An excerpt from this morning’s sermon at Cincinnat COB

“Humble Yourselves, Discipline Yourselves, Be Steadfast”
1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11

…we have no reason to fear what even the most powerful empire in the world can do to us or the most well-placed bullet because we get to bear witness to a powerful love.  It is this awareness, this belief that has led followers of Jesus into the darkest, most violent places on Earth to proclaim and live the transformative message of Jesus and the way of life he redeems us to.  Or, it has led followers of Jesus into parts of our society that aren’t necessarily desirable, has led us to desire healing and hope in places of brokenness.

Believing this message should, I emphasize should lead Christians to look at their society around them, searching for places and relationships of brokenness that we can then move towards, engage with; instead of separating ourselves from, insulating ourselves from brokenness.  Unfortunately, the pattern of response to brokenness in Cincinnati, like many cities, is people abandoning, leaving behind, running away from darkness because we don’t like to feel uncomfortable, insecure, stretched, or frustrated.  People move into an ever-increasing ring of suburbs to find a place of security, leaving behind communities falling apart.  We then build beltways and interstates that keep us from having to see and engage those communities on a daily basis, and they slide into our subconscious; only coming up when we are forced to detour through them.

Precious few churches choose to obey the courageous call of Jesus to seek out places of brokenness and put down roots there.  This community of Cincinnati Church of the Brethren and our community Vineyard Central have attempted to be faithful to the call of God in this way.  But it has been rough going, for us and for you.

For one thing, we’ve found that we don’t have the tools to be able to handle pain and brokenness very well, because we’ve been shaped by a gospel of pain avoidance.  Several weeks ago, I heard a story from a man named Scott Dewey that connects with this truth.  Scott is a follower of Jesus, and Scott caught a vision to move to the slums of Bangkok, Thailand with his wife.  There are any number of preventable diseases there in the slums that primarily result from unclean drinking water.  Scott wanted to solve those problems, and bring hope to the slums.  So they said, “Here I am Lord, send me” and they went.  Three years later Scott rolled over in bed one morning and said to his wife, “Melanie, I can’t do this any more.  There’s too much pain here.”  After three years, they hadn’t solved the unclean water problem and Scott had been crushed by the pain and darkness of life in the ghetto.  Scott, however, chose to reflect on his thinking instead of just abandoning the place, and he came to one crucial awareness.

They had entered that neighborhood to do ministry for people there.  They had come with a gospel they believed provided hope.  And Scott realized as he thought about the pain and darkness crushing him that the people who had lived in that ghetto all their lives had a greater capacity to deal the with the pain and still find little cracks of hope than he did.  Scott found out that the gospel and the community he came from was one that was not familiar with pain, did not seek out pain, struggle, and brokenness and therefore he didn’t have the resources to deal with the pain there in Bangkok.  What Scott learned was that the people he had come to minister to were in fact ministering to him in how to live with pain and suffering.  What Scott learned through them was a fresh understanding of the gospel that does not bring hope through avoiding pain but through embracing it and finding God in the midst of it…

Link to full text here.

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Wendell Berry, a story of an old bucket, and a sense of place

Below is a beautiful, powerful story.  As you read it, consider several things.

First, what practices does Wendell Berry engage in that enable him to notice that bucket, to “really” notice that bucket, and then to reflect on the meaning of the bucket?
Second, how do Berry’s reflections on woodland community and human community inform your “place,” your community? Are there deficiencies in your understanding and practice of “place” Berry draws out? Are there hopeful, engaging things in your understanding and practice of “place” that Berry affirms? Please comment below.

For many years, my walks have taken me down an old fencerow in a wooded hollow on what was once my grandfather’s farm. A battered galvanized bucket is hanging on a fence post near the head of the hollow, and I never go by it without stopping to look inside. For what is going on in that bucket is the most momentous thing I know, the greatest miracle that I have ever heard of: it is making earth.

The old bucket has hung there through many autumns, and leaves have fallen around it and some have fallen into it. Rain and snow have fallen into it, and the fallen leaves have held the moisture and so have rotted. Nuts have fallen into it, or been carried into it by squirrels; mice and squirrels have eaten the meat of the nuts and left the shells; they and other animals have left their droppings; insects have flown into the bucket and died and decayed; birds have scratched in it and left their droppings and perhaps a feather or two. This slow work of growth and death, gravity and decay, which is the chief work of the world, has by now produced in the bottom of the bucket several inches of black soil…The old bucket started out a far better one than you can buy now. I think it has been hanging on that post for something like fifty years.

However small a landmark the old bucket is, it is not trivial. It is one of the signs by which I know my country and myself. And to me it is irresistibly suggestive in the way it collects leaves and other woodland sheddings as they fall through time. It collects stories, too, as they fall through time. It is irresistibly metaphorical. It is doing in a passive way what a human community must do actively and thoughtfully. A human community, too, must collect leaves and stories, and turn them to account. It must build soil, and build that memory of itself- in lore and story and song- that will be its culture. These two kinds of accumulation, of local soil and local culture, are intimately related.

In the woods, the bucket is no metaphor; it simply reveals what is always happening in the woods, if the woods is left alone. Of course, in most places in my part of the country, the human community did not leave the woods alone. It felled the trees and replaced them with pastures and crops. But this did not revoke the law of the woods, which is that the ground must be protected by a cover of vegetation and that the growth of the years must return- or be returned- to the ground to rot and build soil. A good local culture, in one of its most important functions, is a collection of the memories, ways, and skills necessary for the observance…of this natural law.

If the local culture cannot preserve and improve the local soil, then, as both reason and history inform us, the local community will decay and perish, and the work of soil building will be resumed by nature. A human community, then, if it is to last long, must exert a sort of centripetal force, holding local soil and local memory in place. Practically speaking, human society has no work more important than this.” (Berry, TWOLC, pgs 153-55)

Kingdoms in conflict

Terra Nova Matthew 1

This is installment two in posts serving as a living history for our house church as we live life together.  My reflections are based on our Scriptural focus for the week, since the Scriptures are the primary authority for our understanding of the kind of God-centered life that shows what is meaningful, true, and worth devoting our lives to.  As another aside before I get started here, my thoughts in this post are very similar to previous thoughts on Jesus and Kingship, if you’d like to take a look there as well.

Sunday, January 23rd, our house church spent some time in Matthew 2.  This chapter of the gospel, maybe more than any other section of the gospel, could seem like “old hat” to those familiar with the Scriptures.  This section follows the birth of Jesus, the arrival of Magi from far-off lands, some king’s courtroom intrigue, a major family move to Egypt, some regional genocide, and then a family move back into Palestine.  With all of those factors considered, the story doesn’t seem so “old hat,” but I would suggest most people read and/or value this section for two reasons:

1) The birth of Jesus, and
2) the focus of the author on the fulfillment of prophecy

When we focus the meaning of the passage on those two things, other facets of the story tend to fade to the background where we either outright ignore them or we see them as deeply secondary to the prime (important) thrust of the passage.

However, committed Biblical respect should lead us to think about the practical implications of ALL elements of the story, especially focusing more on how people and creation were affected and focusing less on metaphysical thoughts on the supposed meaning of the story.  This is also a helpful practice because the average non-Christian, in reading this story, would be immediately, appallingly aware of the genocide and Herod’s uneasiness as King or at least much more so than random quotations about Jesus fulfilling prophecy.

Our brother Steve led off the discussion by highlighting Jewish perspectives on their Scriptures and how they quoted them for their purposes.  It’s significant that their understanding differs from the average evangelical approach to the Scriptures today. In reading the statements of belief on church websites today, you can almost hear the panting as they clamor to state their belief that the Bible is “inerrant in its original documents,” which is a surprising move on their parts to state because nowhere in the Scriptures is that claim made.  It’s a classic case of taking modern approaches for granted and giving them Scriptural, God-commanded status.  This may sound like an innocuous practice, but it’s precisely the sharpest critique Jesus directed at the Pharisees in his ministry, accusing them of settling for a folk religion of their own comfort rather than the command of God.

Steve suggested the Jewish approach to the Scriptures was instead to value all of the gathered writings as important, even the parts that seemed to matter less over time or seemed to be contradicted by other passages.  The approach of the community was to affirm the importance of all the passages as a testimony of God’s interaction with them over time; and worthy of returning to time and time again.  Just for repetition’s sake, this practice does not place all Scriptures on the same level of “truth” or “relevance.”  This is not a textbook (or flat) approach of reading the Bible, but instead a narrative, thoughtful, respectful-to-ancestors way of reading the Scriptures.  In other word, they were less obsessive-compulsive about their handling of Scripture, and used them to help give meaning and substance to life, even if a supposed prophecy seems like a stretch today.

We couldn’t help but focus on the King Herod’s dis-ease and eventual genocide as well. Our brother Robert highlighted the difference he observed between King Herod’s approach to challenge and (King) Jesus’ eventual approach to challenge.  We reflected on for a bit on what that has to say about our humanity, given that Jesus’ actions weren’t just to prove he was the Messiah, but primarily to be a direct example of what we all were created for.  In seeing Jesus, we are to follow him as the example of a human being who “got it,” and in that “getting it,” was a witness to another way of living in the world.

So we confessed together that Jesus’ message was deeply political, meaning that it was intended to bring substantive, radical change to all levels of human society.  The more we enter the social and political context of Jesus and read of his ministry and teaching in that context, the more his life pulses with meaning and substance.  The idea I inherited from my evangelical upbringing that Christ was usually (or exclusively) concerned with personal relationships at the exclusion of other areas of life becomes more and more hollow, lifeless, and meaningless by the day.  It’s just not comprehensive enough.

So Matthew 2 is about contrasting ways of approaching power, about approaching the “other” who may challenge or frighten us, about trusting God’s voice to clarify amidst confusion, about God’s attention to very normal, non-descript people.  This section of the story of Jesus highlights what the gospels highlight again and again and again; the dignity and worth of everyone, and how to appreciate and honor that worth in how we view them.