As someone who appreciates the writings of Shane Claiborne and the New Day Movement and others, I found this cartoon by ASBOJesus to be pretty cool.
Last Monday, as I drove Shane Claiborne into Anchorage for a meeting with some fellow clergy, he told how hard it is to keep families in his community in Philadelphia. It’s a rough place. There’s gunfire most nights. There’s a constant battle with heroin in the neighborhood. He recounted how a young man had died of gunshot wounds on his front steps earlier this year. Oftentimes families come to his community and stick it out for a while…and then they decide to move…maybe a mile away…maybe two…maybe more. But they move someplace a little safer, not quite so challenging.
But it’s a place that healthy, wholesome families are needed.
I told Shane that our family has struggled with living in the privileged areas we’ve been able to live and that there’s a part of myself that would find that wonderfully freeing…recognizing that it would be a challenge for myself and would involve sacrifice. But, more difficult, it would be “forcing” a sacrifice on the part of my kids — their scholastic education, their friendships, and perhaps their safety. It would be asking a lot. And while it may require faithfulness to make sacrifices in your own life, I think it requires a different level of faithfulness to require sacrifices by your children or your spouse.
Shane said, “Jim, if you and your family would like to come to Philadelphia to be part of what we have going on there, we’d love to have you. We could always use some families who are willing to stay.”
My answer was: “That’s an interesting offer, but I’m not that faithful yet.”
We are in a world that likes to think BIG to dream BIG to act BIG. We like our plans to be all-encompassing. We like our leaders to cast broad visions. And, in the life of the church, we’re happy when the numbers are good, when our pews are full, and membership classes are busting at the seams. I’ve served three smaller churches (although one could argue that Girdwood Chapel is not “small” in Alaska standards) and at each one we’ve struggled with some identity issues as we’ve seen all the great and BIG ministries that occur in larger churches. “Why can’t we be like them?” we’ve asked. And sometimes we’ve tried to take on their programing as our own…even though we really could never have pulled it off.
And, as pastor, I have to say that occasionally my heart still sinks when some event is planned or some worship service begins or some schedule is set and I look out on those gathered round and see that it is far fewer than I had hoped for…far fewer than I had expected. It still happens.
But a couple of things have helped…
First, when I was in Kenai, Alaska, I was trying to work with the church to do some visioning for where it is that God wanted them to be over the next several years. We talked about it for a month or so. I had preached on “vision” and we had flyers posted around the church. We were going to make it into a big deal. The pastor of Soldotna United Methodist Church was going to be leading the event. Saturday came. The coffee was brewed. The table was set. Candles were lit. And we waited. A lot of time has gone by since then and I really don’t remember how many people were there, but it was bad. There were, maybe, 3 or 4. I was disappointed. I was very disappointed. But that pastor started us off in a prayer and then said, “God has gathered those of us who are ordained to be here today. He has called us to this place, around this table, to do his work.”
And we did it. We did his work. And it was good. Perhaps it could have been more satisfying if 30 people had shown up. But that’s not what happened. And, I pray, that is just how God wanted it.
Secondly, I’ve been thinking (a lot) about all that Shane Claiborne said during his time in Alaska a week or so ago. One of the things he said, and it comes through in his writings, is that ministry happens through relationships…and, particularly, through intimate relationships. Small is good. That’s why those giant churches our smaller churches are so desperately trying to be like are focusing on small group ministries. That’s where ministry really happens.
I’m reminded of this again this morning. A couple of nights ago we didn’t have the number of kids we’d like to see at Vacation Bible School. We were far from it. One adult asked me, “Is it worth it?” It’s a good question. It really is. It’s a good VBS program. I like the material. I think our staffing is good. The music and dancing is great. I had fun. I think my kids had fun. But is it worth it for so few kids? It’s a question that’s been asked in previous years as well.
Well, here’s how I look at it. Games may be a little harder in smaller groups, but the crafts are awesome. The singing may not be as loud but each kid was able to get a little more personal attention. And, if one kid comes out of it with a greater sense of who God is and how God loves them, then it’s worth it. And if I get to have fun with the whole process as well, why do we need to ask the question.
Maybe we just need to think small.
The following is part of a transcript from “Speaking of Faith” on Public Radio where Shane Claiborne talks about what he was involved in when a church tried to evict homeless persons who were seeking refuge in a church. It is a dialogue with Krista Tippett, the host of the program.
Kensington Welfare Rights Union, which was just a group of mostly homeless women and children that had gotten together. And they did something really courageous. In the midst of the ruins of North Philadelphia where there’s, you know, over 20,000 abandoned houses and 700 abandoned factories, they found an abandoned Catholic church building, and they moved into it.Yeah. Yeah. Well, my first encounter with Kensington in North Philly was when there was a group of poor and homeless families with the
And we read about that in college. And the newspaper article that we read said that these families had resurrected the church, you know? And that they had also, ironically, been given an ultimatum eviction notice — that within 48 hours, if they weren’t out, they could face arrest for trespassing on church property. So that really stirred all kinds of deep questions in us. And a group of us from the college got involved and, basically, put our lives alongside theirs and said to the city, ‘If you come to evict them, then you got to take us, too.’ And over 100 students…
…eventually got involved in this. And that made a big difference. Because the media became very involved and now…
…you know, we were all facing arrest as well. And they made it look like the church was kicking homeless people out. And that’s because the church was kicking homeless people out, you know?
And so, it just lasted not for 48 hours, but for weeks and weeks and weeks that we were there.
And, I mean, it had a happy ending, didn’t it? They didn’t get evicted. And is it right that those homeless families had, for the most part, found a place to live by the time you all left?
It was incredible, what happened. Folks saw it on the news. And they bought houses or donated houses. Some Section 8 and low-income housing vouchers were released. And there were hard stories, but there were also beautiful stories. And those families have been our theologians. You know, they’ve been our teachers…
…and sociologists, and the folks that have really opened our eyes up to the world.
As with many of the things I’ve been posting here, go ahead and read the whole thing.
I want to invite you to consider that maybe the televangelists and street preachers are wrong — and that God really is love. Maybe the fruits of the Spirit really are beautiful things like peace, patience, kindness, joy, love, goodness, and not the ugly things that have come to characterize religion, or politics, for that matter. (If there is anything I have learned from liberals and conservatives, it’s that you can have great answers and still be mean… and that just as important as being right is being nice.)
The Bible that I read says that God did not send Jesus to condemn the world but to save it… it was because “God so loved the world.” That is the God I know, and I long for others to know. I did not choose to devote my life to Jesus because I was scared to death of hell or because I wanted crowns in heaven… but because he is good. For those of you who are on a sincere spiritual journey, I hope that you do not reject Christ because of Christians. We have always been a messed-up bunch, and somehow God has survived the embarrassing things we do in His name. At the core of our “Gospel” is the message that Jesus came “not [for] the healthy… but the sick.” And if you choose Jesus, may it not be simply because of a fear of hell or hope for mansions in heaven.
Where I’ve had people complain about this is the last paragraph:
In closing, to those who have closed the door on religion — I was recently asked by a non-Christian friend if I thought he was going to hell. I said, “I hope not. It will be hard to enjoy heaven without you.” If those of us who believe in God do not believe God’s grace is big enough to save the whole world… well, we should at least pray that it is.
But, that’s pretty much what one of my professors said in seminary — “It may or may not be Christian to believe in universalism, that all persons are saved. But it is very Christian to pray that this will be the case.” Or it’s like a little skit I remember from youth group days that closed with Jesus up on the cross and asked, “When Christ is up on that cross, arms spread wide, who is it that he cannot embrace, who is outside of his saving arms?”
This is a quote from The Irresistible Revolution.
There are congregations on nearly every corner. I’m not sure we need more churches. What we need is a church. I say one church is better than fifty. I have tried to remove the plural form churches from my vocabulary, training myself to think of the church as Christ did, and as the early Christians did. The metaphors for her are always singular – a body, a bride. I heard one gospel preacher say it like this, as he really wound up and broke a sweat: “We’ve got to unite ourselves as one body. Because Jesus is coming back, and he’s coming back for a bride not a harem.
“I asked participants who claimed to be ‘strong followers of Jesus’ whether Jesus spent time with the poor. Nearly 80 percent said yes. Later in the survey, I sneaked in another question, I asked this same group of strong followers whether they spent time with the poor, and less than 2 percent said they did. I learned a powerful lesson: We can admire and worship Jesus without doing what he did. We can applaud what he preached and stood for without caring about the same things. We can adore his cross without taking up ours. I had come to see that the great tragedy of the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor.”
– Shane Claiborne
“And I think that’s what our world is desperately in need of – lovers, people who are building deep, genuine relationships with fellow strugglers along the way, and who actually know the faces of the people behind the issues they are concerned about.”
— Shane Claiborne (The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical)
How true is this? As I prepare for a sermon on immigration for this week, I’m struck that many persons in this conversation never look at the issue as one of love and of understanding the names, faces, realities behind the talking points. Then again, that’s probably the way it is with most issues in the world, come to think of it.