Sexuality, our culture, and the gospel

I read Rachel Held Evans’ new post “How to Win a Culture War and Lose a Generation” (primarily reflecting on the passage of Amendment One in North Carolina) with a growing sense of sadness and lament this morning.

I was sad to read Rachel’s highlighting of how many people of younger generations view the church. The (evangelical part of the) church HAS made homosexuality, inappropriately, one of two big issues we should care about. We have obsessed over, preached on, talked about this issue in such a disproportionate way that many in our culture believe it’s all we care about. Meanwhile, our marriages fail at the same rate as the wider culture, an increasing number of our teenagers and young adults openly have sex outside a marriage covenant, and an increasing number of heterosexuals cohabitate and participate in hook-up culture.

Many of these heterosexual couples enter church doors with folks knowing what they’re doing, but people are glad they’re there and hoping they find healing. People tend to “meet them where they’re at and love them” pretty well, generally speaking. Yet if a gay couple enters the church openly parading their lifestyle and commitments, they’re treated like filthy trash. This is wrong, dead wrong.

AND…

I then read Rachel proceed to write the rest of her piece and come to the capstone of her argument regarding Christians and “culture wars”,

“Young Christians are ready for peace. We are ready to lay down our arms. We are ready to start washing feet instead of waging war. And if we cannot find that sort of peace within the church, I fear we will look for it elsewhere.”

When I read that, I was saddened even further. Because while it is true that many people in our culture have been turned off by an unhealthy obsession with the issue of homosexuality, it remains true that the biggest portion of people are turned off by an insensitivity towards the demands of the truth. One of the things I observe with the younger generation surrounding me (in my church, neighborhood, city, and wider culture) is the belief that we innately and easily understand what is good and true.  Whatever comes most natural is interpreted as most true, to generalize the idea.  As it happens, however, the Scriptures remind us (and we can confirm with experience, if we’re courageous enough to face the facts) we are confused, selfish people darkened in our understanding of what is good, right, and worth pursuing in this world.

When confused, selfish people who are intimately shaped by our culture to think and act in certain ways are confronted with the truthful  way of the kingdom of God, our first (and for many, only) reaction is rejection. Nobody wants the core of who they are challenged. So when a group of people is openly advocating a way of life that is opposite in many ways to what you hold dear, you seek to discredit, diminish, or openly mock them. And I’m not talking about sexuality here at all. I’m talking about radical forgiveness, non-violence, the way of simplicity, covenantal marriage vows, humbly bowing before an authority that is not you. And the list goes on.

So, as it happens, because we all are so intimately formed by our culture, many young Christians live with a “Christian-lite” version of faith where any sort of stark line-drawing or boundary-making is interpreted as inappropriate and even hateful. Why? “Well, we may have given our lives to God,” we reason, “but God would never rip my life apart or subject me to serious emotional, spiritual, or physical pain for long stretches of time. God wants to enter into my life and make me more compassionate and caring.” We don’t want to look weird. We don’t want to stand out. So, if we “keep our faith,” we latch on to vague spiritual teachings and teachers that enable us to live our lives as normal with a little Jesus seasoning to alter the flavor a bit.

In addition, many young Christians are conflict-averse in the church, and when someone challenges their understanding of truth, are quick to be offended, unwilling to listen, and too quick to leave. Some may even leave a church because of political signs posted in the yards of other families in the church they disagree with.

And above all, many young Christians are so swallowed up in the values of the Babylon of our culture that we are blind and deaf to the call of God to become “resident aliens” in our culture, to be called out of the values of our culture and “called into” the values, boundaries, and lifestyle defined by a King and not by ourselves.

So, Rachel, when you speak of being “ready for peace,” I fear you misunderstand the gospel, which is deeply political, which does at times draw significant lines, which does draw boundaries around behavior, which does bring significant expectations.

In the midst of a powerful song confessing his own shortcomings and sin, Derek Webb sings these two piercing lines that continue to challenge me years after first listen,

“I repent, I repent of trading truth for false unity,
I repent, I repent of confusing peace and idolatry.”

What Derek highlights so well is how quickly in pursuit of being “at peace,” we seek to smooth over or deny differences, avoid our conflicts, and call that “peace.” He rightly reminds us that when those commitments overshadow our central responsibility to be faithful to the expectations of our Creator, we are engaging in idolatry. We only have to look quickly at the wider context of Jesus’ ministry to see that “peace-making” in God’s kingdom sometimes looks like scandalous welcome and other times looks quite harsh, exclusive, and judgmental.

We have much to learn in evangelical culture about a deeper compassion. Some may even say we’ve lost the virtue of compassion and need to give up making strong statements or drawing boundaries in order to learn that virtue again. I am sensitive  to and drawn towards that suggestion on the surface. I would suggest we instead choose to be chastened and “count the cost” of making judgments and drawing boundaries and consider whether scandalous grace is included in our actions.

But if we are to follow the advice of persons like Rachel and a host of other younger Christian leaders, we are to let people make their own decisions and to “love them” in that place. We are to be so careful not to offend persons (especially on the issue of sexuality) in the interest of them feeling embraced and cared-for that we avoid drawing strong boundaries. And that’s all in the church, far before we engage in conversations about our values in the public square.

It seems, if I take the blunt message of the essay, Rachel is suggesting the public square should be off-limits for Christians.

In regards to the public square and to Christians involving themselves in politics, I am interested in how “laying down our arms” applies for Rachel on this issue. She mentioned in her post,

“As I watched my Facebook and Twitter feeds last night, the reaction among my friends fell into an imperfect but highly predictable pattern. Christians over 40 were celebrating. Christians under 40 were mourning. Reading through the comments, the same thought kept returning to my mind as occurred to me when I first saw that Billy Graham ad: You’re losing us.

I assume Rachel is more connected to other authors and speakers in the Christian publishing world than I am by virtue of her being an author and speaker. So in addition to a “normal” friends list, Rachel is able to see the thoughts of Christian culture-makers.  I happen to share eighteen mutual friends with Rachel (some of whom are authors and speakers), and while many were mourning on my friends list, by and large they weren’t mourning as those standing on the outside observing the cultural moment. No, many were mourning as those who had actively campaigned and leveraged whatever power they had AGAINST Amendment One.

So, is the main spark here for Rachel’s essay that the church is too political, or that the church is politically involved on the side of an issue that she disagrees with?

This question leads me to reach two possible conclusions based on Rachel’s thoughts:

1) Rachel and others like her genuinely want Christians to stop participating completely in the political realm (or if they do, to not tell anybody about or seek to influence others), no matter what their political or cultural persuasions

or

2) Rachel used this anti-conservative-political-action essay to set up that group as the enemy, with the answer being progressive-political-action dressed in anti-political clothing. “They’re theocratic and oppressive,” could be the battle cry, “and we’re open and progressive. Completely unlike them!”

Maybe I’m pigeonholing Rachel with those two options, but I’d guess she’s probably pretty firmly in 1) and shading pretty heavily over into 2). I’d guess that she described her Facebook survey the way that fit the message of what she wanted to write, and that many of those lamenting Amendment One weren’t lamenting it because “Christians shouldn’t be involved in politics.” No, most of them (like my friends list) were lamenting it because they’re actively working for the open acceptance of GLBTQ persons and goals into the church. This is what I’d guess. I could be wrong.

Having stated my critiques and observations, I do feel a responsibility to say something positive and generative. It’s always easier to criticize than it is to create.

I would simply state I believe Christians should seek to influence our culture. And if we seek to influence our culture, we must constantly be aware of our goals and our methods to make them subject to the way of the kingdom of God.  Our actions should include everything from praying for certain leaders locally and in our church families and all the way up to national campaigns to organize our society.

Here are some examples:

I’ve worked with a local faith and justice organization here in Cincinnati in the past. We didn’t pick typical conservative issues to work at. We started with opening up access to jobs for ex-convicts in our society so they weren’t given an unofficial life sentence. We lobbied Cincinnati City Council to change the city code for hiring to open up access.  We succeeded. Persons might call that a liberal political desire. We didn’t care. We believe it to be a value of the kingdom of God.

I’m connected with others in Cincinnati who have some questions about the downtown redevelopment of our city. We see lots of money being spent and city ordinances and zoning decisions being favorable towards the wealthy and powerful. We’ve started and signed petitions, written local councilmembers, and sat in on planning meetings to be more educated on the issue. Some may call these liberal political desires. We don’t care. We believe it to be a value of the kingdom of God.

In 2006, I voted in the affirmative for Virginia’s Marriage Amendment defining marriage as solely between one man and one woman. I would vote for it today. I don’t philosophically have a problem with North Carolina’s Amendment One.  It was poorly written and could have some unforeseen consequences as a result. I do find it strange that opponents called it frivolous and unnecessary to bring an amendment when state law already stated the same.  If the people of a state believe they should be organized in a certain way, they will want to strengthen their statement as much as possible.  Without an amendment, change is as simple as legislation signed by a governor.  With an amendment, it is significantly harder to override or change.  So you strengthen what you believe as a people.  Some may call such marriage amendments a conservative political desire. I don’t care. I believe it to be a value of the kingdom of God.

I’m connected to a number of war-tax resisters who oppose their taxes going to fund the United States military establishment. Many of these people engage in political action to advocate for this cause. Some hold back a certain percentage of their taxes and give that money to organizations working for peace. Others give away every cent of money they make over the poverty line so no taxes make it to the Pentagon. A lot of them are still working and advocating for a Peace Tax Fund for conscientious objectors. Some may call that a liberal political desire. They don’t care. They believe it to be a value of the kingdom of God.

I affirm the work of friends in the Consistent Life movement against war, abortion, capital punishment, and euthanasia. Some may call this group a confused group of liberal and conservative political purposes. They don’t care. They believe their work to represent the values of the kingdom of God.

I’m a part of the work of Bread for the World, which advocates primarily in the federal budgeting process for programs for poor and malnourished people in our society. They work with all their guts to win a percentage of our budget to be given through various programs for the “least of these.” Public assistance, the SNAP program, children’s health insurance, and others are included. Some may call that a liberal political desire. We don’t care. We believe it to be a value of the kingdom of God.

I believe that we should follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who in reconciling us to God sometimes showed radical inclusion and other times revealed a harsh, boundary-making approach. Both of those tactics were meant to draw people out of rebellion and into the life of the kingdom of God.

We should always at every moment ask ourselves two questions to guide our work:
1) Is this issue important and valuable enough to pursue at this time with the resources we have? and
2) What will we build into the way we communicate and advocate in our campaign to make sure we speak honorably so that we may dignify our opponents with what they deserve as our brothers and sisters?

It’s about time for Christians to abandon the cowardice of hiding behind conservative or liberal American political commitments and courageously face issues of importance carrying the values of the kingdom of God. Our work is the work of casting down idols in whatever arena of our society they may exist, including inside ourselves.

Sermon, 2nd Sunday of Advent

Sunday, December 4th, 2011 Vineyard Central Church Norwood, OH

Main passages: Isaiah 40:1-11 Psalm 85:1-13 (though the RCL suggests Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, which I make an object lesson in the sermon)

I think the best place to begin today is with Isaiah 40, to do the best we can to walk into the world of the author, to observe, listen, and consider what we may encounter.

As obvious as it must sound, the first thing we notice is that this is Isaiah 40.
If we sat down and read the Book of Isaiah from beginning to end in one sitting, we’d notice there is a distinct difference in tone between chapters 1-39, and chapter 40 on. The first 39 chapters give a strong message of Israel’s unfaithfulness, unwillingness to follow the way of God. The prophet reminds them multiple times that this has not gone unnoticed by God. He uses the voice of God to say piercing things,

“’I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.’ Woe to the sinful nation, a people whose guilt is great, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him.”

The first 39 chapters read as a testament of the prophet using every literary device, every means of persuasion possible in an attempt to bring Israel to their collective knees, to consider their way of life, to repent, and to live differently. Along the way, a very clear portrait of God emerges that is uncomfortable and necessary for Israel to hear; and uncomfortable and necessary for us to hear today along with them.

God is not aloof, is not ignorant of what is going on. God has been patient for a very long time, hoping (desperately so), that the people he redeemed would turn back. But eventually, because God loves them, because God has called them to be a light to the nations, his anger boils over and he shatters their society, drives them into exile at great loss of life, loss of dignity, great cost. God does this, and he does this because he loves them.

So this is the immediate context we hear Isaiah 40 in today. And because the tone is so different and the way the narrator talks about God’s judgment in the past tense, longing for restoration, most biblical scholars believe Isaiah 40-55 were written about a hundred years later than the first 39 chapters. This was a common practice in the Jewish community, to continue the tradition of a prophet, to write in their name, with the community affirming the words over time as valid and truthful.

And so, Isaiah 40 gives a message of hope, “Comfort, comfort my people…speak tenderly to Jerusalem, that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.”

The prophet uses strong language here to give his hearers hope. “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”

This is Hebrew apocalyptic language. It’s used time and time again in the Scriptures. “The heavenly bodies will be shaken, the sun darkened, the moon turned to blood,” one passage says. “See, I will create new heavens and a new earth,” another passage says. “The wolf will live with the lamb,” says another. The writers don’t actually mean that God hates mountains and valleys and wants everything level, don’t actually mean that the sun will cease to exist, or the moon drip with blood. They don’t mean that God’s going to throw the universe in the trash and start over from scratch.  And they don’t mean that wolves are going to suddenly cuddle with cute little soft lambs.

All of those passages are the Hebrew way of saying, “God’s going to do something big again. God is going to make things right. The powerful will recognize their relationship with the weak, and they will live in community again. God will make things right.”

The prophet continues: “All people are like grass, and all human faithfulness is like the flowers of the field…the grass withers, the flower fades. (but the word of our God will stand forever)”

These words remind the hearers of their mortality, and raise awareness of how quickly we forget the restoration of God and return to our old ways that we find more comfortable. “So remember that you are like grass, here today and gone tomorrow,” the prophet reminds us.  And our faithfulness, while beautiful and full of sweet aroma like the flowers of the field, is not the center of reality.  The strength of human effort is downplayed. But the intent is NOT to empty the possibility of human faithfulness, to diminish the impact of serving God. No, the intent is to exalt God, to give glory to the eternal God, which draws us to fall to our knees, adore Him, and confess over and over again, “God, you know better than we do how we were created to live. We are confused, our minds and hearts are darkened, twisted by selfishness and rebellion.”

With this emphasis established, the writer can shift back again to comfort, “Bring good news,” he says. Say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and his arm rules for him…he tends his flock like a shepherd: he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those who have young.”

God has been wrathful and condemning in his great love, and God will be gentle and compassionate in his great love.

That is a significant lesson that the Israelite people needed to hear, and we need to hear in our day as well. It is a reminder of the full love of God, which includes the full spectrum from the most gentle, affirming touch all the way to ripping entire societies apart in their unfaithfulness; death, pain, and the displacement of millions of people.

Our second lectionary passage of the day is an important object lesson that brings this issue into full focus. So if you would turn to Psalm 85 with me.

I want to say two things here about the lectionary with this being one of the readings for the day. First, I love the sense of unity felt in the use of the lectionary, knowing that millions of brothers and sisters are reading the same passages and praying together with the same themes. I love that as the Earth turns and we all experience Sunday over a 24 hour period, we are reading, praying, and thinking together on similar themes. This is a great gift. But I feel extremely frustrated at times with the lectionary because those who set it up have a knack for seeking out comforting passages and omitting, avoiding sharper passages. Sometimes, it’s hard to read their intent, other times, I’m sure I read into their selections something that isn’t there, and other times, like today with Psalm 85, it is SO OBVIOUS.

(Make a quick skim read of the Psalm and take a guess at what the Lectionary folks omitted)

When manipulating the passages so obviously like this, one has to ask, what is their purpose? I had seen this pattern before in the Lectionary and wondered when it was brought together; who shaped the passages for reading? Is this pattern several hundred years old? I wasn’t surprised to find after a bit of research that the Revised Common Lectionary was brought together in 1994. That date is telling. I also wasn’t surprised to find that the RCL was an ecumenical effort (Catholic and a variety of Protestant communions), and one of the markers of ecumenical works tends to be an appeal to the lowest common denominator that everyone can agree on.

Maybe more important, though, is the wider issue of belief. One of the most distinct beliefs across our society that’s been in vogue for at least the last 75 years or so is that if God loves you, he would never do anything that brings you pain, would never hurt you. And if that was the Biblical message, that would be well and good. But it’s not.  The Biblical message is that God loves us deeply, relentlessly, desperately, and that God will stop at nothing to bring about his kingdom.

It also seems to me that the most comfortable people of the world are the ones who love to read the Jeremiah 29:11s of the Scriptures over and over again. This also fits with the shapers of the RCL being Western, powerful people. Yet those in the world without power, being crushed, used by wealthy empires to maintain their way of life; it is those people who cling to passages on God’s judgment on sin. Why? Because those passages give them an outlet for their pain, gives them questions they can ask they didn’t know they had, channel their frustration to show them how to pray so they don’t become embittered and hopeless.

We need this reminder most here in Advent
. Because the people on the eve of Jesus’ birth were NOT comfortable. They were occupied by the most powerful military in the world, taxed into the ground, with the system of taxation carried out by wealthy Hebrew persons grinding their fellow citizens into the ground. The people of Israel were groaning, suffering, longing, and Jesus’ mother Mary (one of those marginalized people) didn’t offer words of consolation to comfortable people:

“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”

Luke 1:51-55

So, I want to emphasize how desperately we need to hear the part in Psalm 85 that the Lectionary-shapers omitted. It is a voice of pleading, of weeping, of desperate humility, of throwing oneself at the feet of God, of looking unseemly, not-together.

“Restore us again, God our Savior, and put away your displeasure toward us. Will you prolong your anger through all generations? Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?”

How does the psalmist, speaking for Israel, plan to respond to God? “I will listen to what God the Lord says; he promises peace to his people, his faithful servants- but let them not turn to folly.” Another way to say that last sentence is “God promises peace to his people- his faithful servants- IF they do not turn to folly.” Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him. There is much wrapped up in those two last sentences.

When God’s people fear him, value him, cherish his authority and voice above all other voices, obey and act on that voice, and do it together; wonderful things result.

And then comes this beautiful image, “Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other. Faithfulness springs forth from the earth, and righteousness looks down from heaven. The LORD will indeed give what is good.”

There’s a conversation that often comes to mind for me when thinking of the tensions described above. It involves one of my heroes, Clarence Jordan, co-founder of Koinonia Farm in Georgia, in conversation with his brother, Robert. Clarence approached his brother Robert Jordan (later a state senator and justice of the Georgia Supreme Court) to ask him to legally represent Koinonia Farm. Robert responded to Clarence’s request:

“Clarence, I can’t do that. You know my political aspirations. Why, if I represented you, I might lost my job, my house, everything I’ve got.”

“We might lose everything too, Bob.” Clarence said.

“But it’s different for you,” Robert responded.

“Why is it different?” Clarence said. “I remember, it seems to me, that you and I joined the church the same Sunday, as boys. I expect when we came forward the preacher asked me about the same question he did you. He asked me, ‘Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?’ And I said, ‘Yes. What did you say?’

“I follow Jesus, Clarence, up to a point.”

“Could that point by any chance be- the cross?”

“That’s right. I follow him to the cross, but not ON the cross. I’m not getting myself crucified.”

“Then I don’t believe you’re a disciple. You’re an admirer of Jesus, but not a disciple of his. I think you ought to go back to the church you belong to, and tell them you’re an admirer not a disciple.”

“Well, now,” Robert said defensively, “if everyone who felt like I do did that, we wouldn’t HAVE a church would we?”

“The question,” Clarence said, “is, Do you have a church?

So, like Clarence and Robert, we are presented with a couple options in our life. Do we choose a genteel Christianity that says all the right things, that goes out of our way to read comforting passages that avoid responsibility and reinforce our way of life, that stops short of a willingness to give of ourselves with all of who we are? Or do we choose a Christianity that follows Jesus and obeys him, willing to be stretched, and willing to be broken, willing to care enough about the brokenness of the world that we are driven to our knees in prayer?

This world is very, very sick; but SO full of potential for healing and joy.

May we turn our gaze off ourselves and towards our Creator.
May we have the courage to come to terms with and embrace the full spectrum of God’s love.
May we be shaped by this love to pour our lives out in service to God, to play a role in the healing of God’s world.

Amen.

What and Who we are For

I was given the opportunity to preach at the Cincinnati Church of the Brethren this morning.  I chose to use this opportunity to spend some time reflecting on Christian allegiance and how a commitment to Jesus makes us into “misfits” in our society.  Along the way, I touched on labels of liberal and conservative that are so powerful in our society, and our responsibility to transcend those labels as disciples of Jesus.  This does not lead to fence-sitting, or a mushy moderate approach, but rather to courageous faithful action that means we will sometimes be called liberal and sometimes conservative, but always won’t really care what we’re called.

Click on the link below to listen to the sermon:
What and Who we are For by Nathan Myers

An excerpt of the sermon is below:

We are on the eve of a High American holiday that takes place tomorrow, Independence Day. And wherever we may end up in our perspectives on the relationship between Christianity and the nation, High American holidays give an opportunity to slow down and to reflect on these themes of allegiance, commitment, and awareness of who we are.

You see, we don’t have the luxury like other American citizens of the specific kind of patriotism that tomorrow often brings. There’s a certain simplicity to always going with the crowd and obediently following what others do, but becoming Christian means entering into a more complex relationship with our society. Around days like tomorrow, words like patriotism, allegiance, commitment, and freedom often come up. And these are words that happen to be deeply essential for Christians too. In a number of ways, however, an assumption is made by many that there is no conflict between allegiance to Jesus and allegiance to America. My hope this morning is to spend some time stepping back and reflecting on our relationship to our society as Christians.

A link to the full text of the sermon is below:
Full text of “Who and What we are For”

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.

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)

An excerpt from the sermon to be shared at Cincinnati COB…

Since Jesus prayed centrally, “God, may your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” and Cincinnati Church of the Brethren’s place on earth that you have chosen is Walnut Hills, Cincinnati, with Wendell Berry ringing in our ears, beyond all the sexy ideas about mission and growth; maybe the most important, most essential quality of your work as a congregation is actively and thoughtfully learning the stories of the people here in Walnut Hills, gaining the trust of the people of Walnut Hills, and seeking to follow the Lord as Shepherd for this place. It’s letting our mission be determined by our place, and committing to a place for an extended period of time, intentionally being present in a way that deeply listens, invests, and prays for God’s will to be done in our place.

Our Vineyard Central church family in Norwood is struggling through this very issue too. We have a sexy phrase that we’ve created and put up on our website: “Practicing resurrection in West Norwood and encouraging it everywhere.” Now, if we want to move beyond the sexy phrase and listen to the wisdom of Berry, practicing resurrection IN WEST NORWOOD means establishing west Norwood as the focus of our ministry. We have said West Norwood will be our place. In order for this to have a practical reality, we must spend a significant amount of time in West Norwood. This does not necessarily mean we have to live there, but it does mean we need to deeply invest there.

A number of us, because we want a more natural flow to this commitment, have moved into the neighborhood; in theory, because living IN WEST NORWOOD means we will more easily practice resurrection there. But we find a significant barrier comes up whether we move in or not: we don’t know the people here, we may not share the same desires as the people here, we don’t know the story of the community, the story of the people, we lack the connection needed. We don’t know the place where we are.

Full text of the sermon here.

Neighborhood ministry is about bonding first…

Here’s a small excerpt from my reading recently that lept off the page at me. It is so so so so obvious upon reflection, but that’s the importance of wisdom, right? That it makes clear what has been hidden through ignorance or through intentional avoidance? Church is about building God’s kingdom on earth, and that begins where we live and primarily gather. Do we know our neighborhood? People’s names? Ethnic health or distrust? Lifestyle challenges?

We must first go beyond the idea of neighborhood ministry which can keep us “safe” from messy relationships and embrace the practical realities of needing to know our neighborhood in order to truly be church where we are.

“Effective ministry is rooted in a comprehensive understanding of the communities where we live and serve.  Learning about a community occurs through a variety of means and represents an ongoing process.  Foremost, it must begin with bonding ourselves to the community where we will be ministering.  As Manny Ortiz writes, ‘Bonding may be a strange term for many of us, but it is an extremely important concept for learning the urban context…The best analogy to describe this process is that of a child being born and entering a new environment, a new culture, with new experiences, smells, and sights.’  Incarnation, sharing the world of our neighbors, calling where we live home, must be the guiding strategy to shaping a ministry agenda.”

– Mark Gornik, Noel Castellanos Restoring At-Risk Communities pg 220 –