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…

 

 

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

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?

 

The War of Fog – 3 truths for Living with Clarity in Zero Visibility

We’re waiting for the cable car that will haul us up to the Douglass Hut, the base from which we’ll be hiking over a couple of passes to another hut.  We’re waiting at the base of the lift, gazing skyward.  All we can see are two cables disappearing into the clouds.  Eventually one of them begins dancing, then the other, and finally, 150′ above us, we see something mysteriously appearing out of the grey, taking form as the cable car.  A horn sounds, and soon the car is “parked” and we step in for a ride upward.  Everything quickly disappears as we ascend, and then, moments later, we look down, seeing snow on the brush that rushes by 100 plus feet below us.  The snow gets thicker as we go higher until, finally, we’re there:  The Lunarsee and Douglass Hut, our home for the night.

IMG_5962We exit the car for one of our shorter hikes, going maybe 100 feet to the adjacent entryway of the Douglass Hut, in howling wind, wet snow, and the capacity to see nothing other than what’s exactly in front of us, moment by moment.  This is called “white out” and if you’ve been in the mountains during white out, you know it’s never, ever pleasant.  You look at the map, and know that there’s a large lake and mountains somewhere near here, but you don’t really know it in the fullest sense yet, because you only know it from the map.  We duck inside out of the cold, check in to our rooms, and are quickly in our room in this “summer only” hut, which means that the dorm’s unheated, which means that on this snowy, windy day, every blanket is cherished while we rest, along with our snow hats.

Later in the afternoon we’ll rise and go spend some time in the dining area, enjoying some good food, hot tea, wine, and reading time.  The hours pass quickly actually.  In spite of the cabin feverish feel of the place, it’s far from empty.  There are guests sitting around IMG_5968talking, drawing, reading, playing games.  None of them speak English though, so the two of us are a bit in our own world when, as afternoon turns to evening, I hear a stirring and look up.

The fog lifted!  Not a lot, but enough to give reality to the lake we’ve seen on the map and at least the bottoms of the surrounding mountains.  People are rushing for their boots so that can get outside with their cameras because God only knows how long the fog will keep her skirt lifted for us like this.   All attention has turned outside of ourselves the beauty show offered us.

“So it’s true” I say to myself, as reality comes into view.  There’s a sense of delight and relief to the whole situation, and above all else a sense of “We’re glad we came… in spite of the fog!”  By the day after IMG_6093tomorrow, we’ll return here to largely blue skies, and celebrate the full beauty of that which was drawn on a map and described, but unknown to us even as we were in it, because our sight was clouded by fog.  “This” I say to myself, “is an important moment.”

IMG_4897 It’s important because large swaths of our lives, especially our lives of faith, are lived in the midst of a thick fog of suffering, doubt, failure, war, abuse, hunger, loneliness, cancer, addiction.  It’s all swirling around, in our own souls or the experiences of those we love, and we can’t see a blessed thing, because only the cursed things are apparent in the moment.  “Where’s God?” we ask ourselves, or we ask where hope is, or joy, or meaning.  They’re fair questions in the fog because we were promised a lake and we’re really looking hard, but all we can see is  fog.

Yes.  This is why they call it faith.  We have a map that paints glowing descriptions of both the present (in the midst of challenges and trials) and the future (when all tears are gone), and we’re invited to live, not “as if” it’s all true, but to live fully “because” it’s true, and to live into the true-ness of it in spite of the fog.   What does this mean?

1.  It’s means I’m deeply loved and fully forgiven, in spite of the fog of failure.

2. It means that I’m complete in Christ and filled with His strength, in spite of the fog of  brokenness and weakness

3. It means that all enemies have been reconciled, in spite of the fact that we also see the horrors of war and terror, custom delivered to our inboxes every day

4. It means that a day is coming when weapons will be melted down and used as farm tools, and cancer, loneliness, fear, human trafficking, abuse, and oppression will all be done away with forever.  It’s down the road a bit, but it’s coming.

Here’s the mystery of the map and fog in a nutshell: (Hebrews 2:8,9)

“God has put all things in subjection under his feet.”  For in subjecting all things to him, He left nothing that is not subject to him.  But now we do not yet see all things subjected to him.  But we see him….!!

I need to believe the map, and live according to the reality of the map while I wait for the fog to clear.  This means living in a posture of thanksgiving for what is true, even when the fog is swirling so thickly that I can neither see or feel it.   The result of this posture of heart has led people to joy and peace, even in the midst of the storm.

Two quotes speak to this powerfully: 

IMG_4927“Don’t struggle and strive so, my child.
There is no race to complete, no point to prove, no obstacle to conquer for you to win my love.
I have already given it to you.
I loved you before creation drew its first breath.
I dreamed you as I molded Adam from the mud.
I saw you wet from the womb.
And I loved you then.” Desmond Tutu

All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.  Julian of Norwich

Now it’s our turn… to walk into the fog as people of hope because of what we know is true.

 

Coming off the mountain: Ebola, Suicide, and Terror

imageWe’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 assualt, 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 candlelit 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 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” as 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 to 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 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

 

 

 

In praise of healthy lament

“They have healed the brokenness of My people superficially, Saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ But there is no peace” -Jeremiah 6:14

Dissociative disorder is defined as a “disruption or breakdown of memory, awareness, identity or perception.”  It’s a common occurrence among war veterans, physical and sexual abuse victims, those growing up in family systems broken by deep addictions, and among victims of religious/spiritual abuse.  The pain and trauma of the past or even the present is simply too much, so the person dissociates, meaning he or she moves into a different space, a safer space, by denying the painful realities of the present moment.  By denying reality, pretending there is no pain, and getting lost in some form of alternate reality, we find a fantasy land which is in the short run less painful.  But when the Disneyland we’ve created closes, we’re forced to face our pain again.  Eventually, if we hope to live the sort of full life Jesus promised, we’ll need to face to truth of our pain, both personal and collective.  Whether we do that, and how we do that, are perhaps two of the most important issues many of us will every face in our lives.

All of this, though, sounds very personal, a sort of clarion call to get therapy.  Maybe, but recently I’m struck by the reality that there’s a broader collective application of this dissociative tendency and our collective need to face reality.  Yvon Chouinard, founder of the Patagonia company (standard issue clothing at the church I lead) recently wrote, “I’m not optimistic at all. I’m a total pessimist. I’ve been around long enough, traveled around enough, and been around a lot of smart people to know that we’re losing. In every single category, we’re losing.” 

Wow Yvon.  Way to ruin my day.  I want to get up in the morning, hop in my car and drive my 1.2 miles to work, put in my time contributing to the industrial machine that’s drawing down the earth’s resources, drive home, eat my food that was raised in the industrial agriculture machinery that’s stripping the precious topsoil from land and laced with growth hormones and pesticides.  I’ll watch a little something on TV, endure a few ads reminding me either of my inadequacy if I’m prone to insecurity, or that the reality of my economic well being is predicated on other people buying crap they don’t need.  Then I’ll fall asleep and wake up the next morning with an injection of caffeine and do it all again.  I don’t want to be reminded of species extinction, or the fact that human trafficking and the oppression of women are at an all time high in the history of the world, or of the harsh realities in South Sudan and Syria, Ukraine and the oceans of pain on the streets less than two miles from my house – so I focus on my upcoming world cup brackets and Stanley Cup if I swing towards sport, or a new band if I don’t.  After all, I’m not part of the problem.  I pay my taxes.  Vote.  Stay sober.  Read my Bible and go to church.  Eventually the world will see the wisdom of the free market (or the socialist “single payer” solution if I think that way) and things will turn around.  They always do.

I can live that way, but this is dissociative; a massive form of self-denial.  With respect to things always turning around, the reality is that they “always don’t”, at least of the history of empires is any indication.  Jeremiah’s mourning in the 6th century BC was not only over society’s condition; it was over the massive, intentional, and collective denial of society’s condition.  If we take our cue from Alcoholics Annonymous we’ll recall the first condition of transformation is the admission that things aren’t just bad – they’re beyond fixing in the resources of our own strength.  If it’s Bible you want (and I hope you do) the same thing is declared all over the place.  The starting point of healing and transformation is staring the harshness of naked reality in the face.

At some point, it happens; it hits us hard.  We can see that though the system might be working for us, it isn’t working.  It isn’t sustainable.  It’s isn’t life giving.  It isn’t whole.  We see it, it hits us, and we’re filled with both grief and a longing for things to be other than they are for our world.  When we really see with clarity, and are willing to sit in the reality of what we see, we mourn.  When we mourn and lament, we open the door to even clearer ways of seeing and then, of living.  We re prioritize.  We confess.  We take a step towards wholeness; and then another; and then the steps become a journey; and the journey has a real joy in it, because it’s rooted in the truth and the truth, as painful and dark as it might be, will set you free.

There’s more.  Those who are willing, like the prophets of old, to look beyond the superficial categories of personal well being and forgo the temporary anesthetics of culture long enough to feel the pain will become part of God’s grand and joy filled solution, and this will happen for three reasons:

I.  Because we’ll think collectively

Our hyper individualized society makes it easy to dissociate ourselves from the sins of our parents, but we do this to our shame.  When Israel returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the walls of the city, the dedication included a lengthy confession of the sins of the parents. This isn’t a blame game.  It’s an acknowledgement that we’re shaped by our culture, by our family, or nation, or geography, and that there are scars because of it.  Our insistence that all’s well, that Adam Smith is wiser than Chief Seattle, that our internment camps were necessary, and that racism is behind us are all just a massive forms of denial.

We’re terrified of becoming negative, depressing people, but the reality is that my willingness to own every piece of the story that has shaped me lays a foundation for redemption and my own transformation that would be impossible as long as I cling to denial.

II.  Because we’ll make wiser choices

Seeing, owning, and naming the disastrous consequences of consumerism, nuclear proliferation, industrial agriculture, unrestricted free markets, commitment free sex, unrestricted access to abortion, will, if we allow ourselves to really see, change the way we live.  It’s in the wake of this kind of mourning that take bold steps towards simplification, or hospitality, or eating less fast food, or maybe even making a bold vocational change.  I’ve no illusions that these simple choices will change the overwhelming systemic problems.   But I do believe that creatively imagining a better world, as we’re wired to do, and equipped to do by the teachings of Jesus, Paul, and the prophets (see Micah 6:8 here) will move us into a more joy filled, life giving, and peaceful existence, making us part of God’s solution.

III.  Because we’ll say Maranatha and mean it.

We who follow Christ have a grand hope and that has to do with the promise of his coming reign.  Just as the prophets are saturated with the bad news in an attempt to shake us awake, they’re equally overflowing with hope, as they envision all tools of war melted down, and an end to suffering, injustice, environmental degradation, and disease.  This kind of cosmic transformation won’t happen because I bring my own shopping bag to Trader Joe’s, even if I go there on my bike.  Still, every chance I might have to live as a sign that there’s a different kingdom than the prevailing kingdom of consumerism and trivialities will testify to the hope I carry in Christ.

All of it begins, though, with an acknowledgement that all’s not right.  So maybe join me in praying this Anishinabe prayer:

Grandfather; look at our brokenness.  We know that in all creation only the human family has strayed from the Sacred Way.  We know that we are the one who are divided and we are the ones who must come together to walk in the Sacred Way.  Grandfather, Sacred One, teach us love, compassion, and honor, that we may heal the earth, and heal each other.  Amen

to which I’d only add:  Marantha!  Come quickly Jesus!

When “Here” is better than “There”

I wake up this morning in Colorado and, as is typical, make my coffee and then go to my ipad where I catch up on the news before reading my Bible.  It’s just getting light as I scan the news, the craziness that is Ukraine.  Last night on the newshour, a professor of Russian studies said, “even if you’re not religious, you should be praying, because if this becomes war, all bets are off.”  Toss in some stuff about Syrian refugees, and I’m mindful that our world is filled with suffering, and though the cup seems overflowing already, still there’s more pouring in, moment by moment, as lives are plunged into war, hunger, poverty, trafficking, disease. 

I read my scriptures for the day, something about nations and kingdoms fighting against each other, and food shortages, and epidemics.  It’s a reality, of course, as the news a few seconds earlier corresponds with Jesus’ timely words. 

Then I turn around, and there’s a sunrise happening that can’t be described, because it’s not just the colors: it’s the cold, it’s the clarity of the air, it’s the silence, it’s the raw beauty, and significantly, it’s the fact that I am here – in this place, and not there, and any of those places I’ve read about this morning.  I’m awestruck, but conflicted at the same time.  photo copy 2

“Why am I here” is the question that haunts me, and at many levels there’s no answer.  There are responses though, and some of them aren’t helpful.

Guilt isn’t helpful.  We’re here, in wealth and, relative to most of the world, peace and safety. There are hard working, honest people throughout the world who are victims of oppression and injustice, so the causal sense that we’re here instead of there because we’re better must be evicted from our thoughts.  Equally wrong, though, is a sense of paralyzing guilt, a sense that we, for some reason ought to be there and not here.

Fear isn’t helpful.  Our collective narcissism is evident when the questions and comments of journalists extend no further than how the events over there affect our “self interest here”  It can be strangely dis empowering to watch various parts of the world collapse around us, filling us with anxiety about whether we’ll be next, and how we should arm ourselves for protection.  But no, over and over again, Jesus tells us that he’s warned us about these things precisely so that we ‘will not fear’, which is the message that heralded Christ’s birth, and rings throughout his ministry for our benefit and well being.  We need to give fear a swift quick.

Isolation isn’t helpful.  “Not my problem” we see, as we change the channel to some rerun, or go out for a run, or pour another glass of Merlot.  It’s far too easy to believe that the stuff that over there is outside the sphere of our influence and should therefore be outside the sphere of our concern.  This, as we’ll see, misses that mark.  I’m surprised at how many people no longer digest the news because it’s simply “too depressing”.

To the extent that we allow these mindsets to carry the day, our worlds will shrink down into petty preoccupations with our own personal survival, or crippling depression and anxiety.  One need only read the Bonhoeffer story or this favorite diary read from WWII to realize how tempting these options are.  Gratefully, there’s a better way:

Instead of guilt, gratitude.  Every sip of cold water, every good night kiss, every moment of this very precious life.  It’s vital to recognize that our culture is well beyond the boundaries of comfort, having become guilty of lavish excess, and surely guilty of increasing injustice too.  Gratitude though, is for the fact that there no bombs on the roadside, that people gather in public places to express their views, mostly without fear of reprisal, that there’s food on the table and the possibility of friendship, love, education.  It’s far from perfect, but there’s much for which we can be grateful.  This is a starting point to living here well.

Instead of fear, hope.  It might sound shallow and cheap to offer hope from the scriptures for those living and dying in the midst of suffering, but what other hope is there?  Nations will rise and fall.  Justice will ebb and flow.  People will die in the crossfire, and the friendly fire, and the forest fire.  And those of us who escape these ravages?  We’ll die too, and it will always be inconvenient, and seem wrong.

This tired script, though, is coming to and end.  History is headed towards a new script, where every molecule is shot through with the glory of King Jesus.  You know, the one who loved lepers, and women of the night, who told stories that hinted his kingdom would be utterly other – a place where the lame, blind, oppressed, broken, would not only find healing, but a place at the table with the king – a place where all war, and cancer, and rape, and genocide, and AIDS, and tribal divisions will vanish in the flames of a just judgement, leaving nothing but healing and joy in its wake.  MARANATHA… it can’t come soon enough.

But until it does, it’s our calling to live as people of hope.  If the sun’s not yet fully up, we are, nonetheless, called to be the Colors of Hope – the sunrise foretelling a better world.  This isn’t about a short term mission trip; this is about a total overhaul of our values so that our daily lives embody, in increasing measure, the very hope of which Jesus spoke.  That way, Jesus is no longer a theory – he’s a living king, and our lives reflect his reign.  That’s the best response I can think of to the nightly news.

Instead of Isolation, Prayer.  We feel helpless, watching the news like that. We’re not.  We can pray, believing that God intervenes in history in response to the prayers of God’s people.  Years ago, a dear friend whose husband was a British Major in WWII showed me the program from a prayer service held in London after the war.  In it, there were quotes from Churchill, Roosevelt, and other spiritual and national leaders, calling the nations to prayer.  There were even specific prayers offered, having to do with weather.  History tells us (I believe) that God intervened.  Prayer matters.

Of course we’re not necessarily called to spend all of every day in prayer, interceding for each nation and activity.  That would take us out of the game. Instead, we’re invited to live lives that are permeable enough to let God in, to let God break out heart over some specific thing, whether its Sudan, Congo, Crimea/Ukraine, Syria, Egypt, homelessness, sexual slavery, or something else in the seemingly endless list of brokenness.  Maybe all you can do is pray over the thing that breaks your heart.  But prayer’s a big deal, or so we say we believe.  And of course, we could all pray this a little bit more, since Jesus taught us to do so:

May your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Amen?  Amen!

I welcome your thoughts.

“For All People…” Why the Radical Inclusiveness of Christmas matters.

When the angel announced good news of great joy for all people, the angel opened the door for a feisty conversation about who’s in and who’s out of God’s family.  That conversation has been fueled by arrogance and fear, and given birth to violence and hatred, as religious wars and posturing in things likes Crusades, colonialism, and genocide, have all been carried out by people with great big Bibles.

So let’s take a moment and consider what, perhaps the angel meant by the phrase “for all people”, based on what the Bible says.

Here’s the thing:

  1. Jesus is the only door.  – That’s what Jesus himself says here, and so this is a repudiation of any sort of bland universalism which dismisses the central role of Christ in the restorative narrative of history.
  2. God has applied the work of Christ to those who don’t know Christ’s name but have faith in what God has revealed.  – We learn this from the entire Old Testament narrative, believing of course, that Abraham is in God’s family, and Moses, and the children of Israel who put the blood of animals on their doors and, we read, were drinking from Christ without knowing his name!
  3. God’s historically been more generous regarding salvation than God’s people have been.  This was part of what made Jesus’ message so scandalous.  His first evangelists were chosen from the lowest social class.  The 2nd evangelist was, from the perspective of insider religionists, a hated Samaritan, living with a man after five failed marriages.  Jesus speaks of outsiders dining at the kingdom table with insiders being cast out.  Jesus first speech spoke of the inclusiveness of his kingdom plans and nearly got him killed.  If God’s been more generous than religious experts, and I’m a religious expert, at the very least I need the humility to acknowledge that maybe I too am at risk of being pre-emptively judgmental, and asking God to spare me from that ugly sin.
  4. Since I know Christ and love Christ, I’ll preach Christ and invite people to Christ – I think Jesus is fantastic.  His ethics are stunningly beautiful, resonating with the deepest longings of the human heart, even though there are big and small parts of us that recoil at them too, or try to explain them away.  His companionship is more intimate than the most intimate lover, in that he lives within all who’ll let him. This has provided me with a source of joy, strength, hope, wisdom, that is wholly from him.  To the extent that I’ve drawn on that companionship and those resources, I’ve never regretted it.  And finally, the kingdom he’s creating is where I’m pinning all my hopes for the future.  With every report from Syria, every school shooting, every report of human trafficking or oppression, remind me that the only hope is this new king and his marvelous power to bring life where there’s only death.  This is glorious, and why I do what I do.
  5. There’ll be surprises.  I’m convinced that every person’s formula of “what’s required” for salvation will be wrong.  There’ll be people, we know from this passage, who did great stuff, but didn’t pursue intimacy with Christ.  There’ll be others who are invited in precisely because they did good stuff and in so doing blessed and served Jesus, as we learn here.  Some will never have heard the name Jesus and be at the table.  Others will have preached the Bible their whole lives, perhaps, and miss it.  There are markers, and a clear invitation for all of us to know Christ, be reconciled to God, and follow Jesus daily.  But if you try to figure it out with total precision who’s in and out, you’re on a fools errand, and you’ll be wrong, whatever your conclusion.  So relax.
  6. I won’t try to save anyone.  I’ll simply point people to Christ as the greatest hope for this tired and broken world, and invite people into God’s story, starting today, right where they’re at.  Hopefully, along the way, I’ll look and behave a little bit like the Jesus who lives in me, so that some generosity, hope, mercy, truth telling, joy, healing, come about.  That will be good.

For all people… wow!    Merry Christmas.

If soil could talk… life lessons from the history of a lake

I glance at my watch.  15:50.  I shut my computer, toss on some shoes and a jacket, and am out the door because so far, all week, I’ve missed the sunsets over the lake.  It’s about a half mile down to the park on the waterfront and when I arrive, the suns maybe 15 minutes from dipping below the Alps as it moves west, just now greetings my friends in Seattle as first light of a new day.

IMG_2779 IMG_2774 IMG_2777The views are stunning.  Swans, ducks, geese, and a sky painted gloriously by the interplay of ever changing light and clouds make for spectacular, memorable artistry.  But I’m equally intrigued by the people all around me.  Over there a German couple holding hands, whose grandparents would have war stories to tell.  There’s a man walking, slowly, who looks to be over 70.  He would have been a child when this beautiful city was so heavily bombed in WWII.  Today, this little plot of soil is a place of peace and beauty, a photo op for sunsets and, on a clear day, a stunning view of the Alps.  A place for wind surfing.

But of course it wasn’t always so.  I wonder what thoughts must have unfolded in the minds of people on this beach 70 years ago as they looked across the water to the mountains of Switzerland?  Those dark days in Germany’s history were preceded by other dark days in the 1920’s and 30’s, days of want and deprivation.  It was into that vortex of economic crisis that a leader rose up promising brighter days, a leader whose power and darkness would enshroud all of Europe in a dark cloud for a season.

During the those days, I wonder how many stood here and looked across the Alps, longing to be free from the scourge of war, and loss, and genocide?  Getting there wasn’t possible, even though it was visible, just over there, just beyond reach.  The darkness of war, the scourge and brutality of evil rulers – all of it was on full display then.  But now there’s peace, and beauty, and couples holding hands.

What I find remarkable are the ways in which Germany has flowered these past 70 years after her defeat.  The first Chancellor of Germany after the war put structures in place to assure less blind nationalism, less violence, and significantly, more economic equity.  The “social market economy” was born at this time, and this article explains that it… “led to the eventual development of the Social Market Economy as a viable socio-political and economic alternative between the extremes of laissez-faire capitalism and the collectivist planned economy not as a compromise, but as a combination of seemingly conflicting objectives namely greater state provision for social security and the preservation of individual freedom”  The country is by no means perfect, but make no mistake – this nation that was so humbled throughout the first half of the last century learned from their mistakes and, to this day, display a marvelous blend of discipline and charity that comes about through hard work, thrift, and a collective commitment to the well being of everyone, evidenced in social services and taxation that would rile the sensibilities of the American political right.  Even now, they, the most successful economy in all of Europe, continue to call their overspending European counterparts to both raise taxes and cut spending – a strategy that, while perfectly reasonable, offends both the American left and right.

I think about the transformation of Rwanda that’s occurred in the wake of the genocide.  The transformation of Iceland in the wake of their own economic meltdown.  The changed lives of friends who’ve been stricken with cancer and recovered with an entirely different set of priorities, or of those who finally stood up and said, “I’m an alcoholic” who  have been to depths and back, raised up to a fuller life than ever before.

As I look around this peaceful setting, I realize that the glory of the gospel, and the glory of God’s goodness in the world is that beauty can come right out the ash heap of our own arrogance and failure; that if we’re willing to learn from them, the mistakes of our past can make us wiser, more beautiful, more generous, and more fruitful than ever we’d have been had we remained prim, and proper – looking good outwardly, but in reality filled with our own foolish presumptions and self-aggrandized priorities.  This, of course, requires humility, and therein lies the problem.

To fix social or personal ailments always demands beginning with the notion that we are, at the least, part of the problem.  Our choices, our history, our values – something’s broken.  When was the last time you heard the Tea Party admit that they’re part of the problem, or BP, or Monsanto, or the Democrats.  All I hear is blame, and the notion that the problem is wholly over there in “those greedy idiots” is, itself, the biggest problem of all.  We can all see the flaws in the other’s ideas and policies with 2020 clarity.  It’s the log in our own eye, we can’t seem to handle.  And logs in eyes aren’t very good things to have when you’re in the drivers seat.  That’s why I’m praying for humility… at any price… for me, and all the rest of us too in the developed world.

The Most Important Thing You can do for your Transformation

I’m planning on coming back to the previous post about “the end of sex as we know it” because it addresses an important trend in our culture.  But a convergence of conversations and activities have conspired to point today’s post in an entirely different direction: If there were one single habit you could develop in your life that would become so foundational that it would provide catalyst for transformation in every other area, would you be interested?  If so, read on.

I thought the notion of coffee with God was unique to me, but this little devotional (it’s nine minutes that might just change your life utterly) reminds me that an older, wiser pastor also uses the term.  The pastor shares the story of a man whose life was completely transformed as the result of developing the habit of meeting with Jesus every day.  If need help making this commitment and getting started, consider this:

Failure to enjoy coffee with God is almost never a shortage of time – it’s a matter of priorities.  Of course it might be fair to say that I don’t make the time because the time’s never been meaningful, but don’t say you don’t have time.  Do you have time to brush your teeth?  Work out?  Eat? Sleep?  We make time for stuff that matters – so maybe the question should be, “How can I make this time matter more?” 

Create a consistent space and time.  It’s helpful to view your time meeting with God as a genuine encounter with a living being.  Setting a space for it to happen helps.  The video referenced earlier is about a man who began meeting God daily in a rocking chair.  The story will, perhaps, motivate you to name some space and begin meeting God there because you’ll hear the man’s story from the prime of his career until the end of his days.  Think what might happen to you if you develop habits of intimacy with Jesus for the next 40 years!

Read the Bible.  If it helps to have someone help you with the meaning, consider this book.  If you want some directed prayer as well, consider this book.  There are dozens of reading programs on your computer that will send you some portions of the Bible every day.  It’s like getting an e-mail from God!  You can’t meet with God unless you’re willing to read your Bible, which is revelation vital for our transformation.  Here we are, all of us striving for better relationships, better careers, to overcome bad habits, and more – and all the while, the council of God awaits.   We’d be wise to start the habit of listening.

Don’t get frustrated by setbacks.  So you’re reading and it gets boring; or you sleep in; or your habit slips a bit.  Don’t worry about it. It’s a relationship and any relationship hits dry spots and rough patches.  We need to just hit reset, and get back in our chair.

Keep a journal.  This might be optional, but I like it because this is where I write prayers, concerns, thoughts.  It’s where I wrestle with what God is revealing and ask God questions.  It’s priceless from my perspective, because it’s my response, and my response is what makes it a real relationship.

The video (did I suggest you watch it?) tells the story what happens to someone when they develop this habit.

Here we are, talking about national debt, spying, schisms in the faith, self-improvement programs, body image issues, sexism, racism, money, power.  We’re worried, scattered, often afraid, often driven – wondering what’s around the corner, what’s next.  I know, from first hand experience, that the scattering of concerns, the anxiety, and the striving that so often marks our lives, fall away like leaves on October, when we develop this habit.

I’m praying as I publish this – that people will do more than read.  I’m praying new habits of intimacy with Jesus will form because it’s this, in the end, that is all we need.