Tuesday, June 5, 2018

World-Altering Good News: Partnering with God to Rebirth Our Communities

We are convinced that God is at work across the globe, reconciling the world to Himself and giving us this ministry of reconciliation. As part of God's world-changing work of reconciliation, we are invited to be, as Lesslie Newbigin once wrote, a sign – an instrument and a foretaste of that reconciled world.  + Michael Frost / Christiana Rice

In continuing to consider the Gospel of Jesus after reflecting on 
Praying Good NewsSharing Good News, Working Good NewsReconciling Good NewsForgiving Good News, and Befriending Good News, we are now going to take a deeper look at another crucial aspect of the abundant life Jesus offers: World-Altering Good News.

In the past few months, the three books below have challenged and encouraged my mind, my heart, and my considerations for how to be faithful to Jesus and His Kingdom and how to be a faithful citizen of Worcester and my neighbors and friends in the city:

To Alter Your World: Partnering with God to Rebirth Our Communities by Michael Frost and Christiana Rice
Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines That Shape the Church for Mission by David Fitch 
Reimagining Evangelism: Inviting Friends on a Spiritual Journey by Rick Richardson

While each of the books above are worth reflecting on, this post will focus on To Alter Your World by Michael Frost and Christiana Rice. To Alter Your World may be the first of its kind that I have read that reflects on Jesus' world-altering Good News in profound Biblical ways while also sharing relevant and down-to-earth stories that reveal what the altering looks like for followers of Jesus in communities and churches in different contexts. For more details about how this plays out, check out Chapter 7: How to Really Change the World. It's worth the price of the book alone.

To Alter Your World is also unique in that it shares from both a feminine and male perspective – one from the U.S. and the other from Australia in two very different cities – but the authors Rice and Frost together bring a robust understanding of the mission of God and the movement of Scripture to life with vulnerable testimonials and powerful insights into who God has called us to be in the world as He brings to fullness the redemption of His family and the restoration of the world to life.

So as an intro to this fantastic book with excerpts from assorted sections below, let's first take a look at God and why He describes Himself as a woman groaning in labor.

God Groans Like a Woman in Labor

For a long time I have held My peace, I have kept still and restrained Myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant. + Isaiah 42:14

God is speaking to His children who are attempting to make a home among their captors as they are desiring a fresh vision from Him that a new world is coming. The word that comes to them through Isaiah is breathtaking. Its imagery is profound. And surprising. "Now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant," declares Yahweh (Isaiah 42:14). It is the stunning announcement that God, groaning like a woman in labor, will soon give birth to new life.

It's an unexpected metaphor for God because in the ancient world no one was more vulnerable than a birthing mother. The instances of death during childbirth were high. Giving birth in the ancient world wasn't as it is today. Woman squatted, kneeled or stood on brightly painted birthing bricks around a hole in the ground. Those from more affluent families gave birth on a specially made birthing chair with a hole in the seat. Both these practices were common among Jewish women in biblical times as well.

Like a vulnerable woman in the final stages of labor, God's silence during Israel's defeat and captivity had been taken for powerlessness. But God's seeming absence wasn't weakness. It was gestation. Now, Yahweh will cry out as if in labor, birthing a new future for them. In fact, while a woman might be at greater risk during labor, her apparent helplessness shouldn't be taken as anything less than the extraordinary power to bring forth life. This is the metaphor God chooses to describe the profaned absence the people of Israel had experienced in exile, and it beautifully describes the work of God throughout the ages – showing strength through weakness.

What are We Groaning for with God?

The world today is clearly foreign soil for us. As we write, the self-described Islamic State is beheading Christians in Libya and Syria. Health professionals are laboring to control an Ebola pandemic in West Africa. America is struggling to deal with a child-migrant crisis. We live with the chronic brokenness of domestic violence, child sexual assault, family breakdown, oppression of the weak, dirty politics, unfair business practices, racism, extreme poverty, dishonest government, murder, theft, environmental degradation and many other indicators of the fissures and fractures that run through the heart of everything. Nations are constantly at war. Societies are continually distressed. There's a deep yearning for a different way to educate our children, and a hunger for a new way of conducting business and politics. No one believes that continuing on this same trajectory will make a difference in the healing of the world.

Like exiled Israel, the church today yearns for a word from God. As Christians, we believe that Christ came into the world to bring a new order; to bring redemption, healing and restoration; and to birth a new society of redeemed persons. And as that new society, we hold fast to the truth that God is directing history toward its true end. But like Israel, we need to hear afresh that God is at work. We need to be reminded that, though forces of chaos and evil seem evident, God groans like a woman in labor, giving birth to the new world promised throughout the generations and confirmed for us in Christ.

Being Part of the World that is Being Birthed by Christ

We believe that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus invite all of humanity to enter deeply into the needs of a broken world and to join God as agents of the renewal, restoration and reconciliation of all things in readiness for the age to come. Furthermore, we would suggest that it's not so much our task to change the world as it is to be part of the world that is already being birthed by Christ. 

As Bishop Lesslie Newbigin says, 

The Bible, then, is covered with God's purpose of blessing for all the nations. It is concerned with the completion of God's purpose in the creation of the world and of man within the world. It is not – to put it crudely – concerned with offering a way of escape for the redeemed soul out of history, but with the action of God to bring history to its true end.

Rather than enjoining another contest for the right legislation, or capitulating to our borderline status, we believe it is possible to join God's world-birthing enterprise by inhabiting and engaging at a central but grassroots level. 

God's redemptive plan invites us to inhabit neighborhoods, towns and villages in the way of Jesus, to live wholeheartedly into our vocational calling and, there, to join God's work of making all things just and whole.  This is a monumental task, one not easily undertaken and one we embrace with no confidence that we can achieve it in our lifetimes. It is a task bigger than us and even bigger than the work of the church. As Newbigin says, it is the action of God to bring history to its true end. And we are invited to love and serve God as agents, sowing the seeds of renewal in the contaminated soul of a broken world. N.T. Wright describes our work this way: Our task, as image-bearing, God-loving, Christ-shaped, Spirit-filled Christians, following Christ and shaping our world, is to announce healing to a world that has discovered its brokenness, to proclaim love and trust to the world that knows only exploitation, fear and suspicion.

As followers of Jesus, we learn to receive and demonstrate redemption, healing, love and trust in the ordinary, everyday beauty and brokenness of life here on earth. Coming together as communities of faith and reconciliation, we embody our sacramental calling to be a sign of the new creation God is giving birth to in the world. This is our collective identity. And by it and through it we join God's work to alter this world and to anticipate the next.

The true sons and daughters of God know that God's reign is not something we can quickly achieve in our own strength. If God is groaning like a woman in labor, and if a new world is being born before our very eyes, being pushed forth through the cracks of our broken world, our job isn't to hurry it along. Rather our job is to join God and partner with him in the delivery room and to stop imagining we can birth the new world with our own strategies and methodologies. 

Pursuing God's Restorative Purposes

Much has been written about missional living that emphasizes neighborliness, hospitality, justice-seeking and the like. There has been a reasonable concern about not wanting to cause offense to our communities, to gain the trust of our neighbors, to counteract the stereotypes of obnoxious Christianity and its condemnation of everything secular. Before we know it, we run the risk of compromise our deepest identity in Christ that compels us to live for a dream that includes but goes beyond community gardens and neighborhood improvement. 

The message of Jesus brings offense. It doesn't leave us or our surrounding environments unaltered. And those filled with the gospel and impelled to offer it as a gift in new places become a presence that disturbs their neighbors. Our call and our hope is to allow the gospel to disturb people for good, Christ-filled reasons as agents of transformational change at a soul level, affecting the very fabric of society.

If we are to be change agents, then what is the change we want to see? Surely it results in a change of heart among our neighbors. And yet, if we adopt a compromising stance we will find that it is possible to engage in neighborliness and community development without ever making such an impact at a heart level. Could it be that our social clubs, meet-up groups, community gardens and even our justice-seeking forums run the risk of being, at their core, heartless? To be seen merely as being a good neighbor isn't enough. We're reminded of the Anglican bishop who once said, "Everywhere Paul went he caused a riot. Everywhere I go they make me a cup of tea." But we would like to suggest that principled, ethical, incarnational life will reside somewhere between a riot and a cup of tea – that is, between separation and compromise. 

God is birthing new realities, and they necessarily bring change. Being a good neighbor is a great start, but it won't change the world. If we are serious about altering the world in which God has placed us, we need to find ways to deviate slightly from the script. It means we ask questions about motivation, hopeful outcomes, deeper purpose. The kind of midwifing we're commending is the kind that goes beyond volunteerism and benign neighborliness. It attends to the deep longings of our neighbors and responds accordingly. Anthony and Toni Smith serve with Mission House, a missional community that styles itself as an "army of love" committed to the citywide renaissance of Salisbury, North Carolina. Anthony is also well known as the "postmodern negro," after his blog of the same name. They describe the DNA of the Mission House as incarnation, mission and reconciliation. By incarnation, they mean they are sent into their community as Christ was sent into the world. By mission, they mean they are sent by the Holy Spirit to join in God's renewal of our neighborhoods and cities. And by reconciliation, they mean they seek to be agents of peace in the midst of a long history of division and disunity. In other words, they are deeply resolved to enter deeply into the rhythms of life in and around Salisbury, not only to pour oil on the wounds of the broken, but also to be a divine disruption of the status quo.

For the past couple of years they've participated in a community-based prayer and presence group called Nightcrawlers. They meet every Friday night (weather permitting) to walk their community's streets and to talk with their neighbors, both young and old. They pray, sing, observe and listen to their community. More recently, Anthony and the other Nightcrawlers have begun to survey their neighbors about the needs of the city. As they've done so, it has become apparent that the community is worn thin by street violence and by a sense of resignation that nothing can be done to change it. Anthony says, "An image has emerged of a quilt that has unravelled in the center and on the edges. Imagine if we had a neighborhood movement that sought to reweave the fabric of our neighborhoods. We can weave this fabric together!" Recently, Anthony posted twelve lessons he's learned about faith-rooted community engagement. They read like a manual for mid-wives, helping to birth the new creation on the streets of our towns and neighborhoods across the country. They are a series of signposts for those hardy Christian souls committed to becoming a divine disruption to the dominant story of our broken world:

  • Seek the face of God.
  • Actively listen to the community.
  • Discern the need(s).
  • Join in mission with others.
  • Expect opposition.
  • Stay on mission.
  • Stay inordinately prayerful.
  • Ask powerful questions.
  • Practice compassion with all community stakeholders.
  • Be a student/servant in the margins of the community.
  • Constantly cycle through the gospels.
  • Be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.

As Anthony concludes, "All of this is love."

Midwives to the Birth of the New Creation

If the followers of Jesus are to effectively partner with him in his empire-shattering, culture-changing work we must abandon our impulse to separate from society we wish to influence. Altering culture as midwives to what God is birthing requires the following commitments:

| 1 | Enter society as a potentially disruptive presence (for God and for the good of others).  
| 2 | Suspend prefabricated agendas and follow the opportunities as God presents them.  
| 3 | Hold the space in which God is working by taking the context very seriously.  
| 4 | Remain flexible and adaptable, following the cues of the Spirit.  
| 5 | Live out a viable and appealing alternative reality of the world around us.  
| 6 | Embrace the necessary collaboration to affect change in every level (individual, interpersonal, community, institutional, policies and systems) of society 

Our incarnational call as followers of Christ necessitates that we love with a sincerity that draws us closer to those who are different from us, honors that divine spark in every human soul and acknowledges that God's love binds us together. This kind of love will change the world as we know it. It is a love that is best embodied in the way of Jesus; a love that makes it possible for us to embrace the kind of collaboration with our neighbors that is necessary for meaningful cultural change.

It is is quite possible to collaborate at this level without compromising our convictions as Christ followers. In fact, staying true to our faith and acknowledging our differences is crucial in effective partnerships. We will lose ourselves in the process if we think that the way of the chameleon is best. It is simply not so. Staying genuine and honest to our convictions is vital for authentic relationship. When we know who we are and we are willing to agree to disagree with others, we fashion a space for real collaboration. And it is very likely that we will actually learn a thing or two along the way!

Montreal-based urban missionary Glenn Smith has developed a framework for thinking about how to engage in social change. He begins with a definition: "I would suggest that a transformed place is that kind of city that pursues fundamental changes, a stable future and the sustaining and enhancing of all of life rooted in a vision bigger than mere urban politics."

Smith's four concentric circles for altering a city are church, community, society and creation. In each area he has listed a number of measurable goals his church and other churches of downtown Montreal are committed to. Those goals are as follows:

| 1 | Local Church Level 

  • An increasing number of churches actively involved in the spiritual transformation of their city 
  • The people of God animated by a passional spirituality involved in concrete acts of reconciliation and justice for the welfare of the city

| 2 | Community or Neighborhood Level 

  • Leaders desirous to see the people of God use their gifts (in partnership with other churches) to demonstrate the good news in all aspects of the city 
  • Equality (equity) in economics, social policy, infrastructure, housing, public transportation and education
  • Happy and well-developed children and youth, living in peace with God, themselves and others, guided by good spiritual values that enrich their lives and allow them to reach their full potential and the welfare of the city
  • A decline in the rate of suicide
  • Healthy adults, great marriages, vibrant families (including decreasing rates of AIDS, STDs)

| 3 | Society or Citywide Level

  • Multiple institutional opportunities for the most vulnerable to reconnect joyfully with a city that cares for all its populations
  • A decline in violence in the city
  • A decline of sexual and physical abuse against women and children

| 4 | Creation Level

  • Beautiful cities and regions as artistic expressions and the heritage of the community are more deeply valued
  • A reduction of pollution for a better and more wholesome environment

We like these as a broad set of goals for the church to have. Rather than aiming at domination, they set our hearts toward brining regeneration, beauty and life to our neighborhoods, the very work God's midwives are meant to attend to. They hold the space. They offer a different narrative.

Next post: Experiencing Good News: Celebrating the Presence of Christ in Communion Together

Previous posts: 

Praying Good News: Believing the Simply Good News of Praying the "Our Father" or Lord's Prayer 
Sharing Good News: Getting Beyond the Awkward and Talking about Jesus Outside Our Comfort Zones 
Working Good News: Discipling for Monday through Friday in Our Work and Workplaces 
Reconciling Good News: Moving with God in Welcoming Justice and Building Beloved Community 
Forgiving Good News: Making Peace Through the Divine Dance of Forgiveness  
Befriending Good News: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission with Friends Who Live Life on the Margins

+ Sully

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