here.

 

The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community by Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, and Dwight Friesen

This comes from the work of Parish Collective and explores the notion, “Where is the Holy Spirit at work in our neighborhoods and how do we follow?” The relationship between church and immediate neighborhood is front and center in this book.

May one or more of these books wake you up with a blow on the head, propel you out your front door, and love your neighbor more deeply.

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If you like this, be sure to subscribe to the newsletter. I write stuff there that doesn’t show up on the blog. You’ll get a weekly Bible reading plan, as well as some other resources I find that have got me thinking each week.

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How to practice Lent to join God's mission

How to practice Lent to join God’s mission

The season of Lent in the Christian calendar calls us deep into the mission of God. It is so much more than giving up chocolate or coffee or dressing up the sanctuary in purple accessories. Jesus leads us in a descent, all the way to the cross.

Lent calls us into the wilderness because it’s in the wilderness where we find ourselves disoriented enough to crash into our limitations. We tell the truth about our shortcomings and the way our shortcomings ripple out into the world. We tell the truth about the Fall, about the reality of Sin and Death in God’s world.

And we can do this because we know that Easter and resurrection are fast approaching. Sin is real. It is devastating. During Lent we trust that God really, truly is doing something about sin in the world. It’s not up to us.

I don’t think we’re supposed to respond to the invitation of Lent alone.

I don’t take it to be in an individualistic invitation. It’s much too easy to turn Lent into some kind of mechanistic, personal ritual—giving things up out of either personal challenge or guilty conviction. And we wake up Easter morning and everything is back the way it was.

I’m thinking more and more about the ways Lent invites me (maybe pulls me, drags me kicking and screaming) into community and into the work of God making all things new.

Lent presents the opportunity to tell the truth about sin, not only in myself, but also in my community and in God’s world, and to explore those exposed nerves where I’m complicit.

There’s a restaurant in downtown Tulsa where people write all over the walls and seats with markers. One day I noticed the sentence: “I will not be held responsible for the sins of some damn caveman.”

I will not be held responsible for the sins of some damn caveman.

I might want to believe that. I might want to believe that my choices are my business. I might want to believe as long as I don’t hurt anybody then I can do what I want.

But it’s simply not true.

The Fall not only happened, it continues to happen. Daily. And I daily participate. We’re all culpable. We’re all connected. Humanity is a giant enmeshed knot of cause and effect. We are dominoes cascading over one another, pool balls clacking off one another.

But even as my most private sin spins out like a Tasmanian devil wreaking havoc in ways both seen and unseen, so does confession and repentance. Confession and repentance have a cause and effect dynamic in the world that brings healing.

Can you imagine the power of a community marked by confession and repentance? One with the courage to say, “This is evil. We acknowledge our complicity. We are deeply sorry. And today we say ‘no more.'”

What might it look like to practice a Lent in community?

What might it look like to practice a Lent for the sake of the world?

Mourning in the midst of brokenness

I spend part of my days at my denomination’s local poverty outreach, where we offer basic groceries and rent assistance to families in need in our community. I get a front row seat to hearing stories of a bunch of stuff that just should not be. And I’m getting a sense that Lent is a special time for holding that pain of our community before God, mourning, lamenting, “How long, O Lord?”

I asked one of our social workers for some facts and figures about our community, and hear are a couple of things that she shared with me:

  • A person making minimum wage in Tulsa needs to work 79 hours in order to afford renting a 2-bedroom apartment
  • More than 1 in 4 Oklahoma children rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). The average benefit is less than $1.40 per meal.
  • In 2015, Tulsa’s homelessness overall increased by almost 13% compared to the previous year, despite housing efficiencies and improvements.
  • Oklahoma’s per pupil funding for public schools has fallen 26.9 percent after inflation between 2008 and 2017, the deepest cuts of any state in the country, and the margin is widening.

She directed me to OKPolicy.org. Your area may have similar online resources.

The Bible in Lent

Let’s take a closer look at four Scripture texts often associated with the journey of Lent and see how they might shape an understanding of Lent for mission.

Psalm 51

Here is a classic prayer of confession and repentance.

“Create in me a clean heart, O God.
     Renew a loyal spirit within me.”

We read it and find an individual emotionally wrecked by their sin. At a glance, it would be easy to understand from this that sin only disrupts an individual’s relationship to God. In fact, the psalmist expresses, “Against you, and you alone, have I sinned.” But something deeper is at work.

The header offers the context of this psalm as the story of David and Bathsheba. We find that story in 2 Samuel 11 and 12. Should we count the number of human beings affected by David’s sin? Bathsheba, Uriah, the servants who lie for David, the soldiers who die with Uriah, the child that Bathsheba carries—sin wrecks human relationships with tragic unintended consequences. Sin has a rippling affect that tears at the fabric of community.

Like Adam and Eve, David takes something that wasn’t his to take. But unlike Adam and Eve, David owns his wrongdoing. He tells the truth about his sin. In that honesty, there is lament and mourning.

Isaiah 58

There’s no more explicit connection between fasting and God’s mission than this chapter.

Here’s how Eugene Peterson puts Isaiah 58 in the Message:

“This is the kind of fast day I’m after:
     to break the chains of injustice,
     get rid of exploitation in the workplace.
If you are generous with the hungry
     and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out,
Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness,
     your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.
You’ll be known as those who can fix anything,
     restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate,
     make the community livable again” (Isaiah 58:6, 10, 12, The Message)

The argument progresses from a rebuke for spiritual disciplines done badly to social justice to personal healing to community restoration to Sabbath. According to the prophet, fasting done right has the power to change the world. It’s not an admonition not to fast, but rather it’s a warning that fasting can be done very badly. It’s within the realm of possibility that all our fasting in Lent can be a waste of time.

Instead of self-serving piety, true fasting is a response to the hungry, the wrongly imprisoned, the naked, the homeless, and others in trouble.

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

In the midst of the Sermon on the Mount are these words from Jesus about giving to the needy, prayer, and fasting. The NLT uses the language “good deeds,” while the NRSV uses “practice your righteousness.” The Greek word is dikaiosoune, which is often interchangeably treated as “righteousness” or “justice.” Paul uses it a lot in the book of Romans. It’s the idea that God is making things right in this world. And so, Jesus lumps together giving to the needy, prayer, and fasting as “acts of justice.” These are practices that affect other human beings.

And, as Jesus says, it’s not if you do these things but when. These are expected practices of Christians for changing the world.

2 Corinthians 5:20b–6:10

Reconciliation is our invitation, not just to God but also to one another. Paul then moves to discussing the wide variety of his experience on behalf of the Gospel: “Our hearts ache, but we always have joy. We are poor, but we give spiritual riches to others. We own nothing, and yet we have everything.”

There is joy. There are riches. There is having everything. There is also heart ache. There is being poor. There is owning nothing.

Here we find the counterintuitive, upside-down-ness of God’s kingdom. In entering heart ache, we find joy. In being poor, we offer generous abundance to others. In owning nothing, we have everything. Lent reminds us of this reality.

Confession, fasting, justice, reconciliation—these are Lenten themes that propel us into God’s mission in the world.

Lent spotlights all the ways that human beings sabotage our being human. This is why we give stuff up in Lent—so that we can give just a little more time and attention and space for Jesus to show us what it means to be human.

To be with others, to join hands, to together tell the truth about the shadows both in us and around us—what kind of witness might this be to the world around us? How might this open ourselves and those around us to God’s healing in those broken places?

How do our Lenten practices cultivate something in us, so that when the sun rises Easter morning in a few weeks, something brand new comes to life in us and around us?

How can Lent send us out in God’s mission of healing the world?

The world doesn’t need to know what we gave up for Lent. The world desperately needs us to be the kind of people who are shaped by letting go of non-essentials for a season.

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If you like this, be sure to subscribe to the newsletter. I write stuff there that doesn’t show up on the blog. You’ll get a weekly Bible reading plan, as well as some other resources I find that have got me thinking each week.

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Reading the Gospel of Mark for God's Mission

Reading the Gospel of Mark for God’s Mission

There is no more fascinating character in the Bible than Jesus. It’s in the Gospels where we find the stories about Jesus. There’s something unique that Mark has to show us about the nature and character and mission of God and what we can do to cooperate.

In church, we tend to conflate the four Gospels into a single narrative biography of Jesus. And in fact, the early church debated and ultimately rejected doing so. Each of the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, John—have something distinct to teach us about the heart and mission of God.

While it shares overlapping stories with Matthew and Luke, particularly, the way Mark puts these pieces together—like jigsaw puzzle pieces—gives us a unique vision of Jesus, who he was and what he was up to.

When I encounter people who are discovering the Bible and the story of God for the very first time, the Gospel of Mark is where I direct them to get started. It’s short, succinct, and to the point. More than other Gospels, it reads like a novel.

The Jesus of Mark’s Gospel is constantly on the move. While Mark tells us that Jesus teaches and often shares with us the crowd’s reaction to Jesus’ teaching, it provides relatively little of what the teaching actually was compared to other Gospels.

Mark wants to tell us what Jesus did. I have a friend, who some years ago, during the height of WWJD mania, taught Bible at a Christian high school. He taught his students “HCYDWJDIYDKWJD” or “How Can You Do What Jesus Did If You Don’t Know What Jesus Did.” Mark is how we know what Jesus did.

The Gospel of Mark exists not to provide a biographical account of Jesus. Rather, it exists to offer a persuasive argument that God is undoing the devastating work of sin and death in the world through the life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus. The “good news”—the gospel—is that God is making everything right in the world. The kingdom of God is present in and radiates out from the person of King Jesus and his people.

Here are some tips as you read the Gospel of Mark:

Notice the big picture

Mark can be broken into four coherent pieces with a prologue and an epilogue. This outline follows the work of Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart in How to Read the Bible Book by Book:

  • The Prologue—Introduction to Jesus and the Kingdom (1:1-15)
  • The Kingdom Goes Public–Disciples, Crowds, Opposition (1:16–3:6)
  • The Mystery of the Kingdom–Faith, Misunderstanding, Hard Hearts (3:7–8:21)
  • The Mystery Unveiled–The Cross and the Way of Discipleship (8:22–10:45)
  • The King Comes to Jerusalem to Die (10:46–15:47)
  • Epilogue: The Story Is Not Over (16:1–8)

If there’s a thesis to Mark, it’s 1:15: “The time promised by God has come at last!” he announced. “The Kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!” Everything that follows spins out of this proclamation.

Notice how the stories fit together

There’s an urgency to Mark’s narrative, which lends itself to reading large passages at time, even the whole thing in a single sitting. If you come from a church setting that only presents Jesus stories one at a time, reading longer passages in Mark can reveal all kinds of new, fresh insights.

There’s a strategy to the way Mark unveils the story. The individual stories aren’t random. They seem to stack, one on another, into a greater whole. When I first discovered the way the author of Mark builds one story into the next, almost like successive episodes of a TV show, it was like learning this world of Jesus all over again for the first time.

Think bigger than the chapter breaks, and even the section headings of most English translations. As you may notice in the outline above, they often artificially break up the flow of what Mark communicates.

Keep the book of Isaiah nearby

In any story, where the story begins is significant. And Mark begins not with the Christmas story, but with the prophet Isaiah. Several key passages in Mark call back to this Old Testament book (1:2-3; 4:12; 7:6-7).

Know a little bit of Roman culture

Words like “gospel/good news,” “kingdom,” “son of God,” “Lord,” and “Messiah” are significant words in the Gospel of Mark. And take an even bigger role when we remember these aren’t churchy theology words but rather words taken from the political world of the first century. These are Caesar words. These are Empire words. And Mark subversively flips our expectations each time he uses them and uses them to describe Jesus. Go and read 1:1-15 with this in mind.

Read as if this is everything you know

Try your best to forget everything you know about the story. Allow yourself to enter the story and dwell in it, episode by episode, like you would your favorite TV show or novel. Let the suspense build. Cultivate your curiosity as the plot advances and the character of Jesus develops.

Respond to the invitations in Mark

Mark invites us to be amazed and awestruck by Jesus
Amazement gripped the audience, and they began to discuss what had happened” (1:27).

“They were all amazed and praised God” (2:12).

“When the crowd saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with awe” (9:15).

“This amazed them” (10:24).

“The disciples were filled with awe” (10:32).

“But Jesus said nothing, much to Pilate’s surprise” (15:5).

Mark invites us into the mystery of “Who is Jesus?”
Speculation as to Jesus’ true identity sparks misunderstanding and mystery throughout the story. Nobody knows!

“What sort of new teaching is this?” (1:27)

“What is he saying? This is blasphemy! Only God can forgive sins!” (2:7).

“Who is this man?” (4:41).

The demons know, but Jesus forces them to be quiet.

Finally, in one of the key passages in Mark, Jesus himself asks his disciples, “Who do people say I am?… But who do you say I am?” (8:27, 29).

Mark invites us to follow Jesus all the way to the cross
The third section of book begins at 8:22 with the healing of a blind man. This opens an important series of events that begin with the disciples blind to who Jesus is and slow builds to their beginning to understand. Three times in this section Jesus predicts his death and resurrection, immediately followed by the disciples grossly misunderstanding, and then Jesus giving an intense teaching about the nature of discipleship.

One third of Mark is devoted to the events between Palm Sunday and Easter. This is significant. The events of Holy Week are the key to unlocking Mark’s mystery about Jesus. Jesus ministry lasted three years, but Mark spends a third of the narrative on one week. Time seems to slow down. The cross, and the events leading to it, are the main event.

In Mark’s Gospel, the way of discipleship is a radical commitment to cross-shaped self-sacrificial love for others. Suffering has profound meaning in the life of Jesus, not in a masochistic sense, but rather in a rugged commitment of self-giving love.

Live as if you are the ending of Mark’s Gospel

Spoiler alert: There’s no ending to Mark. Well, if there was, it’s been lost to history. It just ends with 16:8. No closure. Many contemporary English translations provide a couple alternative endings, but those are late additions to the text.

Keep in mind, the original manuscripts would have been rolled up scrolls. It’s likely that the end of Mark wore off and was damaged in handling or transport. That’s one idea.

Or we can take form as is and imagine that you and I continue the story. The lack of closure invites us into the story. It’s like a choose-your-own-adventure book, and we get to continue the deeds of Jesus in the world.

God is on a mission, re-making the world. The Gospel of Mark presents God revealing this new kingdom through the suffering of the cross and the victory of Jesus’ resurrection.

In reading Mark’s Gospel, dwelling in the stories, imagining ourselves in this world, we cultivate our affection for Jesus. We find ourselves in a new world of thinking what Jesus thought, saying what Jesus said, loving what Jesus loved, and doing what Jesus did.

As you read Mark, find yourself drawn deeper into the heart of Jesus. Find yourself drawn deeper into the mission of God for the healing of the world.

If you want to go deeper, be sure to check out N.T. Wright’s Mark for Everyone or Ben Witherington’s The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary.

~~~~~

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Faithful presence book review

Faithful Presence: A book review

“You say you want a revolution? Yeah, we all want to change the world.” John Lennon & Paul McCartney

How do you change the world?

Human beings have this innate desire to make our mark, to make our dent in the universe. Most of us in North America have it engrained in us from childhood that we can make a difference. It’s the magnetic appeal of characters like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s interpretation of Alexander Hamilton.

How do you change the world?

The Christian answer to this question is: You don’t. Plain and simple. It’s not up to you. You don’t change the world. Rather, the better question is: How does God change the world?

And according to David Fitch, God changes the world through the Church as it faithfully discerns God’s presence in the world.

In a world of smartphones and Twitter and Netflix, how are we present with one another, much less, present with God?

In a world of sermon podcasts and satellite campuses and live streaming, how is our practice of church a shaping influence in our capacity to be present to God and one another?

If there’s a book that I could put in the hands of ever friend who’s a pastor or leader in ministry, Faithful Presence is the one. No other book that I’ve read in recent memory has given me such a new vocabulary for how to talk about church and practice church as a verb with others.

Seven disciplines

In Faithful Presence, David Fitch offers a vision of the church where spiritual formation meets God’s mission in the world. Without using the language “spiritual formation,” Fitch talks about spiritual disciplines as corporate activities, not just individual activities. These are not self-help with a thin veneer of religiosity. These are the means by which God shapes a community of people to change the world.

“Faithful presence names the reality that God is present in the world and that he uses a people faithful to his presence to make himself concrete and real amid the world’s struggles and pain” (10).

“Presence” is a key theme throughout the book, and Fitch anchors it in the story of the Bible. It’s presence with God that is lost in Eden. It’s regained in the tabernacle and temple. Lost in the exile and hoped for in the prophets. God’s presence in the world takes on a new significance in the person of Jesus. Now the Church, as the body of Christ, extends that presence into the world today.

Fitch presents two big ideas in this book. One is the idea of the seven disciplines, as the subtitle alludes. The other is the idea of three circles, or places, where these disciplines are practiced.

The seven disciplines are found in the stories of Jesus in the Gospels and in the stories of the church in the New Testament. These disciplines are the Lord’s Table (or Eucharist or holy communion), proclaiming the gospel, being with the “least of these,” being with children, the fivefold gifting (related to leadership), and kingdom prayer.

As Fitch expounds each one, he traces its historical development from the medieval church through the Protestant Reformation to today in the North American Evangelical world. As one example, “being with children” evolved over time as the ritual of confirmation and evolved further still into the programs of children’s and youth ministries.

In the three circles, Fitch articulates a vision for the Eucharist table as it shows us the presence of Jesus in the place of corporate worship, then into our homes in our neighborhoods, and then into the places in the world where we sit as guests. Some of the best parts of this book are the anecdotes Fitch tells about how he has learned to see God at work in his neighborhood McDonald’s.

Presence is with

For me, the two strongest chapters were the ones about the “least of these” (a reference to Matthew 25) and about children. This is may very well be because I work with a ministry dealing with poverty and I have two toddlers. Or it may be that what Fitch offers runs so counter to my own experience to what I’ve seen regarding children’s ministry and service projects.

The operative word in both of these disciplines is “with.” Too often, ministry is seen as something “to.” But the doctrine of the Incarnation shows us that God is with us, not doing things to us. Recognizing Jesus among children and among the poor is a mutually transforming experience.

About being with the “least of these,” Fitch writes:
“Through history the church has made its biggest impact when it has practiced being with the poor (whoever they are in our context) and resisted turning the poor into a program. In this way, being with the “least of these” disciplines us into the relational space of faithful presence with the hurting” (120).

And about children, he writes:
“As Christians, we can navigate the tension between being present to our children and guiding our attention jointly to his presence. If we can do this in the close circle, we will be able to do the same in the other equally important circles of life” (143).

It is in actively participating in these seven disciplines that we create spaces to be with one another, hear one another’s grievances and hurts, and be heard ourselves. Our world lacks such spaces. The church is uniquely designed to cultivate such spaces.

This is an important book. This is a helpful book. This is such a timely book. This is a needed book.

Read this book. Commit yourself to a community of people rooted in these disciplines. Watch how God changes the whole world.

“Behold, I am making all things new” —the risen Jesus (Revelation 21:5).

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What is the Sabbath Life

What is the Sabbath Life?

What are we talking about when you say “the Sabbath life”? I’m glad you asked.

In short, I mean: Spiritual formation + living in community on mission (call that “missional living”) = the Sabbath Life.

Or to put it another way: Loving God + loving neighbor = the Sabbath life.

Essentially, they’re the same thing. So let me explain.

Sabbath

When God made everything, he did it in six days. The first three days he simply clears some space. Think of taking your cluttered desk and then just wiping everything to the floor. A blank slate. God separates light from darkness, sky from ocean, water from land.

The next three days God makes stuff to live in these three open spaces that have been created. He makes the sun and moon to inhabit the light and darkness. He makes birds and fish for the sky and the ocean. He makes animals and people for the land.

Everything in its right place. Good and beautiful creation.

And then there’s the climax, the crowning achievement. Not humanity. Sabbath. The end, the goal, of creation is Sabbath.

Jewish rabbi and theologian Abraham Heschel writes, “The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of the Sabbath. It is not an interlude but the climax of living.”

The Sabbath may be about rest, but it’s not a rest of exhaustion. Was God tired? Did he need to recharge? Did he need to rejuvenate? It’s a rest of celebration. It’s the culmination and purpose for all the work in the first place. Sabbath is the great “why” of creation. I’d like to think he cracked open a cold beverage, kicked up his feet, and said, “Oh yeah! This is really, really good.”

On the Sabbath we don’t escape and retreat. On the contrary, it’s the day for engaging in life free from all the distractions. It’s the day for drinking deeply in all that gives us life. Six days for work and for hustle. One day for joyous celebration and play. Sabbath is freedom to enjoy all of God’s creation. Sabbath should be the great “why” of our living.

Sabbath is the originally intended finale of the story. We practice a little bit of eschatology with each Sabbath.

Jesus says, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” But the Greek word here is a verb, so the force of what Jesus says is more like “and I will rest you.” Rest, not in the escape from exhaustion (though there is that), rather the greatest purpose of creation.

The stories that immediately follow in Matthew 12 then unpack just what this means and they have to do with the Sabbath. The disciples are picking grain, and the Pharisees catch wind of this and think they’ve got Jesus caught in the act. He and his disciples have broken the rules of the Sabbath. But like a quick-witted lawyer he appeals to some precedents in the Old Testament, and he drops the mic when he says, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

Boom.

Next scene: Our characters (Jesus, disciples, Pharisees) are now in a synagogue, and the Pharisees go on the offensive: “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” Maybe it’s just me, but I imagine Jesus with a blank, does-not-compute, look on his face in reply. And he takes the disabled man and restores his hand.

And if that wasn’t enough to make the point, he really rubs the Pharisees’ noses in it when the text then says, “He healed all the sick among them.” Not lawful to heal on the Sabbath? Let me show what the Sabbath is for. Not a subtle guy, this Jesus.

The writer of Matthew then ties these stories to a quote from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah that concludes with, “And his name will be the hope of all the world.”

Sabbath is when New Creation breaks out. It’s the vision of the end of the story. Since the very beginning. Sabbath is the great “why” of living.

Spiritual formation

When I was a teenager, I was a youth group junkie. I did everything. If the church was open, I was there. Small groups, mission trips, retreats, service projects, and so much more. From all this I picked up that having a relationship with Jesus was important, that reading the Bible was important, that God’s mission was important. I also picked up that filling my life with church activities was important, and that later led me to some emotional and spiritual dead ends.

In my mid-20s, during a season of rebuilding my faith after a particular dark and challenging period, a friend introduced me to contemplative stream of Christianity. Fixed-hour prayer. Liturgy. Lectio divina. Spiritual direction. Centering prayer. I read Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline for a seminary class. I later discovered the works of Dallas Willard and organizations like Renovare and Apprentice.

When God made the world, God made people in the image of the Almighty. But because of the Fall, because of sin, we are broken images. There’s brokenness within myself, brokenness between myself and those around me, brokenness between myself and God, brokenness between myself and God’s creation. Spiritual disciplines are a way of actively participating in healing that brokenness.

I found a rich peace and calm in the contemplative life that I hadn’t experienced before. I didn’t have to be busy. But I also knew that there has to be more to an interior life than just for its own sake. It needs to be more than Christian-speak for self-help, more than narcissistic navel gazing. It needs to be more than me and God. It needs community life. It needs a sense of purpose and mission.

Missional living

When my wife and I first started dating, we had both just started seminary. Together we got involved with church on the north side of Lexington, KY. It was a small neighborhood church. There were a small handful of folks who lived along the streets adjacent to the church.

After three years, we got married and moved into the neighborhood. We shared a community garden. There was a Friday night dinner each week. It was nuts—kids running all around the house as if they were electrons. And people’s lives got changed. Some found their way into the corporate worship Sunday morning after weeks of coming to Friday dinners.

It was in that setting that it started to sink in to me that perhaps “loving my neighbor” meant, literally, my next door neighbor, the people across the street and all along my street.

I also learned that loving my neighbors requires soaking myself in God’s Word, reading the words of Jesus and the prophets and the psalms like a jazz musician practices scales. You have to learn to improvise when your neighbors two doors down are 3 adults with no jobs and 9 kids. And the best improvisations in “loving your neighbor” require a deeply rooted spirituality. Otherwise, you get really used up really fast.

Living in community on mission needs deep roots because it’s hard, hard work. Being so involved in one another’s lives will bend you and bend you and bend you, and if you’re not careful, will break you. I know that from experience.

Sabbath, mission, spiritual formation—we can’t live into one of these and not the others. We don’t major in one and minor in the others.

Perhaps we imagine that life itself is a road trip. And if that’s the case, Sabbath is our destination. Mission is our road. Spiritual formation is our vehicle. These are all intertwined. We actively participate in loving our neighbors and loving God, and in that work, God is putting his good world back together again, back to the time of Sabbath.

Once when visiting the Abbey of Gethsemane, I heard a monk use the phrase, “For our healing and the healing of the world.” That phrase has stuck with me ever since, and it represents to me the work of holding together love of God and neighbor.

It represents the work of the Sabbath Life.

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Meeting God in Your Neighborhood

Meeting God in Your Neighborhood

God is at work in my neighborhood.

I haven’t yet put my finger on the where or the how. Regardless, I’m convinced.

Not long ago I attended a monthly gathering of people in my community concerned about sustainability issues, largely a non-religious audience. The speaker that month was sharing about advances in resiliency for homebuilding. I live in northeastern Oklahoma where tornados are an annual springtime threat.

The question was asked, “If I’m on a budget, what’s the first thing I can do to my home to start?”

“That’s the wrong question,” the speaker answered. “Because the first thing you need to do is to know your neighbors.”

Well, that sounds a little bit like Jesus, I thought to myself.

He went on to explain, in a disaster, you want to know who lives on your block, which household has a generator, which household has small children or a single elderly person that might need assistance.

Love your neighbor.

It’s the very center of the books of Moses. When Jesus gets quizzed about the greatest commandment, it’s his go-to answer

What if we’re meant to take this literally? What if our worship as Christians involves tending to, paying attention to, loving our neighbors in our neighborhoods seven days a week?

Here’s what we can’t do: We can’t objectify our neighborhoods. It’s a living organism of people, made in the image of the Almighty, a collective of which you are a part.

At a civic meeting discussing community resiliency, the biggest takeaway is know your neighbors. For the church, who’s charge is to love neighbor, shouldn’t we be thinking along the same lines?

It’s become trendy in some Christian circles to talk about “exegeting your neighborhood.” I can understand the sentiment it comes from–taking a principle of biblical interpretation and using it understand a social construct of neighborhood. But I think it’s misguided.

Exegesis, a methodology for bible study that certainly has its place, is a terrible thing to do it people. It’s driven by mastery and control. It dissects piece-by-piece in the hopes that in understanding the pieces you can make sense of the whole. I don’t want anybody doing that to me or my family or the community. I want to be loved by my neighbors, to be seen, to be noticed, to be taken care of.

Perhaps instead there is an alternative for humbly learning how to love neighbors and tend to God’s presence among them. I’m considering the ancient practice of lectio divina.

Lectio divina means “divine reading” and is a way of approaching Scripture in a posture of patiently listening in order to encounter God. In its classic form, lectio involves a sequence of four stages: lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio. Spiritual author Robert Mulholland helpfully offers two additional stages: silencio and incarnatio.

Silencio: Get quiet

We begin in preparation to engage the text, or in this case, the neighborhood. We acknowledge and relinquish our agendas, whether that’s planting a church, starting a missional community, or even, hosting a dinner.

We enter a place of an inner shift from control to receptivity, from information to formation, and from observation to obedience. We open ourselves to be shaped by God rather than our preconceived expectations, hopes, and dreams.

Sit on the front porch. Breathe. Wait. Eyes wide open.

Lectio: Be attentive

The first part of lectio divina involves reading. Literally, what do we see? We take in the actual words on the page. In the neighborhood, we “read” the street. We take in the houses, the cars, the yards, the dogs, the neighbors, the interactions.

In lectio, we notice. We take in everything. We take in the sights. We take in the smells. We take in the sounds. We engage all our senses.

In their book The Art of Neighboring, Dave Runyon and Jay Pathak introduce the idea of drawing on a piece of paper a tic-tac-toe board. Go ahead and grab a piece of paper and do it.

The middle square is your house. The eight surrounding squares represent the eight houses that encircle your house, across the street, next door, behind you (assuming you live in a grid-shaped neighborhood). Now write the names of everybody who lives in the homes around you. These are your neighbors. You may even have to walk outside, cross the street, introduce yourself, and ask their name.

Meditatio: Be mindful

The next step in lectio is meditatio, or meditation. We begin to ask, what does all this mean? Where lectio involves our eyes and ears, meditatio involves our minds. Data collection can be fascinating, but if it doesn’t lead to discerning a meaningful and true narrative and engagement with actual people, it’s a waste of time.

On our tic-tac-toe square, what we want to know once we’ve learned our neighbors’ names, we want to learn something about them deeper than just a simple observation from a distance. What can we learn from a casual, safe conversation? Maybe they have two kids in college. Maybe they just moved here from Idaho. Maybe they’ve lived in this home for 30 years. Maybe they play soccer on the weekend. Maybe they’re looking out for God in the neighborhood, too.

Oratio: Be helpful

Once we begin to discern some meaning, we move to oratio, or response. The whole point here is loving cooperation with God. Until we’re moved to action, this has all been a selfish, mental exercise. We make ourselves open, even vulnerable sometimes, to do something we may not want to do. We humbly say yes when God invites us out of our comfort zone.

In oratio we dialogue with God about all we’ve learned, and we listen for how God might invite us to respond. In lectio divina, a common question is, what rises? In other words, what stands out to you? In all you’ve experienced, what’s tugging at your attention? Sometimes we find our first impressions were wrong. Sometimes we find that the most helpful thing is to do nothing or say nothing, to be simply present (think of Job’s friends).

When we know the names of our neighbors and some details about their lives, then we begin to go deeper. What do they hope for? What challenges them? What brings anxiety?

As a side note, these are not conversations the first time you meet. It might take months, even years, to come to this place of being present with one another and with God. But once we do, that’s when we begin to understand just what exactly “good news” looks like in this place.

And we can proclaim peace in the anxious places. We can proclaim reconciliation in the fractured places. We can proclaim light in darkness.

Contemplatio: Be still

In contemplatio, or rest, we surrender ourselves to God. We place ourselves and our agendas before God. We watch for what God will do. We are content to watch what the Holy Spirit will do around us. We sit open-handed. Sometimes this is the hardest part.

Incarnatio: Be transformed

We end where we began. We come full circle, back to the front porch, in quiet trust. The whole point of this exercise has been to encounter God in our neighborhood. There is no character in the Bible who walked away from an encounter with God unchanged—Moses at the burning bush, Isaiah in the temple, Peter in his fishing boat.

Walking out our front doors into the mission fields of our communities costs something of us. We don’t return the same. When Jesus promises, “I am making all things new,” “all things” includes me, too. And loving my neighbors well is one of the means by which God is transforming me.

As the people of God, we love our neighbors. It’s just what we do. That word “love,” as it appears in Leviticus, is a thick and heavy word. It’s an action word, not an emotion word. It means pay attention to, tend to, be present with, take care of. No wonder I fumble so badly at loving my neighbors when the siren call of Netflix lulls me to my personal bubble as I pull into my garage and close the door each evening.

The opening of words of the Bible capture my imagination:

The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters (Genesis 1:2).

My regular prayer as I walk the streets, go for a run, or take my kids to the park: Lord, give me eyes to see and ears to hear your Spirit as it hovers over the neighborhood.

God is at work in our neighborhoods.

The ideas here have been inspired by conversations with Alan Roxburgh. His books Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World: The New Shape of the Church in Our Time and Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood spark my imagination. Also check out The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door by Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon.

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church as a corps of discovery

Church as a Corps of Discovery

In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson doubled the landmass of the United States with the purchase of the Louisiana territories from France. At the time, the Mississippi River represented the western border of the country. Nobody in Washington had any idea what existed on the far side of St. Louis.

So Jefferson, ever the eccentric visionary, commissioned his protege, young Merriweather Lewis, to put together a team of explorers. About Lewis, Jefferson wrote, he was a man of “undaunted courage, possessing a firmness and perseverance of purpose which nothing but impossibilities could divert from its direction, careful as a father of those committed to his charge, yet steady in the maintenance of order and discipline.”

This was Jefferson’s moonshot. While he possessed the world’s most exhaustive library in the world on the cartography and natural history of the continent, what he didn’t know far outweighed what he did know. He made Lewis’ number one objective to find an all-water route from the Mississippi to the Pacific. He thought Lewis would find wooly mammoths and other prehistoric animals. He expected there would be active volcanoes erupting in the Badlands. He thought the Blue Ridge Mountains would be highest on the continent. He believe the Indians would rejoice at the news of the sovereignty the United States and their “new father” in Washington, DC.

Lewis called his expedition the Corps of Discovery. While they didn’t find wooly mammoths or active volcanoes, and they failed to find an all-water route to the Pacific (and some of the natives were very unfriendly), what they did find changed the course of America. Their team made the first maps of the continent, detailing the Missouri River and Columbia River watersheds. They found plants and animals previously unknown to science. Lewis lived the life of a celebrity when he came home.

Lewis was a man driven by curiosity, adventure, and wonder. The great unknown beyond the edge of civilization called to him. So I wonder how much this story of Jefferson with Lewis and his partner William Clark can shape a new imagination for church in North America.

What if we thought of the Church as a Corps of Discovery?

By the looks of much Christian literature, there’s lots of reasons for doom and gloom. Count the articles with the formula title “Is ____ killing the church?” Count the books with central arguments about fixing the church. Count the narratives of scarcity, self-preservation, and anxiety—fear of shrinking budgets, fear of shrinking congregations, fear of shrinking cultural influence.

Yes, the culture is changing, but here’s the thing: culture is and always has been dynamic. Never static. And as a missionary in the Dominican Republic once taught me, when it comes to culture, different is just different. One isn’t better or worse than another. Which also means that 1950’s American culture isn’t better than 2010’s American culture. Just different. And the good news that God is making all things new is just as resonant and powerful in every culture.

Even the culture within the world of the Bible was an ever-changing thing. The world of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness was vastly different from the Israelites during the time of David and Solomon and again vastly different in the 1st century under the rule of the Roman Empire. And God was always present and at work in the most surprising ways.

In the opening chapters of 1 Samuel, a new movement of the Spirit begins, not with Eli and the priests (an institution established by God earlier in the story), but rather the barren woman Hannah and her miracle son Samuel.

When the Israelites cower under Philistine oppression, it’s not from King Saul (established by God) or his military that free God’s people, but rather it’s the seventh son of Jesse, a shepherd David armed only with a slingshot who defeats the Philistine champion.

At the height of the Roman Empire, when God puts on flesh and blood, it happens not in a family of the religious elite—Pharisees or Sadducees—or in a family of royals like Herod. Rather, it happens in the family of a blue-collar carpenter in the backwoods of Palestine.

The movements of the Spirit, these pivots of history, come from the most unexpected places. If the biblical narratives are any indication, the activity of God is not stopped by changing culture, and certainly not by existing religious institutions. If the biblical narratives are true, the Church isn’t something that can be killed, regardless of the click-bait headlines.

I visited a local Methodist church on Sunday. About 50 people were present to worship together, about a quarter of the capacity in the 100-year-old sanctuary. My wife and I were the youngest people there. It’s a situation that’s not rare for the Methodist churches in my state. But I was caught by one line in the affirmation of faith: “to risk ourselves in faith, hope, and love.” I liked that.

Where are the leaders who are expectant for the surprising activity of God? Where are the leaders eager to risk themselves in faith, hope, and love? Where are the leaders of undaunted courage? Where are the leaders hungry to explore?

What if our local churches were each a Corps of Discovery for their neighborhoods and communities? What if, like Jefferson and Lewis, we were caught up in the adventure, wonder, and curiosity of the mission?

What if we were more enamored by the question “Where is God at work in our neighborhoods” instead of the question “How can we fix our church”?

Our agenda will fail. Oh, let’s be honest: of course, it will. Like Jefferson, we may be completely wrong in our expectations, but what we do find may change the world.

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