Practice hospitality in ways that convey the welcome of God much? Missional competence #4

I hear this story often. “We’re very friendly. Friendliest congregation I’ve ever been a part of. I don’t understand why we aren’t growing.” I have a hunch. Congregations that think they are friendly are often very inward oriented congregations. It’s hard to break in. They’re friendly, but not hospitable.

Hospitality is the key characteristic, in my opinion, of participation in the life of God. After all, God exists as a community, Father, Son, and Spirit flowing in and through each other’s lives. God’s very life is expressed through making room for the other. And our salvation is found in the fact that he has made room for us as well.

As I have written here often, it is no small thing that the primary symbol in Christian worship is a table. An altar has been replaced by a table, a place of welcome. And each week we learn what it means to participate in God’s life as we experience the welcome of God around the Lord’s table. No longer do we experience God through sacrifices to overcome our exclusion from God. Rather, we are welcomed into God’s life through our participation in the life of Christ.

So, it makes sense that communities interested in participating in the mission of God in the world would excel in hospitality. And yet, we don’t. Shifts are necessary for us to create greater capacity in this area.

The biggest shift required is understanding that we share God’s hospitality with others, not our own. This shift carries significant implications. If we think in terms of the church’s hospitality, then we are the host. Hospitality takes place on our turf and on our terms. But God’s hospitality can take place anywhere. In fact, it’s likely that it will take place precisely in those places where we give up privilege, including home turf. In an era in which it is decreasingly likely that if we build it they will come, then learning how to both recognize and thrive apart from home court advantage will be crucial to a congregation’s vitality.

I think a test of whether or not a congregation is developing capacity here is whether or not new members come in some other way than visiting Sunday assembly. This might indicate that members are learning to recognize occasions of God’s hospitality.

Learning to participate in God’s hospitality requires two significant capacities: interrupt-ability and attentiveness. Though being friendly may help, it is not the key to hospitality. Interupt-ability and attentiveness. The enemy to these capacities is being in a rush. So, it’s hard to imagine developing capacity for hospitality without a similar commitment to simplicity. Put simply, the more simple our lives, the less we need to rush and the more room we have for others. This is deeply spiritual work.

One more note about hospitality. Some churches are good at making room for others in terms of joining the mission of God. Others, not so much. I’ve used the image before of the church as merry-go-round like the ones on playgrounds. Some churches are happy for you to jump on as long as you are willing to run alongside and grab a handle and jump on. Others, the hospitable ones, stop the merry-go-round to let you on. This is hospitable and the work of God.

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Competency three: find and cultivate new partners in mission

Here’s the wrong distinction: missional vs. attractional. It’s trouble six different ways. Stop saying it. Phew, I feel better. So, how would I distinguish missional from other kinds of impulses? Let’s try this. Partner vs. paternal.

Let’s go back to the previous post. The biggest assumption funding a healthy view of ministry is that God is living and active. An implication of this belief is that God is already at work in the communities and neighborhoods that we serve. So, the deal is not that the church has all the good stuff and is merely taking it to the world. This is what I mean by paternal. Rather, God is already at work in unlikely places and among unlikely people, so the church hopes to find in neighborhoods and communities the living presence of God in actual human experiences. We don’t enter these spaces to take over or to direct or to garner advantage for the institution–again paternal. But we go to serve and to learn from and with others who are interested in God’s promised future for the world. This partnering.

My friend, Ryan Woods, was great at this. Ryan, Jessica, and others hoped to–what’s the right word, not plant, not establish–discover or uncover a confessing, worshiping, serving community in downtown Vancouver, Washington. Their belief was that if you loved people the way Jesus does, a church was inevitable. Ryan once contrasted their approach with another church “plant” in the downtown area in relation to an Easter egg hunt in the downtown area. The local community already sponsored an egg hunt for kids in the community. The partnering instinct says, “how can we join?” In contrast the church “plant” decided to sponsor their own, rival Easter egg hunt. Paternal.

As a former full-time minister, I both cringed and recognized myself in Ryan’s story. My instinct was always to find ways to make our church stand out, to offer something on our terms that people would want to be a part of. My interest was with the benefit that accrued to the institution–more members, etc–instead of searching for the living God. And in a twisted way, I operated under the conviction that the best posture of the church in terms of witness to the community was control or ownership, not the posture of servant. I might very well have organized a competing Easter Egg hunt.

Now, we did things to serve others. But in our minds, we had all the good stuff and were bringing it to others. The transaction was all one-way. We weren’t looking for partners, we were looking for clients or customers or admirers. And while these efforts met with mixed results, they never seemed to satisfy our desire for new members. This is because, I think, it’s terribly difficult to move socially from being a client to a member. Think about it: how many of your benevolent efforts translate into visitors or members at church. I think this is because it requires those with the least social resources to “move up.” And clients of our benevolent activity will always find it difficult to imagine that they could belong. I think the gospel suggests that the church has to find ways to “move down,” to give up its perceived privilege, its way of life, to live truly as servants and not patrons.

In Luke 10, the 70 sent out “to all those places Jesus himself intends to go,” necessarily rely on the hospitality of others. Mission doesn’t exist because those sent are bringing everything needed. “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.” Instead, the visible presence of the Kingdom depends on the welcome they receive from “people of peace.” Both the one sent and the one receiving possess what is necessary for the Kingdom to be visible–namely, peace. The peace of Jesus always requires others to become visible, because God’s peace happens among and between persons (including God), not just to or within people.

So, communities of faith in a new missional era find ways to partner with others in serving the interests of God’s coming Kingdom. Many churches are so inwardly focused, spending all their energies organizing a variety of programs and initiatives for others, that they have little energy, experience, or capacity finding partners.

These partners may be people who have not yet confessed Jesus or do not yet belong to God’s Kingdom. But they serve the interests of God’s coming Kingdom by being with and among the poor or by working for flourishing neighborhoods or by caring for creation, and they benefit from the ways that the new creation is becoming visible–even in their experience of faith communities that seek not their own interest, but the interest of others.

I know congregations that are getting good at this. And here’s one observation I would make: these ways of “partnering” seem to snowball. One thing leads to another, leads to another, leads to another, and in ways that these congregations could’ve scarcely imagined on their own. I know of congregations in Oregon, Washington and Ontario that have broad access to public schools–in Oregon, Washington, and Ontario! I know congregations where Sikhs and Muslims have been the doors to wider opportunities for serving in the name of Christ. And the stories these churches tell bring tears to your eyes and convince you that the Spirit of God is truly moving in our world.

When I repeat stories like this, someone always asks how many baptisms have there been? Three things, in order of increasing importance: first, these congregations now have a living testimony among people they could never have reached before. Second, its nearly impossible for someone to simultaneously be a partner and a prospect. To me, the key is to pursue “partners” as a fully visible Christian, or as someone who consistently lives out of their Christian identity. (I will say more about how hospitality and witness go together in my final post in this series). Third, the broader implications of what makes for a credible Christian testimony have to be kept in mind. I think one of the things that hurts Christian witness is the perception that Christians want to run everyone else’s life. This may be fair or not, but it is a perception. I think the conditions for Christian witness improve when people perceive we want to be their partner/servant rather than their parent, when we find common cause with others, as servants, to resist the principalities and powers that rob us all of life and meaning. We have much repair work to be done here, in my estimation, before any of us will be particularly effective, evangelistically speaking.

And it occurs to me that I have a fourth thing to say about this. The first work of conversion for us to have a credible witness in the world will be our own. And here is our salvation: to believe with everything we have that God’s power and significance in the world can be fully expressed in the form of a servant.

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Competency two: discerning God’s calling in communal processes of discernment

I think the single biggest assumption that should inform the practice of ministry in congregations is this: God is living and active. Now you would think that this would be a no-brainer. After all, we all would say “Amen” to such a declaration. I’m convinced, however, that this is often the one thing that fades into the background as congregations make plans and form initiatives.

Let me explain. I think the question we typically ask is “what should we do…” with the unspoken finishing phrase “…to get bigger.” Now to be fair, I think we also assume that we know the kinds of things that God is interested in, and so we find those kinds of things to do. But asking, “what should we do?” is different than asking “what is God calling us to do?”

Now, I’m aware that for some people these two questions sound exactly the same. God has called us to do what the Bible says we should do. We don’t have to discern that. That’s all been taken care of. We just have to be obedient.

I have several concerns about this way of conceiving things. First, it assumes that Scripture is flat, yielding simple, consistent formulas that simply need to be obeyed. Unfortunately, this is not the Bible we were given. In fact, the Bible we were given is notable for the fact that God’s will gets worked out in a variety of ways that are very context specific or sensitive. Hence, the Bible’s testimony about a living God contains an impressive amount of diversity and variety, ruling out cookie cutter or one-size-fits-all notions of God’s calling on a congregation’s life.

So, among the many things the Bible teaches us about God is that our concrete situations matter. That knowing what to do in any given situation depends less on a wooden obedience to Scripture, and more on our ability to discern what God is doing or calling us to do. I believe each congregation is a gift to the world. And God’s gift come in a wonderful variety.

Which brings us to the questions: how do you discern this? who does the discerning? Let’s take the second question first. In many congregations, a small group does this for everyone else. It is interesting, however, that in the two big decision making texts in Acts (chpts. 6 & 15) the whole community is gathered and the whole community is pleased by the decision made. I think this fits Luke’s understanding of the church as the people on whom the Spirit of God has fallen.

While it is clear very early in Acts, even in Luke, that the Gentiles are to be included as covenant participants, it takes the church several chapters to come to that conclusion, and even then in piecemeal fashion. I mention this to make two observations: first, God is always ahead of the church, leading the church. The church is always discovering more fully what it is that God is up to. Second, the church didn’t come to its decision in Acts 15 by studying it out in Scripture. In fact, as Luke Timothy Johnson insists, you can’t get to Acts 15 just by reading the OT (namely that Gentiles could be included in the covenant as Gentiles). The way it did come to decision was to hear the stories of how Gentiles were coming to faith in real life situations (Cornelius and the church in Antioch).

The way many churches decide is strategic and abstract. They have general understandings of what God wants and they devise programs to reach abstract audiences or populations. The belief that God is living and active recedes into the background.

Beginning with the assumption of a living God requires attending to the stories of those who are being led in the world by the Spirit of God. As Alan Roxburgh is fond of saying, “The Spirit of God is among the people of God.” And if this is true, then God’s calling will be discerned, not by a small group in a room somewhere, but in the actual lives and stories of the people of God.

So, discernment takes place as the congregation gathers to hear the stories of Scripture and their lives in prayerful attentiveness. Because these stories are diverse and rarely come with neat and tidy conclusions, some in the congregation have both the gift and confidence of the congregation to make judgements about common meanings and directions.

For my money, leadership in congregations should always be working to make sure that practices of attentiveness are ongoing. Because what is more important than pursuing a living God? Congregations in a new missional era develop both the practices and environments necessary for discernment.

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Competency one: developing a shared biblical imagination for mission

Communities of faith participating in the life of God in a new missional era have the capacity to develop a shared biblical imagination. The really big word in this sentence is “shared.”My sense is that there are few biblical texts that rise to the level of a shared imagination within a congregation. What functions at the level of a shared imagination is a loose pastiche of images and phrases that come from a variety of sources.

I have evidence for this claim. I’ve got roughly 350 interviews within congregations where respodents are asked how the gospels are used in congregations, including in processes of decision making. The interviews suggest that specific stories of Jesus play little part in shaping the imagination of church members. They play in the deep background as a set of loosely connected impressions. I have yet to find a real example of how a story from the gospels was appealed to as a part of  rationale for a decision made by a congregation.

While this research needs follow-up work to clarify themes that are emerging, and while my research is limited to the gospels at this point, it suggests that it is no small thing for a biblical text to rise to the level of shared imagination.

While there are certain texts that warm the collective cockles of our heart–Matthew 28, Acts 2, John 3–the way we use texts in our churches does little to develop a shared imagination. This is not to say that the way we currently use texts–primarily for teaching and preaching to passive learners–is wrong or should be abandoned. Rather, they should be augmented with other, more intentionally communal approaches.

Anyone who has taken a class from me, been to a conference I’ve directed, or been in a congregation I’ve consulted with know the practice of Dwelling in the Word. It’s a practice I learned from Alan Roxburgh and Pat Keifert and that I have become committed to. The basic practice is simple: choose one text to dwell in as a group for an extended period of time (we dwell in one text for a year in PMC). Each time you gather, read the text, observe moments of silence, share what struck you in the text in pairs, or with a “reasonably friendly looking stranger,” and report back to the group what your partner noticed.

When we do this with congregations, we always get resistance. Why stay in Luke 10 for a year? What’s left to learn after about a month? Fair enough. But the purpose of Dwelling is not to get a set of ideas into your brain. The purpose is to develop a shared imagination. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve been dwelling with groups in Luke 10 for several years now and I still learn things from others. But more significant is how living in a text over time forges a shared vision of life. After awhile, we’re thinking together, not about the text, but through the text and with the text. Now people are recognizing situations as Luke 10 situations. They’re talking about finding people of peace, and they have a shared sense of what that might be about. And when they make decisions, they remind each other about accepting God’s hospitality on someone else’s terms, of not moving about from house-to-house, or of proclaiming the nearness of the Kingdom of God.

Luke 10 is not a text they visit from time-to-time. It’s a text in which they have come to dwell.  And while they really liked the preacher’s last series from Galatians or Exodus and love sister so-and-so’s Bible class, few of the texts visited in sermon or class have risen to the level of shared imagination.

I think what develops from consistent teaching and preaching over time is something of a shared doctrinal or moral imagination. And this is important work. But give me biblical texts that live in a congregation’s shared imagination!

If you only dwell in one per year, then choosing texts is very important. Here we want texts that serve a new missional era well. Not all texts are equal in this regard. Luke 10 is better than Matthew 28, for instance, simply because our notions of mission tied to Christendom are well funded by Matthew 28, which unfortunately has been used in triumphalist or imperialist kinds of ways.

Dwelling in the Word is not the only way to accomplish a shared biblical imagination for mission. But the same kinds of things would have to be present: repetitive use of a text, ritual framing, every member response, deep listening postures related to the text, the Spirit, and the stranger. In fact, the framing of the practice within its ritual processes are also a big part of what shapes a common imagination for mission.

Truth is, many congregations who complain about Dwelling in the Word while they are in the PMC process, continue its practice after the three year project is over. They have learned how powerful it is, how it does things that other practices don’t do. And how it can prepare people for a shared future with God in a new missional era.

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Things that put our faith communities on a missional journey

So, I’ve stopped using the phrase “missional church,” as if its a destination. When you use the phrase “missional church,” the most frequent asked question is “what does one look like?” Fair enough. But the answer to that is tricky, because a missional community is always contextual and so will look different from place to place. I want to resist notions of the church that identify it in abstract or essentialist ways around certain “marks.” My tribe, Churches of Christ, have been down that path before and its not as promising as it seems.

I’d rather use the word “missional” to refer to the era we are in. We serve God in a new missional era. Now missional becomes less a question of “marks” and more a question of mission. So, instead of asking “what does a missional church look like,” the questions now run more along the lines of “how best might we participate in God’s mission in our current context?” This might seem like splitting hairs, but I think the differences in those two questions are significant.

It seems that two immediate differences would be a shift away from the church as the primary focus toward a focus on God and God’s mission, and a focus on journey rather than destination. Missional is not a static set of attributes that you apply to the church, but a journey of deepening faithfulness to both God and world.

So, Stephen Johnson and I have been working together with congregations who are endeavoring to be faithful to God in a new missional era for about six years. The shape of that work comes from a process designed by Church Innovations called Partnership for Missional Church. Stephen and I are both deeply indebted to Pat Keifert and the folks at CI who have trained us to help others in the missional journey. Within the last year, the vision of what we have been calling people to has sharpened and we’ve gotten greater conceptual clarity. Within the PMC process we identified six competencies that we were inviting congregations to grow in. And I have added a seventh that isn’t addressed directly through PMC.

I’ll list them here and then unpack each over the next few weeks, including descriptions of practices that are designed to increase competency and provide experiences around which a new shared imagination can develop within congregations.

So, communities on the missional path

1. Develop a shared biblical imagination for mission.

2. Discern God’s calling in communal processes of discernment.

3. Find and cultivate new partnerships in mission.

4. Practice hospitality in ways that convey the welcome of God.

5. Find and empower new leaders for mission.

6. Take risks for faithful experiments.

7. Develop practices of testimony that bear witness to God’s Kingdom hospitality.

On the surface, these competencies might not seem that revolutionary. True enough. But our experience suggests that even if congregations give lip service to these things, they’re not very good at them. The social imagination of most congregations simply do not prioritize or authorize practices that would cultivate greater competence. Also, when each is unpacked in relation to specific practices, their significance becomes more dramatic.

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Is your church becoming missional, or simply a more active version of itself?

We perform what we can imagine. That is, we make choices, evaluate consequences, and act in keeping with the world that we have imagined. And some of that imagination is shared, or social. We share narratives, or deep imaginative structures, that give our actions meaning and significance. Charles Taylor and others refer to this as a “social imaginary.” The social imaginary keeps us from driving on the left side of the road, encourages us to take our hats off and cover our hearts between the eighth and ninth innings of baseball games as someone sings “God Bless America.” It’s what tells us that markets are good and institutions are bad, what causes us to both fetish-ize and be ashamed of power. It’s what allows us to criticize the sermon and teaches us that the most important thing that happens in worship happens in the interior of the individual.

So, churches have shared imaginations as well. We have imagined the relationship between God, church, and world in ways that authorize certain actions and make others problematic. We’ve imagined our lives in ways that allow us to see and say some things and that blinds us to others.

So, if the term “missional” is something real, if it marks something other than the status quo, then it must proceed from a different shared imagination. Otherwise, it may only be a louder, more passionate benevolent paternalism, or worse, a longer list of things to do for people who are already doing too much. I fear that most uses of missional by congregations indicate the latter options, and not a shift in imagination that authorizes new actions.

A social imaginary is not simply a set of ideas we hold. It’s a complex of ideas and practices that are held together as meaningful in the imaginary. So, a new imagination will require an exploration of ideas, but also practices–a way of life–that cause us to handle and see the world differently.

I can pinpoint certain theological shifts that make a missional imagination more likely. To get missional lift we will have to break free of the gravitational pull of classical theism and and its attendant substantialist notions of Trinity. We will need to be less Christocentric and more Spirit oriented. Missional becomes a greater possibility within a more robust eschatology and a cruciform Christology.

I could add to this list of theological repairs needed. But my hunch is that I just lost a lot of readers. And those who propose the need for a missional shift make the mistake of engaging the existing imaginary here, at the level of ideas. Not only do we lose the eye-glaze battle with most church members, but changing the way we think about things doesn’t make much of a dent in a social imagination in and of itself. Karl Weick, the leading name in the literature on sense making, suggests that new information rarely causes us to make new sense of things. We simply absorb ideas into the way we’ve already imagined the world.

The real action at the level of shifts in the social imaginary comes at the level of practices. It is through the actual handling of the world, of attending more closely to life as it happens between us and among us, that we get push at the level of imagination. There are several reasons for this, the biggest being that reality is not simply what we impose on the world. Reality bites. It surprises us and we have to account for the surprise (if we are attentive).

So, I’ve learned to talk about this more concretely in ways that get more traction with people. Much of it has come from the learning I’ve done in and with congregations through my work with Church Innovations, especially my collaboration with Stephen Johnson (my partner in crime). Stephen and I have identified seven competencies that we think put you on the path to missional, rooted in practices, that hold out the hope for a shift in a church’s social imaginary. Let’s see what you think.

It could make the difference between becoming missional or simply a more active version of yourself.

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What counts as biblical preaching? Jen and Ben know

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I heard two great sermons at Streaming this past weekend. And it occurred to me that both qualify under my definition of biblical preaching.

Jen Christy and Ben Ries both preached texts from Hebrews (in keeping with the theme of the conference). They latched onto their respective texts and refused to form a rapport with their audience on terms other than the text’s performance.

Before I describe their sermons more precisely, let me say a few things about what “biblical preaching” is not for me.

img_1412Biblical preaching is not just preaching ideas from the Bible. I’m not saying this is bad preaching or illegitimate preaching. Too often, however, the Bible is treated as a strip mine, excavating away all the “extraneous” details of the text to find the a nugget in the form of a universal idea or principle. Usually, this means for the resulting sermon swapping the rhetorical setting of the text for a more contemporary rhetorical setting. For example, the exhortation in Hebrews to not “give up meeting together” might be lifted from the surrounding language of our “hearts being sprinkled clean” and our “bodies being washed with pure water” in favor of information about how church attendance correlates with happiness or having faithful children, etc. This sermon might be very good, and faithful to a biblical idea, but falls short of what I mean by biblical preaching.

Tom Long is really helpful at this point. The shape and form of a text is not just a vehicle for carrying the point of a text. The form is meaningful and often being faithful to the form of the text is more “biblical” than being faithful to a point extracted from a text.

By biblical preaching, I also do not mean explaining a text point-by-point, verse-by-verse. While I think having a thorough exegetical understanding of the text is necessary for good  biblical preaching, the sermon should not be a dry explanation of the text verse-by-verse. Again, alongside the “ideas” or “points” a text is making is the way a text moves. Texts don’t just say things, they do things. They perform. And biblical preaching, for my money, focuses on the performance of the text. What does the text want to do? What in the text wants to perform? How might this text perform in a fresh way in this contemporary setting?

Jen and Ben were great at this. First, both read the full text to us at the beginning of the sermon. And they didn’t just fly through the reading: they took their time and provided emphasis. They interpreted as they read. They signaled to us very early that they had nothing better or more interesting than the text they were assigned. So many sermons avoid a full reading the text at all, or rush through it so fast in a monotone rat-a-tat that listeners would be forgiven for thinking that the really important stuff lies someplace other than the text. Their patience with the text allowed me to hear it in a way I had never before.

But then they kept the language of the text pulsing and performing through the rest of the sermon. When Jen talked about enduring the suffering of child birth for the joy set before her, she brought the language of Hebrews into our lives. When Ben compared the list of exhortations at the end of Hebrews to the list of exhortations his mom delivered before he left the house as a teenager, we were experiencing the actual form-fulness of the text. I could give several other examples of places where the language and/or form of the text were being deliberately and artfully called forth to perform in our own lives. They weren’t simply giving us their exegesis, though clearly they had done their homework. Instead, they were letting the world imagined by the text perform in our hearing.

From stem to stern, the language of their entire text permeated their sermons. (Jen is particularly adept at bringing echoes and allusions of other texts into play so that what is delivered is a biblical world of associations and meanings). Through the art of preaching, they had coaxed a text to get up and walk around among us, pulling us deeply into its rhythms and images. They established a rapport with their listeners, not primarily through stories or jokes, but through the artful use of their text. And we were spellbound and deeply moved.

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Words of Loss, Words of Hope

I was in need last Friday. My friend, Jannie, was suddenly and unexpectedly dead. He was gone. Someone so alive and so indicative of what being alive has come to mean to me was now gone, not living in my presence. I needed words that marked both my loss and my hope in something greater than this loss.

So, I was relieved to be in good hands at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Now, here’s the deal. I knew Jannie better than any of the speakers. There was not a detail from his life that would change this moment for me. In fact, the least helpful and least moving parts of the service were the words of the eulogy that portrayed Jannie in a flattering light over against the words of 1 Cor 13. I shot knowing looks with my friends,  John and Scott, who knew Jannie the same way I did. He was admirable in so many ways without needing to make the full embodiment of so lofty a passage. I might or might not have leaned over to John and Scott and whispered, “wow, he must have gotten a lot better.”

No, words like these were of little help.

What did help, what dissolved me, what brought tears, and with them, cleansing grief and hope, were the set pieces. The words of the liturgy. The Scripture readings, the affirmations of faith, the passing of the peace. The Lord be with you. And also with you. That stuff. Those words choked deliciously in my throat throughout the entire service.

Now I know that Mrs. Landingham and Leo McGary are not real friends of mine. But these West Wing characters felt like my friends. And so when they died (on the show), it felt a little real. It felt like loss. I bring them up, and not Admiral Fitzwallace, (though I also experienced his death as a loss) (I know, I have problems) (good thing Charlie didn’t die, his participation in the show Psych notwithstanding) is that we were allowed to attend their funerals. And in both, we heard no personal antidotes or attempts to preach them into their final destiny, but we got the broad declarations of Scripture. And I was deeply moved. “I am the resurrection and the life.”

So, I might be the minority in all of this, but here’s what I think is going on. First, in that moment the words of the liturgy are larger than Jannie’s life. These words find their scale over all time and place. They are lofted and establish hope outside of our mastery or relative goodness. And because they are our best words, the one’s we’ve decided to say over and over again, they are as a result reassuring and overwhelmingly comforting.

We say them, not as a part of a sermon or as an ornament to our words. In the liturgy, they stand on their own regardless of what we have to say about them or anything else. And this is comforting.

I imagine them as a canopy creating space for truth telling underneath. And ultimately it is our ability to tell the truth in situations like this that touches our grief in hopeful ways. I’ve been to many funerals that refuse the truth, that paint a brighter picture than the actual state of things would permit. Which gives the rest of us little hope. Our hope then is that somehow we can live better or do more or perform a more praiseworthy life. But the truth of the gospel depends nothing on our performance of it. So, the deal is to respectfully and lovingly say what the truth of the situation is underneath and alongside the big statements of the gospel carried by the liturgy.

One last reflection. The songs we sang were primarily of the Taize variety. A simple line sung by the cantor. The congregational response in multiple parts. Simple words of longing and confession in  spare, but beautiful arrangement. They were fit for grief, for deep feeling and longing for something more. These should be mandated at every funeral. No, “I’ll Fly Away” or “Mansions over the Hilltop” or “Days of Elijah.” Nothing happy-clappy at my funeral, please.

That is all.

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My friend, Jannie Swart: Memory and Tribute

the fabsI got the call last week late in the evening from my doctoral advisor and friend, Pat Keifert. Jannie Swart died earlier that day from a massive heart attack. I was stunned.

Jannie and I were students together under Pat’s tutelage at Luther Seminary, along with my dear friends and colleagues John Ogren and Scott Hagley. I consider it one of the great blessings of my life that we were all colleagues, and that I had two years to learn from Jannie, that I had two years to drink beer with him, that I had two years to be his neighbor in the small apartments provided for Luther students.

Jannie was a larger than life kind of guy. Beyond his imposing size, Jannie brought rich life experience together with an impressive breadth of education and a contagious passion for life. A South African, Jannie was the young senior pastor of the largest Dutch Reform church in Johannesburg during the difficult days of the dismantling of apartheid. Through the strength of his will, character and gospel convictions he was instrumental in integrating that church. Jannie had been in Mandela’s presence, prayed at his birthday party, and lived and breathed progress in South Africa. He not only had a seat for history, he participated in its unfolding.

I sat with Jannie and his family the night President Obama was elected. He felt so fortunate to have been in South Africa when Mandela came to power and in America the night a country with a horrible racial past elected an African-American president. He cared deeply about issues of inclusion and power. For him, the measure of any theology was its relation to and exercise of power.

After finishing his PhD at Luther, Jannie pastored a Presbyterian church in a small town outside of Pittsburgh and a year ago took a full-time teaching position at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. I attended his memorial service this past Friday at PTS, and it was clear that in a short time he had left an indelible impression both places. PTS felt his loss as a grievous wound at the heart of the direction they were leaning as a Seminary–after just one year with Jannie. Speaker after speaker took Jannie’s themes as their own and spoke with deep longing to lean into his vision of life in both the Kingdom and the world. This pleased John, Scott and I as we listened to others describe Jannie. They knew him and loved him well. And it was hardly a surprise.

The three of us knew Jannie as both saint and scoundrel. We imagined he would have stood up in the middle of the service and in his inimitable South African accent would have insisted that all of this praise of him was f****** b*******, one of his favorite theological phrases after a beer or two. And I’ll just say that it’s just like Jannie to die when its his turn to buy the beer. It seemed to always be my turn when Jannie was around.

Jannie and I had our moments of deep conflict. I learned from Jannie that I am no Reformed theologian, and sometimes that appeared to me as being no theologian at all in Jannie’s estimation. And we struggled the way a lot of PhD students do from the competition of writing papers and understanding books and pleasing our professors, especially Pat.

But these more jagged parts of Jannie, and my own, could not be separated from the passions and temperaments that made him a transitional figure in people’s lives. A historical figure. And they fit his theological eye that refused anything that smacked of abstraction, and that valued the God who necessarily appears in the messiness (one of his favorite English words) of creaturely experience.

On a more personal level, I enjoyed being with Jannie. He thought he had the greatest taste in music–Neil Diamond, Phil Collins, Tina Turner. It made me smile with amusement (after all, I know good music) when he would show me DVD clips from a Phil Collins’ concert, like it was angels singing to shepherds in a field on a glorious night. He loved going to his kids ballgames. He laughed hard and loud and often at himself. Even during those brief seasons when I didn’t like Jannie, I loved him.

I was so thankful for a day this past November that we spent together at SBL. It was a surprising gift to both of us. We went to sessions on Process Theology and the emergent church, on Levinas, and on missional hermeneutics. We ate together and laughed together and remembered how much we valued each other.

It was too soon to lose him. Much too soon. And he was doing brilliant and unique work that will be orphaned. And he left a wife and kids who still need him. And friends, like me, whose life will be much poorer because he is not here.

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Big Boy Music: The Avett Brothers and Being an Adult

images-2I recently attended an Avett Brothers concert that included Old Crow Medicine Show as the opening act. Both bands were full of frenetic energy and incredible musicianship. Old Crow is one of those bands that for me is much better in live performance where they can move beyond the constraints of a four minute song. They are a great jam band. And its clear they have fun making music. It’s infectious.

Same thing, clearly, could be said of the Avett Brothers. But here’s a big difference. Old Crow’s lyrics were dominated by drugs, drinking, and loose women. In Old Crow songs, the world ultimately exists for their pleasure. Now, I get it that this may be a band persona, or that they might be representing a category of music that has hard living as its theme. But after awhile, their songs made me feel old and responsible.

In contrast, the Avett Brothers sing songs of taking responsibility for their actions. While their more youthful days might be checkered with wilder living, their songs are about being men in a different way than Old Crow’s. In fact, big roars went up from the audience whenever a getting stoned reference was clear. In the same way, the crowd went nuts with the Avett Brothers only reference to getting high. But here the joke was on the audience. As the song told the story, when the drugs came out, that was the time to move on, to say I’m about something else.

It’s a persistent theme in the last three Avett Brothers albums. They sing of the “dream” and of fame as an empty illusion. They sing of their former way of life as uninhabitable for people they love, and, therefore, of a way of life not worth living. They sing about handling fame the way Paul Newman did or having pride the way their momma did, not the kind in the Bible that makes you bad. They even sing about their meaningful songs as “vanity.”

The Avett Brothers have seen the options and have at this point in their life chosen being adults. And they make it look fun.

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