When church happens

Feeding the hungryShane Claiborne said some things about Acts chapter 2 that opened this up for me when we were talking about poverty as part of our JustStart> at Jacob’s Well.  The relevant verses are Acts 2.44-45

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

Now one can throw up all sorts of complications  around this passage, like how they pooled and distributed their wealth, and the difference between needs and wants. Such controversies miss the point, however, which is that when the church began, they happily and mutually filled the holes in each others lives.

Elimination of poverty isn’t a requirement or a duty of the church, it is simply what happens when church happens. In other words it isn’t giving your congregation a name,  a constitution or erecting a building that makes you a church, it’s God working among and through you to make a tangible difference in people’s lives. When people are church, they start living differently – others see that and like it. They want to be part of it. And when they do, they too are part of the church and their needs are met. The contagious, ever expanding, life-giving movement that introduces the kingdom of God is happening.

What is a sign that a church just got born? Needs are met. Poverty – all types – ends.

  • If you are thinking of starting a church, don’t miss this.
  • If you are wondering what to do with your church, don’t get distracted from this.
  • If you are looking for a church, look for this as a sign of a living one.

It isn’t about what you can do.

trusting handsYou or I can’t change the world. You or I may not even be able to change ourselves. But that shouldn’t make us feel hopeless about change ever happening because that isn’t how it happens.

As churches who are all in the business of changed lives this is something we have to get straight. We want to equip people with all sorts of behaviors that are more in line with God’s view of our lives, but they will never make the difference. The fundamental piece is entirely different and doesn’t center upon our capability, but on our learning to accept and follow along with what God is doing in the world. In fact the question isn’t ‘What can you do?’, the question is ‘Can you trust God?’ Even a little bit. Because God will take even the smallest seed of trust and turn it into something great and beautiful. God says, “Just Start.” It is only then that we start loosening the grip on our lives enough that we start to get our hands on things that God can make really matter. That’s scary. And that’s why it takes trust.

When will the world change?

We have been talking and thinking and dreaming and doing justice the last six weeks as Jacob’s Well. It has been interesting. I know people who have started some pretty admirable endeavors, one person told me he wants to quit his job and open a communal house as a long term shelter for homeless people. Many have done nothing. There is no judgement, there is learning and watching and wondering.  This is hard stuff and the changes that could happen, that should happen will take time – more than six weeks.

One thing I relearned during this time is just how the world is going to change. I truly believe that God wants the world to change, to better reflect God’s intentions, love, hope and righteousness than it does. But it isn’t going to change because we change it. Really, I mean it! The world needs to change, we are part of the change, BUT that change doesn’t happen because we get around to making it happen. The world changes when we let God change us.

Gandhi’s quote is famous, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” It is as true as it is profound. What it doesn’t say is that even that change isn’t made by us. The world needs to be changed, and it happens when we are changed, but that change needs to come from beyond us. We cannot comprehend the nature or the scope of the change, we do not have the will nor the patience to make it. We have to let God do it.

Jesus talked about those who give up their life for his sake would find it (Luke 9.24). Paul talked about dying and rising to Christ (Romans ch.6). But how does that happen? How do we let God change us. This is hard to answer because sooner or later we get to something that we do. The difference is that this isn’t a matter of continually trying to manipulate ourselves or the world, but of simple dwelling in God. Being still, listening for God anywhere and everywhere. Sometimes getting away from the world to hear, other times diving into the world to hear. And when we notice anything – even the something-almost-nothing (1 Kings 19.12), letting God know we are afraid and don’t know how. And asking God to remake our hearts to receive the change we cannot make ourselves.

It is good to have a community of people who walk along with you when you try to let change like this start happening in your life. And when our communities become holy places wide open to this happening in and among them, this world is going to get changed.

ENDING POVERTY: Step 3 Sharing what is beyond sufficiency

Most people share from their leftovers, that means they don’t share much. The definition of ‘enough’ tells us we still need more. If that’s true, what are we going to share? It ends up being what we won’t miss. A couple bucks in our wallet (I use my cash card anyway), the change in my pocket (it isn’t really worth much after all), or maybe something that will be advantageous at tax time. The world won’t survive off the leftovers of those who can’t distinguish their need from their greed. The purpose of recognizing what is sufficient is that is allows us to choose what to do with the rest of our bounty. God has the life-giving idea that we share it!

We may want what is beyond our sufficiency, but others need it. Preventable forms of poverty and the illness, injustice, lack of opportunity, education and hope that come from it are just that – preventable. We can change them!

Sharing what is beyond sufficiency is also key because it isn’t only others in need who stand to benefit from our abundance. There are times and situations when it is us who need to rely on the abundance God has provided for us through someone else. When that time comes I bet we really hope that those others have understood and embraced the truth of sufficiency. What’s the best way of making that happen? Learning and practicing how to share what is beyond sufficiency ourselves right now.

ENDING POVERTY: Step 2 It is about us all learning to desire what is sufficient.

Between us and sufficiency is the word “Enough.” There is no such thing as enough – it is always a little more than what we have – so as long as we keep chasing it we never get to what really satisfies us. God promises to provide what we need, to which we say, “yes” and wink because we don’t really believe it. When we hear God say “what you need” we hear “what we want” and are secretly afraid that it won’t be “enough.”

We need to learn to desire that which is sufficient. Clearly we haven’t been good teachers or models of it for one another. We need to ask God for some direction on this.  The promise of it is that if God can quiet our drive for what we don’t have, then we may discover peace with what we do have. That in itself would be a very good thing. But it also allows us to take the next step.

ENDING POVERTY: Step 1 It’s not about everyone having more.

Prologue: Jacob’s Well, the church I serve, has  been working it’s way through a worship season called JustStart> (developed by a collaborative of people and agencies) and it has helped us learn a lot about being the church, not just having a church. I’ve been learning a lot too. The next entries are a way for me to put some of what has emerged as particularly compelling to me out for others to read, comment on, challenge, borrow, whatever.  Thanks for reading.

Poverty doesn’t end by everyone Having MORE.

When we say that the poor need more, what we tend to think is that they should have something closer to what we have. Can’t work. Thomas Friedman, in his book  Hot, Flat and Crowded, discusses a unit of measure first developed by Tom Burke,  called the ‘Americum.” It is any group of 350 million people with an average income greater than $15,000 and a growing penchant for consuming. It is an America. There are now approximately 2 Americums in the world. One in North America, and the other in Europe with some help from spots in Asia and South America. But by 2030, with economic growth and the development of a middle class around the world, Friedman tells us there will 8 or 9. The problem is that this planet doesn’t have enough resources to support that much consumption.

If the world is going to level off, it isn’t going to be at the energy intense, hyper-consumption mode we have here in the U.S. And besides the resource impossibility, if we stop and think about it we also know that it isn’t our ‘ stuff’ that fulfills our lives anyway.

This is Step 1 because it is an illusion we all just have to get over: we aren’t going to save this world by helping them become wealthy in the fashion of the west.

What is ironic is that while the earth isn’t nearly big enough for us all to share in the American dream, it is more than big enough for us all to share  in God’s dream for us. It’s time to look elsewhere for what will satisfy our and everyone else’s needs.

IMPACT!

We’re trying to increase our income at Jacob’s Well right now. Frankly, if we don’t we’ll have to do some serious cutting. I’m not worried about it, I have the sense that the community is ready to respond and the initial contacts I’ve had with people have borne that out. But this situation has forced me to think long and hard about the whole ‘money raising’ side of the church. It is awkward, easily manipulative and insincere. When I am asking people to increase their giving I have the possible double motives of trying to cover my own salary and maintain the church that I am familiar with. I.e., ask others to sacrifice so I don’t have to.

Some good hard wrestling and guidance by other very smart and ‘in it for the longhaul’ Jacob’s Well folks have taken me beyond that. Now I realize that it is all about impact (beyond all the also true statements of the spiritually benefits of learning generosity and gratitude to God). It is so hard to keep articulating the vision over and against the need, that is the purpose over and against paying the light bill. But what I’ve discovered is that giving to the church isn’t paying salaries, buying or renting buildings, it isn’t purchasing materials or anything else, it is resourcing the church to have impact.

We want our churches to have impact – in our lives, our communities and in the world. When we give money (or anything) to a church that uses it responsibly, we are resourcing it for impact. You do not pay a salary, you provide a highly trained (hopefully), passionate and hard-working person to go to work and make things happen; to equip leaders, to prepare contexts for growing in faith, for changing lives, for unleashing the faith of others. Things that God wants to have happen and aren’t going to happen by people who are busy with their own occupations, worlds of knowledge and expertise and homes and families.

Who doesn’t want their church to have more impact than it does already? Who doesn’t understand that an organization that has the people and resources to make things happen is going to have that sort of impact? Who doesn’t realize that this takes investment, and that God’s gift of our wealth is what gives us the ability to make that happen.

Don’t apologize for seeking to prepare your church for impact. And don’t expect your church to have it if you are not investing in it aggressively with all that God has given you: your time, your ability, your money.

It’s not about what it means, it’s about doing it.

It seems that the challenge of the bible isn’t what it means. Okay, that is tough. It’s hard to understand what the bible is saying in lots of places. But the basic message is pretty clear. The bible is talking about loving and caring for our neighbor. It is about recognizing God as the only feasible center of our lives. Stuff like that. The question isn’t ‘What do all the individual passages about this mean?’, it’s ‘How will I do that?’ And that isn’t a debate question, it’s an action issue. Just do it. Afterward go to bed thanking God for a chance to try,  asking forgiveness for what you messed up or missed, and a hint about how to do it tomorrow.

What do you have to know to follow Jesus? If you know that God loves you, and everyone else in the world, then you know enough to be dangerous.

Go be dangerous.

Dreams come true!

You might think this is crazy, but I’ve fantasized about this for years and yesterday it happened! I’m in the office and the phone rings and there is a woman on the other end. [If you’re thinking this is a sexual fantasy… get your mind out of the gutter! 🙂 ] She tells me she lives close to our church and is only working part-time but can’t get enough hours. She is really short of money for rent, feeding her kids, paying bills, etc. some friend of hers told her Jacob’s Well was a church that could help her work out her finances.

Okay, so here’s the deal. We need help with our finances at Jacob’s Well! We are running a deficit every month in this recession are getting within a hair’s breadth of having to cut back on staff or something (don’t worry staff… you won’t find out about lay offs in my blog – I promise!).  So I tell her that and inform her right away that we don’t have money to hand out. However, we do take managing our money really seriously and do a lot of work with people in establishing budgets and dealing with debt. I was ready to hear the ‘click’ on the other end as she hung up. But no, she cuts me off and says she isn’t looking for money. She was calling in hopes of finding help so she could learn how to better live on the money she has. Wow… I just sat there. Finally I came to and told her I could have someone call her who could help and she was  thrilled.

Why is this so cool? One, somehow the word is out that we believe our money is a spiritual issue and that we really want to help people manage their money so it isn’t managing them and getting between them and God. And that person shared that message with another person. I’ve worked in churches a long time. I have dealt with more people who walked in the door or called on the phone  looking for financial help than I can count, but I have NEVER had this happen before.

Two, if that wasn’t enough… I was already on the phone and had to put that person on hold to take this woman’s call. The person I put on hold was the person who runs our budgeting and debt workshops. I talk to him maybe once every 2 months on the phone. Within 5 minutes I had them connected.

Okay God… maybe it is worth working this hard. I guess I can doubt myself once in a while, but maybe I don’t have to doubt you so often. You are making things happen. Thanks for the glimpse. I need it!

The Dump Truck of Affirmation

I think I heard this phrase from Ron Sylvia first, but it sure captured it for me.

The question I’m dealing with right now is where is God at work. Not in theory. not just theologically safe, but where in my life, do I feel sure, confident, whatever, that God is there. There are places and all of them squoosh out between my fingers when I squeeze my fingers too tightly, but this is one that keeps coming through for me. The dump truck of affirmation.

Let’s face it, following God isn’t easy, and it is hard to know where to go, what to do, and whether you are walking with God or lost in the wilderness. So I get discouraged sometimes – a lot of times – and I’ve learned to let God know that. My prayer is something like this, “God, this is tough. I don’t know if what I’m doing is working, whether it’s worth it, or whether you are even there right now. Can you let me know?” And when I ask I get an answer, God comes through bigger than I expect. I start getting emails and phone calls from people – unsolicited, things start working out, people appear out of nowhere to take on leadership roles or fill gaps that are driving me crazy. It’s like God has everything going just fine, and cracks it open wide enough for me to see how what I’m up to fits into it – more than enough to keep me going. It’s not a hint, not a suggestion that could be easily dismissed as chance or selective perception, its the dump truck of affirmation.

Plop. “There it is,” God says, “you asked. Try and deny it.”

I know, this all sounds kind of weird to me too. But it happens. Every time. Sometimes the affirmation is not of what I’m doing but the new direction that I should be heading. Coming from God though, it isn’t like a reprimand, but like an inviting open door showing me what I want more than what I have. I guess God doesn’t just tell us – or at least me – what I should or shouldn’t do, and God doesn’t just melt the problems away, God does seem to care enough about me to want me to know I’m not alone and that what I’m doing is worthwhile and not just an invention of my own imagination.

Try it. Be honest with God about your discouragement. I can make no guarantees about how it will work out for you, but that dump truck of affirmation keeps backing up for me and dropping another load. So… I guess I’ll go back to work tomorrow and finish that message and try to connect with a few more lives this week.