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When we gather in Worship on Sunday, is it about equipping the members of the congregation to “be the church” when we are scattered back into our neighborhoods and offices during the week? Yes, the Christian congregation “is a company of men and women who gather, usually on Sunday’s, for worship, who then go into the world as salt and light. God’s Holy Spirit calls and forms this people. God means to do something with us and he means to do it in community. We are in on what God is doing and we are in on it together (Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way).

Yes, but…I believe there is something more going on. Is the Spirit calling us, gathering us together, in a particular place for a purpose? Is there a purpose in the geography of the place to which we’ve been called for assembly? As the church gathered, are we the visible presence of Jesus to the neighborhood in which we gather? If so, what are the implications? What is required of us? At JCSTS, we ask the question: “What does God look like to those in the neighborhood when the church is indifferent to, even scornful and afraid of the neighborhood? When the church doesn’t care about and isn’t involved in the life of the neighborhood? When the church is barred and gated against the neighborhood?”

Lesslie Newbigin wrote that when the church is not involved in every aspect of neighborhood life – not just religious, but secular – the implication is that God’s grace does not extend into the neighborhood. What, then, does God look like when it appears that His grace is reserved for a few privileged people? When God’s grace and mercy does not extend into the neighborhood?

Many of us live in one part of the city and worship in another. And, as Dick Halvorsen said, “Wherever you go, God is sending you there because Christ, who dwells within you, has something he wants to do through you.” But what about the sending God is doing when He sends us out of our own neighborhoods and into the place of worship? Is there something God wants to do through us there, as well? I believe so! And to understand what it is God’s Spirit is calling us to, we need to get to know, really know, the neighborhoods within which our congregations sit. Only then will we begin to understand our purpose.

Seven years ago, I read an article by the vicar of a small congregation in England, John Davies. In it, he explains how he began to know the neighborhood in which he’d been recently called to minister. In Reading the Everyday, Davies writes that, “My epiphany came on walking out into the area with notebook and camera in hand, taking time to observe closely and to note carefully the details of the place…to know God and to express God to others, we need to become deep students of, and fluent communicators with, the ordinary.”

Of course, it doesn’t stop there – the people are key to deep knowing about a neighborhood, about a place. We must also get into the neighborhoods and get to know the people. In seminary, we are taught to “exegete” the Scripture – to become keen observers, attending to the most minute detail that may have implications on the text with which we are engaging. We must also learn to exegete the neighborhoods and cities to which we’ve been called. To do good exegesis, you have to learn to ask good questions: What are the key slogans of the city or neighborhood? What are the prime landmarks, and how do they shape the narrative of the neighborhood? What kind of music do people tend to listen to?
What lyrics do they have committed to memory, and what story is that calling them into? What are people’s favorite films and what lines can they quote by heart? What are people’s dreams and hopes? What are their fears and stresses? These and other good questions are raised in this article that gives tools to “exegete” the neighborhood.

We are recipients of the gifts of an incarnational God, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, generous inside and out, true from start to finish (John 1:14, MSG).” Jesus didn’t pretend to become human – he became one of us. His hands were roughened from his work in the carpentry shop, he was tempted, he prayed, he wept, he was rejected – he became part of our neighborhood with all that implies. The ordinary was transformed by encounter with the extraordinary. If we are really following after Jesus, I believe He will lead (is leading) us into the neighborhoods where we gather for worship.

Jesus is God in action, God speaking, loving, touching lepers, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, raising the dead, forgiving His enemies. Peterson notes that Jesus isn’t just our way to God. Jesus is God’s way to us – it’s a two lane highway with traffic moving in both directions. “The Way” is a person whom we follow, Immanuel, God with us.

If we are following Jesus, I believe that we, too, must become action verbs, to heal, to feed, to forgive, to speak, to listen. We have to move in the neighborhoods, be with the people, listen to them, learn from them, walk with them. We are, after all, the Body of Christ.

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Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights.
—Habakkuk 3:17–19

There are seasons of life when it feels like you’re living in a desert. The landscape is parched, you wonder if you’ll ever bear fruit again. Everything is bare and life itself seems to be in question. This is life in the wilderness.

Though it’s counterintuitive, Scripture tells us this is a moment for praising God and giving thanks because that’s often when i realize, yet again, that my only hope rests in “my faithful Savior Jesus Christ…who has paid for all my sins with his precious blood… [and that] he watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven (Heidelberg Catechism, answer to Q.1 “What is your only comfort in life and in death?”).

I once had a pastor who said, “In the Bible, when you read that someone is heading into the wilderness, you know they won’t emerge from the wilderness without being changed in profound ways.” No one goes voluntarily into wilderness; but if that’s where you find yourself, don’t try to fight your way out. Pray that God will lead you out once his work has been done in you.

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Clued In

You want to know what being missional looks like? This article in HuffPost is thought provoking. I know so many churches that talk about being missional but don’t have a clue (or don’t care) what’s going on in the neighborhoods around their church. Some of the students at the seminary are working in and “exegeting” the neighborhood around the seminary – one of the most poverty-stricken, crime-ridden neighborhoods in Atlanta. Within about 1 square mile there are more than 30 gated churches. These are places of “worship” on Sunday but barred and gated (or simply empty) against the neighborhood the rest of the week. One student asked, “if churches are supposed to be hospitals for sinners, why don’t they keep hospital hours?” In response to this challenge and others like it many churches say, “Yes, but the church isn’t the building. The church is the people and we’re about preparing the people to be the church when they’re sent out from here, to be the church in their own neighborhoods and work places.” That’s a laudable goal. But I wonder if this just gives permission to comfortable Christians to stay in their comfort zones. “God would never ask me to put myself at risk. Safety first.” Oh yeah? Well Jesus “became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood (Jn 1:14, MSG)” and it got him killed. I think Jesus must weep every time he looks around his neighborhood and sees one of these empty, barred and gated places of “worship”.

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Dancing Lessons

I confess! I’m a watcher of the T.V. show Bones. The main character is beyond brilliant, but quirky to say the least. To her, life can be explained in terms of scientific theorems and mathematical principles. Her social skills are – well, let’s say they’re not great. But she’s surrounded by people who love her for who she is, quirks and all. We should all have the kind of friends that Bones has!

In a recent episode, she and her partner prepared to go undercover in a ballroom dancing competition (yes, I know – a bit over the top). Bones was absolutely confident that by observing and analyzing the other dancers, she could quickly pick up the moves and become a more than competent dancer – it was just a matter of mechanics, or so she thought. The result, as you can imagine, was not pretty. There was nothing aesthetically pleasing about the result – Bones seemed to get the mechanics of the dance but never got the art of the dance. She couldn’t navigate the relationship between dance partners and always tried to force the lead. She couldn’t forget herself enough to really enter into the dance.

Dance is an image used first by the church fathers to describe the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity as well as to describe the relationship between God and creation. The descriptive word they used is perichoresis, from the Greek περί (peri, “around”) + χορεύω (khoreuō, “dance”). Our word choreography comes from the Greek χορεύω. Perichoresis, or dance, creates a framework for us to imagine the relationship within the Godhead – a dance that we are invited into.

Bones is so busy thinking about herself, so busy analyzing and diagraming, so busy trying to master the mechanics, that she can’t step into the dance, can’t move with the music. I’m afraid that when it comes to dancing I’m more like Bones than I care to admit. I (mostly) understand the mechanics – I can even see and appreciate the beauty – but I have never been able to master the art of the dance. Maybe it’s my two left feet.

I think many of us are Bones when it comes to responding to God’s invitation to us. We over analyze, insist on taking the lead, never quite relax into the dance. There’s more resistance than there is relaxation into the arms of God. We often think that relationship with God is simply a matter of mastering the mechanics – morning prayer, check; scripture reading, check; good deed, check. Prayer, Scripture reading, bearing fruit – they’re all important. But I have found that it’s as much about relaxing into the arms of God, of learning to trust and follow him even (especially) when I most want to resist.

I wonder what music I will be asked to dance to today if I submit to relaxing into the dance with God?

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Fire in the Bones

When I read Jeremiah, it scares the hell out of me. Jeremiah didn’t seek the word. The word sought Jeremiah. And he was consumed by the fire of the word of God. It was a fire in his bones (20:9b) that first burned Jeremiah and then burned everyone he came in contact with. There’s an ancient midrash, a Jewish commentary, that describes the fiery nature of God’s word: ‘And how was the Torah written [asks the midrash]? With black fire upon white fire as it rested on the knee of the Holy One, blessed be He.’ The image of God as an author with his fiery work on his knee is a vivid picture of the dangerous nature of Holy Writ – too hot to handle. It burns but it’s not consumed. It’s always changing, yet never altered[1]. The texts we seek to grab hold of and study until we’ve mastered and can manage them are like wildfire, always eluding our best efforts at containment.God’s word is a fire that consumes everything it touches. We cannot take it into our hands without it changing us.


[1] Troubling Jeremiah, p.171.

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There’s another article in the New York Times today here on the failure of the process that attempted to right the wrongs of the housing/mortgage debacle. In fact, there have been a number of articles in the last couple of weeks about people who have had their lives turned upside down again and again by our badly flawed banking system. Now this article indicates that the review process itself is so badly flawed that regulators have resorted to a one-size-fits-all solution. It’s another case of “too big”!

Banks were “too big” to fail. Now the problem of the “too big” banks is “too big” to solve by addressing it on a case-by-case basis and thereby dealing with real wrongs done to real people. I’m growing more and more convinced that the Catholics have it right when they advocate for “subsidiarity.” Subsidiarity is one of the key principles of Catholic social thought which contends that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. In the papal encyclical Centesimus Annus Pope John Paul II put it this way:

… it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbors to those in need. (Centesimus Annus 48)

How can bank regulators sitting in Washington or in New York really know whether an individual was abused by the system, or whether the individual abused the system – and what is the appropriate measure to rectify the wrong? I do not have any “big” solutions to offer to the quagmire in which we now find ourselves. But I do know that I am more and more drawn to the “local” – I shop as often as I can at small farmers markets where the goods were grown and harvested or produced by my neighbors. I love being in a neighborhood where I can name my neighbors and where I know about them – their gifts and their foibles. When my mother fell on Christmas Eve two years ago, we had three different neighbors in the house within minutes of the arrival of the EMTs. Yes, some of it may have been sheer nosiness – but there was genuine care and concern exhibited as well. And while she was in hospital and in home hospice, our refrigerator was always stocked with meals provided by those neighbors.

In responding to the lawyer’s question,”Who is my neighbor?” Jesus told a story of a “good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37). I find it interesting that those who passed by the injured man lying at the side of the road were more concerned about the social norms (as priest and levite they would both have been fearful of being made unclean by contact with the victim) of the institutions of their day than they were about the real needs of a real human being.

Dr. Kenneth Bailey writes:

The lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” is the wrong query. He is challenged to ask, “To whom must I become a neighbor?” The parable replies, “Your neighbor is anyone in need, regardless of language, religion or ethnicity.” … the ethical demands of this vision are limitless.

Nearly two hundred years ago, Alexis de Toqueville predicted that modern democratic government would degenerate into a huge, paternalistic state which would guide the individual in all of his affairs and insure that all of his needs were met. “For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances; what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?”

In the presence of the huge paternalistic state we become the priests and the levites, and don’t even see the need to ask, “To whom must I become a neighbor?”

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Musing on Baptism

It’s tame,

this little font with its few inches of tepid water

Nothing dangerous to it at all, it seems

Until you’re plunged beneath the waters

 

Beneath these waters is the chaos before creation

the cries of the lost in the great flood,

and perhaps the tears of God

lamenting his act

 

Beneath these waters are roaring winds and

the astonished voices of Israel’s children,

drowned out by the cries of

horse and rider hurled into the sea.

 

Beneath these waters is the darkness of sin

and pleas for cover from iniquity.

Beneath these waters is death!

 

It’s not so tame,

this little font with its few inches of tepid water.

 

Beneath the waters of this font

I am washed in the blood of the Lamb

cleansed from the stains of my iniquities.

 

Beneath the waters of this font

I am brought to new birth

clothed in the righteousness of Christ.

 

I emerge from the waters of this font

to be embraced by fellow travelers

and begin a mysterious journey

 

Each step possible only through

the love of the Father

the sacrifice of the Son and

the strength of the Spirit

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