Category Archives: Community

Who are the Poor?

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A few years ago, early in the morning, I was taking a walk around my American middle class neighborhood and I just began praying for the homes and the doors that I passed.  Not thinking anything of it but just praying for blessing over the hearts and minds all who who dwelled within them.  At some point in my walking and my meditation, I heard the voice of the Spirit say, “Chris, your neighborhood is destitute”.  Now, I live dead middle in middle to upper middle class suburban America, nobody is starving, everyone has access to education and services . . . at first this didn’t make sense.  Later, I began to realize, poverty comes in many forms.  I was living in an impoverished suburbia. 

Who are the poor?  What is it exactly that justifies the label of “poor”?  How does one quantify poverty?  How do you help the poor?  Am I impoverished?  These are some of the compelling questions I got out of the first half of Bryant L. Myers “Walking with the Poor”.  The author gives one of the most comprehensive and holistic treatments of redemptive community development, particularly amongst the poor that I have read.  He breaks down in technical terms what he calls “Principles and Practices of Transformational Development.”

The author states that the causes of poverty are spiritual and fundamentally relational.  “Poverty is the absence of shalom and all its meaning.” (p. 86)  A person that does not know who they are in Christ, who they are in the image and possibility of God, has no hope and remains in impoverished thinking and acting.  Their detachments and entanglements perpetuate broken relationships, holism becomes unreachable.              “When the poor accept their marred identity and their distorted sense of vocation as normative and immutable, their poverty is complete.” (p. 76)  Poverty is a broken frame of mind and identity that affects all behavior fundamentally.  Certainly there are cultural and political factors as well of access and systemic evils, but the root of impoverished thinking starts internally before it is acted out externally.  

Those of us in the West tend to see the poor through our own lenses of reality (worldview).  “We view the poor from a point of view, in terms of our personality, and in terms of the culture from which we come”. (p. 58)  “Poverty is in the eye of the beholder.  We see what our worldview, education and training allow us to see.”  (81)  This is our blind-spot according to the author.  We walk into a ministry context to help the poor, but we bring our biases.  They must be poor and impoverished because they are not like us:  they don’t have access to things, education, opportunity, freedom etc.  We read into it that they need our kind of help and thus put ourselves in the power seat of being the Savior of their needs.  Our story and our blindspot interferes with the story that God may be wanting to write with the poor and leading them to a new kind of freedom in thinking and living.  We play God and can put them in dynamics of dependency.  Myers states that the “non-poor understand themselves as superior, neccesary and annointed to rule.”  That is a dangerous and sinful frame of mind. 

The most powerful idea I gleamed from the first part of this book is to see all of humanity as fundamentally broken due to the Fall of man and thus we all share in a kind of spiritual poverty.  We are the same, we are family in our impoverished hearts and minds, seeking the shalom of God.  The poor and the non poor are lacking, impoverished in different spaces.  When our stories come together, it should not be with one over the other, but as a family, at a round table, working out transformational development before and under the throne of God. 

So back to the impoverished suburbia.  Myers says that within western capitalism, we have lost our way.  “Capitalism reduces people to economic beings driven by utilitarian self-interest toward the goal of accumulating wealth. . . . In the latter years of the twentieth century, it is becoming clear that the modern world is discovering that it has lost its story.”(p. 22)  Where the intent of capitalism was not to acquire wealth as an end, but to access it as a means to support the general welfare.  “The poverty of the non-poor is fundamentally relational and caused by sin.  The result is a life full of things and short on meaning.  The non-poor simply believe in a different set of lies.” (90)    This is my impoverished suburbia, these are the poor I am called to serve and proclaim a different story to.   True meaning only comes from seeing yourself rooted in the story of God and His Kingdom.  

My prayer for our community is that we could look like this:  “A church full of life and love, working for the good of the community in which God has placed it, is the proper end of mission.  Transformational development that does not work toward such a church is neither sustainable nor Christian.” (39)

 

 

 

The Warmth of Presence

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After Christmas this year, my wife and I went on a bit of a spending excursion and bought a TV and electric fireplace hearth for our family room, which is also the space where our worshipping community gathers.  Our house is not equipped with a chimney, so this faux attempt is the best we can do.  But it is the thought that counts, it brings a new kind of warmth to our space.  Not just literally, but also aescetically.  It does not look like the one above, something manly and Celtic like that would be in my dream house I’ll never have 😉 .  But still, it’s the intent that is there. A hearth in a home breeds warmth.  It is intended be sat near and gathered around.  Having our house church community gather last night in our home filled the space with laughter, love, friendship, hope, joy, strength . . . everything our culture doesn’t sell.  It is here to be found but it can’t be bought.  I have long believed that church as intentionally small communities can act as the cabin in the woods, offering warmth and relief to sojourners trying to find their way.  There is a warmth to the presence of community.  Warmth breeds hope and strength for new beginnings and long suffering.  In community we offer this hope to one another.  Around the hearth you can find depth in friendship that is the antidote the world’s trivial pursuits. 

 “A house is not a home unless it contains food and fire for the mind as well as the body. ” – Benjamin Franklin

peace,Marshall

Good Table Manners, Please

I was raised by my materal grandmother who grew up during the American depression.  Similar to her upbringing, we didn’t have much growing up in northeast Philadelphia.  It was a staunch Irish Catholic neighborhood, my family lineage goes way back in militant protestantism to Belfast and Scotland.  Things at times got rough, life was a struggle.  But one thing united us, a place where you didn’t talk about your differences, but you shared in your communality.  That was the table.  A shared meal lightened the mood and focused on our sameness, just sustenance.  At the shared meal, there was always a call for “good table manners. please”.  The table was not for fighting, it was for best practices of our humanity.  It was at the table where we were to be at our best.  Could this be a way forward for ecumenism?  If the Eucharist is agreed upon as an elevated ideal of our communion in Christ, could it be at the table where we (ecclesiastical structures) get along in primal agreements and cordiality?

Reading the first part of “An Introduction to Ecclesiology” by Veli-Matti Karkkainen allows me to get a broad scope of ecumenical perspectives and history in one place.  There certainly are a lot of differences in the roots of each tradition which have played themselves out in vastly differnt stories and contexts.  After summarizing six major ecclesiastical structures (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Free Churches, Pentecostal/Charismatic), Karkkainen turns his attention to the ecumenical movement.  How do you find common-ground amongst such radical diversity?  What symbols, beliefs, sacraments or traditions are elementary enough within all Christian ecclesiologies to facilitate a coming together in unity?  This is no easy task. 

“What complicates and challenges the ecumenical work is the fact that, understandably, Christians and churches introduce into the ecumenical movement their own specific understanding of the church and the kind of unity they find theologically and ecclesiastically correct.  Eccelsiology determines one’s view of ecumenism:  what one believes about the the church and its ecclesiality carries over into one’s approoach to the challenge of unity.”  (p. 81)

Our rooted theologies determine if we can come together at all in any productive or even symbolic way in the watching eyes of the world.  One of the areas of commonality as I read through the six major ecclesiastical structures was their practice of the eucharistic table.  Certainly some traditions elevate it in status over others, but all hold it as a best practice for the church.  Churches centered on the following of the Christ find that the table is the place where communion with him can be found.  In some traditions that is clothed in deep ritual, others with a kind of common comanionship and others in a mystical union.  “How” or “why” it is practiced is a debatable area, “that” it’s practiced is not arguable.  Can the focus on the Eucharist be a continual commonality to move forward in ecumenism?

Having practiced house churches for the past decade as my ecclesiastical structure, I have learned first hand the incredible power of the common meal to build community and harmony amongst all kinds of people.  Our house church gatherings start with a shared dinner, symbolizing that you bring something to community to share, it isn’t provided for all.  Whatever everyone brings is what the community eats.  The passing of the items symbolizes the peace given from one to another, it is a shared life.  The meal is filled with joy and laughter, of releasing the stresses of the common-life.  The conversations are other-centered, asking questions for shared stories and genuine attention to the details of our individual narratives.  Caring for each other’s children, making sure all have eaten and are satisfied.  The rule of community is to share so that there is enough for all, break that rule and there is not “koininia” fellowship.  After an hour or two of this shared meal, the transition to the family space is where the next table is exalted.  Our worship and Scripture reflection time starts with Eucharist.  The elements are present before the people gather.  They bring definition to our space, they bring meaning to our gathering of what is otherwise ordinary.  We use the same liturgy week to week, the rythymn of the sameness helps us be grounded in an otherwise manic world.  The table is exalted and allows us the experience of the grace that is community given by God.  These shared meals bring out the best in us.  Our focus is Christ, not our differences.  Our conversations are sprinkled with grace and mercy, even in sharp disagreement.  I think the table sets the tone and provides the framework needed for productive dialogue. 

Joseph H. Hellerman in his book “The Ancient Church as Family” describes the family nature of early Christian meals:

“in ancient Mediteranean society, mealtime was a highly charged affair affording much more than simply the opportunity to consume nourishment. . . . We assume, a close relationship between the kinship model adopted by Jesus and his practices at the table.  We are now prepared to appreciate the radically inclusive nature of Jesus’ table fellowship.”  (p. 85-86)

Jesus used the table to welcome and include others, even the unclean.  It was radical in a world of religious purity but it was definitively Jesus.  If we are all followers of that Jesus, can that not be a way forward in ecumenical unity?  Even in areas we sharply disagree, we can welcome each other at the table.  The forgiveness and grace found at the cross is present in the Eucharist, we all come low under that mercy. 

Let us come to the table, where the hope of the risen Christ meets us and makes us one.  But let’s not argue, keep in mind . . . good table maners, please.

 

Community as Story

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I had a chance to attend the 3rd installment of Formed this past Saturday at Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship and the topic for this month was CommunityMark Van Steenwyk from Missio Dei in Minnieapolis was sharing his story of community with us.  There was a phrase he used as he was talking that just jumped out to me as both true and a bit painful.  He said in terms of our American living: 

“We stay in to watch and we go out to spend.” 

  I would have let this pass without a note if it wasn’t so true.  In that statement he adequately unveiled 2 of the greatest sicknesses of American life:  Consumerism and Individualism.     Our culture teaches us that the reasons you go out is to consume and to spend.  We spend on things that we hope will give us meaning, most of the time we remain unhappy.  The slick marketing campaigns of billion dollar businesses caress our ears with the message that if we buy what they are selling, we will find the happiness we are looking for.  Of course it’s a lie, but yet we have an engaging appetite to consume and try again.  It defines our “going out”.    When we stay in, we can tend to organize our lives, evenings and weekends around the tube or the telly (I like to call it telly).  The drama, the celebrity, the sport, the action . . . they are there to give us entertainiment in our leisure.  If we are not careful, they can become the very story we live our lives around.  And it’s unending, one season rolls into the next and rolls into sweeps week with cliff-hangers and to-be-continued til next season if only we will hold our breath in anticipation.  The media we watch at home can dictate to us how to arrange our time based on our consumption of their drama.  Years ago, I stopped watching the news.  Rather now, I read it online in print and have RSS feeds to local papers.  That way I’m informed, but I was tired of the news dictating to me what I should fear and what I should care about.  They don’t care about me nor my family, they just care about my viewership.   I say all of this not to prohibit spending or watching.  Both are a part of our culture that we live in and can be healthy alternatives to life as usual.  But they are not meaningful, if you are looking for life in things that are dead, you will find yourself perpetually empty.  I would suggest that the Story that gives meaning is authentic community.   Finding the definition of who you are not by what you buy or what you watch, but based on who you belong to.  When you find that kind of belonging, it’s permanent.  It doesn’t wane with sweeps week or spike during seasonal sales.  It remains true, constant, the kind of story you can build your life around.  How do you find that kind of community?  Our culture doesn’t sell it, our culture doesn’t produce it, I think it’s found in a spiritual quest.  Something that cries out much deeper in us than a yearning to consume or be entertained, it’s a primal search for meaning.     I’ll close with one of my favorite quotes in my reflections about Community as Story:

“Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one. ” Jane Howard

peace,Marshall

Formed: Simplicity

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Last weekend I attended the 2nd module of Formed, a 12 part novitiate curriculum of spiritual formation led by a group of friends.  This month’s module was on the topic of “Simplicity:  Antidote to Consumerism” and the conversation was led by Will Samson.Will Samson was the right thinker/speaker for this conference conversation with practitioners on the value of Simplicity in a world of consumerism.  His background in Sociology and Theology was crucial to give this topic the depth and reflection it deserved.  He first analyzed the macro-issues of consumerism before he drilled down into the practical living out of simple community in today’s American culture.Samson laid out that our culture seeks for contentment in the consumption of things.  If we can acquire more “stuff” then that will lead to happiness.  However, instead of happiness, many Americans have only found overwhelming debt.  The over-arching response has been similar thinking from the government to the individual household; to get out of debt we must spend our way out.  This results in a spiraling down emotionally, the more we spend, the more depressed we are.  We live in a culture of mindless consumption; the desire for more is something we’re taught as “economic actors”.In my opinion, Samson’s most profound point was in our culture’s narrative of “away”.  We throw things away like it goes to a magical place and we don’t consciously know how that happens physically.  We are completed disconnected from our waste, we are disconnected from how food gets to us, we are disconnected from how money is made etc.  This narrative of “away” has perpetuated conspicuous consumption, debt and the obesity factors that come with the unhealthy eating of processed foods.  He describes that what we are doing is completely unsustainable and that the problems we face cannot be saved at the same level of thinking that created them.How do we practically move forward and do something about our mindless consumption?   One way he suggests is the biblical value of serving one another, it is the alternative to consumerism.  To serve one another means that we make sure there is enough for all, that the community needs are met. Samson suggests that being radical is simply just getting back to the roots of what it means to be human.  He proposes we can engage in at least five different, simple modalities to do something about it:

  1. Make something
  2. Trade something
  3. Grow something
  4. Slow down
  5. Eat together

Simple enough, thanks Will.

Shalom

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In James Hunter’s final essay in “To Change the World”, the author takes his social theory critique and begins a turn towards the theological and the working out of what the church ought to look like if it wants to be an influence in the real world.The reality is that the institutions of our day:  be it churches, schools, universities, hospitals, governments, social agencies etc., they all have their roots in authoritative truths with a fixed point of reference.  The words surrounding their truths lend confidence to their objectives.  The words speak to why they exist and what mission they are continually on.  Given enough time, these words become assumptions to the way things are and how things work.  They form a bedrock, a foundation in which all the mortar and bricks are built upon.  The Enlightenment period in history was a dream of discovering all of these objective truths which in turn would lead us to a society always progressing towards utopia.  Hunter, like many others, are pulling back the curtain and saying the Enlightenment dream did not work.

“The Enlightenment’s own quest for certainty resulted not in the discovery of new certainties but rather in a pervasive and astringment skepticisim that questions all, suspects all, distrusts and disbelieves all.  Even in the early decades of the seventeenth century, the great poet John Donne wrote presciently of this new age, ‘New philosophy calls all in doubt.’  Marx and Freud made titanic contributions to the project of modern skepticism.” (p. 206-207)

This skepticism has led to dissolution, “the deconstruction of the most basic assumptions about reality.” (p. 203)  This dissolution is real and it threatens the viability and survivability of our culture’s institutions.  At the very least, the assumptions and the power those institutions once held has been severely diminished.  What can the church do given these circumstances?  Hunter tells the reader that “defensive against”, “relevance to” and “purity from” are not the answer to the cultural shifts and power systems.  What he wants to argue for, is a “faithful presence” or a kind of incarnational shalom to our world.  Whatever your context is and wherever your sphere of influence is, enact shalom (the peace of God) there.

“Faithful presence in the world means that Christians are fully present and committed in their spheres of social influence, whatever they may be:  their families, neighborhoods, voluntary activities, and places of work.” (p. 247) and “there is no way the old models could ever be sufficient to address the challenges of the present age.  What is more, there is a yearning for a different way, especially among the young; a way that has integrity with the historic truths of the faith and the witness of the Spirit and that is adequate to the challenges of the present moment.” (p. 276)

Shalom is us showing up and being church in our day.  Not defined by consumerism, individualism or the misuse of power, but by our gospel identity of being formed ‘in Christ’.  Shalom is us incarnating the servanthood of Christ in the most challenging issues that our neighbors are facing.  Shalom is caring about justice in a world of poverty.  Shalom is staying in a place of need when it’s more convenient to leave.  Shalom is loving your enemy.  Shalom is listening to your critics, being silent under judgment.  Shalom is about the other, not you.  Shalom is the way out, it is the way of freedom in a world of oppression.  Wherever you are, whatever you do . . . shalom.

peace,

Marshall

Laughter and Community

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I was really struck by something Martyn Percy, from Rippon College in Oxforshire, England said last week.  He made this statement in his lecture on Practical Theology:

“Humor has a role to play in the mood of a congregation.”

A simple statement but it had me deeply reflecting on the role humor and laughter has played in the past 10 years of Ordinary Community.  I can say honestly, it’s been one of our bedrock foundations.  Any time the people are gathered, there will be much laughter, even in the midst of suffering.  What a gift that is.  Laughter is so therapeutic and basic to our experience of being human.  Studies show that developmentally, children laugh far before they learn to speak.  The expression of joy is a part of our design, we were made to laugh.As well, laughter plays a huge role in the forming of deep and intimate community relationships.  Dr. Jeanne Segal, who has done extensive research on this came to these conclusions:

The social benefits of humor and laughterHumor and playful communication strengthen our relationships by triggering positive feelings and fostering emotional connection. When we laugh with one another, a positive bond is created. This bond acts as a strong buffer against stress, disagreements, and disappointment.Laughing with others is more powerful than laughing aloneShared laughter is one of the most effective tools for keeping relationships fresh and exciting. All emotional sharing builds strong and lasting relationship bonds, but sharing laughter and play adds joy, vitality, and resilience. And humor is a powerful and effective way to heal resentments, disagreements, and hurts. Laughter unites people during difficult times.

Joy defines us as the people of God.  Happiness is fleeting, it largely depends on our circumstances.  But joy is unmoving, it is rooted in the things that never change.  It is rooted in our commitment to one another and our security of living a life in a Kingdom that cannot be shaken.  We will suffer, of that you can be sure, but we never suffer alone . . . and in that there is joy.

10 He continued, “Go home and prepare a feast, holiday food and drink; and share it with those who don’t have anything: This day is holy to God. Don’t feel bad. The joy of God is your strength!” – Nehemiah 8:10 The Message

peace,Marshall

On Counting

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So yesterday I got my yearly emailed questionaire from the denomination to report my yearly stats for Ordinary Community Church.  Part of it, I get, they mean well and there are a lot of stewardship issues at base camp that they are responsible for.  However, being a network of house churches we don’t fit any of the categories.  We haven’t added any worship attendance, we haven’t added new services, we don’t need more bulletin inserts and we don’t have a pulpit for others to come and fill.  We have set ourselves up in a way that those are not the things we count.I think fundamentally, that the things we count speak directly to the things we value. 

 “19-21“Don’t hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or—worse!—stolen by burglars. Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it’s safe from moth and rust and burglars. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.”

If  I was to play devil’s advocate with our western church culture, I would ask, what is different about the things that we count that isn’t different about the way western businesses or corporations count?  And maybe a more specific question is, should it be different?  Should our organizations for spiritual formation have different measures than those designed for financial profit?  I’m not naive, I know that blind idealism is not all there is and I don’t see a lot wrong with being intentional, organized and well-planned.  But if we are not aware and careful, the things we count will be the tail that wags the dog.  Money, power, prestige, status, popularity and relevancy are not the keystones in the Kingdom of God, in fact we are warned vehemently to deny ourselves to the point that our hearts don’t long for such things because they are of this world and not the heavenly one.  What we count speaks to what we value and what we care about. Do we care about Christ or do we care about numeric productivity most?  This is just a question I wonder about.Perhaps other questions could be:  In what ways has your community addressed those who are hungry?  Explain how this year your community tried to dispel loneliness from your city/town?  Describe how your community is less consumeristic this year than last?  Describe how your community loves each other and their neighbor as themself?  How many people in suffering has your community walked with this year?  What dreams grew some feet this year because your community walks in hope?  Describe how your teens/kids are showing the fruit of the Kingdom of God in their lives? What we count says who we are and who we belong to.  Let’s be different. peace,Marshall

Sharing Attention

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Good artcile here on technology and the lack of presence we have with our kids even when we are spending time with them. 

“This time with children pays off,” Brandon says. He notes that good parent-child relationships result in children being happier and more successful, including at school. “Most researchers in this field would agree that these parental investments of time — reading with your kids, playing with them, going to concerts with your kids, going to the school, making sure you know who the kids’ peer groups are — has benefits for both,” he says. “These investments in parent-child interactions also means payoffs in adolescence, with potentially less risky behaviors.”

 Paying attention to our kids is our job, period.  When our kids experience this kind of attention, it feels like we are pulling out our wallets and just handing cash over to them.  When we pay attention, we are giving them an identity that they are valued and that they matter.  This is like a cup of cold water on a hot summer day, it’s what their young hearts long for.  As parents, if we are so pre-occupied with our own pursuits and self-importance, we leave our kids to look to fill these primary needs in other places. How do I see myself sharing attention?  My blackberry.  When it signals, I am checking that email/facebook comment/text regardless if I am in conversation with my kids, wife or friends.  That is shared attention and if I can curb that impulse, I’m a better human/Dad/husband/friend. Live is short.  No one will ever wish you spent more time in the office or working away except for the ones who are consuming you.  To practice presence at home is to be a powerful parent.  It’s a gift, a blessing, handed down to the ones we are entrusted to nurture.  This is an area I am constantly wanting to improve in. Practice paying attention to your kids, your friends, your neighbors.  Be present, resist sharing attention.  In a world of manic speed, the truly powerful have the discipline to slow down and pay attention. peace,marshall

on leaving home

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“Aren’t you, like me, hoping that some person, thing, or event will come along to give you that final feeling of inner well-being you desire?  But as long as you are waiting for that mysterious moment you will go on running helter-skelter, always anxious and restless, always lustful and angry, never fully satisfied.  You know that this is the compulsiveness that keeps us going and busy, but at the same time makes us wonder whether we are getting anywhere in the long run.  This is the way to spiritual exhaustion and burn-out.  This is the way to spiritual death .”Henri Nouwen  Life of the Beloved  .

This is part of my lecture tonight on the book of Romans and I think Nouwen describes our internal search for salvation well.  We are wired to look for it and be restless until we find it.  Even after our intial finding of this salvation, we are tempted by so many pursuits to search for the next fix or magic pill somewhere else.  But these searches are often fruitless and sometimes destructive in their consequences.  All we need is found in the home of our Father.

“Now I realize that the real sin is to deny God’s first love for me, to ignore my original goodness.  Because without claiming that first love and that original goodness for myself, I lose touch with my true self and embark on the destructive search among the wrong people and in the wrong places for what can only be found in the house of my Father.”– Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son

peace,marshall