Monthly Archives: July 2013

Skeleton 4 – Outward

I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me;

I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me.

I said, “Here I am, here I am,”

to a nation that was not called by my name.

We won’t disagree about the principle, that God is on a mission. Similarly, Jesus’ church is on a mission. He commands us to make disciples and seek his his kingdom. Historically we see that when the love of God wells up in the church it overflows to those around them. These statements are generally agreed upon by Christians of many backgrounds. The difficulty comes when we speak of practice and implementation. What does it mean for us that God is sending his church? What will it mean that the church is not just for those gathered inside but those who don’t yet belong to Christ and may never come to him.

First, being outward focused fits with our other foundational commitments to the gospel, whole persons, friendship, the city, and multiplication. This means that facing outward will principally address the spiritual bankruptcy of those who do not know Christ and call them to faith. It will not stop there though, as spiritual, emotional, physical, social, and relational needs are normally intertwined. The grace of God also forms a basis for friendships with people who live and believe differently than you. Furthermore, we will care about the city as a whole. Our goal in facing outward is not simply to grow the church but to see God’s mercy touch our society and its structures for the betterment of all people.  So here are some specifics:

Our language will open opportunities rather than put up barriers. In a world of polarization and “us” vs. “them” rhetoric, we will not use simplistic labels but truly listen and understand our neighbors. We will strive to answer their questions, tell their stories and translate Christian truth through accessible terms while also introducing the specialized language of the bible.

Prayer for those who do not believe, for the needy in Worcester, for the city as a whole, and the world beyond us will pour out and be intentionally cultivated. In the lives of individuals and families, in bible studies and ministry teams, in Sunday worship and concentrated times of prayer we will ask God to lead us and work through us to love those outside the church.

As we develop styles for different ministries, not only will we ask, what is faithful to the bible, we will also ask, what will best fit our context. In worship we will not pick the type of music that I like best or makes it easiest for me to worship, but that fits the people we are called to reach.

From the outset we model, discuss, and teach different approaches for talking about Jesus with our friends, families, and coworkers. Through baptisms, testimonies, and other events we celebrate and remember the work of God in drawing people to faith in Christ. In a similar vein we will identify one or two specific ways that we can serve the city, equip people in this area, and continue to grow in our specific calling in the city.

Skeleton 3 – Friendship

The Little Babel – Bruegel

If I didn’t show up, would you notice?  I go days, weeks, with out physical contact – little more than brushing against someone in an elevator.  There is no one who really knows what I think – who I really am.  If I were in need – sick, broke, depressed – there is no one nearby.

Babel, is a story of pride, folly, fractured relationships, and growing distance between peoples.  It is a further phase of mankind turning away from God and while we don’t know the mechanism or manifestation of God’s activity the people once joined together are now scattered through the earth, fleeing from each other.

Fast forward to the days of Jesus, who, on the night before he died said to his followers, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant  does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends…”

Jesus, the God man, gives himself to his followers and says that he is their friend.  So a new circle of friendship emerges which unites men (and women) from radically different backgrounds and sends them out together to further broaden the circle.  In the accounts that follow it is hard to miss the language of connection, togetherness, and commonality which emerge among an increasingly diverse set of people.  Then as we shift from the narratives to the letters of the New Testament, the plural tenses take center stage.  So much is written to the church, the locally gathered Christian community.  We want to be a church where this new network of friendships is both the byproduct and means of God’s gracious work.  Here are some practical implications:

-People in the church connect at least once over the course of the week outside of worship at church.  It is really important for growth to pray, confess, and explore the bible together.  There are things that we will not see about ourselves or about God without each other.

-People stick around through conflict and disappointment because Jesus unites us at such a deep level that there are resources to work through significant challenges.  Each person is integral to the life of the whole body such that we’re not okay with losing some people as collateral damage.  While people will come and go, there isn’t room for a liaise faire attitude.  In a time when commitment is an alien concept for many, the church will be a contrast community where the God of faithfulness is seen through his people.

-If faith in Jesus is the real unifying point then friendships will form that cross socio-economic, racial and ethnic lines.  People who have different backgrounds, see differently on significant issues, and have different cultural expectations for Christian behavior and belief will find themselves working through these complicated issues.  Rather than expecting immediate understanding or demanding conformity to certain expectations we will learn about each other and from each other.

Skeleton 2 – Whole Persons

The skeleton gives shape, strength, and security to the body.  This is a helpful image for describing some of the essentials of the church we plan to start in Worcester.  My last post focused on the gospel while this one focuses on whole persons.

In an onion the layers of flesh stack upon each other and though they are related each is distinct.  They are all bound together by an outer shell but can be easily separated.  One layer can be rotten and slimy on one side yet whole on the other.  Two layers under the decay the onion is intact and the discontinuity that exists between layers is striking.  It is easy to live like an onion* with clear demarcated layers which are loosely related but do not significantly touch.  There is the face you wear at work, with family, friends from different parts of life, online, at church etc.  Anyone of these could be nearer or further from the core but none of them are necessarily related to each other or tied into a broader reality.  Without some sort of integration that ties layers together, significant questions regarding identity, honesty, and faithfulness are difficult to answer.

Two of the gifts that comes from faith in Jesus Christ are an identity and story, both of which unite all the disparate parts of the self and of life experience.  First, Jesus gives us an identity that is based on his actions and rooted in the supernatural transformation of a person.  I came across this section of 2 Corinthians 5 early in my Christian journey and it has stuck with me, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”  If you are a Christian, wherever you are, regardless of circumstances, you are there as a new creation born of God.  The bible speaks of new emotions, thoughts, actions, and relationships which flow from a new nature.  Every layer is impacted.  Our work, families, cultural engagement, recreation, and much more are addressed in the scriptures so that the gospel transforms the whole person.  This is usually a slow and challenging journey that is incredibly powerful, often picking up momentum over time.  We want to be a church where a new identity in Christ unites and reshapes all areas of life.

Beyond a new identity that connects the different layers of life the story of Christianity unites various endeavors with a common purpose.  Work, play, family time, hobbies, and community service can all be done with with the desire to enjoy God and display his greatness.  Yes, there are sub-themes for each of these activities that exist underneath this larger rubric, but they can be surmised in enjoyment and display.  The Christian story is big enough to unite all of life.  This is a lot of theory.  Here are some practical pictures:

The other great contrast of integration and wholeness is an earthquake. The geography, both natural and human, which once held together is torn apart, due to the underlying fractures.

-Worship:  It is easy for a church to be intellectually stimulating but emotionally dry.  We may challenge the will to act, but there is little awareness of our physical or relational nature.  Rather than worship which reflects our natural imbalances I’d love to be part of a church where we think deeply, feel intensely, and act.  In the service we might sit, kneel, raise our hands, bow our heads, or stand in silence because all of these postures promote and reflect significant postures of the soul.  In worship we will sing with joy and confess our sin with sadness.  Sometimes with simple words, other times with the language of our historic theology and hymnody.

-Rounded out: In relationship to God and others the stunted parts of us will grow.  Becoming more like Christ will challenge each person uniquely.  Those who did not like to read or care much for learning will find themselves enjoying learning and thinking.  The emotionally immature or distant will find themselves understanding and experiencing a richer emotional life as fellow Christians help them see themselves.  For others it will be breaking family patterns and learning a new normal.  Discipleship will embrace will be geared towards the restoration of God’s cracked image in each Christian.

-Pastoral ministry: Rather than being a paid professional who is seen only through the lens of work, the church will see me as a fellow sheep and pilgrim following Christ.  My interests outside of church, my family, and my own spiritual life will be cared for as we  strive to do for all those in the church.

-Equipping:  In the process of Christian development we will train, not only in the fundamentals of character and religion, but also engage Christians in reflection on their vocations and interests, all in the light of faith.

*In the first Shrek movie, the main character actually describes himself as an onion, putting the social penetration theory in popular language.  I agree with aspects of this theory which describes the progression of intimacy through communication and interaction.  As you get to know someone you interact more and more with the core of who they are as you break through the superficial.

The Skeletal System – Good news

The skeleton provides shape, support, safety and strength.  The skeletal system also provides the metaphor for the next half dozen or so blog posts which will expand some thoughts already on our site.

As God leads us to start a church in Worcester we continue to ask, and more clearly answer the question, “Who does God want us to be?”  This question can be answered in many ways ranging from theological commitments to programing choices or location of the church to make up of the congregation.  The metaphor of a skeletal system helps in that it points to a solid reality which lasts through life, and drives everything else.  So much of my outward appearance and even my musculature will change with age, but by and large my skeleton will retain its shape through life.  Thus, through the seasons of the church’s life the skeleton remains as a source of shape, support, safety and strength.

The Return of the Prodigal Son is described: “mercy with solemnity” “the darkness of existence illuminated by tenderness, of weary and sinful mankind taking refuge in the shelter of God’s mercy.”

Here’s one last bit of introduction, I can’t simply say, “The bible is our skeleton.”  Neither does it work to identify the skeleton as the theology of the reformation, or being Presbyterian.  All three of these are too large, actually forming the basis from which the skeleton is drawn.  All sorts of churches will have the bible or the theology of the reformation, as their starting point but look rather different.

The Gospel, while literally means, “good news” is the place to begin.  A book I was recently reading said that the gospel answers two fundamental questions.  First, is there hope for world?  Second, how can I be right with God?

The answer to both of these questions centers on God’s activity in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The good news of Christianity is that you can be reconciled to God through faith in Jesus and his actions on your behalf.  The good news of Christianity is the living, vital hope for that God will right all the wrongs and heal the wounds of this world because Jesus both suffered evil and conquered it.  This good news for the individual and the world is the beginning of the Christian journey and lays the contours for the path of faith.*  Here are some practical implications for the gospel functioning as a skeleton.

-Worship is vibrant & reverent: We respond to God’s salvation in Jesus with joy, sadness, and an awareness of the transcendent.  God’s full and everlasting love for his people is certain but it has come at such a cost that our celebration is interwoven with solemnity.  We rejoice in the hope of what God is doing in this world but also weep that it has not fully come.

-Relationships that cross:  Because God is the one who makes Christians we should see more than a gathering of likeminded individuals.  The normal barriers that separate people according to race, ethnicity, class, income, education, and status will be broken down as we experience together and point each other towards the grace of God.  Our common hope for the world will inspire people to work together that normally have radically divergent goals.

-Learning but not moving on:  There is always more that the bible has to teach us.  A Christian is a life-long learner, but there is no point at which you get beyond the gospel.  All teaching in the church will trace back to the foundational story of redemption in Christ.  Rather than being repetitive or trite, God’s actions on behalf of his people and the implications of these truths are boundless.

-Prayer and weakness:  If God is the author and motivator of faith then we will pray.  Prayer will not be perfunctory or supplemental to the work of the church but essential as we remember our weakness and God’s sufficiency.

*Two of the scriptures from which I draw this initial piece of the skeleton are Colossians 2:6-7 and Luke 24:25-32

Strains of Portuguese

Arriving early, I heard voices coming from the fellowship hall in the basement of the church.  I followed the strains of singing and realized I was stepping into a Christian Education class in Portuguese.  What followed was an excellent reminder of what it means to be on the outside linguistically.  While I was greeted warmly and spoke with many of the class participants afterwards (in English), the class was specifically taught in Portuguese.

Located in front of the Presbyterian Church of Rio this sculpture commemorates the first Protestant communion celebrated in Brazil.

Before I moved to New England I was unaware of the large population of Presbyterians in Brazil.  With many Brazilians immigrating to the US, Brazilian Presbyterian Congregations have sprung up as well.  I’ve gotten to know some of these churches and their leaders and it has been a wonderful privilege.

 Here are some of the things I learned or was reminded of as I sat through the Sunday school class and then joined the church for worship.

First, the little things help.  A smile, the quick comment in English so I’m in the right part of the bible, or the simple introduction that was provided, all made me feel much less of an outsider.

Second, it is so easy to get distracted when you can’t fully follow what is happening.  I may have appeared indifferent or bored, but it is just difficult to stay engaged even when you understand every fourth or fifth word.  Furthermore, I couldn’t contribute to the conversation and with this point of contact lost it was even easier to disengage.

Third, despite the language barrier, it was encouraging to watch these brothers and sisters in Christ study the bible and talk through its implications.  I know that Christianity is a global religion that is increasingly non-white, but it is good to be reminded of the broad scope of people God is working in.

Fourth, the lesson was on evangelism (sharing your faith with others).  Regardless of our cultural differences we have many of the same struggles.  We all need encouragement as well as further training.  It is comforting to know that God is patiently working in his children throughout the world.

I also heard the wonderful stories of God’s provision for the church through the gift of their church building.  An aging Finnish congregation wanted to see the word of God continue reaching the immigrant populations in Quincy….  more for another time.

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