Category Archives: Theology

A Wider Net – Insights from Courtney Allen

Fishing Netsphoto © 2009 Garry Knight | more info (via: Wylio)Since moving into our new home at Baptist Theological Seminary, I have been blessed to meet a number of young pastors who are either in seminary or who have recently graduated and are looking for opportunities to do urban community based ministry.  One of these impressive young pastors is Courtney Allen, a 2011 graduate of Wake Forest University with a Masters in Divinity.

As a part of Courtney’s senior project, she wrote a paper titled, “A Wider Net: Beyond the Walls and the Possibilities that Lie Before Us.” In this paper she studies her affluent home church located in Jackson, Mississippi, ironically named Northminister Baptist Church.  Courtney writes, “I was interested in how a congregation initially interested in expanding their own physical facilities was formed by context, sermons, as well as ministerial and lay leadership to make a significant commitment to an inner-city ministry.” Courtney has granted me permission to share her insights, which appear below, as a part of my series on Kingdom Churches.

Northminster Baptist church of Jackson Mississippi was formed in 1967.  In 1998, as the church was contemplating a building project, Senior Pastor Chuck Poole issued a challenge – a dollar for dollar mission’s commitment.  Courtney writes, “For Poole, it was difficult to see how “in light of the Gospel” the congregation should make themselves more comfortable for one hour per week in a city where “there are people who are never comfortable.”  Can I get an “Amen!”?

The planning committee accepted the challenge and appointed an ad hoc “Special Missions Project Committee” whose proposal would be presented as a part of the combined recommendations of the Building Committee “in recognition that the expansion of the church facilities and a mission effort were theologically connected.” Another “Amen!”

In June 2001, the joint recommendation of these committees were approved and named “A Wider Net.”  The vision was “a wider place to gather within our walls as well as a wider embrace of others beyond our walls.”  The proposal from the Missions Committee included the desire to focus the church ministry efforts on a neighborhood called Mid-City .  It also called the church to commit to, “A Person. A Place. A Ministry.”, within Mid-City.

In its commitment to “a person” the church wisely understood that real transformative ministry requires relationship building.  The church committed to funding a “Community Minister” to serve as a bridge between the Mid-City and the church.   The church affirmed the importance of physical presence by committing to “a place” within the community where relational ministry could happen.  By supporting “a ministry”, the congregation used its financial and volunteer base to expand the capacity of work that was already happening in the community through various other organizations.  This commitment to “a person, a place and a ministry” is absolutely brilliant and consistent with ever successful example of community transformation I have ever seen.  However, I have never seen it stated so simply.

Courtney’s historical account details how the church faithfully carried out its commitment by hiring a community pastor who began listening to and visiting the residents regularly.  Community ministries were identified and the church became an important strategic partner for many.  Most importantly, the people of Northminster began to volunteer and through their presence brought about positive neighborhood change.  Volunteers got involved in community safety projects, housing rehabilitation, summer kids camps, care for the elderly, and community building events. Courtney shares in her paper that important transformation happened at both a community level and a church level as transformative relationships formed.

In her assessment, Courtney points to the importance of theological education in this process. She writes, “On Sunday mornings at Northminster Baptist Church, the idea that reading the gospels and following Jesus would necessitate radical and demanding change was frequently heard. The language of “no longer protecting oneself from the steepest demands of the gospel” was used with some frequency.  Courtney shares this excerpt from one of Poole’s sermons:

“We must not let the gospel lose its edge, even if it is an edge we find impossible to live up to. We must keep the gospel’s hardest edge out there in front of us all the time, because if it is always out there before us we will occasionally live up to it. We will have our moments, however rare, when we actually deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus. There is no better way to live than that. Even if it should cause us to lose ourselves, that is where we would finally find ourselves. Nothing could be better than that.”

Courtney also noted the importance of theological teaching that reminded the congregation that, “Northminster ‘needed’ to be in relationship with those beyond their walls just as much as those beyond their walls ‘needed’ them. Northminster needed a wider circle of friends, where people could be engaged in meaningful relationships with people who did not look or think the same way they did.” She notes that Pastor Poole frequently said, “There is a big world out there and we need it more than it needs us.”

The truth of this mutual need is beautifully illustrated in Courtney’s capturing of the relationships that grew out of the congregation’s commitment to the Mid-City community.  Not only was the community revitalized but the church was transformed.  Courtney writes, “It feels different now than it did before Wider Net. Northminster thinks, acts, and speaks differently because of the relationship with friends in Mid-City.  As one interviewee noted, “A Wider Net is at the heart of what we do [at Northminster]…it is not just going ‘down there to help poor people.’” Language and understanding of community has shifted to include a broader swatch of the world, beyond previously understood boundaries and institutions.”

Most importantly Courtney noted that, “Institutionally, Northminster understands its function to equip congregants to serve the world rather than to serve the institution of the church. The wider circle of friends that formed is a part of the “two-way street” of need which runs between Mid-City and Northminster.”

Imagine this. Every church in Richmond committing one dollar to missions for every dollar it raises for buildings!  Just imagine dozens of community ministers funded by affluent churches bridging the wealthiest communities in Richmond to the most distressed.  That is a vision I am willing to give my life for.

As a side note, I can’t afford to hire Courtney to serve with us in Richmond but I feel certain at least one church here in Richmond can see the blessing that a “Courtney Allen, Community Pastor,” would bring to their staff.  Courtney is just one of many young pastors I have met recently with this call upon their lives.  Interested in funding in full or partially a community minister to serve as a bridge to your congregation?  Please let me know via email at

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Filed under Community Development, missional church, Theology, Unity Works Reading, Urban Ministry

I Found It – The Ultimate Heretic Detector System!

I woke up this morning intent on spending a peaceful day at our cabin with my dog.  I was looking forward to having the time to reflect on all that has happened this past month and there is a lot to reflect upon.  Unfortunately, I made the decision to post my comments for Rachel Held Evans “Rally to Restore Christian Unity” late Saturday night.  It was obvious that a couple of the folks who commented on my post were looking for the “Keep Fear Alive!” rally.  They opposed my opposition to calling people heretics who disagree with one’s theology.  One gentleman asked the questions, “ Does this mean there is no such thing as a heretic? Is so, how would we know? Or how would we warn others about them?”

As I was making the hour long drive out to my cabin this morning, I was composing a response to the heretic seekers question. It was titled, “The Second Coming of the Pharisee’s”, and I admit it did nothing to promote Christian Unity.  I was so lost in my debate with my invisible nemesis that I completely missed my turn.  I make this trip at least once a month and can navigate it with my eyes closed but I was so distracted by the temptation to debate this person I have never met, that I got completely off course.  I started to feel like something was wrong about five miles into going the wrong way, but it took almost 20 minutes before I was fully aware of just how far off course I was.

As I was doubling back, the Holy Spirit used my misdirection to remind me of something.  I don’t have to prove my faith in Christ to anyone.  I simply have to follow the one who called me and stay on course.  God has called me to a much higher purpose than debating theology with a total stranger.  While I love writing and enjoy the debates, they can become a distraction and can get us all totally off course.  Apostle Paul’s words to Timothy came to mind, “Keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen.”

When I finally arrived at my cabin, I was struck by all the new growth since my last visit.  The trees are in full bloom, the butterflies have emerged, even the mushrooms and fungus have taken on brilliant colors.  For some reason this place always helps to ground me and to remind me of just how small I am.  I don’t know whose theology is right and whose is wrong.  All I know is that God called me to love people and to encourage others to love one another.

As I looked at all this new life, I thought of the new life I am seeing in our community.  I thought of the Facebook post from Joe who wrote to me yesterday, “You always believed in me and now I can believe in myself.”  I thought of Debra who shared on Thursday that for two years she sat on her porch and no one talked to her until we came into the community and now she makes a point of talking to her neighbors.  I thought of the young man who thanked Janie on Tuesday for making him help out at the food pantry.  New life comes in many forms, shapes and sizes.  However, it all comes from the same creator’s hand, birthed out of love and it produces in kind.

To my friend who asked how to detect a heretic, I would suggest you look for signs of new life birthed out of love that are producing loving relationships.  If someone’s ministry is producing people who are experiencing new life and who are learning to love like Jesus, then in my book that is more important than their doctrinal beliefs.  Those with sound doctrinal beliefs who bear no fruit are like the fig tree that Jesus cursed.

There is a ministry in our city that literally goes up to people on the street and asks them if they were to die tonight do they know where they will spend eternity.  I personally find this fear-based approach distasteful.  However, I cannot deny that this particular ministry is producing people who love God and who are seeking to love their neighbors.  I will never agree with their theology but I respect that God has called them to their particular way of doing ministry and I pray for their success.

I don’t think using one’s interpretation of scripture as the basis of determining their heretic status makes any sense.  There is no one way of interpreting the Bible and we are foolish to pretend that there is. Jesus said, “Watch out for false prophets…By their fruit you will recognize them.”  (Matthew 7:15, 16) The Apostle Paul taught us “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness and self-control. “(Galatians 5:22-23) Thus the ultimate Heretic Detection system is the fruit.

I have read criticisms of Bell that were based on his treatment of historical facts, his lack of support for his conclusions, and his biblical interpretation but I have yet to read any critique of him that focuses on his fruit.  From what I can see he appears to be producing Christ followers who appear to love the Lord and who appear to want to love their neighbors.  From what I can see he is doing this to a greater degree than his critics.

So, there you have it – the Jesus method of detecting heretics.  Can we now proceed with our quest to restore Christian Unity or at least civility?


Filed under Theology

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

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

A Quiet Revolution

My post “Will Gandhi Burn” launched me on a journey – a journey toward understanding the bigger vision of Christ’s mission to reconcile all things. Last week I shared some of the biblical foundation for our call to be reconcilers.  However, that post did not go quite far enough in defining the practical realities of living our lives as “reconcilers” of a broken world.  This week I picked up Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice’s book, “Reconciling All Things: A Christian Vision for Justice, Peace and Healing” and was both challenged and encouraged by some of what they had to say.

“Reconciliation is an invitation into a long and fragile journey.  It is not a “solution” or an end product, but a process and an ongoing search.  We find ourselves pilgrims in search of something better in a divided world. Reconciliation flows from hope – hope that the way things are is not the way things have to be.

Recently Charles and I were invited to speak on the topic of racial reconciliation.  I actually found this topic to be somewhat uncomfortable because “racial reconciliation” is so often seen as a “goal” to be achieved verses a journey to be embarked on.  As I reflected on the topic, I realized that I did not set out to “reconcile” the racial divide.  I simply felt called to hang out with people who had a different story to tell.  In their stories I came face to face with the same Jesus I had come to know and love.  It was through our common identity as children of God that we connected across race and class.  It was through this shared identity that we began to see one another as sisters and brothers.

I have also learned that reconciliation is a two way street.  It was as difficult for Charles to cross over into a white middle class community as it was for me to feel at home in an African American inner city neighborhood.  However, we were both pilgrims called on the same journey through the hope that “the way things are is not the way things have to be.

“The journey of reconciliation begins with seeing that reconciliation is not the goal of human striving but is instead a gift God longs for us to accept.  God’s mission of reconciliation challenges, moves beyond, and even explodes the conventional distinctions. The more Christians are able to ground reconciliation as a journey with God from old toward new, the more we are able to recover the indispensible gifts that sustain that journey and make it possible.”

This past week we had a listening session around the topic of safety in Hillside court, one of the most violent neighborhood’s in our city.  There were black, white, rich and poor all present in that room.  My Hillside friends could have easily said, “You do not belong here!  What do you know about life in Hillside Court?” Honestly, that is what was running through my mind.  However, we were able to be reconciled in our willingness to go on a journey together with God as we move from the “old Hillside” to the vision of a “new Hillside.”  A vision where God’s people stand hand in hand and beseech God to bring peace to this wounded community.  On Wednesday there were no newspaper reporters, no fanfare, but I do believe we started a quiet revolution to reclaim the streets of Hillside Court and make them safe for the next generation.

“A Christian vision insists that reconciliation is ultimately about the transformation of the everyday- a quiet revolution that occurs over time in everyday people, everyday congregations, everyday communities, amid the most broken places on God’s earth.  God’s life-giving vision grows out of a story; and that story is about a quieter revolution.  We must gain the eyes to see this hope because this quiet revolution often happens under the radar screen.”

The picture above is of that quiet revolution.  It is a photo of my friend John cooking with a volunteer from Salisbury Presbyterian Church.  John is a resident of Hillside Court, one of the most economically disadvantaged communities in our city while Salisbury is one of the wealthiest communities in Metro Richmond.  Through the everyday act of cooking together, God’s mysterious spirit is reconciling our city and writing a new story.  This quiet revolution is being sparked by boundary crossers like John who believe that “the way things are is not the way things have to be.”

“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted but not abandoned; struck down,  but not destroyed…therefore we do not lose heart (2 Cor 4:8-9,16). We’re able to not lose heart because we look beyond the now, beyond the visible, and remember the story of God. Without that story, we would be overwhelmed, crushed, destroyed.  That is why stepping back from relentless activism is essential in order to “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.  For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” “

As I shared in my post “A Voice Calling in the Wilderness”, I have developed a regular rhythm of stepping back and reflecting through my time in the wilderness.  We have also built into our Embrace team schedule times of reflecting on what God is doing in our midst and inviting God to ground us in truth as we seek to join God in the unfolding story of our city.  These times of meditation and reflection have radically transformed our team over the past year and have taught us to listen not only to one another but to that still small voice that is the power behind all we see and do.  It is only in remembering that the story the world sees, a story of murder and violence is not the only story unfolding.  This quiet revolution is tapping into the unseen story of God’s reconciling spirit that is changing Hillside Court from a community terrorized by fear to one triumphant through God’s power.

“The problem with individualistic Christianity is what we call “reconciliation without memory,” an approach that ignores wounds of the world and proclaims peace where there is no peace (see Jer 8:11).  This shallow kind of Christianity does not take local places and their history of trauma, division and oppression seriously.  It abandons the past too quickly and confidently in search of a new future.  This  insufficient version of Christian mission or reconciliation without memory,  jumps over the past too quickly by offering cheap grace to those who have done wrong and never repented.”

Over the past several months we have been listening deeply to our Hillside friends and trying to understand the fears they have that hold them in bondage to terrorist forces in their community.  When we had a conversation about neighborhood watch we heard, “I don’t want to be seen with police…I don’t want to be a snitch…I keep to myself and I stay safe that way.”  When we asked our team to pass out flyers, they expressed fear over being associated with any conversation about safety.  I realize now that we were seeking “reconciliation without memory.”

As we listened more deeply I discovered a very real fear of the police.  Many of the residents had been harassed by the police in the past and had little confidence in the police department’s ability to protect them from the criminal element.  I finally understood why my friends were so resistant to any safety solution that required them to collaborate with the police.  As we listened to their traumatic memories, we allowed space for a different means of reconciliation to take shape.

We discovered that the residents cared deeply for their children and felt called to create safer streets by simply providing more adult presence outside with the children and by also supporting the single mothers in the community.  This is not the direction I thought the conversation would go but it clearly a better starting place for the community.  We never would have found this path toward peace had we not listened to their experiences and pain.

“The Christian practice of reconciliation has to do with recovering a posture of receptivity and gratitude as a key virtue – the original virtue – for Christians living in a divided world.  The story of Scripture hangs on this theme of movement toward new creation. We must give ourselves and others time and space to become new people.  We need one another to become all that Christ has called us to be. This is work in which we learn to lay down our lives for the sake of a deeper hope breaking into the world. However weak it may seem to us, we are called to work on skills of forgiveness, self-giving service and costly love of the enemy.  Unless a Christian pursuit of peace and reconciliation constantly points to this story of “the battle is the Lord’s,“ it can never be sustained.”

I think developing a posture of openness is the key in everything we have done at Embrace.  As we remain open and receptive to the stories of people whose journey is very different than our own, we allow ourselves to be transformed into reconcilers.  As reconcilers we are able to usher in a new reality.  In the case of Hillside this reality would be a community where fear does not rule the streets.  I pray my Hillside friends grow in confidence knowing that “the battle is the Lord’s” as we all work on skills of forgiveness, self-giving service and costly love of our enemies.

I am only half way through this wonderful book but hope to share more insights next week.

Do you see God’s Kingdom breaking into our divided world?  Are you called to be an agent of reconciliation in your own city?  What challenges have you faced?  What breakthroughs are you seeing?

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Filed under Community Development, Spirituality, Theology

Reconciling Theology: It’s Bigger than Gandhi’s Fate

04 Gandhi statue. Tavistock Square, Londonphoto © 2006 Jose Mesa | more info (via: Wylio)

“The end is reconciliation; the end is

redemption; the end is the creation

of the beloved community.”

– ML King, Jr.

In just one week, my post titled “Will Gandhi Burn” became one of my top five most popular posts of all time.  It also drew a good number of very insightful comments which made me want to unpack this issue a bit more.  This week I would like to dig a little deeper into Jay’s comment:

“We diminish Jesus death and resurrection if we do not lean fully into His great big, grand salvation plan (the redemption of all things Col 1).”

Like Jay, I think when we over emphasize “individual salvation” we miss the fuller understanding of Christ work of reconciling all things.  Many other writers and theologians also agree that our obsession with the afterlife and who is “in” and who is “out” has gotten us completely off track.  This quote from Richard Stearns, “The Hole in Our Gospel” says it best,

“The Kingdom for Christ was not intended to be a far-off and distant kingdom to be experienced only in the afterlife; no, Christ’s proclamation of the “kingdom of heaven” was a call for the redeemed world order populated by redeemed people – now.  Focusing almost exclusively on the afterlife reduces the importance of what God expects of us in this life.  The kingdom of God, which Christ said is “within you” (Luke 17:21), was intended to change and challenge everything in our fallen world in the here and now. 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.”

When I spoke with Jay this week, he suggested I read Operation: Restoration by Eric Smith.   Below are a few excerpts from that text.

“More than any other single topic, Christ taught about the Kingdom of God, which is the world as it ought to be—a world marked by harmonious relationships, a sufficiency of resources, and shalom living. Scriptures about the new heavens and a new earth describe a scenario where God’s reign is made fully manifest. (Isaiah 65:17-25, Revelations 21:1-7 & 22:1-5) They give us a clear picture of what Christ means when He talks about the Kingdom of God.

Christ’s program of healing and casting out demons was meant to be a concrete expression of this new reality breaking into a fallen world. Not only did Jesus talk about it, He taught us to pray about it. The Kingdom was Christ’s framework for describing the world when God’s reign is complete—where His values and agenda are fully manifested.

God’s intention for the whole creation, and especially for human beings, was that all things should exist in peaceful, loving harmony so that the whole creation could flourish. This is shalom; all things as God intended them to be and do. And all people living up to their full potential as His image-bearers.

The Church is sometimes referred to as, “the people of God doing the work of God.” This definition begs the question, what is the work of God? Another way of asking that question is, what is the agenda of God? And what role do we have in living this agenda in our communities.”

2nd Corinthians puts it like this:

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us (2 Corinthians 5:17-19 NIV).”

Eric Smith summarizes with this:

“Christ’s mission was to reconcile all things, both spiritual and physical, both individual and corporate. In order to have an impact at the individual (mercy) level, the Church must also have an impact at the corporate (justice) level. The Church must be missional in its mindset, holistic in its approach and transformational in its impact.”

I loved these words from Sammy Williams blog post titled “Genesis”

“Well, it’s amazing how many Christians begin the biblical story with Genesis 3, focusing on sin and the fall of humanity. Neither the word sin nor the word fall occurs in Genesis 3. If you begin the story with Genesis 3, the primary issue becomes the removal of sin and the posture toward people is who we are not (not worthy, not holy, not good enough). If you begin the story with Genesis 1 and 2, the story becomes about the restoration/renewal/reconciliation of all things, which obviously includes the removal of sin but extends to the ends of the cosmos.”

I’m with Dr. King, Jay, Richard, Eric, Sammy, the Apostle Paul and Jesus – our job as Christians is to remember that all of us are children of God, created in God’s image.  Christ is calling us to be “reconcilers,” people who see the beauty of the original design of creation and who are ushering in the Kingdom of God here and now.


Filed under Theology

Will Gandhi Burn?

Gandhi (pb130012)photo © 2010 Vards Uzvards | more info (via: Wylio)I have wanted to write this post for a very long time, but was too afraid of the possible backlash from some segments of the Christian tradition.  However, all the hype over, “whether Rob Bell is a Universalist or not”, finally gave me the courage to say what I have wanted to say for years:  “No one knows the mind of God.”

Despite those who will claim with 100% certainty that Gandhi is burning in hell, the truth is that God is not limited and God’s grace knows no end.  God is not even limited by the words we humans wrote down in a book we call the Bible.  While I believe the words in our sacred scriptures are indeed sacred, I don’t think God is bound by them or our very narrow interpretations of them.

I also do not believe that those who believe God’s grace is big enough to rescue Gandhi should be labeled Universalist.  I am not saying Gandhi is in heaven nor am I saying he is in hell, I am saying I am not arrogant enough to believe I know.  I believe God is mysterious, unpredictable, loving and powerful.  I believe as people of faith, we should walk humbly before our God.  I think the Apostle Paul felt the same and says as much in 1 Corinthians 2:

When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.  For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written:

“What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived” the things God has prepared for those who love him – these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.

The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us.

This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?”  But we have the mind of Christ.

Like the Apostle Paul it is with humility, fear, and trembling that I say to you that, “I know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”  I choose to believe in God’s power.  I will not place my faith in my own wisdom or that of those who claim to know the mind of God.

I don’t understand why some Christians find a stance of humility so threatening. Why is it so hard for some to admit that we do not know where others will spend eternity?  I don’t find a God who is easily understood and whose actions I can predict with certainty all that appealing.  If God can only do what I can explain, that is a pretty small God.  I like that God’s wisdom is hidden, mysterious and beyond my very small finite mind’s ability to comprehend.

So, why are Christians so afraid of a God powerful enough to save Gandhi from hell?

Does our only power as Christians lie in our ability to condemn people who do not believe as we do?  Do Christians really believe people choose Christ solely to avoid hell?  What does that say about the power of the love of Christ?  Does Christ become any less the savior of the world if God’s grace extends beyond our faith borders?  Have we become the Pharisees of our day?

I hope I get to meet Gandhi in heaven someday.  In debates like this I identify with his words, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”


Filed under Theology

Where is Jesus?

Charles Fitzgerald

Charles Fitzgerald

Every time I teach Unity Works and people hear Charles’s story of how God set him free of addiction through an AA based recovery program, someone asks a question similar to this one from a participant a while back, “”I still have questions in my mind about the “God of my understanding”.  Does AA proclaim the Gospel or is the “God” a universal ie Budah, etc…..God? When and where is Jesus? I understand the challenge of needing to be non-denominational but how is Christ proclaimed?”

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Filed under Stories from the Street, Theology, Unity Works Reading

The Nehemiah Strategy

Street Saints: Renewing America's Cities

Street Saints; Renewing America’s Cities by Barbara J. Elliott is one of my all time favorite books.  Elliott has captured stories from across the country that demonstrate the power of the ordinary person who seek to be a blessing to their community.  My favorite chapter is the chapter titled the “Nehemiah Strategy” through which Elliott shows us the power of organizing the efforts of grassroots initiatives using the analogy of the story of Nehemiah.  Below are some of my favorite quotes.

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Filed under Community Development, Theology, Unity Works Reading