This past 9 months I’ve had the privilege of being a part of the Leadership in the New Parish certificate cohort. Led by three notable and gifted practitioners of parish based ministry, and fueled by a collection of practitioners from across the Northwest and Canada, this group spent hours (100 seat hours to be exact) together wrestling, observing and dreaming about our spaces and those represented by other faithful leaders. It would take far too much time for me to process that all here, but I did want to offer something here that rose to the top of my own takeaway list. For those of us seeking to follow the ways and model of Jesus in our own walk of discipleship, it has a perfect place to start … one word from the many words of scripture describing the nature and work of the savior. The word is presence.
In the beginning of the book of John, the “incarnation” of Christ is described, very simply yet eloquently, in the Message version. We are told that the Word (Jesus) became flesh and “moved into the neighborhood”. He became the living embodiment of God, living in and within the context of a real place, a real space, a real “neighborhood”. In a word, he became a “presence”. For 30 plus years his life and being interacted with real family, real neighbors. His presence made him a character. He didn’t parachute in to deliver edicts, propositions, and programs. He lived in and into his space. Seems simple enough, but it strikes me instead as so profound and so counter to our culture. It is counter to church culture, it is counter to ministry culture, and it certainly can be counter to the patterns of our economic culture. To know and be known is the ultimate gift. So the question becomes how. How was he present? How can we in turn be present? In fact, how can we know and be known by our presence that we become a character in our place? Hopefully I can add a few thoughts here but, hang on, they are not deep and elusive … in fact they are very basic but, I would argue, long forgotten.
Walking – very simply, commit yourself and your community to intentionally walking from time to time. Take notes, take pictures.
How was Jesus present in his place? First of all, he walked most every place he went. Oh sure, on occasion he took a boat with friends, but even on at least one journey, he still chose to walk alongside them in the boat. Walking is obviously a key. There is a great work that I would encourage you all to take 30 minutes out of your life to watch. I promise that, as many have already told me after seeing this, your faith journey will not be the same. If the idea of 30 minutes out of your life is beyond your comprehension, then I would argue that you need to see it more than most. It offers an interesting premise that perhaps God moves at a walking pace and our best chance of connecting with what he is doing in our space is to walk within it. I can attest to this, and yet I still struggle at times with it. Walking has become liturgy for me to experience where God is already, and has already been, at work in my neighborhood and my city. I will admit that the built environment of the city lends itself well to this. My neighborhoods are frequently given a “walk score” to entice people to live in them. My walks may take place in the midst of highrises, but I also know that, while different, rural and suburban spaces can be experienced by walking. I know this because my friend Rachel is caring for and pastoring her rural neighborhood, while Jessica is proclaiming Jesus in a more suburban environment and Lauren is loving the neighbors on her tree lined residential streets.
We don’t walk very much in our culture any more. We drive, we bus, we Uber (don’t even get me started on my views of Uber drivers). We live near neighborhood churches and yet drive miles to get better programs, preachers, band, kids ministry. We forgo the relational opportunities of local shops for the one stop convenience of the malls. We have remotes so we don’t even need to get out of our cars to get into our garages. We hold bbq’s in our back yards for no one in particular while neighbors walk unseen past our front yards. We don’t see the cats in the windows or the flowers in the boxes while we drive right on past. We don’t see the broken and the hurting. We can’t act and love and live as Jesus because we don’t see what he see’s.
First response … very simply, commit yourself and your community to intentionally walking from time to time. Take notes, take pictures.
Stopping … while walking, be sure that you take opportunities to stop along the way, ask names, hear stories, experience the character and characters in your space
It is a great thing to walk your space intentionally, but to be honest, if all you do is walk, like it is a thing to be accomplished, all you will accomplish is wearing out shoes. Walking as Jesus would have us walk is to stop along the way when the opportunity presents itself. If your space is anything like mine, it has a story and chances are there are echoes of its story all around. My place has stories that are etched on the buildings and the walls that I walk by. Someone once commented on my extensive knowledge of all that is happening in one of the fastest growing urban development projects in the world. I do have an extensive knowledge and it is simply because I stop and read the land use signs that dot every corner of my place. I know what is being built, for who, and when. The astounding thing is the number of people who walk the same streets, yet remain oblivious to the obvious. None of this is a mystery, but I become a resident expert simply because I walk and I read what is available to everyone who is willing to look up from their smart phones. There are characters in my neighborhood and on first encounter, some of them can be intimidating to the uninformed. Because I stop occasionally, I know the stories of people like Dave and William and I see them as people who are not scary, they are broken. Because I walk and I stop, I encounter people who have history with them and can offer me glimpses into the stories that mental illness and addiction has locked inside them. Because I walk and stop, I know people like Darrell, Helen, Powell, and Lee, who some just see as scenery and I see as stories who light up when they realize that someone knows their names.
Second response … while walking, be sure that you take opportunities to stop along the way, ask names, hear stories, experience the character and characters in your space
Staying … while walking and stopping are vital to connecting with your place, the response that really brings the fruit to bear is your ability to stay in your place. Staying gives you a voice. Staying makes you a character in your own place. Staying takes time.
I’m not saying that it is never time to leave place, a home, a neighborhood. Let’s be real though, we live in a time when there is little commitment to longevity in anything. Everything is disposable … relationships, employment, housing. To enter in to a space with the intention of longevity is almost unheard of … it is truly a counter cultural way to live. My wife and I moved into our urban neighborhood almost 4 years ago, with the full intention of embedding ourselves there for the long haul, to be part of the fabric of our place … to be characters. After 3 years and 3 moves within the neighborhood, desperately trying to afford it, we were forced to another neighborhood. Along the journey we discovered that the reality of the previous place was that ours was a foreign mindset. The typical resident was really, for many reasons, going to stay for 12-18 months. We are now in a place where longevity is more the rule than the exception, and we have once again settled in with the long road in mind. We are walking and stopping, shopping, eating, living and listening with the intent of knowing and being known. These are great and indispensable to following Jesus by living into our place. However, the full circle is when we will have been here long enough, following this pattern, to become characters. You can’t manufacture that. It just takes time.
Third response … while walking and stopping are vital to connecting with your place, the response that really brings the fruit to bear is your ability to stay in your place. Staying gives you a voice. Staying makes you a character in your own place. Staying takes time.