Archive for July, 2010

What Does Missional Look Like?

Someone asked me what “missional” looks like.  I tend to resist labels like “missional” because they just become another gimmick for people trying to put butts in their pews.  I tend to just try to live the Gospel as best I can.  But if I had to tell you what being missional looks like to me, it looks something like this:

A 17-year-old girl who thought she had no gifts came into the Kingdom on Friday. On Saturday, she sat down and wept and prayed with a prostitute named Michelle who is a crack addict who lives under the thumb of her pimp (sorry, this is real). Both of them were broken wide open in the encounter.  Michelle is now surrendered to the Kingdom and is getting help from Streetscape (a legitimate street mission) to get off crack, off the street, and away from her pimp. No gifts?!?! Yeah, right. Will Michelle get off crack and out of the life? Well…we’ll see.  Will this 17-year-old let this encounter mark the day that the course of her life changed forever towards the Kingdom? Well…we’ll see.

A 16-year-old boy who surrendered his life to Christ publicly just a week before, brought a 40-year-old homeless man into the Kingdom by being a safe place for the man to pour out his sins and sorrows.  They prayed together right there on the street.  The man wept openly, just let it all out.  The 16-year-old hugged him and just let him cry it all out of him. The man had just confessed his sins to this boy. The man told the boy that he wanted to turn his life over to Christ. The man had come to that same place every Saturday for more than a year and he had never been affected in the way he was that day.  He promised to come back the next week to help others come into the Kingdom.  Will he come back? Well…we’ll see.

Four homeless men who ate at the street mission every day for a week were engaged in prayer and conversation by very recent teen-aged converts and a woman who is a committed Christ-follower.  These Christ-followers gave the men nothing materially that they weren’t already receiving, except that for the first time, the men noticed that they were being listened to and their experience was being validated, not shunned. The Christ-followers didn’t throw a bunch of “Christianese” language at them.  They weren’t dressed in any strange garb.  They looked like anyone else and spoke in language that these guys could understand.  They were warm. They were not offendable.  They affirmed these men in their personhood, and they told these men where they saw the Kingdom of God already at work in them.    The men were astounded that their names were remembered and when they were met at other places in the city by these Christ-followers in other contexts, they were treated like cherished family.  The group prayed together. They left saying that they were going to go and do likewise for other people.  Will they? Well…we’ll see.

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Border Crossings

Border-crossings

As I think about Christ’s approach to boundaries, I cannot think of an image more profound than the cross itself to talk about the radical nature of the Gospel.  In my own life, I draw boundaries and set up borders as means of self-protection, and yet the very faith that inspires my desire for righteousness burdens me constantly with the image of a Messiah who chose not to protect himself, not to use power, who chose to give himself away to people whose values and visions were very different from his.  It strikes me to the heart that this Christ who is even willing to cross the boundary of life itself to make possible a relationship with the God we are dealing with who is always bigger than the God we are dealing with – a God who no person shall name.  It also, confoundingly, strikes me to the heart how I, who profess a faith in this Messiah, would draw boundaries around the very God who crossed them all to meet us where we are.  We name the God every day in ways that we were never made to in the pursuit of a righteousness that we cannot ever give ourselves anyway.

As I think about the borders that we set upon religion, it seems to me that many of them are just as convoluted as the ones drawn upon the Middle East itself by powers whose only interest was self-interest and whose only apparent knowledge was self-knowledge.  The borders between religions may not be as clear as we think they are.  I’ll give you a personal example.  As a young man, I was a Special Forces sergeant serving in Lebanon in 1983-1984.  I have to say that I had major problems with Islam as I understood Islam, and those major problems could not have been any more solidified in my mind than they were with the destruction of the Marine barracks and the death of many of my fellow servicemen caused by a truck bomb driven by a Muslim.  When other Muslims kidnapped several Americans and murdered some of them, it further highlighted my problems with Islam as I understood Islam.

The paradox was that as huge as my problems with Islam as I understood Islam were, and I thought I had extensively studied Islam, I was surrounded everyday by Muslims who would have given their life for me and I for them.  I loved Ali, and Sa’ad, and Sami.  They were my Lebanese counterparts and were every bit as Muslim as the man who had blown up the Marine barracks.  I had huge problems with Islamic Jihad.  I had huge problems with AMAL.  I had huge problems with the PSP and the PFLP.  I had huge problems with the Islam I had learned about in classes and in books.  But I deeply admired the selflessness, courage, compassion, and generosity of these individual men with whom I shared the threat of death and harshness of conditions in a country at war. We had one major commonality – none of us really wanted to be there doing what we were doing. I had big problems with Islam in the abstract.  But sometimes the abstract or academic creates problems for us that we don’t experience in one to one relationships with ordinary people.

I had long conversations with Sami about his faith and about my faith.  I remember talking with him late one night, and he asked me to tell him about Jesus.  What does a 21-year-old sergeant in the Army know about the Jesus of Doctrine?  Not much.  But I told him about the Jesus I wanted to believe really existed and who was leading my life, the one I learned about in the Bible, and in Sunday school. He told me about the Mohammed that I am sure he learned about in the Koran and in his religious studies at Mosque.  It never struck me that he was no more an authorized spokesperson for the entirety of Islamic faith and practice than I was for Christianity.  I think he kind of told me about the Mohammed he wanted to believe really existed and was leading his life.  He spoke from experience more than doctrine.  There was never really a need to convince each other of anything.  It was a conversation born in mutual admiration and curiosity.

I remember Sami telling me one night that if the Jesus I described really existed, he would like that Jesus. He told me that I was okay, you know, for a Christian, but that he didn’t care much for Christians as a whole.   I remember thinking that if the Mohammed that he described really existed, I would like that Mohammed, too, but that I was really tired of being targeted by Muslim militant groups simply for being American or for being Christian.  I walked away Christian.  And he walked away Muslim.  We had crossed each other’s borders, but without battle flags and national symbols.  We had not marched up to the border of the other with the drums of war beating in our ears.  War was already here.  We didn’t need to add another battle to it.  We were like brothers, and somewhere I remember thinking that Jesus would probably have liked that.

Had we changed each other’s faith? Yes.  Had either of us converted to the faith of the other?  No.  The faith of another helped to shape my own faith.  I am no longer afraid of the paradox.

Like a Mustard Seed – Where is God in all of This?

Like a Mustard Seed – Where is God in all of This?

I noticed that my hands were shaking as I leaned against the wall outside Mrs. Dandridge’s room.  I could hear her screaming obscenities at Sharon, her nursing aide, inside the room.  I had known Mrs. Dandridge before Alzheimer’s had stolen her mind and turned her into someone else.  In her day, she was beautiful, and classy, and articulate, a graduate of a fine Richmond prep school, and the University of Richmond.  She had been married to a prominent Richmond lawyer.  If I could think of a word to have described her, it would have been “dignified”.  And to hear the stream of curses that was now emanating from her made my heart sink. I did not want to leave the safety of the hallway to go into her room that day.  I wanted to remember her, to honor her, and I knew that what I would encounter on entering would challenge my ability to do that.  How do you pastorally care for a person whose personhood has been shattered by the plaques and ravages of this monster of a disease?

I had been a chaplain on the nursing wing of this Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC) for two years prior to this day.  In my brief tenure as a chaplain on this wing I had been spit on, insulted, kicked, and nearly missed being bitten by quick reflex alone.  This CCRC was home to some of the most prominent and powerful Richmond, Virginia people.  Some of them had begun to sail away on this floor.  Not much was being done at that time in the area of pastoral care to people with Alzheimer’s disease.  It was just assumed that where the mind went, so went the soul. It was the floor where they stuck seminary students because they didn’t know enough to say “Forget it”.  I had been taught that my role was to see to the pastoral needs of the residents on the floor.   But as I stood outside the door to Mrs. Dandridge’s room that day, I remembered a subtle Hebrew word that changed everything for me – one of two major paradigm shifts that would occur that day.  That word was “Nephesh” – the soul.  In the paradigm of most of the Western World, educated in the thinking of Plato and Socrates, a person consisted in three separate and distinct aspects: body, mind, and spirit…as if “never the ‘twain shall meet”.  But were one to ask a person of Semitic heritage and thinking who they were in essence, the response would be subtly different.  One who understood the deep theological significance of the term, Nephesh, might more likely say “I AM a soul that has a mind and body”.

In this paradigm, the soul is always whole, the breath of God within us. It is that place in our personhood where the Kingdom of God is always alive.  And, as I said, the distinction between Greek thinking and Semitic thinking locked so carefully away in the folds of language is subtle.   At the deepest root of Nephesh is the reality that the soul experiences itself through the limitations of this mind and this body. Though aspects of mind and body will fracture, the soul is whole.   The affliction of Alzheimers had given Mrs/ Dandridge a voice, more correctly it had taken the voice of her soul and created character and replaced it with this mocking and foul-mouthed voice that would have horrified her when she was still who she knew herself to be,  That day, and every day forward, I chose to speak to the voice of a person’s character – the voice of their soul – rather than the voice of their affliction no matter how prominent or demanding the voice of their affliction might be.  The Kingdom of God was inside of them, and before every visit, I would stand outside their room and beg God for the ability to see the Kingdom within them, no matter what was coming out of them at the moment.

Sharon and Mrs. Dandridge would not have met under ordinary circumstances.  Mrs. Dandridge was raised in, and lived among, wealth and prominence and broad opportunity.  She attended a large Episcopal church and belonged to the Country Club of Virginia.  She lived in a historic home in Henrico County before retiring here with her husband.  Sharon was raised in Gilpin Court, a brutal housing project in the City of Richmond. While she might have been allowed to work at the Country Club of Virginia, she would not have been allowed membership. She had managed to graduate from High School and to receive certification as a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) before getting pregnant with her first child, which placed her in a minority among her peers, most of whom had been swallowed up by hopelessness, giving in to gangs and drugs and teenage pregnancy.  The father of Sharon’s child had been shot and killed before her child was born.  Sharon, too, went to church.  She attended a Baptist church in city.  I would learn that it was not possible to separate Sharon and faith.  She was a deeply spiritual person, and hers was a simple and profound spirituality.  But broad opportunity and liberal education were not part of her reality.  And the chasm between Mrs. Dandridge and Sharon had been made permanent by Richmond culture with the tincture of race.  Mrs. Dandridge was white.  And Sharon was a person of color.  White and black, and at that time, the two did not mix at the heights of Richmond society.  As I watched Sharon go about her work, I found myself in awe of her.  She was gentle and kind in a way most 20-year-olds are not, but she had an edge to her, too, that I would not want to find myself on the wrong side of.  Her work was her job, paying minimum wage but with meager benefits, and with a young mouth to feed at home, a job with benefits was all that stood between her and disaster.

One January afternoon as I stood praying outside Mrs. Dandridge’s room preparing for my turn in the arena with her, I listened as she cussed at Sharon who was cleaning up Mrs. Dandridge after a bout of incontinence.  I heard the word come from somewhere down deep in the recesses of Mrs. Dandridge.  I’m sure she had heard it more times than she could have named growing up in the segregated South, but in her right mind she would never have uttered it.  There is a word so foul in its meaning that it cannot have come from God, a word that I think even God shudders at.  I will not repeat it here, but suffice to say that it begins with the letter “N”.  My grandfather threw it around when he was drunk.  I found it hard to scrub off of my soul even as a child hearing him say it.  And it clawed its way up out of Mrs. Dandridge with a ferocity that day…not once, but at least ten times in rapid and vehement succession.  Sharon came out of the room with an anger on her face that that I could feel, and she turned the corner and ran smack into me leaning against the wall.  “What the heck are you doing standing out here like a fool?!?!”, she said.

“Yes”, I replied. “…Like a fool. Standing…and praying.”

“Well, you need to pray for me ‘cause I can’t take much of that foolishness and I need this job!”, Sharon said. “And you better pray for her, too!”

As I mentioned, I was taught that my job was to care for the pastoral needs of the residents, but in this moment, the second of two paradigm shifts began for me.  I wasn’t just here to care for the residents even if that’s what my job description said.  I was also there to care for the caregivers.  I don’t know why I said it to Sharon that day.  While I admired Sharon, I didn’t really know Sharon.  Different worlds.  Different races.  But I said, “Sharon, maybe we can pray together.”  And I said without thinking it through, “I don’t think this is just a job for you.  I think God called you to this ministry.  I think you are called to this no different that I am called to what I do.  And I can’t do what I do without getting prayed up first.”

She looked at me, hand on her hip, for what seemed like an eternity.  And then her expression changed,,,softened.  And she reached out her hand and took mine in hers, and said, “Okay.  Let’s pray.”  As we stood there in the hall praying out loud for each other and for Mrs. Dandridge, two other CNAs came and joined us, forming a circle with hands joined…a foothold of God’s Kingdom there in the hallway of the Dementia wing.  We prayed together to hear the voices of character of those we cared for despite the voices of affliction.  We cast the “N” word into the depths of hell from whence it had crawled into Mrs. Dandridge’s affliction.  We prayed for strength for those called into the ministry of care.  And we prayed for an anointing of this ministry.

When we were finished, our little group agreed to meet each morning for prayer before work.  Within about six months, that little informal prayer service has grown to more than thirty people from all over the facility.  People who had never spoken to each other, became hallway prayer partners.  When I would see a CNA in the hall or the cafeteria, I would call them “Minister”.  “How’s the Kingdom today, Minister Michelle?”  That would almost always elicit a smile.  And I would often see the CNAs and their co-workers and supervisors – nurses, social workers, white and black- holding hands in the hall and praying before going into the rooms of their charges. In a short period of time, there were measurable changes.  Care improved.  Instances of theft by staff dwindled to a rarity.  Evaluations by outside agencies improved drastically.  Lost days due to illness and lateness became rarities, too. Though the voices of affliction could still be heard daily echoing through the hallways, many, many people were listening hard to hear the voices of character that could also be found present and whole even in that place.

What began as a tiny mustard seed of two people praying for each other in the midst of sea of affliction grew to become a large bush that gave shelter to many – the Kingdom of God emerged in our midst.

Dad (a poem for Emily)

Dad

I was raised in the cuddle of that tree

Until the thorns came and

Knifed themselves into him,

Splitting him.

I couldn’t bear to rest

Against him

Because the thorns had entwined his trunk

And tore me when I crept close.

How beautiful I remember us

Together.

It scares me to think

How close…how far away …he was

After the thorns came.

There was a tear on that last day. He knew.

Ages now before

I nestle again

In the shoulder of that tree

Bent impossibly across the raging river,

Gnarled branches reach, stretch, strain

Out for me,

As if yearning

To whisper something important…

Something

I can’t yet hear.

– For Emily April 29, 2007

Equipping Missional Leaders – Learning Opporunity in the Milwaukee Area

Many of us in the missional journey have been struggling for some time to find an learning model for preparing leaders and new mission planters given that traditional seminary is just not an option for too many people.  We have done a lot of things on line, and we have tried some other formats, as well.  Below is a learning opportunity for leaders, planters, and even just people who want to go deeper in their discipleship and want to do so in a group.  There is no tuition (everyone I know that’s committed to the mission spends all of their money on the mission), and there is no admission requirement other than a passion for the Kingdom of God, a willingness to share your own experiences of mission, and a teachable spirit.  I hope some of you might be able to come and participate in this group study.

Mission in the Gospels

How do you read the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John?

  • Some of us don’t read them at all – we just wait for the movie!
  • Some of us read them for the holidays of Christmas and Easter – but don’t know what to do with the rest of the material in between.
  • Others use them as evangelical tracts – useful to tell others about sinfulness, the perfection of Jesus, and how he died so that we might have eternal life.
  • Perhaps we read them as interesting accounts of the historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth – telling us who Jesus was, some of what he taught and did during his short life and ministry.
  • And perhaps still others of us read them as spiritual self-help guides – hoping the teachings of Jesus when applied might just hold the keys to successful living and self-improvement.

What if the Gospels were written primarily as instructional manuals for the early church?  What if each Gospel used an interesting story-telling form to teach the early church, not only who Jesus was and what he did, but also what the church is and what it is called to do?  In other words, what if the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each set about to teach early Christ-followers what it means to be on mission with God?

If that were the case, we also might learn what it means to be on mission with God in our communities and beyond!

That’s why we invite you to join us in a study, Mission in the Gospels. During this study we will be asked to read the Gospels again through a missional lens, and to share our experiences in mission to help one another to see where God is already at work in us and in our missions, and where God might be calling us to go deeper.

Mission Before the Gospels:

August 3

Session One looks at some of the sources of the Gospels. Before the authors sat at their laptop parchments, quill in hand, and wrote their ac-counts; stories and sayings by and about Jesus were widely circulated, leaving an impact on those who were called “Followers of the Way”. All four gospel writers drew from these oral traditions in their unique writings. What can we learn about following Jesus into God’s mission from these oral traditions before the Gospels?

Mission in the Synoptic Gospels

August 10-17-24

Sessions Two, Three, and Four, notes that Mat-thew, Mark, and Luke share more in common, than their fourth counterpart, John. In spite of their similarities, these three gospels have some marked differences! Ever wonder why? To dis-cover what each has to teach us about being on mission with God, we will look, not only at what they share in common, but also at what we can learn from each gospel’s uniqueness.

Mission in the Fourth Gospel

August 31

In Session Five, we will investigate yet another slant on following Jesus into the world of mis-sion. We will discover that the gospel, attributed to John, contains numerous stories and sayings not found in the other three. We will investigate this gospel’s particular emphasis on God’s mis-sion of love! We will again ask the question: What can we learn about following Jesus into God’s mission today?

Dates: August 3, 10, 17, 24, 31 Time: 6:00 to 9:00 p.m.

Location: 15330 Watertown Plank Road, Elm Grove, WI 53122-2340

Contact: if you would like to participate, please contact Max Ramsey via e-mail at mrramsey@earthlink.net or Sam Brink at SBrink2872@aol.com

Despensa de la Paz – What does worship look like in a missional environment? I don’t know, but here’s a look at what goes on before Despensa opens each week.