Thursday, November 1, 2018

Saturate Groups | Withward: Forestry, "Ubuntu," and the Expansive Family of God w/ AJ Sherrill


At the beginning and at the end of Jesus' earthly ministry, He's doing the same thing: creating relationships. Spirituality is always personal, but never private. We are called to walk the journey of faith on this planet in community. + AJ Sherrill


To strengthen Emmaus City's City Group participants to gather and go together in new missional communities to love each other and our city, we are jumping into Saturate groups this fall that will go through the Saturate Field Guide for the next 2+ months. Here are three previous posts in relation to this journey:

Saturate Groups | We Can't Do It Alone: Why We Commit to Practice-Based Transformational Communities  
Saturate Groups | Multiply: A Creative, Consciuous, and Beautiful Disciplemaker's Privilege and Joy  
Saturate Groups | A Jazz-Shaped Faith: How "Talkin' 'Trane" & Tension Can Lead Us to Transformation w/ Robert Gelinas

Eight weeks is a long commitment – and this is a lot of new material with a lot of soul searching in a concentrated amount of time – but Saturate Groups' journeys, both individually and communally, can also be a bit fun when we let down our defenses and look for Spirit-fueled surprises in unexpected moments along the way. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship is famous for the title, but in his introduction he writes, “ ... Discipleship means joy. ... ”

... If we answer the call to discipleship, where will it lead us? What decisions and partings will it demand? To answer these questions we shall have to go to Him, for only He knows the answer. Only Jesus Christ, who bids us follow Him, knows the journey's end. But we do know that it will be a road of boundless mercy. Discipleship means joy. ... 

Along with the Saturate Field GuideNatasha Sistrunk Robinson, and Robert Gelinas providing wisdom along this journey with Emmaus City, I have also appreciated the powerful pocket guide simply called Expansive by AJ Sherrill being a wonderful complement. No need to write anymore myself; instead check check out below what Sherrill has to share about the direction of walking with Jesus and the family of God being "Withward."

Withward: The Core of Creation is Teeming with Interconnectivity, Relationship, and Cooperation

Let's talk fungus. All foresters know fungi can't photosynthesize. Trees can photosynthesize. This means fungi can't convert light energy from the sun into chemical energy for food. The quandary is that fungi need food. Fungi are heterotrophs, which means their energy is derived by breaking down organic molecules from other living things. What fungi do have are minerals. They extract minerals up from the soil. And minerals are what make the bark of a tree reality. But here is the problem: Although trees can photosynthesize to make carbon, their roots are often not wide enough to get the mineral necessary to make bark. And so how does a tree get the minerals it needs to manifest into the bark of a tree? They make trade deals with the fungi. What?! Trees need minerals. Fungi need sugar. So they share! Some refer to this forest dynamic as the "wood wide web." 

Contrary to popular opinion, trees are not autonomous competitors, nor are they tribal in the sense of caring exclusively for their own species. They are relational. They are cooperators. Apparently, it kind of works like this: Fungal roots stretch up toward the tree with their tubes and say to the tree, "Hey, I'm in your zip code, wanna work together?" The tree then softens its roots to make room for the fungal tubes to wrap themselves into place. And they make the exchange – sugar for minerals, minerals for sugar. Everybody wins.

Underneath your feet, at the core of creation, the earth is teeming with interconnectivity, relationship, and cooperation. I wonder if the earth is trying to teach us something about how we are supposed to live "up here." Maybe relational intimacy is woven into the fabric of the world. It makes me think that every time I walk into a church gathering, I should be asking, "How do I move more closely toward these people?"

It makes me curious about how humanly dignifying eye contact and kindness is with the cashier at the store. It makes me question the pervasive habit of filling my ears with buds that connect me to music but disconnect me from the sounds of humans in the world around me. We were created for interconnectivity. We are wired for relationship. The forest is an amazing teacher.

Withward: Jesus' Story from Beginning to End is Creating Relationships

At the beginning and at the end of Jesus' earthly ministry, He's doing the same thing: creating relationships. Spirituality is always personal, but never private. We are called to walk the journey of faith on this planet in community. Consider these texts:

Beginning of Jesus' earthly ministry: Going on from there, He saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed Him. (Matthew 4:21-22)  
End of Jesus' earthly ministry: Near the cross of Jesus stood His mother, His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw His mother there, and the disciple whom He lovedstanding nearby, He said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. (John 19:25-27)

Jesus begins ministry, not by forging the Kingdom on His own, but by inviting seemingly random people to follow Him into a new kind of family dynamic. In fact, some of the disciples literally left the trade of their blood relations to follow Him into a different way of life. Fast-forward about 3 years. Jesus is hanging on a tree, dying a humiliating and excruciating death. In His dying breath what is He doing? He is creating new family bonds. The Apostle Paul named this dynamic new creation. Something previously not there, through the blood of Jesus, mystically happens. That is how essential relationships are to the God who created them.

The Church are those "called out ones" from the world who organize their lives around the Presence of God in community. They are the ones called to bear witness to what God is doing in all of the world: namely, drawing all nations unto Himself. When the Church speaks of Trinity, she means that God, in essence, is relationship. Therefore, the Church, drawn into this Triune God, is called to reflect the relational dynamic that is always happening in Trinity. Spirituality is always personal, but never private.

There has been much written on the application of the blood of Jesus. Some view it as a sacrificial offering, purifying from sin those who claim it over their lives. Others see the blood of Jesus as merely the tragic consequence of getting in the way of worldly empires. But consider this possibility: What if the blood of Jesus also reminds us that a new bloodline – a new family – was being formed by the Triune God? Maybe Jesus' blood means that He was serious in creating a new family dynamic amongst those who follow Him. Replete throughout the New Testament is the Greek word, "uios" (pronounced way-os), meaning brothers and sisters. At the core, we do not relate to the Church as fellow strangers, acquaintances, or colleagues. Rather, the Church is family. Imperfect family, no less, but family still. The blood of Jesus defines our relationality. This means that what binds us together transcends our race, color, gender, and politics. It's far more fundamental than that. What binds us together is Jesus' blood. That is all we need in common to relate as family at the deepest level. What if the Church began to take that holy mystery seriously?

Withward: A Flourishing Church is a Flourishing Family Focused on Rootedness, Intentionality, and Purpose

| 1 | The first commitment a flourishing church must regain is rootedness. Someone once asked Saint Anthony the desert father, "What must we keep in order to be pleasing to God?" And Anthony answered, "Keep what I tell you. Whoever you may be, always keep God before your eyes. And whatever you do, do it from the witness of the Holy Scriptures. And in whatever place you live, do not leave quickly." Another translation reads, "Do not leave easily." Relationships, like good wine, take time. Imagine removing a tea bag from one cup of hot water to another every 30 seconds. Beverage dilution would result.

Recent studies show that loneliness is registered in the same part of the brain as physical pain. This means the human body takes loneliness quite seriously. And loneliness is a signifiant issue today from the farm to the city. In an age of individualism, perhaps the greatest compliment a local church can be given is not a visitor liking the music, or the preaching, or even the liturgy. Rather, it's the experience of warmth, welcome, and hospitality. Let us never forget that ... It was the hospitality of the early Church that won over the hearts of people and brought the Roman Empire to its knees. May it once again be said of the Church: and there was no lonely among them.

We depend on the other in order for us to be fully who we are ... The (African) concept of Ubuntu says: A person is a person through other persons. When I have a small piece of bread, it is for my benefit that I share it with you. Because, after all, none of us came into the world on our own. We needed two people to bring us into the world. + Anglican Bishop Desmund Tutu

| 2 | The second commitment for the withward direction is intentionality. The greatest quest in life (and consequentially the greatest challenge in our current society) is not to become more successful, or more knowledgeable, or more powerful. Rather, it is to become more relational. Radical intention toward meaningful relationships is now one of the most essential spiritual disciplines in the 21st century.

Due to forces driving increasing levels of social isolation, loneliness, and technology, we may go down as the generation that is over-connected and under-communed. We eat around each other but rarely dine with each other. I heard recently that the average American had 3 genuine friends in the early 1990s. Today that number has dwindled to 1.8. Surveys report 40 percent of Americans have no one listening to their life with them. We are trending in a tragic direction. If ever there were a good moment for the Church to bear light on this present darkness, now is the time.

Many speak casually about wanting to change global society. It is quite possible that the best and only way to really accomplish change is through intention with a local community. No matter how long or short you think you will live in a given state, city, or neighborhood, the invitation of Jesus is to know and be known with the people right in front of you.

| 3 | The third commitment of the withward direction is purpose. I've never been able to shake Acts 2:43-44: "Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common." I long for that. How does this happen? It happens as an outcome of purpose. The preceding verse reveals what the community devoted themselves to, which made these kinds of breakthroughs possible. They were devoted to the Scriptures, fellowship, feasting, and prayer. Simple input. Complex result. Simplexity!


In his book, Destroyer of the Gods, scholar Larry Hurtado writes, "It was now down to individuals to pursue their own private improvement and development. Instead, early Christian behavioral teaching was presented as a corporate commitment and social project to which believers were summoned collectively." The early church met with purpose. Devotion to Scripture centered them on their story (notice the root of Scripture is Script). None of us can bear witness to this grand story alone. It's far too great. We all have gifts to share in building each other up and telling the story to the world.

In Sebastian Junger's book, Tribe, he writes," Whatever the technological advances of modern society – and they're nearly miraculous – the individualized lifestyles that those technologies spawn seem to be deeply brutalizing to the human spirit." The Church, in her essence, are those peculiar people who conspire together with God for the world's renewal. We are more together than apart. A renewed commitment to rootedness, intentionality, and purpose are part of what it means to reclaim our divine likeness in the community of the family of God. Remember, when Jesus taught His disciples to pray, the first word used was "Our Father." The entire Christian journey is based on familial and communal framework.

+ AJ Sherrill, Expansive

Please pray with me that Jesus will use this saturated time together with the Saturate Field Guide to make us creative disciples:

+ who participate in this 2-month Saturate plan to shape Kingdom visions sustained by transformational communities, 
who push through the tension with God and others to become family, and 
+ who become sent disciplemakers with City Groups who go with Jesus to love and serve people in our city.

Next post: Saturate Groups | A Commitment to Presence: Presence with God and Presence with Others

Christ is all,

Rev. Mike "Sully" Sullivan

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