Mistakes, Humility, and Learning

Mistakes are part of what it means to be on mission with Jesus.

How do I know this?  Read the Gospels and look at the dozens and dozens of mistakes that the disciples make as they try to follow Jesus.  Mess up, after mess up, after mess up.  Confusion on top of confusion.  Mistakes galore.

How else do I know this?  Because I have experienced this more often in the last few months of my life than I would like to admit.  And these last few months have been filled with my wife, my community, and I making attempts to be on mission with Jesus.

 

Mistakes

Why is this the case?  Why do we seem to make a bunch of mistakes when we try to be on mission with Jesus?  I think there are two primary reasons:

  1. Following Jesus Is Risky — To be on mission with Jesus means that we put our safety and comfort aside for what really matters.  And what’s that; what really matters?  God’s will, that’s what.  And what is God’s will?  Friends, this is not trick question and it’s not that complicated.  Really.  From the beginning to the end of the Bible we see it.  Namely, God’s will is to be involved with reconciling all things to God in Christ (2 Corinthians 5.19).  In God’s economy there nothing of more worth than this!  This goal is worth risking everything.  And as we risk stuff, we will make mistakes.  Maybe we’ll risk the wrong thing.  Maybe we’ll focus our attention in the wrong place.  Maybe we’ll hurt lots of feelings by focusing on one thing and not on another.  The point is this: being on mission is risky and with risk comes mistakes.
  2. Following Jesus is Messy — If being on mission with Jesus means being involved in the reconciliation of all things to God in Christ, then this is going to be messy.  Why is that?  Simple: fixing broken relationships is hard.  Just think about the last time you hurt someone and needed to make things right with them.  How’d that go?  Was it easy?  Was it nice and tidy?  Probably not.  I’m sure it was a mess.  And in the midst of that mess we’re going to make a ton of mistakes.  We just will.  We’ll try our best and we’ll still mess up.  We’ll have the best intentions and yet we’ll still hurt people that matter to us.  We’ll be actively engaged in reconciliation and we’ll actually damage the person or people we’re trying to reconnect with.  And our mistakes will be in our behavior, our words, and our postures.  Reconciliation = mistakes.  That’s a universal law right there with gravity.

Humility

So there are a few responses to making mistakes:

  1. Pretending – We can act like we’re perfect and that we never, ever make mistakes.  Some of us are so used to doing this that we don’t even recognize it anymore.  It’s just part of our lives.  We lie.  Let’s just call it what it is.
  2. Shutting Down – We make mistakes.  We try again.  Then we make more mistakes.  Then we try.  Mistakes.  Try.  Mistakes.  Etc.  So, eventually we just quit trying.  We shut down.  We quit.
  3. Getting Defensive — So we make some mistakes and some of us defend ourselves.  Maybe we’ll make some excuses.  Maybe we’ll tell the person or people we have hurt all the reasons that they are wrong about how they feel and that the mistake we made is actually not really a mistake at all.  If this sounds familiar to you, then you’re a lot like me.  Yay for you!
  4. Becoming Humble — This is the goal that we should all be shooting for.  When we make mistakes we ought to humbly accept our responsibility and begin to make amends.  We shouldn’t lie.  We shouldn’t quit.  And we shouldn’t get defensive.  Instead, we should be humble and seek to continue the reconciliation process.

 

Learning

And the great news, of course, is that if we’re humble we can begin to learn how to make less mistakes.  Now don’t get me wrong; we’re always going to make mistakes.  We aren’t perfect.  But we can begin to learn how not to make the same mistakes over and over again.

In so doing we’ll hurt the people we love and are trying to be reconciled with a bit less.  We’ll build trust.  We’ll demonstrate our love.  We’ll embody the good news of Jesus.  And we’ll begin to engage more fully in doing God’s will of reconciling all things to himself in Christ.

Some of this learning will be natural, trial-and-error type of learning.  Some of it will be gained through studying.  And much of it will be through listening to people vastly different from us so that we can learn from various perspectives.

 

Mistakes aren’t going away.  So we better figure out what to do when we make them!

 

Friends, how do you deal with making mistakes?  What role do humility and learning play in that process?

Missional Solidarity

During the discussions about the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in Ferguson, Missouri, many words and phrases have been thrown around, and not always with care.  Some of these words are pregnant with historical importance and some of them are technical words from academic studies of race and power.  Some of them sound familiar but have been said so often that their meanings have slipped into the ether.  And almost all of these words have engendered confusion and frustration in some readers and hearers.

Here are a few examples: white privilege, oppression, systemic racism, white supremacy, radical reconciliation, Jim Crow, apartheid, cultural racism, prejudice, and solidarity.

Even though each of these words demands attention, I want to focus on the last one — solidarity.

Solidarity

Every Life Matters

 

Solidarity: What Is It?

A common solution that is given for the tension in the aftermath of something like what happened in Ferguson is that various groups should stand in solidarity with one another.  What does this mean?

The dictionary definition of the word goes like this:

Unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest; mutual support from within a group.
~Oxford Dictionaries

This term is used in many different settings and academic disciplines, such as sociology, anthropology, philosophy, religion (especially Catholic theology), race and ethnicity studies, the study of labor movements, etc.  As such, it can have many different shades of meaning.  Unsurprisingly, the usage of the word “solidarity” ramped up during the 1920s during some significant labor movements in the English-speaking world and then again from the 1950s to the 1970s during some of the most divisive decades with regard to race in the United States and in Europe.

There are two aspects of solidarity that I want to explore here: 1) what it means within Catholic theology; and 2) how the phrase “solidarity” applies to Ferguson and racial reconciliation in general.

 

Solidarity in Catholic Thought

The study of Catholic Social Teaching is rich and complex.  Whatever I say here is a simplification and I am aware of that.  However, some of the basic concepts, such as solidarity, are fairly straight forward and will hopefully prove to be helpful.

Here is one example of how solidarity is thought about in a Catholic context:

Solidarity highlights in a particular way the intrinsic social nature of the human person, the equality of all in dignity and rights, and the common path of individuals and people toward an ever more committed unity…
~Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2005), No. 192

There is so much in that quote that is worth unpacking.

  1. Each person has intrinsic value.
  2. Each person should be afforded equal dignity and rights.
  3. Individuals and people groups should be allowed to walk the path toward unity.
  4. And solidarity is one of the ways in which these things come about.

Pope John Paul II wrote often about solidarity.  Here’s a poignant section from one of his writings:

It is above all a question of interdependence, sensed as a system determining relationships in the contemporary world in its economic, cultural, political, and religious elements, and accepted as a moral category.  When interdependence becomes recognized in this way, the correlative response as a moral and social attitude, as a “virtue,” is solidarity.  This then is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far.  On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good, that is to say, to the good of all and of each individual because we are all really responsible for all.
~Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 1987, No. 38

Again, there is a ton worth noting.

  1. Solidarity is all about interdependence.
  2. Solidarity is a virtue.
  3. It is not feeling sorry for someone or for a group of people.
  4. And it’s not the feeling of pain or distress at the misfortunes of others.
  5. Solidarity is “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good.”
  6. We’re all responsible for each other.

In other words, Cain’s timeless question (“Am I my brother’s keeper? [Genesis 4.9]) has a definitive answer — YES!  And if you aren’t convinced by Pope John Paul II’s words, that’s okay.  His words are based on the teachings of Jesus (read the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10) and Paul (who explicitly says that the Spirit works among us for the “common good” in 1 Corinthians 12.7).

But importantly, feeling sorry for someone or getting sad or angry at the pain of someone else is not necessarily solidarity.  Perhaps these things are the early stages of compassion or empathy but they certainly don’t demonstrate “persevering determination”!

 

Solidarity and Ferguson

With all of these definitions and what not in mind, what’s an appropriate response to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the vast underlying issues of race and ethnicity that it brought to the fore?

Let’s start by thinking about what some inappropriate responses might be:

  1. “…………………”  We all know that silence in situations like this is wrong.  We all know that inaction is wrong.  How do we know this?  Because we all will begin making excuses as to why we’ve been silent or why we haven’t acted.  We’ll say that we don’t know the facts yet.  We’ll say that we don’t know what to do.  We’ll say that the problem is too big to deal with.  Blah, blah, blah.  Each of these excuses indicates that we know what we ought to be doing.
  2. “Get over it” or “Leave the past in the past.”  How is this attitude demonstrating a desire for the common good that the Apostle Paul talked about?  How is this demonstrating our intrinsic human interdependence?  How is this sentiment demonstrating the Christ-like attitudes of humility and concern for others (Philippians 2.1-11)?  The answer to all three questions is the same: it’s not.
  3. “That sucks for them; now where’s the next cat video?”  This response (though the last part is clearly tongue-in-cheek) is pretty common.  We see something horrible, such as the killing of Michael Brown, and we feel sad.  But we don’t want to feel sad so we try to move on quickly.  This is the “vague compassion” that John Paul II was talking about.  It doesn’t do anyone any good.
  4. “THIS %&^&$ MAKES ME ANGRY!”  Should the killing of an unarmed teenager evoke emotions?  Absolutely.  But if those emotions don’t result in action, they are pointless.  I said that very directly and I know that can sound crass and uncaring.  But it’s true.  Anger about injustice is simply not enough.

So instead, what can we do?

  1. Listen and learn.  If you’re white, talk to your friends of color.  Ask them how the situation in Ferguson makes them feel.  Ask them about what it is like being a person of color in your culture (especially if you are in a culture in which white people have tended to be in places of power).  Read books and blogs about the issue, especially those that might challenge your usual point of view.  Look again at the history of racism in the West, whether by reading some books or watching some documentaries (I highly recommend the BBC’s three-part series, History of Racism).
  2. Feel.  It’s perfectly okay to feel compassion and anger in moments like these.  In fact, these emotions can help inspire us toward action.  But don’t get stuck here…and it is easy to do so!
  3. Stand in solidarity.  With persevering determination, be committed to the common good.  Move beyond just thinking and acting on behalf of yourself, your family, and people like you.  Begin to think and act on behalf of all people, especially those different than you.  There are a thousand ways to do this, many of which are already in motion.  Do some research, find an organization you trust and love, and connect yourself with them by giving of your time, energy, and money.
  4. Walk with community.  Don’t do any of this alone.  Don’t listen and learn alone.  Don’t feel alone.  And don’t stand in solidarity alone.  Lean on each other.  Bring people different from you within your community.  Learn, grow, and act in support of the common good together.

Lastly, this issue of standing in solidarity is central to what it means to follow Jesus.  If we want to be on mission with Jesus, meaning participating in the reconciliation of all things to God in Christ through fulfilling the Great Commandment and the Great Commission, then we must stand in solidarity with those who are suffering.  Being missional without adopting the virtue of solidarity is a farce.

Why?

Because every life matters.

 

How do you and your community stand in solidarity with those who are hurting?  Let me know in the comments below!

 

Previous post: Michael Brown, Ferguson, and the Police

Michael Brown, Ferguson, and the Police

Michael Brown and Ferguson: Perception and the Police

When I was a child I was taught to respect the police. I often went on field trips in school to visit law enforcement stations. I always had positive interactions with the police in those settings, in my communities at large, and in general. My perception of the police as a young white man was that they were there to do their stated mission: to protect and to serve.

However, I’m becoming aware that this is not the prevailing perception of the police with everyone, especially among people of color. For various reasons that are difficult to encapsulate in any quick way, people of color, especially black Americans, often view the police as a threat and with suspicion. Some view the police as out to get them by actively profiling them. And both anecdotal stories from my black friends as well as research about the rates of arrest validate some of these concerns.

It’s in this context, the context of the perception of the police, that the story in Ferguson, Missouri of the fatal shooting of an unarmed young man named Michael Brown takes place. In other words, this story is not happening in a vacuum. This story is not happening outside the context of race and ethnicity. This story is not happening outside the realities of American history. And this story is not happening outside the decades and decades of racial tension in American cities like Ferguson.

The Church’s Response

The question that I want to wrestle with a little bit is this: what is the church’s response to situations like the one in Ferguson? What should we do?

First, we should not be silent. Churches all over America will probably not mention this story this weekend at all. Many of these silent churches will be primarily white (though it should be noted that historically black churches are sometimes silent on social issues also).

There is another piece of evidence, albeit anecdotal: my social media feeds. Despite the fact that I have numerous Christian friends online, almost none of them who are white have mentioned the story in Ferguson at all. This may be due to fear, or confusion, or whatever else. On the flip side many of my black friends, my Asian friends, and my Latino friends have been mentioning this story often. I’m sure it’s not just my social media feed that looks this way.

And, in my humble opinion, this is a disgrace. White Christians should also be involved in issues of race and ethnicity. We should stand on the side of justice. This should not be something that we ignore because it’s difficult or complicated. We should not shy away from these sorts of topics because we are scared that our white brothers and sisters may not understand where we’re coming from. And we can’t let our fears of being called “liberal” or something of that sort prevent is from standing up for what’s right.

And if the media reports are correct that Michael Brown was unarmed and that he had his hands raised whenever he was gunned down, then what happened was not right. This is true regardless of his past, his affiliations, or any other things about him. He was unarmed and his hands were raised according to reports. If those things are true then the way he died is unjust. And we Christians, all of us Christians, need to stand on the side of what’s right and just.

And second, we need to be reminded that the Jesus of the Gospels stood on the side of those who were marginalized. Specifically Jesus often went out of his way to include people who were different than him, especially the Samaritans. And we see this continuing in the book of Acts as the good news expanded outside of the bonds of Jewish ethnicity and extended into Gentile world. We read this in Paul’s letters, in the other epistles, and all throughout the Old Testament. This notion of including all people is a common theme in all of the Bible. And yet at some point we have limited the Bible to be only about me and people like me. Now that “me and people like me” in my previous sentence could be people literally like me, middle-class white people, or maybe people like you, whatever your social location.

The truth is that the gospel is not just for people like me or people like you. It is for all people. And as such those of us who claim to follow Jesus should begin to live like Jesus lived. And one of the chief ways that Jesus lived was for the other, especially the marginalized other.

Friends, in America there are marginalized people. One of the ways that people are marginalized most often is through race and ethnicity. And it is high time that we in the church took a hard stand for those who are marginalized. For whatever reason. Especially if we are white.

I would love to hear your thoughts on what I’ve written here in the comments below. But the comments need to remain civil and respectful. Any comments that I deem otherwise will be removed. Thank you for your understanding.

Robin Williams and Depression

The news of Robin Williams’ passing is incredibly sad. He’s always been one of my favorite comedians.

It may not be surprising to anyone who knows me but I love stand up comedy.

Number one: it’s funny. I love the way that comedians look at life. They see the absurdity and irony of things and they find humor in life that many of us never could. Number two: it’s taught me so much about communication. I’ve often thought that doing stand-up comedy at an open mic night would be a great way to improve my communication skills. The way that comedians are able to get their ideas across to the audience is simply amazing. And I’m not sure there was anyone who was better at it than Robin Williams. He packed more jokes into a smaller space than just about anyone else.

With all of that said it’s understandable why his passing is really difficult for many of us. Robin Williams was a man that many of us loved. He brought us joy. He made us laugh. He made us think.

And yet at his core it appears that he did not have joy. It’s been widely reported that Robin Williams was depressed. As a depressive person myself I can understand where he’s coming from. Even though he was receiving adulation from millions of people in the world, he apparently had a hard time believing this for himself.

Depression and the Church

The depression that Robin Williams may have suffered from is not necessarily something that can be willed or prayed away. For some of us depression or being depressive is just a matter of our brains’ chemistries. It’s something that we have to live with and learn how to manage our whole lives.

Unfortunately in the church depression is still a major stigma. People often think that those who suffer with depression just haven’t realized or accepted the joy of the Lord. They just haven’t prayed the right way. Maybe there’s some sin that they just can’t get over. Etc., etc., ad nauseam. Those of us who suffer from depression or who tend to be depressive often hear all this nonsense. In fact we hear it so much that we are hesitant to reveal that we’re depressive or are in the midst of suffering from depression.

So in light of Robin Williams’ untimely death I think it would be wise for us to think again about how we as the church approach mental illness, especially depression. We can’t turn a blind eye anymore. And we can’t just relegate it to the category of those bad Christians who simply don’t pray enough. Depression and mental illness are realities that we need to take seriously!

One of the ways that we can begin taking them seriously is by removing the stigma from depression and other mental illnesses. We need to be people who are open and accepting of all people and all of their baggage. Our churches need to be safe havens for people who suffer all kinds of ailments, whatever they may be. If we did this, then I think we would be more known for our kindness and compassion than for our judgmental attitudes!

Another thing that we need to take away from from this situation is the following: Take helpful action!  If any of us are having suicidal thoughts or if any of us know those who may be having suicidal thoughts, we need to seek help. If we are depressed or know someone who is, it may be time to think about visiting a professional. There’s nothing wrong with seeking counseling or medication if necessary. And as the church we need to do a better job of not judging people with mental illness.

Friends we need to remember the Scripture where Jesus said that he came for the sick and not for the well (Matthew 9.12, Mark 2.17, Luke 5.31). There are many different kinds of sicknesses, one of which is mental illness. And Jesus came for folks who suffer the way that Robin Williams suffered.

Let us do a better job of caring for those in need.

 

How do you think the church should approach depression?  Let me know in the comments below.

Missional Leadership: Listening

“You have two ears and one mouth for a reason.  Sit down and listen Matt!”

Sadly I’ve forgotten who exactly said this to me.  I do know, however, that it was a teacher of mine in seventh grade.  As anyone who knows me will tell you, I’m uber-talkative.  Especially when I’m sleepy.  And when was I not sleepy as a seventh grader!

But this aphorism from my teacher speaks volumes.  While its reliance on anatomy and physiology is cutesy; the truth behind it is solid.  Listening is important, even more important than talking.

listening

By: Travis Isaacs
Listening is a skill that needs to be developed.

Listening Is a Thing of the Past

Think about this — there are four primary types of communication: 1) writing, 2) reading, 3) speaking, and 4) listening.  Formal education in the West centers almost completely on writing and reading, with a tiny bit of speaking thrown in, such as in a public speaking course here or there.  But there is almost no training for an average student with regard to listening.  Almost none.

Isn’t that crazy?  One of the most important human skills is completely left off the educational menu!  One of my favorite leadership thinkers, Michael Hyatt, says that listening is a lost art, and it appears he is right!

The Impact of Our Lack of Listening

What kind of impact has this oversight had on us, our culture, our leadership skills, and our capacity to be missional?

  • Listening is THE major component of oral communication, thus if we aren’t doing it well then we aren’t communicating well.  And if we aren’t communicating well then our friendships, families, jobs, neighborhoods, churches, etc. are all negatively impacted.
  • Listening is a required skill of anyone who wants to learn about and from a new culture.  Taking on the role of a listener helps us stay humble and explicitly reminds us that we are here to learn.  Moreover, there’s no better way to learn about something then to listen to the people who experience it most keenly!
  • Listening is essential in leadership.  How can we hope to lead people well if we aren’t in position to hear their concerns, hopes, wishes, and desires?  How can we be trusted to take the reins if we aren’t willing to bend our ears toward others?
  • And lastly, our lack of listening is extremely detrimental to our missional efforts.

Missional Listening

So, what are some ways that listening will help us as we seek more and more to be on mission with God, accomplishing his will where we work, live, and play?

  1. Contextualize: We will be able to contextualize the good news of Jesus better if we listen.  One of the first steps that any good missionary should take is listening.  We should intentionally become a learner of culture so that we can see how best we can communicate Jesus and his kingdom wherever we find ourselves.
  2. Empathize: Being in the regular habit of listening will also show others that we care, that we empathize.  I love the word “empathize.”  It means, at its core, to understand, feel, and respond appropriately to the feelings of others.  It necessitates that we learn through listening.  And by listening to others we actively demonstrate that we care.
  3. Humble-ize: Despite how hard it is, being humble is the only way truly to listen.  And if we humbly listen well, then folks will trust us more.  And as people trust us more, the good news of Jesus and his kingdom will become more and more attractive to them.  And as Jesus and his kingdom become more attractive, communities will change for the good.

 

Therefore, friends, we need to become more effective listeners!  What are some ways that you think you can become a better listener?  Let me know in the comments below.

Small Talk with a Purpose

Are you like me; do you hate small talk?  When chatting with a complete stranger (which is another thing I tend to avoid!), is the idea of idly chewing the fat about the weather just about the worst thing you can imagine?  Or, while at a party, do you cringe at the thought of having to word vomit about nothing with people you barely know for two or three hours?

If you answered affirmatively to any of these question, then one of two things may be true about you: 1) you’re an introvert  (yay!); or 2) you really hate small talk.  It should be noted that both of these things do not have to be true at the same time, though they certainly can be (and maybe they usually are?).  The hatred of small talk can by shared by introverts and extroverts alike!

Small talk

Does the thought of small talk make you want to poke your own eyeballs out?

 

But is there any place for small talk, idle chatter, barely-scratching-the-surface speech?

 Small Talk on Mission

A friend of mine recently said that she didn’t like small talk at all.  However, at a gathering we had, she engaged in some small talk and felt quite a bit differently about it.  What changed?

Her words were that the small talk at the party was meaningful — it was small talk with a purpose.

The gathering we were at was a party that consisted of some folks who knew Jesus and some who did not yet.  It wasn’t pushy, religious, weird, or anything like that.  Instead it was literally just hanging out.  It was us creating some proximity space for some of our friends to get to know what Christians are really like.

So when my friend engaged in small talk, she knew it had a larger purpose.  Each “What do you do?” and “What do you think about the weather?” was centered around the gospel.  Each awkward second had the possibility of representing a tiny step closer to someone she cared about meeting Jesus.

That’s small talk I can get behind!

 

What do you think of small talk?  Let me know in the comments below.

How to Make a Friend

Making a friend can be hard.  Well, for some of us it can.

In fact, I recently heard a friend say that at the school he went to there was a required non-credit course about how to have a conversation.  This made me laugh because I thought it was ridiculous.

And then, and then, and then…

And then I realized how poor many of us are at having conversations.  And then I realized how many of us really stink at making friends.  And then I realized how poor many of us who claim to follow Jesus are at creating a real friendship with someone who doesn’t follow Jesus.

Stuff got real, real fast.

How good of a friend are we?

Tonight I was reading Growing Local Missionaries: Equipping Churches to Sow Shalom in Their Own Cultural Backyard and in it Dan Steigerwald makes an amazing point.  Here it is:

I am convinced that a big part of the Church’s missional formation across America must now involve getting back to the most basic level of motivating and equipping Christians to have natural relationships with normal people!  That is a pretty startling reality. (61)

Did you catch that?  He is saying that we followers of Jesus really don’t know how to make friends in this world where we live.

So, what do we do in response to this?

Step-by-Step Guide to Making a New Friend

Welp, here’s some helpful advice from missional thinker Mark van Steenwyk (from his article called “Incarnational Practices” in Next-Wave from October 2005; found in Growing Local Missionaries by Steigerwald [65]).  Oh, and by the way, this framework could probably have been from my friend’s class on how to have a conversation.  It goes like this:

  1. If you see someone at your favorite place a few times, you have permission to give them the “nod” of recognition (or subtle waive).
  2. If you’ve recognized their presence a couple times, it is socially ok to say “hello.”
  3. Once you’ve said hello to someone once or twice, it is ok to make comments like “hey, it sure is nice today” or “is that book you’re reading interesting?”
  4. After you’ve broken the ice, you can introduce yourself.
  5. Once you’re on a first-name basis, you have social permission to have normal conversations with them, and things develop from there.

Got it?

 

Is it just me, or is it sad that we have to have a guide like this in order to know how to make a friend with someone different than us?  What do you think?

A Simple Missional Prayer Habit

As I’ve been studying various missional practitioners and their ideas, one thing seems to be overlooked from time to time — prayer.  It’s not that folks don’t talk about it; they do.  However, it is often not a focus.  Other things tend to take center stage, such as strategies, stories, and studies of Scripture.  All of these things are good, great even!, but prayer can’t be overlooked.

A Prayer Habit

Full disclosure: my wife and I aren’t perfect.  Far from it!  But from time to time we get a few things right; and I think the particular prayer habit I’m about to describe is one of them.

We recently moved to a new neighborhood and we want to be a witness of the gospel of Jesus and his kingdom in it.  In order to do so we quickly realized that we need to get to know our neighbors — both those in our immediate vicinity and those a little further away.  To accomplish this my wife had the brilliant idea of taking a walk in our neighborhood each night that we eat dinner at home.

Here’s how it works.  We eat dinner, then pray for God to bring whomever he would like across our paths, and then we go out for a walk.  Sometimes we bring something with us, like cookies, to give to people.  Other times we simply walk around and strike up conversations when it’s appropriate.

God has been faithful to bring someone along our path each time, someone that we have the opportunity to meet and to bless.

Here are a few examples:

On one of our first walks we met a man named Louis who looked rather dejected.  When we said that we had cookies for him, he flashed us the biggest smile and gobbled them up happily!  A week or two later we were out walking and saw Louis once again.  We called him by name, which seemed to make his day, and gave him some more cookies.

Another time we approached a group of eight or so young people.  We had been nervous about talking to such a large group, but after praying we both felt compelled by the Spirit to go for it.  In so doing we got to meet some really cool people, including one man who has lived in our neighborhood for more than three decades.  We’re hoping to get to know him better so that he can help us learn about where we live!

Last night we went on a pretty eventful walk and were almost back home.  That’s when one our neighbors in our closest vicinity stopped to chat with us.  We made some small talk and then she revealed that she was facing some real drama and pain in her life.  This opened a great door for us to engage in some missional listening and to pray for her when we returned home.

And what led to each of these encounters?  A simple habit of praying for God to bring whomever he wanted us to bless across our paths.

What sort of missional prayer habits do you find helpful?  Let me know in the comments below!

Proximity Spaces

The Reality

One of the chief challenges facing Western Christians today is a general lack of meaningful relationships with people who do not follow Jesus.  Christians are simply not in proximity with those who don’t know Jesus yet.  There are a number of reasons for this:

  1. Perhaps there is a view that mingling with those who don’t follow Jesus will have a corrupting influence.
  2. Perhaps the follower of Jesus simply spends most of his/her time among other followers of Jesus naturally, due to an honest and authentic attempt to worship, learn about, and grow in relationship with God.
  3. Perhaps there is fear regarding those who don’t follow Jesus, since they are sometimes vilified by some Christians.
  4. Perhaps followers of Jesus really are judgmental toward those who aren’t on their team (like much of the evidence seems to indicate).
  5. Or perhaps there are other reasons that I have overlooked.

Whatever the case, many folks who claim to follow Jesus have almost no real contact with people who don’t know Jesus yet.

So What?  Why Is Proximity a Big Deal?

Why does this reality matter?  What difference does it make that followers of Jesus don’t have many non-Christian friends and acquaintances?  Why is proximity important?

It matters for many, many reasons.  Here are just a few:

  1. In Matthew 5.13-14 Jesus says that his disciples were the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world.”  And they were!  They were out there in the world being salty and light-y!  But if we aren’t walking about on the earth, in among people of the world, then we can’t really be salt and light!
  2. In Matthew 28.19-20 Jesus gives his followers one last command, namely to make disciples.  Well, how can we make disciples if we are always and only surrounded by folks who claim to be disciples?
  3. In Matthew 22.36-40 we learn that Jesus boils down all of the commandments in the Old Testament to one: Love God and love your neighbors.  Welp, how can we love our neighbors (especially those who do not yet know Jesus) if we don’t actually get to know them?
  4. If we are to have an impact in the cultures where we find ourselves, whether in Altadena or Azerbaijan, then we must know the culture!  And while we can read books, watch movies, and hear testimonies about various cultures, the only real way to learn a culture is to meet, interact with, and befriend people within that culture.
  5. Lastly, while it is important that followers of Jesus maintain certain ethical standards and live out certain priorities, we don’t have to be awkwardly weird!  If we cloister ourselves off from the cultures in which we live, we will drift further and further away from what a typical person is like.  And if this happens, then the “us and them” phenomenon will much more easily rear its ugly head.

So, suffice it to say, it’s not biblical, advisable, or obedient to live a life completely separated off from people in this world — people created in the image of God and people for whom Jesus died!

How to Move Forward…

If it’s true that many followers of Jesus have almost no real relationships with people who don’t know Jesus and if it’s true that this is a bad thing…then what should we do?  How should we respond?

Alan Hirsch and Mike Frost have a phrase that is helpful — “proximity spaces.”  They define this phrase as “places or events where Christians and not-yet-Christians can interact meaningfully with each other” (24) in their book entitled The Shaping of Things to Come.  What might these proximity spaces look like? 

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Challenge your small group to begin to make friendships with people who don’t know Jesus and then have a party in which you all hang out together.  Nothing “religious” has to happen at this party.  This is simply a proximity space in which people can see that those who love Jesus aren’t necessarily judgmental, arrogant buzzkills.
  2. Another option is to plan a service event a month or so in the future.  Invite some of your friends, both those who follow Jesus and those who don’t.  In my experience people are much more likely to say “yes” to this invitation than they would be to an invitation to go to church.
  3. You could also begin to play a sport with someone who doesn’t know Jesus yet.  This one is especially beneficial for two reasons: 1–They will get to observe you dealing with failure and frustration, along with victory and success; 2–There is often down time between games, holes, innings, etc. during which you can chat.
  4. Use your imagination.  Think about where you work, live, and play.  Is there some way that you could intentionally invite someone who doesn’t know Jesus yet into that space?  Think about your hobbies and habits.  Can you co-mingle with someone who doesn’t follow Jesus in that capacity?

 

Friends, if we don’t find ways to interact with people who don’t know Jesus yet, how can we be obedient to the call of Jesus?  How can we truly face our growing mission field in the United States if we don’t interact with people who haven’t begun to follow Jesus?

 

What are some other examples of proximity spaces?  Let me know in the comments below!

Getting in Position!

Have you ever had an experience in which you felt like you were in the right place at the right time to make an impact?

I like to call times like that being in position.  There are times in which your specific skills, talents, gifts, availability, passions, etc. line up perfectly for a task or need at hand.  You’re in position!

Let me tell you of one of those times in my life…

In Position 1: William

I’m part of a group that prepares hot dogs for folks who live and hang out in a local park.  The purpose of this activity is missional: we want to build relationships with people – love them, feed them, and begin to point them to Jesus.

On one such occasion a friend and me were walking around the park inviting people to come have hot dogs with us.  We invited a man named William and he accepted.  Usually in these situations people have stuff to gather up before they can come over to our location.  William, however, had all of his stuff in a backpack he was wearing, so he fell in behind us as we made our way back to the grill.

On the way I learned that William had a deep interest in early Christian history.  This was perfect for me since I’ve spent much of my adult life learning about early Christian history and the cultural milieu out of which the Church emerged.  William and I ended up chatting for almost an hour.  He asked about other “Gospels” other than the four in the Bible.  He had questions about the Gnostics and their role (or lack thereof) in influencing Paul.  We chatted for quite a while about the formation of the canon of the New Testament as well.

Our conversation was deep and wide-ranging.  William told me that he had read every book on religion that the local library had…and it showed!  He was knowledgeable!  He and I were not able to agree on every point but we left the conversation with newly-found respect for one another!

I felt especially “in position” to have this conversation with William!

In Position 2: Alan

William went in for another hot dog and as he did so I heard how loud and distracting my friend Alan was being.  Alan was quite intoxicated and was saying things like: “I am death,” “I am darkness,” and “I want to die and take the world with me.”  Needless to say, Alan was freaking everyone out, me included!  However, I had just been reading Sentness: Six Postures of Missional Christians by Kim Hammond and Darren Cronshaw and in it the authors urge missional Christians to be shock-proof.  There’s nothing quite as off-putting (and judgmental!) as showing visible signs of shock at the decisions of people who do not yet know Jesus.

So, I tried my best to be calm and I prayed.  I asked God to give me wisdom and guidance.  Then I began to ask Alan questions about what he was saying.  I was poking and prodding, trying to enter his world.  He asked me at one point if I was making fun of him and I said, “No!  I’m just trying to figure out what’s going on with you.”

After a few minutes of this I realized that getting beyond his intoxicated haze was next to impossible.  So, I asked Alan if I could pray for him.  He said he didn’t want me to because all prayer is fake.  I then said, “Well, let me pray and we’ll see.”

Again I asked God to give me guidance and I put my hand on the back of Alan’s neck.  I began to pray for him.  I prayed for him to have clarity and for him to find peace.  Then I prayed for Satan to leave him alone.  Now you really need to understand that this is really, really, really out of character for me!  I almost never pray this way.  But I felt led by the Spirit to do so…so I did.

Almost immediately Alan’s body relaxed.  He stopped cursing and resisting the prayer.  In fact, he crumpled into my chest and I just hugged him and prayed for him.  When I finished praying, he and I sat on the ground and chatted for a bit.  He told me how alone he felt, how helpless he was, and how frustrated he was.  He asked me for my phone number, so I wrote it down on a piece of paper and put it in his wallet.

Alan hasn’t called yet and he may never call.

But God put me in position to be there for him in the same way that God has put people in position to be there for me.

So What?

What’s the point of telling this story.  Please don’t take this as bragging or boasting.  I was really just the right guy in the right place, thanks to the leading of the Spirit.

Instead I want to leave you with some questions: When’s the last time you felt in position to be used by God?  Is it time to answer the call to be on mission with God?  Is it time to find out what position God can put you in so you can best be used?