Different

This past week’s sermon was from Luke 18, specifically the part where Jesus tells a story about a Pharisee and a tax collector who go to the temple to worship, and whose prayers evidence that they are miles apart—only not in the way that both of them seem to assume.

Scripture seems full of stories like this. Lately that theme has relentlessly pushed me toward the conviction that disciples of Jesus have to change the way we see our neighbors. Naming on the basis of categories like class, race, or any external factor just isn’t an option for us—Jesus seems bent on teaching us how to to see people differently.

One effect of this in my own life is that over time, God has been bringing me more and more friends whose lives aren’t mirror images of my own—they have different starting places, different twists and turns, different challenges and obstacles, and echo with different tones. All of that may not seem unusual to you, but—and here’s the big point—it is different to me. Much of my life, at times intentionally and at other times just by force of habit, has been lived in the midst of similarity— real, assumed, or pretended. My experience of church has been set in homogeneity; my brothers and sisters had often seemed to have had backgrounds that looked a lot like mine, and followed a similar plot.

I don’t think of myself as a closed person. Indeed, I’m often fascinated by hanging out with people from different backgrounds, who have different stories—but lately I’m realizing that these aren’t the same as having forged friendships. I wonder what it will take for me to develop that capacity.

Vulnerability: Newtown and Nouwen

Last week’s tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut hurts. It hurts badly,  troubling us at multiple locations of doubt, hope, fear, and love. Survey the landscape and see what has been scorched: the innocence of children, the space of the schoolhouse, our duty (and capacity) to protect children, our general sense of security in the midst of community, a myriad of assumed rights and responsibilities, ideals of parenthood and the resiliency of children, our blind spot toward mental illness, perhaps even our tacit acceptance of public risk.

In the destructive wake of the violence, many voices have rushed in to offer solutions–a not unhealthy impulse, even though many of the solutions are misguided, I think. Many of them reflect views that are not new judgments, but old commitments given new urgency, and these have been immediately met by other old commitments fueled by the urgency of any defense played at critical junctures. Political pundits, theologians, pastors, social scientists and community leaders are all having their say, and I suppose that some of those discussions may well bear fruit, if they are pursued with honesty, courage, and wisdom. In the end, now that the idea of this type of violence has been seeded in our communities, it may not ever be eradicated from the consciousness of those deeply broken people who might consider it a live option. Becoming more intentional about addressing that deep brokenness, addressing the systemic devaluation of human life in our society, limiting how well-armed such individuals might come to be, and making sensible decisions about security and emergency procedures may well combine to save lives—I would hope many—but eliminating the seed itself may be beyond our grasp. (This is not to say that such pragmatic conversations should not be pressed forward! Even if we can spare but a few families this sort of deep horror, I hope we will courageously engage the questions.)

Beyond the immediately pragmatic, the deaths in Newtown have again exposed a conversation that we are scarcely willing to pursue, namely our extremely fragile ability to experience community with other humans. When we join in others for any public endeavor or experience of community, we always experience danger, whether that be in the market or workplaces, in the schools or mass entertainment venues. Such events raise our awareness of the willingness of others to abuse our trust and do us harm in exceptional ways, although we most commonly encounter such abuse and harm in mundane, petty things. Whether they do so out of rage, greed, or some other vice, our experience of such danger threatens our willingness to be full participants in community, and in exceptional moments of violence, even at the hands of madmen, we can be pushed further into retreat mode.

I say “retreat”, but as I mean that, the impulse to ratchet up security and devise better schemes for protection, and to make ourselves stronger is also a “retreat” from community, in its own way. Those impulses are a way of insulating us from the sense of vulnerability that we have in encountering “strangers”, people who are really our neighbors, but who have become “estranged” from us. Whether they have become strangers to us through their own failings or ours, through the broader directions of culture, or through some innate human “fallenness” is one of the central questions of theology, as is the cure. Put simply, these questions ask, “How did we become this broken?” and “How can we be fixed?” And so, moments like this can be deeply theological moments, because we experience in an acute way the condition of humanity, They strip away the illusions that we hold of ourselves, whether those illusions reflect to false invulnerability, a cavalier sense of immortality, or the pretenses of faux community.

All of this has called my mind back to Henri Nouwen, one of the most formative influences on my own life. I think Nouwen has a lot to say to our world in this time, particular in his great theological insight that honestly owning and living in our vulnerabilities is a more fruitful way to live with God, other people, and ourselves than our endless maintenance of the illusions of security and strength. Nouwen writes about the roots of our loneliness, a symptom of our estrangement from each other, when he writes, “The roots of our loneliness are very deep, and cannot be touched by optimistic advertisement, substitute love images, or social togetherness. They find their food in the suspicion that there is no one who cares and offers love without conditions, and no place where we can be vulnerable without being used.”

For Nouwen, the way to deal with that suspicion was to avoid the natural impulse of adding layers of security around it, and to confront it head on through radical hospitality—creating space in our lives for others despite the real danger that they would somehow harm us. Creating free spaces inside our perimeters of supposed invulnerability allows us to discover community with each other because it allows us to be honest and free, despite being “threatened”. Dealing with our sense of vulnerability also helps unmask the illusions of immortality and invulnerability which, being idols, stand between us and any relationship with a free and loving God. For Nouwen, God’s own actions in the story of Jesus represent just this sort of radical hospitality, and thus create space for us within the story of God within which it is possible for us to inflict harm upon God, but also to freely know and be blessed by God.

As a framework for policy, radical hospitality sounds like a recipe for disaster. As a framework for really building community between broken people, it may be the only way forward.

I Just Wanna be a Sheep (Baaaa)—A Sermon on Receiving Shepherding

A couple of years ago a movie was released that I suppose a few have seen, although I have not and hopefully presume that not many of you have either. Indeed, it is astonishing that there was a market at all for Black Sheep. The film is set on a sheep farm in New Zealand, and tells the story of a farm where a bit of genetic engineering goes terribly awry, creating a new breed of—wait for it—Zombie Sheep. Yes, Zombie Sheep. The generally docile creatures turn bloodthirsty, devouring whatever humans they can find, and in true Zombie film fashion, develop the ability to turn some of the bitten farmers into mutant were-sheep—hideous creatures covered with wool, frenzied and ready to join the attacking horde-flock in their quest to devour the remaining humans.

This may well be a parable of the church.

While much attention continues to be given (appropriately) to training leaders and discussing the evolving model of elderships within churches, but we need to talk more about the other side of the relationship—what we sheep bring to our relationship with our shepherds. Like any relationship, we can’t work on only one side of the equation. For our model of shepherding to become truly effective, it can’t just be about the shepherds. We have to also develop our sense of what it means to receive shepherding. You can’t have good healthy shepherds in a church full of bloodthirsty zombie sheep.

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Elders Part 2: Making Decisions about Making Decisions

Most of the time, when men become elders, they have very little idea of what things are going to be like.  What should they expect in meetings? What’s expected from them outside of the meeting room? What kinds of questions are people going to start asking them that they never would have heard before? What do you do when your thoughts are on the fringe? It can all be shocking at first, and it takes a little while before it begins to feel somewhat normal.  I’ve heard a lot of men say it was at least six months or a year before it felt normal to them—even two years is common!

Typically, churches add elders in batches, and since a new batch can take a little while to adjust, they often assimilate into the way the group already does things, going with the flow while they learn to swim.  Commonly being a part of an eldership is a moderating force on individuals, bringing them towards a center of thought. That’s mainly healthy and appropriate, part of the way the Spirit runs the church, but there is at least one by product of that process which is potentially negative.

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Elders Part 1: The Value of Growing, Caring Shepherds

(Note: My faith tradition, the Churches of Christ, are organized into autonomous churches governed by multiple elders. In this series, I’m going to write some of my observations about how those elderships work, or don’t. If your faith tradition has another organizational practice, don’t let my language freak you out too much. I would imagine much of what is written here about our leadership structure would be useful across other church leadership structures.)

Elderships have a bad reputation, and sometimes for good reason. Churches with dysfunctional leadership teams get burned by terrible decision making, the failure to spiritually care for hurting people, and harsh judgments. Beyond that, there is a thick layer of communication problems that have built up over time, and elderships that have made good and wise decisions have often struggled to nail the follow-up and communication elements of leadership, intensifying distrust and creating distance between themselves and the congregations with which they have been entrusted.

One of the reasons leaving Little Rock was a tough decision for us was that Kelly and I were aware of how common those problems are, and also extremely comfortable with the leadership team at Pleasant Valley. Perfect they most certainly are not, but they are largely functional, and are committed to fulfilling their role in that body as well as they can.  They are extremely prayerful and wise.

That made it hard for us to leave, because we were afraid to trade in the blessings of that highly functional group of shepherds for the unknown element of wherever we would land! Frankly, it was terrifying to walk away from that group of shepherds who had shown us much love and blessed us with much wise counsel over the years. So far, those fears have been misplaced, and we’ve found the eldership here at Cedar Lane to be extremely supportive and helpful. I see in these men the same dedication to spiritual care that I loved and admired at PV, and a commitment to growing in all the various ways they show leadership throughout the church.

Leaders committed to their own personal growth and development into caring shepherds model these things for their churches. They foster two extremely important cultural climates within the church. The first is a culture of personal compassion, where people actively seek to care for other people. In a community dominated by this culture, people extend hospitality to their brothers and sisters, making space for them in their lives. They seek ways to help others carry their burdens, and take initiative to get involved with people on the level of their broken and hurting hearts.  When elders take compassion on as their primary job, it helps everybody else understand that this is really the church’s job. We create a culture of compassion.

Secondly, eldership have a unique opportunity to model a culture of growth for the church. When elders commit to  growing and demonstrate that they are in full pursuit of what it means for them to live as disciples, they foster those kinds of attitudes within the church. On the other hand, how many eldership out there are communicating, intentionally or not, that their own lives as disciples is a fixed entity? How many are communicating that discipleship is about being stable and static? Growth is essential to our lives as disciples, it is a fundamental part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus—somebody that is learning from him what it means to live in the kingdom of God. Elders committed to their own growth as disciples create an expectation within the church that we are all growing, that discipleship is an active, ongoing process.

These two factors could make a tremendous difference in churches across the country. I’ve been in two churches where it already is making a difference. And I know that those two elderships are just getting started.