In his book, Practicing the Way of Jesus, (also on kindle) Mark Scandrette recounts a very powerful conversation. A small group of friends had chosen to engage in a short-term experiment. The idea of the experiment was to live simply, making more space for devotion to God and service to others. One of the aspects involved simplifying their wardrobe – boxing up all their clothes except for two outfits.
After describing the experiment to another friend, that person was highly skeptical. He says that, having grown up in an incredibly legalistic faith community, he had hoped that “we” were moving into an age of more grace and freedom. And this experiment sounded a lot like that legalism.
Scandrette’s response was fantastic.
“A rule is oppressive when we impose it on others or judge them by it, but there is great freedom when we choose limits which add value to our lives.”
Now to be sure, the danger of being human is that we (or those who come after us) are tempted to take the helpful experiments of today and make them into the universal codes of tomorrow. My friend Nate used to say, “Disciples will be to an extreme what their teachers were in moderation.”
However, I also believe that using the slippery slope argument is typically nothing more than laziness built on the fearful anticipation of future laziness.
There is great wisdom in Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 4 to think upon those things that are true, noble, excellent and praiseworthy. This isn’t just about keeping our thoughts pure and untainted. Dwell on the excellent, noble things because the mind is a powerful tool. I’m not talking about “The Secret” here, I’m talking about human obsession and self-fulfilling prophecies.
For instance, in many “men’s purity” ministries, there seems to be an incredibly unhealthy obsession with our own sin and temptation. In the process we go from dehumanizing women as sexual objects to dehumanizing women as instruments of temptation. Men are encouraged to look away, attempting not to see this woman in order to avoid lust. This is seriously messed up.
What if we instead focused on that which is excellent and praiseworthy? If we struggle with seeing women as sexual objects, the solution isn’t to simply change the image to another object – the solution is to actually see the person. See the image of Christ. See the child of God. Because they are not the problem, we are and our continued obsession on sin just feeds our own brokenness.
As a blogger and purveyor of blogs, facebook posts, twitter feeds, etc., I hear a lot about Christianity’s “image problem.” We talk about the way that Christians are perceived by the media, by those who are not Christian, by those who feel (happily or indignantly) like outsiders. We talk about the “Shoot Christians Say,” to playfully deconstruct our constant use of insider language. But, I wonder if Christianity has a much more fundamental image problem: how we see ourselves.
There is a difference between acknowledging our imperfection and narcissistically obsessing about our depravity. Constantly commenting on our unworthiness sounds like false humility or compliment fishing. I don’t think that is what’s going on as often as it may seem. It’s an image problem. We don’t see ourselves very well and that makes it difficult to see God clearly…and vice versa.
A well known pastor recently said, “All theology is cat theology or dog theology. Let’s say two pets have an amazing, kind, generous owner. The cat thinks: “I must be an amazing and valuable cat.” The dog thinks: “I have an amazing and valuable master.”
There are about 37 things wrong with this brief quote. First, it makes me agree with a cat…and that should never happen.
Second, it equates our relationship to God to a person’s relationship with a pet – also problematic. I’m not just being an overly literal metaphor reader here; the relationship dynamics that this brings to mind are off base. But that isn’t the real problem.
The biggest flaw is that it buys into the assumption that there is something wrong with rejoicing in our value and worth as image bearers and children of God. I’ve said this before, but if I found out my kids were telling people that I loved them even though there is nothing lovable about them it would break my heart. My children are amazing. I love their quirky personalities. I love how different they are from one another. I love Conner’s analytical thinking and tender heart; Micah’s artistic eye and stubborn individuality; Josiah’s constant passion for everything and quickness to show affection. My kids are amazing and I hope they know that.
Does God enjoy us less than I enjoy my own children? That seems odd.
The tendency to constantly belittle the human condition seems pious…but it only seems that way. In a sense, the running commentary of total depravity makes light of suffering, brokenness and sin. “Of course we do awful things, we’re awful…whatcha gonna do?”
We have become Wayne and Garth…and that’s only funny in brief doses.
Its very convenient, really. We have a built-in excuse for never growing, never taking responsibility for our actions and feeling spiritual throughout it all.
This denies Jesus’ claim and Paul’s exhortation that we are being made new – new creation, new life, new people.
Why do we not see more of this transformation? Perhaps its because we’re so busy giving ourselves negative reinforcement that we are unable to see anything else. We’ve trained ourselves not to see. We tell ourselves we’re worms and wretches, then gorge ourselves on self-centered consumerism like a half-gallon of Blue Bell after a break-up.
Or we become disillusioned with the whole thing and reject all discipline, structure and guidance…even that which would be life giving.
I’ve found that living with a Rule of Life – particularly in community with others (including the one I live with my boys) – is freeing and rejuvenating. I’m able to explore the possibilities of my own discipleship in the Way of Jesus because I’m not constantly trying to figure out where to start. I can embrace limits to my “freedom” which add value to my life by clearing away the clutter, because I trust that that which I will see more clearly is worth seeing. Like the grueling summit climb to a mountain top, I know that momentary discomfort will be rewarded with a view you can’t get from the valley.
But this won’t work if my heart and mind are filled with pseudo-pious self-loathing. I am an image bearer of God, a beloved child of the King, one who is worth much because I was fearfully and wonderfully made. I know that I am valuable because my Father has repeatedly told me so.
And this does not make me a cat, damn it.
It 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.
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.”
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.”
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.
As I mentioned in my previous post, I didn’t know Jon Huckins before picking up Thin Places a couple months ago. I drove Rachel a little crazy as I read her passages from the book. I’d come running into the living room, “This section is almost exactly the same as the beginning of the theological foundations chapter in my dissertation!” …and then she would sit patiently as I read paragraph after paragraph. She said, “Sounds like you two would get along really well.”
The copy of the book I purchased also came with a DVD of video vignettes for each chapter. These excellent clips provide a fantastic glimpse into the content of the book, but also into the hearts and lives that fill the pages the pages. The book’s publisher, The House Studio, has made the following available to the public…so I’ll share it with you here.
I was very excited when Jon not only accepted my Facebook friend request, but generously agreed to respond to some questions about Thin Places.
So, without further ado, blah blah blah, here we go.
Bret: In our experience, many (though certainly not all) Christians who are drawn toward more decentralized approaches to faith are often carrying a lot of “rejecting the structure” baggage.
This becomes a lens through which they filter so much of what they encounter. The “I’m done with organized religion” statement can become a rejection of anything that reminds them of past structures. Have you seen this as well? If so, what has been most helpful in assisting them toward a generative rather than negating outlook (focusing on what they ARE about rather than what they are NOT about).
Jon: Yes, this is certainly a reality we have experienced quite often in our time of forming missional-monastic communities that look quite different than the traditional church structures many of us have experienced.
While the discontent did give birth to much needed renewal and new life in the Church, it is certainly not sustainable, nor the point of forming missional-monastic community. Something we have focused on is being constructive rather than deconstructive, while celebrating and supporting the Church in all her forms.
A movement can’t move if it is primarily based on dissatisfaction. We must be fueled out of a holy satisfaction that comes out of people living as they have been called to live for the good of the world. Also, as we have rooted in neighborhood and invited non-churched people into our communities, the DNA of our communities has evolved to being more concerned with who we are than who we aren’t.
Bret: I love the idea you describe of radical invitation. In particular, the story of Darren and LaDonna struck chords of harmony with our own experiences. It is so easy to get stuck in between – where our friends have come to trust a community of Christ followers, but have remained hesitant about jumping in wholeheartedly as disciples themselves. What would you say to those who are simply afraid to extend that invitation out of fear that it will “scare off” their friends?
Jon: I think a lot of it has to do with transparency and identity. If we are going to cultivate relationships that allow for shared life and mutual invitation, we have to be transparent about how we live and who we are living for. That’s where identity comes in. If I am first a follower of Jesus and second part of a community that is committed to following in his ways together my whole reality is shaped around that. In the same way that I would want my friend to be transparent about the stuff that matters most in their life, I must offer them the same. From our experience, people are more intrigued by the particularity and intentionality of our way of life than scared off by it.
Bret: In the chapter on contending, you talk about a commitment to “gently calling one another out” when habits of communication tear down rather than build up. How does this translate into situations with those who have deep seated emotional problems or even mental illnesses which make healthy communication difficult?
Jon: Great question and one that probably needs individual attention for each person and community that is experiencing their unique realities. With that said, a big piece of covenanting to a missional-monastic community is the discernment process that precedes commitment. There needs to be space and expectation that each person will be open with their community about what they bring to the table (strengths, weaknesses, disabilities). At that point all know what they are committing to as a community and can better navigate those realities when they inevitably come up in the life of a community.
Bret: Does NieuCommunities have any collaborative or even conversational relationships with more traditional, “brick and mortar” oriented churches in the community? If so, how have these relationships been cultivated?
Jon: Absolutely! In fact, these relationships are some of the ones that bring us the most joy and fulfillment. As I mentioned earlier, we seek to value the church in all her forms. We certainly don’t have a corner on the market and are committed to remain in a posture of humility and listening. There are about five churches in and around our neighborhood who we consistently support and partner with. In fact, we have been able to act as a neutral presence of sorts and regularly instigate gatherings where we all worship, equip and encourage one another under the same roof. Rob, who wrote much of Thin Places alongside of me, personally coaches a handful of the local pastors in our city.
I’m very grateful to Jon for his responses. Hopefully we’ll have more opportunities for dialog in the future. I encourage you to pick up a copy of Thin Places for yourself. In the next brief series of posts we’ll stay with the theme of cultivating and sustaining a healthy missional culture by discussing JR Woodward’s fantastic book, Creating Missional Culture.