Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Arsenal 2 Newcastle United 0

Last night I went to my first Premier League football match where I saw my local team, Arsenal, defeat Newcastle United. The match was scoreless for the first 82 minutes, when Nicklas Bendtner scored on a wicked header. A few minutes later Denilson, a Brazilian player, launched a hard shot past the keeper (who I’m still not sure ever saw the ball). The stadium is brand new—it’s easy to get in and out of, immaculate and comfortable. I had fish and chips and a beer for dinner—it doesn’t get too much better than that.

I loved every minute of it.

I went with Tom Barlow and Dan Passerelli, two Americans in London with their families to plant churches and share the gospel. It was a pretty good guys night out. Apart from the fun of it, being in one of the new cathedrals to the real religion of the UK showed us just how far the church has to go to get the attention of this culture. English football fans sing for almost the entire game. Some of the melodies are familiar, but the words are usually some form of either worship of their team or insults to the visitors. There were about 3000 fans from Newcastle in northern England there, and they gave almost as good as they got.

After the first goal, about 50,000 Arsenal fans stood up and chanted ‘Who are ya?’ at the visiting crowd, with fingers pointed their way. I hadn’t seen that before—it was a fairly harmless (in the occasionally vicious world of Brit football) thing, but it got me thinking. I wonder how many people in that place had a satisfactory answer to that question.

Who are you?

One nice thing about questioning someone else’s identity is that it keeps you from having to pay any attention to your own. As Christians we’ve been given a new purpose, a new life...a new identity, even, but we rarely take much time to focus on what that means. It’s easier, after all, to shout at someone else than it is to look in the mirror.

In one of the great moments of identity defining in the Bible, we read: ‘But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have...’ (1 Peter 2:9-10)

I wonder how many of us who struggle along, trying to follow Jesus, actually think of ourselves this way. Do you? I don’t think it crosses my mind very often at all. What I like best about this passage, when it does manage to work its way past the static in my brain, is that the images are all about community: a people, a priesthood, a nation, and most importantly, people who have been shown mercy. The life of discipleship isn’t about being alone or isolated or even independent (that one ought to get your attention). The life of faith is about living the way God made us to live—in community with each other and with Jesus.

It probably wouldn’t have been a good idea for me to try and answer those 50,000 fans with a little homily from 1 Peter, but it has to get out there or we’ll lose (ironically) the very message that gives us our identity as Christians.

I think that’s what I like and admire about Tom, MaryAnn, Dan and Somer. They’re here in London without the structure (and mask) of the organized church, meeting people, building friendships and living the message they came to share. I want to be more like that in my church, even as I spend too much of my time on the business of running this place. As fun as our dinners and coffees have been, and a much as I enjoyed learning to be a sports fan in a new place, I think what I’m enjoying most is learning from these people how to do ministry in a new way. God is being generous with me right now, and I want to savor every minute of it.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Home Cooking

Something happened today that made me feel strangely at home here in London. First, some background.

It’s fall here—and as it turns out, it’s much warmer and nicer than the summer ever managed to be. The temperature is just below 70F, which is perfect for walking and eating outdoors and, well, for having a life apart from wearing a parka and being trapped indoors. The weather is simply lovely.

We’ve been back for almost two weeks now, and we’ve settled in so much quicker than we expected. Yesterday Julie and I went to a tea at Ian’s school (think: Back to School Night), and then walked along Marylebone Road (a major thoroughfare) to Marylebone High Street (a very cool stretch of shops and restaurants). We found a place we liked and got a table outside for dinner—pizzas and pasta and salad (surprise). Halfway through dinner (and more than halfway through a bottle of Montepulciano), Julie said: “It shocks me to say this, but for the last few days I have loved being in London.”


It was a nice moment, after a fun visit to Ian’s school and a delicious dinner. It was a small milestone in our sense of making this place our home for the next few years. Ian’s school, by the way, is so great! We met his new teacher, some parents, and had a nice chat with his teacher from last year. Their first field trip is to this amazing re-creation of a Celtic village outside of London. The history component for his year is focusing on invasions of the British Isles (Celts, Vikings, the odd Norman). He’s going to have a really good year.

So back to my story. Around the corner from the church is a chip shop, a take-away place where you can get fish and chips, kebabs (think Zankou Chicken if you’re in SoCal right now), and other examples of, er, fine British cuisine. I’ve gone to this place a half dozen times since we moved here—it’s great food, but not all that healthy. Today I went there and got fish and chips for the secretary, property manager and the organist. When I’d ordered, the guy behind the counter asked me: “So are you watching the football tonight?”

That was one of the nicest things anyone has said to me since we moved here.

Like I said, I’d been in there a fair number of times, and on every one of those visits this same guy has asked me some variation of this question: “So are you here on holiday?” It must be his standard question to Americans who visit his shop, but I’ve taken it from him and answered with a quick “no, we live here now.”

But this time he asked me a “local” question. England is playing Russia in a qualifying match for the European Cup, and just about every guy in London will be glued to his set, drinking beer and yelling at the national team. His question told me that he no longer saw me as a visitor or an outsider, but rather as one of his local customers, and it made me feel pretty good. So much about who I am identifies me as someone who is not from these parts—not least that I’m the pastor of the American Church—but the chip guy treated me like a local today, and that made it just a little bit easier to see myself that way.

It’s strange, isn’t it? How something as minor as a piece of smalltalk can make you feel as though you’re a part of something. I’ve been thinking this afternoon about how we welcome people into new communities. That’s a huge part of my ministry here—we had more than 20 visitors last Sunday, and more are on the way—and I want to be good at it, to make new people feel as much at home as the chip guy did with me today. Maybe it takes a few visits before you can do that authentically with a new person. I’m sure part of what happened today took place because the chip guy knew he’d seen me before, and part of him was sure that I couldn’t still be here on holiday.

And so maybe what I learned today is not how to greet the first-time guest—frankly I think we’re pretty good at that. Maybe what I learned today is how to help someone transition from visitor to “local,” to someone I want to know something about—someone I expect to see again. That may be an under-examined aspect of how we bring people into community and into faith. The simple asking of a question—one that had to do with an event that only locals might care about—told me that I belonged there, that I was known, and that I was recognized as a fellow Londoner.

At the American Church we’re just about ready to enter into our prime season of drawing new people into the life of the church. Americans tend to move here in time to get their kids in school, and so by September and October they’re looking for places to belong. I love meeting these folks, but I think that after today I’m going to pay special attention to the repeat visitors, and look for that question or comment that will let them know that they’ve found a home.

That’s what happened to me today.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Cigar Night

What can I say about my Cigar Night friends that could capture the meaning of it for the rest of you? If I was honest I'd say that I have learned as much about the church there than I ever did in seminary. Where else can you find a group of people--anywhere--who share their faith, their struggles, their fears, their jokes, their discoveries and their dreams for being better disciples of Jesus Christ? They do all of that without judgement or meanness, even when the disagreements are heated. I'll never forget the evening when one guy dug his feet in on something that the rest of us thought was crazy. He took a pummeling in the conversation, but he also got a hug from each one of us on the way out.

Did I not say that this was more like church was supposed to be than, well, church?

The guys who participate in this regular event--and the roster changes each time--are brothers in Christ in the truest sense of the word. They laugh easily, love loyally and forgive with just the right measure of forgetfulness.

I got to attend two of these gatherings while I was was back in LA. It wasn't nearly enough.

Cali Recap

We had a great time in California. It was hot--mostly in the 90s the entire time--but we loved being there and miss it a lot now that we're back in London. Julie got back into cutting hair, which gave her the chance to re-connect with lots of her friends. We spent a lot of time with the lovely people in our small group--they through one of Julie's three (3!) separate birthday parties. I got to ask my pastor, Craig Hall, a ton of questions from my first seven months in London, and as expected he gave me some wise counsel.

We flew back on 29 August, and we're still trying to wake up. Ian goes back to school on the 6th, so we'll be back into our early morning commute. We're kicking off some new things this season at ACL, including a Sunday School class for adults that will be modeled on the one I attended at Glendale Presbyterian. Kate Obermueller (see below) is coming in a few weeks, which will get us back to full strength on staff.

So many friends to see and some really good times with our families. Ian enjoyed saying goodbye to his cousins. Here are some snaps from the last few days.

Ian and Bella.

Ian and Brad.

Ian and Haley.

The Boulais Boyz--destined to be rock stars.