Saturday, February 26, 2011

Absence Does and The Grass Isn't

For ten days my wife and children are visiting family in Camas, WA while I'm in Boise. I have responsibilities. It all made sense at the time, I had classes in Portland and Pastors Conference would be begin a week and a half later, so my family might as well stay behind, they wouldn't have to make the drive back to Boise and they could spend some extra time visiting friends and family. I'll be fine, I said. No biggie.

The truth is, I thought maybe I could use a little peace and quite. Things can get pretty hectic with pregnant wife, tw

o young boys, Graduate schooling, pastoral ministry. I thought maybe this would give me some time and focus I need to get some things done. I thought I might catch a few movies and see friends. Mostly, this has (so far) been a great reminder of how pathetic I am.

I feel myself reverting back to my old college days, leaving piles of clothes around, hair from shaving all around the sink, and consuming copious amounts of shows on Hulu. On Thursday my diet consisted of cereal, a microwave burrito and cereal.

Heather made this incredible collage banner thing that she hung in our room to surprise me. It has some of the letters and poems and notes and pictures from our years together.

Bottom line... I miss my family...a lot. I would trade in the bachelor life for all the chaos and demands and fighting... no contest. And then sometimes they even say really sweet things. Like my son Braden, 4, he said to me on the phone a couple of days ago, "Hi Dad. I just really wanted to connect with you."

So, I feel the pang of loss but it is good in a way. I can feel my affections sort of stewing. I think it will be good for us. It can be easy just to get used to having everyone around.

I wasn't going to do this...but I think I will make a spiritual parallel.

I wonder how often I feel the pang of long or absence from God but call it by a different name. Boredom. Hopelessness. Angst.

I recently heard that Mother Theresa felt completely and utterly abandoned by God for the last 59 years of her life. She wrote all about it in these gut wrenching letters to her spiritual director. As a very young woman she heard a inexplicable voice from God calling her to a ministry among the poorest of the poor. For 59 years she would wake up early every morning, spend an hour in contemplative prayer and then serve the sick and dying and poor in the poorest places in the world.

Do you know what her spiritual director said? That when she was immature God needed to speak in an audible voice. But it is a sign of deep and abiding faith that she didn't hear from God and yet was so faithful.

But, like Mother Theresa, I feel the ache of loss. I am stirred to know that the one day at the end of all things the at-one-ment of God will be fully experienced. And so we pray, Hey dad, I just really wanted to connect with you.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Concert Review and Post-Concert Conversation

A few days ago I went to a concert in Nampa. The Flying M. A very cool place. The band, Come Gather Around Us, a husband and wife duo, were electric. Singing into the same microphone, while belting out, whispering out, emoting out captivating lyrics was at first a bit unsettling - their faces eight inches apart. But in a few minutes their loving gaze and obvious comfort on stage and in close proximity put me at ease and became like another instrument of their music. They sing-

"If you drink the blood of Christ and it makes you feel superior... then it's just wine..." And then they look at each other coyly, slyly.

Here's a sample from a live recording. A song called How Convenient.

Find more artists like Come Gather Round Us at Myspace Music

The show was a beautiful, memorizing, earthy, haunting experience. I woke up the next morning with one of their songs stuck, no lodged, so directly in my brain that the force of it kept me from going back to sleep. "God is calling (s)He's never satisfied. God is calling, (s)He's never satisfied."

(Check out youtube video. Loud pub, but notice how quiet it gets when they sing the chorus.)

After the concert I talked with half the band - Sebastian. He is a long hair, bearded Brit with a contagious smile that disarms you from his philosophically provocative lyrics and ideas. The last time we had met he was trying to evangelize my wife and a few other people to Universalism.

Sebastian is one of these guys who thinks of you as his friend after meeting you once and begins telling you stories even though you just met him. He touches your arm for emphasis and has so much energy and Charisma that you (read I) feel boring and uninsightful in his presence. Compared to how he seems to fully experience life, I felt like I was just going through the motions. I liked him immediately.

I began to tell him about some of my struggles in/with my church and he launched into an inspirational lecture(?) about not being discouraged and having resilience. Funny, this is usually the kind of talk I would expect (and mildly resent) from a seasoned pastor, but from him it was so fresh and unexpected that it just kind of worked.

He said, "You think you have it rough here, try starting a progressive church in England where nobody goes to church and there is an open hostility toward Christianity. Secularism is just so dominant." Then he told a story about when he was visiting his family a few years back. It was Boxer day (you know, the day after Christmas?) and he and his wife decided to visit this church near their family's home. It was beautiful and huge and historic. The grounds were pristine... picture perfect. They walked in and the priest (Anglican) was blessing his robes (his description). They seemed to have surprised him. "Did we come at the wrong time," they asked. "Oh, no, come sit down, we're just about to begin. Sit in the Choir loft so you can be closer." Then the Priest went about his liturgy- readings, sermon, etc. as if they weren't even there. He never made eye contact or acknowledged their presence. Sebastian firmly believed that the priest would have gone through the ceremony exactly the same even if nobody had shown. Afterward, he came up to the priest and said, "So, like, how are things going." The priest responded by saying how hard things are. Sebastian asked what things he had tried to reach people. His response was that he couldn't, he wasn't allowed to change things. Sebastian and I both wondered, what did he have to lose. *

Sebastian's story was intriguing - Would the priest really have gone on with the service if nobody had come? Was the priest really "not allowed" to change anything? Were their really golden candle sticks in the sanctuary while people were starving a few block away? (I didn't tell that part). It was also a surprisingly encouraging. What did he have to lose... What did he have to lose?

Sebastian, knowing nothing about my church, said, "You should expect, no assume, that their is darkness and brokenness in your church. But there is a difference between you and them. You always love. You respond to the darkness with love and forgiveness and light. You bring the darkness into the light, but you always love. That's what people really need. That's what people are hungry for. For passion and resilience."

"In church, everybody's always on their best behavior. Like, we don't judge. Bulls@#t. Of course we judge! We are horrible at judging. (He and his wife go to Imago Dei church in Portland). But we pretend like we don't judge. We're always on our best behavior. How can we be in community like that. how can we be family like that!?

Then after getting a little preachy (I thought that was my job?) he ended our conversation in his usual humble, open-hearted way... "What do I know. I'm 32 and I'm a driveling idiot."

*This isn't at all a critique on the Church of England. I actually like a lot of their theology and liturgy...They have N.T. Wright after all.

Friday, February 11, 2011

6 Killer Group Discernment Tips

Last Spring an elder from our church and I drove the 8 hour journey from Boise to Newberg to learn about group discernment- how groups make decisions. The thing I remember most is that I had a hard time sleeping because my sheets felt damp. They weren't, I had just gotten used to a dryer climate.

I came into the seminar really hoping to get some wisdom and understanding in this area because (confession) I don't really enjoy meetings. My natural inclination is to try to just get things done, make decisions quickly, delegate tasks, and go home. I sometimes get impatient. When people tell long, personal stories that aren’t really relevant to the business at hand, I start doodling or fidgeting. When people start sharing their end times predictions, I get really uncomfortable. Please God, let there not be any new people here today, I silently pray. And then, when the meeting ends, I’m usually the last one to leave because I want to stay talking and swapping long, irrelevant, personal stories.

So, why am I drawn to the Friends way of doing business? It’s a bit of a mystery even to me. Primarily, I love that friends take very seriously the idea that God is present in the midst of the business. In fact, the actual term Friends use is meeting for worship for business. Although most denominations would agree to this truth in principle, we, at our best, actually create space in the process to truly seek the heart of God.

Friends, from the beginning of their movement have made it clear that Jesus is in charge. Jesus is the boss, CEO, pastor, superintendent, parent. We are not a monarchy, or a democracy. We are a Christocracy. Group discernment is how we organize ourselves to most effectively listen to and obey the will of God in our churches.

At the seminar a majority of the men and women attending were Friends, but many present represented diverse theological and denominational backgrounds. They were intrigued to learn how the Quaker group discernment process could help their churches listen to God’s voice in a way that would help them move forward in love and unity.

Some of the questions that folks raised were: How do we know if what we think we are hearing from God isn't just my opinion? What do we do when our group is strongly divided on an issue and both sides think they are right? How do we keep this process from just becoming church politics?

Of course all churches would hope to listen to the will of God, but the reality of actually practicing this as a group can be scary and challenging work. Sometimes feelings get hurt, people get frustrated, conflicts arise. Sometimes it seems easier to just delegate decisions to a few people (who take the blame or credit for the results). Often people think of the pastors or the elders as those who make the decisions. And those people often make those decisions based on what is logical, popular, expedient, trendy, or most closely resembles his or her opinions and values.

When opinions collide, how does that get resolved? Often, the loudest voices win, or perhaps those who can gather the most support, or those who are in positions of power. This is when church politics occur, people get disillusioned with the church, and things can get ugly. One group tries to discredit the other. We hear ourselves thinking, they’re just saying that because they’re those kinds of people. We tend to write people off, get defensive, and we gather people around us who agree with us.

But this is not how Christ would have us be the church together. As we discern together, one of our first priorities must be to trust and respect one another. We need to feel safe to speak or not speak and to trust the group with that which is sacred to us. We need to be able to trust the group with our truest motives, deepest feelings, scariest fears, biggest hopes, and best ideas? If we can’t do that, it doesn’t take long to retreat back into defensiveness or completely check out if the process. In fact, if things get decided based on the loudest voices, or the squeakiest wheels, before long, the only people who will stay involved in the process will be those who either thrive in conflict or those who feel like they have the most to defend and protect. Those who are vulnerable, powerless, open, honest, radical, or passionate may become discouraged, check out, or completely break fellowship with the local body.

I have provided some tips (borrowed, stolen, remixed) to help really discern together as a community.

1. Turn to God first: “Discernment requires that we focus and refocus on what God is doing, rather than on what we think should be done.”

2. Be attentive to God’s voice: We should all be encouraged to listen to God’s voice before a meeting, to relinquish our own thoughts, fears, opinions, ideas. We should expect that we might change our minds. We should be ready to discover that we were wrong. We should anticipate that collectively we might discover a third way.

3. Hold your desires very loosely/Cultivate a holy indifference. This doesn’t mean you can’t have an opinion, or be passionate about an issue. It means we bring our best thoughts and insights and set them in the middle of the group, and trust that the group will seek understanding and listen to God about all that you have offered.

4. Listen: Really listen to what people are saying. This likely means we need to do some work beforehand to forgive, respect, and reconcile with those people who have hurt us, or who are different than us. We should be ready to hear the deeper need behind someone’s anger, fear, reactivity. We listen attentively to what the Spirit might be saying despite your opinion of that person, or how articulate she is, or even if they speak in a way that rubs you the wrong way.

5. Make community building our first priority/nurture an environment of worship: If discerning together is worshipful and community building, we can take our time. If it is primarily life draining, conflict oriented, painful work, we will want to “get it over with.” We need to continually remind one another and call one another back to the present voice of Christ. We should use the discernment process as an opportunity for spiritual formation, worship, and community building.

6. Courageously carry out God’s plan: Once a decision has been made, we move together. This means we don’t stand back and wait for others to fail. It means we don’t get to say later on, I never wanted this. It means we don’t call it so-and-so’s thing. It becomes our idea, our ministry. We take ownership. We move forward together with courage trusting that God was in the group discernment process.

Now for (funny) 6 Killer Community Tips check out this video...

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

FirstFollowers (or, The Lay of the Land)

A few years ago I read an article in a magazine that had a list of the breakthrough
changes of the year. Magazines love lists. They included a religious one – Christians are paying more attention to the Jewish roots of Christianity and Jesus. Basically the article was saying Christians are starting to realize that Jesus was a Jew. Is that important? Of all the people born in the course of history, one had the choice of his birth place. And Jesus chose to be born from a pious, humble Jewish family in a backwater town. Do we think about Jesus as a first century Jew? To know Jesus’ story, to know Jesus in the fullness of his humanity I think we must learn something of his culture, family, and background. From there, maybe we can let our hearts really sing Be Thou My Vision. We can begin to be shaped by the JesusVision.

My wife (Biology major...I know, smart people right?) told me the images formed in our retina are actually upside down. Our eyes actually take in an upside down world. Our brains are what somehow adjust and flip everything right side up. In one experiment, participants were asked to wear special lenses that flipped the world upside down. In a few days the brain adjusted and they began seeing the world normal again. But when they took the goggles off, a very bazaar thing happened, without any special apparatus, they saw the world upside down. That means if they were playing dodge ball (always a good idea) when someone through a ball at their head, they would jump. (Is that right?) Within a day their vision returned to normal.

My hope is that we might have begin to actually see the world as it is through JesusVision - a vision that is upside down from what we think is normal. It is counter-intuitive, challenging, hidden. But if we so immerse ourselves in this vision, hanging on to Jesus and trusting God when it seems like everything is upside down, then in time, when we take off the goggles we will realize that what we once thought of as normal was really upside down, and the upside down reality of Jesus is actually right side up… and here and yet not yet...and near...and within our reach...and it belongs to children...and the rich have a hard time entering into it... and you have to lose your life to find it and it is called the Kingdom of God.

Okay...a little background about Jesus- Jesus grew up in a really beautiful place. A very small town that sits on a hillside 1,300 feet above sea level gives a sweeping panorama of Mt. Carmel by the ocean to the snowy peak of Mt Hermon to the North. Wildflowers, farms, fields... Three miles to the North , sat the gleaming city of Sapphoris, where for most of Jesus’ life Herod was having built a metropolis that included a palace, a pool, a gym, and a theater that could seat 4,000. The Greek actors, called hypocrites, entertained massive crowds. Jesus' step dad Joseph, might have worked on parts of this project. Although throughout Jesus’ childhood Herod the great made Jesus’ hometown area of Galilee one of the most prosperous provinces, only a few actually benefited. Landless peasants served the interests of wealthy landowners. Most families lived in poverty. A few bad seasons could spell disaster. Galilee had a reputation for rebellion against Rome and a laxity regarding religious matters.

Now in this area there were various Religious-Political groups one could join. I wonder which one I would have joined? Would it be the Zealot party? This was an extreme separatist movement that wanted nothing to do with Rome and was willing (maybe preferred) to use violence to meet their goals. Or maybe the Essenes. This ultra-separatist movement believed that Rome's occupation was God's punishment on Israel for their lack of faithfulness. They tried to get back on God's good side by creating dessert monasteries and holding to a strict moral code. Or maybe I would be less isolationist and more collaborationist. The Sadducees and the Sanhedrin Council both tried to work within the Roman system and because of this they were awarded certain privileges. And then there are the famous (infamous) Pharisees. They were moderates who waffled between working within the Roman rulebook but then sometimes advocated for isolation. They picked their battled carefully. Though compromising politically they were uncompromising about issues of religious purity. They were also cautious not to follow many of the false-messiahs that would often rally people together and then be crushed by the Romans.

Which of these groups do you think you would be most likely to join?

Now imagine your reaction to Jesus. His ministry, his teachings, his actions. Who would you have said Jesus was? Would you have become a follower? Standing on the edge of Jesus’ audience, watching him speak into the burning issues of the day, hearing his powerful stories, and hearing talk about his incredible miracles. I know I would at least be in intrigued. He seems to violate every political group and category. He is neither separationist or collaborationist… instead he holds out for a radically different third way, changing the emphasis from the Kingdom of Caesar and inviting all into the reality of the Kingdom of God!

But how could I reconcile within myself my values and Jesus obvious chumminess with those I call the worst kind of sinners? I want to like him, but he likes and spends time with sinners. I want to like him, but he doesn’t respect Sabbath keeping. In fact he seems to go out of his way to undermine our core convictions. Why doesn’t he just wash his hands like a good Jew before he eats? Why is he always trying to make some kind of point? What could he possibly mean? What could it all possibly mean? It can’t mean nothing.

Now imagine with me that Jesus has called some of his disciples and he is still gathering his team. Perhaps you are one of these intrigued Pharisees who is watching this whole drama unfold.

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.
While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Matthew 9:9-13

I love Matthew’s exuberant, joyous offer. He might even be a little na├»ve. He just invites all his Friends who of course are all tax-collectors like himself and some other random notorious sinners. So this was such a bazaar dinner party that apparently news traveled fast and the Pharisees heard about this and were indignant. “Why does your Rabbi eat with such scum,” they want to know. Jesus hears about this and he is interested in defending his Friends and their worth.

Phillip Yancey observes that many of the people who were attracted to Jesus are the same people who are now repelled at the church. And maybe that comes from this natural result- many of the people who Jesus loved and spent time with, are the same people many Christians cannot love… I mean really love. "These are my kind of people," Jesus says. This is who I am going to spend my time with.

FirstFollowers of Jesus go where Jesus went and love the people Jesus loved… and still does. To the outcasts, the unknowns, the notorious ones, to those who know they need God. They try to create space and opportunities in their life to be present with people who may be very different from themselves. FirstFollowers of Jesus are not separatists like the Essenes nor are they compromisers like the Sadducees. They live a radical third way, living into the reality of the Kingdom of God and giving first and full allegiance to Christ the King. They are aware of but not overwhelmed by current events, because they live in and trust in the reign of God. FirstFollowers live simply, trust deeply and love courageously!

(History gathered from Phillip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew)