Step by Step Journey: Writings of Richard Dahlstrom - because there's always a next step

United Airlines, Holy Week, and Missing the Forest for the trees

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Apr 12, 2017

Behavior needs to match mission, right?

They did it “according to the book”.  With too many passengers and not enough seats, they asked for volunteers to give up their seats on this flight for a reward, and fly later.  You know, by now, what happened on UAL flight 3411.  Before it was over, a passenger was forcibly, violently dragged from the plane, getting bloodied in the process.  This gave birth to a viral video of the scene, leading to a public relations nightmare and an over 6% decline in UAL stock as outrage over the event filled social media.  In my own facebook feed I saw pics of cancelled UAL flight tickets, and declarations of breakup with “the friendly skies” (a breakup I made years ago because of my own encounter with “less than friendly” customer service – but I digress)

The point for the moment is simple.  By contract and policy, the airline had every right to remove the man.  The man’s refusal to leave led to a need to call security, and security did what security does: they resorted to force.  That’s how the man ended up blooodied, being dragged down the aisle while a full flight of paying customers looked on, as seen here.  The flight would, of course, end with a steward or stewardess thanking everyone for “flying the friendly skies”.  Ugh.

I don’t write to do a post event analysis.  Most of us have pondered why too many passengers were allowed to board; why they didn’t up the ante even more in hopes that eventually someone would volunteer; why the security people treated the guy with a level of force that would be the same as if he was a threat to other passengers?  We can ask these questions, but have no way of knowing the answers.

Here’s what we do know: This doesn’t look like “friendly skies.”   People who belong to a company whose mission statement and slogan elevate customer service as a central value need to be empowered to maintain that core value.  Further, if they are empowered, they need to always, always, ask the simple question:  “does this action make us look friendly?”

REI gets this.  Nordstrom gets this.  Starbucks gets this.  Amazon gets this.

If your actions are contradictory to what you say you’re about, then you need to rethink your actions.

This is important for every Christ follower to ponder because the Apostle Paul says that it was God’s intent to “reveal his Son in me.” We come to discover God’s intent for humankind in this verse.  In other words, our mission statement as Christ followers is to look like Jesus.  You know: love your enemies, turn the other cheek, go the second mile, cross social divides, be people of peace, give dignity to those suffering on the margins, don’t cling to your own personal rights, bless and forgive generously – preemptively even.   These are the means by which we fulfill our calling, the corollary statement is equally important:  any action derived from our policy manual (the Bible) that misrepresents Jesus’ heart, needs to be reconsidered!

And this means a few elements of church history would have played out differently:

The church wouldn’t have fractured again and again and again over words and secondary doctrines, because Jesus’ heart was, above all other things, for Christians to live in peaceable unity.  The east/west church schism, the multiple popes debacle, the protestant reformation, and the over twenty thousand denominations?  Poof!  They’re gone.

The sanctioning of Slavery in Jesus name?  The anti-semitic edict declared by the church, forcing all Jews to leave Spain (and leave their wealth behind, by the way) in the late 15th century?  The horrific genocide in Rwanda, even as this country was being touted as a Christian missionary success story?   All these things change dramatically if Christians stay committed to the vision and mission of their calling, which is to look like Jesus.

I’ve lived long enough to remember specific times when I had the doctrinal moral high ground, but my posture of pride, anger, and a cynical tongue, discredited my doctrine.

So the next time you win a political argument by calling the other person stupid, remember that you’ve lost.

The next time you’re debating same sex marriage, whatever your position on the matter, if your anger toward the other person means you stop listening, stop loving, stop treating them as image bearers even though you disagree, you’ve lost, even if you won.

The next time your reading of the Bible leads to behaviors of racism, or xenophobia, or leads you to withdraw from a group of people in either fear or disgust, I don’t care what the letter of the text you’re reading leads you to believe, you’re reading it wrong.

I say this with confidence, not only because of the clarity of our calling to look like Jesus, but because we’re also told, in numerous places in the Bible, that Christ is the full and final revelation of God’s character.  So instead of microscopically proof texting your way to arrogant, violent, fear based, or isolationist behavior, how about becoming obsessed with the character of Jesus instead?

You’ll likely find a gentler voice, throw a party for your neighbors, celebrate beauty more often, and choose peace, patience, and joy more consistently.  Yes, there’s a manual.  But more important, there’s a mission statement, a vision: making the real Christ visible on a day to day basis.  As we walk towards Good Friday and pondering the sacrifice of Christ, I’d suggest that is a mission worth pursuing.

O Lord Christ; 

You’ve shown us the way, but we confess that too often we’ve coopted your name and used it to create a thin religious veneer over hate, violence, greed, and fear – all the while quoting the Bible to justify it.  Have mercy on us Lord.  Grant that we might see your heart with greater clarity, and have the courage to to allow your life to find fuller expression in each of us during this Holy week, and beyond.  

Amen 

 

Forest Bathing as a Vision for the Church

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Aug 11, 2016

malala-lake-sabbath_28178040973_oThis week I’m living in the forest, in the San Bernadino mountains of California as I speak at a family conference.  As I write, the morning sun is bathing the deck and Sugar Pines, along with a form of Cedar, some oak, and Manzanita, live together as an ecosystem, offering life giving space to squirrels, woodpeckers, deer, bear, and countless other life forms.

Scientists are discovering that humans are also profound beneficiaries of the forest.  “Forsest Bathing”, which simply means to walk in a forest and pay attention to your surroundings while doing so, has been shown now, in numerous studies, to have profound health benefits.  Lower pulse, blood pressure, and respiration rates are just some of the proven benefits.  There are some who believe that prescriptions like this will be seen in the not too distant future.

Though the benefits have been easy to see, it’s been more difficult for scientists to understand and quantify the reason behind these benefits.  Is there something in the scent, the Eco-system, the earth itself?  Is it simply the contrast provided from the concrete jungle in which many of us find ourselves that makes the forest a healing place?  These questions remain, but what’s known in the moment is that a “walk in the woods” isn’t just good for the soul, it’s good for the body too.

Because of numerous experiences in my own life, I wonder if the power of the forest isn’t spiritual, and therefore unquantifiable with the measuring instruments of science.  I say this because my past is filled with countless “forest encounters” with God:

1960’s – As a child I would lie in the middle of a circle of redwoods on the California coast, outside grandma’s house, and look up.  The trees would all appear to be converging at a single point in the sky, and the punctuation of variegated greens set against a backdrop of sky blue did something to me.  This was peace.  Yes that’s it –  peace.

1976 – It’s winter.  I’m in the Sierra Nevada mountains.  Unbeknownst to be, the worst two years of my life are about to come to and end, as a new journey, new calling, and new priorities are born.  The death of my dad two years prior had sent me into a state of depression and isolation.  I was in the mountains for a winter ski retreat, and when the speaker said “knowing God should be the primary pursuit of every one of you in the room” I knew he was talking directly to me.  He’d been reading from Jeremiah 9 in the Bible and when his talk was finished I went out in the freezing air and prayed, in the midst of crunching snow under a million stars.  I told God that I didn’t know what it meant, but that I wanted to make knowing God the main goal of my life, just as the speaker had invited me to do.  This would lead to a change of major, a change of states, and an entirely different trajectory for my life.

1990 – My wife and young family move to a forested acre in the North Cascade mountains of Washington to begin a retreat center.  It is there that I begin identifying with the verses about Jesus going “into the mountains alone to pray”.  After a busy time of serving guests, I would depart for the high country, hiking up to some ridge, often alone, to pray, read, reflect, restore.  These mountains were made for restoration, or so it seemed to me.  Beauty seemed to pour through the atmosphere when I was in them.  Glaciers and rocks spoke of timelessness, and I’d be reminded that I’m just here visiting, for a short time, that God’s work has been here long before me and will be long after.  I’m reminded that God is the rock, a metaphor offering stability in a tenuous world.  The vast distances, from the stars of space, and the surrounding peaks, reminded me that I’m small and that, in the grandness of eternity, so our my problems.  The beauty of ever changing colors, the scent of the air, the form of trees, the reflections of mountain lakes… All of it together spoke “shalom”, a visible representation of peace for me.  I’d come down the mountain restored, having seen something, having prayed, and having received.

And so it’s gone, year after year, until now, when I have my coffee with God in the mornings, in the midst of forest, wether misty or dry, chilled or heated, breathing in not just the words of the text, as I seek to meet Christ, but the air of the forest, which speaks of eternity and passing moments; vast strength and human fragility; and the breath of peace, offered freely to all who will receive.  Things happen in the forest because of who the forest is.

The Church as a Forest 

The Church, at its best, functions the same way.  We pastors think that the our teaching and preaching is the most important thing in the world, but the reality is that people are often persuaded more by the collective presence of Christ and the atmosphere that creates.  Maybe at their best, preaching and environment work together, but at the very least, I’ve encountered many people over the decades whose front door to faith sounded similar to these words…

“No Richard, it wasn’t your teaching that convinced me.  It was the community.  I’ve never seen authentic relationships where people both accepted each other and pushed each other to grow and change.  I wanted to be part of that”  

“It was the beauty of the people Richard.  When I saw that woman in her 60’s caring for her mother and singing songs of worship with her, it stirred something in me.” 

“These people who make up the church – they’re building friendships with prisoners, making meals for the homeless, caring for vulnerable children.  They give me hope, and I want in…” 

On top of this, there’s often the beauty of gathered worship, the beauty of sacred space, the beauty of confession and vulnerability, and the beauty of restored lives.

So without answers, I simply ponder:  Is the church an ecosystem, like a forest, which is life giving when it’s properly fed, and rooted, and located in the appropriate place?  I’d like to think so.  

However, when the church is place of shelter for misogyny, domestic violence, sexual abuse, political fanaticism, arrogance, favoritism of the strong and wealthy, or any other number of ugly things, it’s no longer a healing forest.  It becomes a place of death, a prison of sorts.  Using the letters C-H-U-R-C-H and singing a bit of Hillsong doesn’t make a church the collective expression of Christ.  Only real discipleship does that, and the acid test of true discipleship is simple – am I on a path of embodying more of the humility, service, unconditional love, courageous care for the marginalized, and infinite forgiving grace of Christ?  Or am I just singing some songs in a building while still closing my hand to poor, calling people who disagree with me idiots, getting angry with every latest political shot fired, all while pursuing my own personal well being above all else?

Forest, prison, or place of death – how do people experience life in the church?

For the church to be a place filled with the kind of life that God has in mind, some things need to be true for us that are also true for the forest:

1. We need to be an ecosystem.  Christ’s vision for the church is that each person within it shares their unique contributions to for the well being of the community.  Paul the apostle unpacks this vision and explains that when it works properly, when people experience various aspects of Christ’s beauty and love through various encounters within the community, they will sense the reality of Christ’s presence.  This is paramount, because our desire is that people be given the freedom to choose or reject Christ himself, not the kind of caricatures of Christ that misrepresent him by portraying hate rather than love, law rather than grace, performance rather than receiving freely from a posture of brokenness.  So we seek, increasingly as a church, to represent the heart of Christ with greater clarity.

2. We need a vision for beauty.  My greatest moments of shalom (profound peace) have happened in either the beauty of the wilderness or the gathered community in worship.  In the latter cases, it has been the gathered body of Christ, the church, declaring something of God’s character, through worship (Yes…singing matters more than we realize), or acts of service, or prayers of praise or confession, or simply through the power of Christ’s presence so evident in the gathering.

3. We need to believe that, in spite of our imperfections, God will be revealed through our life together.  Let’s say that we, as a community, have a passion for mercy, Justice, and love (as I write about here in this book).  Let’s see we long for the fruit of the spirit to prevail, in our lives, and our life together.  To the extent that these things are true, we’re properly calibrated, heading in the right direction.  We can rest, knowing we’re becoming a life giving forest.  Of course, there’ll be the need for continual repentance and re-calibration along the way, because we’re not yet the healing, life giving force that we’re fully capable of becoming.  But we’re getting there, and that’s enough for us to confidently believe God will use us.  (“Abide in me, and you’ll bear much fruit”) is how Jesus said it.

All of this is looks very different than a community arguing about esoteric doctrines and implying that those who don’t believe exactly as our church does are lost and condemned.  There are different kinds of forests.  Catholics belong to forests.  So do Pentecostals, and Baptists, and Presbyterians.  No.  None of us will agree with everything in every forest.  But that’s no reason to start a forest fire.  As Paul said, “What then?  Only that in every way, whether in pretense or truth, Christ is proclaimed.  In this I will rejoice.”

When Both Books Speak: 

Just two nights ago, I was privileged to serve community to the gathered body of Christ at a family camp.  We met in a lovely forest, around a campfire, praying with various people and listening and folks shared what God had been saying to them through the week.  Then we finished our time together by singing “How Great Thou Art” an old hymn that includes a verse about walking through the forest and hearing the voice of God speak through the the beauty of creation.  We finished singing, as the forest’s movement from light to darkness came to completion, ending with infinite stars hanging in the sky, and silence, save the crickets carrying on.  Life.  Beauty.  Breath.  Healing.

YES.  Not only receiving all this, but being all this for one another and our world – this is our calling.

 

 

Steps to Peace – Jesus’ style (part 1)

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Apr 1, 2015

Spoiler alert.  If you don’t know what happens to Jesus after his crucifixion, I’m going to share the punchline in this blog. 

“Peace be to you” says Jesus, standing in the midst of the disciples, in a room with a locked door where he’s suddenly appeared without it opening!  Their stunned silence is understandable.  After all, Jesus, the one upon whom they’d pinned their hopes, the one for whom they’d left everything, the one who they’d betrayed and denied, the one from whom they’d just fled as he hung on a cross, was dead.  Not, “as good as dead”—actually dead, and with that death, so died their hopes and dreams.

All this makes Jesus’ next line even funnier to me, when he responds to their stunned silence with “why are you troubled?” as if they should have seen this whole narrative coming from day one, since he’d talked about his death and resurrection explicitly a few times and implicitly dozens of times.  Still, somehow they missed it, and so Jesus’ words are much needed in the moment there in that room where it was slowly dawning on them that the whole course of history, not to mention their own lives, was about to change.

“Peace” and “Don’t be troubled” are his words to these anxious, troubled people, and they are just as significantly, words for us too, here and now in our troubles and anxieties.

Iran?  Isis?  Nigeria?  Syria?  Yemen?  Black lives that matter?   Policemen that are dead?  Denominations that are in turmoil?

State rights?  Individual rights?  Health care?  Your rights?  Wall Street’s rights?  Workers rights?  Your relationships with children, parents, spouse?

“My God, what are we doing to each other?” is the only prayer some people know how to pray these days, and it’s really nothing more than a prayer for peace, because underneath it is the profound realization that things are broken and breaking, falling faster and harder than we’ve seen before.

Jesus, though, doesn’t bust out of tomb riding a white horse, raising hell, killing his enemies, and setting up shop as the newest savior, like Alexander the Great would, or V. Lenin, or Mao, or Pol Pot, or even George Washington, or some power hungry pope, or Luther or Calvin.  Instead he appears in a room with his closest friends, folk who’ve doubted, denied him, and functioned as largely clueless, fickle devotees, and offers his peace to them.

This revolution, unlike all others in history, unfolds from the inside out, beginning with the transformation of human hearts from anxious, fearful, and angry—to this state of peace.  Wow!  Are you interested in that offer?  Me too.

I’m not able to fix this broken world, but I can become a person of peace in the midst of it all, and that will make a difference, not only in me, but in those I touch.  Thankfully there are steps we can take to become people of peace, right here and now.  I share the first step here, and next steps this coming weekend:

Step One: Peace is, first of all, a person.  “He himself is our peace” is what Paul says, and he goes on to talk about how the reality of Christ in one’s life will lead to the breaking down of dividing walls, because by his very nature, Christ’s heart is for reconciliation and shalom (peace) among people.  If Christ lives in me, the tidal movement of my life will be toward unifying not dividing.

“Really?” says the thoughtful person who knows a bit of church history.  “What about Rwanda, or the Christian settler’s treatment of American Indians, or slavery, or culture wars that push people to the margins of society, or doctrinal wars that so fracture the church and fill it with hurtful words that people on the outside want nothing to do with her?  What about the 30 year war in Europe, or the Protestant’s treatment of the radical reformers, or… I could go on for a thousand words, but you get the point.

To say that God’s people are people of peace is absurd.

Ah, but Jesus knew that there was a profound difference between being religious and being people of peace.  The former draw lines and rely heavily on exclusionary and dualistic language: in/out, saved/lost, right/wrong, civilized/savage, black/white and the way this plays out often gets ugly and violent.  This was the way the disciples had been brought up.  It’s the usual way for most of us, religious or not.  That’s why Jesus’ disciples wanted to reign fire down on that village where people weren’t believing.  It’s why they were so excited on Palm Sunday, as they believed that finally Jesus was going to exercise his divine right to bear arms, destroy the Roman violence machine by violence, and finally win this simmering war.

It’s also why Jesus wept over Jerusalem, saying “if only you’d known the things that make for peace” —but they didn’t.  They knew dualistic thinking.  They knew how to win by making the other guy lose.  They knew about the peace of Rome, which was a peace rooted in fear and violence.  They wanted the peace of Rome to become the peace of Israel, still rooted in fear, but with the shoe on the other foot.

Jesus would have none of it.  He’s into breaking down dividing walls and bringing people together.  He’s into serving, even his enemies.  He’s into going the second mile, and truth telling, but truth telling  bathed in love and a commitment as far as possible, to redeeming the relationship.  He’s so into peace, that when his disciple Peter cut a soldier’s ear off, rather than teaching Peter better swordsmanship, he tells him to put the sword away, and heals the guy’s ear.  He even makes it clear that overcoming violence with violence is not a great idea. 

He wins the peace, breaks down the walls, defeats the forces of evil with the most revolutionary weapon known to humanity—infinite love.  “While we were still enemies… Christ died.” 

You want peace?  It starts by yoking yourself with the Prince of Peace.  But be careful,  You’ll find yourself going to parties with people you didn’t think you’d like, visiting seniors who are lonely, and sharing a drink with someone whose theology is, by your standards at least, “off”.  You’ll find yourself looking for ways to bless those around with little thought of whether they’re ‘worthy’, agree with you, or even like you.  Your fear will be melting away like a spring thaw.  Love will blossom.  And the tomb that held your bitterness, rancor, and pride, especially your religious pride—well you’ll wake up one Sunday spring morning and find it:  empty.

Peace.  Don’t let your hearts be troubled.

Happy Easter…

All I want for Christmas is: A Vision for Unity

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Dec 2, 2014

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?

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Nov 19, 2014

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

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Nov 5, 2014

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

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Nov 1, 2014

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…

 

 

“Boots on the Ground – Or Heads in the Clouds” – The biggest challenge Christ followers face

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Oct 11, 2014

In two weeks I’ll be home, preparing to meet people in the church I lead who I haven’t seen in nearly three months.  Their priceless gift of a sabbatical has blessed me with a rare opportunity for extended time away from church life, American culture, and the day-to-day responsibilities of my job.  As a result, I’ll return restored spiritually and emotionally, refreshed and stronger physically (up to around 500k in hiking, running mileage now), and challenged.

I’m challenged because these three months have been a concentrated time away from teaching, studying, and writing, three activities I enjoy and look forward to doing again when I return.  As much as I enjoy them though, I’ve come to see them as dangerous because America’s about education, and among American cities,  Seattle’s all the more about education, and among Seattle churches,  the church I lead, filled with university students and professors is even all the more about education.   We’re educated.  Highly.

All this education has upsides of course, but this trip has made me aware of the downside.  That’s because I’ve met lots people with  bikerlittle formal education who in spite of their “lack” have poured generosity, service, hospitality, and joy, from their cups to ours, over and over again.  Whether it’s been food, hospitality, the gift of sunglasses at a hut when mine had been stolen, directions offered when uncertain of the way to go, a much needed ride from strangers,  or bus drivers signalling ahead to another bus so that it wait would for us, so that we’d make our train connection, we’ve seen people with large hearts, who allowed themselves to be inconvenienced in order to care for us.

Remember that story in the Bible about the guy who gets robbed and beaten up?  Jesus uses it to draw a distinction between the educated religious leaders who,  in spite of their eloquent sermons and theological precision, frankly didn’t give a damn about the wounded victim, even though they knew Hebrew.  Then there was the Samaritan.  He’s the one who, for the purposes of this story, is, (are you ready for this?):  Blue Collar.  He never went to college, earns below the median wage, and is having a hard time affording the new mandated health care.  He doesn’t enjoy reading C.S. Lewis much and doesn’t even know who N.T. Wright is.  He can’t tell the difference between a Neo-Calvinist, and a Rob Bell devotee because frankly, he’s too tired at the end of the day to read all the blogs and add his own comments.  Besides, he doesn’t really care.

He works.  He comes home and cares for all the things that need to be cared for in lifeshopping, cooking, maintenance, friendships.  You’re not even sure where he stands on most issues because in small group he doesn’t say much.  He prays.  He’s not perfect, God knows.  He’s got issues, but he’s working on them.  In the meantime though, until he’s perfect, his greatest joy isn’t found in talking about faith.  It’s found in living it“boots on the ground” as the saying goes.

When there’s a need in the shelter though, he volunteers.

When there’s a homeless person outside TJ’s he often makes the time to engage in conversation.

When there’s a neighbor in the hosptial, he’s there with meals, and laughter, and maybe even an awkward prayer.

He’s as generous with his limited money as he is with his time.  He doesn’t know where he stands on the issues of homosexuality and gun control, but he’s had dinner with the newly married gay couple on his block, and the NRA guy whose Jeep has a bumper sticker with something about his “cold dead hand.”

Who is this guy? Never went to seminary.  Falls asleep in most Bible studies.  Wakes up immediately when someone needs a helping hand.

The point Jesus is making in Luke 10:36 is that this (along with loving God) is the point of the Christian life.   And in that story, the protagonist is a Samaritan for God’s sake; a compromising half-breed who “anyone with a Bible degree would know is an outsider because his belief system takes him to the wrong mountain, and my pastor, who has a PHD (or is “super funny and edgy”) says that such people are…”    blah blah blah.

Talk on if you must, o educated one.  I’m tired.

Tired of doctrine being more important than living.

Tired of words being more important than actions.

Tired of writing about life as a substitute for living it.

Tired of Sunday being viewed as the peak experience of faith rather than Monday, or especially, Tuesdays.

Tired of hype and zeal on the surface, and pride and greed at the core.

Tired of ministry professionals like me thinking they have all the answers for “the little people.”

I don’t know all the ways that I’ve changed as a result of being on sabbatical.  But I know this much: in the days to come, my criteria for personal health and spiritual maturity will have more to do with how I know and treat my neighbors, friends, co-workers, and those in need around me, than the size of my church, the “impact” of my sermons, or the hits on my website.

I know this because I’ve been pierced by the degree to which I’ve often lived alone, inside my head these past years, as slowly, I confused right thinking, and speaking/writing about right thinking, with spiritual maturity.

I suspect I’m not alone, because look at what Phil Yancey has to say in his upcoming book:

yanceyquoteWe’re good, it seems, at talking about Jesuswho he was, what he taught and stood for, how he died, how he rose, why it matters, and what people should do about it.  I’m just suspicious (and so are lots of other people apparently) that I, maybe even we, have elevated our words as the real proving ground of maturity.  When we do that, huge blind spots will remain and we’ll think we’re fine, when we’re really far from the life Jesus has for us.

It’s a dilemma for me.  This is because words still matter.  We grow in response to revelation and my calling and gifts have to do with teaching God’s revelation so others can respond.  So we all need words in our lives, and I need to study words, teach words, write words.

And yet, I need and want to make room in my life for actually putting those words into practice with real neighbors, and co-workers, and friends, and family.   How does it all fit together?

That’s the question I bring home with me, but this much I knowif something’s gotta give, it won’t be the living of it any morethat’s become a higher priority.  Pray that I’ll live it.  New adventures await, as I learn to be a Samaritan… who’s in?

 

“Five Values for Sustainable Leadership”, vital for churches, families, calling (part 1)

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Sep 21, 2014
Will you still be using your gifts at 83 like Fred Beckey is here?  I hope so.

Will you still be using your gifts at 83 like Fred Beckey is here? I hope so.

My predecessor at the church I lead in Seattle served that community for 38 years.  The farmers in these high Alps have held the same land, stewarding the soil and shepherding the flocks entrusted to them, for generations.   Fred Beckey is still climbing in his 90’s, in the mountains he’s been exploring since 1936.  And yes, there are healthy marriages where spouses are still in love, having been faithful to each other in every way for over half a century.

In a world where leaders often burn out, melt down, get bored, or create some sort of credibility gap that forfeits them from leadership, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes to be the kind of person whose life is characterized by longevity and sustainability rather than crisis and frequent change.

As I return to Seattle, soon to begin my 19th year in ministry at the same church, and begin my 25th year of teaching with Torchbearers this week, it’s become clear to me that there are some (at least five) non-negotiable values anyone interested in “being in it for the long haul” should assess, develop, and fan into flame.  I don’t offer these from some high point of arrival, but I do offer them as priorities that I’m trying to continually build into my life so that I’ll be able to use the gifts God’s given me for many more years.   The values?

1. Teachability/Humility –  This is the most important thing of all, because pride seems to be, as C.S. Lewis says, “the greatest sin” due to the reality that it shuts us off from receiving much needed truth so that we might continue to grow.  When we refuse to let other people speak hard truth into our lives, we’ve essentially sealed ourselves off from the food we need to keep our spirits alive.  After all, revelation doesn’t come from merely locking ourselves in a room and praying.  It comes from other people, whom God uses to challenge us, encourage us, and expose us so that we can grow.

If my spouse says I have an anger problem, the next ten seconds are the clearest revelation of my truest character.  If my friends or co-workers try and show me an issue and I refuse to see it; if my boss confronts me repeatedly on a performance issue and I become repeatedly defensive, then my days are numbered, no matter how many other well developed skills I have in my tool kit.  Teachability is the one ingredient I, you, everyone, must have, if we’ll keep growing our whole lives.

David was undone by the prophet’s exposure of the lust, deception, and abuse of power he thought he’d hidden so well.  There was no self-justification, no mitigating circumstances, nothing but pure confession as you can read in Psalm 51.  Saul on the other hand self-justifies, denies, blames others and circumstances for his issues.

All of us are either becoming more like Saul or more like David every single day, and we’d be wise to ask ourselves which way we’re moving because history is littered with highly gifted people whose gifts ended up on the sidelines precisely because they built walls around themselves and became “untouchable,” “unconfrontable,” “unteachable”.  Great gifts without humility and teachability can create a dangerous cocktail.

2. Rhythm of Work and Rest – I hope to write more about this soon, but for now I’ll note that we’d arrive “bone weary” at the various huts during our days of trekking.  Just this past Friday, I felt spent after our 3000′ ascent to the hut.  My legs ached, and the muscles around my shoulders were nearly yelling at me for carrying a heavy load on my back yet again, as I’d been doing so often the previous 40 days.  I took my pack off even before arriving, leaving it on a bench outside the hut.  I couldn’t imagine hiking another step.

Some soup.  A nap.  We wake, and I can’t even believe I’m saying, “let’s go for a hike before dinner” to my wife, who’s as ready to go as I am.  We ascend a summit, and enjoy some holy moments on our last night in the high Alps.  Without the rest, we’d not have made it, or enjoyed it.  With it, the miracle of restoration happened, physically and emotionally.

Are you finding a rhythm to your day that provides enough sleep and food and fresh air and exercise?  If not, don’t speak of “burn out” until you address the imbalance because you might just need a nap and a cup of soup.

How about your week?  Is there a day with less adrenaline, or are your weekends as packed as your week?  You can live that way for a while; just know it’s not sustainable.  You’re wired for rest.

Sabbatical years, and years of Jubilee were intended by God because the entire universe runs on principles that God will bring restoration when space is provided for rest; when people rest, when the land rests, good things happen.

Sure, there are seasons of intensity and periods on our trek when  we did a few consecutive long days.  But it’s unsustainable.  If we’re going to to go the distance, we’ll need to take sleep, Sabbath and extended periods of real rest seriously.

There are three more principles, equally important, and I’ll share them later this week:

3. Rooted and Grounded:  A Firm Identity

4. Patience, but Relentless Pursuit

5. Adaptation

so….

History’s filled with gifted people who refused to deal with the glaring dysfunction because they thought their giftedness would see them through.  It won’t.  Others neglected vital rest, thinking  their devotion to the work required the sacrifice of their emotional, physical, spiritual health.  It doesn’t.

Marriages, churches, athletes, students, leaders, farmers, all need more than mere gifts, exciting plans, and adrenaline induced zeal.  They need values that will lead to sustained fruitfulness.  Here’s hoping each of us take these values seriously.

I welcome your thoughts.

Exercises in missing the point: What I learned visiting chapels and cathedrals

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Aug 21, 2014

imageWe’ll leave tomorrow for the high country again, but we’ve spent a bit of time in Alpine valleys recently, and of course, this means visiting churches and cathedrals, each one filled with history.

The architecture of churches, in Tirol and Bavaria at least, testify to the union of state and church.  There are statues and frescoes celebrating violent triumph over one’s enemies, with soldiers standing on the neck of the conquered, raising a lifted sword in victory.  Then, right next to that statue, there’s one of Christ, the suffering servant laying down his life.  For that matter, the entire region has been dotted with countless crucifixes; stone or wood carved images of Christ dying on the cross.  They’re in the forest, hanging over the doors of farmer’s remote cabins at 4000′, and in high cathedrals.

The juxtaposition celebrating power while worshipping the one who embodies the utter relinquishment of power seems strange.  The thirty years war, which decimated Europe, had its roots in power struggles between Protestants and Catholics.   Warring armies throughout Europe have been appealing to the power of the sword to rule, conquer, subdue “in Jesus name”.  One wonders how this is possible, but answers come quickly, and are summarized in the simple reality that anyone… ANY. ONE. can claim Jesus and raise a flag in his name.

The self-absorbed King Ludwig, who built the famous Neuschwanstein castle as a playground for his fantasies, was utterly self-absorbed, profoundly materialistic, utterly out of touch with reality, and, get ready:  a man characterized by “deep faith.”

Kings and Reich Chancellors, Presidents and Senators, NRA lobbyists and Green Peace activists,  Yankee and Confederate soldiers, Protestant and Catholic warriors, have all invoked violence in Jesus name.

There are lessons to learn here, important ones, if the church is to be a place offering any hope or meaning at all in the midst of the insanity of racism, violence, materialism, nationalism, consumerism, individualism, and all the other “isms” that, as the idols of our time, are cursing, enslaving, and destroying us.

1.  The goal must be purity.  Paul speaks of this in II Corinthians 10 when he expresses a fear that our hearts might be easily seduced away from the “simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ.”  For the rest of my days, I’ll never forget the image of two statues side by side in a church I saw last week: a triumphant soldier standing on the neck of his enemy with sword raised was placed next to Jesus as a shepherd, a sheep on one arm while the other was still seeking, still looking.  “My God” I pray, “forgive us for losing the simplicity of devotion to you, for in that simplicity, we become servants rather than power loving leaders, humble rather than proud.  We become people for whom ‘you’ are enough, rather than you plus wealth, or you plus the assurance that we can kill anyone who trespasses our space, or your plus creature comforts.”  I pray that, on my return to ministry leadership, I’ll pursue simplicity and purity with a passion and zeal, for therein lies the reality of Christ.

image2.  When Jesus is the reference point, insanity doesn’t happen as quickly.  Really now, can you see Jesus advocating the use of an assault rifle to keep his home safe?  Can you see Jesus firing anyone who doesn’t agree with him?  Can you see Jesus living in the lap of luxury and amassing more and more while others he knows are living in abject poverty, oppressed and enslaved?

If Jesus is just a poster child for our cause, we can cherry pick some verses and justify Jesus as the slave owner, or Jesus as the gun rights advocate (“look we have two swords”, said a disciple), or Jesus as the source of our upward mobility.

Jesus, though, is no more the source of our upward mobility than he was the source of colonial expansion.  He was co-opted for both causes, but read the book.  Jesus wasn’t into either of those things.  If we knew Jesus better, we’d have fewer statues celebrating wars that expanded our borders,  but as it stands, these statues stand right beside the Prince of Peace, and I’m not sure anyone sees the tragic joke.

3.  The problem is as old as people.  The pharisees were the religious experts of Jesus’ day and they thought they had it right when they’d raise their stones to throw at the woman caught in adultery.  But Jesus turned the tables on them to reveal that she, more than they, was closer to the kingdom of God, because she knew her own brokenness.  Forever we’ve all been claiming the moral high ground, claiming God is “on our side”but of course, the joke’s on us.  God has no sides but God’s, and you’re only on God’s side when you look like Jesus.

Churches.  They’re everywhere over here and every time I go inside one I come out praying that the community I lead would look more and more like Jesus in the coming months and years, and less like the striving, proud, divisive, complacent crowd that we’ve so often been as God’s people down through the centuries.

Do you think we can learn from history?