Tag Archives: community life

Love Practically: Loving the Real Person

“Love… rejoices with the truth…” (1 Cor 13:6)

I cannot love the way God loves until I fully see and embrace the other.  I cannot fully embrace the other without embracing those things that make him or her fully human, including the free will of the other.  When I struggle against the free will in another, the end result is I objectify them.  In my mind, in my imagination, they become an object to overcome, rather than a beautiful creature created in the image of an eternal God.  When this happens their free will becomes an object of annoyance, frustration, and even anger.  I may not immediately identify my issue as being with their free will.  “If they would only do this instead of that!” I tell myself.  But my language gives me away.  I want to bend them to my will.

Indeed I am beginning to realize that all sin against my fellow man has at its root the objectification of those who are created in the image of an eternal God.   There has been a lot of discussion  about how women become objectified through the sex trade, but this is not the only sin that objectifies beautiful amazing mankind.  Let’s take selfish ambition and jealousy for instance, God’s beautiful image becomes nothing more than an obstacle to overcome.  The glorious gift of a free will becomes something I need to manipulate to my ends, not something to be respected and honored.  Indeed as I have considered, I can not think of a sin that does not involve treating either God or man as an object rather than a Person.

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” (John 13:34)

Loving each other as He loves us means loving the free will in one another.  When God finished creating mankind, in which He had placed the glorious gift of a free will, His declaration over His creation was that it was “very good” (Gen 2:31).  He said this even knowing the trouble free will would cause.

As Jesus sat at the last supper, it says that “He loved them to the end…” (John 13:1).  He loved them knowing that their free will cause them to betray Him, deny Him and abandon Him.  He loved them even as the fruit of their free will unfolded in death.  Jesus didn’t love all the choices they would make, but He knew this same free will was a beautiful gift placed in each one by the Father, and thus “He loved them to the end”.

Thinking about love and free will in this way has changed the way I see.  I have found myself repenting of thoughts and attitudes that heretofore I accepted.  I have come to understand in a deeper way what it means to truly love my fellow man.  And I have found my heart suddenly full of delight as I gaze on God’s crowning creation, humankind full of the sublime gift of a free will.

“Let us love one another…” (1 John 4:7)

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Love Practically: Friendship

About a year or so ago, I was visiting a community of faith in my city.  When in the course of conversation it became obvious I was looking for a regular group to fellowship with, one of the leaders there asked me, “So, are you looking for a church?”  For some reason, the question bothered me a little – it just felt like the wrong question for me. I wanted to say “No, I’m looking for something else”, but since I knew that would sound harsher than I meant it, I just avoided the question.

The answer that came to me when I got home is, “No, I’m looking for friends.”  I suppose I could have said, “No, I’m in search of community”, but the word “community” has become so overused in Christiandom that often it seems to have lost all meaning.  We preach sermons on “community” but then don’t model it, and thus in the context of “church life”, community has often come to mean something very different in a than what authentic Christian community really is.

In meditating on Jesus’ last words before His painful and lonely death, He too recognized friendship as central:

“I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15)

In context He also said:

“As I have loved you, so you must love one another” – John 13:34, and

“Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” – John 15:13

It is impossible to escape that He was telling us that He desired for us to not only be His friends, but friends to one another.  And if there was any question, on the same night He modeled this friendship by deeply humbling Himself and caring for His disciples in a tender and practical way (John 13:3-17).  His humility was so pronounced as to be shocking (note Peter’s response).

How did these words and actions impact the disciples?  Jesus said to them, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” (John 13:7).  And at the time, they truly did not understand.  They were still vying for position with one another (Luke 22:24).  They had no idea that what they felt for one another was not yet love.

Case in point, when Jesus said “one of you will betray me”, they had absolutely no idea who He meant.  I’ve thought a lot over the years about how painful Judas’ betrayal must have been to Jesus, but only recently have I considered the deep impact it must have had on the other disciples.  Consider for a moment: all these men had lived with each other for 3 years, and had experienced a tremendous transformational experience together as Jesus turned their collective world upside down.  In this atmosphere, Judas was someone they thought they knew.  When Jesus spoke of betrayal, they couldn’t even imagine which of them Jesus could possibly be thinking of, nor were they able to take in that the betrayal would be so severe as to lead Jesus to death on the cross.  Afterward, I can imagine the other disciples thinking “How could we have been with Judas for so long and been so blind to what was going on inside him?”  Surely, realizing they knew Judas so little must have contributed to a deep realization that in the midst of their competitive wrangling with one another, they had failed to truly love each other as Christ had loved them.

How did these events affect this group of friends?  They were transformed men.  Even before the day of Pentecost, here was the atmosphere among them:

“…Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas the son of James…These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer, along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers.” (Acts 1:13-14)

Was Judas on their mind as they waited in Jerusalem?  It seems he was, for their first order of business as they prayed together concerned Judas (vs 15ff).  I cannot help but think the disciples were heartbroken over him.  How can one read his tragic tale and not feel its pathos.  Remember they had all spent significant time together.  When Peter stood up and spoke, it was a moment of closure to a painful chapter of their community life together.

Then came Pentecost.  So much has been written about the birth of the church on that day, about the tongues of fire and the miracles that followed, but perhaps the greatest miracle of all was a baptism of love that came upon the gathered believers that day.  They were filled with a tenacious determination to finally learn to do what their Lord and Friend had asked of them: Love one another.  The result is found at the end of the Second chapter of Acts (vs 44-47):

“And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.”

Yes, the church was born – a gathering of friends who were finally learning the Greatest Love, to lay down their lives one for another.  Oh, to experience such a fresh pentecostal baptism of love in our day!

A “New” Command

I’ve found myself meditating on love quite a bit lately. About a month ago around the time that I posted the Beatles video, I felt the issue of love (or lack of it) in the Body of Christ came into sharp focus for me.

I had been meditating on a number of painful events I had experienced in different communities of faith, which had resulted in many wandering from their faith, including in each case triggering a “crisis of faith” in my own heart.  The events were so different that I had a hard time finding a common thread.  One was a church split, the others were not.  Some were attacks against leaders, some were leaders abusing people.   Some were in institutional settings, at least one was not.  As I considered each of these events, it seemed that none of the teachings I have heard about how to avoid such problems seemed to answer every one of these situations, and yet they seemed tied together by a common effect, which was  wavering faith in the hearts of believers.  Interestingly, in some cases those who struggled the most were not necessarily those being attacked or abused, even those on the “sidelines” seemed to suffer.  Why was this I wondered?  And if there was a common effect, might the cause in all these disparate events be the same?

Which led me to Jesus’ compelling words:

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13:34-35

Then it hit me: Jesus said “all men” which includes me!  “All men” includes not only those outside the community of faith, but those inside it as well.  In other words, our own confidence as his disciples is directly affected by our love for one another.  When we don’t love one another, we are not only affecting the person or persons we have the direct conflict with, others in our community of faith may end up casualties as well.

As if to drive this point home, I recently realized more deeply the context of Jesus words when he gave this command:  Jesus had just spoken of his own betrayal, and Judas had just departed to sell Jesus’ life for 30 pieces of silver (John 13:20-30).  As Jesus felt the aching pain of betrayal and impending accusations, he plead with his disciples “Love one another!”  He is still pleading today.  After 2000 years of church history, the most important command of all is still neglected.  How can this be?

So for me, these recent reflections have put Jesus’ love into sharp focus.  As Paul so eloquently expounded in 1 Corinthians 13, everything else counts as absolutely nothing without it.

“Beloved, let us love one another…” – 1 John 4:7

“If only one flower stands out, it is not truly spring”

The following article was published on the Serving China Prayer Blog.  Though it was originally written to help foreigners more effectively pray for and serve the Body of Christ in China, it is really full of many lessons that we can learn from them as well.  Enjoy!

A House Church Pastor’s Perspective

By Brother Dong

EDITORS’ NOTE: This month we are so glad to present you with a letter written first-hand by a leading Chinese house church pastor himself! “Brother Dong” is a premiere Christian leader on a nationwide scale, involved in a very wide spectrum of Christian work across many provinces. Recently, he spoke to us by phone, giving us his insights on what we as a foreign servant ministry in China should focus on in the months and years ahead. It was so profoundly valuable that we asked him to put it in writing, which he agreed to do and then let us share with you also.

When Brother Dong first shared with by phone, his framework was how we could better pray for the church in China. Later, when he wrote the article, the same comments focused on how to best serve the church in China. Finally, when we read the article ourselves, we couldn’t help but notice how much we here in the West could learn from the church in China. It is our prayer that this excellent article will aid you both in better interceding for our brothers and sisters in China, as well as inspiring all of us to learn and apply lessons from the church in China to our communities of faith at home.

God’s work in China in the past fifty years has surprised many–Christians and non-Christians alike. Restricted circumstances and non-existent religious structure have birthed a homegrown movement, which does not easily fit into any traditional model. Maybe now for the first time Christianity has taken root in China. For the church to flourish within and without China, it is important for the Body of Christ to engage church in China in a holistic way.

First, help her stick to the essentials that sustain and grow a Christian or a church. There is a continual need for Bibles, and literature on spiritual life, preaching, and teaching, gospel tracts, world mission history and missionary biographies. Particularly in the current circumstances, these types of literature can reach many people at many places.

Second, help her return to the basics of Christian faith. The simplicity of Christian faith is the vitality of God’s church. The essence of Christ’s gospel needs no more than a mouth and a breath to spread. As the educational level improves in Chinese society, there is a temptation to develop elaborate theologies and practices, which are not only incomprehensible to many Christians and cause divisions, but also divert and waste the energy that should have been utilized to expand God’s Kingdom.

Third, encourage her to pick up the zeal and vision for world missions. The Chinese rural house church will be an important model for the future of world missions because 1) it is homegrown, which is non-threatening to local community and culture; 2) its strategies and methods are indigenous, mostly free of Western denominational influence, and so are flexible and adaptable; 3) its operation, without the burden of church building and clergy, is least resources-dependent, which in turn enables her to focus the resources for outreach; 4) it remains communal and relational, which is the nature of many societies/cultures in Asia and Africa; 5) it is of the lower class, which comprises of the majority of world population. This will potentially result in a shift in Christian missions and social development from “the strong reaching out the weak” to “peer help”.

Fourth, interact with the urban church productively. This requires Western believers to be especially wise, using caution in this effort. The urban church has experienced significant growth in the last fifteen years. It tends to be strong in education, affluence, skills, and resources, thus often self-sufficient. The strong background of leaders and limited exposure often result in isolation of churches. Intellectual ability often hinders urban churches from coming together because disagreement on certain doctrine or practice. Advanced training offers the urban church competence in managing efficiently, which could lead to some mega-churches. This may not be a good thing. There is a Chinese saying, which says: “If only one flower stands out, it is not truly spring.” In the same way, efficiency of one entity may not mean effectiveness of the whole Body of Christ. To gain recognition, urban church tends to institutionalize through legal/structural effort and purchase of property, which is resource-draining. The consequences may be unexpected: when the Spirit is there, everybody cares for one another; but when the Body of Christ becomes institutionalized, each person becomes just one of many which often results in insensitivity and indifference. It is our hope that urban church would not fall into Western denominational structures and theologies.

Fifth, build dialogue and partnership between urban and rural churches. Because of societal and cultural differences, China exists in two very different worlds: the rural and the urban. Despite rapid urbanization in recent years, the influx to cities is mainly of rural outlook. The feelings of inferiority among the rural versus those of privilege among the urban often hinder interaction between the two worlds. This bears similar impact on the churches as well. They need to be pushed into dialogue and partnership to utilize their respective gifts. Rural churches typically are strong in dedication, human power, time, and contextual adaptability, while urban churches possess finance, knowledge, and advanced skills. Doing projects together may offer a good venue to develop dialogue and grow partnership.

Sixth, network churches from different background and areas. Because of the current circumstances, churches, big or small, often operate within their own circles. It would be beneficial for them to cross the boundaries which they have placed between themselves so that they can catch a big picture of God’s work and His call upon the Chinese church. This is usually not easy for nationals to initiate. Foreign believers are a good third party to initiate and sustain this kind of interaction. Only through this effort can real growth and expansion happen. Then many small and solid churches will bloom all over China, rather than a few big ones in a few centers.

Seventh, help her grow in the understanding of social witness and cross-cultural outreach. The one-sided economic development in the past thirty years has left out many in society. Most of the marginalized live among or are from the rural area. Christians have won approval through their upright living in their community, but they need to actively enter the society to reach out to the needy. Churches need to open their eyes to see the needs of orphans, HIV/AIDS, prostitutes, and the poor. Another area is cross-cultural: many churches have little experience or understanding of other cultures in China’s predominately Han Chinese society. As a result many Chinese missionaries are not effective in their work among ethnic minority groups. There is a need to understand cross-cultural issues and their practical implementation in order to include those people groups in fulfilling the Great Commission. Chinese churches are rich in resources, which can be effectively used for reaching out people outside of China, such as North Korean refugees and people-groups in Southeast Asia.

Finally, rekindle dedication to and sacrifice for Christ. As China develops economically, comfort, security, and stability begin to set in. Programs and strategies become increasingly sophisticated. There is a need to return to simplicity and rekindle the spirit of dedication and sacrifice. That is the most sustainable strategy in bringing the whole world to Christ!

Thanks to you Truth Tellers!

A few weeks ago I was discussing with my mother what I appreciated about the teaching style of a pastor friend of mine, which led to a discussion of how two people can say basically the same thing, but with one it’s just words, but the other there is life because there is depth behind the words.  To this my mother asked, pondering, “What do you think it is that causes that depth?”

I like my parents, because they both really make me think.

After considering for a moment, I replied, “I think it is suffering.  Not that the whole world doesn’t suffer, but some people allow the suffering to touch them and transform them.”

Another time recently, a friend wrote me an email to encourage me about something I was going through.  The words deeply encouraged me.  Why?  The brother wrote me from the experience of his own dark nights, and long and weary fight.  The words were so beautiful in their truth that I encouraged him to consider writing a book one day.

Or, I could also tell of the friend I spent a week with recently.  She is an absolute beautiful lady, a precious gem, but her life has taken her down a road that is currently causing her deep pain.  Her pain took me back to experiences I had nearly 20 years ago.  We spent the week together in both uproarious laughter and heart-wrenching tears.  Was this friend’s suffering a burden to me?  No.  It is an honor and a privilege to be allowed to enter another’s suffering.  To me such a place is like the Holy of Holies.  My life is richer for knowing such a woman.

These and other experiences have reminded me lately of a favorite passage in Oswald Chamber’s My Utmost for His Highest.  This passage articulates both my own struggle to express truth, and my appreciation of many of you out there who express truth to me.  Sharing Oswald Chamber’s words below is my way of thanking you and encouraging you – some of you are fellow bloggers or writers, some are friends, some are leaders, some are just simple folk who don’t think of themselves as leaders but are.  Thank you for struggling to express to me and others the truth God has given you. My life is richer because of it.  I hope you know who you are!

APPROVED UNTO GOD (Source: My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers – December 15 entry)

“Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” – 2 Timothy 2:15

If you cannot express yourself on any subject, struggle until you can. If you do not, someone will be the poorer all the days of his life. Struggle to re-express some truth of God to yourself, and God will use that expression to someone else. Go through the winepress of God where the grapes are crushed. You must struggle to get expression experimentally, then there will come a time when that expression will become the very wine of strengthening to someone else; but if you say lazily – “I am not going to struggle to express this thing for myself, I will borrow what I say,” the expression will not only be of no use to you, but of no use to anyone. Try to state to yourself what you feel implicitly to be God’s truth, and you give God a chance to pass it on to someone else through you.

Always make a practice of provoking your own mind to think out what it accepts easily. Our position is not ours until we make it ours by suffering. The author who benefits you most is not the one who tells you something you did not know before, but the one who gives expression to the truth that has been dumbly struggling in you for utterance.

I LOVED this…

Okay, one of my favorite bloggers has outdone himself.  Great little article.  “Why I Don’t Like Church Names” —  Check it out!

The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace

This book is not the latest and greatest.  It was published in the eighties, by the late M. Scott Peck, the author of the more widely known book The Road Less Traveled.  M. Scott Peck has gotten a mixed reviews from the Christian community. Some have accused him of faulty theology, while others have acclaimed his work as revolutionary.

For my part, I never read The Road Less Traveled, so I can not address any criticisms (or praises) of his theology and/or ideas in that book.  I can only comment on The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace, which I recently finished reading.  I will say my approach in reading this book was not to read Peck as a Christian psychiatrist per se, but as a psychiatrist with extensive experience in individual and group psychology, who also has an interest in how these topics relate to Christianity and Christian issues. His value as an author is not as one who examines Christian theology from a rigorous perspective (I look to other authors for that), but instead as one who approaches the topics of community and spirituality from a rigorous psychological perspective.

My interest in this particular book was sparked through a desire to understand more about the psychology of community.  In other words, what are the psychological factors that create a sense of community in a group of people?  With a movement in evangelical Christianity and the emergent church toward simpler church structures, are there lessons about community psychology that might be useful in the search for authentic Christian community?

The book is written in three parts. Part I focuses on the sociology and psychology of community. Part II is entitled “The Bridge” where Peck attempts to make a bridge between the principles presented in Part I and those presented in Part III. In Part III Peck discusses how the principles of community could be used in international diplomacy. For me the first section of the book needs to be reviewed as a separate entity from Parts II and III.

Part I: The Foundation
Part I was a fascinating read, with multiple implications for building Christian community.  The most useful aspect of this book was Mr. Peck’s basic framework of community as presented in Part I.  He described 4 stages of community.

  1. Pseudocommity – This phase is what I started calling the “I’m Okay You’re Okay” stage (I don’t think Peck used this description himself, but that was the most descriptive for me).  Like it’s name “pseudocommunity” implies, it’s that stage where everyone in the “community” is basically faking it.  We pretend to get along, and try to make community by being “extremely pleasant with one another and avoiding all disagreement”.
  2. Chaos – in this stage the pseudocommunity falls apart and conflicts arise.  In this stage, people start to get real about what’s really going on, but the first reaction is often for other members to feel the need to heal/convert/fix those bringing up issues, so that they can get back to “normal”.  This need to “fix” of course backfires since as Peck puts it “underlying the attempts to heal and convert is not so much the motive of love as the motive to make everything normal — and the motive to win, as members fight over whose norm might prevail.”  As this continues those who are the “victims” of the healers and converters begin to strike back and try to “heal the healers and convert the converters.”
  3. Emptiness – Peck describes emptiness as the only path to true community.  It is also the one that most aspiring communities do their best to avoid.  Typically rather than enter the stage of emptiness, group members will attempt to move the group into greater organization to combat the Chaos.  While organizing does bring an end to the Chaos, it does not result in community.  Emptiness is a time when group members empty themselves of all barriers to communication.  The barriers are things like: Expectations, Preconceptions, Ideology, Theology, Solutions, the Need to heal/convert/fix/solve, and the need to control.  In saying this he is not saying that that we stop believing what we believe, but that we lay it aside long enough to “get inside the others skin” (to use term my friends at Fusion tend to use in their training programs), and to understand the other.  The reason this stage is typically avoided is that it is incredibly frightening.  I believe scripturally it is the stage of being “crucified with Christ”, of dying to one’s self and one’s own agenda.
  4. Community – Peck says: “When death has been completed, open and empty, the group enters community.”  In this stage group members are able to be vulnerable, and to share without other members trying to heal, convert, fix the other.  Paradoxically, it is in this stage that healing and conversion starts to happen.  One caveat, once community is reached it is not a given that it will remain.  Most groups trying to live as a community will go through these stages multiple times in their life cycle.  As an aside, I see a parallel of these stages with the stages of grief – pseudocommunity relates to the denial stage, Chaos to the anger and bargaining stage, emptiness to the grief stage, and community to the acceptance stage.

While Mr. Peck uses primarily modern day examples of these stages, I couldn’t help but observing myself that the early church went through exactly these stages.  The stage of pseudocommunity was exemplified by the time where Jesus was with his disciples.  Unaware of their own lack of true community, Peter makes his famous “I’ll-never-deny-you” line, James & John are asking to sit on his right and left, and everyone generally assuming that soon Jesus is going to have victory over the Romans and everyone is going to live-happily-ever-after.

Next comes, Chaos with Jesus death.  Every one is scattered.  Peter curses, denying Christ.  While Peter gets a lot of press for this, he was simply a picture of the state of the “church”: in the moment of Jesus’ trial, crucifixion and burial, they came to terms with how little true community they really had.

Third, starting with the resurrection, and continuing until near the day of Pentecost, the fledgling church experienced the Emptiness stage.  All that their previous assumptions about what Jesus was going to do and how were now being looked at afresh.  They were then prepared for the final stage of True Community, which was exemplified in the days following Pentecost.

As I read the first Part of The Different Drum, the main thought I walked away with was how Peck’s framework could be extremely powerful if applied to Christian communities of faith as they seek to develop authentic community together.

Part II and III: The Bridge and the Solution

In parts II and III Peck begins to build an argument for models of community making to be used to run a more effective government, especially as concerns international relations.  At this point, a little lesson in contemporary history is helpful for younger readers who may not remember or have really studied the period in which the book was written.  The book was published in 1987 at the height of the Cold War and the arms race, which was a huge military buildup especially between the U.S. and the Soviet Union who were the two top world powers at the time.  It was only with the breakup of the Soviet Union that the U.S. became the world’s top super-power.  It was in this context that Peck wrote the book.

His basic premise in this section of the book is that in order to deal with issues such as the arms race, government should use community-making principles as a core part of international diplomacy.  Even though the arms race is no longer happening as it was then, I still found there were things from this section that could be gleaned.  There were places also that my basic theology differed sharply from Peck’s, but since my main aim in reading his book was to examine the psychology of community rather than the theology of community, this didn’t really bother me.

Besides some of the theology, my own perspective also veered sharply from Peck’s in some other areas as well – philosophically I suppose.  I think I tend to be much more politically pessimistic than Peck was.  A core belief I hold, formed both from my theology and my philosophical outlook, is that political solutions are like band-aids on deeper more fundamental societal problems.  As such, I tend to see our societal ills from a spiritual perspective rather than a political one.  I also tend to believe that grassroots movements are the forces that most effectively change society rather than governments.  Not that good government does not play a role, it’s just a matter of emphasis.  In general in this section, I found Peck’s outlook more optimistic than I tend to be, despite his very convincing arguments that the solutions he offered were feasible.

Still, I think the second two sections are well worth reading.  For those who have an interest in diplomacy or in cross-cultural communication for other purposes such as humanitarian work (this second option being more my speed), I believe the principles Peck puts forth are invaluable.  What is building authentic community but learning to truly see and love the other, and breaking down barriers to communication.  There is indeed a link between community making and peace, and so while I might disagree with Peck on the feasibility of some of his specific applications, his point is still well-taken.

In summary, the book is well worth the read, and gives much food for thought as we seek to build more authentic Christian community.