Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Faith of Community

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Directly across from me, leaning back against a tree, sat the family patriarch. He looked 75 but was likely 15-20 years younger. Around us sat his family – young children, teenagers, and a few perhaps in their early 20s. My hosts brought me a small stool on which to sit, and for the next 30 or 40 minutes we talked about my faith and theirs, the Bible and the Q’ran, about Jesus and Islam. Several times, the patriarch – I never got his name – told me, “What you say is good.” As we concluded our conversation he invited us to return the next day to talk more, but with regret I explained that this was our last day in the area. Repeating his affirmation, “what you say is good,” he added, “We will believe, me and my family. Not today, but probably in two or three days, we will believe.”

This encounter took place ten years ago this past week, in a village in southern Ethiopia. Two days later, the team I was with flew home, spending Easter morning on a layover at Frankfurt International Airport in Germany. My mind often returns to that village and the twice-translated conversation with the family. Did the life-giving resurrection of Jesus Christ take place in their hearts? If I were to return to the village today, would it still be dominated by Islam, or would the patriarch—or one of the children sitting with us in the shade of the tree—be leading a ten-year-old church? For a decade I have longed to return and to meet this man and his family again. Maybe someday I will.

Across the barriers of language, I learned something under that tree that has shaped my life, my faith, and my ministry as a pastor: faith is not a do-it-yourself encounter. We do not come to faith, profess faith, walk in faith, grow in faith, or live in faith alone. Faith is a community affair. It is conceived, born, and nurtured in community. It grows and matures in community. It lives and thrives in community.

This challenges much of what I was taught growing up, which centered on making a personal decision for Christ, a personal confession of faith. This notion of individualized faith, while not theologically incorrect, is at best incomplete. Scripture is filled with stories of households and communities that believed in Jesus…apparently as one, at one time. When Jesus met the Samaritan woman at a well and told her everything about her, she believed; then she went back to her village and told them about Him, and they believed. (Read the encounter in John 4.) When Peter and a Roman centurion named Cornelius each had a vision directing them to meet, Peter shared the good news of Jesus and “the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word” (Acts 10). Or read of the conversion of Lydia in Philippi (Acts 16) or Crispus in Corinth (Acts 18).

I don’t know all the implications of this community faith idea. It certainly doesn’t absolve any individual of confessing Jesus for himself or herself. Nor, I think, does it mean that children raised by Christian parents get a free pass into heaven. (These concepts of “fire insurance,” “ticket to heaven,” “get out of hell free” … they’re all really bad theology, anyway; they completely miss the point of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. But that’s a subject for another post.) Maybe this would be a good opportunity for you to share some thoughts. What implications do you see for yourself, your family, your church, your work, other people in your circles of influence?

What I’m Reading: “The Boys in the Boat”

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“Competitive rowing is an undertaking of extraordinary beauty preceded by brutal punishment.” [The Boys in the Boat, p. 39)

(Note: I'm going to try something new here. Each Wednesday I am going to post about a book I am reading or have recently read. It may be a review, a critique, or simply reflections based on that book. This is the first installment in "What I'm Reading Wednesdays.")

I spent a year on a crew team. A long, cold, wet, wonderful year. Waking up at 4:30 in the morning, on the water shortly after five, breaking a sweat six inches in the bone-chilling cold of a Seattle winter… all for the chance to compete in a few spring races. This is rowing. A sixty-foot boat less than two feet wide, propelled by eight rowers pulling on twelve-foot oars while sitting less than six inches above the water. This is rowing. Hours on the water, days rolling into weeks stretching into months; practice after practice after practice; and all of that just to work your way up to average. This is rowing.

Reading Daniel James Brown’s account of the American crew that won gold in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin takes me back to that year at Seattle Pacific University. We sat in the same George Pocock-built cedar racing shells; pulled hard on the same yellow-spruce oars; plied through the same cold waters of Lake Union and Lake Washington. I don’t know how many times I rowed through the Montlake Cut and past the University of Washington boathouse that is at the center of Brown’s action. Those waters were almost hallowed, the UW crews legendary. If our boat of novices could compete with the purple and gold of our cross-town rivals, then we were on our way.

Legends grow out of history, liberally seasoned with hyperbole. Brown provides both history and hyperbole, breathing life into the legends in the boats we passed on those cold waters.

I grew up playing sports. I’ve competed on the baseball diamond, basketball court, wrestling mat, soccer pitch, and football field. I’ve high jumped, thrown the discus, and run the 800-meters. None of those, in either practice or competition, even comes close to the effort of rowing. Indeed, rowing intensely engages the entire body—including the brain—in a very concentrated period of time. “Physiologists, in fact, have calculated that rowing a two-thousand meter race—the Olympic standard—exacts the same physiological toll as playing two basketball games back-to-back. And it exacts that toll in about six minutes.” [p. 39]

The Boys in the Boat is a mixture of history and drama, romance and sport and adventure. I enjoy it in part because of my familiarity with the sport and the area. Any reader, though, should find much here to keep the pages turning.

Sweep the Room: Silence

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For the past week I have been practicing the art of silence, encouraged through a Lenten Guide published by my sister’s church.

“Real silence,” writes Sister Jeremy Hall, “…is a creative waiting, a welcoming openness to God, to our deepest selves, to others… to beauty and truth and goodness, to mystery—and to the word of Scripture that reveals God, and to the Word who is God’s Son.”

Some have called silence a discipline, and it is that. But I have been practicing it more as an art: creative, imperfect, incomplete, but at the same time beautiful and inspiring. The primary way I decided to practice silence was by “fasting” from Facebook. I am not as addicted to that as some people I know, but apparently far more than I thought. After deleting the app from my phone, I found myself surprised by how few other apps on my phone I want to look at in spare moments. I also realized how much I rely on Facebook for social interaction; …a bit scary, given how thin is the veneer of relationship through social media. But at this particular time in my family’s life, when deep, meaningful flesh-and-blood relationships are scarce, I am grateful for even that thin veneer, so the break has been a challenge.

My silence this week has not been merely an abstention from social media, however. I have also taken moments of silence in various forms throughout the day. The Lenten Guide includes a Bible passage to read each day, and I have given myself permission to not read the whole passage, but to stop at a word or phrase or sentence and ponder it. That may sound ridiculously trite to you, but for a recovering legalist it is a major step on the road to recovery!

At other times I have taken a break from my work and just sat for a few moments. Not because the law or the union says I’m supposed to, and not because I particularly feel like I need a rest; I just stop. Perhaps more importantly, I don’t do anything on that break. This, too, is a psychological battle against the influences of my earlier years, when it was drilled into me that I needed to always be “making the most of every opportunity.” But sometimes, I’ve found, just sitting, doing nothing, enjoying what God has put before me is making the most of every opportunity.

Perhaps hardest for me has been to not read or write anything. I am in an unusual period right now, unlike any other I can recall in my adult life, when I have great freedom to read and write and think what I want. After eight years of graduate school, I no longer have professors giving me assignments. Away from pastoral ministry, I do not presently have the demands of preparing sermons, analyzing giving trends, or writing small group discussion guides. So I choose my own books and my own pace to read; I choose what I want to write and when to write it—and am finding a surprising amount of inspiration in my present employment. But since I want to read and write, and have the opportunity to do both, there is a discipline of silence in choosing not to read or write.

Our lives are filled with noise; some good, some bad, some indifferent. Just as God “sabbathed” (ceased, rested) from his work after creation—and instructed us to sabbath—so, too, we need to rest from the noise of life, whether that noise is talking or writing, reading or listening, emailing or Facebooking. Silence is sabbath.