Friday, June 25, 2010

Compassion, the Missio Dei, and the Great Chasm

Several months ago, two articles I wrote were in the NPH Communicator, a small six-page "thing" (I'm not sure what to call it) that is 50% advertisements.  They used to archive the issues here, but they stopped between my two articles (I wonder what I did!).  It's just as well, because some of the teeth of the second installment were yanked out (my first experience with publishing and editing...oh well).

Anyway, I have posted what I originally wrote here and here.

The problem is that I'm nowhere even close to living up to those two articles.  I'm not saying that I lied, but that when I read what I wrote, I know that it's an ideal that few live up to.

There was some response to the articles, mostly friends saying, "Hey, I read your article!" and nothing more.  But some others varied on a range of responses from "Jeremy, that was pretty provocative," to "I really appreciated what you said."

I continue to loathe the chasmic separation between what I understand the missio dei to be and how I and the community of which I'm a part actually live.  There's obviously a hole in the transformative nature of preaching and teaching if it doesn't move from the ears and heart to the hands and feet.  I know I need to work on this.

But in the often makes me sad, and greatly detracts from my self-efficacy.  And it's not even so much that I wish I were "more effective" in leading people to follow in Christ, but that at the end of the day, I long to live what I know to be truth in Christ.

I was talking with a mentor a couple of weeks ago.  Ron Benefiel and Roger Hahn were in town to present at a conference about missional theology and practice.  I got frustrated as they were presenting - not at them, necessarily, but at the Church, of which I am a part.  And I got frustrated again at our own context.  I reflected with Ron after about how I sometimes think that living missionally is an easier thing to figure out in urban contexts than it is where we are, in an upper-class suburb.  (Please note that I did not say that it's easier to live out the mission, but simply that it's easier to know what we should be doing.)  Ron agreed with me, but it may have simply been out of pastoral concern and support.  :-)

I don't really have a conclusion to this post...just typing out some random thoughts (and I have been meaning to post those articles for a while).

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Tim Keel on Living in New Places and Chaos

So while in KC, Meghan and I worshiped with the community called Jacob's Well and when we went, Tim Keel was the teaching pastor.  He left last fall to go to New Zealand to study.  I found the below clip on TWOTP's Vimeo account this morning.  He reflects on the transition.  Much of what he says speaks for me these days, particularly around 4:15, isolation (I'm not sure he ever actually uses that word), and then about chaos surrounding the image of water in scripture.  He speaks of Genesis ("while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters") and that's true, but lately for me, it's been more like the waters upon which Peter walked and then fell.  These days I'm kind of looking for that hand up.

Untitled from The Work Of The People on Vimeo.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Dear Generation

Okay...this is written to no one in particular, and yet to some very specific people.  Indeed, it's written to me, too.  I often get very frustrated with my generation, of which I am a part.  I need to let some loose right now, and this serves as my venue for today.  This is complaint...and confession.

Dear Generation:

It's not nearly as bad as your whining makes it out to be.  Well, it might be, but it's likely your own fault.  I don't really think that my grandparents are watching me from the sky right now, but when I entertain the idea, I get embarrassed.  I get embarrassed for the same reasons that I would if some of those little kids in the third world countries we see on commercials and websites came to live with me ("You mean you really pay money for water in a bottle when you can get it for free out of that shiny pipe?").

You know all the toys, gadgets - even the gifts you've given to me - that make our lives better and easier?  Yeah, well...they don't.  They only make us insatiable for more: more chaff, more plastic, and more emptiness. Yeah, yeah, I know...they were gifts: I should be appreciative of your "generosity."  Well actually, it's most likely that you bought the gifts with someone else's money, so whatever tickles your "charitable" heartstrings.

Oh, and speaking of debt...I don't want to hear about it.  It's your own fault.  Yeah, yeah...good things like college and weddings cost more than they used to.  That's BEE-ESS.  Your generation (and you too, boomers) are still living off the backs of three generations behind us.  Sure, a recession here or there in the last couple of decades have been "tough"...but we don't really know tough times.  At least, any tough times have likely been brought on by our own ignorance and false, puffed-up "hope."

Some of us get it - sometimes even I swift and rare moments of grace and divine revelation.  We've got real people sacrificing throughout the world or even in the poorest places in our own land.  But most of the rest of us look back upon a week or month or two of college in South America or Eastern Europe and think we may have just served our time.  Sad, really.

And there are some in our generation who have truly really been hurt.  They have real reason to whine, you know, because they were brutally abused as a child or were truly impoverished (and just because your family owned a Pinto or Rabbit or lived in a small house, it does not qualify you for poverty; after all, you had a car and a house).  I know these people because they abound all around us.  If you'd stop whining about yourself, you might actually get to know about them.  And what I've found is that these who've been truly hurt or disadvantaged actually work a ton harder than you do.  They get it.

And the band Arcade Fire gets it.  Well, one of their songs at least does.  Here it is:


Somethin' filled up my heart with nothin', someone told me not to cry.
But now that I'm older, my heart's colder, and I can see that it's a lie.

Children wake up, hold your mistake up, before they turn the summer into dust.
If the children don't grow up, our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up.
We're just a million little gods causin' rain storms turnin' every good thing to rust.

I guess we'll just have to adjust.

With my lightnin' bolts a glowin' I can see where I am goin' to be
when the reaper he reaches and touches my hand.

With my lightnin' bolts a glowin' I can see where I am goin’
With my lightnin' bolts a glowin' I can see where I am, go-go, where I am

You'd better look out below

Yeah, that's right: we're just a million little individualistic self-serving gods causing rain storms, turning every good thing into rust.  Yes...I'm ticked off.  I'm ticked off at you and I'm ticked off at myself for being one of you.

Oh, and all of you who "love Jesus" and who are still in the Church, or at least feigning some kind of semblance of being so...could you pick something and stick with it (for community's sake, is there such a thing as sacred time and space? Just because Mickey Mouse is on when the church gathers or because your sister's cousin's mother's co-worker's friend is in town that weekend...oh, forget it...God forbid that you'd actually bring them with you.)?  If Jesus were this fickle, we'd all be screwed.  If you're still waiting for this rock star to show up to preach or this one to lead worship, perhaps you should actually read the Bible and note that God raises up in each generation not from the great ones, but from the weak ones: guys and gals who have nothing upon which to rely but God Godself.

Oh, and for all of you who aren't in the Church and whine about her whorishness and lack of like-Christness, do you think that you're the first generation to notice?  Ever heard of this guy?  Or this guy?  This guy? Maybe this one?  Or perhaps this one?  Each of them were pretty ticked at the state of God's people and yet did what they could to effect change rather than wallowing in self-pity.

And speaking of that last guy, perhaps the next time you get ticked because the music's wrong, or the slight details of the lyrics aren't theologically pleasing, or the pastor doesn't feed you or isn't cool enough, or you don't like how someone looked at you, or it's boring, or whatever else...just take a look at his know, how he stormed away from the Temple, refused to participate in the local synagogue, and wouldn't engage the religious leaders (oh...wait...he tried to change the Temple system, was found in the synagogue all the time, and always engaged the religious leaders rather than sulking off in the distance).  As he said, "If you love me, you will love my people."

In my vilest of moments, I sometimes wonder what would happen if we really did enter into a period of tough times, like an actual Great Depression 2 and not just a "Kinda-Depression-of-2009"...I may even wish for it sometimes.  Seems like if that were to happen, only then would we really know what it is to suffer, and know Christ.

In kinder moments, I excuse a lot of you due to the fact that you have indeed been lied to.  But I believe that humanity is better than that...that deep down, we know.  And in moments of life, each of us has had a choice to do right, to sacrifice, to say "no" to more.  Yet time and again, we continue to buy and continue to make choices or whine according to our own needs and vantage points.

"Oh, but I do want community!"  No you don't.  You want conformity.  You confuse the two.  The latter demands to be with those who are the same.  The former chooses to be with those who aren't.  

Take out your buds, put your iPod down, and take a look at the world around you.  No, not just the Kiva website or the picture of the Compassion International Child who gets $20 every two weeks or so and thus fulfills your quota, but I mean the people who are actually around you.  Enter into their presence with thanksgiving.  Empty thyself of all you have that you might see things from their vantage...and thus the vantage of Christ.

I'll do it as soon as you do.

[only ever] Thinking about joining the Old Order Mennonites,
With all my love (as long as you do what I like, too, of course),
A sinner like you,


Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Suffering with Patience: The Community

I pastor a church of a few dozen people.  It's with wonder and amazement that I think of pastors who can truly pastor with compassion a flock just a little bit bigger that the one I get to oversee.  For within the five or six dozen or so people that I pastor, the list of suffering runs the gamut of societal problems: homelessness, addiction, suicide, grief, divorce, poverty, mental disorder, gluttony, and sexual abuse...not to mention the general evangelical who can't seem to identify in the least with all of the above, regardless of good intentions.  

It seems like this group would be fertile ground for eucharistic fellowship and community.    But it's been very difficult.  Many of the hurting and suffering trust me (I guess they are supposed to, I am their pastor).  But they don't trust one another very well.  They have sympathy for one another, but they don't really seek empathy.  Perhaps they feel sorry for one another, but they are without true compassion, in the sense of "suffering with" one another.

Someone recently taught me about the deep-rooted relationship between compassion and patience.  The Latin grandfather of both words is pati, meaning "suffering, feeling; enduring".  From pati come both passion ("suffering") and patiens ("I am suffering").  So our English word compassion is "to suffer with" while patience of course means "bearing with". 

This has a profound impact on how I look at those who are in need.  I confess that sometimes I want to shake individuals and tell them to snap out of whatever situation they are in, particularly if it is due to their own doing.  My impatience with the lack of change in a given person's situation could be excused as human.  But it is surely not compassionate.  

This connection between compassion and patience has a lot to say about the Body of Christ.  We may never actually see the change for good we seek, at least not for a long, long time.  If we view the world from God's perspective however...that's nothing new.  God is used to it and apparently has the patience not to shake us in frustration.

And God has certainly demonstrated the compassion.  This is what incarnation is all about and suffering is why it's so closely connected to the cross.  We see in God in Christ our role for and to the world.  In life, there are lots of things that seek our attention, but only when it's of benefit.  Lots of people want to help those in need.  Few would suffer with them.

On a number of occasions, I have heard someone mention compassionate ministry as a great way to "grow the church" (perhaps the majority of these occasions were within my own head!). Well it's true, the church grows out of true compassionate ministry.  But the fruit of compassionate ministry grows in the qualitative ways that Paul writes of at the end of Galatians 5, not the quantity of fruit in the basket.

Compassionate ministry does not increase numbers in any shape or form.  In fact, if it is true compassion (again, "suffering with"), what it does is empty us of so many things: money, energy, resources, and chaff-like individuals who weren't around for Christ-like ministry in the first place.  So while we may not grow in size, we for sure grow in the likeness of Christ.  Remember, the crowds left him when the going got tough, too.

Most weeks, our church community is sent out with the same benediction.  It speaks to this notion of identifying with those who are hurting.  In his song Take to the World, lyricist Derek Webb's benedictory words challenge in this way: "Like the three-in-one, know that you must become who you want to save, because that's still the way he takes to the world."

We're headed to Lent, which culminates with the passion week.  We who follow him are to especially seek to suffer with Christ in this time.   While we for sure use this season as a remembrance of Christ's once-and-for-all death on the cross, we're told in scripture time and again that the cross is our own: our way, model, and pattern (Phil. 2:5, Mark 8:34-35, etc.).

Lent is a wonder-full time for the local church community to re-member this together.  While we're called to Christlike suffering with "the least of these," we're called to it together.  What we find when we come together to suffer with those in need is that we are connected in ways we cannot understand.  Perhaps you have noticed this in part during a short-term missions trip or even a week at youth camp when life-as-we-know-it is turned upside down and you have nothing more to rely upon than the people around you.  You're left with an indelible mark and connection with those people.  For the Body of Christ, this is the norm, not the exceptional week every year or two.

This is the way of the Church: suffering together.  As Paul tells us in I Corinthians 12, "when one [member] suffers, all suffer together with it."  When the members suffer together, we look more like the Body of Christ.


This is the second installment of an article I wrote in 2009.  Here is the first.

Suffering with Patience: The Individual

"Is that it?"

As I let go of her hand and lifted my head, I noticed again her leather-like face.  It was now crunched in a grimace of gentle disappointment, and with a somewhat polite pity she said, "Let me do it."

And as she proceeded to pray for me, I immediately knew that Christ was somehow present.  Her words surely would have failed the Systematic Theology classes I've taken, but her belief that God was listening was as palpable as the smell of alcohol on her breath.  

This was about eight years ago.  I've not forgotten the moment, and I often still try to exegete it.  In that moment when I was to be Christ, I instead met him.  And I didn't expect it.  

The short prayer I offered as a means to encourage this homeless woman, though offered sincerely and hopefully, was nothing more than an incantational attempt to make her feel better, to show her that I believed in a God that I believed could help her.  And I did (and do!) believe that.  

Since then however, I've read Matthew 25:31-46 (the separation of the sheep and goats) seemingly countless times.  And I've had other similar encounters as the one with this homeless woman, encounters in which I've been surprised by the presence of Christ...when I was supposed to be the one "presenting" him to others.

While I was growing up, this passage in Matthew was a warning to me that if I didn't help people in need, I was bound for eternal damnation.  But when I began to consider all the personal pronouns in that last sentence, I had to conclude that I was missing the point of Christ in this account.

The passage is about incarnation, and more specifically, compassion.  But it's not your KJV-have-pity compassion.  It's the literal "suffering with"-compassion.  Generally, our society understands compassion as that charitable thing we have for people in need.  But a biblical Christlike notion of compassion is the one that steps down from above to suffer alongside the ones in need.  While fulfilling the need (hunger, nakedness, loneliness) may happen, it is but a bi-product of identifying with the need.

To have compassion is to take the place of the seat next to the one who is suffering, not the seat above him.  

We can see this in the incarnation of God.  We've recently come through Advent & Christmas.  Advent - the coming of the Lord to be present with and dwelling amongst humanity in Christ.  But what we know as those who follow him today is that our lives chase after his own footprints  - we are to be today the presence of Christ in the world.

...which makes Matthew 25 so difficult for me.  If I am the presence of Christ to others, then how on earth could he say that when we do to "the least of these," we unknowingly do to him?  The problem with seeking to help those in need to fulfill a "call," a "mission," or even responsibility is should be more than just ful-filling.  In fact, what we find in identifying with need is that it's so often requires quite the opposite - emptying.

Indeed, we are to be today the presence of Christ in the he was in the world: he, who was God, but emptied himself of all that (Phil. 2).

But the wonder of it all is that it ends in new life coming out of that which was dead.  This is the hope of compassion - that when we descend from our lofty places and positions to take up residence with "the least of these," we all together might be raised up to new life.  It's what Christ did.

So while compassion leads to change and improvement in the world, it is not in and of itself change.  If my compassion is meant to change or fix the world around me, it is not compassion.  It might be charity.  But it is not compassion. In fact, if anything changes because of seeking to go and suffer alongside those who are in need, we'll find that the change happens in us.  Compassion does indeed change the world...but it begins by changing me.

Again, we see it in the life of Christ.  For sure, God came into the world to "solve a problem."  But the first thirty years or so were spent living amongst and identifying with those who were in need.  This was the first part of his incarnational and compassionate ministry.  And it's an endeavor that requires a lot patience.  

And isn't that the way the Body of Christ is to work anyway: each part crucial to resonating with the leading of the head, that is Christ himself?  Paul tells us in I Corinthians 12 that we clothe "the least" of these with greater honor.  We might suppose that it's because what we do to the least of all, we do to Christ himself.


This was the first installment of a submission for an article on compassion that I wrote in 2009.  Here is the second part.