Friday, May 28, 2010

Engaging our neighborhood: Part 2

So, I've been thinking a lot about how to engage our neighborhood. Most days, I admit, I don't know where to begin on this conversation. My co-pastor Ben is a much deeper thinker than I am on this topic.

Nonetheless, it is a burden for me that we learn to think well about the specific places we live, work, and play and how God is moving in our lives, and in the lives of our neighbors. If we don't do this, we will end up abstracting our faith into oblivion. Our faith-in-practice can become nothing more than moral platitudes that I try to live out in abstract ways. (Think about how we say its okay to 'not-like' someone, so long as we still 'love' them. What is that?!)

As I said last time, an important question is; if people had the language how would they be crying out to God? We can't really engage our neighborhood, and our neighbors, unless we are grappling with the core desires, pains, and passions of their lives.

But I also said this leaves us open to (at least) one obstacle to engaging our neighborhood faithfully.

It is this; the notion that we are the people 'in the know' and the poor neighbor next door just needs what I've got.

Now, in a way, this statement is true. In Jesus, we have encountered the one in whom we do find ultimate meaning, peace, joy etc. So, for those who have not encountered the risen Jesus in their life... sure... I guess I 'know' something they don't and that they should know. But I still think there are dangers to cultivating this attitude.

Here are a few I thought about...

1. This statement is more indicative of pity than love or compassion. I would suggest that these are not synonymous.
2. This statement tends to make divisions between us and them. Cultivating this sense of pity divides us from our neighbors, we can become paternalistic in our interactions with others, it becomes very difficult to see other people on an even level as us. 
3. What do we have to learn/gain from our neighbors? Not much if we see ourselves, in any way, as superior. This same problem crops up when the only word we ever use to talk about engaging our neighborhood is 'serve.' Certainly we should serve our community, but if that's the only way we speak of it, we become the people who serve, our neighbors get served. We are not on the same level as our friends and neighbors, but we condescend to them. I guess I have to ask, is this the reality of what is happening (us condescending to our neighbors)?
4. Lastly, this attitude is sort of de-humanizing. Take 1-3 together, and our neighbors aren't so much real people, with real lives (the same as us by the way), but objects for our pity, targets for our message, and recipients of our service.

Shared life in a common place is an important value that is difficult to live out if we let these things go unchecked. It is hard to love and value our local communities and the people in them in authentic and meaningful ways if they are nothing more than our project. As I said last time, for sure, we have to ask the question of what people are longing for and what they need, it simply can't be the only question we ask.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Engaging our neighborhood: Part 1

So this is our neighborhood...from the air. You can see the Gowanus expressway (thanks Mr. Moses!) that cuts us off from Sunset Park and Dyker Heights. In the bottom right corner of the expressway, just to the right of the long strip of green that is Lief Erickson Park, is our church.

And from my office here, I often sit and wonder how to engage with the whole rest of the neighborhood you see there. From our little corner of the neighborhood, the rest of our neighbors feel miles away sometimes, and it seems as though life in Bay Ridge just happens in front of me and I'm unable to really engage with the neighborhood, its life, systems and rhythms, and most of all its people in any meaningful way.

So I've been asking, how do we engage with our neighbors in meaningful, organic (perhaps normal is a better word here) ways? I meet monthly with some pastors to talk and pray and one of our questions to talk and pray through is; if people had language, how would they be crying out to God?

I like this question because it forces us to pray and ask God to show us the hidden cries of our neighborhood. It forces us to be thoughtful about who we live next to and who we share life with here by the Narrows. It forces us to depend on God to reveal what he is doing here and how we can participate in that.

Engaging the neighborhood has to involve this kind of questioning.

But these questions only get us so far. To rely on these questions sets us up to make some mistakes.  There are other questions we have to ask, other ideas to consider as we think about engaging the neighborhood.

More on that soon...

Monday, May 24, 2010

A good conversation happening here

So there is some good conversations happening on our community engagement blog. Check it out!

Recently, the conversation has been revolving around urban gardening. Pretty interesting stuff.

Other things I'm excited about....

1. Memorial Day at Yankee Stadium. Check out where I get to sit.
2. The summer of the grill. I've got 13 burger recipes that are the backbone of a, hopefully, great summer menu!
3. Hopefully making some new friends and connections at the Greenmarket which starts in just a few weeks.
4. The rest of this day off. (Except the dentist appt. I've got.)

Friday, May 21, 2010

where my treasure is...

I'm sitting today in Madison Square Park, reading and thinking about God's Kingdom and what it says to me, to us, to the city...

I'm wrestling with it all as I watch evidence of our dominant cultural values walk by...affluence, power, beauty, leisure. Today I find it easy to believe Jesus when he says that following him will mean that we will be misunderstood, maligned and rejected.

How can the gospel of the Kingdom of God break into this well oiled machine of a culture?

Believing that it has, I come back to the question, how do I/We embody this Kingdom way? 

The cost of following Jesus will inevitably involve his Spirit redefining and reshaping some of our strongest held desires...belonging and acceptance, recognition and notoriety, security and happiness. The very desires on display here in the park. There are more. I'm reminded today that the Kingdom life is about putting myself to death and walking in a new kind of life with Jesus.

I'm not content with knowing (as we narrowly define knowing) about the Kingdom. I want to live it. And now the questions start again...

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A God-flooded World

Recently, I've been working through Dallas Willard's The Divine Conspiracy. (I know, to my shame, I'm just now getting to it). Anyway, I came across a couple quotes of his that hit me upside the head and hopefully it will do so for you as well!

He writes this...

[God]"is one great inexhaustible and eternal experience of all that is good and true and beautiful and right."

and this...

"Until our thoughts of God have found every visible thing and event glorious with his presence, the word of Jesus has not yet fully seized us."

What does this say to those of us, and those times for each of us, who think the world is just going to 'hell in a handbasket?' I think Willard is challenging the popularly held belief among many of us that says that the world is just going downhill and so we just have to hang on till God comes down and puts everyone in their place, cosmically.

Willard seems to be suggesting that it is the exact opposite. That God, having created everything, has left his indelible imprint on the landscape of our world and, IN ADDITION, having come to us in the person of Jesus, has brought his Kingdom of righteousness, truth, goodness, and beauty into his world that is broken by sin.

This is a reality shaping idea. How would our life with God be different if we live out this belief? How would our faith communities change if we grappled with this reality as part of our life together?

Things to be thinking about...because, as Willard says, unless we do, the gospel of Jesus hasn't gripped our imaginations yet.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

niebuhr and justice...

In a 1950 essay entitled, “The Spirit of Justice,” Reinhold Niebuhr wrote the following:

“Love in the form of philanthropy is, in fact, a lower level than a high form of justice. For philanthropy is given to those who make no claims against us, who do not challenge our goodness or disinterestedness. An act of philanthropy may thus be an expression of both power and moral complacency. An act of justice on the other hand requires the humble recognition that the claim that another makes against us may be legitimate.”

Earlier in the essay, he rightly notes that Christians are called to abide by the law of love as in doing so we fulfill all the laws of God (cf. Romans 13:8). Niebuhr is comparing the merits of love displayed through philanthropy (or charity) and justice. He asserts that between the two, charity is a less loving than justice. It is justice that is the highest form of love.

Niebuhr claims that philanthropy is given to those who, one, ‘make no claims against us’ and two, cannot ‘challenge our goodness or disinterestedness.’ He suggests that charity  can be an expression of power. What he means is that when I give resources to someone in need, be it a homeless man on the street or an orphan in a poverty stricken country, I must recognize that doing so gives me the upper hand. Saying nothing of how I use the advantage, my charity positions me as the wealthy, or, for the moment, wealthier, benefactor in the relationship. In that way, the one receiving my charitable gift (having been given a gift) is not in a position to ask us for anything (making no claim against me) and they are also not in a position to challenge my motivation for giving charitably. (Imagine a homeless man taking some money and then accusing you of some bad motive. Wouldn’t you want to take the money back? Wouldn’t we most likely consider that our right, to retrieve what was ungratefully received?)

Niebuhr also suggests that charity does not necessarily indicate care or love for the recipient of the gift. The giver of charity is never challenged as to the level of concern they show for the receiver of their charity, the gift is the end. In fact, Niebuhr claims, charity is potentially evidence of a complete lack of moral concern. It could be nothing more than a self-congratulatory gesture.

Justice, on the other hand, is not possible from a position of self-interest. Justice, necessarily requires ‘the humble recognition that the claim that another makes against us may be legitimate.’ In other words, justice deals with larger issues of what is right, good, fair etc. The labels ‘benefactor’ and ‘beneficiary’ do not carry the same weight. Instead, the benefactor must recognize that personal and social changes must take place in order to ensure the spread of justice.

An act of justice is a way of pursuing what is actually good, and not just good for me. It seeks to promote the interests of all parties, or all of society, and not just self-interest. It takes a genuine interest in the other, and seeks to live accordingly, rather than coolly dismissing all claims others make on one’s life.

Interesting thoughts.

Certainly, charity is a good thing. It is a way of shaping our lives towards generosity. It is not something to be avoided. But charity is not an end. Niebuhr rightly challenges us to see that love without justice is not love. Love that is disinterested in the other is just selfishness. Love that exerts power is still more about me than you. He challenges us to see that love is not just a disembodied feeling, but takes on the tangible form of justice in the lives of people and in society. He challenges us the same way God challenged Israel through the prophet Isaiah. External displays of religiosity and devotion are detestable to God. Righteousness and faithfulness come through the promotion of justice.

What do you think?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

realizing limitations

Today, Josiah was playing in his room and he was attempting to pick up large handfuls of big lego blocks to transfer them to the other side of the room. Unfortunately, his little arms were no match for the slick plastic blocks. After time and time of failed attempts, his little faced curled up and he began to cry. As I sat there with him, all I could think was, join the club buddy, join the club.

As I grew up, people always said, You can do anything you set your mind to. I loved it when they said that, the world was open and available to me, anything I wanted I could achieve. But now, officially in my late 20's, I have not achieved the things I set my mind to when I was younger. What's more, no matter how hard I would have tried, I never would have become a professional ballplayer or platinum selling rock star. (There were significant parts of my life where these were the desires of my heart)

Of course, as my life has gone on, there have been moments where I have realized that I had reached some limitation of my natural capacities. Very much like Josiah's attempts at picking up blocks, these have been hard moments to deal with. Coming to grips with my own limitations can be heartbreaking. It's more than just the frustration of not being able to accomplish a task or achieve a dream. A person's soul can take a pretty solid blow when you realize that the horizon of 'what is possible' is somehow less expansive than it used to be. (If you've seen Napoleon Dynamite, think Uncle Rico chucking steaks at Napoleon to prove he can still throw a football.)

As I get older, I find new goals and new dreams, fresh designs on what is possible in my life. And yet, even in reshaping what I set my mind to, I still find myself dealing with my own limitations. I will never be the best thinker, writer, speaker, teacher. The life I "have set my mind to" will inevitably be tempered as time goes on.

It could be that my only option is to dispair of what I fail to achieve. There are moments when I feel that is the best option. More likely, though, I should learn to think in new ways. Instead of believing I can do anything I set my mind to, I'm trying to embrace the idea that I have limitations, and that limitations are not a sign of weakness. Because it could be that my limitations are a sign that I have been designed, specifically, for particular purposes. The living of life then is more about discovering God's intentions for me, than achieving whatever fancy strikes me on that particular day.

I wanted to just hug Josiah. I knew the kind of pain he was feeling when he bumped up against his physical limitation. In a way, dealing with these limitations is part of life. I just don't want it to be all of life.

Can you relate?