IMPRINT | PART 2

1485631427759.jpeg

Beauty in the Broken

BY SHELDON ROGERS

 

It seems like, from the very beginning, God made beauty out of broken things.

 

 

Just last night, I received this sage advice from a friend via text following a session of heart pouring in which I dumped all my anxieties of late into his lap. He responded graciously with a question: “Do you know where the word ‘Israel’ comes from?” I replied, “I should know this…but I don’t.” He then recounted, in text-bubble-summarization, the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. In this story, Jacob is given a new name: Israel, “he who struggles with God.” My friend went on, “I always thought it was beautiful that Israel, the peoples who belong to God, are characterized by struggle. ‘You are mine because you struggle with me.’ It seems like, from the very beginning, God made beauty out of broken things.”

 

When I came to Forefront for the first time, in early 2014, I was broken. Don’t get me wrong. I’m still broken in many ways. We all are. However, the particular way I was broken at this point led me to be skeptical of churches and their intentions for me as an LGBTQ individual. I had long since come to peace with my orientation and its place in my religious walk, but I had struggled to find a church which felt the same way. Because of this, I had given up church altogether for the greater part of eight years. I walked into Irving Plaza with a lump in my throat and a knot in my stomach because I didn’t want to end up in another building with another group of well-meaning people who “loved” me but didn’t “love my sin.” I quickly found out that I couldn’t be more wrong in this assumption when I was invited to pre-Pride church service at Forefront with a handful of members from Grafted NYC, an LGBTQ-Christian non-profit, in which I am now a leader. In this way, the members and leaders of Forefront loved me in my brokenness by fostering a community where I could flourish as a gay Christian.

 

Fast-forward to February 2015: I sat numb on the tarmac of John F. Kennedy International Airport, awaiting a flight home to visit my mother in the hospital. She had been struck by a pulmonary embolism the night before and was on life support in Charlotte, North Carolina. I posted a half-hearted ask for prayers and good thoughts on Facebook as the rear wheels of the plane left the ground. Upon landing, my phone buzzed for what felt like five straight minutes with messages of condolence, support, and encouragement. One of those was a voicemail from Ryan Phipps, the Lead Pastor at Forefront Manhattan. In denial, I spent the rest of the afternoon convincing myself that my mother would be fine. By 9 PM that night, she was gone. My closest family member and my biggest supporter, vanished in mere moments. There is no doubt in my mind that this is, was, and will be the hardest thing I’ve ever been through. Even still, the light at the end of this long dark tunnel came in the form of overflowing support and love from many people, including the staff and members of Forefront. It continues even to this day when grief appears from the wings to haunt me again. My heart was broken and the members and staff at Forefront have consistently helped me put it back together.

 

Some time after the loss of my mother, I also endured another loss: my job. A company I had worked with for almost two years decided to let me go due, in part, to my outlook and experience with the grief, loss, and the way it had changed my personality. Long story short: I wasn’t happy anymore and the clientele could tell. I followed the usual procedure and filed for unemployment as I faced the beast that is “being jobless in New York City.” My bank account got smaller and my fear got bigger. I exhausted every resource while looking for a new job and nothing was sticking. Feeling broken, yet again, I reached out to the church in hopes that someone had a lead on a job I could secure quickly. I got several leads on jobs. I also got grocery money, resumé help, financial help, and rent money from members of the church and staff who went above and beyond to help me when I was broken, lost, and in need. Sometimes, helping mend brokenness comes in the form of practical, material needs and I am forever indebted to those members of Forefront who helped me get through this time. I know they would help me again if things ever took a turn for the worse. 

 

When we are broken and lost, we spend a lot of time asking God questions: “When will I find a job?” “Why did he break up with me?” “Will I ever truly love myself for who I am and who You see me to be?” “Why are my dreams not coming true?” In the asking, we often search too hard and too long for the answers. Around 1:30 AM, during this conversation with my friend, he sent me a quote from Rainer M. Rilke, author of Letters to a Young Poet:

 

“I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a foreign tongue. Do not seek the answers, which cannot be given you, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

 

This, to me, is the essence of the way Forefront loves people. They care for you through the questions in order to celebrate with you when the answers are found. They are there for you on mountain peaks and in deep, dark valleys. When you are broken and when you are whole, they love you. They embrace the name, “Israel” because they know the lesson comes from the struggle. They see the beauty in brokenness.

 

After all, the only way to get to the other side of a valley is to go through it.

 

And they’ll be with you all the way.

 

 

White Jesus (and Other Revisionist Histories)

 

White Jesus

A colleague of mine told me a funny story once about his early days as a young assistant pastor. He was working at a large, influential megachurch in suburban Indiana at the time.

Each year during the Advent season, the church would set up a giant manger scene out near the entryway to the property so that passers by would be reminded of what Christmas is all about. There in the manger, nestled in the hay, my friend noticed something far too common in the suburban midwest. The baby Jesus figurine was white, blonde-haired, and blue-eyed.

Later that evening, in jest (or rather, protest) my friend snuck out to the manger scene and swapped out the white baby Jesus with a black one.

The next day he was called in before the Elder Board and nearly lost his job.

I mean, after all, his actions were anathema, right? Everybody knows that Jesus was a caucasian, blonde-haired, blue-eyed baby boy who exited the womb wearing a GAP onesie and a tossel cap from Urban Outfitters!

Sadly, this is untrue, though accepted as the norm in the minds of many North Americans.

 

Revisionist History

It’s unfortunate that people of faith often fail to pause and examine our assumptions.

What assumptions, you ask?

  • that God is male
  • that God is an elderly white guy with grey hair and a long beard looking down sternly on the earth from some celestial location
  • that Jesus was a handsome, white carpenter who would have looked good in a Home Depot Ad demo-ing a Black and Decker table saw.

None of these assumptions are backed up by scripture.

In fact, scripture says the opposite.

  • God is not a man. (Numbers 23:19)
  • Yes, Jesus’ Father Joseph was a carpenter (Matthew 13:55) but that doesn’t mean that Jesus was.
  • Jesus wasn’t handsome. In fact, scripture says that “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” (Isaiah 53:2)
  • And finally, Jesus wasn’t white. He was a Middle Eastern Jew.

Here’s what that looks like.

 

Scrutiny And Open-Mindedness

So when we think of God or Jesus, why do all the wrong images surface in our minds?

It’s because we have been taught revisionist history by those who were taught revisionist history, by those who were taught revisionist history by those who were taught revisionist history (ad infinitum). It matters not whether the teaching was done by well meaning people. If it’s not true, it’s not true.

If our current religious and political climates teach us anything, it’s that we need to do less swallowing and more studying. When we hear political or religious leaders telling us who and what God is, our response should be to go back to the scriptures and history to see if these things are so. We ought to be a people who examine everything that we hear.

The people of Berea were commended for this in the bible.

“The people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth.” (Acts 17:11)

The scripture calls this way of listening and reasoning, “open-mindedness.”

That’s so different from the world we live in now, where scrutiny, questions, and doubts about the “truth” coming from the mouths of our teachers gets labeled as closed-minded resistance.

We all have our assumptions. That’s an unavoidable bi-product of being human. But are we willing to examine (and reexamine) those assumptions?

If we aren’t, it may be that we don’t have assumptions at all. On the contrary, our assumptions may have us.

Selah.



 

IMPRINT | PART 1

BY SUSIE TURGEON


The church is more than an event that happens on Sunday. It is a beautiful collection of people with stories of how God is changing them, and inspiring them to change the world. We are consistently humbled and encouraged by how Forefront is making its mark on the hearts and imaginations of people all over New York City. We have asked a few members of our community to tell us the story of how Forefront has left its imprint on their lives. This week Susie Turgeon writes about how Forefront became her church family, and why it was worth the wait. 


The best things in life are worth waiting for.

We’ve all heard that or some variation of it in our lives. It’s usually said in hindsight - after you know the outcome of a period of waiting. It’s a positive message, but what it doesn’t convey is the sheer frustration that can come from an extended period of waiting.

In April of 2014, I found myself as a new resident of New York City. Starting over in a new city wasn’t exactly new to me – this was my third out of state move in less than five years. By this time, I even had my new city routine down. Find an apartment, decorate and make it home, find the places that would become my “regular” spots, and find a church to get plugged in to. The last one was something that had come surprisingly easy to me with my two previous moves. It was also something that did not come easy to me in New York.

I started strong – I found a church in my neighborhood that I liked and jumped in feet first. I dutifully attended every Sunday and made several attempts to get connected with small groups and community groups. For various reasons, all of those attempts fizzled out. I made a few friends (which I was so thankful for), but it was a far cry from the community I craved. But I continued pursuing ways to get involved, and when I finally accepted that it wasn’t working at this particular church, I went in search of others. This led to months of further frustration. Going to a new church alone is tough, and it’s easy to go unnoticed. I started to feel like I was just spinning my wheels and got tired of trying so hard. I loved my life in New York, but I also knew I was missing community and too emotionally exhausted to keep looking for it.

After I’d been in the city almost a year, all of that changed. While catching up with a visiting friend, I ended up airing my frustrations about finding a church out on him. He’d heard of Forefront through one of his New York friends, so he connected me with her. A few weeks later I walked into the Gramercy Theater for the first time, and an hour and a half later I knew I’d found my church. I was greeted with a warm welcome, I loved the worship, and Ryan’s message was so impactful that it stayed with me for weeks. I came back week after week continued to be welcomed with open arms. I was noticed. I had found my community. In doing so, I’d also found a church that I was proud to be a part of. One that recognizes talented women and encourages them to be strong leaders. One that loves and affirms my LGBTQ friends and family. One that is more concerned with asking good questions and having healthy dialogues than having to have the right answers. One that celebrates the differences in all of us because we all matter to God. One that challenges me not just to be a better Christian, but to be a better person.

A year and a half later, I am still proud to be a part of this church community and am now part of the leadership community. As a leader, one of my biggest hopes is that everyone who walks into Forefront’s doors for the first time is welcomed with the same warmth and love that I experienced. This community is something special, and something this special needs to be shared.

During this time of year when everyone tends to look back and reflect on what they’re grateful for, I’m reflecting on how Forefront has become one of the best things in my life. And yes, it was worth waiting for.

 

 

Prepare For Justice

Last week as I walked through the Union Square subway station I saw the walls filled with post-it notes of encouraging messages left by our fellow New Yorkers. Seeing public displays of art like this reminds me of the reasons why I love this city. Whether it's in the face of terrorism, police shootings, hurricanes, or blizzards, New Yorkers know how to come together to promote justice and heal our neighbors like nowhere else.

We did our own wall of post-its at Forefront Brooklyn on the Sunday after the election. Jonathan asked us to write down what was holding us back right now and the vast majority of people wrote down words about fear. No matter who you voted for in this election, the fear and uncertainty you may have right now is a very real thing. It's incredibly important that we all remember to take care of ourselves when anxiety and emotions like this run high. This is the time to do something you love, to eat well, and care for your body. This is the time to allow yourself space to heal so that you'll be ready to stand for others when you are called.

As Christ followers we are called to stand for what’s just and generous in this world. We are called to stand for love of our enemies, for the lowly and the oppressed, to give voice to the voiceless, and bring light wherever there is fear.

hile post-it notes and Facebook posts can be a good outlet for healing, for sharing your feelings, and promoting love, the real work for justice starts right here in our local communities. I've been so encouraged by the leaders in our church who've already begun to find outlets for their feelings and beliefs through stepping into action and engaging in generous conversations in their local communities.

We're about to head into the season of Advent, a time to help usher peace into the world. As Christ followers we are called to stand for love of our enemies, for the lowly and the oppressed, to give voice to the voiceless, and to bring light wherever there is fear. Click the button below to find a list of resources for civic engagement at the local level. Keep reading for a list of resources we're gathering from people in our community who are connected to groups and ideas that encourage us all to get educated and to channel our feelings into grace-filled action.

So take care of yourself, yes, and then take action to usher in the reality you wish to see in the world. Do the work to learn more about people who have different views than you by reading books and listening to podcasts. Learn practical steps to engage in loving conversation with family and friends this holiday season. Join a small group and attend neighborhood meetings together to stand for the rights of all your neighbors. Our God can do infinite and unimaginable things, but only when we partner together.

 
 

Recommended Reading & Listening:

NPR put out an article suggesting we help bridge the political divide by reading a book that's "not for you." We love that idea. Here are just a few titles our staff is reading. We encourage you to pick up a book or listen to a podcast written by someone who believes differently than you and to learn more about the intersection between politics, the economy, racial justice, and faith in America.

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

The American Bible by Stephen Prothero

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis By Mark A. Noll

This American Life podcast episodes 600, 601, and 602

Revisionist History podcast episode 9 - A Generous Orthodoxy

 

RESOURCES TO HELP YOU HAVE CONVERSATIONS OVER THE HOLIDAYS:

Ashley Putnam, a leader in our Brooklyn community who also works for the Mayor's office, is co-starting a group called "Ally Be Home for Christmas." Join them for a meeting in person or check out the many excellent resources they're sharing in their Facebook group, like this one.

Our friend, Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis put together a simple four question tool to help you start care-frontational conversation at the holiday table.  

Another friend, the Rev. Jes Kast, posted this article just before the election on talking faith and politics with family. Follow her on social media as she continues to write on this topic.

Check out our Six Words series (especially parts 4, 5 & 6) for sermons on why we believe in building just and generous conversations across the divide. 

 

self-care resources:

"4 Self-Care Resources for Days When the World is Terrible" by Miriam Zoila Perez

"How to Cope with Post-Election Stress" by Julie Beck

"Self-Care Tips for Those Who Are Terrified of Trump’s Presidency" by Karen Attiah

Simply This

In the morning when I rise,
in the morning when I rise,
in the morning when I rise,
give me Jesus.

Made famous by Jeremy Camp circa 2006, Give Me Jesus was actually birthed in the fields of plantations, becoming a common spiritual hymn sung at camp meetings and church services during the mid to late 1800s.

 

The effortlessness behind the lyrics enables an individual to truly mediate on its meaning, which is simply Jesus.

 

Often times when dealing with religion, we use big words and engage in long monologues to get our ideas across. We often add complexities in our lives to justify our beliefs, pacify our anxieties, or prove ourselves right. Some intricacies that come to mind are denomination, sanctification, dispensationalism, and fundamentalism. While doctrine has its place and time, when I think on the old spirituals I can’t help but think, “They didn’t have all this fussiness.” For them, it was just about Jesus.

 

1 Corinthians 13:1 begins, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong…” This is in a letter to the saints that earlier in the text states, “knowledge puffs up what love has built.” Jesus even kept it as simple as, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and… Love your neighbor as yourself.”

 

I’m certainly not of the viewpoint that Jesus was some unlearned man. He knew the scriptures and the politics of the time, but he chose straightforward, uncomplicated language that connected to his audience is a very tangible, relevant way. “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit...”

 

So why do I spin my wheels trying to come up with my own solution to every matter when indeed the answer is simple?

With my relationships, give me Jesus.
With my finances, give me Jesus.
With my loneliness, give me Jesus.
With my fears, give me Jesus.
With my politics, give me Jesus.
With my hope, give me Jesus.

After the Election

America is divided. It does not matter for who we voted. The bottom line is that this election has done great damage to our country.

 To say that it will be "okay" is white male thing to say. I am not Muslim, black, a refugee, an immigrant, or a woman. To say that "we'll be okay" is a sign of white privilege. 

We teach our kids to be kind, selfless, and egalitarian. We teach our kids to eschew racism and to stop bullying, and for what? It seems that on either side of this election, the values we teach have gone out the window.

This country is divided. There is much to fix.

But all is not lost. There is much to fix but there will be healing. 

And this is Forefront's greatest calling. Our church has been put here for a time such as this. We as a staff have been put here for such a time as this. Our community is here for such a time as this. It's now on us to take courage and fulfill our calling.

We will continue to uphold and fight for our Muslim brothers and sisters. For they are children of God just like us.

We believe that every life matters. Black lives matter. The lives of anyone who has ever dealt with oppression matters. We have the privilege of loving our neighbor in ways that bring great peace and healing. 

We will continue to fight for immigrants and for refugees. Jesus said that they, not us, are the ones who are blessed.

We will continue to teach our children to be kind, selfless, and egalitarian. We will continue to preach the eradication of racism and bullying. For these are the values of Jesus Christ.

We are a church dedicated to bringing a just and generous expression of the Christian faith into our world, and that doesn't stop. It means that we usher in justice and generosity whenever and wherever we can. It's starts today, and it starts with each and every one of us.

Yes, things have changed, but all is not lost. There is hope in the radical, just, and generous love of Jesus. 

Today, no matter what side of the political spectrum you are on, I invite you to join us as we live out our calling to cultivate a just and generous expression of our Christian faith. 

Thanks for joining us on the journey. 

Civic Engagement - Part 2

By Kelsey Poole, Brooklyn Community Member

(This post is part 2 in a series on Civic Engagement written from the perspective of leaders within our community. Click here to see part 1.) 

Being raised Catholic meant I followed a rigid set of rules around Jesus and prayer. It also meant I spent years serving within my church community. There were a variety of ways to serve the church such as volunteering at the CYO basketball concession stand, washing cars at a fundraiser, or serving in Sunday mass. Still, despite the fact I was always surrounded by my religious community, I often left feeling alone and isolated.  

Overall I would sum up my Catholic upbringing as hollow. Despite that fact, I managed to hold onto my faith and sense of civic responsibility as I transitioned to college. College was a period of civic enlightenment for me. I started attending my first non-denominational church and volunteered my time at community-based events. My time at college shed light as to why I felt a void in serving the Catholic Church. It finally became clear to me that my church had been inwardly focused, investing in the spiritual lives of its congregation, but never asking the congregation to step outside of its own community.

The political scientist, Robert Putnam, helped me put into context the importance of community focused religious groups. In his book, Bowling Alone, Putnam outlines the trends between religion and civic engagement in post World War II America.  

Putnam highlights the deep rooted connection between religious communities and philanthropy, explaining that “faith communities in which people worship together are arguably the single most important repository of social capital in America.”

He goes on to say “Churchgoers provide an important incubator for civic skills, civic norms, community interests, and civic recruitment. Religiously active men and women learn to give speeches, run meetings, manage disagreements, and bear administrative responsibility…In part of these reasons, churchgoers are substantially more likely to be involved in secular organizations, to vote, and to practice politically in other ways, and to have deeper informal social connections.”

Churchgoers provide an important incubator for civic skills, civic norms, community interests, and civic recruitment.

However, as you dive into 20th century trends, you can start see a shift. Over the past five decades people have either left religion altogether or have become more "privatized" and focused more on their individual spiritual experience. This shift towards individualism leaves a void not only in our churches but in the communities where we live. Summing up his points, Putnam writes: “Unless religious impulses find home in more than individual heart and soul, they will have few long-lasting public consequences.

Jesus recognizes the multigenerational desire to be seen as an individual. He sees us as many members in one body. This message is echoed at Forefront when we are called to be the hands and feet of Christ and to live out a just and generous expression of our faith. As Christians we are all called together, as individuals, to support our spirituality and each other through community, and to extend this call into our neighborhoods, our city, and our world. 

So where do we begin?

Use your church as your foundation -

Fortunately, we are already part of a spiritual community that is living out just and generous expression of the Christian faith. Forefront offers a variety of ways to serve within our community and our city.

  • Forefront sermons, small groups, guilds, and Midrash NYC podcast, are all great resources for developing a faith that's focused on getting involved in your community.

  • Forefront partners with a number of local and international organizations, you can check them out here.

  • Forefront does an amazing job of branching out into the community by participating in local events like Atlantic Antic and town halls on gun policy. Check out the calendar for more events.

Now use this experience to serve in your neighborhood...

Serving within Forefront helped me recognize the unique gifts God gave me. The more time I invest in my community the better I understand my gifts and the gifts my neighbors have to offer. Now I know that God calls me to serve to share my love of collaborating and creating with people. Embracing my individuality helped engender the strong relationship I have with Christianity today, and my faith motivates me to be a person who openly fights for social justice and serves within my neighborhood and city. 

Be Creative - 

Remember, you don’t have to be the “Leslie Knope pro-government service leader” type to get involved! There are endless opportunities to serve when you start embracing civic engagement as a way to simply engage with people. Joining an intramural sports league, inviting your neighbor to grab a drink at a local bar, hosting a bike tour around your neighborhood, or performing with your band at a community soup kitchen are all impactful forms of civic engagement. Be creative. How can you offer up your unique gifts and talents in service to others?

Serve, Post, Repeat -

We’ve all witnessed how social media can influence a national conversation around one issue. You too can use social media as a tool to create awareness around issues pressing your local neighborhood. Share your civic experiences online with photos and links to help get your network educated and involved. It matters more than you might think.

Vote. Vote. Vote! -

This one is directed at my generation. As often as Millennials voice their opinions online, they fail at voicing their opinions in the voting booth. The easiest way to get your message across is to VOTE! 46% of registered millennial voters turned out for the 2012 election and only 19.9% showed up at the polls during the 2014 midterm elections. If you are not registered to vote, it’s too late to register to vote in the 2016 presidential election. But there are important local, city, and statewide elections coming up next year that need your vote (like the race for NYC mayor) so register to vote here! Read up on national and local elections and #ROCKTHEVOTE.

"Hineni" - Here I Am - Mindfulness Exercises

On Sunday in Brooklyn we started our Six Words series by learning about the Hebrew word "Hineni" which means "Here I am." Moses used this word in response to God calling to him from within a burning bush in Exodus 3. You'll be able to hear the full sermon here.

Theresa Elwell, a leader in our community who has developed a practice of meditation and prayer for herself over the past year, led the whole community in a mindfulness exercise before reading the scripture on Sunday. Then during communion people were invited to take home a marble to use as a grounding object in their prayer life this week. 

Below are two exercises to help you practice prayer and mindfulness this week. Use them throughout your day to calm your anxiety, to center yourself, and say "hineni" - Here I am, Lord.

Exercise #1 - Grounding in the Present Moment                                          

(This exercise is adapted from the book Sacred Wounds by Teresa B. Pasquale, p. 30-31)

1. Wherever you are, become aware of your surroundings. Where are you sitting or standing in this moment?

2. Begin to notice your breath. Engage in the practice of intentional breathing, even if this just means breathing in your nose and out of your mouth.  

3. Begin to feel your surroundings. Touch whatever is closest to you - this might be a marble or the case of your cellphone, the object nearest to you, even the fabric of your clothes.

4. Notice the texture and dimensions of this object you are holding or touvhing, as you continue to intentionally breathe through this moment of stress. Is the object you're holding jagged or smooth, rough or textured? Notice how it feels. Pay attention to the dimensions of it.

5. You will have memories, thoughts, and feelings flutter through your mind. You will have ideas, worries, or concerns begin to crowd your brain and tense your body. This will happen. This is part of the human struggle. Your goal is to 1) not attach to any one thought, feeling, or sensation, 2) return to breath as a way to ground in the moment, and 3) return back to the object you are using as your point of grounding. 

6. Feel the breath moving through your lungs and then begin to ground your whole body in the present moment. 

7. Continue to breathe and ground with your object of choice. Be present with how it feels to sit; stand, and be wherever you are in this moment. Feel your feet on the ground, your body in the seat (if you are seated), and the object grounding you.

8. Distractions will always come, and the intention of this practice is to return to your breath and ground yourself in the present moment whenever you are feeling carried away by the chaos of your mind, life, and body. Allow yourself these moments of peace and when you are ready, begin to gently chant to yourself praying "Here I am, Lord." Repeat this phrase over and over in your mind or aloud as you ground yourself in the present moment with your God.

Exercise #2 - Centering with Scripture

Before you begin, choose a passage of scripture to read at the end of this practice. 

Begin by simply noticing how you are sitting. Place your feet flat on the floor, hands on your lap, palms up. Slowly close your eyes and begin to notice your breath. The inhale, filling the lungs, the exhale, letting go. Breathe in deeply, and as you breathe out, let go of any thoughts or worries that you might be holding onto. Take another one, breathing in your day, your week and then exhale, letting it all go.

Feel the ground beneath your feet and the chair underneath you, supporting you. Notice the places on your body that are making contact with these supports. Allow your skin, muscles and bones to soften and relax into these grounding surfaces. Release any tension in your shoulders. Feel the spine long and at ease. Allow the head to be gently supported by the neck.

Open your senses. Take another deep breath in, noticing the smell and air passing through the nose and into the body. Turn your hands over and rub them on the tops of your legs. Feel the fabric of your clothes and the heat of your hands on your lap. Soften the eyes. Release the jaw.

Notice any sensation you may be having inside the body - tingling in the hands or feet, heart beating in the chest, the energy buzzing inside the body. Whatever is there, be present with it. Now widen your attention so you can feel the whole body present in the room with others. Allow your ears to open, letting sounds and words wash through you. Awake, alive and open to God’s word in this moment.

When you are ready, slowly open your eyes and say..."Here I am, Lord" then begin to read your Bible passage. Read it twice through slowly. Allow yourself time to notice the words and thoughts that stick out to you but don't overanalyze them. Simply let them resonate through you. When you are finished, lift up your thoughts in prayer to God. 

Reflections on FCQ 2015

Some evening last fall, I sat in a room with fifty or so people to listen to Nikki Lerner speak on multiculturalism in America.  Nikki Lerner spoke out about her struggles growing up feeling the pressure to adapt to the dominant culture in order to succeed.   There was pressure to wear her hair a certain way, behave a certain way and speak a certain way so that she could fit into dominant culture and in order to avoid being stereotyped by her “other-ness” or “difference.”

She explained that this wasn’t a true celebration of diversity and challenged us to meet people who were different from us where they were instead of expecting them to assimilate.  She encouraged us to get to know the sub-cultures that lived within our neighborhoods – really get to know them.  Not to just tolerate them, but have conversations and understand how they did life differently. She challenged us to speak their language, learn about their traditions and partake in it.  That was a true act of celebration. 

 I made it my mission to really get to know my neighbors. I knew they were Caribbean, had lived in Brooklyn for over 50 years, and for at least two generations.  I made it my mission to be a part of a sub-culture in my neighborhood and joined a Capoeira group where I had to learn to speak (and sing!) in Portuguese and play a Brazilian percussion instrument to participate.  I took myself out of my comfort zone of the dominant culture to learn about, participate and celebrate groups of people who were different from myself.

But it wasn’t enough anymore.  Simply getting along wasn’t making enough of a difference.  Sure, it broke down some personal stereotypes that I had held about certain people but was it a true demonstration of God’s love?

Lisa Sharon Harper, in her book “The Very Good Gospel” takes it a step further by saying we are called to see the image of God in one another. 

We are created to love one another and to steward in caring for this earth together. 

That is our purpose. 

I was challenged even further because up until this point, I thought I was doing my part in loving my neighbors, especially those who were different from me.  But were they all that different?  They were all people of color, all around my age, and all in the same socio-economic bracket.  Even in stepping out of my comfort zone, I was still comfortable. In sitting in comfort, I wasn’t being exposed to some prevailing issues that were at hand within other communities.  I wasn’t hearing the stories of the poor, the exploited, or the criminalized.  Those were the people groups who were difficult to be around and those were the difficult and uncomfortable stories to hear.  Those were the people groups who have been trapped in systematic oppression and it’s just too uncomfortable to hear about the reality of that.

Society, and the Church, tells us there are broken people who are far from God.  There are people who need to find God and will then find freedom and flourish.  Church tells us that they have separated from God and that our role is to help them find God.

Lisa Sharon Harper challenges us as the Church to do more than pray for these people:

“God wants to use faith-filled people to bless all of society, to feed the hungry, to house the homeless, to father the fatherless, to bless the prisoner, and to bless whole nations.”

As the Church, and as society as a whole, we aren’t doing that.  We are accusing people of taking advantage of the public housing system, we are calling single mothers irresponsible for living off the welfare system, we are calling for the killing of certain criminals….We are condemning an entire nation in the midst of civil war…  These are not demonstrations of love or honor of the image of God within all people, of all circumstances, of all nations.

Lisa Sharon Harper reminds us that the ministry of Jesus centered around loving the least of these:

“…unless we are actively loving the one with the least access to food and water, the least access to health care, the least access to good housing and education, the least access to justice within the justice system, the least access to a welcome in the immigration system – unless we are actively loving the least-deserving among these, then we are not loving Jesus.” 

This is what the ministry of Jesus was about. Actively loving one another in this manner is what we were created to do and it is these actions that bring heaven here on earth.

We have the honor of Lisa Sharon Harper’s presence as one of our speakers this fall as part of Faith, Culture and Questions.  Let’s get our tickets and get uncomfortable. 


FCQ 2016: Brian McLaren

Show of hands: How many of us are ready to leave Christianity?

Let me clarify: How many of us are ready to throw in the towel on the religion that raised us? How many of us are ready to give up the beliefs, actions, ideologies, and rhetoric that once seemed so constant, certain, and true?

If you raised your hand then you’re not alone. 

In 2001 I was ready to quit Christianity too. I was done with “inside the box” thinking, which was the only way I could articulate it at the time. I didn’t know what I wanted. I just knew that I didn’t like the judgment of others. I didn’t like the defense of Biblical orthodoxies over actually loving people. I didn’t like the fact that my plain reading of scripture created a belief that God actually wants some people to feel oppression and marginalization. I didn’t like the people who called themselves Christians. It seemed that Christianity was simply a way to get to heaven and to stay out of the torment of hell. I didn’t like the fact that Christians constantly talked about the freedom of Christ and the good news of the Gospel, and yet I didn’t feel like it was good news at all. I certainly didn’t feel like I had freedom.

So there I was in my rented room, which was actually a converted attic, and I sat on my mattress and called my parents. 

“I don’t think I’m a Christian anymore.” 

My parents laughed their all-knowing laugh. My father responded, “You’re a Christian. You just don’t know it yet. I just read a book by this guy named Brian McLaren. It’s called A New Kind Of Christian. I’ll send it to you.” I waited a couple of days for the book. I wasn’t at all excited to read it. Christianity had nothing for me. 

The book showed up. I walked from the mailbox back up the three flights of stairs to my attic. I opened the book and oddly enough, my life began to change. 

The honesty!


You might tell me that you have been engaging in some deep questioning and theological rethinking. You can no longer live with the faith you inherited from your parents or constructed earlier in your life. As you sort through your dogma and doctrine, you’ve found yourself praying less, less thrilled about worship, scripture, or church attendance. You’ve been so focused on sorting and purging your theological theories that you’ve lost track of the spiritual practices that sustain an actual relationship with God. You may even wonder if such a thing is possible for someone like you.

There were thoughts like this one:

Imagine if organized religion organized billions of people and trillions of dollars to tackle the challenges that our economic and political systems are afraid or unwilling to tackle—a planet ravaged by unsustainable human behavior and an out-of-control consumptive economy, the growing gap between the rich minority and the poor majority, and the proliferation of weapons of all kinds—including weapons of mass destruction. “Wow,” people frequently say when I propose these possibilities. “If they did that, I might become religious again.”

This is what matters to me! 


Aliveness, he will teach, is a gift available to all by God’s grace. It flows not from taking, but giving, not from fear but from faith, not from conflict but from reconciliation, not from domination but from service. It isn’t found in the upper trappings of religion -rules and rituals, controversies and scruples, temples and traditions. No, it springs up from our innermost being like a fountain of living water. It intoxicates us lie the best wine ever and so turns life from disappointment into a banquet.

My faith was restored. This is what I was looking for. I was on a new journey, a new path, new way of looking at Jesus, and yes, A New Kind of Christianity. It was there in the attic that I decided that I didn’t need to throw away my Christianity. I needed to redefine what it meant for me to be a Christ follower. My father was right. I was a Christian. It just took me a while to figure it out. 

And now, 15 years later, our church is on a journey to reimagine what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus. 

Frankly, there would be no Forefront without Brian McLaren. His writings are what moved me to read scripture with new eyes. It’s what led me to see Jesus in a new light. Brian McLaren’s encouragement is what led our church to embrace inclusivity and the never ending love of Jesus Christ. Brian McLaren has influenced our church profoundly.

It is my absolute honor to host Brian McLaren for our 2016 Faith, Culture, Questions series. I look forward to hearing his thoughts on the future of Christianity and the truly good news of the Gospel. I look forward to being challenged as to how our church can preach the true freedom that comes through the Gospel.

 I hope that your lives are as profoundly influenced by Brian McLaren as mine was sitting in my converted attic 15 years ago. 

Brian McLaren will be speaking during services at our Manhattan location, The Gramercy Theatre, on Sunday, November 6. Reserve your free tickets here. Brian's new book out this fall is The Great Spiritual Migration.


Civic Engagement - Part 1

by Jonathan Judge, Forefront Brooklyn Community Member

Growing up in Brooklyn, I had a difficult time finding a summer job. I wanted to get involved in something real, something meaningful. The only problem was that no one wanted to deal with a teenager when there were plenty of adults in need of jobs.

That’s when my father suggested I contact the District Manager of Brooklyn Community Board 14. I went to look this community board up online to see if they could be a reliable lead for finding something to do that summer, but no website. How could they not have a website!? It was 2003! I had been programming applications and building websites since I was 9, so I thought if I offered to build them a website for free, how could they say no to that?

I've been involved with Brooklyn Community Board 14 ever since. I've moved from volunteer to intern to Community Coordinator on staff and now volunteer Board Member, where I currently serve as co-chair of the Youth Services Committee, which plans CB14’s annual Youth Conference for teens seeking jobs, internships, and other after-school activities and opportunities.

There’s one thing I’ve learned for sure working with CB14: there's a severe lack of participation in civic and political life by Brooklyn's younger, and especially newer, residents. And yet, most of the positive change I've seen come out of civic activism was initiated by passionate people incorporating new perspectives and energy in cooperation with experienced, tried-and-true civic activist veterans. It’s how things really get done.

...there’s a severe lack of participation in civic and political life by Brooklyn’s younger, and especially newer, residents.

If you want to start making a difference, it must start at the local level and it starts at meetings. Attending meetings of community boards and their committees creates ownership, accountability, and lasting change.

How do we start? Take the courageous first step and simply show up. Check out the link to resources at the end of this blog post to find a meeting in your community and consider the following advice...

 

Step 1: Listen and learn

While attending a local meeting you'd be wise to listen carefully to what is being said, paying attention to who's in charge, who gets to speak and who nods approvingly or disapprovingly on any given matter. Find out who works for whom, and who represents whom. Listen to public comment or open floor announcements, where many other organizations' representatives announce events or opportunities for people to get involved. By listening to these people at meetings, you'll start getting a sense of what's going on in your community, what the hot issues are, and the people addressing the issues. Choose a meeting to attend and be consistent. Then, at some point over time, awareness of the goings-on in your neighborhood will suddenly transform into a palpable consciousness of the inner workings of what makes your community tick. At this point, it's a good idea to start speaking up and find an opportunity to get involved…

 

Step 2: Speak up and get involved

Our city and the quality of life Jesus calls us to depends on many perspectives and interests being actively represented in the affairs of our communities. After you've gotten a preliminary sense of what's going on locally, start looking for meaningful opportunities to get involved. Many organizations have committees where community residents can join, even if you're not a member. Becoming a member of an organization whose vision and mission align with your interests and your faith is the best way to invest and to find even more opportunities to make a difference.

 

Step 3: Take charge and do something

The advantage to speaking up and getting involved is making something personally meaningful and satisfying to you happen with others who share your vision and passion. Whether it's cleaning up a park or organizing residents to petition someone to do something, get your hands dirty and make something happen that you initiated. Maybe even assume a leadership role in the organization, a committee chair or an officer-level position, and perhaps really make the organization do something amazing. Why not?

If you start getting involved, knowing what you would like to see changed in your community, and finding a good group of people who share your vision, dedication, and passion for improving your community, then good fruit will come from it, and I truly believe the sky's the limit as to what we can make happen together.

 

Forefront now hosts a webpage of civic engagement resources to help you take the first step in learning more about the various meetings offered in NYC. Click the button below to learn how you can get involved in your local community.


That is Not My Jesus

Skittles, bullets, and Snapchat 

I’ve been spending far too much time on Facebook this week. It’s sucking my soul dry. First was the meme comparing Syrian refugees to Skittles that was shared by countless people who identify as Christians. After that, I saw many of the same people rationalizing the murder of an unarmed black man because he was not “cooperating” with police. Those two things were already more than I could handle, but ever since a freshman at a prominent Christian college in Nashville, Tennessee took to Snapchat,  I've reached new levels of frustration with my own religion in America.

The Belmont University student posted a screenshot of three black NFL athletes raising their fists in solidarity with victims of police brutality with the most disgusting caption I've seen in recent memory. 

“Piece of s—t n——-s. Every one of them needs a damn bullet in their head. If you don’t like this country get the hell out.”

These words were typed by a young man who, at the very least identifies with Christianity enough to pay tuition to a Christian College, and is still willing to spew vitriol, violence, and racism toward other human beings. This is how a Christian College freshman feels about people made in the image of God who have brown skin. This Christian College student believes black people should only be allowed to live in their home country (a country where their ancestors were kidnapped and brought to by force, and then sold as property for generations) if they are willing to quietly accept a life of oppression and marginalization. Should they ever choose to exercise their right to peacefully protest against systems racism and violence by simply taking a knee or raising a fist in silence, they deserve to be shot in the head. 

This is the beast lurking in the dungeon of American Christianity.

How does a Christian reconcile Christ’s teachings with such deplorable thinking?

In the eyes of privileged, white, Christian America, “life to the fullest” is reserved for those who are “like us.” If you are different, then you should get the hell out. If you are unhappy, then you should get the hell out. If you won't cooperate, we will shoot you in the head. If you don't like it, then get the hell out. 

 

Whose Lives Matter?

In John chapter 5, Jesus heals a crippled man on the Sabbath and then told him to stand up and carry the mat he had been laying on, which was a violation of the Mosaic Law. The Pharisees, ignoring the fact that Jesus had just transformed this man’s life forever, interrogated the man in order to find out who told him to violate the Sabbath. They then summoned Jesus to come answer for his “sin” where Jesus says the following in John chapter 5 verse 21,

For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes.

Whomever he wishes.

So who did Jesus wish to give life to?

Matthew 8- a leper

Matthew 9- a tax collector

John 4- a Samaritan woman

Luke 7- a sinful woman

John 8- an adulterous woman

Luke 7- a Centurion’s slave

Luke 18- a blind beggar

John 5- a faithless cripple

John 9- a man born blind

Mark 5- a demon possessed man

Mark 5- a bleeding woman

Mark 5- Jairus’s dead daughter

John 18- an officer who came to arrest Him

Luke 23- a convicted criminal

John 21- everyone who had abandoned and betrayed Him

 

The “Jesus” that permeates American theology today is a powerful political leader, the founder of the Christian Religion, and the ultimate champion of conservative ideals.

Is this who Jesus really is?

I struggle to find any evidence of that in the scriptures.

Jesus was the "stone the builders rejected," because there was never a time when Jesus was accepted. Jesus lived his entire life in the margins of society.  

Jesus was a brown skinned, Middle Eastern, poor, Jewish refugee. His community assumed he was a bastard child. His people lived in fear of the Roman military. His family settled in an insignificant town on the outskirts of the Jewish world. He learned a humble trade, worked in order to help provide for his poor parents at a young age, and then devoted his adult life to everyone in his path who had been marginalized by people in positions of authority. Jesus brought life to those who NO ONE wished to offer life to.

That Jesus, the one I just described,  is not the Jesus that molds the hearts and minds of American Christianity today. That Jesus has been gentrified. The most important parts of the Jesus we find in the gospels have been co-opted by those in positions of privilege. Anyone who had previously been a part of the original community of Christ - the poor, the sick, the disadvantaged, the shamed, the sinful, the racial minorities, and the social outcast- have been priced out of the “Kingdom of God” in America. They have been displaced to make room for the comfortable amenities preferred by those who have never had to live in discomfort.

That is not my Jesus. 

The more I get to know Jesus, the less I recognize him in His church today. That needs to change.

Jesus gave life to those who had their lives taken from them. If we are truly Christian, we must devote our lives to doing the same. 


 

 

Chelsea Bombing

Sunday services are still on for this morning, September 18 at 10 & 11:30 AM.

We've been watching throughout the night to make sure that our location on East 23rd street is safe and accessible after the bombing in Chelsea last night on the west side of Manhattan.

The west side trains, BDFM, 123, ACE, are skipping stops from 28 to 23rd street, so if you are taking a train to church, make sure to transfer before those stops. East side trains 456 and NQR are all running on their normal schedules/stops.

Our prayers are with the 29 injured and for all those in a city that was recently reminded of the 9/11 attack last Sunday.

Though this morning's news may give us reason to fear, it's also a call for us to stand together so that the world sees us practicing a higher truth- that love is greater than fear.

See you at church. 

Thanks for being an amazing church family.

Ryan Phipps, Lead Pastor

Forefront Manhattan


FCQ 2016: Lisa Sharon Harper

I was afraid. 

Last year Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer, and I was afraid. I was afraid to speak out about systematic oppression towards the Black community. I was afraid that the primarily Anglo-Saxon movement that my church came from might not agree with our stance. I was afraid that those in my church, unable to see our white privilege, would turn on us. I was afraid that I might be called liberal. I was afraid I might get in the way of the message of Jesus. 

With each tragic death of another Black life, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, our silence spoke volumes. I didn’t want our church to be considered liberal. I wanted to preach Jesus. 

But here is the truth.

Speaking out for the marginalized is not a liberal issue. It’s the core of the ministry of Jesus Christ. 

Jesus clearly shows us in the Gospels that women’s lives matter.
Jesus told us that Samaritan lives matter. 
Jesus shows us that the lives of Gentiles, those unlike us, the sick, and the poor matter. 

In the cultural context of Jesus, each of these proclamations was scandalous, controversial, and dangerous. Each proclamation was met with outrage from the religious communities of his time. Each affirmation of a marginalized people group moved Jesus one step closer to death.

And yet these proclamations were at the heart of the Gospel message. Jesus’ core message was not only salvation, it was creating hope for those often persecuted.

Lisa Sharon Harper is a woman who constantly and continually brings this truth to light. Through her work at Sojourners, Lisa Sharon Harper shows us over and over again the issues of justice are Gospel issues. Through her book, The Very Good Gospel, I’m learning that the life of a Christ follower means that we partner with God to do the difficult but profound work of bringing shalom to one another. I’m learning that it means we recognize all of humanity as children of God. 


The homeless man on a street corner today is made in the image of God. The Colombian worker making two cents per day on a multinational company’s cocoa farm is made in the image of God. Farm workers and domestic workers, who are exempt from basic workers’ rights in the United States, are made in the image of God. Amadou Diallo, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Rekia Boyd, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, John Crawford III, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Yvette Smith, Freddie Gray, the Mother Emanuel Nine, Sandra Bland, India Kager, Jamar Clark, Laquan McDonald, and other unarmed victims of police and vigilante killings are made in the image of God. Women and men who are systematically pushed to the margins of society possess as much dignity and worth as Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Oprah Winfrey, Angelina Jolie, and any other people who are esteemed like royalty in our culture. We are not God. But because we bear God’s image, we are worthy of human dignity, love, respect, honor, and protection.
— Lisa Sharon Harper, The Very Good Gospel

Lisa Sharon Harper has impacted my life by teaching me that avoiding justice, inequality, or social and racial issues is to reject the core teaching and character of Jesus Christ. 

To work for the oppressed, to affirm a fellow human being instead of standing behind doctrine, and to seek social and racial justice is not the work of liberals. It is the unwavering and indisputable work of those who preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

I’m no longer afraid. 

I am not afraid of speaking up against racism even though it may offend some who aren’t aware of their own privilege. I am not afraid to speak up about gun violence, education, mass incarceration, or wage inequality. Even though there are influential voices who believe that these issues are myths; we choose to stand. I am not afraid of losing people, funds, or livelihood. I am not afraid. In fact, I would dare to say that our church is more alive than ever before. We are truly living out the radical and controversial teachings of Jesus. 

I’m glad that Lisa Sharon Harper is coming to speak to our church in 2016’s Faith, Culture, and Questions series. My guess is that there are some of us who are still working out our own fears. I think for some of us the work of Lisa Sharon Harper still feels “liberal.” I think some of us are afraid of what our friends and families will think when we start to take a stand for humanity. 

Here’s my prayer. My prayer is that we hear from Lisa Sharon Harper about shalom. We hear the Very Good News of the Gospel. My prayer is that our lives continue to be impacted by Lisa Sharon Harper’s voice. My prayer is that we recognize that the perfect love of Christ drives out fear. My prayer is that we put aside our fear for the incredible good news of Jesus Christ. 

Lisa Sharon Harper will be speaking at Calvary Episcopal Church on Park Avenue in Manhattan on Thursday, October 13 at 7pm. Tickets can be purchased via Eventbrite. Lisa's new book out this fall is The Very Good Gospel.


#NoLongerANimrod Resources

On Labor Day weekend in Brooklyn, Jonathan finished our RETOLD series with a message on the Tower of Babel. He challenged us through this story to realize that at the heart of our religion is the idea that equality for all and social justice for all is not just a nice idea, it’s an imperative. It’s at the heart of the story of God, and it’s at the heart of the Jesus story.

If the story of the Tower of Babel tells us anything it’s that God’s intention for God’s Kingdom here on earth includes an absolute imperative for us to promote social, financial, and capital responsibility. We have the absolute privilege of being so loved by God. Jesus's death and resurrection allows us to contribute to the end of the human suffering that exists in our world in the pursuit of power, convenience, and technology. This means we must move beyond religious platitudes and actually do some real sacrificing. 

At the end of his message, Jonathan challenged us to "no longer be a Nimrod" but to be willing to make sacrifices in the name of shalom - peace and wholeness for ALL human beings and for creation. So as promised, below you'll find resources to help you make better decisions about the clothes, food, and technology you buy. 

These are just a few of the many incredible organizations out there who are working for the good of all...If you know of others who should be on this list, email them to us! 

 

Ethical Clothing

http://www.thegoodtrade.com/features/fair-trade-clothing

 

Ethical Food and Farming

http://ethicalfoods.com

http://www.justfood.org

                                                            http://www.grownyc.org                                                                 (Forefront member and Leadership Team Member, Jen Ugolino works here.)

http://fairtradeusa.org/shopping-guide

 

Companies that provide fair wages and favorable working conditions

http://www.ethicalconsumer.org/shoppingethically/ethicaldirectory

http://worldsmostethicalcompanies.ethisphere.com/honorees/

                                                       http://landofathousandhills.com/                                                                   (This is the company that provides our coffee every Sunday at Forefront.) 

 

Organizations who support human rights

http://www.ijm.org


http://nominetwork.org


FCQ 2016: Reflections from Sarah Ngu

This post is written by Sarah Ngu, a community member in Forefront Brooklyn

 

The church was full. I had never see it this packed before. Even the upper balconies were filled.

The crowds were here for Justin Lee, founder of the Gay Christian Network. The event was part of Forefront Church's Faith, Culture, Questions 2015 (FCQ) series. It was their first time launching this series, and I, a newcomer to Forefront, noticed that they did not hold back: the first event was on science, the second on race, the third on sexuality. 

 "This church," I thought to myself as I settled into the left-wing of the upper balcony, "might just be for real."

We are a church community more interested in asking good questions, than in having right answers.

After spending the past eight years in various churches in New York, I have developed a bit of skepticism about the standard “hip,” “culturally relevant” church that tends to attract people like me. I know the script by now. Pastors in skinny jeans and tattoos proclaim to newcomers, "We welcome everyone," and “we love wrestling with questions.”

The thing is that that once you become a member of the community, the script changes a bit—or rather, it’s dropped. Yes, we welcome your questions, but only to a point because we have most of the answers. And membership is definitely open to you, but you are going to have to stop doing that.

Thus when I showed up at Forefront's first service last summer, I was impatient. I wanted to cut to the chase and have them spell out exactly where they stood on issues A, B, and C, so that I didn't have to go through the typical song-and-dance.  So I walked up to Jennifer and said, "You are the community pastor, right? I have a few questions." 

Jennifer seemed a bit taken aback and asked, "May I ask where you are coming from on these issues?"

She was probably, I thought, trying to figure out what answers I was looking for. I shrugged off some vague response, "Oh I've been thinking about them for a long time" and punted the ball back to her. 

I didn't want to lead the witness, so to speak, but more to the point, I was deeply unsure; I was dissatisfied with all the answers that I had found, and so I was prepared to be displeased with whatever answer she gave me.

Jennifer said, "Our motto is that we are more interested in asking good questions than in having right answers."

The skeptic in my head went silent. Most churches would say out loud, "We are interested in asking questions," but refrain from finishing the rest of the sentence, "but we hope you come around to our answers." But this time she was stating upfront the church’s priority: questions over answers. 

I was surprised by her answer because I believed that joining a church meant ticking a bunch of boxes on doctrine and behavior and claiming a side. It never occurred to me that there would be a Christian space, much less a church, that would actually take me as I was -- in flux, up in the air, wielding a sword full of questions and a shield to rebuff any answer that smelled too neat.

It never occurred to me that there would be a Christian space, much less a church, that would actually take me as I was — in flux, up in the air, wielding a sword full of questions and a shield to rebuff any answer that smelled too neat.

But a part of me, of course, still raised an eyebrow. Maybe Jen was just good at bluffing, or maybe they hired a savvy marketing consultant. Yet I was intrigued. So I stuck around. And Forefront showed, over and over again, that it actually meant what it said when I heard it first from Jen's lips. The FCQ series was certainly part of the evidence. Seeing the diversity of the people who showed up and invested in the community was another confirmation. 

What I find most admirable about Forefront was the honesty and charity that I glimpsed in Justin Lee. He is an out gay man who, in a way, should feel adamant that the evangelical church march over to his side, and yet who bends over backward, with his self-deprecating charm, to build bridges with those who would tell him, “Love you, but hate your sin.”

The summer that I joined Forefront was, looking back, a kind of crossroads in my life. Over time, I have found some surer footing on my questions. I have dug some stakes in the ground. And, over time, I have witnessed Forefront’s leadership take some risky stands on issues in our culture as well. It has not held back out of fear (of donors, let’s be real), but rather has rigorously leaned into not just the “mystery,” but also the controversy. Yet it does so in a way that strives to be a big tent that includes even those who disagree with it, as it wants to be a place of peace and unity – not uniformity – even over issues that can divide blood and kin. To know that there is a church that would feel welcoming to my ardently secular college friends and my on-fire-for-Jesus missionary parents is, I dare say, an unspeakable comfort. 

Join us for Faith, Culture, Questions 2016 this fall featuring David Bazan, Lisa Sharon Harper & Brian McLaren. Tickets are now on sale here. 

 


FCQ 2016: David Bazan

when Job asked you the question
you responded “who are you
to challenge your creator?”
well if that one part is true

it makes you sound defensive
like you had not thought it through
enough to have an answer
or you might have bit off
more than you could chew
— David Bazan, In Stitches

The first time I heard this song it felt scandalous. David Bazan is talking to God. He’s talking about suffering. I listened to David Bazan’s music back when he fronted the band Pedro the Lion. This new music felt like a departure. I was offended. I felt that I needed to defend God. 

“Who are you to question God’s infinite and unimaginable power? Who are you to easily dismiss God because of a few bad experiences or doubts? Isn’t that throwing the baby out with the bathwater?”

Then I listened to the song again. And again. And then I listened a few more times. And I realized that this song was a prayer. 

This song was a prayer similar to this prayer.


Wake up!
Why do You sleep, Lord?!
Arise!
Do not abandon forever!
Why do You hide Your Face?
Why do You forget our persecution and our oppression?
For our souls have been pounded into the dirt,
our stomachs are stuck to the ground.
Get up!
Help us!

Or this one.


How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?

What I recognized from David Bazan is that the laments that we read in scripture, in the book of Psalms, decidedly tell us what it means to fully live out a life of following Christ. In order to live this life, it must include wrestling with pain, abandonment, suffering, questions, and unbelief. In order to live a full life there are times when we echo the words of King David, Christ on the cross, or even David Bazan. 


Before the truth sets you free it tends to make you miserable.

I think David Bazan is on to something. I think his music, questioning, doubts, and anger are pointing to a greater truth for all of us. It’s pretty tough to see the truth if we’re not willing to wade through the misery. 

I’m excited to announce that David Bazan will be our first guest in 2016’s Faith, Culture, and Questions series. I’m going to ask you to open up your minds, bring some of your questions, and prepare to be set free that the truth that comes from honest and thoughtful lament. 

In the meantime check out more of Bazan’s music. I promise it will make us think, make us react, and I hope, lead us to the truth of a full life in Christ. 

David Bazan will be performing stories and songs at The Bell House on Thursday, September 22 at 7pm, with opening act Lindsey Luff. Tickets are available at Ticketfly.


Centering - A Prayer Exercise

This summer at Forefront Brooklyn we're hosting monthly nights of prayer and meditation called Centering. Last week several members of our community met up in my home where Katie Knipp Willis and I led us all through an hour of meditation, journaling, silence, and prayer. It was a great night of calm and focus during a busy, hot summer. 

Below is the transcript of the exercise we led everyone through. We encourage you to take the time to follow this prayer practice on your own time. You'll need a quiet space and a journal or document to write in.

You can also RSVP to join Ben Grace as he leads our August night of Centering and takes you through different practices of prayer on Tuesday, August 16th. 

Centering: An Exercise in Prayer

Opening Meditation:

In lieu of all the events going on in our world over the past few months, we encourage you to take some time to sit in silence and reflection, to ask yourself some personal questions, and contemplate over who God is calling us to be as his people.

Allow yourself to find stillness amidst the business of life. Meditation is a practice of listening. Listening to our own thoughts and listening to God. Prayer is the talking part of our dialogue with God, and meditation is when we listen to Him. How often do we forget to sit still and listen? Like a lake, if the water is constantly churned up, the water will be murky, and you can’t see anything. But when the water is still, you can see to the bottom. Right now, give yourself that time. Allow the events and thoughts of the day to fall away, and open up to a place of quiet contemplation.

As you continue to read, you’ll find a mix of scripture reading, guided meditations, and quiet reflection. At some points your mind will wander, it’s natural, just bring your attention back to the present moment. When emotions arise, let them, when images or memories pop into your mind, notice them. Take your time to read and reflect and write down anything that comes up as you move through this post. 

The most important thing to remember is to be gentle with yourself. You're not working towards or striving for anything. You're learning to just be - to just listen.

Let’s begin by relaxing and centering ourselves. Make sure you’re nice and comfortable in your seat, and just begin to notice your breath. The inhale, filling the lungs, the exhale, letting go. Breathe in deeply, and as you breathe out, let go of any thoughts or worries that you might be holding onto. Take another one, breathing in your day, your week, your year, and then exhale, letting it all go.

Feel the ground beneath your feet and the chair underneath you, supporting you. Notice the places on your body that are making contact with these supports. Allow your skin, muscles and bones to soften and relax into these grounding surfaces. Release any tension in your shoulders. Feel the spine long and at ease. Allow the head to be gently supported by the neck.

Open your senses. Take another deep breath in, noticing the smell and air passing through the nose and into the body. Allow your ears to open, letting sounds and words wash through you. Soften the eyes. Release the jaw and relax the tongue inside the mouth. Notice any sensation you may be having inside the body - tingling in the hands or feet, heart beating in the chest, the energy buzzing inside the body. Whatever is there, be present with it.

Open your heart, and feel it from the inside out. Gently listen, simply letting everything be as it is.  

As you read the following passage, take a moment to observe what in God’s word catches your heart’s attention. Is there a word or phrase that resonates with you? Allow yourself to simply dwell in the word as you listen. Turn your thoughts to God and quietly enjoy being in God’s presence.

A Reading from John 16: 5-15:

The Work of the Holy Spirit

“But now I am going away to the one who sent me, and not one of you is asking where I am going. Instead, you grieve because of what I’ve told you. But in fact, it is best for you that I go away, because if I don’t, the Advocate won’t come. If I do go away, then I will send him to you.  And when he comes, he will convict the world of its sin, and of God’s righteousness, and of the coming judgment. The world’s sin is that it refuses to believe in me. Righteousness is available because I go to the Father, and you will see me no more. Judgment will come because the ruler of this world has already been judged.

“There is so much more I want to tell you, but you can’t bear it now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own but will tell you what he has heard. He will tell you about the future. He will bring me glory by telling you whatever he receives from me. All that belongs to the Father is mine; this is why I said, ‘The Spirit will tell you whatever he receives from me.’

Journal Exercise #1: 

Now take a deep breath and turn to your journal. Write about anything that came up as you've been reading. Below you’ll find a couple of questions you could journal about if you choose. Allow yourself to take as much time as you need to reflect as you write and sit quietly, listening to how God is speaking to you through his word.

  • What in your world and the world around you has recently felt like it is unjust, or spinning out of control?

  • Trust that by asking for God’s voice, and quieting your mind, God can speak to you, and send you His guidance. Take a few minutes to listen, and then write what you hear.

A Second Reading from John 16: 16-24:

Sadness Will Be Turned to Joy

“In a little while you won’t see me anymore. But a little while after that, you will see me again.”

Some of the disciples asked each other, “What does he mean when he says, ‘In a little while you won’t see me, but then you will see me,’ and ‘I am going to the Father’? And what does he mean by ‘a little while’? We don’t understand.”

Jesus realized they wanted to ask him about it, so he said, “Are you asking yourselves what I meant? I said in a little while you won’t see me, but a little while after that you will see me again.  I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn over what is going to happen to me, but the world will rejoice. You will grieve, but your grief will suddenly turn to wonderful joy. It will be like a woman suffering the pains of labor. When her child is born, her anguish gives way to joy because she has brought a new baby into the world. So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again; then you will rejoice, and no one can rob you of that joy. At that time you won’t need to ask me for anything. I tell you the truth, you will ask the Father directly, and he will grant your request because you use my name. You haven’t done this before. Ask, using my name, and you will receive, and you will have abundant joy.

Journal Exercise #2:

What words or phrases stuck out to you? Or what thoughts or images came up in the passage. When did your mind wander, and what did it wander to? Write down what you noticed. Here are some more questions you can answer as well.

  • What does joy look and feel like to you?

  • If nothing stood in your way, how could you bring about joy in your circumstance? In our community?

  • What healing do you want to ask for?

A Third Reading from John 16: 16-24:

“I have spoken of these matters in figures of speech, but soon I will stop speaking figuratively and will tell you plainly all about the Father. Then you will ask in my name. I’m not saying I will ask the Father on your behalf, for the Father himself loves you dearly because you love me and believe that I came from God. Yes, I came from the Father into the world, and now I will leave the world and return to the Father.”

Then his disciples said, “At last you are speaking plainly and not figuratively. Now we understand that you know everything, and there’s no need to question you. From this we believe that you came from God.”

Jesus asked, “Do you finally believe? But the time is coming—indeed it’s here now—when you will be scattered, each one going his own way, leaving me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.”

Journal Exercise #3:

One last time, take your journal, and write about anything that came up. And here are some more questions you can answer as well.

  • Notice what is in your way for moving forward. What ways do you feel stuck?

  • In what areas of your life are you seeking peace?

  • In what ways do you feel or hear God calling you to make a change in yourself or in the world around you?

Meditation:

Feel your feet, and feel the support of the ground. Feel yourself rooting yourself into this world, this earthly plane. There is work to do, and feel the support of the earth, giving you strength to do it. Imagine what that work looks like in your life. Feel the support growing for you, and that grows your energy, your drive, your fire for justice.

Now feel that strength traveling up your spine, you sit taller, but without tension. Your heart opens more bravely to face upcoming challenges with love and compassion- no small feat. You feel your heart growing stronger, larger, more capacity to love and heal.

Lift out of the neck and brow, and then picture light flowing out the top of your head. Feel this lift, this light releasing you from being attached to any fears, any preconceived outcomes. This light travels to a vision of God- picture in your imagination the Source of Light, and you pour out your burdens to this source, it receives it, supporting you. Feel the anchor of the earthly plane supporting you, feel the anchor of the heavenly plane, supporting you.

A Quote:

“I prayed a prayer and I prayed out loud that night. I said, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I think the cause we represent is right. But Lord I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage.”

... And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, “Martin Luther, stand up for justice, stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even to the end of the world.”      - Martin Luther King Jr.

Breathe and reflect in this place. Close your eyes and sit in silence for a few moments. 

Closing Prayer:

By Travis Eades

Oh God, because you are with us, we stand with courage.  

As chaos spins around us, we know that you are with us.

We are prone to wander, but not you. You are steadfast in your love.

We know that we are not alone in our trials.

 

Oh God,

You will not leave our side.

Your love stands firm,

and our fear is overcome.

 

Oh God, because of the courage and hope that we find in you,

we know that our calling is not only to stand for ourselves but to stand for justice and mercy for others.

 

As you stand with us, we are called to stand with those who find themselves oppressed or marginalized by the injustices of our world.

Those who have felt the flames of hatred, racism, violence, and inequality of all forms

Those who have been cast as outsiders by religious fundamentalism

Those who have been left out, looked past, and let down by those who claim your name

Those who have been promised grace and only been given shame

Those who have been declared free by the system, but only experienced systematic oppression

Those who have tried to quit, over and over and over, only to relapse again and again

Those who have bought into the lie that they are defined by the labels that are imposed on them

 

Because you stand with us,

We stand with them.

Because you are with us

We are with them.

Because we are them

We are with them.

Because of your love

We pray that we can be love.

 

Allow us now to name aloud the people and things that are on our hearts and minds tonight:

(free prayer is welcome here)

 

Lord,

May we be the hope that we have received.

May we be the strength that we once needed.

May we be the hands that lift the burden from the oppressed.

The mouths that speak out for the voiceless.

The eyes that see those who are invisible to this world.

The feet that walk toward reconciliation.

The defenders of the weak.

The providers for the poor.

 

Everything that you are for us,

May you be through us.

 

May we be the presence of joy amidst sorrow, the hope that overcomes the world,

Because you are with us.

Amen.


The Importance Of Hell

HELL

As people of faith, we are, in every moment (both public and private) acting according to one of two motivators.

Those two motivators are “love” and “fear.”

The Apostle John said it this way,

“Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. We love because He first loved us.”

- 1 John 4:17-19

In the hierarchy of misused scriptures in the world, scriptures about Hell seem to be very hard to resist as a people who are, to a large degree filled with many fears.

 

IMPERMANENCE

Everything that life offers us we somehow sense to be temporary. All things change. They corrode. They rust. They age. They wear out and then they go away.

Siddartha Guatama, whose spiritual practice evolved into what we call “Buddhism” today called this “The Law Of Impermanence.”

We see this law at work in nature and in our everyday experiences. We know that someday, we too will wear out and fade away.

Many Christians are taught things about Heaven and Hell with the very best of intentions by their teachers, but when hearing them, never question them or investigate them for themselves.

The Reformer, Jonathan Edwards wrote a famous sermon titled “Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God” that he preached to his congregation in Northampton, Massachusetts in the mid 1700’s.

It combined vivid images of Hell with observations of the world, pairing those images and observations with scripture.

More than just about any other work, this text has had a lasting impact on evangelicalism in the United States.

Its premise is clear. Show people the eternal horrors of a place of punishment called “Hell” and they will change the way that they are living their lives in the present.

I’ve read Edwards’ famous sermon more times than I can count. It is one of the most moving pieces of “Great-Awakening-Era” literature that has ever been written.

However, it moves me for all the wrong reasons.

It makes me think of God as nothing more than an angry kid with an ant farm- a vindictive, tormenting tyrant- an abusive Father who is always trying to hit me unless Jesus (my elder brother) steps in and takes the punches for me.

Though I’ve read most of Edwards’ works and find a lot of inspiration in them, I’ve never agreed with him on this topic.

 

THE WORDS OF JESUS

Strangely enough Jesus said something that, at face value makes me feel very much the same as it does when I read Edwards’ famous sermon.

It’s found in the Gospel Of Matthew and it says this.

“And He will say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’”

“Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’”

“Then they also will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’ Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

- Matthew 25:40-46

Well what the hell does that mean? (pun intended)

It seems to be saying that if I don’t welcome every stranger into my home, if I don’t feed every hungry person, if I don’t clothe every person who needs clothing, if I don’t visit sick people and people in prison then I am going to be punished for eternity.

Is that true? Is that the lesson Jesus is giving?


FLOSSING

In his book “The RealAge Makeover” Dr. Michael Roizen claims that flossing can add 6.4 years to a person’s life.

Sounds crazy, right?

The general thinking behind this idea is that a person’s lifestyle choices added up over time can cause them to live longer.

In other words, if a person makes flossing a habit, that good habit will “spill over” into other areas of their life, too. Taking the time to floss will result in a person’s choice to also engage in other healthy habits, increasing their lifespan.

And this way of thinking is what I believe Jesus is getting at here.

He’s not saying, “Do this or else.” He’s talking about trajectory. He’s talking about lifestyle.

It’s interesting that this is precisely what Jesus chooses to place emphasis on in the passage.

This is not a passage about there hereafter. It is a passage about the “here.”

We are (unfortunately) programmed, largely due to the forebears of our “American Gospel” to place an emphasis on all the wrong parts of this passage and many others like it.

What Jesus is trying to say, is that in every moment we should be striving to be kind, giving, loving people to those in need around us.

Why? Because like flossing, it sets our lives on a trajectory, shaping us into our very best selves.

You can spend your life fearing eternity, or you can spend it loving the people right in front of you, but you can’t do both.

Jesus is saying, “Don’t focus on Hell. Focus on people. Don’t be enslaved by the eternal. Be present with those in need who are right in front of you.” 

If we can learn to do that (and believe that) then this thing called “Hell” is put in its proper place in our belief system.

 

LOVE

Is Heaven a real place?

Is Hell a real place?

We have no scientific data (absolutely none) that can answer those questions.

We have religious writings.

We have subjective accounts from people who claim to have been to both of these places having returned.

We have the words of Jesus, yes.

But in the end, the only thing we have to observe as “fact” is the here and now of our own lives.

And this is what John is also trying to get us to see when he says,

“Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. We love because He first loved us.”

- 1 John 4:17-19

Are you like Jesus in the world?

Do you live your life crippled by fear or motivated by love?

The way of fear causes a person to always look inward at themselves.

“I’m afraid I won’t have X.”

“I’m afraid I won’t experience Y.”

“I’m afraid of eternity!” so my faith is all about the afterlife.

Thinking like this places a life on an awful trajectory, breeding self-centeredness and paranoia. It threatens people instead of welcoming them.

Show me a person who only cares about what they can get out of this life for themselves and you can bet that is a person whose sole (and soul) motive is fear.

The way of love, however, causes a person to look outward at others.

Living a life of love for others places it on a beautiful trajectory. It breeds hope and peace. It welcomes people instead of threatening them to buy into something.

 

THE FEAR OF DEATH

A man came by to visit me in the office this week. He wanted to sit and talk with me because he had been thinking about death a lot.

His birthday was right around the corner. He was getting ready to turn the very same age that every man in his family had never lived to see- not a single one.

I asked him, “What worries you about death? Are you worried about what comes after? Where you will go? Where you will spend eternity?”

“No, not all.” he said. “I’m worried because I won’t be able to be here for those that I love. They need me in their lives, and I won’t be here for them.”

Bingo! He hit the nail on the head. This is the lesson that Jesus is trying to get across to us in this passage, and this man understood it.

When we spend our time looking outward at others, Hell becomes... well... just not that important.

 

WHEREVER YOU ARE

Wherever you are in your life today- if you are crippled by fear, if your life is all about you, if you are building a kingdom here on the Earth that meets your every need and your every want- you’re missing the point of spirituality.

The point faith is loving others.

The aim of faith is empathy.

The prize of faith is people- knowing people, loving people, and being there for people. This is what’s it’s all about, not the getting of things- even if those things are “spiritual.”

How might that inform the choices in our lives?

How might that arrest us in the moment at work, at play, or in our spiritual practice(s)?

You can live your life fearing or you can live your life loving.

It’s entirely up to you.

Selah.


Transparent

The following excerpt by Jonathan Williams appears in the book, "10 Count: True Stories of Defeat and Triumph Among Today's Christian Leaders. Find out more here.

 

I was 12 years old when I saw New York Islander defenseman, Jeff Norton absolutely pummel an opposing player on the Philadelphia Flyers. The fans at the Nassau Coliseum went crazy. This is what watching a hockey game was all about. There was shouting, jumping, plenty of cursing, and a few fans banging on the plexiglass that separated the stands from the hockey players on the ice. I stood up and shouted too, exerting some of that 12 year old pubescent angst deep within my body. I looked over and watched my dad, a hockey fan, content in his seat, legs crossed, politely clapping for all that was witnessed. I stared at my dad and then at the other men in the coliseum. My dad wasn’t jumping out of his seat, cursing or punching the plexiglass. Was it because he was a pastor? Was it because he was different?

It was a fleeting moment. 

I didn’t think about that game again until 22 years later. I thought about that game again on the day that my father told me that he was living a lie. My father flew to New York. We sat in my living room. What was it my father would tell me? He was leaving ministry? He and my mother were divorcing? Did he cheat on his taxes? Was he gay? It was there in my living room that my father  told me that he was transgendered. Cheating on taxes would have been so much better.

 My father explained that he always felt as though he should be female. My father explained that over the next few months there would be many changes that would allow him to live life as a woman. She would begin dressing differently. There were hormones and surgeries. My dad explained that there would be many changes that would allow her to live life as she had always hoped. 

I thought about my father, legs crossed, clapping politely, so different. I thought about my father who took me to games. I thought about my dad and the many moments we talked man to man while hiking in the Rocky Mountains. I thought about the thousands of times I called my dad to ask advice or to talk about the Mets. My dad was my friend, my mentor, my hero. My dad was no longer my dad. It felt like the relationship I had with my father was a lie.

I was devastated. 

I had just started a church. 

We were three months into the life or our church and my dad flew to New York to tell me about her transition. How would I function? Did I need to quit? I couldn’t tell anyone at church. My father wasn’t “out” yet and the information was sensitive. I couldn’t tell my staff or any of my supporting churches. I lied to everyone and said that I was okay. “My challenges were nothing out of the ordinary.” This was a battle I fought on my own. It was a battle I was losing. I found it hard to get out of bed. I started drinking too much. I was depressed and angry. I had little energy for interactions and conversations. On Sunday mornings I’d be crying in the green room wondering how I was going to give a message of hope to my fledgling church community. I had no hope myself. I didn’t believe in God. 

One day a staff member said, “Jonathan, where are you? Are you even here? Are you with us?” I was laying on a couch in the office regretting the fact that my dad’s legs crossed at a hockey game didn’t clue me in sooner. “If I had known then I wouldn’t be going through this pain now. I’d be able to focus on our church, growth, and the love of Christ with no limitations. I’d have engaged with my staff in positive ways. I wouldn’t have had emotional breakdowns when there was a missed email or a volunteer who failed to show up on time.  

I fought my way through the good meetings too. There was the meeting where our staff celebrated the fact that we raised and gave away over $100,000 to local organizations. It was hollow. I didn’t care. I didn’t want to be in that meeting. I didn’t want to celebrate. 

 I met with the new attenders and new leaders. I led a small group. I stopped crying in the green room just long enough to preach a decent sermon each Sunday. I approved budgets that set our church up for success.  I got to hear stories about people who never thought they would encounter Jesus again until they found our church. I heard other stories about how the Gospel finally made sense to someone who always considered themselves an atheist. I celebrated each of these stories with hollow eyes and a hollow heart. I wondered if I would encounter Jesus again. As far as I was concerned Jesus was dead. 

 I would go home and tell my wife that life was unfair. It made no sense. I was scarred, battered, bruised, and I wasn’t the person to lead this church. The pain was too great. I physically and emotionally had nothing left to give and my friend, my mentor, my hero couldn’t help me. She was going through her own transition. 

And then, in the darkest night of my mourning I learned about the Hebrew word, Tov. 

In fact, when we read the creation narrative in Genesis, each time that God says, “It’s good” it’s translated from the Hebrew word, “tov.”

The word, “tov” doesn’t mean the same thing as the english word, “good.” It doesn’t carry the same implications of mood or morality. Instead, “tov” literally means, “for its intended purpose.”

When God says that creation is good, God is saying that it’s created for its intended purpose. That means that “good” doesn’t always mean life will be okay. In fact, when God says that something is tov, there is usually light, growth, and birth followed by darkness, pain, and death. Tov means that the fullness of life often comes with pain. It means that we won’t always have the answers we want. It means that our shouts of, “Why God?” will feel like they’re falling upon deaf ears. But it’s “Good,” which means that creation will work according to its intended purpose. Sometimes that purpose means that there is devastating pain. But “tov” also means that pain will turn from darkness to light and from death to resurrection.

And if that’s the case then it was okay for me to be vulnerable. It was okay to be sad. It was okay to mourn my father. I was free to be angry. I was allowed to cry in the green room. I could tell my staff. I could let them comfort me. I didn’t have to be a perfect leader. I realized that the pain I was feeling over my dad’s transition was, “tov.” It was for its intended purpose. My pain was good. It was righteous. It was bringing about resurrection.

 It was time to tell our church. 

During the season of Lent that I talked through the pain of my father’s transition. I talked about the fact that it’s good, it’s tov, to be sad, angry, devastated, hollow. It’s for its intended purpose. 

And what was that purpose?

I hope I'm a  better pastor with a unique wisdom. I find I’m more gracious to the pain of others. I am able to live deep within the mystery of Christ rather than trying to give all of the answers. I’ve met amazing people who call my church their home. I feel our church has a call to love each and every human being who doesn't live in the boundaries and binaries. 

There are stories that our community was afraid to share before but see that there is beauty in them now. I get the privilege of hearing “I was afraid to share my pain and doubt but I see that there is a God at work in it.”

Our church has become a place where vulnerability matters. We share in one another’s burdens. We’re willing to listen to one another’s stories and show one another grace. We are a church that is willing to ask the hard questions, be angry, live in the pain, and fully know that it is good, tov, for its intended purpose. There is growth, love, and grace to come. 

I love my dad dearly. She’s an incredible woman and an incredible friend. She’s allowed me to experience my grief and pain. She’s been gracious with my misplaced anger. I affirm my father and am thankful for the newfound peace that she has found. 

I still wish that my dad crossing his legs and clapping politely during a hockey fight would have clued me in sooner. I wouldn’t wish that devastation on anyone in their first year of church planting. I still have that scar. that scar runs deep and continues to heal. I still have that pain. I’m not sure that it will ever go away. I’m not sure it has to go away. 

My pain is good. My father’s transition is good. The vulnerability of our ministry is good. The uncertainty, anger, sadness, hope, and joy are all good. 

They’re tov. They’re for their intended purpose.