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Book Review: Slow Church

June 12, 2014

SlowChurch

 

A few weeks ago I came across a product that highlighted for me the instant, need-for-speed reality of our consumeristic culture in the United States. The sole purpose of this product was to cook ramen noodles faster and easier. It was designed specifically to cut down all the waiting: for the water to boil, the noodles to cook, etc. According to the ad, having to wait fifteen minutes for a meal to be ready is just too long for busy people to endure.

Apparently, we have reached the point where cooking ramen noodles takes too long.

“Slow” is a challenge. “Slow” probably qualifies as a four-letter word in the suburban context that I inhabit. We like convenient, pre-packaged, easier, bigger, and especially faster!  Churches and ministries often talk about gaining “momentum,” and it is usually in the context of gaining speed. However, over time this need for speed can create tension in both personal and congregational life. For this reason I have been looking forward to Chris Smith’s and John Pattison’s new book, Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus.

Smith and Pattison present the case for a slower, more patient, more intentional life in community as followers of Jesus.

At the heart of our vision of Slow Church is a theology deeply rooted in the importance of the people of God to God’s mission in the world and in the rich joy of shalom that comes to all creation as we grow and flourish in the places to which we have been called. (33)

This vision is an incarnational one which invites us into the practice of “cultivating together the resurrection life of Christ, by deeply and selflessly loving our brothers and sisters, our neighbors and even our enemies” (32). This kind of life is messy, it is not easy and it is not  fast. But it can help us move more in sync with God’s mission in the world.

The authors highlight a number of values and practices that are a part of the Slow Church vision, such as place, stability, patience, wholeness, work, sabbath, abundance, gratitude, hospitality, conversation, and meals. Speed can cause us to neglect or be deficient in these practices, so Slow Church invites us to slow down and engage (or reengage) with these important practices and elements of life and faith.

As a pastor of a small local congregation I found the book to be a great encouragement and source of theological reflection. Smith and Pattison included a chapter on “Dinner Table Conversation as a Way of Being Church,” which I really appreciated as I’ve written about similar topics and regularly experiment with this kind of practice with our congregation. Slow Church is an enjoyable read and also includes discussion questions at the end of the chapters. The questions enhance each chapter making the book a great resource for reflection in congregations and church leadership teams. I’m excited to use this book as a tool for equipping us as a congregation in these rhythms.

In a fast-paced culture, “slow” can be a challenge. But it is a challenge we would do well to accept. And Slow Church is certainly a valuable contribution for the spiritual formation of the church today.

My 6 Word Story About Jesus

May 13, 2014

From time to time in my congregation we will participate in a “communal sermon” in place of a regular sermon preached by an individual. I have found this practice to be a way for us to be both spiritually formed and to grow as a community valuing multi-voiced approaches to worship. We most recently did this during the Easter season and the text was from Luke 24:13-24 (NRSV):

13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”

There appears to be a kind of simple creed or faith statement included in this narrative, beginning with “The things about Jesus of Nazareth.” The statement describes Jesus as prophet, condemned, crucified, and alive. Of course, later in this story Jesus is revealed to his hosts in the act of breaking bread together at the table. But the short, ancient form of talking about Jesus, found here in the first half of the story, stood out and offered a chance to explore the idea through some modern day lenses.

I’d heard of the “six word story” technique for creating a complete yet extremely short story. Ernest Hemingway is thought to have dabbled in this kind of writing, after some friends challenged him to write a complete story with only 6 words.[1] In our day this kind of storytelling can work well on social media forms like Twitter, and I’ve participated in this type of writing there before.

We used the hashtag #My6WordStoryAboutJesus. This would be our topic and also a means to share our stories. Telling our stories about Jesus felt like a good way to help us journey through the Easter season as witnesses to Jesus. Our instructions were simple: if you could only use 6 words, what would you say about Jesus?

After a time of reflection we shared our stories aloud with one another. We ended up creating a long list of short stories about Jesus, which were later tweeted from our Twitter account (@SpringMountMC). The exercise created space to engage with the Jesus of the scriptures, to reflect on our personal views and experiences with him, and to listen to each other as we told our stories.

I noticed some consistent themes among those who participated in this storytelling, including ideas like “Jesus is my hope,” and “There is so much I wanted to say.” As a result, the final story written on the list was an appropriate one to close with:

“Tombs and words cannot contain him.”[2]

May we continue to center our lives on the risen, transforming, and uncontainable Christ.

6WordStoryAboutJesus

 

 

 

[1] See http://www.sixwordstories.net/about/

[2] Written by Gay Brunt Miller.

 

A Living Alternative

March 13, 2014

ala_final_flatcover

Me and my MennoNerds pals are writing a book! It’s titled, A Living Alternative: Anabaptist Christianity in a Post-Christendom World. It is being published by Ettelloc Publishing and will be available this fall. Here’s an introduction to the project:

What does faith look like in a world where Christianity no longer dominates economy, policy, and morality? Why are mainline Christian structures so intimidated by this inevitability? And how can the church learn from those radical-reformers of the past as we venture into this unforeseen post-Christendom world? (read the full announcement here)

My chapter is titled, “The Table as a Model for Anabaptist Spiritual Formation.” It has been exciting to collaborate in this project with a gifted group of writers, editors, and practitioners. If you are interested in Anabaptist faith and practice I encourage you to check it out!

Dogma > Faith?

February 10, 2014

StoryOfXianityGonzalez

What happens to creativity and to the ongoing work of the Spirit when dogma is elevated over faith? Justo González describes the theological climate of 17th and 18th century Europe and makes some pointed observations that are worth reflecting on:

there were others whose zeal for true doctrine was no less than Luther’s, Calvin’s, or Loyola’s. But this was no longer the time of great theological discoveries, leading up unknown paths. Theologians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries zealously defended the teachings of the great figures of the sixteen, but without the fresh creativity of that earlier generation. Their style became increasingly rigid, cold, and academic. Their goal was no longer to be entirely open to the Word of God but rather to uphold and clarify what others had said before them. Dogma was often substituted for faith, and orthodoxy for love. Reformed, Lutheran, and Catholic alike developed orthodoxies to which one had to either adhere strictly or be counted out of the fold of the faithful. [1]

If we compared the climate of the church in the 17th/18th centuries with that of today, I wonder what similarities we might notice? Is it possible that some church history could teach us (Anabaptists/Mennonites too) something beneficial for this moment of time we occupy right now?

Dogma is probably the simpler and easier path. But what do we lose if dogma > faith?

[1] González, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: Vol. II: The Reformation to the Present Day. New York: HarperOne, 2010. 174.

Looking Through the MLK Lens

January 20, 2014

CommemoratingKing

I recently had the opportunity to meet Ewuare Osayande following a message he presented to a group of local Mennonite pastors about investing in racial justice. One of the steps I wanted to take following that time was to read his book, Commemorating King: Speeches Honoring the Civil Rights Movement, and allow space for his and Dr. King’s words to sink inI’m grateful for Osayande’s work, and gladly encourage everyone to visit the above link to purchase a copy of this book. In this short collection of speeches, Osayande highlights a number of Dr. King’s messages and highlights the prophetic wisdom and challenge contained within. He also makes clear connections to our current context in the United States, demonstrating how King’s prophetic message of peace, justice, and reconciliation still needs to be heard and embodied today.

Three major systemic forces which King repeatedly confronted in his life included 1) Racism, 2) Militarism, and 3) Materialism/Poverty. If we are to truly live as followers of Christ, we must develop that prophetic willingness to identify and oppose these oppressive systems and name them for what they are…anti-Christ. We may also need to look inward and see how we might be contributing to these systems which pollute the shalom God desires. And if you’re like me (a privileged, white, male, suburbanite) we might also need some help to understand-or see more clearly-how these systems are at work around us.

We Anabaptists are fond of saying that we interpret scripture by looking through the “lens” of Jesus. Lenses are a tool for correcting vision. They help make our sight clearer. Jesus and his life and teachings are a lens through which the Spirit helps clear our vision that we might demonstrate Good News. We strive to be shaped by Jesus because this faith is not simply something spiritual or for the future but rather something that’s real and for now (Luke 4:16-21). In his message titled, “The Fierce Urgency of Now: The Struggle for Racial Justice Forty Years After King,” Osayande points out another lens which can increase our vision for peace and justice:

Do we have the courage to view our world through the lens King provides? This is the challenge of our time. This is the choice we all must make. Social change does not require a particular gender identification, racial classification or sexual orientation. What it does require is an undying commitment to embody the revolutionary idea of justice for all. (34)

Dr. King was powerfully formed by the way of Jesus. Clearly he looked at everything through the lens of Jesus, and he was able to bring to bear the teachings of Jesus within a context where those three systems of oppression are still deeply rooted. His faithful witness offers a vital lens through which to both expand our vision for justice and understand Jesus’ life and teachings more clearly.

On the news today I learned that a local historian just discovered a recording of a speech King delivered at St. Joe’s, shortly before he was killed. I’m looking forward to listening to this message when it’s available to the public. So one way I will try to apply this “lens” of Dr. King to my life is through more regular reflection on Dr. King’s theology and teachings, in order that I may continue to learn and to live as a witness to Christ. 

New Ways of Being Christian

January 15, 2014

building

 

I have been participating in a year-long seminary class which is a survey of the Christian Tradition. We are using Justo Gonzalez’s two-volume The Story of Christianity as one of our texts. This week a particular paragraph in Volume II stood out to me, and also provided some good discussion material for our class time. In describing the atmosphere of the 16th century Reformation, Gonzalez wrote:

An old world was passing away, and a new one was being born. It was unavoidable that the church too would feel the impact of the new times and that, just as new ways of being human were emerging, new ways of being Christian would also emerge. Exactly how this was to be done, however, was open to debate. Some sought to reform the old church from within, while others lost all hope for such reformation, and openly broke with the papacy. In an age of such turmoil, many sincere Christians went through profound soul searching that eventually led them to conclusions and positions they could not have predicted. Others, equally sincere and devout, came to opposite conclusions. The resulting disagreements and conflict marked the entire age that we now call the Reformation of the sixteenth century. (14)

We noted in class that, if you changed just a few words in this passage, you could easily apply it to the time and place we find ourselves occupying today in North American, Western Christianity. We are living in the midst of a new and rapidly changing world, which is affecting how we think about and how we “do” church. The current atmosphere is causing some Christians to be excited, some to be hopeful, some to be inventive, while others are fearful, cautious, or just wondering what the heck is going on. Older, established church structures and institutions are engaging important questions and facing difficult circumstances. While at the same time fresh expressions of church are being born and developing. Similar to the previous Reformation, today seems to be a time of soul searching, of tension, of conflict, and of new birth.

What is the Spirit stirring in a time such as this? What might we learn from our history? What new ways of being Christian do we see emerging?

Using one word, could you describe how it feels to live in this time?

Thankful for Children

November 25, 2013

Dinner

My oldest son (age 4) often shares the prayer when we sit down at the table to eat dinner. Tonight’s prayer was just awesome, so I tried to quickly jot it down while we remembered it.

Thank you Jesus for our food.

And thank you for this nice snack.

Thank you for (my brother) going to church.

In Jesus name…

(pause)

And for (preschool friend) coming back to school.

And for (another preschool friend) coming back.

In Jesus name…

(pause)

Our 2 year old son checked out by this point and just started eating.

For Mommy and Nona having a good exercise time.

For going to church.

(pause)

For (my brother) making this (a craft) in Sunday School.

In Jesus name…

AAAA-MEN!

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. -Matthew 18:1-5 NRSV

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