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Do We Need Bigger Engines, or Better Wings?

Do We Need Bigger Engines, or Better Wings?
Flying makes me a little bit nervous. I know it’s irrational. I know you’re more likely to die on the drive to the airport than you are on the flight itself. Still, there’s something about the feeling of takeoff and landing that puts me in an especially prayerful state. The roar of the engines, the awareness of tons of steel and jet fuel surrounding me – it can all be a little much.

On one flight that I took some years ago, a fellow passenger shared a reassuring thought with me. He told me that even if all the engines were to cut out, our airplane wouldn’t just fall out of the sky. Even without functional engines, the aircraft would glide for a long time. We’d have a good chance of making a safe landing. “The airplane wants to stay in the air.”

It was comforting to realize that not everything depended on the perfect functioning of the aircraft. A lot of things could go very wrong, and we’d still have a chance to survive. In the years since I received this little bit of wisdom, I’ve realized that I can survive – and even thrive – despite the reality that things fall apart.

I think especially about the church, the fellowship of modern-day disciples who are trying to find. I consider the fact that the great engines of 20th-century American Christianity are sputtering and dying. So many of the supports that the church has relied on for generations to keep us flying have been stripped away. The money, social prestige, political influence, and a whole set of cultural assumptions that once reinforced Christianity’s predominance in Western society – all those engines are burning out.

Without a doubt, there are millions of Christians who are scrambling to preserve what’s left of those old engines. In the face of this profound crisis of values and institutions that is transforming our world, there are many whose imagination only extends to seeking more horsepower for the dying motors of 1950’s Christianity.

But what gets me excited is to think about all the possibilities waiting for us in the wings of this ancient-yet-awakening community. Can we feel the presence in the air that is just waiting to buoy us, carrying us to destinations that our man-made engines could never have reached? What if this airplane of faith wants to stay in the air? Are we ready to fly?

I am convinced that the future of our fellowship, of our movement as friends of Jesus, will not rely on the false security that for so long has smothered western Christianity. There is a life and power at work in our time and place, one that flies on the winds of the Spirit rather than the jet fuel of human ambition and egotism. Despite all appearances, there is a hope and future for the church in the developing world. This plane wants to stay in the air, if we’re willing to allow ourselves to be guided wherever the Wind takes us.

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Making Prayer Flags
Faith and just got off a plane, coming back from the Friends of Jesus Fellowship Spring Gathering near Indianapolis. I’m exhausted from the trip, but I’m so excited about what God is doing in our community. I want to share with you about what we experienced this weekend.

From Thursday night to Sunday morning, we came together with friends from across the country – coloring, composing, coloring, discussing, worshiping, singing, and exploring. It was a truly intergenerational gathering. We had folks ranging from toddlers to retirement age, and every generation in between. There was very little need to divide ourselves by age; even the very youngest in our community were able to participate fully in most of our activities.
Playing at Friends of Jesus Spring Gathering 2016
For this year’s Spring Gathering, we made a very conscious effort to be family-friendly, and it paid off in a big way. I was delighted with how our son, George, was able to connect with the children of two other families during the gathering. It was fantastic to watch our little ones become friends, and learn more about God in age-appropriate ways. We we adults learned so much from them, too. The children provided their own unique energy that shaped the gathering into something richer. Our community felt more organically whole than at any other time I have experienced. I am hopeful that this is just the beginning of a process in which Friends of Jesus becomes infused with the joy, energy, and simple honesty of children – who Jesus says we must emulate if we want to participate in the reign of God.

We are learning to see the world through child-like eyes that encourage creativity, an openness to discovery and wonder. This weekend we practiced praying in color, wrote collaborative prayer-poetry, sang together and played instruments, went for a nature walk, and created prayer flags to decorate our worship space. We ate together and shared in deep worship. We met together in in small groups to support one another as we seek to be faithful and joyful in the way of Jesus.
Worship Space at Friends of Jesus Fellowship Spring Gathering 2016
This gathering had a gentle beauty. It was the quiet, slow beauty of flowers opening and roots growing deeper. It was the blossoming of faith in the midst of challenge. We felt a deepening of commitment to face the darkness that we all experience, and a hope that God will provide us with child-like hearts to support one another in this journey.

This weekend, we re-discovered what it means to live in the image of God. Honoring the God-created child within each one of us, we are growing in compassion, joy, and the calm reassurance that God loves us and will care for us. We don’t have to be afraid anymore. We don’t have to bend to the world’s way of intimidating and distracting us. We can become children of light.
Friends of Jesus Fellowship Spring Gathering 2016 Group Photo
I’m feeling such gratitude for my brothers and sisters in the Friends of Jesus Fellowship – both those who were able to be with us this weekend and those who couldn’t make it this time. I’m encouraged by the movement that I see the Holy Spirit gathering. Little by little, the seed of God is being sown and little sprouts of life are rising from this good earth. Thank you, Jesus. And thank you, friends.

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Why is Church so Hard?

Why is Church so Hard?
For the last couple of years, this blog’s tagline has been: “Religion is easy; discipleship is hard.” I’m starting to think that perhaps this slogan is only half right. Discipleship certainly is hard, but religion doesn’t seem to be such a piece of cake, either.

I recently read a really tender, honest post from my friend Hye Sung, in which he wrestles with the fact that he rarely attends church, despite his strong faith in Jesus and his belief that Christian community is very important. What does it mean for him, and the millions of others like him, that faith in Jesus should be so compelling and yet finding healthy, life-giving Christian community is so hard? What does it mean for me that after spending years in seminary and nearly a decade in Christian ministry, I find myself resonating with Hye Sung’s dilemma, too?

Why is church so hard? For hundreds of years, the Sunday-morning congregation has filled a vital role in the life of God’s people. Yet in my generation, it may be that there are more Christians living their lives outside of the traditional congregation than those who remain within it. And many of those who remain are struggling.

We are in the midst of a monumental shift in the life of the church, one that is just as significant as the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago. Our entire culture is changing, and all of our legacy institutions – government, media, business, and the church – are straining under the pressure. We’ve set out on a new sea, but instead of oars, we have shovels. How long will it take for us to craft the tools we need to thrive in this new environment? So much hangs in the balance.

It’s reassuring to remember that we’ve been here many times before. This coming Sunday is Pentecost, when we remember the great outpouring of the Holy Spirit that formed the first Christian community in Jerusalem. Pentecost was a moment when God made a way out of no way. In the face of stuckness and confusion, Jesus drew together a new community that could speak to the spiritual hunger of the people of the Roman Empire. The old order was fading away, and it was frightening, but the Holy Spirit brought the creativity needed to bridge the gap. She revealed the new order of God.

This new order played out differently in 1st-century Palestine than it did in medieval Europe. The body of Christ looked different in the days of St. Francis than in those of George Fox. The way that the Holy Spirit is guiding us in our time, place, and culture, is bound to be different from anything that humans have ever experienced before. We’re being given new wine for the new wine skins of our day and age.

I won’t sugar coat it: These are hard days to be living in. Everything that our grandparents thought they knew is being turned on its head. We are in the midst of a great confusion as a society, and it’s not clear where we are headed. And yet there is a blessing in such a moment, the promise of the Holy Spirit to guide us into a new expression of faithfulness for our own day. Just like on that most famous day of Pentecost 2,000 years ago, we are being invited to participate in a brand new experiment, the likes of which the world has never seen.

I don’t know where this road leads. I’m not even convinced that I’ll like it when we get there. But I do have confidence that God is in control, and that the Holy Spirit has not abandoned her people. This is a time for the patient endurance of the saints, for us to be actively partnering with Jesus in his ministry of reconciliation and peace. It’s not easy, but it can be joyful. Let’s stumble down this road together.

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What Is Christianity?

What Is Christianity?

What is Christianity? Is it a collection of individuals, each following Jesus? Is it a type of culture, a philosophy that can govern courts, legislatures, and armies? Is it a radical fringe movement, at odds with mainstream culture, or is it a faith that is central to what it means to be American?

Throughout history, different Christians have answered these questions in several different ways. Some – particularly the liturgical churches – view their faith as being interwoven with the entire society. While personal conviction is important, faith is ultimately not a matter of the individual, but rather a corporate faith and practice that permeates the whole culture. In this worldview, it makes perfect sense to have a Christian president, generals, judges, CEOs, and police officers. Christianity isn’t a radical ideology; it’s the glue that holds our society together.

Another view is that Christianity is first and foremost about the individual’s relationship with God. This is the perspective that gave birth to the Evangelical commitment to Jesus as “personal Lord and Savior” – “personal” being the key word. In the most extreme versions of this viewpoint, nothing matters at all except the personal decision to believe in Jesus. Participation in any particular community, society, or even code of conduct, is secondary to the personal choice to accept his sacrifice on the cross.

Finally, there is the perspective of the dissenting church – groups like Quakers, Anabaptists, and others who have been violently persecuted for their counter-cultural beliefs. According to this viewpoint, the Christian faith is not primarily about individual conviction, nor is it a question of conformity to a large-scale, mainstream culture of Christendom. Instead, Christian discipleship takes place within a context of radical community, a community that stands outside the bourgeois assumptions of the mainstream and the violent logic of Empire.

For the dissenting church, the way of Jesus is a path of building a new society in the shell of the old. Rejecting both individualist faith and conformity to the wider culture, this perspective holds that Jesus is most authentically followed in a community that rejects common wisdom and joins Jesus on the margins of society.

Key to this understanding of the church is the lived experience of solidarity. The way of Jesus is not one that we can walk alone. In the radical community we rely on one another to find our way as disciples of Jesus. This kind of solidarity must go beyond shared identity and group membership. It has to extend into our intimate life choices: Our money, our living situations, our family. In the radical community gathered by Jesus, we don’t get to hold anything back from one another. We own nothing, not even our lives. Everything belongs to Christ, and we belong to one another.

Most of us today – including those of us in the historic dissenting churches – don’t really have the stomach for this kind of total submission to Christ in community. So we’ve ended up gravitating towards a more individualistic ethos. We value each person’s preferences and experience, preferring it to the discernment and cohesion of the group. Each one of us can live our lives our own way, and if the community has misgivings, it’s ultimately none of their business.

Given how privileged most of us are, we can get away with this. We’ve got the material resources that allow us to rely primarily on mainstream consumer culture, rather than the support of the believing community. We don’t really need each other. If we can pay rent, groceries, and Netflix, we’re good. And so we drift apart. Nothing binds us together that we can’t find somewhere else. If not at church, then maybe the yoga studio or spin class.

Is it any wonder that Christianity is disintegrating in the West? We’re just too rich and self-satisfied to prioritize one another over ourselves. By choosing individualism, we are ultimately captured by the most powerful voices of the mainstream culture – unchecked consumerism, militarism, greed, and fear. Without a community of solidarity that we truly lean on because we have no other alternative, we fall prey to whatever the imperial culture throws our way.

At this point, it’s a huge challenge to choose anything besides conformist individualism. It’s in the air we breathe, the clothes we wear, the media we consume. We’ve been atomized for so long, our communities of solidarity have been relegated to mere clubs and interest groups. And we’ve come to think of this feeble state of affairs as normal.

We’ve got a choice to make:

What is the story we want to live? Who do we want to live it with? And what are we willing to give up in order to be part of a community that distinguishes itself from the dying, violent order that we’re living in today?

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What is Next for Friends of Jesus?

Whats Next for Friends of Jesus?

This weekend, the core leaders of the Friends of Jesus Fellowship will be gathering in Washington, DC. This is a special retreat, to consider how God is calling us to move ahead as a community in the months and years to come. This gathering comes at an pivotal moment for Friends of Jesus, which has grown and evolved in exciting, surprising, and sometimes uncomfortable ways over the course of the last several years.

Since our early days gathering in Barnesville, Ohio, we’ve expanded beyond our original communities in Detroit and DC. We are now made up of disciples from across the eastern United States – including hot spots like Philadelphia and New York City. At the same time, we’ve struggled to really gather momentum in any one location. All of our local communities remain quite small, and we struggle to find the critical mass that is required to develop sustainable congregations.

We’ve all learned so much in the last few years together. We’v gained so much insight into both what to do, and what not to do. We’ve grown in our gifts as individuals, and we’ve bonded deeply as a scattered band of brothers and sisters in the way of Christ. Together, we have begun to learn what it means to live as friends and followers of the risen Jesus, and how we are called to live that out in our daily lives.

Last September at our Fall Gathering, there was a growing sense that God is asking something new of us. We’ve come a long way together in a very short time, but the journey ahead is going to look different. Our faithfulness to the Spirit will require that we move in new directions, ones that perhaps never occurred to us when we first started gathering as Friends of Jesus. The next steps forward for the Friends of Jesus Fellowship will be different from those that brought us to where we are today.

“What got us here will not get us there.”

Change isn’t easy, but it’s coming for us whether we choose it or not. The challenge before us this weekend is: Are we ready to re-order our lives in the radical ways that the reign of God demands of us? Are we prepared to make Jesus and his new order of love our top priority, even if it shakes the foundations of our comfortable existence? Are our eyes, ears, and hearts open to the terrifying and exhilarating next steps that the Spirit is inviting us to take together?

Jesus teaches us that we cannot love two masters. We will love one and hate the other. Please pray for us this weekend that we would find the courage and joy that comes with choosing our master wisely, embracing the humble way of Jesus as our path of salvation. Ask the Holy Spirit to be with us, guiding our worship and discernment, so that we can see clearly how we need to change our lives. Help us to be faithful to the next steps that God is calling us to. Holy Spirit, come.

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A Baptism Into Courage

Friends of Jesus Fellowship Fall Gathering

It’s easy for your faith to become just another obligation, a set of rules to fulfill and a standard that you struggle to live up to. But every once in a while, you catch glimpses of what it could feel like to be part of a community where heaven and earth come together, when everyday life becomes saturated with meaning and authenticity. In such times, the ordinary becomes extraordinary. Life takes on a whole new smell, because you are living it on purpose.

In moments like these, you know who you are. You know where you belong.

This weekend has been one such moment for me, a time of power, presence, and life. I’ve been at the annual Fall Gathering of the Friends of Jesus Fellowship, held this year in Lebanon, New Jersey. Our theme this weekend has been Fully Human, focused on the ways that we can live into the love-saturated life and power that Jesus promises us in the Holy Spirit.

Together, we’ve been experiencing the living presence of Jesus. We’ve been hearing his invitation to truly abundant life. What he offers us has more depth and reality than the false promises and illusions of the dominant culture: consumerism, materialism, and the soul-numbing myth of the autonomous individual.

We were made for more. We can feel it our bones.

Every gathering of God’s people has its own flavor. Some are raucous affairs, whipped hard by the winds of the Holy Spirit. At this gathering, though, we’ve experienced a sweet spirit of reassurance and gentle challenge. We’re being invited to take a realistic look at our lives, and to consider how we can take the next steps into deeper discipleship with Jesus.

This weekend has been a baptism into a deep reservoir of courage. It’s the kind of bravery that can only be lived into over a period of months, years, decades. It’s not the thrill of the quick decision or the decisive battle. We’re being called into the gentle, relentless faithfulness of water – slowly wearing down the path that God desires to walk in us.

There is a stream of living water that is flowing through our lives as friends of Jesus. We’re encountering an invitation to turn away from the many ways that we burden ourselves. The Spirit is calling to us, inviting us to take up the easy yoke of Jesus. Together.

It’s not clear what the next steps will be, though we’ve gotten some hints. It’s going to involve slowing down and really being present with one another. It’ll mean taking big risks over long periods of time, preparing ourselves for those kairos moments when God will use us to take powerful and transformative action, in ways both seen and unseen by the world.

The path we are being called into calls for patience, discipline, and steadfast love. There will be few quick victories, no easy answers. Nevertheless, Jesus has promised to walk with us along the way, and we already experience his child-like joy accompanying us. We are learning to trust him, and to take him at his word. He is faithful.

I can’t wait to see what he has in store for us next.

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Should the Church Embrace Individualism?

Should the Church Embrace Individualism?

When I was in seminary, community was the thing. We were taught how to use models of group discernment to help us make important life decisions. We had a student government, run on Quaker principles, that was supposed to help us work together as a community. We had shared worship that was meant to draw us into a corporate relationship with God.

Despite all these good intentions, my experience of seminary was largely an individual one. I was on my journey, and others were on their own. I made friends and shared great experiences with others, but the reality was that my fellow students and I were generally only going to be around for a few years. Once we were done earning our degree, we’d be off to some other part of the world.

It was hard to build really strong community in such circumstances. Despite all our ideals about communal decision-making and discernment, there’s only so far you can go when you know that nobody is going to be around three years from now.

Fast forward to my present ministry context: Washington, DC. In many ways, it’s not so different from seminary. I know lots of wonderful people, and we have a good time together. I learn a lot from my friends here, and we support one another as best we’re able. But in the end, we’re all on our own journeys. Some of us will be here a long time; others will be moving on in just a few short years. It’s not always clear who will fall into which category. 

Life is in a state of near-constant flux. At any given moment, some of our friends may be leaving the city. At the same time, new and wonderful people will emerge to take their place. Our city is an amazing environment for networking, for making new friends.

Forming community that transcends our individual choices is tougher. What does it look like to bind ourselves together in community when we’re so focused on maximizing our own personal dreams – career, family, life’s work?

These are worthy goals that we’re pursuing. We’ve got jobs we love, children we adore, hopes that we nurture, and ambitions that excite us. It makes me wonder, is it possible that my desire for committed, intentional community has been misguided all along? What if we’d be better off encouraging each individual (or family) to follow God’s call for them? Would we be more faithful if the church embraced individualism?

Even if this kind of radical individualism isn’t the best path to enlightenment, it surely is more in keeping with the spirit of our age. When I look at the movements and networks that are growing and thriving, it is those that allow individuals to take autonomous action to improve their lives, and the lives of others. Most successful movements in our time are those that invite you to come, just as you are, and participate in your own way. No strings attached.

At least not at first.

While I can’t imagine that Christ is truly calling the church to embrace individualism, neither can I believe that our present situation calls for the same type of community that was life-giving in centuries past. Electronic communication and rapid transit have fundamentally altered our reality. The world has changed. What does the faithful church of Jesus Christ look like in these new circumstances? What does it look like to be the body of Christ in such a mobile, fluid, creative, and exhausting age?

Our answer to this question will be crucial for the development of a living faith in our time. Have you found part of the answer? Please share.

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