iCare “First we were loved, now we love.” 1 John 4:19

I’ll admit I was a little anxious about our worship on Sunday. Not about our theme. I love the iCare theme our Worship and Community Life Teams have jointly crafted for us. And not about my Sermon, which, having read 7 books for this series and having over a dozen conversations with members about, fell into place very naturally and with much enthusiasm.

So what was I anxious about? I was anxious about you, and your role in worship. After months of talking in council, at Worship team meetings, Discipleship team meetings, at Community Life team meetings, and staff meetings we were ready to try something new! It was time to live into our stated value of Community and nurture one another face to face. And embrace our value of Discipleship and take responsibility for our own faith rather than what one person says. And embrace a more biblical vision of worship that is multi-voiced, rather than mono-voiced. So we formed small groups of 4 people in worship to dialogue with each other about God Ha! This has never been done! Of course I should be nervous! And perhaps you were too.

But check out this amazing list of images of our caring God that came out of our time, a list so much more rich and filled with wisdom than any list I could have EVER come up with on my own. Here’s just a sampling:

Mothering Spirit, He sings with me in all situations, Loving Father, Protector, Guide, Leader, conscience, God as my biggest fan and comforter, A wide shade tree, A large tree giving shade and providing food, A safe house.

How rich is that! Our teachers and experts in learning will tell you that it is a very different thing to “learn” by having someone tell you what to think than it is to “learn” by owning your own thoughts. In other words, you – the collective you of the 50 folks in our sanctuary – are smarter and more equipped to draw you closer to God than I am. That’s how we’re wired: we’re wired to learn in and with community.

So why oh why should we be anxious about a better plan that can empower you to connect more deeply with God than anything one person could conjure on their own? Perhaps we don’t need to be anxious. Let’s dig deeper.

Here’s two more lists for you, and I want you to choose which list you feel better about.

List A).            Passive, utterly dependent, no initiative, disempowered, non-participatory, declining, safe, familiar, what we’ve always done, passive consumers, Christendom church, dependency rather than maturity, individualism over mutuality, silence of everyone but the pastor, God able to speak through one, monologue.

List B).            Empowered, dignity, respect, gifted, responsibility, liberating, dynamic, energizing, healthy, active participation, engaged disciples, entire community is gifted, God able to speak through all,  Biblical, participation rather than performance, dialogue.

Which list do you feel better about, list A or B? There’s no wrong answer here, it’s genuinely better to say what is so for you. Now, which list do you think better reflects our God and what he desires for us? Both lists come out of Stuart Murray’s (author of The Naked Anabaptist) new book. List A is comprised of words that describe the way most of us in Christendom do church today and always have: mono-voiced. It’s the mental model we all think of when we think of “worship.” His book, The Power of All: Building a Multi-voiced Church begins on page one by stating clearly, “Churches have structured for passivity.” The mental model of “worship” is we sit, we listen, we hope those up front will help us create a private space where we connect with God, but we offer next to nothing, do nothing to build up the body off Christ, and function as passive consumers. Murray clearly states that this mental model (list A), as comfortable and familiar as it is to us, is not in any way based on Scripture, but on the traditions of Christendom.

List B, which is what we experienced on Sunday, describes a mental model Murray calls Multi-voiced worship, where everyone is treated as the gifted and wise image-bearing disciples that they are. And yes, its new! It’s also Biblical, and Anabaptist, and according to Murray, “a healthier form of church.” He says, “We believe multivoiced church equips the Christian community for mission, stimulates personal growth, encourages responsible discipleship, protects the community from many ills, and allows God’s Spirit freedom to accomplish so much more in and through the church.” It operates out of the narrative that “the whole community is gifted, called, empowered, and expected to be involved in all aspects of church life.”

So true! We have everything we need. And I mean everything. We have all the gifts, all the wisdom, all the creativity, all the passion we need as a congregation sitting in our sanctuary each and every Sunday. And it is not because you pay a pastor. It’s because you choose to show up, and function like the body of Christ in Houston.

This does not make me anxious. This makes me want to dance and sing and celebrate and share with anyone who will hear how deeply faithful, loving and wise our congregation is!

With that in mind, for this worship series we want to stay true to the format and feel you experienced Sunday: quiet times of solitude and writing, coffee, small group dialogue, and praying in small groups. Why are we doing this? This is a great question because, as I mentioned Sunday, we are largely a congregation of introverts. (note, we’re not doing this in the large group, we’re doing it in tiny groups)

We’re inviting you into deeper dialogue with one another because it builds friendship, respects everyone as having something to bring/teach, embraces different learning styles, is a more effective form of discipleship, provides  ownership, we can care for people better when we know them, everyone has something to say, we are all part of the community, if you don’t share you don’t get cared for, if you are not a little uncomfortable you can’t grow, we value community, transparency is the pathway to transformation.

You might not feel perfectly comfortable with this exercise, but please remember there are others in our midst who are deeply longing for this and may be finding it meaningful. We’re flexible and invite you to be as well as we test drive this for the next month. Find ways to engage that are non-anxious for you. If that means sticking with your close friends, please do so. But also push yourself to engage deeply, which might mean keeping a particular eye out for guests and welcoming them in to your groups.

So I might have been anxious going in to worship. But I was deeply energized while I was there. So join us Sunday as we explore what it means to care for our families. We’ll be praying over your prayer requests from Sep 9 at 8:45AM at church, and studying the excellent book The search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community, and Small Groups at 9:30. Please consider joining us!

Above all, “Do not be anxious about anything; but in everything by prayer and petition present your requests to the Lord, and the God of peace, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:6-7).” For it is to this God that we give ourselves to in worship and in work.

http://bit.ly/QcXyOT ). I blame the story he believed, the story that all too many of us – Christians- believe and live out.

Over the last month I’ve been my devotions in the book of Jeremiah. He’s a favorite of mine for various reasons: his call story (Jer 1), his feeling that his call to ministry is like a “fire in his bones” that won’t leave him alone, and even his message have been good friends for a long time for me. I love the book named after him, and wanted to share with you my snapshot summary of the book as a whole. If your devotions have you hunkered down in one book this summer, give us a sneak peak of what you’ve been learning! Marty Troyer

Jeremiah is the story of God’s Lordship, Israel’s allegiance and rebellion, and one prophets life of faithfulness.

YHWH God will pluck nations, and plant nations, at will for YHWH alone is God. Radical ethical monotheism demands justice/righteousness and obedience from God’s people. We see God’s sovereignty being played out in the ministry and soul-wrestlings of Jeremiah; who has been swept up in the movement of God like a flowing river. Indeed, Jeremiah experiences God’s message of allegiance as a “fire in his bones” that, no matter how much he might dislike the messsge itself or fear its rebuttal, he cannot stop preaching.

Jeremiah 7 and 29 form two polls around which Jeremiah and God’s people are to perform. In his chapter 7 Temple sermon Jeremiah calls the people to allegiance, saying only justice will save: “Amend your ways and your doings, act justly, do not oppress the alien, the orphan, the widow or shed innocent blood (7:5-6).” God will act based on their response; either through blessing/salvation or curse/destruction. The kings of the earth are pawns under God’s lordship, coming and going to interact with Israel at God’s discretion.

But the people choose poorly, and God “breaks the pot” (Jeremiah 19:11) like he had earlier done with Shiloh (7:14), sending the people into exile. Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles again demands justice and peace from God’s people. The only difference is that they are to seek the peace/welfare of Babylon, not Jerusalem. In preaching both these difficult messages, God functions for Jeremiah as a “fortified city, a bronze wall, and an iron pillar” (Jer 1:18) strengthening him for his message.

Our church sharing time is one of the most important elements in our worship. It opens space to be cared for and nurtured, to share our brokenness and needs. We value this gift so much we do it verbally and through unspoken candle prayers. This caring is at the heart of who we are as a people.

It is equally important for our sharing time to be broader than our individual concerns, to open space in our hearts for the other, and for God’s mission in our world. The quintessential Christian prayer –The Lord’s Prayer- can lead us in understanding why our prayers in worship our broader than individual concerns.

I absolutely love the phrase in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, “Beware of practicing your justice before others.” It sounds odd because the work of justice is often very public; and Jesus doesn’t make it less odd when he then talks about charity, prayer, and fasting.

Apparently, in Jesus mind, practicing spiritual disciplines are necessary (though he’s not claiming they are sufficient) to our work for justice. Chapter 6 closes by Jesus encouraging us to strive for justice above all else.

And right in the middle, Jesus teaches us how to pray for justice. In doing so he’s teaching us to visualize an alternative future than we’re defaulted to achieve. As Walter Wink said before his recent passing, “History belongs to intercessors who believe the future into being.”

So Jesus, with his eyes on that alternative future says, ‘Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 

Prayer begins as a pledge of ultimate allegiance to God alone. This is ethical monotheism rooted in the Sinai command “have no other gods before me” and the greatest commandment of loving God with all our being. “Dominion” the Psalmist says, belongs not to mayors and Presidents or corporations; but “to the Lord.” Making peace and doing justice requires such unchanging allegiance precisely because God is the God of peace and justice.

And thus the mission of God (God’s reign, God’s kingdom) is seeking the Holistic Peace of Houston. We pray that God’s intent for the world would become reality. Which is no small prayer, as the rumors of war and presence of poverty prove. Instead, it’s nothing short of a miracle. The miracle of God’s breaking into the present order to establish God’s reign. To this vision, Houston’s peace-makers add our voice to thePsalmists, “May righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more.”

Jesus now pulls out his colors and paints a fuller picture of what God’s reign is.

Give us this day our daily bread. 

The single word “our” changes everything for the person of faith, demanding that we consider the whole. There is no room for “us” or “them” in Jesus inclusive “our.” There is just we, a noun large enough to cover the entire system that is Houston. And large enough to cover those Houston City Council has just made it illegal to share food with. It’s missionally impossible to pray this prayer and criminalize food-sharing at the same time. For only a dead faith separates prayer from action. James says you cannot see a person in need and say, “Go in peace! Keep warm and eat your fill” and not share your resources with them. Christ’s prayer breaks the bonds of selfishness and individualism, freeing us to pursue the common good.

God’s Shalom picture for Houston is proved remarkably relevant with his next brush stroke.

And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
 

God cares about debt and prefers Jubilee to oppressive lending and imbalanced economy. When Jesus re-members our imagination to Jubilee (the ancient concept of economic and social justice where everyone has enough) he invites us to lead the way in the incredibly earthy, financial terms of debt forgiveness. After all, God has forgiven us our debts, and we’re called to be like God.

Fleshing out the insistent “our” still further acknowledges the powerful bonds, thongs, and yokes that forbid debt forgiveness in our world. Breaking these in prayer and action is the discipline to which we are called.

Doing so would radically change our landscape and skyline. After all, Houston’s two tallest buildings are architectural celebrations of these same bonds, thongs, and yokes. But imagine the beauty of Harris County’s landscape if we traded our skyline for the building blocks of Jubilee, Generosity and Enough! Or the character-creation if we traded our Education budget for our Entertainment budget.

Of course, there is much in us that is resistant to such a vision for Houston. So Jesus closes his prayer with:

And do not bring us into temptation,
but rescue us from the evil one.
 

The prayer itself defines our temptations.  We’re tempted by idolatry, to pledge allegiance to someone or something other than God. We’re tempted to work for a public vision disconnected from our faith, and by an other-worldly faith disconnected from real life. We’re tempted to hoard and exclude, to separate and segregate, to function as individuals, families and tribes rather than a whole. We’re tempted to riches at the expense of others.

We end where we began, with a summons to allegiance that cuts right into the overt individualism of the American Dream,

For yours are the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.

Last week in our sermon (which you can read online, houstonmennonite.org, sermon tab) we heard about God’s Counter-Cultural Mission which invites us to “Seek the peace of the city where you live, and pray to the Lord on its’ behalf.” Again we see the connection between action and prayer in bringing shalom justice to Houston just like it is in heaven.

For this, God promises we will indeed have everything we need!

When you pick up a Bible what exactly are you holding? The Bible is several things. It’s a library filled with stories. A collection of events from dozens of authors in numerous contexts spread out over more than a thousand years. There’s absolutely nothing like it in human history, and in this regard it’s fascinating. This is how many of us have been taught to see the Bible, as a “What?” question. What is the Bible? It’s a bunch of really great stories!

This is how I viewed the Bible when I went off to college, a precocious Bible trivia nerd enrolled as a Bible major at age 18. It’s also precisely why I did NOT know that the same David who killed Goliath as a little kid grew up to be King David. Because no one had ever told me the story of David; only stories about David.

That’s embarrassing to admit, but true. Which leads me to a second, more important, answer to the question What is the Bible? It is ONE story: the story of God’s Mission in our world. These 66 books (39 from the time of the Hebrews, 27 from the era of the early church), this enormous cast of characters, these numerous concepts in dialogue with each other tell us GOD’S STORY.

And when we answer the question that way, everything changes. The “what?” question drifts into the background (along with the “how?” question) to be supplanted by a much more meaningful – if not odd sounding – question, Why the Bible?

The Bible is precisely because it reveals to us God’s story, clarifying who and how God is, and what God is up to in our world. The Bible is because it invites us to see ourselves as characters in that story. Ordinary you and normal I are as much a part of the story as Abraham, Esther, Nebuchadrezzar or Mary. This summer we’ll look at God’s Story in 5 Acts. Our place in God’s story is in Act 5, a context which calls for a specific way of being that differs from the other 4 Acts in God’s story. Join us for Worship this Sunday as we Enter God’s Story, celebrating that this is where we are.

Statistics consistently show that US Christians behave the same as the general population. And yet my friend Lutherant rightly says that “true Christians display the works of Christ in their lives. No one who lives contentedly in a selfish life centered on their own needs and desires should think that they have faith (James 2:17).”

What gives? Why such strange Christian fruit?

Three weeks ago Lutherant and I simultaneously blogged about a video called “Three Lies of the Modern Church” where we tried, from our own faith persuasion, to wrestle with this issue. If you haven’t already, read Lutherant’s and my takes on these 3 lies:

  1. The Gospel Goes forth by Political Power.
  2. The Gospel of The Sinners Prayer
  3. Prosperity and Power Prove the Message

I love Lutherant, otherwise known as The Rev Charles St-Onge, a pastor friend from Memorial Drive Lutheran Church. He has a passion for Christ and people, is brilliant and an excellent blogger. He also at one point tells me flat out he thinks I’m wrong. You have to love that Christian brothers can disagree today in a healthy way without disengaging from relationship, or worse. In our faith tradition we highly value a document called Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love, that, without previous discussion, I experience coming from Lutherant.

His posts and reflections on these 3 lies were encouraging and corrective for me to flesh out my own thoughts. They also helped me to see one reason Christians don’t behave differently is lack of spiritual empowerment for Christian living. How am I going to live the life I feel called to live? And “Christian Living,” as I think about it, is tightly connected to these three lies. Paul talks in Romans 6 about Christ’s work, our living, and baptism. Saying in essence that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ, and so we should “consider ourselves dead to sin and able to live for the glory of God through Christ Jesus.” It’s this stunning work of grace that allows us to live as Christ.

Elsewhere in Philippians 2:12, Paul encourages us to “work out our own salvation,” which might sound hollow, as if it were missing the grace of regeneration, right? But Paul goes on to say why we should work. It’s not because we can pull ourselves up by the bootstraps. No! It’s because, “God is at work in you, enabling you to will and to work for his good pleasure (Phil 2:13).”

Anabaptists agree that salvation is a gift of grace and cannot be earned. But we read in the New Testament that God’s gift of faith brings with it responsibility. Human beings need to do their part in response to God’s gift of faith. Menno Simons, namesake of our faith family, said, “The regenerating Word must first be heard and believed with a sincere heart before regeneration, the putting on of Christ, and the impulsion of the Holy Ghost can follow.”

Balthasar Hubmaier (another key 1st generation leader) was interrogated in a Lutheran court (oh the irony!) and responded:

Q: How many kinds of faith are there?
A: Two kinds, namely a dead one and a living one.
Q: What is a dead faith?
A: One that is unfruitful and without the works of love, James 2.
Q: What is a living faith?
A: One that produces the fruits of the Spirit and works through love, Galatians 5.

But a second reason we Christians don’t behave differently is our theology. When we come to know the gospel of God we are overwhelmed by “the peace of Christ which surpasses all understanding,” and which spills out into every area of our lives. But if our theology places limits on the Gospel’s access to every area of our lives, of course we’re going to live like everyone else.

Yes, I believe deeply that God’s gospel is for all of life. No compartments, no distinctions. Faith matters at home, work, and play. That core belief distinguishes me from the health and wealth gospel addressed in the previous post. Our economic lives are to reflect a life of generosity and simplicity, understanding that there is no separation between faith and finances. 100% of our resources (not just 10% or less) belongs to God.

And this core belief distinguishes me from Lutherant on the other hand, who makes a clear distinction between The Kingdom of this World and The Kingdom of God, and allows for different behavior in each context. Perhaps I’m missing something key here, but it appears to me that a compartmentalizing life in this way suggests Christians shouldn’t be living differently than the rest of the world. Instead, I believe our political lives are to reflect the politics and kingdom of Jesus, understanding there is no separation between faith and politics. We are to be “the peculiar people” in all areas of life.

Lutherant, thanks for a great learning dialogue! Here are my Three Truths More Christians Need to Learn from Lutherant:

  1. God’s love is totally free, totally necessary, and overwhelmingly marvelous.
  2. God’s love will empower you to live a new, refreshing, and healthy life.
  3. God’s love opens doors of dialogue with people you disagree with, and gives you the humility to love them just the same.

Peace to you Charles. And to all our readers!

This first appeared Wednesday on ThePeacePastor (http://bit.ly/JGmyxG), where you can go to read comments. Follow Marty on twitter @thepeacepastor.

Here’s Lutherant’s Original Post
Here’s my
Original Post

The classic mental model of a ‘missionary’ is someone specially tasked with a special ministry for a special location. Missionaries are different than us, do different things, and do them out there somewhere, somewhere exotic and dangerous, a place of sacrifice.

That left those of us “normal” Christians at home to live “normal” lives and do “normal” things; like work, and play, and earn money to support the “special” missionaries. The definition of being a Christian in this mental model is to be a faithful church member.

What is a Church member mentality? Compartmentalized life: sacred over here, secular over here. 60 hours of work, plus a couple hours of “church” work. The church is a purveyor of religious goods and services, and if you aren’t on staff, you are a consumer of those goods. And we compete with other churches for the same “market share,” like barkers on the mall calling people to come play our game!

Somewhere along the way the church in the west stopped asking, “How do you make disciples of Jesus.” And we started asking, “How do you make a good church member.” Jim Herrington, the founder and leader of Mission Houston said, “I was a church member, and I was making church members.” A few select folks rise above and give their lives to “full time Christian ministry,” further serving to isolate “normal” Christians from ministry and discipleship.

But is that mental model faithful to Scripture? Is it faithful to Jesus’ call for us to be his followers in daily life? Is it Anabaptist in anyway shape of form?

John Bisagno , long time pastor of Houston’s First Baptist Church (20,000 members) said upon his retirement, “For 20 years we have built a great church. But during that same time the city of Houston declined. Were we really doing what God wanted?” What if forming good church members isn’t the point of Christianity anyway?

What if Christ calls us to Actually impact the world in which we live. What if Christ considers us to be on mission right here in Houston, where we live, work, and play?

According to the most recent, faithful definition of what it means to be a Mennonite Christian, being and becoming misisonal disciples of Christ is precisely who we are called to be. In “The Purposeful Plan,” we are learning to say discipleship means ,“Joining in God’s activity in the world, we develop and nurture missional Mennonite congregations of many cultures.”

Where does this firm belief come from? The Purposeful Plan goes on to say, “We believe that our purpose as a church is derived from the very nature of the triune God. God the Father sent the Son—Jesus into the world. Together, the Father and the Son sent the Spirit. Now, the triune God sends the church into the world to reconcile and restore it in relationship to God’s good purposes. This is the basis for God’s call.”

In recent months your church leadership has been exploring more deeply the intersection of mission and identity for us as a congregation. We spent several months in late 2011 digging into The Purposeful Plan, which we invite you to read here: http://bit.ly/I4LChR On Monday 5 of your church leaders took a day of work off to dedicate to a Retreat with other congregations in Houston to explore how they as individuals and we as a congregation can be transformed. Judy Hoffhien shared her testimony to that retreat above. And you might also remember that, due to conversations surrounding Campus Development, we’ve heard loud and clear that we need to firmly embrace a shared and compelling identity and mission for ourselves.

Thus, on February 9th and 12th the CDT said the following, “We are aware of growing desire for a parallel discernment process regarding the Mission and Identity of Houston Mennonite Church. A conversation such as this gets at the core of who we are, and is directly related to our location and campus. Our location will shape our identity, and our identity needs to shape our location. Thus, should the proposal pass, it is our recommendation that we as a faith family catalyze energy into simultaneously discerning our location, as well as our mission and identity.”

We have been, are, and will continue to do just that! And we invite you to join us. There are several key links below we’d love for you to explore, a 2 minute video outlining the basic theology of being “missional”; The Purposeful Plan itself; and a link to a new Houston Initiative we are discerning participation in (with more info on the retreat 5 of us attended Monday). On May 19 our church council is taking an entire day for a retreat wrapped around this theme of identity and mission. And following that will be some significant entry points for you to enter the conversation with us.

However, you need not wait! You can pause and pray for this process right now. Seriously, you’re not that busy. Pause, and ask God to remind us all that “we are dead to sin and able to live for the glory of God (Romans 6:11).” Also, our worship services are designed each Sunday morning to commission you to be on mission in Houston. Other than the obvious places you might see “missional content” such as sermons, we also receive an offering each and every Sunday, which invites us to participate in what God is up to in the world. By all means, participate! Sharing time each week we are encouraged to share more than simply our medical maladies, but to share something that builds up the body of Christ or reflects on your own ministry. By all means, participate! And perhaps most significantly, we have drastically re-organized our worship services over the last year to “beef up” our sending section. We now commission you each and every week to be on mission where you live, work and play in 3 ways (watch for them Sunday): with a Sending Text of Scripture, a sending song, and a Commissioning for ministry where we lay hands on one another and commission each other to be on mission (exactly as we’ve done for missionaries for decades!).

Why do we do this? Because we are the sent ones of God! We are specially tasked for special ministry in a special location: Houston! We are on mission with God, continuing Jesus’ ministry in Houston. That’s what missional discipleship is all about. This is our faith. This is our hope.

Houston Mennonite Church, the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you! Consider yourselves dead to sin, free and able to live for the glory of God through Christ Jesus! Jesus Christ is risen! It’s up to you to decide, Now what?”