Archive for January, 2012

By Your Boot Straps: A Story that is all too Often True.

By Your Boot Straps: A Story that is all too Often True.

Here’s how it happens.  You can’t get a job because you don’t have driver’s license.  You don’t have a driver’s license because you can’t afford to get one.  You finally save up enough money from doing odd jobs to learn how to drive after saving for two years to do it.  Then, you can’t afford a vehicle.  So you save for another two years to come up with $1,100 to buy a clunker, except you can’t afford the insurance.  So you drive without insurance because it’s your way to get to the legitimate job you finally got that will allow you to get insurance.  Then your tail light goes out because a mouse ate through your wiring.  The repair will cost a couple hundred dollars that you don’t have because you owe $3,000 to the utility company who just turned your power off.  You owe $3,000 because you didn’t have a job for four years while you were scrounging enough money to get a driver’s license and a car so you could get a job to pay your utilities before they get turned off.  Your pay goes to paying that off so you can cook the food you can’t afford and have to get in inadequate supply from the food pantry.  But…at least your working, so you have hope.

Then, you get a ticket for your tail light being out.  And you get another ticket at the same time for driving without insurance.  You couldn’t afford the light repair, so you sure can’t afford the tickets.  So you start saving to fix the light, and you have no choice but to drive anyway because that’s your only way to get to your job, and your job is your only hope.  Meanwhile, the time is ticking on paying your tickets.  Then you get a letter from the DMV saying that your license has been suspended for failure to pay the tickets that you can’t afford to pay for the tail light that you still can’t afford to fix.  You need the job, so you drive anyway…just to work and back.  You walk miles to do everything else.

Then, on your way to your job which is your only hope, you get pulled over again for the tail light.  They find out that you’re driving on a suspended license and they impound your car and give your another ticket that you can’t afford.  The impound lot charges $50 a day.  You don’t have $50 so it sits there adding up $50 a day to the point where you owe more than the car is worth.  And you try taking two buses to get to work, and get there late.  Twice.  And they fire you.  Now, you’ve lost your car, your driver’s license, AND your job…which was your hope.  And you have tickets that aren’t getting paid because you’ve lost your job and don’t have any money to pay them.

The power gets turned off again because you don’t have a job any more to make payments to keep it on.  Then your rent is late for the same reason and the landlord is calling and screaming at you and calling you a deadbeat and threatening to put you out on the street.  The stress starts to build.  And build.  One day, you’re trying to get some groceries after walking to two miles to the nicer store with better prices, and the clerk treats you rudely…the stress catches up and you respond rudely even though you know you weren’t raised that way.  The clerk escalates the confrontation with a more rude remark.  You then respond in kind.  The off-duty policeman in line behind you who has no idea of your life situation and didn’t hear the clerk’s first remarks sees only a customer who is causing a scene.  He decides to intervene and calls in your information after pulling you aside for a “stop and frisk”.  He’s only doing his job.  He just thinks it’s simple…and there’s nothing simple about poverty or despair.  The dispatcher informs him that there is a warrant out for your arrest for the unpaid tickets.  So, he arrests you.

You don’t have the money to pay the ticket.  So you sit in jail because you have more time than you have money.  Your four kids are at home without supervision. Oh, did I forget to mention that in the midst of all of this, you’re trying to raise four kids?  Where’s the dad? Oh he’s in prison.   One of the kids acts up at school.  Social Services find out they’re living at home without an adult…looked in on by a sympathetic neighbor.  They take your kids.  When you finally get out of jail after serving 30 days among murderers and gang members, you still don’t have a driver’s license because you don’t have a job to earn enough money to get it reinstated.  You can’t get a job because no one will hire you without a driver’s license.  You have no electricity at your apartment.  Your landlord started eviction papers on you while you were in jail, and you will be on the street in about five days.  You can only get five days worth of food once a month from the pantry because somebody figures that’s all you need and any more will enabling you.  You could probably sell that, but it wouldn’t cover what you owe the landlord. Your car is now hopelessly owned by the impound lot owner.  And your kids are spread between three different foster homes and are acting up in them and getting in trouble with the law.  Their own spiral into poverty has begun in another generation, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

And then, you are approached by a gangster who says he feels your pain and has a solution.  If you just sell a little pot for him, you will have enough money to get the license out of hock, get the power turned back on, pay your rent in cash, and get back on track to getting another legitimate job so you can get your kids back.  You can make enough in five days to stop the eviction.

At first you just sell to people you know.  Then one of them brings someone you don’t know.  She turns out to be an undercover police officer.  You get busted with possession with the intent to deliver…and that means prison and criminal record.  Nobody hires people with criminal records anymore, and everyone now does a thorough background check before they hire.  You are done.  And you aren’t even forty yet.

Oh, this is an extreme case, you say? Oh, this is the exception and not the rule? No, it isn’t.  And it all started with a tail light being out and not having the means to fix it. It takes more than boot straps.


Going Back to Egypt: The Impulse Every Community Has

Going Back to Egypt

Did you ever notice in the book of Exodus, that every time the people that Moses was trying to lead into the future that God has prepared for them got scared or didn’t know what to do, their response was always the same…first blame Moses, then start to head back to Egypt.  Egypt was the place of slavery and misery.  Go back to the slavery?  Go back to the idolatry?  That’s crazy thinking.  But maybe for them, the misery they knew seemed better than the unknown that lay ahead of them.  It happens so often that all I can think is that it is a very human response to fear of the unknown. I think a similar thing happens to communities in the midst of spiritual transformation…oh, and by the way, we are ALWAYS in the midst of spiritual transformation.

We become accustomed to being told what to do, to being told every detail of the way forward.  We get comfortable in our institutions with letting the “professionals” handle everything.  We get comfortable in those institutions even when those institutions become highly dysfunctional. We are afraid to just let go and give the reins over to God who we thought we knew, but now realize we can never fully know.  We go forward seeking the promises of God, and then we meet resistance and hardship, and we think that God has forgotten us.  I think part of the reason we get “comfortable” is that we rationalize, like the Israelites did, that we aren’t capable of moving into a future we don’t know or control, and that it’s better to stay stuck than face the uncertainty of the unknown.  And we hear the ancient urge, “Go back to Egypt.”

To make things even tougher, in any transformational environment, communities almost always retain people who have never truly left Egypt to begin with.  They cling to the old way because they benefitted from the old way, and they initiate the whispers of “Go back to Egypt” every time it looks like something is headed for failure.  Their whispers might even be subtly nuanced with, “See, I told you so.  This path will only lead to destruction.  Let’s go back to Egypt.”  And if we aren’t careful to examine their motives, their whispers can marry up with our fears, and before we know it, we forget who initiated the whispers and we start to think that their thoughts are our thoughts.  The truth is that we can never go back.  We are not the same people we were when we left.  They might be because they’ve never given in to growth.  But those of us who have toiled and truly suffered in the wilderness have been changed by it, and we cannot go back.  The only way out of the wilderness is through it.

And for many communities they get concrete feet because they refuse to move forward until they have the perfect plan…every detail figured out.  When Moses led the people into the wilderness, it’s important to notice that there really wasn’t any plan.  There was only a promise, a call, and an opportunity precipitated by a crisis.  There was leader with a vision and heart-burst among the people. We have become so accustomed to needing a plan because we are taught that by our culture that we have forgotten the Biblical story.  In the Bible, as in real life, plans go right out the window at the very first crisis.  And from that point forward what we are doing is developing the situation that is unfolding before us.  We are improvising. We are adapting.  We are overcoming.  We are learning and becoming confident in our ability to do those very things.  In slavery, improvising is a threat to authority.  In the wilderness, it is survival itself.  God has given us a spiritual imagination.  It is God working through that that allows us to not only survive, but to thrive.  We don’t know what to do because in the wilderness, everything is something we’ve never done before…or seen before…or learned to control.  That’s what makes it wilderness to begin with.  It is scary and uncomfortable.  For some people, it is VERY scary.  But that is what the wilderness is.  If it were anything else, it would be something other than the wilderness.

So we all have to learn the skills of “figuring it out”.  Some folks have never had to learn how to do that.  But those skills are learned only by doing it. We have to embrace the reality that there is no other way forward than that.  We are all entrepreneurs now. There is no plan. If you don’t know what to do, take the principles you know, and figure it out.  Improvise.  Adapt.  No one’s going to hand it to you. There is no one out there that knows the answer, because in the wilderness, almost everything you are facing is new.  You can learn from the collective wisdom that has been garnered by your community or other communities on the journey…in fact, the community’s survival is dependent on everyone’s ability to do that.  But there just isn’t a book yet that exactly lays out how to move your faith community into the future that God has prepared for us and is calling us into.  It’s okay to be afraid.  That fear can drive us closer to God…to a greater recognition of our total dependence upon God.  And that fear coupled with God’s deliverance can lead us into a deeper trust in God and God’s promises.  That kind of trust is what God reckoned as righteousness to begin with. Or…that fear can lead us to give in to the whispers of those who never really left Egypt to begin with when they tell us, “Go back to Egypt.”  Don’t give in.  Improvise. Adapt. Figure it out.  And grow into a deep trust in the promises of God.  Jesus Christ, himself, is with you.

Towards a Missional Pedagogy: Intentionally Implied Curriculum

Towards a Missional Pedagogy: Intentionally Implied Curriculum

“Praxis” is not a new idea.  It is at least as old as Hegel, and probably much older than that.  It isn’t so much a teaching method as it is a learning method…a way of life actually.  The process begins with the examination of our assumptions about the nature of the things – the world, God, God in the world, heaven, humanity, meaning, suffering…you name it.  The world we live in probably has an objective reality. But so much of how we interact with it is determined by the lenses that we see the world through that it is really hard to know exactly what “it” objectively is.  The lenses determine our actions in response to what we see as much as the world itself does.  That doesn’t mean that everything is relative.  It just means that a lot of what we think we know is culturally determined and operates just at or below our level of consciousness.  Socialization is a powerful process, and the levers that control that process bear close examination.

What do we believe about God? Who is Jesus Christ? The beliefs influence our behaviors in every aspect of life.  Jesus meant to use the word “Way” because the “way” we live matters and is the only true measure of what we actually believe. Once we have a grip on what we think we believe, Praxis compels us to act on that set of beliefs…to live them, to follow their “way”.  We intentionally move from reflection to action…or maybe more precisely to interaction.  The realities of our interactions challenge and conflict with our initial assumptions.  The interactions are the context of our learning and our understanding.  To use Hegelian terminology, we begin with an examined hypothesis and we put that hypothesis into practice (hence, “Praxis”).  Eventually, given our limitations and limits of initial understanding, our “hypothesis” meets its “antithesis”.  What we believe no longer matches what we see.  We can no longer live that hypothesis with integrity, and we must spend time reflecting on our hypothesis in light of our actions and experiences and form a new hypothesis that we will take back out into action.  We move from reflection to action to reflection to action to reflection, and so on, until what is believed to be real is bearing fruit in the context in which we live.  Do we ever reach real “synthesis”? I don’t know.  I haven’t.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible.  It just means that the process of learning and growing and understanding is much longer than we think it is. Full participation in the present Kingdom of God has both a steep and a long learning curve.

In the past, methods of discipling have largely skipped a good deal of the intentionality at work here.  They have denied their own implied curriculum (i.e. what we are teaching but aren’t saying that we’re teaching).  But more than that, even when the Sunday School model/classroom model of Christian Education has functioned at its best, the foundational assumption of the model is that what is being “taught” will be reinforced in the culture in which it is lived out.  We took young people out of the water of baptism or out of the spiritual practice of confirmation and we plunked them down in Sunday School classes for one hour per week and taught them from curriculum written by people who lived their faith in the generation before the generation we were telling these kids to live their faith in.  Things didn’t match up.  The result was that the kids (and adults) who were being educated in this method were largely walking away from their faith because, 1) Their faith wasn’t their faith – it was their parent’s faith, 2) What they were learning wasn’t relevant to their context of living, and 3) culture was constantly assaulting everything we were teaching with a conflicting message about everything and we were drastically underestimating the power of cultural socialization and its pressure to assimilate. We were also underestimating the cost and pain of that conflict to our young people and new disciples.

The curriculum that we were purchasing and teaching out of was the lens that we were trying to stick on the faces of disciples, and that kind of curriculum is always “stuck in time”. That kind of curriculum isn’t God’s Living Word.  It is a culturally contextualized interpretation of scripture.  And there is a giant difference.  Using that kind of curriculum as our sole means of influence is like putting somebody else’s glasses on disciples.  Either they stumble around and feel dizzy all the time, or they take the glasses off and operate under the illusion that they’re no longer looking through a lens at all.

So here’s my suggestion.  What if we took new believers who have come to faith in the mission, and invited them into the study of scripture (what it actually says) and got them to reflect on scripture’s meaning in light of what they were experiencing in the mission?  Then we invite them to likewise reflect on the mission in light of what they are reading in scripture.  My suggestion is that that process begins with the Gospels (but doesn’t end there).  The learning and influence is bi-directional.  The experience of mission (action) informs our understanding and interpretation of scripture, and our understanding of scripture informs, challenges, and shapes the way that we engage in the mission (reflection and new hypothesis).  We are then challenged to take our new understanding back into the mission and incarnate our beliefs with our intentional efforts to live what we believe.  In other words, there is no learning without action, and our actions are shaped by our reflection on those actions viewed through scripture.

Too often, disciples do one or the other, but not both.  In our “churches” we get people who study scripture all the time and become phenomenally gifted in the rote knowledge of the text.  But they, all too often, really don’t put their understanding of the text into practice in a way that really challenges their interpretation of it.  In fact, many do not even acknowledge that interpretation is ALWAYS at work in our understanding of scripture. We ALWAYS read scripture through lenses prescribed by culture.  On the flip side, mission without reflection in scripture does not produce spiritual growth.  It just produces more of the exact same and, eventually, it produces boredom and/or burnout.  Mission without scriptural reflection isn’t mission.  It’s “outreach”, and we’ve already established that outreach will kill your church.  The spiritual growth produced by reflecting on experience in light of scripture provides motivation.  Without growth as motivation, there really is no motive to continue in the mission once the initial emotional experience plateaus.  And, it will plateau without spiritual growth.

All of this learning impacts daily living – family, school, work, economics, participation in government, etc.  In fact, all of the learning in going from reflection to action in mission to reflection and back again shapes our daily living and drastically reduces the impact that cultural socialization has on our understanding of everything.  Daily living is no longer the primary learning lab.  The mission is the primary learning lab.  Without participation in the mission, the forces of culture are simply too great and they overpower what we can do in one hour per week of Sunday School.  The mission makes our understanding relevant.  It also makes it our own.  We are owning our own understanding and lenses rather than simply putting on someone else’s glasses.

Reflection. Hypothesis. Mission application. Reflection. New Hypothesis. New mission application. And so on.  We are grinding our own lenses…or more precisely, the Holy Spirit is prescribing lenses appropriate for our interaction with the culture that Christ is trying to reach and influence.

(To be continued) Where am I wrong in my thinking here?  What’s missing? Is this worth a try? Please, give me some feedback and accountability here. Some of you are familiar with Paulo Freire and others who have advocated Praxis methodology over the years, as well as similar methods like Immersion learning and Encounter methodology.  I am learning, too.  Object AND subject.


What’s the New Normal?

What’s the New Normal?

Somebody asked me how we know when we are operating in the “new normal”.  The first thought that comes into my head is, “How the heck should I know?!” But, here’s a shot at it anyway.

1) We are called to do things and accountable to God for doing them that I have neither the financial resources nor the institutional support/authority to do. The needs are real and tremendous. You just have to figure it out because the book on this stuff hasn’t been written yet, and won’t be for a long time to come. There will never be a point where you have “enough” to do what you’re called to do. Forget that.

2) We get on the ground and find the indigenous person there who will lead us into the mission – who has the tacit information and informal networks and street cred necessary to develop the mission. Strategic planning went out the window the minute our community actually engaged the mission field. Forget about titles and degrees and institutional accreditation. The people who will lead you into the mission are people from the “tribes and nations” you’re trying to find the Kingdom in the midst of. Think “Lewis and Clark” and prepare for what might happen, rather than trying to plan what WILL happen.

3) Fail. A lot. Learn from those failures. Get better. Try again…and again. Pick up the pieces and move forward.

4) Seek the Kingdom of God where it is emerging far outside our walls and comfort zones, not people to fill up pews.

5) Forget about a forty-hour work week and a neat little ten percent tithe to the church. It’s all-in and everything you have.

6) Get comfortable in chaos. Nothing is neat or pretty or easy. Few things that bear fruit in the mission are really institutionally measurable.

7) At least a third of the people you invite to do mission with you and who you are solid friends with are not believers in any of this yet. Yet. Resources have to come from secular sources.

8) Put on a whole bucketful of perseverance because this stuff takes patience and stick-with-it-ness. Do not quit. There is no going back. While you’re at it, put on some seriously thick skin, too. Because this stuff isn’t going to make you popular, either. If everybody loves you, you’re not making real decisions.

9) It’s not about processes or programs anymore. Forget those. Pray like crazy. Fast. Beg for a blessing. It’s about the Holy Spirit. And it’s about individual relationships that become webs of relationships that become communities that defy measurement or conventional models. The next step deeper into the Kingdom is always one miracle away. This is dreams and visions and crazy super-natural stuff.

10) Accept the fact that there will be casualties. The first will be your institutional career. Next, for sure, will be people who you never thought would bail on you, but who bail on you. You will lose people. You will see people die and suffer horribly. Some people you try to reach will hate you with a passion. And you will reach some. “Some” is my new normal word.

11) If you aren’t doing something that scares the hell out of you at least once a week, I’m not sure what you’re doing, but you’re probably not living the same normal I am. Scared is definitely part of my new normal. You know that feeling you have when you tip too far back in a chair…right before it goes over? THAT is my new normal.

12) It’s not what you know anymore. It’s how fast you can learn and adapt what you know to a mission field that is constantly changing. We are all little children in this .

13) If you’re hoarding information and resources and using them for personal gain, then you are part of the OLD normal. What difference does it make to a dead man who gets the credit? Us not mattering is the new normal…and the Good News.

14) If your disciples aren’t making disciples who make disciples, something is wrong.

15) Our communities are structured for spiritual warfare, not for Christmas pageants and Vacation Bible School. Accountability and responsibility are intentionally linked to authority in the community.  We place great emphasis on personal responsibility. We have come to expect spiritual attacks…and we know they are real.  If we aren’t being attacked, we probably aren’t threatening hell. And plundering hell is what we seek to do…normally.

16) We struggle to be authentic and vulnerable.  Yes, we normally get hurt. It is what it is. The bush burns, but it is not consumed.

17) Unity of purpose, not uniformity of thought.

18) Urgent. Immediate. Unsafe. Exciting. A little sketchy. Slightly out of control. Broke. Totally dependent upon God and God’s Grace, for real, not just as a cool theological construct. That’s my new normal.

What’s your new normal?