The house churches at the Renew Community started last week and its been so exciting to see their initial birth and formation.
On Sunday afternoon Tracy and I facilitated a training session for our House Church Shepherds. At the beginning of the session I handed each one of them an ash tray (97 cents a piece at Wal-Mart) and asked three questions:
(1) What are you thinking and feeling when you see this? (2) Why did I give you one of these as a house church shepherd? (3) How can this object work as a symbol to remind us of our mission?
We had a great discussion. People caught on quickly. They knew where I was going with it.
We say that we desire for Renew to be a faith community for skeptics and dreamers. We're wanting to focus on the dechurched and the unchurched (rather than the overly-churched). We say that the only rule is that no perfect people are allowed. We say that we are here for people who are not here*
Just over 1 in 5 Americans smoke (21%). If house churches at Renew are not going to be Christian clubs for the already convinced but instead are outward-focused communities of love where each month they are exploring, celebrating and serving together what it means to be in a relationship with Jesus, then there's a good chance that people will be using these trays.
House churches at Renew are going to be messy. They are going to be uncomfortable. And we've got to learn to be okay with the mess. In fact, in some ways the beautiful messiness is appealing.
There's one thing I'm convinced of as I read the life patterns of Jesus in the gospels: if Jesus were here today, in 2008, he would be hanging around in places with people who would need an ashtray.
The point of me giving ashtrays to our Shepherds is not to make a statement about smoking. It's not a judgment against smokers (I have friends who smoke). Whether our house church shepherds see their trays being used in their house churches or not is not even the point. The point is that these ashtrays can act as a helpful metaphor to remind us to stay on mission, to be an externally-focused community of faith who exists to see people enter into a life of unbelievable purpose and adventure and joy, whether they light up or not.
"Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into
practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The
rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against
that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the
rock. But everyone who
hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a
foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash." -Matthew 7:24-28
As we think about discipleship at Renew - costly, authentic discipleship centered around the ways and the Way of Jesus - I've been re-reading some books lately on the topic. Here are a few:
The Great Omission (Willard) The Training of the Twelve (Bruce) The Divine Conspiracy (Willard) The Cost of Discipleship (Bonhoeffer) Life Together (Bonhoeffer) The Celebration of Discipline (Foster) The book of Mark The letters of Paul
Any other books you might recommend we read/re-read as we think through spiritual formation and discipleship at Renew?
NOTE: I've also added Eugene Peterson's classic A Long Obedience in the Same Direction to the list.
I’ve been spending a lot of time pondering the phrase prevenient grace. It was Wesley who many credit with using this term, saying that God's prevenient grace was at work in the hearts of the unconverted.
Prevenient grace is God’s grace that goes before us. (Latin - pre: before, venire: to come) It runs ahead of us. It gets there before we arrive on the scene. It prepares the hearts of people so that when you arrive, the soil has been tilled and is ready to receive the seed about to be planted. It’s like an event coordinator who arrives a few days early before the event happens to work behind the scenes, preparing, coordinating, organizing and making sure things are set up before everyone arrives so that the event is effective, so everything works as it should. God, the provider of prevenient grace. God, the event coordinator. In an apostolic role like church planting this is a great comfort.
In ministry - whether officially vocationally or unofficially missional - it instills great confidence in a God who provides prevenient grace in our lives, going before us, preparing others for the message of the gospel to saturate, seep into and transform lives before we even arrive.
Can you recognize God’s prevenient grace in your life today? How can you be more aware of it tomorrow?
From time to time people ask me, "So, as a pastor what do you do all day long?" It's hard to answer that question sometimes because each day is different from the previous one. Pastors pray and study. We listen and counsel. We check emails and prepare. Sometimes the days can be disarmingly ordinary.
But on occasion they can just be so wild and exciting and unpredictable that you get to the end of the day and you think, "I'm not sure what just happened, but this is ministry." Last Thursday was one of those days - a day where I was just holding on for the ride, wondering with great anticipation what the Spirit had next for me to do, see, experience and participate in with him. I'm not good at "listening to the Spirit" and seldom have felt like I've actually entered into that experience in vivid technicolor, but Thursday was just plain surreal.
Thursday morning I met very early with someone on our launch team at a local coffee shop. He was seeking out my wisdom on a particular question regarding relationships. After finishing that meeting, I ordered another cup of coffee and met with the senior pastor and associate pastor of a large church in town to connect and catch up.
After that, I had an hour phone call with my former youth pastor who is a church planter. I love picking his brain, asking advice and allowing him to speak into my life. I'm so encouraged each time I talk to him as I her how God is using his passion for the gospel to see some amazing things happen in his church in Nashville.
Then I swung by the library, found a study table and spent some time in prayer for our launch team members, praying for each of them by name. On my way out of the library I noticed a sign on the door that read:
Have you had a spiritual experience? Have you had a near-death experience? Have you seen the light at the end of the tunnel? Have you felt the warm of the Light? Have you heard the Light whisper to you? If so, sign up at the front desk for the Spiritual Experience Workshop and come share your experience.
At first thought, I rolled my eyes and wrote it off as some wacko New Age seminar. But then I wondered if this might be an Acts 17 opportunity. I thought, Hey...yeah, I have seen the Light before and this may be a good opportunity to talk about the importance of Jesus to a group of spiritually open people at the local library.
So I signed up.
I came home, had a quick lunch with Megan, checked email and made a few calls to the directors of some agencies who are in Lansdale and are in need of some help right now - both financially and with volunteer opportunities.
Though it was cold and rainy I just couldn't let go of a thought I had: to take cookies over to some neighbors. The night before I had noticed that an ambulance had pulled up to the neighbors four doors down. I saw a stretcher being pulled out of the ambulance, but could see nothing else. I had yet to meet these new neighbors, who live in the upstairs apartment unit of the house down the street.
We had leftover cookies from a few nights prior, when we had three ladies from our launch team over for dinner. I threw a few cookies on a paper plate and covered it with Reynolds Wrap, got the umbrella and bundled up. As I walked I felt silly (guys don't take cookies over to the neighbors to make sure they are alright!) but felt I still needed to follow through, even though I felt less than manly doing so.
A young woman in her mid- to late-twenties answered the door and I asked if this was the place where an ambulance visited the night before because I wanted to check to see if everyone was okay and to bring some cookies for whomever it was. She said yes, that it was her who had called 911. She had fallen down the stairs, hurt her back very badly and couldn't move. Everyone she called on her phone for help didn't pick up and didn't know what else to do so she called 911. She said she was okay, but in a ton of pain. She mentioned that the doctors at the ER could only give her Tylenol and she was still in a lot of pain. "They didn't they give you something stronger than that?" "Well, they ran some tests and much to my surprise, they told me that I'm pregnant."
She said she had been with her boyfriend only two months and they were freaking out. Her boyfriend didn't want to keep the child and she wasn't quite sure what she wanted to do - she was back and forth.
I briefly told her about our story, how we were unable to have children of our own and how we got connected with a woman in a similar situation than her. I told her that we had been given the indescribable gift of a little boy named Carter who is almost two years old now. I told her that there were many, many couples like Megan and I who were out there just waiting to adopt a child and that if she was willing to have her body be "inconvenienced" for nine months she could have the opportunity of giving the greatest gift some couple could ever receive. I told her we would do anything we could to help her make a wise decision. We'd help her connect with a couple, if she wanted to. I invited her to come over for dinner next week with her boyfriend so we could get to know them, offer our help, let them hear more of our story and meet Carter.
Here I was, standing on the porch shivering and wet with a plate of cookies in one hand and holding an umbrella in the other politely pleading with this woman I just met to consider giving her child a chance at life. Then I walked home and told Megan about the experience.
Then I got in the car and swung by the mosque to see my friend Mohammed, the mosque leader, something I do about once every other week. I've been developing a relationship with Mohammed over the past few months. I stopped by and just hung out with him for about an hour in his office. We had an amazing conversation. We talked about his favorite American foods, politics and an American's perspective on war. He told me about preparations of the upcoming feast in early December where Muslims sacrifice animals in remembrance of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac (By the way, for those of you wondering: he did tell me that, no, the borough our Lansdale does not allow this, which is why they go to a farm in Dublin for this particular event. Boy, what an experience that must be.) This was fascinating to hear him describe this, to say the least... He also told me that he misses his wife and young son, who live in Bangladesh and whom he has not seen in two years. His son is two years old. The last time Mohammed saw his son he was three weeks old.
Mohammed told me that he actually lives at the mosque and that he doesn't have a car, though he does have a license. I told him that he is more than welcome to borrow my car to run some errands whenever he needed to - or I can drive him around and we could go together.
then asked if I would help him contact our local and/or state officials to see
if he could get his wife and two year old son to come to America. He wanted help to see if there was any way we could set up a meeting to see if someone could speed up the immigration process. He has
the money and paperwork filled out, but he was told it would be two years before the immigration paperwork could get processed entirely. He wondered if I could set up a meeting with a government official in order to help
him. I was so honored that he asked me for help and, of course, I said I would do what I could to
help him by making some calls and talking to these officials.
Then he said, "Would you be willing to join me to travel and visit my home country of Bangladesh
some time in 2009? I will cover the hotel, lodging, food and
transportation in the country, as long as you pay for your plane
ticket...are you interested? I would be honored to show you around my
home country and introduce you to my family and friends."
I told him, of course I am interested and wold love to join him.
But then he said something that rocked me.
said, "J.R. you are a very kind person. You are the kindest American I have met. I like spending time with you.
I learn more about Jesus each time I am with you. I want to know more
about Jesus and how he impacts your life. I have never met a Christian
like you before. You are always stopping by to see me...thank you."
Then he said something that almost made me fall off my chair.
"J.R., if every Christian acted the way you have acted
to me in love and kindness, now that would change the world."
It took everything in me to not have my eyes well up with tears. Yeah God.
I went home, had dinner with my family and had "Carter duty" for the evening while Megan scurried out the door to attend a Farmers Market meeting (attended by about ten other people who are coordinating a new farmer's market that Renew is sponsoring starting next spring in Lansdale - but that's a whole other blog post for another time...)
That night I laid in bed and thought, Wow, God...what a wild ride today was. What the heck are you up to? Most days are certainly not like this one I had, but when they do happen this way I absolutely love it.