Struggling with mission

One of my new responsibilities at Highland Park Community Church is to prayerfully shape our identity as a people “on mission with God.” The church is not the church unless it’s a sent people… just as Jesus was sent and the Holy Spirit was sent– we also are sent. It is our privilege and our burden to be part of God’s reconciling work in the world, reconciling all things to Himself through Jesus. God, your Kingdom come, your will be done here!

As well as I can articulate these things, still I have been struggling through this. Our little congregation is still a fledging faith community in so many ways. In our thoughts and “church habits” we are still steeped in the old ways of being church, doing church. There is a strong temptation to become the social club– you know, the men’s club, women’s club, children’s clubs, teen club. Our resources are few, and we could so easily end up dumping them into the clubs, with little if anything left to spend on our community.

I have talked to a few people who seem to want to convince me that the clubs are good and actually can be a ministry to our community… but I have grown up in that world… and it’s just not so. I apologize if that sounds overly critical. Add to that the facts of church work, that 20% of the people do 80% of the work, and I cannot in good conscience spend time and resources on the things that only serve to make us ingrown. Is Bible study a waste? No. Are small groups bad? No, of course not. Is Christian education for our children without purpose? No, I believe in solid Christian education for my own kids. I want them to know the Bible stories, to know how to connect with God.

However… (you knew that was coming, right?)… I have a strong conviction that we spend so much on these things, in an effort to build community in our churches, that we neglect our actual physical community, our neighborhoods and neighbors. We become a social club, a christian clique. So the question I am struggling with now is this: how do we build community at HPCC, this infant church, while also being on mission with God in our community? No Christian bubble, but authentic relationships that are outward focused, pouring our limited resources into our neighbors– spending our money and time and energy and talents on those alienated from God’s Love, Justice and Mercy. Is it possible that we will stumble upon authentic community while we work together on mission with God? Will it happen unintentionally, as we labor, shoulder to shoulder?

God is among the poor and oppressed (see Matthew 25). Where are they in Highland Park and how can we bring Good News to them? How do we, at the same time, bond with one another on the journey and form honest, loving relationships? It’s a conundrum… but one I’m glad to be in the middle of… I’d hate to be trying to “undo” the social club right now.

Community art?

For all those who were wondering, yes I’m still alive and I have returned from Italy! I hope to blog some thoughts and reflections, maybe even some pictures, in the near future.

But for now, some thoughts on art… which I feel a bit strange writing about, because when it comes to visual arts, I have very little (if any) talent. I was reminded of that today as I attempted to finish a few pages in my son’s baby scrapbook. It’s a good thing I only committed to doing baby scrapbooks for my children, and not one for each year of their life.

Back to the topic at hand, though– the pastor who I work with at Highland Park Community Church has a vision for using art in worship, and I have been intrigued and inspired by the idea. Drawing, painting, dancing, photography, etc. all seem like wonderful ways to express love and connection to God. And it also seems like something that may draw people from the community into a building they would not normally enter… a church building.

These thoughts came back to me as I happened to be reading an old issue of Reader’s Digest (from August 2003). There is an article by Kathryn Renner on p. 211, having to do with a community art piece that had a powerful impact on one neighborhood:

Jan, a self-taught artist, decided to ask each person in her neighborhood to paint his or her face on one big canvas… first, she painted a grid on the canvas and propped it up on an easel in the garage, next to a table of paints. Then whenever Jan was home, the ‘art room’ door was up, with an open invitation for enighbors to paint on a square. the first to stop in were kids riding by on theri bikes… But the adults weren’t so eager. ‘Most said they hadn’t picked up a brush since kindergarten,’ Jan says. ‘They were afraid they’d mess it up.’ But as word slowly spread, they came, some using their driver’s license photos as models. Then something started to happen. They came back– to see who had painted, or if they could recognize who was who. While in Jan’s garage, they began to chat about re-modeling projects, schools, jobs, and families. Wendy, who lived across the street and was fighting breast cancer, came in her wheelchair to watch the fun every day. When the worst happened and Wendy died, they stood by her husband, Bill, and invited him over for meals… This summer has been different in Jan’s neighborhood. Famlies take turns hosting happy hours. They share birthdays and swim in each other’s pools. ‘We’re watching over each other now, just like in the painting,’ says Jan.

I’m wondering, could we do something like this for our communities, as congregations? …use art to build relationships and connection with one another, to break down barriers and welcome one another into our lives? What do you think?

Post ReLaunch…

I think I have written here before about the six-month project at the church where I am serving (Highland Park Community Church). We’ve been praying, preparing the building and worship space, praying, studying about service and ministry and leadership, praying…. doing Outrageous Acts of Kindness in the community and marketing the church… and praying.

Yesterday was the big day– the Grand ReOpening (or ReLaunch) of this community of faith.

…and God was there! We planned for about 75 people and served close to 100. Everything went smoothly and I sensed people were connecting with the message and with God. We’ve been told by church planting consultants that week two can see a drop-off of at least half the number that came on Launch day… so we will see… our hope is to retain around 20 new people over the coming year.

Thank you so much for your prayers and support during this time! Continue to pray that HPCC will be a light in the community and will find many ways to serve where there are needs. Pray that people will find many ways to connect with Jesus through our ministries. And pray that our core group will have healthy relationships with one another and with God as we move forward with this work.

God is good! God is faithful! We belong to Him!

New Website

Since November, we at Highland Park Community Church have been working with our hands and hearts in preparation for reLaunching (or a grand reOpening) on Easter Sunday (April 12, 2009).

We have been painting, cleaning, buffing floors, replacing windows, reconfiguring pews in a circular formation, purchasing new equipment… we have been studying the book of Philippians, discussing vision and mission, doing various OAKS in our community (Outrageous Acts of Kindness)… we have been praying for specific families in our community and for the larger community in general….

It’s been hard, at times exhausting work (I’m sure even more so for our pastor and her husband). And we have no idea what God is going to do on Easter Sunday. Will there be 30 people? 60? 100? 200? The theme of surrender has been on my heart the past few weeks. This is not truly “our” work. We’re participating with God in what He’s up to in Levittown. This is His… all of it… all the people…

I’m writing about this today because recently our website has gone LIVE. Check it out here:
www.highlandparkcc.org

Please pray that we will be faithful in being God’s instruments during reLaunch and beyond. Pray that we will be sensitive to the Spirit’s movement and release our dreams and hopes to God. Pray for strength and perseverance for our core group. Pray that God will prepare the community, the hearts of people, to receive His Love through us. Thank you!!!!

Speaking Against Myself

For my theology and culture class, we were asked to respond to Paul in 1 Corinthians 11, on the issue of women and head coverings. I couldn’t help but chuckle a little bit, because of my Mennonite background. In some circles “the covering” is still an issue, even today… not so much in the larger denomination (Mennonite Church USA) but certainly in the smaller and more conservative groups. Anyway, here is my essay in response to Paul.
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As I search these verses for meaning for today, in suburban America, I cannot help but look back a few chapters to put this passage in context. Chapter 9 immediately catches my eye. In verse 19 of that chapter, Paul says: “though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.” Then he goes on to warn against idolatry and to encourage the Christians of Corinth to “do everything for the glory of God” (10:31), whether they are eating or drinking or serving or worshipping. In my opinion, the key to interpreting 11:1-16, is actually found in the last verse of chapter 10: “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so they may be saved.”

I think Paul’s approach to the issue of women’s head coverings has everything to do with furthering the Gospel in Corinth. Just as he admonishes the Christians to eat whatever food is given to them when they are houseguests of an unbeliever (10:27), not themselves questioning where it came from; he contends that women should not bring disgrace upon themselves by putting away their head coverings (11:6). The meaning in this passage for us today, in general terms, is to examine our social structures and “judge for ourselves” (11:13) what is behavior that will bring offense, and what will nurture relationships that may win converts to Christ. Neither meat offered to idols nor women’s head veilings are issues that we grapple with in suburban America, yet the underlying principal Paul uses to approach these issues is central to following Christ in the here and now. The principal itself is counter-cultural in America—to give up our right to choose for ourselves how we would like to conduct our lives, so that we might not bring offense to anyone; but rather open doors to new relationships with non-believers.

Paul’s deepest passion was to see the Gospel spread and new churches flourishing, and he believed that imitating Christ, the bringer of the Gospel, was the way to do this (11:1). In Paul’s mind, the way to imitate Christ was to lay down his life, lay down his rights, making no claims to his personal freedom. The hymn Paul quotes in Philippians 2 seems to shape his Christology and thereby, his life as a disciple of Christ (“he did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing… taking on the very nature of a servant/slave…”). Thus, Paul was a first-century man, living in a first-century world, teaching fledgling Christians what it meant to empty themselves and follow the way of Jesus in the nitty-gritty of their daily lives.

This passage has often been used to further arguments for male-only leadership in Christian churches. In verses 7-12, Paul addresses issues of proper lines of authority based on the second Creation account in Genesis 2. What I find interesting is where his interpretations of the second Creation account lead him (and yes, I am being very intentional about saying “the second creation account,” because in the first account both men and women reflect the image of God. Paul is being selective here). The fact that woman was created for man and not man for woman, is not the end of the story. The fact that man was created first and woman created out of man is not the end of the story. The end of the story is that neither men nor women are independent of one another, but that they come from each other and all of them come from God alone. Men and women need each other and depend on each other for different things, which is just as it should be. I do not believe that Paul sees the birth of the Church as an opportunity to push for equal rights for women or for the subservient position of women. Which statements of Paul in this passage concerning women should bear more weight for us? Neither. His point is to do what will bring honor to Christ. Paul views being found ‘in Christ’ as an opportunity for us to lay down our lives in service to one another and to God, not as an opportunity to demand what should rightfully be ours.

I realize that I am a woman at an evangelical seminary, a pastor of worship, a former youth pastor, and someone who often speaks strongly on behalf of egalitarian church leadership. How can I, in good conscience, be saying all of this in my essay? I do have a fairly sensitive justice radar and a hot temper to go along with it. I am not afraid to say what I think most of the time, either. I am an egalitarian. However, I have come to believe that those of us who are passionate about issues of justice and equality must work for those things on behalf of others and not ourselves. If I am fighting for my right to preach, my right to lead or my right to hold authority; then I am not following Christ. And I have difficulty even typing those words. But isn’t that what Paul says over and over in his epistles—serve, love, empty yourself for Christ’s sake, submit, follow in Christ’s footsteps, become a slave in order to win some to Christ? In a freedom-loving, independence-loving, rights-loving society such as ours; these words are tough to swallow. I am called to stand up for the orphan, the widow, the poor, the oppressed; but I am not called to stand up for myself. I am “not seeking my own advantage, but the advantage of many,” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:32.

1 Corinthians 11 is a step toward self-emptying love. It can be used to argue for culturally specific guidelines for women or for universal guidelines for women. Perhaps the Holy Spirit knew that both patriarchal groups and feminist groups would need the tempering this passage offers. We are not called to be independent of one another, or to lord anything over each other, male or female. We are called to empty ourselves for the other. If that means covering my head, shaving your beard, dressing up when you’d rather dress down, serving coffee when I’d rather be preaching, cleaning toilets when I’d rather be teaching, or for some maybe it means leading when they’d rather be invisible… whatever it means, it should be for Christ’s honor and for the sake of others, not for our own sake.

Sex and Seminary

I decided to do something bold tonight and attend class in a formal dress, high heels, with make-up on and hair curled. I was curious to see what kind of response I would get, because my usual attire is frumpy, non-gender-specific clothing (sweatshirt, T-shirt, jeans, sneakers). I was surprised to discover that the men of my cohort were very intentional about NOT reacting to my new look. Even my male seminary friends outside of my cohort had to be prompted before they would talk about it. I asked some of the older men why this was… why say nothing, why avert your eyes, why pretend that I wasn’t dressed up at all instead of complimenting me or at least acknowledging that I looked different? He replied that it was fear—fear of being misinterpreted and then accused of harassment, fear that I would take it as condescension and be offended. While this makes sense to me on one level, could it really be so after three years of classes together? Are they afraid of me as a woman? Really? That saddens me. I would have hoped that we would be beyond such surface tensions by now.

Then again, perhaps they aren’t the only ones feeling some fear. I present myself in a certain way to this group, every single week. While I do not do it entirely consciously, my habitual appearance is decidedly un-feminine. I cloak and cover all the parts of my body that could be construed as sexual… large shirts that hide my chest, long shirts that cover my hips, low heels that do not accentuate my legs, no make-up, my hair often uncombed and thrown together haphazardly (some of this is due to my day-job as mommy of preschoolers, but I don’t think that’s all of it). Not conscious, but very interesting… am I trying to pretend I am not a woman? Being a woman in this setting is clearly difficult. Sometimes I wish I wasn’t… sometimes I forget I am when we’re in the midst of an intense discussion (I’m just one of the guys, right?).

One of my cohort-mates remarked on the sexier outfit I brought with me but did not wear: “What is that doing in your closet, Kris Anne?” He was half-kidding, I know, but it was an honest question. In our Christian sub-culture, there are definite rules about what is and is not appropriate for women to wear. This is not often discussed, however, except in the homes of adolescent girls as parents forbid certain items of clothing to be worn outside the house. And the reasons given? It’s immodest, too revealing, too distracting to the men and boys. There’s a definite air of shame around these conversations, even as the poor girl is just beginning to get used to her womanly figure. She hasn’t even had time to appreciate its beauty, and she’s being told that it’s only there to be covered properly.

I am certainly not one to argue against modesty or privacy. And I do understand that men are visual creatures; I would never want to knowingly manipulate their thoughts in a sexual manner. I would never want my daughter to place so much value on her body and its sexuality that she places her self-worth in how men respond to it, and then does everything she can to attract attention to it. She has a powerful mind and spirit and so much to offer this world, apart from her sexuality! I hope I raise her to appreciate all of who she is and treat all parts with respect and care. That said, I am concerned about the sense of shame we place on young girls and the way we label their bodies.

I wonder about the sense of shame I carry into seminary every night. Why do I hide who I am? I’m accepted more easily by myself and my brothers when my femininity is thoroughly covered and hidden away. It’s termed a distraction when it’s highlighted or accented. The very fact that my brothers were afraid to talk to me about the way I appeared tonight reveals the Christian label we place on women’s bodies: DANGER. Is that a burden I should rightly bear; is it my problem to manage? Or does the real problem lay elsewhere, since according to scripture, my female body bears the image of Almighty God and is named “good” by God Himself?

The Hope of Easter

I wish my brain were not so completely fried at this moment, or I would write much more about NT Wright’s book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. But the truth is, I just completed my seven-page paper and need to get some sleep before my all-day class tomorrow. This book is one that every pastor and really, every Christian, should read. We have gotten way off-track in our theological orientation toward “saving souls from hell for heaven,” rather than working alongside the Spirit to bring in the Kingdom!

I am not suggesting (nor is NT Wright) that heaven and hell do not exist, but when Jesus was raised from the dead, the Kingdom broke through on earth and it continues to break through… when Jesus returns at the end of this age, Heaven and Earth will be joined… all creation will be redeemed and made new, all things will be set right once again, our bodies will be raised and transformed (and we all will face judgment… all of us). This world is NOT headed for disaster, but for new creation!  “May God’s Kingdom come, may His Will be done on earth as it is in Heaven!”

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As I often do, a few key quotes:

“The power of the gospel lies not in the offer of a new spirituality or religious expeirence, not in the threat of hellfire (certainly not in the threat of being “left behind”), which can be removed if only the hearer checks this box, says this prayer, raises this hand, or whatever, but in the powerful announcement that God is God, that Jesus is the true Lord, that the powers of evil have been defeated, that God’s new world has begun… how can the church announce this [good news]? If it’s actively involved in seeking justice in the world, both globally and locally, and if it’s cheerfully celebrating God’s good creation and its rescue from corruption in art and music, and if, in addtion, its own internal ife gives every sign that new creation is indeed happening, generating a new type of community, then suddenly the announcement makes a lot of sense” (p. 227)

“The large-scale hope of the whole cosmos is the great drama within which our little dramas are, as it were, the play within the play.” (p. 80)     SURPRISE, it’s not all about us! (that’s me talking, not NT)

“Every act of love, every deed done in Christ and by the Spirit, every work of true creativity– doing justice, making peace, healing families, resisting temptation, seeking and winning true freedom– is an earthly event in a long history of tings that implement Jesus’ own resurrection and anticipate the final new creation and act as signposts of hope, pointing back to the first and on to the second.” (p. 295)

“When the church is seen to move straight from worship of the God we see in jesus to making a difference and effecting much-needed change in the real world; when it becomes clear that the people who feast at Jesus’ table are the ones in the forefront of work to eliminate hunger and famine; when people realize that those who pray for the Spirit to work in and through them are the poeple who seem to have extra resources of love and patience in caring for those whose lives are damaged, bruised, and shamed– then it is not only natural to speak of Jesus himself and to encourage others to worship him for themselves and find out what belonging to his family is all about but it is also natural for people, however irreligious they may think of themselves as being, to recognize that something is going on that they want to be part of.” (p. 267)

“When [God] corners us and finally takes us in his hand– we find to our astonishment that he is infinitely gentle and that his only aim is to release us from our prison, to set us free to be the people he made us to be. But when we fly out into the sunshine, how can we not then ofer the same gentle gift of freedom, of forgiveness, to those around us? That is the truth of the resurrection, turned into prayer, turned into forgiveness and remission of debts, turned into love. It is constantly surprising, constantly full of hope, constantly coming to us from God’s future tos hape us into the people through whom God can carry out his work in the world.” (p. 289)

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