Monthly Archives: April 2011

I Have a Dream that John Piper and Rob Bell will one day walk side by side in the Kingdom of God both here on earth and in the age to come

Rob Bell’s newest book “Love Wins” has set off a fire storm of ridicule and name calling from the religious right.  In an effort to take the high road in this debate, Rachel Held Evans has invited bloggers to participate in a Synchroblog which she has titled “The Rally to Restore Christian Unity.”  This post is a part of that effort.

If you have been reading my blog for any period of time, you know that Christian unity is something that I have struggled with a lot over the past year and have written on frequently.  As I shared in my post “Ouch that Hurts”, for a season I gave up on this thing called Christian unity.   I have defined unity in a number of ways through the years, all with equally disastrous results.

Early on I naively thought that if we all just believed in the Bible, we would achieve Christian unity.  That was way back when I thought there was only one way to read the Bible and thought that everyone who read it interpreted it the same way.  I know – I was really green back then.

After many painful theological debates with those whose bibles emphasized different passages than mine did, I gave up on theological unity.  I decided missional unity was the way to go.  This approach yielded some success, such as a diverse group of Christians agreeing that children should not sleep on the floor in our city and working together to address this issue.  But, this perceived unity was very shallow.  As we got into the deeper issues of how to solve the systemic issues causing poverty in our city, some advocated focusing on “personal salvation” while others focused on “community transformation.”  Ultimately this debate resulted in one friend labeling me a socialist and another accusing me of not being “Christian” enough.  So, I have abandoned “missional” unity as pathway to Christian unity.  I do however applaud Rachel Held Evans for using this rally to promote missional unity through her clean water emphasis and encourage you all to participate.

The personal attacks on my character have died down.  Basically, we have an agreement.  Those who oppose my views will not attack me personally on my Facebook page or blog and I will not blog about their attacks.  We have agreed to disagree or basically ignore each other.  While that is far more peaceful for all of us, is that really we mean by Christian “unity?”

As I have prayed about this issue this week, images of another form of unity keep coming to my mind.  In my context, racial unity has been a significant challenge and a blessing.  Christians today would never define racial unity as simply co-existing, nor would we ever seek unity that eliminates the diversity of cultural heritage.  No, the unity we seek is one of mutual respect, equal voice, a place at the table for all.

In order for that kind of “unity” to be achieved, those in power had to relinquish control and those with no voice had to be elevated.  In our nations struggle toward racial unity there was a season of tremendous strife, fighting, name calling and discontent.  Things got really ugly before the beauty of a new season of unity could be realized. We still have a long way to go and I know this analogy is limited.

However, I think there is a very real parallel to what we are seeing today in the Christian dialog.  Those who have traditionally controlled the telling of the Christian narrative are being challenged by those who emphasize different elements of our mutual story.  As Jimmy Spencer Jr. noted, both sides love Jesus too much to simply remain silent.

While I hate the name calling, judgment and fighting as much as anyone, Christian unity is NOT “just getting along.” It is not pretending we all agree.  It is not ignoring each other. It is not pretending our differences are minor.  It is not the absence of diversity of thought.  It is not easy.  It does not require we sell out or give up our own beliefs.   It is messy.  It is painful.  It does require we respect one another.  It will require more voice be given to those historically excluded from the conversation.  It may require a shift in the power structures that currently control the Christian dialog. It is a mystery.   It is spiritual in nature.  It is worth the pain.  It is God’s desire.  It is achievable through Christ spirit.

To achieve racial unity, Dr. King called on the nation to envision a world different than the one they lived in.  The powerful imagery found in his “I Have a Dream” speech, inspired a nation to advance toward that vision.   So here is my dream, “I have a dream that one day Christians will be free to express their ideas about God without being called heretics. I have a dream that Christians of every theological position will one day seek unity of the spirit while allowing diversity in theology.  I have a dream that one day men, women, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, conservative, moderate, and progressive will gather at the same table without throwing food at each other.  I have a dream that one day Brian McLaren, Al Mohler, Rob Bell and John Piper will be joined by female and minority voices in debates that impact us all.  I have a dream that the Lion of Judah will lie down with the Lamb of God and God’s justice will be served through God’s lavish love of us all.”


Filed under Spirituality, Theology

The Virus is Spreading and I Hope You Catch it

masque anti virusphoto © 2009 ZYG_ZAG | more info (via: Wylio)The one thing I brought back from my cruise that I would have liked to leave on the boat is a nasty little virus that has left me with a sore throat, runny nose and overall yucky feeling.   My husband caught it on Friday, I came down with it on Saturday and then the girls got it on Sunday.  I probably infected my entire staff on Monday and all of Hillside court on Tuesday.  If you are one of my victims, please forgive me!

Viruses are rather amazing organisms.  You can’t see them because they are so tiny but they can infect grown healthy men and bring them to their knees.

Today, I witnessed another type of virus.  It started during our morning meditation when Antionette shared that she had been dreaming of this day for two years.  You see today, we launched our first mobile food pantry.  For those of you who do not know, the mobile food pantry is basically a food pantry on wheels.  For two years, we have been working with the Hillside tenant council, RRHA and local churches to try to address food scarcity in Hillside Court, but a lack of secure space and a lack of funds prevented us from moving forward.  The cool thing about the mobile food pantry is that you don’t need space.  The truck rolls in, you distribute the food on the sidewalk and the truck takes everything that is left over away.  It is an amazing site to see.  The other cool thing is that it is fully funded by the Central Virginia Food Bank which is such a gift to a community like Hillside court where there are no organizations who could afford that much food.

The virus then spread from Antionette to our  volunteer team as we reflected on the story of Jesus feeding the multitude in John 6 with the lunch of one small boy.  We got to be the disciples and distribute this gift which was truly direct from the hand of God.  As we reflected upon how this miracle arrived in our community and all the prayers we had prayed for food resources over the years, Vanessa helped us see that miracles are times like this.  No one on the outside would see the miracle but we all knew that is what we were witnessing.  I believe it was that time of praising God for this miraculous gift that infected the team with an attitude of gratitude.

It was then the team who infected everyone who walked in the door.  As Antionette greeted our guest with a smile and instructions, they felt welcomed and invited into the joy of the day.  As Sylvia and Vanessa processed applications and verified ID’s they extended dignity to our guests. As Chinary entertained those who were waiting with a game of charades, they could feel her positive energy and their frustration with having to wait in line turned into joy.  As Ann took their vouchers and John helped load their bags, they did so with a smile and cheerfulness.  All the way down that line, the spirit of joy translated into a spirit of gratitude from those who received.

By some miracle, we served every family and had a small amount left over to meet emergency food needs between now and the 1st of the month.

One of my favorite stories from today came from Janie.  There was a young single mom with a newborn baby and a toddler.  She was trying to hold the baby, the toddler, and two bags of groceries at the same time. There was a healthy, young man just standing around watching her struggle.  Janie went up to him and asked him to help her with her food.  He smugly said, “It will cost you .50 cents a bag.”  Janie looked him in the eye and said “You mean to tell me that you are not willing to help this woman and these kids out?  I am very disappointed that a young man as healthy and strong as you are would refuse to help this poor woman.”  Ashamed he grudgingly said “Oh, ok…I will help her.”  After he took the bags to her home, he returned to the food pantry, found Janie and said, “Thanks lady, that felt great.  Thanks for setting me straight and for making me help someone else.”  Janie then asked him if he had been through the line and he said, “No, I don’t live in Hillside.”  She said, “We have enough for everyone, grab a bag.”  He smiled at her and said, “Isn’t that just like God.  I finally help someone else and God has a blessing waiting for me.”

Viruses can infect grown men and turn them into grateful servants.

Throughout the day, the greatest blessing to me was the number of folks who came up to me and asked how they could get involved at Embrace.  They saw that the person greeting them was a resident of Hillside, the people behind the tables were residents of Hillside, the people unloading the trucks were residents of Hillside.  So many groups come into this community and “do for” the community but no one ever invites this community to “do for” themselves.  That spirit of gratitude quickly became a spirit of giving when they realized they could be on the other side of that table.  In a neighborhood where a culture of “taking” rules the streets, I know it was nothing short of a miracle that this virus of gratitude and giving is taking root.

On the applications for the mobile food bank, we asked folks if they would be willing to serve in the community and roughly 100 individuals said “yes.”  Watching people go from recipient to giver is one of the greatest joys in the world.  I can’t wait to see what God does with all these newly “infected” folks.  It is getting very exciting in Hillside Court!

Are you smiling?  Is your heart filled with joy?  I guess I should have warned you, I infected this post with the virus.  Now go and infect someone else!


Filed under Community Development, Stories from the Street

A Feast, A Dance and A Party: Lessons Learned from Little Things

For spring break my family took a five day Caribbean cruise.  One of our stops was a private island off the coast of Haiti owned by Royal Caribbean.  As we basked in the sun, sipped on tropical drinks and feasted at the all you could eat buffet, I felt a deep sense of guilt thinking about all the people in Haiti who were suffering from a lack of food, clean water and the lasting devastation of last year’s earthquake.  If I could have, I would have taken all that food to the people who really needed it.

As we were standing in line on the Island to get back on the boat, there was a band made up of five men playing your traditional island music.  As I looked at them, I realized they were the closest I would come on this trip to the people in Haiti.  I only had $20 cash on me so I gave it to my daughter and had her put it in their hat.  The lead singer of the band, stopped singing and with the most joyful voice, said “Thank you my lady for you generosity!”  Well, what happened next kind of surprised me.  The little boy in front of us tugged on his mother’s dress and asked for money to give the men and his mother complied.  The same gracious thanks followed his gift.  A man in the line behind us followed suit, then a lady in the front of the line and children throughout the line.  There was a wave of generosity that swept through that line.  It literally brought tears to my eyes.  We had all been standing in that line for at least 15 minutes and not a soul had even acknowledged the band. They were back ground noise, a part of the scenery, there for our entertainment.  Then suddenly, they represented an entire country of suffering, starving people.  God’s spirit swept through that line and gave us eyes to see and it all started with one small gift.

I had a similar experience later that evening.  It was 80’s and 90’s night at the night club called The Dungeon.  When we arrived not a soul was dancing.  This went on for many songs.  Great 80’s music with lots of women dancing in their seats and men tapping their toes, but no one was on the dance floor.  I finally had had enough and grabbed my husband and drug him onto the dance floor.  Well, the only dancing we felt comfortable doing in front of all those people with video camera’s projecting us up on the screen and a spot light on us was the jitterbug.  Not exactly fitting for Prince’s song “When Doves Cry” but we made it work.  I thought for sure, someone would come rescue us from the spotlight but not a soul joined us.

When we returned somewhat embarrassed to our table, the man at the table in front of us began clapping for us.  I went up to him and his wife and said, “Your turn.”  He took me up on my challenge, grabbed his wife and said “you have to come to” looking right at me and my husband.  So, the four of us entered the dance floor.  By the end of the song, the floor was packed and for the next three hours remained that way until my husband and I finally ran out of steam.  Everyone wanted to dance but no one wanted to dance alone.  Someone had to go first and then invite others to join in.  My husband and I were among the worst dancers in that club, but we had not been dancing since college.  Eventually, my fear of missing out on this once in a decade opportunity outweighed my fear of looking stupid and I found the courage to go for it.  God’s spirit swept through that room and we all overcame our fear of looking foolish and danced our hearts out.  But, it all started with one little jitterbug.

I have a seventeen year old daughter.  She is beautiful, smart, funny and an all-around joy to be around.  However, she is a bit shy.  For the first four days of the cruise, I observed as she watched the young men come and go from the piano bar where my family camped out during the sing-a-long time.  The same young man came with his family every night, stared at my daughter, looked anxious when she was not with us but never gained the courage to say a word to her.  I tried and tried to get her to say something but she wouldn’t.

On the last night of the cruise, the chatty 18 year old across the hall asked me how my cruise was going.  I shared with him how much fun we were having and then my lament that my eldest daughter had not met anyone her age.  He then extended an invitation to her to join him and the friends he had met on the cruise at the hot tub later that evening.  It took a lot of coaxing but she did finally take him up on his offer and had a great time.  Without the hospitality of that young stranger, my daughter would have sat in her cabin while the rest of the youth enjoyed a party.  It took a lot of courage for that young man to speak to a total stranger and a lot of courage for my daughter to climb into a hot tub filled with people she did not know.  However, a spirit of adventure and fun had swept across that ship and everyone wanted to go home having meet new friends and were willing to take a few risks.  It all started with a simple act of hospitality.

Mother Teresa said “We can do not great things, only small things with great love.”  To the men in Haiti who lovingly shared their musical talents with us, to the people in the line who generously shared their financial resources, to my husband who graciously danced with me, to the people in the night club who shared our love of 80’s music, to the red headed boy who invited my daughter to a party and to all those aboard the Royal Caribbean Navigator who made this past week so special, I just want to say THANK YOU for all the little things!

While I still feel a bit guilty for spending a week in total luxury while so many in our world are suffering, the greater sin would have been not to dance at the party.  I think if Jesus would have been on that ship, he would have been the first on the dance floor, the loudest one singing at the piano bar and the one turning water into wine at the party.  I am truly blessed to have had this time with my family and thank God for providing us with the means to do so.

May God Bless you all through the little things this Easter.

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Filed under Personal Reflection

Personal Salvation or Social Revolution?

We have shrunk Jesus to the size where He can save our soul but now don’t believe He can change the world. – Anonymous

I am still processing Jimmy Spencer Jr.’s post, “Digging Deeper: The Coming Evangelical Split“ which I shared a little about in my most recent post.  One of the insights that Spencer shared was that the split seems to be forming along the line of what he terms “methodology.”  He sees the divide as “scripture” verse “practice” which are terms I am not sure I would have used but the distinction between the two camps rang true to me.

Spencer writes:

The Traditional View: Christianity is a set of beliefs that are rooted in the inerrant Word of God, the Bible. The scriptures are the primary filter thru which traditional evangelicals engage others, and metaphorically ‘hold it tightly and heavily’ in their right hand.

The Progressive View: Christianity is a lifestyle modeled by Jesus—to be imitated and practiced. Growth happens in community first and foremost thru practice. Social justice and practice are metaphorically ‘held tightly and heavily’ in their right hand.

I find this comparison interesting because at different times in my life, I have identified with both positions.  In my early walk as a Christian, I attended a very “traditional evangelical” church that rooted me and grounded me in scripture which I am very grateful for.  However, God’s call led me to take that foundation and build on it through my call to social justice oriented ministry.  My theology and faith is now grounded in scripture but deeply shaped by practice.  For me, scripture was the raw material God used but it was only through practice that these materials took shape in my life.  I think most mature “progressives” would say the same thing.

As I have reflected on Spencer’s post, I was reminded of the book “The Hole in our Gospel”, by Richard Stearns the president of World Vision.  Stearns crafts one of the most compelling arguments for the centrality of every Christian’s call to social justice.  Below, are a few insights gleaned from Stearns:

 “If your personal faith in Christ has no positive outward expression, then your faith – and mine – has a hole in it.  Christ’s words in the Lords prayer, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” were and are a clarion call of Jesus’ followers not just to proclaim the good news but to be the good news, here and now. (Matt. 6:10)  This gospel – the whole gospel – means much more than the personal salvation of individuals.  It means a social revolution.”

“It’s not what you believe that counts, it’s what you believe enough to do.”

I think seeing this debate between progressives and traditionalist as either “scripture” or “practice” is flawed.  I think those from the “traditionalist” side of the debate are dismissing “progressives” by claiming that they are not biblical.  However, if you listen to the progressive voices who are living out their faith through practice, you will find that their faith is deeply rooted in scripture.

None of the progressives that I know would be engaged in social ministries if they were not seeking to be faithful to the biblical teachings of Jesus to “love our neighbors.”  I do however concur with Spencer’s assessment that scripture is held more loosely by those in the practice camp.  I think that is because it is really hard to judge those you are seeking to love with the love of Christ.  In other words, when the “sinner” is standing in front of you and has a face, a name, and a story, it is really hard to tell them they are going to hell if they do not repent of their wicked ways.  In working with those so easily judged by the “traditionalist” camp, I am often humbled by their journey and honestly do not know what I would do if their shoes.  They cause me to realize just how short I fall of faithfully living out my faith.  That is where the rub started for me and in the end “love” won.  I realized pretty quickly that I have no right to judge anyone and decided to simply be Christ in the world as best I could and leave the rest up to God.

I think the more helpful distinction in this debate is found in Stearn’s words.  It is the distinction between “proclaiming the good news” and “being the good news.”  It is a shift in focus from “saving” others to “being” Christ to others.  Of course, the real question becomes, “What is the good news?”  For traditionalist, it is personal salvation with an emphasis on the afterlife and for progressives it is social revolution that transforms all of creation now.  Most traditionalists I know are primarily interested in what you say you believe, whereas most progressives are more interested in what you believe enough to do.

While all labels and generalizations have limitations.  Without this kind of naming, we would never be able to understand the shifts and growing tensions that are causing the divisions within the Body.  Without understanding these growing divides, we will never be able to hear each other or respect each other.  While I don’t agree with some parts of Spencer’s analysis, I am thankful for his willingness to name these trends and for the opportunity to add my own thoughts to the discussion.


Filed under Spirituality, Theology

Bullied No More!

bullying-739607photo © 2008 Pimkie | more info (via: Wylio)
Jimmy Spencer Jr.’s writes in his post, “Digging Deeper: The Coming Evangelical Split“:

I think Love Wins has triggered this coming landslide, shifting the landscape enough to expose the already growing split of methodology and theology. I think this erosion was what George Barna recorded in his book Revolution years ago. Many of my international friends have already experienced this shift across the world as this shift is just starting to come light to the United States.

This is about the right to control and frame the story of Jesus.

I’ve got news for you…

Neither side will relinquish their right to that.

Because they both love Jesus too much.

Spencer does a good job of defining the two loudest “voices” within the current evangelical debates as either “traditional evangelicals” or “progressive evangelicals.”  While the article is great and I encourage you to read it, I found the comments even more helpful.

While Spencer presents the debate in a somewhat neutral voice, most of those who commented were of the more “progressive” persuasion, which is not surprising considering that the post appeared on Tony Campolo’s blog Red Letter Christians. I think for some, this was a coming out experience.  As Spencer notes in the article many progressives are “closeted” both inside and outside the church.  As I read the comments, I felt an overall sense of liberation just by seeing people willing to voice their views openly and honestly.

I think many progressive Christians have felt their voice has been stifled by the more traditional evangelicals and I know many who have left the church for this very reason.  Some, myself included, have remained silent for fear of being ostracized.  I am thankful for folks like Brian McLaren and Rob Bell who are willing to take the heat so that the rest of us can find our voice. Over the years, I have been bullied and even threatened by the “traditionalist” hardliner’s for even entertaining the ideas shared by more progressive theologians and practitioners.  However, as more people step forward and call their bluff, I become more confident that I can do the same.

I don’t know if Spencer’s prediction of a split is accurate or not but I think we all can feel things shifting beneath our feet.  I suspect as people find their voice the divide between these two camps will become better defined.  I pray we all learn to love and respect one another despite our differences – as brothers and sisters in Christ.  As Spencer says, “we all love Jesus too much to relinquish our right to tell His story.”  We are just telling the story from different vantage points.


Filed under Spirituality, Theology

The Spiritual Practice of Trailblazing

Every year I pick a project out at our land.  Two years ago, I choose to build a wood deck out of scrap lumber.  In building the deck, which jets out over the side of the ridge, I learned the importance of balance and I also learned how to use a level and a plumb line.  I have never built anything in my life and though my husband offered to help me, I did not let him.  I wanted to see if I could build something all on my own.  I also insisted on using rocks as well as recycled and discarded materials we had around the property.  One reason is because I am really cheap but more importantly I wanted to put these items to good use. I hate to see things go to waste.

Sunday has become “family day at the land.”  So, I spent my “Sabbath” building this deck.  I once heard someone say that if you work with your hands then engage your mind on your Sabbath and if you work with your mind, engage your hands on your Sabbath.  So, rather than reading books or listening to sermons, I decided to get physical.  And, you know what?  I not only loved it, but miraculously my deck is still standing!

As I worked on this deck, I did so very prayerfully.  It was a season of challenges for me.  I was working both as the director of the CARITAS Furniture Bank and Embrace Richmond and what I realized is that no matter how hard I tried to find balance, it was simply too heavy a work load.  Just like building on the side of a steep ridge, I could not get my footing. I needed to get my life leveled out, I needed to find balance again.  It was that spring when I finally let go of the Furniture bank.  I can now sit on that deck and be reminded of the peace that comes when life is in balance.

Last year I decided to build a rock patio between the cabin and the deck.  It is made up of rocks from our property.  They are all different shapes, sizes, colors and types.  I found great joy in figuring out what sizes and shapes to put together to arrive at a level surface.  Those on the downhill side are more than 9 inches thick while those on the uphill side are less than ½ an inch.  I had to dig in the dirt to accommodate the strange shapes and study the sides to find complementary shaped rocks to fit together.

Through this exercise God spoke to me about the place and value of every human being in the created order.  I was in the process of engaging the residents of Hillside Court with the dream of one day having a team made up fully of Hillside residents who were meeting the many needs of their neighbors.  My new friends were all so unique, their gifts often over looked or undeveloped.  As we began to pull them together, a beautiful mosaic was created much the way my rock patio came together. Like my patio, building this kind of organic ministry is messy and requires that each person be seen as a unique individual with their own special gift as well as a part of a collective whole.

This year, I have taken up trail blazing.  Our property is on a very steep ridge overlooking a beautiful creek.  However there is no easy path to the water.  The shortest path would lead you straight down the side of the ridge and you would likely break your neck trying to get down that way.  I decided that I wanted a path that would snake all along the side of the ridge and would allow people to see all the beautiful scenic spots my family has discovered through the years. I also wanted the path to have a gentle slop so that when I am older, I will be able to walk on it.

Like all my building projects, God begin speaking to me as I worked on the path this past weekend.  The first thing I had to do was clear away the leaves from the portion of the path I started earlier this year. I have learned that if a trail is not traveled it will disappear.  Once I got to the new section of the trail, I had to use a hoe type ax to cut into the side of the ridge then pull the dirt back then pack the dirt down to make a level foot path.  It is hard work and slow going.

As I was blazing away, it dawned on me that not very many people would find trail blazing all that much fun.  I pondered why for me it was so rewarding. I realized that the work it’s self is not what kept me going but the realization that someday, others would walk this path and experience the beauty of this place I have grown to love.  There are parts of our property that are currently very difficult to reach but these places are also some of the most breathtaking and interesting.

There are three kinds of wilderness explorers; the pioneers who prefer to go off the beaten trail and rarely return to the same place twice, the trail blazers like me who find wonderful treasures and want to share them with the world and those who walk the pathways others have blazed.  All are equally important.  My husband is a pioneer.  He told me about some of these wonderful spots and coaxed me into making the effort to see them.  Without him, I likely would never have discovered them.  I have also learned that without those who walk these pathways, my hard work will simply disappear under the debris that collects on the forest floor.

I find joy in being a trail blazer both literally and figuratively.  Life is filled with treasures that cannot be experienced by simply driving down the paved roads of life – they are found along paths that are invisible to most and traveled by few.   Sometimes you have to get out of your car or go beyond you church walls.  You have to climb up a mountain and open yourself up to the mystery that awaits you.

Very few people are going to do the kind of climbing that my husband had to do to find the places on my trail.  Likewise few people seem to be willing to put themselves in the situations that lead to deep spiritual insights.  I have learned that if I want people to discover the mystery of Christ who dwells among the least, I have to build pathways for them to follow.  I also have to create signs along the way so they don’t get lost and places to rest so they can marvel at the beauty of it all.

Some think we have plenty of pathways and see my trail blazing activities as a distraction.  Others think I have blazed far enough and need to build a house and camp out for a while.  However, I realized this past weekend that I was created to blaze trails both physical ones and spiritual ones.  As long as people continue to race past the beauty of God’s created world and as long as there is a gap between this earth and God’s Kingdom come, then there will be a need for trail blazers.

I really wish you all could see all that I saw as I blazed my trail this weekend.  The trees are still without their leaves and I was high up the ridge overlooking a pasture beside a spring fed creek.  It was a clear day and I could see from my ridge to the next.   I pray God leads you all down a few new paths in the near future and that you behold the beauty of God’s creation and experience the mystery of God’s presence in these wild and untamed places.

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Filed under Spirituality

Shut Up, Listen, and Trust: My Translation of Psalm 43:10

The community of Hillside Court witnessed three shootings and three murders in the first three weeks of this year.  While Hillside has always been a rough community, this was over the top even for them.  As you can imagine, the community was gripped by fear of their neighbors and equally paralyzed by their distrust of the police.   As we did a community interest survey’s and asked the residents, “If you had a magic wand and could do anything for your community, what would you do?”, the unanimous response was “Make the neighborhood safer.”

We heard this cry and thought that the right answer was to have greater collaboration between the community and the police, so we invited the police to come and share information about a neighborhood watch program.  It became clear very quickly that this was not the right answer at this time for this community.  We heard things like “I am no snitch”, “I don’t ever want to be seen with the police”, and “The only way to stay alive in this place is if you see nothing and say nothing.”

I was baffled. In my neighborhood, if there is a safety issue, you call the police.  I quickly learned that Hillside Court has its own culture and it is a culture driven by fear.  We heard stories of police brutality and harassment and I quickly learned why there was such a high level of distrust by the community.  Most everyone I know in the community has a family member or close friend who is in jail and many have had their own run in with the law.

I thought I had the answer but I clearly heard God saying, “Shut up and listen!” at every turn.

I am thankful to Jay Van Groningen of Communities First Association for his skill and experience in doing community development work.  We decided to use Jay’s community listening approach to hear the community’s answer to this perplexing issue and I was astonished at what I learned.

Two weeks ago we conducted our first public “listening session” in which we gathered concerned citizens together and asked them these questions in this order.  We then recorded their responses on a flip chart.  More than 30 residents showed up to participate.

1.) What do you like best about your neighborhood?  This solicited responses like affordability, senior residents who care for the neighborhood, outside groups like Embrace and local churches that help the community.

2.) If you could wave a magic wand and make your community safer what would you do?  This is where it got really interesting.  It was apparent within a few minutes that the majority of the citizens were concerned, not for their own safety, but for the safety of the children who are often playing in the streets with no adult supervision.  As we listened, it became obvious that many of the older residents blamed the younger single mothers for not supervising the children.  Thankfully there were several younger single moms in the room who voiced their need for a break and the fact that they had babies and could not possibly care for the babies and watch the older children at the same time.

3.) What are you willing to do to help make the streets safer for the children? We had individuals volunteer to monitor the bus stops, others said they would help build more playgrounds so it would be easier for the moms to see the areas where the children were playing, but the most exciting outcome was a group of older moms and grandmothers who offered to support the young single moms, to help them with their children and to mentor and encourage them.  In total we had 10 people volunteered for specific tasks.

4.) Who is willing to take a leadership role and insure this all happens?  I think I shocked everyone when I said that Embrace would support the community but that we had no intention of leading the initiative.  This community is so used to having outside groups come in and “do it for them” that though we never indicated that we would, that was the assumption.  There was a moment of tension as everyone looked around the room and then thankfully Patrice boldly raised her hand.  Joe and Debra soon followed and we had our leadership team.

5.) Will the rest of you commit to support and pray for this team and these leaders?  Throughout our time together the issue of prayer and the need for spiritual renewal had come up.  Everyone in that room knew that this small band of people had a momentous task ahead of them if they hoped to make the streets of Hillside safer for the children.  It was during this time of prayer that I heard God clearly say to us all, “Be still and know that I am God, psalm 43:10” Or, my translation, “Shut up, listen, and trust.”

I don’t know if this newly formed Community Action Team will succeed.  I honestly don’t think that is as important as the fact that we gave the power back to the community.  Walking into that meeting, they felt powerless over the criminal element that was terrorizing them and powerless over their own fear of the police.  They heard everyone telling them what to do and no one taking the time to listen to them.  They felt dependent on outsiders who come and go as funding streams change.  However, at the end of that meeting, I could feel a sense of ownership and pride in that room and it was a glorious thing to witness!

Long ago someone told me that if we do things for people that they can do for themselves, that we are “dis-empowering” them and creating dependency.  This community can do all the things they noted were important.  The key is to get out of the way and let them.   I honestly was shocked that a meeting about safety led to a support group for single moms, bus monitors and playgrounds.  However, the more I have reflected upon this conversation, the more I see the wisdom and Divine hand in it all.  I think we would all be better ministers if we learned to “shut up, listen, and trust” a bit more.

Please pray for our community leaders, the children of Hillside court and those who have historically terrorized our residents.  Pray for safety especially as we move into the summer months which historically have high crime rates.  Also pray for our Embrace team and I as we seek to “shut up, listen, and trust” more in the future.


Filed under Community Development

They Are Not Lazy and They Don’t Want to be Entertained

Contemplationphoto © 2009 Monica Arellano-Ongpin | more info (via: Wylio)Recently I got into a heated discussion with a friend.  She claimed that the Pentecostal style evangelical movement was the fastest growing denominational expression in the country and thus must be a movement of God.  I shared my belief that the “formerly churched” contingent was actually the fastest growing sector of Christianity and asked if the same assumption could be made, “Does that mean people leaving churches is a movement of God?”

She then proceeded to discount the fact that millions of Christians have checked out of church saying, “You can’t count them.  They are all just lazy and would rather play golf than to give time to God.”  Well, that got me a bit heated because I have a lot of formerly churched friends and none of them choose not to go to church on Sunday because they are simply lazy.

Most of my “de-churched” friends are still devout Christians and I would put their walk with God above that of most every Sunday church goers.  I actually know quite a few folks who have checked out of Church but whose spirituality is deeper now than it ever was before.  I know many of my pastor friends are going to hate this post, but stick with me a minute.

Many of the people I know who have left the church did so because they were seeking something more.  I actually think much of what I have witnessed among my friends and in my own church going experience is a backlash to the “seeker” movement which bred consumerism within the church.

In the 1990’s, we were told to think about church as business competing against the many entertainment options people have on Sunday.  We began to market the church as such.  We advertised our amazing “programs” and our “relevant, casual atmospheres.”  We sought to make church easier, less demanding, more entertaining and for many this worked.  This approach led to the rise of the mega-church phenomenon.  I’ll admit, I was a big supporter back in the day.  It made sense to my business brain.  I never calculated the long-term cost of this philosophy of ministry.

Many mega-church leaders have become master showmen.  They are highly engaging, their messages meet our felt needs and they make us feel good just for showing up on Sunday.  They ask only for our presence in worship, our tithes, and our willingness to bring our friends to church.

At one point, I joined the missions committee of one of these churches and the most significant request they made of me was that I bake cookies for my neighbors and invite them to an upcoming Easter Egg hunt.  I remember thinking, “Wow, Stephen was stoned, Paul beaten and imprisoned and my big sacrifice is baking cookies!?!”

Needless to say, I did not find much fulfillment at that church and we left shortly thereafter.  Many would see my “church hopping” as a negative and would say I was treating the church like a consumer product.  I guess in a way they would be correct.  I was seeking a church that actually expects those who call themselves Christ followers to live in such a way that the world would see Jesus.  Perhaps some would answer the question, “What would Jesus be doing in 2011?”, as “baking chocolate chip cookies and hosting an Easter egg hunt.” However, I just could not reconcile the Jesus of the bible with the kinds of Christ followers being produced by these churches.

I know many people have come to Christ in these Churches and I am not knocking them.  I am just pointing out that “Christianity lite” is not right for everyone.  While I admit that many have left the church out of boredom and are now on the golf courses or at the soccer field on Sunday morning, I do think there is a significant number who left for the same reason I left the cookie baking club.  I left because I want to spend my time following Jesus.   As I shared last week, following Jesus leads me into times of solitude in the wilderness and times of solidarity with the poor and oppressed.   For me, Christianity is deeply spiritual and profoundly committed to social justice.  I have found this combination hard to come by in the institutional expressions of the churches I have attended.

Though my question to my friend, “Does that mean that people leaving churches is a movement of God?”, was said tongue in cheek.  I honestly think that the answer might be “yes.” Many of the people I know have not given up on following Jesus, they have simply felt called to go deeper in their walk.  They are choosing to follow Jesus in ways that are different than our traditional “church going” images. In a way, the church did what it was supposed to do.  It made them hungry for more and sent them out into the world to live out their call. Rather than judge that decision, I think we should be celebrating it.

I wish rather than Christian’s greeting one another with the question, “Where do you go to Church?” we instead ask, “Where do you see Jesus?”  While I do experience Christ presence within the church walls, I also see Jesus in the faces of the people I work with and in the trees under which I seek God’s presence.  I see Jesus in the budding “beloved community” we are ushering into existence in Hillside court and expressed in God’s reconciling work all around me.  I also hear it in your comments on this blog and hope you will share with me any thoughts, ideas or insights you have into this subject.


Filed under missional church, Spirituality