2014: A Better Path by Adjusting Values: more or less

A new year is a blank piece of paper; a chance to stop and consider how to fine tune our investment in the one wild and precious life that we’ve been given.  The “unexamined life is not worth living” is how Socrates put it, and there’s no time riper for examining our lives than now, when the calendar is clean.  Rather than just thinking about goals, though, this article reminds me that it makes sense to think about values.  Here are some values that need adjusting… more or less.

More Intentionality in affirmation and encouragement – I’ve recently become freshly aware of the power encouragement has, both through experiences of giving and receiving it.  Decades ago, in the midst of a depression that came about in the wake of my dad’s death, the person who made the biggest difference in my life did so through encouragement and affirmation.  When I thanked him, he said, “All of us know our inadequacies pretty well – what we need is to be told how much we’re loved, where we’re gifted, where we can shine.”  While the value of truth telling and hard conversations are also important, I’ve recently reawakened to the value of encouragement and plan to fan it into flame this year.

More Openness to the fullness of life – I’ll be teaching from Ecclesiastes this Sunday, and this coming summer for an outdoor course.  This book, more than any in the Bible, invites me to fearlessly live “fully” in every moment.  As one poet writes:

“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit…”   We live in a hyper-insulated world these days, afraid of all that might go wrong if we venture outside our comfort zones, and the fruit of this is a lowering of the bar, so that for too many the biggest adventure of our lives is a visit to the newest movie, or upgrading our xbox.  We’re too often missing the reality that in Christ, we’re sometimes invited to step outside the boat, or into the river, or give away the last of our loaves and fishes.  What if we said yes, shooting the moon and casting all our hope in the reality that God’s calling us to this next step?  What would happen then?   Abundant life would happen and by that God doesn’t mean material prosperity necessarily, but fulness, vibrancy, wholeness, right in the thick of the beauty and challenges on our plates.

More Companionship because we’re made for community and relationships.  I’ve just finished experiencing an overwhelming outpouring of support in my life from close friends throughout the time of my oldest daughter’s wedding.  They helped make the wedding happen in a thousand practical ways and I was reminded throughout the experience of just how priceless deep friendships are.  I’m looking for ways to continue fanning those flames of relationship in the coming year.

In addition to human companionship, I’m very much looking forward to nurturing companionship with Christ as I spend 40 days hiking through the mountains in order to learn more about what it means to walk with God.  After all, we’re invited to friendship with Jesus, not religious ritual.  I hope to learn more lessons about what that really means through my walking days.

More Creativity – For people with responsibilities like work, marriage, family, keeping the car maintained, keeping the sewer line between the house and street flowing freely, keeping the deck stained, there are seasons when it’s hard to be creativity.  Our longing to write, paint, create music or pottery, or whatever, is eaten alive by our day job and our night job so that we’ve nothing left for creativity.   There’s no sense moaning about it; such seasons simply happen.

On other hand, when one comes up for air, and the creative urges begin demanding they find expression again, it’s important to fan those urges into flames and give the fire some room to grow.  I’m going to do that by making a modest commitment to a word count for writing during each two week period of the coming year.  Rather than some lofty unattainable goal, I’m shooting for something challenging but doable.

More Vegetables – There’s nothing to say here.

Less Late Nights  – Everyone’s at their best at some certain point of the day, and for me it’s that time in the earliest morning hours, around 5:30.  As a result, staying up ’til midnight, weary and uncreative, robs me of my best time.

Less Stuff – We’re slowly working our way through the closets and garage because, like plaque in your arteries, possessions have a nasty way of accumulating and then remaining as nothing more than clutter long after they’ve served their purpose.  “Give it away” I say, and it’s happening, and it’s liberating.

Less Whining – I love that the Bible invites me to pour my heart out to God with honesty, expressing the full range of lament and praise, joy and sorrow.  But there’s one response to reality that God roundly condemns:  grumbling, which is this sort of low level whining amongst ourselves about circumstances, leaders, politics, the weather, jobs, customer service quality of Comcast, Seattle traffic and more.  The Bible says this is more than just a wast of time; it’s destructive sin.  God seems to be saying, “Tell me anything you want about your reaction to life, or your trials or pains or joys.  But don’t whine to one another.  It’s worthless.”

Less Yes –  All these musing about life change have to do with one single thing.  I’m trying to answer the question of how to make the most of the few precious days we’ve been given on this earth.  The answer, I’m learning, resides in focus.  “Fan your gifts into flame” is what Paul said to Timothy, which is a way of saying that you can’t do everything so once you find your calling, don’t worry about saying no to the many sirens of temptation that will come your way.  Stay committed to your thing… your craft, your marriage, your kids, your writing, whatever.  Give it your best and take of yourself so that you have your best to give.  Living into that requires less yes.

What are you saying more or less to in the coming year?  I welcome your thoughts.

Posted in intimacy, life | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“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.

Posted in church, intimacy, inviting, questions | Tagged , , | Comments Off on “For All People…” Why the Radical Inclusiveness of Christmas matters.

Impact: beyond what we realize

ImageThe church I lead in Seattle has lost a great man.  My predecessor, Pastor John McCullough, who led Bethany Community Church for 37 years went home to be with Jesus on November 13th.  His mark is more deeply embedded in me than he will ever realize, and I wanted to share them because the principle holds true of us all – we affect each other profoundly.  May you be blessed in the reading, the sharing, and be a blessing in your living today

I still have the last church bulletin from the last Sunday of my college career in Seattle.  It was 1979 and I was graduating from Seattle Pacific and heading back to my California roots, not because I wanted to, but because that was where there was work.  My fiancé was also from California, but the last thing we wanted to do was leave Seattle, and a big part of that resistance was tied up in our love of a church and its pastor.  That bulletin is from Bethany Community Church, by Greenlake, led by Pastor John McCullough.  It was a life changing place for me, and that was because of Pastor John.

My friends and I would speed across Lake Washington every Sunday morning to attend a Sunday school class taught by one of our fellow students, but we’d always leave there early in order get back in time to find a seat in the overflow section of the chapel at Bethany.  It was there, in those back rows, as an anonymous student, that I learned some important lessons from the first pastor I actually listened to, the first church I actually enjoyed attending:

I learned that laughter and Christianity aren’t mutually exclusive.  Having grown up in a church where smiles were in short supply during worship, and never visible from the pulpit, I was delighted to meet a pastor who gave me permission to laugh.  I’ll never forget the Sunday during basketball season, back when Seattle won it’s only championship, when somebody got up to give announcements and right in the midst of all the details about meetings and Bible studies, said, “mature Christian really should know what’s going on.  And another way to say that is to say that Christians should know the score.  And the score is…. And then he proceeded to tell us the score of the Sonic game”  And there was laughter and cheering.  Real life, a bit of levity, and church life were all bleeding together for the first time in my spiritual history.  Pastor John was off to the side laughing.  If I’d have told a joke in the church of my youth, I’d have feared excommunication, because church, like God, was serious business.  I’m grateful for PJ’s laughter, ever present in his preaching and leadership.

I learned that sharing emotions can be a good thing.  I’d often said to people that the only sermon I ever remember, in spite of hearing hundreds of them through my years of growing up in the church, was the sermon PJ preached right after he’d returned from India.  I still, to this day, remember how impacted he was by the poverty and the love, and the children he encountered.  I’d never seen a pastor weep from the pulpit, but this one did.  Not often, but often enough that you knew he cared, and loved, and felt deeply.

I learned that vision comes from language.  It’s not like I was deeply involved at Bethany.  I was back row material, in the overflow room, attending often, but surely not every Sunday.  Still, his vision for church fell on me like rain, and my soul soaked it up, a vision which would shape my understanding of church for the rest of my life.  And it fell on me in nothing more than phrases:  “the army of the anonymous” taught me that it was the less visible folks in the church who were most vital to its ongoing health.  “Tangling our heartstrings together” meant that the church isn’t a school, where people come to gain information, but a community where people tie their lives together in community.   And “in essential unity – in non-essentials liberty – in all things charity” taught me to not sweat the little stuff, that shared life in Christ is more important than all the noise in denominational arguments.  PJ lived this, too, bringing in all kinds of speakers, from a wide swath of Christian cloth.  It was amazing.

Finally, and most important, perhaps, I learned about grace by seeing a community that took it seriously.  The concept was important enough that when a UW professor had written a book entitled “Free for the Taking” about the need for the church to move away from the moralism, and legalism, and judgmentalism of religion by basking in the grace of God’s unconditional love and acceptance, PJ had the author come and speak at Bethany.  He pushed the book.  I read it, and remember thinking, “this is what I’ve been looking for all my life”.  Growing up in a performance oriented world, this grace was the key for me, unlocking the doors to joy, healing, affirmation, meaning, and the capacity for service, that had been closed for so long.

My last Sunday in Seattle after college graduation was sad, not only because I was leaving Seattle, but because I was leaving Bethany.  I didn’t know if I’d ever find another church like it.  Thanks be to God, I didn’t have to.  I was privileged to replace Pastor John as senior pastor of Bethany 16 years later, a role I’ve maintained for the past 17 years.   His faithful service as leader, teacher, shepherd, not only shaped me as a student, but laid the foundation for all God has continued to do through Bethany Community Church, both in Seattle and around the world.  Though he’s gone, his voice still speaks every Sunday through a new generation of leaders who are living by grace, tangling heart strings, focusing on essentials, and laughing a lot.

Thanks PJ.  You’ve blessed and transformed more lives than anyone can count.  And on behalf of the army of the anonymous college students who came and sat in the back row, know that the seeds of faith you sowed are still bearing fruit, and will for decades to come.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Remembrance stones in a climbing wall….

IMG_2959What do these stones mean to you? – Joshua 4:6

Early 1990’s:  The first time I saw the climbing wall it was located at the ski area adjacent to Tauernhof, the bible school where I teach in Austria.  Students (and a few of us teachers) would use it during the semester, perfecting our skills as we talked of life, faith, beauty.  I climbed on it once during autumn, when some sheep were coming down from the high country, across the hills of the ski slope.  Those sheep, their fear of me, and their confidence of the voice of their own shepherd, made this verse come alive for me.

1994:  Same wall, different year.  I climbed with a young man named Harry on the wall and we shared great fellowship and conversation as we negotiated holds, practiced technique, and spoke of God, Christ, leadership, and eternity.  The next weekend, Harry would climb with a student, and fell to his untimely death.  Every year, it seemed, the wall become a deeper and deeper repository of truths learned, fellowship enjoyed, loss suffered.  And then the wall disappeared….

Sometimes in the early 2000’s: When I asked Hans Peter, the director of the bible school about the wall,  he told me of the ski area’s expansion plans, and how that necessitated it’s removal.  “But we’re getting it” he said.  “We’re going to put it on the Bible School property.”

2012:  The wall is in place on the Torchbearer property and Hans Peter points shows it to me.  The rabbit, which was the mascot of the ski area attached to the wall before, was replaced with:  Jesus Christus, plus three German words I don’t recognize.  “It will be there for everyone to see – so that people will know that everything we do here, all the skiing, climbing, hiking, food, fellowship- is about Jesus.”

Image 7Sunday, December 8, 2013.   Hans Peter, previous Bible School director, is gone, killed in a paragliding accident this past August.  His teaching gifts and strong leadership of Tauernhauf were evidenced in both the breadth and depth of ministry from this relatively small center.  His death meant the loss of a friend, mentor, and leader to many, including me.  I’m privileged to be in Schladming today because my friend Martin is being “confirmed” in his new role as director.

The moments are bittersweet, joy and sorrow, celebration and mourning, all woven together as leaders from the larger Torchbearer community, along with students from this year’s Bible school, the whole Torchbearer staff, and lots of other local town leaders, friends, and family, gathered to literally lay hands Martin Image 10and pray for him as he steps into the role of director.  An old friend sat by me and translated every word of the service.  There were songs, readings, a bit of a biography of Martin, and then key leaders layed hands on his head and prayed for him, one by one.  I know some of these leaders with whom I’ve shared ministry for two decades now.   I know we’re older; we feel it, we look it.  We’ve seen a lot.  Change is happening all around us, and its rarely easy.

Then it was Martin’s turn to speak….

What does one say in such a time as this, when the occasion of your anointing comes in the wake of a beloved leaders death?  Martin reads this for us from the book of Hebrews:   Jesus Christ:  The same yesterday, today, forever.  He reminds us all, gathered here to affirm him, but gathered in a shadow of grief as well, that everything changes; leaders, ministries, plans, our own bodies, our children, everything.  “But”, Martin reminds us, “Jesus Christ remains the same: yesterday, today, forever.”

In world where many Christians have their own publicity machinery, heroes, media strategies, and branding consultants, Martin’s word reminds me that all of us who are called to lead anything are entrusted with leadership but for a season.  Our goal isn’t to get more people to read our stuff, or listen to us, or amass followers – and most certainly our goal isn’t to create an aura of indispensability, as if we’ve the corner on the truth market.  Our goal, simply, is to point people to Jesus, precisely because he alone never changes:

He was there for you when you walked away from him.  He’ll be there for you when you return.

He was a source of wisdom when you didn’t think you needed it.  He’ll be wisdom when you know you do.

He was a source of comfort when you turned to alcohol instead.  He’ll be a source of comfort when you turn to him

He was your provision when you thought he wasn’t.  He’ll be your provision when you know he is.

He loves you when you don’t believe he does.  He’ll love you when accept his love.

He’s all you need in seasons of grace and peace.

He’ll be all you need when all hell breaks loose – when there’s cancer in the family, when your fried dies in an accident, when you lose your job.

He’ll change lives  at this bible school when Hans Peter Royer is the leader.  He’ll change lives when Martin Buchsteiner is the leader

IMG_2913What a good word for me when, at times, I feel overly weary due to my own foolishness and wrong sense of my own importance.  His speech is followed by hilarious gifts given to him, ranging from an umbrella, to Red Bull, to Schnaps.  And then his wife gives a marvelous word, and we sing a final song, and it’s over.

The meeting ends and after hugs with friends we migrate back to the school for a meal.  I walk over to the climbing wall though, and it’s there, at the top, right below the exalted and highest “Jesus Christus” that I see the words:  gestern heute immer.  My very poor German’s good enough to know that the wall, which has been in the midst of all the IMG_2921changes in this little part of the world, now reads:

Jesus Christ:  Yesterday, Today, and Forever.

Yes…this is the most important truth in my life, and the wall has become a memory stone for, a continual reminder that, though everything changes in life, Christ remains the same.

Posted in life | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in justice, life | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on If soil could talk… life lessons from the history of a lake

“Christian” – a tired word. May it rest in peace.

(in light of some conversations I’ve been having lately, here are some formative, not definitive, thoughts, about the words we use and how they affect our testimony)

When you talk to people and the subject of spirituality or faith comes up, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to use the word Christian in any meaningful way.  Here’s why:

Words, in order to have meaning, need to have boundaries.  The noun Hat can mean a lot of things –  ranging from a baseball hat, to a helmet for football or motorcycle riding, to a lovely hat for some sort of formal event, to an Amish head covering.  But we all know that it isn’t referring to a bottle, or a piece of cake, or a car.  The limits of words make conversation and understanding possible, and though words can have varieties of meanings, the boundaries need to “reasonable” or else the possibility of some real misunderstandings arise exponentially.

This brings me to the word I’m putting on trial:  Christian.  Here’s why:

“I’m not a Christian – I’m a democrat”, implying that Christian and a view of the world that favors higher taxes and bigger government are inherently, de-facto, incompatible.

“Yes.  I’m a Christian.  I was baptized when I was 8 months old.”

“Yes.  I’m a Christian.  I grew up in the church.” 

“Yes.  I’m a Christian.  I prayed the sinners prayer and went forward in church when I was nine” 

“No I don’t want to be a Christian.  Have you heard of the crusades?  Slavery?  The Christians were at the root of all that suffering.” 

“I’ll never be a Christian.  Just look at what Christian Europe did to our (African) continent.” 

You could go back through these comments and try to build a definition of the word Christian based on the answers, and what you’d end up with are six different definitions, but that’s only because I’ve shared six stories with you. I could share thirty, and then you’d have thirty definitions, each one diminishing the meaning of the word rather than clarifying.  The result?  The word has come to mean so many different things that it essential means nothing.

What’s a Christian to do? 

Continuing to use the word in the same way we talk about baseball and perfume, (assuming that everyone who’s listening knows what we mean by it) isn’t wise because we’re identifying ourselves with a word that, in the end, likely misrepresents us to the people who are listening.

If we’re not going to keep using it, there are only two options left: First, we can try to recover the word, offering a fresh definition.  I’ve been a fan of this strategy for a long time, believing that to surrender the meaning of the word to all its false detractors is sort of like raising a white flag and quitting the fight.  Isn’t it better to let everyone in the world know what the word really means by living out its true meaning for everyone to see?

Well, actually, no.  It’s not better at all.  That’s what I’ve come to believe at least.  I’m tired of fighting this battle and saying, “don’t confuse MY Christianity with that yucky stuff over there.  I’m not like that. I’m not like them” because these conversations have led to perhaps the worst definition of “Christian”-   “Christians fight with each other all the time!”  It’s a true statement, and ironic, since the one thing for which Jesus explicitly prayed is that Christ followers would be known by their unity. Instead, we’re known by our capacity to point out, more than any other religion in my opinion, how so many groups wearing the same word  Christian really aren’t – and are worse than us.

“Over here.  We have the real stuff!  We’re the real definition of Christian”  we shout, loud enough so that people already not interested in Jesus are now less interested than ever.

Nope.  I’m finished with that game, because the person not talked about very much in all this shouting is Jesus himself, which is ironic, because in the end, what we’re supposed to be doing is inviting people to follow Jesus.  The name calling, doctrinal fighting, and presumptive claiming of moral high is a game that’s worn me down.  But when all the shouting, and divisions, and pleas for institutional loyalty have died down, what I love is that Jesus is still here in the room with me.

“I’ve been waiting for you man.  Where have you been?”

“O you know.  Out and about, promoting your faith.” I know I look tired, and it’s a little embarrassing because he seems so calm, so centered, almost unconcerned that I’ve been running myself ragged for him.

“I wish you wouldn’t do that” he says, sipping his coffee.  “You’re confusing people.  Don’t promote ‘my faith’.  Why don’t you try just telling people about me?  People are tired.  They’re dealing with shame and failure.  They’re living in the midst of kingdoms that are enslaving them.  I want to bless them, help them, heal them, invite them to rest.  They don’t need religion. They need me.”

“I thought I was telling them about you.”  I say, defensive.  Jesus reminds me that telling people to “go to church” or “become Christians” are phrases so loaded with toxic junk that they do more harm than good.

“I think that’s why Paul said that he was determined to know nothing more than Christ crucified.  It might even be what Bonhoeffer meant when we referred to religionless Christianity.  But even those words are too loaded.  Just love people like I do.  And tell people about me.  Good things will happen.” 

It’s advent.  “Messiah” is playing on my computer, reminding me that the whole arc of history is, in the end, not about Christianity at all.  It’s about one person who changes everything, ultimately saturating the universe with glory and beauty, bringing hope and healing to all.  I pray that my eyes, this advent, will be looking for him all the time, talking about him freely, and giving him the freedom to do what he does best through the likes of me; love, serve, bless, and impart hope.

Yes.  I’m burying the word Christian… if it rises from the dead, so be it.  But may it never rise unless it represents the pure unadulterated glory of the risen Christ.  Amen?

These are my thoughts… still forming.  I welcome yours!

Posted in church | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

“Where do you want to go today?” Wrong question!

The answer to the question “Where do you want to go today?” would never have been Los Angeles for my wife and I.  The reasons don’t matter.  What matters is that when we married we lived in California and had hopes of returning to Washington state someday, where clouds, rain, snow, and water and glorious mountains abound.  Instead, two years into our marriage, and feeling a call to the study the Bible, we moved to Los Angeles so that I could attend seminary.  We considered many options.  We prayed about it.  To our dismay, Los Angeles came out on top.  So we went, not knowing what we’d find, but having a clear sense of God’s direction, a direction which, by the way, overruled our human desires.

Things didn’t always go well during our early days down there in the beautiful sun, and not so pretty smog:

1. the first week, while trying to open a bank account, I was mistaken by the teller for a bank robber because I matched the description of an at large thief.

2. Our car was stolen.

3. Our first apartment flooded.

4. Another car we owned was destroyed by the repair shop

5. Some 6th grade thugs on bikes tried to rip off my wife’s purse from her while she was walking home from work.

6. It was smoggy and hot; so hot that one day, when the air conditioning failed in our upstairs apartment, we came home to candles bent over, melted so they looked like the St. Louis arch.

Somewhere in the thick of all this disappointment, we came to realize that, even though we weren’t geographically where we wanted to be, we were where we belonged.  We knew it, and decided that if this is where we were, then, by God, we were going to learn to enjoy it.  And we did:

1. We went to the Hollywood Bowl for concerts and picnics

2. We made lifelong friends

3. I took a job as a youth pastor in a church, and the experience yoked my heart to youth, a link that’s never been broken.

4. A holocaust survivor lived in our apartment complex.  He helped me with my Hebrew studies and shared stories of survival.  Those stories led me to study Bonhoeffer, and eventual Sophie Scholl and the resistance movement among Christ followers, and this study was critical in overhauling my theology, from a fixation on the rapture and escape from this troubled world, to the necessity of bringing the presence of Christ’s future reign to light right here; right now.  Germany became a place of fascination for me because of him.  How could a “Christian” nation so miss the mark?  Where were the courageous pastors?  I hoped to visit someday.

5. I learned to preach, and was good enough that I was selected to preach at a student chapel as a contestant for a preaching contest.  (who knew there were such things… who knows why there are such things?)

That sermon was taped, and after I’d graduated, and turned down ministry job offers in Los Angeles, a small church on an island in Washington state contacted me, asking me if I’d come up and preach.  They were looking for an interim pastor, and liked my sermon, the one that was sitting around at the seminary only because I was in a silly preaching contest.  Would I be interested in considering their position?  I visited, landing in Friday Harbor on a Friday evening.  By Sunday afternoon, I’d been offered a job.  Four weeks later, we moved to Washington state where, three weeks after that, our first child was born.  All that was 29 year ago.

Five years after that, a group of students were staying with us on that island when the Berlin wall came down.  One of them was from Germany.  She was watching Tom Brokaw at the wall with us, in tears, telling us stories of separated families that could now be reunited.  Three years later, I’d visit, shaped by a holocaust survivor and a student who’d never met half her relatives because they lived in east Germany.  Now I’ve been teaching in Europe, nearly every year for twenty.

I’d have moved anywhere had I known in advance the priceless lessons I’d learn, the experience I’d get.  The problem, though, is that God doesn’t tell us in advance.  He just says, “Go” or “Stay here” or whatever it is that God says to us as we try to listen, try to follow.  Only by looking in the rear view mirror can we see what God was doing back then.  And sometimes the fog doesn’t clear, even with the rear view mirror, for years.  But when we know, there’s always this sense of “of course…isn’t that just like God.  Using that to prepare me for this!”

Since we don’t know this stuff in advance, though, we just need to follow.  And that can be o so hard to do because it requires faith and obedience, not negotiation, pre-nups, conditional clauses, and contracts.  Our capacity to say yes when God calls is ultimately rooted in whether we believe God is both good and for us.  I’ve been young, and now am older (though not yet old) and I’m happy to report that God is worth the risk, worth the faith, worth the adventure.  God is sending you places you don’t want to go, at least sometimes, in order to shape you for a life of joy, generosity, hope, and peace.  The sooner we learn to listen and say yes, the sooner we get there.

Jesus –

As we enter a season of gratitude, I pray for grace to see retrospectively with gratitude, to see that one of the glorious effects of the gospel is that you have the capacity to use the unchosen, the unwelcome, and even the darkest moments, to shape in us a unique capacity for expressing light.  May we be granted eyes to see this, and trust you, not only with our past, but with our present and future.  In the name of you, who are our hope. 

Amen

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Recovering the Body before its completely dead.

A little while ago I posted a piece about “the end of sex” as we know it, referencing an article about the dramatically diminishing sex lives of Japanese young people, as the joy of human contact is displaced by virtual realities, work demands, and the discovery that commitment free recreational sex is a mirage, as even popular movies tell us here.

Stepping back from the particulars of sexuality, its easy to see the trend line pointing all of us towards lives that are increasingly removed from physical realities.  Food comes from boxes.  Comfort comes from climate controlled indoor boxes called buildings.  Entertainment comes from boxes.  Sexual release comes from boxes.  It’s possible to live such a ridiculously insulated existence that we need never leave home again.

“That’s ridiculous!”  I can hear you saying it.  But when was the last time you ate food straight from a garden?  Walked barefoot?  Spent time outside in the rain? Slept under the stars? When was the last time you were hungry, or cold, or thirsty?  When was the last time you hugged you spouse or parent or child, not in a formal way, but in a lingering way, indicating of your deep affection for the other?  When was the last time you looked into your lover’s eyes deeply enough to see their soul, and allow yours to be seen too?

When David encourages us to “taste and see” that the Lord is good, he’s inviting us to allow revelation of God’s character to come to us through our senses, to allow ourselves to be shaped not only by revelation from the scriptures, but from taste, touch, smell, beauty, pleasure, pain.  IN world that’s increasingly becoming virtual, urban, and disembodied, Christ followers have a chance to display an alternative: life lived fully, unmediated through pixels.

This, though, will be challenging because since the beginning, Christ followers have struggled with integration.  The gospel and letters of John, along with Colossians, address our tendency to split the universe into spirit and matter, a view that comes from Plato, not Jesus.  We’ve gone there though, for reasons beyond the scope of this little piece.  The results have not been pretty, as sexual phobias drive desire underground, misreadings about “love not the world” lead to neglect of the environment, and “set your mind on heavenly things” has come only to mean “read your Bible more”.  It’s time to come home to the good news that God has made us to be whole people.  It’s time to come home to our bodies.  Here are some ways:

1. View body care as a faith issue – Phrases about the spirit “giving life to our mortal bodies” and our bodies being “temples” ought to shake us out of our gnostic slumber long enough to help us see that exercising, eating real food, getting enough sleep, and maybe taking our shoes off once in a while aren’t evidence of self indulgent narcissism, but rather stewardship.  There are lots of places to go if you need motivation or inspiration.  I go here.

2. Embrace our identities as sexual beings – This is where we’re afraid to go, afraid even to talk about it because we think that any body positive, or sex positive messaging will lead to promiscuity and addiction.  That’s like saying that we shouldn’t take about food for fear of obesity or anorexia.  In fact, it’s the phobic taboo nature of the topic that leads countless men and women to struggle with their sexuality alone, underground.  Thus this fundamental part of their identity, this gift from God is only spoken of in hushed tones, when it ought to be an integral part of our lives and teaching.   I’m presently collecting resources to share in this area and will devote an entire post to a list soon.

3. Unplug. – You’ve got to turn it off.  Phone.  Pad.  Computer.  Music.  You’ve got to listen to the silence, or to the nuances in the voice and body language of the one to whom you’re speaking.  You’ve got to pay attention, tasting the food you’re eating, the smell of coffee just before it touches your lips, the new trees growing out of an old stump, the sensation of cold when you walk barefoot in November.  This kind of “tasting and seeing” is ultimately a tasting and seeing that the Lord is good, or can be, if we’ll but start with the realization that God is speaking – all the time, through all God’s made.  Reduce your focus to a screen, though, and you’ll miss it.

5. Get outside. Garden.  Hike.  Gaze at the Milky Way.  Go for a run.  Climb a mountain.  Walk to work.  Do whatever it takes so that you can come to see and believe that you’re part of something much bigger, that God’s providing for you through the water cycle, seasons, and the interconnectedness of all life.

6. Read your Bible.  I just wrote about Coffee with God, and the necessity of meeting Christ in the Bible.  Why?  This is your map, offering interpretation for all the beauty and pain, and desire and fulfillment, loss and hunger, feasting and celebration, intimacy and distancing that you’ll experience when you live an embodied life.  This is vital because in the end these very bodies we’re living in will decay.  But if we let them, they’ll inform, sanctify, and fortify all that we are, not just in time but in eternity.

You think our world is thirsty for this?  I do, as seen here:

Revelation, a Visual Poem. from sebastien montaz-rosset on Vimeo.

Posted in body | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

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.

 

 

 

 

Posted in coffee with God, intimacy | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

The End of Sex as we know it – and what to do about it (embodiment pt 2)

“Japan’s under-40s appear to be losing interest in conventional relationships. Millions aren’t even dating, and increasing numbers can’t be bothered with sex.” 

So begins an article about the continuing loss of interest in sex among young people in Japan.  The government even has a name for it:  Celibacy syndrome.  It’s examined at length in this article.   Though a loss of interest in sex might be every fundamentalist preacher’s dream, a closer look at the “why” behind it should terrify us all, for its rooted in several dysfunctions that are the byproduct of an increasingly techno/material worldview that has little time for, or interest in, physical or spiritual realities.   Here’s what I mean:

1. Work Life is consuming real life – Here’s an example from the article:  Tomita has a job she loves in the human resources department of a French-owned bank. A fluent French speaker with two university degrees, she avoids romantic attachments so she can focus on work. “A boyfriend proposed to me three years ago. I turned him down when I realized I cared more about my job. After that, I lost interest in dating. It became awkward when the question of the future came up.”  Careers take time in Japan, and they take time in the USA too.   A fruit of this value structure is that there’s less energy, both physical and emotional, for the pursuit of intimacy.  Still, it might be worth it if intimacy and union was something worth pursuing.  But it’s not, because of the second problem.

2. Intimacy Cynicism.  Every post-boomer generation seems to have an increasingly cynical view of marriage.  There are lots of reasons for this but perhaps the biggest one is the appalling lack of accessible healthy marriage examples.  Boomers marriages have failed more than previous generations.  Further, among those that didn’t fail, many simply lowered the bar, particularly in religious circles, so that a successful marriage was defined as “not divorce”.   I remember an older couple at church telling a young woman that the key to a successful marriage was to realize “there’s no back door – no escape – no leaving – no quitting”  I watched the hope drain out of her face and after he left she said, “That’s why I doubt I’ll ever marry.  I want intimacy, not a roommate to be stuck with the rest of my life.”

Of course, if I’m skeptical about marrying, or skeptical my marriage will last, then my own financial security becomes paramount “just in case”, and then the notion that either of us can contribute to the household in some way other than through a career evaporates.  We each need our jobs, not out of a sense of calling, joy, or creativity, but as a trump card for our own survival.  In such a setting, cynicism about the possibility of intimacy becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for many because you don’t have the hope and trust necessary to enter into the risk of commitment.  “Marriage?  Too risky.”  I hear iterations of this regularly.

3. The Dusk of Commitment Free Sex – From the article:  Tomita sometimes has one-night stands with men she meets in bars, but she says sex is not a priority, either. “I often get asked out by married men in the office who want an affair. They assume I’m desperate because I’m single.” She grimaces, then shrugs. “Mendokusai.”Mendokusai translates loosely as “Too troublesome” or “I can’t be bothered”. It’s the word I hear both sexes use most often when they talk about their relationship phobia

There are a growing number of young people who are beginning to experience the reality articulated in sources as wide ranging as the Bible and “No Strings Attached”:  Sex has emotional consequences and costs.  The notion that sex can be rewarding as “just sex” is increasingly seen through the lens of real experiences as myth.  Sex is devalued.  Intimacy is divorced from sex, or intimacy is birthed as an unanticipated expectation.  And so, Mendokusai – not the worth the trouble.  Or, as I’ve heard it said in Italian: Non vale il pene – not worth the penis

4. A disembodied existence.  Our virtual world of social media, phones, TV, video games, and easy access to porn, creates an entire alternative, unreal world, a world which is consuming more and more time among the generations.  Phillip Zimbardo speaks of this through the lens of American culture in his e-book, “The Demise of Guys”, cataloging many factors for the social, sexual, and intimacy dysfunction of men.  The church, sadly, has been part of the problem too, not by encouraging social media and porn, but by ignoring enjoyment of, commitment to, and care for the body.  Unfortunate understanding of our faith have exalted disembodied spiritual existence as a sort of “Christian nirvana” when in reality the Bible is filled with great food, wine, sex, thirst, hunger, sweat, blood, sunrises, mountains, rivers and streams, and everything else that invite us to be spiritual people in our bodies.

The therapist in Japan says, cites one man in his early 30s, a virgin, who can’t get sexually aroused unless he watches female robots on a game similar to Power Rangers. “I use therapies, such as yoga and hypnosis, to relax him and help him to understand the way that real human bodies work.”

If we who follow Christ shrug this off as “someone else’s problem” we’re blind both to our own sickness, and to the opportunity given us as a voice of hope and transformation.  Christ followers must show the way forward by living out their faith in the flesh, which requires the risk of intimacy, the enjoyment and discipline of the body, and aliveness of the senses, and the embodiment of genuinely grace filled intimacy and sexuality, with all its vulnerability and courage.  We can’t be light in this world without these commitments.

PS – since I’m out of words, and out of time, I’ll post thoughts regarding helpful steps for each of these four issues on Friday or next Monday.  If you subscribe, you’ll be sure not to miss it! (just hit the “sign me up” button to the right)

Posted in body, church | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on The End of Sex as we know it – and what to do about it (embodiment pt 2)