Book Review: Sidewalks in the Kingdom

Much thanks to Matt Ostercamp @ Rolfing for this guest post!

What does it mean to follow Christ in the city?  Having recently bought a condo in Chicago, this is an important question for my wife and I as we seek to incorporate our faith.  Looking for answers we joined another couple this summer in reading Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith by Eric Jacobsen.   This book challenged us to think about how where we live contributes (or detracts) from our spiritual formation and it provided several suggestions on how to make positive contributions to our neighborhood.

Jacobsen starts by asking not how we can save the city but how the city can save us.  How can our cities help our growth in sanctification?  Throughout the book he builds a case that the post WWII suburb is an especially arid place for Christian spirituality – reflecting and reinforcing an extreme form of individualism that cuts us off from our neighbors and our God.

In place of the subdivision and shopping mall, Jacobsen calls Christians to rediscover traditional cities with their mixed use neighborhoods – neighborhoods that combine residential, commercial, and public spaces.  These neighborhoods encourage us to get out of our cars and have personal encounters with our neighbors.  It is in such settings that Pastor Jacobsen thinks the fruits of the spirit – gentleness, patience, self control et al can be nourished, we can encounter and welcome the stranger, and we learn to put others ahead of ourselves.  It is also in our older cities that diverse and compelling architecture imparts dignity to our daily tasks in ways box stores and cookie cutter subdivisions fail.  The theaters, coffee shops, and book stores in cities also nuture the life of the mind.  Tapping into the  presence of a critical mass of interested people, these venues are places where ideas are discussed, debated, and strengthened.  Finally, it is in cities that we have unique opportunities to incarnate the gospel and evangelize people from all nations.

All of this was encouraging to this farm boy-cum-urbanite.  But of course it is also a challenge.  First, because as the book explains a lot goes into to making and keeping our cities appropriately human scaled – places where we can have healthy encounters with others.  Second, the opportunity to develop fruits of the spirit are right next to opportunities to sit on the couch and channel surf while muttering curses at the loud teenagers outside the window.  Finally, though this isn’t adequately discussed in the book cities not only include the artistic and architectural pieces that impart dignity but they also can be brutal places where greed, addiction, and violence strip dignity from its citizens.

If you are trying to find a place to live or interested in exploring how your neighborhood (wherever it is) can better promote a Kingdom agenda, I would encourage you to reflect on the ideas in Sidewalks in the Kingdom.  Remembering that the heaven John saw was not a new garden – it was a new city.

Matt is the Head of Technical Services at the Rolfing Library and writes more about his urban pilgrimage at: http://mattostercamp.wordpress.com/

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Ajith Fernando’s Call to Joy & Pain

A dear friend of mine recently referenced Fernando’s Call to Joy & Pain: Embracing Suffering in Your Ministry. I thought I would take a look at it since it was related to some of the work I’ve been doing in scripture reading and Bible study.

In the introduction, Fernando addresses a very significant issue for Americans in acknowledging the “cultural incompatibility of the cross.” In the book, he will proceed to discuss both joy and struggle in the life of a Christian and how they are sometimes woven together throughout our experiences.

He points out that satisfaction competes with joy for our attention and investment. Satisfaction is not bad in and of itself, but when we pursue it at the cost of things that God has asked us to do or to forsake, then we’re in trouble. Fernando indicates that addiction is perhaps the most pronounced expression of satisfaction that has won out over joy in a person’s life. However, he reminds the reader that, “without the joy of the Lord, all pleasure has a hollow ring to it.”

I would agree that particularly in the current generations, we are facing a strong temptation day after day, to pursue satisfaction over a deeper, truer Christianity. Experientially, satisfaction fades away all too quickly, and we find ourselves feeling empty again and wanting something or someone else to fill that void.

Over the last several years, I’ve become increasingly convinced that our capacity to know the fullness of joy is connected to our willingness to receive pain. I think when we push away the painful times in our lives or attempt to ignore them, we are also cutting off the potential for a more complete joy that the Lord ushers in after a season of trials, or waiting, or growing.

CT on a case for early marriage

On Friday, I was reading an article in Christianity Today entitled The Case for Early Marriage. The author proposes that perhaps one of the best solutions to evangelical concerns about the way singles (mis)handle  their sexuality would be to encourage young Christians to marry earlier than the trend.

His rationale? Practically speaking, many other creative campaigning doesn’t work. Christians still fall into sinful sexual behavior. Further, the later women marry, the more challenging it is to make the most of their fertile years.

His concerns? Well-meaning Christians who might discourage young believers from getting married, suggesting that they need to wait awhile, but not acknowledging the repercussions of that.

If this is a topic of interest to you, the article is worth a read.

Here is my own reaction:

As an unmarried twenty-eight year old, I’d say that perhaps the easiest time to naturally cross paths with many other committed Christians is during high school or college years. As the author mentioned, pursuing marriage this young does mean that the couple would need to grow up together and that can be a challenge, but I trust that it could be a rewarding one and could cement a solid foundation for a strong Christian marriage.

For early marriage to work, like any other aim we might have for the next generation of Christians, it requires a community-level participation. It’s not just a matter of being raised in a good home or an upstanding church. Young folks have to see healthy marriages modeled in their neighborhoods from childhood on up. Lots of believers need to be praying for revival in the institution of marriage.  In a culture marred by divorce, abortion, and single-parenting, who’s teaching kids that marriage is sacred and that it can actually work? Many young people are cynical about marriage because of what they’ve seen and experienced in their own homes.

Last week, I was talking to a friend about the trend of post-college Christian women marrying unbelievers. This deeply troubles me and yet, I can see why these things occur. As the article mentioned, oftentimes, there are fewer post-college age single committed Christian men in our churches than there are women. Sometimes women do stick it out trying to mingle among Christian crowds for several years, only to find that nothing pans out. Some Christian guys are thinking: they want to finish school, get a good job, establish themselves, feel ready, and meet the ideal woman. Meanwhile, women tend to be deeply relational and they know that their biological clock has some time constraints. So, sometimes in frustration and disappointment, women in their late twenties and beyond broaden their horizons in the search for a mate.

I’m not condoning this; I believe it is sin and that women who chose this pay a price that I’m personally not willing to pay for a husband. Still, it’s painful and sad to see that for some the options seem to be wait for years (maybe a lifetime) or settle for the prospect of a family with a man who loves her, but not the Lord. Frankly, it really rattles me that this happens, but I know of testimonies where God has provided abundantly for women who wait, sometimes with a godly husband and sometimes, with Himself.

So, yes, early marriage is one potentially viable resolution to a problem that seems to grow deeper and more complicated as single Christians get older and find themselves still unmarried and grappling with the difficulties of sexuality.

What about those of us that are already past the early marriage option, though?

In principle, I’d like to see women take a stand for truth and resist the urge to get into relationships with unbelievers. I’d like to think that if enough women did this, it could encourage Christian men who are reluctant to marry to reconsider their approach.

I’d also like to see churches encouraging younger (and older) singles to get married, namely, teaching them about biblical manhood and womanhood. If young men were trained to be more willing to take initiative, lead, and make a commitment, this could have a very positive outcome. Likewise, if young women were trained to be more supportive of the roles of men in their lives, respectful about their efforts in leadership, and willing to be responders rather than initiatiors in dating, this could bring about some restoration to the pre-marital relationship process which has become confusing and in some instances, appears to have broken down entirely.

At the end of the day, though, these are generalizations and not specific solutions for personal stories of waiting and wondering if and/or when your time might come if you are a single, committed believer who wants to marry.

Whether or not more churches decide to make these matters a priority, or more young men and women step up to live biblically, in your personal case, I would say, God is still sovereign, He is still active and powerful, and He will continue to work in your life to bring about His kingdom purposes for His great glory. It’s my hope and prayer for the many precious single people I know that He will provide for each one in a way that will surpass their own hopes and dreams. In the meantime, some of us must ask God to show us what it means to rejoice and be glad in this very day that the Lord has made and trust Him for all that remains unseen.

In your frustration, do not sin…

I know that isn’t exactly what the Bible says. It actually says, in your anger, do not sin, but I think for my purposes recently I could insert ‘frustration’ because my frustration about a few things has left me on the brink of anger.

I’m not all that surprised.

You see, last week I read, “Everything about which we are tempted to complain may be the very instrument whereby the Potter intends to shape His clay into the image of His Son,” which I referenced on the blog.

Further, oftentimes when I read something convicting, I discover that temptation to feel remorse but not change grows very strong in the days and weeks shortly thereafter. So, because I decided I should make a significant effort to refrain from complaining (or at least significantly cut back), there are all of these great reasons cropping up where I’d really like to!

What does that lead to?

For me, thus far in my experiment, it has led to less talking! 🙂

It has also reminded me of the Psalm 139:4: ‘before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely, oh Lord.’ (um, ouch…)

It has required more prayers such as, “Lord, I really want to complain right now, but I know it doesn’t honor you. How else can I respond to this situation because I usually complain first?”

Although there have been a few days where I’ve found myself simmering and it seems more apparent to me now that I’m not bubbling over with my complaints right away, it has also occurred to me that if I persevere, this would get easier and I would be less tempted to complain eventually, because I would have exercised the discipline of choosing not to.

Still, I haven’t quite figured out yet how the Lord allows me to handle my frustration in a healthy and Christlike manner. Somehow, I don’t want to simply suppress it. I want to resolve it, address it, just not by complaining right off the bat.

Thankfully, He has taught me to consider the other sides of the story (which I’ve been rehearsing to myself while I’m bubbling), to remember that His plans won’t be thwarted (even if mine are!) and that ultimately, if I walk with Him in these matters, things will turn out the way He purposes.

There. Now, oddly I do feel a little better, even though I didn’t list off my current gripes! (wink!)

May the Lord cultivate in each of us a greater tolerance for our ‘lists’ and a kingdom lens by which to view them through!

Where’s the refresh button?

Ever have days or weeks in your life where you realize you could really use a refresh button?

Yesterday, I met with one of women from my church that I greatly admire. She is a kind, thoughtful, positive lady and talking with her encourages me to remember that all of the work that God is doing, the scripts he adjusts and the pages he overhauls, will ultimately be an improvement in my usefulness and functionality for His purposes. Still, it is good from time to time to be able to step back enough to see the refreshed screen before moving on.

Perhaps particularly in seasons of busyness and intensity, I would challenge you to spend some time with people who you know can help you refresh and recall that God is performing a greater work in the world than we can comprehend.

Where does my hope come from?

As I reflected on some of the issues that are going on in my life and around me, I was reminded that God does not delay His work any longer than necessary and that His delays are always with a greater purpose in mind.

When I search the faces of friends and family that are enduring long-term difficulties and I examine the groaning and disappointment in my own heart at some of the things that have transpired over the last year, I am pressed to either keep asking God to help me believe His Word or walk away. It is an active and ongoing choice to go to God, time and again, admitting that I need His help believing Him when the things I see might suggest that there is no hope.

In these times, we have the opportunity to remember where our hope as Christians comes from. It cannot be found anywhere but in Christ alone. Somewhere along the journey, we often gather up other hopes that do disappoint and fail us. If our hope is in our future, our family relationships, our successful career, our education, our talents and qualifications, our friends, our nice stuff…we’ll be let down. It is a process of letting go of those hopes so that we can cling rightly to the One hope we have. That is not to say that God might still provide in those areas and perhaps even abundantly, but these things are not to be our hope.

There are some women I care about dearly who hoped for happy families and healthy marriages and, well, that isn’t what they got. I want to tell them something that will fix their situations and restore their hope. I did point out that God is our hope and yet I felt that my presentation was a feeble attempt to give them what they long for. I get that they are in pain now and I get that eternity seems a long way off and I get that they don’t see a tangible resolution that meets their expectations, that satisfies their previous hopes. Ultimately, it I know it is the Lord that must fill them with Himself as they find themselves feeling empty and it is the Spirit that must make His Word come alive for them.

Somehow, in the midst of our deferred hopes or dashed hopes, God makes a way for us to acknowledge Him as the hope we have for today and every tomorrow until He returns and makes all things new. I suppose that one of the advantages of being in the trenches right alongside these dear ones with my own collection of hopes disappointed is that in this season, God provides me  a unique ability to speak into their lives as someone acquainted with their grief, perhaps not their specific circumstances, but the common denominator of hoping in something or someone in addition to God and finding out that hope was misplaced. I’m not on my high horse handing them spiritual platitudes. I got knocked off and I’m right there beside them grappling with what I’ve read for years in scripture and what I want to believe against all odds, but it’s not easy to actually live that when hardship hits and keeps on coming.

Psalm 27:13-14: “I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living! Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”

Job 19:25-26: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God.”

Follow me

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been thinking about John, his life and his character. One thing that strikes me about the disciples is their willingness to drop what they were doing and follow Jesus. There are so many things that can hold us back from walking with Him.

Perhaps, more unsettling is that some of those things seem like good things. Family, school, work, and current ministry opportunities can be wonderful things. Then, there are a whole host of decisions that we can make as we grow to understand His Word and seek to obey what the Spirit guides us to do.

Sometimes not wholeheartedly following Him is not hindered by something or someone else in our lives, but rather that there is a heart and mind hang up.

Even when we are going strong, I believe it is important to do an inventory periodically, allowing the Lord to search us out and see if we are living in step with Him, or if there is something holding us back or creating a distraction.

It’s essential that we stop, listen, reflect, repent, and then obey.

The ability to multi-task to the max is not always a good thing in my opinion because it nurtures what I would call ‘popcorn thoughts.’ Instead of focusing in on an issue or a project for a duration, we find ourselves working on two or three things at once and thinking about five or six things, devoting a small portion of our actual focus to any one individual item.

I was listening to a friend recently describing the benefits of mentally preparing for giving birth. She described how she spent time each day working on breathing and relaxation techniques and picturing encouraging scenes of a healthy delivery as well as happy events in her life. When the time comes, her mind will be disciplined to be in tune with her body and she’ll be ready to close out all of the anxiety and distractions that sometimes derail a woman in labor.

Without effort, this friend might be subject to the ‘popcorn thoughts’ of ‘what are these people in the room thinking about me?,’ ‘what if something goes wrong?,’ where is the nurse?,’ ‘how soon will this be over?,’ ‘i don’t like to let people see me this way…’ etc.

So, part of being prepared to follow Him is seeking to keep our lives and relationships under His authority, but another aspect is cultivating quiet, calm minds that can be fixed on Him and on the specific things He’s entrusted to us and that takes discipline through practice.