October 2009

On Sunday afternoon, October 25, our church took a driving tour of the neighborhood our building is in.

What, if anything, did we learn about our church’s neighborhood by driving around on Sunday afternoon? I think we would all benefit from further conversation about this topic, but here are several of my own reflections.

First, the diversity of our neighborhood stands out starkly to me. The drive north through Hilshire Village, past the old church parsonage, onto Long Point avenue never ceases to expand my thinking. This is a drive through the border of 2 separate realities. Though we don’t directly sit on this boundary, this is our location: incredible gentrification, development, affluence, and relative homogeneity sit right next to diversity, an amazing blend of cultures, poverty, and rows of apartments. Walmart, a store I generally detest on ethical grounds, has greatly inspired me by their placement of the world’s first and only U.S. Spanish language store. They put their best money-making research and development minds together and found that here, more than anywhere else, a Spanish language store could thrive. I ask myself every time I see it, are we Mennonites as bright as the folks down at Walmart? Can we too put our best and brightest minds together to assess who is living in our neighborhood, and how we can best reach out to them?

Second, though some needs may be more evident on the surface, I’m deeply struck that every single home, business, and community in our sphere of influence needs the gospel that Christians claim to already participate in. The folks who live in the gentrified “McMansions” (what my Scavenger Hunt partner called them) along Westview need God/salvation/joy/discipleship as much as any poor apartment family up on Long Point. Is loneliness and isolation a key life issue for those who live in Hilshire Village; the same way that poverty and vicimization is perhaps the story of others in our neighborhood? Don’t all people suffer the effects of their own pride, sin, innapropriate sexual desires, love for money, greed, and belief in violence that redeems?

When I drive through our neighborhood I celebrate the diversity I see and the gifts that come with it! I long to be a church that is open to rich and poor, black, brown and white, life-time Christian or new to the faith. I also feel the stress and pain of city living on each of the streets, and in each of the homes I drive by. And I know that Houston Mennonite Church offers something special to every person and family in our neighborhood. We offer worship, prayers, and discipleship that can introduce our neighborhood to the God who gives life. But the most important thing we can and do offer our neighborhood is ourselves. We are a Christian community, formed by the gospel of Jesus Christ to love and be loved by others!

So, it is not about finding the right program to reach some specific need, or crafting specific words to say to specific people. It’s not even about locating a handful of local pacifists who need Jesus. No. It’s about being ourselves. It’s about seeing ourselves as part of God’s good news proclamation to the people across the street and around the world. It’s about welcoming our neighbors in to the deepest levels of our faith and of our faith community. Finally, it’s about opening ourselves to the transformation that God is bringing to us, and praying for God’s kingdom to come here in Houston.

The heart and soul of Christianity is relationship to God. It may be many things, but it is nothing without this. Likewise, Christians may be many things, but we are not Christian lest we have a sense of connection to God. The word “religion” itself expresses this idea, it’s root meaning re-ligamented, or re-connected. Scripture defines this relationship by calling us to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.” Jesus further provides a picture of relationship when he says, “You are the branches, and I am the vine. You can do nothing without me.” Augustine, and early church leader, said “Our souls are restless until they find their rest in [God].”

These are all statements Christians know to be true, and God’s reminders to take the time required to cultivate this depth of connection. Worship on Sunday’s may be necessary for us to connect to God, but it’s certainly not sufficient. Prayer, silence, scripture, renewed commitments, thanksgiving, testimony, singing, study, and dreaming are all deeper ways to relate to God. Lately I have been meeting regularly with a spiritual director to walk with me in my own spiritual life. Through him, I find myself challenged and encouraged to love the God who is love.

In loving God, a miraculous and marvelous thing happens to us. Dorotheos of Gaza, an ancient Mother of the Church invites us to picture what love of God looks like: “Suppose we were to take a compass and insert the point and draw the outline of a circle. The center point is the same distance from any point on the circumference… Let us suppose that this circle is the world and that God is the center; the straight lines drawn from the circumference to the center are the lives of human beings…Notice that the closer they are to God, the closer they become to one another; and the closer they are to one another, the closer they are to God.”

It is only through our love and relationship with God that energy, creativity, and desire for loving others comes to fullness. Loving God allows us the freedom to see those in our lives as God sees them, and to treat them as God treats them. Likewise, compassion for others is a core way for us to fall more deeply in love with our Maker. Why? Because loving other people helps us to see what God is doing in their lives, and opens us to their stories of redemption, pain, and praise.

In the business and busyness of life in the city, Christians must find the time to connect deeply with God. We are not social activists, or performers of good works. We are Christians, people defined primarily by our relationship to God. It is out of this relationship that all other motivation flows.

I encourage you all, in whatever ways are meaningful for you, to drink deeply from the wells of devotion and spirituality that we have inherited. In doing so, we taste the reality of what our founder, Menno Simons said to be true for us all: that “we are bone of bone and flesh of flesh with Jesus Christ.” Set aside time tonight, rise early tomorrow, or plan a weekend personal retreat as a way to re-ligament yourself to the heart and soul of our existence. As you do, may the Lord make his face to shine upon you and give you peace! And may your love grow for all!