Neighborhood Group Continues

This was just the sort of encouragement I’ve been needing. Our Neighborhood Group is getting together this evening.

Three weeks after the last official Harvest service;

Nearly two months after we last met;

And, perhaps most importantly to me, without any effort or prompting by me.

Apparently something of what I was trying to start was valued. Or, perhaps they want to get together in spite of what I did to form the group, which is even better; because then I can only say that something of God is coming thru.

(BTW – A variety of family illnesses prevented us from hopping over to Beavercreek Christian Church last week. We’ll try again this Sunday, and I’ll blog about it next week.)

Harvest – Sermon: Never Lose Sight of the Kingdom

I preached my last sermon at Harvest Sunday. One more week, and then our doors close for good. Here were my final words:

Today begins the Third Week of Advent. Christmas Day is less than two weeks away. The signs are all around us. This is the season in which we remember the coming of the Christ Child. It is the time of year when we anticipate the return of Christ the King. And for us, it is a time to anticipate the next step, life after Harvest.

One day, in the desert on the Judean border, a man shouted to the crowds: “Repent for the Kingdom of God is near!” With those words, John the Baptist announced the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

Thirty years earlier on the edge of a small village in the Judean backwater, a pregnant girl cried out in pain: “The Kingdom of God is near!” It’s due date has arrived!

In Christ, God became flesh. The Invisible became visible. On a lonely night among the noise of farm animals and the labour pains of a young woman, a baby’s cry announced the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven. Though scarcely noticed when it happened – the birth was attended only by a few shepherds and foreigners – history was forever changed that night. The Kingdom of God had arrived.

To His followers Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is in you.” Just as the Kingdom took on flesh when Jesus was born, it takes on flesh again whenever people choose to live Jesus-brand lives. In and through faithful Christ-followers, the Kingdom expands. It pushes back darkness, and brings light and life to the world. The Kingdom of God has arrived. It is is here, and it continues to grow thru the lives of Kingdom-Bringers.

This is the last opportunity I have to preach at the Harvest. It may be the last time I have an opportunity to preach to each of you as well, for who knows where our lives will take us in the coming years. (Who knows when another church will be silly enough to let me stand behind the pulpit.) I’ve chosen my words carefully, because last impressions are often lasting impressions.

First let me say thank you.

Thank you, Harvest, for allowing me to learn and experiment and grow with you. I have changed more than I ever could have anticipated and in ways I never would have thought. I have attempted much in your midst, not all of which was successful, but all done in for the Kingdom. You have been gracious and kind, allowing me to train on the job. You have been honest. You have allowed me to ruffle your feathers from time to time, whether by technique or presentation or message. I hope you’ll allow me to do it once more.

In one week’s time, we will walk out the door for the last time. Many of you have already begun the process of looking for a new faith community. Some are returning to previous churches; some are checking out the larger, better known churches around town. Wherever you look, as you search let me urge you to do one thing.

Never lose sight of the Kingdom.

If I have any regret in my Christian life, it is this: I wish I had been introduced to the kind of radical, mission-focused, kingdom-centered life that we have pursued over these last five and half years.

These final weeks of Harvest have been particularly sad for me. Not only is there the sadness of changes and endings, there is something more. After five and a half years of searching – of gift inventories and conversations, of books and experiments, of false starts – after five and a half years I feel like I’m just getting my feet under me. I feel like I’m just getting clear on who I am and what God might be calling me to do.

Easter was a watershed for me, but now that the Harvest is closing its doors, my ready venue is gone. I fear that I will become lazy, that I will not do the work necessary to find a new venue, and that I will allow my gifts and passion to go wasted. And so I am sad. Regardless, this is the course, and so I – and so we must all figure out how to move into the next season of our lives.

As we do, we must not lose sight of the Kingdom, for the Kingdom of God is within.

A friend of mine from New Zealand wrote something that I’d like to share:

Christianity emerges from a wilderness spirituality;

John the Baptist, camel haired and with locust wings in mouth, emerges from the desert;

Jesus in preparation for ministry, walks into the wilderness;

Israel finds God in the desert, where in the wilderness Moses is called and a nation is shaped.

The rough places and tough spaces become the place of encounter with God.

These Harvest years have been difficult years. Our faith has been tested, and we have wrestled with God. We have served with passion. We have followed Him, not knowing where the next step lay. We have been excited; we have been disappointed. We have been in the wilderness…

And it has been awesome! Hard? Yes. Exhausting? Absolutely. Emotionally draining? Without a doubt. But we have encountered God. We have all met him and been changed by him. In following Him, we have helped to usher in the Kingdom of God.

The temptation foe each of us, is that we will leave Harvest and go some place comfortable. We will leave the wilderness of this place, a place where we have encountered God, and we will settle. Rather than following God day by day, step by step, as Israel did in the desert and as the Apostles did in the Galilean countryside; we will settle, we will find comfort and familiarity, and we will lose the Kingdom.

So I say it again. My challenge is this: Don’t lose sight of the Kingdom. No matter where you go from here, your life is meant to be lived out with one and only one purpose. You are to be a Kingdom-Bringer. You have been charged by God with the Gospel, the Good News that the Kingdom of God is here! It is here and it will change the world as long as you don’t lose sight of it.

Don’t lose sight of the Kingdom!

Here is why this is so important, why my last message to you centers on the Kingdom: Many, if not most, of the churches you will check out in the coming weeks and months will be places of comfort and not wilderness. They will be places where you can settle in and find a safe, steady rhythm. They will be places that remind you of places you’ve been in the past; they will sound familiar, look familiar, and smell familiar. And because of their familiarity and comfort, they will tempt you to forget the Kingdom.

Don’t lose sight of the Kingdom! A few weeks ago I said that the success or failure of Harvest will be determined by the extent that we remain Kingdom-Bringers. The Gospel, the Good News that The Kingdom of God is here and It can change the world, is only true to the extent that Christians – that you and I are willing to live for it, to usher it in, to rearrange our lives for it, to sacrifice our comfort and live in the wilderness where we encounter God, where we experience His Life, where we find ourselves dependent on Him and Him alone. This is not hyperbole: God’s Great and Glorious plan of Redemption can be rendered powerless, if Christians – if we settle for comfort and forget the Kingdom.

Don’t lose sight of the Kingdom.

Here’s where I might ruffle some feathers. I’ve thought about each of us and the ways we might be tempted to settle, to get comfortable; and I’ve tried to come up with ways to remain in the wilderness.

Some of us must be challenged politically. It will be easy to settle in to a community that thinks the same way we do. It will be easy to insulate ourselves from voices that dissent. Resist the temptation of political comfort, and step into the challenge of political wilderness. Remind yourself that true hope is not found in a political party of agenda, but in the Kingdom of God. Find voices that differ from yours, thoughtful voices that will challenge your politics. Be open to persuasion. Remember that there are sincere, Kingdom-Bringing Christians on both sides of the political aisle. Step into the challenge of political wilderness.

Some of us must be challenged economically. It will be easy to surround ourselves with people in the same social class. It will be easy to settle in to the pattern of comparing ourselves with the wealthy. Resist the temptation of economic comfort, and step into the challenge of economic wilderness. Find ways to be around the poor, not so you can pity them and not so you can feel more thankful about your own economic position; but rather so you can understand their struggle and so you can rearrange your own life to bring hope and justice. Reject the economy of self that hoards and looks inward. Instead, embrace the economy of gift that looks outward with abundant generosity. Step into the challenge of economic wilderness.

Some of us must be challenged geographically. We will be making decisions about where to live. We will make big decisions – what city or country – and little decisions, like what part of town or what neighborhood. And again, it will be easy to seek comfort, the comfortable house and the comfortable neighborhood. Resist the temptation of geographic comfort and step into the challenge of geographic wilderness. Find ways to bring the Kingdom into neighborhoods that need the sort of renewal and renovation only found in God, whether that means staying where you are or moving some place you’d never thought of. Step into the challenge of geographic wilderness.

Finally, some of us – no all of us must be challenged spiritually. We will be tempted to settle in to comfortable, familiar expressions of our faith. We will find safe theologies and wrap our hearts like warm quilts. Resist the temptation of spiritual comfort and step into the challenge of spiritual wilderness. Read book, listen to speakers, find voices that rub you the wrong way. Take a theological interpretation that you hold dear, and learn all you can from those who take the ideologically opposite position. Never stop listening to God. Grow to expect a measure of fear any time you follow Him, for without fear there can be courage, and without fear there is no need to depend on God. Keep moving. Keep following. Step into the challenge of spiritual wilderness.

Step into the wilderness, and encounter God. “The Kingdom of God is in you.” Don’t ever lose sight of the Kingdom!

Let me close with a prayer from my friend down under:

Wilderness God

Hidden in the deep valley

Obscured by rocky outcrop

This Advent

May we be found in Your wilderness.

Harvest – The End Of The Road

After just over five years our little church plant, Harvest Christian Fellowship, will be closing its doors. December 19th will be our last service.

It’s a bittersweet event for me, and I’m still in sorting out my thoughts and feelings. I promise I’ll share, just not today. I simply want to tell the news before too much more time passed.

On a related note, know any good churches in Dayton, Ohio, USA?

Neighborhood Group Update

Our group, announced back here, has been meeting biweekly for a couple months now, so I thought I’d post a bit of an update. It’s real low key. As we’ve spent a little more time together, the general flow during an evening is growing more smooth vs. forced. Small talk flows easily. My kids are real comfortable with everyone. That sort of thing.

We eat (Further thanks to Dara for recommending Oasis Cafe on Tuesday!) and we talk. Last night we meandered thru a bunch of topics, including but by no means limited to:

  • Sarah McLachlan’s World on Fire video and the way Americans are viewed abroad. What is the foreign take on our conspicuous wealth and consumerism? (Quick plug for The Gospel Experiment over at Waving or Drowning?
  • Which is more important: right beliefs or right actions? I used this tongue-in-cheek Jewish proverb as a starting point (Sorry – I’ve lost the blog source.): “To be a good Jew you don’t have to believe in God, you just have to do what he says.”
  • What does God value more, righteousness or honesty?

Feel free to weigh in on any of the above.

The action side of things has yet to really get kicked off. I’m okay with that for now; I want a certain relational foundation to our efforts. I was hoping to do a servant evangelism give away later this month: 9-volt batteries and reminder cards on the weekend of the Daylight Savings Time switch. This is going to prove to cost prohibitive, however, so I think I’ll move to the next idea.

Meet Greta and Sissy, our neighbors from the other end of the block. Greta is in her early sixties, and she lives with her aunt, Sissy, who is in her early eighties. They’ve been in the neighborhood for nearly thirty-five years, and I think Greta knows just about every person in a four block radius. Greta volunteers at an area senior center in the morning, and Sissy loves to garden. Her backyard is full of flowers and vegetables, and she spends a great deal of her time at a community garden in the area. Earlier this year Greta’s mom passed away after an extended battle with Alzheimer’s disease. To pile on to the situation, Greta has been in the hospital for the past two weeks with an infection.

Greta’s a fantastically nice lady, though I don’t think she’s ever lived on her own. Every day, when she gets home from volunteering, Greta walks up the block to chat with Kerri and another neighbor for an hour or so just before lunch time. Her loneliness is obvious, and she expresses a great deal of gratitude for Kerri’s friendship. This summer I’ve also taken to mowing their lawn whenever I mow my own. (Now if you knew how often I mowed, you’d see that really isn’t as big as it sounds. Nevertheless, i don’t see any reason why either of them should have to mow their own grass.)

My idea? Well, I imagine there are a few things around the house or yard that neither of them have been able to get around to doing. I don’t know exactly what, yet, but I hope a few of us in the group can get together and spend a Saturday doing whatever they can think of for us to do. We may lack skills, but hopefully we’ll make up for it with enthusiasm. If they don’t have anything we can do – or won’t let us do anything – then I hope they can point us in a direction where we can be of use.

Sounds like religion God would approve of to me.

Stumbling Toward Unity by Living Baldly

I had the occasion to preach on Sunday, and spoke on the subject of unity and how it must be worked out in the intersection of our lives. My reflections were clearly influenced by Renée’s book. I got some positive feedback that night, so I thought I’d share. Here are the questions I asked, as well as my concluding remarks:

1. Will we take off our masks, admit our faults and weaknesses, and live transparently, as works in process and cracked earthen vessels? OR Will we continue to live behind toupees and masks, hiding our true selves?

2. Will we confront one another, in love, and speak the often difficult words that coax the truth into the light, words that cleanse wounds, kill spiritual disease, and initiate the process of healing? OR Will we sit quietly, murmuring to others and announcing ourselves as prophets when a foreseeable disaster occurs?

3. Will we love one another, be present with one another, and give space to one another, space in which we can be broken, in which we can mourn, rage, curse, cry, question, doubt, dream, die, be reborn, renewed, and even resurrected? OR Will we press one another into a mold, forcing them to heal and recover and change according to our standards and timelines?

CLOSING: Unity will not result from chatting about OSU football over brownies and Diet Cokes. It will not result from watching Alias or sharing meals in each other’s homes. It will not result from serving together. It will not result from any of these alone.

The missing ingredient in all these activities – good and important though they are – is an intentional opening up of our lives. You can be with people 24-7, but if you never open up your life, if you never take off the toupee or take a gentle tug at the other person’s toupee; none of that time will matter one bit.

Unity requires intentional effort. Listen again to Paul’s words. (Eph. 4, Phil. 2, and Col 3) These are not passive words, but words of action, actions that will unify and give evidence to the Gospel, actions that will mark God’s community with a set of principles and values that stand in stark contract to the values of the world.

Parable of the Lost Sheep (Monkey?)

Drawing inspiration from Renée, I led our church thru the following devotion Sunday evening:

Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the 99 in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home, then he calls his friends and neighbors together and say, “Rejoice with me! I have found my lost sheep.” I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who do not need to repent.

This is the first in a trio of stories that Jesus tells, all involving something that was lost being found. In this story, a shepherd loses one of his sheep. Immediately he leaves his flock and goes out in search of his lost sheep. When he finds his lost sheep, he returns home that throws a party.

The second story is of a single woman, perhaps a widow, who loses a tenth of her money. Immediately, she begins a desperate search throughout her house to find the lost coin. Looking high and low, she turns her house inside out until she finds the lost coin, at which point she invites her friends over for a party celebrating the recovery.

The final story is the longest and probably the most famous. It is the story of a young man who leaves home and squanders his trust fund, every last dime. Poor, broken, and humiliated, he finally returns home, hoping only to be hired on as one of the staff. Instead, when he arrives home, he finds that his father has been looking for him, anxiously awaiting his return. The father runs out to meet his returning son, embracing him. Immediately the father cancels work for the rest of the day, and throws a lavish party celebrating the return of his lost son.

A lost son. A lost coin. A lost sheep. Three things, all valuable to those that lost them, all looked for, all celebrated over when they were found.

Gabe has asked me to lead us in a devotion tonight, and for that I want to focus on the first story, the story of the lost sheep. Listen as I reread the story.

Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the 99 in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home, then he calls his friends and neighbors together and say, “Rejoice with me! I have found my lost sheep.” I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who do not need to repent.

Let me start by asking you to put yourself in the place of the shepherd. Has there ever been a time when you lost something valuable: Your house key? Your wallet? Your wedding ring? Maybe something less tangible, like your job? Maybe something far more personal, something far deeper, something far closer to your soul.

Try to remember that feeling of loss. Try to recapture the moment when you discovered the loss. Jot down any words or phrases that come to mind. Sketch any images that pop into your head as you remember what it is like to loose something of deep value.

Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the 99 in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?

“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus said. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…. I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

Without letting go of the shepherd, shift your mind now to the lost sheep. Picture yourself and the little sheep who has wandered off and gotten separated from the flock. You are the lost sheep.

Where are you? Where do you wander off to? Sometimes we wander absent-mindedly; other times we intentionally and determinedly set out on an independent path. Where do you go? Are you out of touch with the shepherd now? If so, where are you?

When you finally realize you are lost, how do you react? Do you try to find your way home? Are you the kind of person who must fix the problem? There are times when we must work out our way home. But there are also times when we must let go, when we must stop trying to solve the problem. There are times when we must sit, when we must sit and wait for the shepherd.

How does it feel to wait, to sit and wait for the shepherd to find you?

Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the 99 in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?

“Today,” Jesus said, “salvation has come to this house…. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”

Imagine you hear the shepherd approaching you now. He has found you. You who once were lost have now been found. What does he say to you? What do you say to him?

Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the 99 in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home, then he calls his friends and neighbors together and say, “Rejoice with me! I have found my lost sheep.” I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who do not need to repent.

Take a few moments now to finish writing your thoughts, while we play a song. The song is a reflection on the Good Shepherd stories in John 10, written by my good friend Tom Fisher.

At the end of the evening, as we were packing up to leave, my daughter’s stuffed monkey went missing. Kiki, who had been seen by all earlier that night, disappeared without a trace. We turned the place upside down for 45 minutes to no avail. We return tonight for another look.

Does anyone else see the irony?

UPDATE: Kiki has been found! Samantha had stuffed her into one of the toys at church she uses as a stroller for her baby. We had a small party with Gummi Bears before bedtime.

UPDATE 2: Tom has graciously allowed me to post an MP3 of his song, “Lead the Way,” which I used to close the devotion. Please, let me and/or Tom know what you think of the song. (Download – 5 MB)

Neighborhood Group Launched

Last night marked the launch of HCF South, our neighborhood group. Dan, Robyn, Paul, Kerri and I enjoyed a fantastic meal, a Communion Toast, and lots of good conversation. The goal?

To walk together knowing the rhythms of each other’s life. In doing this we become sensitive to changes: opportunities to rejoice and mourn with each other, opportunities to speak change to each other, opportunities to love each other.

AND

To bring the Gospel to our communities. We hope to interact with our neighbors loving them as Jesus would love them. We hope to transform our communities – apartment buildings and city blocks – one life at a time.

May God bless our endeavors and be glorified in them.

Easter Art in Review

our easter art program was smashing! each of eight artists created an offering: two songs (which will be incorporated into our worship repertoire), one poem, one essay, and four still art pieces (which now decorate our storefront) combining traditional photography, digital video stills, news clippings, mixed media, etc.

all eight were given the same simple instructions (see this post), yet all eight produced something unique and personal. both artists and audience were blessed. hopefully everyone saw the resurrection in a new light, one that grew their faith some measure.

Easter Art

this easter we’re putting on a bit of an art show. here is the invitation i sent to members of our congregation:

Easter 2004

In the tender compassion of our God,
the dawn from on high shall
break upon us.

This Dawn comes brightly
full of promise
as golden air spills over ripening buds
about to spring into greenery.

Glory to you Lord God of our Fathers

(by Mary R. Hockersmith, © 2002 National Catholic Reporter and Gale Group)

Celebrating the Resurrection

First, let me say I am really excited for our coming Easter gathering. This has been a long year for my family and me, and the coming celebration lifts my soul. My deepest thanks go out to each of you for helping to make it happen.

We have been created in the image of a Creative God, and Easter is perhaps His ultimate creative expression: Life created from death. Forgiveness created from condemnation. Family created from abandonment. Glory created from shame.

I can scarcely think of a more fitting way to honor Easter than by creating our own Tributes, by offering our own creativity as a Sacrifice of Praise. To this end I am enlisting your help.

I know each of you to be creative not only because you were created in God’s image, but because I have seen you create with words, paint, film, music, etc. I am asking each of you to create something that can be offered to God and our community on Easter Sunday.

I have only these three instructions:

1. Allow the Resurrection of Our Lord to be your Muse. Interpret as you like. As a starting point, Matthew’s account of the Resurrection is in Chapter 28 of his Gospel.

2. Your Creation must be suitable for all ages. Following Easter Sunday, I hope to incorporate each of your Creations into our storefront space. This does not mean that [my 3-year old daughter], for example, must understand your Creation, but I should not have to cover her eyes/ears/etc. either.

3. Be honest. Be honest with God, yourself, and your church. This is no time for platitudes, stereotypes, and unexamined sentiment. I am not expecting you to respond to the Resurrection in any particular way. There is not “correct” interpretation here. I am asking you to create from your soul…a far more difficult, scary, and rewarding task. I do, however, offer this bit of comfort: You will not be alone. Each of us (including me!) is in this together.

Art of Worship 4

anyone who has been involved in planning a church service has had one of those evenings where the plans went out the window early. last sunday was a bit like that, and in our case the plans were shot the week before the service began. not a bad thing. in fact, the last minute scrambling was a result of some very good news. it was just the sort of thing that keeps you on your toes. in summary….

superbowl sunday is one of two times we alter our gathering time, the other being easter. we through a superbowl party each year because we not only enjoy football, but also because it is part of our mission. the superbowl party gives is an opportunity to build on relationships, particularly with those who are connected to the harvest incidentally, i.e. those who don’t actually come to our gatherings, but who are connected to those who do in some way. since my parents were in town to the weekend, we wouldn’t be at the party. nevertheless last week’s snow storm meant my efforts at not being needed the weekend of the superbowl party were rendered null and void. i had to be there in order to present psalm 10.

jump to last sunday, around 1pm. josh, my fellow pathmaker, called. knowing i don’t generally have access to e-mail on the weekends, he called to make sure i knew that ben, our guitarist, had something come up last minute. he would not be able to play. okay, plan b. i, fortunately, had gotten my guitar down from the attic the week before, so i brought my guitar planning on playing what i could and re-vamping the rest. i had already memorized psalm 10, and it was a central element of the evening. i now had, however, some logistic problems created by my need to get out from behind my guitar and back. no problem.

we opened with a song, and gabe welcomed everyone. at this point i noticed that i had forgotten to start the running man loop (doh!). anyway, i presented psalm 10 next. this was followed by two passages from the congregation: paul relating his hardships in 2 corinthians, and then him expressing his joy and peace despite his circumstances in philippians. this gave me a change to grab my guitar for “it is well with my soul.” gabe gave a message adapted to the circumstances at the last minute, and we closed with a song.

the circumstances which caused ben to be absent and to which gabe adapted his message? ben and his wife, nicole, were in cincinnati bringing home their newly adopted little girl! emma was born friday evening, and came home with them sunday. yay them!