A or B?: A Few Thoughts on Discernment and Decision Making

“A good journey begins with knowing where we are and being willing to go somewhere else.” – Richard Rohr

For several months now, my wife and I have been praying, thinking, and discussing with friends and family regarding a potential shift. Not only the possibility of a move in geography and locale, but one of occupation as well. It has been a long, developing set of circumstances filled with doubt and frustration, joy and laughter, bewilderment and irony. This past week brought some conclusion to this time as I have accepted a position with a company here in Syracuse.

While traversing this time in liminal land, we have had to deal with times of disorientation as we wondered what was around each corner. For us as a family, it was a much deeper and concerning time as we now are not only responsible for ourselves as a married couple, but also for our 3 children. In many ways, the decisions we were facing had the potential to alter the trajectory and direction our family has been headed. For us, it is imperative to filter our own longings through the interrelated grids of community, incarnation, and mission.

Through it all, we knew discernment had to permeate all we did. This wasn’t a task we took lightly as it had/has enough inherent force to change how things play out in the future.

We are by no means experts in any of these things, but I’d like to share a few lessons we’ve come across and implemented through this particular season.

Discernment

Community Discussion

We knew through it all we could not and should not pretend we could make it alone. The lie of autonomy is exactly that: a lie. We have been taught in many ways that independence is a higher value and aspiration than interdepedence. Whether it be engrained in us implicitly or explicitly, the modern imagination has been shaped by power, prestige, and self-importance. Everywhere we turn, we are bombarded with the illusion of autonomy and the good life it purports. The interdependent life sees these and names them as antithetical to its very existence. Postures of humility, mutuality, and vulnerability are the hallmarks of interdependency and run counter-intuitive to our individualistic mindsets.

So, we tried our best to incorporate not only our thoughts on things along with the thoughts and feelings of others. We began with our family and closest friends, along with co-workers and neighbors. Knowing our decisions would have effects on people beyond ourselves, we deemed it necessary to include the voices of those we are tethered to. Through their input, we were able to discern gifts, talents, possibilities, and the ripple effects of potential decisions. For this we are/were extremely grateful.

The next step, however, was to begin to talk with those outside of our closest circles. In many ways, those who are not too familiar with the ins and outs of our existence can give us eyes to things we don’t see. Those closest to us are invaluable, but there are communal blind-spots we share that an outside perspective illuminates. As I began to talk with friends across the country, I was able to gain insights I wouldn’t have gained otherwise. They poked and prodded in ways our friends and family here couldn’t.

If you can, I suggest you look at both of these circles in your own life and ask how they can open your eyes to things you may not even be aware are present.

Stage of life

Discerning our stage in life was vital. We have been married for 7.5 years and have attempted to live as simply as we can. In some seasons this has been easy; in others, a bit more difficult. I was 24 when we were married, 25 when I started my Masters, and by 26 we had our first daughter. Those first two years of marriage we were both working full-time and had plenty of time, money, and energy. However, the past 5 years has given us 3 daughters and time, money, and energy have been found wanting.

Dreams and aspirations change as the seasons of our life change. The things I was chasing after have taken drastic twists and turns. With each new child, those potential endeavors and passions have changed as life has become more about family and less about Scott. Even within the past 5 years of having children, each successive child brought new challenges and opportunities. What I saw as necessary when I was 25, I now have been able to bury in the ground. Paradoxically, life has still emerged and emerged all the more beautifully.

So, for us, determining what stage of life we were in was a must as we came to decisions. There is a whole new set of questions we have to be asking as we form answers to what directions things might move in. They are different for everyone, but I suggest you prayerfully reflect upon them and your current stage of life.

Prayer

I know. For many, this is a given. Still, for many others, it is a given in thought, not in reality. I was certainly in the latter camp for a long, long time. It is interesting – and somewhat embarrassing – that it takes tough times to truly turn to God. Desperation has a funny way of tearing down our arrogance and providing the framework necessary to realize our finiteness. God is a being of participation, rather it be small or large decision. As Ruth Haley Barton says,

As strange as it may sound, desperation is a really good thing in the spiritual life. Desperation causes us to be open to radical solutions, willing to take all manner of risk in order to find what we are looking for. Desperate ones seek with an all-consuming intensity, for they know that their life depends on it. (Barton, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, p. 30)

The longer we prayed about our potential change, the more we became open to whatever God had for us. As the Richard Rohr quote above states, we were becoming ever-increasingly willing to go somewhere else. Rather ironically, our “going somewhere else” will take place in our staying put geographically.

And this leads me to perhaps the weightiest part of this all.

Decision Making

I’ll be with you regardless.

There is a strong idea, perhaps even a doctrine, embedded within many Christian communities regarding God’s will. It has several variations, but essentially goes something like this: “God has a wonderful plan for your life and as long as you’re in the center of God’s will, you will be blessed.” Have you heard this before?

I have had numerous conversations with people who have heard this. They were facing decisions with tectonic shift-like power and were ruminating on some permutation of the aforementioned Christian axiom.

Now, hear me: I’m not saying this statement is inherently evil nor are those who perpetuate it. I have said it, believed it, encouraged it, and acted upon it. However, as of late, I have come to the conclusion that I have no idea what it means.

Maybe it’s my age. Maybe it’s my inexperience. Maybe it’s my faith.

Regardless, my worry is that it has created more confusion than clarity. For those whom I have spoken with who were wrestling with the ramifications of “being in God’s will” there was a paralysis brought upon them by this belief. It’s as if there is either A or B and you must choose and choose wisely or else. There is no “both” because they are typically seen as mutually exclusive and singular in their pathways. As such, there is a visceral fear of making the wrong choice in regards to God’s will and finding God is blatantly absent from our lives due to it. (Obviously, there are decisions we make that are outside of the life and kingdom Jesus beckons us into. The thought here is central to decisions decidedly not of that nature.)

In place of this fear, we have found freedom in finding God’s presence in both A and B. Recently, we were reminded, “God made humans, not robots.” Again, it is one thing to understand this; it is another to embody it. Yet, the beauty of God’s love is its allowance for choice.

God is infinitely patient. He will not push himself into our lives. He knows the greatest thing he has given us is our freedom. If we want habitually, even exclusively, to operate from the level of our own reason, he will respectfully keep silent. We can fill ourselves with our own thoughts, ideas, images, and feelings. He will not interfere. But if we invite him with attention, opening the inner spaces with silence, he will speak to our souls, not in words or concepts, but in the mysterious way that Love expresses itself – by presence. – M. Basil Pennington

I firmly believe we would do well to crack the illusion of both God’s non-involvement in our lives and God’s commandeering of our wills. We have certainly found the grace of God in the tension of earnestly praying for his will to be done all the while knowing it was our decision to make. As we have decided, we have rested in his promise of “I’ll be with you regardless.”

What about you? What has aided you in discernment and decision making?

There is a lot more to be said. What am I missing?

I’d love to hear your story.

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Moving Beyond the Monochromatic: Why We Need to Listen to the Non-Majority Church

I have a lot of books.

If you were to peruse through them you’d notice a few things. Many, if not most, of them are theological in nature. Having an undergraduate degree in Biblical Studies and a Masters in Theological Studies has allowed for this. You’d probably also a notice some themes are more dominant than others. I have tried to attain and read a smattering of cultural books in an effort to have not only a robust theological mind, but also boots-on-the-ground theological feet. I want to cultivate a Jesus-centered imagination to live out of and my books help me greatly in this. So, I want to be aware of what it is I am purchasing and reading as they inform my head, my heart, and my hands; my interior life and my external practices. For me, this means chewing through a gamut of diverse reading.

You might also notice another dominant pattern amongst my books. Nearly all of them are written my white authors. Not only white people, but, at the very least, middle class, educated ones. When I first began to notice this, it was rather eye-opening.

Why is this so?

Have I intentionally done this?

What does this say about my imagination and life practices?

Perhaps it is due to being a middle class, educated, white, person myself. This is the world I was born into, grew up in, and in many ways, the table I still sit at. It has been the air I have breathed as a product of the Western, post-Enlightenment Protestant tradition. Within this tradition power – ecclesial, civil, cultural, etc. – has been fought for and amassed. Whether explicitly or implicitly, America (and the West in general) has been dominated by a diverse yet hegemonic wave of white, middle to upper class, educated people.

Perhaps it is a publishing issue. Have our publishing houses set the agenda for what we’re reading? Has capitalism influenced what does and doesn’t get put out in public? Is the financial risk in accepting and publishing lesser known voices or voices from (seemingly) powerless places too great? Has money trumped the equivocation of differing voices?

I know there are several factors that go into this.

The Shift Into Post-Christendom

The last several decades have seen a furtherance into, what is now called, post-Christendom. The days where the Church held a central position in society are fleeting, if not gone completely. In my experience, this reality has been given a blind eye and a scoffing laugh by many in the Church. Yet, once you step foot outside of the safety of the encapsulated Christian bubble, this reality smacks you across the face.

In Christendom, Christianity and culture overlapped in many ways and allowed for some interesting postures and practices. For instance, Christendom postured certain tribes within the Church to see their role as conquerors of society. The posture was one of towering over those outside of the Church and thus made for some particular practices. Instead of primarily being question-askers, we were/are “truth”-tellers. Rather than being community-infusers, we were/are builders of exclusive cul-de-sacs. Our tendency was/is to determine legislature over loving our neighbor. In short, we had/have taken a position of power over others and thus gave ourselves the permission to wield this to our own ends. (Note: just because we’ve entered into post-Christendom, the residue of Christendom still lingers, hence the past/present verb tenses.)

And now eyes that were once blind and the laughs that once scoffed have been filled with tears and mourns of woe as the power wanes and we are pushed to the margins of society.

If you ask me, I think it is a good, Spirit-led thing.

The Move to Listening

If there was ever a time when the Church – and, again, the white, educated tribes – needs to develop postures and practices of weakness, it is now. Our marginalized existence is one of liminality, fear, and uncertainty. It is odd to me to see how in the midst of this existence many have sought to blaze their own trails into unknown territory. The cultural earthquakes have begun to loosen the choke hold many of us have on influence and celebrity. Yet we fool ourselves into thinking the same postures and practices that got us here, will somehow move us forward. Our self-inflicted ecclesial isolation continues to be pervasive.

Marginal life within post-Christendom has some particular manifestations. Here are some key ones where I (and by extension, we) need to listen to our non-majority brothers and sister:

Bi-vocational Leadership

As the pool of Christians continues to dry up, so does the financial wherewithal for full-time leadership. Churches – again, that are predominantly, white/majority – that once were able to pay one or more full-time clergy/staff are now finding themselves incapable of continuing to do so. In my role within Northeastern Seminary, I have had multiple, multiple conversations where pastors are facing the dilemma of keeping the bank accounts at a level where they can receive full time pay. The problem comes to a head when they realize they don’t have either the academic degree or the necessary skills for any other work outside of a church.

Conversely, I don’t know how many conversations I have had with non-majority ecclesial leaders for whom bi-vocational life has been just that: life. They haven’t had the resources, financial allotments, or open doors. Full-time pay has only come at the taking on of a second or third job, while full-time leadership might still be needed. I have spoken with prison chaplains, construction workers, grocery store sushi-makers, public school counselors, and a host of others who double as church leaders. Over and over again I have heard the following from their lips: “This is life. This has been life for our people for quite some time.” We must attune our ears to listen to them as they are our teachers.

Meeting in Homes

A corollary to this lack of funds is the lack of buildings. Mortgages, upkeep, renovations: all take money and resources and when they aren’t available, they can’t be done. So, meeting in houses is a necessity. Having met in houses for 3+ years, believe me, it isn’t easy. It is messy, complicated, chaotic, and noisy.

Many times, the temptation is to revert to finding a building regardless of financial sustainability. Traditional Christendom thought urges us to find a building quickly in an effort to legitimize the church. However, I have seen that the finding of a building can consume the energy and imagination of the community resulting in a detriment to the cultivating of the actual community. We have lost sight of the true nature of the church as the people of God, not the building of God.

From my experience, the non-majority Jesus-communities I have come across have held tightly to the realities of church as family. What can learn from their experience of meeting in noisy, chaotic, inconvenient homes? We must attune our ears to listen to them as they are our teachers.

Unity in Diversity

One of the most inspiring things I have come across is predominantly, but not solely, found in the immigrant church. Here in Syracuse we have a large community of Burmese refugees. Like many countries, Burma is comprised of many differing cultures and tribes. Some live peacefully with each other; many have historic rifts between them, many plagued by violence.

I was humbled when I recently met with a few local pastors, one of them a pastor of one of the local Burmese churches. One of the vital aspects of his church is their unity in diversity. They are a community of Jesus-followers where their identity in Jesus has trumped their warring tribal ones. My friend – who is a white pastor – said this Burmese church is a witness to its fellow refugee churches because of its unity. Yes, but beyond that they are a witness to THE CHURCH. In a world where we shame, reject, and demonize other Jesus-followers for their worship styles, preferred Bible translations, and church signage, the immigrant church is a beacon of communal light in a world on dark divisiveness. We must attune our ears to listen to them as they are our teachers.

From here…

The world is ever-changing. Many are pointing out the effects of this transition period and how we might move into the future. For the church in the West, it is high time we grapple with the fact that the “average” Christian is an African woman. As we wrestle with this fluctuation, I plead with you (and myself) to begin to cultivate postures and practices of weakness for the sake of the kingdom and the mission of God.

Take time to listen.

Take time to know.

When we don’t listen, we assume, and in doing so, expose our propensity to use power over others.

Jean Vanier’s “Seven Aspects of Love”: Day 11 of Lent

One of the books I have been reading during Lent is Jean Vanier’s Becoming Human. As I shared here, I have worked with special needs students for the past 7+ years and have learned much more than I have taught. The marginalized, the overlooked, and the oft-neglected are those whom Vanier has dedicated his life to and has lived with and among. He has learned and written about this shared life and its resulting wisdom.

The first chapter of this book deals with the universal condition of loneliness. He begins with, “This book is about the liberation of the human heart from the tentacles of chaos and loneliness, and from those fears that provoke us to exclude and reject others.” Vanier describes loneliness as “a taste of death” that is “essentially a human experience.”

It is not just about being alone. Loneliness is not the same thing as solitude. We can be alone yet happy, because we know that we are part of a family, a community, even the universe itself. Loneliness is a feeling of not being part of anything, of being cut off. It is a feeling of being unworthy, of not being able to cope in the face of a universe that seems to work against us.

It is a feeling of being unloved and, as a result, unloveable.

Vanier has found love to be the antidote to loneliness. And love occurs, grows, and flourishes in community.

“There are for me, seven aspects of love that seem necessary for the transformation of the heart in those who are profoundly lonely.” These aspects are extremely helpful in opening up the layers within love and hence community. Here they are:

To Reveal

The first aspect of love, the key aspect, is revelation…To reveal someone’s beauty is to reveal their value by giving them time, attention, and tenderness. To love is not just to do something for them but to reveal to them their own uniqueness, to tell them that they are special and worthy of attention…As soon as we start selecting and judging people instead of welcoming them as they are – with their sometimes hidden beauty, as well as their more frequently visible weaknesses – are reducing life, not fostering it. When we reveal to people our belief in them, their hidden beauty rises to the surface where it may be more clearly seen by all.

To Understand

To love also means to understand…I believe that every act of violence [which stems from loneliness] is also a message that needs to be understood. Violence should  not be answered just by greater violence but by real understanding. We must ask: where is the violence coming from? What is its meaning?

To Communicate

Communication is at the heart of love…I have learned that the process of teaching and learning, of communication, involves movement, back and forth: the one who is healed and the one who is healing constantly change places. As we begin to understand ourselves, we begin to understand others. It is a part of the process of moving from idealism to reality, from the sky to the earth…We must learn to listen and then to communicate.

To Celebrate

It is not enough to reveal to people their value, to understand and care for them. To love people is to celebrate them…they need laughter and play, they need people who will celebrate life with them and manifest their joy of being with them.

To Empower

It is not just a question of doing things for others but of helping them to do things for themselves, helping them to discover the meaning of their lives…not to make people…’normal,’ but to help them grow towards maturity. For each person…growth towards maturity will be different.

To Be In Communion

Communion is mutual trust, mutual belonging; it is then to-and-fro movement of love between two people where each one gives and each one receives. Communion is not a fixed state, it is an ever-growing and deepening reality that can turn sour if one person tries to possess the other, thus preventing growth. Communion is mutual vulnerability and openness to the other. It is liberation for both, indeed, where both are allowed to be themselves, where both are called to grow in greater freedom and openness to others and to the universe.

To a certain extent we lose control in our lives when we are open to others. Communion of hearts is a beautiful but also dangerous thing. Beautiful because it is a new form of liberation; it brings a new joy because we are no longer alone. We are close even if we are far away. Dangerous because letting down our inner barriers means that we can be easily hurt. Communion makes us vulnerable.

God is present in this liberating communion.

To Forgive

The most crucial of all in our equation…is forgiveness. The bonding between people in communion implies that we forgive each other and that we ask each other for forgiveness…As we live and work and pray together, we build a new form of family.

Which aspect of love touches you the most?

Which aspect of love are you longing for the most?

How have you found these seven aspects in community?

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Other posts in this Lent series:

Moving Beyond Immediate (and) Affirmation or Why I Will Be Blogging Through Lent

“Divine Sorrow” and Remembering: Ash Wednesday

Longings, Presence, and Vulnerability: Day 2 of Lent

Being Led by the Gentle Voice of God: A Notebook and 3 Questions: Day 3 of Lent

Lent Around the Blogosphere: 10 Links: Day 4 of Lent

First Sunday of Lent: A Prayer

Psalm 91 and Cliche: Day 5 of Lent

Community and Prayer: Henri Nouwen on Pushing Through Individualism Via Communal Prayer: Day 6 of Lent

Humility, Place, and The Everyday: Lessons in Mission From John the Baptizer: Day 7 of Lent

Lenten Reflection and Fasting According to Joan Chittister: Day 8 of Lent

Life With and Among the Marginalized: Wisdom from Jean Vanier

For more than the past seven years I have worked with students with special needs. When I moved home after college with a Biblical Studies degree in hand, there weren’t many jobs looking for someone with my background. My brother informed me of the summer program he was working in and so I too began working with him as a Special Education Teaching Assistant. It was a challenging time, yet rewarding, as I began to have my eyes opened to what I would later learn is an extremely hidden and marginalized population.

As soon as summer school was over, I began working for my local school district as a Special Education TA and have been employed by them ever since. Within this time, I have worked with all ages from kindergarten to adults of 21 years old. I have worked with students who have learning disabilities and require a little help reading to non-verbal, wheel-chair bound students who are unable to do anything for themselves (eating, toileting) and can be dangerously violent. I have worked with students all along this spectrum, many of whom have rarely been seen by the public eye. And it isn’t just these individual students that are hidden, but the families and other support structures that are behind them.

Along the way, I was blessed to attend seminary and complete a Masters in Theological Studies. Combining the life experience I was receiving at the hands of the hidden and marginalized with the holistic change in thought and action that was being cultivated in seminary, I began to sense something was amiss in the Church’s relation to those with special needs.

I firmly believe people living with – what are commonly known as – “disabilities” are the most neglected group within the Church. This was recently brought up at most recent Emergence Christianity event with Phyllis Tickle and reflected upon by Julie Clawson. There are a few resources out there regarding Christian life and witness and the beautiful-yet-hidden humans I’ve worked with. I don’t say this as to induce guilt. Rather, I’d like to ask questions and raise awareness of what our current situation actually looks like.

I have learned the most from the founder of L’Arche: Jean Vanier. L’Arche is “an international network of communities for people with intellectual disabilities.” It is not just another home of seclusion for these people. No, it is a community where, in the words of Vanier himself, “We live together – those with disabilities and those who wish to have a deep and sometimes lasting relationship with them. We laugh and cry and sometimes fight with one another; we work, we celebrate life, and we pray together.” And in this way the giving of life does not flow in one direction, as would be normally thought, from person without disability to the one with. (To be honest, this is a horribly anemic way of seeing each other. We all have disabilities, some are just more visually identifiable than others.) Instead the learning of life and love is reciprocal as one develops the eyes and ears to see the life and love emanating from those we normally would deem life and loveless. This has been a lesson I have had to learn over and over.

I plan on writing more from this space of learning from those deemed weak and insignificant. Jesus has quite a bit to say about this reality and thankfully I have come across Vanier and his rooted wisdom from actual life. Before I write about the lessons I have been graced with, I beg you to watch these short videos.

Watch them. Listen to Vanier. Reflect upon what he is saying and the community he is saying them out of. He is a light.

Church as Family: A Reflection on Christmas Week Part 1

One of the major questions facing Christianity in the West within our current post-Christendom context is, “What is the Church?” As we are continually pushed to the margins of society the question many of us are asking revolves around the nature and reality of this community called the Church. This question has been in my mind for awhile now and reflecting on my family’s Christmas had it bouncing around both my head and my heart.

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This past Christmas was a rather hectic, yet great, time. My wife, three daughters, and I traveled to the perennially sought after Christmas vacation spot: Cleveland, Ohio. It is my wife’s hometown and is where a good majority of her family still lives.

We always stay with my mother-in-law in her 1 level, 1100 square foot ranch in the ‘burbs of Cleveland. Ever since my wife and I began dating, which is about 10 years ago now, this house has served as our lodging when in town. While we were recently there, we reminisced about the days when we’d show up without any children and actually sleep. And then we’d see friends without any children and stay out late. Now we all have children, don’t sleep, and don’t stay out late. Quite a bit has changed.

The majority of our week was spent with the entirety of my wife’s siblings and their burgeoning families. Nearly every day was spent was with a total of 21 people in my mother-in-law’s house: 9 adults, 12 children from the ages of 2 months to 13 years old. Needless to say, we could have easily turned the heat off and had plenty of heat to spare. The night of Christmas we took our large cohort to my wife’s uncle’s house where we joined in the extended family’s Christmas party. 45-50 people in all ate, played, and laughed at the White Elephant gift exchange.

Brother, sisters, wives, husbands, aunt, uncles, cousins, moms and dads. All under one roof experiencing the joy and difficulties of an extended stay with and among each other as an extended family. Maybe you had a similar experience.

“This is what church should be like” echoed over and over in my soul. “This is what we were made for.”

Here are 4 areas I was reminded of as to why it is imperative for the Church to remember our identity as family:

1. Within family, the individual “me” and “my” find their proper place within the communal “us” and “our.

Our society has been characterized as one with deep individualistic tendencies. Nearly everything we do – including our faith decisions – has the potential of being done with only the self in mind because of the individualistic trajectory we have been put. Our fright of institutions becomes (somewhat) alleviated through the manipulative twist of seeing what we can get out of said institution, rather than what we bring to the table. The suiting of my needs trumps all else.

I was reminded over Christmas that me and my family only make sense within the family we find ourselves a part of. The “me” and the “my” find their proper place within the communal “us” and “our.” My children are not solely mine. Within the family community, they are my sister-in-law’s nieces, my mother-in-law’s granddaughters, my nephews’ cousin. They are suddenly “ours” as we love them together and seek their flourishing. We are all responsible as we journey through life together.

And this goes both ways. My brother-in-law’s kids are suddenly within my domain of responsible love as well. The decisions I would normally consider to be just mine and only effect me, now become decisions that effect us all. If I constantly decide to angrily respond to my daughter, it takes a toll on my niece who overheard me time and time again. The interconnectedness of relational life smacks us in the face in family.

The same goes for my possessions. While together, my older sister-in-law gave us a few garbage bags full of clothes. They were at one time her daughters’ clothes, but they were now ours. And by “ours” I don’t mean “my wife and I.” In a real way, they are now ours, meaning the family’s and those we will pass them onto someday. More likely than not, this will mean my wife’s younger sister who has a daughter younger than our girls. In family, the consumeristic drive is more easily set aside as we think beyond ourselves and unto others we share life with. We aren’t primarily consumers, we are co-laborers.

2. Within family, life emerges in the beautiful tension between the organic and the organized.

Some of the best times we had took place in impromptu conversations, card games, and quick trips out to the store. Some of the best times we had took place in scheduled times of gift giving, meals, and larger gatherings. In my experience, there have been those who have sought after the purely “organic” experience, thinking that life happens (nearly) exclusively in times of unscheduled happenstance. Others have attempted to painstakingly arrange their lives in ways that there is no margin for anything other than the “organized” to occur.

Yet, life seems to emerge in the tension between the two. Even the plant needs the tressel and the body needs the skeleton. The gentle weaving of the two allowed us to engage each other in ways that bring out particular things. In more formal, organized times we were able to cook and eat together in ways that only my wife’s side of the family can. My brother-in-law cooked much of the Christmas dinner in a way he learned from my (former chef) father-in-law. Watching him gave us the opportunity to ask questions and listen in ways that wouldn’t happen while shoveling the driveway. Interspersed within these times were the laughs, jokes, and remembrances that continued to join our hearts together. And this is what family does: forms a life of shared love.

3. Within family, the fruit of slow, patient, rootedness is easily seen.

One of the commonly unseen or unrecognized essentials of family is time. We don’t often think about it because it is commonly such a given that it passes right in front of us. I know I rarely ponder the past 30 years of my life being spent within my family and yet I have spent the total of this time among them.

It has been this slow, unrecognized rootedness within my family of origin and the past 10 or so years within my wife’s family that I have seen growth and fruit. It is only that which we stick with and tie ourselves to that we see grow. This is a constant complaint from many: they don’t see the “return” on “investment” with people. I have seen this to be true primarily with those who haven’t made the sacrificial or intentional decisions to stay with others. And, again, family reminds of this as we see how everyone grows throughout the years. My nieces and nephews who were wild toddlers are now tweens who lovingly help with our toddlers.

Time with each other is an intentional choice made for the sake of community.

4. Within family, the covenantal nature of the world overcomes its contractual counterpart.

Ours is a world desperately trying to present itself as primarily contractual in nature instead the reality of it being covenantal.

If time is one side of the coin, the other is commitment. It is what keeps us in the long haul over time. Undergirding commitment is the potency of our promise-making and keeping. It doesn’t take very much living of life in our current society to see the anemic condition of promises and the ill effects of their breaking. Every society and community throughout history has been tied together through the making and subsequent keeping of promises.

It is the covenanting of two or more separate people together and then maintaining those vows that allows for families and other communities to perpetuate. Promises flow in both directions as all involved give up something from themselves for the betterment and continuation of the community. Combined with the long range, big picture of needed time, commitment and promise-making are the cement of family and community.

Christine Pohl differentiates between covenantal and contractual relationships in her book Living Into Community:

When we think covenantally about promises, we tend to locate our promises in a larger story and in mutual accountability. Covenantal understandings of promising reflect a set of shared commitments and rarely have exit clauses. Contracts, on the other hand, deliberately define the relationship narrowly, and, once obligations are fulfilled, the exchange is complete – it’s finished. In covenantal settings, relationships are extended and deepened. Covenants tend to be comprehensive and vulnerable in ways that contracts are not.

When we find our identity through the lens of consumerism, we are extremely prone to see relationships as contractual. We get what we need out of them or they are over. When tough times come and disagreements abound, our contractual mindset often overrides the covenantal realities of life and we easily move on. This is true not only in dating/marital relationships, but in many, many other areas of life, unfortunately, including issues of faith and faith communities.

Sitting with my family brought up the power of promises and covenant. Seeing through difficult patches, battling addictions from yesteryear, and worry about what the effects the present will have on the future are present in my family as they are in everyone’s. I am beyond thankful for the continuing, abiding commitment present within this group of people.

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This has been a reflection on the Church and family. In my next post I’ll give a more theological and biblical look at how Jesus started a community which he envisioned as family and how we can begin to recapture that today. Moreover, I’ll wrestle with the 4 points above and the Church’s expression of each of them.

Until then…

When you think of “church”, what is the primary metaphor you use? Church is ________.

In what ways to wish church could be more like family?

The community Jesus centered around him was to be family. How does this hit you?

The Well-Being of Children

Aside

‘It takes a village to raise a child’ is an African saying repeated as a matter of faith by American leaders of all persuasions. And yet, most of our children are not raised by a village. Instead, they are rasied by teachers and counselors at school, youth workers and coaches out of school, juvenile therapists and corrections officials if they are deviant, television and computers and cell phones if they have spare time, and McDonald’s if they are hungry.

Instead of a village, they are surrounded by paid professionals, electronic toys, and teen marketers. They are being trained to be comprehensive consumers and clients. And as they become young adults, the research demonstrates that they are much less socially connected than their grandparents were at their age. They are, as adults, more isolated and dependent on money to pave their way to the future. Recession would devastate them, unsupported by friends, neighbors, and community groups who can provide a social safety net.

Until the twentieth century, every society in all of history raised its children in villages, where the basic idea was that children become effective grown-ups by being connected with community adults in their productive roles.

Youth learned from the community and were productive for their community. They learned the skills, traditions, and customs of the community through their relationships with the adults. They were not exiled to the world of paid people and clienthood. Today, it is clear that the most effective local communities have reclaimed their youth and assumed primary responsibility for their upbringing. The research on this point is decisive. Where there are ‘thick’ community connections, both child development and school performance improve.

Conversely, localities with very little social connection consistently reflect negative lives for their children. However, it doesn’t take a social scientist to teach us this. We see around us, at every level of income, the costs of trying to pay for someone else to rear our children. We see it in gangs, mall-centered children, and negative behavior that grows because the local community has not surrounded and guided the young.

In the end, we see children who are school-smart but worldly unwise because they have not shared in the wisdom, experience, and loving care of the people in their community.

– John McKnight and Peter Block in The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods

Unity in Diversity

Recently my wife and I have been attending St. Andrew’s Anglican Church in the valley of Syracuse. They are part of the Anglican Missions in the Americas and are currently the only representing church from AMiA in the Syracuse region. Father Bob Hackendorf, the pastor of the church, has asked me to teach their adult Sunday School, which has been a great and humbling experience. This has also resulted in us being there more often, which is been unbelievably great and is the reason for this post.

St. Andrew’s is a small congregation that rents a small space in a small stripmall. By all accounts, most Western church people would write them off as an impotent, tiny congregation and thus must be doing something wrong or irrelevant because of their small stature. This could not be further from the truth. I honestly don’t think I have been in a more vibrant, alive community in, dare I say, the majority of my life. And I think their secret is their unity in their diversity.

The community is comprised of a mishmash of ages, socio-economic statuses, and ethnic backgrounds among other diversifying categories. People from all walks of life are united together in the worship of Jesus. It is their love for God that drives them to see past their cultural differences and to see each other as family. Hugs, kisses, and warm greetings flow to and from each other as signs of what God has done for them. The barriers the world holds up in regards to their differences melt away in the warmth of Jesus’ love.

It is inspiring and moving to see the wealthy family hug the ones who have very little. The teenage girl with different color hair is welcomed with open arms by the grandmotherly women there. The Indian priest encourages the teenage boy suffering from physical disabilities. Children and adults alike partake of the Eucharist demonstrating the reality that all are welcome in the Church; younger ones don’t have to wait to be actively participating.

It has been said that the church is a signpost directing people towards the future: the people of God themselves are the future of humanity to be seen in the present. This is most evident in the interaction and sharing of life by those who if they were outside of Christ’s family would probably pass by each other. Thankfully, the walls have been broken and peace grabs these people by the hand and says, “Love each other as you have been loved.”

They do and it has made all the difference.