Archive for November, 2010

The Surfer, the Sea, and Missional Transformation in the Small Church Environment: Chapter Two

Chapter II – Beach Parties

Man, I love a beach party as much as anyone else.  There’s nothing better than chilling with friends after a day of surfing.  Awesome stuff.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with roasting a pig and kicking back and sharing stories with fellow surfers.  The problem only arises when we want to wear the label of “surfer”, when we wear the right rash guard and carry a nice board, but we skip the surf and only go to the parties.  We might look like a surfer, but going to the parties and wearing the right stuff doesn’t make you a surfer.  It might even make you a Barnie. Surfers know the difference.  Usually, everybody can tell the difference, and we’re only really fooling ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong here.  Surfers LOVE to party! They even have their own brand of music, and it’s probably not what you think it might be.  Here’s the thing: surfers surf.  It’s definitional. And the party is a celebration of the fact they have seen the pure moment and lived to tell the tale.  It is the place where stories are shared, truths are debated, methods explored, and lessons are taught and learned.  And the party is the place where the dings and wounds from bad wipeouts are honored and healed.  The beach party isn’t the point – it isn’t what makes a surfer a surfer.  The beach party celebrates the week’s surfing; it doesn’t replace the week’s surfing.

Worship in the missional environment is not limited to what happens on Sunday morning.  Worship is the totality of the offering.  It is the totality of what is offered up with our lives throughout the week.  I don’t speak for all of the movement of Christ, but for me, Sunday morning is the Beach Party! It is the time to celebrate the experience of mission.  It is the gathering of people who spend the week in the mission to celebrate what we have seen and experienced, and to thank the author of that experience for the opportunity to participate in the mission and to have survived another week of it.  It is the chance to give God the glory for the waves of mission that God has set before us.  It is the chance to lick the wounds of too many wipe-outs to name, and to find the encouragement from other missional people to get back out there and try it again. Yes, we have our own brand of music, and it probably isn’t what most people think it is.  And yes, we love to party. But the party isn’t the point.  The mission is the point.  Following Christ every day is the point.  It is what makes a Christ-follower a Christ-follower.  It is definitional.

All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” is a very applicable adage in the world of surfing.  Play is necessary.  In an important way, the work is play.  It’s fun.  It’s dangerous fun, but it’s fun.  Surfing is physically and mentally demanding.  It makes you tired. Rest and relaxation are crucial to keeping an edge, and are crucial to keeping a balance.

Surfing isn’t just an activity.  It is a lifestyle.  There is a rhythm to it, a pace.

If all we do is surf and we never get out of the water to celebrate and to heal, then we burn out, lose the edge, and eventually quit because we just have nothing left to put into it.  Exactly the same thing can be said about the mission.  Yeah, it’s awesome and it’s fun.  But it also makes us tired.  Play is necessary.  It lets us recharge the batteries.  It allows us a moment to reflect and learn from our mistakes.  It lets us process what we did right and what we did wrong so that we get better and better every time we paddle out.  The beach party lets us sit down with fellow surfers and gurus and learn from them, and lets them learn from us.  Surfers are always both teachers and practitioners – gurus also surf, and also learn from others.  The same is true for Christ-followers.  Learning is almost always communal, or at least partly communal.  And all teachers are also learners and practitioners. Why take the scrapes when we can learn from someone who already has them and can tell us how to avoid getting them ourselves?

I’m not sure whether or not this point fits here, but I’m a little sketchy anyway, so I’m going to just put it here.  I don’t put on a suit and tie to go to a beach party after a day of surfing.  First of all, I spent all my money on a surfboard and gas to get to the beach, so I don’t have a bunch of money left to spend on a suit.  And the last thing I want to do when I go somewhere to unwind, to learn, to celebrate, and to heal is get all dressed up and have to worry about what I look like. I don’t even comb my hair.  I don’t do “hassle” on my downtime.  I either wear what I was wearing at the beach anyway, except maybe throw on a T-shirt and some flip-flops so I can get into a store or a restaurant, or I throw on some comfortable jeans and hoodie so I don’t freeze in the night air.

Worship in the missional environment shouldn’t require Christ-followers to put on a suit or dress, unless the Christ-follower feels called to do that for some reason that comes out of their own sense of self.  First of all, they’ve spent all their money on food for the food pantry or clothing for the homeless.  They don’t have a bunch of money to put into a suit or a dress that they wear for an hour and a half once a week.  T-shirts and flip-flops should be good enough.  If it’s good enough to get you into a store or a restaurant, then it should be good enough to get you into a worship service.  If you just got finished painting a house for a senior citizen, then you ought to be able to walk into church wearing the jeans and the Carhart that you wore in the mission.  Christ-followers don’t need any more “hassle” than the mission itself already puts in their path.  They’re tired and spiritually hungry, and the last thing they want or need is to do anything that makes them more tired or hungry.  If the party’s a hassle, then it’s not a party.  It’s a hassle.

Too Much Time Planning Means Too Little Time Surfing

I know that some people naturally have the gift of hospitality. Others have the gift and skills of organization, and they should be allowed to use them.  But planning a beach party can get out of hand if we try to control every element of it.  The best beach parties are throw-togethers where everybody brings something to pass around, and everybody contributes something.  Sometimes it comes together as though every detail was labored over, and sometimes it comes together as a hodge-podge. The partiers provide the music.  They either pull out their ipods and hook them up to speakers, or they play it themselves on whatever instruments are available – an old uke or garbage can lid will do just fine.  I have even heard Wagner and Bach off somebody’s then CD player at a huge party once, and it was amazing.  But everybody comes with an open mind, because surfers are naturally open-minded.  Surfing makes them that way.

If we tie everybody up making arrangements for every detail of the beach party, then nobody has time to surf.  It’s cool to do a big shin dig with a lot of organization every once in awhile, but surfers surf.  It’s definitional.  If surfers have all the time in the world on their hands, then they might have time to surf and plan the party.  But if a surfer has to surf or plan, the surfer will choose to use their time in the water.  It’s just the way it is…or more correctly, it’s just the way they are.

I think that the same things can be said about Sunday morning worship services that can be said about beach parties when it comes to tying up too much time with making arrangements.  Most working people only have about four hours per week to devote to the living out of their faith in focused ways.  If we say that a worship service is about an hour long, then that’s already an hour that can’t be spent in the mission.  If we spend three more hours taking care of every detail of the worship service, what time is left for the mission?  What time is left for following Christ into the mission that God has called us into?  Christ-followers follow Christ.  It’s just the way they are.

I am not saying that we shouldn’t put some thought into our worship services.  For some Christ-followers, that’s precisely where their gifts and interest lie.  I am simply saying that time is limited, and if a Christ-follower has to choose between organizing a worship service and feeding the hungry or caring for the orphan and planning a worship service, they will usually choose following Christ into the mission.  Christ-followers follow Christ.  It’s definitional.

Surfing costs money. Parties cost money.  If a surfer has to choose between fixing a board so he can surf the next day and buying new curtains for the beach house so it looks nicer for the party, the surfer will fix the board.  Surfers surf.  It’s definitional.  Most surfers don’t even notice whether there are curtains in the window of the beach house anyway.  Their minds and hearts are on surfing.  It’s not that surfer’s don’t appreciate a sweet place to party and kick back.  It’s just that it isn’t at the top of their agenda.  Surfing is.  We can party on the beach.  It’s free. In fact, because it’s on the beach, a lot people show up who wouldn’t otherwise have because they simply walk right into the party.  All we have to do is make sure we clean up our trash.

Intricate and elaborate worship services cost money, too.  Small churches don’t have a lot of money.  If they are really doing things right, every penny they have has to bear fruit for the Kingdom.  Mission costs money, too.  Following Christ means giving of our treasure to help those in need and to reach the lost for the Kingdom.  If our funds are limited and we have to choose between spending limited dollars on the elements of elaborate worship spaces, sound systems, musical instruments, and ornamentation; and spending limited dollars on following Christ into the mission, Christ-followers will choose to follow Christ with their dollars.  Christ-followers follow Christ.  It’s definitional.  We can worship in parking lot or a cornfield.  In fact, because it’s right there in the midst of the mission field, a lot people show up who wouldn’t otherwise have because they simply walk right into the party.  All we have to do is make sure we clean up our trash.

Sometimes the Best Party is Small.  But a Big Party Now and Then Keeps You Rockin’

Who says every beach party has to be at the pavilion with a crowd of hundreds of people in order for it to be a good time?  Some of the best beach parties I’ve ever been to were just a few close friends swapping stories and trying to understand the big picture huddled around a small fire roasting three-month-old marshmallows. Word.  The intimacy means everyone connects to everyone on a really personal level.  Maybe someone whips out a guitar and plays some cool tunes.  Maybe somebody recites some poetry they read recently.  We all talk about our wounds, our learnings, and the pure moments of truth and clarity.  And we all walk away healed, refreshed, and reconnected.

But…every once in a while, it is awesome to cut loose in a stadium venue among thousands of people.  If we had to create the venue every time we wanted the experience, forget it.  It would never happen.  So we just pile in the pick-up, buy some tickets, and go and rock in somebody else’s stadium.  Doing that every once in awhile doesn’t mean we’re going to start surfing in somebody else’s break.  It doesn’t mean we won’t be hanging out together anymore.  It just means that every once in a while it’s cool to rock out somewhere that we couldn’t do for ourselves.

Worship in small churches is kind of like the campfire gig.  It’s intimate.  Everybody who comes can hear and be heard, and can contribute to the experience.  We always get healed, energized, and reconnected.  But small churches need to understand that sometimes it’s cool to shake it up, too.  It’s okay to pack it all in the van, buy some tickets, and go rock in somebody else’s stadium together.  You don’t always have to have the beach party at your house.  Once in awhile it’s cool to let somebody else clean up the mess and let us just disappear into a sea of people in somebody else’s arena that you cannot, and do not need to, create.  There’s nothing wrong with an “Away Game” once in awhile.  Sometimes, the big gig is just what the doctor ordered and it’s just what will keep you rockin’ in the mission. And I am not saying that a Christian rock concert at Miller Park is everybody’s thing, either.  Maybe your van load is headed for the cathedral to rock with the coolest choir on earth.  No matter the sound or the stadium, road trips can feed your soul.  It doesn’t mean that your members will stop coming to your church.  It doesn’t mean that your fellow Christ-followers from your tribe will stop following Christ. It just means that every once in a while it’s cool to rock out somewhere that we couldn’t do, and don’t need to do, for ourselves.

I got into surfing because a surfer invited me to a beach party when I was about eleven or twelve.  I had an amazing time at the party listening to the stories and just getting into the vibe of the people there.  It was electric!  And here’s the important thing: they didn’t invite me to come the next party.  They invited me to come surfing with them the next day.  So the next day I showed up at the beach, and we got in the water.  The rest is history.  But the point is that they invited me to participate in what they did, and it wasn’t partying.  It was surfing.  Sooner or later you have to leave the party, put the beach at your back, and paddle out.  That’s what surfers do.  Actually, it is what they are.

Max Ramsey (Copyright 2-1-10)

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The Surfer, the Sea, and Missional Transformation in the Small Church Environment: Chapter One

Chapter One – Surfboards

As a recovering surfer, I have found that there are many images of the ocean and its ways that are great metaphors for God, and life, and all things that matter.  I grew up around the ocean and have spent more than my share of nights sent to sleep by the smell of the salt air and the sound of the surf gently lapping the shore.  When I moved from the East Coast to Midwest, I found myself isolated from the spirituality of the waves, and I found my surfboard quiver exiled to the rafters of my garage.  One Labor Day weekend, I got an invitation to spend a few days on the Chain of Lakes in Wisconsin, a series of small inter-connected lakes with no-wake restrictions and the shelter of woods all around them. The invitation said, “Bring your boat if you have one”.  Well, I don’t have a boat exactly, but I looked up into the rafters of my garage and saw my Robert August 10-foot nose-rider covered in dust and garage yuck, and I thought it was time to get it down and get it wet again.  My son got his board down too, and we cleaned them up and strapped them to the roof of the truck, just like old times, and headed off for the weekend.

Upon arriving, we got some strange looks.  Our host sauntered over to my truck window with a well-meaning smirk on his face, and chuckling said, “We said boats, not surfboards.  These lakes don’t have waves.”  Without even thinking about it, I replied, “Hey, if this is the only boat you have, it’s the only boat you need.”  And that moment of clarity has served as my mantra in small church missional transformation and ministry.  I have become so tired of hearing the common wisdom that if you’re church isn’t over a thousand people, your church isn’t showing fruit of the Kingdom.  “Only big churches are influencing the community that you live in.”, I heard at one conference I went to.  Well, I’m here to tell you loud and clear, that if you are a small church, and a small church is what God has given you to work for His Kingdom with, then a small church is all you need.  Our little surfboard of a Christ-crazy community of faith has done more hands-on mission and has drawn more disconnected people into the mission than most “churches” five and ten times its size.  I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people in authority tell me that this little community will never make it.  And yet, we are thriving.  Being small means we deal with a unique set of hurdles to overcome, but we are definitely neck deep in the work of the Kingdom.  If a surfboard is the only boat you have, it’s the only boat you need.  God has given you what you need to do what God has prepared for you to do.  So be encouraged, and know that God can do great things with the community of faith that you participate in if you only turn the reigns of that craft over to God and His Mission to steer you.

Surfers Don’t Wear Lifejackets

Boating and surfing are not the same.  Surfers are in the hands of God and the ocean.  Wearing a lifejacket will wreck your board, keep you from being able to respond quickly to the waves, and can even take your life by holding you up in the pounding surf.  All you have in the raging sea is a leash that tethers your ankle to the board you are riding.  Life jackets will kill you.  If you can’t move freely with the water, at worst you will die, and best it will take the life out of surfing.

A lot of little churches I have seen, served, and worked with never quite grasp the idea that lifejackets may be exactly what is keeping them from becoming what they are best shaped to be and do – to surf.  Lifejackets come in many forms, and the truth is that only your community can really discern with God’s Spirit whether or not they are clinging desperately to one, or have one stashed under the seat to grab if the sea rises up and they get scared.  Even if we can’t name them all, there are a few lifejackets that I have found to be common in little churches that are dying and that can’t figure out why.

Too many little churches are strapped with endowments and they fall into the mindset that that endowment will be a life jacket in stormy weather.  Surfers love stormy weather because stormy weather means big waves.  And big waves and life jackets are a fatal combination.  Whether a church has an endowment or not, isn’t really the issue, or the danger.  The danger is in distorting what that endowment represents.  If that endowment takes away the urgency that is so much a part of surfing, then that endowment is a threat to your being.  I have seen people paddle out into the line-up and then sit there all day without ever catching a wave because they think there will always be another wave and they have all day. And then the wind dies down, and the sea goes flat, and the day is over. But spiritual surfers know the urgency of the moment.  “Seek God while he can be found”, the Bible teaches.  Surfers know that every wave is different, and all of them are once in a lifetime.  They came to surf, not to sit.  They didn’t paddle out to sit and talk.  They came for the ride.  They leave everything behind that gets in the way of the chance to catch one wave and ride it out.  It’s all or nothing.   It’s now or never.

Another lifejacket that we often find ourselves wearing thinking that it is the surfboard itself is tradition.  When we are first learning to swim, we need a lifejacket.  It takes away the threat of drowning and allows us to learn and develop a strong stroke.  “That’s the way we’ve always done it” is the mantra of a lot of small churches that are just not managing to get off the beach and into the sea.  And its opposite, “We’ve never done things that way before.”  Those things can help us when we are first learning to swim, but there is a reason that Olympic swimmers don’t wear lifejackets – at some point they become counter-productive.  The best surfers learn from the best surfers of the past and then innovate in order to move into a constantly changing sea.  It isn’t that we don’t carry the lessons of the past within us, we just don’t strap them around our necks with the superstitious idea that our traditions will keep the sea from pounding us to death.

Likewise, I think that a lot of little churches keep thinking that they are big churches and structure themselves as though they are, thinking that the structure – the boards, the committees, the staff – will keep them afloat if things get rough.  We can be surfers or we can be battleship captains, but we can’t be both and still be one or the other.  If we put too much structure on top of a surfboard it will either sink, break up in the waves, or else we will simply run out of room for people on it.  We lose the advantages that a surfboard gives us – maneuverability and the ability to dance on the sea.  Surfboards need fins to steer, but too much fin is a drag and not a help.  We need just enough fin to keep from being blown sideways or from tipping over.  A better word than structure is “stability” – just enough to turn but not so much that it keeps us from catching a wave.  When we begin to think that our complex organizational chart is what is keeping us from sinking, it has become a lifejacket that will get in the way of our ability to maneuver in the mission field.

The Parable of Surfing

Surfing is an edgy and dangerous gig because it’s just you and the board you’re tethered to in a sea you don’t control with the power to swallow you whole as if you never existed.  So what is this metaphor?  What is this parable for small church transformation to mission really about?  Well, let’s start with the sea.  What is the ocean we’re paddling out into?  I think it is the mission field.  It is the world into which we are called to bring the Good News, to participate in God’s emerging Kingdom.  When I first re-embraced surfing as an adult, I quickly also re-embraced a healthy respect for the power of the ocean.  Paddling into even a moderate surf is a daunting task for a novice.  I have a vivid image of this metaphor as I was a young person driving away from the Outer Banks of North Carolina, chased away from Nags Head by a hurricane warning.  The roads had not all been turned north yet, but most people with half a sense of what a hurricane can do to that thin strip of land had packed up, boarded up, and were on their way up to Virginia and higher ground.  Most people.  Except for a narrow stream of cars with surf boards strapped to their roofs headed down into the impending hurricane because they knew that the best waves are just out in front of the storm.  These people had a very different paradigm for life than I did, than my dad did, and certainly than most of the sane world did.  And yet, they did what they did, and they were what they were.  They were surfers.  They went where the waves were.

Everyone who follows Christ seriously also takes seriously that they are called into the mission field. Christ followers do what they do – they follow Christ.  They are what they are.  They are Christ-followers.  The mission field for your community is right outside its doors, just off its shore, if you will.  It is those places where the sea is and where God is at work bringing calm and order and God’s Kingdom.  It might be a nursing home in need of community support.  It might be a public housing complex.  It might be a corporate boardroom.  It might be a high school hallway.  It might be a street corner where kids are killing each other over the right to deal drugs or the colors of their gang.  It is the battleground where souls are won and lost for the Kingdom.  It is all of those places where God’s presence is very much contested.  And it is where Christ-followers do what they do and are what they are.  A surfer without the sea is not a surfer.  A Christ-follower not engaged in the mission on some level is not…well…living out the definition of following Christ.  Indeed, they may even be distorting the definition.

Like the sea, the mission field has long periods of flat.  And then it has days when it rages.  It is unpredictable.  It is dangerous.  It has rhythms.  It has heroes and it has martyrs.  It cannot be fought, but rather it has to be understood so that we can work within it.  It is bigger than we are.  Only God controls it. And we are called into it.  Some are called to go in huge crafts to carry out some purpose that that huge craft is designed for.  And some of us wade into the surf on foot with just a surfboard under our arm and the Spirit of God within us.  Gifted according to purpose, big churches and small churches are called and sent into the mission field.

Where does the board we’re tethered to fit into this emerging metaphor?  Is the surfboard the church?  Is it the building?  Is it the community?  Is it the Kingdom of God?  Is the Holy Spirit?  The only answer I can give with any integrity at all is that I’m still working to figure that out.  It’s easier for me to tell you what it isn’t, than it is for me to tell you exactly what it is.  Surfers are comfortable in ambiguity.  The surfboard is definitely not your church building.  The building for many people is just another lifejacket.  It will give you the illusion of safety but if it is misunderstood in terms of value and utility, it can actually wreck your board and kill you.  The building turns too slowly, it is too heavy, it is too much work to surf with.  It isn’t that a surfer doesn’t appreciate a nice place to rest and recover, it’s just that if that place takes all of our time, then we become simply beach-hut maintenance people instead of surfers because there is no time left to be in the water.  We surf.  It’s what we do.  It’s where our time goes.  What we surf on has to be something we can easily carry, that we can maneuver quickly, and that does not drag us down when strapped to it. And people who actually surf have boards with dings on them. Ugly is good in surfing.  It means that the board is actually exposed to the ocean frequently.  A perfect board hasn’t seen much actual use.  The building is definitely not the board.

But is the surfboard the community?  Maybe.  It’s part of it.  I think, though, that the surfer is the community.  It is the hands and the feet, the heart and the mind.  The members of the community acting as one body are the surfer.  Surfers are extremely well coordinated people.  They are in tune with their bodies.  Their body parts are all focused on a single purpose in a single moment, a moment of intense effort, momentary terror, total commitment, followed by unbelievable joy.  A surfer’s survival depends on their ability to focus totally, as a single coordinated being, for short and frequent periods of time.  I think small church communities are like that, too.  We don’t have to be together on everything all the time.  A lot of incredible surfers are actually a little bit flakey when they aren’t actually doing what they do – surfing.  The intensity of the mission means that a totality of focus all of the time will cause us to burn ourselves out.  Surfers are laid back, go with the flow, except in the crucial moment.  And good surfers develop excellence in the skill of recognizing a crucial moment when they see it.  Small churches that surf well are like that too.  Their atmosphere is laid back, cool, accepting.  But they recognize a crucial moment and come together with a coordination of purpose and focus when a wave of the mission crests and they have an opportunity to catch it.  Short bursts of total focus and coordination, not total coordination all the time is a part of small church transformation to mission.

Small churches have unique challenges similar to a surfer’s challenges in that one bad choice can kill you.  You have to be able to move quickly and to pull out of the wave if you’re in it on the wrong angle.  Uncoordinated people spend a lot of time “going over the falls”, vomiting seawater.  So even though the requirement for coordination and focus is short, the life of the small church depends on its ability to do that.  It is a unity of purpose that allows it to happen, and learning the discipline of focus on purpose will be a huge part of the transformational journey.  That is something we will cover in depth in a later chapter.

The surfboard. What then is the surfboard?  I have come to think of the surfboard as the Holy Spirit.  It is what I have tethered myself to.  It is what our community has tethered itself to.  It is what we seek to become one with.  It is what keeps us up and it is that upon which we “walk on water”.  Or rather, it is that upon which we fly across the surface of the water, one with its very currents.  If we aren’t tethered to the right thing in this missional journey, big or small, we’ll never surf, and we’ll likely drown or never get in the water at all.  The Spirit comes in many shapes and sizes, always appropriate for the wave we are destined to catch.  Sometimes the Spirit is a shortboard, sometimes a longboard, sometimes even a hydrofoil we have to strap ourselves into to ride, but never too big or too heavy.  Everything else can fall away and this community will still be together surfing because we are tethered to what is required to surf, and surfing is the point.  The pure moment comes when the surfer and the board become one, flying across the face of a giant wave rising in the wake of the complete unity. The pure moment for a small church is when the body and the Holy Spirit become almost one in the service of the mission, reaching people, changing people, seeing new life rise up huge in the wake of that unity.   A surfer is tethered to a surfboard.  It’s definitional.  A missional community is tethered to the Holy Spirit.  It’s definitional.

So where does the Kingdom of God fit into this metaphor?  Well, my friends, I have come to understand that the Kingdom of God is the ride.  It is the perfect wave.  It is the ride of a lifetime.  One day, we will have the ride forever, but for now, we live for the pure moment, knowing that those moments are here sometimes if we are looking for them with passion and focus and purpose.  For now, the ride always ends.  The pure moment is a moment.  And then it’s a paddle back out.  But the moment makes all the wipeouts, all the board dings, all the times we’ve bounced off the coral worth it.  That one ride, that one pure exhilarating ride makes the memory of all the effort and all the pain fade away.  And the moment will come again if we have the discipline to paddle back out and the courage to overcome the terror of the crest and the total commitment to pop back up to catch the next one.  This isn’t heaven, but there are heavenly moments.

By Max Ramsey (Copyright 2-1-10)

One Bag of Food at a Time

One Bag of Food at a Time

There are some amazing statistics that speak to the importance of our efforts together at Despensa de la Paz. In the first nine months of this year, Despensa served 1,603 families totaling 5,947 individuals. Of these 5,947 individuals, 2,846 of them were children.  It is amazing to think how far this mission has come in a year of operation.  That being said, it’s also important to remember that statistics don’t tell the whole story.  We still hand out food one bag at a time, and we still offer hope one conversation and one hug at a time to one human being at a time.  For us, at least as important as meeting the need for nutrition and sustenance is meeting the need for human contact and the reminder that our lives all matter.  It is equally important that we remind people that they have something to offer and that they are loved.  One way that we try to do that is to invite everyone who receives something from Despensa to come back be a part of the mission by helping us to help others.  We invite every client to impact us as much as we impact them.

An example of this comes to mind.  A woman named, Georgia, came to Despensa a few weeks ago, clearly at the end of her rope.  Her eyes gave away a deep anxiety with her life situation.  I don’t know exactly what it was that caused her to break open that Saturday, but she clearly just couldn’t keep her sense of despair inside anymore.  It was bigger than she was.  And as she sat at the intake table, it began to come out; first in words, then in tears, and then in sobs.  Several volunteers gathered around her nearly moved to tears themselves.  Words of hope and reassurance passed between them, and with those words went their substance.  Our intake person that day, a man named David, told her how much she mattered to us, not just with words, but with actions.  We prayed with her.  We got her a hot cup of coffee and a little something to eat.  A woman who volunteers who was once in her shoes hugged her and whispered words of hope to her.  And another amazing volunteer named, Yami (13-years-old), took her by the hand and led her through the process, listening to her and reminding her that she was loved simply in the way that Yami treated her as a treasure. I got the sense that no one had treated her as treasure in a very long time.

Before she left, several volunteers asked her to come back the next week and help us to help others.  The next time we saw Georgia, she was beaming.  She was changed.  She not only came back to volunteer, she brought three friends from the neighborhood to volunteer with her.  Her sense of hope was back in her eyes.  She did a fabulous job that day of being our first point of intake for clients.  She could identify and connect with people in a warm and unique way simply because she had sat where they sat just two weeks before, and she naturally touched the hearts of others in the same way that her heart had been touched.  Georgia has moved from being the object of our mission to being the subject of it.  That movement is absolutely central to who we are as a mission.  She was changed, and now she is changing us.  Amazing.  While our statistics are incredibly encouraging, it is also important to remember that every life matters, and that we still hand out food one bag at a time.

Thank you to everyone who supports Despensa de la Paz in a thousand different and equally important ways.  Your generosity in time, talent, and treasure changes lives every day.

What in the World is Sunday Morning for?

What in the World is Sunday Morning for?

I recently posted something as a Facebook status that received some feedback that I thought was worthy of some reflection.  I posted, “If you haven’t been out to worship anywhere in a while, maybe today is a good day to reconnect with God and some other people who are struggling and wounded like you and trying to figure it all out. Maybe today.” The response I got was from someone (who I love and respect immensely) who grew up going to “church”, and who is actually a PK (preacher’s kid). She lives far away, unfortunately.  The response was, “I have a thought about this post. I am connected to God even if I do not go to a physical church building because of Immanuel. I may need to reconnect others, but I am never disconnected from God (by grace).

What made this interesting to me is that what “worship” means to us in our context is no longer something we can take for granted across a wide spectrum of churches or denominations.  There is a dissonance now that speaks to the need for real substantive change in thinking about what the words “worship” and “church” mean.  For us, worship is a lifestyle…not just a Sunday thing.  We take seriously Paul’s words when he said, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Romans 12:1) Once worship becomes a whole-life thing, what happens on Sunday becomes something other than what it was in the church that I grew up in, and in the churches that I suspect many others grew up in or attend, as well.  We now have to be careful to be clear in our invitation in a way that we may not have had to before.

For us, Sunday morning worship is the assembly of people who are engaged in the mission throughout the week. Everyone here is actively engaged in a mission outside of our walls.  No joke. Everyone is both subject and object of the mission.  Some labor together, side by side.  But we have so many different missional engagements, that many of us labor for the Kingdom and don’t see all the other people who are engaged in the mission with them in different places and different missions.  So we come together to connect with God, yes, AND we come together to connect with one another.  It is the body coming together to celebrate the mission.  We have something now to celebrate.  So we celebrate HUGE! And we come together to be encouraged by one another.  We come together to have our wounds validated and prayed for by our brothers and sisters.  And we come to be held accountable by our brothers and sisters (that’s a subject for another post another time).

We also come together because we deeply love each other and really enjoy one another’s company, and we know we can’t do that every day because reaching the lost, and the vulnerable, and the hurting is what we are here for and where our time and resources go. We aren’t here to hang out solely with other Christ-followers, but hanging out once a week or so with people who are on the journey feeds and heals us.   And we come together to see again how many ways that we all connected.  It is a gathering of people who value authenticity and integrity and compassion that is unique to it.  There is something that happens on Sunday morning in this assembly of souls that just doesn’t seem to happen anywhere else I go, and I go a lot of places every week.  We live life together, but Sunday is unique here. We gather in mission, but our focus there is on the mission.  It can be hectic, even dangerous.  Sunday we can totally focus on God and one another.  I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but I think that anyone who participates in this journey with us, would tell you that it is unique… and…helpful, too.  There are no “attendance police” here, and we don’t consider the number of people “in the pews” important.  There are some things we do count, but that isn’t one of them.

Sunday morning here has very few rituals. We don’t have a list of magical practices that we always do as if to ward off evil.  If rituals are what we repeatedly do because we believe those practices are pleasing to God, then the ritual that matters is compassion lived out in our lives and mission every day.  We don’t believe in “going to church”.  We believe in “being the church”.  The “church” that I grew up in had a lot of people who filled the pews who somehow believed that going to church would keep them from going to hell.  (Our pews are mostly filled with people who have already been to hell and are trying to heal from the experience of it; so that thinking just doesn’t make sense to them.)  People who loved them a lot and did the best they knew how probably taught them that. The institution of “church” fostered that belief.

I don’t subscribe to the belief that there was some grand conspiracy among a cabal of church officials who did that to further a self-serving agenda.  I think that what God was calling us to do for a while was to create a Kingdom environment within the walls and bring people into it.  I just think that God is calling us to do something else now.  Now we are called to go out into the world and develop Kingdom space everywhere we go – out there.  Since what we’re being called to do is different, what happens in here on Sunday morning is different as a result.

Something is wrong with the church if the theology that is espoused in it is that if you don’t attend, you aren’t connected to God.  If that is going on in your place of worship, I invite you to call upon all of the authority of the Gospel (in heaven and on earth) to change it. If your church is all about kooky and esoteric ritual, then I invite you speak out for change.  Rituals also tell the world about the God we worship.  If all we do is kooky rituals that have no relevance to a suffering world, then we have an obligation to speak up for change.  I absolutely affirm that we are ALWAYS connected to God by grace.  I mean, if we were stranded in the desert alone, would that mean that we were separated from God because we couldn’t go to church or participate in the magical practices of the institution and its accredited officials?  What kind of poisonous theology is that?  That’s insanity (and probably blasphemy).  God is with us in all things and in all places.  And God is in charge in all things and all places.  That being said, I also have come to see and believe that when the Body of Christ actually is what it was called to be, then the “assembly” has a purpose.  I think that Paul was right when he said, “Do not neglect the assembly”.  So with these thoughts in mind, I again say, “If you haven’t been out to worship anywhere in a while, maybe today is a good day to reconnect with God and some other people who are struggling and wounded like you and trying to figure it all out. Maybe today.”