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Posts Tagged ‘community’

I am serving in Christ Reformed Church in Duncannon, PA. We are trying to be intentional about things like becoming a community and belonging to a community. We are reading texts like Genesis and recognizing ourselves as descendants of a promise. The promise of a worldwide family. For centuries followers and disciples have taken this seriously. We are following the same steps and praying the same prayers as these early followers.

We are practicing the promise given to Abraham so long ago and so far away, but we are practicing this promise in this place. What Abraham practiced among the Canaanites, we attempt to practice among the Duncannonites. We break bread together and remember who called us. We walk through the church year with the understanding we are on a journey.

Early in my relationship with this body, I was called to a meeting held in the downstairs of the building. Some referred to this as the dungeon. I was ok with this description. Some of the church’s best stuff has come from out of dungeons. We discussed details during the meeting.  But what I remember most was the way the meeting concluded. John had us join hands and pray the Lord’s Prayer. I felt like part of something big. Like we belonged to a long history of people who have prayed these words in dungeons and church basements.

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Missio Alliance is an ecumenical group that does not want to avoid the challenges of living as the church in the twenty first century. Because of that, they continue to make a serious effort to host conversation about how the church can engage in mission in a postmodern world. Many things are worth repeating following their recent gathering “Awakenings: The Mission of the Spirit as the Life of the Church.” Some of them are included below.

The conference began with conversation on “The Holy Spirit: Our Forgotten God.” The reasons we could forget the Spirit may be numerous but Todd Hunter suggested these reasons may include the explicit gospel we grew up with does not mention the Holy Spirit. And he thinks we equate the Spirit with weirdness and try to separate ourselves from that. Hunter reminds us the Spirit could be grieved by wacky excess or by being ignored. He concludes by telling us it was Jesus who said “it is better that I go away…” And that to be the people of God is to be connected to the Spirit.

Over the course of the gathering we were encouraged to look at the Spirit from different angles and through the lens of different traditions. This was a helpful exercise. Throughout we were in agreement that the Spirit intends to strengthen the church by the gifts of the Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit. The Spirit has no interest in promoting individual advancement. The Spirit is not interested in hierarchy, but unity. Not celebrities or heroes but community.

We cannot reduce the Spirit to mere gifts. To reduce the work of the Spirit to individual gifts is to miss the point. The Spirit is always about the Body. And the Holy Spirit is not only about the Holy Spirit. This is about God. And God in relationship. Trinity gives us a fuller picture of God. It was N. T. Wright who mentioned the Spirit weaves us into God’s poem. Some of us may be sonnets or haikus or limericks to help the world imagine His new creation. We are his workmanship, the masterpiece of the Spirit.

Other things I find scribbled in my notes include;

-There is a vast difference between believing something and living in the narrative of the people of God.

-From the day of Abraham it is evident that the people called to provide the solution are part of the problem.

-God gave the church the bi-vocation of worship and mission.

-The church is not the manager of the guest list, but the welcome committee.

-Church cannot be reduced to a utilitarian tool, it is a relational entity.

-The tabernacle is a small working model of new creation. God dwells here. We are the tabernacle people, the Spirit dwells within us.

-God is shaping the church to be someone who will show the world what Jesus is like.

-The church is following Jesus into the future, no matter what is out there.

A big thank you to Missio Alliance for this conversation!

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In the spring of the year I often find porcupines.  Sometimes I follow them for a while just to see where they are going. If I get too close they will let me know by stopping and spreading their quill filled tail. I have never seen more than one at a time but find it interesting that a porcupine gathering is considered a prickle.

This past winter I was in Florida where I learned that a gathering of alligators is called a congregation. While that does make it sound like a religious gathering, I suspect if any one of us found ourselves in the midst of a congregation of alligators it would be a religious experience.

In the spring of the year you can walk out into almost any evening and hear an army of frogs singing their spring song. The names of gathering creatures are numerous. We might talk about herds, flocks, and schools but we might also talk about hives, colonies, packs, swarms, coveys, and convocations. Have you ever heard of a dazzle of zebras? Or a crash of rhinos? There are nearly as many names for gatherings as there are creatures.

The purpose for flocking is complex. But one undeniable reason is that being alone is risky. Traveling together helps individuals remain safe. An isolated individual can be an easy target. But beyond any practical reasons, Craig W. Reynolds points out the beauty of flocks, herds, and schools in the natural world. Group behaviors are beautiful to watch and interesting to think about. These gatherings are made up of individuals yet the overall picture is “one of nature’s delights.” This all requires a great deal of effort by individuals to stick together while avoiding collisions with one another.

I can’t read this stuff without thinking about the church. As part of the church we gather as an assembly, a body, even as a flock, and as a congregation. These gatherings have purpose. We gather because being alone is risky. We utilize our collective wisdom to allow for better decisions. We interact and rub shoulders with one another because together we demonstrate things like forgiveness, peace, and grace to the world. We keep getting together because things like salvation and holiness are group projects. While it is true that sometimes the congregation has sharp teeth and sometimes it feels like a prickle, the fact remains – we need one another.

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I suspect there are many reasons people do not become part of the church. The one I fear most is that we have communicated a poor picture of what the church is. What if we communicate a picture that church is uninteresting? What if we fail to stimulate the soul? What if we communicate weak expectations? What if we fail to cast a vision of church as an adventure? What if our gathering is just another endorsement that things are ok the way they are? What if we communicate that following Jesus is simply a Sunday commitment without risk? What if we lead people to believe that sitting reverently or singing exuberantly is all there is? What stops us from proclaiming the church as a risky, mysterious, surprising adventure like no other?

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The Way of God

Our story begins “In the beginning” with a God created world that was declared to be “good.” Not too far into the story we find this good world was broken. God continued to care deeply about the world and formed a relationship with Abraham and his descendants. These people were to be a blessing to the world by demonstrating the way of God to the world.

While the world was still broken, Jesus came to inaugurate the way of God that he called the Kingdom of God. The people of God were to represent the way of God in this broken world by following King Jesus as citizens of this Kingdom.

Other attempts to make the world a better place are incomplete. They are inadequate and often arrogant and doomed to failure. They are, however, often convincing and even the people of God become tempted by the ways of the world. In contrast, the way of God is to follow Jesus. This is a radical way that will take you to the difficult terrain of humility and self-denial and the way of the cross.

This is not a way we can travel ourselves or by our own strength. Jesus is not ever the private Lord of well-meaning individuals who want to live right and do good. Never. The way of God has always been, and still is, the way of Jesus made visible in the people of God. It is not even possible to seek first the Kingdom without joining the people who embrace the Kingdom.

Anything less is just another worldly attempt to make the world a better place by offering security, health, and happiness and adding the name of Jesus. The way of God calls people into a fellowship that demonstrates the Kingdom to a watching world.

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The first century view of crucifixion makes John’s account somewhat surprising.  The Gospel of Mark includes darker and more disturbing parts about the death of Jesus.  Ben Witherington suggests that Mark’s gospel provides “gut wrenching feelings.”  Some of the things that provide such feelings include darkness at noon, earthquake, additional mocking, splitting the temple veil, and the cry “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”  The Gospel of John includes none of these and Witherington concludes that John’s telling of the crucifixion as a moment of triumph is intended “to produce different emotions and reactions.”  I agree.

Such a victorious version of the crucifixion leads us to ask whether John is guilty of leading readers astray.  If crucifixion is the final chapter, then the answer is yes and Billy Joel’s sermon “Only the Good Die Young” is the one we should be singing.  But we have “the benefit of hindsight and insight.”  The crucifixion is followed by resurrection and in that context triumph and victory are in play.

John wants us to know that Jesus continues to make decisions even from the cross.  And here we have no small decision.  After this, John says that “all things had already been accomplished.”  The scene is simple.  Sympathetic viewers were at the cross.  Jesus saw his mother.  Jesus saw the disciple he loved.  He speaks to his mother.  He speaks to the disciple.  “From that hour the disciple took her into his own household.”  Here a new family is set in motion.

In the presence of the crucified Jesus, relationship changes.  Two individual followers become family.  When we gather together in our groups of two, three or more, we gather at the cross.  When we choose the way of the cross, we join others who are in relationship with Jesus.  We are not spectators, we are participants.  God comes near when we participate in His plan, even when we do not understand.

The two people identified at the cross are identified only by their relationship with Jesus.  As his mother and the disciple whom he loved lose Jesus physically, they find themselves a new family.  On account of what happened at the cross, we define ourselves differently.  Our identity is no longer determined by relationship with mother and father.  Instead we are defined according to our relationship with Jesus.  We are identified as part of a community that meets at the cross in relationship to a crucified King.

We participate in a community with other unlikely participants.  A tax collector, a fisherman, a farmer, a barista.  The guy who shakes your hand tightly, the girl who sings off-key, the family with the noisy children, the lady who wears too much perfume.  At the cross, we participate with a family that we do not choose.  We participate in a family where the only thing we have in common is relationship with a crucified Jesus.

John does not call us to the cross that we might feel pity for an innocent who died an undignified death.  John invites each of us to stand at the cross to witness the crucified King.  John wants us to know that Jesus remains in control.  Even on the cross, he is able to complete the work he was sent to accomplish.  Like adding the final pieces of a portfolio, he establishes a new family and fulfills scripture.  Only then does he submit his work to the Father “It is finished” and give up his spirit (it was not taken from him).

At the cross, Jesus joins us as a new family of disciples who will continue to follow together.  Following Jesus will now include interdependence on one another.  We are not isolated followers, we are not called to be.  Instead, we join others.  We join people who are not like us in any other way except that we gather at the cross of Christ.

A Look at the Cross reminds us that when we come into relationship with the crucified Jesus, we come into relationship with a collection of others who participate in that relationship with us.

A prayer of response by Susan Vigliano; “Lord, I invite you to shape and form my identity in such a way that I reflect your new order of family.  Who is my brother, mother, and sister in my new adopted family?  I have a natural God-given love for my natural family and close friends, but I need your agape love to love the unknown, different, sometimes unloveable people whom you now call my brother.  Help me, Lord, to love like you love.”

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We cannot over emphasize the responsibility of parents.  We are called to be more faithful than we are able to do on our own.  That is why it is important to remember that we are part of a larger family, the church.  This raises the question, what is the relationship between church and parent as we nurture our children in faith?  The church can become the community where parents receive the support, guidance, and forgiveness that Christian parents require.  Also, the place where children are given the nurture, limits, and story that growth into faith requires.

The church ought to join the parent in prayer for the salvation of children.  When we pray for others to follow Christ no matter what the cost, we do so with the assumption that it is in God’s power to bring them to faith.  Prayer is a bold expression that there is One greater than yourself.  Praying for your children is an honest confession that you are unable to raise children on your own.  Such prayer recognizes that there is no greatness in our parenting skills, but only in God.

Raising children is not so much about parents or children as it is about God.  We are to be always about His business, parenting is no exception.  In fact, the problem with many modern evangelism strategies is that the focus leaves God and becomes business about people.  We are always to be witnesses.  Sometimes we are also parents.  Therefore, we want to include our children in the Gospel story.

While this task falls to the entire community of faith, it is the parent who has the greatest influence.  The natural moments at home provide a great opportunity.  We will transmit our convictions in the ways we talk with children, walk with them, put them to bed, and greet them in the morning.  The Christian family is all of us living, working, eating, drinking, teaching, learning, and growing together.  The relationship between church and parent must be one that encourages children in ways that include them in the story.

Children are not intended to be chosen but to be received.  Children are not achievements, but gifts.  We are not to control them for our own ends.  Nothing so disrupts our tidy, well planned futures.  Nothing so clearly mirrors our best and worst.  Nothing demands from us, humbles us, or gives to us as does the blessed burden of a child.

Some may see children as a worrisome bother to be avoided.  Some feel that children should be avoided because of the uncertainty of the future.  By saying yes to children, we do not demonstrate a faith in the future or faith in our abilities to provide for our children.  Rather, faith in God who holds the future.  Evangelism of our children is not a matter of parental effort.  It is God’s work in which we are privileged to share.

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