THE POUND CAKE HAS LANDED and other thoughts on community

THE POUND CAKE HAS LANDED  and other thoughts on community

The “Smith” boys got arrested last week and I couldn’t help them. My brother is moving this week and I can’t help him either. And the pound cake landed in my office today, but I didn’t bake it.

Those three things percolated in my head this morning as I sat down to write. Though they are unrelated events in a typical week, they share a single thread: Healthy community isn’t optional, and it doesn’t happen by accident. It must be intentionally built.

I’ve been acquainted with the “Smith’s” since they were born. We greeted them as toddlers on our daily walks past their house, one block over from ours. We watched them graduate from training wheels to big boy bikes. I helped them refill their tires once with my air compressor. We waved and said hello every time they passed our house on the way to the basketball court at the park. But we never built a real relationship with them or their parents. Their vandalism—the neighborhood always knew it was them—escalated with age. Now they are under arrest, charged with  murder.

Maybe, just maybe, if I’d hosted that annual 9-11 block party I dreamed of shortly after the terrorist attacks, a relationship could have taken root. Mentoring might have happened. Now I’ll never know.

My brother is moving from the gulf coast to north Georgia this week. He is desperately tired with all the preparations and needs a lot of help to get moved in. I’m too far away, there is no room in my work schedule to go anyway. He doesn’t have a network of friends there yet. I’m hoping and praying the church he visited on one of his house hunting trips will hear of his need and give him a hand.

Healthy community doesn’t happen by accident, it must be intentionally built.

And just in case you were beginning to get depressed, the pound cake has landed, and I didn’t bake it.

We’re not talking just any pound cake here either. We’re talking Ann Chaney’s finest lemon-glazed, melt-in-your-mouth, make you wanna slap your Momma ‘cause she never gave you anything this good! southern Virginia masterpiece of a pound cake. Ann, who has been my administrative assistant for fourteen years, baked it for our upcoming Alpha Course. I’ll never be able to bake anything that good. But I can’t wait to bless our guests with it.

Life is tough and people have free will. We can’t save every wayward boy or help every worn-out brother. But we can, if we are intentional about it, create an environment where relationships can grow, people can hear the gospel, receive the gift of life, and experience the community of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

But it won’t happen by accident. Healthy community must be intentionally built. Sometimes all it takes is a really good piece of pound cake.

Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. [1]

[1] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Php 2:4). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

WHY ALPHA?

WHY ALPHA?

If you long for meaningful community you know that social media only goes so far. People long for real connection. That’s one of the reasons we run the Alpha Course. It brings people from all walks of life together and builds friendships. For eleven weeks we enjoy a meal together, watch a very interesting presentation on some aspect of the faith, break for coffee and desert and then have discussion groups for about 30-40 minutes. Even people who are not Christians enjoy it because of the relationships that are built.

Most Americans have a smattering of knowledge about the faith, but a surprising number don’t really know the basics.  Although there is no test and no college credit, Alpha is educational. Anyone attending Alpha will come away with a much better, more comprehensive understanding of Christianity. Guests can ask any question they like, express any opinion they have, and they will not be ridiculed or scolded.

Another plus about Alpha is that the whole thing is very relaxed, encouraging and fun. I think that’s because the developer, British pastor Nicky Gumble, started out as an atheist and is very sensitive to the feelings of people who have a hard time with faith. The new videos, hosted by Toby Flint and Gemma Hunt, are all available online here, and are phenomenally well done. Alpha does present the basics of the faith and encourages people to believe, but there is no pressure.

Alpha has been around for over thirty years and is a worldwide phenomenon, so it feels like you are part of something big with lots of support and you are. Alpha is a way for the whole congregation to get involved in sharing their faith with their friends without putting them on the spot or asking them to act like salespeople or expecting them to be experts in the field of apologetics.

That’s how Christianity grew in the first place, not through crusades and revival type events, but small groups of friends discussing what they’d learned about Jesus. The Alpha Course builds on itself. People come on the course, find out about Jesus, become believers and get excited about sharing what they’ve learned. Then they naturally want to bring their friends to the next course.

The first group that attended Alpha at our church was very diverse. One African American lady saw a bumper sticker on my car and asked me about it in the grocery store. She came and brought her sister. One man said, “I came to the course thinking I was already a Christian. But I had terrible anxiety, and anger, and depression issues. I couldn’t sleep at night. On the third week of the course I prayed along with the guy on the video and a huge burden lifted off me. I’ve not had those troubles since and I sleep like a baby. I believe I became a real Christian that day.” Another lady attended the course with her husband. Her understanding of Jesus completely changed, and she was baptized. Her husband, who had never attended a church, began to believe that not all Christians were nuts, and started attending regularly.

So, if you’re looking for something deeper and ready to explore life with good friends, try Alpha.

ON BEING A NO-PRESSURE FRIEND

ON BEING A NO-PRESSURE FRIEND

“I can’t be part of something I’m not sure I believe,” said Sam, “but thanks for inviting us.” Sam, his wife Shelley, and his daughter Chelsey were our new neighbors. Our kids were friends and they seemed open, so I had invited them to church.

I appreciated Sam’s honesty and integrity, so we just prayed, built a great relationship, and looked for opportunities to introduce them to Jesus. But then Sam’s career path took them to Memphis. We were sad when they moved, but we kept in touch via email.

A few years went by until one day Sam pulled into my driveway. He was in town for a few hours to check on his house and tenants. We talked for an hour. The sun was setting and the mosquitoes biting when Sam said, “I just thought you’d want to know that we’ve been attending a church in Memphis.”

I said, “That’s great! But I’m curious. You said when we were neighbors that you couldn’t be part of something you weren’t sure you believed. What happened?”

Sam’s reply was instructive. “The first month we were in South Boston we were invited to four different churches. Before people even got to know anything about us, they were inviting us to church. I wasn’t sure about any of it at the time. It felt like a lot of pressure.”

“What was different about the church in Memphis?” I asked.

“It had a lot of things we needed. It’s speaks to people who haven’t been to church in a long time or at all and aren’t certain about anything spiritual. We needed to be anonymous for a while, to have time to process what we were hearing. They let you do that. We needed relevant messages. Their basic theology is conservative, but they speak to issues we face every day. We needed contemporary music and informal style. They are committed to that too.”

“Wow, that’s great!” I said. “Sounds a lot like what we try to do albeit on a smaller scale.” (Sam’s church hosts three thousand on Sundays).

“We still haven’t joined the church,” he continued. “But we understand now the need to take a serious moral inventory of our lives, order our priorities and when it is time, make a 100% commitment. We’re going to do that soon.”

I couldn’t have been happier to hear what the Lord was doing in Sam’s life. I’m convinced He can do that for our neighbors today. After all, it isn’t the first time He has led his church to adapt itself to the needs of people far from God. As the Apostle Paul wrote: Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible…To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law…I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. (1 Cor 9:19-23 NIV).

Sam’s church ‘became like Sam in order to win Sam.’

Maybe you know someone like Sam. Let me ask you to do three things. First, pray for him and his family all summer. Ask God to heighten his curiosity about spiritual things. Second, love him. Spend the time to get to know him. Third, invite—but don’t pressure him—to attend the Alpha Course with you (www.alphausa.org). The course is designed for people who are seeking but just not sure yet what they believe. It gives people time to process what they’re learning within a supportive, no-pressure, community.

You never can tell what God might do if you’ll be a no-pressure friend to your neighbor.

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him … Luke 24:30-31

Are you happy? If not, do you know why?

Several things can make us sad and stress us out. Illness, family problems, financial set-backs have their place in our day-to-day contentment quotient. But all things being equal are you a generally happy person, satisfied with the life you live?

Many of us would have to answer “no.”

Peter Moskovitz, in his article America’s Search for Happiness is Driving Us Crazy, reports that we have a multibillion dollar happiness industry bent on helping us find contentment, yet over forty million of us have diagnosed anxiety disorders.

We are obsessed with happiness, yet not finding it. Perhaps we aren’t finding it because we are pursuing it the wrong way.

Read Mercer Schuchardt suggests as much in a recent CT Mag article, The Future of the Church is Analog Not Digital, when he wrote, “The most important and biblical pieces of technology in a church today may not be the projector and the amplifier, but the crockpot and warming plate.”

Schuchardt’s peice struck a chord in a song the Spirit has been singing in my soul for some time. I hear it in Sunday School as Jamie Laine leads us through Ray Vanderlaan’s excellent video series, Becoming a Kingdom of Priests in a Prodigal World. I see it in the faces and hear it in the stories of friends attending our Alpha Course this fall. I read about it in books like Rosaria Butterfield’s Openness Unhindered and articles like Peter Moskovitz’s interview with Ruth Whippman, author of How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks.[1]

If the song had a title it would be something like: NO MAN IS AN ISLAND, (but somebody already took that one). The chorus would be:

Sit at table with new friends,

Make room in your life for them,

You never know what God may grow,

By simply inviting them in.

Corny, I know, but it gathers up the power of God at work community. Let me explain.

Whippman notes that, “If there was one thing that’s consistent in happiness research it’s that the main source of our happiness is our relationships with other people in our communities (emphasis added). It kind of cuts across class, race, gender, age, and everything. But the focus in America is very much on happiness as kind of a personal, individual journey; looking deep inside yourself, about mindfulness, about your own thinking. All of that being inside your own head, and remaking your own thoughts from the inside.”

Here’s the thing, as long as we pursue happiness as strictly personal, as a goal only to be achieved as individuals, we will remain isolated, empty, and anxious. Happiness is found in community, in common purpose, in shared successes and sorrows, the great and the small threads we weave with others to create the fabric of a meaningful life.

I know the objections, “Other people rub me the wrong way!”  Indeed they do, but the point is, we need them to. Their idiosyncrasies reveal the cracks in our characters that Christ has yet to fill and force us all to pursue him higher up and farther into life in the Spirit.

More to the point, the life, the Shalom, that flows from the Spirit of God cannot be found, or lived, or shared in isolation. Technology can deliver a sermon to your “personal device” (see the irony?) but cannot include you or others in the body of Christ. Only you can do that as you commit to be there, both body and spirit, and to welcome others to the table.

[1] Whippman is the author of How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks, and the interview can be found at:  https://flipboard.com/@flipboard/flip.it%2FBDcPRo-americas-search-for-happiness-is-drivin/f-869a36fce5%2Fvice.com

KOINONIA IS SHARED LIFE

KOINONIA IS SHARED LIFE

2015

Speed skating is a Dutch sport. It originated in the 14th & 15th centuries when people figured out how to make a blade run on the ice. They began skating on their frozen canals as a form of transportation. Then, like good sports everywhere, they figured out how to race with skates.

The Dutch are true fanatics of speed skating. They all wear orange. They paint their faces. They wear funny orange hats. They even have their own band called “Little Beers” that travel with them to each event. Every ice rink is home field advantage for the Dutch because their fans go to every race in Europe. Nobody tells the Dutch that they have to go to the speed skating races. They go because they love it. They love the sport. They love each other loving the sport. They wouldn’t think of missing it.

The Dutch speed skating fans are a good metaphor for the Christians in Acts 2: 46-47 who “met together every day in the temple courts, breaking bread and eating together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.” Nobody had to tell them to meet together every day in the temple and eat together from house to house. They spent time together because they loved Jesus together. They loved each other loving Jesus. They wouldn’t have thought of missing it.

The Greek word used in Acts and throughout the New Testament for the life they were sharing is Koinonia, often translated “fellowship.” Koinonia means “sharing in common.” They shared a common life: a common table, a common purse, a common set of values, and a common love for one another. Most of all they shared Christ and what he had done for them. They were eager to share what he had done for them with others.

The kind of love that builds a body of believers isn’t just a human love. It isn’t “affinity group love”, a love built on commonalities of education, income, race, outlook or profession. It’s supernatural love. It’s an affinity built on the Christ we have in common, the salvation we have in common, and the continuous life-change we are experiencing together in him.

There are some hurdles to building this kind of community. It requires vulnerability, enough transparency to talk about what God is doing in our lives. That takes trust. It also requires belief that we are just as needy before God as the neediest person in the church. That takes humility. Finally, it takes commitment, the determination simply to show up and be part of what is going on. That takes, sacrifice; maybe not as much as painting your face orange and riding trains all over Europe to shiver while others race, but sacrifice nonetheless.

As churches grow in size it becomes more and more important that they build those connections with each other. Some churches do it with small groups on week nights, others through Sunday school programs and various Bible and book study ministries. Whatever your church does I encourage you, as you gather, to build the trust that enables vulnerability, to share with others what Christ has done and is doing in your life. Acts reports that as the early church did this, “the Lord added to their number daily, those who were being saved.” I believe that as you build koinonia in your church, he will do the same.