September 2008

Several weeks ago on what was the 7th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I had lunch with 2 friends.  All 3 of us were living in New York in 2001, though working in different jobs from the ones we are in now, and  we can still recall with great clarity the events of that day.  One woman worked near the twin towers and her office was covered in a cloud of black soot from the debris.  The other remembers walking from lower Manhattan to her sister’s place in Chelsea where friends gathered and stayed to support one another in the days immediately after the attacks.   As we reflected on the sad memories of those horrific events, we could not believe that 7 whole years had passed since that day which changed so much, both for so many personally and for the nation and world at large.  Three days after this year’s 9/11, on what the New York Times referred to as 9/14, brought the greatest collapse of the US economy the likes of which have not been seen since 1929.  I was mindful that this was how the 7th year following 9/11 was being ushered in and it caused me to reflect on the significance of the 7th year in the Bible. 

The 7th or sabbatical year is described in Exodus 23 as a year in which the land was to lie fallow (to rest) , as we are called to do every 7th day. This meant the poor and wild animals could eat off this land.  In time, the sabbatical year also became a year in which any outstanding amounts owed on all debts were written off.  I’m no financial manager or economist but I know, just to give one relevant example, that writing off all the debt incurred by homeowners who can no longer keep up with their mortgage payments is just not an option in today’s world.  So what does it mean -if anything – that these events are occurring in the 7th year after 9/11?  Only God knows and I mean that literally, but what I do know is that it’s highly likely that we are in for another tough year here in New York City. 

I remember in the first sermon I heard after 9/11 7 years ago being told that New York City was going to become an even more challenging place to live:  there would be many more hurting people needing care and support and others would choose to move away in the hopes of living in a safer part of the country creating another level of loss.   I’m pretty sure this 7th year will usher in more of the same.  Apparently following the stock market crash of 1929, church attendance in the U.S. went up dramatically.  I don’t expect that to happen next week or even next month, but as the ripple effect of an economy in tatters begins to be felt far beyond those who work directly in the financial industry, in a city in which the economic power of this country is anchored, I expect that that is likely to happen again, especially since those following the market say there could be more bad news coming.   This means that churches and those who have been called to serve in them could be stretched in new ways.  Rather than be daunted or fearful for what this might mean for each one, this could be another opportunity for us together to be salt and light as we care for those who are hurting.  Lord, we pray, give us the grace to persevere as you call us to respond.


Recently I have found myself thinking alot about persevering.  What does it really mean to persevere?  I tend to think it means to hang on, to keep on hanging on, to push through and to push past the lull in life we may be experiencing or feeling. But I’ve begun to realize it’s more than just a ‘grin and bear it’ approach.  I think persevering is more like Eugene Peterson’s description of patience in his list of the fruits of the spirit in the Message which he suggests is “developing a willingness to stick with things”.  So it’s not just the mere act of sticking with things or people or circumstances or situations that may be difficult or hard or unpleasant or trying or even seemingly pointless, but it’s having a willing attitudeto stick with such things and not to seek to run in the opposite direction which is what I tend to want to try to do.  Persevering comes about as the result of the Spirit’s work in us who gives us the faith to believe that God meets us in this process of persevering.  In the Hebrews 10 passage v19 – 39 in the NIV, these 20 verses are described as a ‘call to perservere’.  So persevering is elevated to a calling and it comes from “hold[ing] unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful”,  (v23) my favorite verse here.  Yes, persevering comes because we are called to live in hope – that this world is not all there is  –  and because the one who is the source of all hope  – who lived and died and rose again here on earth  – ushered in a new era, when he overcame death, that we are now an active part of.  And he will return again to this earth to fully usher in a new world where all that is hard about this life will be no more.

In the first few weeks in my role as Fellowship Group Director, 3 separate people made mention of Peter Scazzero’s book ‘The Emotionally Healthy Church’. I took this to be a sign and moved it near the top of my reading list.  In the last several weeks, I got to it and devoured it as if I hadn’t eaten a square meal for 3 days.  Scazzero is the Senior Pastor of New Life Fellowship, a diverse church with 55 countries represented, in a working class immigrant section of Queens which he and his wife started in 1987.  Not withstanding a crisis in his marriage (no, it was not infidelity) that led to changes in his life and in the church, the result of which is this book, New Life Fellowship has thrived and has gone onto plant a number of churches itself.  Along the way Scazzero has become convinced that “the overall health of any church or ministry depends primarily on the emotional and spiritual health of its leadership”  (p. 20; the italics are mine).  The focus on the interconnection between emotional health and spritual maturity – and how key this is for all of us in leadership – was what drew me in.

For those of us who have been called to serve in  any leadership capacity in a church, acknowledging this interconnection, examining who we are emotionally, and growing in our maturity as emotional people is, I have come to be convinced, essential to our spiritual life and growth as well.  We can’t hope and expect to grow more deeply in our relationship with Christ without also maturing in how we relate to and respond emotionally to the people and circumstances around us.  I plan to unpack some of what he describes in his book over the next few blog entries, but for today will highlight an aspect of his next to last chapter (10)  which is where I am right now: the importance of us becoming incarnational. 

Becoming incarnational means really entering into others lives as Jesus did by coming to earth and entering into our lived experience as humans.  The ways we do this is  by being present and available to people as we love them, and this begins with 3 kinds of intentional listening: reflecting listening, validation and exploring.  All 3 are useful techniques for those in leadership and can help us to become people who do more listening than we do talking. 

Reflective listening, particularly helpful in situations of miscommuncation or conflict, is where one person gives the other person extended time to speak sharing their own thoughts, feelings and desires, and then the one listening reflects back what they think they have just heard.  This same thing then happens vice versa so both people are granted an opportunity to share without being interrupted.   Validation, on the other hand, is not necessarily agreeing with the other person but making every effort to see the situation through their eyes.  Exploring involves inviting someone to tell you more by drawing them out and explicitly giving them an opportunity to go further in what they choose to share of themselves.   Scazzero concludes this section by saying that other than modeling incarnation nothing else has had a stronger ripple effect throughout the church than teaching these listening techniques and seeing their impact.  Wow!

One of the things we teach our group leaders is that when they facilitate a group, they should be doing more listening than talking.   This is hard enough to do in the structure of a group setting where one is facilitating, but think how radical this would be if we as leaders all interacted with others this way during our conversations, actively seeking to listen more than talk!  It would no doubt be very humbling and would certainly go a long way in helping us to know and care more for each other – which is after all one of our core values in building community here at Redeemer.