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Squirrel-Hill-fire-2On Ascension Day this year, a fire broke out two buildings away from The Upper Room’s worship space. We were untouched, though the building that caught fire was completely destroyed. Friends, colleagues, and supporters asked me for days afterward if The Upper Room was affected. I reassured them that we were, though the theater next door will now be torn down and our block frankly looks blighted.

Strangely, the reaction I heard within our congregation makes me think we noticed the fire less than our friends and supporters from other neighborhoods. We cancelled our Ascension Day service, and I later heard a few people comment on the rubble outside. But I’ve yet to hear us express either hopes and visions or concerns and worries for what will come of ruined properties right beside us. We’re thankful our space didn’t burn, but I’m embarrassed to say we’ve shown little interest in others affected by the fire. And this makes me wonder . . .

What if The Upper Room’s worship space had burned down? Would we have searched for another space in Squirrel Hill? Would Squirrel Hill notice our absence? Who would care?

The possible answers to those questions make me queasy.

Seven years ago, as we started gathering the community that has become The Upper Room, I was reading Lesslie Newbigin. A twentieth century missionary from Scotland to India, Newbigin worked tirelessly to promote the unity of the Church and to strengthen its global witness. When he returned to the UK near the end of his career, he noticed the sharp decline of the Church in Europe. He observed then the reality that we’re now responding to by starting new worshiping communities like The Upper Room: our immediate context is a mission field.

Newbigin-Gospel Pluralist_Reprint_PB_04268.qxdIn Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, he argues that “The only hermeneutic of the gospel is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live it” (p. 227). In other words, the only way the world will see and understand what the Kingdom of God looks like is if members of a local church believe the Gospel and live it out earnestly together. And because a congregation exists in a specific, concrete place and time, the neighborhood in which a congregation gathers is the first set of eyes to see if we’re actually living out the Gospel as a community.

So Newbigin writes that this congregation

will be a community that does not live for itself but is deeply involved in the concerns of its neighborhood. It will be the church for the specific place where it lives, not the church for those who wish to be members of it – or, rather, it will be for them insofar as they are willing to be for the wider community” (p.227)

For Newbigin, the local congregation ought to be “perceived in its own neighborhood as the place from which good news overflows in good action.” It’s “God’s embassy in a specific place.” We’re called to be a visible, tangible outpost of the Kingdom of God that anyone from our

So this begs the question: Who from Squirrel Hill would say that good news is overflowing from The Upper Room? I believe the youth at Allderdice High School who meet in our space each week with Young Life experience an overflow of good news. But who else?

I want to hear more voices answering that question. I want us to be more in touch with our community and context.

This doesn’t mean that we all have to move to or work in Squirrel Hill. (I myself live on the other side of Frick Park because we couldn’t afford a home in Squirrel Hill.) The Upper Room has members from all throughout the East End of Pittsburgh and all of our members have other spheres of influence that include other parts of the city. Newbigin himself acknowledges and blesses the plurality of places in which we live out our vocations. He even says that “the major impact of such congregations on the life of society as a whole is through the daily work of the members in their secular vocations” (p. 234, emphasis added). We celebrate this at The Upper Room through our monthly “Fruit We Bear” sessions – a portion of our worship service where members share how God is at work in their workplaces, families, and other spheres of influence. But as a church, as a community, this is a calling for us to attend together to Squirrel Hill. As Newbigin wrote above, our local congregation can be for us insofar as we “are willing to be for the wider community.”

When I welcome people to worship at The Upper Room each week, I often say that “we’re a community who does not exist for ourselves, but to glorify God and bear witness to Christ in this place.” Our place includes all the spaces where we individually work, live, and play. But as a congregation, our place is first Squirrel Hill, then the radius around Squirrel Hill in which most of us live. Will we be a community who does not live for itself? Can we be deeply involved in the concerns of our neighborhood? How will good news increasingly overflow from The Upper Room into the lives of our neighbors?

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I‘m starting to measure the value of a book by whether or not it makes me want to pray. This book succeeded, even to the point of bringing tears to my eyes as God used it to speak to me about life in the congregation which I help lead.

Marks of the Missional Church is unique in that it is a book that you can’t merely read. It’s a book that’s meant to be practiced, prayed, and pondered in the company of others. As its subtitle suggests, Marks of the Missional Church emphasizes both the importance of the gathered community of faith and the practices in which they engage. The authors write with a love of the Church and awareness that life in community with others is not optional for one who believes in and follows Jesus Christ. That gathered community, in turn, engages in distinctive practices through which God forms them and allows them to participate in the ongoing story of Jesus Christ’s redemption of the world. These are missional practices, rhythms of life and action that invite others into the Kingdom of God. Practices like the study of Scripture and corporate prayer form a community that embodies the mission of God in Jesus Christ, leading that community naturally to practices like hospitality, attentive listening to the needs of the world, and selfless service.

The brilliant aspect of the book is the way it makes reading it become a practice in and of itself. Every chapter is structured around a Collect and Benediction. That format puts the reader a place of prayerful reflection and formation, not just study.  Because the reflection questions at the end of each chapter are framed with the Collect and Benediction, there’s potential for small group discussions of the book to feel like a dynamic participation in worship. Well chosen narratives illustrate the points of each chapter, further inviting readers to experience God’s power forming them into missional disciples.   

For having three separate authors who took turns writing the chapters, Marks of the Missional Church also has a remarkably consistent tone and style. The Collect/Benediction format aids in maintaining this consistency, as does the repeated thesis statement upon which every chapter elaborates:

“The church participates in God’s mission by proclaiming to the whole world – all classes and cultures, all ages and genders, all nationalities and races – that God is holy love and, through Jesus, God is transforming a people who embody that holy love as empowered and knit together by the Holy Spirit, a sign that the Kingdom of God is here.”

I like the emphasis on holy. Structured around the four marks of the Church in the Nicene Creed (One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic), this book seems unique in its emphasis upon holiness. To be sent into the world does not necessarily mean being like the world. Rather, God calls out a holy people to proclaim the praises of the One who calls us out of darkness and into marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9). My favorite paragraph of the entire book sums this up well:

The universal sent-ness of God’s people on a mission finds expression in the holiness of God’s church. The credibility of the church’s witness depends on it. Holiness is apostolic in nature. Holiness equips the church to practice its vocation as ambassadors of love and grace. (p. 112)

Amen. May the Holy Spirit indeed use this book to form many holy and missional new Christian communities who bear witness to the loving reign of God revealed in Jesus.

For Christians, this is Holy Week. For Jews, this week is Passover. Two thousand years ago, these were the same events: Jesus’ celebration of Passover was at the center of the original Holy Week. Yet this week our Holy Week services at our church in Squirrel Hill will have a distinctly Christian flavor, while the Jews in our neighborhood will celebrate Passover according to their traditions. And though these two celebrations are deeply related, most of us will remain ignorant of what our neighbors are doing. Why is this? Should it really be this way?

Rabbi David Zaslow’s book Jesus: First-Century Rabbi seeks to remedy this ignorance by reminding its readers of the common heritage of Judaism and Christianity. Jesus was thoroughly Jewish, and so were the first “Christians.” But since the first-century, the divide has continually grown between followers of Jesus and Jesus’ Jewish brothers and sisters. In some cases, this has led to tragically violent manifestations of anti-Semitism. Seeking to build bridges between Jews and Christians, Zaslow writes from a place of optimistic belief that deeper understanding of each other’s faiths can help lead us to greater harmony, calling us to “ask God together to turn Constantine’s sword into a pruning hook” (p.xxiv).

For one example of our common heritage which is relevant for this week, consider how Zaslow’s description of the Hebraic understanding of time illumines our understanding of Passover and our practice of Eucharist. At his last Passover meal, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples saying, “This is my body which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” As Zaslow examines what remembrance would have meant to first-century Jews, he quotes Lawrence Hoffman, saying “the rabbis saw zikarone [remembrance] as anamnesis: making the past present. Continuing, Zaslow writes,

This same sense of anamnesis, time past experienced as time present, is central to the annual Passover seder, the yearly retelling of the Passover story accompanied by a festive meal in Jewish homes. In the Hagaddah, the book containing the stories and prayers to be read at the seder, it is written, ‘In every generation a person must regard himself as if he came forth himself out of Egypt.’ The annual retelling of the Exodus story is accompanied by wine and foods emblematic of slavery and liberation, and has the effect of a spiritual time machine.  (p. 102)

This worldview in which zikarone makes the past present is the same worldview that enabled early Christians to speak of the “real presence” of Jesus in the bread and wine of communion. Though it runs contrary to the sensibilities of many modernist Protestants, this “spiritual time machine” was part of the worldview of the early Christians and is at the root of our practice of the Lord’s Supper.

Zaslow of course presents many other interesting examples of Jewish roots of Christian teaching which make it worth reading. But I have to observe that Jesus: First-Century Rabbi also has a few serious limitations. As a Christian, I found myself objecting to many of the caricatures of Christian theology Zaslow makes when comparing Christian beliefs to Jewish beliefs. There’s not room even in 200 pages to accomplish what Zaslow sets out to do, so doctrines such as the Trinity receive only two pages. Zaslow himself acknowledges his limits in the book’s introduction, and asks his readers to grant him some poetic license. I can do that in many places, but not all.

I struggled especially with Zaslow’s very short chapter on the Apostle Paul. Describing Paul as “antinomian,” Zaslow wonders, “Did Paul really love his own Jewish faith,or was he just pretending to practice Judaism in order to win people over to the new gospel?” (p. 174). Such a question reveals a very shallow reading of Paul. Zaslow makes no mention of Romans 9-11, where Paul himself shares his theology of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity and expresses a deep yearning for his brothers and sisters to see Jesus as Lord. Why would Paul pretend to be Jewish when all that brought him was persecution? As he lists in 2 Corinthians 11, Paul endured floggings, stonings, sleeplessness, and hunger for the sake of telling others about Jesus. Zaslow writes wisely earlier in the book that “Christianity is at its best when it is expressed from the cross – from the place of sacrifice, suffering, failure, and not from a position of power” (p. 130). This was exactly the position taken by the Apostle Paul, who suffered even to the point of martyrdom for his faith in Jesus.

While I admire Zaslow’s bridge-building intentions, and am grateful for the insights this book gave me into the Jewish roots of Christianity, I cannot minimize the differences between our faiths as Zaslow wants to do. I grant that Jesus: First-Century Rabbi was supposed to be about the Jewishness of Jesus, not Paul, but Zaslow’s difficulty with Paul still reveals how great the difference is between Christianity and any other faith. So much depends upon how we answer Jesus’ question: “Who do you say that I am?” Zaslow writes from the perspective of one who believes Jesus was a righteous Jew. I read this book from the perspective of someone who believes that Jesus is the Son of God incarnate. I pray that this Passover, this Holy Week, God will grant Christians and Jews the grace to learn from each other and grow in relationship, while still answering Jesus’ question clearly and honestly. Who do we say that he is?

 

 


 

Thank you to Paraclete Press for sending me a review copy of Jesus: First Century Rabbi.

 

The House of St. Michael the Archangel just published an essay that I wrote called So That Your Hearts Will Not Be Weighted Down. It’s an extended meditation on  watchfulness, revolving around Jesus’ words in Luke 21:34: “Be on guard, so that your hearts will not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life.”  It’s also an invitation to repentance, to turn away from all the figurative and literal drunkenness of the world, and to instead receive the blessed inebriation of communion with Christ.

I wrote most of the essay months ago, but the timing of its release is perfect: Advent is an appropriate time to grow in watchfulness, as we “wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).

Hard copies are available for suggested donations of $6. A free pdf is also available. Both can be ordered here.

 

While you’re at the House of St. Michael’s website, also check out Shea Cole’s album of original worship music. It can also be downloaded for free, or hard copies are available for a suggested donation. (The cds make great Christmas presents, if you’re still shopping.)

Today is the first day of Advent. It’s also December 1st, which is the anniversary of the martyrdom of Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916). Br. Charles chose to live among the Muslims of the Sahara desert at Tamanrasset, Algeria. There, Charles sought to be a living example of the Gospel through his poverty, prayer, and imitation of the life of Jesus. Charles’ imitation of Christ was completed when those whom he had loved and lived among for many years turned on him and shot him on December 1, 1916. Eighty years later, Br. Charles’ story was repeated when seven other Trappist monks were killed in Algeria. Their 1996 martyrdoms were recently made famous by the award-winning film Of Gods and Men. Now a new book from Paraclete Press, called The Last Monk of Tibhirinenow provides even more of the details of their story and, in so doing, sheds light on the enduring legacy of Br. Charles.

German journalist Freddy Derwahl wrote The Last Monk of Tibhirine after he traveled to Morocco to visit Br. Jean-Pierre Schumacher, the one monk from the Tibhirine monastery who survived the 1996 attack. In the book, Derwahl tells the story of Jean-Pierre’s whole life, from his childhood, to his entry into monastic life, to his years with the men from Tibhirine who were killed. In one of the book’s many references to Foucauld, Derwahl notes that Jean-Pierre was fascinated by Foucauld’s calling to “proclaim the Gospel from the rooftops, not through words but through the life you live” (p. 47). This humble retelling of Jean-Pierre’s life and the events leading up to the Tibhirine martyrdoms is evidence that Jean Pierre took Br. Charles’ words to heart.

The book also sheds more light on Christian de Chergé, the prior of the monastery, who remained persistent in his efforts to build bridges with the Muslims around him, even when his life was endangered. Ever the intellectual, Christian took part in both inter-religious dialogue and times prayer where Christians and Muslims came together to show one another different aspects of their spirituality. Here Br. Charles’ influence is even more clear. Christian once took a two-month retreat to Foucauld’s hermitage at Assekrem during a crisis in his own ministry. He returned with an intensely renewed love for and commitment to his Muslim neighbors. Christian’s later writings display a yearning for total surrender to God, similar to that in Br. Charles own writings: “I have only this short day to give to the One Who calls me every day; however, how could I say yes to Him forever, if I did not give this day to Him” (p. 68).

Amid this retelling of Jean-Pierre’s story, and thus the story of Tibhirine, Derwahl tells his own story through a daily journal of his time at Monastere Notre-Dame de L’Atlas, the Moroccan monastery where Jean-Pierre now lives. The addition of this journal has the effect of inviting the reader deeper into the story by illustrating both how Derwahl learns from Jean-Pierre and how he processes the holiness he seems to encounter. Thus the reader begins to feel like a fellow pilgrim, bearing the desert heat alongside Jean-Pierre and his brothers. One finishes the book with the sense that Derwahl’s fascination with these desert monks will bear more fruit in him in the years to come. The attentive reader will find his or her own way into the story, as well, perhaps wondering what such bold devotion to Christ might look like in their own context today. As this happens, successive generations will be inspired to join this spiritual family bold witnesses and follow Br. Charles’ example of imitation of Christ.

 

Thank you to Paraclete Press for sharing a review copy of The Last Monk of Tibhirine with me.

I feel dizzy. I just finished reading a biography of Aimee Semple McPherson. She was a nationally famous Pentecostal megachurch preacher whose career spanned from the early 1920’s to her sudden death in 1944. The story of her life is dizzying because – unlike the other figures we’ve studied in the American Religious Biography class at Pittsburgh Seminary – McPherson led a remarkably chaotic life. She was a Hollywood celebrity, and her life included many moments we would associate with celebrities more than preachers: a grand jury indictment, a sex scandal, a possible kidnapping, and an accidental drug overdose. Despite these mistakes and challenges, she was a pioneer in blending fundamentalist Christianity with American mass media and pop-culture, and in so doing, she shaped the America we now know.

Matthew Avery Sutton, the author of Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America argues that “Americans came to embrace a thoroughly modern form of evangelicalism” because of trends McPherson set in motion (p. 6). The phrase “thoroughly modern form of evangelicalism” hints at the tightrope McPherson walked between accommodating to new cultural norms and upholding fundamentalist values. Three aspects of her life reveal the difficult balancing act she tried to keep up.

(1) Gender Roles: As flappers and feminists challenged gender roles for women, McPherson challenged male leadership in the Church. Though fundamentalist in her theology, she pastored a five-thousand member church long before more liberal mainline denominations began to ordain women. (2) Mass Media: Though living near the center of the American entertainment industry, McPherson initially condemned theatrical entertainment. Yet she was eager to incorporate drama and visual-storytelling in her sermons, prompting some to say she had “the best show in town.”  (3) Faith and Politics: Believing that America occupied a special pace in God’s plan for the world, McPherson was a major political figure urging America to return to its “Christian roots.”

Today’s evangelical Christian culture can bear witness to McPherson’s influence in all of these places. Though female senior-pastors are rare even in mainline denominations, Christianity in America is much more accepting of female leadership than it was a century ago. In terms of Christian use of mass media, she laid the foundation for every pastor who has ever podcasted a sermon today. Contemporary Christian music reflects McPherson’s ambivalence about popular culture, providing an alternative to secular media while mirroring its style in every way. Commenting on her political legacy, Sutton writes:

McPherson’s most significant contribution was pushing pentecostals in particular and evangelicals more generally to rethink their mission on earth. At a moment when the United States seemed to be moving in a more secular direction, she called on her colleagues to ‘Christianize’ the United States. (p. 278)

This goal of “Christianizing” politics is obviously alive and well today in many evangelical and fundamentalist Churches. As Sutton suggests, McPherson’s blend of faith and politics seems to have set the stage for today’s alliance between the Republican party and American evangelicals.

“Successful” as McPherson may have been in balancing fundamentalism with emerging American culture, it’s worth noting that she also fell off the tightrope a few times. A mysterious disappearance which she explained as a kidnapping gave way to rumors that McPherson was having an affair. In the wake of the scandal, she began to live more like a Hollywood celebrity, alienating her followers by adopting an image of luxury and sensuality which she had previously condemned in others. Though she later returned more authentically to her Pentecostal roots, McPherson was a walking paradox who was no stranger to hypocrisy or self-contradiction. She adovcated for global disarmament even as she cheered and blessed American troops going into World War II. She both argued for racial equality and had an ambiguous relationship with the Klan. Perhaps the evangelical leaders whose careers have been tarnished by scandals and inconsistency can see their failures as part of McPherson’s legacy, as well.

I think the moral for us in McPherson’s story is that the Church needs to reflect more critically upon its own engagement with the culture around us. On the one hand, McPherson’s use of modern media in her promotion of her Church follows the example of Reformation-era Christians who used the newly invited printing press to publish their views. On the other hand, I think reckless adoption of new technology and accommodation to culture seriously can be dangerous to our spiritual health. McPherson’s love affair with Hollywood led her into the loneliest and darkest period of her career.  What will be the unforeseen consequences of today’s Church’s infatuation with our latest technologies? I wish McPherson could have resisted more strongly the temptations that accompanied stardom. What does her example of tightrope walking, and falling from the tightrope, have to say to the Church today as we interact with the world? Given the exponentially increasing rate of technological innovation and cultural change around us, this question leaves me feeling as dizzy as McPherson’s life.

“If your church disappeared overnight, would your neighborhood notice? Would anyone miss you?” More than once, I’ve heard a speaker at a church-planting conference ask questions along these lines. The speakers intend to be provocative, to ask questions which will make leaders wonder whether their congregations are making an impact on their cities by meeting real needs in their neighborhoods. The question is a simplistic test of any congregation’s connection with its surrounding, but it’s particularly relevant for church-planters. In some understandings of church-planting, the pastors or leaders of the church seem to succeed because they are great community organizers.

Take Richard Allen for one example. I’m now reading Richard Newman’s Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers. Allen is known as the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which began when Allen planted Bethel Church in Philadelphia. Allen was by nature entrepreneurial, and founded businesses and social organizations as well as his church and denomination. In all of these ventures, Allen was thinking beyond himself, seeking the good of both free and enslaved African-Americans and the new country in which they lived. Because of this, Newman even argues that Allen should be considered among the “Founding Fathers” of the new United States. He writes, 

Allen believed himself to be a member of two founding generations. He was a black leader who built reform institutions to redeem African Americans and he was a broader moral leader who wanted to redeem the American republic from the sin of racial subjugation. (p. 21)

What made Allen a successful “founder” involved more than simply his vision for change or his entrepreneurial personality. Allen had a gift for bringing people together, and he connected with his diverse community in such a way that people joined and followed him. Two events which took place early in Allen’s career display this gift:

As mentioned above, Allen founded Bethel Church and the AME denomination. These institutions started when Allen and several other black Christians walked out of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in protest of newly enforced segregated seatingAllen had been born into slavery, and it was while a slave that heard Methodist preachers proclaiming the Gospel and its liberating message. When Allen entered the ministry, he did it as a typical itinerant Methodist preacher. He was bi-vocational, preaching early in the morning and then working a variety of day-jobs to support his ministry. Once he settled in Philadelphia in 1786, his congregants were primarily the black men and women who attended St. George’s Methodist Church. The black population of the congregation grew so much under Allen’s leadership that the white leaders of the congregation became anxious. At some point during Allen’s years there, the white leaders built a balcony and declared that a new policy of segregated seating in worship would be enforced. On the Sunday that the policy was first enforced, Allen and all the other African-Americans in the church walked out as one “body” (p. 64). 

But the events of that day were not spontaneous. The date of this legendary event is uncertain, but Newman seems to favor a later date, around 1792 or 1793. Several pieces of evidence suggest that the walk-out Allen helped lead was an intentional act of non-violent activism, planned in advance in order to make a point to the white church members. Allen dreamed of leading an independent black church long before that fateful day, as evidenced by his efforts to have the Free African Society (which he also founded) consider supporting an independent black church as early as 1789. This suggests that much went on behind-the-scenes to rally the black members of St. George’s to respond together to the discrimination they experienced. The events which took place later in St. George’s were choreographed to make a point: racial discrimination had no place in the Kingdom of God, and Allen’s followers would accept it no longer. 

Allen’s response to Philadelphia’s 1793 outbreak of Yellow Fever and its racially-charged aftermath also displays Allen’s gifts in community relations. When the Yellow Fever struck Philadelphia, Benjamin Rush, a famous physical and signer of the Declaration of Independence, invited Allen and his flock to respond to the crisis. Rush did so on the basis of the mistaken belief that black people were immune to the Yellow Fever. Inaccurate as that assumption was, Allen and his friend Absalom Jones agreed to help because they believed that “black aid to white citizens would help the cause of racial justice” (p. 88). Throughout the crisis, Allen and other black leaders rallied black volunteers to serve as nurses and aid workers, often doing work that involved physically touching those who would have considered their caretakers virtually untouchable because of their skin color.

Racism resurfaced after the crisis ended, though, with whites accusing blacks of exploiting whites and profiting off of their suffering. Allen and Jones responded to the criticism in print, publishing an essay which defended their motives and documented the sacrifices blacks had made to serve their white brothers and sisters. In doing so, Allen stepped boldly into both the public sphere and the use of new media and technology. These steps strengthened his influence in the community beyond his congregation.

Allen’s leadership in each of these instances raises questions for us who claim to be “church-planters” today. First, if the leaders in our community needed something, would they call us? Today, will respected community members or civic leaders call upon us when the neighborhood is in crisis? I have a friend who pastors a church in Rockford, IL, who joined the local chamber of commerce precisely to build the relationships that could lead to such service. How can we build similar relationships in our own contexts today?

Second, Richard Allen’s life challenges us to consider if we are both confident and shrewd enough to act prophetically when necessary. When we react to injustice, are the measures we take as carefully calculated and wisely executed as those Allen took? Are we such examples of integrity that when criticized, we can respond with dignity and confidence? The more we are able to answer these questions affirmatively, the more our churches will leave a positive impact upon their neighborhoods.