Contrast

I’ve been thinking for a while now about contrasts: the way things that appear similar but are strikingly different and do very different things. That may be a strange thing to be thinking about, but I have my reasons. For one thing, I roast coffee. The art and science of roasting coffee fascinate me because there is such contrast between coffee beans. While coffeecoffee beans appear similar they roast differently. While a bean from Bali does amazing things at 400 degrees, other beans will burn at 400. Another contrast that has been on my mind is rooted in my experience as a pastor. This contrast involves the way we imagine church.

I have been in ministry since 1992, which is not a long time but long enough. However, I have always struggled with the balance between “disturbing the comfortable and then comforting the disturbed,” as John Stott wrote. Frankly, it seems like all the comforting that pastoral work requires has left very little time for leading the discomforted out of their comfort zones and into the mission of the kingdom. In other words, I’ve spent way more time in committee meetings focused on the business of the church than on the mission of the kingdom (inside rather than outside). I was in one of those internal meetings a few years ago when I realized how lop-sided that is and the utter necessity there is to change it.

A young woman in our church met with me to talk about her concerns regarding her neighbors. They were refugees who had been settled in a few different houses within our community, and specifically her neighborhood. As she got to know them she realized that despite our government’s best efforts there were a lot of things that her neighbors did not know how to navigate very well. For instance, most of them had very little understanding of banking and currency. Because of the variety and abundance of food, many of them were overwhelmed when they went to the grocery store. One woman had no idea how to use a washing machine; she continued to wash clothes by hand in the bathtub. So, this young woman had come to see me to ask what her church could do.

I felt like it was a great opportunity to share the love of Christ and to live out the love of neighbor. I set up a meeting with the person who coordinated our women’s ministry and asked her what we ought to do. The coordinator had a heart for the Gospel and for the needs of women. However, she surprised me with her response. She said that the mission of the church is to worship and teach, “then you let people just go and do.” I remember saying, “that can’t be right.” But, when I met with a few elders from our church I quickly realized that was exactly how they thought of things. A pastor’s job goes hand in glove with the role of the church. We are hired to lead in worship and to teach. That’s what we do every week. When I started thinking about it, I realized how true it is for a lot of churches. Very often a church’s identity is rooted in worship and teaching (discipleship programs).

It is hard to deny the place that worship and teaching have played in regards to significance and identity in church history. After all, worship and teaching are key to the Christian community. What I am suggesting, however, is that worship and teaching are the primary identifying aspect of most churches, at least in the US. That may not be so good and in fact, it may be part of the problem. What happens on Sunday morning and perhaps Wednesday evening drives the church engine, so to speak. Worship and teaching are the mission. Getting people engaged in the life of the church means getting them into worship or a small group. But that endeavor has little to no impact beyond the church.

Churches that focus largely on worship and teaching are what I call worship communities. Of course, that is not to say that worship communities only care about worship but they often restrict the definition of worship to what happens on Sunday morning (per se). A simple list of programs offered by worshipping communities provides ample evidence that churches care about things beyond their doors: mission budgets (conferences, trips), schools, VBS, Celebrate Recovery, Divorce Care, Meals on Wheels, food pantries, tutoring, ESL, etc. Nevertheless, it is difficult to suggest that those programs are the primary focus of any church. In fact, a lot of those programs are done with the hope that it will somehow lead to more people coming to worship or being part of a small group where they will encounter Christ. Thus, the community is usually built around worship and teaching.

Most, if not all, of the churches that I’ve been associated with were worship communities. A real giveaway to that was the way assets were used. The amount of time, money, staff, and effort spent on being outward facing paled in comparison to what was spent on worship and teaching. In one church that projected their worship service on the wall, they spent more on printing the order of worship than on youth ministry. When that fact was brought to the leadership’s attention it was quickly tabled for a future discussion, which to my knowledge has never taken place. Beyond that, worshipping communities can lose their focus and become insular.

It generally happens when a church allows worship and teaching to take center stage of everything they are doing – sometimes at the expense of the very neighborhood where they are located. For instance, a large church in a mid-western city had a parking issue. Parking in a city is always at a premium. Congregants often parked in front of the houses in the neighborhood behind the church, which frustrated the church’s neighbors. Their complaint was well grounded; congregants sometimes blocked a driveway or worse took parking place in front of houses on Sunday and Wednesday (weddings and funerals, too). The church tried to work things out by raking leaves and baking cookies; they tried to have conversations with their neighbors. What they didn’t do was no longer park in the neighborhood. Some within the congregation felt that they had a right to park there since it was a city street and they were there for to go to worship.

To help settle things, the city offered a parking lot down the street from the church, but the congregants felt the half block was too far to walk. The neighborhood went the legal route. The church responded by secretly buying up houses in the neighborhood through a dummy corporation set up by a few of the elders; they planned to tear down the houses and build a parking deck on the edge of the neighborhood – despite the protests of the neighborhood. Eventually, the neighborhood appealed to the city council. The city council sided, rightly, with the neighborhood. The Sunday following the decision the senior pastor comforted the congregation, “While the city council has impacted our parking they will not impact our freedom to worship.” He was right, of course. However, while the church had preserved their worship community they had done so at the cost of a relationship with nearly everyone who lived in the neighborhood and with a lot of people in the city. Not that it mattered, most of the people in the neighborhood didn’t attend the church.

While some churches can afford to burn relational bridges, most churches cannot. And yet, a lot of churches are just as insular in their own way; they work hard to maintain the integrity of their worship community because that is what has been communicated. An all too familiar story involves churches in demographically changing neighborhoods. The church, however, eager to maintain its worship community does not change. It isn’t out of stubbornness. Often attempts are made to engage with the neighborhood. However, those attempts are often done with an invitation to be part of what the church is already doing. In other words, the church wants people in the neighborhood to join their thing. While the church may be warm and welcoming they often don’t make an effort to accommodate the cultural differences. Inadvertently the church sends a clear message and simply wants people to step into what is already happening. To borrow slightly from C.S. Lewis’s Last Battle, the church is for the church.

Too often in those cases, the church comes to a place where they must close its doors. Through death and attrition, they simply do not have the people to maintain their worship community any longer. The real tragedy may not be that the church closed but rather that no one noticed. What a terrible epitaph. A church closes and no one notices. It was so focused on being a worship community that no one in the neighborhood is even aware that it no longer exists.

For a lot of churches, the idea of being in community with one another is so important that it overlooks the way it interacts with even its closest neighbors. Community, however, is Biblical but maybe it ought to focus on something beyond itself to be healthy. Hebrews 10:24 tells us that we are not to forsake gathering together. The assumption that is often made from that text, however, is that it means gathering together with worship and teaching as the focus. I’m not sure why worshipping communities expect more people to be involved in mission when the clear (if not subliminal) message is that the church focuses on “worship and teaching.” When 20% of the folks do 80% of the church’s work and that 80% is focused on maintaining the community for the sake of the church, well, it might be more of a worshipping community than what I call a mission community.

For the most part, there isn’t anything wrong with being a worship community. However, some people in worshipping communities feel like they need to apologize for not being more engaged in mission. They see a need in the community and they want their church to step in and do something; sometimes that happens. Generally, however, when something happens it is either for the short-term (think responding to natural disasters) or it takes a dozen or so committee meetings before anything is ever done. Worship communities can be frustrating for people who want to see the church on mission. What they are asking is that the church become a mission community.

Mission communities are generally more focused and driven by the needs of the community around them as opposed to international mission work (of course they care about that but they are hyper-focused on their community). While a mission community resembles a worship community in the sense that they worship together and are concerned about discipleship, the major contrast is what drives the congregation. For instance, a mission community takes Jeremiah 29:7 as its core identity and works for the welfare (shalom) of their community. Of course, the greatest need that people have is a relationship with Christ. A mission community goes about the work of sharing the gospel by working for the good of its neighbors out of the love of Christ. Sharing the gospel is by proclamation as well as by acts of service.

A mission community is on the lookout for the broken places within its community and takes it as their responsibility to bring the hope of the gospel to bear. It works for the restoration and renewal of its community. Rather than being insular, a mission community is constantly orientating itself toward the welfare, the shalom, of its neighbors.
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Worship communities could say the same, except for the fact that a mission community doesn’t try to start its own thing. For instance, a lot of churches will start their own food pantry rather than work with one that exists in other churches or one that the city has put together. Sectarianism does a great deal of harm to the mission of the kingdom and shows a real lack of spiritual imagination. A mission community, however, often looks for ways they can engage in what is already happening in the community and figures out ways to get involved with the work that is already being done. That allows those who are engaged in the mission community to build relationships and work for good. Mission communities start their own work when there is a gap that needs to be filled.

In one community, the school system has been working diligently to increase literacy among its elementary students. One mission community approached the school system with an offer to provide volunteers needed to launch the program. In the process, they began asking others, outside of the mission community (and not involved in worship communities), to participate in helping kids. In other words, they invited people to participate in the mission. They didn’t expect those folks to participate in worship and discipleship before they could work for the good of their community. The hope was that they would be able to build relationships with people beyond their church walls. A mission community invites people to see the gospel at work in the lives of its people and on display in the community.

There are not many churches that are mission communities. The reason for this is quite simple. It is tough to change the DNA of an established worshipping community. It requires change and most churches, like people, would rather face “ruin than change” (WH Auden). Not only that, but change often leads to conflict and most pastors and church people are conflict avoidant. Additionally, pastors may not have the leadership skill needed to navigate change or conflict. Nevertheless, it is my belief that if worship communities do not start becoming mission communities they will become obsolete and insignificant in their communities. There may be more churches closing soon if they do not move toward the needs of their communities.

That goes for church plants as well. Very often church plants start off with the idea of being missional, focused on the welfare of their community. Over time, however, they begin to take on the shape of a worshipping community – complete with all the specialized ministries that go with the territory. Every so slowly, their focus shifts from being outward facing to being attentive to “comforting the disturbed” to the point they have little time to shepherd folks to think of others as more important than themselves. Eventually, the pastor finds himself enmeshed within inner-church issues, and the budget reflects they have settled neatly into the rhythms of a worshipping community where 20% do 80% of the work. Ten years into a church plant and many of them are no different than any other worshipping community.

It is difficult to maintain a mission community because it is so different, but it is exactly what the church needs and exactly what communities need. Though they may look the same, though they may both be called a church, there is a striking contrast between a worshipping community and a mission community. The former can easily become insular and concerned with its own interests. The later, while not perfect, as least has the needs of the others as its highest end, which after all is closely connected to the way Jesus fleshed things out.

The essay was first published by Tactical Faith where I serve as a Pastoral Fellow (https://www.tacticalfaith.com/pastor-fellows-2/).

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Falling From Grace

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I sat across from Jacob[1] as he stared into his coffee. We spoke a few days earlier on the phone and arranged to meet. He shared little with me on the phone except that Trish, his wife, had urged him to call. Trish is the friend of a friend who thought Jacob and I should talk. Though we were strangers we had attended the same seminary a few years apart and we were both pastors. Perhaps I would understand. We sat in a coffee shop in St. Louis Jacob trying to frame his thoughts and me wondering how on earth I could be any use to him.

“A few days ago,” he started, “I gave serious thought to ending my life. Schindler’s List and a picture of my family stopped me.” The clatter of the coffee shop with its ironic, retro-music was a strange but oddly comforting backdrop. “I can’t believe I am in this situation – can’t believe it. The church thing sucks but to make it worse…it turns out that Jesus hasn’t shown up like I thought he would.”

He took a sip and hid half his face behind the cup. “I knew being a pastor would be tough – I’m not naïve. But I didn’t expect to be picked apart by a church that I had given so much of my life to. The worst part is that I felt my faith slip away – in the church and in Jesus. Through no fault of my own I’ve fallen from grace.”

I knew he needed someone who understood, but I wasn’t sure how I could really help him. The story he told was too familiar. He longed for Jesus to show up in a real way, to comfort and assure him in the midst of a dark time, his wounds were deep and perpetrated by the bride of Christ. As painful as it was to be wounded by those he had shepherded for years it was far more severe to feel abandoned by God. “For decades,” he said, “I’ve been telling people Jesus always shows up, brings comfort, healing and hope. But I’ve got to tell you I’m not sure any longer and that terrifies me.”

Sometimes – but not always – the church while preaching grace, mercy, love, and gospel actually embodies judgment and exclusion[2]; it is painful to experience that, especially as a pastor. Jacob dipped a cookie in his cup and bits of it loosened from the whole and floated around the surface. I said little, letting Jacob talk. As he looked up from his polluted cup I hoped he would find the look of a friend who understood.

“It’s hard not to dwell on the past when the future is uncertain – in every way. I mentally replay every conversation, every event to see what went wrong. I confess every sin I can think of. Still there is no relief. I sat in my living room praying, crying out to God. I was wrestling with what it would be like to give up on faith, on the church – on Jesus. I was staring at this picture of my family and I at the beach. We are all laughing. I remember when we took that picture. Then I thought of the scene in Schindler’s List where a woman stops someone from ending her life by saying something like, ‘this is not how your story ends.’ Was God in that for me? Was he in that moment saving me? Or was that just me trying to make God fit into something?”

Jacob’s voice trailed off as he looked out the window of the nearly empty shop. He gathered himself and carefully laid out all that had happened to him. I listened to him for the next several hours. I wondered how to help Jacob – wondered if I could do more than suggest counseling and quietly praying for Jesus to show up.

I have been where Jacob is – felt as if God disappeared – felt the ground give way beneath my feet and all that I thought I knew to be true vanish. Imagine that happening; imagine something that was seemingly solid giving way – only to return stronger than before.

Jacob’s gaze returned from the street. He asked, “What now?” The heart and soul of this pastor had been laid bare; nothing trite was going to bring him peace; no promise to pray for him was going to bring healing. Telling him my story wouldn’t help either. God was going to have to show up or not (though I believe he would). I encouraged him to do as a friend of mine had encouraged me. I said, “Let everything else fall away that can fall away and speak the same words to God that Jesus spoke when he felt God turn away: “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani…My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34 ESV).

 

[1] This is a work of fiction…

[2] Allan Gurganus – http://williamgiraldi.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/gurganus.2.pdf

Reflections on a Woman

 

dirty sky-city-street-berlin-rain-dirtyI was thinking about that woman again this morning. I’ve thought about her a lot, actually. I am drawn to her. I can’t help myself. There is something so attractive it is difficult for me not to dwell on her.

When she entered the room everyone noticed. When she stooped down and began washing Jesus’ feet with her tears their tongues began to wag. They knew her – some perhaps better than others. Certainly Jesus knew her. He knew all about her.

She was broken, a woman of the city. They called her a sinner. “How could he let a sinner touch him,” they said. Which is funny – nothing but sinners had ever touched him. After all – even some guy in the Psalms could ask, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? (Psalm 130:3, ESV).”

People still struggle with this woman because what she did seems to happen more than once. They act surprised. How can this happen more than one time? There are some scholars who get wrapped around the axle – trying to figure out which story is the real story – as if the writers got the details wrong or some such thing.

Actually I’m surprised this sort of thing didn’t happen to Jesus all the time. I’m surprised more men and women didn’t bust open their most prized possessions and pour them out at Jesus’ feet (this woman did and folks did in Acts 2:42-47 as well). I’m more surprised by how seldom people said “thank you Lord!” and how seldom people begged to be with him after he healed, forgave, redeemed them.

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But I’m not surprised by the way the “self-righteous” responded to the broken – the sinner. I turn her story over and over in my mind, trying to glean every detail. She walked into the room, a place she was not invited and did not belong. She saw his feet. Perhaps it was that they were dirty. The dirt from the road was no doubt clinging to him. Despite custom and ordinary hospitality, no one had offered water or oil for his feet.

She did. She offered her tears, her hair, and the contents of a precious alabaster jar. Most likely it was all she had to give and she poured herself and her gifts out to him. Those watching were horrified but Jesus was honored. They knew what sort of woman she was. So did Jesus. They called her a sinner. He called her redeemed. She was forgiven much; she was given what they all needed – peace with God, peace within her heart and soul.

In the Bible (and even now) people who are forgiven much and realize it are weird – especially in their devotion to Jesus. They tend to be a bit over the top in their passion for the Lord – in their desire to make his goodness known. They tend to make people who don’t think they need forgiveness – folks who believe they have been “good” enough- uncomfortable.

But then – how should a person act when they have been forgiven much? Much like the woman who couldn’t care less what the “self-righteous” think.

 Luke 7:36-50

One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”

41 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

We Can Do Better…

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Sherry and I have a friend and, as it turns out, the church she attends is looking for a pastor. They were talking some time ago and our friend said to Sherry, “I just hope we get a pastor who believes in a big Jesus. I believe in a big Jesus and people need that. I’m tired of people making Jesus small.”

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As you can tell, her remark has stayed with me. For one thing it has made me think through the ways in which people attempt to make Jesus small, and ways I have done that as well.

Of course, there are those outside of the church – outside of the Christian community who exert great effort in an attempt to make God and Jesus small. But the trouble for me is when it happens with those who, like me, profess to believe in Jesus.

Christian Smith, professor of sociology at Notre Dame, in recent years has done significant research focused on religion within teenage and young adults in the United States. While his research looked at religion from a broad perspective he and his colleagues provided insight on the American Church. He has discovered that something he calls Moralistic, Therapeutic, Deism –is actually “supplanting Christianity as the dominant religion in American churches.” The research, while focused on teenagers and young adults, points out that these teenagers and young adults were influenced by the faith practices of their parents and their churches.

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Soul SearchingMoralistic, Therapeutic Deism, according to Smith, suggests the Christian life is “focused on living a good and happy life…being a good, moral person…being nice, kind, pleasant, respectful, and responsible; working on self-improvement; taking care of one’s health; and doing one’s best to be successful.” That is in contrast to what to it being “a life of repentance, built upon prayer, worship, seeking the Lord’s will,” and being more concerned with God’s interests in the world than our own.” In essence being a Christian has come to mean “feeling good, happy, secure, at peace…about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people.”

In fact, Smith’s research suggest that within American churches teenagers and young adults (20’s and 30’s) suggest a believe “that God created the world…” but do not think or live as if He is “particularly personally involved in our affairs—especially affairs in which we would prefer not to have God involved. Most of the time, the God of this faith keeps a safe distance.”

If Smith is correct, and I am inclined to agree with him based on my experience, then it is little wonder that people outside of the church see little reason to believe that Jesus is little more than a guru. The trouble is what is being passed off as Christianity isn’t Christian – because it doesn’t have the greatness of Jesus at its core – if it did then it would impact more than just the individual but their families, work-places, communities, relationships, well – everything.

A fundamental claim of the Bible – a foundational aspect of the Gospel – is the Greatness of Jesus. One such place that makes that clear is a book in the New Testament, The Gospel of John. This text makes a striking claim: Jesus is God.

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It says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” Later on in that same chapter, John 1:14 & 17 it becomes clear that John is writing about Jesus. He writes, “And the Word became flesh (physically, literally) and dwelt among us… For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

In a few simple, somewhat poetic lines in John 1 we are confronted with a claim to greatness that it is difficult for us to wrap our heads around. John is stating boldly that Jesus is God and that Jesus was not only eternal, but present at creation, and not only that, but also all things were made through him.

Paul's Journey MapIn another part of the Bible, a letter written by a man named Paul to his friends in Colossae, we read that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together (Colossians 1:15-17).

Leon Morris, a theologian, said, “We often behave as though we can do as we like with God (with Jesus)…We say wonderful things about him. We say that he is great and wonderful and mighty. But then we act as though he were subject to our control. We even determine how he is to be approached and, of course, arrange things so that he is not going to be hard to get along with.”

And yet – that is exactly what a lot of church folk do – including me. I’d wager that a lot of Christian folks live as if Jesus is quite small. After all, if I can control and manage God how great could he actually be, surely not great enough to really have any impact on my life or neighborhood. I think some professing Christians – church folk – attempt to make Jesus small when we:

  • get sucked into Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism. That’s not the Christian life because it has nothing to do with the Biblical Jesus.
  • try to keep Jesus as a small part of our lives. If we profess that we believe in Jesus – that He is indeed God – then it would stand to reason that what He has said about the way we are to live should consume us.
  • fear the darkness. When we cower from broken places and broken people – or when we believe that our besetting sins can’t be overcome. John tells us that Jesus  – the Light of Christ – still SHINES – and the darkness can’t overcome (John 1:5).

The truth is, Jesus is great and awesome. He is intended to consume the life of the Christian. In fact, it is his love (for us, for humanity, for God, for God’s interests) that is to compel (2 Corinthians 5:14) every facet of the Christian life. No we can’t live this out perfectly – but that is part of Jesus’ greatness as well. He is able to work through broken busted people – like me – to bring about good in the world.

There are some folks who really get this (and I wish I did a little bit more). For one thing history is filled with the people who have been impacted by the greatness of Jesus and the compulsion to live and love as He commands. More than just churches have been constructed by those men and women. Hospitals, orphanages, clinics, schools / universities, shelters, have been constructed and ran because men and women have been consumed by the greatness of Christ. Marriages and families have been restored. The hungry have been feed, the homeless sheltered and clothed  – and not just for the tax break.

I think of women like Mother Teresa and her work among the poor and dying. I think of things like the International Justice Mission and their work to help free those who have been oppressed. In fact their website puts things into perspective. It says:

IJM-Logo-Black-Background-350x350“In the tradition of heroic Christian leaders like abolitionist William Wilberforce and transformational leaders like Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, Jr., IJM’s staff stand against violent oppression in response to the Bible’s call to justice (Isaiah 1:17): Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

IJM seeks to restore to victims of oppression the things that God intends for them: their lives, their liberty, their dignity, the fruits of their labor. By defending and protecting individual human rights, IJM seeks to engender hope and transformation for those it serves and restore a witness of courage in places of oppressive violence. IJM helps victims of oppression regardless of their religion, ethnicity, or gender.”

There are more examples. There are Christians living in every community who recognize the greatness of Jesus. Usually they live it out in small ways, as best they can. But, like my friend said, there are a lot of people who profess faith in Jesus who attempt to make him small. But the Bible claims clearly – and firmly that Jesus is Great. What a difference it would make if more of His people lived in light of that reality.
Resources:
There really are folks who understand that Jesus is great – and as a result they are doing great work. We can do better – there needs to be more and more of this – but here are a few:
Check out my friends blog – http://praytoendtrafficking.wordpress.com/

Modesty In An Overly Sexed Culture

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Sherry and I have three sons. We, like most parents, love our children – deeply. As a rule, love means we long for, pray for, work for, hope for – do all we can for – their good. It also means we are on the defense, working, as much as possible, to prepare them more than protect them from things that can bring them (and others) harm. That is no easy task, as most parents know. 

One area that poses a threat is the area modesty and our overly sexed culture. Yesterday I watched an interview (on ABC/news) with a woman who is trying to “help.” According to the report 90% of kids (some as young as 8) have been exposed to hardcore pornography. That is troubling on a number of levels, but the woman being interviewed was concerned because of the impact hard-core porn can have on a persons expectations and understanding of intimacy.

Her way of “combatting” the damaging effects is to promote the idea to “make love not porn.” At first I thought she was an anti-porn crusader. But her idea, that is being heralded as a great response to counter the impact of hardcore porn is, well, to create a soft core porn site where ordinary people can post videos of their lovemaking. The emphasis is to showcase real lovemaking / real intimacy between partners as opposed to what hardcore sites offer. She theorizes, since we can’t possibly protect kids from porn then there should be a site that focuses on showing the beauty of lovemaking.

The problem with this idea is that it is still pornography – even if it is soft-core. While she is trying to show the beauty, she is just providing one more site in a world awash with images that have an impact on the ways in which men and women interact with one another. I could make a list of the faulty thinking in this plan, but I will not. However, it is one more challenge to the soul and one more challenge for parents who are striving to raise men and women, not children.

Back-to-schoolOur three young men started back to school this week. It is a reminder that they are getting one step, one year, one grade closer to being on their own. Sherry and I want to prepare them for what that will mean. We can’t protect them, fully, but we can prepare them.

The world is full of foolish things, like attempts to curb the impact of porn by creating another porn site. Our greatest assurance for parents who want to raise men (and women) is that we can help them to see the difference between things that bring wholeness and those things which bring harm – and we can encourage them and help them to work for good. If we are to live out of the law of love (which Jesus commands: love God, love neighbor, love each other) it will mean helping our children to think through what it means to long for, pray for, work for, do all they can for the good of others. Porn, on any level is demeaning to women and men because it reduces human beings to being mere sexual beings, and nothing more. It does not bring about the good of another – it is not love but a false sense of it.

Raising Christian men and women is the task of every Christian parent – within that is the call to live out of Jesus’ law of love. Parents today have challenges in front of them that are different from earlier generations in some respects. Those challenges, however, can be overcome – but not in our strength or wisdom or power or techniques – but in God’s. Raising godly men and women means pointing them toward the God who saves, helps, restores, and is at work in the world. Our children need to see that their parents depend on God as He really is – able and greater than anything else.

In the New Testament book of John (1:5) we read that the “light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” In other words, God is very much on the move and at work in the world. We have no reason to be afraid of anything. Neither do our children. They need to be ready to live in a world that is broken and yet loved by God. There is darkness in the world but there is also a much more powerful Light – and that Light is the person and work of Jesus – the Self-Expression of God’s great love.

One great way that the Light is at work in the world is through different people who are trying to live out of the law of love. I recently came across a great lecture given by Jessica Ray on Q: Ideas for the Common Good. I’d recommend families watching it with their teenage kids and Jessica Ray at Qtalking about it. Jessica talks about the evolution of the swimsuit and modesty; she does a great job. This actually is a great way to counteract the impact of an overly sex consumed society and culture.

 

 

 

Wrestling God

wrestling medal

I have liked wrestling for some time. No. I don’t mean WWE (although I enjoyed watching a Texas Cage Match with Chief Wahoo McDaniel and Rowdy Rodney Piper once). I mean scholastic, collegiate, Greco-Roman wrestling.http://www.clubs.psu.edu/up/wrestling/documents.htm

I wrestled in high school – gave it a go in college (that did not go well)- and helped out with a few high school teams while working for Young Life and in student ministry. Wrestling is a great sport and I appreciate what it taught me. However, all my experience on the mat did not prepare me for what I experienced when my son took to the mat this past year.

Turns out that he has more natural ability than I ever had. Each week he wrestled in a tournament and I would stand as close to the mat as I could. I stayed quiet, not wanting to shout over his coach, and settled calling out moves into my hand cupped over my mouth. I felt myself  twisting and turning, wrestling an invisible opponents as if simply by body language I could convey a message to him. In some ways I felt as I was on the mat with him and by match end, I was exhausted.

He did very well but he did not win every match. At the end of those matches I wanted to be there for him all the more – but in the right way. I wanted him to move forward. I did not want him to stay stuck in a moment he could not fix. I wanted him to reflect on what had happened, see it for what it was and use it to get better and ready for the next match. His feelings of shame and failure had to move out and be replaced by hope and confidence. I wanted him to know that he was deeply loved – win or lose.

I’ve come to understand that I am not the first dad to stand on the edge of the mat and participate move for move. While it may be difficult to understand or believe, the Old Testament book of Psalms says that God is “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1, ESV).” This Psalm reminds me that life requires a good bit of wrestling on all our parts – but especially those who have professed faith in Jesus. It also lets me know that God is very present. 

To be present means more than to sit idly by. Some folks have an image of God, if they believe in one, sitting outside of things and not involved. The Bible, however, gives other images of God – including one where God is present in the middle of wrestling matches (collegiate or otherwise), an image of God as Father with feelings and longings for his children.

To be present also means that God is “well proven” in times of trouble. He is not one that is way off but present – there in the moment. That is a great comfort in the middle of tough moments, when I’m feeling overwhelmed by the troubles I’ve created or ones someone else has caused. It is good to know that God is wrestling with me and very often for me.

In fact, the New Testament book of Hebrews echoes that idea about Jesus. It points out that Jesus is not something or someone who can’t identify with us. Instead, Jesus gets what it means to be human. We don’t have someone “who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16, ESV).” In other words, God does not stand way off but is very present in our lives, move for move.

If this brings up questions – just let me know. I’d love to talk about it.

Fear and Awe | Story Matters

Fear and Awe | Story Matters.

I am a huge Johnny Cash fan. One of the first artists my kids could recognize was Cash. Our dog is named Cash. So when I heard that my friend Greg Breeding was going to make the Johnny Cash stamp – well – I was thrilled for him. So I thought I’d place this out here – to somehow join in honoring Cash and my friend.

 

Completed

 

DMin in Writing!

This whole blog thing started a few years back as part of my doctoral studies at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. Although I have always loved writing (as a way of maintaining sanity) I hadn’t thought much about blogging. Over the years though I’ve grown to really enjoy it. It is risky – but fun – to put what you think out into the ether.

What is strange is that I began to feel like I should be writing more often after I started the blog. I felt a sense of obligation, responsibility to produce words on a screen. Unfortunately those words needed to be focused less on random musings and more directly related to pastoral leadership, aka my dissertation. While I wanted to be writing more on fatherhood, matters of faith, growing food and cooking it, and other stuff that comes to me, I had to produce page after page for the program.

The good news is that the dissertation is not only complete but it defended, printed, and I graduated last weekend. That’s a pretty cool feeling, I’ve got to say. I am glad that I did the work and finished. However, I want to shout from the rooftops my thanks (to Sherry chiefly but our sons and our friends too) because I could not have finished without encouragement – and I needed it a lot along the way.

I learned as much about the power of encouragement as I did about leading change through the dissertation process. Believe it or not writing isn’t easy (at least not for me).writing-is-hard  Through the process there were moments of doubt – moments when I thought about walking away from it for good reasons (we moved, needed to spend more time with my family, had to write sermons and classes, wanted to go fishing and plant a garden). That’s when the power of encouragement came to bear.

A well-timed “hang in there” or “don’t be stupid you can’t quit now” were helpful beyond words. It occurs to me how important it is that we work to encourage others. It gets us out of ourselves, helps us to think of others (of course we have to listen first). And we can’t really encourage people with rote platitudes but with honesty, with compassion, with empathy and a desire to see them flourish and or make it through whatever they are going through (even if it is the self-imposed madness of a dissertation).

In any case – it feels good to be done and good to be able to thank a lot of folks who encouraged me. And now good to write about other things.

Oh and if you need a cure for insomnia you can read my dissertation just click > (Orchestrating Change.)

Being and Calling

comedian-on-stage

This week all three of my sons, separate from one another, have told me what they want to do with their lives. Our oldest announced that he’d like to be a director – and make great movies. Our twelve-year-old said he wants to be a doctor – a surgeon perhaps. Our youngest said, “Would you let me be one of those guys who stands on a stage and tells jokes. I think I’d like to do that.”

What’s amazing to me about these conversations is how clearly I could see each one of my sons doing those jobs. Those callings fit them. In a way it is who they are. Yes, I know, I’ve heard it too, “we are not defined by what we do – we are more than our vocations.” I’m not so sure about that. I’m not so sure that there isn’t a very close connection to being and calling. I could be wrong but…

Knowing my sons the way I do, I believe there are vocations they are better suited for than others. I also believe that not helping them to understand who they are, how they are hard-wired, and telling them they can do anything is not all that helpful to them in the long run.

In fact, the Psalmist wrote, “Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! (Psalm 127:4-5 ESV).” Imagine this warrior, he knows his arrows well. He knows the warp and woof of each one. He knows how the arrow will be impacted by wind and perhaps rain. He knows the arrows well enough to know how to help it hit the target. Oh, and the target is defined.

234722-13-flying-arrow

In other words, know your child. Study them. Understand how God made them and help them to see how God made them. Give them a vision for the target that God has laid out for them and help them to move toward it.  Telling our arrows they can fly in a lot of different directions, any direction they want, and expecting them to hit a target is perhaps an exercise in futility.

I believe that who my sons are (being), how God has put them together, gives shape to their vocation (calling). How God made them will give shape to how God intends to use them, His target so to speak. I think that shaping continues their entire lives. However, when I fail to take into account how God put them together and fail to give them a vision for God’s target for their lives, I am setting them up for frustration.

I know a number of parents who want to make sure that they give their child every opportunity and experiences. It is as if the opportunities and experiences will somehow give shape to their children – and it does – but not always in the way that we had hoped. In other words, we send kids to science camps, sports camps, literary camp, (to see if they are going to be a scientist, athlete, or writer or all three). Sometimes it is just for fun but most of the time it is because we believe they can do anything they want to or put their minds to and we just need to give them opportunity and experience to figure it out.

Fortunately, kids sometimes know themselves better than parents do (and it may be frustrating to them to hear us say ‘you are awesome and can do anything you want’ they know that isn’t true for them – it wasn’t true when our parents said it either). What’s more is that some parents have forgotten opportunity and experience are not all that makes a person a person. We work extra hard to give those opportunities and experiences for our kids in hope. All we have to do, really, is spend the time to get to know who they are – really. How they are hard-wired plays a part. In other words, being and calling go hand in hand.

14710915-film-industry-directors-chair-with-film-strip-and-movie-clappersurgeons-at-workWho knows if one day Sherry and I will one day watch a major motion picture that our son directed, or ask our son for medical advice, or laugh in a crowd at the jokes of our youngest (I’ve given him a lot of material to work with). But, at least at this point, I can see that what they say they want to do is consistent with who they are.

Somehow in the midst of all the mistakes and messes I make of being a dad, God is still directing the being and calling of our sons. My prayer is that I don’t muddle things up too much and I am able to help point these young men toward THE target for their lives. Of course, THE target is that they advance God’s purposes in the world (as agents of shalom) for God’s glory. My job as dad is to help them understand who they are and to give them a vision for THE target so that no matter the specific calling they are finding their purposes wrapped up in God’s. I believe that is how these young men will flourish and those around them will flourish as well.

quiverarrows

Making Changes: Resolved To Be Unresolved

400x266_12271837_resolutions
It is New Years Eve. I suppose I should have a list of resolutions. I don’t and I don’t plan on having any. The truth is I don’t feel like lying to myself or anyone else. Unless something happens in the next few hours I’ll probably be the same guy tomorrow that I am now. What I mean is that I’m bringing the same guy into this year that I had with me all of last year – and he hasn’t changed all that much. Sure, I’ve gotten older and I did learn some things in 2012. In fact in resolving to be unresolved I’m actually putting into practice something I learned last year about change.
Change happens because our hearts change – and with the heart our attitudes – and with our attitudes our lives. So – why lie and say I’m resolved to lose weight by going and doing things I hate and making myself miserable. Sure, I’ll do that for a while but it isn’t going to be long before I find a way to opt out of that program. I’ll endure it but my heart and attitude will not change and thus my life will not change either. Resolutions always end up that way for me.
Which means the weight I intended to lose last year will still be hanging around – even if I change my diet for while and start a rigorous exercise plan. If I’m eating food I hate and enduring exercising at the gym you can bet before long I’ll be making excuses (lying to me) to get out of going. So – why start the year off with a lie?
Nope – I’m into telling the truth – especially to me. So I’m resolved to be unresolved especially as it relates to change. I’ve done a bunch of research over the last few years on the subject of change. Real change happens when people wake up to something big – something pushes them (conflict, tension, pain, truth) to do the hard work that is necessary to really, really change. Frankly, looking good in a bathing suit is not a real motivator for me to do the hard work to lose a lot of weight.
But my family is. While I am resolved to be unresolved about making New Years Resolutions I am resolved to loving my family. In fact I’ve very willing to do the hard work for them that is necessary to be around for a while – and healthy while I’m here.
Resolutions don’t do much for me – except make me lie to myself and others about how I’m planning to change. But start talking to me about what I love and I’ll probably be willing to do whatever it takes to get “the job done.”
That’s what happened to me earlier this month. Since moving to St. Louis back in July I’ve gotten to know a hand-full of folks. I’m learning that people here are pretty good folks. Well – one man is becoming what I call a good friend. Friendship is not a word I throw around lightly. A friend to me is a person who lives out of the law of love – which means they are willing to risk offending you to tell you the truth about YOU.
This man – who is older than I am by nearly 35 years – took me out for coffee. As we sat together he asked me to consider where I would be in 35 years regarding my health. He talked to me about my family – my wife and sons – and then suggested that I start taking better care of myself now. He asked about my dad (who died at 51 from a heart attack) and encouraged me to think about how that affected me and how I thought it would impact my kids. He also talked about the fact that if I started doing what it takes now – by the time I hit his age – well – I’d be a lot healthier, able to do more with my family.
My friend hit me in the right spot – the heart. He didn’t talk about death and dying, he talked to me out of the law of love – and what I love.
So – since that conversation I’ve been exercising every day. I’m eating way healthier.

I’m trying harder to do a little self-care. Not for me – but for those I love. I don’t need a resolution for that. My attitude has changed and I’m willing to do things I hate because of those I love.

Change or Die - Fast Company
The author goes on to point out that giving people the facts or even talking to them about crisis (heart disease is a serious crisis) isn’t enough to get most folks to change. Yes it will for the short-term perhaps but not the long-term – where it is real change. Human beings resist change – even when we know it will help us. But when we are not only hit with facts but with “feelings” as well – then real change can occur. Alan Deutschman, the article’s author, quotes John Kotter insight, “Behavior change happens mostly by speaking to people’s feelings…In highly successful change efforts, people find ways to help others see the problems or solutions in ways that influence emotions, not just thoughts.”
Well – there you have it. I am resolved to be unresolved about making any sort of New Years resolutions. I don’t feel guilty about that at all because I am resolved to make real change because I love my family and – while I’m around I don’t want to be round.
Happy New Year!
Oh – one more little treat – here is a great poem by Wendell Berry. Wendell Berry PIc
The Future

For God’s sake, be done
with this jabber of “a better world.”
What blasphemy! No “futuristic”
twit or child thereof ever
in embodied light will see
a better world than this.
Do something! Go cut the weeds
beside the oblivious road. Pick up
the cans and bottles, old tires,
and dead predictions. No future
can be stuffed into this presence
except by being dead. The day is
clear and bright, and overhead
the sun not yet half finished
with his daily praise.
~ Wendell Berry ~
(Given)