What a week we had here in Cincy last week! It was full of life and a deepening of friendships, both old and new! We heard from our friends Steve Chalke, Dave Parr, Damon Lynch III, Troy Jackson, Peter Block, and a whole host of others at Immanuel Church in Clifton (where I pastor) and in and around Cincinnati in some amazing neighborhoods, especially Finneytown where we have our Oasis Community Hub emerging.
That was the beginning of the week. At the end of the week, we had new and old friends from Economics of Compassion and Neighborhood Economics converge at New Prospect for a conference.
I needed a nap after last week!
However, I have loved having so many worlds come together around Finneytown, Clifton, Immanuel, Oasis, Economics of Compassion, Amos, and others.
I’ve been around Oasis for a long time. Many of their staff have been good friends over the years. Oasis has been on the forefront in Europe and around the world on reimagining (or recalibrating as Steve Chalke would say) the church. They have done this by being centered on Christ’s being and Christ’s actions….especially when it comes to serving and including folks who may have felt excluded.
I have talked over the years with my friends from Oasis what it would look like to have them more fully in the states and how we could use Oasis to be a part of the “new church” or the recalibrated church. How we can be conversation partners, as well as collaborating with other? Could groups like Oasis help the American church be the community based blessing that we are called to be?
So, this past week, we saw a glimpse of what could be.
Much of this past week and what has gone on in Cincy came out of a trip that our family took to the UK last summer. Friends like Steve Chalke, Andy Sexton, and Andy Matheson had invited us over to London to check out first hand their community hubs and school academies. So we took them up on it. On one leg of the journey, we were supposed to stay at our friend Andy Matheson’s house. He sent us a message a couple of days before we were to arrive to say that he had worked it out to stay at a friend’s house who was on vacation. I was looking forward to staying with Andy, but took it in stride. When Andy picked us up at the train station to take us to our lodgings, he told us that the house we were staying was an English Manor house on the estate of the Earl of Essex, Penshurst. So, for the next 4 days we stayed in a 7 bedroom, 5 bath house on a hill overlooking Pinehurst. It was fantastic.
On several of the fields we were overlooking, there were hundreds of sheep in various fields at different times during the day. One afternoon, the Mathesons and other friends of ours, the Kinney’s, were visiting with us. The Kinney’s kids and are kids are of similar ages, so they all went out into the fields to try and catch sheep, try as they might, they couldn’t catch them…however, they did step in quite a bit of other very messy and smelly things…yet, fun was had by all, even if a few sheep may have been a bit rattled.
I read once that you cannot very easily approach sheep…they are sheepish if you will. They aren’t easy to heard either, unless you are their shepherd. Shepherds, especially in Jesus’ time, spent a lot of time with sheep. Shepherds had a way of gathering sheep, by simply calling them out. Sheep will follow the shepherd because they recognize the shepherd’s voice. They trust that voice.
In the Bible, specifically John 10, we are referred to as sheep, you and I together. It’s obviously a metaphor, but much like the beauty of the landscape at Penshurst, we all live together in a beautiful world. We also produce a lot of smelly and messiness. Our relationships with each other are filled with craziness at times. We don’t always follow or lead each other well. There are dangers around us, and sometimes there are other forces out there, thieves such as loneliness, selfishness, pride, or addictions, or folks not being the best version of themselves, or fully understanding themselves, their “True Selves”. Or maybe others that come in the middle of darkness as it says in John 10:10 that kill and destroy the lives that we were called to live.
Yet, Jesus tells us that he has come to give us life. When we slow down, or get caught up in recognition of good things around us and the origin of that goodness, we can recognize the voice of the true shepherd, the voice of Jesus who has entered in the fields of our lives, who walks with us and towards us…walking through the messiness to call us towards new fields, new adventures.
We often recognize the voice of Jesus through others. Maybe we literally hear words from Jesus through others such as a speaker, or maybe even a preacher (maybe…). Or maybe we recognize the voice of God through something we read, or a song we hear. Maybe it’s listening to our neighbors as we walk down our street. Or, seeing someone else practice charity through their actions or giving themselves away.
We know it when we see it and hear it, especially as we train our eyes and ears to see and recognize the true shepherd.
Alex Dingle (a “younger” friend of mine who’s on InterVarsity staff and that our church, Immanuel, is going to allow to have some office space for a period of time) and I experienced amazing beauty one weekend where we had a wilderness retreat with our youth group from my former church Northminster. We spent the weekend in the mountains of North Carolina at a place called “Pioneer Plunge”. We had a very diverse group of folks, but we experienced a deep sense of unity as we listened to each other and lived out what it means to be a community marked by Jesus. We served each other, taking turns making dinner and cleaning up after each other. It was great. At the end of the weekend, I was overwhelmed with the abundance of deepening relationships, friendships, with each other and with God, so much so that I made a statement that there was no place else in the world that I’d rather be than right there, right then.
Friends, we have said it before, we are living in a new place with church. The old forms simply don’t work anymore. The world is crying out for us, the church, to be an example of goodness, of the good shepherd, to be reflections of Jesus’ actions and to reflect and amplify the voice of the Shepherd who is calling us towards him, towards abundant life, towards being one flock. This shepherd has laid down his life for us, yet in doing so, has overcome all of the messiness in our lives and is creating something new and beautiful as he leads us into new fields, filled with beauty and relationship.
So, let’s listen to the voice of the Shepherd, let’s love each other well, and let’s play in the fields of Clifton, Cincinnati, and the world and be the diverse, yet unified flock God’s marked us out to be…we can do this, we can believe in each other as God does with us, trusting each other, loving each other, and changing the world in the process.
I can truly say that being in this field called Cincinnati, with all of its mess, is good and is filled with beauty. There’s no other place I’d rather be, right now, than right here.