Friday, April 28, 2006

American Monasticism: Contemplation in an American wasteland

In Christian history and tradition, contemplative prayer has been the “quieting of the mind in order to rest in, center on, and contemplate [the] love”[1] of God, and there are some who believe that contemplation “is so difficult and so terrible an experience that no one may reach it without great struggle and then only relish it rarely in those moments of ecstasy called ravishing.”[2] Contemplative prayer was considered a state of "loving attention to God"[3] during which “the soul is not passive…but rather learns to keep that attention to God in a loving way.”[4]

But is this all there is to contemplative prayer? Might it not be possible to experience this quieting of the mind through activities other than spending time in absolute silence and emptying our minds of all thought?

Contemplation comes from the latin root templum (from Greek temnein: to cut or divide), and means to separate something from its environment, and to enclose it in a sector.[5] In essence, contemplation is actually the creation of holy space – holy, because it is set apart, and space, because it has liminality.

Contemplation, then, may also be expressed through acts of geopiety.[6]

If indeed we believe that God has created the earth and has passed it to us in love for thoughtful use and loving service,[7] then we ought to be concerned with our environment. For us to be anything else, or “to deny [our] divine responsibility to care for all that God has made would be to deny something that is at the core of our existence.

This is why litter and pollution are spiritual issues.”[8]

And this is also why things like recycling, and environmental clean up are spiritual disciplines. Not only becaue the earth is sacred, but because we – adam[9] – are made from the same stuff as the place where we have been placed – adamah.[10] God has formed us “from dust, from dirt – the same stuff that we walk on everyday, the same stuff on which we build our houses, the same stuff in which we plant our gardens, the same stuff over which we construct our roads and on which we drive our cars.”[11]

We are this place, and we must find ways to make that realization resonate.

Tree planting, for example, is a metaphoric expression of life welcoming life, of rich soil accepting saplings, willing and ready to nurture them. Planting trees is the creation of sacred space, of setting aside that piece of the land for new life in emulation and honor of our Creator. This is celebrated among devout Jews in Tu B'Shvat, the New Year for Trees, as one of the four Rosh Hashanahs[12] where families plant trees, eat special fruits, and collect monies for new trees to be planed outside of Israel.[13]

We may also note that many Christ-followers have found creation to be a sanctuary of sorts, or a “holy place that invites [us] to pray.”[14] Yet it is not so much that the place is holy in-and-of-itself, as the fact that our awareness and our openness to God set that place apart, thereby making it holy. We perform a contemplative act by setting the space aside for communion with God; and, in doing so, begin to identify this piece of creation as the “cathedral of God.”[15]

It is here that we may become aware of the “powerful sense of the whole created order, a celebration of creation and redemption, that healing wholeness [and] the oneness in plurality”[16] that takes us to God through our immediate surroundings. This awareness, though, must typically be something that we invite, or make welcome, for it is not inherent in the exercises of geopiety, but in the willingness of the person involved.

In addition to our relationship to God, geopiety also gives us space to contemplate our relationship with the earth that shares God’s creative stamp with us. We can find meaning in the Genesis account where God permits the land to produce vegetation, where He empowers the land to do something and gives it “the capacity to produce trees and shrubs and plants and bushes that produce fruit and seeds.”[17] We can explore the mystery of what it means that “God empowers creation to make more”[18], and what it might mean for us to begin addressing environmental issues as if they were spiritual concerns instead of corporate concerns or the pet projects of disenfranchised celebrities. Perhaps Thomas Merton said it best when he noted that “no amount of technological progress will cure the hatred that eats the vitals of materialistic society like a spiritual cancer…the only cure is, and must always be, spiritual”[19] in reference to the buffet of human enterprise that gorges itself on our host.

There is much to learn and experience of God when we make holy space for Him, albeit in ordinary ways like planting trees or collecting trash. There is much He can speak to us, about Himself or about our home, if we will create that space; and that, most accurately, is the way of contemplation, though it may look less impressive and far more commonplace than some of its prior manifestations.

[1] Tony Jones, The Sacred Way (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2004), 72.
[2] Ibid., 75
[3] Cf.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Cf.
[6] Belden C. Lane introduced the notion of geopiety in Landscapes of the Sacred (Baltimore, John Hopkins, 1998).
[7] Cf. Genesis 2.1-15 NIV
[8] Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2005), 158.
[9] Lit. “man”, derived from “adamah”, Cf. Strong's Number: 0120,
[10] Lit. “the earth”, Cf. Strong's Number: 0128,
[11] Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2005), 76.
[12] Lit. "New Years"]
[13] Cf.'shvat
[14] Gary Thomas, Sacred Pathways (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1996), 45.
[15] Ibid., 45
[16] Estheer de Waal, The Celtic Way of Prayer (New York, Image, 1997), 23.
[17] Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2005), 157.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1999), xii

Thursday, April 27, 2006

American Monasticism: finding sanctity in the unexceptional

Supplication, worship, prayer are no superstition; they are acts more real than the acts of eating, drinking, sitting or walking. It is no exaggeration to say that they alone are real, all else is unreal.

- Mohandas Gandhi


Recently, I’ve become impressed with my own need to refine an answer to the question “why am I a pastor?” As part of this process, I have recognized that I am a pastor, first and foremost, because I want to connect people meaningfully with Jesus Christ – I want spirituality to mean something in the lives of ordinary people. I want to help people have personal encounters with God, to see and taste and touch and feel His magnificent presence, and to entertain a life that makes Him proud.

I also want this for myself.

Yet it seems that the traditions and disciplines of our Christian forebears sometimes betray this simple desire to know God. Tales of fantastic men and women of faith, those who carved spiritual paths out of sacred practice, abound local bookstores and create a paradigm for spiritual formation that is neither entirely represented in scripture nor entirely resonant with life in the 21st century.

For example, let us think of the recent fascination among EmergentYS publishing and authors like Tony Jones and Gary Thomas[1] who contemporize ancient disciplines like walking the prayer labyrinth or invoking bodily prayer as a means of centering oneself upon God. While there is much good that has been done both by this approach and by these books, there also lies the inherent supposition that we grow spiritually through the practice of spiritual disciplines; and, while this is true in part, it is also true that we grow in innumerable other ways as life takes us through twists and turns and the spirit of God uses the very ordinary, often mundane, experiences of our lives to educate and form us into something more like Himself.

Brother Lawrence, in his celebrated Practice of the Presence of God, remarks that there is neither skill nor knowledge needed to go to God, but only a “heart dedicated entirely and solely to Him out of love for Him above all others.”[2] It was Lawrence’s belief that the disciplines themselves were but a means to an end – the end being greater union with Christ – for he himself found no satisfaction in a methodology of spiritual formation.[3] For Lawrence, the spiritual life “consists of practicing God’s presence”[4] and the most effective way he knew how to do that was to simply do his ordinary work.[5]

Eugene Peterson echoes this kind of approach when he remarks that the “God-breathed life is common”[6] and totally accessible across the whole spectrum of the human condition “…not a body of secret lore [for it has] nothing to do with aptitude or temperament.”[7] Instead, Peterson asserts that “spirituality is the insistence that everything that God reveals of Himself and His works is capable of being lived by ordinary men and women in their homes and workplaces.”[8] In fact, we might hypothesize that spiritual exercises are only “a pretext for something that could just as well happen without them,”[9] and that we must get beyond the technique so as to truly engage the spirit out of our growing unconscious.

This may be precisely the kind of approach Trappist monk Thomas Merton had in mind when he stated that all “good meditative prayer is a conversion of our entire self to God”[10], which we can use as a springboard to ask ourselves what it means to engage in a holistic approach to spirituality. For it is hard to escape the fragmentation of the popular approach, which seems to prescribe spiritual disciplines like workout regimens and treats spirituality as something we do – another activity in which we are involved – instead of something that permeates our whole existence and fosters wholeness in that existence. “A life is either all spiritual” says Merton, “or not spiritual at all. No man can serve two masters. Your life is shaped by what you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire.”[11]

It is to an alternative understanding of spiritual formation that we now focus our attention, one that has filled me with daily greater conviction since moving to the United States from Vancouver, BC, this last year. During this time I have become increasingly aware of one peculiarity of the American spirit. There is, for good or ill, a distaste for rules in the average American. It is a kind of rebellion that often serves nefarious purposes, and yet has a redemptive side as well. This redemption shows up in athletic innovation, like the Fosbury Flop,[12] or in business, with entrepreneurs defying the stratosphere and sending commercial flights into space;[13] and it also shows up in spirituality.

There is a rebellious charm that rears its head every now and then in defiance of authors and ascetics who would prescribe a rule of life that has been standardization and reduced to the lowest common denominator. It is the validity of this rebellion that has led me to American Monasticism as a moniker for my work on spiritual formation in the postmodern 21st century.
American Monasticism is a defiance of reductionist spirituality, challenging the notion that there are rules to follow that will ensure our spiritual growth. It is, rather, the belief that God takes the everyday occurrences of our lives and teaches us to see them as sacrosanct, as teachable moments of the divine, and to accept that our entire lives are lived before God as either offering or ignorance. American Monasticism recognizes there is real worth in spiritual disciplines and ancient sacred practices, but that worth is not in the practices themselves but in the attitudes and divine proximity that results from those practices; and it maintains that those attitudes and that proximity can be cultivated in many, many different ways if we approach life with an orientation that allows us to look for those moments.

To illustrate, I have provided four common examples of spiritual discipline – contemplation, solitude, centering, and pilgrimage – and reinserted their practice into a more local context. This is done in an effort to prove, for example, that the worth of a pilgrimage is not in traveling to Jerusalem, but in the journey of our soul to God which may be as easily undertaken in a trip to the refrigerator at midnight or the playground in the afternoon. Both the ambition and the reflex of American Monasticism is to have our actions “unite us with God when we are involved in our daily activities, just as much as our prayers unite us with Him in our quiet devotions.”[14]

May He guide us all through such unity!

[1] Cf. Tony Jones, Sacred Way (Grand Rapids, Youth Specialties, 2004) and Gary Thomas, Sacred Pathways: Discovering Your Soul's Path to God (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1996).
[2] Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God (New Kensington, Whitaker House, 1982), 22.
[3] Ibid., Cf. 39
[4] Ibid., 33
[5] Ibid., Cf. 24
[6] Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2005), 17.
[7] Ibid., 19
[8] Ibid., 5
[9] Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery (London, Penguin Books, 1953), 18. A fascinating read, we may consider this to be much more about a Westerner’s comprehension of spirituality than archery and Buddhism.
[10] Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1999), 40.
[11] Ibid., 49
[12] Richard Douglas "Dick" Fosbury (born March 6, 1947) is an American athlete who revolutionised the high jump using a back-first technique, now known as the Fosbury flop. His method was to sprint diagonally towards the bar, then curve and leap backwards over the bar. Cf.
[13] Richard Branson, English entrepreneur, announced the signing of a deal on September 25, 2004, under which a new space tourism company, Virgin Galactic, will license the technology behind SpaceShipOne to take paying passengers into suborbital space. The group plans to make flights available to the public by late 2007 with tickets priced at $200,000. The deal was mostly financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and the modern American space engineer & visionary, Burt Rutan. Cf.
[14] Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God (New Kensington, Whitaker House, 1982), 24.


Easter weekend is such a powerful moment in the Christian calendar, not only for those of us who celebrate and follow Jesus Christ today, but for the last couple thousand years, where people have used this weekend in memoriam of the central aspect of the Christian faith.

I thought we might talk about that power, about the meaning of Easter Sunday, today.

By way of introduction, I’d like to tell you about my friend Jeremy James. Jeremy and I played basketball together. He was a great player and he was a good friend. One night, though, after a game in which he’d performed poorly — and you know how high school boys can be sometimes about sports, about the pressure he’d have felt from the team — he died in a car crash on the way home.

I remember coming to school the next day and seeing this group of gals huddled around in the hallway; they were friends of Jeremy and I. Not yet knowing what had happened, I asked, “What’s going on?”

They told me.

You know when you get really awful news it just kind of feels like time stops? Like everything goes quiet and you get this hallow feeling in your chest, and there is this hum that sort of blocks out all other noise or distraction.

I remember sitting there after learning about Jeremy’s death and feeling unable to really process what was going on. I felt unable to grasp the finality of death, the huge irreversible nature of what had happened; and all day I remember praying for something to have somehow been miscommunicated - like maybe it was a mistake or a sick joke. I kept thinking that Jeremy was going to show up for afternoon class or maybe be at school the next, that he was really just sick or something. But as the day wore on and then, of course, the next day and the next week, I realized that Jeremy was never coming back.

Jeremy’s parents were two of the most godly people I’d ever met. They define the term “spiritual giant” in my mind, and I can remember that in the weeks and months, and even the years, after Jeremy died that they pastored us, his friends, through the loss of their son. I can’t imagine what it would have been like for Jeremy’s mom to sit me down, only days after he passed away, and say, “Dave, it’s okay. It’s going to be alright.” I can’t imagine what it was like for his dad to show up and speak to our junior class or for him to embrace the girl who had been out with Jeremy the night before. I can’t imagine what it was like for them to think only about us, or so it seemed, in those moments, about how to help us be okay with the death of their son. They kept reiterating to us, “It’s okay. We know he is in a better place. We know he’s safe; he is in the arms of God, in the presence of Christ.”

For me, that whole experience was such a profound shift in my thinking, in my thinking about life and death, about what truly matters, about what endures, because I knew that Jeremy was never coming back. I knew that there’s no chance, no opportunity, for him to walk through the back door. He won’t call me this afternoon to wish me a Happy Easter, because I’ll never see him again in this life.

Yet, when I think about Easter, about the power of the Resurrection, I am also forced to think about the truth, the veracity, and the authenticity, of our God. I am forced to think about Jesus Christ, being betrayed, murdered, executed, and martyred for his conviction to help people believe that God loves them and wants to know them intimately and more personally. When I think about Jesus being killed for believing that, for claiming that, for preaching that, and then coming back to life in a physical, corporeal body to present himself to his followers, I think about that as a great reversal.

I think about God saying, “Everything is reversible, even death.”

In my life, I can’t even begin to count up all that God has reversed in me. He’s reversed my relationships, he’s reversed my dreams, even my thinking. When I think about the difference that Jesus Christ has made in my life, I think he is still resurrecting me – still reversing me. He is resurrecting the dead parts of me. There are hurts and bitternesses, anger and rage; there’s unresolved issues that every day Christ is opening up, that’s he’s bringing the dead parts of my soul, of my spirit, back to life.

Maybe it’s the same for you. Maybe you feel like you’ve got broken dreams or broken relationships, and you’re begining to understand that God wants to make old things new, to bring new life into those things that have been destroyed, who wants to put back together broken families and who wants to offer, for us, the great cosmological swap of death to life, darkness to light.

In John, Chapter 20, Jesus makes one of his post-resurrection appearances to his disciples. Christ made about twelve different appearances to his friends and followers after he died and came back to life. These took place over a period of about six weeks during which he appeared to over five hundred people. This is the story of Jesus appearing to doubting Thomas.

Of course Thomas, one of the twelve disciples, has become famous because he was the skeptic. He was the one who didn’t believe that Jesus could have been resurrected, and in one of these appearances, Jesus shows up to him give the proof.

So, let’s pick it up in John, Chapter 20, Verse 24.

Now Thomas called the Twin, one of the Twelve, was not with them
when Jesus came.

“Them,” being the other disciples after a recent appearance that Jesus had made.

So the other disciples, therefore, said to him…

Said to Thomas…

‘We have seen the Lord!’

So he said to them, ‘Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails
and put my finger into the print of the nails and put my hand into his
side, I will not believe.’

After eight days his disciples were again inside and Thomas with
them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in their midst
and said, ‘Peace to you!’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Reach your
finger here and look at my hands and reach your hand here and
put into my side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.’

Thomas answered and said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’

Jesus said to him, ‘Thomas, because you have seen me, you have
believed, but blessed are those who have not seen and yet have

Truly, Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples,
which are not written in this book. But these are written that you
may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by
believing you may have life in his name.

Do you know that in the stories about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances he only appeared to people who already believed in him, who already claimed to be followers of The Way, followers of Jesus Christ? Do you know that even though there were those who fell away, who renounced their claim to Jesus as the Son of God, as the Messiah, before he was crucified, that none to whom he appeared after being resurrected ever renounced their faith?

This is a switch from the way Jesus did things before he died.

Before Jesus died, he would perform miracles and then say, “Don’t tell anybody about this,” but after he died, he shows up and exposes himself fully to his followers. They see the undeniable miracle, the supernatural confrontation of this once-dead man now fully back to life, and it’s like they lost their ability not to believe. It’s like their choice was made for them, because there was no denying that he was there.

They got to stick their fingers in the holes.

Many of these men were cowards who became transformed by this experience into men of absolute passion and conviction. They swapped out of personae of fear and into such fervor that they were willing to give their own lives in proclamation of the god who loves. It’s like they don’t get to be weak anymore, because they are full of conviction, full of authority, full of power, full of servitude.

Yet, look what Jesus says to Thomas? “You believe because you have seen, but blessed are those who do not see and yet believe.” Blessed are you, because you are buoyed by faith. Because our conviction in the invisible resurrected Christ propels us into relationship with God.

You know, one of my favorite things about Jesus is the way that he is kind of expropriated by everybody. I mean, everybody lays claim to the person of Jesus Christ—hippies, yuppies, venture capitalist, communists, republicans – everybody claims Jesus as theirs. There is just something about Christ, about the way that he lived, about the way that he devoted himself, his teachings, towards love, towards anti-materialism, towards peace. He taught us to abandon a life based on things, and showed us instead a life that’s based on relationships.

This was revolutionary. We’ve titled our weekend, Insurresurrection which, of course, is a smashing together of two words — resurrection, by which we refer to the Resurrection, the coming back to life of Jesus Christ who was once dead — and insurrection, meaning rebellion, because Jesus’ very life and every breath was a rebellion against the dominant forces of the world of his time.

Jesus’ very life and breath is rebellion against media. It is rebellion against the things that tell you that you don’t have what you need but you could if you’ll just buy this one other product, this one other magical fat-burning pill, this one other special-looking suit, if you’ll get this new haircut, then, maybe then, you might almost be cool enough to be in the next advertisement. Everything about Jesus was revolutionary as he fought those messages to tell you that you have in you the Spirit of God, the stamp of Christ, the very life-giving authority, power, presence and breath that Jesus Christ himself died to give you, that that’s not something that can be bought, because it has already been paid for.

This is the miracle of Resurrection Sunday. It is the great cosmological swap where all that seemed bad and ill and evil—the crucifixion, the scattering of the disciples, the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry—when everything evil seemed to triumph and then God swapped it all away. Instead, He brought new life, new courage, new conviction, a new spirit, a new stamp, a new name to the followers of Jesus.

It’s what he brings to us.

After all, the very act of the Resurrection was an act of civil disobedience.

During the era when Jesus was killed there was a law that if you were to break Pilot’s – the Roman Procurator’s – seal, that crime was punishable by imprisonment. Also written in the law was that to strike a Roman Legionnaire was a crime punishable by death. When Jesus rose from the dead Pilot’s seal, which was put across the tomb of Christ, was broken as the great stone rolled away, and thunder erupted in the sky knocking the Roman Legionnaires to the ground.

In a kind of ironic essenece, once Jesus was resurrected, the politicians could have legitimately tried him and put him to death again for the crimes of his resurrection.

The Resurrection is a defiance of all that is wrong in the world, of all that is wrong in us and in our shared assumptions, but it’s not just a war cry. It’s not just a rebellion against something. It’s a great switch for something. It is a great switch for life. It is a great opportunity, access, a great waypoint for us to intersect with God. So, when we see our friends being baptized, when we see this great, ancient symbol of old life passing away and new life erupting out of the water, we see the metaphoric representation of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. We see people coming into new life; we see everything old becoming new.

You know, if we believe that God is all-powerful, then we have to believe that he could have stopped the Crucifixion. If God is up in Heaven watching His Son being murdered, being unjustly tried, being thrown to death on mocked-up charges by corrupt political and religious officials, if we see the God of justice watching all of these unjust things happening to his son and we believe that he’s all-powerful, then certainly we can conceive that God could have stopped it.

But He didn’t.

He didn’t stop evil, He reversed it. He took that which was evil and made it good. He took the betrayal of His Son, the betrayal that was supposed to take away one life and instead used it to give life to me, to us.

I wonder if we’re really ready for that life, for the full measure of what Jesus Christ makes available to us. I wonder if we’re ready to actually walk away from a life of fragmentation and despair. I wonder if we’re actually ready to defy the things in this world that say your family is going to fall apart, that you really probably aren’t good enough, and that probably you’re going to need a few extra “things” if you’re ever going to be happy.

I wonder if we’re really ready to find the courage, the conviction, the compulsion, the internal strength, the steel that it takes to stand up in defiance against those very lies and say, “Forget it.”

I wonder if we’re really ready to make that swap.

That’s the question I want to leave you with today.

Are you ready? Are you ready to be flipped, to be turned over, to completely surrender the old life and embrace the new one?

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

thoughts on mentoring

in a recent conversation with len sweet, he mentioned the worth of "historical mentors" that i thought deserved to be reprinted:

"I've been thinking about the Great Cloud of Withnesses (sp. right) that you need beside you as you move into the future - here's my list:
Jethro, Jonathan, Nathan, Issachar, Timothy, Paul, Barnabas, Deborah, and Eli

"Jonathan is the friend who "sticks closer than a brother;" the person who, when you strip your soul bare, doens't reel back in horror at your ugliness

"Nathan is the one who can stand up to you and say, "You be THE MAN." You're in trouble if you keep doing what you're doing.

"Timothy is your heir, your protege. To be without a Joshua or a Timothy will one day go down in history as "Sharonism." Ariel Sharon brought his nation to a point where he reversed many of the things he himself did, but then when he was almost there, he had a stroke . . . and was without an heir.

"Paul is your mentor, your theological and spiritual and intellectual guru.

"Your Barnabas is your encourager, the person who keeps your feet to the fire and your hand to the plow . .. the person who puts wind into the sail of your spirit.

"Issachar is the one who helps you read the handwriting on the wall . . . most probably the most off the wall people in your life.

"Then there is the "Withness" of a Deborah . . . the one who covers your back, as she did for Barak . . . Who's got your back? You're going to take it in the back . . . more than back-biting; back-stabing.

"Jethro was the Go TO Peace person, the coach who pushes you into your mission with insight and imagination.

"Your Eli is Someone to help you hear God when he speaks. Leadership for me is less a vision test than a sound check."

Len also noted that each of these mentors had a peculiar antithetical quality, or maybe a paradoxical virtue, to their character:

Jethro had a Peaceful Restlessness;

Jonathan had a Reflective Spontaneity;

Issachar had a Random Attentiveness;

Nathan had a Committed Openness;

Timothy had a Doubting Faith,

Barnabas had a Realistic Optimism;

Paul had a Humble Confidence;

Deborah had an Overt Covering;

and Eli had Visionary Acoustics.

it's his comments on these biblical characters that have got me thinking about the duplicity of our own lives and characters, about how we have complimentary skills and strengths [and even impatience[s] ] that allow us to be uniquely employed by god.

care to take a stab at what yours might be?

nemawashi: growing an organic church

My mom used to take in stray cats. She’d feed them and sing to them and, typically, any given afternoon you could ride up to our house and see about 8 cats on the back porch begging for food.

We had one cat, a Garfield look-a-like, who actually broke into our house to try and steal food. We decided to keep this cat, whom we named ‘Friend’, because of his charming dancing ability [he’d stand at the sliding glass door and hop up and down on one foot while smooshing his belly into the glass when he was hungry].

Friend was the first pet I can remember having, and I remember the wonderful process of discovery I enjoyed while discerning the differences between pets and toys. For example, you can throw most of your toys but if you throw your cat he’ll hate you; or, you put most toys underwater and they’ll come to no great harm, but if you try that with your cat he’ll hate you; likewise, most toys can be ignored, but a cat will actually like you more if you ignore it – if, however, you try and pet the cat, it will hate you.

The lessons I learned about things that are alive – like Friend, the cat – and things that are not alive – like GI Joe, the Transformers, and Hot Wheels – have actually carried me through most of my 11 years as a pastor.

Because a church is actually a living thing, an organic community; not an inorganic thing.

Church isn’t a mechanism – we are not cogs in a wheel.

Church isn’t a provider of religious goods and services – we are neither a grocery nor a concert.

Church isn’t a computer program – we are not controlled by a central processing unit.

Neither is church a business. Though there are elements of business to church, and those elements are important, I think we run a great danger sometimes of reducing our living community to the notion of a business, or a construct, or a program. It’s like, sometimes, we treat the cat like the lego – and it hates us, we aren’t fulfilled by it, we don’t get what we were hoping from it.

Because there is no “it”.

“It” is “you.” “It” is “us.” “It” is alive!

And so I think that today our task is to stop thinking of our church, westwinds, in strictly business terms because we lose something when we reduce it to just a missions statement – which we have, and which is a good thing to have, but which can miss out on the fullness of expression.

You can’t reduce living things to simple statements even though simple statements can be used to bring focus. Just imagine what would happen if we thought about our spouses in business terms – again, not that having a focus for your marriage is wrong-headed, just that describing your marriage in corporate terms excludes the mystery and wonder of romance, the spontanaiety of friendship, and the richness of love.

On the internet you can find “missions statement” generators; so, just for fun, I entered in Carmel’s name to one such website to try and figure out what my “mission” should be with her:

My mission for carmel is to professionally target mission-critical areas of maintainable growth strategies in our marriage. I plan to competently facilitate parallel leadership skills with her, while uniquely providing incentives fully tested paradigms of parenting, finances, and human sexuality.

And, of course, I needed one for Jacob as well:

My vision for jacob is to energistically actualize corporate mindshares between he and his maternal unit and – future – sibling models.

So, you see, we’re actually involved in something far more complex than a business model – we’re involved in a community, in a family, in an organic web of lives and relationships.

Let’s read from 1 Thessalonians, which is a letter that one of the early church leaders wrote to a church as a kind-of guide from what is truly important:

1 Thessalonians 5:12-28 (The Message)
12And now, friends, we ask you to honor those leaders who work so hard for you, who have been given the responsibility of urging and guiding you along in your obedience. 13Overwhelm them with appreciation and love!
Get along among yourselves, each of you doing your part. 14Our counsel is that you warn the freeloaders to get a move on. Gently encourage the stragglers, and reach out for the exhausted, pulling them to their feet. Be patient with each person, attentive to individual needs. 15And be careful that when you get on each other's nerves you don't snap at each other. Look for the best in each other, and always do your best to bring it out.
16Be cheerful no matter what; 17pray all the time; 18thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live.
19Don't suppress the Spirit, 20and don't stifle those who have a word from the Master. 21On the other hand, don't be gullible. Check out everything, and keep only what's good. 22Throw out anything tainted with evil.
23May God himself, the God who makes everything holy and whole, make you holy and whole, put you together--spirit, soul, and body--and keep you fit for the coming of our Master, Jesus Christ. 24The One who called you is completely dependable. If he said it, he'll do it!
25Friends, keep up your prayers for us. 26Greet all the Christians there with a holy embrace. 27And make sure this letter gets read to all the brothers and sisters. Don't leave anyone out.
28The amazing grace of Jesus Christ be with you!

I love that everything Paul is addressing here is an issue of relationships, not functionality. He makes a clear point that the ways in which we interact with one another are the defining factors about who we are as a community and as followers of Jesus Christ. It is these things, these relational things, that help us understand the identity of the church and why we have it.

Now, we have a vision for the way our church is going to morph and change. I like the term vision, by the way, the “mental picture of a future state” because it is an organic term – a representation of life. But seeing the future of our church implies that there are some things that will be different than what we see now, these are the things that require vision – special sight – to grasp hold of. Furthermore, transportation from this place to that place can be a complicated affair and may require some awareness on our part about those intricacies if it’s to be successful.

That’s why I’d like to talk about the Japanese concept of nemawashi. Nemawashi is a horticultural term for the process of binding roots in order to safely transplant trees to a new location. Particularly with banzai trees, if you are careless or unconcerned with the root system of a tree while moving it, the liklihood that the tree will survive the transplanting process is very low. Root-binding – which actually involves the excavation of soil coupled with the cutting and then binding of roots - ensures that the nutrients, the life-blood, of the trees are kept intact in order for the health of the plant to be maintained during the translation.

Nemawashi is also a business term used in Japan that is used to modernize outmoded companies and procedures with the rapidly changing market. Of course, in Japan, there is tremendous tension between the traditions of the Japanese culture and heritage, and the innovations of their youth that necessitate great care to be taken with such a modernizing process; so it is with church in America – there is a great chasm between the roots of what we do with the relevance of what we’re doing to today’s culture.

I believe that the core essense of Christian spirituality is not only relevant, but one of the defining characteristics of entertainment and ethos in the west; but I also believe that we must be wise about preserving the purity of our spirituality, specifically by not contaminating it with old models or paradigms of church involvement, membership, belonging, or rules that really aren’t represented in scripture.

The transportation of our church into the future requires a significant shift – even though we may consider ourselves ‘ahead of the curve’ – and whether that shift is best expressed as a movement from modernity to postmodernity, from propositional truth to storytelling, from personal piety to communal devotion, or from rationalism to existentialism our world is shifting quickly to a new version of itself and we must do what we can to be faithful to Christ – first! – but also faithful to ourselves and the time and place that God has landed us in.

After all, we are not just transporting ideas, but people, and people matter.

To mix metaphors, I like to think of Zygmund Bauman’s notes about the differences between a vagabond and a tourist in light of our need to be translated into a new version of ourselves. Bauman insists that a vagabond and a tourist do essentially the same thing, but that a vagabond moves from place to place and relationship to relationship by accident and by exclusion; whereas a tourist moves from place to place and relationship to relationship by choice and through welcome.

I think being wise about our transition into the future allows us the privilidges of being a tourist, instead of the anxiety of being a vagabond; but it also requires us to make some smart decisions and wise planning about what that future might look like.

It requires us to be smart about how we transplant ourselves – it requires a little church-nemawashi.

So, to try and give you a clear picture of what we’re all about, let me start simply by saying that fusion is the most important thing we do; the other most important thing we do is everything else.

Fusion is the place where most people will get their first taste of what it’s like to be involved in our community. Fusion is the place where we experience the presence of God in passionate corporate worship and are able to digest biblical teaching in such a way that it assists our quality of life and perspective on the earth. Fusion is the place where we are challenged about our weaknesses, prodded to greater good, and are able to adopt another perspective – a community perspective – for an hour or so without solely thinking about our own wants and needs.

And it is the most important thing we do.

The other most important thing we do is everything else.

Everything else is the bread-and-butter of who we are at westwinds. It is our small groups and our lag groups, our involvement in experience design or our community bonfires and blood drives. Everything else – the guerilla warfare part of our church, that happens independent of bureaucracy – is what you make it, what defines you as a church and what the world sees and hears when they come to think of westwinds and christianity.

It’s like the things that are really important here are both orbital and centrifual. The centrifugal things – the things at the center of it all: fusion – are what hold us together and identify us as “us” and not something else. The centrifugal things are the things that make us common to one another and distinct from other communities to such a degree that we’re allowed to enjoy and take pleasure in the brand and bravado of our spiritual flavor.

But it’s the orbital things that allow us to express our individual desires and passions, wants and dreams and thoughts while still being connected to one another. The orbital piece is the piece that knows no boundaries and is only governed by your response to the spirit.

So what does that look like?

What does it look like to have an organic church instead of a corporate one?

Well, organisms all share one important altruism: the cycle of life and death, birth and decay, growing and deteriorating; and, I think that the first great questions we need to ask ourselves as a church – not just westwinds, but anyone who actually claims to follow Christ – are “what is God birthing in you?” and “what are you allowing to be killed off?”

We are giving new life to a community of new ideas, of self-led missionaries who don’t have to pretend their “holy” or “self-sufficient”. We are allowing old models of church structure and irrelevant spirituality to die out; we’re allowing some of the sacred cows to never return from the pasture.

As a community, we are giving birth and permitting death all of the time!

But what about you?

See, our collective ethics are summed up in “imagination, permission, authenticity, and community” and if you were to start a new church today and you wanted it to “feel” like westwinds you’d have to uphold those kinds of values. The new place probably wouldn’t look like this one – there is, after all, a new premium on slate tiles and steel sculpting – but it would feel the same.

It would have grown out of the same soil.

So what is our vision? What does the future look like?

It looks like ipac. It looks like new ideas born of new passion furnaced through new experiences bringing new people into our community and expressing our love and devotion for Jesus Christ in new ways. It looks like you, in your neighborhood, becoming fed up with the inability of our government to solve spiritual problems with bureaucratic solutions and instead doing the work of Christ’s mercy with your own hands. It looks like us all coming together to imaginatively and creatively rediscover the mystery of the Spirit as we immerse ourselves in corporate worship, surrending our preferences to the community ethic of love and acceptance.

It looks like more imagination.
It looks like you’ve got permission to do what you want.
It looks like you don’t have to fake it to fit in.
It looks like you can belong before you believe.

That’s the vision – that’s the future; not necessarily a new path, but further and faster down this one.