On Charlottesville

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I am still in shock about what we saw in Charlottesville. You may have heard it said, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” The unique outrage of a follower of Jesus is far deeper than a political perspective or a patriotic love of one’s country. It is outrage against racism and its direct opposition to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Racism is about valuing one race over another. Jesus came for the world, every single person. The heart that believes one race is more valuable than another is a sinful heart in need of God’s transforming grace.
Jesus spoke of the kingdom, a theology of grace. Because of his death and resurrection, a transformation can happen in our attitude toward our own race and culture as well as to those belonging to other races and cultures.
In his book Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian, John Piper (2011) wisely points out, “The bloodline of Jesus Christ is deeper than the bloodlines of race. The death and resurrection of the Son of God for sinners is the only sufficient power to bring the bloodlines of race into the single bloodline of the cross” (pp. 13-14).
It was unbelievable to watch a group called “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville with torches lit, chanting hateful phrases. It was moving to watch the clergy of Charlottesville stand, kneel, and lock arms in silent protest. Their action proclaimed that White supremacy is a lie. Linked together, they powerfully embodied the love of Jesus on a very dark day.
What does a non-violent, Christian and cruciform response look like to the hatred in Charlottesville? There is much wisdom in the words of, Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jewish woman, who fought courageously to save as many as she could from the horrors of Auschwitz and ultimately succumbed to the gas chambers. She wrote of her captors:
Like us, they too, are bearers of the Divine image however deeply marred and buried it may be, and so they are people to whom we belong. To remove from the mind the label of enemy’ is like removing the blinds from a window and letting the light in. If you will not hate them, then you may begin to see them. We should be willing to act as a balm for all wounds. (Woodhouse, P. 2009. Etty Hillesum: A Life Transformed.)
In our outrage at those who dehumanize others, we do not respond with dehumanizing words or actions because to do so causes us to lose our witness. This world is broken, but God is whole. So we continually ask Him to draw us into wholeness, and to allow us to live out a third way – one that is not “the left” or the right” but altogether different because it is led by Jesus himself. He leads us into being unpredictable people of peace, just in all we say and do each day.
In his very interesting article in Time this week, Brian McLaren spoke about what he saw in Charlottesville as he joined with clergy in protest. McLaren describes the movement as an “alt-religious” movement that is providing disenchanted people with identity, community and purpose. This, he says, is what religious communities do. They provide people with a sense of identity (a personal sense of who we are), community (a social sense of where we belong), and purpose (a spiritual sense of why our lives matter).
If faith communities don’t provide these healthy life-giving human needs, then death-dealing alt-religions will fill the gap…. In Charlottesville, I saw Nazi flags on American soil and alt religious fervor in the faces of American Nazis and white nationalists. The message I will bring to faith leaders around our nation is both urgent and clear: Aristotle was right. Nature indeed abhors a vacuum. If we don’t provide emerging generations with genuine identity, community and purpose through robust and vibrant spiritual communities, somebody else will do so. If good religion slumbers and stagnates, bad religion is the alternative. (http://time.com/4915161/charlottesville-alt-right-alt-christianity/)
So Platt Park Church, what we are building together matters. It matters far beyond our personal enjoyment of the music, message, or community. Together we are building an environment where people can come to find a deep and true identity, community, and purpose for life.

Yard Culture and the Landscapes of Life

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A few years ago, we moved into our neighborhood which I adore. When we moved in, I said to Tim, “This place has a yard culture.” He said, “A yard culture? What’s a yard culture?” I took him outside and had him look down the street at our neighbor’s lawns, which were by and large green, groomed and tidy. We live in a beautiful historic urban neighborhood. Most people take pride in their manicured lawns. Since this is the city, it is a postage stamp sized yard, so these are not big sprawling spaces. Once we noticed this, we fell in line. We lined up a lawn care service and got out there ourselves to pull weeds, plant flowers and try to keep things green.
This summer I’ve been noticing landscapes. When I travel to the mountains, there is not much yard culture–aspens, columbines, poppies and weeds grow wild and free together While visiting Israel, I was struck by the different landscapes of desert, mountain, and sea–the Dead Sea, the Sea of Galilee, and the desolate Wadi Qelt of Saint Georges Monastery (pictured above).
Our souls also have landscapes. We have seasons of lush, green, fruitful living when the beauty and consolation of God’s provision and blessings abound. And we have seasons of dry, arid, seeming deadness and lack. Here the brutal is front and center and the desolation of our circumstances and interior world seem without hope.
In all of these seasons, God is present. In all of these seasons, there is an invitation to grow. In all of these seasons there are gifts if we are awake to see.
Sometimes we need to throw out our neat and tidy lawn mowers and embrace that wild and free landscape that our souls long for. Some days, we need to wake up with no agenda, no devices, and no productivity. Just as beautiful things grow in the unmanicured landscape of the mountains and desert, so beauty blooms in me when I allow space to follow my heart.
“If you cannot go into the desert, you must nonetheless make some desert in your life.” -Carlo Carretto, Letters from the Desert

On Creating

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Creating and nurturing life requires vulnerability. Birth is messy. Isn’t it interesting that creating new life is the most vulnerable and messy act imaginable? The same is true of all creating. In fact, there is no creating without risk and risk always involves vulnerability. You cannot create anything without vulnerability and risk.
If you want to create something beautiful with your one and only life, it will require vulnerability and risk of you. Playing it safe and being mess-averse keeps you in control but it won’t birth new creation.
The good news is that when we are vulnerable we can remember that we hold the hand of One who has defeated a far greater foe than any challenge we may face in our creative journeys.
So, what will you co-create with God today?

When People Leave

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On a regular basis people come to our church, and on a regular basis people leave our church. For all sorts of reasons, they leave. This is the painful part of being a pastor. I am so very grateful that more people are coming than going these days, but every person who leaves is a loss not just to the church in an abstract way but a loss to me personally, and to our staff. As a pastor I hold people in my heart in a deep way, and I carry their stories with me. It is not a matter of “if” people will leave our church; it is rather a matter of “when.” After all, weather by God’s calling elsewhere, or entropy, or death – we are all on a journey. Each goodbye is painful, sometimes heart-wrenching. I think that just as it is in friendship, we will have our “communities of faith” for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. Some friendships are for a reason, others a season, and some for a lifetime. Our churches are like that too. To be in a church for a lifetime is a rare and beautiful gift, and if you are given this gift, cherish it. Evelena is 94 years old and has been walking through the doors of our church building since she was 14. That is a rare and precious gift. She is a rare and precious gift whom we cherish.

When we decided to adopt a child from China, we imagined a child who was all alone, perhaps in a crib, with little attention or love. After we were “matched” with Lyla, we came to discover quite a different story! Lyla was in a home with the most fabulous and loving foster family. Hulu, her foster mom, immediately began video chatting with me daily so that Lyla could get to know her new mom even months before we met. We would send videos back and forth each day and I would sing to Lyla and read her stories and Hulu would play those videos for Lyla when we were still millions of miles apart. So when we finally met Lyla face-to-face, she already had been prepared in countless ways to be family.

The journey of a foster family is one of loving deeply and fully, and then letting go. Letting go is the final act of love. It is a picture of sacrificial love that is vulnerable, beautiful, and impossible to fully honor.

Hulu and her family gave Lyla (and us) a gift – the gift of loving Lyla and then letting her go. They will always love Lyla in their hearts, but they held her loosely in their hands, knowing one day she would no longer be in their home, though she will always be in their hearts. This is the excruciating work of love.

So here is how I am coming to cope with the dynamic of loving & loosing that is inherent to ministry. Sometimes as a church we are an adoptive family, and other times we are a foster family. We don’t always know which one we will get to be when someone walks through our doors. But, either way our job is the same: love people. Love people like family. Love people deeply, fully, and without fear. If the possibility of someone leaving tomorrow keeps me from loving them fully today, then fear wins. And scripture says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear…” 1 Jo. 4:18

Maybe someone will leave because their time with us was only for a reason or a season. I want to be Hulu in these moments of departure. Like Hulu I will cry, I will grieve, I may even wish it were different. And at the exact same time I will remember: this is what we are made to do. We are made to love, and sometimes loving means letting go. And so the door of my heart remains open towards the person who leaves so that they can go where God leads them with my love and blessing. And if they ever need this family again – we are here. We are here. We are always here. We will love you when you come, and we will love you as you go. We will love you when you fall away and flake out, and if you choose to return, we will love you then as well. After all, our job is to love one another as we have been loved by God.

Our weekly benediction says, “May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you, wherever He may send you. May He guide you through the wilderness, protect you through the storm, may He bring you home rejoicing at the wonders He has shown you, may He bring you home rejoicing – once again into our doors.”

Hulu and I still regularly exchange photos, and she continues to send Lyla the most amazing gifts. As Lyla’s mom, I am forever grateful that Lyla has so many people all around the world who love her so deeply. So for those of you who have left our flock, and for those of you who may, please know that you will always have a special place in my heart. I’m honored to be one of the pastors in this world who has played a small part in your journey.

Someday, Lyla and I will go visit Hulu again in China….”once again into her doors.”

Susie

Emotional Agility

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In the Psalms we read words that do not sound very “Christian.” We read things like, “Bless the one who grabs your babies and smashes them against a rock.” (Psalm 137)
Perhaps the reason they don’t sound very Christian is because the word “Christian” has lost its meaning. For many people in the world today, the word “Christian” means that you generally believe in a higher power and try to be a “nice” person.
And it is precisely this association with being a “nice” person that gets us sideways in acknowledging and dealing with the full gamut of our emotions before the Lord. When we think that being a “good Christian” is the same thing as being a “nice person”, we get ourselves in trouble.
There are some people who have wronged you and others who just rub you wrong, like sandpaper on your skin. There is evil in the world and reasons to become angry. What do you do with those emotions? Do you stuff them? Ignore them? Distract yourself and move around them? The Psalms teach us to acknowledge them and move through them with God in prayer. In fact, there is an entire category of Psalms in the Hebrew Bible called “Imprecatory Psalms” that invoke judgment, calamity or curses upon one’s enemies or those perceived as the enemies of God.
Our problem is we lack self-compassion and so we immediately judge our emotions as either good or bad. If an emotion is a “good” one (i.e. usually happy, joyful, thankful) we welcome it and experience it. But if an emotion is a “bad” one (i.e. usually fear, anger, sadness, grief) we want to get rid of it as fast as possible.
In her book Emotional Agility, Susan David says, “Emotions are just data, they are not directions.” That is a very important thing to remember. Just because I feel like smashing my enemies’ babies into the rock, does not mean I take action. Those emotions are data – they are telling me about some value that I hold dear that perhaps my enemy has violated – but they are not directions for my behavior. How I move forward and act needs more input than my emotions alone. We all know what it feels like to act on a hot-headed emotion filled moment, only to regret our words or actions later.
Rich, full lives are not lives absent of suffering. The reason our favorite stories involve conflict and struggle is because those are elements that make for a great story – and for a great life.
If we are to acknowledge and be enriched by the emotions we experience, regular times of reflection are needed. Every faith tradition in the world seems to prize some form of silence. For Christ followers, silence is a time to hear from God and be reminded that you are his beloved child. Solitude is where I can pause and first acknowledge my emotions (step one), and then honestly and with no filter, bring them before God in prayer. It is amazing how emotions can lose their power over time when we do this. It may feel impossible in the moment, but with God all things are possible. Jesus transformed the 2 fish and 5 loaves into enough to feed 5 thousand people and he can transform our feelings into the soil of a great story too.

Your Soul Is Like a Sponge

Our conception of our lives has been influenced by a farming metaphor – the image of the silo. We think of our lives being comprised of silos.  I have my financial life, my work life, my church life, my home life, and I have my sex life. But when the Bible talks about the heart or the soul, it is the integrating place that is the whole of you.  The soul is not like a silo; it is much more like a sponge. A sponge absorbs water throughout itself. When you put a sponge in water, the whole sponge receives the water. This is why Jesus said, “You cannot serve two masters.” You are an integrated being, a sponge, if you will. Silo living does not work for the human soul. If you give one part of your life to a master other than Jesus, every part of your life will eventually suffer the impact of that master’s reign. The best and only hope for my life to be spiritually whole and healthy is for Jesus to be the master of every dimension of my life.
If power is not dethroned, Jesus cannot be on the throne.
If money is not dethroned, Jesus cannot be on the throne.
If family is not dethroned, Jesus cannot be on the throne.
If my will is not dethroned, Jesus cannot be on the throne.
Look at what Jesus says in Mathew 10:35: “For I have come to turn “a man against his father, daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law- a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me…”
Jesus wants to dethrone every idol in your life, even the good ones, because he knows your soul is like a sponge. He knows that he alone can rule you without destroying you. Every other master will kill you eventually. Whether pride, power, pleasure, the pursuit of happiness, or any other seemingly benign master, each has the power to destroy you if you give it dominion of any part of your life.
Advent is an ideal season in which to prayerfully examine the ways we may be giving power to masters other than Jesus and to repent. We can confidently renounce these other rulers as deceivers and cheats, promising goodness but delivering only temporary satisfaction and ultimate heartache. We can recognize the sponge-like quality of our souls and humbly and joyfully return to the Lord Jesus. We can renew our submission to his sole lordship, always offered to us in love, for our wellbeing. Come, Lord Jesus.

Community: Real or Artificial?

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As a lifelong participant-observer of people desiring community in church, and from my pastoral perspective for more than a decade, I would suggest that exclusivity often characterizes human community. In our human nature, we look to connect with people via gated communities, private clubs, particular schools, and even churches populated by those we like or feel are like us. However, true Christian community is “welcoming one another as Christ has welcomed you.” Rom 15:7. Its quality could be measured by how the weakest member in the group is regarded and treated. Christian community is counter-cultural and supernatural; it is not our natural human tendency, so it requires the work of the Spirit in us.

During my years of pastoral ministry, I have witnessed and experienced the frustration of seeking but often not finding this kind of life-giving, gracious, interdependent community. I have watched top-notch group leaders’ frustration in wanting to “go deeper” while others in the group seem to prefer to socialize. I have personally wrestled with the desire for a more communal feeling to my own relationships. I have sometimes hoped for things to look like I imagine them to be in communal cultures, such as many in Asia, Africa, or even in 1940’s America. I have a wishful, nostalgic image of community, but I may or may not want relationship with the actual people who constitute my real-life community.
Our world today has a deep hunger for community, but we have other competing hungers, like our desires for independence, privacy, productivity and pragmatism. “Who am I if I am not producing?”, we think. “I’d really love to chit-chat with you,” we reason, “but I’ve got stuff to do.” Instead of investing in each other’s joys and sorrows, carrying each other’s burdens, holding each other accountable, following Christ together, and serving each other and our world, we often opt for the more immediate satisfaction of less intimacy and sacrifice, more individualism and productivity.
One of the best-ever books about community, in my view, is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. Bonhoeffer says, “Our community consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us… The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more everything else between us will recede, and the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is alive between us… Those who want more than what Christ has established between us do not want Christian community. They are looking for some extraordinary experiences of community that were denied them elsewhere. Such people are bringing confused and tainted desires into the Christian community. Precisely at this point Christian community is most often threatened from the very outset by the greatest danger, the danger of internal poisoning, the danger of confusing Christian community with some wishful image of pious community, the danger of blending the devout heart’s natural desire for community with the spiritual reality of Christian community. It is essential for Christian community that two things become clear right from the beginning. First, Christian community is not an ideal, but a divine reality; second, Christian community is a spiritual and not an emotional reality. On innumerable occasion a whole Christian community has been shattered because it has lived on the basis of a wishful image.”
Wow! Let’s noodle on that together as we at Platt Park Church prepare to launch our Fall “growing groups.” These groups will gather all around the city in hopes of fostering and expressing the Christian community for which we were made. Please pray with me that these groups will be experiments in grace and courage as we practice “genuine and deep” community.

The Power of Showing Up

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Think about the people in your life with whom you share refrigerator rights. Who is allowed in your refrigerator without asking? In whose house would you feel comfortable enough to take a bottle of water from the fridge without permission? My guess is that for many of us, our answer involves a small number of people.

Here is why our answer matters…
Jesus had a plan that the kingdom of God would invade the kingdom of earth. Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus’ vision is not of God getting us out of here (earth) to a safe eternity up there (heaven); rather, he envisions God bringing heaven to earth today and every day. In the kingdom called earth, the predominant values are power, status, recognition and advancement. But in another reality that Jesus called the kingdom of heaven, the last shall be first, the weak are esteemed, those who mourn are comforted and the meek will inherit the earth.
Do you know what Jesus’ concrete strategy is to see this plan realized? His strategy is to form his followers into a new community to model for the world an alternative way of living. In Christ’s vision, this new community of people would march to the beat of a different drum. They would not operate by the earthly kingdom’s values. This new community would not look to power, accomplishment and wealth for their worth because they would have their eyes fixed instead on a man who voluntarily died on a cross. This new community of people would not need to hustle and hurry to prove they are worthy because their worth would already and always be secure because of their belovedness in God’s sight. They would remind each other of that all the time! Their values would not be shaped by the kingdom of earth because they would see themselves as citizens of heaven. They would not be about popularity, power and privilege; they would be about faith, hope and love.
Back to the refrigerator question. Living by heavenly values means extending our borders and taking relational risks of hospitality. It means cultivating the kinds of open-hearted, open-doored friendships that foster trust and reciprocity. It means having a wider circle of friends with whom to share refrigerator space! This is the way the tiny community grows into a mighty life force of divine love, bringing heaven to earth.
Through this little community called the church-consisting of you and I and brothers and sisters around the world; past, present, and future-Jesus said God is going to change the world. We are the heart of Jesus’ vision and strategy. Every time you show up, you are bringing heaven to earth. Every time you show up in worship, every time you show up in community, every time you show up in service, “up there” is coming “down here.” If you are a follower of God in the way of Jesus, then God’s Holy Spirit indwells you. When you show up, you do not show up alone. You show up with the indwelling presence and power of the Lord Jesus himself residing in you via God’s Holy Spirit. So, your showing up matters. Your showing up is a chance for God’s spirit to flow and for God’s heavenly kingdom to transform earth.

A Story For You

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Anyone’s story…

At the dinner party, as she mingled with new acquaintances, they asked her, “What do you do for a living?” She replied, “Oh, I do several things….” and she launched into her list of various jobs.

“Wow, you’re amazing, I don’t know how you do so much!” several exclaimed.

Deep inside, she felt a twinge of sadness because she knew that what made her amazing in their eyes and in her own eyes was not who she was so much as what she did. The admiration, the definition, the wow-factor wasn’t about the more real and honest internal stuff; it was about the external stuff. It wasn’t about joyfulness, kindness and generosity; it was about juggling many responsibilities, keeping plates spinning, and never crying about it.

It wasn’t their fault for marveling. She had laid her own bed. She had pushed, hustled, worked hard, proven her worth, achieved countless life goals, and pleased others, all to avoid pain. Addiction does that. Addiction masks the pain. Her addiction to proving she could do it all was masking painful questions like: “Will I be invited, included and loved if I don’t prove myself? Will I be worthy of love and belonging if I don’t get a lot of stuff done?” Even tonight, she could feel those questions pulsing behind her smiles and charming conversations with other guests.

My story…

The woman in the story above sounds a lot like me not too long ago. Then I turned 40, and everything shifted – not so much from a schedule perspective, a time-management framework, or a huge vocational shift. But everything changed because of a new realization on the inside. The old way of living had only left me feeling exhausted, frantic, disconnected and lonely. I needed a new way that wasn’t about proving my worth. I started to delve into what “wholeness” could mean in my life. Wholeness meant mindful attentiveness rather than constant achieving. It meant being okay with letting people down at times. I have slowly, carefully stopped reporting to everyone who asks me for anything and have begun reporting to the still small voice within. When that voice says rest, I drive to the mountains and temporarily ignore email. When that voice says it is time for a family day, I leave my work undone and go home to the people I love. The shift isn’t easy, and it isn’t complete. The shape of it might look different for others in different circumstances, but for me, when I honor this invitation from God, it is freedom, and peace, and life. Some days are two steps forward and three steps back, but inside I sense a fundamental change to my internal value structure; my longings and motivations have shifted.

Before: Busyness and hard work were always the best way through. Now: Rest, quiet, and connection are usually the best way forward. Before: What I did defined who I was. Now: My worthiness and value are more rooted in my being a beloved child of God. I am learning to live like I cannot lose favor.

Epilogue…

People called her amazing for what she juggled, and she kept juggling. But today she is creating something different and beautiful that cannot be seen but feels so much more grounded and true.

Back to School Blessing 2016

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This past week, during our worship services, Platt Park Church prayed together in the name of the divine Trinity. In case you missed it, please see the transcript below, and feel welcome to add your own prayers.
God, your love called us into being and joined us together as a faith community. We thank you for our students, parents, teachers, and others connected with education who are beginning a new school year. Shine your light on these people. Grant them strength to carry your blessing from this place of worship to their schools.
For students: We pray for strength for students to take risks. We ask for your Spirit-empowerment for them to explore curiosities and embrace new challenges. We pray that you would give them empathy for other students. Anchor them in your love so that they may have confidence to take risks to connect with others. Help this generation to learn well, think deeply, respect authority, embrace hard problems, and honor the dignity of all people. Bless these students in the year ahead.
For parents: God we lift up the parents of students to you today. Allow them to recognize that all human life is but a breath, and every breath is a gift from your spirt. Grant these parents a deeper level of trust in you this year. Help them to entrust their children more fully into your good and sovereign care. Please give each parent in this room courage and patience. Help them lead when they need to lead. Give them grace to follow the lead of their children as appropriate, too. Give them insight into their children’s curiosity and discernment to follow that curiosity with wisdom and understanding. Help these parents to allow their children’s natural talents and God-given gifts to flourish in full measure, even when our society might not celebrate them. Our God, carry these parents in your love, grace, wisdom and truth this new school year.
For teachers: God, we honor and celebrate teachers. We ask you to give them patience, hope, and courage to do what is right, especially when what is right is hard or unpopular. In the midst of many external pressures, give them insight strength and courage to follow you in being the teacher you have created them to be. Give them an unwavering confidence in you. Give them unconditional positive regard for their students, especially the ones they may not understand or enjoy. Help them to forgive the hurts and to have empathy for every student, parent and colleague in this new year. May these teachers experience your love, grace, courage and strength flowing through them to those they teach. Please lead and guide our teachers in this new year.
For others involved with education: God, may every person connected to a school community play their part in strengthening these future members of society. Please protect them from discouragement and surround them with your songs of love.
In conclusion: Our God, please open all of our eyes to ways we might participate in supporting the next generation. We lament that our schools are not always equitable or safe environments for learning. We pray for your protection and justice to permeate our school communities this new year. Help us to extend your shalom in schools. We pray all this in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. AMEN.