Archive for March, 2013

Gordon Cosby–A Saint Worth Knowing and Following

Gordon Cosby died recently at the age of 94. Cosby was born in a small town in Virginia. The Baptist church in that community helped him grow up into Christ and to discover and respond to God’s claim on his life. Cosby served as a military chaplain in World War II. Following his military service, Gordon and his wife Mary started the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C.’s Addams Morgan neighborhood. Their intent from the very beginning was to build a no-frills, intensely-focused faith community that would make maximum impact on its community and the wider world. Cosby described that lifelong purpose in his writing: “For me the central question is what it means to be the authentic church of Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected. What is its nature? Its essence? And how can that essence be structured and expressed so as to become a healing agent in the world?”(Cosby, Becoming the Authentic Church)

Church of the Savior understood that its calling was to serve those whom we more fortunate people call “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40, 45). Not coincidentally, these were the very folks Jesus claimed as the focus of his mission—“the poor…prisoners…the blind…the oppressed…” (Luke 4:18) The church warmly welcomed all to worship and to participate in its life and ministry. But the bar for membership was (and is) set very high compared to typical mainline churches. “Apprentice” members attend the School of Christian Living one evening a week for two years before they may become full members. This period of preparation equips apprentice members either to join an existing mission group or, along with at least two other persons, to  call together a new mission group. An apprentice may become a full member only after completing the two-year School of Christian Living and becoming an active part of one of the church’s mission teams. Members may join for only one year at a time and must re-apply each year. If you don’t re-apply, your membership automatically lapses.

How has this policy worked? Seventh-Day Adventist pastor Monte Sahlin, a long-time friend and colleague of Cosby and the Church of the Savior, writes that “Hundreds of faith-based ministries have been started over the years, including a community health center, a residential treatment center for women with AIDS, hundreds of units of low-cost housing, a jobs program that placed 800 unemployed individuals last year, FLOC (For the Love of Children, a movement that revamped how foster care is done in DC), Alabaster Jar (a movement of artists who are people of faith and express faith in their art), the influential Wellspring retreat center, a small college, and Potter’s House, what many consider the original Christian coffeehouse ministry which still operates in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood on Columbia Road in Washington.”

Church of the Savior clearly wasn’t and isn’t for everybody.  Cosby’s own words describe the sort of people who came to call this faith community “home”: “If you love the church but are disillusioned, disheartened, discouraged by what it has become- we invite you to dream with us. If you are weighted down by the choices you have made for your own life, and you long to become the freed and freeing person that God desires, unleashing the gift of who you really are- we want you to dream with us. If you are hungry for the passionate, healing way of Jesus and would be our companion on the journey–we need you to dream with us.” –(N. Gordon Cosby, Becoming the Authentic Church)

No frills. No meaningless “church busy work”. No “playing church”. No spectators allowed. Everybody’s in the game all the time. No “holier-than-thou” contests. No power struggles worthy of a corporate boardroom. No petty church fights over who gets the credit or the blame. Church of the Savior, like every  faith community, is composed of human beings for better and for worse! But they follow Jesus together with the intense single-minded focus taught and modeled by their long-time pastor. (He retired officially in 2008.) United Methodist pastor Dr. Dean Snyder describes “…Gordon’s passion, his willingness to take risks, his determination to do something rather than nothing about the wrongs of our society, his always wanting to figure out how to do it more effectively and in more Christ-like ways, his doggedness to get past symptoms to the heart of the matter…Gordon did not seem to care about credit. His concentration was totally upon applying the truth of Christ to conquer and heal poverty, racism, addiction and disease…”

Gordon’s “passion…willingness to take risks…determination…doggedness…concentration…” have made him one of the most famous “not-famous” people on our planet. You can’t find him in Wikipedia! His passion for “applying the truth of Christ” squeezed out worldly pursuits like building an impressively-padded resume,  writing  (and profiting from) “How I Did It and So Can You” books for those who’d rather imitate than innovate, or building a church monument to himself.

Today is Good Friday. I can’t escape observing that Cosby’s discipleship model of “…passion…willingness to take risks…determination…doggedness…concentration…’ turned out to be the recipe for Jesus’ crucifixion—and for the world-changing revolutionary movement that followed. Do we dare  embrace and follow Cosby’s discipleship model? Doing so would launch us on a journey of discovery through which we’d discover, each in our own context,  transforming answers to the question that drove and shaped Gordon Cosby’s remarkable mnistry: “…what it means to be the authentic church of Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected…And how can that…be structured and expressed so as to become a healing agent in the world?”

LOCKOUT! (Flood Journal 4)

Last Saturday we met our contractor at the Jobsite (known as our home prior to The Flood). We reviewed the week’s progress, paid the bill, and discussed next steps. Next steps led Dianna and me to the Home Improvement Palaces to find tile and paint. At HIP 1 we found clearance-priced tile for the basement kitchen backsplash. The color led us to consider painting that area a different color. Pursuing this possibility added new color chips to my wife’s growing collection.

Then we left the store—and returned to our still-locked, still-unlockable car! Too much was happening at once when we’d climbed out of the car. In the confusion the only set of keys stayed behind. (Don’t ask. We momentarily blamed each other until I decided it was the dog’s fault.  He loves to visit Home Improvement Palaces. I’d set the keys down beside him when I got him out of the car and he didn’t remind me to pick them back up.) Dianna and I had agreed we should call AAA before we went into the store. But we didn’t stop and do it, and then we were caught up in our mission. What were we thinking? That the car might forgive our haste-inspired stupidity and magically unlock itself?

It didn’t. So we called AAA when we emerged from the store. “Within an hour”, we were told, our Liberator would arrive to end our self-imposed Lockout. We could get some lunch in the meantime. Last time we’d visited this store, the hot-dog vendor just outside the exit had served up the best Chicago Dog I’ve had this far from Chi-Town. He enjoyed his work, he’d told us that day, but he was losing money, and a man can’t afford to do that forever. Forever must have come, because the vendor, his stand, and the table where we’d eaten were all gone.

So we stood around next to our car, waiting…waiting…waiting. Carson, our dog, found some shade near the edge of the car. It was still lunchtime. But the hotdog stand had been the only source of food within walking distance. Undaunted, I delved into my survival training (a very shallow delve), took my trusty key-hiding dog Carson, and foraged up a candy bar and some water inside the store. We ate and drank and stood around in the warm sunny parking lot some more. Winter seemed to have followed the school schedule and taken its own Spring Break. It was getting uncomfortably warm.

The Lockout bumped me just far enough outside my comfort zone that I found myself praying, “Lord, I thank you that this condition is temporary and I don’t live in those tight spots where people get trapped, too often for good.”

  • We’re locked out of the car and can’t go anywhere. Not to worry. I’ve paid my AAA membership, the repair truck will arrive soon, and within minutes we’ll be free. Thank God for our comfortable, air-conditioned, well-running eight-year-old car and the lifestyle that makes it possible. Thank God that this Lockout is temporary and not like the desperate, “no-way-out” lives folks live due to their own unfortunate choices, circumstances beyond their control, or a paralyzing mix of choice and circumstance. (Most of us have been there at some point in our lives.)
  • It’s getting hot out here in the sun. But I can get out of the weather. I can walk inside the store. I know I’ll have a warm, dry place to sleep tonight and a cool, shady place out of the sun and wind every day.
  • It’s way past lunch-time and I’m hungry. Thank God for financial resources and physical strength to walk into the store and get a little something. Thank God for strength and ability to feed and care for myself and my family (including our trusty key-hiding dog Carson).
  • I wish that locksmith would hurry up and get here. Once again, thank God for the resources to have a car, to call a locksmith when we need one, and to have a cellphone which can receive text-message updates on our Liberator’s estimated arrival time.

Lots of people walked or drove past during our hour-plus wait. Some stared at us. What did they think? Were we homeless and living in that car? Had we had had a breakdown? Could we really be dumb enough to lock keys in the car? (Yes.) My wife made eye-contact with two or three and volunteered an explanation. They’d listen, then walk off, mumbling and smirking their way into the store. She soon quit explaining. Let them mumble and smirk without our assistance!

About two-thirds of the way through The Lockout a woman pulled into the parking space next to us. Everyone else had carefully avoided it. She asked about our situation with genuine concern. ”Called anybody?” Yes, we had, and they were coming. “Got some water?” Yes, and you’re the first one to ask. Bless you. Thanks for asking. She went into the store, did her shopping, and returned to find us still waiting. She inquired again about our situation. We said that we’d just learned our Liberator was about two minutes away. We thanked her again and she went on her way. The Liberator arrived and quickly unlocked the car. (I miss the time when a carefully-sculpted wire clothes hanger and a steady hand could unlock almost any car.) We thanked our Liberator, drove to have lunch, and found the rest of what we needed at Home Improvement Palace 2.

If we were exploring this story the way we often study Jesus’ parables, I’d ask, “Which of these characters do you identify with? The locked-out folks? The Liberator who’s coming as fast as he can but not fast enough? The passers-by in the parking lot? The helpful woman who expressed genuine concern? The trusty, key-hiding dog who was a convenient scapegoat?” (Please forgive me, Carson. It won’t happen again.)

Jesus might ask, “Which of these passers-by was truly a neighbor to the locked-out folks?” (Luke 10:36) The question that matters most is not where we see ourselves in the story right now. It’s who we will seek to be next time we come upon some locked-out folks that our eyes of faith recognize as neighbors. That moment is very near. After all, Jesus teaches us through stories like the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) that our neighbor is in fact any person within our reach at a given moment.

New Life Ain’t Easy–Flood Journal 3

About four months ago a hard freeze combined with preventable human error (mine) to cause a pipe in our attic to burst. The Flood ruined most of the inside of our home. Since then we have lived in a rented house  about three miles away.Thank God for homeowners’ insurance that pays the rent and related expenses! We’ve made the best of life in “The Cabin”, as we’ve come to call our temporary quarters. Even our dog has adapted enough to call the place “Home—for now”. But he still has days like today when we went to our home (now known as “The Jobsite”) and he didn’t want to get back in the car and go  back to “The Cabin”. He knew where home was.

It’s taken longer than we expected to put together the pieces to start reconstruction. The biggest, hardest piece has been coming to a meeting of the dollars (and minds) between ourselves, our contractor, and the insurance adjuster. But a few days ago the meeting happened! We signed the contract to proceed with the reconstruction. Checks are in the mail from the insurance company. We can see an end to our stay in “The Cabin” and a new beginning in our renewed home. It hasn’t been easy getting to this point, and we expect the rest of the journey to be equally challenging.

This whole process reminds me of the challenges of living the new life God gives us in Christ. For example, our insurance, like most homeowners’ policies, pays to restore the house to its immediate pre-Flood condition. We certainly won’t do that. We’ll do better. We won’t put 15-year-worn carpet back in the house. We’ll correct electrical issues uncovered during “de-construction”. We’ll buy new furniture rather than items as well-used as what we lost. We’ve already decided we can live without some of those things the water ruined.

In the same way, new life in Christ isn’t more of the same. It’s new. It’s not the life we’ve been living, only with a confirmed reservation at the Heavenly Hilton in our back pocket. New life means new priorities and new values. It means taking up some new habits and attitudes and letting go of some old ones. New life in Christ is guided and shaped by our growing experience of Jesus’ life, teachings, and constant presence.

New life requires many choices. All those choices come with costs. We chose to upgrade flooring. We chose to make good (finally!) on our six-year-old threat to remove a wall. We chose to replace the aging original water heater rather than risk FLOOD 2—THE SEQUEL when it dies sooner rather than later. We struggled to balance personal preferences in style and color, finances, stewardship, and boring stuff like functionality, practicality, durability, and energy consumption as we chose cabinets, countertops, paint colors, and all the other elements that go into a home.

One key factor in our choices has been how much of our own money we will invest in this rebuilding process. The answer is turning out to be “enough to do it the way that’s right for us”. It’s not like taking the insurance money, paying your deductible, and being done with it. Having some skin (and dollars) in the game means we’ve “counted the cost” as Jesus advises us to do at the outset of any building project (Luke 14:28). We understand the cost and we’ve chosen the cost in order to achieve the results.

New life in Christ requires many choices. All those choices come with costs. As we said earlier, Jesus shapes the priorities and values that guide our choices in this new life. Following Jesus leads us daily to choices that go against the dominant culture. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:43) “Blessed are the poor in spirit…the meek…the merciful…the peacemakers…” (excerpted from Matthew 5:3-11) “ “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1) “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34). “…just as you did it to one of the least of these…, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40) You get the idea. Following Jesus faithfully confronts us with difficult, costly, countercultural choices. Grace isn’t cheap. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote honestly and powerfully about “The Cost of Discipleship”.   

We want to leave a legacy for those who follow. With our home, that means making choices that lead to a desirable and salable property when the time comes. No, we don’t expect the next six generations tolive on “the old home place”. Yes, we do anticipate a day when choice and/or necessity lead to selling  this house and living somewhere else. Beyond practical and material considerations, this home has hosted some great family moments. We expect the renewed home to host many more. We’re trying to rebuild it in ways that will enhance its warmth and welcome.

Our new life in Christ is never solely about me and my “highway to heaven”. It’s about the difference I make within my reach. Who and what is better off because I chose to step up? How has my presence and involvement in others’ lives helped them see Christ? How have I been an instrument of building God’s New Creation? The answers will be different for each of us. The answers will be surprising, exciting, and life-changing as we invest ourselves fully in living the new life of those who follow Jesus together. New life ain’t easy by any means. But it’s the best life ever.

Let’s Not Fix Our Church

In this Lenten season of giving-things-up, I want to suggest something that we United Methodists and other mainline Christians could give up for Lent—in fact, for good. Let’s give up trying to fix our church. Let’s give up trying to save/renew/bail out failing, floundering, foundering institutions that are at best resistant to change and at worst incapable of the “adaptive change” that some would make our new United Methodist buzzword. (When I told my wife what I was writing about, she said, “So you want to let the church go to hell?” Of course not. Stay with me as we move toward a transforming alternative.)

I’ve been reading the latest round of “how-to-fix-the UMC” blogs, articles, and ponderous pronouncements. This excruciating experience has driven me to offer this drastic strategy. Let’s give up trying to fix/revive/bail-out/prop up our church. Let us embrace anew our stated mission: “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”. Let us dare to make our stated mission our actual mission by aligning the expenditure of our money, time, energy, prayer, and attention. Let us begin with ourselves and the brothers and sisters in Christ within our reach on any given Sunday.

One obvious question arises. “What is a disciple?” We could spend endless time and energy pharisaically debating the issue. Some (including myself) would say that our penchant for endless debate and insufficient action has gotten us exactly the results we should have expected. We’d also point out that our planet already has a climate-change crisis. The last thing we need is more hot air!

My working definition of “disciple” comes from Dallas Willard:

“A disciple or apprentice…is simply someone who has decided to be with another person, under appropriate conditions, in order to become capable of doing what that person does or to become what that person is…as a disciple of Jesus I am with him, by choice and by grace, learning from him how to live in the kingdom of God…I am learning from Jesus to live my life as he would live life if he were I. I am not necessarily learning to do everything he did, but I am learning how to do everything I do in the manner in which he did all that he did.”

Nearly every church has at least a few people who embody this vision of discipleship. Nearly every church also includes others whose growth has been severely stunted. Sometimes  these are long-time church members, but “developmentally delayed” immature disciples. (DISCLAIMER—All of us have periodic relapses into immaturity—especially when we judge and point fingers at someone else’s “immaturity”.) With that in mind, consider Johnny, the clearly-out-of-place student in this video, “Faith in Kindergarten”. [For those unable to view the video, “Johnny” is a 40-ish man enjoying his “career” in kindergarten. He embraces his success and steadfastly refuses to leave his comfort zone to face the challenges of first grade and beyond. If you can’t see the video, I urge you to get some technical support—perhaps your child or grandchild! It’s really a must-see.]

Who’s responsible for our collective spiritual immaturity? I am—along with my clergy colleagues, laypeople in every church I know, and conference and denominational leaders. We have settled for mediocrity in ourselves and others. We have accepted and even cultivated spiritual immaturity. Granted, we have seen notable individual and institutional exceptions. But they have been just that—exceptions. Our growing desperation to reverse decades of decline points like garishly flashing neon to our collective immaturity. Mature discipleship focuses minimally on ourselves and mainly on God and our neighbor. But we care more about ourselves, about “my church” “my needs”, and “being fed”. We care more about not rocking the boat and maintaining the institution than about embracing and immersing ourselves in God’s mission where we live life.

Bishop Robert Hoshibata, the recently-appointed leader of the Phoenix Area, wrote recently in his column “Living the Connection, Renewed by the Spirit” about getting acquainted with the congregations he now serves. He says that he’s heard inspiring stories of sacrifice, dedication, and accomplishment in his visits with churches. But so many of those have been “good old days” stories. Now those same congregations struggle with decline. A few, not nearly  enough, are finding a way forward. He identifies three questions that seem to shape that way forward:  “‘Who is my neighbor?’…‘What are the… physical…AND spiritual needs of the people who live around the church who are not yet part of the church?’…‘What can I or we offer them if we really want to reach out and touch their lives with the love of Jesus Christ?”’ 

NOW, AS PROMISED, A TRANSFORMING ALTERNATIVE— Let’s give up trying to fix our church. Let’s invite the Holy Spirit to heal the brokenness of our “developmentally-delayed” discipleship. Let’s stop living out of fear and start living by faith. Let’s decide to be who we say we are. Let’s intentionally focus all available resources on “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”.

It doesn’t take years of political maneuvering. It doesn’t require mountains of legislation. It begins with a critical mass here and there. The size of a “critical mass” varies according to our context. Jesus did a lot with twelve people. He told those twelve that “two or three” plus his presence could form that critical mass (Matthew 18:20).

Talk to folks who might join you in becoming a “critical mass”. Share your hope and dreams. Pray together deeply and frequently. Keep your pastor in the loop. Work with him/her, not against. Don’t be secretive. Do be humble and open. Find people who are serious about apprenticing themselves to Jesus. Explore together what that means for you separately and as a community. Your “critical mass” may well include formerly-churched, differently-churched, de-churched, even unchurched people.

Bishop Bob offers us one model for living out our mission. It’s hardly the only one. But it’s a great starting point. It’s simple, Biblical, and comprehensive. PLEASE—Let’s not engage in endless debate like good Methodists. Let’s be good Nike-ists. “JUST DO IT!” Let’s give up trying to fix our church. Let’s take up following Jesus as faithful apprentices wherever he leads us.


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