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by Paul

Prepare for Change

February 25, 2019 in Featured Posts, Parish Stories

Prepare for Change

I’ll be honest. I woke up this morning and scrolled through my social media like it was a religious ritual. This is the sort of habit that can be revealing if we allow ourselves to see it. There are major forces shaping our lives without our conscious awareness. We develop habits that we didn’t consciously choose, and desires that we did not intend to long for. In fact, at times we get the sense that “the algorithms” aren’t just automating our preferences, they are automating us.

Like everyone else in the western world, those of us doing neighbourhood work have a hard time admitting to being shaped like this. We have been trained to assume our lives are simply the outcome of our rational choices. But, this causes us to miss all the hidden influences that dramatically form our lives for good or ill.

I returned to Australia this last season with the hope of learning from followers of Jesus who are getting intentional about these “background conditions” that train our lives without our awareness. Here are 7 words, 7 questions, and 7 short snapshots related to what I discovered. …Yes, I created an acronym! It’s not my normal behavior, but we all have to find a way to keep this background in the forefront as it gets a hold of our whole body, heart, and mind forming the way we live. We can either prepare the ground for receptivity to the Spirit and discipleship in the Jesus way, or we can find ourselves unconsciously trained toward other false and empty dreams.

P.R.E.P.A.R.E

P is for Postures. Are we cultivating postures that encourage us to release control, face our responsibilities, and risk opening up to relationships?

The late philosopher and writer on spiritual formation Dallas Willard once said, “You can’t will joy. But you can will skipping.” Postures begin with the body, but they can work their way into the heart. When I visited Pastor Jon Owen working in his new role at Wayside Church in Sydney, I was watching for these postures – ways of positioning the body, heart, and mind for receptivity.

Jon Owen has taken on incredible responsibility with his new pastoral role at the legendary Wayside Chapel. It would be easy for the urgent to take over the important. But, Jon has developed postures that keep him attuned to what really matters. He began our visit by taking us to the bottom floor of the church building and having us sit outside in the active cement parklet that faces the main street. Both millionaires and moneyless frequent this place. It is animated with every sort of character you can think of, and Jon places himself at the heart of it – sometimes sitting with, sometimes a hand on the shoulder of a friend, sometimes working together alongside the breakfast pop-up, sometimes laughter and joking, and sometimes pausing reflectively as if to remind himself just to take it all in and be.

For lack of a better way of saying it, Jon puts his body into positions that help him acknowledge his humanity and open up in submission to what the relational context requires.

Whether in prayer, sharing a meal, walking the rooftop garden, or sitting in meeting, Jon practices the postures that help him live into faithful presence.

R is for Relationships. Are we cultivating relationships that influence us toward faithful presence and open us toward deep understanding and openness to “the other.”

In Melbourne I spent time with two friends I have grown to admire deeply – Charlene Delos Santos and Sam Hearn. They both understand the power of intentional relationships for shaping your life in ways that information can’t. Over the years I have been able to watch and learn from their leadership with Surrender, and this trip only served to take me deeper in understanding.

While they both have developed many unique relational habits that transform their lives in profound ways, I want to focus on two in particular that are critical to our time. Firstly, Sam has a deep understanding of what I call the “neighbourhood paradox”.

You can’t sustain deep local presence without staying connected to other followers of Jesus who are living this out in their unique neighbourhood context. It is paradoxical because the last thing deep local practitioners think they need to do is leave their context in order to build relationships with people from other places.

But, Sam builds both strong and weak ties with all sorts of people like this. He listens to their stories, walks their streets, shares meals in their homes, prays prayers of hope and faith together with them, and then connects them to others who might encourage their life. And, as he does this his life is sustained, imagination returns, loneliness dissipates, and hope rises. There is nothing more powerful and helpful for sustaining and igniting your neighbourhood presence than becoming an engaged participant in a web of mutual relationships across neighbourhoods.

The second type of relational connection is exemplified in Charlene’s leadership. If we really want to prepare the background conditions in our lives, we are going to have to get serious about cultivating relationships with people who are different than us. This is going to require more work than might be imagined, but it will change our lives forever. The great theologian Willie Jennings wrote:


The crucial matter today for Christian discipleship is not what you practice but who you practice with. …Show me a Christian who sits comfortably in segregated ecclesial life, in a homogeneity of Christian practice, and I will show you someone who is formed for worldly power.

Charlene understands this at a deep level, and sometimes it seems her whole life has been aligned for just such a purpose – to awaken us to how important these diverse connections truly are, and how much commitment it is going to take to live toward this together. It is risky work helping bring people who are different together in relationship, but Charlene knows that this is where the beauty is, this is where the miracle of the gospel can emerge, this is where the very nature and beauty of God can be revealed.

E is for Environments. Are we creating, shaping, and placing ourselves in environments that connect and awaken us to God, to others, and to the land in meaningful ways?

This actually might be the most underestimated force shaping your habits and desires without you knowing it. As Marshall McLuhan once said, “Environments are invisible.” You don’t notice how they are shaping you because the environment is usually taken for granted. Environments includes the buildings we live in, and the spaces in between. Environments include the tools and technologies we use to operate in the world. They function as an environment when we work through them to accomplish our purposes in the world.

McLuhan also said, “The medium is the message.” In other words the technology you habitually use to read these words in front of you, shapes you more than the message I am trying to communicate.

Environments can be shaped for healing and connection, or they can be designed for power, distraction, and brokenness. This becomes self-evident with these words from Ray Oldenburg’s book The Great Good Place. “Most residential areas… have been designed to protect people from community rather than connect them to it. Virtually all means of meeting and getting to know one’s neighbors have been eliminated. An electronically operated garage door out front and a privacy fence out back afford near-total protection from those who, in former days, would have been neighbors.”

Elliot and Sarah Keane understand how important environments can be for shaping our lives and sparking our imagination. Their leadership at Richmond Baptist in Adelaide, and across their neighbourhood is a living demonstration project of the power of designing environments for transformation, love, and healing. I will never forget my tour of their church building with Sara Keane.

Everything was an ongoing living experiment in rearranging, painting, building, molding, turning, and tweaking the context to bridge the community, awaken desire for the holiness, connect people to true beauty, and rewire our imagination for shalom. Even the process of creation; incorporating the gifts, dreams, and resources of many people from across the congregation and neighbourhood, lent to the transformation experience.

P is for Practices. What are the intentional habits, traditions, and patterns we need to build into our lives to help our bodies remember the kind of person we want to be and become?

My dear friends Simon and Bonnie Uphill have crazy beautiful lives. They have intentionally placed themselves in a context where the everyday life in the neighbourhood hits them full on. Between fostering three young boys, working at the school down the road, leadership with their neighbourhood church, and their full life together with friends and neighbors, things can get a little chaotic.

On the one hand, building in the right practices is a matter of survival. On the other hand, practices are the magic that turn the ordinary into the sacred, illuminating the beauty and goodness of their everyday lives.

A cup of tea in the morning, prayers and stories with the littles before bed, spaces for both of them to get some exercise or enjoy some sport, a special day with each child, breathing. Each of these intentional moments, and many more, build a rhythm into their lives that help make them into the kind of people they desire to become at each all throughout the day.

A is for Apprenticeships. Do we commit ourselves to full-bodied learning from guides whose life demonstrates a way of being or tradition that we need to inculcate?

If you spend any length of time with Nick and Anita Wight you are going to discover very unique and life giving ways of being that are foreign to the western imagination. The White’s found a way of being reflected in the lives of many of the aboriginal leaders and groups that they knew they needed to learn from. There are many ways to speak of it (less about outcomes and production, more about land and family, less linear more circular etc). I’m not going to pretend I can clearly articulate what drew Nick and Anita in. The point is that Nick and Anita apprenticed themselves to people they respected.

They submitted to ways of spending time and practicing life that were unfamiliar to them in order for these to get under their skin, into the hearts and come out as habitual ways of living. It shifted their imagination below the level of rational thinking.

By submitting themselves to follow their guides, to practice what they practice, to invest in deep presence together, to grow through real time and friendship, Nick and Anita inculcated into their lives, characteristics they could never have developed any other way.

R is for Readings. Do we practice deeply listening to the stories of other people’s lives. Do we listen to their readings of the world, they’re “take” on how things fit together?

I stayed for several days with my longtime friends Geoff and Sherry Maddock while visiting in Melbourne. There is something very unusual about their lives. Most people assume their perspective is right, and then judge everyone who disagrees. But, the Maddock’s thrive on multiple readings. They never stop listening to the stories of other ways of seeing the world. If you spend too much time with them, it can be frustrating to the ego. Every time you think you have the final viewpoint, the ultimate “take” on something, the Maddock’s produce an alternative reading that helps you see the world from another angle. Whether they give you a book, stretch out a yarn, take you to a new context, ask you to look at a piece of art, or even get you to try to hear the story that plants are trying to tell – you are always going to have to acknowledge it’s more complex than any single proposition.

Like the prophet Nathan who tells the parable to David that helps the king acknowledge his culpability, stories like these have a way of sneaking up on you because they get you out of your head and into your body and emotions.

E is for Experiments. Are we actually trying live experiments that put our whole body into the action, or do our ideas just remain abstractions?

One of my favorite visits during my time in Sydney was traveling with longtime friend and mentor Michael Frost to get some time with Rev Dr Karina Kreminski in her neighbourhood. In Karina’s book Urban Spirituality she writes,

“I wanted to cultivate a missional community that would emerge from the streets, spaces and places in my neighborhood rather than importing pre-packaged, ready-to-go, instant and polished products from the supermarkets of Christian culture into my neighborhood.”

This meant starting a series of ongoing experiments that have required tremendous courage and risk. Karina had to let go of her pre-planned solutions and try some on-the-ground experiments that would open up her life to the realities and possibilities of her unique neighbourhood and help her whole body awaken to her part to play there. One of my favorites is The Happiness Lab – “a fun, local six week course exploring what it means to be a person who thrives in life.” People from every walk of life in the neighbourhood join together to mutually explore this theme and learn from one another. These type of experiments require breaking open our bubbles of controllable answers and investing in experiments that shape you in ways you can’t articulate.

Conclusion

In the world of speed, mobility, and distraction that most of us are embedded in, it is easy to find ourselves being shaped by powers that we did not intend. These seven words can be offered up as prayers of longing to God and intentional checkpoints along our journey to insure that we are being formed in a way that opens us up to the Spirit’s movement and the love of neighbour and enemy. It’s time to prepare for change.

Published by Sam Hearn from the Neighbourhood Collective in Australia