Thursday, August 28, 2014

Trying On

When our daughter Julia was 6 years old she did not want to try riding her bicycle without the training wheels. The idea of giving up the safety and stability of those extra wheels seemed ridiculous. She was perfectly happy with her current reality of training wheels.

As parents we could see and imagine for her what she could not – two wheel bicycle fun and freedom! Without training wheels she could go farther, faster and with more flexibility. We could see it for her, but she couldn’t imagine a future different from her present. So, she was having none of it whenever we suggested taking off the training wheels.

As parents, students, and business owners we all find ourselves in similar situations. How do we lead people to a future that is different from the present? How do we help people step out in the face of their fear? We can’t push folks too hard or they dig in their heels, resisting change even more. So what can we do to lead people into a future different from the present?

No doubt, this is a dilemma that God has thought a lot about too. Throughout the Biblical narrative one can imagine God scratching his head over people’s stubborn refusal to follow his commands – the ones that would lead them to freedom and joy. God tried several options to get people to change – threats, punishment, even exile. This seemed to work for seasons and yet the world remained unchanged – stuck in current reality.

Then God did something that had never been tried before – certainly never tried by anybody else’s god. God “tried on” the sinful flesh of the people who were so stuck. God identified with the people who were so scared, so stubborn, so resistant to change.

The Apostle Paul put it this way: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 1Corinthians 5:21

It is an extraordinary act of love to be willing to “try on” ideas, behaviors, dreams, and experiences that are different from your own. It is risky. You could get dirty. You could get hurt. You could die. All these were indeed a reality for Jesus.

And it also happened to be this very act of humble, self-emptying, “trying on” out of love that broke open the possibility of a future different from our present.

Starets Zosima in Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov put it this way: “At some thoughts one stands perplexed, above all at the sight of human sin, and wonders whether to combat it by force or by humble love. Always decide ‘I will combat it by humble love.’ If you resolve on that once and for all, you can conquer the whole world. Loving humility is a terrible force: It is the strongest of all things, and there is nothing else like it.”

What ideas, experiences, dreams, music, or way of life is God compelling you to “try on” in loving humility? Who knows, you might be surprised to find that eventually the training wheels come off and a whole new wonderful world comes to life!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Grace-Full Church

[Carolyn and Julia and I have begun a new chapter in ministry as we have been appointed as co-pastors at Grace United Methodist Church in St. Augustine. We wrote the following for the church's print newsletter. It's a reflection on ways we've observed the five practices of a fruitful congregation at work among the people of Grace UMC.]

We are quickly falling in love with St. Augustine and Grace United Methodist Church! For the past few weeks in worship we have been highlighting the “Five Practices of a Fruitful Congregation.” The first practice is “Radical Hospitality.” We have certainly felt your hospitality from the beautiful parsonage prepared for our family to the many cards, gift cards, and food you all have shared with us. Thank you for your hospitality to us! Furthermore, we are proud to be the pastors of a church that is full of people who are committed to the mission of making disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world!

We have been inspired by the many different ways we have seen the people of Grace putting faith in action and making God’s love real. (The fourth practice of a fruitful congregation!) As we have met some of you and heard your stories there have been recurring themes that have come out of our conversations: compassion for the poor and homeless, care and prayer for the homebound and sick, celebration of the spiritual gifts of youth and adults with disabilities, and a commitment to improving the church's ministry to and with children, youth and young adults.

That faith in action has undoubtedly both flowed from and nurtured the church’s “Passionate Worship” and “Intentional Faith Development” (the second and third practices of a fruitful congregation). We gather each week to worship with expectation that the living God will meet us where we are and give us just what we need in order to go out and be a witness to God’s reign in the world. Grace church is doubly blessed in that we have options to worship using both traditional and modern forms of music and liturgy – both of which God is using to draw spiritual seekers and strengthen followers of Jesus.

Then we gather intentionally in smaller groups for studying God’s word together, learning to interpret and apply what we’ve learned in our everyday life. These groups help us grow up into the people God created us to be, strengthening our bond with one another and with Christ. We are so proud that Grace church understands the importance of both nurturing existing discipleship groups and regularly creating new ones – making space for the community of faith to grow!

Finally, the fifth practice of a fruitful congregation – “Extravagant Generosity.” It has inspired us already to see children as young as third grade and adults who are homebound set an example for the church in extravagant generosity.

Ava, a third grader, says, “Whenever I get money I have three jars, a giving, a savings and a spending. Ten percent goes in giving, ten percent goes in savings and the rest goes in spending. So my dad asked what I wanted to do with the giving and I made the decision to make little bags and give them to the homeless. The bags had a sandwich, a water, an apple, a dollar and a handmade card. And on Saturday morning we go out and ask people if they had breakfast. If they were hungry we’d give them a bag.”

Mrs. Pope, one of Grace’s members who can’t attend worship regularly anymore, found out that the children at Vacation Bible School were giving their money to help send some of our friends with disabilities to camp this fall. She was so touched that she said, “I’d like to send a check to help with that. Where can I send it!”

The grace of God pours out of churches that intentionally practice and improve upon Radical Hospitality, Passionate Worship, Intentional Faith Development, Risk Taking Mission and Service, and Extravagant Generosity. Let’s keep practicing these habits together and rejoice in the amazing ways God will use us to transform the world!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Do Chairs Matter? A Reflection on Space and Mission

From the title you may be wondering if this is a blog about NASA. It's not, but I bet the chairs on any spacecraft are carefully arranged with the mission in mind.

In this blog, I’m talking about the chair arrangement in our worship space at Spring of Life. I decided to change up the arrangement this past July as part of a message series on “Becoming the Body of Christ.” Instead of having rows all facing the same direction toward the stage, altar, speaker and worship music leaders, I put the chairs in a kind of “U” shape semi-circle with the stage/altar as a kind of completion of a circle. You might think of it as a “church in the round.”

Here are some of the results I’ve heard as a result of this new arrangement:
“I can see other people more than I could before.”
“I am sitting closer together with others because there are fewer chairs in the room.”
“The altar and worship leaders are a part of the community circle and in some cases at the center of the gathered community.”
“I am uncomfortable because my usual spot is gone, the sight lines are different and it feels less like a traditional church.”
“I like it.”
“Change it back.”
“I personally feel a little more exposed sitting on one of the front rows like I do because I sense people can see me a little more than before (whether that’s actually true, I’m not sure. It’s just how I feel).”

I’ve explained briefly in worship and had a couple of conversations with folks who have asked about the new configuration. It has prompted me to reflect more intentionally on the connection between the space where we meet and the gospel we proclaim. I hope this helps deepen your appreciation for the space where we worship, draws us deeper into becoming who God has created us to be and at the very least gives you food for thought.

At its best, the design of worship space is determined by the church’s mission. The first questions to ask are “What is our mission? And how can the space arrangement help us achieve that mission?”

Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. And our vision is to be a church where people come as they are and become who God created them to be. This year in particular, our church leadership has been living with the theme of “Becoming the Beloved Community.” To put it another way, we have focused on the ways that disciples of Jesus transform the world by becoming the beloved community where we recognize, understand, appreciate and celebrate our differences as a reflection of God’s present and coming Kingdom.

This is the primary reason behind the chair set up in our worship space at Spring of Life. In the middle of July, there were some other practical reasons that made sense, such as lower weekly worship attendance and having fewer chairs made the room feel less empty. And there was the teaching moment of dealing with life change and transition by recognizing that God is with us in it and calling us to place our trust in Him. The primary reason, though, is the mission, vision and theme mentioned above.

Once again it is worth asking: What is our mission and what kind of community is God compelling us to become in proclamation, pursuit and embodiment of that mission? Here are some of my thoughts.

First, the church’s mission is not to get people to believe the right things so that their souls go to heaven instead of hell when they die. This is a common over simplification and distortion of the whole gospel (good news) that Jesus lived, died and rose from the dead for. Jesus didn’t call people to believe a list of things about him. Jesus called people to follow him and find their life in him. Jesus welcomed all kind of people into this community of followers and this got him into trouble with the religious gate keepers and rule followers of his day. Jesus came proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God and taught his disciples to pray “Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” So, it might be better to say that the church’s mission is the same as that of Jesus mission – to live life on earth in a way that makes sense in light of God’s present and coming kingdom. And whether we live or whether we die, our life is found together in Christ.

It might also be helpful to remember that from the beginning of the Bible we learn the story of a God who calls and constitutes a people (Israel), promising to be their God and blessing them so that they would be a blessing to the nations. God restores, corrects (and you might even say resurrects!) this people of Israel along the way. (Weren’t the people of Israel as good as dead, enslaved in Egypt when God brought them out and raised them up by his mighty hand?) Further, God doesn’t protect His people from pain, but walks with them through it. He delivers them from enemies that are larger and more powerful militarily. In Israel’s weakness as a people, God shows his strength. He provides food and water for them in the wilderness. He shows them that they are deeply loved personally and that He will always save them corporately, as a community. God would be right there in the center of this community in the form of fire, cloud, the prophet voice, the priestly sacrifices, the calling of kings and the law that He gave.

Through Jesus, the Bible tells us that God would now be right there in the center of this community in a way God had never been before – in the flesh. And through Jesus, the rest of the world is now “grafted into” this story of the people of Israel. The invitation is open to live life together with Jesus at the center, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to show the world a glimpse of God’s hope for the world. To put it simply: The church’s mission is to reveal the kingdom of God by making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Our life together as a church ought to bear the marks of God’s Kingdom for the world to see. And God’s kingdom by its very nature is community on earth as it is in heaven. So, when we gather we aren’t just coming to hear a teacher or preacher give us an inspirational message. You can find more inspirational preachers on tv or the internet! We are gathering to be reminded that we need each other as much as we need God. In fact, God in His wisdom has chosen to reveal himself through the community called “the body of Christ.” So, an arrangement of chairs that helps us see each other and look for God in and through each other as the Body of Christ is helpful.

Last Sunday I heard a woman share a little of her story. She said, “In order to deal with my disease of alcoholism and drug addiction I need to be reminded of the truth that I need the help of a community. I need help to remember that I can’t do this on my own. I need people that I can trust to “tell on myself” when I mess up.” She was describing her need for a recovery group. I thought she might as well been describing the church with the different gifts of the Spirit that God gives to different people and the gift of confessing our sin to one another so we may be healed.

So a mark of this beloved community called the Kingdom of God is that we watch over one another in love and if we can see each other better in this seating arrangement, then that’s a good thing. That’s part of God's mission in Christ to call and constitute a people called "The Body of Christ."

Here are some questions to consider:
Do you notice people you don’t know?
Do you notice people are missing?
Do you see and hear children?
Do you see people who make you uncomfortable or distract you?
Do you hear from people other than the clergy?
Do you feel a little more exposed?
Do you get the sense that being a Christian is about becoming God's beloved community on earth as it is in heaven?

I don’t know if an arrangement of chairs can help you answer yes to any of those. But if so, that’s a good thing because wrestling with those questions is part of our mission as God's people becoming a reflection of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

How about your thoughts on the connection between worship space and the church's mission? Share away . . .

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Tell Me Why You Love Me?

Early in our marriage, Carolyn and I decided we would tell each other one reason we love each other every day. My memory is a little fuzzy, but I think Rod Stewart’s release of “Have I Told You Lately” the year Carolyn and I met had something to do with it.

I ain’t gonna lie. We don’t do this every day. But every so often we are wise to renew the practice.

If you’ve been married for any length of time, you know that there are some days when answering that question takes more work than others. Take heart! It is the days when it’s work that I really know it’s an act of love.

M. Scott Peck said, “If an act is not one of work or courage, then it is not love.”

It is this working and courageous kind of love that sustains marriages, families, friendships and churches for life.

I was reminded of this while reading 1Corinthians in preparation for worship this Sunday. Paul who wrote this letter to Corinth begins with a word of thanksgiving for the community to which he writes.

“I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way – with all kinds of speech and knowledge – God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you.” 1 Corinthians 1:4-6

Don’t think for a minute that these words of love weren’t work for Paul. It might have been easier for him to launch into a long list of criticism. Corinth was a church riddled with problems and Paul would eventually address those. But despite all the present problems, Paul sees this church as the work of God in the world, and he discerns in their midst gifts for which God is to be thanked.

Would you like to see your marriage, your friendships, your family, your church as the work of God in the world? Then I encourage you to follow the example of Paul and Rod Stewart . . . . do the work of telling them why you love them.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

How Is Your Daily Connection to God?

"Tell me what your daily connection to God looks like?"

That question felt like someone flicked on a giant spotlight as the crowd went silent in anticipation of the answer.  The perfect question to hold me accountable to the kind of life God has called me to live.

And like other accountability questions, there are days when an answer comes easily and days when beads of sweat begin to form and the answer is a struggle.

I was inspired as I heard a middle and high school student in our church answer this question by talking about reading the Bible, listening to music, "spoken word" poetry and prayer.  It was an encouraging reminder to me that God doesn't see this division of "sacred" and "secular" like we do.  Because God became flesh and dwelt among us, the light of God has shown in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

God is not compartmentalized into a worship service on Sundays, a weeklong mission trip or Vacation Bible School.  God is present in the everyday ordinary days as well.  Meeting God during those special times are meant to remind us that God is also walking with us into those places where we may be ignoring God.

The God we know in Jesus Christ seems to have this weird joy in showing up where he's not welcome and disturbing things in a redemptive kind of way.  More times than not, Jesus comes looking for us than we come looking for him.  And when we do go looking for Jesus, he rearranges our expectations and shows us how different his ways are from our ways.

So, your daily connection to God requires your intentional decision to meet with Him in prayer, Bible reading, worship music, poetry, serving, etc.  AND your daily connection to God is entirely up to God who has proven to be relentless in showing up even where He is not invited.  It's not either/or. It's both/and.

If you are looking for looking for some material to read this summer, here are some options that God may use to mess with you.

  • Common Prayer for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne and others. (You can get this in hardback, kindle or search iphone apps "Common Prayer" published by Zondervan
  • Life Journal Bible Reading Plan.  Contact Rob Githens. He is placing an order. They are about $6.50.
  •  The Art of Neighboring by Jay Pathak. It's about living the great commandment to love God and love your neighbor.
  • You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving the Church and Rethinking Faith by David Kinnaman.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Father's Day Gift that Keeps on Giving

When there is something important that I don't want to forget I usually put a reminder in a place that I'm going to see it - a note on the fridge, bathroom mirror, scheduled reminder on smart phone, etc.

So, now I get why God chose circumcision as a sign of his covenant with Israel. God needed to put this important reminder of His covenant in a place where men (in particular) would see it - literally put their hands on it, multiple times a day, so as to not forget it!

What could be more important to remember than God's faithfulness? What better place for God to put a permanent reminder of God's faithfulness than on a dude's genitals? Brilliant God.

The fact that I'm just now figuring this out after following Jesus nearly forty years, getting a Master of Divinity, pastoring a church for 17 years and being circumcised my whole life, is telling. God knows I need a lot of help remembering to walk by faith.

When I told my wife about this revelation she wondered why God didn't give her this particular reminder too. I said because God knew how interested husbands would be in showing it to their wives - regularly.

This all dawned on me as I pondered what I might share for a Father's Day message and I was reading these words of Stephen, the church's first martyr, in Acts 7.

"Then God made a covenant with [Abraham] and signed it in his flesh by circumcision. When Abraham had his son Isaac, within eight days he reproduced the sign of circumcision in him. Isaac became father of Jacob, and Jacob father of twelve 'fathers,' each faithfully passing on the covenant sign." (Acts 7:8 MSG)

The original Father's Day gift that keeps on giving!? Circumcision. God's covenant signed in the flesh!

Think about it guys. You might lose your job. You might experience failure in business, marriage, school, etc. You might lose everything. Heck, God might tell you to sell everything, give it to the poor and go follow Jesus into a place you've never been. It might be a place where you don't get to bring your smart phone to schedule reminders, and the bathroom mirror you look into might be a different one everyday. And if all that were true, you'd still wake up wearing your birthday suit and see a visual reminder of God's faithfulness to you first thing in the morning.

I don't have any tattoos because I am just not that cool (plus my mother may disown me). However, I have been told that there is a story behind every tattoo. There's something deeper than simply the mark on the skin. Of course the same is true of the Biblical reason for circumcision. Beyond the mark in the flesh is the story of God's claim upon us individually and as a people.

Perhaps God knew men, being statistically more ADD than women, needed the physical reminder of God's faithfulness to keep his promise, to lead us, to provide for us, to restore us when we wander, and to even raise us from the dead. But of course this promise isn't just for men. It's not even just for Israel. It is for all people.

And there is a flip side to this wonderful promise God gave us in the flesh. It's all too true that men in our culture are obsessed with our outward appearance and accumulation of stuff. Obviously we think the marks we have and the size we are matters for our worth. Who are you without your car, your job title, your degree, your clothes or your tattoos?

The Jews and early Christians started missing the point of circumcision when they gained a measure of wealth and power. They began to use it as a badge that pushed others away and and a means to elevate themselves rather than remember how God made them something out of nothing. This is how prone we are to turn good things into bad things.

So the Apostle Paul had to remind the church in Rome that it wasn't their outward appearance or marks in their skin that made them special in God's eyes. It is the condition of their heart that made them children of God.

You might have a lot of marks of success and things are going really well for you now. But what are you doing when no one is looking? How are you using the possessions you have in a way to point to God rather than yourself? Do you find yourself thinking more about protecting what you have or sharing it with others? Are you practicing generosity through tithing and regular giving? Are you setting limits at work so you spend time with those who are most important?

Funny how different our perspective is when we have nothing but our birthday suit and a mark to remind us that God will always be faithful. The reality is that no matter how much stuff you have or accumulate, you will leave this world the same way you came in - with nothing but God's mark, God's claim upon you. It's a gift from our Heavenly Father that keeps on giving.

Happy Father's Day. Remember you are God's.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Why Worship

Worship attendance is important on a number of different levels.  On a personal level, a school principal would agree that students do better academically if they don't miss a lot of school.  Coaches would say players do better on game day if they don't miss a lot of practices.  On an institutional level, that same principal and coach could use school and practice attendance as a measure of their institution's health. Not surprisingly, pastors and church leaders think about the same kind of things.

Worship attendance will impact your spiritual health personally and it also affects the church insitutionally.  You know that you arent going to have a deeply moving experience of God or spiritual epiphany every time you go to worship.  There will be those days you leave worship and think, "I didn't get anything out of that."

This reminds me of something that I've heard Bishop Willimon say that goes something like this: "God has a lot of big things to deal with like natual disaster and starvation.  Maybe you didn't get anything out of worship today because it wasn't for you today. God was busy working on someone else. And who knows, maybe God was hoping to get your help speaking to that someone else on God's behalf."

This opens my eyes to see that worship attendance affects both my personal spiritual health and the institution's health.  In other words, there are bigger reasons for attending worship than whether or not I get something out of it personally.  

There are times when God will encourage me to keep the faith, step out in the face of fear, or lay down my bitterness once again, just by being among those God gathered for worship.  It's hard to describe.  The "community gathered" is itself a proclamation of the gospel of Jesus resurrection.  There have been times when I've heard, "Jesus is Alive!" through the presence of others: young, old, rich, poor, male female, black, white, spanish, english, strong faith, weak faith, no faith, republican, democrat, not even American.... better than I've heard it through the sermon.

So the next time you think, "I didn't really get anything out of that" when you go to worship - consider that God may be using you as His message to someone else.  And didn't a wise man once say that we will only find life when we give ours away?

Don't take a vacation from worship this summer! Even if you are on vacation, look for a place to worship. You and God's church will be healthier for it!