People, Pain, and Deconstruction

Friday night we watched, Bridge to Terabithia. It’s about the awkward friendship of two fifth graders, Leslie – a girl, and Jess – a boy.

Leslie’s joy is the first thing to infect her neighbor and soon to be best friend. She was from an artistic family who told stories, wrote books, and slopped bright paint on their living room walls as they danced. Jess is the only son of a working class couple scraping together whatever they can to make ends meet for their five children. His family are faithful church attendees. They have the stern faces and serious demeanor to prove it. Leslie, on the other hand, had never been to church before and seemed to be captivated by the entire experience of it. 

Out of all the high’s and low’s of their story, this in my opinion, is the most compelling scene.

http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=swcEExbjVMQ

“You have to believe it and you hate it. I don’t have to believe it and I love it.” 

How does that sit with you?

Who do you most identify with in this scene?
– May Belle – certain of a harsh God who’s purpose is to damn people to hell
– Jess – confused as he reconsiders what he’s always accepted as truth
– Leslie – free to embrace the beauty of Jesus without the baggage of dogma

Why do you think that is?  

Whenever I watch this scene I long for the freedom Leslie exudes. I love the simple way she embraces the beauty of Jesus without all the baggage of dogma. 

But I see myself in both of the other characters too. As a young adult I was so certain about things…I felt I had to be. I was so sure about certain doctrines that Jesus and grace got lost in it all. Then about ten years ago I started going through a time of deconstruction myself. I don’t think I was necessarily wrong about all the things I thought, believed, and taught. I just look back and see somethings that were out of focus and other areas that were incomplete. 

God seems to use two primary tools to help us grow. 
1. People – ‘Leslie characters’ in our own lives. If we’re paying attention God seems to bring them into our lives to give us a clearer picture of Him. Some of them stay in our lives for a long time and others only for a season. 
2. Pain – My friend Larry calls, ‘disorienting dilemmas.’ These are experiences and events that rock us to our foundation. They can help us challenge things we’ve always accepted and distill what we believe.   

Who in your life is calling you to live more fully?

Are you in a place where it feels like your belief system is getting in the way of knowing God more completely?

Do you tend to embrace disorienting dilemmas or bury them?

Do you have someone to share that with?

Does it feel like you’ve laid claim to your own beliefs, or more like you’re living a second hand faith of your parents or pastors?

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A few things I don’t get about the Christian subculture

I don’t get our infatuation with youth. Let me say, youth is awesome and I wish I were younger but stick with me here. Like you, I get industry magazines one which is specifically designed for those who plan religious gatherings and meetings. On it’s cover was, “Top 40 under 40.” 

Now maybe I reacted negatively because I’m quite few years north of 40 these days. Maybe I’m jealous because I never made anyone’s list like that. But I want to believe my visceral reaction came because this mostly Christian focused publication shouts, “We’ve bought into the same things everyone else has; new is better than old, shiny is better than worn, and the talent of youth is more valuable than the wisdom of the aged.” 

I look back at what I did by the time I was 40 and there are a couple things I’m very proud of. I planted a church with some wonderful people. It continues to impact a community that I love. I also did a pretty good job as a dad. I had two teenage boys and an 8 year old daughter by the time I was 40. But I also look back on those days and realize I didn’t know jack squat compared to what I know now. And the things I thought I knew…I’ve changed my position on most of them. Looking back, I didn’t belong on anyone’s list! 

I don’t get our fixation on the phrase, “The Word.” That can almost always be translated, “Bible.” Whenever I hear someone say that in an authoratative insider tone of voice, I want to ask, “Are you talking about the written words or the living Word that John talked about…you know the Word that was in the beginning, the Word that was with God and is God, the Word that became flesh and lived among humanity?” I don’t say that though because I was brought up to be polite and that would be nasty so I smile and nod.

I don’t get what people mean when they say, post, tweet, “I just want to see revival break out.” The statement comes with a lot of assumptions…like we all know what revival means and what it looks like and what will change if it comes. The more I hear it the less I get it. And the more it’s left to one sentence like that, the more confused I am. I’m not against revival (whatever we decide it is). It sounds really good, but on this Friday I need to confess something. In spite of going to revival services and even helping to plan semi-annual revivals (wow that sure seems weird to see that in print), I don’t really know what you’re talking about.  

If you’re still reading…and I hope you are…there is one more thing I don’t get. It is something I plan on writing about all next week.

I don’t get why we so uncompassionate with ourselves; the negative self talk, self hatred. A friend shared an old hymn with me a while back entitled, “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy,” by Frederick William Faber

Here is verse 1 and 11
1. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
Like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in His justice,
Which is more than liberty.

11. But we make His love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness
With a zeal He will not own.

Have a great weekend

When Sabbath Doesn’t Include Church

This week I had one of the best Sabbaths I’ve experienced in a long time. We slept, went out for breakfast, wandered around, rested, had conversations, admired the fall colors, walked hand in hand…it was great. I was able to spend some time writing and there was nothing on our agenda…not even church. 
 
In some people’s mind (and I used to be one of them) that cannot be. For them, Sabbath = church attendance. 

 
Sabbath is a gift from God to humanity. It is such a valuable gift the One who never gets tired created it, modeled it, and commanded it. Sabbath was given as the 24 hour period from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. It reminded Israel their value did not come from what they could produce. It was time set aside every week for them to remember they were beloved children of God who ultimately provides for them. Sabbath was given so that they may focus their attention and express their gratitude to him.
 
Historically, Sabbath set the rhythm of life for God’s people. They would observe Sabbath, spend the next several days reflecting on it and the last half of the week preparing for it. Sabbath was more than a day off. It was the metronome of their existence; celebrate, reflect, prepare, celebrate, reflect, prepare, celebrate, reflect, prepare, celebrate. 
 
The Jewish people celebrated it on the seventh day, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. 
 
Christians moved their celebration to Sunday in honor of the resurrection. 
 
Unfortunately many have reduced Sabbath to going to church and Sunday’s have become anything but a day of rest and reflection. There are pitfalls in equating Sabbath with church attendance. First, many churches stack the day with meetings, rehearsals, and classes. “We’ll just have this or that on Sunday since the people will already be here.” [May I remind you convenience was never a guiding value of the Kingdom] Second, when we slot Jesus in from 10-noon we start to believe the rest of the day is ours. Third, we get it backwards. The focus of Sabbath is not family, or fun, or recreation. The focal point of Sabbath is God and yet family, fun, and recreation can be wonderful instruments pointing us toward him. Sometimes I get it backwards. I bet sometimes you do too.
 
I believe God created us to live in community and walk with others on our journey of faith. But I also believe we, like the Pharisees, can be so busy doing religious things we miss him.

Sermon Series Re-cap

This entire school year we have been doing a sermon series on proclamation. Last fall through Advent we looked at what God proclaimed about himself through creation, encounters with people, and through the prophets. Now we are looking at what Jesus proclaimed through the lens of Mark’s gospel.

Below is a short summary and the conversation questions we’ve used:

 

1/6     Mark 1:1-15              “The Kingdom is Here”          

Jesus burst onto the scene with a single message, “The Kingdom is here and near and open to all who want to receive it.” He calls people then and now to turn from their former way of thinking and living to embrace a new way of thinking and living. In doing so, we no longer are the proclaimed to but become proclaimers. We move from recipients to presenters, spectators to participants, and receivers of the gospel to broadcasters of the good news.

  • Is he calling us to turn from sin, fruitlessness, or away of thinking to embrace something new that he has for us?

 

1/20   Mark 1:14-2:20         “Unlikely Recipients of the Good News”                                

In this section Mark records a series of stories that get Jesus in progressively more trouble with the religious leaders. The climactic vignette happens at a party where Jesus is eating and drinking with people of questionable character [and beyond]. He saw value and potential where the Pharisees only saw problems. In response to them Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Jesus pointed out that doctors don’t become doctors just to hang out with doctors. And we know that lawyers don’t become lawyers just to hang out with lawyers. Therefore we don’t become followers of Jesus just to hang out with other followers of Jesus.

  • Who do I/we spend most of my/our time with?

                                                                                                                                               

1/27   Mark 2:18-3:6           “Fuel for a Proclamation People”                  

For generations God’s people have used spiritual disciplines, or practices to grow in intimacy with Him. This passage exposes a great irony. The great irony of this text is that the people who so diligently fasted in expectation that God was going to do something new, missed the new thing God was doing in the world. The Pharisees’ go-to practice got in the way. They also saw Sabbath as a required law that proves one’s devotion. Jesus proclaimed that Sabbath is a gift and people are more important than religious constructs.

  • What is your go-to spiritual practice? Has it become a rut that gets in the way of hearing from God and seeing what He’s doing?
  • What spiritual practice might he be leading you into?

 

2/3     Mark 4                        “Sowing and Shining”                                    

Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom by telling parables but the parables he used specifically to cause dissonance. He wanted to free their imaginations that had become captive by old forms. To the crowd the kingdom was like…a warrior going out to make war. The kingdom is like a king who overthrows the corrupt regime and takes his rightful place. The kingdom comes with swords and spears and pomp and circumstance. But Jesus said the Kingdom is like a farmer, soil, and seeds. His Kingdom is often quiet, overlooked, and subversive. We move forward in this Kingdom by:

  1. Clarifying the boarders of our field…(see the questions below)
  2. Faithfully praying for the people in our field…hard, the quick to respond, the ones who are easily distracted by the ‘cares of this world,’ and those who are ready to receive.
  3. Sowing God’s love consistently and generously.

Exercise:

Where do I live my life?

Think for a minute about where you live your life. It may be helpful to write out the physical parameters and names that come to mind during this exercise. Feel free to elaborate beyond my questions.

  • Where do I live my life vocationally – Where do I work? Who is there? Do I go out to lunch? Where can I be a regular? Are there support people connected to the place I work? Who do I (or can I) regularly interact with? What do I know about the interests and families of those I work with? What do they know about mine? How did we learn these things? Where do we have common ground with each other? What is the good news for them right now?
  • Where is our family life lived out – What are the names of my immediate neighbors next door and across the street? What do I know about them? What do they know about us? How would our neighbors describe us in relation to our role in the neighborhood? (ie “That’s the place where… or “Those are the people who….”) What word would you use to describe the ‘vibe’ of your street? What word do you wish described it? What are our kids involved in? Where do my kids go to school? What is our involvement? Is there a natural place to volunteer? Do I have skills they need? Who do we see regularly? Is there someone I can partner with? (ie classroom help, coaching, carpool) What is the good news right now for the people I live near?
  • Where do I live relationally – Where do my friends live? Where am I a regular? If I have an extra hour free to hang out, where do I go? Where do I get gas, shop, bank, and work out? Who is there? Do I notice the same people each time? Who are the other regulars? What are the appropriate conversations to have in those places? What is the good news right now for them?

 

Huddled Masses

The other night some of my class mates and I visited a church service. It is called Theophilus. One of my professors is the pastor there. They share space with an Episcopal congregation on the SE side of Portland. Each week, things began with dinner at 5pm. Round tables were set in a large communal room of the church. I ended up at a table with two high school guys, three of my friends from GFU, and two young women early in their careers.

Olivia was the most talkative. She is a graphic artist who had moved to Portland from San Diego. We began to joke with her about the weather…leaving year around temperatures in the 70’s, beaches and blue skies to go to the wet and often dreary Pacific Northwest. After the initial levity, Olivia told us that she made her decision very intentionally. In fact the climate was the very reason she moved here. “In southern California people are outside all the time and when it gets dark you really can’t find anyone. You wander around wondering, ‘Where is everybody?’ I wanted to come to a place where people huddle together when it gets dark and cold.”

I don’t think I was the only one at the table stunned by her assessment. It was quite amazing that someone from a place many of us dream of living – desires community and connection more warmth and sunshine. Olivia saw possibilities where many of us only see hassles.

When I get home next week the sun will go down earlier, the temperature will have dropped, and the rain will soon turn to snow. I’m not looking forward to it but I hope my random encounter will help me look at winter differently this year.

  • Hopefully I will complain a lot less.
  • Hopefully I will remember that seasons of life can grow as dark and cold as the seasons of the year.
  • Hopefully I will see the dark and cold as an opportunity to huddle together with people rather than as an excuse to stay alone.

A Very Good Friday

I attended an ecumenical Good Friday service today. It was held at a beautiful church in Flint. The sanctuary was ornate and formal. The choir was comprised of several choirs from around the area. The ministers were robed, distinguished and accomplished. The entire setting was very different than what I’m used to…which was exactly why I attended. Our environment can have a huge impact on our experience and I needed something dissimilar.

As soon as I quieted myself in the pew I noticed an inner desire to push ahead. I wasn’t bored and I didn’t have anywhere else to go. The readings were sorrowful and the music was slow and dark. I wanted to jump ahead to the end of the story but grief cannot be hurried. There is no celebration on Sunday with out Friday’s passion. And the heaviness of Good Friday joins me to all those who follow Chirst…those who have gone before…those who circle the globe today.

So I read, I prayed, I sang and I sat in sad silence.

After the service I took some photos of doors and thresholds. I found them in cemeteries and it seemed strangely appropriate for today.

Maundy Thursday

Today is Maundy Thursday, the day on which Christians commemorate Christ’s Last Supper. But do you remember what happened before the meal? Jesus took off his outer garment, wrapped a towel around his waist, filled a basin with water and washed the disciples feet. Then when he was finished he said, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (John 13:15)

I have had two experiences with foot washing. The first was when I was the wash-er. I was at a retreat with a group of high school students. At the conclusion of our last session I had them remove their shoes and socks and I washed their feet. I look back on that moment as one of the fondest times in youth ministry.

My other experience was much more difficult. I was the wash-ee. My friend Joel and I had met for lunch on Maundy Thursday. One of our topics of discussion was the foot washing service that would take place at his church that night. He was not looking forward to it. I tried to be encouraging but secretly was happier that it was him and not me. After lunch we went our separate ways. That evening I was sitting in our living room watching tv with my family. All of a sudden, Joel came through the front door came unannounced carrying a tub of water, soap and a towel. He didn’t greet anyone but rather went directly to me. As he knelt…putting his items on the floor…he said, “Jesus washed the feet of his friends and I want to wash your feet.”

We were all stunned. The tv was clicked off. My children watched this gift of love and friendship unfold. We all sat in a holy silence with the music of splashing water playing as a background score.

Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche Communities said, “To wash the feet of a brother or sister in Christ, to allow someone to wash our feet, is a sign that together we want to follow Jesus, to take the downward path, to find Jesus’ presence in the poor and the weak.”

When I think of Maundy Thursday that’s what I think of…a group of students who allowed me such a privilege and a good friend who showed me Jesus.

STOP: apologizing, talking, doing, worrying

Sunday was a good day for the congregation that I lead. It was the first time I told them I  had nothing to give them. I was wrung out from the events of last week and I needed to hear from God that day. In my 20’s I wouldn’t have even been aware I was worn out. In my 30’s I wouldn’t have wanted anyone to know I was worn out. In my early 40’s I wouldn’t have let myself take the time off. But Sunday, during the welcome, I opened my heart and exposed its emptiness without apology. It has taken 27 years in ministry for me to think that’s normal.

What’s normal for many (if not most) pastors is very different.

Yesterday a friend and I had a conversation about that. She asked me, “Why are pastors the only ones who feel bad about taking a day off, apologize for going on vacation and feel like they need to explain purchases and how they use their leisure time?” My response: “I don’t know.” But since then I’ve had time to think about it….

  • I thought I was supposed to be on duty 24/7 365. Not true. Not biblical. We have it completely backwards. We’re not on 24/7 but God has commanded we be off 24 hours out of every 7 days. There are rare times when tragedy strikes but these are the exception rather than the rule.
  • I thought I was supposed to be all things to all people and our church was supposed to provide all things to all people. Not true. Not possible. In the often misquoted reference to 1 Corinthians 9, Paul was talking about finding common ground with people not being the answer to their every need.
  • I thought everyone in the congregation had a say. Not true. Not realistic. While pastors are responsible and accountable to the congregation, most structures employ a leadership team that gives direction. They are to live in the tension and work for the health of both the pastor and the church.
  • I feared people’s disapproval. Ouch. Most of us in ministry really want to be liked and want others to be happy. We sometimes confuse the role of consensus and think our job is to keep everyone playing nice in the sandbox. Often we’ll sacrifice time for us and our families just to avoid disappointing someone else.
  • I didn’t trust God to be God. Double ouch. Many of us forget the Kingdom was doing just fine before we arrived and will keep on going when we depart. It is God’s church and His people and He is capable of handling it.

If you’re a pastor…Take your day off every week. Go on vacation and use all the time you are granted. Turn your phone off periodically throughout the week. Stop apologizing about following the 4th commandment. Listen to your spouse…if they think you’re spending too much time at work you probably are.

If you’re a congregant…Talk to God before you call your pastor. Respect her/his time off. Be careful how you talk at the dinner table so you don’t instill unreal expectations in the next generation. Invite me in to give your pastor a break and help your church better understand the need for this.

Most of this disfunction comes from a neglect of true Sabbath. If I’ve learned one thing over the years it’s “Abuse of Sabbath is cumulative.” Things may seem fine now but at some point the wheels are going to come off because we weren’t created to live at the pace many of us our living.

 

 

 

St. Patrick Revisited: belong, become, believe

The bulk of this is my post from March 17, 2010

Today is St. Patrick’s Day, which is one of my favorite holidays. Not because of green beer or corned beef but because it celebrates one of my favorite characters from church history. Most people don’t know much about it beyond; you’d better wear green or you’ll get pinched and at some point we’ll see a clip of the Chicago River dyed green. I didn’t know much about it either until about ten years ago.

I had the opportunity to hear George Hunter III speak. Hunter had just written a book called, The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West…Again. That day he unpacked the life of a boy named Maywin Socket. Kidnapped as child by pirates. Sold as a slave to a man where he watched livestock in the Irish fields for long periods at a time. He learned the language. Through something called natural revelation he grew close to God. After six years he had miraculous escape and returned to England.

Maywin went into the priesthood and his name was changed to Patrick. He felt compelled to return to Ireland. Unfortunately the church in Rome had determined the celtic tribes were barbaric and unreachable. How ironic – he was denied permission to go while the church was on the edge of collapse due to corruption. Patrick was undeterred. He was convinced that all that had happened in his life was preparation to take the good news of Jesus to Ireland. Eventually the leaders of the church consented and Patrick, accompanied about a dozen others, departed on their missionary journey.

When they landed they did not use the Roman way of evangelizing (provide people with information then give them a chance to respond and if they choose to believe then you welcome them in to your fellowship). Does that sound familiar? It should. It is the way many evangelicals are taught to “evangelize.” Believe > Become > Belong.

Patrick used a much more relational way. He and his group would find a village and ask for permission to set up their camp outside the village. They would then build relationships inviting the Celts to know them, eat with them, and participate in each other’s lives. Through the relationship they shared their faith in Jesus and helped those where receptive to understand intellectually what was going on in their hearts. He reversed the Roman way. Belong > Become > Believe.

In his lifetime, Ireland went from the most barbaric arm of the far reaching Roman church to the most Christian. All during some of the darkest days for the church back in Rome. God used Patrick’s mission and method to save Christianity in the west.

The church in the west is in trouble again. What do we do? How can the tide of our irrelevance and others’ disinterest? I believe it starts by our rejection of the Roman way and our embrace of Patrick’s way.

 

 

Prayer and Posture: kneel or stand, eyes open or closed, hands up or down and if up one hand or two, and what about labyrinths?

My earliest memory of a corporate prayer time was at my home church. On Wednesday nights the faithful gathered to pray, and once you graduated from the nursery you were in the prayer meeting with everybody else. The picture is a little fuzzy but I remember my parents kneeling at their pew like all the other grownups…a position I would begin in…but I’d soon slither to the floor. It was much more interesting to look through the tunnel of benches trying to guess who was who by the bottom of their shoes.

Some people make a big deal out of the correct position from which to talk to God. I’ll admit, some postures are more appropriate for certain types of prayer but I don’t think any are more spiritual than the others. I can’t imagine requiring my children to take a particular stance to get my attention. I’m just thrilled they want to have a conversation, share their heart, ask for help, or tell me something that’s on their mind.

When I was in Portland a couple weeks ago our class participated in a half day prayer retreat. We had time to pray while we walked the grounds, a lot of time of silence, time set aside to pray with our formation group, and time to walk in a prayer labyrinth.

Sadly with that last admission some have stopped reading and rushed to put me on the heretics list. So for those of you who are still with me here’s what happened. As I began the Spirit drew my attention to a passage of scripture that had been very important to me when I moved to Flushing 14 years ago.

  • “Then the Lord told me: I will give you my message in the form of a vision. Write it clearly enough to read at a glance. At the time I have decided, my words will come true. You can trust what I say about the future. It may take a long time, but keep on waiting – it will happen! I the Lord, refuse to accept anyone who is proud. Only those who live by faith are acceptable to me.” (Hab. 2:2-4 The Promise Version)

I hadn’t thought about that passage in a long time. I had filed it away as a particular word for a specific time. But as I walked and quoted and prayed I believe God was speaking to me through it. Maybe these verses weren’t just for the waiting, dreaming, and preparing I was doing in 1997. Maybe God wants to reassure me in this season that I have caught a glimpse of His idea for me and I need to pursue it in bold faith. Maybe this passage is directed at the overall trajectory of my life…a life familiar with waiting (which can be a blessing and a curse)…a life lived by faith (which thrills me and frightens me).

I cherish those memories of army crawling under the pews and I don’t think people from my era missed much by not having age appropriate programming. I was learning something down there: if you’re quiet God will reveal Himself to you.