The Art of Paying Attention, courtesy of Seattle Seahawks

In the morning on Sunday, I preached about paying attention by quoting Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Jesus in Matthew 13 where he says, “Are you listening?  Really listening?”  Jesus says that because stuff doesn’t “just happen”.  Stuff happens, and it elicits a response in our hearts, some mighty Yes, or No!, or tears of rage, or shouts of joy.  9/11 did that.  Sunrises do that, and coffee, and funerals.   Making love?  News of terror attacks?  Conversations with those whose beliefs are different than yours?  Yes.  Lots of events elicit response.  But a football game?  Absolutely…

The touchdown pass in overtime yesterday shook the city.  Literally.  The stadium was equipped with earthquake censors for some tests, and when the Wilson to Kearse pass was completed it was game over, but the shaking had just begun.  Hugs and irrational joy in the basement of my friend’s house where we were watching were matched by fireworks outside and the commencement of a celebration that would last well into the night throughout the city.  Clichés about it not being over ’til its over ricocheted off the walls of skyscrapers downtown, intermingled with the tears of those who left early, or tweeted too soon about boycotting cheese and other nonsense.

I had the privilege of driving all the way home, an hour east of Seattle, late at night when I’d caught my breath, and I did something I never do.  I listened to sports radio.  It was there I learned that the last pass of the game was really a story of redemption.  Kearse, you see, wasn’t always a starter.  He worked his way onto the practice squad, before making his way to first string in 2013, a local success story coming from the University of Washington.

But yesterday’s performance was anything but successful.  In the first half, QB Wilson threw his way three times with the results:  three interceptions.  The ball didn’t come his way again until 5:06 left in the game, at which point the pass once again bounced out of his hands, resulting in an interception.

By any definition, his was a terrible day.  The kind of day that makes you wonder why you’re even bothering to show up.  He said after the game: “There’s some plays I felt like I could have made.  I could have stopped some plays from happening on interceptions. I could have just turned the defender and tried to knock the ball down.”  Yes, and he could have caught two passes too, which instead became interceptions.

Summary:  Not just 0-4.  Each pass was intercepted!

So of course, it makes sense that, after a miracle comeback which led to overtime, QB Wilson would tell his coach during the break:  “I’m going to hit Kearse for a touchdown.”  To quote our local Seahawks radio voice, Steve Raible, “Are you kidding me?” 

No.  He’s not kidding at all.  He’s a believer in the reality that every play is like a new day, that by God, we’re not going to be defined by our failures; that fall we will, but though we fall we’ll get up.

Sound familiar?  Maybe not, if you live in the world of business, the world which says, “past performance is the best indicator of future reality,” the world which drops you when you drop the ball,  the world of performance-based approval.

This, as you may know, is much of our world.  We’re defined, as often as not, by our singular failures, which in a world of conditional love serve to sideline us rather than transform us.  QB’s get exasperated and determine to throw to someone else.  Managers fire us, or move us to a basement office.

And then there’s Jesus with Peter.  No, it wasn’t four missed catches.  It was three outright denials of any affiliation with Jesus the Christ.  It was fear, hubris, lying, shame, defeat.  In the end he’s even worthless as a fisherman.

So what does Jesus do after three denials and a failed night of fishing?  He meets Peter and puts him in charge of the church during its infancy.  “Feed my sheep,” Jesus says, along with some other charges and a prediction that the job will cost him his life as a martyr.  Peter will go on to preach the first sermon with a boldness and fire that was utterly other than the man standing by the fire who didn’t have the guts to even let the servant girl know that he knew Christ.  Cowardice to CourageFailure to Faith.  It’s nearly as good as the football story, maybe betterand equally true.

“But God… being rich in mercy” is how Paul interprets this somewhere.  What he’s saying is that God delights in making unlikely heroes, in writing unlikely stories.  That’s why the game yesterday was more than just a gameat least for those who know how to pay attention.

It was my birthday yesterday too, and as I received kind notes of encouragement for folks in many parts of the world, I felt a profound sense of gratitude to Christ for continuing to throw to me after what seems like a nearly infinite number of dropped passes.

The gospel is a story of redemption, of God intervening in a performance world and writing an unlikely script with unlikely players.  A punter from Canada throws a touchdown pass to a lineman.  A third-round draft pick deemed “too short” by every talking head in the sports world tosses a pass to a guy who barely made the practice squad at one point, and had been, to say the least, “unhelpful” all day today.  And the results?

Are you kidding me?

Such stories aren’t just for football.  They’re the gospel.  Illustrated.  If we pay attention.

‘O Lord Christ

Thanks be to you for inviting us into your story, for keeping us on the field when we want to quit, for teaching us through failure, for believing in our capacity to live into your calling in our lives even when we don’t believe in ourselves.  Give us the grace to say yes, and open our arms, and receive.  When we respond with delight and say, ‘Are you kidding me?’  You’ll say, ‘Not at all – this is the gospel.’  And we’ll rejoice.  Amen.

The gains that come from loss

As the cemetery comes into view on this spectacular January afternoon, I feel as if I’m being transported back in time, because this little piece of geography is so ripe with memories that all the feelings attending those memories flood to the surface, unbidden.  I see the canopy where the graveside service will take place, but we’re early; early enough that we’ve time for a little drive.  I head out, a bit further from the center of Kingsburg, to the land my grandpa farmed, the place where we’d put grapes on trays to dry in the scorching sun when we were kids.  He had grapes and peaches, but now everything’s gone.  All the cropland has just recently been stripped of any vestige of tree or vine, so empty soil, ready for a new generation of fruitfulness, surrounds the house.  The soil’s the same, more or less, only now empty, which is somehow fitting for the occasion.

Just down the road a bit more, is where my aunt had a peach farm. Her land, too, has changed.  Where the farmhouse that felt ancient fifty years ago once stood, there’s a modern ranch home complete with a bevy of solar panels leaning up against the south wall. Beyond the walls of the cemetery, it seems that life goes on; new crops, new houses, new families…new.

Returning to the cemetery though, all that’s new on this day will be an addition: Betty Nadine Dahlstrom, who died just before Christmas, at the age of 95.  There are a few family members present and the service is short, a bit understated perhaps.  I can say that because I was the officiant.  The gold of the day came after the service. I’d wanted my youngest daughter to see some of the other headstones of family members, but they were all covered by the cheap artificial astro-turf that’s placed, temporarily, under the canopy, in order to provide solid footing for guests as the pass by the coffin before it’s lowered into the ground.

Image 2 “I didn’t come this far to miss showing my daughter her family story” I said to myself, and so asked the landscape guy who would soon be putting mom’s body in the ground if we could peel away the AstroTurf to look at the other stones. A strange request, no doubt, but he accommodated, and soon we were looking at all the names, with their year and month of death:

Oscar Stokes – February 1972

Lillian Stokes – April 1973

Romaine Dahlstrom – October 1973

Esther Dahlstrom – 1975

Dorothy Stokes – April 1976

I’d known the “what” of my own story quite well. Right in the midst of that dark time of losing all my grandparents, I’d graduated from high school.  The festival of death that reigned down on our family plunged me into a depression and faith crisis, hidden from most, but nonetheless real to me.  At the time of my dad’s untimely death I’d decided that nothing was nailed down, no meaningful relationship secure.  The same thing happens, of course, when there’s infidelity, or abandonment, but at least then you can rage at the perpetrator. In my story though, God was the perpetrator (or so it seemed at the time) and I was in a church with precious little space for honest to God grief, as Sundays were filled with praise music that seemed absurd, or dishonest, at least for me in that time and space.

So, instead of getting angry, I got depressed, but determined, at the same time, to leave a mark beyond the brief matchlight of my life by designing cool spaces as an architect. I was running from God, as sure as Jacob, or Jonah, or Moses, or any of the other graybeards of old. We all had different reasons, but the results are the same. It’s my life, and I’ll do what I want with it, so leave me alone.

Ah, but it didn’t work out that way at all, because in my pursuit of autonomous plans, I made my way to a state school, so called secular, and there met Christians robust with joy who drew me into their circle through love. I was doubting, they believed. I had health problems related to my depression. They didn’t care. I was confused about everything. They had a faith that believed God changed lives, swapping out anxiousness and replacing it with peace, or despair with hope. You get the picture.

And then, already drawn to the light, I went to a retreat up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, solely because a cute blonde invited me. Looking back, I can see that the stars were aligned for a mega shift in my life. The Christian students in my dorm had loved me well and I was not only finding my way out of the depression, but was experiencing a strange growing longing to share this same kind of love with others because it was working such magic in healing my own soul.

Yes, but how? I was still angry with God for stealing my dad.  Every time I thought about my mom, and the reality that she lost both her parents, her husband, and her beloved mother-in-law in the span of two years, the doubts and anger grew. “No loving God would steal everyone in that short a time, so maybe God doesn’t exist at all” was one line of thinking. I was caught between hope and despair, and honestly, being pulled in both directions.

Then it happened.  At that winter camp, in pursuit of that cute blonde, I made my way into the chapel for the evening talk. It was on Jeremiah 9:23ff, about how the only thing in this broken world that’s worth boasting about is that we know God.  The word had a ring of truth to it even though the God I thought I knew a bit about might not be worth knowing.  Still, I knew enough to know what I didn’t know, and when the preacher pointed directly at me and said, “There are some of you in this room who need to make knowing God the number one priority of your life,” I knew that I knew that I knew God was speaking to me!

I didn’t know what would change by making knowing God a central goal of life.  I didn’t even know if I’d like what I found.  But I knew I wanted to know God better, and so after the talk I went outside on a starry night, and knelt down in the snow to pray.  I told God that I wanted to make knowing Him the central priority of my life. I didn’t know what would happen because I prayed that prayer, but I didn’t think it would be anything dramatic.

I was wrong.  Seven months later I was packing my red Ford Mustang with my few possessions and driving north to Seattle. Having never been north of Sacramento in my life, I was heading to Seattle Pacific University to study music, with an eye toward somehow entering ministry.  What happened after that retreat was that the big deal in my life became sharing with other people that knowing God was worth the effort.  This is because inexplicably, something started immediately inside me.  I surely didn’t have all the answers to all the questions; still don’t.  At the same time, the gaping void of loneliness in my soul was being filled with God, and more strangely still, a sense of companionship with God.

As a result, I found myself more interested in my role as piano player in the Sunday night bible study my friends were leading than I was in designing apartments for my drafting class.  I was sleeping better, more fully engaged with people, less worried about the future.  The poisonous introspection that had attended my depression and insecurity was replaced by a quiet confidence that, come what may, God would be my companion in this journey called life, and the reality of that gave me a joy, confidence, and peace that had been missing for about a decade.  By the end of the school year, I knew that I needed to share this good news with others as much as possible, and so I changed majors and changed schools with an eye toward some sort of ministry.

The day at the cemetery to bury mom’s body was preceded by a day at the camp in the mountains, a pilgrimage of sorts, to thank the good Lord for the landscape of my life.  It was the convergence of these two spots on the planetSugar Pine Camp, and Kingsburg Cemetery, that showed me that the life I live is precisely the fruit of new life born out of loss.

And this, dear friends, is the glory of the gospel. It’s not that we’re granted immunity from suffering.  Far from it.  The grand hope that is ours in Christ is that in this broken world, where loss in a thread woven into the fabric of everyone’s story, God’s wisdom is able to turn every loss into gain.  It’s still loss; of that there’s no doubt.  We can mourn, must mourn, because loss, and loneliness, and betrayal, is what happens in a fallen world.

But loss needn’t define us, because every loss opens a door for new facets of God’s character to be experienced in our lives.  Of course I wish my dad had been at my wedding.  Of course I wish he’d known his grandkids, and the fine folk they married.  Even more, I wish they’d known him.  But no.  It’s a fallen world, and numerous bouts of pneumonia as a child meant dad had weak lungs that would catch up to him and steal his life at 55.  The loss though, prepared the soil, and the life I’ve known, the wife I’ve married, the places I’ve travelled, the friends of madeall of it has sprouted in the soil stripped bare by loss.  Wow.  That’s a story a worth telling.

My daughter Holly is bent down, in tears, over my dad’s tombstone.  I kneel down with her and cry. “I wish you could have known him,” I said. And yet I wonderif she’d have had the chance to know him, would I have ever lived in Seattle?  Ever met my wife?  Would Holly have ever been born?  And that’s when it hits methe glory of the gospel is its profound capacity to turn loss into gain, as evidenced by the cross itself.

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!  Romans 11

 

 

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Lessons and Gifts from my Mom at Christmas

IMG_7747 A few years ago I sat with my mom and punched “record” on my iPad before I asked her about her childhood on the farm, in the searing heat of the San Joaquin Valley.  She told me that when electric power became available, back in the day, her folks had decided it would only be affordable if they moved the house out to the street in order to save money on the trenching costs.  Imagine that: easier to move the house than dig a trench!  And so, they moved the house; picked it up and moved.  I think it was easier to move houses back then because there was no indoor plumbing, but still…it’s not the kind of thing you do today.

The story exemplifies the spirit of many who lived through the Great Depression and fought a World War in Europe and Asia at the same time, with all that entailed (buying war bonds, food, gas, rubber, rationing, separation, suffering, death).  They came home and built lives, schools, interstate highways, and got on with life.

IMG_7752The way my mom got on with life was to start a  family, but the baby died shortly after childbirth, and nearly cost mom her life.  The ensuing surgery meant she’d never have children, so adoption became the plan.  Enter Susan, in 1952, and me four years later, in 1956.  The convergence of suffering and loss in mom’s life was precisely how I ended up being raised by this woman who died yesterday, and so I’m spending part of today remembering the gifts I’ve been given by her, and the family to which I belonged.  In particular, I’m giving thanks for these three gifts:

Our family had faith -  If you go back in the archives of First Baptist Church in Fresno, you’ll find my dad on the building committee, on the board, on the finance committee.  You’ll find my mom doing something called “circle” where women gathered, apparently in a circle, to work on projects that would somehow support missionaries.  The only time I was ever recused from the Wednesday night programs at church was when the San Francisco Giants were in town to play a spring exhibition game.  Dad had his priorities, and he picked me up from school right after lunch so that we could be there in time to watch Willie Mays take batting practice.

Their faith though, wasn’t really about involvement in all these church activities.  Those were just the fruit of their lives being rooted in Christ.  We prayed as a family, read the Bible together, talked about God as if God were real, because we believed He was.  When Billy Graham came to town in 1962 we were there every night.  I was six, and knew the tug of God on my heart, even then.

This wasn’t “church on Sundayand then swearing, drinking, and raising hell” the rest of the week, behind the religious curtain.  Nope.  This was the real thing.  I saw it, absorbed it, wanted it for myself.

So this Christmas I’ll celebrate having grown up in a family that, for all its flaws, believed they were known and loved by their Creator.  Mom’s biggest joy in life, her primal prayer at some level, was that her kids would know this too.  That we did, and still do, is a testimony to her legacy.

Our faith served -  Mom knew a lot of loss in her life;  the death of an infant; infertility; a good dose of poverty too, and then later, the untimely death of her husband in 1973, and her daughter, my sis, in 1995.

Still, for all that, mom’s paradigm for living seems simple to me in retrospect.  She’d look for a need and meet it.  I don’t even know how I was related to Aunt Josie, who looked terribly old and frail when I was a small child (she was probably in her 50′s), but I remember being annoyed that, after my little league games, we’d need to go visit this woman.  The same thing was true when we visited her sick friends, Bug and Edie, while we were on the coast for holiday.  She always found people with less than her, less energy, less family, less joyand she’d go spend time with them.

When mom was 80 she’d drive over to the rest home where she ultimately lived for ten years, in order the “pick up the old people and take them to church.”  Who does that?  Mom did, apparently.

One way of dealing with loss is to sink into a cycle of bitterness and self pity, but I’ve come to believe that my mom’s faith buoyed her and propelled her outward, with eyes to see needs and a heart to serve.

Though I’m very different than mom in this realm, I can connect the dots too.  When I had a profound encounter with God in 1976, it quickly became apparent that drawing concepts of buildings wasn’t going to be “service enough” for me, that I needed to be with people in some way, helping them discover and live into the grand adventure of knowing God.  For me this led to a life of church leadership, pastoring, and teaching.  Surely though, if you’d asked me where I learned about the possibilities of serving, in spite of loss, in spite of health challenges, in spite of insecurities, in spite of questions, I’d point to my mom and say:  “Blame her… she showed me how…”

Our family laughed – in spite of everything.   Mom was more often the butt of jokes than the initiator (just like my wife, Donna) but she laughed along with the rest of us when dad bought a rubber hot dog and she tossed it into the garbage disposal, where it shot out like a rocket, leaving us all on the floor laughing.  We laughed when a 10-year-old guest was reading a morning devotional passage and when he came to the word “misled” (i.e. “He misled his sister) he paused, having a bit of trouble with pronunciation.  Mom glanced over at the book and said, “MY-ZELD” as in “My Zeld is better than your zeld”)  Dad says, “No.  It’s mis-led” but mom wouldn’t bend, and soon we’re laughing as she tried to justify her mispronunciation, even though we all knew that she knew.

There’s a myth out there that our capacity for service, laughter, love, are proportional to the ease of our lives.  So there we go, trying hard to live the good life, by which we mean the life insulated from difficulty.  This insulated life, though, creates fear, walls, anxiety.

Mom and Dad showed me a better way.  They showed me that, regardless of setbacks, we have our faith, our intimate relationship with Christ.  Regardless of our suffering, there are those with less, and we have chances to serve.  Regardless of our losses, we can laugh, and love generously.

I’ll miss you this Christmas Mom, but these are some of the many gifts you’ve shared that are still giving.   Thanks!

Ambition or Temptation? How to tell the difference

“What is that in your hand?”  God

“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might…”  The Preacher in Ecclesiastes

I’m sure you’ve been there.  You want something to be different in your life.  Maybe it’s a vocational success you’re after, or a new house, a remodel, a spouse, (a remodel of a spouse? nope), a successful and meaningful retirement.  Or you want things to be different in the world because the racism, injustice, human trafficking, environmental destruction, or whatever it is for you, just incenses you so much that you’re “mad as hell and you’re not going to take it anymore.”

It seems that all of us, at times, are on the hunt for the “next big thing” in our lives.  I have a friend in his twenties about to move overseas; a friend in his thirties about to make a major job change; and a friend in his seventies who’s trying to figure out what to do with the time he has left.  All of them are looking for the next big thing.

This last guy, the older one, taught me a great lesson when we met recently.  I’d seen him a few days earlier and he said, “we need to catch a coffee” and, with a grin on his face, “I’ve found the answer to the question of what to do with the rest of my time!!”

We met in my office recently, late in the afternoon, and he walked in with a gleam in his eye.  He’s always been upbeat, as long as I’ve known him, but this was different.  This was a gleam of settledness, contentment, purpose, calling.  “Well,” I asked, “what’d you find?”  He pulls a sheet of lined paper out of his pocket and holds it up in front of me.  It’s filled, or nearly so, with names.

“See this?” he says.  “These are the ‘kids’ I’m meeting with.  All of them are in their twenties and thirties.  I’m meeting them for coffee, walking the lake with them, having them over to my house.  Whatever it takes.  I’m investing in young kids!”  He’s giddy with joy as he tells me about the newest name on the list; how they met, what they’re doing together.

I’m happy for him, of course, and curious.  He has a contentment and enthusiasm that’s a refreshing contrast to the common “striving” mindset and posture that so many of us have so much of the time.  I ask him how he came to the discovery of this calling.

He smiles and says, “I was already doing it! That’s what’s so funny!”  He goes on to tell me that this new chapter isn’t as much new, as it is going deeper into what he’s already doing, what’s already been bringing joy to him and life to the young adults with whom he meets.  “It was there all the time,” he said, and this got me thinking about calling, contentment, and ambition.  Here’s what his story can teach us all:

1.  If we don’t start where we are, we’ll never move successfully.   You know the story from Chevy Chase’s Christmas Vacation about the weird unemployed uncle who’s living in a trailer?  Fat, unshaven, and with all the emotional intelligence of some “real housewife” on TV, he’s “holding out for a management position.”  He’s waiting for something better is another way of saying it, but whether you’re waiting for something better, or going after something better, the message is the same:

Don’t neglect “what’s in your hand” because according to this story, it’s what’s in your hand today that God will use to direct you to God’s preferred future for your tomorrow.  One of the greatest forms of temptation many of us face, is the mirage like opportunity that’s “out there” somewhere.  Its existence entices and, like the new wool sweater, we’re sure we’ll be more fulfilled if we can get there.  So we go after it, with gusto, and sometimes with the side effect of neglecting what’s in our hand.

I’m presently working on two books and leading a large church in Seattle, along with needing to prepare for speaking at some upcoming things.  At the time I met with my friend though, I was determined to get a magazine article published.  I’d started writing it, and was researching the query letter when we met and the meeting was like a bucket of ice water, snapping me back to reality:

“Get a grip man!  You already have a life.  Do what’s in your hand now, with a whole heart, and joy.  Quit looking over the fence, because where you go tomorrow is my responsibility, not yours.”

2. There’s a time for tossing projects in the trash.

Thank God.  It’s a good word, and I suspect, not just for me.  Discontent, at its worst, is a paralyzing mindset that strips our joy, inviting us to believe the lie that what God’s given us to do today isn’t worth doing, so instead we’d better spend our time creating a different tomorrow.  Goals have value, surely, but they’re dangerous too, and just for this reason: they can make us neglect today in our pursuit of tomorrow.

I’ve literally thrown the query letter and article in my little virtual trash can on my computer, and taken out the trash.  It was liberating!  I’m back in the groove, focusing on what’s already on my plate:  the church I lead, the writing on which I’m already working, the teaching for which I’m preparing, and the fantastic family with whom I’ll spend a glorious Christmas.

Sometimes we need to toss what we think are ambitions in the trash because they’re not ambitions; they’re temptations and distractions from the present.  What have you let go of lately, or need to let go of,  so that you can focus on what God’s already given you?

 

 

Beauty and Brokenness – Living in the Tension

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I’m happy to offer a repost today of something offered earlier this summer during my sabbatical because it seems so very appropriate during the holidays, when sometimes the tension between beauty and brokenness is so great we’re afraid we’ll snap.  Here are some observations about that tension and living in it.  Enjoy!

We’ve been without internet or phone access for four days, no doubt the longest period in our adult lives to be without updates on the Seahawks, Sounders, and the state of the world.  During this hiatus, we’ve been baptized in stunning beauty, rich fellowship, and simple prayers about the weather, safety, and wisdom for each step of the journey.  These prayers for wisdom, endurance, provision, are very real because one false step on wet stone might become a turned ankle, and then, at best, a major change of plans, and at worst, a night immobilized in the high country, with threats of lightning strikes and nothing more than a rain poncho propped up by poles for shelter.   For these reasons, we pray, and pay attentionstep by step.

These prayers, though, are also very provincial.  They’re about our real situation because mostly, this is what we know about when we’re up there, cut off from global news, as well as Facebook, and news from friends and family.  We caught news of a very close friend in the hospital with a serious infection just before our media exile, so we prayed for her and her family throughout, along with a few other situations we know of that are ongoing, but mostly, our journey is a sensual overload: spectacular beauty, and uncharacteristic (for us) suffering (little things like blisters, heat, tired and achy muscles, and the chronic stress of not knowing what’s around the corner that is the lot of we who love to be in control of everything).

High mountain sunrises; rainstorms in the middle of the night; unspeakable joy attending the beauty of summits and the capacity to get there; fellowship with newfound friends who share our love of the mountains; rich conversations; glorious silence; deep sleep.  Yes. This was round one.

We made our way out yesterday in the rain, and the result was a similar assault, in a different direction.  We learned the extent of Ebola’s rapid expansion, and of a black teen about to enter college shot to death in  St. Louis.  Bombing in Iraq?  Ukraine?  Syria?  Fires still burning.  Refugees.  And this morning, just as our west coast friends were going to bed, we awoke to the news of Robin Williams’ suicide.  My God.  Is this the same world?

Yes.  The same world indeed.  What are we to make of the disparity between candle lit meals with wealthy, healthy people at 7000′ in the Alps and refugee camps on the border of Syria, or the shooting death of another teen by police, or the spread of a disease in a place where everyone is already living on the edge of death most of the time?

My friend Hans Peter, who died nearly one year ago, said once that the world is both more stunningly beautiful and tragically broken than most people are willing to see.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot during my days of walking step by step through the Alps, partly because the incredible beauty up there comes at a price.  There’s some physical suffering, surely in comparison to normal days spent in the comfort of climate controlled offices and instant access to food, shelter, and entertainment.  The greatest beauties in life are always like that; they come at a costvulnerability, honesty, suffering, truth telling, self-denial.  That stuff’s present wherever beauty is seen and tasted.

But this kind of suffering is paltry compared with Ebola, or a dead teenager who, earlier that day was making plans for his freshman year in college.  I have no answers for how the same world has room for Alpenglow, and beheadings, for making love with a faithful spouse who you’ve known for 35 years, and the rape of a child, for the brilliance of a comedian who challenged and blessed us all but who, nonetheless, saw no reason to keep on.

imageAll I can say is that the wisest people are open to all the beauty and all the suffering.  Choose to see only the latter and you become angry, cynical, frightened.  Choose only the former and you become an expert in denial and fantasywhether that takes the form of  porn or religion matters little, it’s still denial.

Jesus’ heart broke over the fact that people had eyes but didn’t see, had ears but didn’t hear.  He knew, as Simone Weil also knew, that if we open ourselves to the full spectrum of beauty and ugliness, tragedy and glory, laughter and tears, we will, time and again, be brought to the door of intimacy with our Creator.  “There’s a time for everything,” is how the preacher said it in the book of Ecclesiastes.

For us, it’s time to return to the high country for a few days.  We’ll learn things, be stretched, hungry at times, maybe cold.  We pray, we’ll be safe.  We think we’ll see more beauty, meet more great people.  But, the Lord willing, like Moses, we’ll come down from the mountain again, and when we do, the juxtaposition of beauty and suffering will cause us cry out once again, “Lord have mercy on us,” for having seen the heights of beauty, we’ll once again be broken by the depths of suffering, and this very polarity is part of what makes me hunger for Christ, the one I believe to be the source of justice, hope, and love.

“Let everything happen to you, beauty and terror.  Just keep going.  No feeling is final. ”   Rilke

 

 

 

Rhythm: Why You Need it – How you get it.

Are you tired?  Worn out?  Burned out on religion?  Come to me.  Get away with me and you’ll recover your life (and) learn the unforced rhythms of  grace.   Jesus the Christ – Matthew 11

I’m sitting here on my weekly day of Sabbath, staring out the window at fir trees laden with wet, dripping life down onto the soil and melting snow below.  There are candles; a fire in the wood stove and choral Christmas carols fill the room.  Warmth.  Good coffee.  Beauty.  Shalom.

I’m thinking, “Wouldn’t it be good to sit here bathed in this kind of peace and beauty the rest of my life?” until I remember Jesus’ words a little bit later, after that bit about the “unforced rhythms of grace.”  Jesus had taken the disciples on a little wilderness therapy outing, up to a high mountain where he  transcended earthly dimensions and his disciples were able to see him in his pure unfiltered glory.

Jesus’ friend Peter likes this location, this revelation of glory, this peace, this mountaintop, enough to blurt out, “It’s good for us to be here Jesus, so just say the word, and we’ll start building.  We’ll make some places for you and your buddies, and then we can just stay up herebecause to be blunt, I don’t know if you know this or not Jesus, but we like this peace, this beauty, this joy.  Preferred future:  staying right here!”

The version of the story is that Jesus goes down.  The disciples follow.  Shortly after that there’ll be the week from hell, where Jesus goes from universal popularity to the whole world’s object of pure hatred scorn.  He’ll be executed.  The disciples will scatter, and wrestle with their doubts, disillusionment, and fallibility.

After that there’ll be a resurrection and things will get better.  Later still, a powerful success.  Then some arrests, and fighting, and martyrdom, with success and joy mysteriously interwoven into the thick fabric of trials.

Success.  Joy.  Peace.

Failure.  Loss.  Suffering.

The rhythms of unforced grace.

Embrace the reality that a life with Christ will overflow with everything, and by everything I mean there are times we’ll be drunk on joy and other times sorrow and suffering will take our breath away.  We’ll have Sabbaths, if we’re fortunate, and days of laughter and beauty in the forest, or at the beach, and meals with good wine and laughter.

But we can’t stay on that mountaintop because there’s poverty, and homelessness, abuse of power and abuse of spouses.  There are a million children who are refugees, and people of great wealth who have the freedom to travel the world, but are trapped in a prison of upward mobility.  Beheadings.  Injustice.  Racism.  Cancer.  Ebola.

We need to get down off the mountain and into the thickness of this dark world.  It’s not just that we’re called to be there as light, though God knows we are, and it feels more and more like high crime to me when the church becomes a gathering whose sole goal is the emotional and spiritual well-being of its congregants.  The reality is that we need to get down off the mountain because nobody is ever shaped well by pure sabbath and shalom, not in this life at least.  “The testing of your faith produces endurance,” is how James writes it, and Peter says, “Even though now, for a little while, you’re beset by various trials…”  and Jesus himself says, “In this world you will have tribulation.”

All this stuff down there below the summit is shaping us for the better, or can at least.  That’s because in the wisdom of the way God has created the world, it’s not just the beauty and rest that brings healing and transformation, but the suffering and loss too.  The enemy of our souls can throw everything at us, but our glorious hope is that no matter the stuff, though we may have scars, even the scars will become part of the beauty in our lives.

How do we open ourselves up to both deep beauty and deep suffering?

1.  Actively seek both engagement and withdrawal.  Jesus is a good model for us here, as you’ll find him alone in the wilderness a fair bit, as well as in the thick of things in the city, confronting religious hypocrisy and control, casting out demons, gifting people with forgiveness, healing, restoration, and teaching too.

This rhythm is best sought by paying attention to the way God made the world, with that day of rest each week, and that continual rhythm of sunrise and sunset inviting us to both work and rest.  You need all of it if you’re going to be fully in God’s story, and continuing your journey of transformation.

2. Don’t shy away from the edges.  A favorite book of mine posits that if you’re afraid of great suffering and as a result, build walls around your soul so you don’t see beheadings, don’t give a damn about ongoing racism, poverty, or a million child refugees, you’ll also become numb to great joy on the other side of the spectrum.  The result will be a bland middle, whereby we not only don’t let the news of our city and world affect us, but we also fail to pay attention to the profound beauty of art, music, and creation that could have filled us with the confidence and strength of Christ to continue shining as light in the midst of darkness.

Don’t let yourself settle for the middleunmoved by  Van Gogh, or Rainier, or human touchresistant to hard or painful truth and conversations; avoiding solidarity with the suffering of our planet.  The middle ground knows little suffering and little beauty.  The boredom, though, is soul killing.

Better to be on the lookout, always, for the inbreaking of beauty, whether art, music, generosity, creation’s glory, or intimacy.  To go there, though, requires a willingness, too, to come down off the mountain and enter into the thick of suffering, loss, sickness, death, injustice, and hard conversations.

Rainer Rilke puts it this way:

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

All right then – let’s go.

 

All I want for Christmas is: A Vision for Unity

It’s Advent, and that means there are daily reports on the success of our national goal to “shop ’til we drop”.  Black Friday’s off a bit from previous years, and the experts declared over the weekend that it was because more people would be shopping online, on “Cyber Monday”.  That also came and went, with less than expected results, and so now new theories are being spun, about people waiting for “super deals” closer to Christmas.  Whatever.  I no longer carebecause as a pastor, I have bigger concerns.

That’s because I live in a different world.  I live in a world where I know more and more people who are coming out of closet; they’re gay, Christian, and wanting to find the grace and acceptance of Christ in their churches.  I live in a world where black people love Jesus but also feel on the outside of things, not because of Ferguson, but because 400 years is a long time to be sub-humanized, bought and sold, denied the chance to vote, and o so much more, and they’re a bit tired of white people just telling them to “get over it” while the distrust continues.  I live in a world where women who have gifts of teaching and leadership can use them in lots of places, but still not in some churches.  I live in a world where people I know are deeply divided on how the church should respond to all kinds of things, including mental illness, poverty, and gun violence.

In all these matters, the church is divided, but not just divided, deeply fractured, as evidenced by blogs and discussions this past week about Ferguson, World Vision’s challenges earlier this year, and the inflamed language associated with any attempt at a good conversation around the issues of gun violence.

It’s this deeply divided faith world, with its attendant hateful, sarcastic, and derogatory language aimed at the other side, that’s the biggest issue on my plate these days.  This is because I serve in a church that has sought to live faithfully for many generations on the basis of this declaration:  In Essentials Unity.  In Non-Essentials Liberty.  In all Things Charity.

Finding unity seems harder and harder these days, because the list of essentials seems to be growing for most people.  Real people of faith need to be for gun control or against it; for same-sex marriage, or against it; for the police, or for Michael Brown.  And its vital these days that you not just be FOR or AGAINST but that do so with enough dogma that the true faith of those on the other side is called into question.

This is not only rubbish, but really very alarming to me for several reasons:

1.  Paul’s declaration in Ephesians 4:13 says we’ll keep growing “until we all attain to the unity of the faith” which implies (as reinforced here) that we’re not in a state of unity yet.  What’s more, that’s apparently OK, because Paul indicated that in this moment, we see through a glass darkly.  That means we don’t have perfect knowledge yet, so we’ll need to keep at this; keep dialoguing, growing, learning, praying.

2. Our division into self-referential communities kills our testimony because Jesus says that it’s our unity that is the best evidence that our faith and life in Christ is real.  There’s a unity that comes from uniformity of agreement on ALL things, but this is, at best, an ideal to which we aspire, rather than an experience we’ll be able to attain in this fallen world.  But there can be a unity that’s willing to say, “Look.  We don’t know all the answers about every doctrinal or ethical issue that comes from following Christ.  But we do know this much:  Jesus is Lord.  He’s the hope for this shattered world.  He’s the One we’re committed to proclaiming, loving, obeying, and serving.”   Living through this lens, World Vision phone workers wouldn’t have been sworn at and been the objects of cruel hate in the wake of their initial decision last spring.

3. Our self-referential communities allow us to prematurely think we have the moral high ground because, in our smaller worlds of Fox News, or MSNBC, or whatever is the denominational equivalent, we’re in an echo chamber where all our reasoning, assumptions, and conclusions are airtight.  As long as we stay inside the echo chamber, we’ll be happy, resting in the delusion that our way is, and always will be, the right way.

How can we approach unity?

1. Get out more – meet people different than you.  (By the way, one of the very best reasons to travel.)

Our view of things is all good until we actually meet a person with a different view who, just like us, loves Jesus, prays regularly, and desires nothing more than to be a vessel filled with the life of Christ.

Suddenly, we’ve meet the ones we vilified, and have come to see that we have more in common than we’d ever have guessed.  We see that we’d made a caricature of those whose view is different than ours, and that “the other,” looking at the world through a different lens, differs with us for reasons that (gasp) make sense.  We’re not persuaded, necessarily, to change our view, but having met the other, we find it harder to label them and shoot them.

2. Embrace the humble belief that you’re not yet perfect.

It’s not that we don’t believe in absolute truth.  It’s just that we don’t believe that we’ve yet understood it perfectly, communicated it perfectly, received it perfectly, because our understanding of the world is filtered through the lens of not only the Holy Spirit, but our fallen humanity.

A quick view of history reveals that there have been about a thousand blind spots among Christ followers.  We’ve wrongly predicted the date of Christ’s return at least 500 times, taught that blacks aren’t human, justified land theft and colonization, barred women from having a voice in the church, taught anti-semitism, persecuted Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Anabaptists, all in Jesus’ name.

I wonder what our blind spots our today?  If you say you don’t have any, then I already know your blind spot, before even meeting you:  it’s pride and self-righteousness.  So let’s relax and enjoy the dialogue, giving each other space to let Christ continue to teach us without doubting the authentic faith of the other who claims Christ as her own.

“Really?  How long should we do that….?”

“Until we all attain to the unity of the faith..”   which will take “a little while.”

 

 

Pursuing Peace – to what end?

I’ve not been writing the past few weeks because a nasty little virus took up residency in my lungs, robbing my sleep, turning the act of preaching into a Herculean effort, and leaving me feeling like a limp rag doll most of the time.

As a result, I’ve had time to think, and the convergence zone of some teaching I’m doing for staff at the church I lead, and my reading has directed me toward pondering both the need for peace in our lives and the purpose of peace.

The need for peace

We live in a world where personal peace is becoming as scarce as clean water.  The evidence is everywhere: sleep loss, increased chronic disease health crises, such as heart issues and diabetes, and unhealthy addiction to drugs and alcohol.  There are a myriad of reasons for our collective erosion of shalom, but analysis of the why can come later, because the Apostle Paul, and Jesus Christ both offer a clear prescription which, if taken, will move us toward a beautiful sense of peace and well beingnot instantly, but surely, inevitably.

Rest gives us peace. 

Jesus invites all who are weary to “come unto him,” learn from him, make his priorities ours, because his plans for us surely include the reality of finding “rest for our souls”.  Wow!  That’s a hefty promise in age of hyper-connectivity, hypertension, isolation, and a sinking pessimism due to politics, pollution, and terror, and the feeling sometimes that our whole civilization is  just hanging on by a thread.  Still, it’s a promise, so I need to learn how to seek Christ and find real rest in him.  I’ve written about this elsewhere in my posts under the category “coffee with God”. 

Paul ups the ante when he tells us to “be anxious for nothing, but in everything, by prayer… let your requests be made known to God,” and this is followed with the spectacular promise that God’s peace will become a sort of wall, protecting our hearts.  I believe this literally means a greater capacity to overcome the stress of daily living, and this will even mean, in most instances, greater physical and emotional strength.

Peace gives us strength

Paul implies as much in Romans 8:11 where we read about the spirit of God, fully operational in a human, gives “life to our mortal bodies”.  Picture Jesus, at rest and asleep in the storm at sea; or Paul cracking jokes at his trial, or singing in prison.  Who does this stuff?  People who are strong because they are at peace.

The relationship between stress and physiological decay is well documented, and the pursuit of peace is a multi-billion dollar industry, with everything from yoga to pharmaceutical companies in the game.  We all want peace and rest because we know that it’s a key to well-being.

Strength gives us…. ??

So, peace gives us rest and freedom from anxiety, and freedom from anxiety makes us stronger, but why?  To what end?  This, I believe, is one of the critical junctures where the gospel makes a radical departure from the entire “peace and rest” industry. 

Paul’s exhortation that we “be strong in the Lord” here, and the command to be strong found here, are closely linked with a clear purpose.  We’re not strong so that we can live robust and healthy self-centered lives, as consumers of culture and recipients of God’s blessing.  Instead, we’re always, always, “blessed to be a blessing” as God both promised and called Abraham, and God reiterated to Moses, and Christ charged the disciples, and as the early church demonstrated in so very many ways, including the strength of serving the weakest and most vulnerable, and the strength of martyrdom.

I have known friends, both Christian and Hindu, along with practitioners of Yoga and various forms of meditation, whose goal is vibrant health and peace.  This might sound appealing but make no mistake about itit misses the point utterly because in the end such singular pursuits of health are nothing more than dressed up narcissism.

Jesus made it clear that he’s writing a story of hope in this dark and broken world, and toward that end he’s building a team of light bearers, those who will go into the darkness exuding hospitality, healing, joy, forgiveness, justice, capacity for restoration, and more.  So when you have your quiet time, or do your exercise routine, or buy that slab of grass fed beef, or expensive wheat not tainted with roundup, it’s all for a purpose.  Christ is calling you to a life poured outwashing feet, serving, and “doing good and sharing”.  Anything less is narcissism. 

This surely isn’t a call to asceticism.  It’s rather, a call to recognize God’s healing us and strengthening us, to the extent God is, for a purpose, and if we receive the healing but don’t engage in our calling of blessing serving, whether in business, or with our neighbors, or on the slopes and rock faces, we’re still missing the point.  That’s because the point is a vast family of people living out of resurrection power, day after day.

Are you strong these days, or even pursuing strength?  Pursue Christ instead, recognizing that he is the source of the strength anyway, and that the strength he gives us is toward a purpose, and that purpose is to be poured out.

Let the adventure begin!

 

The Pig Lady from Iowa: What the church and pastors MUST learn from the 2014 election

Last night’s American election has birthed both elation and despondency, respectively,  among those who care deeply about such things.  I care too, and if I were a political pundit I’d have much to say about hopes and fears for our country in the wake of what happened last night, but I’m not.  I’m a pastor who is increasingly concerned with the consumerist mindset prevailing in American Christianity, and write in hopes that we who lead churches might learn how NOT to lead by considering how politics is done in America.

The sad truth is that, even by their own admission, politicians and the machinery that work so hard to get them elected, had no interest in changing minds during this last election cycle.  Both parties messaged to their core constituency in hopes that their vilification of the ‘other’ would motivate people to get out and vote.

Everyone was, in other words, ‘preaching to the choir’.  This is the way everything’s done these days.  If you have a blog, I’m told the only way you’ll increase readership is to target an audience: minimalists, leftists, pro-lifers, moms, gun owners, environmentalists, whatever.  It works of course, or else people wouldn’t do it.  The same strategy works for politicians and TV news stations:  Fox and MSNBC live and breathe (remember, they’re not just corporations, they’re people), not by inviting civil discourse but by pouring gas on already existing fires.  They’re great at reinforcing what people already believe, and adding more “like-minded” to their folds.  How does this strategy work, though, when it comes to changing minds?  It doesn’t. 

What makes my blood boil is when churches adopt this same mindset.  “Who are we going after?”  is the question, and then everything is customized exclusively for that demographic: music, lights, teaching content, teaching style, programit’s all designed to reach a demographic.  The tragedy is that if you’re good at it, it works, and if it works, I think you’ve done more harm than good.

Fine, you’ve built an organization of like-minded people.  But let’s not point to such success as evidence of God’s blessing, because it’s the same strategy used by the pig lady in Iowa and The Huffington Post.  Gathering a group of people who think just like you, reinforcing their beliefs, and encouraging them to invite others into their ideological ghetto might work if success is defined by building an organization.  But that’s not the same thing as leading a church.

A core value of the church is that “the dividing wall has been broken down”between Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, males and females.  This community, in other words, will be bound together by shared life in Christ and nothing elseincluding one’s politics, music style.  I’m convinced that none of us have yet understood the depths of Christ’s radical inclusiveness, and while there are many reasons for this, one of the most common reason is that “leading like politicians” is easier than “leading like Jesus”.  Easier… just not better, and in the end, not real church leadership at all.

The Better Way -

Rather than tailoring our music, message, and ethos to a pre-selected demographic, and going after them, Christ offers a better and more challenging way:

1.  Cross social divides rather than reinforce them.  As a preacher and teacher, I want to share truth in a way that moves people.  This requires both a willingness to let the unpersuaded leave, and a commitment to declaring truth in winsome way that’s uniquely contextualized, as Paul did (changing his message depending on his audience so that he might move every single audience toward Christsee I Corinthians 9:20ff for more of this).

In other words, and this is huge, we don’t exist to reinforce beliefs as much as to challenge them.  That’s utterly different than “building a platform”, though a platform might well be built in the process.  But the size of said ‘platform’ is God’s prerogative not mine, and is never cause for boasting.

2.  Communicate the breadth of the gospel’s implications, recognizing that doing so will both invite, bless, challenge, and offend, every demographicrich, poor, left, right, young, oldeveryone.  This is because the trajectory of history points in the direction of creating something wholly new, rather than something which reinforces our pre-existing conditions and convictions.  We’re not in a bunker protecting what we already believe, we’re gathering and sharing life together in an ongoing pursuit of transformation.  That’s, at least, the way it ought to be.

When we do this, some people will leave, because we’ll speak about the environment and it will anger the right.  We’ll speak about protecting life in the womb, and it will anger the left.  We’ll speak about how important the family is as a central source of justice and hope in this world and it will anger the left again.  We’ll speak about the dangers of “shopping as patriotism” and the evils that arise in unfettered capitalism and the right will be mad again.  Whatever.  The gospel isn’t bound by our “pre-existing conditions”  and we need to be willing to be challenged, and to challenge our communities.  Otherwise, just go into politics.  You’ll find a group of like-minded people who will elect you.

3. Recognize how damning the “us/them” language and mindset is.  Yes, the very language that works so successfully in getting people elected, is the same language that is polarizing our nation, and creating subcultures within the broader culture who hate each other.  When the church does this, it just creates more ghettos of fear-based, like-minded people, alone together in their bunkers, afraid of, and mad at, those on the outside.  Such leadership happens all the time in the church, and I suppose all of us are guilty of it to varying degrees.  But at the least, we need a vision that begins with admitting how wrong this is.

Dear Pastors and Churches:  Don’t play the games that prevail among the talking heads and strategists seeking power and market share.  You’ll miss your calling.  Instead, determine to know nothing and proclaim nothing, other than Christ, and recognize that the true Christ will challenge entrenched views, deconstruct false idols and move everyone towards transformationeven you, dear leaderand I hope, especially you.

 

 

 

When “churches” implode – Three truths to give you hope

Because of its high profile, yesterday’s news from the Mars Hill church community in Seattle may create questions and/or pain for Christ followers in both Seattle and beyond.  But churches closing their doors is nothing new.  People who count such things say that about 4,000 churches close every year in America and the reasons are wide ranging.

I take hope in knowing from the Bible that organizational failure and church failure are two different things.  The former is product of human error, economies, shifting demographics and at least a dozen other things.  The latter though, failure of the church, is something that doesn’t happen, because after 2,000 years, a handful of eyewitnesses to Christ’s resurrection, all of whom were martyred or imprisoned, laid a foundation for a work that’s continued to grow throughout the world.  Organizations will fail.  Christ won’t, and so it’s vital to gain Christ’s perspective on the “Big C” church when stuff like this happens.  Here are three truths to give you hope:

I.  Don’t confuse “church” with “organizations”

Down here in the muck of daily living there are so called “churches”.  I lead a large one in Seattle, but must confess that I’m ambivalent about using the word “Church” to describe the group I lead.  I use it, of course, because it’s the idiomatic way of describing the people who gather on any given Sunday together, many of whom are deeply committed to this particular expression of Christ’s life in our city.  But if we could see with the eyes of Christ, we’d see that the “church” in Seattle is made up of all Christ followers, and that there are some who attend weekly, here or there in various organizations, but aren’t really in the game, and others who gather in homes, whose church life is real and deep in spite of the fact that there’s no formal organizational structure.

While I’m speaking about home churches though, please don’t romanticize them, as if to imply that getting rid of organizational structure is somehow the promised land of a deep church life.  Having pastored both a house church in the mountains and a mega-church, I can safely tell you that when a house church is doing what it ought to do, lives will be changed, light will shine from there to the community and new people will come.  Where, in your house, will they sit?  And when babies come along, who will care for them?  And when someone disagrees with a course of action, what steps can be taken to address it?  I’ll save you some time by telling you that each of these problems will require structure, and then a bit more, and still more and presto!  You’re an organization.  Those who dismiss organizational necessities are living in a dream world, and yet it’s vital to also remember that the structure, and even the gathering on any given Sunday, aren’t what constitute the real church.  Jesus spoke of this when he talked about wheat and tares growing in a field together and said that we’re not to sort it all out now, because we’re (thankfully) not Jesus, and so we can leave the sorting to him.

The real church is there, in the midst of your gathering.  Believe it, celebrate it, pray for it to thrive and be the presence of Christ in real ways; and commit to a local expression that takes shape in an organizational structure.  But the structure is the wineskin, not the wine.  Never confuse the two.

II.  Don’t confuse “organization” with “leader”

OK, so we’re aligned with, and part of, an organization, and within that organization there are people who are part of Christ’s grand expression of life called “the church”.  A common problem with organizations is that they either dismiss the necessity of leadership, or they “deify” (not literally, but poetically) their leader.  Both positions are wrong and ultimately unsustainable.

By dismissing the necessity of the leader and the notion of leadership, you are swimming upstream against everything the New Testament has to say about the church.  Paul speaks of the qualifications of leaders, tells Christ followers to both honor and follow their leaders, and warns both leaders and teachers that they will face a stricter judgement because of their role, so that they’d best not seek leadership as a means of self advancement, but as a calling to service.

However, nothing in the New Testament implies that a leader should ever be above accountability, and what’s more, the very nature of our calling as leaders in the church should be to embrace both the accountability of a ruling board not chosen by us, and to continually raise up new leaders so that the work, and the honor, is shared.

Years ago, as our church was growing larger, I saw the danger of both the authority and honor of the ministry being centralized in one person, and so we began living into a vision of raising up new leaders (teaching pastors) and new locations, so that we’d better fulfill our value of passing the leadership torch to the next generation.  You can see this vision here.

The hope, when all this works right, is that the organization is bigger than the leader, so that when the leader is gone, whether due to old age or any other reason, the work remains.

III.  Don’t confuse “leader” with “Jesus”

So now we’re in an organization that contains, but isn’t the whole of the church.  We should also be following human leaders too, but never in an ultimate or absolute sense.  Here’s why:   No human leader is the head of the church.  We leaders might make decisions about the organization (though even there, accountability and mutuality of trust among a plurality of leaders is the best thing, as you see in Acts), but we’re not “running the church”.  That’s Jesus’ job, and I think he’ll do just fine, with or without we “high profile” leaders.

There aren’t any high profile leaders in Iran, where being a pastor can get you executed, or in North Korea, where it can mean you’ll do hard labor for twenty years.  But in our world of conference speaking and publishing houses, market share and Klout Scores, it seems that there are plenty of people eager to find the stage and lights and this place is fraught with dangerespecially the danger that we’ll believe our own press releases.

With all the love in my heart I say: don’t follow any of us blindly.  None of us!  Listen to us, learn what God gives you from us.  When you see our sins, pray for us and if you have a relationship with us or our part of our organization, take steps to help us see it.  How we leaders respond will reveal a lot about our integrity.  But don’t; don’t; make it all about us.  Don’t make it utterly dependent on us for success, especially as the organization grows older.

Why?

Because Christ, not any human leader, is the head of his church, and none of us charged with leadership is doing it flawlessly.  None. Of. Us.  If leaders would acknowledge this, they’d have a little more humility.  If followers would acknowledge this, especially in an environment of grace, it would give leaders a greater measure authenticity and humility.

A “church” began twenty years ago in Seattle and now it appears the wineskin is facing challenges.  But new wine of Christ’s regenerative life is now present, I believe and pray, in thousands of new believers throughout our city because of this work.  Is an organization going through a hard time?  Yes.  And we’ll pray for them.  Is the church in Seattle going to be fine?

Yes.  Because the church isn’t Mars Hill, or Bethany, or EastLake, or City Church, or whatever else is shiny and bright, or small and new, or small and old.  The church is Christexpressing his life through broken people who gather under the umbrella of various organizations to be embody the hope, joy, healing, and forgiveness that’s found in Christ alone.  And that, dear friends, will continue regardless of what we humans do.  So let’s relax and, as Paul says, “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain.” 

I welcome your thoughts…

 

 

Moving towards wholeness and hope – step by step