Category Archives: Missional

Camp Casey

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We just got back from a three-day camping trip with a number of families from our church. This is an annual event for our congregation, and while my family did not attend when I was growing up here, I completely understand why this event is such a hit! Most people spent the better part of last week up at the campground at Camp Casey together; we opted for the three-day version. In Doug’s words: “Let’s want to go back next year.”

A number of people hooked us up with all of the gear we needed, and we enjoyed three days of dirt-covered, s’more-slimed bliss together. Favorite memories from the trip include:

Elijah’s fearless swimming, and his mastering how to swim the entire width of the pool unassisted.

Elijah closing the shallow pool due to swallowing too much water during said fearless swimming and throwing up a bunch of watermelon.

Triple-decker s’mores, roasted Twinkies, and Elijah’s indignant response: “It’s not a SNACK, mommy, it’s a S’MORE!”

Mercy and Aaron’s first night sleeping in a tent. “It’s not even as dark as our bedroom!”

Mercy washing my grandparent’s old orange patio dishes in green basins just like I remembered doing as a little girl.

Elijah and I doing a three-legged gunny-sack race.

Mercy running wild with her “pack” of other kids, making forts, going on hikes, and building streams.

Elijah sneaking candy bars and eating them under the picnic table.

Daddy’s “Plercy” story in the tent (there are Plaaron, Pelijah, Plommy and Pladdy and Plingrid stories as well).

Elijah’s speculations about what wildlife we might encounter.

Aero Press coffee every morning!

The Kyllos’s sharing their crepe breakfast with us our first morning there.

Fog, sun, dew, and rain!

Afternoon swimming with fighter-jets overhead, much to Aaron’s (and Daddy’s) delight!

The mama and baby deer that visited often.

Singing by the campfire with people I love, and watching my kids learn the words to songs from my childhood.

Watching older kids take care of younger kids.

Hearing, “It gets better every year,” from knowing moms after Elijah threw a giant temper tantrum during Sunday morning worship.

Doug’s pancakes.

Already looking forward to going back!

Simply complex

In a recent post, David Fitch tackles head-on the issue of why the Missional and Emerging Church movements are so white. I resonated with some of his experiences and observations and thought I would share a few of my stories as well:

I remember being at a justice and compassion conference hosted by my denomination a few years ago, and one speaker shared a series of thoughts about “living simply” or choosing to have less materially for the sake of mission and discipleship. After he had spoken, the mostly white audience nodded approvingly, but a pastor of an inner city church that has significant impact on its urban community stood up. “It’s one thing for all of you to get up here and talk about what you should give up, what nice car you shouldn’t drive, what vacation you should forgo. It’s one thing for you to say this; you’ve had your chance to have these things. My people are still climbing to get to that point. So it’s one thing for you to say that we should give those things up. It’s one thing for you because you’ve had them. We are just now getting that same chance.”

I remember a few people around me cringing at his words; judging him for what seemed like a selfish, stuff-loving orientation. I felt differently that day, though I struggled to assess why.

More recently, within our church community in L.A., there were places where I felt judgment run strong between ethnic groups in the area of money and how it was spent. Our church had some of the most generous, committed givers I have ever known. Many of these people came from families that had money and they themselves made really good money–and they gave a ton of it away. They were committed to supporting the ministry of the church and they valued living without certain things they could afford for the sake of being generous among others. That said, they were also the folks with high-paying careers or home-ownership or investments or whatever that, while not necessarily affecting their daily finances certainly existed as a backdrop of wealth to their simple lifestyles.

Others in the church who came from immigrant backgrounds were certainly inclined toward building wealth that their family had never had; providing for their kids what they had lived without. These were individuals not unfamiliar with hunger, limited opportunities in terms of education, and rarely home ownership. It was more common to see the latest electronics gadget or bigger TV in their homes, while the “simple living” folks had hand-me-downs.

But again, retirement accounts, college funds, families with money, and a home, not to mention career/education assets that could be applied toward earning more money, change the overall picture of those choices a bit.

Doug and I were the “poor folk” among our peer group. We made choices to pursue school and have babies (well, we didn’t always make those choices, but the Lord blessed us) and commit our energies to our community as lay pastors. Our poverty was, in essence, a chosen one, and that made it a bit easier for me to live among peers who were buying and remodeling homes and eating well and, again, giving away A LOT of what they had. But there were times, if I am honest, where I would hear the discussion about simplicity among these peers and know full well that they had not lived on flour and water crepes filled with peanut butter because that was the best they could do. They had the choice about when and how they would go without something; within the broader scope of our “choice”, we did not enjoy that same freedom.

That said, Doug and I were always in the center of people who would not hesitate to give us a financial gift when we were met with two three-hundred dollar deductibles from my hospital stays associated with Mercy’s birth; or help us buy a minivan when we ended up with three little ones with not-so-little carseats that exceeded the capabilities of our Altima’s back seat; or send us a check from afar to cover a car repair that was necessary but totally beyond our means. I am aware that being white and educated and connected makes my “urgent difficulties” or challenges look soft compared to those of so many of our neighbors there.

I recall too Eugene Cho’s reflection on some amount of hesitancy he felt toward “Buy Nothing Day” as a response to the hyper-consumption of Black Friday:

Why my reservations?  I’m still moved by a conversation I had with a friend couple years ago that challenged my support for Buy Nothing Day.  This friend who is African-American said some interesting stuff [paraphrasing]:

Buy Nothing Day is basically a thing of and for White folks and comfy Middle Class folks who have had the privilege of consumption their whole life.  And now, they can afford to start things like Buy Nothing Day.  True, it speaks to the issue of overconsumption but how much of it is to appease their guilty consciences.  I’m also very skeptical and cynical of Christians  who’ve jumped on this bandwagon – the “enlightened evangelicals” who also come from a place of privilege.  Stuff like this sickens me because it has completely no idea about the plight of minorities and low income folks that are trying to survive.

The thing that got to me was the story he shared about some of his family and friends who simply NEED to make many of their major purchases on that day.  Specifically, he shared about his uncle and aunt.  They get in line every year in the frigid cold here hours before the retail store opens at 5 or 6 am because it’s the only way they’re able to get their kids the necessary tech gear to keep up.

I’m not dismissing the cause behind Buy Nothing Day.  We need to address this because us Westerners and particularly, Americans [including me] are just gluttonous.

But let’s be real here…Black Friday shopping mean different things for different folks. For many of us, it’s a game, a sport and an event we mark but for others, it’s a matter of necessity.  This is why I have reservations about Buy Nothing Day.  Perhaps, the majority of us should sincerely adopt Buy Nothing Day and let those who truly need the “doorbusters” be the first in line – for a change.

One final thought: in terms of Fitch’s observations. He speaks of “living beneath one’s means” as a high value for many in self-identified Missional/Emerging groups, and when I think back to so many individuals and families I have known over the years I think of single mothers working one or two or three jobs to support not just her kids but her sisters kids; I think of households made up of generations; and I think of the way those individuals would, without any hesitation take in another mouth to feed or another child to raise. This was a different sort of “living below their means” that considered their wealth and property to belong to a much broader community of individuals than I can ever remember seeing among any of my white peers.

So, I don’t have all the answers as to what is right or faithful or how we can all be in this together. I appreciate David’s discussion and would love to hear more.

“The church that came to me”

I read with interest Dan Kimball’s recent post on Christianity Today’s Out of Ur blog where he posed some questions about whether or not “missional” churches are churches that bear fruit in terms of effectively making disciples. He points to larger “attractional” churches (Willow Creek, for example) whose buildings and impressive gatherings seem to, in his estimation, hold great appeal for many and therefore be more effective in the fruit-bearing department.

A few things came to mind as I read this. I remember taking a van-load of neighborhood kids to attend a worship service at Willow Creek when I was living and ministering in Chicago. They were totally awed by the buildings, the food court, the size, the scope, the big screens that descended from the ceiling, the way the blinds automatically lowered during the service to block out the setting sun. They were engaged, on every level, with the singing, the video clips, and the music. And I can remember so well their reaction when they saw the budget update printed in the bulletin: “Just the amount that they are over budget this week could pay for our program for ten years!”

My kids wanted to go back every week. They loved it. Yes, it ministered to them; it appealed to them. It was impressive and exciting and cool. But would driving there for an hour each-way every week really translate into transformation for them and for their community? As their schools crumbled; as parents abandoned and abused; as gangs walked up to parked cars and opened fire, what difference would video screens and food courts really make? I don’t say that to disparage Willow. I have dear friends involved there, and have no judgment to make about their effectiveness in what they do. But for my kids, an “attractional” church divorced from their community made no sense.

Fast forward to Los Angeles, ten years later. A homeless couple, living in a city park, comes into the park’s rec center one Sunday morning. The hot coffee tasted good after a cold night on the ground, and the people were warm and friendly. Free coffee soon turned into relationships which led to some financial help with first and last month’s rent to get into an apartment. This eventually led to work and sobriety and counseling. And casual Sunday friendships turned into family.

I wrote this about one of these dear friends two years ago, and to this day this memory makes me cry:

I think I can say that, in general, the collection of the offering is rarely the high point for people in weekly Sunday worship gatherings….This past Sunday was an exception.

When it came time for the ushers to come forward to collect the offering, a nicely dressed woman from our congregation walked to the front with the other usher, each carrying large baskets. She began to pass the basket to those sitting on her side of the congregation, soberly collecting it when it reached the end and offering it the next row. Ushers can sometimes look either bored or distracted; like they don’t know what to do with their hands and eyes while the baskets are moving through the congregation. She was not like this: she was focused, intent on her task, participating fully with those she served.

I watched from the back where I stood with Aaron in my arms. I watched her closely: her very straight posture, her face solemn with responsibility, her entire body attentive to this sacred act. I looked to the other side of the congregation where I knew her husband was sitting. His eyes followed her every step, his body moving continuously to keep her in his constant view. He could hardly stay in his chair and his face was unable to contain the enormous smile that overcame him. As the music ended and the ushers walked to the front carrying the baskets of gifts, I saw this woman walk quietly to our pastor and reach for the microphone. As the last note faded, she looked out at her fellow worshippers and asked us to pray.

Her simple prayer thanked God for his many gifts to us. She thanked God for waking us up that day and allowing us to come to this place to worship. And she thanked God for our pastor. Our “Amen” had scarcely joined with hers when the sound of clapping filled the room. Her husband loudly applauded for her: for her offering of herself, in service and in public prayer, for the sake of the body. Though she has worshiped with us since our beginnings in Loren Miller Park, this was her first Sunday serving in any formal capacity. Our pastor acknowledged that this was her first time participating in our worship this way, and we joined her husband with our applause.

I am sure that the visitors among us probably thought this all a bit strange. What they could not have known is that this poised and polished woman and her husband came to our church two years ago because we offered food and coffee and a warm place to sit indoors for the many homeless who slept in the park on Saturday nights. What they could not have known is that her story is filled with decades of the unspeakable and unimaginable. What they could not have known is that when we first met her, she was a woman consumed with fear and shame. And what started as our weekly gift of a warm drink became a very different kind of gift from Another: the gift of living water that becomes “a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

As she later told her estranged mother who had custody over her children: “this is the church that came to me.”

As I watched her serve with reverence on Sunday, I was struck by a memory from a year ago. I was very pregnant and extremely tired, and I needed to get my house clean in preparation for celebrating Mercy’s birthday with our friends and neighbors. This woman offered to come over and do some work around the house for me, and I accepted. Doug and I were very committed to helping her and her husband out in different ways, and I was eager to be able to bless them with some money for her time spent cleaning. I was also very eager for someone else to bend and lift and scrub and to give my back and belly a rest.

I had just put Mercy down for her nap when she arrived. I set out all of my supplies, told her what my cleaning priorities were, and then promptly went to my bed and collapsed, sound asleep. I woke two hours later to the sound of Mercy chattering through the monitor. I went into Mercy’s room and got her up, and we came out together to see a sparkly clean house and our good friend with a smile on her face. When she saw me her eyes teared up, and as she spoke she started to cry. She told me that she could not believe that I had let her into my home, with full access to all of our things, and then closed my door and gone to sleep. She said that she had never felt so trusted by someone; she had never felt so much pride and dignity and worth as someone who did not have to be doubted and feared.

I don’t think many of us have a reference for that kind of redemption. I don’t think that many of us come close to grasping the kind of tangible, radical social restoration that Zacchaeus or Mary Magdalene or the bleeding woman knew at the hands of Jesus.

My friend does. A year ago she could hardly fathom being trusted to clean someone’s home. How much more did she experience dignity and wholeness on Sunday as she collected our offerings and brought them before her Lord? I am grateful to my friend for leading us in what was most definitely a time of worship.

I don’t believe Willow should close their doors, nor do I think Church of the Redeemer’s slower growth is any strike against us through kingdom eyes. A widow’s penny was deemed a vast treasure by Jesus, so I am certain that we just can’t look at branches and fruit and harvest the way we do the stock market. The balance sheet can be very confusing…

Ghetto basketball

Aaron loves playing basketball. Lauren has a little hoop attached to an overhang in her apartment, and it is probably daily that I hear the request from my son to “go to Lauren’s house!” So, the other day I decided to get creative and I cut out the bottom of a Noah’s Bagels’ box that Doug had brought home from work and taped the thing up to the wall. It’s a little bit like the toddler version of kids nailing milk crates up on posts which I saw a lot of in Chicago.

Aaron calls it “the net”.
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As I played ball with my son, I was reminded of three boys who also loved basketball and who, like my son, were willing to make do with much less than the ideal.

The kids I worked with through the Big Sister/Big Brother program I led in Chicago were desperate for a safe place to hang out and be kids in those “so easy to get into trouble” hours between school dismissal and dark. My senior year at North Park, we cleared out half of a dorm basement (the other half was stacked with boxes and furniture and junk) and opened a very ghetto drop-in center for junior high kids. We had old, lumpy furniture, a ping pong table that sagged in the middle, and a Foosball table where half of the little guys were missing their legs (yes, this makes for a very challenging game). We had tables for homework or art, a handful of games, and most importantly a crew of college students who would listen and laugh and play. We opened our doors to the community two days a week.

Someone brought in a little Nerf basketball and hoop that could be attached to the wall (much like the one Lauren has in her house), and it hung on a support post near the edge of where the junk began. There were three eighth grade boy, Jonathan, Ivan and Jamar, who came regularly and who always played basketball on our “net”. They were good players and knew how to have fun with our tiny little hoop and ball. Their laughter was contagious as they would very competitively enjoy their “games”.

It was some time in that first week that the Nerf ball got tossed into the junk portion of the room and we could not recover it. A ball of duct tape became the substitute, and this in no way diminished my boys’ delight.

Every time I walk into my kitchen, I see those same three boys smiling at me. There is a picture of them on our refrigerator: Jamar with his arms folded in the middle; Jonathan to the right, head cocked, with his arm on Jamar; Ivan, to the left, sober-faced in his stocking cap, with his hand on Jamar’s shoulder. And behind Jamar, to the left, is a crooked orange basketball hoop with a blue net hanging by a few threads on one side.

Those boys. That broken hoop. A meager attempt at meeting a need. Those days go down in history when I think of who I am today. And as Aaron calls out to me to find the ball that is now lost in our own little junk pile here, I think of Jamar and Ivan and Jonathan and I smile with wet eyes.

Going once, going twice…

The back of my van is full of new diapers. They are for a newborn, and I have been trying to pass them along to someone who could use them for a few weeks now. A good friend was thoughtful enough to pass them along to me, knowing that I had friends who had just recently had babies, and I took them eagerly knowing I could share them with someone who would put them to great use.

The day that I got them, I stopped by one friend’s house, with all three kids in the van, and unloaded them only to be turned away by the tired new father: “He isn’t wearing size one yet. We wouldn’t be able to use them right now.” Their baby is indeed tiny, so I took my bags back and loaded them once again into the back of my van.

The next week as I was loading kiddos into the double stroller for the walk to church, I once again unpacked those bags of diapers and stashed them in the bottom of the stroller (I am pretty sure that doing this is the reason why my under-stroller basket no longer secures properly) to give them to another new mom in our congregation. But she and her husband and new little one were not there that Sunday, so once again the diapers got re-stacked in the back of the van.

At this point, I am weary of trying to give these diapers away. It has taken far too much energy, time and physical effort and I am tired of them cluttering up our van. It should not be this hard to bless someone; to give a gift away.

I wrote last year about Doug trying to buy me a dress and how persistent he was in seeking to bless me. I realized that I need more of this kind of persistence; it is just too easy to make a couple of good tries then, justifiably, to give up.

When our church founders moved into this neighborhood many years ago, their central pursuit was to know and love their neighbors. One member tells the story of going door to door to meet his neighbors, and of one particular neighbor who would at first ignore his efforts completely, then would open only the metal security door, and then finally one day opened both doors to meet this persistent young man who simply would not give up. In light of the racial history of this community and of the general fear and suspicion that still hovers over our streets, it is not altogether strange that this neighbor stayed inside and refused our friend’s efforts.

It took months for each barrier to soften and fall, and our church founder refused to give up. I can imagine he was physically tired and emotionally weary of stepping outside of his comfort zone and knocking on that same door over and over again. But because of that persistence, the two neighbors eventually stood face to face and learned each other’s names.

I want to pass along the diapers in my van. I want to share them with a new mother who would be blessed by the gift. I would like for gifts like this to always be this easy, one-stop transaction, but they so rarely are. It seems the norm is a much messier, drawn-out scenario that tests my endurance at every step. The diapers themselves are not really the big deal here: it is my willingness to continue to extend myself, and whatever limited energies I feel I have on a given day, to seek to know and love my neighbors here.

Friends

Eugene Cho posted a link to a Relevant Magazine article on materialism where seven Christian leaders respond to the question of how to follow Jesus in an age that worships mammon. Shane Claiborne’s response struck a chord with my own experience of who I care about and why:

What is enough is defined by our relationship to our neighbor—if our neighbor has four cars, then we think we are living simply if we have two cars. If our neighbor doesn’t have water, then two cars is probably too many. We have this command to love our neighbor as ourselves, but I think the great tragedy of our culture is that we are pushed away from suffering, away from poverty to the point that it’s enough if we give a tax-exempt donation or volunteer for a week out of the year. And yet if we’re really in relationship with people who are suffering, that messes with us.

Just last night, I had a conversation with someone who had heard of a ministry need related to Servant Partner’s work in urban slum communities around the world. This individual had felt stirred by God’s spirit, in the context of a relationship, to respond in a way that resources could be freed up to help support a missionary couple in their continued work among the poor. That proximity that Shane describes made the difference in linking this person’s resources with a unique ministry need.

I think about the times I have been made aware of a friend’s need and how natural and easy it is to respond. Those of us with small children here often take care of each other’s kids. When someone is sick, it is a normal thing to offer meals or a trip to the store for Gatorade or medicine. And even when the needs are much greater, we still respond to our friends with generosity and sacrifice.

Just yesterday in the mail I received Whitworth University’s (Doug’s alma mater) alumni magazine that profiled a couple who gave birth to quadruplets this past year and the incredible ways their community of friends from Whitworth have stood by them and joined with them in caring for this generous, but challenging, gift from God. And I think of my own experience of the past year and the ways my community surrounded our family and served us with extraordinary measures of practical care and help. I can also recall situations where we were in deep financial need and friends stepped in with financial gifts that perfectly met our needs. And in smaller measure, Doug and I have done the same for others whose needs have come before us.

I recall the words of a woman writing about her experience in a college ministry that sought to be inclusive of other ethnic groups on campus. She describes the group’s strategies involving special food and music and affinity groupings employed and then says this:
You just need to be a friend – I say.
You don’t need none of that stuff
You’re being fake
–– people always know a fake
——Why don’t you try to just be real
And…Why is it that you have “white only” friends?

But they just kept on with their trying
Cause no one really wants different friends

I like Shane’s point about proximity, and I think I would add to it my friend’s challenge about whether any of us really want different friends.

Check, please

I recently attended a fundraising workshop sponsored by Mission Increase Foundation (an excellent organization committed to helping Christian non-profits build capacity), and the topic was how organizations manage information surrounding donors and their gifts. Our facilitator, Matt Bates, told a story about a large rescue mission that regularly received hundreds of gifts daily from donors around the world. Inside many of the checks sent to this organization were personal notes from the donors. Because all of the checks were processed in a separate office from the rest of the organization, largely by temp workers, the notes from faithful donors piled up in a corner, unread and forgotten.

As Matt reflected with us on the value of those forgotten notes and the journeys of individual donors they represent, he said this: “If you create a system that is transactional, then your relationships will become transactional.”

How true that is, really. I think about many critiques of the church today, and so much of the dissatisfaction I hear is the very thing Matt is describing. Transactional systems resulting in transactional relationships.

Missional: To die and to live

“The crucifixion was the consequence of the incarnation.”

And so it can also be said that the resurrection was the consequence of the crucifixion (thank you, Patrick), and that too is a necessary theme of “missional” we do well to explore.

Moving from death to life: when I considered how to describe the ways that this has been true for me and for my family, a flood of stories raced through my mind, many of which have been told here before. Stories of how my children have been shaped to consider hospitality and generosity in terms of our home, our money and our food; stories of how my kids understand culture, language and race (in ways that simply could never have been taught from a distance); and story after story of how God is at work removing what is dead and hard inside of me and replacing it with something living.

And when I think of my community at large, I recall the stories of a community bound by fear coming together to stand up against a criminal liquor store owner and battle all the way to City Hall to see prostitution, drug sales and shootings removed from their street corner. I think of homeless, addicted friends walking the slow road to rehabilitation with a community and a God who refuse to let them turn and go back. I remember a black woman who spent the final years of her life with our church and in the process received God’s heart for racial reconciliation and gave all of us an example of what it looks like to be a person of grace.

I recall the story of a first-generation Spanish-speaking mom walking the aisles of our Ralph’s grocery store at ten o’clock at night desperate for someone who could interpret her daughter’s homework assignment (written in English) and help her understand what her daughter needed to do. And I think of how our tutoring program at the end of our street has served so many moms like her. I think of the many, many kids who have been given every help with homework assignments; the parents who have been equipped to better partner with their kids; and the flood of reading buddies who take time off from work and studies to sit and read with little bodies with growing minds, and help inspire a love for learning in them.

As I write this, our pediatrician (who is first and foremost a very dear friend) and two of her four kids are down the street at our tutoring center painting and roofing and helping prepare the place physically for our summer program that begins next week. This is the fourth year that this family has taken a week of “vacation” to live with us and labor at our side, doing morning work projects and afternoon camps for our neighborhood kids. The very fact that these friends from San Marino are here sleeping on our futon and floor, sharing cramped space with three early-rising small ones, and giving every ounce of energy to loving us and our neighbors is a story of that move from death to life.

In fact, I remember the first year this family and the rest of the team from Pasadena Covenant Church came to “dwell among us”, and I will let this story conclude my reflection today.

The first day of the afternoon camps, we were disappointed by the vary small number of kids who showed up and so decided to hit the streets in hope of recruiting more kids to come. The week before the group from Pasadena had arrived, there had been a gang murder that had taken the life of a very prominent gang member in our community. Large red shrines still stood boldly on Adams, nearby to where he had fallen, and we had warned our visiting friends about not wearing red that week, walking away from anyone who was wearing gang colors, and having in general a heightened sense of awareness for their safety. And a few weeks before that, a young girl had been shot in the face while playing basketball, in the same park that we were using to host our sports camp.

As we walked the streets and talked with kids and families, we could feel the fear and tension that our neighbors were living with, and we could understand why many of the parents were afraid to send their kids outside, and especially anywhere near the park.

In spite of these obstacles, we were able to make contact with a whole crew of kids and it wasn’t long before the camps were full and moving at full speed. As I walked down the street with Jamie, a San Marino physician who had come to Vacation to L.A. with her husband and three young children, still looking for any last kids to invite, she suddenly interrupted me and began to pull me toward the other side of the street. I looked up and saw what she had seen: a group of fifteen or twenty men approaching, all dressed entirely in red.

We crossed the street without making eye contact, and moved quickly back toward the park. As we got closer, we saw that, in addition to the volunteers and the kids enjoying their sports camps, large groups of gang members were gathering. The adults present promptly sent the kids and most of the volunteers back to the church, while a few stayed at the park, trying to tear down the equipment we had been using. The park staff, however, having also sighted the gang members, locked the doors of the rec center and refused to open them and let them in.

Over the next few minutes, more than seventy men, dressed literally head to toe in the color red, descended on the park. It turned out the murdered gang member’s funeral had been held that day, and as is custom, the guys needed a place to gather after the funereal.

After that memorable first day, the camps continued to grow and more than seventy kids were ministered to that week in the name of Jesus. That Friday, we sponsored a barbecue in the park for all of the kids who had participated and for their families and we had a blast. I bet there were two hundred of us gathered there in the park that Friday night. And it was strange, but people would be driving by the park in their cars and they would slow down or even stop to stare at this strange group of black folk, white folk, and brown folk, all laughing and eating and talking together.

That night, families who had stayed locked up in their houses came outside and enjoyed dinner with their neighbors. That night, kids who had been scared to step onto the basketball court shot hoops with their new Pasadena friends. That night, relationships were started that have resulted in whole families coming to know Christ and joining our church. That night, the same park that, days before, had been a symbol of death, violence, fear and division became a place of life and light.

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

When I grow weary from sharing or welcoming or forsaking something for the sake of the kingdom here; when I consider how much safer or easier a church full of people like me would be; when I look around sometimes and all I see are dry bones, I hear Simon Peter ask this and I know that, as much as he failed to see and grasp and follow his Lord through the valley of the shadow of death, he had eyes to see what was ultimately true about his master: in him was life, and life “to the full”.

And so, though he faltered and failed, he followed. And so must we.

Missional: To dwell and to die

I took a great course at Fuller Seminary that explored the significance of the cross in the New Testament. In one of the final lectures for the course, our professor summed up how she has come to understand the death of Jesus: “The crucifixion was the consequence of the incarnation.”

If there is one element of “the missional church” or “missional theology” as I understand it that at once compels and terrifies me, it is the invitation to live an incarnational life. Philippians two tells me that my “attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” and then it describes the most terrifying emptying of all power, privilege and self-preservation imaginable. An emptying that leads to death, and not just any kind of death but one so humiliating and horrific that it would not have been discussed in polite company.

I think if there were one thing I would want us to remember today as we consider all things missional, it would be that as we talk about incarnational living and incarnational ministries and being incarnational wherever we live, we are talking about a way of life that leads to the cross. It did for Jesus, and if I read Philippians correctly, it should for us as well.

My church here in Los Angeles began with the calling of four people who moved to the end of the street where we now live seeking an answer to this question: “Do you love your neighbor as yourself?” And when I think of the stories that have filled sixteen years of following Jesus here, it is remarkable to see how very consistently our community has been called to die. And not in the “Oh, there will be some suffering from time to time” kind of way but in the day to day, hour by hour choosing of other over self.

There is a fondness in missional circles for speaking of how Jesus came and dwelt among us and how we too are called to “come and dwell”; to incarnate in our communities; to “move into the neighborhood” so to speak. Coming from a church context where all members live within two miles of one another and most within walking distance, I can testify to the ways that committing to dwell in a place powerfully impacts witness, community transformation, and discipleship.

The commitment to making one’s family of faith something that does not involve a commute is radical and offensive to many, yet it is truly the thing we appreciate most about our church. It is also the thing that, in so many ways, continues to press for us the death of self-love. When your parish is blocks and streets and not a given social or ethnic or age demographic, the mission field surely holds a hefty does of the people you would not readily choose to invite to your table. As my denomination’s president once so aptly put in response to a well-known church-growth expert saying that pastors should build their congregations out of people who they would most enjoy spending a vacation with or playing some leisure sport: “Who wants to play tennis with Lazarus?”

I think too of my church in Portland where a black pastor had every reason to plant a black church in (at the time) a mostly black part of town. But he kept bumping into white folks who lived in the stately homes the next community over, and God nudged this minister toward recognizing a call to be their pastor as well. Everyone encouraged him against planting a multi-cultural church: it will be slow to grow; the white people will try to take over; there will be too many conflicts. But Pastor Henry was faithful to God’s invitation to embrace a community over a demographic and so our church was born. And that was a choice that resulted in all manner of struggle and sacrifice that he could have politely declined and been affirmed for his “church-planting wisdom.” But he chose to suit up and hit some balls with Lazarus instead.

The consequence of the incarnation is the crucifixion.

A few months ago, my three-year old daughter was painting and as I walked by her easel I exclaimed happily: “Mercy, you painted a cross!” She stepped back from her paper in horror, and looked at me with confusion and even fear. For her, the cross is something terrifying; gruesome. And here I was praising her like she had painted a pretty rainbow or a happy butterfly. Mercy understands the scandal of Jesus’ death, and I hope that those of us seeking to imitate an incarnate God really understand that that means following a crucified One.

Listed below are the forty-nine other bloggers participating in today’s global synchroblog answering the question: “What is Missional?”
Alan Hirsch
Alan Knox
Andrew Jones
Barb Peters
Bill Kinnon
Brad Brisco
Brad Grinnen
Brad Sargent
Brother Maynard
Bryan Riley
Chad Brooks
Chris Wignall
Cobus Van Wyngaard
Dave DeVries
David Best
David Fitch
David Wierzbicki
DoSi
Doug Jones
Duncan McFadzean
Grace
Jamie Arpin-Ricci
Jeff McQuilkin
John Smulo
Jonathan Brink
JR Rozko
Kathy Escobar
Len Hjalmarson
Makeesha Fisher
Malcolm Lanham
Mark Berry
Mark Petersen
Mark Priddy
Michael Crane
Michael Stewart
Nick Loyd
Patrick Oden
Peggy Brown
Phil Wyman
Richard Pool
Rick Meigs
Rob Robinson
Ron Cole
Scott Marshall
Sonja Andrews
Stephen Shields
Steve Hayes
Tim Thompson
Thom Turner