Replenish

Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. 2 By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. 3 Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. (Genesis 2:1-3 TNIV).

From the very beginning of Creation, God has made it known that we are to make certain times “holy” or “set apart” to rest.  The word for rest in Hebrew is “Sabbath”, here’s a great definition:  

1. cease, stop, be at a standstill 

2. stop working, take a holiday, keep sabbath 

God has been teaching me a lot these days about what it means to “stop” or to have “margins” in my day.  Some days I run from one meeting or event to the next, I sometimes do not have time to simply “be” when there is so much to “do”.  I bet many of you can relate to what I am saying!  I hear it from so many folks in the church and in the neighborhood:  we are a busy culture filled with lots of activity.  

Oftentimes I hear these words from the Psalmist and I long for “margins” or “space” to meet God on many of those “busy” days or even seasons.

2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? (Psalm 42:2 TNIV)

Friends, we all need margins in our lives to meet God.  I know that I need my time away on Fridays (my day off) and time away on retreat periodically to “replenish” my walk with God and to grown in my own understanding of “being”.  I’ll be heading back to the Abbey of Gethsemane in January for a few days to do just that, as well as taking some continuing education time for a couple of conferences in November (with a couple of days thrown in on the margins as well).

To replenish our lives, to meet God, we have a need to slow down, to rest, and to simply “be” with God.  We long for God because we were created for relationship out of Relationship.  Because of that longing, we need to find margins to relax and focus our hearts and mind on God.  This helps us to become more aware of God’s Presence and to strengthen our relationship with God and with others.  

Friends, as life gets busier and busier, may we find time to “Stop”, “Cease”, and come to a place where we can rest and meet God on a regular basis:  daily, weekly, and periodically throughout the year and/or on a retreat.  I’ll look forward to sharing more ways that we can all do that as a church in this coming year.   

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Beauty.

Oil and perfume make the heart glad,

    and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel.

-Proverbs 27:9

He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.

-Ecclesiastes 3:11

The United Kingdom has been on my mind and heart quite a bit this summer as we’ve had a friend from the UK come and stay with us for 3 months as an Oasis intern, and then her mother, who is a dear friend, coming over for a few days.  We have amazing friends in our neighborhood, city, and across the world!

We love it when we get to see them, we have shared so much over the years.  And, they inspire us.  They believe in us, and we in them.  We do have fun together, but we also grow from their wisdom, their life experiences, and from their work.  Many of them have a vision for the church, even when that church has been on decline a lot longer in the UK than in the US…yet, it is also further ahead of the “curve” in terms of where the church is heading, and how being placed in a neighborhood, with lasting friendships, can be a model for moving towards a new story with the church.  They have worked hard with refugees, street children, immigrants, and for the good work of community building and inclusion.

About 4 or 5 years ago, my family and I went to the UK to visit many of our friends in the UK and to explore the work of Oasis (for more info, go to www.oasisuk.org).  (We’ve been a part of starting an Oasis hub in the Finneytown neighborhood of Cincinnati, which has been fantastic!  We are starting to see our neighborhood, churches, the school, and local businesses and government really participate in meaningful ways.)  

Upon returning from that trip to the UK, I had much on my mind and heart to process.  It was an amazing trip filled with great conversations, meetings, sights, and new and old friendships strengthened.

It was beautiful.

Not just the landscape, but the relationships.  My family and were poured into by friends who have journeyed with us over the years who now live in the UK.  We met with many other new friends who have a kindred passion for authentic living and a quest to see church be the Church…for everyone and from the “outside-in”.  

While in the UK, I was reminded of a conversation that I had with a fellow Presbyterian pastor who works for Young Life in Nicaragua.  We were talking about the concept of doing ministry that we call “quality of excellence”.  This means that we want to do ministry at a high level, we want to do it well, pour in resources, and make it attractive.  There is some good to that, but it’s not what they strive for with Young Life in Nicaragua much anymore…they don’t have all the resources that we have in the states, so they strive for something better:  “beauty”.  It’s beautiful to see teenagers sitting on a hill at a camp sharing life, laughing and crying together.  It’s beautiful to see folks believing in each other and giving and receiving grace.  

I have seen this beauty at my current church, Fleming Road UCC, these past 8+ months.  And, I see the potential for going deeper and experiencing/seeing even more beauty.  I have said often to folks in church leadership that I’m not so concerned any more about “how” we do ministry, but that we “be” a community that is marked by a deep and abiding Love.  That we look at each other and see persons made in God’s image, and see the beauty.

As our church embarks on new adventures, I cannot tell the future.  I do not see all that God is doing.  But, I am sensing a deep beauty in the past, present, and future for our family (even as one goes off to college!), for Fleming Road UCC and our neighborhoods in Springfield Township, and for Cincinnati as we explore and discern where God may be leading us.  

I am encouraged by the legacy of so many folks and their hard work in the long history of Fleming Road UCC and the churches that merged to make this current congregation!   I am also encouraged by our growing friendships and collaboration with organizations like the Parish Collective, the Conspire Gathering, and Economics of Compassion, as well as the amazing work of the UCC globally and locally through our Association!  I am equally encouraged by the partnerships and friendships of so many other faith communities coming together in our neighborhood and city!  So many amazing stories!

Our trip to the UK was fruitful, but our rootedness in Cincinnati, our Finneytown neighborhood, and Fleming Road UCC will bear even more fruit…beautiful fruit of friendships and community with God and with others.

Outside. Part 2.

Go outside

And praise the God who mapped the stars out in the sky

Gather ‘round with those who love and sing

God is our King, God is our King

No one should be left out.

Not sure of the author of these lyrics…but it’s a great song that my good friend, Rev. Troy Bronsink (PCUSA), Director of the Hive in the Northside neighborhood of Cincinnati, sang at my Installation as pastor at Fleming Road UCC.

Oftentimes I hear the words “vision”, what’s our vision as a church, an organization, or a community.  From the church’s perspective, folks want to know if our vision will help us grow numerically or spiritually.  I’m not sure if that should always be the goal.  But, I do believe that the church is called to be an “alternative community” of personal and corporate growth bringing us towards a deeper sense of self, others, and God awareness.  Developing spiritual disciplines such as meditation, Sabbath rest, and study are important.  So, is moving “outside” of the church walls or what makes us comfortable and towards the work that God is doing/being in the world around us.    

There’s a passage in the book of Hebrews in the New Testament of the Bible that talks about Jesus going “outside”.

The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. 12 And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. 13 Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. 14 For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. 15 Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise–the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. 16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.

– Hebrews 13:11-16, TNIV

We have a high priest, Jesus, who represents us in his being as Son of God at the very center of God in the Trinity.  This Jesus also represents to us God in his humanity.  It was Jewish custom to offer a sacrifice of gratitude to God and to atone for their sins.  Jesus pays the ultimate sacrifice by giving up his own life on our behalf.

In my faith tradition, we are called towards this God through the actions of Jesus.  Jesus represents us in his birth, life, death, and resurrection.  He does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.  We also are born through him, live through him, die with him, and are resurrected into new life through him.

We are also called to follow Jesus wherever he goes.  In his death, he was crucified outside the city gates.  Jerusalem was where the Temple was, where Israel believed that the Presence of God dwelt.  Yet, Jesus was, the very Presence of God in and to humanity, was killed outside on the city dump, in the messy dirty world that Jesus came to love.

In his death, we are called to also go outside.  We are called to follow him outside the church walls into the world around us, oftentimes to places where we may not want to go.  Places that are filled with the stench of death and darkness.  Yet, we are called there.

It’s scary, it’s uncomfortable, and it doesn’t seem like this crazy world outside the church walls is very safe.  It may cost us everything.  Even our lives…yet, we are called to go there.

When we do go, we find that God is at work even in the midst of death.  This is a God who brings new life where it seems like there is only death.  Once outside, bearing our identity as Christ followers and out of a community of like-minded folks (the church…a community of persons, not simply a stone building), we find ourselves coming alive.  It makes us want to praise God in wonderful ways, with our lips, with our actions, with our very lives.  It makes worship real and not self-serving.  It gives us vision for the church and “spiritual growth”.

Friends, this church, Fleming Road UCC, is experiencing growth!  Growth that comes out of the death of Christ that leads to resurrection!  I am seeing it every day as we see folks  go “outside” into their neighborhoods.  I also see us doing this in mission trips, projects, and simply practicing “neighborliness” or “honoring” friendships.    Yes, this growth does cause change, it’s hard to understand or wrap or mind around, but if we are willing to release ourselves to the God who loves us unconditionally, we can experience life as it was meant to be lived!

May we remember these words from Galatians 2:20:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  (TNIV)

Our identity lies in Christ who gives us life, and ignites agency within us to be the people we’ve always wanted to be, the people we were created to be.  May we remember that always and not forget to “do good”, to share with others, and to be the Church to a world that isn’t looking for another building, but needs life transforming relationships that point towards a life transforming God!

Let’s “Go Outside”!

Community. Outside.

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 IMG_297613 Let mutual love continue. 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

 For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. 12 Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. 13 Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. 14 For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. 15 Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. 16 Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are…

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Change.

Change. 

Do not be conformed to this world,[c] but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.  

Romans 12:2(NRSV)

In this passage, the word for transformed comes from the Greek word “metanoia”, which means a shift in thinking, a paradigm shift, a change of an inward reality.  

 In October of 2013, my wife Debbie and I went to the Missional Developers Assessment Conference in San Anselmo, CA.  It was sponsored by the PC/USA and it gave great insight on where the church was in 2013 and what kind of leadership is required for the church in this present culture.  It gave us a g00d picture of the changes in our denomination and helped to further our growth in understanding of the change necessary in the church universal.  

The analogy that one of the facilitators, Deborah Wright (rock star), used was of the need for “adaptive change leadership”.  Often we feel like when we have challenges put before us in the church, or in any organization or institution, that we can fix our issues that need fixing by simply making technical changes.  For instance, if we break our leg, we can put it in a cast, take care of it, stay off of it, and rehab it.  If we do steps A through B, then our foot will probably come back stronger than before.   That’s also the mentality in organizations when faced with a changing culture or challenging issues.  If we just “work harder” or “smarter” (terms I’ve personally used!), we can “right the ship”.  

However, that’s not what the church needs today.  It does not have a broken foot, it has lost its foot and it needs to adapt and have “adaptive change leadership”.   

We are living in a new cultural reality when it comes to church.  People generally have either distrust or disdain for the church, or are simply ambivalent or don’t care.  I meet both university students and adults many times who consider themselves “church refugees”.  At one time they felt comfortable, at home in the church, but now feel like the church has left them or has sold them a bill of goods that they don’t understand, want, or need.  

The church has often responded to these refugees, as well as to others, with a consumer and/or corporate-business model or mindset that attempts to address perceived needs.  Often, the church simply has not done enough listening, deep listening to the real needs of the culture around us.  We go about “our business” in a paradigm that the world simply doesn’t get, it is foreign to them.  

We need to change, we cannot settle for “business as usual” or status quo.  We cannot make cosmetic changes, it’s not simply about budgets or program changes, we need to listen deeply to the culture around us and seek out what God wants us to do and adapt to God’s purposes for this world that may look radically different from the way we’ve done “church”.  

People are searching for deeper relationship with others and, ultimately with God.  People desire and need relational connection and they need the Truth.  The Truth, as revealed in Scripture and in the world, which is Jesus Christ.  A God who is incarnate…one of us.  They need to see this Jesus, this God, demonstrated through honest living in the culture, not against the culture.  

I do not have the answers.  But, I do know that we need a transformation and renewal of our minds, and our souls, in order to be the body of Christ, the church, to the world around us.  We need adaptive “change”, or metanoia, leadership.  

That’s why I LOVE the discussions and relationships that I have with the Parish Collective.  We have a great hunch, a good bet, intuition that says that the church is shifting, and it’s future is in being “neighborhood focused/engaged”.  It really is an amazing time to be in the church and to “conspire” with others for community goodness.

As our church discusses looking for visions, strategies, or a “road map” if you will for the future, know that this Pastor is doing the same.  May we all be changed, transformed, renewed as we go on this journey together. 

Good News.

Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you. (Gal 3:8, TNIV)

Some people in this world think that you have to hear some really bad news before you hear good news.  We’ve all heard the expression, “do you want the bad news or good news first?”.  

But, what is good news according to Scripture?  It is that God has promised, through Abraham (and throughout the Bible), that God would be with us, for us, loving us, and pursuing us.  This God even says that God will make God’s dwelling with us, in our lives, in our neighborhoods, with us.  

In Genesis 1:27, it says that we were created in God’s image.  That is an image of amazing love and relationship.  We were created out of love for relationship.

The Good News continues throughout the Bible as God seeks to build and restore relationship with us and between us, all of us.  Jesus demonstrates this good news, God with us in the flesh.

Many times, especially in the church, we want to focus on the bad news.   So many times, the world hears a message of sin or what is wrong, but not what is right.  They hear that the church is against this or that…they miss out on the good news, especially when their perception is that all they hear from us is bad news.  

I know we live in a broken world.  I believe that many folks in the “world” understand intuitively that we live broken lives in a messed up world.  I also know that we have to sometimes need to share prophetic words to the church and culture.  Yet, we have good news to share with this world:  the reality of Jesus…not just the “historical Jesus”, but the “cosmic”, universal Jesus that represents all of humanity.  God is for us and God has made provision for us to be whole people in loving community with God’s self and with each other…and we get to practice by abiding or living in Christ (John 15:4)!

Abraham got it.  He lived by God’s faith, he abided in God’s love.  We are all justified by God through God’s faith in God’s love for us.  Through Abraham, and so many others, we have seen God keep his promises.  God is with us! 

I am a Presbyterian (USA) pastor as many of you know.  I am now pastoring a United Church of Christ (UCC) church in my neighborhood.  Loving it!  Part of that is learning a new “polity” and history of this denomination.  I am taking a UCC polity class, and learning that the UCC is a denomination based on “covenant”, relational fidelity if you will…promises of deep relationship and community.  Abraham lived in this covenant, that doesn’t mean that life is going to be perfect, Abraham knew that, but it did mean that God would not let god of Abraham, or us, or our church!

As our churches find new meaning in neighborhoods, may we boldly live out our agency by the power of God’s Spirit and share good news in our communities.  May we, like Abraham, be a vessel for God’s blessing to our neighbors, and the world…and, may we do that with less words and more action.  

May we dream and imagine how we can share good news in friendships with others! 

Conspire with Us!

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Origin of the word “conspire”

1325–75; Middle English 

(Latin) conspīrāre to act in harmony, conspire, equivalent to con- con- + (Latin) spīrāre to breathe

This year hundreds of practitioners, pastors, social entrepreneurs, church planters, community leaders, environmentalists, denominational executives, publishers, professors, urban planners, and artists from all over the globe will come together in the Northside neighborhood of Cincinnati from October 12-13 to connect, collaborate, and celebrate the good work being done in thousands of neighborhoods and parishes. They share a common vision for seeing the transformation of the church through their participation in their neighborhood. They are grounded in practice, committed to interdisciplinary work, and invested in the flourishing of the Kingdom of God.

There is very little doubt that our imagination for what it means to be the Church is changing…dramatically. If you believe that joining in God’s renewal in your actual neighborhoods is a crucial step in being the church, you should be at the Conspire Gathering this year.

Why? Because in coming together we aren’t just hoping to conspire together about how to be the church—we are collaborating toward how to reimagine our economies from the ground up, we are re-creating how we engage and design our built environment, we are re-thinking how to educate our kids, and we want to lead a faith-rooted movement to recover a deeper sense of equity and collective civic voice.

In essence we believe God is re-creating our world, and we want to join in. We don’t know the future, but we do believe that God is at work, and we believe we need each other.

What will this look like?

Pre-Party. Pre-Gathering symposiums. Happy Hour Gatherings. Targums. Curated Conversations. Small Groups. Forums. Late Night Gatherings. Art Installations. Fishbowls. Poetry Slam. Neighborhood Tour. Interactive Stations. Symposiums. AMAZING friendships!  And, yes, much more.

We will have folks gathering from different denominations and non-denominational faith communities and traditions like the UCC, PCUSA, UMC, Episcopal, Catholic, Brethren, Baptist, Oasis, CAIN, Economics of Compassion, Crossroads, and more…all coming together with different and diverse thoughts and experiences…yet gathering to hear one another’s stories, to ponder where faith communities are heading in our neighborhoods, and where do we see God at work and how can we follow God in the midst of our contexts…and to “conspire” on how we can be encouragers of one another and our neighborhoods.  

Won’t you join us?  Go to www.conspiregathering.com for more info and to register!  We’d love to take a team of folks from your faith community as well!  If interested, contact me at rich@flemingroaducc.org!