Sunday, March 20, 2016

Prisoners of Hope

Hope is at a premium these days. The political season breeds cynicism and anger, neither of which make fertile soil for hope to grow. It is clear that our leaders have failed us. As a result, we have become pragmatists because it is impossible to trust in their character any longer. This pragmatism is not isolated to politics and their ilk. In business or education or (and especially) the church, we want leaders who can show profits, advance a vision, solve problems, or just get things done where others can’t. But such a leader might make us money or satisfy our thirst for justice, but without character they can never produce authentic hope.

The prophet Zechariah’s message to the remnant of Israel was that their only true hope was in the leadership of God himself. This was the only way they would become reconciled to the land, to each other, and to their calling as a light to the Nations. Israel and its leaders had become masters of exterior religion:

"Ask all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted? And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting for yourselves?” - Zechariah 7:5-6

God rejected these empty acts and instead pointed them towards true religion that breeds hope and transforms society:

"This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.” - Zechariah 7:9-10

Their refusal to embody authentic hope cost them their land for 70 years and almost cost them their identity as a people. But Zechariah prophesies a pure injection of hope in the form of a Humble King riding into Jerusalem on a donkey.

"Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
    Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
    righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
- Zechariah 9:9

This is, of course, a clear foreshadowing of what we Christians celebrated today, Palm Sunday. The prophecy continues that he will restore peace to Jerusalem and to the Nations. He will lead them away from their weapons of war and establish his rule. But it is the next promise that would have screamed the loudest to the Israelites:

As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you,
    I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit.
Return to your fortress, you prisoners of hope;
    even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you."
- Zechariah 9:11-12

This is a beautiful promise that rings loud and clear thousands of years later. At this point in their history, the reality of God’s covenant was a memory trying to be revived. But for those who had been imprisoned for two generations, all they had left was the hope that God would remember his end of the bargain. In light of their disobedience and exile, that was all they had left. They were “prisoners of hope” and they were about to be set free - and receive a double portion!

Today, as followers of Jesus, it is easy to get discouraged. The lack of authentic leadership in our government, work places, and churches is stunning. The absence of character, loss of community, and pervasive religiosity is so disheartening that it would be easy to lose hope. But in spite of what we see - and in spite of our own sins and insecurities - we cannot lose hope. For you see, like the Israelites, we are prisoners of hope and God will restore what the enemy has stolen. 

Choose hope. Do not become part of the hopeless masses that trust in the small ideas of egotistical leaders. Trust in the big idea of God’s kingdom, that he wants to bless, restore, and renew. Be a part of his transformation project. Be a prisoner of hope.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Church: On Sticking to the Things That Matter

For about the past decade and a half I've tried to stay faithful to the idea that the best way to help a group of people "be the church" is to keep reminding myself what really matters.  It is so easy to get distracted by dreams, visions, plans, and goals.  It is equally easy to get distracted by theological debate, controversy, or political issues that mask themselves as signifiers of true versus false Christianity.  I humbly suggest that God's desire is for Christians and their churches to become obsessed with how they can make the green grass that their feet walk on every day a better place to live.  It starts - and for the most part - ends there.  So along those lines, one of the questions I ask myself often is how our church can continue to stick to the things that matter, and stick with the people that matter, right around us.  

Sometimes it can be difficult to answer the question, "Where do you go to church?"  The other day I was thinking about how I usually answer that question (terribly...which is one of the many reasons why I wouldn't make a great traditional pastor).  But this brilliant thought popped into my head...

We are not trying to be right, better, or different than everyone else. We are just trying to keep it real. 

So true.  Maybe that's our vision statement.  I'm so tired of gimmicks or the next, great movement that will save western Christianity.  In fact, I've stopped keeping track of what's new or next in the church.  I don't want to save the church anymore; just give me real.  Life is busy.  People have jobs and families to care for.  I'm not going to ask them to join my program to save the world.  Toddlers cry and interrupt sermons.  Good people get into bad marriages.  Sickness happens.  Teenagers make bad choices.  Sometimes, you just want to pack a cooler, skip church, and hit the beach.  I don't think that scares Jesus away.

But on the flip side, I have seen great beauty in the simplicity of love shared in community.  We need each other.  In the wisdom of AA, it only works if you work it.  Sometimes all you have to give is your presence, and that's all you really need to bring anyway.  Just show up.  God does the rest.

So if our vision statement is to keep it real, then what follows must be our statement of faith and practice.  Yeah, I know, how low-church of me...

We are a family adopted by God. 

We trust that one day God will make all things new including us. 

We are trying to be in the present what we will be in the future. 

We don’t spend too much time dwelling on our mistakes, failures, or shortcomings. 

We forgive and forget because we have been forgiven much. 

We love parties because the kingdom of God is a party. 

We like inviting others to the party.

That's about it.  Yep, I think we're going to keep doing what we're doing.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Finding the Jesus Movement Again

Most Americans (including this one) live a highly coordinated, fast-paced existence.  Life is a complex machine.  There is very little down time.  Weekdays are filled with work, school, sports, car-pools, and heaven forbid if the car has to get the oil changed and tires rotated.  If a car does break down, or a child gets sick, or someone has to travel, the efficiency of the machine takes a serious hit.  At that point, we do everything in our power to get the machine repaired and humming along again. 

In increasing numbers, Americans are eliminating church from the design of their machines.  Over the course of the last generation, the church has been pushed to the margins of influence and participation.  The public image of Christianity is about political power and shaming society's ills.  The Bible is not taken seriously as a source of authority for modern life.  Pastors make great punchlines.  If God is alive, and the common thought is that he very well might not be, he is far too silent and mysterious to actually place serious belief in or more importantly, follow.

The machines of most 21st century Americans are running fine without God.  We now have the tangible wonders of science to heal our bodies and technology to dazzle our minds.  Soon our organic machines will be enhanced in unimaginable ways by robotics and artificial intelligence.  But in spite of the progress, there are still massive problems facing the world.  Since we Americans generally have enough food to eat and disposable income for craft beer, it follows that we should care deeply about how to fix these problems for the rest of humanity.  If you are a rational person, it is not difficult to see that there is a tremendous amount of work to do for the good of the world.  Who has time to waste on God, religion, or church?  And those are the rational ones!  Everyone else has been swept along with the tide of the new civil religion - worshiping the god of self.  And that kind of worship does not mix well with the God talked about in church.

If you are a church-going Christian, pastor, or church leader, this is all very disconcerting.  From a broad perspective the situation seems hopeless.  The temptation is to up the stakes with loud rhetoric condemning evil and pandering to a base of believers already convinced.  Or pump money into advertising and initiatives to get people to return to church.  Or become content with being pushed further and further into the margins.  None of these responses seem to be working.

I believe, quite simply, the answer will not be found by church insiders.  No offense to anyone reading this who is a pastor, church planter, or a good church-going family.  Your churches do wonderful things in your community and lives are being changed.  But, you won't get God back into the 21st century American machine.  That ship has sailed.

The answer will come from where it is least expected.  Cultural outsiders.  Immigrants.  Sinners.  The unclean and uncouth.  Fatherless and motherless.  Those longing for acceptance and community.  Those who desire mercy yet receive none.  Somewhere, sometime, within this soup of people who are loved by God (who Christians affectionately call "the Lost"), the Holy Spirit will stir.  It may have already happened.  An outsider meets Jesus and is set free.  Like the woman at the well.  Or Mary Magdalene.  In the rush of that freedom, Jesus is shared with another, and another, and another.  Signs and wonders will happen.  The kingdom of God will be discovered.  The beauty and wealth of God's Story in scripture will be read and treasured.  "Church" in its essence will happen in broken yet beautiful ways.  But at the center will be Jesus, as King, leading his movement and shepherding his family as he has been from the beginning.

The answer we are looking for is a recovery of the Jesus Movement.  Not a revival of the Jesus Movement from the 60's and 70's.  Not a charismatic or pentecostal renewal.  Not a return to the church holding a position of power in culture.  It is the purity of Jesus changing hearts and minds and lives, setting people free from the bondage of self-idolatry, self-hatred, and the false promise of humanity saving itself without God.  

Let us pray and watch for such a movement.  I'm praying, and waiting.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Good Life

From Adam and Eve forward, humanity has been trying to answer the question, “How do we thrive?”  Another way to pose that question would be to ask, “What is the good life?"  There are a thousand ways to answer that question.  Whole societies have been built on certain answers like survival, freedom, conquest, the pursuit of wealth, power and control, even hatred for other societies.  America was built on answers like opportunity, adventure, exploration, religious freedom, and a healthy dose of individualism.  

But once a society is built and established, it gets steadily more difficult to maintain “the good life”.  The ideals that build a society, the over-arching Story that pioneers lived and died for, gets watered down. Pioneers are quickly replaced with settlers.  And settlers have a habit of forgetting the reasons why the society was built in the first place. 

To a settler, the good life means to have a good job, a good marriage, well-adjusted and healthy kids, a comfortable house, work out 3 times a week, drink in moderation, and only occasionally order 2 dozen crullers from the local gourmet donut shop.  Settlers - and let’s face it, all us are settlers - eventually lose touch with the powerful founding Story that motivated the pioneers to accomplish the amazing things they did. 

In the book of Joshua, it is recorded how the people of Israel occupied the land God gave them under the leadership and faithfulness of Joshua son of Nun.  It is the story of a generation of pioneers and warriors that believed with absolute conviction that nothing was going to stop them because God was with them and for them.  But eventually their time came to an end.  In Judges chapter 2, starting in verse 7 it says:

"...each of the tribes left to take possession of the land allotted to them.  And the Israelites served the Lord throughout the lifetime of Joshua and the leaders who outlived him—those who had seen all the great things the Lord had done for Israel.  Joshua son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died at the age of 110. They buried him in the land he had been allocated, at Timnath-serah in the hill country of Ephraim, north of Mount Gaash."

But in verse 10 it says, "After that generation died, another generation grew up who did not acknowledge the Lord or remember the mighty things he had done for Israel.  The Israelites did evil in the Lord’s sight and served the images of Baal. They abandoned the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. They went after other gods, worshiping the gods of the people around them."

So in one generation - one single generation - the Israelites went from the spoils of victory and the blessing of God to abandonment of God and utter failure.  Stunning.   

What is the Good Life?  How do settlers - those of us tasked with living in the in-between times, where no volcanic, society-creating activity is going on - stay faithful to the Story that got us here in the first place?  Well, just like the people of Israel, if we forget where we came from, how we got here, and who led us here, we are doomed for failure.   

As great as the American Dream is and as great as the pioneers were that founded this country, as followers of Jesus it is not our ultimate Story.  Phillipians 3:20 and 21 says, "But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior.  He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same power with which he will bring everything under his control."  Now this is not describing some otherworldly future where we will be floating on clouds and playing harps.  This is talking about God-shaped reality; life as God intended it from the beginning.  This is where heaven and earth come together.  This is resurrection and new life as citizens of God’s kingdom. 

Because this is our future, we live now with this image in full view.  As bad as the world gets, we know who comes out on top.  As messed up as people are, we know God is in the rescue and recovery business, the resurrection business. 

In 1 Corinthians 15:54-58, Paul tells us how this all fits together:

"Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled:  

Death is swallowed up in victory.  O death, where is your victory, O death, where is your sting?  

For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power.  But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ.  So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable.  Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless." 

That is our story.  That is our promise.  Nothing you do for the Lord is useless.  No-thing.  So that brings us full circle.  What is the good life?  What does it mean to thrive?  Well, it starts as we follow Jesus together as a family.  It starts around the table, sharing a meal, singing, praying, interacting, remembering our history and imagining our future.  And then we go out from there, or more accurately, we get sent out.  And we become representatives of the kingdom that will have no end.  We work, we raise families, we love our neighbors, we pray, we heal, we suffer, and we laugh.  And all of those things, every-thing, matters to God.  Not just what we do in a church service.   

Truth be told, much of life is pretty ordinary and unglamorous.  It is the stuff of settlers.  Many churches try to pump up crowds with big ideas, big programs, and big visions - pioneer talk.  But what happens when you leave church and have to change a diaper?  Or wash the dishes?  Or do your homework?  In God’s economy, that is holy work, not just what is typically called ministry

So here is the truth.  Do you want to live the good life?  Then find some friends, some fellow settlers that have not forgotten the Story.  People that love God and love each other.  You don’t have to do anything fancy.  You don’t need smoke machines and a million dollar sound system.  Just be together, worship, pray, eat, laugh, and love.  Then go live.  And be a generation, like Joshua’s, that serves God for the rest of your lives.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

A Liturgy of Resistance

Below is an introduction to something our community - Resurrection Church - did tonight as a part of our weekly worship gathering.  We met at a local park - this one.  I read the introduction and then sent the group on their way.  Bummer for me, I had to pick up one kid and then deal with another kid's sick friend, so I missed out on the conversation.  But that's the great thing about a liturgy that is truly participatory...the Spirit knows how to lead the Church!  Please feel free to use / modify / or otherwise rip off this for your own community of faith.

Our lives are filled with ever-present obligations and responsibilities. From the moment we wake up until we go to sleep, an endless list of have-to's and should-have-done's consume our minds. We are bombarded by the tyranny of the urgent. A crying baby needs her milk. A deadline needs to be met. The pantry needs to be filled. The car needs a new tire. These “needs” never stop. To make matters worse, everything we read, watch, and hear from the outside is aimed at either trying to create a need within us (advertising), convince us that the crisis of the day in the world should be our crisis (the news), or help us escape from having to cope with this thing called life (entertainment).

The Gospel - the Message of God’s Kingdom - is like a Molotov cocktail thrown in the middle of our living room.  God is not interested in helping us prop up our distracted, conflicted lives.  He doesn’t want to give us keys to a better self while the self we have is riddled with sin, pain, guilt, and shame.  He doesn’t want to slap a new coat of paint on the walls and call it a new house.  No, he’d rather burn it down and start building you a mansion.

Don’t be fooled by the current attempts to sanitize or domesticate the good news of Jesus Christ.  Here are some truths that should be stated plainly.  All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of GodChrist Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  There is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus.  For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in GodChrist has been raised from the dead.  We will not all die, but we will all be transformed!

Today, we will practice together a liturgy of resistance.  Recall that liturgy simply means, “The Work of the People.”  It’s what we do as a community to worship God and orient ourselves in God’s kingdom, which is in fact the real world.  There have been times in the history of God’s people where our worship takes on a certain edge.  Sometimes, we have to stand up to the powers that be and say, “Enough’s enough.  You are not God.  You are not in control of our lives and we don’t have to live by your rules.”

So today, in solidarity with churches around the world that have no permanent place to worship, we are proclaiming this park to be our sanctuary.  The leaves of the trees will be our musicians, the birds will be our choir, and the trails will be our pews.  Printed on these papers are a few scripture verses that remind us about the truth of God’s kingdom.  There are also a few questions to think about and discuss.  For the next hour, let’s walk through the park and ponder these verses together.  You may walk alone for a time if you wish, but I would encourage you to be together as much as possible.  Turn your cell phones off and try to keep the small talk to a minimum.  Choose one person to be the facilitator and to read the verses and questions.  Don’t worry if you don’t finish all the questions - let the Spirit lead!

A Liturgy of Resistance (pdf)

Saturday, February 28, 2015

A Pastoral Geometry Lesson

"American pastors are abandoning their posts, left and right, and at an alarming rate. They are not leaving their churches and getting other jobs. Congregations still pay their salaries. Their names remain on the church stationery and they continue to appear in pulpits on Sundays. But they are abandoning their posts, their calling. They have gone whoring after other gods. What they do with their time under the guise of pastoral ministry hasn't the remotest connection with what the church's pastors have done for most of twenty centuries."

This may sound like the rant of an angry, young blogger.  It's not.  This may sound like a bitter congregant who has been hurt by the church.  It's not...not even close.  This may sound like a pastor who is jealous of other pastors who have large churches, a bigger platform, or a better book deal.  Ha!  No, this is a quote from Eugene Peterson, best selling author, scholar, poet, and pastor.  He's one of my heroes, and I agree with him wholeheartedly.

Peterson wrote Working the Angles in 1987, almost 30 years ago.  Since that time, the role of pastor in America has continued to degenerate.  The "other gods" Peterson refers to are easy to name.  Celebrity status.  Money.  Political influence.  Organizational control.  Relevance.  These are no longer temptations to avoid that a few succumb to and the rest condemn.  They are expected, sought after, and encouraged.  These gods dominate the landscape of what it means to be a pastor.  And they make me sick.

Peterson advocated for a return to the three basic pastoral angles - prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction - that give the visible lines of pastoral ministry - preaching, teaching, and administration - their shape.  Without the angles, you are left with a jumbled mess of lines, not a triangle, a real ministry.  The beauty of a triangle is its structural integrity.  It is stable and can handle weight and pressure.  There is no "better" side to an equilateral triangle.  Each side, each angle, is as valuable as any other.

I have spent the last 13 years pastoring (verb) various groups of people in a variety of contexts.  I have never carried the title of pastor in the same way Peterson did.  It's not my day job.  However, I have tried to invest as much time as I can to the angles as a means to make my pastoring as effective as possible for the few God has entrusted me to equip.  Some of the practicalities of pastoring must be shared in a community like ours.  The lines of my triangle are short.  But I have others around me who are also capable shepherds and practice pastoring in their families, their workplaces, and in their neighborhoods.

Honestly, I do not think the role of pastor will ever return to its former place of honor in American society.  The internal pressures (the gods mentioned above) and external pressures (culture's denial of spiritual authority and the knowledge of God) are just too great.  Instead of wringing their hands and attempting to grasp for the last shreds of honor, pastors should swallow their pride, take the rebuke, and fervently return to the triangular task of pastoring.  For some, this may mean the end of a career, to drop the pastoral salary and find a job in the community.  They might find ways to use their gifts in other settings than the Sunday morning service routine, maybe as business owners, counselors, or coaches.  For others, it may mean redefining the role of pastor around the ancient skills (angles) and finding innovative new ways to draw the lines that are the meat of pastoral work.  

Of course, included in this is the recognition that the equippers doing the equipping in Ephesians 4 are not all pastors and not even all leaders!  They are people, Holy Spirit empowered people that are willing to respond to God's call - however big or small - to help the church grow in unity, maturity, wisdom, knowledge of God, health, and ultimately, Christlikeness.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Reading the Bible as God's Story

Ever struggle with the Bible being dry, repetitive, or even confusing?  Tired of listening to other Christians spout off Bible verses that seem to say something else when you read them?  Do you listen to sermons and just feel like you must not be smart enough to really understand the Bible?

Well, a lot of these feelings are a direct result of the way most Christians have been trained to read the Bible.  Although we could spend a lifetime and barely scratch the surface of the historical, literary, and theological dimensions of Scripture - for most of us, we just want to hear what God has to say.  That starts with learning the underlying story that lives within the Bible.  With that foundation, we can begin to hear what God is saying to us without a Doctorate in Theology.

I've made this short video to introduce the Scriptural story and why it's so important to helping us read the Bible the way God intends.  If you want to know more after you watch, here's a few very helpful resources:

The True Story of the Whole World: Finding Your Place in the Biblical Drama by Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew

How to Read the Bible For All It's Worth, by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart

God's Epic Adventure - Changing Our Culture by the Story We Live and Tell, by Winn Griffin