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Practice Gratitude

Posted by on October 14, 2014

fall-leaves-falling-5The season of fall in Michigan is one of my favorite times of year. I love the colorful leaves, the smell of hot cider, the taste of apples dipped in caramel, and the traditions of pumpkin carving and football…just to list a few. Although these are all wonderful gifts I’ve enjoyed with friends and family, I’m noticing that the novelty of the new school year has faded and I’m more tired than usual. The house isn’t quite as clean as it was five weeks ago, the motivation to exercise as much as I had planned is dwindling, and the practices of prayer, scripture reading, and gratitude are taking a back seat.

I see September 1 and New Year’s Day as one and the same in that they are both beginnings – times to start fresh and try again. However, along with the hope that accompanies this month is the frustration of defeat as I recognize my insufficiencies and humbly crawl back to Jesus with open hands. My efforts quickly exhaust me without the practice of daily receiving the Lord’s grace – “give us this day our daily bread” (Matt. 6:11).

As a community of Christians seeking to be transformed by the Gospel, let’s together turn away from our to-do lists, schedules, and striving as if they were the source of life; instead, let’s turn towards the Creator who made us and sustains us. Let’s enjoy the beauty of nature and the gifts of friends and food as a way to grow spiritually, to worship Jesus, and enjoy the gift of the Gospel.

Join me in taking some time today to practice gratitude with this prayer from Psalm 119:57-64:

You are my portion, Lord;
I have promised to obey your words.
I have sought your face with all my heart;
be gracious to me according to your promise.
I have considered my ways
and have turned my steps to your statutes.
I will hasten and not delay
to obey your commands.
Though the wicked bind me with ropes,
I will not forget your law.
At midnight I rise to give you thanks
for your righteous laws.
I am a friend to all who fear you,
to all who follow your precepts.
The earth is filled with your love, Lord;
teach me your decrees.

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Prayer Letter, October 2014

Posted by on October 9, 2014

But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults.
Psalm 19:12

Our work at TCF is continually framed by prayer and Scripture, and as we worship we frequently find ourselves drawn to the Psalms. We rejoice to participate in praise with the Psalmist, and we gratefully find our own sorrows taken up in the laments so eloquently expressed. And as we wrestle with difficult conversations, we find ourselves challenged by verses like this one, which remind us that we each contribute, in our own ways, to divisions in the church.

The Psalmist was no stranger to sin, and has proven a faithful guide as we work with Christians to recognize and honestly acknowledge our own failures to love God and one another. So often our shortcomings are buried under layers of justification and fear, and it takes the guidance of the Holy Spirit to uncover them – to shed light on the darkness we each hide. And yet, as the Psalmist testifies, this work is never one of condemnation, but of redemption! God helps us to see and repent of our sin, for sure, but then redeems our failure, transforming it into an opportunity for growth in His love. Further, this astonishing grace changes us, not only as individuals, but as a community: when together we invite God to “clear our hidden faults,” we find ourselves newly equipped to love God and each other, even in the midst of our disagreements.

As you pray for TCF this month, please pray with me for our staff and friends – that like the Psalmist we’d have the courage to invite God’s convicting presence, and open hearts to respond in love to what He reveals. Please pray that in the midst of sometimes difficult work, we’d be transformed more deeply into the image of His Son.

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How to suffer well

Posted by on October 7, 2014

The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen.  – 1 Peter 4:7–11

There was a time when churches spread out across what is now modern Turkey. The apostle Paul was from this region. We were first called Christians in the city of Antioch. The “seven churches of Asia” described in John’s Revelation are there. Several of Paul’s letters were written to churches there.

But it wasn’t long before the churches came under persecution and suffering. The first letter of Peter is written to the “wandering exiles of the Diaspora” in several provinces of Asia Minor. In this short letter, a variant of the word “suffer” is used some twenty times. Their troubles are even described as a “fiery ordeal.” Although we don’t know exactly what the ordeal was, we know Peter wrote to encourage them in the midst of their troubles.

Peter doesn’t attempt to tell them why they are suffering, except to say that their suffering shouldn’t come as a surprise. Jesus suffered. In following him, these early brothers and sisters naturally share in Jesus’s suffering. Peter instead tells them how they should suffer; that is, how should they act as they undergo their trials?

The time is short, says Peter, and too much time has already been wasted in their former “excesses of dissipation.” Their intention now should be to do the will of God. Peter tells them to be serious and discipline themselves “for the sake of their prayers.” They are to exercise their spiritual gifts for one another, to be hospitable to one another, and above all to maintain constant love for one another.

Like those early Christians, we experience suffering, difficulties, and conflict. How are we to respond? From Peter’s letter, we know that we are called to an intentional life of prayer and worship. And we are called to an intentional life together, showing one another hospitality, and using our gifts for one another. We are in this together. We are not called to suffer alone, but within the community of believers and under the care of God.

There is a kind of suffering we experience that comes unbidden. But there is a kind of suffering that we choose to undergo. Those engaged in the work of The Colossian Forum find themselves moving toward conflict and difficult divisions in the church. Not with unhealthy curiosity, and not as heroes. But the divisions and brokenness are the sufferings of Christ, and we are called to share in those sufferings. What can sustain us? Peter’s answer to this is to pray and worship together, to exercise and receive the gifts of one another, to welcome one another (without complaint), and to love another. Even in the midst of ugly disagreements we see opportunity for the body of Christ to become more perfectly formed in Christ’s image.

In this age of quick news, we are very aware of the sufferings of our fellow believers and other coreligionists in places like Syria and Iraq, in sub-Saharan Africa, and elsewhere. We know of many people who suffer just because they lack food, shelter, and health care. It is good to remember them as we face crises and difficulties in our situations, for most of us “have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.” The sufferings of the churches in Asia Minor were eventually so great that, in this birthplace of the Christian church, only remnants and ruins remain. But Peter reminds us that, in Christ, even our difficulties provide opportunities to be finished with sin and to glorify God in our life together. Participation in Christ’s suffering can even be a source of joy as we await his return.

Rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.  – 1 Peter 4:13

 

Will Fitzgerald serves as the lay pastor of Kalamazoo Mennonite Fellowship, a home-based church that is part of Mennonite Church USA.

 

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Job and God – a good conversation

Posted by on September 30, 2014

“I am angry with you…because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”

-God, quoted in Job 42:7

If you’ve ever read through the entire book of Job, you may have found this verse a bit puzzling. It follows a conversation between Job and his friends, in which they wrestle with the meaning of Job’s sufferings. His friends are trying to help free him from his misery by pointing out what he’s getting wrong, and admonishing him to make things right with God. Generally speaking, the friends’ comments are spot on. In sharp contrast, Job complains and rages, blaming God for his suffering and misfortune. On the page, at least, the friends seem much closer to getting it right. Why, then, would God come out in Job’s defense? What is He holding against Job’s friends?

Drew Lewis, friend of TCF, recently shared his reflections on this striking passage, pointing out that the Hebrew preposition translated in most English texts as “of” might also be correctly translated “to.” This leads him to suggest that God’s concern may have been less with what was said than with the way that this conversation was carried out. While Job’s friends spent their time talking with Job about God, Job’s angry outbursts were continually directed towards God. In other words, Job’s friends described a coherent (and largely correct) theological vision, but in such a way that more or less left the presence of the living God out of the picture. And though Job may have been taking some doctrinal missteps as he responded to his friends, all the while he was calling out to God in the midst of his suffering and confusion. To be sure, God wasted no time in setting Job straight on several counts (see chapter 38), but he also affirmed Job’s desire for relationship in the midst of deeply troubling questions. Furthermore, God went so far as to have Job intercede on behalf of his friends, and forgave their mistakes in response to Job’s sacrifice. Clearly, the relationships between Job and God, and between Job and his friends, emerged from this extended upheaval not only intact, but even strengthened!

This passage affirms what we’re after at TCF: engaging difficult conversations – and even suffering – in direct relationship with God. While we do certainly encourage talking about conflict and controversy with our sisters and brothers, we structure our conversations with the goal of relating to God throughout. We are confident that our mistakes can be redeemed, and even in the midst of our own failings God invites us ever deeper into relationship with him – and through him, with each other. This is why we begin and end our forums in prayer, and why we often take midpoint breaks for silence and reflection. We build in time for confession and worship, and we frame our conversations with Scripture. Our goal is that at the end of each forum, in one way or another, together we might hear the astonishing words: “…you have spoken to me what is right.

 

Drew Lewis is the author of Read Him Again and Again! Repetitions of Job in Kierkegaard, Vischer, and Barth, and the forthcoming Approaching Job. He blogs at azlewis.wordpress.com.

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Another welcome!

Posted by on September 19, 2014

I am pleased to announce the addition of Craig Schrotenboer to The Colossian Forum team. Craig joins us as Director of Operations, bringing with him extensive operational experience with Herman Miller, Davenport University, Youth For Christ, and KIDS HOPE USA. Craig’s skills and gifts are already helping TCF to become more efficient and effective as we continue to develop our capacity to serve the church.

 

 

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Prayer Letter, September 2014

Posted by on September 4, 2014

leaves-burn5892-mediumThen he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 
Exodus 3:5

In this week’s lectionary reading, Moses steps off the path to investigate a perplexing sight: a bush that burns but is not consumed. As he approaches, he hears a warning, and realizes that this odd and perhaps frightening vision veils the voice of the God!

In some ways, a TCF forum isn’t all that unlike Moses’ odd desert experience. We invite our participants to step “off the path” of the usual and customary ways of disagreeing. We venture onto uncharted ground, hopeful that amidst the dry sands and crumbling rock of conflict, we might encounter the transformative presence of God. And like Moses, we often hear the voice of God calling out to us in surprising—and sometimes disconcerting—ways.

During this last month, we hosted a gathering to explore Christian faithfulness in the midst of significant tensions about human sexuality. Not surprisingly, this conversation took us well off the worn path of the experience of many in the church today. The pain and confusion on all sides of this topic sometimes threaten to overwhelm. During our time together, however, it became increasingly clear that God is calling the church onto holy ground: into deep trust that we will not be consumed or destroyed by this, but instead transformed into deeper holiness. As a wise friend of TCF recently observed, “A safe space is not the same thing as a holy space.” We are grateful for this group of remarkable Christians who together took courageous steps onto difficult but holy ground.

Thank you for praying with us as we venture into holy spaces.

 

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Welcome!

Posted by on August 22, 2014

Andy 1- croppedI am pleased to welcome Andy Saur to the staff of TCF. He brings a strong professional background and deep personal interest to his role of Executive Assistant. Andy holds a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Wheaton College, and a diploma in Entertainment Business Management from Vancouver Film School. In the short time he’s been with us, he’s proven himself to be a tireless worker with an unparalleled eye for detail and a strong commitment to our mission of encouraging Christian faithfulness in the midst of difficult conversations. We’re grateful to have him on the team!

 

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Resources to Explore: Christian Faithfulness & Human Sexuality

Posted by on August 16, 2014

The Colossian Forum has spent the last week with a variety of scholars, pastors, teachers, and leaders, engaging hard questions about human sexuality. For many, engagement with these issues is fraught with difficulty, confusion, frustration, and disagreement. As Christians continue to engage with these issues, however, it will be very important to understand and converse with a variety of perspectives and people, so that we can know better how to reach out together to our world with the Gospel. To this end, we have asked the contributors to this gathering to recommend for us some of their personal books, websites, and resources in engaging with faith, science, and culture on these hard questions. As you will see, these resources represent a broad variety of Christian perspectives. We share them with you as an encouragement that the church can enter into this conversation without fear, testifying to the truth that somehow, this too “holds together in Christ.” 

Ron Belgau
cityofgod.net
spiritualfriendship.org
 
Alan Chambers
alanchambers.org
 
Christopher Damian
spiritualfriendship.org
universityideas.wordpress.com

Wendy Gritter
newdirection.ca
 
Harold Heie
respectfulconversation.net
Evangelicals on Public Policy Issues

Wesley Hill
spiritualfriendship.org
Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality
 
Justin Lee
justinlee.co
gaychristian.net
Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-Vs.-Christians Debate

Tim Otto
orientedtofaith.com
Oriented to Faith: Transforming the Conflict over Gay Relationships
 
Mark Yarhouse
sexualidentityinstitute.org
facebook.com/issi.site
Understanding Sexual Identity
Homosexuality and the Christian
 

This guest post was contributed by friend of TCF Christopher Damian, who graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 2013 with a B.A. in philosophy. He currently serves as a Terrence J. Murphy Fellow at the University of St. Thomas, where he is pursuing a J.D. and an M.A. in Catholic Studies. He has broad and varied interests, including the history and philosophy of education, Christian philosophy, political theory, sex and sexuality, virtue ethics, professional development, and the new legal economy. He has written for Spiritual Friendship, Ethika Politika, The Intercollegiate Review, The Observer, The Irish Rover, Millennial Journal, and Crisis Magazine. In his free time, he enjoys playing piano and writing reviews of coffee shops in the Twin Cities area.

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A sad farewell

Posted by on July 31, 2014

It is with sadness that I announce the upcoming departure of Brian Cole, Director of Operations. When Brian joined The Colossian Forum in July of 2012, TCF was a simple two-person organization ready to grow in complexity, scope and professionalism. Due to his professionalism, hard work and personal integrity, Brian helped TCF mature from a fledgling non-profit startup into a widely recognized and respected non-profit organization known for its high standard of excellence, solid support base and bright future.

Brian has helped shape TCF in remarkable ways, and his excellent and diligent work will be missed. As we part ways, I wish him all the best.

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Asking Hard Questions

Posted by on July 21, 2014

As I’m sure you know, TCF was founded out of a desire to help Christians respond faithfully to conflict. We’ve invested quite a lot of time and resources with friends who have devoted their lives to working on controversial issues, particularly in the arena of faith and science. And we’re deeply grateful for the trust and collaboration of Christians on all sides of these issues.

One set of difficult questions to which we frequently return have to do with Christian perspectives on creation and evolution. Our creationist friends, in particular, have pressed us to ask and address some of the significant theological problems raised by an evolutionary model of human origins. Our friends who accept evolution also recognize that the church needs to do more work on these questions (though perhaps they hold out greater hope for good answers).

In response to these questions from all sides, we’ve been grateful to participate in a grants program administered by the BioLogos Foundation. Our project brings together a group of scholars to explore very specific themes regarding human origins, sin, and the fall. This team represents a broad variety of disciplines and perspectives, so by its very nature couldn’t possibly advocate for one specific perspective on the topics. We don’t expect to find a “final answer” to the many important questions stirred up by these issues, and in fact we anticipate a fair amount of disagreement about some of the answers that might be proposed.

Importantly, however, we hope to see this group disagree well. Controversy can divide the church, to be sure. But at TCF, we believe that it can also be fertile ground for the work of God’s Spirit, sanctifying us as we submit ourselves and our conflicts to Christ’s Lordship. We intentionally structure our gatherings around worship, and trust that as we pray together, God will grow in us a deeper love for himself and for each other. Our goal is to engage not just the issues, but also one another, in a way that is faithful to our shared calling in Christ.

 As we worship together, holding each other accountable to the needs and pressures felt by the church we seek to serve, we trust that this will lead us to unearth deeper insight into some of the problems we’re facing together. Over time, we anticipate that this group’s work will serve as a resource for our friends, young earth creationist and evolutionary creationist alike. It may answer particular questions on all sides, and we hope that it will help lay out the contours of a difficult conversation. But above all, in the midst of a deeply divisive issue, we trust that this project will model what it looks like to participate in the unity that we share in Christ. 

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Writers: don’t miss this!

Posted by on May 30, 2014

TCF is pleased to share the following remarkable opportunity with our partners and friends. Consider a writing retreat in our neighborhood!

Issachar Fund Writing Retreat
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Open application beginning August 1, 2014

The Issachar Fund will be accepting applications from August 1-September 19 for individuals seeking to write. Any individual–a pastor, scholar, author, or graduate student–may apply to support research and writing in one of their Areas of Inquiry.  The Writing Retreat includes travel reimbursement, a monthly stipend, and a furnished apartment in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Please visit their website to learn more and submit your application. 

 

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Now hiring: Associate Director of Forums and Scholarship

Posted by on May 27, 2014

We invite all qualified applicants to consider this opening with The Colossian Forum:

Reporting to the Director of Forums and Scholarship, the Associate Director of Forums and Scholarship will be responsible for both extending TCF’s methods for engaging divisive topics and bringing these methods to fruition within the church. The successful candidate will have a Ph.D. in Bible/Theology or other, related discipline coupled with broad intellectual interests and an ability to learn new subject areas as needed, particularly across the range of high-stakes issues at the intersection of Christian faith, science, and culture. This person will develop and execute strategic plans for distributing TCF’s methods across a range of levels from scholars and pastors to laity on various topics. This position requires demonstrated pastoral abilities for leading faith communities thoughtfully and worshipfully and facilitation skills for navigating difficult group dynamics in tense conversations.

Learn more about this position and the application process here. Application screening will begin June 15, 2014 and will continue until the position is filled. 

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Life Together

Posted by on May 22, 2014

Life TogetherHere at the TCF office, we’ve just finished reading our way through Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. It’s a challenging read, calling us to very concrete practices that honor the community that God has given us. Bonhoeffer doesn’t give any easy answers, but assures us that God’s grace is with us as we work to live well together. There’s a great deal in the book that informs TCF’s work to help Christians disagree well; this quote in particular offers a solid foundation for our forum work:

God did not make others as I would have made them. God did not give them to me so that I could dominate and control them, but so that I might find the Creator by means of them. Now other people, in the freedom with which they were created, become an occasion for me to rejoice, whereas before they were only a nuisance and trouble for me. God does not want me to mold others into the image that seems good to me, that is, into my own image. Instead, in their freedom from me God made other people in God’s own image.

When we bump up against someone whose perspectives are frustrating to us, who we can’t understand (or maybe don’t want to) Bonhoeffer reminds us that this very person bears the image of Christ. Hidden, perhaps, behind their difference from me, is a revelation of the God we both serve. And it’s my work, in obedience to Christ, to look for the ways in which my brother or sister can help bring me closer to our Father.

 

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The Colossian Forum is hiring

Posted by on May 15, 2014

TCF is growing again! We’re deeply grateful for an enthusiastic response to our mission, and we’re working to respond to many remarkable opportunities to expand the number and reach of our programs. We’ve realized, however, that we can’t do this without a larger team, so we’ve just opened applications for two new positions:

The Manager of Finance and Strategic Processes will partner closely with the President to chart the organization’s future growth and strategic response to an ever-increasing demand for its services. This person has a range of responsibilities from partner and project management (framing of key approaches, high-quality partner delivery, written products), administration (information technology, reporting, facilities), and marketing (giving oversight to communications activities that promote, enhance, and protect the organization’s brand reputation). The successful candidate will have an advanced/MBA degree preferred or BA with strong business experience; 5+ distinguished years in a management position in a nonprofit organization, foundation, or government agency with a track record delivering superior results, earning respect, and assuming leadership roles.

Reporting to the Director of Forums and Scholarship, the Associate Director of Forums and Scholarship will be responsible for both extending TCF’s methods for engaging divisive topics and bringing these methods to fruition within the church. The successful candidate will have a Ph.D. in Bible/Theology or other, related discipline coupled with broad intellectual interests and an ability to learn new subject areas as needed, particularly across the range of high-stakes issues at the intersection of Christian faith, science, and culture. This person will develop and execute strategic plans for distributing TCF’s methods across a range of levels from scholars and pastors to laity on various topics. This position requires demonstrated pastoral abilities for leading faith communities thoughtfully and worshipfully and facilitation skills for navigating difficult group dynamics in tense conversations.

If you’re interested, please review the full job descriptions and follow the application instructions as described.

We appreciate your interest and investment in this work!

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Prayer Letter – May 2014

Posted by on May 8, 2014

When he was abused, he did not return abuse;
when he suffered, he did not threaten;
but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.
-1 Peter 2:23

The work that we do at TCF is grounded in an Easter hope. Christ’s death reminds us that sacrifice and suffering are central to a faithful life, while his resurrection invites us into confidence that God’s redeeming power is already at work in our midst. As Christians, there are times when we suffer as he suffers; as sinners, there are also times when we ourselves inflict the suffering. In either case, our suffering becomes an opportunity for Christ’s love and power to be revealed.

Modeled on these truths about God’s kingdom, our forums invite participants into difficult conversations with the assurance that it will likely involve painful struggle. It’s possible we will be hurt by another participant, and odds are that we’ll cause someone else suffering as well. We will need to both forgive and repent. At the same time, we enter into these controversies with hope and trust, assured that ultimately their resolution is in God’s hands. We don’t bear the weight of solving these problems alone: we trust that the Church’s struggle and pain will be redeemed by a good and loving God, who continually invites us into friendship with himself and each other.

We recently had the privilege of hosting a forum on the campus of Andrews University, where participants risked some very difficult conversations. As we engaged various heavily charged issues, our group prayed and worshipped and trusted that God’s goodness would somehow hold this all together – and at least thus far, he has! Fittingly, we concluded this forum just in time to celebrate Christ’s resurrection.

 Thank you for your prayers on behalf of this work.

 

This post is excerpted from our May prayer letter. If you would like to pray for TCF on a regular basis, please contact admin@colossianforum and ask to receive our monthly prayer letters. Thank you.

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What is a TCF Discovery Event?

Posted by on April 30, 2014

jilldevriesphotography-24On Wednesday, April 23, TCF hosted a Discovery Event, designed to share with a diverse group of local people our ministry of reconciliation and education. The event was held at our office in Grand Rapids, and included personal introductions, a presentation by our President, Michael Gulker, and a Q&A session. Most of the participants were new to TCF and were intrigued with our approach to divisive, tough issues surrounding faith, science, and culture as opportunities for spiritual and communal growth.

Our 17 guests represented a wide range of ministries, and many were able to envision ways to partner with TCF in order to serve their own communities. In the end, people came away learning three things: why we need a new kind of conversation, what is “new” about this conversation, and how they can participate. During the Q&A time, people were excited about TCF’s work and voiced some thoughtful questions, including “How does a forum make long-term impact?” and “How do you address conversations that don’t seem to be making progress?”

TCF welcomes these hard questions and encourages this same type of honest listening and gracious speaking in our forums. The hope is that our Discovery Events will not only inspire and encourage people, but will provide them with a variety of ways to engage difficult conversations within their own communities.

If you are interested in attending or hosting a Discovery event, contact us and let us know!

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What is a “listening forum”?

Posted by on April 23, 2014

How often do we feel truly listened to – not just heard but known? The body of Christ is strengthened when we use divisive issues as opportunities to build each other up through the service of listening to one another. Because we live in a culture that is fast-paced and full of distractions, listening as a spiritual discipline is something that takes practice and intentionality. TCF hopes to cultivate this virtue in communities by allowing people the space to stop what they’re doing for a time and give their full attention to their fellow Christians. When we practice this in our daily lives, we not only build connections with our brothers and sisters, we also allow the Holy Spirit to create in us the capacity to listen well so that when the most difficult issues arise, we are ready.     

A couple of weeks ago we gathered a group of people in our office living room for a Listening Forum. Our goal was to create a safe space for people to share their stories and thoughts about divisive issues in the church and Christian institutions. As we do in all our forums, we began and ended our time together in worship by confessing our common unity in Christ through prayer and scripture reading. This important practice shaped the way we listened and responded to each other – it formed our hearts and minds towards the Spirit’s work of reconciliation that happens within – and through us – when we acknowledge our dependence on God.

The evening continued as we shared both positive and negative experiences of Christians handling difficult issues. Some stories brought up old feelings of frustration and pain, while others brought hope for a better way forward – what we call “faithful conflict.” Along the way, folks were also able to name a number of issues that they felt could not be addressed in church or with other Christians because of the tensions that these issues often raise. By simply bringing these issues to light, the burden of shame that often accompanies these difficult topics was lifted, and together we cultivated our ability to listen well.

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Surprises and Transformations – The Practice of Hospitality

Posted by on April 15, 2014

Friend of TCF Darrin Compagner recently preached about the Christian practices that help us to build healthy and faithful communities. He’s agreed to share some of his thoughts in the form of a four-part blog series, focusing especially on Christine Pohl’s book “Living Into Community.” Each week, we’ll also suggest one practice for you to try out – a Christian discipline that can help you, too, become the kind of person who can disagree well. For Week 4: Find one specific opportunity to extend Christian hospitality. Remember that this isn’t about entertaining, but about sharing friendship in a way that reflects God’s own love to your guest.

The fourth practice we looked at, following Christine Pohl, was hospitality. In some ways, it is in practices of hospitality that all these things come together. Hospitality plays a key role in Christian communities. It is a necessary ingredient to make the community authentically Christian, as opposed to self-interested and self-serving. It is a means of extending the life and friendship of Christian community, and the life and friendship of God, to others.

In the ancient world, both Jewish and Greco-Roman, hospitality was a high value. Hospitality provided for the needs of travelers, apart from which travel might have been impossible. It was also a tightly prescribed social convention, with fairly well-defined patterns of greeting, welcome, provision, and reciprocity (See Entertaining Angels: Early Christian Hospitality in its Mediterranean Setting by Andrew Arterbury).

And there’s plenty on hospitality in the Scriptures, as well. Hospitality is one of those themes where, once you see it in the Scriptures and in Christian life, you can’t stop seeing it. We looked at that foundational story in Genesis 18 where God comes as a surprise guest to Abraham and Sarah. In a paradigmatic way, the demanding practice of hospitality provides a context where God provides blessing and revelation. The surprise guest, the God who shows up, who visits, who knocks at doors and makes himself a guest, is a recurrent theme (Matthew 25, Hebrews 13:1-2, Revelation 3:20). Surprises await us when we extend ourselves in practices of hospitality to strangers of all kinds.

Eugene Peterson writes in his memoir (The Pastor) that “inhospitality is epidemic in America.” A lot of people are displaced, without a place to belong. People are increasingly mobile, cut off from tradition and community. The rapid proliferation of technology, while promising to give us all kinds of leisure time to be with one another, often replaces personal interrelations with machines, and the frenetic place of life leaves little room for slow, intimate connection and relationship.

Even so, we still have need for hospitality, but tend to put in its place one of two other things. On the one hand, there is the “hospitality industry,” which turns hospitality from a relational encounter to a consumer and contractual one. What we are left to practice ourselves is very often not hospitality, but entertaining (I called Entertaining the “evil twin” of Hospitality in a sermon, and got a wonderful picture from a child of our congregation of the two personified, with Entertainment a vile beast in pitched contest with Hospitality). Where hospitality is a genuine, humble, offering and opening of yourself to your guest, entertaining is prideful, a vain showing off to your guest. 

True hospitality, to borrow from Tim Keller’s definition, is the heart and practice which turn strangers into guests, guests into friends, and friends into potential members of the family. In this way, it reflects God’s own gracious heart, and becomes not only one practice among many, but the purpose and orientation of so many Christian practices of worship, evangelism, justice, and mercy.

The Scriptures reveal a God who shows up not only as the Surprise Guest, but also makes himself the consummate Gracious Host. Christian hospitality, as a grateful echo of God’s own gracious hospitality, empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit, cultivates hearty and nourishing Christian community. Thank God for those who know how to welcome the guest in worship, welcome the neighbor in their home, and welcome spiritual sojourners to the table of grace and truth.

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Trust Falls and Fails: Practices of Faithfulness and Truthfulness

Posted by on April 9, 2014

Friend of TCF Darrin Compagner recently preached about the Christian practices that help us to build healthy and faithful communities. He’s agreed to share some of his thoughts in the form of a four-part blog series, focusing especially on Christine Pohl’s book “Living Into Community.” Each week, we’ll also suggest one practice for you to try out – a Christian discipline that can help you, too, become the kind of person who can disagree well. For Week 3: Think about a commitment you’ve made that you may be struggling to keep. Maybe it’s a small project at the office, or a tea party with your daughter – whatever it is, take some time this week to follow through.

 

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Christian community begins in grateful response to the grace and gifts of God. This grateful response, then, takes shape in practices of faithfulness and truthfulness.

Or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. In practice, we often find it difficult to speak truth, to make and keep promises, to give one another our trust, and to be worthy of trust.

Perhaps you’ve been in a setting where a group attempts a trust fall exercise. The idea is simple enough, to develop and build trust through a simple exercise of falling back and being caught. A Youtube video helpfully and comically, if painfully, chronicles a number of ways such exercises can go wrong. 

For many of us, we know of and have experienced similar moments in Christian community. Someone attempts to build trust by telling the truth, only to speak wounding words. Another person gives us a promise that they will surely show up for an event, but fails to follow through. Each opportunity for telling truth and demonstrating faithfulness is a little exercise in building a trusting community. But it’s also an opportunity to undermine that very trust.

And there are other things that can undermine communal trust and truth. Culturally, we are often shaped towards anti-faithfulness by having unlimited options. We stay in consumer mode in ways that make steady communal relationships impossible. We feel jaded towards truth and faithfulness because we are subjected to such a steady stream of untruthfulness and broken promises in carefully crafted ad campaigns and politicians seeking re-election. In an often dishonest and unpredictable world, truth-telling and faithfulness don’t come naturally to us.

 What Scripture emphasizes above all is the truth and faithfulness of God. God does not keep all his options open, but binds himself via promises. He did so to Abraham, and a longish section of Genesis traces the various trust falls and fails as Abraham haltingly grows in faith. But finally, as Hebrews 6 summarizes, Abraham “waited patiently” and “received what was promised.” In Christ, we have God’s faithfulness given in the flesh, our faithful high priest, who is for us an “anchor for the soul.”

So a people, anchored in Christ, living in the midst of an unsteady, commitment-averse culture, can be steady enough to make and keep promises, big and small. Apart from this the work of Christian community is consistently undermined, like building a sand-castle within reach of the waves. 

As with practices of Gratitude, Christian communities can call one another to practice Truthfulness and Faithfulness in counter-cultural ways. Sometimes it is little promises made and kept, like signing up to help with a clean-up day and, wonderfully, showing up to do so. Sometimes it is naming difficulties early and clearly, and eschewing the posturing and constant image-maintenance expected in a consumer culture. Such acts build trusting and trustworthy communities, and they make the faithfulness and truthfulness of God, too, credible.

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Echoing Grace: Practices of Thankfulness

Posted by on April 1, 2014

Friend of TCF Darrin Compagner recently preached about the Christian practices that help us to build healthy and faithful communities. He’s agreed to share some of his thoughts in the form of a four-part blog series, focusing especially on Christine Pohl’s book “Living Into Community.” Each week, we’ll also suggest one practice for you to try out – a Christian discipline that can help you, too, become the kind of person who can disagree well. For Week 2: Last week you practiced gratitude by thanking God for your community. This week, try to extend that gratitude to those around you – take advantage of every opportunity you come across to say “thank you.” 

Following Christine Pohl, the first theme we explored in our fall sermon series was “Thankfulness.” We began by looking at 2 Corinthians 8:1-9. It’s a fascinating passage with three communities on the horizon. One is the Macedonian Christians, who Paul notes are living in “deep poverty.” The second is the community back in Jerusalem, enduring a famine with devastating effects. And the third, the audience for the letter, is the community in relatively well-to-do Corinth. Each community is lacking something: the first two, obviously enough, are lacking money and food. The third, the Corinthians, have money and food, and even good intentions for generosity. What they lack is follow-through. They had pledged a big gift to help out, but a year later, hadn’t signed the check.

And so Paul holds before them the Macedonians, who out of their poverty, gave generously to help the Jerusalemites. And now it is the Corinthians, Paul urges, that can prove the “sincerity of their love” through generosity. Their poverty is one of joy that leads to generosity, and Paul’s response is to highlight “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”

Here, Paul meets the deep need of the Corinthians with the deep message of the grace of God. Jesus Christ set aside wealth, stepped into our deep poverty, and through his poverty we are made abundantly rich in communion with God. Apart from the grace of God, we tend to tell our stories, and view our world, as one of scarcity.  This leads us to give, when we do, in a cautious and calculated kind of way. What Paul calls for is another way, one rooted deeply in God’s abundant grace, that leads to an abundance of joy and generosity capable of giving freely and fully.

Human hearts and communities have a kind of cavernous emptiness about them. In Christ, God has spoken into this emptiness with an abundant and resounding Word. What comes echoing back is gratitude. When we know our emptiness and need, our sin and misery, we appreciate also the Word that fills our emptiness. When we know our poverty, we are primed to be receivers of grace, and then to echo God’s grace by extending gratitude to one another.

This rooting in gratitude is absolutely vital for Christian community both in theory as well as in practice. Practicing gratitude requires taking time and developing the capacity to notice those little things that build communal life without drawing attention to themselves. This means noticing the one who does the dishes, noticing the one who delivers the meal, noticing the one who lends a listening ear. In relation to the other practices, it means noticing and giving thanks for the one who knows how to speak the truth in love, and for the one who demonstrates faithfulness, and the one who provides gracious hospitality.

Without gratitude, all these other practices will die on the vine. We may not notice Gratitude’s functioning in a community, but are sure to notice if it is absent. If gratitude greases the wheels of life together, ingratitude grates and grinds. People develop a cultivated sense of score-keeping and entitlement. Envy, what Pohl calls “anti-gratitude,” and grumbling can spread through the system and the result is toxic.

Fortunately, Christian communities have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to cultivating Gratitude. Historic patterns of Christian worship emphasize this back and forth of Grace and Gratitude. The Psalms are full of thanksgiving that is both broad and specific. The communion meal is one of Eucharist (“thanksgiving”) rich with themes that carry over into receiving all of life as God’s gracious gift. Every person present contributes some gift to the body that can be noticed and appreciated. Above all, God’s actions and gifts through Christ and the Holy Spirit inspire and enable grateful living.

And so God’s grace echoes on and on in Christian communities of Gratitude.

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