Thursday, October 13, 2016

At the Corner of . . . 2016--Alan Roxburgh

Acts 17

What does missional mean?
Something that happens at the corner of the street . . . 
In the midst of all the cultural unraveling (confusing and disruptive for many), the Spirit of God is up to something profound and important.
We are not going to discern what the Spirit is doing if we stay inside our buildings, inside the ecclesial-centric bubble.
The Spirit of God is pushing and prodding us out of the zones in which we live into places we haven’t been.

Nobody’s in control of the corner
It’s not managed space.
It’s where we meet the other and the stranger.
We have to engage each other.
Only when we show up there do we have the chance to the meet the Spirit and know what the Spirit is up to.

Ezekiel—vision of the wheels within the wheels
Ezekiel was not in a good place when he had this vision. He gets the interpretation of the dream pretty soon: "in all your desire, I’ve got myself a new set of wheels. You’re not going to find me in this temple anymore. I’m out ahead of you. If you want to find me, you’ve got to go to the brook.”  
Ezekiel goes out to the brook and assumes the fetal position for awhile. Symbol: brook or well is the place where those outside the mainstream religious world gather. Ezekiel struggles b/c he was not trained for that, his imagination was not shaped by that. 

Exegesis is all about power, control and management. If that is at the core of who you are and how you work, you’ll never be able to engage at the corner of the street.

We were shaped by the world map—there was a center and there was a periphery. Your map showed you who was in the center—for us, the US. White, European, etc.

Our current assumption: If I can get enough knowledge, I can take all that knowledge and sit down and create a strategy to manage the outcomes that I wanted. This is the narrative that shaped us. Churches are looking for help to be missional but underneath, what they really mean is:
  • how do we get back control?
  • how do we get back the success we used to have?
  • how do we retake the position we used to have in this culture? 

"If we can get the right demographics, the right strategies and then operationalize those strategies, then our churches will be successful again."

Acts 16
Paul is ready to repeat the process that he already knows but we get from the text that that’s not working. So on the Sabbath, he goes outside the gates of the city. Finds the group of women and Lydia. She is a seller of Louis Vuitton bags. What do you do with a woman saying, “Baptize me and set up shop at my house”?  God to Paul: you are going to discover what the Spirit is up to out ahead of you and you’re going to be surprised where the Spirit of God is at work.

What does it mean for us as God’s people coming out of the Eurotribal positions and embodying a whole narrative of privilege, control and management? Our tendency is to ask strategic planning questions instead of watching to see where God is at work.

Luke 10: How do we behave when we engage and enter the neighborhood on the street corner? 
  • Never go alone. Go as part of community.
  • You leave behind all your stuff. You go to the street corner with a spirit and a heart and a mind of receiving from another, not giving or meeting needs. [Obviously, there are places where we need to help to meet the needs we see but that is not the posture we take when we go to the corner.] To the extent that I go with attitude “what are the needs here and how do I meet them?” or that I go with a plan, I will be blind to what God is doing on the corner. How do I go dwell with and go among the people where the Spirit is at work?
  • This is not a one-off strategy. Dwelling means staying. For Roxburgh, it meant no longer driving his car. It meant not "getting in a car and driving to a place in a different neighborhood to worship with people who look/act like me and my friends."

None of this is new. But we still remain stuck in the “church questions”—where church is the subject and the object. We have to lay down the need to get the church right and fix it and instead dwell in the neighborhood and wonder, “What is God percolating here? What am I hearing? How does that shape my understanding of the church?"

Luke 10: Jesus is sending the 70 and says to them, I want you to go in such a way that you become dependent upon the people to whom you are going. “Stuff” means living and dwelling in a way that helps me increasingly not be an independent self that has everything I need. Invited to a journey of discovery of "how do I learn to not be a completely independent human being but begin to build a life of engagement with the folks in my neighborhood or at the corner where I am more and more receiving from them?" Jesus is asking the disciples to actually join the community—the social and economic life of the community. If you go with your credit cards, you’ll never get to that place. To Roxburgh, this isn’t about affluence and non-affluence but is about community and participation. 

This is not about ideas. This is about ways of life that we embody in our bones and muscles and don’t even think about. I have places I like to go and ways I like to do things. My car is the way I stay in control. 

Those of us who do church for a living are constantly thinking about church—it’s always going on inside of us, we don’t have to make a mental decision to think about it. Missional living is a journey of learning to change those deeply embodied practices and habits. In the midst of the unraveling, all of us want to stop the unraveling and hold on to our comfort zones. 
As Americans, we are a people who were formed on ideas formed in the European Enlightenment. At the core of that way of thinking is this deep conviction that there is a method and that method can be used to solve any problem. John Dewey: “pragmatism”  Houston, we have a problem. We will bring the best and the brightest together and we’ll take the elements of that problem and we’ll work on it until we solve it. That has been a gift to the world . . . but what do you do when the Spirit of God says, “You can’t know what I’m up to if you play that game.” When the Spirit creates sufficient disruption that our strategies take us further away from what the Spirit is up to

But our starting place is “What does this mean for the church?” and “When I get back to my church, how do I do this?” Missional living is not about a new tactic. That doesn’t mean stop what you’re doing. The dumbest thing you can do in the midst of a world that is coming apart is to go back and say we have to stop what we’re doing and change everything.

Challenges around identity: Instead of Reformation, use “reformations”—they were Eurotribal fights of the age. But coming out of that is this whole sense of identity (who are we? Who is in and who is out?) and a new narrative about the gospel. Jesuits never talk about their identity: they are formed around a liturgy and a set of practices and everything else is marginal. Identity: a group of people who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and gather around a eucharistic Table and a set of practices (Daily Office, etc.) that form us. If you’re being formed this way, then the question of identity is irrelevant. I can engage and adapt with the people I’m with in a way that “fills out” that core identity.

Our "modern" assumption about church:
Church is a place you go where:
  • the word of God is rightly preached
  • a place where the sacraments are rightly administered
  • a place where discipline is rightly imposed
  • Once you’ve defined church in this way, then you need professionals to run the thing.

What if Church is not a building we go to but a tent we take with us? Abram and Sarah. Journey of trust where they cannot tell you the goals, the outcome or the product. 

What are the practices? We dwell in the texts, attending and listening to the way in which people are entering that dwelling. We church professionals are learning to attend and listen to others. What we are doing is cultivating the space where nonprofessional people are articulating and listening to God through the “other" that they’re with. This is the beginning of discernment. Begin gently learning to hear God through one another in the dwelling in the safe space where God’s people are gathering together. 

The core of the Eucharist is that it “earths” the Christian story—makes it local and practical and ordinary. 

How do you let go of church questions?
  • You don’t. You can’t.
  • Start where people are, not where they’re not. Don’t go in and start teaching them, “We have to be completely different."
  • Instead gather a few people and begin to take on new practices and learn together. 
  • Most of the people in our churches, including ourselves, understand God not as the primary activator in the world but as a useful means to the strategies and directives that we’ve created for ourselves.  We have to let go of God being useful to us.

When we ask the question, what am I looking for in missional living? we are saying it’s a whole relearning of a set of practices of a way of life. "

Learning is how you embody a way of being in the world.” Learning is an invitation to wake up. 

In this process, we are not pastors, we are not priests, we are abbots.

In the 30s and 40s, Barth and others were trying to say that God has a mission and the church participates in that mission. New western realization about missio dei. Newbigin comes along after the changes in Europe where the church is no longer the center of life and Xn presence and influence has all but evaporated.The question: Can the west be converted? Even the language “the west” is Christian. Civil religion. Question about how the gospel reengages and shapes the peoples of the west? 

This is the missional question: the gospel and its engagement with modern western people and cultures. When this question comes to the US in the 80s and 90s, young academics come together to form The Gospel and Culture Network and write the book Missional Church (which Roxburgh helped to write) which is the book that misdirected this whole conversation. Problem: “missional” is used as an adjectival modifier of the word “church.” “We were asleep to the fundamental issues that Newbigin was raising and have now spent 20 years where missional is all about the church and not about the reality of God in Jesus Christ and the Spirit is longing and hungering to transform a western society that is killing us. So we have conference after conference after conference about how to have missional church and fundamentally miss that we’re asleep

Monday, October 3, 2016

Stumped by Trump

Yesterday, I joined a group of Canadian Christians for lunch and before I had even put my napkin in my lap, they asked, “So what is going on with the US election?”

We talked for about 45 minutes as they expressed dismay and confusion about the possibility of a Trump presidency.  While they could agree with many conservative positions, they didn’t understand how we could risk putting the office of the leader of the free world in the hands of a man who is reckless and ignorant. Again and again they asked, “Why?”

They hadn’t heard about the conservative conspiracy theories that fuel much anti-Clinton sentiment and while they were appalled and bemused, they seemed to understand a little better why many Americans will choose a man like Trump just to defeat Hillary Clinton.

One woman said that she had been abroad for the last month and asked me, “Do Americans know that the rest of the world is either laughing at them or terrified?” I noted that most Americans don’t think a lot about the rest of the world. 

The whole group wondered if we understand how much the rest of the free world is depending on us and why we would risk our position and influence for a man like Donald Trump. They were deeply concerned about his pro-Putin sentiments and his aggressive, bullying style where other nations are concerned.

When I reminded them that more than 70% of evangelical Christians (with whom most of these friends would sympathize) support Trump, they shook their heads in disbelief. Again they asked, “Why? How?” I wasn’t sure what to say.

We were laughing about all the Americans who say that if one candidate or the other wins the elections they will move to Canada, my new friends joking, “We’ve already started building our wall.”  However, they also expressed real anxiety about their powerful neighbor being in the hands of an erratic narcissist.

After lunch, we reminded each other that the next time we are all together, there will be a new occupant of the White House and we will have the conversation again.  It will be interesting to see how that goes.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Books worth reading

Every so often, I read a book that makes me think, “Every pastor should read this.” It’s almost never a religious book or a leadership book and in fact, many pastors read too many of those books and not enough of the kind of book that I’m talking about.

So far this year, I’ve read three of those books and I’ll share a few thoughts about them here. These aren’t book reviews, only a few thoughts, the kind of thing I would say if you sat down next to me at the airport and asked me what I was reading and whether I liked it.

Lila is literary fiction, one of those fictional books that is actually more true than real life while at the same time being nothing like real life.  Like Marianne Williamson’s other award winning book Gilead, it’s a theological story. Gilead is the story of theology seen through the lens of grief; Lila is the story of theology seen through the lens of trauma. One practical suggestion: Read Gilead first if you haven’t already; then read Lila before you’ve forgotten it. Notice the difference in the voices, the difference between male and female, Reformed and unformed, secure and traumatized and then notice your visceral reaction to them. You’ll understand more about the people you serve and more about your self.

When Breath Becomes Air will break your heart. Paul Kalanithi becomes a neurosurgeon because he wants to confront the issues of life, death, meaning and morality and he wants to walk with others as they do the same. Later, he reflects that maybe he should have become a pastor instead, realizing as many pastors no longer do, that this is exactly the work of the pastor. With words more elegant and effective than the words you and I will ever have, he describes his own life and his own death as he struggles to understand these issues in his work with patients as well as in his experience with terminal cancer.

Being Mortal is a more practical book than either of these. Atul Gawande, also a physican, tells the story of aging and dying in America and wonders with us,
“Does it have to be this way?”
“How do I want to face my own aging and death?”
“What are the right questions to ask?”
“How do I measure quality of life?”
“How will I make the tough end-of-life decisions?”
“How will a support my parents and friends as they face these issues?”

I know, what a downer, right? But Gawande is a conversational storyteller and he draws us in, helping us think about the big existential issues as well as the practical considerations that pastors are asked to help with on a regular basis. He is very careful not to tell us what to decide but instead walks us through how to decide, which is exactly what we need.

There’s one more book that I’m debating adding to this list: A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman. It’s not profound exactly but it’s a quick read, entertaining and a fun way to explore what it means to cross boundaries in our relationships which is, of course, the essence of missional living. Backman's book My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry is actually my favorite of his and, like all his books, is about grief and community. But you should probably start with Ove and see what you think.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

We're better than this

One of my bad habits: checking my phone and opening my email as soon as I wake up, before I’ve even got a start on the day. This morning, already annoyed that I was wide awake at 6:00 on a Saturday—on a holiday weekend, no less—I opened my inbox to find a forwarded message from a friend describing Syrian refugees in Germany as “animals.”

The message was hateful, anonymous and, supposedly, “patriotic.” It urged me to blame the federal government for allowing these “animals” to come to our shores, for allowing it to “happen here.” 

When I saw who in my friend group had originated the message, I felt sick. Each of these women is a church lady, a patriotic American and a committed Christian and this kind of thing is deeply unworthy of them. And yet, they read this and hit “forward” to share it with their friends who (I guess) they assume are likeminded.

I understand how we can express real concerns about immigration. I understand fears about terrorism. I understand skepticism about the policies of the federal government. I understand how we can vehemently disagree with each other about these things. There are days I even disagree with myself about them.

I don’t understand how followers of Jesus can refer to other image-bearers of God as animals. I don’t understand how we can forget how unbearably awful things happen when we demonize and dehumanize groups of people.  I don’t understand patriotism that is defined less by the values we cherish and more by the people we hate.

This is dangerous stuff. It’s dangerous to friendships and it’s dangerous to our faith and it’s dangerous to our country. And just in case you were going to forward me an email like that? Don’t.