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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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Every Monday Matters

no-cat

As we begin this new year, many of us are making resolutions. And here, on January 7, my guess is that many of us have already broken those resolutions. There are any number of reasons why we’ve already given up – lack of discipline, lack of motivation, abundance of distractions and temptations. However, there is a simple component which, when missing, makes room for all these other roadblocks…and, when present, levels the field tremendously.

So very often, for whatever reason, we make our resolutions in isolation rather than in community. We may tell others what we “want” to do and hope that the accountability will keep us on track. But the kicker is, we don’t really expect to do well…and the prospect of having to tell others we didn’t follow through simply isn’t that much of a motivator.

There’s a reason “strength in numbers” is a saying we all know. Whether we’re talking new year’s resolutions, a Rule of Life, or walking through the woods at night, stuff just works out better when there is someone(s) else along for the journey.

The accountability structure, where we tell others what we’re going to do so that they can later check-up on our progress, tries to distill the benefit of community for use in our hyper-individual society…without having to actually do things together. It is better than nothing, but pales in comparison to actual shared experience. Accountability is often based on fear – fear of looking like a failure, fear of breaking faith, fear of mutually agreed upon consequences. And that can be effective. To a certain degree.

But the actual shared experience is different. It isn’t about avoiding, it is about embracing. Avoiding fear and consequences becomes embracing hope and adventure.

To be sure, in situations where shared experience isn’t possible, we’re certainly better off having others who can at least encourage us in word, if not deed. In coaching, my primary task is to help the client determine their goals, form a plan with concrete action steps, and then evaluate the effectiveness after the fact. It isn’t my job to make people feel guilty when they don’t follow through. It IS my job to help them understand why they didn’t and address the barriers. Often what we determine is that, for whatever reason, they just aren’t going to complete this task on their own. “Should” and “ought” are pointless when combined with “but don’t.” In that case there are a couple logical responses.

The first is the goal isn’t really that important. Perhaps in this case, what they “should” do is stop stressing about it and move on. Of course, we often resist this option. But here’s the deal – if we aren’t going to complete this task, the consequences will be the same whether it remains on our “to do” list or not. So we have to ask, how important is this task? Is the stress of an incomplete task greater than the actual consequence of not completing?

Many times the stuff we’re stressing over isn’t that important. Letting it go can open the door to more effectiveness in other areas – and often we’ll find ourselves circling back to this issue down the road.

But when the goal is important, and we realize we are not going to get it done on our own, then it makes sense to find someone to work with us. Maybe its asking a spouse, sibling, coworker, neighbor or group of friends to join us. Or it could mean hiring an assistant, consultant or contractor.

I didn’t make any individual resolutions this year. I’m not very good with them and I decided to pass on the personal guilt trip this time around the sun. However, Rachel came across this book, Every Monday Matters. The book is part of a growing movement of people choosing to reclaim the least desirable day of the week as a time for shared experience and positive change. Check out the introductory video below.

So yesterday The Gathering decided that we would take up this challenge together as families. We won’t all do the activities together as a large group – the basic unit of “we” in this shared experience is the household. However, we’ll discuss our activities as a community, encourage one another and from time-to-time orchestrate larger joint efforts.

I encourage you and your family to join us. You can order a print copy of the book HERE or download the Kindle version HERE. Check out the EMM facebook page and website for updates.

If you’d like to join The Gathering in participating and discussing, just use the “contact us” form in the right hand column and put Every Monday Matters in the comments section. We’ll send out reminders each Monday and provide opportunities to dialog about experiences and team up for group activities. We’d love to have you join us.

Missional and Incarnational Life part 3

From Theology to Practice…and From Ministry to Theology

This post is part 3 of 5 in a series on missional and incarnation life. You can refer back to the Series Overview to see the posting schedule. Comments which are going to be addressed in a future post may not be responded to at length until after that post is up. Thanks for reading and engaging in this conversation with me! – Bret

We began this series of posts by considering the problem of church becoming inwardly focused and dedicated primarily to the protection of the institution. We then considered the theological and Biblical foundations for a more missional/incarnational life.

In dealing with this, and really any, issue of our faith we must maintain a certain amount of tension in how we proceed. Some will want to spend time working out the theology, as we have been doing up to this point and others will want to consider the practical realities. Both of these are needed; both flow into one another, and any who would focus solely on one at the expense of the other, in actuality, despises both.

We must move from theology to practice, but we also move from ministry to theology. What this means is that we make a huge mistake if we begin considering an issue based solely on “what works” and not on theological reflection. I believe that “church growth” folks often do precisely this. We study market trends, successful business models, cultural analysis and opinion polls and then move forward democratically along the most supported path – it is the American way.

This model was also used throughout scripture – and it always ended tragically. Solomon in all his wisdom, knew how to study the sociopolitical world of the ancient Near East and he made strategic alliances, building an enormous empire in the process. We thus consider him to be a highly successful king. However, in the account of his kingship we see that he broke every single command that God gave to the people through Moses (in Deuteronomy) as to how a king should behave.

Not only that, he enslaved the Israelites! This people, intended to be God’s proclamation of light to the world; meant to be a message that no longer would the Lord stand by as people were oppressed, were now enslaved by their own “godly” king.

Throughout the remainder of their history, Israel’s kings would make strategic alliances and carefully study the market to determine the best course; they modeled decisions on the highly successful leaders of the time, located in powerful empires and every time it lead them down a path to destruction. Even good king Josiah (our son’s namesake) was killed when he made one of these ill-advised (by God through the prophets) political moves.

Church planters face this risk constantly. So often we are out on the frontier with little or no support or reinforcements. There is constant pressure (from without and within) to make concessions in order to establish self-sufficiency and financial stability. This pressure does not typically stem from theological reflection but rather from “what works.” And this is not the place from which we should make our decisions.

However, we also must move from ministry to theology. Planning out our theology in a closet, choosing to remove ourselves from our context (or determining what we’ll do apart from a context) is never going to be completely faithful. The Church exists in time and space and as such we can only deal with the present state that we actually encounter. We don’t formulate theology apart from the Church – for that would not be Christian theology – and we don’t formulate theology apart from culture – for that would deny the Incarnation.

The Incarnation of Jesus was not a new move for God. God walked in the garden in the very beginning, God came near to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God was with Moses, Aaron and Miriam, God heard the cry of the oppressed Israelites in Egypt and through the prophets regularly called Israel to hear the oppressed in their midst. When “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” as John’s gospel says, he did so just as we’re told that God had chosen to dwell and walk among his people (Leviticus 26) and will one day choose to do fully in the creation of the new heaven and new earth (Revelation 21).

But though this move is not unique for God, the incarnation of Jesus is a seminal moment for us in so many ways. Not the least of these is that time and space are shown to be valuable to God. Jesus did not appear in a universal form when he came near. It wasn’t just into humanity that Jesus incarnated, it was our way of existing – in a place at a certain time. Jesus took on the cultural forms and language of the occupied Israelite people in the midst of the powerful Roman Empire. He spoke their language, wore their clothes, observed their way of moving about (we saw when the people tried to press in on him and he “passed through their midst” that Jesus could have moved about as he pleased.)

So therefore theology, if it is to be Christian theology, must take into account The Other (God), one another (the Church) and the others (society).

Theological reflection begins with God calling us to ministry in a particular time and place. Our practice of ministry begins and continues in that theological reflection. That tension (and harmony) must be maintained.

Changing Everything and Changing Nothing

The need to move from ministry to theology and theology to practice can be seen in pretty much any issue that we undertake. For our purposes here, allow me to address two particular ones that we’ve dealt with/are dealing with in our context.

In the midst of conversations about emphasis on and participation in missional church planting we’ve come to a few conclusions. One is that community needs to be an important value in our life of faith. However, if we conceive of community apart from an actual ministry context it is very easy to romanticize the whole concept. This can lead to a naive love of the idea of community more than the thing itself.

Community is often spoken of as a nice, warm, secure experience – and to be sure these can be among the benefits of community. But the reality is that community is difficult, painful and messy. It requires sacrifice, patience and compassion beyond what we’d often like to give.

Similarly if we take the concept of community without reflecting theologically on the idea we can end up with something that in reality falls short of true community. We may look to facebook, fraternities or social organizations and develop a set a shallow connections to lots of people; good for potluck meals but useless in the midst of crisis or confusion. We may talk constantly about the importance of community, but we couldn’t tell you what “it” is or why its important…other than it seems kinda Jesusish.

However, if we start by reflecting on the understanding of God as Community; a relationship of love and mutual submission, an emptying of oneself on behalf of another, we get a more complete view of community. We can understand the “why” – we are created in the image of God and God has been revealed to us in the form of unified community of Three-in-One. We can understand “how” – we submit ourselves to one another, not putting our own desires at the top of our list; we recognize that Christ has a claim on our life and isn’t merely a commodity to be added to our already busy schedule. The specific “whats” can then be worked out in our context.

Similarly, as we deal with a missional approach to church planting we seek to connect with disconnected people, reenter our neighborhoods as agents of God’s Kingdom and encounter God through participation in relationship rather than passive receipt of goods and service. We offer a needed (and hopefully loving) critique to models of “church” that fail to emphasize the call to be transformed into the image of Christ for the sake of others. We talk about spiritual formation for the purpose of joining God in the ministry of reconciliation in our community.

In the midst of our fervor, we may set about changing everything and end up changing nothing. We may move to a house church model, we may begin meeting in a bar or coffee shop, we choose not to meet corporately at all. And yet if all we change is the location where we passively receive religious goods and services, we’ve changed nothing.

It is easy and tempting to focus our critique and call for change on things like structure because they are tangible aspects which are easy to see – and they may very well need changing. Even so, we need to think theologically about what it is that really needs to change. We’ve talked before about the disappointing possibility of merely changing our emphasis on “church as place” in the sanctuary or coffee shop to “church as place” in the living room.

Must change occur? Yes, I believe so – or at least, it needs to continue occurring. But change needs to happen in our assumptions about the purpose and function of “church” and what it means for us individually and as a community to give our life to Christ. If my concern is what my personality needs for worship; if our focus is making everyone happy then we still need change…regardless of where we meet.

If we’re able to “do church” without feeling the pinch of Christ’s claim on our busyness, finances, choice of leisure activities or commitment to the oppressed; if our change only affects our formal (or apparently informal) gatherings without calling us out on the rest of our lives then we haven’t changed anything.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t practical issues of form and structure which can and should be considered – only that those issues come out of the deeper issue of who we are being transformed into.

In the final two installments of this short series (of long posts), I would like to consider some of these practical issues. Specifically I want to sketch not only a working definition, but a somewhat tangible description of what “missional” and “incarnational” life may look like, and then I want to address the issue of “sustainable models in ministry.” Neither of these posts (and not even the series of posts) can possibly come close to saying all that needs to be said about these topics.

My desire is to provide, for some, a starting point and for others, a place to continue the conversation.

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