An unexpected pilgrimage

FullerAt the beginning of the year, I started in the Doctor of Ministry program at Fuller Seminary. Last week I was in California to take a class — “Spiritual Formation and Discipleship in the Postmodern World,” with Richard Peace. One of the concepts which stuck with me from class (and there’s much that I’m still unpacking and meditating on) is that of pilgrimage.

“Pilgrimage” isn’t a term Protestants or evangelicals use all that often any more. In pilgrimage, or holy journeying, one makes a sojourn to a significant spiritual site as an act of worship and with an attitude of heightened awareness of God; oftentimes, one will encounter others along the way — fellow pilgrims. You might think of pilgrims to the Holy Land (Israel/Palestine); for Muslims, an annual pilgrimage to Mecca is part of the five pillars of their faith (known as Hajj).

I’ve realized over these last few days that going back to Southern California — and to Fuller Seminary in particular — is a kind of pilgrimage for me.

Let me explain.

It’s been nine years since I moved from London to California to begin my master’s at Fuller.

It’s been six years since I graduated with my master’s and moved across the country to DC to participate in Sojourners’ internship year, a bright-eyed, fresh-faced 26 year-old, eager to make my mark in the world of advocacy and politics (but also thinking I’d be moving back to California before too long).

It’s been two and a half years since I was last in California, when I brought my then-girlfriend Carolyn to meet my brother and his family, and to give her a whirlwind tour of the place I’d lived for three years; at that time, I was a few years in to being a pastor at The District Church and actually right in the process of planting our East Side parish.

This past week I was back, five years into being a pastor, five years into the life of our church, 15 months into being married, 7 months into being a homeowner, 5 months into being a dog owner, and just over a year into my new role as Pastor of Teaching and Formation.

The point I’m trying to make is that I’ve changed, that I’ve gone through some significant life changes over the last nine years. My time there from 2006-2009 remain some of the most formative — it was there that God broke my heart for issues of injustice and poverty; it was there that a girl broke my heart and God put me back together again in a way that rooted me in him like never before; it was there that I experienced what true life in community can look like; it was there that I made some deep, deep spiritual friendships.

But it goes beyond me too — in ways that weren’t about me but unavoidably set my path. My first visit to Fuller was in 2002, when my brother Gabe graduated with his master’s. It was my first time in California, and I fell in love with the sun and the sand, and the seed was planted of one day living there.

In 1970, my parents were living on Fuller’s campus as my dad was doing his master’s there; my mom worked in the finance department. During their time there, my eldest brother Clem was born. The house they lived in still stands, right across from the library, now serving as offices for faculty. I walked past it almost every day for three years, and a few more times this past week. Because of this generational connection with Fuller, it was really the only seminary I seriously considered when God inclined my heart that way.

There’s a deep spiritual significance for me to come back to a place where God was so present to me and active in my life, but also so present and active in the lives of my family, and even more so to the thousands of people who have been formed and educated and sent out to love the world for Jesus over the decades of Fuller’s existence. I think I’d always had a sense of that, but it became much clearer to me this week.

A lot of friends have moved away in recent years but I was still able to spend a weekend with my brother Gabe and his family, to reconnect with some good friends who are still around, and even to make some new friends in class, pastors and leaders at churches and colleges across the US and around the world — others on the same journey.

Spiritual formation is the process of being formed in the image of Jesus, in the likeness of Christ — it’s our design and end goal as human beings, made in the image of a loving God, made to be image-bearers of our creator God just as Jesus was.

A big part of spiritual formation is simply noticing God, being present to God, knowing that God is real and God is love and God is at work, and looking for that and seeing that in our lives and in the world around us. And being able to identify those places where God has been at work, those places of spiritual significance and depth, those places of pilgrimage, is a good exercise in noticing God.

Last Friday, somewhat unbeknownst to me, I embarked on a pilgrimage. I knew where I was going on a geographic level. I knew I was going somewhere that meant something to me relationally and emotionally and personally, but I had no idea just how deep God wanted me to go spiritually, how many insights he’d reveal to me, how much challenge he’d issue me, how much conviction he’d lay on me or how much comfort he’d offer me.

I guess you could say it was a pretty good week.

What are the places of pilgrimage for you?

What are the places that have particular significance to you? They may not seem to be spiritual on one level — maybe it’s a place that’s attached to a relationship that went well … or badly; maybe it’s somewhere that’s attached to a striking memory from your childhood — but the thing is, if it’s impacted you at all, it’s impacted your spirit, and the likelihood is that God said or did something in or through that — perhaps bringing healing or guidance or reassurance. Maybe you’re noticing this for the first time. Give thanks to God for that.

And open your eyes. He’s probably been in a few other places too.

Mark Labberton – Voice & Touch

Mark Labberton

We had the privilege of hearing from Fuller Seminary president Mark Labberton this past Sunday, as he shared from Matthew 7:24-8:13 about “Voice & Touch” and what it means to live lives of integrity.

Here’s the video from our third service:

Mark Labberton – Voice & Touch from The District Church on Vimeo.

And for a slightly different message, check out the audio from the second service!

Home

Last week, I was honored to be featured in one of Fuller Seminary’s Be Inspired stories, entitled “Longing for Home”, written by my friend Christina Miller. It details not only some of the story of The District Church, but also one of the biggest continuing tensions of my life, one I believe resonates with an increasing number in our globalized and very mobile world — where is home?

Fuller Home Screen

 

As a pure coincidence, the story went live when I was back in Hong Kong, visiting my parents and the place I spent the first sixteen years of my life, so it was particularly poignant to read in that setting.

AirportSaying goodbye to my parents is always a difficult thing, not knowing the next time we’ll see each other, and last Friday was no different. But being able to pray together at the airport before we left, being able to entrust one another into the loving care of our heavenly Father, being able to know that we are bound by something far deeper than how often we talk or how often we get to see each other — these things are symbols of a home that is more solid than our earthly home; they are a foretaste of the home that will be. And for things like these, I am ever grateful.

Wherever you may be, I pray that God is home for you too, both as a destination to be reached as well as the journey there.

They accepted the fact that they were transients in this world. People who live in this way make it plain that they are looking for their true home. If they were homesick for the old country, they could have gone back any time they wanted. But they were after a far better country than that—heaven country. – Hebrews 11:13-16 (MSG)

6 Suggestions for Christians for Engaging in Politics

[Disclaimer: I wrote this before I read Bryan Roberts’ “7 Things Christians Need to Remember About Politics.” Go read that first–it’s shorter and funnier.]

With the Republican and Democratic National Conventions having taken place over the last two weeks, we can officially say that we’re entering into election season (i.e. that time when the general public begins to pay attention).

A couple friends who pastor churches in non-DC parts of the country asked me if we feel the need to address politics at The District Church, being in the very belly of the beast (my words, not theirs). Specifically, they were asking–given the intense polarization and often-unproductive arguing that we see around us, even in the church–about the need to address how we interact with those who disagree with us.

So far, we haven’t needed to. In our church community, we have Republicans, Democrats, independents, and yes, even people who don’t care about politics; we have Hill staffers, White House staffers, activists, advocates, lobbyists, policy wonks, and more–and we’ve all come together as the body of Christ, recognizing that our allegiance is first to Jesus before any party or even country.

Even so, every four years (or every two, if you pay attention to mid-terms; or all the time, if you’re even more politically engaged), posts about politics pop up with increasing frequency on social media, eliciting often-furious back-and-forths that usually end up doing nothing more than reminding each side how right they are and how stupid the other side is.

So I figured I’d try to offer a few suggestions on how we can engage with one another on matters of politics in healthy ways.

1. Offer Grace.

As Christians, we believe that–as Brennan Manning, Dorothy Day, and numerous others have put it–all is grace. Just as God has been gracious to us in giving us so much more than we deserve, so we are also called to extend that grace to others: don’t presume that just because someone disagrees with you, they’re somehow less clever or less informed; don’t assume that just because someone’s faith doesn’t work itself out the same way as yours, they must therefore not be a Christian. God’s grace is big enough to meet all of us where we are and move us on a journey toward him–that should always be the foundation on which we build.

2. Be Humble.

With grace comes humility–the understanding that there is a God and it is not us, the recognition that there is far more that we do not know than that we do, the attitude of not thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought (Romans 12:3) but of thinking of others as better than us (Philippians 2:3). When we recognize that grace is a gift from God and that the God we serve is far bigger than any disagreements we might have–or even the greatest challenges we might face as a nation and as a world–we are free to work as hard as we can, speak as passionately as we can, and do as much as we can, to change the world for the better, all the while remembering that it does not all depend on us, and that God brings good out of even the most awful things. And so we may walk humbly with our God and interact humbly with one another.

3. Be Civil.

Rich Mouw (president of Fuller Theological Seminary) has written a tremendous book called Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (that was republished recently), and last year did an interview with NPR about “Restoring Political Civility.” He talks often about the need for civility in discourse even as we maintain our convictions–to paraphrase: believing something strongly doesn’t mean you need to be a jerk about it, nor does getting along with people mean you have to check your beliefs at the door to find the lowest common denominator.

Grace and humility necessitate civility.

4. Work with Facts.

Jon Huntsman, Jr. (one of the Republican presidential candidates this year) said in a recent interview that one of the problems is that everyone appears to have their own facts, which means we’re not even starting from the same point!

Sadly, we live in a time when we can’t just take politicians at their word–there’s just too much spin (and even outright lying). So starting with the facts is always a good thing to do. Factcheck.org and Politifact are two non-partisan groups that do a great job running political claims and statements through the Truth-o-Meter.

Also, Ezra Klein of the Washington Post has a very helpful blog–“Wonkblog”–that keeps me up-to-date with summaries of the latest goings-on.

5. Read and (Carefully) Apply Scripture.

Of course, facts aren’t the whole picture and focusing on individual facets of policy–even if they’re true–can sometimes obscure the larger picture; and we must always view everything through the lens of Scripture and the larger narrative of God.

Just this morning, I was reading Jeremiah 22 and was reminded of the standard to which God called the kings of Judah (and, by implication and extrapolation, any political leader):

Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place. (v.3)

Are you a king because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? says the Lord. (vv.15-16)

According to this standard, neither of the standard-bearers for the major parties matches up particularly well. The middle class has gotten a lot of attention, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since the size and health of the middle class is one gauge of the health of our society.

But a better measure is the welfare of the those who have the least. Scripture is full of references to the poor, and how God is particularly concerned with their plight; for instance, “Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God” (Prov. 14:31).

This is the standard to which we should be calling our leaders: doing justice and righteousness; protecting the oppressed, marginalized and vulnerable; and upholding the cause of the poor and needy–those whom Jesus referred to in Matthew 25 as “the least of these.”

[Brief aside: check out “The Line,” a new documentary from Sojourners, World Vision, Bread for the World, Oxfam America, and the Christian Community Development Association, that highlights this very issue. Trailer below.]


6. Be Prayerful

Ultimately, it comes back to God. As the people of God, it has to.

Prayer is not simply a way for us to petition God on the things we’d like to see happen, or to try to get God on our side: “Please let (insert presidential candidate) win!” or “Please keep (insert presidential candidate) from winning!”

It is also, and more importantly, the place where we come to meet with God, and to have our thoughts, our desires, and our wills, transformed by God to be more in line with who he is and what he desires–and reading and understanding Scripture is a good step toward being able to discern those things. Prayer is where we are changed, first–before that person with whom we’re disagreeing, before the policies and structures of our country, before the ossified injustices of our world. Prayer is where we grow our roots in God in order that we may bear fruit in the world.

In prayer, we are likely to be challenged to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God; to lower the accusing finger, to replace the vitriolic Facebook post with a civil one, to refrain from posting that oh-so-funny-but-not-particularly-gracious tweet; to truly love our enemies–that is, any who are opposed to us–and to seek their good.

I wonder if we could truly make this “the most important election of our lifetime,” as so many are wont to say, by showing the world that, as Christians, we are beholden not to a certain political ideology or party, nor to a particular economic or social philosophy, but that we are sons and daughters of the Most High God, who live out our faith with the love and graciousness and conviction and humility that are characteristic of our family.

That would be pretty awesome.

[Photo credits: Romney & Obama, Joe Raedle & Olivier Douliery / Getty Images; Richard Mouw, Fuller Theological Seminary website]

An Interview with Rob Bell

Skye Jethani of Christianity Today got to interview Rob Bell again recently. I’ve always shared some affinity for Rob, both in our shared Fuller heritage and in the way that he loves to re-frame thoughts and notions that we’ve become desensitized to in ways that challenge us and stir us up again.

Here’s a great quote from the interview, which pertains particularly to our church’s current Mustard Seeds series:

Stop using the word ‘missionary’ and stop sending people out to the ‘mission field.’ Or keep the word, but also commission public school teachers, and dentists, and CPA’s, and construction workers, and those people who take your money at the toll booth. We’re all disciples, all ground is holy, every interaction and conversation is loaded with divine potential, anytime, anywhere. Ordain everyone, call everyone a minister, invite the whole church to be on staff.

You can read the full interview here.