All posts in Church

“…a God he likely does not know.”

I have come to believe that I can’t speak with any kind of wisdom or authority about the lives of people I don’t know. On a very practical level, I likely have only anecdotal information by which to evaluate their faith and process. But more importantly, if that person isn’t part of my life or congregation, they’re probably not someone I have been given to as a leader or pastor. And there are enough of those folks (people to whom I actually belong) to keep me happily busy.

I’ve been a pastor of Shelter Covenant Church since helping to plant the church in 1998. Our community is a small-to-medium sized group and I generally have some knowledge of what is happening in the lives of those I get to pastor. I really like knowing my community this intimately because, as I’ve written elsewhere, I believe that discipleship begins with trusting God is already up to something in someone’s life. 

What necessarily precedes my discipleship process then, is a more-than-cursory knowledge of someone’s life. I need to be close and listen carefully in order to faithfully “do my job” as a pastor. Only if I do the listening part do I get to help someone see and respond to what God is doing in and through them, rather than project my own hopes or agenda into their circumstance.

And when I have spoken to or about someone without having that proximity and without listening to know what God is likely up to, my words have generally been more revelatory of things inside me than they have been of Jesus.

Haiti

On The Anniversary of Haiti’s 2010 Earthquake

On January 12, 2010, the morning after an earthquake leveled Port Au Prince, Haiti, eventually causing the deaths of 250,000 people, cable news networks reported large crowds of Haitians parading through the streets between the ruins of buildings, singing.  I remember CNN reporter Wolf Blitzer interpreting the scene as a display of “resilience and a determined will to go on.” But the songs they sang that day (and into the night) were not all songs of resolve; they were songs of lament, prayer and hopeful expectation.  “God have mercy” they sang as they marched. “Lord have mercy.”

As they walked past mounds of concrete and rebar where buildings had stood, that congregation of Haitians sang songs to God, the Creator. If you are like me, you find that scene both confounding and inspiring.  A people beaten down by Creation appealing to the Creator.   And yet where should I expect the unfulfilled desire for a better life to lead such a people? Where else should Haitians take their complaint?  To the Nations?  Which Nation?  Haitians have a long history of being enslaved, trampled, used and abused by the Spanish, the French, the United States and others.  After being treated unjustly by both Humanity and the Natural world, where does a people take their complaint?  Does their desire for justice lead anywhere at all?  And if not, then what are we to make of that desire in the first place? Is it only an absurdity?

I don’t believe so.

I believe the desire for Justice and Peace is as natural and common as the desire for food and shelter, even when that desire sets me at odds with the natural order of things.  Among the poor, the wishful desire for Justice is perhaps more poignant because the poor have more intimately experienced the insufficiency of Nature and Humanity to satisfy it.  For some of my friends who already consider faith something of an absurdity, the prevalence of religious faith among poor and oppressed people is the worst kind of absurdity.  Why would people decimated by economic “progress,” caught up in political chess-playing, manipulated by get-rich religious schemes and even beaten down by natural elements continue to hope in a God whose world and people had been so cruel? And while I agree with friends who find such devotion somewhat absurd, I also think that wishing for things to be other than they are eventually leads to absurdity.  And it is there where I find religious thinking to be incredibly appropriate.

They way I understand it, religious thinking doesn’t mean lazily settling for magical explanations when there are better, more reasonable and factual explanations.  Sometimes it’s dissatisfaction with the facts themselves that leads me to a thought like “I know the facts but I wish it were not so.”  Now, I know that I share those thoughts with friends who do not consider themselves religious, so maybe calling them “religious thoughts” isn’t helpful. Maybe it’s simply human to wish for, long for and even be driven by visions of a world without disease or hunger or natural disaster, in which people are not bought and sold by other people.  And if it is simply human to desire justice, then maybe it is not so absurd to believe that desire can be satisfied.  Maybe what is truly absurd is possessing a very natural desire for Peace and Justice when that desire cannot reasonably be satisfied.

I have  believe that these unfulfilled (and perhaps unreasonable) dreams are clues that there is more to life than can be weighed and measured.  I believe that when those Haitian women and men took to their broken streets singing songs of prayer and hopeful expectation, they were a living picture of what is best in humanity; the part of us that does not settle for what is simply because it is. The part of us that struggles, works, prays and hopes for better than there is.  I believe their persistent, relentless faith is a clue that we are made of more than matter and therefore rightly long for more than the material world can offer.

*This is an excerpt from the the CMYK Book, due out this Spring.
**The featured image was shot by Jeremy Cowart as part of his brilliant “Voices of Haiti” project. The piece of debris this man is holding reads: “The Earth Can Shake But Haiti Remains In My Heart.”
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Sunday Reflection: Worship Names What Matters Most

This is a short reflection I passed along to a few friends with whom I serve at my church’s Sunday gathering.

In his book “Dangerous Act Of Worship” Mark Labberton writes “Worship names what matters most… “ Mark has become a good friend and great mentor to me. His life and his work, including this book, are constant reminders to me of why I do what I do a a worshiper (including on Sunday nights). Even though Jesus, my community and my mission are deeply vital to me, I can and do grow emotionally and mentally distant from those things. Distracted, worried, busy, etc…

And so, once every week, we gather together to focus, to lay our worries down and to stop so that we can remember and practice what matters most. I think the songs we sing and our act of offering those songs help us to name for ourselves and one another “what matters most.” Namely, our relationship with God, with one another and our mission in the world.

Thank you for doing this with me. I think we do it well.

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Praying For Young Life

“You are worth my time.”

That’s a good story.

It’s the story that frames the beginning of my adulthood, really. And it was told to me, not in words but in countless hours of presence, by a Young Life leader.

“I had a Young Life leader walk into my life when I was twelve years old.” If you’ve been around me at at all for the past 14 years, you’ve likely heard me say those very words.  Its’ one of my favorite stories and I tell it a lot.  I also tell it a lot because I think it’s an important story; the counter-arguement to the loud and convincing cultural voice that says to kids “You are what you own, what you wear, what you drive, etc…”

Today is the National Day of Prayer for Young Life.  I know several of my readers don’t click with the Christ-centered focus of Young Life but we can all get on board with the need for the loving presence of adults in the lives of kids. Mentoring relationships help reframe the sometimes brutal identity crises teens face by telling a better story to kids than the dominant, destructive consumer fairytale many of us are smothered by.  Young Life leaders, by their very presence in kids lives, announce “you are worth my time.”

That’s a good story: “You are worth my time.”
It’s the story I think God wants told and I’m glad Young Life leaders do it so well.

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Worship: Changed Life / Changed World

This is the third in a short series on “worship.” The first was a brief introduction, coupled with a few questions. The second was a short story which frames my own journey down this thought path. 

I still find it tragic that I can walk into a christian retail store, find my way into the music section and pick a CD off a wall of CD’s labeled “worship.”  More than tragic, I think it’s damaging to our culture. I think labeling a certain kind of music “worship” places unwarranted and unhealthy expectations on musicians. It also narrows the definition of the expansive and powerful truth that worship is the orientation of one’s whole life toward or around an Idea, Power, Person etc..

Of course, I’m hardly the first person to point out that the semantic confusion between “worship” and “music” has been damaging to both “worship” and “music.” This is not to say that the relationship between the two must be severed. On the contrary, I believe worship and the arts are linked in essential ways. But I also believe a third idea must be introduced in order for us to come to a fuller understanding of that relationship. That idea is “justice.”

Though I believe I’ll spend the rest of my life unpacking these thoughts and trying to live them out, here’s what I have a grip on so far . . .

The measure of true worship is the transformation of people’s lives. Worship ultimately means aligning my life to something; in my case it is the life and Person of Jesus, which also means aligning my way of going about life to the Way of Jesus.

The measure of a transformed life is the transformation and blessing of the world in which those lives are led. The way I know my life is changing is that the lives of those I care for are changing, too. The same goes for the neighborhood in which I live: if my neighbor’s life is not better because of my being in it, if my city is not a sweeter place, if the larger world is not being blessed through my life, then I must seriously question whether my worship is true.

Transformation, in the Christian worldview, means the alignment of things to the Way of Jesus and His Kingdom. This is not the nebulous, immeasurable, and directionless change we’re used to hearing about from the mouths of pop psychologists or politicians. It is transformation in the particular and recognizable direction of justice — that is, all of creation being restored to rightness and health, including a right relationship with its Creator.

The  Biblical vision for this “right relationship” with the Creator includes the cessation of violence and chaos. So long as there is violence and chaos in our cities, in our lives or in the nation next door, it is simply not enough to sing about the Goodness of God (much less listen to someone else do so) and call it “worship.”

I worry that fighting over Facebook and Twitter does to queer/straight dialogue what online fights do to most everything else: make it less real.

A few weeks ago, a few cable news networks featured a video sermon by a preacher who suggested violence against queer* family members.  They followed that “story” a week or so later by posting a similar sermon video  from a different pastor with a similar message. Both of these vids showed up multiple times in my Facebook and Twitter feeds, posted by outraged friends.  Yesterday, the video of a child singing “ain’t no homo gonna make it to heaven” made it’s noisy rounds on the web, aided my many of those same outraged friends.

I didn’t watch the video. I’m pretty confident I don’t need to in order to know that it is shamefully out of line and unlike Jesus as I know Him.

While I certainly believe there are times when those using their social and public influence for destructive ends ought to be socially and publicly addressed,  I wonder if we just as often create monsters by driving up hits and plays of obscure cultural figures or moments and then feel that we’re fighting the good fight by denouncing them.  I’m not at all suggesting that vitriolic garbage such as “ain’t no homo gonna make it to heaven” should go uncorrected… I am suggesting that, in my experience, such correction has had power when it’s been done by someone I’ve known.

A friend  who posted one of these videos captioned it with something about the stupidity of religious people and the damage of religious teaching.  I asked him if he personally knew any religious folks who thought and spoke the way the pastor in the video did.  He said he did not, which I thought made his sweeping devaluation of “religious people” and the teachings they subscribe to rather empty.  Do the Christians you know think and say hateful things about LGBT friends?  If so, I would suggest that, before addressing the wrongs done by a small group of folks in a modest church 1500 miles away, the hatefulness of your friends is your business. 

I also worry that “fighting these battles” over Facebook and Twitter does to queer/straight dialogue what online fights can do just about anything else: make it less real. “Hate” becomes something backwards, white, religious southerners do (which likely means you are in the clear) and it’s enough to post a snappy comment about it.

Which leads me, at last, to this…

As I’ve written about elsewhere, being a hateful or violent person is a problem unto itself. Queer folks, racial minorities, women or the upper class only serve as convenient targets at which to aim that hate.  An emotionally mature person can think someone is wrong (even dangerously so) and still not hate them. So, I don’t believe it’s helpful to lump those who believe that homosexual behavior or even orientation is outside God’s original design together with those who are hateful towards the LGBT community.  While conversations about hate are related to conversations about religious and social differences, I believe that, as a far as it is possible, they are better had as separate conversations.

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Power, Authority, Discipleship and Pants

As I understand it, power has to do with one’s ability and authority has to do with having permission to exercise that power. In other words, you might have knowledge, insight or wisdom to offer me that would I would benefit from but if I don’t heed your words, I have denied you the authority to exercise your power.

Andy Crouch’s presentation at the Q conference was born out of early efforts toward a book on the topic of Power and it landed squarely in an arena of thought I’m currently in myself: The exercise of authority involved in discipleship.

He suggested that there is a general reticence among Christians to assume or claim power; as if claiming power/influence is by nature arrogant and dangerous whereas the denial of power/influence is a sign of character. His suggestion called to mind the oft-quoted warning that “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” -Lord Acton (real name)

Now, count me among those who have a backlog of negative power-abuse examples in my mind, particularly related to religious history… but if women and men of character automatically compromise that character by assuming positions of power, isn’t the void left to be filled by those who lack character?  That seams to be what many among us at least believe to be true about those in authority. In my experience, the very idea of authority is often met with red flags and suspicion.

And yet I wore pants today, as I do so most days.. Of course, I didn’t internally decide that it was good to wear pants. I was told, over years of course, that I ought to and believed that to be true.  I find that to be the case in just about all my behavioral patterns: I do what I do because I’ve been taught that I ought to and believed that to be true. In other words, I’m submitted to some power or other. I’ve given authority to someone or something outside myself to determine at least part of how I live. Admittedly, this influence is often benign,.. but not always. The permissibility of slave-labor in order to ensure low prices for American consumers is also a product of the slow but pervasive influence of authoritative voices in the Marketplace.

The initial challenge of discipleship is entering the arena where power is already being wielded; where authority, leadership and life-shaping are already taking place… and risk association with a history of power-abuse. I don’t like the impact the Marketplace has had on people I love. I think I have a better idea of how to live and spend money. I don’t like the impact certain elements of the Political and Religious worlds have had on people I love. I think I have a better idea how to see and treat people.  So, will I risk the appearance of arrogance and control in order to “put my two cents in?” 

Or is the bigger risk to let whatever cultural forces are most powerful and pervasive do the instructing and shaping of those I love?

Across The Country To Do Some Listening

I’ll be in Washington DC for the next 3 days attending the Q conference. You can watch the first few sessions live. The Q Conference is a gathering of leaders and thinkers from key areas of culture to “consider how to advance the common good in a pluralistic society.”  I’ll be using Facebook and Twitter while I’m there to highlight moments I am moved or challenged by.  I’ll also be writing and hope to post something here at the blog…

..BUT..

Mostly, I know that this is a time to listen. I often talk too much and too soon. Among the women and men who are leading the discussion at Q are several whose wisdom is rooted in years of focused discipline, failure, trial and success. I will want to add to their conversation… but I will need to listen.

I don’t always have to add something. In fact, If I really do want to add something of substance, I need to be a man of substance and most of that comes by way of listening, watching and imitating women and men whose wisdom exceeds mine.  A lot of that type of person is at QDC this week.  So, I’m going to go listen.

Here are some of the folks I’m looking forward to listening to:

Andy Crouch
Gideon Strauss
Catherine Rohr
Janelle Paris
Miroslav Volf 

If you use Twitter, follow the hashtag #QDC for updates.

Speaking about people and communities we have knowledge of comes with the possibility and responsibility of actually affecting change in the area we’re so willing to critique.. and I would suggest that’s where the rubber meets the road.

I’m becoming far less comfortable with making statements about “The Church.” I’m realizing that I just don’t have the capacity to hold together, in my mind, the enormity of the word.  In fact, the smartest, wisest and most invested women and men I know delicately and humbly approach the term “The Church” and rarely to level some sweeping criticism.

Thoughts like “Christians think this” or “The Church needs to stop doing that” will always be true insofar as the sample it points at includes, because of its enormity, some Christians who do think that and perhaps whole Church communities of people who are doing something that ought not be done. But it also misses just as many.

So, perhaps it is more accurate and responsible to talk about our church rather than talking about the monolithic, faceless thing called “The Church.” Perhaps it is more honoring and even effective to talk about men and women we actually know instead of the blob of nameless automatons we often men when we speak of “The Church.”

Speaking about the people and communities we have knowledge of comes with the possibility and responsibility of actually affecting change in the area we’re so willing to critique… and I would suggest that’s where the rubber meets the road. What if the filter through which we ran our critique of any people was whether or not we had not only knowledge of but influence among that people? Isn’t most of what happens outside of that mostly complaining?

Certainly there are exceptions, but I’m trying to apply this filter to more of the way I critique my world and particularly “The Church.”

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CMY(K): People Are Not Their Problems

In writing the letters that make up part of the CMY(K) project, I wanted to model an approach to pastoral practice that emphasized the Person rather than the Problem.  Eugene Peterson makes a compelling argument in his most recent memoirThe Pastor that far too much ministry focuses on relieving people of their problems; constantly calling attention to some issue or another.  I’m certainly guilty of this, myself.

But I am not defined by my problems and bristle at the thought of being primarily seen in the dark light of what is wrong with me.

The proper focus of Christian discipleship is the growth and shaping of a whole person who is loved by God as they are.  Discipleship is not the resolution or eradication of an individual’s set of issues so that they can become acceptable to God and His people.

In other words; in answer to questions I’ve been asked such as..

“Do you deal with homosexuality in your church?”
“Do you deal with doubt among your congregates?”

I would have to answer “No.” Not because sexual identity is unimportant or difficult to address or because everyone in my congregation is unshakably confident in the things they believe. But because I don’t want to “deal with” issues. I want to “deal with” people. I want to do my best, according to what wisdom I’ve been granted, to help them hear, interpret and then act on what they are hearing from God; trusting that He, in His wisdom, will speak to them about what specific things He is working on, shaping, changing or removing.

You can pick up all three CMY(K) ep’s at iTunes
You can find more about the CMY(K) project at http://cmykproject.info/
 You can dance if you want to. You can leave your friends behind here.