I Don’t Want America To Be Great Again, and I Don’t Think I Want To Win This Nation Back for Jesus, Either

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I don’t want my country back; I don’t think I want America to be great again; and I don’t even think I want to “win this nation back” for Jesus, either. There, I said it.

I suppose I should explain.

This theme seems to keep coming up, in various forms. We all know Donald wants to “make America great again.” It’s worth noting that what that phrase likely evokes for most people is nostalgia for the “good ol’ days,” usually in reference to the ’50’s, and it must be remembered that those days may have only seemed “great” because they were relatively better than what had come before, namely the Great Depression and two world wars. Nonetheless, there was progress in the 50’s, to be sure, and those who lived through that time may have experienced it as being “great,” but it again must be remembered that it was only “great” for some, and that “great-“ness came at the cost of the oppression of many others. The Daily Show recently tackled this issue:

Still, those who support Donald and others of their ilk often speak of wanting “their country” back, again hearkening back to a “great” time that exists in nostalgic memory much more so than it ever did in reality, and usually such comments go hand in hand with calls to secure the borders and keep “America” for “Americans.” This is wrong on many levels, but I’ll name two. For starters, it’s at best ignorant, perhaps willfully, as the “country” they want to secure only exists because the land was stolen from its original inhabitants, destroying their culture and way of life in the process while committing genocide against their population and repeatedly breaking treaty after treaty with indigenous peoples whenever it suited the new nation’s interests, as this TED talk attests to:

Secondly, and relatedly, calling the land “America” is itself objectionable. It’s only called this because a European map-maker chose the name in honor of one of the earliest European explorers of the “new world,” Amerigo Vespucci. Of course, Europeans did not “discover” the continent(s), as indigenous peoples (with forebears from Asia) had long been here, and likely had other names for the land, which they regarded reverently and treated with much more respect than we of European descent ever have. As one indigenous person said:

“What is this you call property? It cannot be the earth, for the land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs only to him?” -Massasoit

Still, even if you accept the usage of the European named continent(s), it’s likely that when most people hear “America” they think of the United States, thereby failing to remember that in North America alone there are three major countries- the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. This is to say nothing of the many countries that make us South America. Thus, most often when I speak of “America” or “Americans” and am referring to the U.S. or its citizens, I will call it “USAmerica” or “USAmericans.” It still invokes, for me at least, the genocide of the indigenous people of this continent(s) and destruction of their land and way of life, but at least it doesn’t double down by presuming that the U.S. is the only country that matters in “America.”

For all those reasons, I am not among those who want “my” country back. But again I’m also not sure I want USAmerica to be “great” again, because again, it seems to me that those who use this phrase are referring to a time when, if it was great, it was mostly so for (male) whites. To be sure, those who long for what they perceive to be better times also do so in recognition that, according to the Bloomberg article linked to above and here, “the past decade has witnessed stagnation and rising inequality.” The appeal of both Donald and Bernie Sanders as presidential candidates points to this reality, as does the Occupy movement.  “Yet,” that Bloomberg article goes on to say, “by almost every other objective measure, life is simply much better now than it was in the ’50s for just about everyone.”

It’s also worth noting what the above analysis hasn’t yet, namely that the foundation for a growing postwar economy was laid many centuries before not only through the hard work of industrious USAmerican entrepreneurs, but much more so through the hard and terrible work exacted from a nation of slaves. As this article notes:

In the pre-Civil War United States, a…case can be made that slavery played a critical role in economic development. One crop, slave-grown cotton, provided over half of all US export earnings. By 1840, the South grew 60 percent of the world’s cotton and provided some 70 percent of the cotton consumed by the British textile industry. Thus slavery paid for a substantial share of the capital, iron, and manufactured goods that laid the basis for American economic growth. In addition, precisely because the South specialized in cotton production, the North developed a variety of businesses that provided services for the slave South, including textile factories, a meat processing industry, insurance companies, shippers, and cotton brokers.

The beauty of our current “first family” being a black family living in a house built by black slaves doesn’t change the fact that it was built by slaves, however well-fed they might have been. Moreover, what the recent past decades prove, if nothing else, is that the remarkable growth the USAmerican economy enjoyed for so long was unsustainable. It helped us become the richest nation in the history of the world, but at what cost? As I have often written about, we USAmericans use a highly disproprotionate amount of the world’s resources, and produce an equally disproprortionate amount of the world’s waste. Along the way, we’ve become addicted to growth even as our economy shifted from one based on manufacturing to one based on the service sector. As I said above, this is unsustainable, and alternatives to the current service based economy predicated on never ending growth must be sought.

All of this is is to say, then, that USAmerica must not become “great” in the way that Donald and his followers pine nostalgically for. I hope to be part of a country that moves forward, not backward, and that is resilient, courageous, and wise enough to recognize the need to make fundamental and painful changes.

So, again, I don’t want “my” country back. It’s not mine, and never was. I don’t want USAmerica to be great again, either. It wasn’t all that great for many USAmericans in the ’50’s, and sadly, it still isn’t. This country has had some fine moments, to be sure, and there may be finer ones yet to come, but if they are to come, they will do so because we build bridges, not walls; because we build an economy based on service to our common humanity and the planet we all share, not one based on unmitigated capitalistic self-interest. I pray that this occurs.

I also don’t want to “win this nation back” for Jesus, either. I’m sure Rend Collective didn’t mean much when they wrote that lyric, but it’s one I’ve never been able to sing. It’s the back part that bothers me most. As I’ve said recently, there’s a real dearth of modern worship music that both helps us really worship so we don’t shrink, but that also avoids simplistic tropes and can engage us at a deeply theological level. The song that speaks of winning the nation “back,” presumably for Jesus, has some good moments but when I get to that line I just can’t say it, because I just can’t mean it. Talking about winning the nation back sounds a lot like winning “our” country “back,” for starters. And when you say you’re winning it back, even if you mean for Jesus, you imply that somehow he once had it, and now doesn’t. Is this what we really mean?

I don’t think a country can be “Christian” any more than a college or a mint can. Can a thing be Christian? For me, there’s a direct through-line from a “Christian” nation to the many “Christian” colleges (of which I’ve attended several), straight on to Testamints, which I despise. I despise Testamints for what I hope are obvious reasons, but if they’re not, here’s one. For starters, Testamints are obnoxious, and not just because of the play on words in their name. If you want a mint you’re probably not much interested in being proselytized, and if you want to hear about Jesus, it’s insulting to be handed a mint and think maybe that’s done the job. Moreover, to say that a thing can be “Christian” whether it’s a mint or a bookstore or a college or a country begs the question of just what being Christian means. Most days I hesitate to say that I’m a Christian, not only because of the societal baggage involved, but because I hope I’m not quite so proud. The early “Christians” were called “followers of the way,” which implies that they were, perhaps obviously, followers. Jesus initiated the call to his first disciples as he does to every one since then, with the simple admonition to “come, follow me.” Being a Christ-follower is about following Jesus along the way that he leads. As my favorite writer Frederick Buechner says:

Some think of a Christian as one who necessarily believes certain things. That Jesus was the son of God, say. Or that Mary was a virgin. Or that the Pope is infallible. Or that all other religions are all wrong.

Some think of a Christian as one who necessarily does certain things. Such as going to church. Getting baptized. Giving up liquor and tobacco. Reading the Bible. Doing a good deed a day.

Some think of a Christian as just a Nice Guy.

Jesus said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). He didn’t say that any particular ethic, doctrine, or religion was the way, the truth, and the life. He said that he was. He didn’t say that it was by believing or doing anything in particular that you could “come to the Father.” He said that it was only by him – by living, participating in, being caught up by, the way of life that he embodied, that was his way.

Thus it is possible to be on Christ’s way and with his mark upon you without ever having heard of Christ, and for that reason to be on your way to God though maybe you don’t even believe in God.

A Christian is one who is on the way, though not necessarily very far along it, and who has at least some dim and half-baked idea of whom to thank.

That’s it, right there. “A Christian is one who is on the way, though not necessarily very far along it.” For that reason, I like to say that I’m not a Christian…yet, but I might be some day. I’m on the way, though not very far along. I’m trying every day to follow Jesus as best as I can, because I can do no other. I know he loves me, despite it all, and I want to love him back.

The point is that being “Christian” is about following Jesus, and things, including nations, just can’t do that. Only people can. Besides, the only “country” that could ever be truly Christian is the kingdom of God, and that’s where my true allegiance lies. I may hope that the people who inhabit the U.S. will see God’s love, maybe even in me, and likewise choose to work at following him. In that sense, I hope to “win” this nation for Jesus, but that’s the only sense.

I know some argue that this country was founded by Christians with Judeo-Christian principles underpinning our laws and system of government. This is debatable. The fact remains, however, that for those who would follow Jesus, he is our ruler, our lord, our king. We live as subjects in his good and gracious kingdom, and most of us believe that one day all of humanity will recognize this to be true. Short of that day, however, every effort to wed the church with any secular crown has been disastrous. Do I have to point out why? For starters, the Church is the bride of Christ according to Scripture; so any effort to settle for any other bridegroom/ruler is ill-advised. And history has borne this out. From Israel’s early clamoring for a king other than God to the Crusades and on throughout history, whenever the Church has been in bed with the state it has muddled her mission, at best, and compromised not only her virtue but her very purpose, at worst.

Again, the Church is the bride of Christ, after all, and it exists for those yet to become a part of it. We cannot serve two masters. We must give to Ceasar what is Ceasar’s (our taxes), but to God what is God’s (our very lives). We ought not pursue worldly political power, but serve Jesus best when we focus on serving and loving our neighbor, as he did. In fact, historically the church seems to thrive most when it is most out of favor politically, as the situation in China has long made clear.

 

Yet the more the Chinese government tries to control and co-opt the “official” Chinese church, the more the underground church seems to grow. This is why the start of this post has a picture of the (in)famous “conversion of Constantine.” It’s worth noting that his conversion allegedly came during the heat of battle, after which he and his troops were victorious. The aftermath of his conversion has been no less bloody. With Constantine came Christendom, the long, slow slumber of the co-opted church who gave up her mission to follow Jesus and love the world, and instead pursued worldly power, conquest, wealth, and prestige. This treatment of the topic is particularly interesting. As the author notes:

…it all went downhill after Emperor Constantine, when ‘Christ, who had turned the Roman empire upside down, was turned into a lap-dog for the Roman emperor’ (Andrews 1999, p. 70). The early church had strived to enact Jesus’ teaching. But with Constantine’s ‘conversion’, what had begun as a voluntary, nonviolent movement, a conscious choice of love, forgiveness and sacrifice eventually became a compulsory and hence meaningless tag synonymous with the status quo.

One result was the bloody Crusades. Another was the conversion of Native Americans, sometimes forcibly. The Bible was used to justify slavery, and I could go on, but it should be clear that Jesus is not to be found in any of this. No, if the Chinese church has grown best underground, out of favor with the government, we should learn from this. Something seems right about this, after all, if we are really following a leader who always could be found on the margins of society, with the “least of these.” We follow him best when we follow him there. We follow him not at all when we find ourselves in the halls of earthly political power.

So let’s win the nation for Jesus, but not by trying to get “back” any political power we think we’ve lost. Let’s try to get back our love, our eyes to see where Jesus is. Let’s seek him where he may be found, among the outcasts, with the poor, the lost, the broken, the sick and in prison, among the refugees who would be teeming at our shores if only we’d let them. That’s where Jesus is, and so that’s where we must be. See you there?

“Come In Here, Girl; I’ve Been Waiting On You All My Life”- A Review of The Great Suppression by Zachary Roth

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According to this PBS profile of her, Zohara Simmons “spent seven years working full time on voter registration and desegregation activities in Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama during the height of the civil rights movement.” She’s featured in Segment 1 of the Humankind radio documentary “The Right to Vote,” starting at about the 19:16 mark. She says that at the start of her participation in an effort to go door to door to register black folks to vote, she went to the home of an older black woman and, being new at this and quite nervous, she struggled to explain who she was and why she was there. She says the woman “looked her up and down” and then said, “Girl, are you one of those freedom riders?” Zohara says she “wasn’t sure if that was good or bad,” but answered “yes,” to which the woman replied “Then, come in here, girl, I’ve been waiting on you all my life.”

Sadly, that “waiting” is still happening. Especially in this most acrimonious of election seasons, it’s worth remembering our history. Formal slavery in this country existed for almost 250 years. While emancipation as a result of the Civil War ended its formal practice, subjugation of people of color by whites did not end. It changed, sometimes taking on slightly more subtle forms such as sharecropping, sometimes manifesting itself in decidedly unsubtle ways. Either way, blacks were prevented from enjoying the benefits of full citizenship for at least another century after the Civil War, and though gains were certainly made as a result of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s, now, a full 4 centuries (four hundred years!) since the advent of slavery on this continent, there remains at least “two Americas,” one for whites in which opportunity for jobs and housing and decent quality of life remains good if not perfect, and one for people of color in which those same opportunities are hard, if not impossible, to come by. If you don’t believe me, check out this, this, this, or perhaps most egregiously, this. For example, in 2013 the ratio of median U.S. white household wealth to that of blacks was 13:1:

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As the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) said recently, in the United States “racial and ethnic discrimination remains a serious and persistent problem in all areas of life from de facto school segregation, access to health care and housing.” Like it or not, a person of color in the U.S. is more likely than a white person to be poor, to lack adequate housing or access to education or healthcare, is more likely to be stopped by law enforcement, often for trivial or contrived reasons, and is more likely to be incarcerated, or killed. And it doesn’t matter how old, or young, you are, as this story attests (a screen shot of which you see below):

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The epidemic of racial profiling and the murder of blacks by police has gotten so bad that the MA Supreme Court recently stated that blacks are justified in running from police whether they’re guilty of a crime or not.

In the midst of this racial crisis in the U.S.- a crisis which, it’s worth stating again, is not at all new but which has been newly forced into the consciousness of white “America”- (some of, I would argue) the country is being asked to vote. I say only “some of” the country is being asked to vote, because not surprisingly, those holding the reins of power are using it- and worse, abusing it- to encapsulate and perpetuate their hold on it. If it wasn’t clear from above and from any cursory but honest reading of our history, it’s no less a fact that those in power are mostly white and are the beneficiaries of a centuries old system of white privilege. Thus my argument and that of Zachary Roth in his book The Great Suppression is that there is a concerted effort to limit access to the ballot, especially by people of color.

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As the subtitle to Roth’s book, which speaks of “the conservative assault on democracy,” suggests, the book has a (“left-“ish) political bent, but that doesn’t invalidate his arguments, especially in light of all the independent supporting evidence. Indeed, it’s inarguable that disenfranchisement has long been used as a tool to oppress and “hold down” blacks. Zohara Simmons’ life attests to this as briefly described above, as does any honest reading of our nation’s history. The only question is whether this is still the case, and the evidence clearly suggests that it is. Perhaps more disturbingly, though, Roth argues that not only has systemic white privilege been perpetuated by limiting black access to the franchise, but there is also evidence going all the way back to our nation’s founding of a concerted effort to limit democracy generally so as to perpetuate the hold of the powerful few on their power.

Indeed, Roth argues basically that the nation’s founders were actually not all that interested in democracy. Having cast off monarchy they certainly had some interest in it, to be sure, but if democracy in limited fashion was a good thing or at least better than monarchy, it was certainly the case for the founders, according to Roth, that more of this good thing was not always better. It’s worth remembering too that the founding of the U.S. was not exactly an act of the powerless throwing off the bonds of oppression cast on them by the powerful. It’s probably far more accurate to say that the founding of this country was a revolutionary act undertaken by those already holding some measure of power, seeking to consolidate it by overthrowing those that had more. Again, we must remember that slavery existed in this country long before it was a country– and its impact continues to be felt. That said, the point is that many of the nation’s founders were aristrocrats– that is they were white, wealthy (male) landowners. As the just linked to primer on the founders, written for this election season, records one historian saying:

“Ultimately,” said Terry Bouton, a history professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, “whether you are talking about a main group of six or 60 founding fathers, they were all far from ordinary in terms of income, wealth, education, and social standing.”

Thus, some of them were no doubt concerned by the “egalitarian ideals” that were “set in motion” by the Revolution. As Roth says:

Starting in 1776, many states had loosened rules on who could vote and hold office, made elections more frequent, and drawn more equally sized districts- with the result that a new wave of men of a lower social rank gained power. The Revolution had also weakened social hierarchy, so that those on the bottom were less inclined to bow and scrape to their onetime superiors. The “spirit of independency was converted into equality,” one shocked aristocratic Virginian complained, such that a common peasant “conceives himself, in every respect, my equal.” To men like (John) Adams, this was deeply unnerving, because it seemed to threaten the values of order, stability, and respect for private property that they prioritized over equality. “The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God,” Adams wrote in 1778, “anarchy and tyranny commence.”

Thus, Roth says:

It should come as no surprise that Adams feared democracy. James Madison did, too. “Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention,” he wrote in 1787, “have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”

Roth goes on then to make the case that the founders sought to utilize democracy insofar as it was useful, which is to say, in the hands of the privileged, educated, (relatively) wealthy few, and therefore sought to limit the ability of the mob to vote, fearing what they might do with such power. There is a vein of this thinking throughout our nation’s history, which has ebbed and flowed with more or less access to the ballot by the (usually more underprivileged) masses. When there has been more access (especially by people of color), many of the country’s great progressive advances have occurred, such as the historic Civil Rights legislation and before that, the New Deal. When there has been less access to the ballot, things have moved in the other direction.

The New Deal may have resulted in only limited progress in the quality of life of people of color, and in fact benefited whites much more than blacks, but nonetheless resulted in some progress. Thus, the New Deal is important because it coincided with a historic shift in the loyalty of black voters. Indeed, as the official history of the U.S. House of Representatives records:

While New Deal programs failed to extend as much economic relief to Black Americans as to whites, the tangible assistance they provided conferred a sense that the system was at least addressing a few issues that were important to African Americans. For those who had been marginalized or ignored for so long, even the largely symbolic efforts of the Roosevelt administration inspired hope and renewed interest in the political process.40 As younger black voters displaced their parents and grandparents, their electoral experiences and loyalties evolved largely alongside and within the Democratic machines that came to dominate northern city wards.

Since then, Black voters have largely preferred Democrats, sometimes by exceptionally wide margins. As a result, and especially as the Republican party shifts further and further to the ideological “right,” Republicans have doubled down on the historic effort to limit  Black access to the ballot. Indeed, the Republican party has moved so far to the ideological “right” that programs and policies once espoused by Republicans have become anathema, especially when pursued by a thoughtful, compromising Democratic President, who “just so happens” to be Black. “Obamacare” is the textbook case of this.

The primary way that conservatives have sought to limit Black access to the ballot is through the raft of recently enacted VoterID laws, which remain a solution in search of a problem. VoterID laws can only prevent in-person voter impersonation, after all, and there simply is scant evidence that this is a problem. Indeed, as I was doing some research after listening to The Right to Vote, described above, I came across a report called Who Can Vote?, which is a 2012 project of News21, “a national investigative reporting project funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.” Their findings are clear:

A News21 analysis of 2,068 alleged election-fraud cases since 2000 shows that while fraud has occurred, the rate is infinitesimal, and in-person voter impersonation on Election Day, which prompted 37 state legislatures to enact or consider tough voter ID laws, is virtually non-existent.

Thus, the argument that voter ID laws are necessary to prevent election fraud is, on its face, absurd, and actual data backs this up. What there is evidence for, however, is the fact that voter ID laws, coupled with all the effort to restrict voting hours and the number of polling locations, etc., unduly harm and disenfranchise black voters. Roth’s book helps to lay some background for our understanding of why all this is happening, and shows us that it fits into a much larger, and longer standing, pattern. Thus, like the older Black woman who Zohara Simmons visited back in the ’60s, some would- be voters (again, usually people of color, always those on whose “backs” the powerful have built and perpetuated their power) continue to “wait” for a day when their full participation in USAmerican democracy is not only legal but is invited and encouraged. It remains to be seen if that day will ever come.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Jesus Is Wanted In Minneapolis

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You never know what might happen when you simply show up, or what you might miss out on when you don’t. This is one of the many “lessons,” that I know I already know, at least in my head, but too often fail to practice. Of course, head knowledge and experience are two very different things. So if you’ve been reading this blog at all or checked out the last series of posts, you might know that it has seemed that we’ve been on the cusp of something for a little while. Change has been in the air. Maybe it has something to do with the seasons. Here in MN fall approaches, with winter ever not far behind. But I know it’s more than that, as the seasons are changing in our lives too. Let me try to explain how by talking about my day yesterday.

I worked, of course. I work as a case manager, a role in which I serve people experiencing disability who are certified as requiring a nursing home level of care, but who choose instead to remain in their homes with services to support them staying there. I help them get hooked up with those services they need, whether it’s Personal Care Assistance (PCA), Homemaking help, Home Delivered Meals, or Independent Living Skills Training (ILS). A lot of my work is office based, but I’m required to see the people I serve at least twice a year, and there are between 40 and 50 of them; so I spend a fair bit of time out of the office too, visiting the people I serve. They’re somewhat diverse too. I have one person I serve that is part of a family that obviously has some means. Some are white. Some are people of color, though, and many obviously are otherwise disadvantaged. Two days ago I saw a Somali woman, for example, who doesn’t speak English and came to this country many years ago, as most immigrants do, hoping for a better life for her children. Since coming here, her children have grown up and her health has declined. Now she lives in a somewhat run down house in Minneapolis with a bed bug infestation that’s probably a little too big for her now with her kids grown. Her mobility is quite limited and she’s in constant pain. Her primary caregiver is what we USAmericans would call a step-son, the son of her husband (whom is not in the picture, may not be in the country, and/or may have passed away) by another wife. He had two wives, of which the person I serve is one. This “son by another mother” now dedicates much of his life to caring for the woman who helped bring him to this country. They’re the nicest people you’d ever meet, so very gracious, kind, and grateful.

As I met with them a couple of days ago I thought about all the furor in the news recently about immigration, and was grateful that I at least had some awareness of alternative stories like this one, headlined “Helping Syrian refugees is the Christian thing to do, say these church leaders.” It was in this story that I heard what some might stereotype as a very “conservative” Texas pastor talk all about the call to love one’s neighbors, even/especially displaced Syrian ones. When asked if he had an ulterior motive to “convert” the immigrants he was leading his congregation to help resettle, he said, “We have a saying in our church: we don’t serve to convert, we serve because we’ve been converted.” That’s powerful. Thank you, NPR, for that reporting.

I’ve been hearing a lot of such reporting on MPR/NPR of late, reporting about Christ followers defying their political leaders to do what Jesus says we should instead. Take this story, for example, about a NJ congregation that’s been resettling refugees for 50 years, despite the call by the state’s current governor to ban them. Here’s another story that tells a similar tale. This reporting is invaluable, and helps to shape my hoped for Christian worldview. It’s part of why I remain a public radio nerd (among the various nerd-doms I self-identify as belonging to).

Then yesterday I saw one of the people I serve who has significant mental health needs and has battled housing insecurity for some time. When I first started working with him, he was experiencing homelessness and was bouncing from a shelter to his mom’s place to wherever else he could find a place to stay. While I can’t/wouldn’t take much credit for it, I was privileged to be part of helping him find an apartment, and when I saw him yesterday, that’s where we met. He seems to be doing okay, for now, and it was good to see. Seeing that person I serve came on the heels of seeing the immigrant family I spoke of above the day before. Then yesterday, again on MPR, I heard some of this conversation while driving. Again, it’s stories like these that keep me tuning in to public radio, despite the accusations by some would be Christ followers, including an acquaintance at work, that MPR/NPR is a “liberal” organization. I frankly could care less. Jesus was pretty radical (see above), and I remain hopeful that a life spent following him is one that transcends binary USAmerican political ideologies.

That conversation I listened to part of in the car, about the Dakota Access pipeline protests, was moving. I was particularly struck by the part where the otherwise very savvy and sensitive host, Tom Weber, spoke of the allotment of land indigenous people were “given” by the U.S. government and the successive betrayals of their land commitments to and treaties with indigenous people by the U.S. government, when, for example, gold was discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota. In the conversation as the host made that comment about the land they were “given”- again trying to make a larger point about how they were then betrayed and treaty after treaty was broken- the indigenous folks he was talking with were taken aback by the notion that they were given the land by whites. Of course, the indigenous people were there first, which is why I constantly bristle when political leaders in the current election campaign talk about the rules they want to impose about who can come here when and under what circumstances they can be allowed into our country. It’s not ours, and what’s amazing about indigenous people is that they not only know it’s not ours (speaking of myself as a “white” USAmerican), but know it’s not “theirs” either. They get stewardship (of creation, in this case) better than most Christians I know, but I digress.

Not long after hearing that conversation I had to pull over and stop by the side of the road before returning to work. I pulled over because I was crying. I had changed things up and was at that time listening to music that put me in a spirit of worship, and I couldn’t help but break down. All those stories I’ve described above were rattling around in my mind and heart, but so too was the story of how I and my family got to where we are now, in this season of our life as we’re working to take steps to follow Jesus in new ways, in part because we came upon a community of folks in which God is clearly up to something and so with whom we are privileged to join in. I cried as I thought about Syrian refugees and the history of oppression of indigenous people and the earth itself by whites around the world and in the Dakotas. I cried as I thought about our long search for people we could be on a mission with, a mission to be the church and love our community in profound ways, and remembered that at just the right time God seems to be bringing us into just such a community.

I cried too as I thought about the Carnival de Resistance which would be kicking off publicly later that evening, and which Kirsten and I planned to attend with the boys. We knew about the Carnival by virtue of being on the mailing list of the local Mennonite Worker, a group we admire and respect and hope to emulate in whatever small way we can. Their “recommended reading for new residents” alone is an invaluable resource I hope to work my way through. Anyway, knowing the Carnival was starting I went to their website and began investigating a little more. I was pleased to find that one of the organizers of the Carnival is Jay Beck of the Psalters, who have long been affiliated with Circle of Hope, the church community we were a part of in Philly. Anyway, the “CARNIVAL DE RESISTANCE is a traveling carnival, village, and school for cultural transformation bridging the worlds of art, activism and faith.” Obviously, we were intrigued and wanted to check it out, and again this also was on my mind as I sat in my car yesterday afternoon, crying as so many different parts of my story came together as a page of my life turned and a new chapter began.

So we showed up yesterday evening, and as I alluded to above, showing up is so often the biggest part of the work to be done in living into the life one feels called to. We showed up, and soon were drawn into the performance that was happening last night. Here’s what we saw:

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That’s Jay, in costume as a raven. The performance was part play, part concert, part dance party. The Carnival describes the production last night, called “Rooted Wind,” this way:

This evening of theater weaves music, dance theater, storytelling and circus arts to highlight the power of Earth andAir in our ancient and contemporary stories of resistance. This show features loud-mouthed “Raven”, mute “Dove”, and the “Voice of the Cedars”, in poetic soliloquies about the gift of creation and prophetic rants against its destruction. The evening will end in a live drum and dance party.

Here’s some of what we saw:

Notice Jay drumming, something he’s known for. It was a powerful show, calling us to remember the lament of the prophets not only that God’s people should return to his ways, but over the oppression of God’s good world, described, for example, in this passage from Isaiah:

The Lord has broken the rod of the wicked, the scepter of the rulers, which in anger struck down peoples with unceasing blows, and in fury subdued nations with relentless aggression. All the lands are at rest and at peace; they break into singing. Even the junipers and the cedars of Lebanon gloat over you and say, “Now that you have been laid low, no one comes to cut us down.”

We were invited to lament over the destruction of the cedars of Lebanon, over the murder of environmental activists like Berta Cáceres- a growing trend around the world- and over the shallowness of our own Starbucks and smart phone addicted lives. Speaking of smartphones, while eating lunch yesterday I watched a video on mine, and then tweeted about it:

Here’s the video linked in my tweet:

Imagine then how that invitation to lament struck me, particularly yesterday, with the stories of refugees, indigenous activists fighting for the protection of God’s world, and sorrow over my participation in a system of unmitigated capitalist consumption that exploits and destroys both the earth and its people, all on my mind.

Here’s a little more from the show last night:

And here are some more pictures from last night:

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Part of the vision of the Carnival de Resistance is to “embody” the life of resistance to the dominant culture/story of our day that following Jesus challenges us to undertake. They say that:

Our village life is so much work, but, oh, such a satisfying life. Still, we call it our Holy Game. Most of us will return to “normal lives.” Amazingly, many find that a real change has taken place. All of this that surrounds us and seems to claim to be necessary in some way, within the game, it’s lost some of its power. Maybe normal life is a game, too. Now which game is more holy? Which one closer to God’s dream?

Here are some pictures of the “village life” together:

Village Life

 

I think this commitment to life together, to embodying the alternative story of the other world that is possible for those who do the hard work of following Jesus, carries over even/especially into their performances, including the one we saw last night. Look closely at this picture:

 

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What you see in the image above is someone on a bike, pedaling away. The bike is being used to create electricity to power the lights and sound system for the show. The green light in the photo tells you you’re pedaling hard enough to create the right amount of power for what’s being drawn by whatever you’re powering. If it turns white, you’re pedaling too fast, red and you better speed up. I guess the Carnival crew has a couple of people who do this throughout the probably 2 hour total length show, but one of them couldn’t last night for some reason; so at one point as I was standing near the back with Kirsten and the boys, someone approached me and asked if I would relieve the only guy who had been powering the show to that point, and I said yes and literally jumped in to do my part to make the show go on. I’m glad I looked and am relatively fit enough to do so! I was on there for about 20 minutes and worked up a nice sweat before the woman you see in the picture above jumped on after me.

Like I said, you never what might happen when you show up. So as the show was winding down I checked out the “Radical Reading Library” you see below, taking a picture to make sure I could add some of the titles to my ever-growing reading list.

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As I kept looking around, I was pleased as I noticed on the table nearby some of Circle of Hope’s “Audio Art” CD’s (the three in the far left column below). I was reminded that Jay, whom I mentioned above, has been connected to Circle for a while, and it was good to see this part of my life popping up unexpectedly:

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And then literally as I was looking at these CD’s and thinking about Circle of Hope, Kirsten came up to me and said, “Isn’t that Joshua Grace up there, performing with the band?” I whipped out my smart phone, thinking of the kids that may have died or been forever harmed by their work to harvest the elements that went into making my phone (not to mention what was done to the earth to get those elements), and looked again at the Carnival de Resistance website. I turned to the “carnival crew” page, and saw this:

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Yup, that’s Joshua, alright, one of the pastors of Circle of Hope, and someone who I have some history with. At one time we were close enough that, depending on how they tell it, I may be part of the birth story of Lily, Joshua’s 11 year old daughter in the bio above. I at least was trusted to be the one they called when it was time for them to go the hospital for Lily to be born. I drove them late one evening, with Martha (his wife) in labor in the back seat. In any case, in my recent post about Circle of Hope, and probably in many of them on this blog, I said that when we left Philly/Circle the last time…

…in the wake of Samuel’s extraordinarily premature birth…we did not leave well or lovingly. Any meaningful relationship among imperfect people involves pain, of course, and we let ourselves get hurt when we weren’t loved in just the way we wanted or hoped to be as we dealt with the trauma of Samuel’s prematurity and all the disruption it caused in our lives. Instead of working through the issues that came up and growing as a result, and giving the community a chance to grow too, we skipped town. It wasn’t our best moment.

I think I’ve said elsewhere and said again to Kirsten last night that for some time now when I tell the story of leaving Circle of Hope the last time, I take full responsibility for the decision to leave and all that led up to it. It was my fault. I was wrong. We were very vulnerable at that time in our lives and were presented with an opportunity to grow, a chance to grow up some. Instead of leaning into that and doing the work involved, we short-circuited the process, and in the process, stunted our own growth. We cut ourselves off from the community, something the community no doubt also experienced as being harmful. I felt hurt, and so I acted hurtfully, including toward Joshua. I could explain, but I’m not looking to justify myself here. That Jesus’ job, I trust. Since then I reached out over email I think some time ago to make a meager effort to apologize, but I don’t know if it was received. Obviously, it wasn’t a very personal or heartfelt attempt.

So it’s taken us over a decade since leaving in 2005 to not just lick our wounds, but to allow them to heal. Time has helped, but time alone hasn’t healed them. There was still work to be done, and we’ve been doing it, slowly, in fits and starts. I think what I’ve been writing about of late and the place we’ve come to now is evidence of that.

So we saw Joshua performing with the band, and waited until the show and dance party that it ended with were over so that we could approach him and say hello. We did so, and I introduced him to Samuel, whose birth story he’s a part of as he led Circle of Hope East to continue to pray for us during Samuel’s long NICU stay, and came to visit a time or two as well. This is a picture from Samuel’s first of 2 birth story photo albums we made a decade ago:

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If you didn’t gather, Joshua’s standing behind Samuel’s isolette, and you can’t actually see Sam in this picture. Anyway, I (re-)introduced Samuel to Joshua last night, and of course introduced Nathan to Joshua too. As we approached, he seemed ready for us. He must have noticed us in the crowd just as we had noticed him. As we got near him, he said hi to us by name, we hugged, and started talking. The conversation was brief, but cordial. I think he was surprised to see us. We were certainly surprised that he was there. I asked if he would have any time in the next 10 days or so to get together. We might get breakfast one morning, though he’s understandably very busy. I tried not to put any pressure on him, and was careful to say that if it works out for us to get together and talk more, great. If not, that’s okay too. So I was sure to say that in the event it doesn’t work out and we don’t connect again, while we were face to face last night, I wanted him to know I love him, and that I’m sorry for letting him down.

I was ready to say that, and to see him. It took 10 years, but I’m glad to have done so. He invited us back to the show this evening, which starts now in just a few hours. We’re going to try to make it. As we were driving home last night, I was reminded of this sermon I recently listened to from Mill City, part of their/(our?) series on “the Gospel and Race.” In it, Stephanie talks about Peter as part of a larger conversation about eating together with those who are different from you as a small step on the way toward racial reconciliation. She spoke specifically of Peter’s vision from Acts 10 of the “clean” and “unclean” animals descending on a sheet, and God’s invitation to Peter to upend everything he knew about what was right and proper up to that point, and to go ahead and partake of the “unclean” animals. Incidentally, while Peter is told to “kill and eat,” I don’t think this is God saying we should eat animals, generally, but again I digress. No, the point was clear: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” Peter had this vision three times, and then was invited to Cornelius’ house, a Gentile (or “unclean” person in the eyes of the Jews at the time). Cornelius had a vision too, in which he was told to send for Peter. This reminds me of my recent writing about how God is at work everywhere at all times, “already up to” bringing about his dream for the world. We just have to pay attention and join him.

Anyway, Peter has his vision three times, and things seem to happen to Peter three times a lot. Jesus said Peter would deny him three times, and he did. Later, after the disciples and Peter were told of Jesus’ resurrection, three times Jesus confronts Peter, asking him, “Do you love me?” Each time Peter said he did, and each time Jesus told him then to feed his (Jesus’) sheep. I like Peter a lot. He’s impulsive, but acts out of the depths of his heart. He takes great leaps of faith, but then falters. Peter has great insight into who Jesus is, such that Jesus calls him a “Rock” and says he’ll build his church on him, but then immediately- in the same chapter– Jesus also calls him “Satan” when Peter just doesn’t seem to get it and gets in the way of what Jesus is up to. As much as I identify with David, I also see a lot of myself in Peter, and this was all on my mind as Kirsten and I drove home last night. Peter failed spectacularly as a Christ-follower. So have I; so have we, perhaps no more so than when we ran away from Philly the second time. And we’ve quite literally had to live with the consequences of that choice lo these ten long years, which is not to say that it’s all been bad by any means. We’ve learned a lot, Lord willing. We have Nathan. We’ve been privileged to bear witness as we’ve stood vigil over some deaths. Many other things have taken place over the past decade, some of which are documented are on this blog.

And now, here we are. Over the past little bit I’ve wondered if I’ll die soon. I’ve wondered this because I’ve been driven of late to, “as far as it depends on (me), live at peace with everyone.” So I’ve been doing the work of peacemaking. I’ve sought out folks I need to make peace with in ways large and small. Sometimes they’ve sought me out, but when presented with that opportunity, I’ve taken it. I’ve wondered if I’ve been driven to do this work because somehow I know I’m not long for this earth. Lord willing, that’s not the case. Then again, whether I live to 82 or 42, I’m not really long for this (“between the times”) earth anyway. Conversely, maybe my development is right on cue:

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I did recently turn 40, after all; so perhaps I’m feeling generative, which “refers to ‘making your mark’ on the world through caring for others as well as creating and accomplishing things that make the world a better place.” We’ve been stagnant, after all, for far too long.

Either way, I told Kirsten that the timing of everything that seems to be happening just now was nothing short of providential. I find it hard to think it coincidental that just as we wrestle through all that has happened and all we’ve learned in our journey thus far and are drawn into a community that we feel called to be the church with- a community that really seems to have a mission that they’re working on together in direct response to what they hear God telling them as they do the hard work of paying attention to what he’s up to- just as we are finally ready to learn what can be learned from our spectacular failure to follow Jesus as we might or should have a decade ago, just then Circle of Hope rolls into town in the form of Joshua and the Carnival de Resistance.

In all this I hear Jesus asking me, “Do you love me?” He’s had to repeat it enough times for me to pay attention, but I’m answering, “yes, Lord,” and I want to do the work of feeding his sheep, of loving my neighbor in ways large and small, of being the church and living into a different story than the one being told by the dominant culture I live in. Jesus is wanted in Minneapolis, and I’m happy to join the radicals and dissidents that make up his “known associates.”

Striving No More, Part 5b, Or Why I’ve Started Talking About Mill City Church

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I’ve now spoken at quite some length about the road that has led us to this point, where we’ve started connecting with Mill City Church. If you haven’t read the first five (!) parts in this series, I highly encourage it. It’s impossible to fully understand what I’m about to say without at least some knowledge of why I keep talking about Circle of Hope, how I’ve come to understand that “without worship, we shrink” (in part because of the influence of Keith Green and Rich Mullins in my formation as a person, and a person of faith), why I keep talking about House of Mercy but we have struggled to connect with that community since returning to the Twin Cities, and why I’ve come to reluctant acceptance of- but hope not to have to talk too much more about- 3DM. All of that background is, at the least, very informative.

I should mention that we didn’t wind up beginning to connect with Mill City Church because we were “church shopping.” I’ve long been critical of that type of consumeristic approach to church, as if it were a religious “good or service” one received in exchange for money, attendance, etc. Usually I’ve made this critique self-knowingly, aware that like a good USAmerican I have a tendency to treat church in just this way. But that’s not what happened in this case. As I’ve said, though it’s true that we were struggling to connect with House of Mercy like we might hope to, we were trying to figure out a way to make it work. In the midst of that, I came across Mill City Church very unintentionally as a result of my participation with Mile In My Shoes (MiMS), the running group I’m a part of in which I’ve been running with folks experiencing homelessness once a week. There are several posts on this blog about MiMS from earlier this year. Anyway, one of the leaders of MiMS is part of Mill City Church, and one of the pastors of Mill City Church, Stephanie, came along with that leader and ran with us for the Torchlight 5k. Also, Stephanie’s fiancée, J.D., made a documentary about homelessness here in the Twin Cities that one of Mill City Church’s missional communities helped host a screening of, which Samuel and I attended. This is how Mill City Church (MCC) entered my awareness. You might imagine just from the above that I was intrigued.

So I started doing some homework. I already knew MCC had missional communities, and so as you might imagine if you read my previous post in this series, I was wary. Still, I wanted to know more. You’ll hopefully recall from my last post my growing conviction of the importance of listening and “getting on board” with what God might already be up to in a local community. This has long been important to me theoretically, going all the way back to seminary when I read books like Lamin Sanneh‘s Translating the Message and Leslie Newbigin‘s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Sanneh’s book, especially, blew my mind as I was invited to consider that when the gospel is first translated into new languages, those languages sometimes already had a word for “God,” which sometimes then gets used to talk about the Christian God.

There’s much to unpack there (and, probably unfortunately, debate), but my point is that God no doubt was already at work, already doing something, before Christian missionaries arrived with the (hopefully) good news about Jesus, and this dynamic has been at work throughout history and even in Scripture itself (see Paul preaching on Mars Hill to the worshippers of the “unknown god”). Newbigin adds to the discussion by inviting USAmerican “Christendom” to realize that “missions” isn’t the exporting of U.S. civil religion to other lands and cultures (if I’m not putting words in his mouth); rather, it’s something that happens within each of our USAmerican homes, hopefully, but then especially when each and every one of us who would follow Jesus step out our front doors and start trying to love our literal neighbors. Newbigin listened to USAmerican culture after returning from a lifetime’s worth of missionary service overseas and realized that the greatest missional challenge the USAmerican church might face going forward was right in front of it, at home in its own rapidly changing culture. Here’s a sermon from one of MCC’s pastors, Michael Binder, in which he talks a bit about Newbigin. It’s worth a listen. Binder quotes Newbigin:

“If the gospel is to challenge the public life of our society…it will only be by movements that begin with the local congregation in which the reality of the new creation is present, known, and experienced, and from which men and women will go into every sector of public life to claim it for Christ, to unmask the illusions which have remained hidden and to expose all areas of public life to the illumination of the gospel. But that will only happen as and when local congregations renounce an introverted concern for their own life, and recognize that they exist for the sake of those who are not members, as sign, instrument and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society.” (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p. 232-233)

Hmmm…recognizing that the church “exist(s) for the sake of those who are not members” sounds a lot like the “the church exists for those yet to (become a part of it),” doesn’t it? In any case, Sanneh and Newbigin helped lay the foundation in my understanding that God is present and active everywhere at all times, even in languages that the gospel is being translated into for the first time; so therefore our responsibility is to do the hard work of listening and paying attention to what God is already up to so that we might join him in what he’s already doing.

My understanding of how to do this best, of how to listen and pay attention to what God is already up to somewhere, was bolstered as I encountered Christian Community Development and the “three R’s” that guide it: Relocation, Reconciliation, and Redistribution. Especially for people who want to follow Jesus but are products of white privilege like myself, “relocation” from literal places of privilege to the places that very privilege literally affords you the ability to flee from is vital. As I’ve heard them say in the Christian Community Development Association, after all, “God (in the person of Jesus) didn’t commute from heaven every day.” No, he relocated from his place of power and privilege to our place of struggle. Likewise, those who want to serve disadvantaged communities do it best when they literally make such communities their own. They will be most active at working to change struggling inner city schools, for example, when their kids go there too. If you want to really listen to and understand a people, their culture, and their problems, try living among them. Reconciliation, between humanity and God of course, but especially racial reconciliation is just as important, and redistribution of wealth is too. For all the misguided, ignorant attacks of the current President for even approaching a discussion of redistribution of wealth, this is something deeply rooted in scripture, and I, for one, believe Ta-Nehisi Coates is right, but I digress.

Anyway, I had encountered Christian Community Development probably first with Circle of Hope, but especially later when I met Duane Crabbs and his family in Akron, who have so faithfully lived out the principles of Christian Community Development. Duane’s story is worth telling again, and I’ve re-told it here, here, here, and here. In any case, it was in a sermon of Duane’s that I first heard the unattributed quote that has since been so important to me: “If you’ve come here to save me, don’t bother, but if you’ve come here because you understand that your salvation is wrapped up in mine, then let us labor together.” When you relocate to live among a people and do the work of really listening to them with an eye for what God might be up to already among them, then you begin to understand that there is work to be done, together, to live into the goodness of God’s kingdom in which peace with justice are the lived experience for all, not just some.

So as I’ve come to learn more about Mill City Church, I’ve learned that this- listening and getting on board with what God is already up to- is central to their approach to being the church. In fact, the pastor I mentioned above, Michael Binder, writes extensively about it. He says, first of all, that they assume…:

“…that God is at work in our local context, and has been working long before we have been there. God is out ahead of us in the neighborhoods where we live, inviting us to participate in the things he is doing. If God is out ahead of us, then two questions guide our participation in his mission: “What is God doing?” and “How can we respond to that?” These are simple questions, but they can be hard to answer. Yet asking them is the first step in learning. They put us in a listening posture. They position us to become “divine detectives” in the neighborhoods where we live, work, and worship.”

He then goes on elsewhere to describe this “divine detective” work as one of their “core commitments.” He says:

The first core commitment (of someone wanting to become a covenant member of Mill City Church) is to a spiritual practice of daily discernment, where each covenant member daily asks, “What is God up to?” and “How does God want me/us to respond?” By committing to this practice, covenant members seek to approach each day as a chance to be part of what God is doing in whatever setting they find themselves in.

This is a commitment that they not only ask the individual covenant members to commit to, but is something they commit to together as a church. Mill City Church’s website and smartphone app both offer access to podcasts of their sermons and even some “trainings” they offer, and over the past month I’ve probably listened to close to a dozen such sermons/trainings, such that they’re starting to run together in my mind/remembrance. Nonetheless, it was in this sermon that I heard that Mill City Church is committed to team leadership at every level. This is important, and reminds me of Circle of Hope, as two of Circle of Hope’s proverbs are that “A leader is always part of a team, is always a mentor, and is always preparing his/her successor,” and “Leaders listen to the body and to God; their function is discernment as much as direction.” Likewise, in that sermon I linked to above Stephanie said that for Mill City Church “the purpose of leaders in our community is to equip other people, not to decide things for them.” She says that “We don’t give everybody all the answers; we help us together ask good questions, and seek after what God might be doing.” She adds, “We have 5 pastors who see everybody as having influence, and everybody having the opportunity to listen and respond to God. We don’t have more pastors so that we have more people listening to God for you, but more people listening to God with you.”

This approach of listening and responding to God- together- is absolutely crucial, and is something that gives me hope. It gives me hope particularly because of what it has meant for Mill City Church. It means, first of all, that members of Mill City Church are, like those of Circle of Hope, covenant members. Michael Binder writes that a simple question posed by someone already involved in Mill City Church, “Why should I become a member?”, challenged him to realize that “membership was largely a formality” for Mill City up to that point in its young life (as it is for all too many congregations, I would argue). Binder says he was “ambivalent” about membership up to that point because he “worried it reinforced a consumer mentality about church.” He reflects about health club memberships and says: “you get a lot for the money you are paying. As a member, you have the right to all these different goods and services any time you want to come. That wasn’t the attitude we wanted to cultivate among the people seeking to join the life of our church.” Realizing that “something had to change,” he says: “Ultimately we decided that we wanted membership to describe a way of life, not merely what we believed or what we “got” for being in the club. We wanted membership that demanded something of people.”

Over the course of a year, then, they worked to discern what membership should look like and came up with covenant membership. Obviously, they came up with a covenant too, one that is marked by three core commitments. The first is “daily discernment” as noted above. The second is loving their “community” (defined both as the church community and their neighborhood) . He says: “We commit to connecting with fellow members throughout the week and seeking out relationships with new people. We want to connect with people who are different from us in age, race, gender, sexual orientation, religious belief, and socio-economic background.” Regarding the third and final core commitment, he goes on to say that:

“Our last core commitment describes our desire to serve Northeast Minneapolis, where we worship and where many of us live. This includes active service with our local partners, as well as prayer for the life of the school where we worship on Sunday. Serving locally is an essential part of what it means to be the church for us.”

And boy have they served locally! Binder writes elsewhere that:

After some time of walking the neighborhood, going to neighborhood meetings, meeting neighbors, and learning what the local community cared most about, we received an invitation from a director at the home for people living with HIV-AIDS. They wanted us to put together Christmas gifts for the residents. God was up to something. After having the chance to provide Christmas presents, we asked for permission to start holding meetings in the conference room of this building. Week after week local pastors starting meeting in this space, receiving hospitality from the people in the building. Next, people from our church asked if they could throw monthly birthday parties for residents, and relationships continued to grow.

Consequently, he says, “Over time, our church became connected with the people in this place, and the neighborhood knew it.” This was evident when the local neighborhood association “had money available to spend on something the neighborhood cared about,” but found that “they were having trouble getting input from people who lived in two local complexes: one large low-income housing unit and a building that was home to people living with HIV-AIDS.” This was the very HIV-AIDS housing unit Mill City Church had already been involved in loving and serving as described above; so the neighborhood association decided to throw a party which they hoped would “be a safe place for us all to gather, have a good time, and complete a survey on how to spend neighborhood money.” Binder says:

Over the course of just a few years, the neighborhood had learned that our church cared about those living in these spaces. We had become people who had enough relationship and credibility to invite them to a celebration where their voice could be heard by our wider community. This was an incredible opportunity. So we said yes, and we threw a party.

But that probably isn’t even the best example of how Mill City Church has been loving their neighborhood, and how that love has started spreading throughout the city. Mill City Church meets in Sheridan Elementary School, a local public elementary school in Minneapolis. This was and remains a very intentional decision. Binder writes:

We meet on Sundays in a public school, like many new churches. Despite the expectation of many that we will move into a worship space we own, we have decided to stay in the school for as long as we can because of the relationship it fosters between the church community and the school. This means forfeiting the comforts of our own space for the sake of relationship.

That relationship has blossomed, and one result is The Sheridan Story:

The story began in 2010 when the school administration at our namesake, Sheridan Elementary School, discovered that students were stealing and hoarding food on Fridays so that they would have something to eat on the weekends. After learning of this need, The Sheridan Story was launched as a project of Mill City Church and Woodridge Church. In our first month in Fall of 2010, we provided a bag of non-perishable food each weekend to 27 students. Two years later we were able to open the program to all students at Sheridan School reaching over 300 students. Spring of 2013 brought our first expansion into another school, Delano Elementary, increasing our impact to some 350 children.

By 2014, “The Sheridan Story operated in 29 schools reaching nearly 1800 children and by Spring 2016 we served some 4,000 students in 96 schools.” Here is a map of the schools The Sheridan Story operates in now:

 

If you’re not tearing up, check your pulse.

Again, it is listening to what God is already up to in the particular neighborhood of NE Minneapolis that Mill City Church is being rooted in, and responding to it as faithfully as they can, that has brought Mill City Church to where it is now, and it is why we are being drawn to them. Michael Binder also writes: “We try not to create any ministry that already exists in our local area, encouraging people to join the work of non-profits and other churches who are already doing work our people want to be involved in.” They’re not re-inventing any wheels, but are instead glad for whatever momentum existing “wheels” already have and choose to chip in and do their part to keep them going. Take their youth ministry, for example. Mill City Church recognized that while there were 52 churches in Northeast Minneapolis, there were only 2 full-time youth leaders. So Mill City Church partnered with those other churches to create Northeast Students:

So listening to God, together, and responding to what he’s up to in the community that many of Mill City Church’s members have relocated to in order to make common cause with those they want to serve is why Mill City Church has covenant members at all; it’s why thousands of kids throughout Minneapolis but especially from Sheridan Elementary are a little less hungry on the weekends; it’s a big part of why Mill City Church has team leadership at every level; and it’s why Mill City Church is made up of missional communities. Michael Binder writes:

Just a couple years into our life as a new church community, I started to realize that the structure of our church’s life (Sunday worship, small group, service projects) did not fit our vision of helping people participate in God’s mission in their local neighborhood. I realized someone could be coming to worship, going to small group, and serving at the food shelf or school without necessarily having to engage with anyone from Northeast Minneapolis that wasn’t already a part of our church. It became clear we needed a different structure for the life of our church if we were really going to equip people to “love our community in the name of Jesus.”

We began to explore the idea of creating “missional communities,” groups of 20-40 people who would see themselves primarily as missionaries to a particular neighborhood or group of people. This model seemed to create an environment where engaging with people outside our church was not optional but a necessary part of participating in the life of the group.

There was just one problem. We had a lot of people participating in small groups. We decided that killing our small groups and asking everyone to form missional communities would have been too drastic of a change. Instead we piloted one missional community and discipled leaders who could help lead future missional communities, while still supporting small groups. People sensed the change and there was some resistance to it, but the disappointment came at a reasonable rate. We spent two years in this experimental phase before we were ready to offer more people the opportunity to participate in these missional communities. Those two years felt like an eternity, especially for a young church. But it was really a relatively short period of time to make such a significant change. And because we advanced at a slower pace, we were able to make the transition without minimal disappointment and resistance.

Today Mill City Church has 8 missional communities, with more on the way. And in fact, it’s in part due to the work of one of them, the one focused on loving people experiencing homelessness, that my family and I began being drawn to Mill City Church at all. Here’s a little about Mill City Church’s missional communities:

Again, it’s because- and I should add only because- Mill City Church’s missional communities came about as a result of all that good listening and responding to what God’s already up to in their local community that I feel able to humble myself a bit, try to really discern a little too, and join in myself. As I have said elsewhere in this series, at some point had to conclude that if God is real and Jesus is worth following and my experience of community that you get called into when you try to follow him- if any of that is at all legitimate, then God has to be present and active everywhere at all times, always calling us to join him in his work and to do so together, if we’ll only pay attention and get on board. Read this post again. I think it’s clear that this is precisely what is happening with Mill City Church, and I’ve seldom been so glad for anything in all my life.

Let me start to come to a close by talking about this sermon that Pastor Stephanie of Mill City Church recently gave. There’s a lot that’s notable about it, especially for me, as it’s largely about community, and about listening to God in the midst of it. First of all she says that “rugged individualism is a cultural norm in North America, but deep community is a part of the counter-cultural reality of the kingdom of God that God invites us all to be a part of.” She says that community is so important for Christ followers in part because “God exists in community” as Father, Son, and Spirit. As I wrote in May 2007:

“Love…doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Love is something you do, and this idea has long been my best explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity, which as I see it is merely an attempt to understand God’s relationality. So God is love in God’s self because God exists relationally in three parts, but that love isn’t insular. It’s outward focused, which is why ours must be too.”

She goes on to say that “the #1 mistake in reading the Bible” that USAmerican Christians make “is that we read the bible individualistically.” She says “these books (of the Bible) were written to groups of people almost exclusively” and that “almost every place in Romans, for instance, where the word ‘you’ is said it’s actually you all.” Sound familiar? This was one of the biggest revelations for me all those years ago when we became part of Circle of Hope and then again when I was in seminary, and I’ve written about that elsewhere in this blog series. Following the Bible, not to mention Jesus, “is a group project,” as I keep repeating. What really got me, though, was her reminder that listening to God is a group project too. She says that (your awareness of) “the fact that God might want to be saying something to you that you’re not even asking him comes down to whether you are listening to God with other people in your life.” I realized recently I largely haven’t been. I’ve been trying not only to follow Jesus, but to listen to him, on my own. She adds, “when Paul says we’re ‘testing and approving’ what God’s will is, that’s something that is done together; it’s not something we can do, completely at least, on our own.”

Stephanie then gets at a theological notion without speaking of it directly. It’s the notion of living “between the times.” This idea has to do with the “already/not yet” paradox of the kingdom of God- that it’s already upon us because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus- but is not yet fully realized, as we can so readily tell by the pain and suffering that still daily surrounds us. Thus, we live between those two times, between the inauguration of God’s kingdom and its final fulfillment. Because this is so, Stephanie says that “we can’t ever be totally 100% sure of what God is saying to us,” but “the model is clear for us that we should try (to listen), and we should do that in community, the way that God exists in community as Father, Son, and Spirit” (as noted above). She says listening to God in community “gives us the best chance that we’re (going) to be transformed by God’s voice so that there’s a renewing of our mind communally and individually,” and therefore “that we’ll be able to, together, test and approve (that something is) God’s will.”

Michael Binder also encourages us not to go it alone in a recent sermon we heard him preach. He speaks generally of the worship experience when the living church (remember, the church is not a place but is instead a people) gathers on Sundays. He says the purpose of coming together not just in communities but as a whole church is to have their stories reshaped, including the common story that is unfolding among them. For this reason he says the worship experience is more than just “four songs, some announcements, and a sermon.” He says “Worship is us remembering our story, encouraging each other, admitting our brokenness, receiving forgiveness, sharing in communion, becoming friends with each other, and sending each other out into the world to become  part of what God is doing.” He says, “I don’t know of another concrete way to keep reshaping your story, than to keep worshipping God.” He adds: “that (reshaping your story) is what this (the worship experience) is designed for, and if we don’t do it, it isn’t that God is mad; it’s that you can’t become the person that God created you to be without worship in your life…” Again, as I keep repeating, “without worship, we shrink.” I’ve been shrinking for a while now, and the chance to start moving in the other direction again is another reason why I feel drawn to Mill City Church.

Even all this, of course, doesn’t begin to tell the full story of who and what Mill City Church is and what they’re up to. From what I can tell, Mill City Church is mostly white and is fairly young, but I’ve seen people of all ages there and there’s even some socioeconomic diversity, including at least some participation on the part of folks experiencing homelessness, or at least folks who at one time were. And while Mill City Church may, based on my cursory observations, be “mostly white;” it’s not exclusively so and I have seen some people of color around too. More to the point, I know Mill City Church is working to be an anti-racist congregation, though they may not use or be familiar with that language. In the wake of recent events in the country and around the world, Mill City Church had a sermon series called “Gospel and Race” in which they explored the idea “that we need to cross racial and ethnic boundaries in order to understand and live out the gospel. We believe this is not an option, but a necessary part of what it means to be a gospel person.” Thus, I was glad and relieved to listen to this “traning podcast” which was a roundtable discussion among some of the pastors and several biracial couples that are part of the congregation. I’m aware that Mill City Church may not be very far along just yet on the path to fully representing the diverse, multi-cultural “new humanity” God calls us into, but I know full well that many churches seem to utterly lack awareness that this is what they’re called to. They’re not even having the conversation. The fact that Mill City Church is, gives me hope.

In the early days of Circle of Hope there used to be a lot of talk about “gravity.” It was a metaphor that was another way, I think, of getting at what it’s like to be part of a people on a mission together. When you’re around the folks that make up Circle of Hope, you can tell that stuff is happening. Vacant lots are being cleaned up to make way for community gardens. Blighted buildings are being bought and rehabbed to be turned into thrift stores and art venues and worship spaces. Baby and children’s goods and clothing are being exchanged. People are getting to know Jesus even if they don’t “believe in him” just yet. There’s an energy and vibrancy that is compelling, that draws you in. Read my first post in this series again or check out their website to learn more. Speaking of gravity, I just can’t escape (see what I did there?) the idea that I’m having the same kind of experience, that same sense of inexorably being “drawn in” to Mill City Church. As I told Kirsten in the car a little while ago, I may have done so (been drawn in to what God is up to among Mill City Church) “kicking and screaming” (at least on the inside) at first, but it’s happening. I’m sensing that same sort of vibrancy I described above.

Among the people of Mill City Church, hungry kids are being fed. Refugees and people experiencing homelessness are being loved and served. Relationships are being built with those who’ve been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. Neighborhood churches are working together, pooling resources to better love the youth among them. And I haven’t even talked about what they’re doing with kids Nathan’s age. Among other things, they’re using the Jesus Storybook Bible, our favorite children’s Bible and frankly the only one we can tolerate, to tell the “big story” of God’s “never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always, and forever love.” I love this Bible because it distills for 5 year olds what I incurred massive student debt to learn in seminary, that the Bible is best understood as story, for starters; that it’s the big story of God’s love, God’s wooing of humanity through the ages; that while the Bible has heroes and rules, it’s not just about learning how to live like those heroes or following all the rules (I’ve long said that “rules are for relationship”); and it’s not even really about us and what we should do. It’s about God and what He’s done. When we learned that this is what Mill City Church would be working on with Nathan’s age group, we breathed a big sigh of relief, as if a heavy burden we’ve been carrying alone for a while had suddenly been lifted.

As all this is happening among the people of Mill City Church, much work is being done also to listen to God and to do so together, and that’s why I’m willing to risk trusting these people. Because they’ve done so to this point, they’ve begun to move with God in many of the same ways that I’ve felt drawn to. Thus we are affirmed that God’s movement in us was not a solitary vision, not a call God made to some people some place else that we missed out on when we moved away. Hence, it seems that God really is living and alive and active at least among these people in this place, and so we’re excited about the prospect of joining them. I have been striving, often alone, or at least that’s how I felt, to be part of a people on a mission together. Clearly, that’s not something you can do by yourself, and so I despaired. Today, I’m hopeful that my solo striving is over. Tomorrow, we’ll meet up with the folks from Mill City Church in NE Minneapolis where there’s so much “gravity” for our life these days anyway. Mill City Running is there, where one of the managers is the founder of Mile In My Shoes. The Herbivorous Butcher is there. The “I Like You” store is there. Rusty Taco, a D/FW favorite, is there, and Glam Doll Donuts is opening in the neighborhood. That’s a lot of gravity. Most of the draw, though, comes in the form of this family God is gathering to love this geographical community, this neighborhood, and the hope that we can be a part of it. Sign us up.

Striving No More, Part 5a, or, Can You Love Coffee Without Loving Starbucks?

empire

Or, What If The Empire Sometimes Does Some Good? Or, Why I Hope I Don’t Have To Talk Much More About 3DM.

This series started out as one blog post that became a two-parter, and then a 3 part series, and now I can’t do it in 5 parts without breaking up the last part into “Part A” and “Part B.” So this is the first part of how I want to wrap up this bit of writing I’ve been doing. I’ve called the whole series “Striving No More” in reference to the Keith Green song that I mentioned in Part 2 of this series, “When I Hear The Praises Start.” I mentioned that this is probably my favorite song of his, and I said:

It’s the first line that gets me: “My son, my son, why are you striving?” The truth is, I spend much of my waking hours striving, always striving, always trying to do better, to do more, to work harder. “Resting in my faith” or in much of anything else is mostly a foreign concept. As Bill Mallonee put it, “I’ve been trying to negotiate peace with my own existence.” There’s more to be said, there, obviously, but my point now is that when I hear Jesus singing to me through Keith in this song, I’m invited to leave “Struggleville,” even if only temporarily, and be still, knowing that God is God, and I’m not, and this brings (momentary) peace. For this, I’m grateful.

I spoke in Part 1 of this series about Circle of Hope, about the central place it occupies in my formation as a young adult, newly married, trying to follow Jesus in the big city. I talked about all the things I learned about how to follow Jesus while immersed in that community, that first of all trying to follow the Bible(‘s teachings), let alone Jesus, is a group project. It was in that community that I learned that so many of the “you’s” in the Bible that talk about how to live the Christian life are not singular; they’re plural. They’re directed to you all, the church. It was in that community that I came to understand that Jesus ought to be the “lens” through which I read the Bible, and arguably most importantly, that the Church is a people, not a place, and so we must work at “being the Church.” I could go on, but that’s what Part 1 of this series is all about. Please read it, if you haven’t.

In Part 2 I found myself dedicating a whole post to Keith Green, whom I’ve already spoken of above. He lived a remarkable 28 years on this earth and his passion not only for loving Jesus but those around him remains an example to me today. His heartfelt music is so very earnest in the best sort of way, and was a soundtrack for my life probably from the age of 12-25, or something close to that. If I am to follow Jesus, I hope to do so from the heart, like Keith did. In Part 3 I then had to talk a little, again, about Rich Mullins. Keith and Rich represent the two (early) pillars of my connection to God through music, Keith carrying me through my teen years into early adulthood, and Rich picking me up just before and into college and then on into married life. Obviously, there was a little bit of overlap there. Like Keith, Rich loved Jesus and was compelled as a result to love those around him. Both struggled with aspects of the “institutional church,” and both were unafraid to speak or act prophetically when there was truth that needed to be spoken to power, even/especially if the “power” was supposedly “Christian.”

In part 4 I talked about House of Mercy and described why that faith community was so important to us for the five years we were here in the Twin Cities from ’98-’03, including all the major events that occurred in our life during that time. I spoke of our continued respect and appreciation for House of Mercy’s pastors and the debt of gratitude we owe them, and I alluded to our struggle to fully immerse ourselves in/commit to the congregation in the year+ that we’ve been back. I alluded to the reason for that struggle having to do with our felt need for community, for a commitment to “being the church” together in a way not dissimilar to what we experienced in our two stints in Philly with Circle of Hope. I tried to be careful to say that I didn’t want House of Mercy’s pastors or House of Mercy- to be anything other than what they are. I did conclude, though, that if honest, “I suppose I yearn to really work at ‘being the church’ with others who are just as ‘into it’ as I am,” which I know is not the case for House of Mercy and its pastors, though they recognize the value of it as a supplement to what they’re already trying to do, if I’m not putting words in the pastors’ mouths.

So where does that leave me and my family?

Obviously our time with House of Mercy and especially Circle of Hope mark the high points in our experience of (being the) church in our 20 years of adult, married life. Since leaving Circle of Hope and Philly the second time in 2005, we’ve had a string of ultimately failed efforts to fully connect with any other faith community. Naturally over the past 11 years, I’ve asked myself why. I think there are a lot of reasons, of course. Maybe those early adult church experiences were “mountaintop” ones, and everything else- every other congregation that we’ve tried to participate in since- has simply been unable to stand up (in our eyes) under the weight of our (unrealistic, inappropriate) expectations for them. That could very well be the case. I think there’s a similar dynamic for me personally in regard to Kingdomworks (hmmm….I probably need to write a post entitled “Why I Keep Talking About Kingdomworks”). That very intense few months in Philly during the hot summer of 1995 between my sophomore and junior years at Gordon was a mountaintop experience for me if ever there was one. When I recently marked 20 years since that summer, a year ago, I remember thinking, and may have written, that in many ways, especially in my career choices but also in our decision to move to Philly as newlyweds in 1996 in the first place, in all of that I was no doubt trying somehow to relive or recreate that Kingdomworks experience. In fact, seven years ago, writing about Kingdomworks, I quoted a letter I got shortly after completing that Kingdomworks summer in ’95 from a Kingdomworks teammate, Holly, who said:

“At present I desire to high-tail it back to where we belong. Back on the streets where our feet are always dirty and the tears sting. Back where each drop of sweat has a purpose and every smile is a slice of heaven.”

In that same post from seven years ago I added:

“She (Holly) also said that when we went back, we would do it ‘for them this time’- for those kids and people like them, rather than for us (to open our eyes to the need for such a life). In many, many ways I’ve been trying to high-tail it back to where I belong ever since. I despair to report that I have not made it yet..”

So all of that is to say that I know it’s legitimate to wonder if our disappointment with every church since Circle of Hope and early House of Mercy doesn’t have more to do with “us” than it does with “them” (all those subsequent churches). After all, I quoted in Part 1 of this series, about Circle of Hope, something one of my old (Circle of Hope) pastors said to me the other day via email. I had reached out to him in order to invite his comment about something I’ll describe below, and again he said:

“I have to say that I think a lot of the things that trouble you are in you. Stay in therapy and don’t project too much on others — they won’t match up to what you need. Jesus will save you, not some outer experience (you know that). If you came back here, we would likely look wrong, too, by this time. Jesus may have also had an idealization of what we ought to be, but, fortunately, he healed us instead of holding us to it and just being eternally disappointed in how human we were.”

My experience of “life together” in a faith community that was really working at being the Church was again transformational for me. But I do well to remember that the pursuit of community for its own sake can be just as idolatrous, not to mention selfish, as any other such pursuit. After all, it was the martyr who wrote the book on “life together,” after all, who said:

“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial. God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idolized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands set up by their own law, and judge one another and God accordingly. It is not we who build. Christ builds the church. Whoever is mindful to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it, for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it.”

I fear- and recognize- that this is what I’ve been doing. I must be careful precisely here, however, because recognizing that I’ve “loved my dream of a Christian community more than…the community itself” does not absolve me of the responsibility to carefully discern how I and my family might best connect with and serve the community that is (as opposed to the one that I wish to be). After all, if I and my family are to keep working at following Jesus, we do well to carry with us the lessons learned when we have perhaps done so most faithfully- usually in community- since, as I said above, following the Bible, let alone Jesus, “is a group project.”

So that brings me to 3DM, the organization calling itself a “movement” that has been the force behind the rise of “missional communities” in more than a few churches across the U.S. of late. Mike Breen is a pastor originally from England. He coined the phrase “missional community” as a descriptor for the form of church life that seemed to be working in his parish in Sheffield, England. He says:

A Missional Community is a group of 20 to 50 people who exist, in Christian community, to reach either a particular neighborhood or network of relationships. With a strong value on life together, the group has the expressed intention of seeing those they are in relationship with choose to start following Jesus through this more flexible and locally incarnated expression of the church.

A hallmark of missional communities is that they exist in a “rhythm of life” marked by movement “up” (toward God), “in” (Christian community), and “out” (toward those in need and/or who don’t know Jesus). As Breen says, “Each MC  (missional community) attends to the three dimensions of life that Jesus himself attended to: Time with God (worship, prayer, scripture, teaching, giving thanks, etc), time with the body of believers building a vibrant and caring community, and time with those who don’t know Jesus yet.” As the missional communities in Sheffield began to grow and develop “exponentially,” Breen began advocating for the use of the phrase as a proper noun and took this model for church life “across the pond,” where 3DM was born. As 3DM says of themselves: “3DM was birthed out of a desire to train leaders in the US in the principles, vehicles, and tools that were empowering the movement in Europe.”

When I reached out to my former Circle of Hope pastor recently and got the response I quoted above and in Part 1 of this series, I did so in part to invite his comment on 3DM. I had expressed to him my reservations about them, and he was good enough to give me a few thoughts, while along the way telling the truth about what he saw in me, as I’ve noted. I came across 3DM for the first time in OH and even went to one of 3DM’s two-day trainings for church leaders while we were part of a short-lived church plant that began about a year and a half before we left OH. Our participation in that new church didn’t last, and neither did that church for reasons that do not need to be told here or now, but that context of learning about 3DM and going to that training while we were a part of that church is important, as I’ll describe in more detail momentarily.

For now, what I appreciate about missional communities as I was introduced to them through 3DM is that they’re, well, missional. The practitioners of this way of working at trying to be the church together seem to get that, as I keep saying, the church is a people, not a place. Missional communities seem to be focused on really trying to have a life together, which obviously I would say is good. I even like that they try to marry “life together” with being very service focused. I appreciate that missional communities have written into their “DNA” that instead of having “Jesus as the only agenda” as with a cell group (a la Circle of Hope), instead each missional community has to have some sort of “out”ward focus that serves to direct the group’s energy toward loving their neighbor, whether their neighbor is someone experiencing homelessness or refugees or people caught up in human trafficking, etc. I should add that while I struggle with the “up/in/out” language, I simultaneously appreciate it. Adding “up” (focusing on/listening to/following God) and “out” (responding to God’s love for us with love for neighbors, especially when they suffer or are in need) to “in” (the community that is so important to me) gives a balance to the effort to follow Jesus, together, that it might not otherwise have. This is a needed corrective to my tendency to “love my idea of Christian community more than the community itself.”

Other features of missional communities are that they are much larger (up to 40-50 people) than a cell group (about ten people). Likewise, there seems to be some capacity for missional communities to “multiply,” though this does not seem to be so essential that a group must multiply or it will end when its covenant period does, as with a (Circle of Hope style) cell group. Unlike cell groups, however, in which discipleship happens naturally within the cell as the leader teaches and prepares his or her apprentice to become a leader in their own right while likewise the apprentice develops a relationship with whomever will become their apprentice- unlike that- with missional communities there seems to be something of a “parallel track” in play as in addition to whatever missional communities may exist within a church there is something else called a “huddle.” In a “huddle,” as I understand it, leaders very intentionally disciple/prepare others to go out and be leaders in their own right, perhaps of a missional community.

I should note that this type of multiplication strategy for growing leaders-in which a leader trains a whole group that consists entirely of other leaders who will repeat the process- is not unheard of in the larger, worldwide cell church movement (go here and here for some U.S. based organizations that identify with the cell church model), and I should further note that the largest church in the world is cell group based, but I digress. In any case in the cell church model as I experienced it with Circle of Hope, everything is focused on and streamlined within cell groups. The gifts of the members of the group are identified and unleashed to serve the church and leaders are identified and trained as each cell multiplies, but all of this happens within cells. There are layers to this, though (at least in my experience with Circle of Hope), as cell leaders are part of their own “cell” of sorts within Circle of Hope as they meet in “coordinating groups” in which a cell leader coordinator- a leader of cell leaders- mentors, trains, and disciples the cell leaders so that they’re better equipped to lead their cells. Still, the focus is on cells. By way of contrast, with the missional community model it appears to me that there are two tracks- the missional community track in which anyone can join a missional community and experience the “up, in, and out” rhythm of church life- and almost separately, unless I’m mistaken- the “huddle” track in which leaders call out other future leaders and train and equip them to lead and repeat the process.

As you might imagine, then, it was with very mixed emotions that we first encountered that new church plant in OH that was working to get missional communities started (though it wasn’t clear at first that this is what they were going for, as they called them something else). There was a lot that we really liked about that church, including the amazing and prophetic “manifesto” that made up most of its website and the willingness of its lead pastor to speak prophetic truth to power in part by espousing peacemaking in a country at perpetual war, for example. However, as I said above and have said elsewhere our participation in that church didn’t last all that long and that church has since come to an end. Still, we were glad initially to find a church that really “got” that the church is a people, not a place, as it worked to “be the church” through that “up, in, and out” rhythm of life together. I was glad to feel again like we were a part of a “people on a mission together,” as I had long described what I hoped for from church, even if the phrase (extended) “family on mission” as used and spread by 3DM felt like a commodification of my lived experience.

So when I asked my former Circle of Hope pastor for his thoughts on 3DM, I did so because we’ve recently come across another church, here in the Twin Cities, that is using missional communities as the “vehicle” for their group life together. I should probably stop right here for a brief aside. When my former Circle of Hope pastor suggested that much of what bothers me (about 3DM, and no doubt many other things) is in me, he was, I’m sure, quite right. I know this is so because it will take a long time I fear before I can extricate my understanding of missional communities and 3DM from my relationship with the staff person at that church in OH that was their biggest proponent. I ought not say much more about that except to state that he and I didn’t always love each other very well, and the fact that he was so “into” missional communities makes it hard for me to ever be so. I know; that’s my issue, not anyone else’s. Anyway, we found this church here that has missional communities, and I was immediately, though reluctantly and warily, intrigued. I’ll say more about that in my conclusion to all this in Part 5b.

In the meantime, I should state that in all my yearning in all the years since leaving Circle of Hope for the last time, in all the years since then in which I’ve longed to be part of a faith community that really was a community, that really worked at being the church and trying to follow Jesus together, I’ve wondered if my hopes were in vain, and maybe my faith too. If the life together as the Church that I experienced so many years ago now really was of God, and really did represent some of the best of what He has in mind for us, I had to believe that it couldn’t only exist in one city. I came to believe that it was vitally important to understand that if God, and my faith in Him- if any of it was real- then I must also understand that surely God was at work in every culture, in every land and language and time, and if I would but listen and try to get on board with what God was already doing wherever I happened to be, I would no doubt soon find myself immersed in just the kind of community I longed for, so long as that yearning for community was a result of being drawn to follow Jesus and realizing that I can’t do so alone.

This is why as I’ve been working through all this that I’ve come to a place of reluctant acceptance of 3DM. This was not an easy place to come to. I’ve not only struggled with 3DM because of how much I associate them with the staff person at that OH church plant that was so very “into” them. No, I actually have what I believe to be some legitimate concerns. When I first heard of them and started doing a little research, I quickly learned that there were a lot of affiliated/related groups that sprang up in the wake of the “missional community movement” begun by 3DM in the U.S. One of them is the Soma “network of churches,” and that staff person at the OH church plant really liked them. What I quickly learned about Soma is that they’re affiliated with the Acts 29 Network, another church planting group, and Soma is committed to the Acts 29 “Distinctives,” including the strong conviction that there is no place for women pastors or elders in the church. I’m deeply committed in exactly the opposite direction. Here is the somewhat buried page where Soma says their “distinctives” came from Acts 29’s, and here is the page listing the Acts 29 “distinctives,” including that firm commitment to exclude women from pastoral leadership. In fairness, I don’t know that 3DM shares this commitment, but again my early exposure to 3DM was deeply conflated with Soma, which is itself based in part on the Acts 29 Network in all its ugliness.

More importantly, though, something about 3DM just bugged me. It took me a long time to put words to it, but I finally did. Part of what bugs me is simply base on my part. I know now that I struggle to like missional communities because they’re not cell groups, and I know quite a bit about and am very experienced in participating in and leading (if not very well) cell groups. This objection on my part to missional communities is itself objectionable, and I’m aware of this. Beyond that, though, what “bugs” me about 3DM, if not missional communities themselves, is the way that something good that at best can be described as being “of God” has been turned into a product/program that is being sold in the marketplace. For example, the second thing you see on Mike Breen’s website is an offer for a $10 monthly subscription plan for his “daily audio devotional;” and if you want to “better imitate the life and leadership of Jesus” by “develop(ing) the DNA for making disciples who make disciples,” you can purchase 3DM coaching for only $150 per person, per month. (Not very) arguably, closely imitating Jesus and making disciples who make their own should be the goal of every Christ-follower. 3DM will teach you how to do so…for a price. Am I right to feel angry? I know there’s some justification in Scripture for paying pastors, but that coaching that 3DM is selling isn’t necessarily for pastors; they say it’s for “anyone in any context” (“who wants to better imitate…Jesus” as described above).

Anyway, all this blatant (and literal) commodification of what Jesus gave freely is one issue. A related one, and my last big concern about 3DM is the way that following Jesus, which by definition is very relational and contextual, has been turned into a program. If you don’t know me, I think programs are great for many things. Following Jesus and being the church are not among them. Like Debbie Blue of House of Mercy wrote once and I recently quoted in this series, “Faith is relentlessly relational, thus unsystematizable.” Like my former Circle of Hope pastor said when I invited him to comment about 3DM: “Why don’t you steer away from national things that should be local? I don’t think you like them. Can’t you just steal their seed thought and great presentation and do something yourself? (Like buying strawberries and making your own ice cream?)” Following Jesus, however closely you may want to, and especially “making disciples,” can no more be accomplished by a program than believing (in) Jesus can be accomplished by lending intellectual assent to a series of propositions about him. There are no (true) “checklist Christians” (that is, folks who “accomplish” being saved by ticking off items on a checklist detailing required beliefs and behavior).

After all, Jesus didn’t say, “Come understand me.” He didn’t say, “Come be enlightened by me.” He did talk about “believing in him” in the oft-quoted John 3:16, but read after that famous verse, and the argument’s a bit more nuanced. Usually when the concept of belief comes up in the gospels it’s in the context of a conversation about “eternal life.” Take this passage, where Jesus talks about where his authority comes from- God the Father- and makes it clear that whoever “hears Jesus’ word and believes (not “believes in”) him who sent me” (God the Father)”- whoever does so will have eternal life. Or take John 14:1-7. Jesus does talk about “believing in God,” at least in some translations, but no sooner has he done so than he says: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The thief on the cross whom Jesus promised would be with him in paradise never said the “sinner’s prayer.” He didn’t have what many would-be “Christians” would call a conversion experience. The thief simply believed Jesus, and asked to be remembered when he came into his kingdom. No doubt the thief didn’t understand much about Jesus in any intellectually theological way, but he had a relationship with Jesus, and that relationship was enough. He surely came to the father through Jesus. And even in John 14, the Message translation makes clear that it’s about trusting Jesus, not thinking all the right thoughts:

Don’t let this throw you. You trust God, don’t you? Trust me. There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home. If that weren’t so, would I have told you that I’m on my way to get a room ready for you? And if I’m on my way to get your room ready, I’ll come back and get you so you can live where I live. And you already know the road I’m taking.”

Thomas said, “Master, we have no idea where you’re going. How do you expect us to know the road?”

6-7 Jesus said, “I am the Road, also the Truth, also the Life. No one gets to the Father apart from me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him. You’ve even seen him!”

So being Jesus’ disciple, following Jesus, isn’t about intellectual assent; it’s about recognizing authority. It’s relational. Thus, in these and many other passages I think simply believing him is closer to what Jesus is often going for, and in any case when he was making disciples, what he did say was simply “Come follow me.” There is a proposition here, but again it’s very relational, and it’s made to each of us. Jesus is the one who makes disciples, after all, and they’re his disciples. We can help, to be sure, and do well when we again listen to him and get on board with the way he’s doing it.

So all of that is to say that while I have some significant concerns about 3DM, there was a time when I was so turned off by them that I would have considered involvement with them on the part of any future faith community that I would want to be a part of to be a “deal-breaker,” and that is now no longer the case. After all, in the most potent of ironies, the 3DM “missional community” program-for-sale-to-the-rich-who-can-afford-it is based on a relational, communal approach to following Jesus, one that I otherwise resonate with deeply. At some point along the way in this whole missional community “movement,” I suspect that God was up to something, and somebody was paying attention. They may have commodified and trademarked “the message,” but there’s some “good news” in there somewhere. I may have a deep distaste for what looks by all accounts like an empire that somebody’s building out of a kingdom that is surely not of this world, but I recognize that sometimes even the empire does a little good. I may not like the fecundity of Starbucks (or Wal-Mart, etc.), especially as they push local businesses out of business, but that doesn’t mean I have to give up coffee. In the next, final post in this series I get to talk about the “coffee” (or “strawberries” from my former Circle of Hope pastor’s question about 3DM above)- the good that I’m finding in what 3DM is selling and how it’s being expressed and lived out in a local church.

Striving No More, Part 4, or Why I Keep Talking About House of Mercy

This is part 4 of a 5 part series. You can read part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here. So there’s a bit of writing I’ve been trying to get to- a story I want to tell- but I keep finding I can’t get to the crux of the matter until I first got out why Circle of Hope remains so central to how I want to “be the Church” with any future faith community, and then still couldn’t move on until I talked about worship (in song) and the influence of Keith Green and Rich Mullins on my faith formation as well. Now, I need to talk a little about House of Mercy. As I’ve mentioned, between our two stints in Philly with Circle of Hope, we spent five years here in the Twin Cities, and were a part of the then relatively new House of Mercy. A lot happened in those five years. Kirsten’s dad died, and immediately thereafter my mom. I attended Bethel and wrapped up my undergrad. there through their degree completion program for working adults. I went on to Luther Seminary and did most of the MDiv program before having what can only be described as an existential/crisis of faith and graduated with an MA in the (ever marketable) History of Christianity instead. We moved onto campus at Luther and brought my Dad with us from Texas, where he had two major surgeries and was bedridden in our seminary apartment for quite a while, but it probably extended his life for quite a bit. Kirsten went to Bethel too and got her B.S. in nursing.

Along the way, House of Mercy was a very meaningful faith community for us to participate with at the time. They not only loved us through those parent deaths, but as I’ve previously said, I grew to really appreciate their mission focused on the “recovery of evangelical (good news) theology, liturgical eclecticism, and active service in the world.” I like the story of how Mark, Russell, and Debbie (the three founding pastors; Mark since left) looked around and realized none of their friends believed in Jesus anymore, in no small part because the good news about Jesus had turned into bad news in the hands of the church. So they decided to start a church to try to undo some of that. We read about House of Mercy in the local paper shortly after moving to the Twin Cities all those years ago. It was an article that talked about alternative approaches to “doing church” at the time and mentioned a few local congregations that were trying to be different. This was 1998, and House of Mercy was one of them. We liked that, like Circle of Hope that we had just left for the first time in Philly, House of Mercy seemed to be doing a great job of attracting young folks like us (at the time), especially the “unchurched” and “overchurched,” as I came to call them. House of Mercy was and still is a really safe place both for folks who hadn’t grown up in church and those who had grown up in the church, and regretted it. It was a safe place to be a little cynical. It was a community in which I learned that “doubt” need not “be the enemy of faith,” but could “be its partner.” It’s a community in which I heard (I think I actually read it, but that’s of no matter) Debbie say that “faith is relentlessly relational, and thus unsystematizable.”

Thus we really appreciated, and still do, the preaching of Mark, Russell, and Debbie. Bart Campolo, one of the great mentors in my life and someone I’m still privileged to call something of a friend, used to give a little test to try to make a point about the importance of relationships. He’d ask a group of people to name the five most influential sermons they ever heard and how they changed their life. Inevitably, people struggled to do so. He then would ask them to name the five most influential people who really made an impact on their life, and of course people could. The point, obviously, is that people don’t usually remember sermons very well, but if you do the work of building a relationship with someone and invest in their life lovingly, they’ll remember you. The conclusion then, was that if you want to influence someone, you have to spend time with and love them, not just preach to them. I believe that’s true and can attest to the power of this approach, but I mention it because Mark, Russell, and Debbie’s sermons were often so very good that I’m sure I could tick off more than five among them that I remember, and that made an impact on me.

In fact, I’ll name a few such sermons. In one, Russell tells a story, as he often does. He re-tells the story of the Garden of Eden, but at the end, as Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden and God locks the door to it from the inside, as I remember it, there’s a hopeless moment in which the two of them find themselves truly alone for the first time, and no doubt afraid. Suddenly, much to their great surprise, and again as I remember this sermon all these years later, God hops over the fence and joins them on the other side, telling them, “I’m coming with you.” Another time Russell preached a series in which each sermon started with the band playing the line from the REM song “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.” The series consisted of Russell again telling a story, this time about the end of the world as it is imagined to one day occur by some “evangelicals,” or as I’ve long called them, “fundagelicals.” Anyway, in the story things don’t go as they think it will, and my takeaway from the series was Russell’s question, “What if the end of the world comes one person at a time?” I think it’s a profound question, and gets at the notion posited, I think, by C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce, in which people are free to leave hell if they choose. As Wikipedia describes it:

The narrator inexplicably finds himself in a grim and joyless city, the “grey town”, which is either Hell or Purgatory depending on how long one stays there. He eventually finds a bus for those who desire an excursion to some other place (and which eventually turns out to be the foothills of Heaven). He enters the bus and converses with his fellow passengers as they travel. When the bus reaches its destination, the passengers on the bus — including the narrator — are gradually revealed to be ghosts. Although the country is the most beautiful they have ever seen, every feature of the landscape (including streams of water and blades of grass) is unyieldingly solid compared to themselves: it causes them immense pain to walk on the grass, and even a single leaf is far too heavy for any to lift. Shining figures, men and women whom they have known on Earth, come to meet them, and to urge them to repent and enter Heaven proper. They promise that as the ghosts travel onward and upward, they will become more solid and thus feel less and less discomfort. These figures, called “spirits” to distinguish them from the ghosts, offer to assist them in the journey toward the mountains and the sunrise. Almost all of the ghosts choose to return instead to the grey town, giving various reasons and excuses. Much of the interest of the book lies in the recognition it awakens of the plausibility and familiarity, along with the thinness and self-deception, of the excuses that the ghosts refuse to abandon, even though to do so would bring them to “reality” and “joy forevermore”. An artist refuses, arguing that he must preserve the reputation of his school of painting; a bitter cynic predicts that Heaven is a trick; a bully (“Big Man”) is offended that people he believes beneath him are there; a nagging wife is angry that she will not be allowed to dominate her husband in Heaven. One man corrupted on Earth by lust, which takes the form of an ugly lizard, permits an angel to kill the lizard and is saved.

Wikipedia goes on to summarize the book by saying that thus:

…it is possible for a soul to choose to remain in Heaven despite having been in the grey town; for such souls, the goodness of Heaven will work backwards into their lives, turning even their worst sorrows into joy, and changing their experience on Earth to an extension of Heaven. Conversely, the evil of Hell works so that if a soul remains in, or returns to, the grey town, even its happiness on Earth will lose its meaning, and its experience on Earth would have been Hell. Few of the ghosts realize that the grey town is, in fact, Hell. Indeed, it is not that much different from the life they led on Earth: joyless, friendless and uncomfortable. It just goes on forever, and gets worse and worse…

This is why Jesus said that the “kingdom of God” was “near” or “at hand.” Following Him isn’t about “being good” by trudging through life now so that you can have a better life when you die; we aren’t “saved” by saying a magic prayer and getting our “fire insurance.” No, following Jesus, if it’s worth doing at all, is about living into a kingdom of unspeakable joy. It’s about knowing a love so deep and whole and full that one is compelled to share it, compelled to be a peacemaker, compelled to lay down one’s life for those around them. It truly is the end of one world, and the beginning of another. Obviously, I’ve thought about Russell’s question ever since.

Here’s another memorable House of Mercy sermon. Debbie’s sermons are uniquely good, and in one of them she talks about being “born again.” She says:

           …how did we ever take this metaphor (of being born again) and make it all about something the one being born does? I mean, who does the most work to get something born? …Maybe our image of God would be richer if we quit thinking (of him as an) impassive, stoic, old man on a throne, and imagined a pregnant woman, waddling and crying, yelling from time to time, with the pains of labor, sometimes angry, sometimes tortured- giving birth to her children. What’s it like for the one being born? What’s it like for us? …I think sometimes I imagine salvation is being removed from the possibility of pain and suffering. But that’s so much not what it’s like to be born. As soon as we start that trip down the birth canal, we become vulnerable to all sorts of wonderful and frightening and beautiful and horrible and sad and amazing things…

…Maybe we’re being born. Again. Maybe the spirit really does move and blow. Maybe it’s happening all around us all the time. Maybe God is saving the world. Maybe there’s groaning and blood and pain in the birthing process and maybe it doesn’t feel like being in the womb. And maybe it isn’t always a nice warm breeze but thank God for breath and life and for enduring the labor.

Powerful, eh? All that said, though, what really worked for us, I think, about House of Mercy all those years ago was that pretty early on, especially since it was still a new church, Russell approached me and asked me to get involved. He gave me something to do. He recognized my burgeoning passion for justice- and community- and asked me to lead a new group he wanted to call the “Service and Reconciliation Work Group.” I said yes, and started this group. Naturally, I ran it like a cell group, and we did some cool things together. We volunteered with Safe Zone, a drop in center in St. Paul for teens experiencing homelessness. They (the church) sent me to the Call to Renewal, a conference put on by Sojourners for folks who wanted to help the church be better about pursuing justice. Eventually, the pastors trusted me enough to turn the Service and Reconciliation into an actual cell group, and over the course of the next little while that one group multiplied into three before we eventually left the Twin Cities and returned to Philly and Circle of Hope for our second stint there. I think part of why they trusted me to do this is because they recognized, as I had, that House of Mercy was great about bringing people “into the front door” of the church, using the unfortunate “church as building” metaphor, but it didn’t do a great job of giving them a good reason to stay, and so kept losing people “out the back door.” Cell groups gave some folks anyway a reason to stay, and when we returned to the Twin Cities and began to reconnect a little bit with House of Mercy last year, Russell thanked me and said that many of the folks who have been most integral in helping House of Mercy keep churning along all these years had been involved in a cell group.

Nonetheless, Russell said the pastors “weren’t that into them” (cell groups, or “community practice groups,” as they later called them), and that’s something that I’ve struggled with. Let me be clear and say that it’s not that I want House of Mercy’s pastors to be anything other than who they are. I love who they are, and we owe them a great debt of gratitude. They officiated at our 5 year vow renewal, for example, and were kind enough to do it again as Kirsten and I celebrated 20 years of marriage recently. I hope it’s clear from all I’ve said above that I have deep respect for them. No, what I struggle with is cell groups or “community practice” or whatever you want to call it as something of an “add-on” to a congregation’s “DNA,” and it may well be that I’m the only one having this conflict. This may just be my problem; it may not be a problem in its own right. As one of my Circle of Hope pastors recently reminded me, “I have to say that I think a lot of the things that trouble you are in you.” I’m sure that’s true. Still, I suppose I yearn to really work at “being the church” with others who are just as “into it” as I am, and part 5 of this blog series will reveal where that yearning has brought my family and I, at least for now.

Striving No More, Part 3, or My Encounter with a Ragamuffin

mullins2

This is part 3 in a 5 part series. You can read part 1 here, and part 2 here. As I spent a good part of today writing about Keith Green, I was constantly aware that I couldn’t speak of his outsize influence on my spiritual formation without mentioning the impact of Rich Mullins too. Then I remembered that I already had, two years ago. Rich and Keith are like two sides of the same coin. Rich lived a little longer than Keith did, but Rich died suddenly and tragically in a crash just like Keith, in Rich’s case before his 42nd birthday (which means he was about as old as I am now). Like Keith, Rich was a talented musician. Wikipedia notes:

Mullins had a distinctive talent both as a performer and a songwriter. His compositions showed distinction in two ways: unusual and sometimes striking instrumentation, and complex lyrics that usually employed elaborate metaphors. Mullins did most of his composing and performing on piano and acoustic guitar, but he also had a prodigious talent for obscure instruments. He displayed arguably virtuoso skills on the hammered and lap dulcimers (in “Calling out Your Name” and “Creed”) and the Irish tin whistle (in “Boy Like Me/Man Like You” and “The Color Green”).

And like Keith, Rich had an enormous impact on the “Christian” music scene while simultaneously having a sometimes contentious relationship with the industry. While Keith stopped charging for his music or concerts or gave away a tape for every tape purchased, Rich set it up so that “the profits from his tours and the sale of each album were entrusted to his church, which divided it up, paid Mullins the average salary in the U.S. for that year, and gave the rest to charity.[28] Mullins was also a major supporter of Compassion International[29] and Compassion USA.[30]” He was quoted as saying:

Jesus said whatever you do to the least of these my brothers you’ve done it to me. And this is what I’ve come to think. That if I want to identify fully with Jesus Christ, who I claim to be my Savior and Lord, the best way that I can do that is to identify with the poor. This I know will go against the teachings of all the popular evangelical preachers. But they’re just wrong. They’re not bad, they’re just wrong. Christianity is not about building an absolutely secure little niche in the world where you can live with your perfect little wife and your perfect little children in a beautiful little house where you have no gays or minority groups anywhere near you. Christianity is about learning to love like Jesus loved and Jesus loved the poor and Jesus loved the broken-hearted…[6][31]

Thus, like Keith, Rich knew that God has a special concern for the poor, for folks on the margins, that if you wanted to find Jesus, it was among them that you should look. So, he did. In 1995 he up and moved to a Navajo reservation, where he lived until his death two years later. Wikipedia mentions that…

He was asked if he made the move because God had called him to proselytize and convert the Native Americans. To this Mullins responded: “No. I think I just got tired of a White, Evangelical, Middle Class perspective on God, and I thought I would have more luck finding Christ among the Pagan Navajos. I’m teaching music.”[27]

Rich was so influenced by another of my heroes of the faith, St. Francis of Assisi, that he wrote a musical about him, “The Canticle of the Plains.” He also was influenced by another hero of mine, Brennan Manning, whose seminal work The Ragamuffin Gospel so moved him that he thereafter assembled The Ragamuffin Band. I encountered Rich and really began to immerse myself in his music a little later than was the case with Keith, but like Keith, Rich has also had an outsize influence on my formation as someone who wants to follow Jesus. Thus, it was my great honor to hear Rich in concert when he came to Gordon College, I think when I was a freshman. I sat in the back, by myself, and remember being moved to worship. I was amazed to be doing so as the concert ended, and the entire crowd was singing with Rich, though Rich had stopped singing for the final little bit. When I opened my eyes and looked up, Rich was just…gone. He hadn’t gone backstage to wait for everyone to clamor for an encore, though clamor they did. It was more that he had done what he set out to do. He came to help us connect with Jesus. When we did, his work done, he quietly left. Like Keith, Rich’s music has a way of engaging me at a much deeper level than mere intellectualism alone could afford, and I am the better for it. Rich’s music, like Keith’s, often breaks my heart and brings me to tears, but it’s usually there that, gratefully, I meet Jesus.

I think Rich would be the first to say that he’s no hero. Like Keith, he was very genuine, and like Keith, struggled with demons of his own. Unlike Keith, as far as I know, one of Rich’s struggles was alcoholism. It’s something he had in common with Brennan Manning. This review of the movie that was made not too long ago about him, which I would recommend, mentions that:

For a guy who refuses to wear shoes and doesn’t look like he showers on a regular basis, he’s often met with curious stares during Sunday morning services. Not surprisingly, Mullin’s life only gets more complicated when Nashville comes calling. Never fully comfortable as a go-to songwriter for Amy Grant or a celebrated CCM artist later on when “Awesome God” winds up being his breakout hit, Rich’s life fails to follow a predictable course. But Rich finds a mentor in the late Brennan Manning and discovers his true passion in ministering to Native American youth. Mullins’s life may have remained far from perfect, but his story has incredible resonance and redemptive value.

Indeed, it does. Here’s one of my favorite of Rich’s songs:

 

Here’s another one:

 

 

This is one that gets to me much like Keith’s “When I Hear the Praises Start:”

 

Finally, like Keith, Rich was prophetic in his willingness to speak truth to power, especially “Christian” power, but he was likely also quite prophetic about his own death, as I wrote about in my last post about Rich. Remembering that in Scripture Elijah was taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot, and that Rich died in something like a fiery car crash, here he is singing “Elijah,” with the lyrics copied below:

The Jordan is waiting for me to cross through
My heart is aging I can tell
So Lord, I’m begging
For one last favor from You
Here’s my heart take it where You will

This life has shown me how we’re mended
And how we’re torn
How it’s okay to be lonely as long as you’re free
Sometimes my ground was stoney
And sometimes covered up with thorns
And only You could make it what it had to be
And now that it’s done
Well, if they dressed me like a pauper
Or if they dined me like a prince
If they lay me with my fathers
Or if my ashes scatter on the wind
I don’t care

CHORUS:
But when I leave I want to go out like Elijah
With a whirlwind to fuel my chariot of fire
And when I look back on the stars
Well, It’ll be like a candlelight in Central Park
And it won’t break my heart to say goodbye

There’s people been friendly
But they’d never be your friends
Sometimes this has bent me to the ground
Now that this is all ending
I want to hear some music once again
‘Cause it’s the finest thing I have ever found

But the Jordan is waiting
Though I ain’t never seen the other side
They say you can’t take in
The things you have here
So on the road to salvation
I stick out my thumb and He gives me a ride
And His music is already falling on my ears

There’s people been talking
They say they’re worried about my soul
Well, I’m here to tell you I’ll keep rocking
‘Til I’m sure it’s my time to roll
And when I do

CHORUS(2x)

I don’t think it broke Rich’s heart to say goodbye, but I sure am grateful that God keeps using him to break mine.

Striving No More, Part 2, or “Prophets Don’t Grow Up From Little Boys,” or “Do They?”

Keithgreen

This is part 2 in a 5 part series. You can read part 1 here.

14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

    because he has anointed me

    to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

    and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

19     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[f]

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.

23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”

24 “Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy[g] in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”

28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this.29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff.30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way. – Luke 4:14-30

This will be part 2 in a 3 part series. That means, among other things, that like part 1 in this series, this post started out differently, but along the way I realized that the overall story I’m telling- about how we hope to connect with a local faith community and the many reasons why including the road that brought us to this point- couldn’t fully be told without yet a little more background. So now I want to talk about Keith Green. That’s him, above, if you hadn’t guessed. If you don’t know anything about him, click the link in his name for his Wikipedia page. I highly encourage taking a little time to learn something about him. I’ll have something to say here about him, of course. If you want even more background on his life from the official bio on the website of the ministry he and his wife, Melody, started, go here.

Keith didn’t live very long. He died before his 29th birthday. He was a musical prodigy, having learned to play guitar and piano as a very young child, and was writing his own music by the age of 6. By the age of 11 he had written 40 original songs and signed a five year recording contract. As his Wikipedia entry says:

By the time Green was twelve, he had written ten more songs, and Time magazine ran a short piece about Green in an article about aspiring young rock-‘n’-roll singers, referring to him as Decca Records’ “prepubescent dreamboat”.[6] However, after national attention envisioned by Decca Records failed to materialize for Green, Donny Osmond captured the attention of pre-teens and teenagers, eclipsing Green’s newfound stardom, and he was quickly forgotten by the public.[7]

Keith was a spiritual “seeker,” and after experimenting with “drugs, eastern mysticism” and “free love,” Keith, who had a Jewish heritage which his family “hid from him” according to the bio on his ministry’s site, discovered Jesus. He had grown up reading the New Testament, but again according to that bio when he learned about his Jewish heritage suddenly something “clicked” for him that hadn’t before, and it’s said that he “proudly told the world, ‘I’m a Jewish Christian’.” He and Melody had been married shortly beforehand, and “As soon as Keith opened his heart to Jesus, he and Melody opened their home. Anyone with a need, or who wanted to kick drugs, or get off the street, was welcome.  Of course, they always heard plenty about Jesus at what fondly became known as ‘The Greenhouse’.” Wikipedia adds:

The Greens continued to invite guests into their home.[11] They eventually ran out of space and, purchasing the home next door to their own and renting an additional five in the same neighborhood, they provided an environment of Christian teaching for a group of young adults, the majority of whom were of college age. Much to the consternation of neighbors, there came to be 75 people living in the Green’s homes and traipsing down the suburban streets—including recovering drug addicts and prostitutes, bikers, the homeless, and many single pregnant girls needing shelter and safety. Some were referred to the Greens by other ministries and shelters, but most just crossed their path during their normal life at home and on the road. In 1977 the Greens personal outreach became a non-profit ministry they called Last Days Ministries.[12]

So this newbie Jesus follower and newlywed, no less, immediately took the unquestionably good part of the “good news” that is the “Gospel” to heart and began living it out in ways that most would be Jesus followers do not. I come back to the passage from Luke 4 that this post begins with often, and for good reason. As always, it’s notable that Jesus inaugurated his ministry by quoting the prophet Isaiah and declaring “good news to the poor,” “freedom for…prisoners,” recovery of sight for the blind,” and freedom for the oppressed and then stating that this scripture was fulfilled in the hearing of his listeners. Many people debate many things about Jesus including the most central of his claims and especially the claims made about him, but to my mind it’s inarguable that good news for the poor, et al, is just that- good. I believe that folks who want to follow Jesus do so most closely when they focus more on living their life and conducting their ministry the way Jesus began his, and less on all the other stuff that inexorably leads to division, partisanship, and the like. That certainly was a tremendous part of what Keith focused on, and I could end his story here having told a remarkable tale of a remarkable man.

Of course, there’s more to it than that. Keith and Melody not only loved and served folks on the margins of society, but Keith did so while continuing to write and record music at a prolific pace. His ministry page bio says:

Not only did Keith’s life take a radical turn, but by then he was a highly skilled  musician and songwriter,  and so all of his songs changed too. His quest for stardom had ended.  And now his songs reflected the absolute thrill of finding Jesus and seeing his own life radically changed. Keith’s spiritual intensity not only took him beyond most people’s comfort zones, but it constantly drove him even beyond his own places of content.

Keith was prophetic in the way he lived his life, and this was reflected no less in his voice as an artist. Keith was not afraid to speak truth to power, and like Jesus, his most incisive truth-telling was reserved for the religious types who said one thing with their mouths and something else entirely with their lives. All the while, he worked to be truthful about his own life and struggles, all of which was reflected in his songwriting. It’s most evident, though, when you see him sing live. You can’t watch him sing without noticing how heartfelt his songs are, how genuine he is. Take this recording of “Asleep in the Light,” for example. This is one of my favorite songs of his, as it perfectly captures his understanding of Jesus’ heart for reaching “the lost” and marries it with Keith’s prophetic truth-telling as he calls out the church, those who are supposed to be living out the ministry Jesus inaugurated of good news for the poor and marginalized and indeed for us all, and challenges them to simply do better.

 

Keith was unapologetic in his zeal not simply for “evangelism” to use a church-y word, but even more so in his zeal for Jesus. As Circle of Hope reminds us, “life in Christ is one whole cloth.” So because Keith had been so transformed by God’s love for him he spent his all too brief life from that point forward sharing that love with others whether he was inviting prostitutes and those experiencing homelessness or addiction to come live in his house(s) or giving an “altar call” at a concert with thousands of people in attendance. His invitation to all he met to enter into right relationship with Jesus necessarily meant proclaiming the “good news” not only about their souls but also and especially about their lives in the here-and-now. This is especially clear in another of my favorites of his, “The Sheep and the Goats.” Some of the references in this and much of his music may be anachronistic and theologically unsophisticated, but again his words, music, and life are provocative, genuine, heartfelt, and powerful, as is evident:

Keith could have been a darling of the “Christian” music industry, but Keith doubled down on his challenging words for the church to hew more closely to the One they were supposed to be following by upsetting the “Christian” music industry’s business model, as Wikipedia notes:

In 1979, after negotiating a release from his contract with Sparrow, Green initiated a new policy of refusing to charge money for concerts or albums. Keith and Melody mortgaged their home to privately finance Green’s next album, So You Wanna Go Back to Egypt. The album, which featured a guest appearance by Bob Dylan, was offered through mail-order and at concerts for a price determined by the purchaser. By May 1982, Green had shipped out more than 200,000 units of his album – 61,000 for free. Subsequent albums included The Keith Green Collection (1981) and Songs for the Shepherd (1982).[15][16]

When his music was carried by Christian bookstores, a second cassette was included free of charge for every cassette purchased to give away to a friend to help spread the Gospel.

All of this begs the question, though, why am I spending all this time writing about Keith Green? Hopefully my deep respect and admiration for him is apparent, and I think his life deserves to be remembered. I suspect that a lot of folks today who want to follow Jesus may not know much about him or have little appreciation for his impact. Thus, his tale is worth telling in its own right, but this is also a deeply personal tale for me. I probably would have been one of those would be Jesus followers with little knowledge of or appreciation for Keith. He died, after all, in a plane crash- with two of his kids aboard and Melody at home with a toddler and another baby on the way- at the tender age of 28, when I was just seven years old. I have much older half-siblings, though, and though the church I grew up in probably would have struggled with the prophetic nature of Keith’s ministry and life (that is, the truth he had to tell the church about the way they were following Jesus- or not- would have been a painful truth, most likely, for the church of my youth), my siblings introduced me to him as a young kid, and I grew up spending hours upon hours listening to his music. It probably helped form my faith in such a way that when, as a sophomore at Gordon College, I heard the call to go spend a summer living and loving the marginalized in the inner city of Philly, I didn’t hesitate. I went for it. Sadly, perhaps, I’ve gone a long while in my adult life without connecting with Keith’s music, and therefore without connecting with God in the special way Keith’s music helps me to, but it remains a big part of me.

So yesterday I began listening to many of Keith’s songs again for the first time in a long time. It was like putting on an old, well-worn but favorite hoodie that fits just right, as only it could. I found I could sing every word to many of the songs I listened to, and  I also found that many of Keith’s songs I listened to made me cry. You see, I remain a would be Jesus follower in no small part because of the way my faith was formed at a young age as I listened to Keith’s music. This formation continued through my Kingdomworks (the precursor of Mission Year, which I provided a link to above) experience and beyond as I struggled with the legacy of my abusive upbringing in my “Christian” home, and one of his songs over the years has taken on special significance. Keith says it’s a song Jesus wrote for him, but I always hear it spoken directly to me, and I’m broken by it every time:

It’s the first line that gets me: “My son, my son, why are you striving?” The truth is, I spend much of my waking hours striving, always striving, always trying to do better, to do more, to work harder. “Resting in my faith” or in much of anything else is mostly a foreign concept. As Bill Mallonee put it, “I’ve been trying to negotiate peace with my own existence.” There’s more to be said, there, obviously, but my point now is that when I hear Jesus singing to me through Keith in this song, I’m invited to leave “Struggleville,” even if only temporarily, and be still, knowing that God is God, and I’m not, and this brings (momentary) peace. For this, I’m grateful.

I’m grateful too for the invitation not only to be in right relationship with God, God’s good world, and my neigbor- that is, to live into the good news that Jesus proclaims and Keith too- but also for the invitation to worship a God who’s worthy of it. Again as Circle of Hope reminds us, “without worship, we shrink.” I can follow a Jesus who brings good news for those on the margins, who keeps surprising us by showing up where we’d least expect him and with those we’d least expect him to be with. More than that, though, I can worship a God who not only calls me to be my best self but who is the One who made that self, the one that is the author and “finisher” of my faith and in whom the entire cosmos holds together. I’m often skeptical. I want “good” theology that can live with all the tensions that I have to live with in real life. I want to know that doubt need not be the enemy of faith, but can be its partner. But if my faith, and more importantly Jesus, can’t engage my whole self and help me to live life as a fully formed person, than I want little to do with it, or him. Keith’s music functions as a delivery system for Jesus straight into my heart, not entirely bypassing my brain but engaging me in a much deeper way than mere intellectualism can afford. This gives me space to worship, and I shrink no more.

I leave you with one last song by Keith. He wrote it for his parents, whom he desperately wanted to see living in right relationship with God. In it he references Jesus’ reception by his hometown crowd as he inaugurated his ministry in the passage at the top of this post. That crowd just couldn’t accept that the Jesus they knew as a boy would dare to speak so prophetically to them because, as Keith puts it, “prophets don’t grow up from little boys; do they?” Keith did, and some day maybe I will too.