This morning we had our monthly LifeLine Sunday where dedicate the bulk of our time to exchanging thoughts and questions about the sermon series we've been working through. In the course of the conversation, I got to thinking about how much we've changed since Tricia and I moved here 5 years in July. As I've said before, it's one thing to sit at the CFR or Jim's house in Simsbury and conceive of who'll we'll be and how we'll go about being missional followers of Christ in Northampton, and another thing to actually live the flesh and blood adventure every day.
So, one of the questions Jim asked was how we've overcome the trappings of cultural (read non or extra-biblical) Christianity in our lives, especially those which separate us from people who aren't Christian because our church culture is so foreign, even off-putting, to them. I assure you this was not a church-bashing time, just a chance to hear how we might be evolving.
When I heard the question, I realized so much of the way I now live my Christian identity has changed:
1. To start, I can no longer separate the missional life from my spiritual life. I've learned so much about how we're supposed to live with people who do not hold or are downright antagonistic to our beliefs. Being missional is being biblically Christian, and I mean more than going on a mission trip, being evangelistic sometimes, or occasionally inviting someone to church. It's a mindset and worldview lived 24/7. It means surrendering the rights to our lives and following Christ into the communities he's placed us to reflect him to others that they might discover and follow him, if he summons them. My spirituality now includes missionality. They are intertwined.
2. At first, we all thought we needed to have a really creative Sunday service that people would come to because it was different from "normal" church. Of course, we assumed non-Christians would be open to going to something like that.Um ... WRONG! Talk about naivete (and I'd read some stuff that made the case it works - well, not in Northampton). We now see church gatherings are for Christians steeped in the language, traditions, assumptions and culture of church.They reflect commonly-held theological worldviews and spiritual practices. We can't imagine how bewildered people might be in stuff we could participate with in our sleep (and sometimes do). So the idea that our worship would be a "front door" approach to building relationships with non-Christians was just wrong. I know there is a time when inviting someone to church for the first time is appropriate. But in that case, a relationship of trust has been built, and things can be explained without embarrassing the person.
3. Next, we knew we had a responsibility to help the poor and homeless. So we served at the Interfaith Shelter (still do), did FEAST two Easter's ago, gave away Christmas gift bags to folks on the street, gave them food, clothes, hats, blankets, money and rides (occasionally). All of that was good and needed. Most of it was built on what's termed transactional relationships, i.e., I give them something they need and that's it. We had a beneficial impact, but no real relationship was built,. In fact, everyone knows the street dance; it's almost a culture here. None of it to my knowledge has been really helping them discover the God who is far more than they imagine. Such transaction become very frustrating for m after awhile because there appears no poverty transformation in transactional relationships. It's a step along the way perhaps, but not freedom in Christ which is what we offer.
4. For a long time now, I've known that if I'm going to be a real Christian I have to be willing to go into the mess of others' live as well as my own. For years, my experience of emotional healing, and my work as a counselor, retreat leader, and spiritual director has taken me way beyond where I thought I'd be able to go. I've seen human suffering far into tragedy and back. I know for a fact the wages of sin is death of all kinds. And I'm intimately familiar with my mess, including sin. Truth is, the missional life is intertwining my broken humanity with the broken humanity of others.We have that very much in common, no matter our beliefs or life history. My challenge has been Northampton is a different world for entering into the mess of many folks here who understand reality in ways I find foreign and vice-versa. Healing necessitates we both need to drop our guards and listen at the level of the heart. God is a healer; first at the deepest level of being, then in all other matters of life. I know that full well. What I don't know enough is how to enter into the mess of people who don't trust my intentions. I'm a work in progress there.
5. I recognize these days I have to be more discerning about whether, or how God is already working in someone, more sensitive to the evidence of a heart being influenced by the Spirit of God. I've been inviting him to teach me, to take me deep into spiritual noticing. I want wisdom which helps me recognize reality and respond with grace. It's not so easy for a guy with ADD, I'll tell you ... but not impossible. My longing is before I leave the planet I'd have found the manifest freedom to respond quickly with gentle alacrity to someone God is enticing to discover him, and be of use to them both. Wouldn't that be something.
6. Here's a tricky one, at least, it's felt that way to me since I came to the Paradise City. Soon after arriving, I had a pastor in town tell me imagine/Northampton would be defined by one question: how we'd handle gay marriage. How we answered that determined whether we'd alienate an entire group of people in this city or not. Right there he set a dividing line. It's never left my consciousness. These days, however, I feel the nudging to reach across the table and build relationships with Christians who share a different theological stance than me about many things. Some of what divides us are genuinely, and deeply held core convictions. Regardless, the Holy Spirit is hinting we need to learn to live with that and get on with the Kingdom miracle. To be honest, it scares me a little in that Christians can and do easily divide over spiritual differences. I suspect we throw the baby out with the bathwater when we do so. I don't know many minds will be changed, but I'm convinced we need to band together where we see a greater good, and pursue Christ as he continues to redeem people. I don't know if it's possible in some instances, but I bet not all, and I'm willing to try.
7. Perhaps the biggest way I've changed has to do with realizing how narrow I've been regarding what it means to be a Christian in this culture around us. I know in the depths of my being my identity and sense of self has been altered inextricably. To walk away from Christ would be to walk away from REALITY, in other words, madness. I am Christian at every level of existence. So, what I bring to everyone is that view of life. To not do so, would be to bifurcate my being, a spiritual schizophrenia so to speak. At the same time, a persisting fear of mine has been that if I relax and just be a person with others, I'd gradually morph into an agreeably nice guy who keeps his "light under a bushel" to fit in or get along, and not make anyone uncomfortable with my "rigid" Christianity stuff.
The thing is, I remember when I was a full-time jazz musician in Connecticut, I played all sorts of gigs with people who would mostly refer to themselves as non-religious, or as some poetically put it, "I'm not into that sh__." Of course, they'd apologize profusely, I guess thinking I might faint right on the spot. I hung out and got along. I was asked a few times to explain my beliefs and one young bass player came to Christ. My point is there was a time when most of my early Christian life was spent with non-believers. I was myself and so were they. We agreed to disagree or just left spiritual things hanging to get on with what we were pursuing together. I didn't compromise and betray what I said I believed, but I wasn't heavy-handed either.
I can do this because I did it. Well, there is the little matter of being an introvert, but that's for another time.
I don't want the narrowing that happened because I spent 20 years at a retreat center working almost exclusively with Christians to keep me from building relationships with whomever. I want to engage others with me, and let them engage me with them. All I have to give is me. I realize too, some of us will click and perhaps have the chance to do life-changing Kingdom work together because we all care for the hurting, the dispossessed, the defeated, and the buckled-over people around us.
Therefore, helping people discover and follow the God who is far more than they imagine feels simpler in one sense. Because God draws people to himself, I just need to be myself and see what transpires with others as I have a chance to get to know them. No expectations, just paying attention, and being at the ready to share the magnificent hope dwelling in me.
So we're not so much about a model anymore, and more about just being people who realize other people matter to God, and we have a chance to show that by being ourselves, and trying to enflesh the reality of God's forgiveness and love to them genuinely. If we can humbly live the truth in all its multifaceted beauty to show forth wonder and freedom, others will be able to discover and follow him.
I wonder what the next 5 years will bring if we continue on here?