Church Planting with the Brothers Karamazov

The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.
- Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

 
BrothersKaramazov.png
 

A Gospel Formed Family?

The mission of Grace and Peace is to provide a “gospel-formed family for the city” of Austin.

In his first sermon series on Ephesians entitled “God’s Workmanship,” our pastor explained how the church must understand itself as a family – an institution where members are united despite their diversity.  Such unity in diversity is a mystery of God’s workmanship.  We see this mystery in a singular beam of refracted light which reveals every imaginable color. We feel this mystery in our beating heart, reminded that our own life is dependent on different organs all working in unison to make us walk, or breathe, or think about these things.  This organizing principle of life reflects God.  It is mysterious.  And it is beautiful.

While it may not be hard to convince people that such beauty exists in nature, it is more difficult to convince them that this beauty characterizes the family.  Perhaps this is because beauty, as described by Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, is both mysterious and terrible.  It is terrible because, “God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.”  This fight mars the created order and when it is waged in the family, the aftermath is divorce, separation, abuse, and neglect.  Each is an ugly reality that shapes far too many people’s experiences of this institution. This is not a 21st-century phenomenon.  The first account of brotherhood in the Bible is also the first account of murder. For many the family is a place of pain and bitterness.  It may be diverse, but it is certainly not unified.

If this is how many people experience family, is the church using the right metaphor to describe its role in the city of Austin?

Dostoevsky: Recovering the Beauty of Brotherhood

This summer I picked up Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.  It is my first attempt at reading the Russian giant and I make no claim to be a literary critic.  But what strikes me about this story is how it uncovers the obstacles that prevent brotherhood and in doing so recovers the beauty of brotherhood as a force for making the world over anew.

The brotherhood between Dimitri, Ivan, and Alyosha Karamazov is, like any brotherhood, characterized by differences in personality and temperament.  Dimitri is a passionate sensualist who blows unearned money on entertainment, women, and booze.   Ivan, on the other hand, is a stoic rationalist who believes in the existence of God but because of the suffering he sees in the world, decides to renounce God as a deity worthy of his worship.  The youngest brother, Alyosha, is the most spiritual of the three, living his life in the seclusion of a Russian Orthodox Monastery as a novice.

Alyosha is under the spiritual mentorship of the Elder Zosima.  Early on in the story, it is Zosima who understands that the passions of the oldest brother, Dimitri, and the brothers’ father, Fyodor, threaten to unravel the unity of the family.  Before he dies, he releases Alyosha from his isolated monastic life and sends him into the broken world of his older brothers charging him to make this world “over anew.”  He is to accomplish this task through brotherhood.

Zosima:

In order to make the world over anew, people themselves must turn onto a different path psychically.  Until one has indeed become the brother of all, there will be no brotherhood.  No science or self-interest will ever enable people to share their property and their rights among themselves without offense.  Each will always think his share too small, and they will keep murmuring, they will envy and destroy one another.

It is this self-interest and envy that defines Dimitris’ relationship with his father.  Zosima warns Alyosha that both of these force destroy brotherhood, and it does so by creating a culture of isolation.  It is this isolation which Zosima tells Alyosha is the primary obstacle to brotherhood, and which must be overcome if he is to make the world over anew.

Zosima:

[Brotherood] will come true, but first the period of human isolation must conclude.

“What isolation?” I asked him.

That which is now reigning everywhere, especially in our age, but it is not all concluded yet, its term has not come.  For everyone now strives most of all to separate his person, wishing to experience the fullness of life within himself, and yet what comes of all his efforts is not the fullness of life but full suicide, for instead of the fullness of self-definition, they fall into complete isolation.  For all men in our age are separated into units, each seeks seclusion in his own hole, each withdraws from the others, hides himself, and hides what he is, and ends by pushing himself away from people and pushing people away from himself.  He accumulates wealth in solitude, thinking: how strong, how secure I am now, and does not see, madman as he is, that the more he accumulates, the more he sinks into suicidal impotence.  For he is accustomed to relying only on himself, he has separated his unit from the whole, he has accustomed his soul to not believing in people’s help, in people or in mankind, and now only trembles lest his money and his acquired privileges perish. …. But there must needs come a term to this horrible isolation, and everyone will all at once realize how unnaturally they have separated themselves one from another.  Such will be the spirit of the time, and they will be astonished that they sat in darkness for so long, and did not see the light.” [emphasis mine]

Russia in the mid-19th century sounds a lot like America in early twenty-first. This “unnatural separation” of isolation which people embrace under the mis-guided belief that the fullness of life can be experienced within oneself defines our culture of competitive self-reliance.  It manifests itself in the accumulation of wealth in solitude and results in nothing more than seclusion and withdrawal from community. It is this isolation “which is now reigning everywhere,” in 2015.

The Road to Character by David Brooks, offers some statistics on this front.  Considering the decline in intimacy, he writes:

Decades ago, people typically told pollsters that they had four or five close friends, people to whom they could tell everything.  Now the common answer is two or three, and the number of people with no confidants has doubled.  Thirty-five percent of older adults report being chronically lonely, up from 20 percent a decade ago.

Envy, self-interest, and the isolation they produce, destroys brotherhood.  It would be easy to say that unity can be attained when we go out into this world and tell others to take responsibility for their actions, to stop envying, and to form communities.  It would be easy to tell others about all the things we have figured out because of our Christian faith.  Yet, Zosima offers a way forward that is a little more challenging.

Zosima offers Alyosha a radical conception of love that begins, not by telling others to take responsibility for their sins, but by taking the responsibility for their sins on yourself.  Alyosha is not sent into the world to tell his brothers how awful they are in their brokeness.  Rather, his time in monastic isolation uncovered his own brokeness so that when he sees the passions of Dimitri that lead him to run to women, or the cold-rationalism of Ivan that lead him to run away from God, he understands the same battle is waging in his own heart.

When he admits guilt of the same battle within, he realizes he is not better than his brothers. He is not even equal to his brothers. Now he sees himself as “worse than all those in the world…guilty of everything, before everyone.”

The result of this radical shift in thinking, says Zosima, is the capacity for radical love that brings unity:

But when he knows that he is not only worse than all those in the world, but is also guilty before all people, on behalf of all and for all, for all human sins, the world’s and each person’s, only then will the goal of our unity be achieved. […] Only then will our hearts be moved to a love that is infinite, universal, and knows no satiety.

Taking responsibility for your sins AND the sins of others is the way to recover the beauty of brotherhood and bring unity to diversity.  When we are able to see our sins in the sins of others, we see the depth of brokenness in the world, and the need for a Saviour.  If we are unable to see our sins in the sins of others, we end up seeing ourselves as their Saviour, which never goes well. Or, as Zosima says, we end up “shifting our own laziness and powerlessness onto others [thereby] sharing in Satan’s pride and murmuring against God.”

Back to Austin

Radical love that brings unity is difficult.  When thinking about how to begin seeing the people in Austin outside of my church-community as my family, I considered how Dostoevsky’s brothers each possessed character traits that are evident in the father, the “buffoon” Fyodor Karamazov.

It seems obvious to say it, but the brothers share a father.  This father’s image is, like a singular beam of light, refracted into a diversity of Karamazov personalities.  This is an image that is broken, and as a result, the brothers inherit that brokenness.  Maybe Alyosha can see that he is guilty of everything before everyone because he, like everyone, is the image-bearer of a broken father.

Once we realize this ugly reality, the only hope we have in forming a brotherhood with all, a family in Austin, is that a Father exists who is not broken, and that somehow we are His image-bearers.  This would be a beautiful mystery.

 

Election Reflection

This morning brought a new chapter into our American political life. For some of you it seems a wonderful moment and opportunity for our country. For others it seems like the beginning of the end. For some, it’s just really confusing. For others, scary. For still others…not worth your time. Regardless of whether the outcome was what you wanted, this election has exposed deep mistrust and cynicism in our country. It has threatened many of our idols which has resulted in vast divisiveness. It has exposed our self-righteousness and our pride –  our racism, bigotry, greed and materialism.

Brothers and sisters, now is the time this country needs the church. It needs us. First, we need to pray.  Pray for our new President and his choices for a new cabinet to come.  We need to pray for all our elected officials from top to bottom – may God use them to be agents of goodness in this city, state, country and world. In addition, he has called us – the church – to be the moral voice and example in our homes, our workplaces, and in the public square. Never once did we have the opportunity to abdicate that responsibility to anyone else, including our elected officials. As Russell Moore wrote late last night, “We should be ready to pray and preach, to promote the common good and to resist injustice.”  We are to be agents of redemptive truth and love. Armed as we are with the Gospel of Reconciliation, we have an opportunity now to show uncommon love, grace and humility that God will use to heal and redeem. Paul says in Ephesians 2 that Christ came to break the “dividing wall of hostility” between Jew and Greek. That goes for Democrats and Republicans, blue collar and white collar, rich and poor, old and young, African American, Caucasian, Latino, and Asian too. Our instinct is to either boast or to blame. There is no room for either of those in the shadow of our Savior’s cross or in the glory of His empty tomb.

So together, as this little “Gospel-formed family for the city”, let’s seize this opportunity to be a redemptive people. There is another opportunity this Saturday to feed the homeless with Mobile Loaves and Fishes. You’ll be home in time for the 2nd half. Men, there is an opportunity that same morning to gather at our home to make new friends and to hear the Gospel again as it spurs us on to lead our friendships, families, workplaces, and the church with love and good, redemptive deeds. Ladies, on Tuesday night there is another opportunity to gather in fellowship at Vino Vino – a time to care for one another and some much needed laughter. Third through Fifth graders, Saturday afternoon there is another chance to dive into the amazing book, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, at our Raisins Reading Club to learn about how Jesus gives us every reason to hope in Him. There are opportunities, brothers and sisters, to come clean with our addictions. To support foster care families. To pray for and with college students. To volunteer at Young Life. To gather in our Parish Groups for Bible Study and prayer. To love our kids. To love our neighbors. To repent. To give. To cherish.  And yes, to worship the God of resurrection and redemption “who was and is and is to come”!

Last night a group of us gathered for prayer – not to pray for a specific outcome for the election, but instead to commit ourselves and our church family to the will of God for us during this chaotic time. We were reminded of Psalm 33, and so I share its final verses with the rest of you as well. May God continue to use us as agents of his very good redemption in the city we love. Now is the time.

Psalm 33:18-22

18 Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear him,
on those who hope in his steadfast love,
19 that he may deliver their soul from death
and keep them alive in famine.
20 Our soul waits for the LORD;
he is our help and our shield.
21 For our heart is glad in him,
because we trust in his holy name.
22 Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us,
even as we hope in you.

Much love to you all, in Christ,

Pastor Jay

Denominational Racism, Repentance, and Reconciliation

My family has deep roots in East Texas.  Kilgore to be exact — home of the Rangerettes and oil derricks.  I have so many fond memories of visiting my grandparents there and hearing about the good old days when the oil flowed like crazy.  But, one of my starkest Kilgore memories was a more painful one.  You see, my grandparents were racists.  Oh, not self-proclaimed to be sure, and if asked, they would have denied it.  But, I do remember my grandma dropping the “N” word a time or two, and I definitely remember the tension when the black guy moved into her spare bedroom.

My grandfather had died, and grandma needed a little extra income.  So, she put up an ad at the local junior college to rent out her spare bedroom.  She had one applicant — a black 6’ 7” power forward for the Kilgore Rangers basketball team.  Reluctantly, she took him in.

That summer we happened to visit grandma at the same time the mini-series called “Roots” came on TV (yes, this was pre-cable TV!), which told the violent and terrible true story of our American heritage of slavery.  All of us – new black roommate included – watched it in complete, awkward silence.  We didn’t talk about the elephant in the room then, and I don’t remember it ever being discussed afterwards either.  It was better to just go on like it wasn’t relevant to us.  Like that was ancient history.  Like the injustice of slavery and deep racism wasn’t our problem and didn’t touch our own hearts.

For decades now, our denomination (the Presbyterian Church in America) has been equally silent, despite the fact that we are,as a denomination, deeply implicated in the sins of racism in this country.   Both by sins of “omission” and “commission,” we have both contributed to the problem with our own blatant racist words and actions as well as silently standing on the redemptive sidelines as if it weren’t our problem.  That is, until now.

Last week, our denomination voted overwhelmingly to finally speak up.  To finally own our sin.  To finally repent.  HERE is the exact overture that was adopted.  

As Dan Allendar says, “The work of restoration cannot begin until a problem is fully faced.” This is a giant leap in that direction.  May the Lord use this first step to break down the “walls of hostility” (Eph. 2:14) and begin realizing his reconciling mission to unite all God people in Christ.

Particularization and Leadership

Several times during this first year together I’ve mentioned that our church plant is hoping to become “particularized” in the near future.  What this means is that we become a fully independent congregation in our denomination (fully separate from our “mother church” – All Saints Presbyterian – out in southwest Austin).  In order to do this, we need two things:  1. Our own trained officers (elders, deacons and deaconess’) and, 2. to be fully self supported financially (not dependent upon outside sources of income to pay our bills).

We need these trained officers to help with the day to day operation of the church, but mostly to come alongside our staff to help care for the spiritual, emotional and physical needs of our church family and the people whom we are called to serve in Austin. The Lord has blessed us with so many new, wonderful people in this first year and so we were hoping to have these officers in place as soon as possible so no one “falls through the cracks”.  But obviously, taking on the responsibilities of these offices is no small matter and needs to be done very carefully.  And so we find ourselves at this unique time in the life of our new church between the tension of pressing congregational needs and the need to move with slow wisdom and prudence in discerning the Lord’s calling on those who will stand for these offices.

And so we’ve decided to form a temporary “vestry” to address this tension.  In short, we have invited the nominated candidates to our offices to begin doing the work of elder, deacon and deaconess in an unofficial capacity for a 7-month trial period prior to particularization next spring.  This will not only address the need for better care of our church family and better service to Austin, but it will also provide an “on the ground” time of additional training and discernment to see whether each of these candidates is really called to the offices they’ve been asked to consider.  This “vestry” will commence in August and run through March with the hopes of particularization in April of 2017. With regards to the financial piece of the particularization puzzle, we still need increased giving in order to be fully self-supporting, so please prayerfully consider regularly giving to the mission of our church family.

If you have any additional questions about the vestry and/or the budget, please don’t hesitate to ask.  We are excited for what the Lord has done and looking forward with great anticipation of our life together as we live more fully into our vision to be “a Gospel-formed family for the city.”

Pastor Jay