A Vision for City Church
People have asked about my sabbatical; others have asked about our church. If you're interested, below is a reflection on key themes from my sabbatical, and they mirror who we’re becoming as a church: Authentic, Encouraging, Inclusive, and Christ-centered. Feel free to join us this Sunday!
Reflections and Vision
On Sunday, September 3 2017, I preached through the Old Testament book of Ruth. Along the way I reflected on my sabbatical and looked forward to who City Church Long Beach is called to be – authentic, encouraging, inclusive, and Christ-centered. (If you are not familiar with the book of Ruth feel free to read it first - it’s very short).
Ruth 1 AUTHENTICITY
This chapter centers around the hardships of Naomi, a faithful Jewish woman who is driven from her country because of famine, who sees her husband and two sons die in the foreign land of Moab. Ruth, one of her Moabite daughters-in-law, returns home to Israel with her, but Naomi is a shell of her former self. She rages at God. She says her name is no longer Naomi (which means ‘sweet’) but is now Mara (which means ‘bitter’) because “the Almighty has made my life very bitter” (1:20).
Alongside Ruth and Boaz, Naomi is one of the heroes of this story and is included as a picture of what covenant faithfulness looks like. In all her pain, she does not turn away from God. Instead she turns towards him. Yes, she’s full of anger and accusation as she faces God, but the scriptures portray that directness as a sign of a healthy, strong relationship with God.
The first week of my sabbatical I spent in silence and solitude at a monastery – with no phone, computer or conversation. With only my bible, a notebook, and a small book on contemplative prayer for company, I had to face my inner world with God.
I was surprised by how much I had to grieve. This past year had been remarkably difficult in ministry; I’d experienced failure in so many ways – and yet I’d hidden from the depth of those feelings. There’s nothing like a week in silence to force you to confront your inner darkness, to put you in touch with your anger, sadness, and loss. I couldn’t be more grateful for the sweet times with Jesus that week as he walked with me through my mourning. Reading the book of Ruth at the monastery reminded me that being authentic with God was not only encouraged, it was essential; not only was it emotionally healthy, it was spiritually healthy; not only was it a covenant privilege, it was covenant faithfulness.
I’m more convinced than ever that City Church is called to be an authentic community. That means we wrestle with our questions, we name our failures, we face our frailty. And we do a lot of grieving, because this world is full of pain and full of loss and so are our lives.
Naomi’s story is included in the bible – it’s not dismissed, glossed over, or trivialized. It’s front and center in the story of redemption, and God is calling us as a church to that kind of authenticity as a sign of our covenant faithfulness. Our stories, in all their glory and shame, are sacred.
Ruth 2 ENCOURAGEMENT
In the second chapter of Ruth we meet Boaz, another one of the heroes of this little book. Boaz stands as another sign of covenant faithfulness, though quite different than Naomi. He’s indomitably encouraging. He calls out “The Lord be with you!” to his workers, and his positivity has so influenced the culture of his clan that they can’t help but call back, “The Lord bless you!” (2:4).
Three times it says that Boaz showed favor on Ruth; three times he is called blessed. Boaz recognizes that he has been blessed to be a blessing to others, so he can’t help helping. He’s radically generous in his encouragement.
I was sitting in the back of the small monastery chapel as I read about Boaz, and I couldn’t help but weep. At first, I wasn’t sure why. Then it struck me. I’ve spent a lot of time being Naomi, wrestling with my fears and failures and doubts and disappointments… but underneath it all, I’m still called to be Boaz.
From my earliest experiences as a follower of Jesus, people have affirmed in me a positive energy, an exuberance, and the gift of encouragement. This summer, I’ve been able to embrace that part of myself again. It doesn’t mean that I don’t doubt or wrestle with hard questions or grieve losses – it just means that I will press on with Jesus, giving voice to his imago dei in me that refuses to stop encouraging others on their spiritual journey.
City Church Long Beach is called to be a safe place where people are encouraged and assisted in taking the next step on their spiritual journey. Boaz, like Jesus, had a soft spot for those on the margins, and so do we – the immigrant, the poor, the widow, the lonely, the spiritual seeker, the outcast. City Church is called to lift others up, relentlessly encouraging people towards a flourishing life in Christ.
Ironically, to be a safe place for others requires great risk for ourselves. We must leave our safety zones to create safety for others: we are called to reach out and initiate first with others, we’re called to step up and invest in others, we are called to generously give of ourselves to others so that they might come more alive. I strongly suspect we’ll come more alive as we do so.
Ruth 3 THEOLOGY
Boaz lived in the time of the Judges, so he didn’t have the prophets or the wisdom literature (nor the New Testament!) to refer to; he only had the Law. Any number of times in this chapter Boaz shows how he followed the Law (see Deut 24:19-22 and Deut 25:5-10, for example). And yet, Boaz didn’t follow the Law rigidly.
Deuteronomy 23:3 is very clear that no Moabite or descendent of a Moabite (to the 10th generation!) is allowed to be part of Israel, and yet Boaz welcomes the opportunity to marry Ruth, to bring her into his family, and to have children by her. Boaz loves and obeys the Law and yet his theology doesn’t require him to obey all of the Law. It’s like somehow, twelve hundred years early, he’s gotten Jesus into him and has allowed Jesus to reorient his theology in a Christ-centered way.
I can’t help but think that Boaz’s life story affected his theology. Since Boaz’s own mother both was a prostitute and was not Jewish (see Josh 2:1 and Mt 1:5), he certainly had seen God working through people who were technically condemned in the Law.
One of the things a sabbatical does is to create enough time and space to ask your hard questions. One of mine circled around the intersection of Law and grace and the theology of scripture. I have struggled with Deuteronomy’s command that a rape victim must marry her perpetrator, that every man, woman and child should be killed when taking the promised land, and that foreigners like the Moabites were to be excluded from God’s people. Now I got to ask the question, “Do I really believe and follow those things in the bible and other things like them?”
Boaz gave me an answer that I could swallow. He did it himself – he was faithful to the Law, and yet that faithfulness did not include obeying parts of the Law that in his setting would have set him against what God was up to. Boaz was like his descendent, Jesus, who time and again bumped up against the scriptures by teaching, “You have heard it said… but I say to you…” For me, I’d been looking for someone who had a high view of scripture and a radical view of obedience, who all the while didn’t feel obligated to violate their conscience when it came to following the heart of God. And I found Boaz.
My wrestling with scripture this summer reminded me of an early conviction that Jason Brown and I shared at a City Church leadership retreat a couple of years ago. We told that group that scripture is not the foundation of City Church and scripture is not the center of City Church. Instead, we insisted, Jesus is the foundation and Jesus is the center, and we’re building our church on him alone. The bible is not a ‘flat’ book, with all parts being taken equally – instead, it all points to Jesus, finds it’s completion in Jesus, and is meant to serve Jesus’s agenda in our world today.
Jesus himself chastised the religious because “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (Jn 5:39-40). City Church will continue to be a Jesus-centered church, and we will continue to read scripture through the lens of Jesus and for the purpose of knowing Jesus. This core theological conviction will continue to shape who we are and how we do ministry.
Ruth 4 INCLUSION
At the news that Boaz and Ruth will marry, the elders and the people of Bethlehem bless the couple, saying, “May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your home like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the family of Israel” (4:11). The book of Ruth is reinterpreting Deuteronomy 23:3 about exclusion, and instead is telling a radical story of inclusion. The disqualified outsider not only has become a true believer, but also a mother of the twelve tribes of Israel.
The genealogy at the end of the book (a unique occurrence in the ancient world) seals the deal – showing how the great King David himself is just three generations descended from the Moabite, directly and drastically reinterpreting Deuteronomy 23:3’s ban of ten generations. Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus (Mt 1) continues the trajectory of Ruth’s genealogy, showing how all along God had been working towards the inclusion of all kinds of people in the lineage of Jesus because, as the Gospels show, Jesus’s kingdom is radically inclusive.
In the 2000 national census, the Wrigley neighborhood, where we live and worship, was the #1 most diverse neighborhood of Long Beach, and the city of Long Beach was the #1 most diverse city in the U.S. Other places around the nation continue to grow more diverse and some have overtaken Wrigley since then, but the diversity here is still tremendous.
This summer I’ve been reminded of how much I thrive in the diversity of our neighborhood and how God has called me to be a radically welcoming person. In a world where ‘judgmental’ is statistically the first word non-Christians associate with Christians, being truly welcoming requires extra grace, uncommon hospitality, and a willingness to sit in the ambiguity and discomfort created when people who are truly different than us show up in our lives and in our church.
Each Sunday City Church celebrates communion. It has always been a table open to all who want to take a step towards Jesus. At the table, we’ve embodied a centered-set mentality as opposed to a bounded-set mentality. The center has always been Jesus, not our rules or preferences. As our nation becomes both increasingly diverse and increasingly divided, City Church is called to unity and inclusion. That unity is built on seeing the imago dei in every person, valuing each person’s story, and being a place where our sacramental unity in Christ takes precedence over our theological conformity. It is primarily what Jesus has done for us, not how closely our beliefs line up, that makes us one.
I am so very grateful for the gift you gave me this summer, City Church LONG BEACH. Thank you. Thank you for the gift of time away to rest, to pray, to think, to be reinvigorated. I’m excited to be back in your midst, following Jesus with you on his mission to transform us and to love this world.