Wednesday, December 30, 2009

New Year .... New Opportunities .... New Growth

This Christmas has given me the (much appreciated) opportunity to devote time to reading, reflection and prayer. Part of this is done alongside Carol (who has got used to my frequent 'book quotes') and part is done 'alone'. The end of one year and the start of another often serves me as a good time to look back in remembrance and to look forward in anticipation. 2010 will be the first year we begin with no children at home. But for Brent that would make us officially "empty-nesters". With that comes a renewed desire to consider our priorities and how it is that we can be most fruitful for the Lord. At times such as this, I am easily drawn to the hindrances in me to the goals of which I dream. So today, I wanted to share with you some of what I hope to "become" in 2010, out of which I trust, the Lord will bring forth fruit to his glory. I am a list-maker and so it is most natural for me to list some of the growth goals of what I hope to become ....

  1. More balanced in my life when it comes to what I will call Spiritual Contemplation. Pete Scazzero has helped me with this recently. I am particularly excited to explore ways in which I can build a rhythm of life that incorporates a balance of work, rest, community and contemplation.
  2. More given to a model of shared life within the community of faith.
  3. Living into a team model of leadership across the BridgePoint community in order to encourage and stimulate us towards more effective ministry and mission.
  4. More free within myself, especially in the areas of my emotions by building upon what we have been discovering over the last couple of years
  5. A better friend to the people in my life by doing all I can to develop more intimate relationships (Intimacy in the sense of "deep mutual knowing for the purpose of expressing care")
  6. More attentive to things that will help develop me mentally (reading, conversation, blogging/diary) and physically (diet, exercise, rest) as well as spiritually (above)
  7. Becoming more focused upon the things I feel I do well and through which I can make the greatest contribution. One such area would be that of providing more deliberate Spiritual Direction for those who seek it.
Perhaps this is a good place to stop - 7 being a good number of completion, though it may be as much due to my already feeling overly challenged by what I have written. I am more aware than ever that, as I am often saying to others, 'you cannot grow yourself by yourself'. For that I am grateful for the spiritual friends God has put in my life and I look forward to the mutual encouragement we can share with one another due to the gift of God that is within us. Or as said by the Apostle Paul, "that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith." [Rom 1:12]

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

When the Church was a Family - Part 3 (final!)

Probably time to be drawing things to a conclusion but I did want to take a little time to reflect on some of the implications (or application) of what has gone before. Hellerman writes a chapter on salvation as a "Community-Creating" event where he concludes, 'It is time to inform our people that conversion to Christ involves both our justification and our familification, that we gain a new Father and a new set of brothers and sisters when we respond to the gospel. It is time to communicate the biblical reality that personal salvation is a community-creating event and to trust God to change our lives and the lives of our churches accordingly.' In that sense our presentation of the gospel needs to clearly include the truth that commitment to Jesus also involves commitment to God's group.

He identifies four New Testament family values that can help serve us as a roadmap as we seek to navigate the choppy waters of Christian community (please excuse 'my' mixed metaphors!);
(i) We share our stuff with one another - most basic to Christian brotherhood is the sharing of material resources. Such a lesson in simplification is a significant challenge to our individualism and materialism,
(ii) We share our hearts with one another - this is what psychologist refer to as 'affective solidarity'. Are we seeking to develop both emotional health and emotional attachment, the affective sense of closeness and intimacy that the Holy Spirit helps to weave into our lives as we spend time together. Can we be real without fear?
(iii) We stay, embrace the pain, and grow up with one another - he quotes from George Barna's summary of the typical attitudes of Christians in America today towards the 'local church';
(a) 'we' prefer a variety of church experiences, rather than getting the most out of all that a single community has to offer
(b) 'we' think that spiritual enlightenment comes from diligence in a discovery process, rather than from commitment to a faith community and perspective
(c) 'we' view religion as a commodity that we consume, rather than one in which we invest ourselves
(d) 'we' are transient - 15 to 20 percent of all households relocate each year
This reminded me again of what he said on page one of the introduction, 'people who leave do not grow'. This is not to say it is never right to leave, but rather we rarely grow through leaving, but through engaging.
(iv) Family is about more than we, the wife and the kids - in the God whether we are single or married, God wants us to subordinate ourselves to our overarching common bond as brothers and sisters in Jesus' kingdom family. I think that so some extent, the lack of this today can often lead singles to think that they are not fully part of the 'family of God' in our churches.

Many of us grew up with a set of relational priorities that went something like this;
(1st) God - (2nd) Family - (3rd) Church - (4th) Others
jesus and his followers view things quite differently as (1) and (3) cannot really be differentiated against. Loyalty to God was tangibly expressed in loyalty to God's family so our priority list should read something like this;
(1st) God's Family - (2nd) My Family - (3rd) Others
It is not our job to create community - God already exists in community and has invite dus in through His Son. We have been saved to his eternal family and so already are, for better or worse, brothers and sisters in Christ. Now we just need to learn to live into our new identity and reality.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

When the Church was a Family - Part 2

I want to follow on from last week’s blog regarding Joseph Hellerman’s book, ‘When the Church was a Family’. The main point coming from last week was that in the New Testament world the group took priority over the individual. Hellerman goes on to define two further principles;

#2: In the New Testament world a person’s most important group was his blood family

#3: In the New Testament world the closes family bond was not the bond of marriage. It was the bond between siblings (central value being undying loyalty towards one’s blood brothers/sisters and therefore the most treacherous act of disloyalty was the betrayal of one’s brother, not spouse).

He looks at several examples in secular, biblical and Jewish writings, of how these principles were demonstrated. He concludes that such an understanding of ancient family (unlike our own contemporary experience) is of great significance when we think of Jesus’ deliberate use of the family metaphor (brothers and sisters in Christ, worshipping one God as father) for his group of followers. The family of the Church has priority over the individual member such that the individual was “responsible to the church for his or her actions, destiny, career, development and life in general”. This is what gave early Christianity much of its social power.

The words spoken by Jesus in Mark 3:33-35, ‘”Who are my mother and my brothers?” He asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”’ Were utterly scandalous in the cultural context in which Jesus lived, where as the oldest surviving male (presuming the death of Joseph), he was responsible for the defense, provision and leadership of his patrilineal kinship group. Those who followed Jesus were to exercise primary allegiance to a new family – just as Jesus himself had done.

Jesus wanted his followers to interact with one another like members of a ‘strong-group’, surrogate family characterized by collectivist solidarity and commitment on every front. Such was Jesus’ vision for authentic Christian community and his followers largely “got it” and put it into practice. Their world was never the same. The whole Roman Empire ultimately bowed its knees to the King of kings and Lord of lords, millions were converted and, for better or worse, Christianity became the state religion of the empire. The opposite seems to happening today in the West.

Hellerman identifies in Paul’s writings four aspects in which he applies this family imagery;

(i) Affective Solidarity – the emotional bond Paul experienced amongst the ‘brothers and sisters’ in God’s family

(ii) Family Unity – the interpersonal harmony and absence of discord Paul expected amongst the ‘brothers and sisters’ in God’s family

(iii) Material Solidarity – the sharing of resources that Paul assumed would characterize relationships amongst the ‘brothers and sisters’ in God’s family

(iv) Family Loyalty - the undivided commitment to God’s group that was to mark the value system amongst the ‘brothers and sisters’ in God’s family

The early Christians of the Roman world, when Christianity was still a small persecuted sect, made tremendous demands of their converts, demands that affected the most important areas of their lives. And people came in droves. People did not convert to Christianity solely because of what the early Christians believed, but also because of the way they behaved. It was not so much about an ideology as it was the social solidarity experienced in the early Christian communities. They practiced love of one’s neighbor more effectively than any other group, whether those ‘neighbors’ were inside or outside the community. Tertullian (c. AD 200) said this;

We call ourselves brothers . . . So, we who are united in mind and soul have no hesitation about sharing what we have. Everything is in common among us – except our wives.

Next week I want to bring the focus to today to consider our response to Jesus’ vision for authentic Christian community that will inevitably challenge the radical individualism of much of our thinking – both in the church and outside.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

When the Church was a Family - Part 1

This last weekend I finished reading a book by Joseph Hellerman, professor of New Testament at Biola University who is also involved in pastoral ministry within a church. I very much enjoyed and was challenged by the read and wanted to reflect on the content here over the next few weeks (or so). I think that's it's message has much to say to us as we explore what it means to be an organic community of Christ-followers within the cultural milieu of Austin, TX.

Hellerman starts out the book with the statement, 'Spiritual formation occurs primarily in the context of community.' That resonated with me, which was a good start! But the statement also raises several questions (at least for me) primarily because of our skewed worldview when it comes to the issue of community. Nevertheless the idea that it is long-term relationships that provide the crucible for progress in the Christian faith and that people who leave (prematurely) do not grow, certainly struck a chord.

He points out how Paul's driving passion was to establish spiritually vibrant, relationally-healthy communities of believers in strategic urban centers but that today we tend to have a radical over-emphasis upon a 'personal relationship with God', something he saw as more American than biblical. It is rooted in our 'radical individualism' (a term used by social scientists) where we have been socialized to believe that our dreams, goals and personal fulfilment take precedent over any group (such as church or family). This affects the way we view the Christian life and profoundly compromises the solidarity of relational commitments. So we don't grow.

In the New Testament world, the welfare of the group to which we belonged took priority over our individual happiness and relational satisfaction. Whereas today, we tend to just use the various groups and institutions to which we belong to achieve our individual goals in life. He looks at how this works itself out in three different areas of life - vocation (the job we do), spouse (the person we marry/live with) and residence (where we live). Unlike today, people in biblical times simply did not make major life decisions on their own.

Yet for us this seems an inalienable right, a mark of our 'freedom'. But this very freedom takes it's toll in the significant stress and emotional bankruptcy of our culture - Christian or otherwise. Faced with these kind of decisions which were never meant to be taken on our own, we self-destruct under the pressure emotionally and relationally. We then turn to medication and therapy to hold us up. This works itself out in many contexts, but he identifies the situation of many young mothers, who move away from extended family and their inherent support structure, to find themselves trying to raise children seemingly alone - something that used to take a village to do.

We are born for fellowship - something reinforced in one of my readings this morning from John's first letter. "We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete." [1 John 1:3-4] Jesus deliberately chose "family" as the defining metaphor for his group of followers because of what he understood the family to mean and because of what was always intended for the family of God.

We will explore the nature of family more next time, but the first principle to be understood, and which strikes us at the very heart of our radical individualism, is that in the New Testament world, the group took priority over the individual.

How does this concept speak to, or perhaps unsettle you? What might this mean for the dynamic of our relationships within our Simple Church communities?

Saturday, November 14, 2009


The following quote is from Larry Crabb's book, 'Shattered Dreams' and spoke to me powerfully this week. I trust it leads you to prepare your own heart and life for Jesus:

"When a first-century Jewish man fell in love with a woman, he would travel from his father's home to hers to seal the engagement. In that cul­ture, an engagement was not what it is today. It wasn’t a trial period during which premarital counseling would help the couple decide whether to con­tinue on or break off the relationship. It represented rather a legal contract, complete with a price paid by the groom that set the woman apart exclu­sively for her man.

They were immediately regarded as husband and wife, irrevocably bound. To symbolize their covenant, each would drink from a cup of wine over which a betrothal benediction had been pronounced. Following that ceremony, the groom would return to his father's home for a period of twelve months. For that entire time, he remained separate from his bride. She would not see him again until it was time to consummate their union.

The bride had one job during his absence-to prepare herself for his coming and for the rest of her life with him. All other activities revolved around that one ruling purpose.

While she waited, she knew what her groom was doing. He was spending the year adding an apartment to his father's home in which they would eventually live together. An honorable man would have an eye for no other woman and would not rest until preparations were made for them to be united. She would rest, secure in the knowledge that all the bridegroom's energies were directed toward their being together.

When the engagement year ended, at an exact day and hour that the bride did not know, the groom would gather his wedding party and, in a torch-lit procession, travel to where his bride was living. His arrival would be preceded by a shout from one of his friends, alerting the woman that her groom was arriving.

She was ready. She had no greater dream than his coming and was confident he would arrive to take her to be with him in the home he had pre­pared. With her attendants, she would travel to that home. When they arrived, she would walk into a party waiting to happen.

Before the celebration began, the bride and groom would be escorted to the bridal chamber where, for the first time, they would express their covenant to each other with physical union. Then the husband would emerge from the room alone, and a seven-day feast would begin. At its conclusion, his wife, unveiled for the first time, would appear and be officially welcomed to her new home as a member of the family. From then on, the heaven of unhindered intimacy and unrestrained blessing was hers to enjoy.

With that custom in mind, as it was in the minds of the disciples, per­haps we can better hear what our Lord means when He tells us to live now with untroubled hearts.

"I know things are not now as you want them. I know many of your dreams are not coming true. I want you to understand that things are not as I will one day make them. I like neither the distance between us nor the pain you suffer.

"Until I come to bring you to My Father's house, I am devot­ing Myself to only one thing: I am preparing a place for you. And My Spirit, on My behalf, is devoting Himself to only one thing­-preparing you to enjoy Me and all that I will provide.

"I have called you not to the secular journey where you must make everything in your life now as pleasant as possible. I have called you to the spiritual journey, to a process of enlarging your heart to desire Me above everything else.

"Do not be troubled by all the dreams that will shatter while you remain on earth. You will feel deep pain. But every sorrow you experience will be used by my Spirit to deepen your desire for Me. He will speak to you about Me.

“Listen for the voice. You will hear Him most clearly when suffering humbles you enough to want to hear Him, to know you cannot go on without hearing Him.

“This time of distance, when you will feel such disappointment both with your life and with yourself, will awaken your heart to receive me with great joy when I finally come. I will not delay. I will come at exactly the appointed time.

"My Father will give the signal. Listen for the shout.”

And our response is, Come, Lord Jesus; come soon! Until then we wait with untroubled hearts. We scream, we cry, we fail but we wait, abandoned to our Kinsman-Redeemer, to our “Boaz”, confident that he has paid a price for us that guarantees our eventual intimacy. No one, not even Satan, can prevent us from entering the bridal chamber with Jesus where our greatest dream will be realized.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Beauty in Brokenness

This past Sunday in our Simple Church community, we reflected upon the significance of "brokenness". For me it had been a week in which the Lord had been highlighting the the place of this in my own life through different means. We started where Jesus did in the Sermon on the Mount ... "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven" [Matt 5:3.]

For several weeks I have been struggling with a sore neck, aching shoulder and persistent numbness in my fingers. I have been to the doctor's, am working with a physical therapist, but as yet there is little or no improvement. It has meant my having to stop my P90X workout routine on week 11 of 13! The pain down my left arm made many exercises beyond me and took away much of my previous enthusiasm. Is this just old age creeping up on me? Yet I have heard the whisper of God about training in godliness and putting no confidence in the flesh.

A similar message has been heard as I read "The Safest Place on Earth" by Larry Crabb. (This was subsequently re-published as "Becoming a True Spiritual Community" and is an excellent read). I was also given an audio book by Watchman Nee - "Releasing the Spirit". Again the same call to brokenness (of self) so that the life of the Spirit can more freely flow from me in a God-glorifying way.

This last week I was away again in Rhode Island, teaching and facilitating more open relationships and personal growth in a business setting. We came up against some resistance to the notion of vulnerably sharing our pain or needs as a means of facilitating growth and closer relationships. Again I sensed the whisper of the Lord.

For Nee, brokenness is the starting point, the need to 'crucify' the outer man (as he puts it) so that we can learn to live out of the new man/identity, with new passions and perspective. Crabb speaks of learning to live out of the 'upper room', the place of union of our spirit with the Spirit of Christ.

We are growing as a community in our relationships and this is a joy to be part of. I long to see and experience more of the Christ in each one of us being released to serve and to love. yet so easily I find myself living out of self, sub-consciously relying upon self, deep down living for self. I am seeking to nurture a few deep friendships where this can be owned and recognized for what it is, so that change and growth can come forth, through the Spirit.

I have long resisted intimacy and transparency with most people. I have looked to and relied upon myself too much, so I welcome the Lord's whisper. I'm glad that it comes like a welcome invitation and not the barking command. I also give thanks for those God has put with me for this part of the journey - they are precious to me because deep down I know I cannot do this alone, nor do I want to be controlled by the fears within. No doubt, more brokenness is coming ..... by God's grace.