Monday, March 14, 2016

Jayber Crow

"This is, as I said and believe, a book about Heaven, but I must say too that it has been a close call.  For I have wondered sometimes if it would would not finally turn out to be a book about Hell..."

Just finished reading Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry.  This is the life story of J. Crow who is forced as a child to grow up in an orphanage in 1920's Tennessee.  He spends his entire life within a small radius, but mostly in the small town of Port William.  Following the orphanage Jayber Crow finds himself in seminary where he wrestles with hard questions of faith and God.  In a conversation with a New Testament professor, Crow sets out on a life-long pursuit of finding out how God is working in the world.

Crow ends up as the bachelor barber of Port Williams.  He finds himself at home in this small town where things move and change slowly.  The book is about Crow observing and pondering the changes that happen through the decades.  He sees the old ways of living, saving, farming and business change.  He watches families in disputes.  He sees friends come and go.  He falls in love with Mattie Chatham.  The only problem with this love... she's already married.  Crow holds his feelings inside for decades, never betraying his feelings even during occasional meetings in the woods.

Through the novel Berry critiques the "progress" of the 20th century.  Berry criticizes the industrialization of the world and of farming.  The Economy and The War are the two forces which Jayber sees working against his little town.  He sees people repeatedly sacrificed for The War and sees numerous townsfolk fall under the pressure of The Economy.

This story reminded me of stories from my Grandpa growing up on a Depression farm.  I thought of how I've seen my own world transformed for the sake of The Economy.  I remember my Grandma Ulm's house torn down to be replaced by a corporate building.  The hill we always would go sledding on in Ohio was turned into a drainage pond a few years ago to accommodate the new housing development going in place of a farm.

Ultimately I think this story is about the importance of being rooted in a place and thinking critically about what "progress" does to the world around us.  Things change.  What we need to consider is how technology, inventions, The War and The Economy shape the world in which we live.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture

It's been a while since I've posted anything.  I've had a number of other projects taking up time as well as less time to read with two growing boys at home.  Recently I read a book that had been on my "Books to Read" list for a while.  The Wisdom of Stability by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is a tough book.  It's not a hard read, but the implications are very counter-cultural.

If you're not familiar with Wilson-Hartgrove, he is a leader in the New Monastic movement within the church.  At the beginning of the Iraq war he was a part of a Christian Peacemaker Team that was in Iraq to care for the victims of violence.  On their drive out of the country one of the vehicles had a serious accident.  Muslims from the town of Rutba cared for the injured Americans.  Rather than monetary compensation for caring for the wounded the people of Rutba asked them to tell people about the story.  Wilson-Hartgrove and others realized it was like the story of the Good Samaritan where the one who is supposed the be the enemy demonstrates love.  Upon their return to the U.S. Wilson-Hartgrove and his wife felt called to begin a community of people who would demonstrate radical hospitality to people as they had been shown in Rutba, Iraq.  Wilson-Hartgrove and his family now live with others in the Rutba House in Walltown in Durham, North Carolina where they attempt to welcome in the stranger and outcast.

The Wisdom of Stability draws on wisdom from the dessert fathers and mothers as well as other monastic groups who have dedicated themselves to living out the full implications of community and life together.  He talks about his own spiritual journey that began by trying to get away from his small town and change the world for Jesus.  This took him over seas to Iraq and other countries.  Eventually he felt God was leading him back to take up residence and seek the good of one place and work on changing his heart and the lives of those around him.  Wilson-Hartgrove suggests that one of the biggest temptations facing people today is to succeed and for young adults to get and education and go out into the world to make something of themselves at the expense of the place that raised them.  Drawing on the sayings of ancient and contemporary monastics, he calls the church to commit to a church and commit to a place for the long haul.  In chapter five he talks about the demons that tempt us to leave our communities or our local church.  He suggests ambition, boredom and vainglory (seeking our own interests) all tempt us to go somewhere else.  He talks throughout the book of what we can learn from being on the front porch of our homes (think of southern front porches with rocking chairs or sitting on the stoop in the city).  On the front porch we sit and listen to our neighbors hurts.  We tell stories about our shared history and community.  We fight with our neighbors and work at resolving conflict.  We move slowly.  Sometimes we see things change for the better; other times not.

This book is challenging.  Even in our churches we are driven to "succeed" often by worldly standards.  Do we have larger numbers of people?  Do we have great (and expensive) programs?  We don't often see people commit their lives to one place and one people and one church for a lifetime.  If we get mad or bored we go somewhere else where everything will be better (the grass is greener on the other side, right?).  As Wilson-Hartgrove says, "Choosing a spirituality that works for me is so much easier than dealing with the people who show up at the church in my neighborhood."  In the end he says some may be called to go to other places.  The Gospel does need to go out from a place to others who haven't heard.  It also needs to be retold and relived daily as we work at loving our neighbor and seeking the prosperity of the place God calls us to live.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Christmas Thoughts

Christmas time again.  Time for traditions of singing, attending church, lighting candles, giving and opening presents along with family dinners and more.  We sing the carols like we do every year, without too much thought.  But have you ever stopped to consider some of the words we sing?

A song on the radio caught my attention on the way home the other day.  It's one of the verses of "O Holy Night."

"Truly He taught us to love one another, His law is love and His gospel is peace. Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother. And in his name all oppression shall cease."

That's some radical stuff right there.  Law of love.  Gospel of peace.  The slave is our brother? Oppression shall cease?  No wonder we opt for Santa Claus and reindeer.  It seems that as long as we only sing it a few times around Christmas we can allow the feelings of the season and the busy-ness of traditions to wash away these revolutionary ideas.

Another favorite Christmas carol of mine, "O Come O Come Immanuel."

"O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice ! Rejoice ! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel."

Why are we singing about Jews in exile in Babylon?  This is what Isaiah and prophets were waiting for.  They were waiting for a Messiah to come and free them from exile.  Jesus is the answer to that cry.  But not in the way the crowds imagined.  Today we (Western, American Christians) find ourselves in a new kind of exile.  We are not in a place of prominence.  We live in a pluralized society in which the Christian story is one of many stories.  Some Christians weep and wail and demand "take back our country for God!"  But I suspect our freedom from exile is not about God taking back America.  What use does he have for a political kingdom such as the USA?  After all Jesus came to start a new kind of kingdom, one in which he teaches us to love one another under the law of love preaching the gospel of peace.  Chains are broken and slaves are free.  What kinds of chains?  Well, for my Evangelical friends this means the chains of sin which bind us.  And they're right!  For my brothers and sisters in Nigeria I suppose they are more concerned with the oppression of a persecutor coming to an end.  For those being abused, for those who are outcasts in society, for the poor and marginalized I think their hope is that the chains our society has created are falling off and they are being set free.  Now it's one thing to find this meaning in some Christmas carols, but what about looking in the Bible?

46And Mary said: 
“My soul glorifies the Lord 
47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 
48for he has been mindful 
of the humble state of his servant. 
From now on all generations will call me blessed, 
49for the Mighty One has done great things for me— 
holy is his name. 
50His mercy extends to those who fear him, 
from generation to generation. 
51He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; 
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 
52He has brought down rulers from their thrones 
but has lifted up the humble. 
53He has filled the hungry with good things 
but has sent the rich away empty. 
54He has helped his servant Israel, 
remembering to be merciful 
55to Abraham and his descendants forever, 
just as he promised our ancestors.”

Luke 1:46-55. Mary is praising God for a whole lot of things, not least of which is the fact that God is caring for the poor and marginalized.  He's filling the hungry with food while the rich go away empty handed.  "Now, Adam, don't make Christmas about social justice."  Trust me that's the last thing I want to do.  It would be a whole lot easier for me.  I want to sit back and indulge in the commercialism and quaint traditions that get packed in the attic after the holiday season, but the Scriptures are talking about something completely different.  The birth of Jesus is about so much more than we usually speak or hear about at Christmas.  This is the beginning of something new!  In Jesus everything changes.  He has come to be the savior of the WORLD.  My sins, your sins, our sins, societies sins, the brokenness of the planet.  The poor, the persecuted, the outcasts, the have-nots.  The whole of creation groaning.  All of it.  Jesus enters the world to be the savior of the whole mess.  This is some crazy stuff!  So why have we so domesticated it?  On Christmas Eve will I light my candle, sing "Silent Night" and hope that everything will go back to normal after the Christmas holiday?  Or, will the fact that Jesus has begun something new, that his plan of redemption is under way, that the kingdom of God (heaven) is on it's way and he has asked us to be a part of that process actually make a difference not just in my heart, but in my life, the way I live, the way I love others, the way you and I work together, the way I treat my "enemies", the way I steward creation.  Christmas is about something big!  Don't shrink it to a box that get's brought out once a year and packed away.  

Friday, November 14, 2014

Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger

It's taken me a while to finish this book, as with any book these days.  Reading in a house with two small kids, running to the church, coaching football, running back to the church, and back to football has been pretty challenging this Fall.  But finally football is over, the kids took long naps and I finished reading Ron Sider's "Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger."

I picked up the book after our senior pastor had read it and shared some of the thoughts in some sermons this past summer.  My initial thoughts at seeing the title and know just a little bit about Sider were that this would be a typical social justice, feed the poor, heavy on guilt and stats, light on Scripture type book.  Unfortunately I've read those before and while I have agreed with the need for caring for the poor and outcast in our world, I wanted something with meat.

This is that book for me.  Sider does share statistics.  Lots and lots of statistics in the early chapters.  At first it seems as though all the book would be about is statistics.  You have to wade through that.  But then Sider gets to the biblical section which dissects the passages about Jubilee, caring for the widows and orphans, the early church sharing things in common and other relevant scripture.  He then goes on to discuss current economics and how they often marginalize the poor and offers practical and radical suggestions.  Sider is not about suggesting fantastical solutions for a perfect world, but rather solutions that could be implemented in a broken, fragile world.

One of the interesting things about this book is that it was originally written back in the 1970's.  Communism was still a serious contender with free-market economies.  While Sider supports those Christians who have decided to share property in common, Sider defends free markets but wants to help all people have opportunities to work and to make a fair living.  He argues that communism put economics and politics in the same hands and that didn't work.  He does point out ways in which our current free-market economy is broken and favors those who already have wealth.

I would absolutely add this book to my list of must reads.  There are parts that I had to stumble through and one section on economics that I found fascinating, but didn't really understand.  Sider himself confesses that he is more of a theologian than an economist.  But Sider confronts the materialism, commercialism and militarism of the western and northern (as Sider puts it) world.  If the church genuinely cares about reaching the lost, the poor and the disenfranchised perhaps we should take seriously some of the suggestions offered by Sider.

Friday, September 19, 2014

SOD Farm: A Story to Retell

I don't feel like SOD Farm is my idea.  I don't feel inspired enough to assume full responsibility (or blame) for this.  Rather, I see it as an extension of ongoing conversations at Mechanic Grove and with the larger church.  In the fall of 2013 our Care Group took a look at "The Naked Anabaptist" by Stuart Murray which looks at the essentials of the Anabaptist faith.  In general we felt it accurately displayed our longing for the church, but was far from a reflection of what church currently is.  This was perhaps the culmination of discussions that have been similar.  "We understand what we think the church should do.  But why does the church not look like that?"

We felt challenged in some way to begin to live out some of these convictions of discipleship, accountability, community, thoughtful engagement with culture.  One of the core questions was "How do we change 'What if' questions into 'Why not' questions?"  We feel like Mechanic Grove has so much going for it.  There is a lively discussion of people honestly seeking to follow Jesus.  There is a place that takes ministry to the community seriously in its Children's Outreach Ministry.  But perhaps we are also a people who speak frequently of discipleship and community without experimenting with the full ramifications of those words.  So SOD Farm is perhaps one, meager attempt to experiment with this.  It would be a radical step beyond what is "normal" ministry.  I acknowledge that the details are far from finished, nor do I wish or think it right to figure out all the details by myself without the community of people.  Others will have to live with the reifications.  Others will have to place themselves on the altar willing to sacrifice for Jesus and his kingdom.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

SOD Farm: Core Values

There are many programs and ministries that seek to teach the next generation.  Our goal is to closely link intentional discipleship building with the local church.  SOD Farm shares the core values of Mechanic Grove.

Unconditional Love - We believe all are welcome to come as you are with the expectation that you will leave differently than you came.  We seek to model this love through hospitality towards those that would partner with us as well as those in our community need hospitality.  We expect visitors at our table.  We expect to see strangers at the farm.  Romans 12:13 instructs us to share with those in need and practice hospitality.

Jesus-centered Worship - Jesus is the model for our lives.  We seek to be citizens of his kingdom and to do the work of his kingdom.  We approach the Bible with Jesus Christ at the center of our understanding.  At the SOD Farm we engage in community worship each morning and afternoon with those living at or working at the farm.  We also understand that we try to make everything we do an act or worship.

Faithful Service - The SOD Farm is a serve to the church as it seeks to educate disciples on living intentionally, with every area of life surrendered to Jesus.  We seek to serve the local community through growing food for the local food bank, assisting those who are in need through education and to seek the general peace and prosperity of our local and global community.  We believe we are called to live out our faith in actions.

Lifestyle Witness - We seek to model Jesus and the values of the kingdom of God through the way we live our lives.  We try to be aware of our impact on the earth and on the people God loves.  We believe that through living lives dedicated to Jesus and by teaching those around us about Jesus, others will be drawn to relationship and surrender to Jesus.

Developing Disciples - SOD Farm seeks to be a place where the church is challenged to think deeper about what real discipleship and surrender to Jesus means.  We want to be a partner in raising a new generation of leaders that will impact the church and the world.  We ask partners to commit to a new level of surrender and service and to grow through biblical training and engaging the world.

Anabaptist Heritage - We have a heritage connected to those once called "Radicals."  They were called radical because of their complete surrender to Jesus and their intense drive to become better disciples of Jesus.  These were a people connect to God, to each other and to the land.  We uphold these convictions through seeking Jesus, being connected to one another and working closely with the earth.  The SOD Farm connects with the local church through Brethren practices of foot washing, Love Feast, and baptism.  We try to pursue peace between ourselves and our neighbors and our enemies.  We try to live simply in order to provide more resources for others to simply live.  We try to live connected to one another, understanding that is is in community that God exists and speaks.

Monday, September 15, 2014

SOD Farm: Who and What?

The School of Discipleship Farm would attempt to connect with people in a variety of ways.  The primary way would be through Partners, age 18-30, who commit 10 months of their lives to come and learn and serve at the SOD Farm.  The farm would connect with the Mechanic Grove congregation by learning from the experience of elders and serving alongside different ministries of the church.  SOD Farm would also seek to be a place that connects with those in need in the community and provide resources and education.

What is it?

SOD Farm is an intentional community of disciples who commit 10 months of their lives to come and live, learn, serve and explore in community.  This that come to SOD Farm would find a curriculum focused on Bible training, cultural engagement and seeking the peace and prosperity to the place we have been called to live.  Partners would learn how to connect their faith in everyday work on the farm, growing and preserving food for themselves and others through the local food bank.  They would also be a part of serving neighbors through community service and volunteering in the local church.  The partners that come to SOD Farm will commit themselves to live by a Rule of Life focused on serving God and serving others in Christian community.