I recently started reading After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. Yeah, I know, another N.T. Wright book. Big surprise for me, right? But it’s the next one in a series of smaller books oriented for “everyday” Christians and I couldn’t resist. As always, I’m enjoying it immensely.In Chapter 2 he tells the story of a church choir that was, well, awful. The congregation was polite, but no one expected the choir to do much more than hit the melody once in a while, given they had no formal instruction. One day, the church hired a choir director. He knew he had a lot of work to do, but let them sing away without shutting them down. “He accepted them as they were and began to work with them. But the point of doing so was not so that they could carry on as before, only now with someone waving his arms in front of them. The point of his taking them on as they were was so that they could…really learn to sing!”This is a wonderful picture of God’s grace in action and how he wants to work with us in spite of our weaknesses. But the key is that he does want us to change, to “learn to sing” as human beings in the way he intended. This, of course, does requires effort on our part (I feel a Dallas Willard quote coming on), with God supplying the grace to carry us through. Sounds like a great deal…so why is it so hard?Whether it is learning a new language or becoming more of a patient person, change that cannot come by direct, instantaneous effort is hard. We’ve grown accustomed to believing that some people are just predisposed to doing great things, or things that seem out of reach from our perspective. Lebron James is – and has always been – a freak of basketball nature. Trying to learn his moves would be ridiculous, so we’re left shooting up bricks at the rec league. In fact, it has become commonplace to resign oneself to “shooting up bricks” as part of normal life. Why bother? We’ll never be Lebron (or Jesus for that matter), so it’s much easier to accept who we are.Wright talks a lot about this philosophy in his book – the pseudo-gnostic “find the light in yourself” ideal which, “tries to get in advance, and without paying the true price, what virtue offers further down the road and at the cost of genuine moral thought, decision, and effort.” We’ve all heard it, and perhaps have bought into it one way or another. It is a consumer mentality, since being a consumer is the one aspect of modern life that requires no amount of effort or thought. If we simply accept who we are as what we will always be, then the only thing left to do is keep ourselves entertained. Buy stuff, eat stuff, watch stuff, experience “stuff”.This is not another sermon on the evils of consumerism. In fact, it dawned on me today that most of the anti-consumeristic rhetoric I’ve heard misses one fundamental point. If people are to stop identifying themselves as consumers, they have to learn how to “grow” first. In other words, someone who has given up on the need for change will not just magically stop their consumptive habits. They have to learn a new way to “sing”, one that doesn’t involve buying into whatever the next quick fix is for sale.Of course, this is all incredibly challenging to me personally. I love quick fixes! I avoid effort just like the next guy! Consumption be praised! But I also see the rewards (and joy) of laboring to do something by the grace of God that would be impossible if I just “tried harder”. It is so cool when I recognize that I have actually changed in some area, to see the fruit of the Spirit welling up in places that were hard and cold previously. That’s gold – mined, refined by fire, and fashioned by the Father into something beautiful.
Apprenticeship to Jesus
In January, I said I’d be back in May…well, it’s May. My test is done. I took the Fundamentals of Engineering exam 14 years after graduation (most engineers take it their last semester of college). I’m fairly sure I passed – I put about 200 hours of study into it – but I won’t know until the middle of June.
Nonetheless, I feel as though I have my life back, which is a very good thing.There is a quote from a book by Elizabeth O’Connor from the Church of the Saviour in D.C. where she mentions that it took them 10 years before anything of significance took shape. This has always encouraged me in light of our struggles birthing Christian community here in South Florida. Unbelievably, ten years is right around the corner (we have lived here for 8 1/2). I don’t know if ‘significance’ is the word to use for what we are beginning to see, but there certainly is fruit.
The book I finished a year and a half ago chronicles our community’s story discovering what it means to be the church in a new world and a way forward through our collective brokenness. In the spiritual desert of South Florida, it has been tough sledding to say the least. But we have seen people from across the ecclesial spectrum begin to unhitch their trailers of baggage and discover simplicity as humans and followers of Jesus. It’s not perfect, it’s not big, and there have been pitfalls. Dude…it’s church.After Amber, the kids and I returned from an extended trip to Peru two years ago, we felt that God was leading us into a time of gathering. The first 7 years of living here were about deconstruction, questioning, and learning brand new skills. The next 7 years would be putting what we learned into play in the Kingdom.
Out of a simple gathering of women getting together to paint, an artist’s collective was birthed. Another set of friends are exploring how we can serve a large migrant Guatemalan community here in Jupiter. These are small steps, but we are meeting people around who are hungry to follow Jesus into the world.Over the next weeks and months, I’ll be continuing to post about these projects, our philosophy for how we are approaching the work, and telling the story along the way. But I want to back up a bit and attempt to tie a thread between the story told by my book (and the church that story represents) and where Amber and I feel God leading us into the future.Our “church-family” as it’s known around our house is comprised of people that functionally don’t “go to church” anymore. We do worship together (on Sundays!), share what we’re learning from the Scriptures and our experiences, and try to care for one another when we’re hurting. Like I said before, it’s not perfect. We fail often at caring and don’t always reconcile relationships as we should. We also struggle with what I like to call social saturation. In other words, there is a limit to the number of meaningful relationships you can have if those same people are not around each other 24-7. For example, if you coach your children’s sports teams, you’ll have other people in your life that require time and attention. Nothing wrong with that…it just leaves less time for the church-family. Same goes for work, or school, or any other social environment. God wants us to be present to those people as well. Obviously, if those other social attachments are just that – social obligations or distractions – they might not be healthy. But for the most part, we are there for good, God-ordained reasons.So what does this have to do with the health or otherwise of our church and the future? Well, social saturation makes it difficult for church-families to grow. There, I said it. Grow. Expand. Enlarge. Reproduce. Yes…growth is healthy! Never said it wasn’t, by the way. But when your social cup is full, new relationships just spill and make a mess of the carpet. That’s been a struggle, particularly in a place starved for any shred of authentic connection with other human beings. Once you taste the wine, there is a very real fear it might be taken from you. The response to that fear is to protect the social framework you have and subconsciously resist anything that might bring change. I say “subconsciously” because we often (and I have been guilty of this) say we want to see new growth, but then struggle to enrich our sociality in practice.Let’s not kid ourselves, we’re not playing around with any ordinary social forces at work. A social phenomenon, lead by Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit, literally turned the world upside down within a few decades. The tendency within groups such as ours (within the “simple” or “organic” church movement) has been to try and devise a solution for growth after things grow stagnant. Truthfully, I think most of those solutions fail not because they are strategically wrong, but because of the subconscious fear of losing what has already been attained. After all, most of us came from situations where we had something great but lost it, or maybe never had it at all. Perhaps we underestimate the power of the Body of Christ. Maybe within our rhetoric and criticism of what has been, we forget that what we have now came as a gift, a grace of the Spirit. We should believe with confidence that whatever comes next will carry with it the required Provision.This may seem cryptic (especially for those who are local and experiencing what I’m writing about) and not practically helpful. But as I said above, I’m attempting to tie a thread between what was before and what will be. There are ways forward, but they will require imagination and some risk. Amber and I are committed to this place and the calling God gave to us almost ten years ago. I do believe in the staying power of Christ’s Body – his Big Bride as John Wimber used to say. He’ll figure out a way to keep his people on track, as painful as it can be sometimes. However, like everything related to life with God, it will be better if we can learn to work with him, rather than against him.More to come. Good to be back.
Why do we fear starting something new? Or more specifically, starting something over again? You would think, particularly as we grow older, that we would realize that our lives start and re-start constantly. Every day is a possibility to start something new, to change old habits, to re-energize the mind, to embolden the spirit. But at some point every one of us convince ourselves that it isn’t worth the energy to follow through on new beginnings. We are who we are. We’ve become something, so why change? The past is past, but it has authored our future in such a way that starting over is impossible. We tell ourselves that we don’t have time, or feel unequipped, or have lived one too many disappointments to strike out afresh one more time. As followers of Jesus, I wonder how we justify those ideas? After all, didn’t Jesus say in his glory, “Behold, I make all things new”? Isn’t the witness of being a little-Christ that we are born again? Or is ‘born again’ just another way of saying ‘evangelical’ or ‘church-goer’? Maybe we’ve missed something here. Maybe rebirth in Christ is something larger than a one time event. In fact, rebirth is a reality we step into as a follower of Jesus that will stay with us for eternity. We are new creatures preparing for a renewed creation.The Gospel of Jesus says that we are not just “who we are” anymore. That death sentence has been revoked and replaced with an eternal fountain of new possibilities. Imagine that everyday you woke up and believed that you truly got a fresh start. The guilt or pain or sorrow of yesterday was forgotten. You were on Day Zero of Life.Isn’t that what being Born Again really means?In the past year, a lot has changed for me and Amber. From the outside it may not appear so, but on the inside it’s been a wholesale transformation. The dreams of many years are taking shape before our eyes. For me, the most difficult thing has been believing that I am ready, that I can be something else other than what I have been. I am continually wanting to return to the safety of the familiar – to believe that the past has authored the future – and to stay complacent. But I’ve been hearing fresh voices. I’m reading again. I’m listening to the heart-cries around me. I’m feeling the pull to new ideas and challenging questions. Believe me, it is very easy to believe the whispers that I am who I am, change is not likely, that the dreams will remain just that…dreams. I’m posting this today for me, not to convince anyone of anything, or to advertise, or to be controversial. This is a marker, a monument. I will not believe the lies. I am a born again person. New birth is my birth-right. Will you believe it too?