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Leading Courageous Conversations about tough issues in our Churches

How do we help our churches become safe and courageous places to engage harmoniously with tough issues about which we disagree? Neither of the two common options is working:

  1. Avoid tough issues entirely. This may make our churches “safe,” but they don’t help us reflect together on the tough issues of justice facing our society. As a result, our members get their convictions about these issues from their favorite media source, rather than from careful biblical and theological reflection; or
  2. Choose our churches by their positions on tough issues. Increasingly the church is adding on top of our divisions over ethnicity, socio-economics, worship style, and points of doctrine—divisions over positions on ethical and justice issues. Congregations are splintering, and people are changing churches over ethics, and not just ethnicity, economics, ethos, and theology.

We are experiencing through the Micah Groups Movement at the Ogilvie Institute of Fuller Theological Seminary a third way (see www.micahgroups.org). There are several keys to effective communication that are integral to this (and that require a bit of retraining for some of us):

  1. Keep asking the “who” questions before we get to questions of “what.” We’ll divide if we begin by discussing what we believe is the right position on a particular issue. First, we begin by asking “Who is God?” What is God’s nature and character? What is God doing in response to the pressing needs in society? Second, we ask the “who” questions pertaining to ourselves. “Who are we?” We recognize our frailty. We accept our essential humility. We discern ways in which our own life experience and social location shape our attitudes and even our ethics. We also receive the gift of our own belovedness in Christ. Third, we ask “Who are our neighbors? Who has God called us to love? Who are the people we exclude from that circle?” In asking who is our neighbor, we then include the same responses to others as we do in understanding ourselves.
  1. Guard our curiosity, rather than defend our convictions. When people voice perspectives that differ from our own, we cultivate the discipline of diving in, rather than either backing off or building defenses (responses 1 and 2 above). Rather than seeking to convince someone of the error of their point of view and the rightness of our own, our first response is to seek to understand. We ask questions such as: “Can you tell me more?” “What is about your life experience, and about your social location that have led you to this position?” “Describe how your reading of Scripture and understanding of God, God’s will, and God’s ways leads you to this point of view?” “What are the implications of your position for how you treat others who hold different values?”
  1. Ask the most important “what” questions first. Rather than focusing on what we believe, or what we are supposed to do—the most important “what” questions are: “What are you doing in this situation God?” “What are you saying to us?” and  “What is your will for our participation in your purposes?”
  1. Invite issues of justice naturally into our worship. Rather than only providing classes or forums to discuss sensitive and divisive issues, include them in our normal conversation with God in worship. In worship we have the opportunity to bring the needs of the world before the heart of God. When we pray personal prayers and petitions, it’s natural to include structural and systemic prayers. As we pray for someone’s health—pray for the health care system, someone’s job—pray for our economy and for the debates about wages and income inequality, someone’s housing—pray also for the homeless and the immigration debates, someone’s relational difficulties—pray for the church to embody God’s reconciliation of our lives in Christ.

This isn’t to politicize worship.

It’s to guide our congregations more fully into the heart of God who is at work to make life right.

Can Business be a Holy Calling?

One Sunday, our church was commissioning its youth group to go to Tijuana to build houses. Professional carpenters and an owner of a construction company were commissioned with them. It occurred to me, “Why were we commissioning them for this volunteer ministry, but we’ve never thought of commissioning members in the construction business for their work building and remodeling homes and offices in our own city?” Was the same work they did in their daily business now “mission” because it was an “official” church program?

As a pastor, I realized that I was more interested in people’s volunteer time and their charitable giving than in their professional lives. I focused on people’s personal lives, family life, and spirituality—and on recruiting them to volunteer in church sponsored ministries. When it came to serving Christ, I called people either to change what they were currently doing or to add more on top of their already full lives. Give more, do more, care more, serve more were my constant themes. The financial fruit of their work interested me more than how they made that fruit. Like many pastors (and Christian businesspersons), I could value business as a means to other ends: earning an income, expressing gifts and abilities, creating employment, building caring relationships, maybe doing a little Christian witness, and certainly contributing to charitable causes (like my church). But intrinsically, I wasn’t clear how business contributed to the purposes of God.

No wonder the vast majority of Christians in business feel unsupported and unvalued by their churches for their actual work in business. The tragedy of this intensifies when we realize that, according to recent surveys, most employed Americans indicate that they “hate” their work (“State of the American Workplace,” Gallup (June, 2013). Even many respected Christian leaders in business have fear, loneliness, and envy as their dominant work-life emotions. This certainly isn’t God’s will. In spite of all our good sermons, classes, and service projects, churches aren’t touching the driving professional realities of their members. For the past 30 years, I’ve had the privilege of working with businesspersons and students around the world to discover more fully God’s broad purposes of business. Often, business has a far deeper impact on human well being than churches or NGOs ever will.

I believe we are entering into a new reformation of the church’s vision for its ministry. Rather than being the center of ministry, the church is a resource for its members’ ministry in daily life. Rather than focusing primarily on people’s personal, family, and spiritual lives—and on recruiting people to serve in church programs—churches are focusing on supporting and encouraging people for their ministry in daily life. It’s easy to see how our work relates to God’s kingdom in education, health care, social and community service. Jesus did all those things. But business is more complicated. To participate in God’s kingdom purposes in business requires special support and skill.

Business isn’t “automatically” a “holy calling.” There is a “question mark” attached to the phrase. To assist in this, I’ve created a workbook to guide conversations between businesspersons and their pastors to explore God’s purposes for business. It is designed as a discussion starter for use by individuals and small groups, and includes personal reflection and group discussion questions.

It’s purpose is to contribute to a new reformation in our understanding of lay ministry—not lay persons volunteering in church work—but lay persons participating in the coming of God’s kingdom in every aspect of life. Through this, Christians in business can align their work with God’s purpose to make all aspects of life right in our world. And as a result, instead of facing work with fear, loneliness, and envy—they can approach their day with joy, fulfillment, and satisfaction. This workbook is now in its third edition. More information can be found at Business as a Holy Calling?

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Remembering a playground in Gaza

Deaf children in Gaza

Deaf children in Gaza

I’ve been to Gaza several times. Even before this current disastrous conflict, Gaza was regarded as the world’s largest open air prison. Even crossing into Gaza through the Israeli VIP Checkpoint was a long, intimidating process. There’s no VIP crossing for Gazans. As we’ve seen in recent weeks, there is no crossing at all.

On one visit, I was exploring with Abuna Manuel who was the Roman Catholic Priest of Gaza a strange request we’d received.  Amidst all the devastation of that place, with life-threatening shortages of food, medicine and clean water—let alone freedom and work—why was he asking for money to build playground equipment? That seemed so frivolous and secondary. His reply is unforgettable.

The children of Gaza have lost their capacity (and even places) to play. 

Play is the pathway to laughter.

Laughter leads to joy, and joy opens up the gateway to hope. 

Without hope, we have no life.

When we feel we have no life, people will do desperate things.

We need to help the children of Gaza to play again.

Needless to say, we made sure that the children of Gaza received the best playground equipment we could provide. Thousands of children swung and slid, laughter resounded again, until during the last Israeli incursion into Gaza, even this playground was destroyed by Israeli shells.

It’s no wonder that the Prophet Zechariah reminded Israel that a sign of the Kingdom of heaven coming to earth is children playing freely on the streets of the city: “And the streets of the city will be filled with boys and girls playing in its streets” (8:5). Play and laughter are the language of heaven. We have the privilege and power in the Holy Spirit to help one another learn and speak freely that language.

If the task of producing hope sits on our shoulders, we will feel the constricting band of our own inadequacy and finitude stifling us. But if we recognize that God is the producer of hope and we are but assistants in hope’s birth, we can breathe again. We are not paralyzed. We can become joyous participants in that hope being born into people lives. We can provide the world with great playground equipment, joyous songs of testimony to God’s love, winsome deeds of justice and mercy, courageous lives of compassion, and miraculous signs of supernatural power.

(Beyond Duty: A Passion for Christ, A Heart for Mission (2013: 45). Available on Amazon US, UK, India, Canada, Japan, France, Germany, Italy, Spain.)

 

Drinking from the Wells of New Creation

Drinking from the Wells of New Creation.

Drinking from the Wells of New Creation

I am excited to announce the publication of my wife, Kerry Dearborn’s new book, Drinking from the Wells of New Creation: The Holy Spirit and the Imagination in Reconciliation. It’s available now on Amazon:

Wells of New Creation

Here are what some people are saying about it:

”Dearborn provides us with the gift of deep insight into the heart of God and the ways of the Spirit to open our eyes, our hearts, our homes, and our lives to God and others. Through profound theological reflection interwoven with compelling stories, this book draws us into God’s healing love and new creation. I pray God uses this great book to release the vision of Amos to which I’ve dedicated my life.”
–John Perkins, author of Let Justice Roll Down

”For many years, Kerry Dearborn has been at the forefront of thinking theologically about the imagination and thinking imaginatively about theology. Here she invites us to move into territory sorely in need of just this kind of thinking. Gracious, lucid, and hospitable, Drinking from the Wells of New Creation opens up fresh vistas for envisaging reconciliation in our time.”
–Jeremy Begbie, Duke University, Durham, NC
”The nexus of the argument here is the way in which ‘imagination’ is a defining practice of the Spirit, the capacity to receive, visualize, invest in, and enact a world other than the one we take for granted. Dearborn gives substance and passion to our ancient prayer, ‘Come, Holy Spirit.”’
–Walter Brueggemann, Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA
It’s a delight to let you know about this wonderful, groundbreaking resource.

Why do we struggle with allowing God to love us?

Here’s something I’ve been musing on this Lenten season:

“If the heart of Christianity is the God who gives nothing less than God’s own Self, it follows, as a logical conclusion, that the fundamental stance a Christian must take is that of receiving Him. First and foremost we must accept to be loved, allow God to love us, let God be the doer, the giver, let God be God to us. But how hard it is for us to do that consistently! We are always reversing the role, intent on serving God, as we say, on doing things for God, offering God something. This is our natural bent, but it must be corrected by the vision of faith. Over and over again, Jesus tries to get his disciples to drop this self-important attitude and to understand that, before God, they are only very small children who have no resources within themselves, but must look to their parents for everything, simply everything. It is not their role to give, but to receive. Jesus knows that this calls for a radical change of outlook and, more than outlook, a radical change of heart. From always trying to prove ourselves to God (is it not really to ourselves?), we have to become poor in spirit just as Jesus was.”

Ruth Burrows, Essence of Prayer, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, 2012, p. 48

Praying for Healing on Holy Week

This Holy Week I’m reflecting on the wonder of Christ’s healing life. For how much healing dare we pray, dare we hope?

This week points us to the healing of our wounded souls, hearts, homes, neighborhoods and world. “By his wounds we are healed”  (Isaiah 53:5; 1 Peter 2:24).

Yet so much feels so unhealed. We know some wounds in our hearts, bodies and world only heaven will heal. So for how much healing today dare we hope? Jesus calls us to pray for heaven to invade earth now: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done–on earth as it is in heaven”.

We live in eager anticipation of the day when all nations will walk by the light of the Lamb (Revelation 21:23-24). Planted beside the river of life that flows from the throne of the Lamb are the trees of life. “The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” (22:2).

In the midst of our wounds, we live and pray for healing with confidence and eager anticipation.

Anglican Bishop Stephen Neill summarizes the confidence in which the Christian movement has engaged the world, saying, “In Jesus, the one thing that needed to happen has happened in such a way that it need never happen again in the same way. The universe has been reconciled to its God…For the human sickness there is one specific remedy, and this is it. There is no other.”[i]

The gospel audaciously proclaims that the Holy God became embodied on our planet and lived a perfect human life on our behalf. In his human flesh Jesus defeated all personal, social and demonic darkness. He bore all sin and evil. He carried the full consequences of this into death and life eternal.

Jesus bore our brokenness so we could receive the gift of his wholeness. He became what we are, sinful and broken, so that we could become what he is, holy and glorious.


[i] Stephen Neill, The Christian Faith and Other Faiths (Oxford University Press, 1970) p. 17.

 (Beyond Duty: A Passion for Christ, A Heart for Mission (2013: 50). Available on Amazon US, UK, India, Canada, Japan, France, Germany, Italy, Spain.)
This Holy Week, I’m eager to taste some appetizers made from those healing leaves. My hope is strengthened by reports I’m hearing from around the world of how the Spirit isn’t merely offering appetizers–but banquets. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done–on earth–now–as it is in heaven!

There are no people who are aliens

“The earth is the Lord’s—the world isn’t for us alien territory.

People are in God’s image—no one is to us an alien being.”

(Beyond Duty: A Passion for Christ, A Heart for Mission (2013: 51). Available on Amazon US, UK, India, Canada, Japan, France, Germany, Italy, Spain.)

These may be true words to say, but their truth is most evident in how we live them. One ministry that inspires us is Tierra Nueva, located north of Seattle in the Skagit Valley. They follow the Spirit of God to see justice, kindness, healing, community and worship break forth among people who are so often marginalized in our society–gang members, addicts, jail inmates, migrant workers, and undocumented residents.

Kerry, Andrea and I recently had the privilege of writing an article about this for Christianity Today: “Ministering on the Margins in Rural America” . In full disclosure, the article refers to Bethany Dearborn (who is one of our daughters), and Andrea Peer who wrote it with us is another daughter. Our oldest daughter, Alison, is living in Redding, CA right now–otherwise the article would been fully a family affair!

Just how “for us” is God?

The mission of God involves the transformation of our identity. Rather than living with the sense of being rejected, abandoned, alone, losers or failures–God names us God’s beloved sons and daughters.  The lies of the Accuser continually bind us in shame and defensiveness. We desperately seek to assert or protect the shreds of our self-created sense of worth. The Lenten journey is the opportunity to reject these lies and receive again the Spirit breathing God’s love into us.

“From the straw of the manger in Bethlehem—to the wooden cross of Golgotha,

From the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost—to the gifts of the Eucharist to us and the Spirit in us,  

God bears our sin, carries our sorrows, offers the perfect obedience we can’t give, and comes to make God’s home in and with us.

Jesus is Immanuel—God with us.

Jesus is Messiah—God for us.

Jesus is the Incarnate Son—God as us.

The Spirit, the Father and Son abide in us—God in us.

This radical replacement of our broken humanity with Jesus’ perfect human life in us creates joy, freedom and ever-deepening eagerness to live in him. How sad that the best theology some Christians hear is that we need to try as best we can to live like Jesus. Of course we are to live like Jesus—but that is only possible because the life of Jesus is in us. The God of steadfast kindness not only loves us, God lives in us.”

(Beyond Duty: A Passion for Christ, A Heart for Mission (2013: 49-50). Available on Amazon US, UK, India, Canada, Japan, France, Germany, Italy, Spain.)

A friend in Juneau recently sent the link to this music video, “Remind me who I am”, by Jason Gray. He captures it beautifully.

Playing during Lent

This Week, CBS’ 60 Minutes program had a feature on Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, for which the US has provided $275 million in funding. It has protected Israel from most of the missiles fired from Gaza. However, I wonder if more investment in playground equipment in Gaza might prove to be an enhanced missile defense system.

Abuna Manuel was the Roman Catholic Priest of Gaza, in the Palestinian Territories. On a trip to Gaza I questioned why, amidst all the devastation of that place, with life-threatening shortages of food, medicine and clean water—let alone freedom and work—he requested from World Vision money for playground equipment. The Catholic school is one of the most respected schools in Gaza.  But his request for playground equipment seemed frivolous and secondary. I’ll never forget his reply.“The children of Gaza have lost their capacity (and even the places) to play. Play is the pathway to laughter, laughter leads to joy, and joy opens up the gateway to hope. Without hope, we have no life. When we feel we have no life, people will do desperate and destructive things. We need to help the children of Gaza to play again.” Needless to say, the Catholic School of Gaza was given a great set of playground equipment.

(Beyond Duty: A Passion for Christ, A Heart for Mission (2013: 44-45). Available on Amazon US, UK, India, Canada, Japan, France, Germany, Italy, Spain.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATraditionally, the Church doesn’t say “hallelujah” during Lent. However, that restraint is intended to deepen our anticipation of the Great Hallelujah that is yet to come on Easter. “For the joy that was set before him, Jesus endured the Cross.” (Hebrews 12:2). The disciplines of Lent serve to open our ears to the voice of God, and to hear creation’s songs of praise. Maybe it’s not only ok but essential to play some during Lent. After all, isn’t the point to take our selves less seriously, and God more so?

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