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It was a hectic morning. I’d overslept, our sixteen-month-old daughter had awakened early, and our small family was grasping for order amid the chaos of what promised to be another busy day. Trying to occupy her attention, I said,  “Why don’t we read a book?” She pointed at the bookcase, said “Book!” and proceeded to grab a copy of the Jesus Storybook BibleI opened the pages and started reading aloud. Most of the language was still far above her head, but it went straight to my heart. With a sigh of relief I thought, It’s refreshing to simply be told a story about Jesus.

Then I had a flashback. Ten years ago, I was working in a cafe in Boulder, CO. One weeknight during my closing shift, I was sweeping the floor and preparing to clean the sparsely filled cafe when I overheard a conversation between three customers. They were college-age women having a Bible study. One, who appeared to be the leader, was talking to the others who both listened attentively. As I tried to hear more, I noticed that all she was doing was telling them stories about Jesus. And the women she was speaking to kept asking questions curiously. They wanted to hear more about Him. It was beautiful. I could have continued sweeping for hours while eavesdropping on that conversation.

These two experiences stand in contrast with most of the conversations I overhear in the Church at large. We talk about a lot about things related to our life together, but it’s been a long time since I heard (or sadly, preached) a sermon that was only about how magnificent Jesus is. We have lots of good theological conversations at the seminary, but we constantly run the risk of reducing Jesus to a distant historical figure or a moral principle, instead of the compassionate divine lover of humankind that He is. This distancing of our conversation from Jesus seems to happen even more in the higher levels of the bureaucracy of denominations.

This weekend I’ll go to Detroit for the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). I’m not a delegate; I’ll be there to represent and promote Pittsburgh Seminary’s Church Planting Initiative. There will be a lot of talk at General Assembly, good and bad, about a lot of different issues. I’ll even engage in some of those conversations. But I think we’ll all be better off – our hearts will be more joyful, the Church will be edified, our decisions will be more faithful – if we take moments this week to set aside those debates and instead focus upon Jesus. So here’s my suggestion:

If you’re attending General Assembly, try speaking about Jesus more than yourself and more than your agenda. I want to hear you tell me about Jesus. If you’re using Twitter or Facebook throughout the Assembly, hashtag your posts with #TellMeAboutJesus. For one example of a possible tweet, a member of my congregation whom I recently asked to simply tell me about Jesus responded with, “He’s the sort of person who, when he speaks, you want to hear more.” I’m thinking that if we at GA share such holy thoughts with one another, we’ll find ourselves caught up in surprisingly beautiful conversations. Perhaps we’ll even recognize Jesus’ presence with us more clearly. I pray that the Holy Spirit will inspire our words, and guard us against any blasphemy.

So here we go . . . Tell me about Jesus.  

It’s early on a Tuesday morning. A month ago at this time, I was pulling muffins out of the oven and steaming milk for lattes at the cafe where I worked for five a half years. Today, I’m reading over the recently approved statement of goals for the M.Div. program at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in preparation for two meetings I’ll have this morning. It’s all a part of my new job.

I am excited to be taking on the challenge of coordinating the Church Planting Emphasis at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. The seminary feels like home to me. Conversations with students and faculty bring joy to my heart. I see great potential in this program, and am both humbled and delighted to participate in something that has such power to shape the future of the Church.

But I am truly going to miss the cafe. When my co-pastor and I answered God’s call to plant The Upper Room five and a half years ago, we chose to become bivocational pastors. Like the Apostle Paul, who had a trade of making tents which at times supported his ministry, we chose to take second jobs that would both ease the financial burden of starting a new church and give us additional ways to build relationships for our ministries.

I wanted a job in the neighborhood which would allow me to meet people I wouldn’t meet inside the walls of a typical church. The 61C and 61B Cafes gave me more opportunities to develop meaningful relationships than I could have ever imagined. Over five and a half years, these relationships became so strong that stepping back from them now brings about a genuine feeling of grief. On my last morning of work, I cried as I handed my keys back to my manager and friend Keith. Then I sobbed as I sat in my car, preparing to go directly from the cafe to the seminary.

This is week three of my work at the seminary, and it’s going quite well, but I don’t want to forget the things God showed me over my years at the cafe. So I hope to do some writing here in the coming months which will intentionally reflect on the things the Lord taught me through my work at the cafe. After my trip to Brazil next week – where PTS students and I will study how the Brazilian Presbyterian Church plants new congregations – I’ll put together a series of posts here about what my ministry at the cafe taught me about prayer, relationships, mission, and work. Especially work. It seems that many of us have under-developed theologies of work, and God used my years in the cafe to teach me much about the purpose and value of our daily labors.

Time to get ready for work. If I hurry, I might be able to grab a cup of coffee on the way.

I’m headed out of town today for a Company of New Pastors retreat where we’ll be discussing Alan Roxburgh’s book The Sky is Falling.  Despite being a church-planter, it’s been a while since I’ve read one of these “the world is changing and we have to become missional before the Church dies” books.  As I’ve discovered the fruitfulness of reading works from the early Church, books in Roxburgh’s genre have become less appealing.  But this book did have some important ideas regarding the formation of leaders for the Church in our context and the roles those leaders then fill. I want to comment on these because I find his proposal both promising and lacking.

Anyone considering reading this book should know that the first nine chapters (140 pages) of the book are designed to set up the final 3 chapters (48 pages).   This last section of the book is where it actually gets exciting. As for set up, here’s what you need to know: The Church in our context is in a situation of liminality – a period of change in which one is in-between two different stages or places, a prolonged time of standing in a threshold. Think of Israel wandering in the wilderness, living in-between the life they’d known in Egypt and the life they would know in the Promised Land.  During such periods of liminality, the people going through this change discover a new sense of connection or bonding called communitas.  If you’ve ever been on a mission trip, you know what this feels like. It’s the sense of connection that you develop with that team of people while you’re experiencing an adventure in an unfamiliar context.  Roxburgh sees the Church in a period of liminality, and argues that both traditional and non-traditional leaders need to work together to create communitas in order to survive the transition.

Once you get to Chapter 10, Roxburgh starts to lay out a vision for leadership in the Church which sees Christian leaders with various roles and gifts and united under the leadership of an “Abbot/Abbess”.  These leaders with differing functions and spiritual gifts would ideally be trained not in modern seminary environments but through hands-on apprenticeship under masters of the faith. These ‘masters’ should be characterized less by academic credentials and more by experience, wisdom, and spiritual maturity.  Ideally this is already the goal of apprenticeship programs such as The World Christian Discipleship Program. Here I agree with Roxburgh’s general observations about leadership formation. After describing some of the roles which these leaders fill – poet, prophet, pastor – Roxburgh moves on to his proposal for an office of “Abbot”. The Abbot or Abbess functions less as a manager of an organization and more as a curator of an environment. Borrowing a term from Lawrence Miller, Roxburgh calls this person a synergist, defined as “a leader with the capacity to unify diverse and divergent leadership styles around a common sense of missional vision for a specific community” (p. 155). Surprisingly to me, Roxburgh envisions the Abbot not as the leader of one congregation, but as an overseer of many various ministries and congregations. (If you have the book, see the chart on page 182 which makes this clear.)  Essentially, Roxburgh is proposing having a bishop.  He avoids this word, probably because of its authoritarian and institutional connotations, stressing that the Abbot is “not a denominational executive” (p. 182), but I can’t help but think that Roxburgh’s Abbot is close to what a bishop should be. This is good, and I find it particularly relevant to our own context where Pittsburgh Presbytery is implementing a new mission plan which will eventually lead to us having four “branch ministers” who could each lead just as Roxburgh envisions his Abbot or Abbess leading. Good.

Promising as this is, there’s something missing in Roxburgh’s ecclesiology. And it’s something big. The problem with this book, and with so many other books on missional ecclesiology, is that it totally neglects the role of the sacraments in shaping and sustaining the life of the Church.  Despite occasional suggestions that we look to our history for guidance, Roxburgh doesn’t always present an accurate reading of Church history.  Contrary to the overview of early Church history in pages 148-150,  the early Church did have a defined pattern of leadership in which hierarchy did not always equal bureaucracy. The office of bishop evolved very early in the life of the Church not out of captivity to our culture’s professionalism or bureaucracy, but out of a desire to ensure proper celebration of the sacraments. Ordination was practiced by the Church to set people apart for the leadership of worship, not administration. Like other similar books, Roxburgh at times reflects anachronistic projection of contemporary emergent distrust of hierarchy onto the history of the Church. The primary concern of the early Church’s first bishops wasn’t paperwork.  It was a life of worship culminating in the celebration of Eucharist each week.  And if that’s the primary job description of a bishop, I see no reason to fear using the word bishop. Roxburgh’s choice of the word Abbot reflects a low ecclesiology, rather than a true sense of monasticism, in which the Abbot also lives a life of worship.

But this correction is no reason to abandon Roxburgh’s vision. Rather, the book’s proposal for leadership should be deepened to reflect the spirituality necessary for leadership of the Church in our context.  What if the Abbot or Abbess whom Roxburgh pictures overseeing multiple congregations and ministries was primarily concerned with cultivating environments of holy and beautiful worship? What if prayer and spiritual disciplines were essential parts of the apprenticeships which prepare the leaders who serve under the Abbot? What if remembrance of our Baptismal identity and celebration of the Lord’s Supper provide the connections to the “core Christian narrative” which Roxburgh says we need to recover? That’s a vision for the Church that I find appealing.

What is Church unity?  Seriously, what does it mean for the Church to be united?

Later this afternoon, I’ll attend a Presbytery meeting where we’ll discuss the creation of a “gracious dismissal” policy for churches from our Presbytery who want to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA).  To state it plainly, our denomination is dividing. The reasons are complex and more than I want to write about here, but across the country churches are leaving either for the more conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church or for the newly created Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO).  I attended part of the Fellowship of Presbyterians conference in Florida two weeks ago where ECO was unveiled in John Ortberg’s compelling vision-casting sermon.  More than 10% of the congregations in the denomination were represented at the Fellowship’s two gatherings in the past year.  Almost as many people attended each of those gatherings as attend the PC(USA)’s biennial General Assembly, our national governing meeting.  These divisions can’t be ignored or dismissed.  And I have very mixed feelings about all of  this.

On the one hand, I grieve any division in the Church.  Schism is never God’s intention for the Church.  But on the other hand, the creation of a new denomination is really only giving concrete shape to an ideological schism which has been present for decades.  In the New Testament, unity in the Church often means being of “one mind” (Acts 2:46, Philippians 2:1-2). But what does it really mean to be of “one mind?”  There was room in the New Testament Church for ethnic and cultural diversity (Acts 2, Acts 10, Acts 15, Galatians 3).  And theological diversity was even present to an extent.  The writers of the New Testament clearly emphasize different theological concepts and different aspects of the faith. But for the most part, these cultural and theological differences in the New Testament are harmonious.  They’re different notes that still sound like they fit in a chord or scale together. Unfortunately, the PC(USA) is, and has long been, at the point where the different notes we hear aren’t even in the same key. The differences make a cacophony rather than music.

Ephesians 4 begins by calling the Church to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (NASB).  These verses are quoted in our Presbytery’s “Guidelines for Presbyterians During Times of Disagreement”, the intention being to emphasize tolerance.  But I think we often ignore what Ephesians 4 goes on to say about Church unity.  Paul says gifts were given to the Church to build up  the Body of Christ . . .

until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.  As a result, we are no longer to be children tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness and deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fittted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. (Ephesians 4:13-15 NASB)

Maturity in Christ, according to this passage, includes unity in doctrine.  But the passage doesn’t speak about such maturity or unity as something which we’ve already attained.  It’s a process. We’re growing together toward maturity in Christ, and as we become more mature in Christ individually, the more united we become in terms of our belief. We’re not there yet.  We’re far from it, and it will take a lifetime to get there.

I personally have no intention of leaving the denomination.  Neither does my church. But I can’t say I’m of one mind with everyone in the PC(USA).  And yet I don’t want to invest my energy in division.  I sympathize with those desiring “gracious dismissal”, but at this point I would rather spend my time and energy seeking maturity in Christ.  I have close friends in this Church with whom I disagree on certain issues, but I’m confident we’re seeking maturity in Christ together.  I want to trust that if we are each on the road to sanctification, each trusting that “He who began a good work in us will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6), each striving to enter through the small gate and walk the narrow way that leads to life (Matthew 6:14), God will lead us to such unity in faith and maturity in Christ.

Following up on this past Saturday’s “End of Sexual Identity” event, I want to share about another book that has the potential to change the Church’s conversation about sexuality.  It’s Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality.

Hill writes as a self-identified gay Christian man who is choosing to remain celibate.  As he shares in the book, it’s difficult to find others speaking up from his position.  The voices that speak the loudest in the Church’s debates about sexuality are either (1) those thumping the Bible defending traditional Christian views of sexuality, often with insensitivity toward those who experience same-sex attraction, or (2) those promoting the more culturally acceptable view that homosexual activity is not sin.  The arguments between those two sides are often marked by callousness and lack of compassion.  People become entrenched in their positions and then talk past each other.  Perhaps because of that insensitivity, it’s hard to hear the voice of men and women who experience attraction to members of the same sex, yet deliberately choose, because of their Christian convictions, not to live into those attractions.  Shame, the feeling that their sin is “worse” than others, and fear of insensitive responses from others in the Church too often keep Christians who experience same-sex attraction in a lonely closet. Thankfully, Hill has given voice to that struggle, and his voice needs to be heard.

Though Hill identifies as a gay man, and uses categories like “homosexual” in ways which Jenell Paris would not, he makes it clear that the most important part of his identity is his identity in Christ. And his very personal story bears witness to the fact that one’s identity in Christ includes taking up one’s cross.  Hill writes movingly about the loneliness, isolation, and shame he’s experienced.  But he also shares about loving community and supportive friends, other celibate gay men who have served as role models (including Henri Nouwen), and the hope he has looking forward to the day when Jesus will say to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”  The personal aspect of Washed and Waiting makes it impossible to talk about homosexuality in abstract terms.  It’s a deeply personal matter, and this is a moving testimony from someone living a deeply personal struggle. 

Anyone interested in the Church’s debates about sexuality should read this book. Anyone who’s struggling with their sexuality and unsure where to look for guidance should read it, too.  Just as I hoped our event with Jenell Paris would change the conversation about sexuality in the Church by giving us different language for the Church to use, I think this book can change the conversation by presenting a different perspective: that of someone who’s chosen the counter-cultural path of celibacy. Hill makes it clear that such a path is not easy, but he believes it’s the right path. One does not have to express oneself sexually in order to be fully human. Jesus Christ was fully human and remained celibate. Surely the Church should be a place where voices like Hill’s can speak openly as they seek faithfulness to their Lord.

I serve the Church in a denomination that has been entrenched in battles over human sexuality for decades.  Debates about ordination of people in active homosexual relationships, as well as about the definition or marriage, are tearing the Church apart.  Seven years ago, I went to a national conference for our denomination and saw the battle taking place.  Neither side listened to the other.  They talked past each other.  What was authoritative for one side wasn’t for the other.  There was no common ground on which a debate could even fairly take place.  Ever since, I’ve wondered if there could be a healthier, more constructive way for the Church to handle its debates about sexuality. Is there a better way to talk about sexual morality as Christians?  Is there a better way to frame the conversation?

I think there is.

This Saturday, January 28th, Upper Room is going to host an event with anthropologist, author, and professor Jenell Williams Paris called “The End of Sexual Identity.” Paris’s book, The End of Sexual Identity, takes a unique approach to our culture’s conversation about sexuality, particularly categories like homosexuality and heterosexuality.  And I think this approach could have a really positive impact on the way the Church talks about sex.  For a preview of what Jenell has to say, you can listen to this interview with her.

There is more information on Upper Room’s site and you can click here to register for the event.  It runs from 10am to 3:30pm.  The morning and afternoon sessions will also include panel responses from a variety of people living out their sexuality in different ways. Lunch will be available through Franktuary, who will be selling hot dogs and other items on site.

A video of the PC(USA) stated clerk Gradye Parsons interviewing Brian McLaren has been making the rounds among some of my church-planting friends this week. I watched it this morning and was greatly encouraged by three things Brian says in the video.

See the video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvtpZEXA2dM&feature=player_profilepage.

(1) A minute and thirty seconds into the video, Brian contrasts two paths Christianity could take regarding social issues like war, poverty, and environmental stewardship.  Rather than being complacent about these, he says, “If there’s a vibrant, dynamic Christian identity and community in the United States that is sending people into the world with love for their neighbors, with a desire to be peacemakers, with a desire to care about poverty and care about the planet, we’ll have a very different future.”  Near the end of the video he returns to this theme, not just in terms of what issues should be priorities for the church, but in terms of our basic identity as Christians: “To be a follower of Christ, to be a true Christian, is to be someone who is joining God in God’s love and healing work in this world.  And so we’ll realize that being a Christian, every time we show up on Sunday we’re being equipped and deepened in our identity as God’s co-laborers, God’s co-conspirators for the healing and transformation of the world”  And Brian points to care for the environment, the justice for the poor, and peacemaking as three key places where we’re called to work with God for the transformation of the world.  Amen.  Following Christ means participating in his work of transforming the whole world.

(2) Church-planting: Midway through the video, Brian says he believes “one of the most important behaviors and practices for mainline denominations is going to be to encourage the development of new congregations that are different.  Creative, new congregations and congregations that are focused not on competing with existing churches for a share of the religious market but that are focused on helping people in the fastest-growing religious sector in America, the spiritual-but-not-religious, the ‘Nones’.  How do we help those people rediscover a vibrant faith in Christ and a life transforming community of faith?  Those new communities to me are where the future really is.”  Again I say enthusiastically, Amen.  I find this very encouraging because this is exactly what we’re trying to do at The Upper Room.  And we should give credit to Pittsburgh Presbytery and the PC(USA) for encouraging and supporting our admittedly different way of being church. 

(3) Two minutes and fifteen seconds into the video, Brian starts to talk about the need for creative new ministries. As mentioned above, denominations should give “permission and, in fact, encouragement for creative innovation and creative exploration”.  But Brian says that requires us to “go back and rediscover what is it about the Gospel that’s precious? What does it really mean to be a Christian?  What is our identity and mission in the world?” I added the italics here because I think we really need to think deeply about these questions.  What is the Gospel?  I think McLaren is headed in the right direction by saying we have to “go back”. How has the church answered those questions throughout history, and what would the early church have said?  Reviving ancient traditions of the church is helpful (as McLaren’s contributions to the Ancient Practices series of books suggest). Knowing what it really meant to be Christian in the early centuries of the church will help us rediscover what it means to follow Christ today. For us at Upper Room, this has translated into discovering our identity as a sacramental community.  Baptism is the mark of Christian identity which unites us to Christ in his mission through death and resurrection.  Celebrating the mystery of the Lord’s Supper each week enables us to c0-labor with God.

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