Category Archives: missional living

The Four Things…And Enchiladas

afro micahIt was something one of my mentors used to say every congregation should do and something every single healthy congregation actually does regularly. It was taught to me – by living instructors and long dead sages – as an essential spiritual discipline. It was stressed as a vital role in my own coach training and something I continue to emphasize regularly as a trainer of coaches.

No matter how many victories and accomplishments fill our resume, no matter how many defeats and failures litter our consciences, if we are to continue pressing forward with any semblance of health, hope and sanity, we must take time to celebrate.

Christian communities should be known worldwide for their parties. We’re ambassadors of good news for crying out loud! When the day draws to a close, it should be common practice to reflect upon the preceding events – giving thanks to God and rejoicing together in those areas where we were fully present; where we lived as Christ and saw Christ in others. And we should rejoice in our failures – if for no other reason than they give us the opportunity to reflect, learn from our mistakes, and possibly gain wisdom which will shape our future endeavors.

That doesn’t mean we should plaster on a smile when tears seem more natural – by all means, healthy disciples should mourn as well as they celebrate. I’ll venture a guess that our ability to do one of these truly well will increase our ability to do the other.

This past Friday after saying our Four Things and the Lord’s Prayer on the way to school, I issued Conner and Micah a challenge. This isn’t uncommon. Some days I just encourage them to focus specifically on one of the four things, or one aspect of the Lord’s Prayer. I even recently invited them to say the Prayer silently throughout the day. Conner is 9. Micah will be 7 in a month. They are exceptional dudes. But they are 9 and 7 years old. I didn’t expect them to come home chanting like the desert monastics. I didn’t really expect anything – I just offered a challenge.

Friday, rather than a more mental exercise, with no tangible markers of progress, I decided to invite them into something concrete.

“Today, your challenge is to see how many acts of kindness you can perform. Big things, small things, totally random things. How many times today can you go out of your way, even a little, to do something for someone else? And keep score, because the winner gets a prize.”

They’ve been talking about going to a restaurant to eat Mexican food – we don’t eat out much, so that’s kind of a big deal. So, in anticipation of something to celebrate, I decided we’d go to Miranda’s for dinner (then I forgot to tell Rachel, which goes in my own “today, I will mess up” column). I figured whoever won would get the be the hero and tell his brothers what we were doing. It isn’t always a hard task, but an important discipline for myself is actively looking for reasons to encourage these guys and celebrate with them – this was a great chance to do so as a family.

When Conner came in from school the first thing he said was, “I won the contest Dad! I did seven acts of kindness.” Some were pretty significant. One thing he said was, “I was talking to my friend Ryan, and I figured out that he doesn’t have Zook and we have two…so I want to give him one.”

Now, this is a BIG deal. Zook is a Skylanders figure. Some marketing genius created this game for the Wii – you not only buy the game, but you also buy little character figurines which are placed on a sensor attached to the Wii – there’s something like 70 of them altogether. The Wellsbrothers are obsessed with this game. They’ve collected dozens of these characters – and they love having duplicates because they can be upgraded differently.

skylanders

A few minutes later I called Micah in and asked how his day went. As usual he didn’t have a lot to say. So when I asked about the competition I was prepared for his reluctance to answer…but not for the stated reason. He said, “I did five acts, but I don’t need to tell you what they were because Conner did more and that’s what I wanted to happen.”

Conner lost his ipod a while back. After weeks – maybe months – of it being awol, Rachel found it…in the van…right under Conner’s seat. So we told him that he wouldn’t get it back until we witnessed him doing something especially responsible.

Micah looked me square in the eye and said, “Conner really misses his ipod. I figured if Conner could do more than 5 acts of kindness that would be pretty responsible and he could get it back.”

Speechless.

That kind of selflessness…I still can’t really describe how amazingly proud I was – am – of that boy.

“Oh yeah, the one good thing I want to say: I told Aiden I would give him one of our Chop-Chops [another Skylander] – we have two of them.”

What?!?!

Both boys came to that kindness separately.

But then Rachel brought up an important and potentially problematic issue. All three of our boys love Skylanders. Josiah no less so than the others. So, we told Conner and Micah that their little brother would need to sign off on the decision to give these characters away.

And then I held my breath as they presented their idea to the four-year-old, King Josiah.

Conner: “Joey, we have two Zooks and Ryan doesn’t have any. I think we should give one to him…it would be a nice thing to do.”

Josiah: “Hmm. Yeah, okay. That’s a good thing.”

Micah: “And Aiden doesn’t have Chop-Chop, but we have two. We should give him one.”

Josiah: “Yeah, sure. Let’s do it!”

We have a lot to celebrate as a family.

…and I’ve never had more delicious enchiladas.

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What Are You Going To Do Today?

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Every morning for the past three years I’ve asked my children this question. It started with just Conner, but then Micah caught on and now Josiah.

In response to the question we say our “Four Things.”

Today, I will pay attention.

Today, I will be Jesus.

Today, I will see Jesus.

Today, I will mess up.

And then we say the Lord’s Prayer together.

Often we’ll take one of the four things and talk about what it means. Paying attention means listening to our teachers, parents, and other adults. But its more than that. It also means that when a friend is talking to us (not during class) we listen carefully to them. A “grown up” way of saying this is we seek to be fully present. It means that we notice what’s going on around us. We notice when someone is alone. We notice when someone is really happy or really sad – and we want to know why.

Most days I ask the boys to choose one of the four to focus on specifically. Yesterday, Conner chose paying attention as his focus. He later told me that during recess he looked over and there was a girl sitting alone on the swings. He told me that it looked like the wind – which was CRAZY yesterday – was the only one willing to push her. So he went over and asked if she wanted someone to play with.

She did.

Being Jesus means that after paying attention we look for the good we can do and be in a situation. We’re kind to those who are lonely and we’re kind to those who are mean. We don’t just notice the lonely person on the swings, we go over and say hi. The wind will not be the only person a friend has so long as we’re around. Being Jesus means we not only choose not to engage in bullying, but we stand up to those who bully others. Being Jesus means that people matter to us and they should know it.

Micah chose being Jesus as his focus yesterday. At one point, because of good behavior he got to choose a prize from the “treasure box” in class. He didn’t see anything in the box that he couldn’t live without. Instead of just getting something, he asked a friend if there was anything he wanted, selected that thing and gave it to him.

Seeing Jesus is probably the hardest. It requires paying attention and being Jesus. We are committed to looking for signs of Jesus present in every person. Especially those who are mean; who we consider our “enemies.” It may be harder to see Jesus in some people…but it is also harder to hate those people or neglect them when we do see Jesus.

Somebody once suggested that we shouldn’t end our Four Things on “Today, I will mess up” because it was a negative ending. I disagree – and so do our boys. This is a final reminder of grace. We talk about it all the time. We’re not perfect, we’re going to miss opportunities. And that’s okay. Every day we strive to live up to a high calling. But that high calling comes from our identity, not the other way around. So when we mess up we are not wracked with guilt. We talk about why we missed the opportunity to pay attention or be Jesus, and what we might do tomorrow in order to grab on to a similar opportunity.

When we talk about our Four Things in the evening, the mess up part provides a chance for confession – Rachel and I participate in that confession as well. We learn that sharing our struggles is an opportunity to be loved – because our confession is met with forgiveness and grace. If the mess up involved wronging someone, we talk about what we can do to make it right…and since we do this often, its rare that the boys haven’t already begun making amends by the time they share their mistake.

If “Today, I will mess up,” is viewed as a negative its because we have a misshapen understanding of confession and holiness. We see confession as a retributive rather than redemptive act. We see holiness as a harsh demand rather than an inspiring calling. Today, I will mess up. Period. So how will I deal with that incompetence when it manifests?

This morning, Josiah called me on his way to school. He didn’t get to say the Four Things with Conner and Micah, and wanted me to hear. This is what I heard over the phone…

MY Community

I’m kinda weird.

No, no, don’t try to deny it. Its true. If you remain dubious, my wife and mother will both happily provide confirmation.

I’ve always lived in this strange tension between groups – belonging to many but not really belonging to any. This isn’t so much an adolescent existential crisis – at least, I don’t think so…but adolescents always deny it too…dang dirty paradoxes!!

Part of it stems from my inability to do things the “normal” way. I graduated high school in August – so, not a full year early and not with my original class…I’m not really in either group. As a growed-up, I’ve tried to walk the line between academics and practical ministry – which means that I’ll likely never be a stand-out in either and I’m not enough of a people person to do a good job of bringing the two groups together. There’s another one…what kind of introvert goes into church planting?? A weird one.

I have conservative friends who all think I’m too liberal (they’re probably right) and liberal friends who all think I’m too conservative (they’re probably right…but admittedly there are fewer of them and they’re all pretty weird too.)

Country folks say I’m too city and city-folks say I’m too country…though using the word “city-folks” certainly provides a colloquial indicator of leaning toward the former. Of course, using “colloquial indicator” returns the scale to neutral.

Many in the Churches of Christ find me suspect – and so does everyone outside the Churches of Christ. Maybe that’s not a good example, I’m just suspect.

If scientists had any reason to study me they’d find a confusing mixture of (over)work ethic and laziness, obsessive tendencies and flightiness, perfectionism and procrastination.

I absolutely love to plan things in my head. Stupid random things that aren’t ever going to become reality – but if they do, I have a plan in place. The only problem is that I can’t stand operating under a strictly planned regimen like the ones I concoct.

You may say to me, “You aren’t so unique. There are plenty of people who are wired this way.”

Touché scientist.

However, my response is, “Yes. There are others like me. And they too are weird.”

Make no mistake, this weirdness sets the stage for interesting things to happen. I have accumulated a number of life experiences which are inspirational and/or (usually and) utterly ridiculous. And it seems that I’m genetically predisposed to these sorts of stories.

The closest I’ve come to “normalcy” was right before I got laid off and moved my family to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

But these interesting stories come at a price. Life isn’t an epic novel and I’m not the beloved main character. Maybe I’m the strange traveling companion who bites it just before the plot resolves…who knows, my “biting it” may just provide the aforementioned resolution.

And unlike a character in a novel, I often don’t experience a miraculous rising above my limitations. I also haven’t found the instant healing energy/medical packs that litter the video game landscape.

They say that its darkest right before dawn – which if “dawn” is defined as the point at which it starts getting light, then that statement is like saying you found something in the last place you looked. Really? Amazing.

But the problem I’ve found is that when you think you’ve reached that darkest time right before dawn… it often gets darker still. You don’t know the night is as dark as it can get until it starts getting light again. So waiting for dawn seems to be a recipe for frustration and ulcers.

But you can only sing so many songs to make the night seem less terrible.

My life lacks normalcy. I’ve accepted that. I often feel like an outsider everywhere I go…partly due to the abnormal rhythms of my life, but mostly due to my general weirdness. Okay. We’ve lived in our current house for three years. That is by far the longest I’ve lived anywhere since leaving my parents’ house back in the 20th century. Today, I had a brief and yet eye-opening experience.

While my truck was drinking an expensive steak dinner for two’s worth of gas, I went into the gas station to get a cup of ice. In the contemporary world of 32oz plastic cups, ice ain’t free. Supposedly that used to happen – in Mayberry – when everybody was neighborly and whatnot. Those days are gone. I live in a hyper-mobile culture where nobody knows anybody and ice ain’t free.

But today it was.

And I realized that it has been on several occasions at this gas station…just like the coffee often is at my favorite cafe (if you know me, you know what that is…but I’ll leave the name out in case Big Brother is listening). Why was my ice free? For the same reason my coffee often is.

Because I’m a “regular.” Because I’m part of the group. Because even if they don’t all know my name, they recognize my face.

For whatever its worth, to some small degree, I belong to these transient communities. A moment of normalcy in the midst of chaos. I initially set out to “inhabit” these spaces three years ago as on opportunity for missional engagement in THE community. Somewhere along the way it became engagement in MY community.

…Which probably means we’ll have to move soon.

Sorry, neither of you two readers would have believed this was authentic if I didn’t include a little cynicism.

Perhaps I should say more about this. I should unpack it and explain away the weirdness to show how I’ve developed healthy rhythms within the insanity…to provide some attempt at profundity. But I haven’t…so I won’t. Today, a brief moment of connection will have to suffice – for me and for you.


a Missional Theology: part 3

I recently posted a podcast at our new site – http://www.MissionalMonks.com – titled “a missional theology,” which addresses my understanding of who we are called to be as God’s people. I decided to post the transcript of that podcast here. Its a little long, so it’ll show up as a series of three posts (this is the final of the three).


Note that its entitled “a” missional theology…not “the” missional theology. What I attempted to describe are some basic understandings of functioning as God’s community of ambassadors to all creation. There is plenty of room here for the different denominational distinctions and doctrines – I didn’t even try to get in to all the finer points of systematic theology here. So, if you think that something I added is wrong, please feel free to open dialog. If you think I left something out…I did. Add it and serve faithfully.

If you aren’t interested in reading 3500 words over three posts, you can listen to nearly the identical thing at missionalmonks.com – the “music” player is in the left hand column – its just under 30 mins including the intro (shorter than most of my sermons…). Whether you read or listen, I’d love your feedback.

Towards a Missional Theology
part 3

Broken or not, we are created in the image of God and I think one of the great examples of human pride is the false belief that there is anything we could have done (like the concept of original sin and total depravity) that could ever completely destroy what God placed in our very essence.

We are not God. We are broken and fall very much short of our ideal, but we still carry within us the image of the Divine Creator. Because of this, our identity is formed not only by our difference from God but also by what we’ve seen God at work doing, who we’ve seen God revealed to be.

Before the beginning God existed as a complete Community of Love. Unlike the claims of some religions that hold the beliefs that the gods need human worshippers to maintain their power, we worship the God who needed nothing. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit share in a fully contained and unified community of Love. The full understanding the Trinity is certainly beyond us. But this much is clear, one cannot love without an object to receive love. Unlike us, God needs no external object because the Father loves the Son and Spirit, The Son loves the Father and Spirit and the Spirit loves the Father and Son. And yet, the nature of love is to make room for others to experience loving community and so God created. And when God created, God made room at the table for creation. However, this is not a story of a wealthy landowner simply throwing occasional parties at his mansion. Time and time again we see that God is not only willing, but apparently anxious to be out in the midst of those God loves.

Communitas
I am grateful to Alan Hirsch for introducing me to the word communitas. It is a latin word that refers to community which develops and is cultivated among people who have a shared struggle, ordeal or mission. Like sports teams that endure long difficult seasons, or soldiers who share a foxhole, communitas refers to that bond that comes from being in a place where you have no choice but to depend on those around you. We see this in the very nature of the Triune God. Be it the act of creation or the redemption of creation through the cross, we find Father, Son and Spirit with a shared mission and apparently even a shared struggle. It doesn’t take away from God’s greatness to acknowledge struggle – because the struggle doesn’t come from God’s inability to overcome, but rather from God’s willingness to neither overwhelm creation nor abandon it.

If we are the people of God, created in God’s image, then communitas is going to be a vital component of our lives. When it isn’t, we know something is missing. This is part of why both gangs and fraternities are so popular – whether they are healthy or not, they are an experience of communitas. I also think this is why buddy movies, war movies, sports movies are so captivating – they tap into our desire to go through something significant with others.

Hospitality
Because God, the Community of Love, not only created us but made space for us within the Community, we see the importance and even centrality of hospitality. When we trace the story of Scripture we see over and again that God welcomes us into his presence. We see God clothing the naked and even the poorly clothed like Adam and Eve. We see God feeding the children of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness. We see Jesus feeding the multitudes, washing the disciples’ feet and going to prepare a place for us in his father’s home. (Which by the way, is a reference to ancient marriage customs…where a betrothed male would actually build a room for he and his future wife onto his father’s house. He would continue working on the room until the father decided it was ready to be inhabited and then the father would send the son to get his bride). Throughout the old testament we find God instructing the Israelites that they were to be people of hospitality – welcoming the stranger into their homes, making sure that foreigners and the poor were taken care of, even ensuring that they’d have a place at the annual feasts. Hospitality is a central component to the revealed nature of God and is a vital piece of identity for the people of God.

Hospitality means so much more than just inviting our friends to our house for dinner. It literally means to welcome the stranger…and if we take Jesus seriously, it will also include loving and welcoming even our enemies. It means caring for the poor. It means remembering those who are overlooked and forgotten by society. It means that we are a community that practices the customs of the new Kingdom, the Kingdom of God that is here but still coming. It means that we should live in a way that seems radical and even foolish in our get ahead at all costs society.

Missional Living
But again, God doesn’t merely welcome us in, God comes to us and brings his peace with him. In addition to hospitality we see that God is the preeminent missionary. In other words, from the very beginning to the very end and everywhere in between, God is not content to sit in heaven and watch our lives from a distance. God draws near. God sets up his tent among us. In Exodus we read about the Tabernacle. It was basically a large tent that the Israelites carried around with them. The Tabernacle represented God’s presence with the Israelites.

Several years ago I realized that in the Gospel of John when it is says that Jesus made his dwelling among us, the Greek word used is the word for tabernacle. In other words, like God with the Israelites, Jesus set up his tent in our midst…as Eugene Peterson says it in the Message, Jesus moved into the neighborhood. The cool thing is that when you read Revelation 21 – the end our Scriptures. It says that when everything is finally brought to its culmination, the new Jerusalem will come DOWN out of heaven and God will dwell with his people. Again the word is tabernacle. The dwelling of God will be with his people. From the beginning, to Jesus’ life to the culmination of all things, God chooses to come down and tabernacle with us.

How can we choose anything different? If we are God’s people, formed in the image of God we must seek to cultivate communitas – which means that our life in God will not be carried out alone but in community. We must be a people of hospitality, welcoming the stranger. But we must also be a missional people – a community sent out by God to dwell among the people, among creation, in the dark places where the light needs to break in.

These six things: discipleship, spiritual formation and worship because we are not God and communitas, hospitality and missional living because we are created in the image of God, are not meant to be the final formula to fix the churches problems. However, I contend that if we, as a church, can live into these principles we will find that we are in a place where we are more likely to witness God at work, praise God for what we see and answer the call to go and do likewise.

The Banquet

There was once a group of friends who lived an exciting life. Everyday was filled with adventure and risk. Each morning as they awoke the possibilities of the new day would flood their minds and they could hardly get through their morning routines fast enough before heading off to see what they would see.
This group of friends had been brought together by the most extraordinary leader. A principled yet compassionate visionary, he never seemed to need sleep and yet always found time to rest and relax with the friends. He never grew hungry, and shared all he had, yet seemed to enjoy meals more than anyone.
He was confident and competent and yet quick to empower others. No one ever had any doubt that this leader would be fine without them but neither did they fear he would ever choose to leave them.
Each day, their adventures revolved around the magnificent tasks that the leader was busy completing. It seemed that no matter how early they got started, they always found him there – wherever “there” happened to be – before they arrived.
Sometimes the tasks seemed menial, mundane and extremely normal. Sometimes the friends found themselves in the midst of monumental revolutions. Always, no matter how small or grand the task, they walked away knowing that the world was now a little better place.
Most agreed however, that the most amazing thing was the food. People everywhere were hungry. Food was scarce and often only obtained through incredible effort.
You would think that all this time spent working on the leader’s tasks would leave the friends little time to grow, buy or scavenge for sustenance. But no, somehow this leader threw extravagant feasts and provided the friends with more food than they could eat. The food was not only delicious, but it nourished their bodies better than any other food they had access to. They were strong and healthy, full of energy and passion.
Over time they began to realize that something should be done with all this food, it wasn’t right to keep it to themselves. And so they decided to host a banquet in the leader’s honor each week…seriously, there was a lot of food.
They would come together and share a meal from what they’d gathered during the previous week. They would invite other friends, neighbors, the poor people they passed on the street, anyone they happened to encounter – why should anyone go hungry when so much was available?
And they would raise their glasses in a toast to their benefactor and would share their stories of adventure. They began to realize that the more they gave away – both food and stories – the more they seemed to possess. Others began to inquire if they too could join this group of friends in their journey.
This pleased the leader tremendously. In fact, it had been the plan all along. He had seen the way other leaders, kings, presidents and dictators had used power and coercion to establish nations. He had noticed that a philosophy of scarcity seemed to keep people in their place. But this baffled him and so he set about quietly transforming the lives of a few people…knowing full well that when others heard about a life of plenty; an abundant life rich with meaning, a new society would be inevitable.
Over time this small group of friends did in fact grow to become a large society, but a sad thing began to happen.
Some people began to realize that they could stay in their beds, remain in their houses and skip the adventures entirely. When the end of week came around they could just listen to stories of other people’s adventures and share in the abundance of food that was provided. In fact, if they were careful and rationed wisely, they could gather enough food during the banquet to last them all week!
And so they would raise their glasses and toast the wise leader. Their eyes would tear up as they heard stories that warmed their hearts. They would shake their heads in bewilderment that there were still those who had not cast their lot with this group of friends. And then they would go home with pockets full of food.
Years went by and the number of people who found this loophole not only grew, but it came to be expected that only a chosen few would join in the leader’s adventures. A few more were selected to run the banquets. Afterall, the number of people participating had grown so much that it was only right to bring some order to the relational chaos that had developed. Elaborate banquet halls were constructed. Rules were established for proper dispersal and handling of food, with fewer and fewer people having access to the store rooms.
Most people found themselves quite content with just attending the banquets anyway. They didn’t have the same adventures as others, but then again, perhaps not everyone was cut out for such a life of risk. Besides, they rationalized, this way they could spend their time doing other worthwhile tasks around their house.
For the most part, the lives of the friends once again became dull and mundane. Mornings grew to be dreaded because they knew that today would be just like yesterday – boring and filled with a growing hunger.
Eventually, there were enclaves all over that were filled with friends whose bodies were no longer strong and healthy. In fact, without the sustenance they gathered at the weekly banquet, they could barely survive. They no longer understood the banquet’s primary purpose to be sharing an abundance of food, but rather the place where they procured enough for their continued existence. It was actually rare to find a banquet where the participants had even seen the leader during the previous week, let alone joined him in any adventures.
To make matters worse, as the number of people working with the leader decreased, so did the amount of food that was available. It wasn’t that the visionary leader had less to distribute, it was just that no one had gone to collect it. Most of the friends seemed completely unaware that everyday the leader was still out working on his amazing tasks…
And so, many people began to stop attending the feasts all together. They were angry with the leader for his apparent unfulfilled promises. Some began moving from banquet hall to banquet hall in search of one that would feed them sufficiently. Some gave up completely and went out in search of other food. It may not be as wonderful as the meals they’d heard about in the stories…but they hadn’t experienced those very often anyway.
Where the banquets were lacking in food, they were rich in ritual. Food became a metaphor today with the promise of real food in the future, once the leader finally and completely replaced the old societies with his new society; the toasts became perfunctory requirements; stories were memorized, analyzed, stylized, digitized and programitized… A competition began to arise between different groups of friends as to who could host the most beautiful banquet with or without food.
Other friends rejected the value of a “beautiful” banquet and focused instead on putting together properly orchestrated banquets. Without anything of immediate value to share with others, it became rare for anyone to invite a neighbor to the feast…afterall, there wasn’t much feasting taking place anyway. While a few people saw it as their calling to proclaim a feast in the future for those who would have the faith to wait for it today, most people didn’t feel they had the persuasive ability to convince friends to come and sit in anticipation of something they couldn’t prove.
And everyone sent fervent messages to the leader to send more food.
And a question began to form in the minds of people everywhere: Is there still any adventure or abundance in the world?
They say that if you listen carefully you can hear the leader whisper in response, “Come and see.”
Some say its just a story, as if any truly great story could ever be “just” a story…

Yep, I got a tattoo…

I’ve been wanting a tattoo for a long time, but refused to permanently engrave something that didn’t have deep significance to me. Unfortunately the two most obvious choices, a cross and the Celtic Tree of Life have been extremely overplayed recently…
A while back I decided that a prayer labyrinth would be an appropriate tattoo. For those who aren’t aware, labyrinths have been used by Christians throughout the centuries as a tool for prayer and reflection. The center of the labyrinth represents the presence of God.
They are not mazes, there are no dead-ends or false trails. There are however many switchbacks in the path. Early on (in this particular labyrinth) the person walking is very close to the center and then later finds themselves moving further away. However, if we are moving forward we are drawing nearer to God, even when it may at first glance appear otherwise. The long paths around the outside of the circle can seem never-ending, but they are a necessary part of our journey…and after pressing through, the center is that much more appreciated.
The significance of prayer in my own life has increased greatly over the past five years. We have found ourselves on a journey through the wilderness that has at times seemed to contain a inescapable darkness and struggle. We have learned that prayer – both personal and communal – is more than just a requirement or chance to apologize for the ways we’ve “blown it” with God. Sometimes prayer is the only tangible reminder of brighter days. Honestly, sometimes prayer is a desperate cry when we aren’t sure the light even exists.
I’ve had the opportunity to walk prayer labyrinths on several occasions…and this simple act has had tremendous impact in my life. Whether it was a path of tiles in a small enclave at SMU, a bunch of rocks piled on the shores of Lake Texoma, a well worn path at a small monastery in south Dallas, or even a temporary set-up at a youth minister’s convention – this journey of prayer has tapped into moments of deep reflection in my life of faith.
This tattoo is placed on my forearm (which was actually my brother’s idea) so that I will see it regularly and be called to pray continually. When needed I can actually “walk” this labyrinth by tracing it with my finger (once my skin stops hurting!)
However there is another significance in carrying this labyrinth with me everywhere I go…
A LIVING LABYRINTH
As a disciple of Jesus, I am called and equipped to be, in a sense, a living labyrinth. Wherever I go, I carry with me the story of The Journey. This story, which began before creation and has a culmination that transcends time itself, also includes the small and seemingly insignificant story of me. People who spend time walking with me SHOULD have the opportunity to encounter moments of reflection and prayer. If I am committed to the calling I’ve received, then I will serve as a living labyrinth to those around me.
I’d be lying if I tried to pretend this is an accurate description of me…but I want it to be.
My life is meant to be more than a proclamation of morality. I am a disciple of the true Revolutionary; the One who is in the process of remaking and restoring all creation. My life is a participation in that reconciliation…The labyrinth will be a useful tool until God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. When that day arrives fully I will finally reside fully in the center of the labyrinth…which will then serve as a reminder of the path that I never walked alone.

Do We Have Time for This?

My friend Chris left the following comment on my previous post. My response got long enough I decided it needed to be its own post!

What say you to folks out there who would respond with: “I’m too busy to share deep relationships with other people” and/or “Too many people have let me down throughout my life, and I’m not going to put myself on the line like that anymore”? 

Also, we talk a lot about how life in the suburbs seems to discourage (or at least make it really difficult) to share in communitas with others. How does life in the suburbs encourage such relationships?

First of all I’d say, I totally understand.
I’ve lost count of how many jobs I have and can’t remember the last time I woke up without a list of things I had to get done yesterday. There’s never a day that I think to myself, “I really have too much free time, I should develop some deeper relationships.”
I also know all too well what it is like to be let down by people. We’ve put ourselves out there only to be burned on more occasions than I like to remember. We’ve totally thrown ourselves into the work of a church only to be put on the street without warning because a committee decided that paying off building debt was more important than my family.
So I get it. But as citizens of the new kingdom we have no choice in this matter. We can sit around feeling sorry for ourselves or worse yet, we can sit around feeling justified in our seclusion. But in the end the reality is simple. The Creator of the Universe has reached out and redeemed us and in turn has called us to serve as ambassadors for the renewed world.
The old-timers – like my mom 😉 – used to tell me, “can’t never could do nothin.”
We are the people of hope. We must live that hope if it is going to mean anything at all. There is room for struggle and doubt, but there is no room for resigning ourselves to mediocrity and complacency with a status quo that is far from God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.
To be clear, I’m not saying that everyone needs to dedicate 30 hours a week to an evangelism campaign or begin every conversation with, “Do you know Jesus as your personal savior?” Certainly the relationships we cultivate grow directly from our connection to Christ and our agenda is driven by our conviction that the kingdom of God is at hand.
That is why surface relationships can no longer suffice. Friendships may begin at a surface level and may even stay there for a while, but when we choose to leave them that way, the relationship (and we) fail to bear the mark of kingdom. I realize that it is scary and intimidating to put ourselves out there, risking rejection and frustration. But it is well worth the risk. Rejection is frightening, but isolation is flat out terrifying…and some of our friends and neighbors are silently gripped with terror.
I think that the suburbs are a very hard place to cast this vision. However, one reason that many people choose to live in the ‘burbs is a desire to raise their kids in a more family focused community. We have dreams of the white picket fence and waving at our neighbors while we mow the lawn. That turns out, for the most part, to be a myth and culture quickly sells us on a more consumer friendly version of community. Instead of the picket fence and hand waving, we settle for facebook and drive-thru lattes. Instead of glasses of iced tea on the front porch everyone drives their car into a garage and watch TV inside until time to rush off to work or soccer practice.
However, perhaps with time we can reignite people’s imagination for “a better life,” one that is filled with meaning and substance rather than just filled with activity. However, this won’t happen unless we are, at some level, embracing and experiencing such a life ourselves.

The Traveling Companion: episode 7

I just started my next to last class for my D.Min at Perkins – Spiritual Leadership in Missional Churches. One of our assignments is to keep a journal during the 2 weeks of class. I decided to blog mine…

I knew exactly what he was going to ask me. It was bedtime and I was home, so the question was inevitable. The boy with the huge blue eyes and big gap where his two front teeth should be reached up and grabbed my face with both hands. “Daddy…magic TV?”
For the past year or so Conner, Micah and I have been on a journey with two young boys named Steve and Crazy. Steve is very tall and Crazy is very, well…crazy. They live in a special house. In this house there are lots of rooms and in each room there are lots of tv’s. There are big tv’s and small tv’s. Black-and-white tv’s, color tv’s and rainbow tv’s. There are rectangle tv’s and round tv’s. There are flat tv’s and fat tv’s. There are tv’s that hang on the wall and tv’s that sit on a table. But there is one tv more special than all the others. In fact, you could say that its a magic tv. You can’t find this tv if you’re looking for it…and actually, you can only find this tv if you aren’t looking for anything at all. But, whenever you watch this tv you find yourself inside the story. (Micah named this unchanging part of the story, “the commercial.” Conner loves it and Micah always wants to skip it and get to the good part.)
Each night Steve and Crazy watch a show – sometimes its a cartoon that Conner and Micah enjoy, like Phineas and Ferb, the Backyardigans or even the Smurfs (yep, our boys know about the Smurfs). Sometimes its a show about dinosaurs, ninja’s, jungles, outer space or a combination of several. And each time Steve and Crazy must help the characters in the show finish the episode. Sometimes things go wrong, sometimes things are just plain silly. We never know what’s going to happen (seriously, I make it up as I go).
Crazy never says anything that makes sense – he is crazy after all. Micah usually has some random statement that he wants Crazy to say…and since it doesn’t make any sense its usually pretty easy to fit it in!
These stories can be exhausting…how many different plot lines can a guy come up with after all? But I keep telling them because Conner and Micah truly love Steve and Crazy. Sometimes I get Conner to tell the story and I’m always amazed at how he already understands that a story has a beginning followed by some sort of crisis with twists that don’t get resolved until the end. Micah hasn’t been willing to tell any stories yet, but he has completely outlined several plots for me…
It had been a while since I read it last, so last night I looked back over Roxburgh’s book The Missional Leader in preparation for our class discussions today. I’d forgotten just how good of a book it is – if you are a church leader considering ways to encourage your church to take seriously the call to actively live as the missionary people of God in your community, I highly recommend this book.
One of the passages I’d previously highlighted grabbed my attention. In it the author is describing the value and purpose of narrative in forming community.

A narrative has several characteristics. It comprises a story that is moving somewhere; it gives a social group a story that tells where it is going and what the group will look like when it arrives. There is purpose and quest within the narrative calling a group in a specific direction and toward a particular goal…Because narrative creates and sustains social community, it’s the glue, the atmosphere of all social life. The key to innovating missional community is formation of a people within a specific memory and narrative. – The Missional Leader, 70-71.

I love that first bit – it comprises a story that is moving somewhere. I remember as a grad student at ACU and while preaching in New Orleans I was a part of several discussions about “narrative preaching.” There are a number of folks who have a low view of the idea because they see it as “watered down.” I was convinced then and remain so that this is primarily due to 1) bad examples of the narrative style and 2) misperceptions of the purpose and function.

For those that don’t know distinctions between preaching styles, the traditional approach that many of us grew up hearing was expository preaching – the preacher takes a text of Scripture and “expounds” or teaches through it. Intro, 3 points, a poem and an invitation was typically the week-in-week-out format, at least in our Church of Christ circles.
Changing anything, even the format for your sermon delivery, usually results in a spike in the corporate blood pressure of a congregation. So when some preachers began telling stories with no acronyms or “that leads me to my next point” many people began to fear that the Bible was no longer being preached. And sometimes they were right.
Narrative preaching or proper use of narrative in general, is not meant to be merely the telling of entertaining or warm fuzzy stories. That isn’t to say narratives aren’t entertaining – in fact good storytelling is at the heart of most things that are truly entertaining.
However, a good narrative sermon tells a story that is moving (and moving us) somewhere. It connects with something lodged deep within us and by drawing it out, draws us into the story in such a way that we suddenly look around and realize we are no longer in the same place we began. Many of the great truths in scripture are revealed through powerful narrative and we, as the people of the Story are invited to find our place in that Story with each fresh retelling or rereading.
And this Story we find ourselves in is a grand epic that is greater than any of the stories that our culture attempts to lure us into.
Stories, even silly stories like the Magic TV, shape us and teach us about reality. They help us form our identity and make sense of things which at first glance seem like chaos.
When it comes to inspiring a community to begin moving together toward some goal beyond passive consumerism, story isn’t the whole answer, but it plays an important role. If we want to call people to something bigger than themselves, we will do well to become better storytellers.
Often Steve and Crazy do things in a way that would seem strange to many people. They model for Conner and Micah a radical new way of living. This weekend I witnessed something in my boys and I wonder if it is directly attributable to the stories of a guy that is tall and a guy that is, well…crazy.
The boys and I went and played putt-putt for the first time. When we were finished we went into the nickel arcade (50 cents for half an hour of fun? I can do that!) Several of the games gave tickets – the kind you can trade in for cheap junk when you’re done. We didn’t really have enough to get anything so I suggested that maybe there were other boys and girls there who could use them more than us. I didn’t really expect the response. Micah, my 4 year old, immediately began tearing off groups of 6 or 7 tickets and asking other kids if they would like them. “I want to make sure everyone gets some, Dad.” Conner gave some to a couple guys and took the time to explain that yes, he wanted the tickets, but we didn’t have that many and this way they could get an even cooler prize.
My kids are awesome. I think this story makes Jesus smile…and its a story that is definitely moving me somewhere.

Helping the Church Be the Church: Part VII – Inhabiting the Church

If you are new to this series, you can read the intro here. This is an excerpt from my essay which takes a look at what Inhabiting the Church has to offer Christian communities of different kinds. I’ve included a passage from the intro and church planting sections.
I haven’t been asked to take many vows in my life as a (non Roman Catholic) Christian in the US. I exchanged vows with a beautiful young lady in 2000. A decade before that I heard a call to enter into a most incredible covenant through baptism. I understood that certain things were expected of me…but mostly I was just asked if I believed. I have signed conduct agreements with universities and accountability contracts with small groups, but outside of my baptism and marriage I can’t recall any relationships that have adequately carried the weight of the word “vow.”
Inhabiting the Church addresses this somewhat common (lack of) experience by examining the value and implications of the Benedictine vows, particularly as they have been implemented within new monastic communities comprised primarily of free church Protestants.
Even setting aside momentarily our issues with the taking of vows, the three Benedictine promises of conversion, obedience and stability are perhaps themselves somewhat foreign among many Christian groups. The values of individualism and autonomy which cause us to cringe at the thought of being held down by vows also react to any claims of authority which expect obedience or the subjection of our personal freedoms. Yet, the authors claim, this is precisely what Jesus and indeed the whole corpus of Scripture demand.
At first glance conversion doesn’t appear too radical…until we consider that both internal AND external changes are expected. Many Protestants, especially those from more biblicist traditions, are used to the idea of obedience…until it is revealed that for the Benedictines this includes declaring our intent to be obedient to a community and even a human leader. Stability is fine as long as we’re referring to financial stability and our friends accepting the tough decisions we’ll have to make to do what’s best for our family…we’re not? Oh, then we all agree that’s ridiculous.
For Church Planting: One aspect of the Benedictine vows that struck me while reading this book was their positive and constructive nature. Those who feel called to a life that is dissimilar to the prevalent culture are often tempted to understand their identity in negative terms; they’re tempted to define themselves by what they are rejecting. It is easy for those setting out to cultivate community and plant new faith communities to think in terms of what they’ve left behind and how they are different from traditional churches.
While there is certainly a place for thinking through and critiquing the status quo, this is not a sufficient expression of identity, nor does it provide a compelling vision for the community. The vows of obedience, conversion and stability provide positive landmarks for the path forward. These vows cultivate an expectation that to be the people of God in a certain place is not merely about abstaining, it is about embracing; embracing community, rhythm, a new economy, the presence of Christ. It is about embodying hope and announcing the new kingdom.
The authors state that, “Conversion is a way of life that must be practiced.” This vision for our community is one that inspires excitement. We are learning to expect God to break into our lives and transform each of us regularly. We expect to see miracles in the lives of our friends and we anticipate ways in which God will allow us to witness glimpses of the kingdom even in the lives of our non-Christian neighbors.
Within my own community, we are becoming increasingly convinced that long periods without such experiences should be considered aberrations that can often occur when, 1) we’re not regularly seeking the kingdom and the presence of the King for our own continued transformation and 2) we aren’t praying specifically for the Lord of the harvest to send out workers.
We are not creating a counter-culture merely for the sake of being counter-cultural, we are inviting people to join us on a journey into new life. Yet the reality is that the essence of this journey does run counter to the systems of this world. Those who would invite others to follow the Way of Christ are wise to consider the role of vows taken in community. The life of church planting is incredibly hectic and unpredictable. Our network is convinced that no one should plant alone, but this conviction alone is insufficient. The Benedictine vows represent some very specific areas of struggle and temptation for church planters and provide equally specific tools for combatting these trials.
The book opens with an essay on the legitimacy of vows in general and confesses that, “if vows are applicable for new monasticism, they can only be such in a setting where face-to-face encounter is a daily reality. I suspect that vows, ultimately, are only as true as the life together that they represent.” Upholding a commitment to whole life discipleship in community is imbedded in the very nature of these vows.

Helping The Church Be The Church: Reflections on New Monasticism Part II


This book is a compilation of essays on the “12 marks” which serve as guiding principles for many new monastic communities. The introduction, written by Jonathan R. Wilson addresses issues which I believe are essential for each of our three groups to consider.
Wilson claims that, in light of the failure of the enlightenment project to fulfill its lofty promises to bring about greater peace and prosperity through scientific, technological and logical development, New Monasticism is faced with the great temptation to focus on self-preservation. This temptation must be faced head on by NM communities, missional monastic church plantings and the established church. We must balance the temptation to be driven by the bottom line and the other extreme of understanding our existence merely for the sake of the world. But how?
Wilson urges the church to remember its eschatological identity; we live in anticipation of the reign of God, practicing the Kingdom ethos now and praying for its arrival in fullness. Regardless of the expression or form the church takes, if it forgets its mission to join with God in the ministry of reconciliation; if it functions and makes decisions solely out of internal self-interest or external activism; if it is driven by the bottom line, perhaps it has forgotten what it means to be church in the first place. This is not condemnation, it is exhortation. Church, remember your first love!
For New Monastic Communities: I spoke recently to students in a graduate church planting class. At one point someone asked me what difficult and painful lessons we’ve learned. I replied, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a Christian to reimagine the life of faith as something beyond attendance.” This realization has been costly, saddening and thoroughly exhausting. And yet, a wise friend encouraged me to remember how Jesus concluded his similar statement: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
For disciples forming a new monastic community, it is vital to pray for just such a transformation. Like Peter’s conversion when he visited the household of Cornelius in Acts 10, we must recognize that it is not only the uninitiated who need to be evangelized. We are all in need of the good news breaking in more fully.
Mark #6 discusses the value of being intentionally formed in the way of Christ and the Rule of the community along the lines of the old novitiate. Author David Janzen notes that we often read Jesus telling people that in order to follow him they will have to leave some things behind. He points out that this “renunciation itself is not holiness, but it creates a necessary space where the holiness of God can dwell and can reorder the disciples’ lives.” We’re like the wealthy city dweller preparing to hike up a mountain with 6 suitcases, 2 backpacks and a computer bag. We just can’t carry it all where we’re going. Even if we could, we soon we realize that most of it doesn’t make sense in the new landscape anyway.
Like the rich young ruler, we will be called to give up things which seem precious to us so that we can take hold of that which has value beyond our ability to imagine. There is absolutely no substitute for considering this cost. Having a mature guide(s) capable of listening with novices is extremely valuable.
Let new monastic communities be warned, skipping or cheapening the process of discernment will result in pain and frustration for novice and community alike. More than a mere conversation, there needs to be a season where an individual is dedicated to prayer and service alongside the community; a chance to practice the community’s Rule as a context for discerning call and commitment.
Janzen is clear to point out that this call to a novitiate process with the assistance of a spiritual director must not become a cultic community isolated from the larger church – to do so is idolatrous and will lead to disaster. A proper connection to the historic church, the present church and the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the local community can lead to a vibrant life of discipleship.
For Missional Monastic Church Planting: Leah (not her real name) is a single mom raising her 4 year-old daughter and 10 year old nephew. She is attempting to do so on the meager earnings available in food service and it is increasingly difficult. Leah is distrustful of the church, but as she spends time with our family, extending and receiving hospitality has begun to reveal the goodness of the gospel in her life.
Showing hospitality to our friends is not good enough. When it comes to the cultivation of missional monastic churches among non-Christians, we are finding great wisdom in this mark of showing hospitality to the stranger. It is inconvenient and sometimes a bit terrifying to invite people we hardly know into our homes and our lives and to also enter willingly into theirs, but this is essential.
Maria Russell Kenney is right, this hospitality is not a gifting, it is a discipline “in which we are called – and invited – to grow.” It is more than an occasional gifting because it is rooted in the very nature of God and the experience of our own lives. God is the one who has come near, the one who has chosen to tabernacle with creation. God is the one who calls strangers out of obscurity into a life of being known and then sends us out to see and know others.
The call to show hospitality to the stranger is one that we can immediately invite our new friends to live into also. Michelle (not her real name) lives across the street from our co-laborers, the Chappotins. Recently several close Christian friends essentially abandoned the Chappotins after they confessed that they were struggling financially. However, when Michelle, their very skeptical-of-Christianity neighbor, heard about their situation she barged into their living room and began making plans for their two families to share meals and other expenses. The stranger offering hospitality in return is indescribably beautiful.
For the Established Church: Several years ago I was a part of a conversation about small groups. Pastors from multiple congregations were attempting to help their congregations connect more deeply with one another through the venue of small group ministry. One of our primary questions was whether to organize small groups using the homogeneous unit principle or by geographical proximity. The conversation was incredibly frustrating because it seemed to be driven by a defeatist “just the way it is” attitude which was resigned to people ignoring their neighbors.
I was a little surprised to find this issue once again being discussed in the context of planting house churches. It seemed that our commitment to our neighborhoods would settle the dispute before it began. Yet for the Christian families who joined our movement, experience told them that they would enjoy house church best if they carefully selected those with whom they’d be sharing life.
School(s) for Conversion is most helpful in that it locates the significance of geographical proximity in a more healthy place than did our dialog several years ago. We were unable to come to any consensus in that conversation and I believe it was because we weren’t asking the right questions first.
It would have been incredibly beneficial if members of new monastic communities could have spoken to us about the need for proximity emerging as a result of commitments to communal disciplines; serving this higher more important goal. If we were first committed to “common prayer, common meals, mutual confession of sins, spiritual guidance, and celebration, then geographical proximity [could have been] a great catalyst.” Instead, we attempted to pursue proximity in hopes that common practices would result.
The author highlights that we, including the members of established churches, have already chosen to organize by proximity. Yet it is primarily our closeness to school, work and favorable living conditions that has driven us, more so than proximity to members of our community. It is difficult to imagine how we can live out the call of the “one-another” passages in scripture when we see each other once a week.
It is the people in proximity sharing a common rule that really makes this principle so powerful. Most of us live near other people. Many times we are even friendly to those people, but sharing neighborhood space and sharing life are not inherently synonymous. When we do choose to engage one another more intentionally, we hold each other up through shared meals, shared celebrations and struggles…shared life. This may happen spontaneously. Probably not.
Established churches that have chosen to commit more intentionally to spiritual formation in a small group ministry may well find that geographical proximity is incredibly helpful. It will be important for these churches to remember to maintain the proper focus. Being close to others enhances our opportunities to live out the “one another” passages of scripture, it is not itself the fulfillment of those things.

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