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.

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.

Jesus, help us live in peace

Jesus, help us live in peace.
From our blindness set us free.
Fill us with your healing love.
Help us live in unity.

Many times we don’t agree
on what’s right or wrong to do.
It’s so hard to really see
from the other’s point of view.

Jesus, help us live in peace.

I stumbled through singing this simple song in the Common Prayer book this morning.  I suspect the stumbling helped me to connect with the words in a more visceral way.   I had an opportunity to speak in the worship gathering of our church family yesterday, and one of the elements of my talk was to emphasize that when we, from different walks of life and economic circumstances and family backgrounds and emotional types and personality types get smushed together in communities of relative intimacy, we quickly find that we don’t have the tools to be in healthy relationship.

There are cultural reasons for that.
Our impatience and aversion to deeper relationships that make us beholden to others, for one.
There are human reasons for that.
It’s scary to risk deeper relationship.
It’s an act of vulnerable trust that so many of us have been burned by.

Whatever our reasons, Christian communities, upon realizing in desperation that deeper relationship brings terrible complexity and can bring out the worst in us, probably have the best tools at our disposal to navigate relational intimacy.  I think I connect to the simple words of the song the most because those tools, while deeply helpful, don’t make the process less messy.  In some very real ways, when I commit to deeper, more vulnerable relationship with my church family, I must crack open my shell to allow God and others to examine my motives, my desires.  I cannot simply sit back and let others do the work of vulnerability and present to them my projection of myself that keeps me coolly detached.

Whatever the reflections might be, which can be endless, we’re in the midst of a discernment process in our congregation, with some weighty decisions to make.  Some of those are more obvious and clear (We must address this crumbling building), and other aren’t so obvious (How do we best relate to our neighborhood, our place? What practices does God desire us to mold that give us a sense of purposeful identity?).   In a very real sense, the answers that emerge from the latter, not so obvious, decisions determine the more obvious ones.

It is for that very reason above that I am so deeply thankful for how Tom and Karen Wuest have set up our discernment process, and so deeply pained that many people haven’t been present in the early stages.  Our discernment is following the church calendar; in Lent we devote ourselves to the practices of lament and confession, in the season of Easter we devote ourselves to the practice of speaking hope and redemption, in the Pentecost kick-off of ordinary time we root ourselves that story of how God took terrible complexity and brought the miracle of understanding, and in ordinary time we devote ourselves to meaningful conversation involving open conflict, soft ears, and working toward consensus.

The Wuests understood something vitally important; in order to do the work of conflict and conversation well, people must cultivate an openness to God and one another.  An extended period of time devoted to that openness delivers us from practical atheism and the tyranny of personal opinion that so often wins the day in Christian communities.  I was slow to come around as they laid out the vision (one could quibble about the length of time to prepare our hearts for conversation), but I have benefitted in such an important way from the spaces of silence, of listening, of confession, of hearing brothers and sisters beginning to crack open their hearts and reveal their longings, their pain, their hope.

If we had blasted straight into hard conversations, I do believe we would have inflicted some significant collateral damage on one another.  We have slowly been transitioning from a commitment to open listening to God and halting small confessions to more direct expressions of lament, more sharp confessions.  This evolution enables a more natural process to take place, a sort of “slow boil” that forces us to face God, ourselves, and others.

Whoever is not participating in this process for various reasons (this is namby-pamby gushy stuff, or it’s not important enough until the later stuff, or this community is vastly secondary to my “more important” other priorities) is missing out on a very essential process.  As a result, we’re going to need to have some harder conversations with others who plow into the mix of what they think is “really important” (post-Pentecost conversations) without having traveled with their brothers and sisters through the earlier process.  Some painful collateral damage will result from their abstaining.  Shoot, some painful collateral damage is bound to happen no matter what when conflict-averse people have to engage in conflict; but God is doing important softening work right now.  I, for example, am not the Nathan I was five weeks ago.  In particular, Janet McNeel’s reading of a meaningful Scripture lanced through every wall I have erected to “keep it together.” Janet, in allowing herself to be undone, participated in my undoing.

My practical atheism and opinions have taken a back seat……slowly……..painfully……..their cry is not as raucous and all-consuming as before.

Through all of this, the simple words of this song anchor me;

Jesus, help us live in peace.
From our blindness set us free.
Fill us with your healing love.
Help us live in unity.

Many times we don’t agree
on what’s right or wrong to do.
It’s so hard to really see
from the other’s point of view.

Jesus, help us live in peace.

The practice of forgiveness

Our Vineyard Central church community is gathering this afternoon for worship, prayer, and fellowship. Through Lent, we are dwelling in Psalm 22 and a “word” of Jesus from the cross to guide our worship. One brother, Greg York, will be reflecting today on the Psalm and Jesus’ word “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

In preparing my spirit for our time together, as I’ve traveled to and from work this week on the bicycle, I’ve tried to be mindful of that word of Jesus.

“Today you will be with me in paradise.”

I have let it repeat over and over in my mind. I have spoken it out loud. I have said it in cadence with the circular strokes of my pedaling. As the phrase has settled in my spirit, I have been impressed at the core commitment it displays. Radical forgiveness.

The context of the “word” is the interactions of two dying men being crucified with Jesus. One mocks him, and the other defends him. In response to the basic defense of the one (being “rightly” executed for being a violent threat to the Roman regime), Jesus, in the midst of his intense physical and emotional pain, reaches out in forgiveness to the man. Without making a statement on the man’s depravity, Jesus draws the man into an embrace that will transcend the death they both are about to experience. What a gift!

This reminded me of a story I had heard awhile ago that illustrated the powerful embrace of forgiveness. The story was first told to psychologist Jack Kornfield by the director of a nearby rehabilitation program for violent juvenile offenders.

One 14-year-old boy in the program had shot and killed an innocent teenager to prove himself to his gang. At the trial, the victim’s mother sat impassively silent until the end, when the youth was convicted of the killing. After the verdict was announced, she stood up slowly and stared directly at him and stated, “I’m going to kill you.” Then the youth was taken away to serve several years in the juvenile facility.

After the first half-year the mother of the slain child went to visit his killer. He had been living on the streets before the killing, and she was the only visitor (in jail) he’d had. For a time they talked, and when she left she gave him some money for cigarettes. Then she started step-by-step to visit him more regularly, bringing food and small gifts.

Near the end of his three-year sentence, she asked him what he would be doing when he got out. He was confused and very uncertain, so she offered to help set him up with a job at a friend’s company. Then she inquired about where he would live, and since he had no family to return to, she offered him temporary use of the spare room in her home. For eight months he lived there, ate her food, and worked at the job.

Then one evening she called him into the living room to talk. She sat down opposite him and waited. Then she started, “Do you remember in the courtroom when I said I was going to kill you?” “I sure do,” he replied. “I’ll never forget that moment.” “Well, I did it,” she went on. “I did not want the boy who could kill my son for no reason to remain alive on this earth. I wanted him to die. That’s why I started to visit you and bring you things. That’s why I got you the job and let you live here in my house. That’s how I set about changing you. And that old boy, he’s gone. So now I want to ask you, since my son is gone, and that killer is gone, if you’ll stay here. I’ve got room and I’d like to adopt you if you let me.” And she became the mother he never had.

This story reminds me that forgiveness is not an emotional decision, where one must emotionally feel at peace before forgiving someone we believe has wronged us and/or others. Forgiveness is a posture toward others that transcends our emotion. We make a decision, which establishes firmly within us that our emotions will not rule us. We let our decision lead us. The emotions catch up later. May I pursue such a commitment.

Life changes…

Sooooooo…..since blogs are supposed to be places where people express their own authentic views on any number of subjects ranging from very personal struggles to big-scale stuff like the cost of tea in China, I guess I should comment on a massive life change in my life (and, because my wife made one of those “lifetime covenants” with me, her life too).

I resigned as pastor of Middle River Church last month, effective May 1st, 2009.  The following is an attempt to put into words the reasons why.

I’m 28, young enough to be incredibly naive, but old enough to know life isn’t a bowl of cherries.  I’m young enough to have dreams for the world, and old enough to know that most older people have given up on dreams as foolishness.  I have chosen to dream, and while I’m sure this dream will run head-on into the harsh reality of the present, that doesn’t negate the power of the dream.

Bethany and I have decided to move intentionally to Cincinnati to live in community with our friends Dustin and Tiffany and Josh.  We will be making a covenant together that involves significant financial sharing, commitment to daily communal worship, commitment to the simple aspects of life together (common meals, working together), and a commitment to being neighborhood-minded in the pursuit of our shared dream.  

People around here try to talk to me about this, and I’ve run into a strong number of blank faces and quizzical faces.  

The blank ones don’t seem to have room in their heads for something like this; I would chalk this up to their being so intimately shaped and molded by our social message of individualism, privatism, and seeking of comfort that the strong desire for community is all but extinguished in them.  Sure, it might express itself from time to time, but is quickly quelched by the person’s fear of the unknown and society’s powerful message of selfishness.  

The quizzical faces also don’t seem to have room in their heads for something like this, but for different reasons. “Community” sounds too much like “communism” to them; it’s not a coincidence that these folks are often my parents generation with Joe McCarthy’s rants and anti-Soviet propaganda ringing in their ears. So that’s a barrier.  Plus, living together with others who aren’t your “natural” family sounds too much like David Koresh to them (remember Waco, TX in 1993 and Janet Reno?).  Some have had the courage to warn me about this, which is a wise caution, I’d say, of how community is easily corrupted by power and personality.

There’s maybe two other big reasons that people are confused by our decision.  There’s a strong current of American conservatism running through the Shenandoah Valley, where churches feed the desire for traditional values; work hard, save, take care of your family, “go to” church (and those aren’t necessarily negative values). But with those values has always been a latent racism, stereotyping of those who are poor, and an elevating of the values of family, tradition, and a middle-class state of mind to a place of idolatry. It is the only way of life folks know, and they cling to it even as they make decisions that shred that sense of shared values over time.  Those decisions (the embracing of spending ourselves into debt, buying bigger and more expensive transportation and houses, escaping life through movies, television, and entertainment rather than working consistently and hard towards real-life goals) come in the name of “change” and “progressive” thinking. That’s the second strong current in our area, a “progressivism” that is, from an eternal perspective, really “regressivism.”  As Os Guinness says,

“We insist on choice, we expect change, we prize relevance, we are unthinking believers in the-newer-the-truer, the latest-is-greatest, and what’s in and what’s out…the result of our casual nihilism is a careless demolition of tradition and the creation of a spiritual, moral, and aesthetic wasteland in its place.”

The Shenandoah Valley is quickly becoming a toxic wasteland of confused conservative/progressives who espouse family values yet get out of marriages because they don’t serve their selfish ends, who claim a Christian faith yet reject the life of discipleship because it gets in the way of watching American Idol or their dream of their child becoming a professional athlete (so they put them on travel teams that pull them away from investing in relationship with others around them).  We don’t know who we are, but we know that the television feeds our short-term wants; to feel significance through reality shows with “normal” people “making it,” to make us think we’re helping make our world a better place through watching (and crying through) Extreme Make-over Home Edition, and to feel athletic by altering our schedules to fit our commitment to watching various sports events.  You could add any number of examples onto those.

It’s a rat race.  Slowly but surely, as I’ve tried to carve out some time to listen to God in the midst of the competing messages and voices (by turning off the radio, but choosing not to have cable or satellite television in our house, by seeking to value relationship over entertainment), I’ve heard God beginning to whisper to me.  The more I’ve paid attention to that whisper, the louder it has grown and the more it has gripped me. At times the voice thunders in my head, stopping me dead in my tracks and making me quake in fear (the healthy kind, mostly).  The voice says something like this, “There is more to life than this.  Listen to me, obey me, and you can be a part of something greater.”  God has been shaping me, and this shaping has sped up the more I’ve worked to listen and act accordingly.  I’m choosing to dream more these days, and to follow the pathways of the dreams to figure out where they might lead.  T.E. Lawrence wrote something that has gripped me, saying,

“All men dream: but not equally.  Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find it was vanity:  but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.  This I did.”

Bethany and I have chosen to be “dreamers of the day” with friends; working to line up our dreams with God’s dream.  We know that changing the world begins with us, is always focused on the daily life of neighborhoods and communities surrounding us, and includes my brothers and sisters across the globe.  There are already church families in Cincinnati who have been doing this for a while like Vineyard Central in the Norwood neighborhood.  There are already disciples of Jesus who have moved intentionally to economically depressed areas for years like Dorothy Day (and Catholic Worker folks), Tom Sine (and Mustard Seed House folks) and Shane Claiborne (and Potter Street Community folks) Mark Scandrette (and ReImagine folks) and John Perkins (and CCDA folks).  I know these persons would be frustrated with me singling them out, because they’re good, humble people who are a part of communities, not celebrities or Christians unto themselves.  But for the sake of examples, I isolated them.  We will be submitting to them and listening as a community to how their wisdom tempers our idealism; how their struggles temper our vision. We are naive, yet we want more.  This will be hard, but our common commitment will share the burden.  We are not alone in this.

Malcolm Muggeridge wrote his own (joking) epitaph while in college to a friend,

“Here lieth one whose soul sometimes burned with great longings.  To whom sometimes the curtain of the Infinite was opened just a little, but who lacked the guts to make any use of it.” 

Hearing that warning (Muggeridge was a famous killjoy of grand dreams for a long time in his life), I have a couple commitments;

I want to walk the uncomfortable balance of great longings and the ordinariness of daily living.  

I want to have the guts to risk for God while rejecting some twisted sort of heroic quest.

I want to be perpetually restless for redemption without allowing that restlessness to cause me to wander constantly in search of something that is only found in choosing to stay and work somewhere, somewhere to invest in, that has people to love.  

I want to walk in God’s pathways, and I’m grateful to join others in conspiring to lead our world back to Genesis 1 and God saying, “This is VERY good.”  

I love paying attention to these things and knowing that God is smiling, fighting for me and urging me to keep walking and keep striving.  

I get to join God’s story of redemption in our world, to play a role in this drama unfolding for millennia, and to work joyfully in God’s kingdom whether we see “results” or not.  God is making a “new heavens and a new earth,” and my faithfulness to the global scope and the common, daily path of it helps to bring that world to pass.