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Monday, January 27, 2014

Fresh Air

Wow! I just finished "Fresh Air" by Jack Levinson. If I was serving a local church, this would be the next study I offered - heck, it would be the next sermon series tied to a small group study!

The back cover carries accolades from some of the top voices in Biblical study, the likes of Phyllis Tickle and N.T. Wright, and for good reason. This book comes out of Jack's deep study of the scriptures - an academic peeling away of the stories of God through history - and written in a way that is both accessible and engaging. It is a fresh approach, pun intended, to the holy spirit (capitalization in harmony with Jack's).

One of the challenges with many of the resources on the holy spirit is that they typically lean toward one tradition over another - toward the more charismatic over the more staid or vice versa. In "Fresh Air," Jack challenges the church toward greater unity on the subject, and walks the reader/student through the spirit's activity in both the New and Old Testaments. Regardless your experience and background on the third person of the trinity, you will find new and enriching insights in this book.

Okay - enough for now - I've gotta start reading Jack's other books on the subject!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Ripple Effect 2014

The planning team for this year's Ripple Effect (formerly known as the School of Congregational Development) is getting ready to launch registration for 2014! We're excited about how things are coming together and wanted to begin to get the news out there so you can begin planning.

First, the dates: November 14 - 15, 2014 at Grace Chapel in Lexington, MA. We'll have pre-conference intensives on the morning of the 14th and then the regular event beginning at 1 p.m. on Nov. 14th and continuing Nov. 15th. Friday night will include not just a lively, dynamic worship experience in the main sanctuary but a more contemplative option in the small chapel. More is better, yes?

As for workshops, we are narrowing the focus in order to deeper. When you register, you will register for one of the tracks (though you will be free to mix and match if that makes sense for you.) In each track there will be streams specifically designed for lay people and another stream for clergy. Here's what you can expect for tracks:

1) Worship - these workshops will explore various aspects of the worship experience, from design to preaching to music and more.

2) Discipleship/leadership - this topic is the core of the church. Our task to to help people grow in love and obedience to Christ. Workshops will help local churches design discipleship systems explore leadership development and create action plans that can be implemented locally.

3) Building relationships beyond the local church - these workshops will explore the various ways churches can connect with the non-religious and nominally religous in ways that make sense in the 21st century New England context. They will include how to do contextual analysis, connected with community leaders, making friends with neighbors, and more.

4) Engaging the community - many churches are doing good things, serving those in need. But how do you engage the community and meet needs while also developing partnerships and engaging others so that they want to join the church in mission? This will be the focus of these workshops.

You can go to www.newenglandschool.org to keep updated and to look at the updated registration fees. By the way, Super Early Bird registration will be available through MAY 1st! Now is the time to get your team organized!


Monday, January 13, 2014

Tribes

When I run across a resource that I think will bless others, I try to pass it along. This weekend I got around to finishing a book that has been out a while and on my list for years. It's called "Tribes" by Seth Godin.

If you lead a non-profit and are looking to build a following, you should read this book.

If you are a pastor and want to build interest and momentum for the vision of the church, you should read this book.

If you lead a Sunday School class or small group and are looking to create a sense of identity and purpose, you should read this book.

If you are leading up a group that is serving a particular people group or neighborhood or network and want to widen your influence, you should read this book.

If you are leading anything or want to be a leader or need to be convinced how much your leadership is needed, you should read this book.

Speaking out of the Tribe of United Methodism, this book might be the thing to rally a local church together emphasizing how important it is that 1) they discover their common vision/purpose and 2) develop ways for the "tribe" to communicate around that purpose.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Leveling the serving field

I was asked a very simple and direct question today. The question came from a pastor of one of the UM churches in New England. He wanted to know: "How do we get the people who come to our food pantry and soup kitchen to become part of the church?"

My answer? You probably won't.

I probably wouldn't have answered him so directly nor quite in this way if it wasn't for the fact that I was part of a webinar (Beyond Backpacks - only good for another 30 days) the day before that dealt with just this issue. I do love when conversations overlap. I consider it to be a God-thing, or a "God-incidence" as my wife likes to call them. 

Anyway, there are many factors involved, but one of the big issues is that when someone is receiving help from another, there is a power dynamic in play. One is the service provider where the other is the service recipient. There may also be issues of shame/embarrassment on the part of those receiving help, and if so, they will rarely come to the church as a potential member if they are embarrassed by the fact that they need help.

Not that this is a new information, for me and likely for many of you. For a couple of years now when I work with local churches, I've been talking to them about the difference between missional gestures and missional engagement (thanks Phil Maynard!) Missional gestures are those things that we do, the food pantries, the soup kitchens, the collecting of clothes for the clothing ministry, the collecting of socks and other things for the homeless. These are all good things, all important things, but they don't bring us to the place of building relationship with those we serve. They are good things and they make us feel good. We feel good when we do good which makes us want to do more good things. But that's as far as it goes.

Missional engagement, on the other hand, is when we serve in ways that allow us to build relationships with those we serve. I often quote Father Greg Boyle here (Tattoos on the Heart) who says that "service is supposed to be the hallway to the ballroom." That is, too often we thing of service as the end - the point of all - the dance, if you will. However, service is only the vehicle that gets us to the place where we might develop relationship - begin to dance. The idea is that service is not meant to stay at the point where there is the service provider (church) and the service recipient (the person in need.) Instead, service is meant to bring us to a place where we might encounter another person/family and in the course of time, move to a place where there is mutuality - where the giver gives and the recipient receives but then over time the one who was receiving is also giving and the one who was the giver is now receiving.

So back to the conversation earlier today. I suggested to this pastor that if he and his church wanted to move people from simply receiving services to becoming a bigger part of the life of the church, they needed to find a way to help those people become givers. For example, if the church has a soup kitchen, they need to find ways to move people from simply showing up to get a meal to moving behind the counter so they can help prepare and serve the meal. If you watch the video, you'll see an example of a church that decided to take the meals into the neighborhood, to meet people where they are, to build relationship beyond the walls of the church, and then inviting those they meet to become part of what they are doing.

This is not about needing to add new activities to your busy schedule. It is about taking a look at what you already do and finding ways of including those you serve to become part of the activity. If you have a soup kitchen, starting inviting people who come for food to help prepare and/or serve food. If you have a food pantry, start enlisting people who come to get food to help get the food ready. If you typically collect clothing/socks, etc for the homeless, start holding collection events in neighborhoods where you can invite neighbors to help and begin new conversations with new people.

John 1:14 (The Message) reads: "The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood." That's the gospel - the incarnational love of God displayed through the church. Get in the neighborhood. Invite the neighbors to be part of what's going on. Make friends with those you serve by leveling the serving field. This will reveal the glory of God.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

LMPN Celebration

In New England church life, the turn into September is often the time when new energy emerges. Many program starts up - new groups, Bible studies, etc. I thought I would do the same by restarting my blog writing.

However, each weekly post will have a particular focus. I was reminded recently that in organizations like the church, "we are what we celebrate." In my current ministry, I am privileged to see lots of exciting things happening around New England. Therefore, each week I plan to highlight one of those exciting things - something that we can celebrate as a community of faith in New England. At the same time, I recognize that there is no way for me to experience everything out there that's going on, so if you've got something you think I should know about and post here, let me know!

This week I want to celebrate the first group that is completing the Lay Missionary Planters Network training. Nearly a year ago, a group of lay people committed to meeting one Saturday a month for 10 months, 6 hours each day, to learn basic skills of church planting and multiplying leaders. This training was developed by the folks at Path 1 in Nashville, and covers a wealth of material. Participants engage topics like UM 101, Wesleyan theology, pastoral care, church planting, how to multiply leaders and how to multiply ministry and more. Each month participants are given "homework" so that they can further develop the skills learned each month.

At the end of the training, there are four options available for each "graduate," depending on their aptitude and interest. They could 1) plant a new faith community connected to the parent church they come out of, 2) be part of a planting team, 3) be a facilitator for the next network, and/or 4) teach modules of the LMPN training at their local church.

On October 12th at the Nueva Vida UMC in Chelsea, MA, we will celebrate the graduation of 13 Lay Missionary Planters. The celebration is planned for 7 p.m. that evening - if you can, please plan on attending this great night! Here's what's even more exciting: two of those lay people graduating have already formed a new community of over 30 people in East Boston, a community that will become a satellite campus of the Nueva Vida UMC!!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Crazy the Lord

I've been reading a great book called "The Underground Church" by Robin Meyers. In the first chapter, the author spent some time talking about the initial reactions of family, friends and authority toward Jesus, particularly in Mark 3: 20ff. This really got to me. I started thinking about it more and more, and it resulted in being the focus of my reflection offered recently at a gathering in Maine. Below is the text. If you'd like anything further explained (like the whole "turn the other cheek" bit), let me know and I'll elaborate. Enjoy....


Crazy like Jesus
Mark 3: 20 - 22

Remember when you got your cross on Sunday afternoon on your Walk? Do you remember what was said to you as you received it? [Christ is counting on you]

And remember what you said in response? [And I’m counting on Christ]

I was thinking - for what is Christ counting on us - and for what are we counting on Christ?

We could probably run up a pretty good list. We count on Christ for grace, love, strength, mercy, compassion, hope, for his presence in our lives - we could go on.

And Christ is counting on us: for faithfulness, service, love of God and neighbor, obedience, compassion, forgiveness - again, we could go on.

But I wonder, no matter how long we spent coming up with things for either list, whether we would ever get to the point where we put the word “crazy” on the list. As in, Christ, we count on you to be crazy and you are counting on us to be crazy as well.

Here’s the thing - of all the things people have said about Jesus - about who he is and what he’s about, one thing that everyone around Jesus agree on was that he was crazy. 

Here in Mark, his family and friends show up to restrain him - to grab him - Greek - to use physical strength - to drag his sorry butt home to shut him up. Why? Because they thought he was “existemi” - out of his mind. Crazy!

Then the scribes and Pharisees show up and add fuel to the fire. These are the professionals. They make a living making this call: Jesus is possessed. He’s got demons. He’s goofy in the head. Off his rocker. Today we might use nicer language - he is mentally ill. This accusation continues all through the gospels. Jesus, and by association his disciples, are out of their minds. Crazy. Even Paul - when he was brought before King Agrippa and gave defense for his actions, Agrippa said to Paul: You are out of your mind!

Biblical scholars tell us that when you run across something in the text that is both uncomplimentary and shows up consistently - it’s probably the closest you can get to the real story. 

Why this accusation? What’s so crazy about Jesus?

Several years ago Len Sweet wrote a book called “Jesus drives me crazy” in which he rattled off a summary of what Jesus taught that was “crazy.” Jesus taught:

The way up is down.
The way in is out.
The way first is last.
The way to success is service.
The way of strength is weakness. 
The way of life is the way of death - death to self, to society, to family.
Want to get even with your enemies? Bless them and love them.

[Explain “turn the other cheek.”]

Crazy. People called Jesus - and his first followers - crazy - demon-possessed - because they spoke - and lived a different way of life. A life Jesus called “the kingdom of God” - or “the kingdom of heaven” - the reign of God. It called into question almost every priority and every structure and every system around him. 

  • He challenged the temple system.
  • He challenged the violence of the empire. (BTW: did you know that for first 200 years of the church, you couldn’t be baptized unless you vowed to never join the military? AND, if you made this vow, you were called an atheist by the culture around you?) What would the world look like if the 3 billion people who professed Christ still lived like this?
  • He challenged the entitlement enjoyed by the rich and powerful.
  • He challenged the disconnect between worship and service.
  • He challenged the legalist ways religious people demonstrated generosity.
  • He afflicted the comfortable and comforted the afflicted.
  • He hung out with the lowest, the least and the marginalized. If someone was considered to be on the fringe of society, he ran in their direction.

And they called him crazy. And eventually some people did lay hands on him. They did restrain him. They tried to shut him up. They tried to prove he was out of his mind and they were the sane ones.

That was Friday. But Sunday morning came. And on that day, Love won. On that day, crazy was shown to be the way of life God intended after all.

So what about us? For those of us who claim to follow this Jesus (and I’m not going to assume everyone here has signed up for this), if someone were to look at our lives - look at the rhythm and activities of our lives as followers of Jesus - is anyone calling us crazy?

I love coming to things like candlelight - but frankly, this is easy. Loving the pilgrims is easy. Am I also willing to love when it isn’t so easy? What about loving people I don’t like? What about loving that family member that drives you crazy, or maybe haven’t spoken to in years? What about Red Sox fans loving Yankees fans and vice versa? What about Republicans loving Democrats and Democrats loving Republicans? What about gay people loving straight people and straight loving gay? Of course, our primary identification is changed once we've given allegiance to Christ - no more Jew, Greek, male, female, etc. So shouldn't Christian be even better at this?!

If someone were to comment on the way you love neighbor and enemy, would anyone call you crazy? Are you running to stand by the side of those being pushed to the margins? I’m thinking I’m not crazy enough. How about you?

Most pastors today spend 80 - 90% of their time taking care of things related to church - mostly worship. Pastors - what if you adopted the ways of Jesus and investing your best time in raising up a group of leaders who can then raise up new leaders, and then spent a majority of your time in the community, creating new relationships? You know your getting crazy enough when you starting getting complaints!

What about resisting the ways of violence and refusing to support policies that continue to perpetuate violence, ever increasing budgets for the ways of war? It’s interesting that pretty much only the Amish and Mennonites offer a consistent voice against violence - and yet, how does the world see them? Heck, how does much of the church see them?

Let me really step on toes. If someone were to find out the level of your generosity when it came to your giving to God, would anyone call you crazy?

Earlier this year a report came out on the charitable giving trends, state by state. I just want to give you the bottom six, heading toward the lowest:
CT
RI
MA
VT
ME
NH

3% or less for each state. Doesn’t sound too crazy at all.

Len Sweet tells a story at the end of his book about a friend who helped lead music for a VBS. One song in particular became a favorite: Praise ye the Lord. You know - hallelu, hallelu, hallelu, hallelujah, Praise ye the Lord.

So one morning this guy asks the kids what they wanted to sing and one little boy shouts out: Crazy the Lord. The guy was confused. “We haven’t sung a song called that this week.”

The boy answered, “Sure we have. It goes ‘Hallelu, hallelu, hallelu, halleluhah, CRAZY the Lord!”

Here’s my challenge - my prayer - taht we let that become our song.

Crazy the Lord. Crazy about loving, crazy about caring, crazy about giving, crazy about loving our neighbor, crazy about non-violence, crazy for this Jesus who is absolutely crazy for us!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

You can do nothing

This is for the scriptural geeks out there, so if trying to understand this crazy book called the Bible a little better isn't your thing, keep on going. However, if you get bugged by what's in there like I do - hang around. It might be interesting.

I've had this particular scripture eating at me for a few days. It's bugging me enough that my reflection requires more than a tweet or FB post. It's from John 15. I heard someone preach on it. This was before the hurricane and all the attention it got, but ironically, the power outage gave me some time to reflect and dig more deeply.

The point of contention is John 15:5b, which typically translated says, "because apart from me you can do nothing." So the preacher to whom I'm listening says this verse in the context of the message, but then immediately says, "Well, not that we can't do anything. We can do some things." And then goes off on a rather watered down description of the things we can do - apparently without needing to do any of the abiding previously mentioned. In other words, we can do lots of things and abiding, whatever that might mean, doesn't really matter.

So I went digging. In particular, I went to the Greek to see what John put on paper. Fascinating stuff. Here it is: "o¢ti cwri«ß e˙mouv ouj du/nasqe poiei√n oujde÷n." It's the final three words that really tell what going on. The third from the last word comes from the root "dunamai" - same word where we get dynamo or dynamite. It means "to be able" or "to have the power to." The second to last word is "poieo" and it means to do or to make, but can also, given the right context (like John 15!) mean "to abide." It's also a word used to refer back to the previous action mentioned, which in this case, is "abide." The last word means "nothing, none or at all." To put this all together, a legitimate translation of this verse could be "because apart from me you (plural, as in "ya'all") do not have the power to abide at all" or "you do not even have the power to abide."

So then, put this all together beginning with verse 4 you get this: "Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you (plural) do not have the power to abide at all." (or, as I wrote above, "do not even have the power to abide."  In other words, if we are not staying connected to Christ, forget about bearing fruit - we aren't even going to be able to stay on the vine! I think the difference is significant, as well as making the paragraph internally consistent. 

There - I feel better. My theological itch has been scratched. Feel free to comment.