Donald Miller has long been one of my favorite writers. He’s honest and funny and spins the world as he sees it in interesting ways. Thinking about Community this week, I re-cracked his book called “Searching for God Knows What” to a chapter entitled, “Lifeboat Theory”; subtitled, “How to Kill Your Neighbor.” Sounds like the perfect chapter to imagine what it means to form community, right? Here’s how it begins:
When I was a kid in elementary school my teacher, Mrs. Wunch, asked our class a question that I’ve come back to about a million times, trying to figure out an answer. The question she asked went along with a lesson about Values Clarification, which is a fancy name for learning how to be a snob. This is how the question went: “If there were a lifeboat adrift at sea, and in the lifeboat were a male lawyer, a female doctor, a crippled child, a stay-at-home mom, and a garbage man, and one person had to be thrown overboard to save the others, which person would we choose?” [side note: is this not the worst exercise ever? Good grief!]. “I don’t remember which person we threw out of the boat. I think it came down to the lawyer, but I can’t remember exactly. I do remember, however, that the class did not hesitate in deciding who had value and who didn’t. The idea that all people are equal never came up.1
While this exercise is demeaning and absurd, I wonder if it’s not a fairly accurate description of our society’s approach to daily life: think Hunger Games, politics, and rush hour traffic. We label, dehumanize, and determine, if even subconsciously, who is expendable. Perhaps one of the greatest issues with the exercise is in the asking of someone like you and me to make a judgment call on the worthiness of life without even being in the lifeboat ourselves. Doing so would be foreign to the movement of the next generation of Christians or Restorers as we’ve referred to them in this series. Being in the boat, sharing in the struggle of what that means, forming bonds of community through shared experience is a non-negotiable to Restorers.
We’ve been talking about Restorer-Christians for the past four weeks based on the work and research of Gabe Lyons in his book entitled, “The Next Christians”, backed by the Barna Research Group.2 The premise is that every 500 hundred years since the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, the Christian movement has had a huge rummage sale – an experience of major shifting in the way the church, the Body of Christ, moves, breathes and impacts the world in which it exists. Literally a year away from the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation – logic, history, and a genuine pulse on this day and age will suggest that the movement is gathering its rummage with an honest – “Who are we to be as followers of Christ today and moving forward?” Today’s characteristic of the suggested Restorer Christian is this: they are grounded in Community. They refuse to cast judgment from outside of the boat. They’re in the life boat alongside of the variety of folks they discover there and they’re committed to the common good of each one. Their well-being is tied up in the well-being of everybody else in the boat. They form bonds for they know that is where true strength resides.
The writer to the Hebrew community was sending word to a group of Christians with a fading zeal; struggling to keep the effort moving forward; distracted by religion instead of focused on abiding in Christ. Eugene Petersen calls this group “Jesus-and” Christians. “Well, yes, Jesus, but we’ve got all of these other things to enforce… all of the ands.” Those religious emphases – those well-intentioned efforts we make to ‘get it all together’ for God – can very well get in the way of what God is trying to do for us, in us, and through us. Our most basic aim as a follower of Jesus is to abide in him which is what Jesus is teaching in the fifteenth chapter of John. Everything else – our impact on culture, all we seek in prayer, our hopes for humanity – all of this flows out of the idea of remaining in Jesus love. The basic Christian paradigm many have grown up in, it seems, is based in our love for God rather than God’s love for us. If we remain, however, in how we feel about God – we know we are fickle. We’re tempted by so much, we drift away and we struggle with split motives and loyalties to the point that we feel poorly about our love for God. But Jesus doesn’t ask us to remain in how we feel about him but how he feels about us.3 How does he feel about you? Well – Jesus is crazy about you – has your picture as the wallpaper of his iPhone. Abiding in this reality creates gratitude energy and gratitude energy is the greatest kind of energy. When someone tells you over and over, “I got you… you are important. You are needed in this boat. Don’t you ever forget who loves you.” Your gratitude energy grounds your ability to tackle even the most difficult challenges.
So the writer to this Hebrew community of Christians is whistling to get their attention. It is a call to remember who they are. Remember who Jesus says they are and who they will be. The appeal to them is one that could be made to any of us. First, he says, check your highlight reel: “Be what you were at your best.”4 Christianity does not demand the impossible; but if we are as honest, kind, courageous, and humble as we are when we’re at our best, life as we know it would transform before our eyes. “But nobody can be at their best all the time, Mark!” I hear you. “Truth”, I would say. But I’ll also say what one of Carrie’s running mentors says to her: “Don’t train to run slow.” Don’t prepare to be less than you are capable of being. You put those ear buds in: “This is my fight song!” and carry on. Too much? Okay. But how do get at this for real?
The Hebrew writer says, “Start by keeping your hope in front of you.” This is next to impossible to do alone. The next generation of Christians seem to own this reality. Gabe Lyons says they do “in large part because they have personally experienced the dangers of living life alone – from spending money they don’t have to pursuing fleeting careers that distract them from who they were meant to be. They are committed to a better way. Instead of isolating themselves, they’ve plugged into the encouragement and accountability God intended. They decide to “do life” together and often combine their resources to serve others and creation” – like Tulsa Bike Share launching soon which has some connections to folks in our congregation. The rent-a-bike-in-downtown-Tulsa concept is designed to promote community and good for the environment. This is what Restorers are all about. They have made the choice to be a part of a community that knows them, loves them, and wants the best for them. And in doing so, perhaps they stand a much better chance of staying aligned with God’s intention for their lives.
We often talk about this reality when we go through the hard stuff in life. Hard stuff just is. I’m not immune to it. You’re not. Nobody is. And when it finds us, or we find it all by ourselves, we recognize quickly how grounded we are in community. The investments we have made with our lives in going it alone or doing the hard, vulnerable work, of sharing life in a community is always evident in those moments. Who do we turn to? Who is holding our hopes with care when our hands, and our souls, are too weary to hold them ourselves?
When Carrie and I decided to leap to faith and dive into ministry, we knew what we were getting into … and we didn’t. Tex Sample, author and theologian who you can hear speak this afternoon at Boston Avenue Methodist Church with a good group of our folks, once said, “A call to go into the ministry is a lot like throwing up. You can put it off for a while… but there comes a time when you have got to do it.” So we packed our barf bags and headed to seminary and engaged in the life of the church to the fullest extent. Growing up in a pastor’s home myself, what I have always known to be true is that ministers don’t “do” church for the church people, they “experience” church alongside of their community. If we weren’t grounded in the relationships, with Christ and with our fellow pilgrims, we’d crumble when hard stuff came into our own lives.
We have dear friends with us today from Indianapolis. We stepped into the lifeboat with the Schiessers thirteen years ago and while Jason is a male lawyer like in the terrible exercise noted earlier, we would never throw him out of the boat. At one of our very first get-togethers with TnT, a group of twenty ‘n’ thirty somethings, we were doing some Bible study and life sharing and Carrie and I were excited to share the news that night that we were expecting our first child. However, Jason and Lindsey beat us to the punch sharing their news that they were expecting their first. We decided to hold onto our news that night since we were newbies but that night sparked a connection and friendship which mattered deeply to us when twelve weeks into our pregnancy we found ourselves in an emergency situation which resulted in the loss of our baby. We had no family within four hundred miles – that group was our family and they surrounded us, grounded us, and our friends reminded us of the hope that is ours in Christ and community – and we were the ministers family! Did we need to be reminded? You bet. We journeyed with our friends through the rest of their pregnancy. When their son, Tyler, was born at the time our due date was to be as well, we were there with them in the hospital moments after learning their beautiful boy was looking at a tethered spine and big issues were possible. They were scared. We were scared with them. But as they had done for us, we reminded them of the hope that is ours in Christ and community. That gift of a child today, mind you, is eleven and a nationally ranked runner. Watching the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics with him and through his eyes, I can only imagine where his future is headed. The writer to the Hebrews says in order to be at your best, “Keep the hope before you.” We need each other to do this.
To get through the daily grind as the best versions of ourselves, the Hebrew writers says we also need fortitude. How do you not become a taxidermied version of yourself – frozen, lifeless, static, pasted smile? The word to the Hebrew church was to keep your confidence strong. It’s a tough run, this life we live. The long-haul health of the spirit on this journey only comes if we’re building our spiritual muscles. One of my ministry colleagues in Kentucky says to face the realities of our lives we’ve got to be “read up, prayed up, and friended up.” That’s his mantra – his self-check-list determining if he’s abiding in the Spirit. These disciplines protect our growing, authentic relationship with Christ. Restorer Christians know that if they aren’t disciplined, they risk sacrificing the greater work God may want to accomplish through them.
Restorer- minded Christians are reading up. They see Scripture not as something intended to be a science book, history text, or ethics manual – it’s much more than that. They aren’t determined to find verses to support their opinions as much as they enjoy Scripture as they believe it was meant to be: “a grand narrative that tells a story of a God who loves and pursues, rescues, gives grace, and goes to any length to restore relationships with his most prized creations.”5 Understanding it all is not easy but they’re committed to making the time to engage it and share in dialogue with others. It’s not feared but revered, treasured, and worth engaging the mystery even when all is not clear. They’re read up. And they’re praying up. They embrace not the legalism of Sabbath keeping but the spirit of the re-energizing nature of rest — the idea that we are loved for who we are, not for what we can produce. Sabbath is restorative. They take technology fasts and recognize that tweeting what’s on their mind and reading the same of thousands of others is less important than being grounded in what’s on the mind and heart of God. So instead of the dis-embodiment of social media – they make space for silence, connect face-to-face with others in their life boat to genuinely listen beyond the surface of things, pray, and work toward peace with the people of their community. This comes in making space for true conversation. I loved a meeting I recently attended where people who aren’t typically around the same table were and one said happily, “Hello! We go to church together!” It was offered in a context of acknowledging a sense of “Hey, let’s don’t just be those people who go to the same church but let’s engage each other’s stories and imagine how together we can work toward something transformative.” Restorers are committed to this. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “The person who’s just in love with their vision for community will destroy it. But the person who loves the people around them will create community.” It is a spiritual discipline to be read up, prayed up, and friended up.
Ron Swanson was one of the greatest characters on the sitcom, Parks and Recreation. He had some real consternation with life and with people. He’d say things like “There’s only one thing I hate more than lying. Skim milk. Which is water. That’s lying about being milk.” Or he’d say, “When people get too chummy with me I like to call them by the wrong name to let them know that I really don’t care about them.” He would have had no problem voting one, if not all, of the people out of the life boat. At the same time, he had moments of true heart with those close to him. As Director of the small town department, he was explaining once to his Assistant Director, Leslie, why she doesn’t like her boyfriend, a guy who is by all appearances a decent and successful man. “He’s a tourist,” Ron says. “He vacations in people’s lives, takes pictures, puts them in his scrapbook, and moves on. Basically, Leslie, he’s selfish. And you’re not. That’s why you don’t like him.”6
So what does it all mean? Are we mere tourists in a boat trying to decide who to toss out? Being friended up (#friendship) asks for an unselfish commitment to staying in the boat. The Hebrew writer says it this way, “We are not among those who shrink back.” It is a shared faith, a shared salvation that keeps us moving. Thriving alone is not our call. N.T. Wright describes a vibrant church community like this: “[Church] is a place of welcome and laughter, of healing and hope, of friends and family and justice and new life. It’s where the homeless drop in for a bowl of soup and the elderly stop by for a chat. It’s where one group is working to help drug addicts and another is campaigning for global justice. It’s where you’ll find people learning to pray, coming to faith, struggling with temptations, finding new purpose, and getting in touch with a new power to carry out that purpose. It’s where people bring their own small faith and discover, in getting together with others to worship the one true God, that the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.”7
Who are we together? If we can’t love each other and envision what God can do through us together, then how are we going to love the rest of the world? How are we going to change the world? So we abide in Christ. We ground ourselves in the disciplines of faith and in the lives of one another. And we don’t vote anybody out of the lifeboat. Instead we paddle together and see who else, with God’s help, we can pull out of the water.
1 Searching for God Knows What. Donald Miller. Nelson Books. 2004. Pg. 105.
2 Info concerning the synopsis of series all based in the book which is supplying the focus of each sermon: The Next Christians: How a New Generation is Restoring the Faith. Gabe Lyons. Doubleday. New York. 2010.
3 Thoughts on “abiding in Christ” as shared by Jon Tyson in video interview with Gabe Lyons.
4 Support for the exegetical offerings of the Hebrew text enhanced by William Barclay’s commentary, The Letter to the Hebrews. Westminster Press. 1976.
5 See The Next Christians. Lyons’ descriptions of what keep Restorer Christians grounded influenced this paragraph.
7 Quote as shared in The Next Christians.