Posts Tagged ‘community’
I’ve always been the kind of guy to spend time talking to someone who’s asked me for money. I’ve thought that, whether I have money or not, I can have a conversation and meet this person as a fellow traveler, and not only as a person who wants something I’ve got. It’s part of the story that I usually did not have a lot of money to give away: when I got hired onto a church staff back in 2002, I had a built-in desire to learn how the strength of the organization could be used to help people in need. I naturally slid into the role of Outreach Guy, and when people came to the door of the church to ask for help, I enjoyed meeting them, praying with them, and arranging financial help for them. This was all fine and good, except that within a few months, word had gotten out, traffic at our front door had increased, and I had given away a large percentage of the church’s annual mercy budget. Our policies changed shortly thereafter.
But I got to have a say in the new policy, and we came up with a good plan to make our church (and my efforts more specifically) less like an ATM, and more like a generous community. We decided that mercy money would no longer be given out to ‘walk-ups’ as a rule. The new plan: as our people encountered needs out in the neighborhoods, they could get money from the budget, ideally to supplement their own efforts to help. This was good in a number of ways. We’d be helping people who were in some kind of relationship with the members of our community (providing for a greater chance of ongoing connection). Our people would know that church resources were there to help them to be helpful in their context–we were putting the power of the organization to work empowering its members. The policy also avoided the pitfall of centralizing outreach work in the church office, which effectively took it out of the hands of the community members. It felt like this was as good an institutional policy as you could get. It was also only moderately successful: all people had to do was let us know of a need they saw in the world, and we’d try to back them up … but not many remembered that the resource was there.
Fast forward to today, and to this community, and we’re getting a bit more traction in putting a community’s strength behind individuals’ impulse to do good. Last night, with help from a non-profit called Common Change, we enjoyed a yummy dinner and shared stories of our hope for change, which will culminate in the donation of a pot of money to a worthy recipient. Common Change (run by a friend who created the free tool to “spread awesomeness“) provides the online invitation to our Generosity Dinners (which we have the option of making public on their site), “sells” tickets to the dinner, and pools every dollar received into a common pot. Every ticket holder has the privilege of sharing a story of a significant need (generally one that is greater than the individual in question can meet), and the right to vote at the end of the night for which need will be met. Common Change then cuts a check and communicates the gift to the recipient. Sweet. The tool provided by Common Change allows us to introduce a level of anonymity if we want, and makes the vote-your-choice aspect a little more private, which can be good for a group that is getting to know each other.
Our community doesn’t really have a “mercy budget”. But we have a desire to dedicate a significant part of our common resources to making positive changes in the world around us, helping people, and generally being generous. And we love to eat. Can you say, “You had me at dinner“?
Combining good conversation with a really tasty meal is pretty much sacred ground with us. After trying the idea out a few months ago, we decided to replace our normal Sunday evening meeting with a Generosity Dinner 4 times a year. The payoff has been swift in coming.
After only two generosity dinners, we are getting to know each other in new ways, learning about things that matter to each other, and about people and organizations that we otherwise might not encounter in our day-to-day. When the money is donated, we know it is in the context of an existing relationship, and that there will be follow up: we’re not sending money to a distant organization, or to a stranger who came to the door, perhaps never to return (which I have lots of experience with). Furthermore, conversations are never only about how much money somebody needs–they touch on many aspects life and culture, and help us think more clearly about what we really have to offer. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, during these conversations, it is hard to get people to stop sharing ideas. As one dinner guest said last night, with a wink, “Hey, look, we’re getting more generous.”
Today, in a dream,
I saw a thing so far
denied to me.
That between my neighbor’s
and my home, there
would only be the shadow
and the dark at night,
and after sunrise
only questions about what might
bring us together. Now my eyes
have seen the dusky pathway
through the green—misty, wide, and lit
by lantern-yellow beams
in the friendly trees—I miss it.
Then, woods lie open: no fence
or line is needed, to remind
where my neighbor’s premise ends,
or to protect what’s mine.
A member of our community came out as gay/bisexual on Facebook a few weeks ago. Bravely and beautifully, I say. One can’t mean to say that it’s brave or beautiful to be gay, because what would that really mean anyway? But I think my friend* (and her gentle language in the post) is beautiful, and that it takes a lot bravery to speak up about such a controversial issue in public, especially when you carry the controversy inside of you. As a straight guy, I’m afraid to speak of these things in public, and I know that people with same sex attraction have considerably more reason to fear, especially when their culture includes friends of faith, where the questions are rooted in some pretty powerful old stories of meaning.
This friend came out in conversation with me a couple years ago, and we had many pretty amazing conversations, the three of us: God, the Beautiful Girl, and me. I’m telling you, they were amazing, but more about that in a minute. We had loose plans to talk to our community about these conversations, but she moved away and the talk was delayed. I’d been eager for it to happen primarily because I’m pretty weary of the sex talk in the church (when we talk at all) being about us and them. This kind of talk is problematic … for a couple reasons; first, we’re no longer isolated enough that it makes sense to talk as though we were part of a homogeneous demographic. Second, it’s reductionistic to suggest that any of us are firmly planted on one side of a black/white issue. If we can believe it, God wants to meet each of us in our desire to be whole, healthy, and connected to the ultimate good. If this is so, then everybody might stand before God with the same posture of trembling anticipation. So anything that helps us talk more about just us, than about us-vs-them, is good.
If you are used to reading articles and posts on questions of sexuality where people are quick to let you know where they stand, you may have noticed I am not doing that. Sorry. It’s not because I don’t have anything to say. It’s because I’m just not going to say it in print. You don’t get that part of me unless we’re face to face, deep into the conversation, and maybe not even then. What I will tell you is how the conversation with my friend went down, and maybe it will help you understand why I don’t give away my convictions lightly.
I wasn’t ready for it. That’s the first thing. That is, I knew that pulling a community together in this day and age meant that the question of who gets in (you know, to the community, to heaven, etc) was going to come up, because, that’s one of the ways people like to mark out the boundaries of community. It’s been this way for ever … really since we were children—especially so when it comes to boys and girls, and boyishness and girlishness: witness the little kids’ clubhouse where no boys (or girls) are allowed, because the gendered mysteries taking place inside could never be understood by the opposite sex. I knew years ago, long before starting our community project, that there was going to be a moment when we’d feel the pressure to decide how the boundaries get laid down. There’s no getting around it. Even no boundaries is a boundary, one that is as constraining and fixed and meaningful as any other. I knew the questions were coming, but I wasn’t ready.
One reason I wasn’t ready is that, while I have beliefs and thoughts and convictions, I really did not like the way the conversation was going, in both the faith-culture and the wider culture. Much of the language that gets published has been isolationist and combative … words thrown around like dumb-bombs dropped on cities in wartime, with most of the language shamelessly generalizing the enemy as a unified force with an agenda to destroy Our Freedoms, or Our Values. I wanted nothing to do with it, and was really not looking forward to being drafted into battle.
But as it it turns out I didn’t need to be ready. See, I’d long thought that the business of the church is to gather together to listen for God’s word to us, both as a community and as individuals. I also believe that church leaders are not here to dictate or direct, but to lead the way to the God Who Speaks. It’s a good theory anyhow, and God was going to give me a chance to test it. When I got together with my friend, each day I wondered if we were going to have the conversation I feared … the one where we draw lines in the sand and stand on opposite sides. While I was prepared to do whatever I sensed God asked of me, God never let me draw that line. I know that is a loaded statement, but you’ll have to trust me on that. In fact, as God had me stand with her it was as though we were on one side of a line, both desperate for the same thing—a word for us, for her, for me.
We had the conversation. Over months, we aired out the Big Secret, talked out fears (many of which we shared), shared articles, critiqued theologies, and questioned philosophies. We cried, laughed, and prayed a lot. Throughout, I never felt free in my spirit to talk about my personal perspective or to say what I thought in a bottom-line sort of way, and maybe I’m just now realizing that this was because it wasn’t about me. What I could do was make room for God to talk. And wow — like wow — we witnessed some amazing action in that department. … But no, I’m not going to talk about the things we heard or experienced, because, while I was there to bear witness, they do not belong to me. They belong to her and will remain with her as long as she can carry them or until God speaks a new word.
I bet, if you were to ask her, she could tell you how I might answer certain questions. But I never came out and spoke them. I never felt like that was my role. Still don’t. But here’s how not-simple this is. I don’t think my role is fixed—as one of only listening, or of silence, or passivity, or civil disengagement. At any time I will try to be whatever kind of pastor/leader/friend that God calls me to be. With my Beautiful Friend, my role was to stand by her in God’s hearing, as she heard God’s words to her. Another way this is not simple: having gone through this, I know that I am not any more ready to have this conversation with someone else, because no matter how much experience I have in the conversation, I don’t think I ever get to know the agenda ahead of time. Maybe that’s another piece of what God is doing with my little part of the church: no more agendas for a while.
If I have to move like a beginner for the rest of my life, never leaning on my experience or understanding, but always looking to God for the way forward, then this, at least, is a very simple thing. Simple, yet hard to grow into. Some days I’m less afraid of the conversation; some days I can see how little I have to worry about how it all goes down.
For a couple years now, I’ve been eager to share this story with our community, but I wasn’t going to do it until our friend was ready to share her part of it. We never got to do it live, but now that it’s out on the network, we no longer have to put it off. While waiting for it to happen, I’ve been postponing conversations about sexuality, because I didn’t want us to begin talking about these things until we were able to recognize that it was personal. Recent conversations where an opinion about sexuality or gender have come up have been a bit hard and bruising for many of us.
Now that our friend has made herself known to us, it will change our conversation. “Those people” are now our people. And we have to listen carefully, to God and to each other, if we are to go forward in any respect—together or separately. My dream is that even if we walk out our faith with different understandings, that we will continue to share a humble awe at the fact that each of us is free to face God in Christ with, at the very least, the expectation that we will hear what we need to hear.
*She’s out and public, but I want her to be able to control her name and story online, so I’m not going to identify her. Anyhow, while I shared this with her before publishing it, I’m only confidant that this is my story, not that I’m doing a good job of telling hers.
In recent months, we’ve been trying on a unique shape of community, one discerned over years of prayer and practice. It’s been good … but recently, I’ve experienced an awkward kind of tension in meetings (and not for the first time). Part of the reason, I think, is because I still have habits, as a pastor, that fit a different model of pastoring than the one I feel is called for in our project, in this season. Pastoring is often done from a front-of-the room position, where the pastor as ad-ministrator stands in the place between God and the people, putting into words the things that need saying—the pastor speaks to God on behalf of the whole community and to the whole community on behalf of God. It’s a model that has deep historical roots, and can be powerful when the pastor is able to hear God and the community really well. That’s all I will say about that.
I haven’t felt like that is the right model for this community project. We’ve had occasion to talk about leadership as a shared domain, not belonging only to a pastor-type. Leadership can come from people striking out in the power and perspective of their own God-given gifts. It’s been a hard sell: that is, it’s been easy for all of us to talk about, but hard to do. Because we all have these same organizing habits, I think. In practice, I am still the person who talks the most in meetings, and I wonder if my jabbering makes it hard for people to believe that they have as much right to the floor as I. To make matters worse, there is an old story (rarely spoken, firmly believed) that nobody is as qualified as pastors to “lead” in church. I think that’s wrong, and the problem is in how we think about leadership. Leadership is not expertise, or even one kind of skill above others … it is choosing to go after something and inviting people to join you. The person who gets to do that is the one who sees the opportunity and responds, and that person may or may not know what they are getting into, or how they will get out of trouble when it comes. That’s why they don’t go alone.
The invitation has been open for some time for people to bring their thoughts, readings, questions, problems, ideas, art, whatever, and to share them with the group, where we can join in with each other. Here are some examples of what that might look like in community, regardless of who is doing the sharing.
From my own weekly musings on life and faith, here are my offerings, and ways that I would hope the the community could respond; how others could join me in my pursuits.
1. I have a long-term concern for the day-workers, undocumented, and/or generally low-income and service-industry hispanics in my community. I am not comfortable when I see one racial group largely relegated (?) to a single social/economic status. I am disturbed by what I see, confounded by the complexities, and don’t know how to respond.
I would like nothing better than to talk and pray and explore these themes in my Christian community. I imagine different people taking up different aspects of the conversation: some might have a prayer response, some might bring scripture or other stories from faith history to light, some might make art to work out something that words can’t express. Or, and this is OK too, the group may bless me in my struggle and not join me in it … but having been heard, I would feel supported in a basic way. And more important, I would be known.
2. I want to do an art project next Easter to focus on resurrection during our (now, annual) lamb roast.
I would love for members of my community to make art along with me, wrestle with the theological questions around resurrection, and help me think about the practicalities of creating a semi-public event to communicate something of the power of this essential Christian idea.
3. In reading the letter to the Hebrews, I noticed how the author has a different way of speaking to readers than can be found in the letter to the Romans (more about grace and rest than sacrifice and obedience), which I thought had a real resonance for our community. It prompted me to think about our community like the Hebrews, and draw out the unique way that author calls people to God.
As I explored some of these scriptures, and drew out themes of rest and obedience, it was cool to be able to read, discuss, and pray with the group. I was satisfied by that. What would have taken it to the next level was some art-in-response, or a story from others about how these scriptures continued to resonate in the weekdays-in-between. Or not–negative responses provide their own refining quality.
Non-directive community is not without direction. It is, though, without a single director. When the community joins an individual as they “work out their salvation in fear and trembling”… and where every individual can have a turn if they want, then community gets stronger by encouraging and strengthening each individual in their God-given impulses. That is the great theory. Non-directive community is not without direction. It can be specific, focused, and purposeful. But the direction comes from within the community in a dynamic and organic way, and not from a single person.
An obvious fear of letting people lead out of their unique perspective is that there would be chaos or weirdness. But what I’m describing here is not an absence of pastoring, just a more dynamic kind of leadership. I don’t think pastors should disappear, no way. As a pastor I will always have a shepherd’s instincts, to see that people are safe to grow and explore in peace (and I’m not the only person with those instincts). I’ve always thought that sheep (to extend the metaphor) do not need to be told where to eat … they know pretty well where to find the fresh grass. Shepherds don’t need to spoon feed sheep, or to protect them from wandering off of cliffs—sheep are not lacking in intelligence, contrary to popular misconception. But there are risks, and shepherds tend to be the kind of people who keep their heads up, not down in the grass munching. King David was a shepherd, and he was very dangerous with a sling. How’d he get so good at hitting targets at distance, unless he was used to watching the horizon?
Anyhow, having put these things out there to the group, by way of example, I return to the Awkward Tension as I walk the line between pastor, leader, and community member. Now, pastor-guy has spoken, and people may default to “What if my ideas don’t measure up? What if the questions I struggle with are less theologically or culturally weighty?” It’s for this reason that I have tried to keep my mouth shut, making room for people to bring their own things. But this wasn’t working so well. The lack of communication on my part was not creating an environment where people would spontaneously do something that they had rarely (if ever) been asked to do in church. So in this case, it seemed (with a little nudging from Anghelika) like a good opportunity to throw some examples out there.
Each of us has a personal storehouse of musings on faith and life. These are the content that gives our community shape and are the shared struggles that connect us to one another. That is, if we are willing to risk sharing these things with one another.
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the dawn,
If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea,
Even there Your hand will lead me,
And Your right hand will lay hold of me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me,
And the light around me will be night,”
Even the darkness is not dark to You,
And the night is as bright as the day.
Darkness and light are alike to You.
We recently received a bit of a divine nudge on the subject of community and the pace-of-our-lives. The last twenty years have been good for the kind of spaces where you can sit with a hot drink. But there is a tension in every cafe I’ve ever been in. Coffee places like Starbucks set out to bring back the third place, but spoiled it with paper cups (= don’t make yourself at home) and wifi (= your social network is only accessible via the web–don’t bother the person sitting next to you). The word that came to us was that something of the patient, communal, sacred-wasteful needs to be restored.
The samovar is the center of a kind of tea ceremony that is focused primarily on the people you’ve gathered with. It is a tea service that invites us to sit awhile, if only because the device itself is made to be beautiful, like art, and not sit behind a counter. Small cups, refreshed from the strong tea and hot water, mean that you’ll stay nearby if you are thirsty (no venti cups here, please!) One author describes the zen of listening to the water heat up in the samovar (and says it is as important as listening to a lecture by a master). This one was a gift that sat gathering dust in a friend’s cubicle, unused. Now it is being drafted into service as a centerpiece of community life.
One of the earliest ideas that we’ve had to work with as a community has been a simple word-picture describing a ridge-beam held up by a few posts. In our practice, this kind of image is an important way that God communicates to us, and the image itself was given to me early in our process of discernment by a couple who were praying on our behalf.
The group understood this idea to have originated with God, and for this reason, we have given it serious consideration. After much prayer, listening, and imaginative work, we came to understand that this picture of posts is a picture of us. We are the posts that lift up the ridge-beam, that in turn gives shape to the building, creating a good space for shelter and gathering.
This metaphor was stimulating and interesting but wasn’t very practical until we asked God, “So now what? How do we respond?”. More words and pictures adding detail and clarity kickstarted a process that we ended up calling our “postings” … during which we have been praying for each member of the community. To continue with the metaphor, we’ve been making sure each post is securely in touch with the foundation, that it’s solid and healthy, and that it can take its right place under the ridge-beam … soundness, strength, security, fit, and many other things that matter for good buildings, like beautiful details.
One thing we have NOT been doing is making sure each post is cut to the same length, or cut to right-angles, or carved with the same designs. Each post takes its unique place, supports the burden it’s meant to support and has just the strength and style to do its part.
Now, to leave the metaphor behind and get real for a moment, it’s true we have taken our sweet time praying for each person, because we understood this to be a critical task in our development of community, not to be rushed. We begin by asking each person to say something about their hopes and dreams (or lack thereof) for the future, about what they consider their rough spots to be. And, we pray, and listen, and give God a chance to weigh in. Each time we’ve posted someone, the story has been the same … God encouraging and speaking to the strengths and gifts of each person, revealing new perspectives, and in some cases giving opportunity for confession and a commitment to new ways of living. The beauty of the practice has been that the group has become stronger by several significant measures. We get to know each other better of course, and hear from God in often surprising ways. But, way more significant for me, when we hear directly from God about the good that a person will do and be if they embrace their identity, we will feel a growing respect and even an excitement to be around them when they are going for it. At the same time, and equally significant, we’ll have permission to call them on it when they are not. All of this makes us into better community, because we come to be more responsible for one another.