Faith and the City

At the invitation of a Reservoir member, I bopped across the river today to Boston University for an interesting event, called Faith and the City. It was hosted by BU’s interesting Initiative on Cities, founded in part by Boston’s former mayor, Tom Menino.

BU’s Dean of Marsh Chapel led a panel of clergy that have been associated with three of Boston’s more prominent religious institutions – Trinity Church, Charles St. A.M.E. Church, and the Islamic Society of Boston Cutlural Center. Rev. Rainey Dankel, Shaykh Yusif Fahmy, and Rev. Dr. Theodore Hickman-Maynard all discussed their experiences in leading faith communities that seek to be of relevance and service to their cities. They talked about the complexities of owning buildings in cities, serving communities from positions of both poverty and privilege, and the role they see their congregations playing at their best.

I came away with both thanks and questions.

I was so grateful for Reservoir Church as Rev. Hickman-Maynard talked about the challenges of churches in their old buildings. He described situations where churches own buildings they can’t properly fill and have to spend a quarter to a third of their budget simply maintaining the property. He described other situations where churches overspend on their facilities, assuming they are still the communal center of their city, when they no longer have that role in society.

This made me so glad for the blessing of our property. We own one of the largest church properties in the city of Cambridge, a property that takes considerable resources to maintain. But we share its use with the Benjamin Banneker Charter Public School, whose 350 students and their teachers and families use the space throughout the week.  The Banneker gets a well-maintained property and an attentive and supportive landlord at a fair and reasonable price. And the church receives rent, which covers the majority of our facility costs. Both institutions and our city as a whole benefit from this shared space use. It’s really a great partnership.

I’m grateful too for our work as Reservoir in the City. For a dozen years now, we’ve been building relationships with the people who live and work in our neighborhood and we continue to build sustainable and mutually-edifying partnerships with individuals and organizations throughout the City of Cambridge. We are widely recognized as a church that loves our neighbors, and we partner with the public schools, the police, and our neighbors to sponsor events and meet needs in North Cambridge. We desire to serve and receive from our neighborhood in a spirit of joyful reciprocity, joining people and organizations that are doing great work in our community, and empowering our neighbors to become partners in projects that we work on together.

I’m so grateful for community potlucks, interfaith dinners, free soccer clinics, block parties, leadership development programs, and church-school partnerships that Reservoir participates in. Last week, I visited some of our elderly Muslim neighbors in their home. We ate together and exchanged gifts, they provided some religious instruction to my sons from the Quran. I prayed for their ailments in the name of Jesus. We left after much embracing. Another moment of the treasure it is for a faith community to share life in a city.

But today’s event left me with questions as well.

-In an era of decreasing participation in faith communities, do our communities still have resources to be vital participants in the life of our cities?

-In a time when religious institutions have often rightfully been seen as contributors to national and global problems, how can we be excellent civic partners in the flourishing our our communities?

-And in a time of enormous civic division and disconnectedness, could the cultivating of healthy and diverse community be one of the greatest balms a church can offer our times, while also one of the greatest displays of spiritual power we can offer?

I’m excited about some of the theological and missiological work Reservoir’s been part of in response to these questions. I’m also excited about our membership in the Christian Community Development Association and a growing partnership with Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, that will help us not to answer these questions alone.

Two Big, Hard, Exciting Things Jesus Wants to Help Us Do

I’ve mentioned that there are two things that God’s been leading me to think about as the year comes to close.

The first is our public sphere. After the most fear-driven, divisive, and utterly insane election season most of us ever remember, we’re both exhausted and compelled by our public sphere – what’s happening in the world we share, beyond our own personal day-to-day affairs.

This year’s public sphere – not just the presidential election, but all kinds of things out there in the big world – has for me renewed my commitment to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. If that sounds sort of familiar or at least a bit more poetic than you’d expect from me, it’s because it’s a (translated) line of poetry from the Bible.

The prophet Micah, somewhere late in the 7th century B.C., was inspired to say that this is what God wants out of people: for us to do justice, to love mercy and to talk humbly with God. He said this to people who were beleaguered and confused and troubled in ways that would feel familiar to you and me in its essence, if not in in detail.

This is probably the closest thing I have to a “life verse”, a single line in the Bible that motivates and inspires me to live as I hope to live.

Who’d argue that our public world couldn’t use more mercy and justice and walking with God that is both devout and humble. I could say a lot about each of these phrases, but for now, I’ll just state that all three of these qualities seem patently in too short supply – in our churches, out politics, our leaders, our followers, our business people, our educators, and, well, everyone and all our institutions. Mercy, justice, and walking humbly with God are frankly often enough lacking in my own heart and actions.

But to be those and to advocate those is where God’s leading me.

The second thing is to be engaged in community building.

We continue to discover just how divided and fractured the United States is, let alone just how divided we are from the rest of the world we alternatively sell things to, and give things to, and bomb, and bless, and ignore.

The rest of the world aside, though, our country is more racist, less hospitable, more judgmental, less united, and angrier than may of us thought it was. From all corners, really.

On this second work of community building, I expect I’ll do some more blogging in the days ahead on insights from the powerful, insightful book Disunity in Christ, by the social psychologist and Christian leader Christena Cleveland. It’s really an extraordinary book that you’ll want to read, but I’ll at least share a few of its insights and applications with you.


Mercy, justice, and a humble walk with God.

Diverse community building of empathy and love.

Both of these things seem counter-evolutionary to me, contrary to our nature. We evolved to be tribal people, to protect our own. Our tendencies to hive off are shared with most of the animal kingdom and serve well to protect us against external threats.

But they’re contrary to the thing that Jesus seems to long to do in human story – to break down dividing walls with love and forgiveness; to establish societies of justice and mercy; to teach us to walk humbly with God; to restore all things.

This is purely speculative, of course, but I can picture God looking at our pale blue dot of a planet, seeing the human society that he created through physical and chemical and evolutionary processes set into motion billions of years ago, and thinking it’s too bad about the underbelly of all that worked out.

The story of my faith tradition, though, is that in Jesus, God has entered into human history to redeem the sin of the world and to reunite humanity to God.

I’ve got to think some of the fruit of this is a maturation of human society toward justice and peace and mercy, and the creation of communities of unity and love. Much of the New Testament of the Bible is a testament to the spiritual power Jesus has to move cooperating people and community toward these ends.

That’s what I’m leading in toward Jesus for as well.

It’s what I invite you to as well in this Christmas season.

When people lean in toward mercy and justice and a humble walk with God, and when people – as individuals and with the institutions we are part of – when people love as God loves, Jesus is there.

Resources for Financial Freedom

Last week, as part of our Flourishing series, I preached on Moving from Financial Shame and Anxiety Toward Freedom. It was pretty well received, and I personally think it would be a rich use of forty minutes of your time. I heard a lot of appreciative comments, and almost a third of the adults in the room committed to a 90-day tithing challenge as well.

Tips #2 and #3 at the end were:

  • Learn from the world’s best (and free) financial resources, and
  • Make the hard choices today for a better tomorrow, and a better today.

I was encouraging people to break patterns of anxiety around our finances not just by giving more – as important as that is – but by also figuring out the disciplined moves we can make to bring our financial lives into greater order and health.

I’m no personal finance expert, but I promised to pass along a few resources that have helped me or been recommended to me by good friends or facebook acquaintance friends.

So, here they are.

First off, if you need any more reading on just how big of an issue this is in America, here’s the article from The Atlantic that I lead with. “My Secret Shame” is a pretty powerful and sobering look at Americans’ personal finances, through the lens of one man’s struggles.

Next, my favorite book I’ve read on the topic: All Your Worth, by Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren and her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi. Your local library likely has it. The Warrens commend a financial balance, where no more than 50% of your income pays for true “must-haves”, where you devote a full 20% to savings or paying down bad debt, and where you’re left with 30% of your income for “wants”, which would include everything from music lessons for your children to shopping for new clothes, to eating out, and more. They have a ton of other great advice, on everything from bringing these categories into alignment, to helpfully navigating money issues with your partner, to dealing with frustration and blame around your finances, to what to do when your case seems hopeless. I shift her proportions to account for giving as 10-20% of our family budget, but they get things started well.

Several Christian friends swear by the resources Dave Ramsey produces, particularly his seven baby steps, which they say have helped them and others get out of debt, stop getting into debt, and give generously while living well. I’ve never read his stuff, so I can’t comment either way.

Many friends have used the website Mint to help them understand where all their money is going, which helps them gain awareness and change their spending patterns. Others have used You Need a Budget, and the work of Mr. Money Moustache for these purposes – to rethink spending and money priorities.

A few other have learned a great deal about personal finances from Suze Orman or a book called The Richest Man in Babylon.

If you can afford it, others recommend an appointment with a fee-based financial advisor (one who makes no money by selling you products), being entirely truthful, and seeing what advice you get.

Whichever of these tools you use, may you move out of the fear and shame of financial bondage and into freedom!

This Summer, Let’s Flourish!

We’ve started a summer series at Reservoir Church we’ve called flourishing. And we’re pretty excited about it – here’s why.

If you’re anything like me, even if you’re long past school aged, summer brings all kinds of anticipation. Our first 80 degree summer days take me back to those feelings from my last days of school as a student, or even as a teacher. Freedom is coming. Joy is here. It’s time to really live!
But summer can of course end up kind of disappointing as well. As a kid, all that freedom could quickly turn into boredom. Did I really want to play Nintendo for six hours? Did that really give me what I was looking for?
And as an adult, summer’s work demands don’t magically go away. Life for most of us isn’t set up with two month long breaks and vacations. And if you’re a parent – as I am – summer can actually be a lot more work than the rest of the year, as our schools shut down and we have to figure out what to do with our kids – and ourselves – all day.
Not just in summers, but in the whole of our lives, we don’t want to live in disappointment, stress, and restlessness, but we want to flourish – to grow, to contribute, to prosper, to experience life as we sense it was meant to be lived for us.
At Reservoir Church, we think Jesus knows the way and can help us with this. So we enter our summer of flourishing.
We’ll look at finances, and fear, and sex, and politics, and many more things and ask how Jesus can walk us toward flourishing. And this Sunday, I will walk us through a grid that an author Andy Crouch gives us in his book Strong and Weak that will help us understand some of the dynamics that lead us toward or away from flourishing.

Last week I kicked things of with a brief exploration of the strength we can experience as God meets us in our weakness. We started there, with understanding our disabilities, because this is not a self-help series. We won’t spend our summer telling you do be better and do more.

Rather, we’ll look at Jesus, and we’ll see in Jesus the tremendous authority and vulnerability that shapes God’s flourishing. And we’ll look at God’s invitation to join us and make that pattern of living our own as well, as we follow Jesus into more and more life.