"finding God in the neighborhood"

You Won't be Able to Discern God's Actions...

...if you don't know what...

...God cares about.

This morning I was reading a wonderfully short blog by Scott McKnight, entitled "The OT's Most Important Command"* It got me thinking on a couple levels. 

Leaning on the work of Walter Brueggemann (and who wouldn't?), McKnight reveals a little know fact in the Hebrew language. There are no adverbs. Brueggemann explains, "I’ll give you a little Hebrew grammar.... Biblical Hebrew has no adverbs. The way it expresses the intensity of the verb, it repeats the verb. So if it says give and you want to say “really give” it says “give give” right in the sentence–”give give.”

This little lesson in grammar is not without a point. So if one wants to find a high priority command, look for lots of verbs repeated. With this in mind, Brueggemann says the most stressed command in the Old Testament is not what people might think.

How about,

  1. "Love the LORD your God..."? Nope
  2. "You shall have no other God's before me"? Nu-uh.
  3. "You shall work on six days, and the seventh is a sabbath to the LORD"? No.
  4. "Beat your swords into plowshares"? Not that either.

So before I reveal what McKnight wrote from Brueggeman, let me ask if we really know God well enough to share God's priorities? As a missional conviction, we need to be in mission where God has initiated mission. We look in our neighborhoods, along our sidewalks, where we work and where our kids go to school. We hope to see God active in our worshiping communities and active outside them as well. But we can be blind to what God is doing because we are seeking the actions of God in the wrong places.

If we know God's priorities, might we discern God in action in those places where God's priorities are made manifest?

Missional discernment needs people who know God. Prayerful, reflective, spiritual people who seek the heart of God in a living, personal relationship.

But missional discernment also needs to know about God. To have learned about, acted upon, engaged in the biblical narrative revealing God in action, let's us know this God we are seeking to know deeply.

Often I have thought we need to "know God" more than "knowing about God". But I'm rethinking that. Without knowing about God, we might be chasing a relationship with a god of our own creation. We need both knowing, and knowing about.

So, according to Brueggemann, what is the Old Testament's most important command?


Deuteronomy 15

, you get a law about seven years. It’s called the 

Year of Release

. It says that at the end of seven years, if a poor person owes you money, cancel the debt." As Brueggemann explains, "[The law] says to not be hard-hearted (or tight fisted) about granting poor people space to live their lives, because you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord God brought you out into the good place." Scott McKnight adds, "So grammatically, the Old Testament scripture with the 

most emphasis

 as in “you must must must must 


 do this” is a passage about forgiving debts."

God cares about releasing debts. This is big. Very big. And it let's us know where God's heart is. 





Listening for Fuzzy Brown Squirels

Jesus may be the answer, but seriously, listen closely to the question.

A dear brother who passed away this past summer, Richard Regier told me the following story.  Richard had a gift for not allowing shallow piety to stay around long. His piety was deep and a bit wry, and more than a little rough around the edges. When we would laugh about the church trying to give shallow but pious answers to difficult questions, we would call those "fuzzy brown squirrel" answers. Answers like, "we just need to pray more," "we just need to study the Bible more," or, "we just need to let them know Jesus is the answer." Now those aren't bad things, it's just that they don't often get to the real issues at hand.  So here's a brief rendition of the story Richard told me....

The preacher asks all the kids to come forward during the service for the "children's sermon." He begins, "Good morning, kids. I'm going to describe something to you and I'm going to ask you what I'm describing." The children remain quiet, wanting to hear the details so they can get the answer right.

The preacher goes on to describe the mystery creature. "What is small and has little pointed ears? It also gathers food in the summer and fall and buries it around the yard. In the winter it goes to find its buried food to help it survive through the cold months. It has tiny black eyes, a fuzzy brown tail, and easily climbs trees. What is it?

As this point the children are quiet, and looking a bit uncomfortable. Then one child raises his hand and answers without conviction, and a confused look on his face, saying, "I know that the answer is Jesus, but it sounded like a fuzzy brown squirrel."

Had the conversation taken place anywhere else, I suppose the kids would have mentioned the squirrel first of all. But since the story takes place in a church, the range of correct answers is limited. In congregations, there seems to be sets of answers that are always "appropriate" regardless of the questions.

But the old answers don't work.

Six years ago, I was among a group of people working with church leaders. One of our group was Alan Roxburgh. Alan had just published the book, The Sky is Falling: Leaders Lost in Transition. In this book, Alan describes how Christian leaders were lost in contemporary culture for lack of clear maps, misunderstanding the different terrain of cultural connection, and the loss of a satisfactory and effective Christian-centered world.

This past week, Al posted on his blog, at The Missional Network, that the disconnect Christian leaders experienced six years ago appears to be alive and well. Al was working with a congregation and wrote about them,
"The people of this church are currently looking for another way of reaching the people around them. One idea was to place a box on the wall were people in the community could place their prayer requests so that the people of the church (most of whom drove in to the 150 year old church building) could pray for them. These and other ideas where shared. These are good people. They know the world has changed, that their church is not connected to the neighborhood and that the Spirit is calling them into the neighborhood. But their focus remains stuck in the narratives of how to help people and meet their needs. Such actions are not wrong. Indeed, this is a part of the calling of God’s people. That’s not the point! What I am observing is that these long established defaults are so deep and so powerful that good people in our churches simply don’t know what else to do."

Shifting from Default

There are "long established defaults" that limit our thinking, and above all, our imagination. The limited imagination of the church is reflected in the little story about the fuzzy brown squirrel. How can congregations begin to hear differently so that the old defaults don't become first responses? Or, how do the default responses actually become the imaginative applications of being church?

1. Change the question

The church doesn't have to respond out of habit. Rather than asking how do we reach new people, perhaps the question how do we let new people reach us. What would it be like if we entered our neighborhoods and communities as aliens, seeking the hospitality of strangers?

2. Eavesdrop

It doesn't take long to realize we have sheltered lives once we spend some time in other places. We don't have to go far out of our way - to a hospital, a prison, a shorter-term mission, we can just hang out in the neighborhood. A few years ago I was a substitute teacher at our local high school. I heard sarcasm, swearing, laughter, anger, mostly in the form of stories. Stories about others, about the weekend experiences, and occasionally about the assigned homework. But in hearing stories, you hear the values, hopes, and expectations of others.

3. Learn a new language

I am still surprised when I meet grow up, mature people, who do not know what a "tweet" is, our how to "update their status". The landscape of social networking has altered the ways in which people relate. Certainly, there are drawbacks from the habitual dependence on smartphones to manage our relationships. But not engaging it it does not improve our connections either.

4. Tell some stories

There are lots of people who want to inform me. They want to define things. There are some things that are best described that way, but wikipedia might actually do a better job of explaining some things to me. There are lots of places to go for definitions, news, instructions and directions. But there is no other place to go to find what has shaped a person's values, what has touched them deeply, or how they became the people they have become other than to hear them out. In listening to the stories of others, offering our own stories as an interface, the two stories acknowledge the meeting and the creation of a new story, a shared story.

I Want a Fuzzy Brown Squirrel to be a Fuzzy Brown Squirrel 

The only reason the story about the children with their piously correct answers is because default happens. It happens when churches try to do what others have done because it worked elsewhere. It happens when the same methods of searching out answers are used decade after decade. It happens when answers re-tread previously journeyed paths.

When Isaiah spoke for God, asking, "See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up. Do you not perceive it?" (Is 43:19). It is not God that is restrained into the default answers. If we keep discerning the same things over and again, it is we who need to change. God is already doing a new things, along with our communities, our neighborhoods, the larger world. Why would the church expect itself to be the only things static and unmoved?

Quiet Thoughts While Things Blew Up

Last week, my wife and I walked through the neighborhood watching adults and children lighting sparklers, igniting fire-crackers, and watching fountains of fire and light on the Fourth of July. The adults were talking, the children were screaming delightfully, and we - my wife and I - were happy residents in a subdivision we call home.

We’ve lived here over 10 years. That’s longer than we’ve lived anywhere together. As we turned the corner, a neighbor, Chrissy, was sitting in a folding chair at the edge of her road. She could look up the street or down the street to see the fireworks. We spoke with her for awhile, then moved on. We found our son up the road and around the corner. He was with two of his friends. One of his friend’s dad, Tim, was there, too. We talked as littler kids watched the fire and light. Tim, has been a friend for as long as our sons have been friends. Tim and I have coached our sons together in baseball, our sons have played football together. For about six years, our families have seen each other almost weekly for 8-10 months out of the year. Some weeks, that more than we see anyone from our church, work, or even our own family.

Walking back home, we reflect, as we often have, that we are grateful for our neighbors, most of the time. Darrel and his wife, Tim and Lisa, Cindy and Nicki, Dennis and Dory, Ray and Rosemary. They’ve been there and they care. I don’t know their politics, I only know a little about their faith. But we’ve known their kids and grand-kids, and they’ve known our kids.

While others find abstract concepts like “liberty”, “freedom,” and “Independence” something to celebrate, I think I’m happy to celebrate the opportunity to live with my family and people like Tim, Chrissy, and the rest. And to call this mundane place home.