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.

What I’ve Learned in 15 Years of Marriage

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Several years ago Tim and I went to a weekend seminar called “PAIRS” which stands for Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills.
During that weekend we gained practical tools and insights on what makes for a great relationship. One of the tools is called The Daily Temperature Reading.
Basically we learned that bonding requires 2 essential ingredients: 1) emotional openness 2) physical closeness. The reason you “bond” with people you work with over the water cooler is because often that is the place (and those are the people) with whom you are both physically close and emotionally open. Obviously, bonding is what we seek with our spouses, closest friends, and family – but how do we foster it?
The Daily Temperature reading is a skill that was born out of researching couples who had strong bonds. People with strong, healthy relationships do 5 things naturally every day – that’s right, every day. Most of us do not do these things naturally every day, but we can work on this skill to strengthen the bond in our most important relationships. The Daily Temperature Reading (DTR) works like this:
  1. Sit across from each other, and hold hands (physical closeness)
  2. Share the following things back and forth (with emotional openness)
    1. Appreciations
    2. New information
    3. Puzzles
    4. Complaint with request for change
    5. Wishes, hopes & dreams
As with any relationship skill, this only works where there is good will and mutual respect. My prayer for you today is that you might strengthen the bonds with those closest to you.

The Tunnel of Chaos

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There is a tunnel called chaos. Have you ever been in it? It’s a place where you get lost in an endless feeling of never enough – never enough time, never enough resources, never enough support, never enough people, never enough. This tunnel of chaos makes you feel like you are running, running, running without an end in sight. In this tunnel, sometimes it seems like you could maybe try to step out of the race for a minute, but then you immediately think: “Who would I be? And how would I know if I were worthy of love and belonging?” All of your life you’ve proven your worth through striving and performing. You are a capable one, you are a talented one, you are a strong and able person. You’ve got this, you’ve always got this.
In the beginning it was fun. You felt a surge of energy to be able to offer something of value to the world, but then over time it felt more like an addiction than a calling, and now it’s just a habit. This is how you live: busy, driven, preoccupied, isolated, addicted. Addicted to outcomes, addicted to work, addicted to an image of perfection. Perfect leader, perfect parent, perfect online profile, perfect life. You don’t like to admit it, but you’re addicted to proving your worth through performance. When people ask, “How are you doing?” you answer, “Busy,” and if they probe further, you honestly don’t know the answer.
Of course, it’s not always that way. Moments of honesty, vulnerability, and truth make you long for more.  The tunnel of chaos that initially felt so thrilling has gotten increasingly dissatisfying. You want something truer, less forced, less phony. You want to shed the racing gear that has served you well through your 20’s and maybe your 30’s, but it is hard and scary, because who will you be without those clothes? Will you be enough without the pretending and performing? What if people think you’re a slacker? And since all of the running involves using and sharing your “spiritual gifts,” would it be spiritually irresponsible to slow down?
This conundrum is part of growing up. Richard Rohr said, “Unless you ‘weep’ over your own phoniness, hypocrisy and wounded-ness, you probably will not let go of the first half of life.”
Maturity feels like leaving our false selves for our true selves. Maturity involves leaving the tunnel of chaos filled with rat races and hamster wheels to enter the unknown land of your good and worthy self in Christ. Discipleship includes realizing that you were born worthy of love and belonging, not because of what you can do, but because of who you are. It takes courage and daring to live with your whole heart wide open to God, without any pretense or performance layers, but the gifts of such vulnerability are rest and contentment.

How to Get Unstuck- A Note from Susie

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I recently read this provocative quote by Richard Rohr:
“In our strange configuration of life that we have today, all you have to do is prove that you are the victim and you immediately have the moral high ground. You are almost untouchable. It is a strange way of getting moral high ground without doing any kind of moral development whatsoever. You do not have to grow up. You do not have to let go. You do not have to forgive. You do not have to surrender. You just have to accuse somebody else. Somehow, to prove that somebody else is down makes you feel up. To prove that somebody else is a sinner gives you the strange experience, obviously not true, that you are a saint. To prove that someone else is wrong or has hurt you makes you right. This is in the blood of North America now. I do not know where it came from, but it is clearly a distortion of the message of the Cross.”
What is the message of the cross? The message of the cross is love. And love compels and nurtures sanctification, referred to as “moral development” in Rohr’s quotation. The cross pours enough love upon each of us that we can love ourselves and others from the overflow. Loving ourselves and others means that rather than living into an identity of “victim,” which we may have earned through terrible wounds from others, or we may have believed because other people named us this, we can live into a new identity and write a new story with God as our co-Author. We get to leave behind our old selves and our ways of relating, including using our hurt as a weapon to blame, attack, or entrap others. At the cross Jesus became sin so that we might be set free. Free to love, create, give, explore, and grow in faith and compassion.
In a recent coaching session with Michael Warden, our staff team learned about the “drama triangle,” which looks like this:
In the drama triangle, an individual who believes him/herself to be a “victim” will attempt to make others either the persecutor or the rescuer in their story.
One problem with the victim triangle is that it leaves the individual stuck in an identity that is so much less joyful and impactful than what God intends. A different option can be illustrated through the “empowerment triangle.” In the empowerment triangle, an individual begins to own their own story by asking, “What do I want to create?” Rather than focusing on the painful past or present, the person seeks a desirable outcome that is guided by love for self and others. In this model, the person refuses to abdicate their own responsibility and identity, even as they accept influence from challengers and coaches.

Author Henri Nouwen said this, “How can someone ever trust in the existence of an unconditional divine love when most, if not all, of what he or she has experienced is the opposite of love – fear, hatred, violence, and abuse?…They are not condemned to be victims! There remains within them, hidden as it may seem, the possibility to choose love. Many people who have suffered the most horrendous rejections and been subject to the most cruel torture are able to choose love. By choosing love they become witnesses not only to enormous human resiliency but also to the divine love that transcends all human loves. Those who choose, even on a small scale, to love in the midst of hatred and fear are the people who offer true hope to our world.”
Learning to reframe our perspective and our ways of relating to others is a process requiring much grace! But the more we meditate on Christ’s love for us, the more strengthened we become to shift from a victim to a creator in our circumstances and relationships. In this way, we will more fully honor Christ, whose love sets us free to resist participation in the victim culture so prevalent in our country.
*If these concepts of the drama and empowerment triangles intrigue you, you can read more in The Power of TED (The Empowerment Dynamic), by David Emerald, or visit Power of TED* | TED* Videos – Escape the Drama Triangle with TED* (*The Empowerment Dynamic) to watch video links.

Bloodlines!

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One of the things I’ve struggled with since adopting Lyla is a guilty-mom feeling that says, “Susie, you are not Chinese, and a Chinese mom would be a better mom than you.” I know many of you are ready to say either, “Yes, that’s why I don’t believe in international adoption,” -or- “Oh, Susie, that is ridiculous, you’re a great mom!” But this is a real struggle for me. I know there are infinite perspectives on adoption, and international adoption in particular, but we are past that now, and Lyla is ours. I love her with all my heart and cannot imagine loving her anymore. Over this past year, I’ve been working through my bouts of shame and self-doubt in light of God’s faithfulness and the truth of His timeless word to us in the ancient scriptures. Just recently my friend pointed me in a direction that has helped tremendously. Here was the gist of our conversation:
Once we are in Christ, everything about our bloodline becomes second to who we are in Christ. That is not to say our ethnicity, race, and background are unimportant – they have a lot to do with who we are and how God may want to work through us. However, once we are in Christ, the blood of Jesus becomes the most important thing about us.  Our adoption into the family of God, our wealth in Christ, our citizenship in heaven are now more important than our standing or membership in any other cultural or political system. We are citizens of heaven!
“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  -Galatians 3:26-28
This insight is moving me into a stronger conviction that inter-racial relationships are not just allowed by God but they provide an especially unique and important witness to the gospel of Christ: in Christ, we are new creations. In Christ, we are citizens of heaven (Phil 1), living as exiles here on earth (James 1 & 1 Peter 1); this is not our ultimate home. In Christ, we have been transferred from the “kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of his dear son” (Col 1). This means we cross every barrier – social, cultural, ethnic, and class -freely in Jesus, extending friendship, forgiveness, and love to each other because Christ has done this for us. We do so with gentleness and respect, getting out of the safe, homogeneous, comfortable same-ness of those who are like us and follow God’s leading in our lives. Very often, Jesus leads us into new, unfamiliar, and different places and relationships. We never lose our culture or disregard others’, but in Christ, everything is transformed, and we share a bond of unity that is more powerful than our differences.

Are you a “people over task” or “task over people” kind of person?

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Our staff just returned from a retreat up in Summit County and one of the goals for our time away together was simply to get to know one another more and the unique ways God has made us. To aid us in this task we did the Gallup Strengths Finder assessment. Basically this tool reveals a person’s top “strengths.”  It was fun and fascinating to learn more about the strengths of each staff member. One of the things that struck me during this activity is that every strength has a blind spot – and that as followers of Christ we do not boast in our strength but rather in our weaknesses because in these Christ shows His strength in us.
I’m not discrediting the value of the Strengths Finder exercise; it’s still very valuable to understand how God has naturally gifted us. However one of my “strengths” is Achiever. Basically I like to get stuff done… every day… like, every single day… even on vacation. It gives me a positive energy charge to achieve things.
This serves me well in my life as a pastor; however, like with all strengths, the blind spot is that I can over-function in ways that prioritize tasks over people. I need to acknowledge this dimension of my “Achiever” strength and invite Christ to be sufficient in my weakness.
How can Christ be sufficient in us if we’re unwilling to acknowledge weakness and only boast in strength? Psalm 127 says, “Unless the LORD builds a house, the work of the builders is wasted.” The second part of this psalm says, “Children are a gift from the LORD.”
What a fascinating contrast!  The Psalmist is talking about our work and what is truly of value. So often our culture seeks to turn us into machines who are driving, driving, driving only to realize we’ve wound up nowhere. We climb, climb, climb only to find out our ladder is up against the wrong wall.
But children are the contrasting picture the Psalmist gives. Children are a picture of relational gifts born out of love, not efficiency. Many relational gifts are born out of love. Throughout Scripture, God reminds us that love is our life breath. Giving and receiving love, in communion with God and others, is our deepest hunger and purpose. Everything else is secondary.
Even if my strength is achievement, and yours is financial planning or database improvement or whatever God has given you that you do well- as followers of Christ, we need to follow his example and prioritize our relationships with people above our tasks.

You don’t have to be good.

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I’ve recently re-discovered poet Mary Oliver, and I wonder why I ever wandered from having her poems echo in my mind and heart daily. One poem that has spoken deeply to my heart is this one:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
            love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
                                                -Mary Oliver
I love this poem because it reminds me that I have been made in the image of God. As God’s creation, what I most want deep, deep, deep down is union with my first love, the Triune God who made me. All of my efforts to “be good” are really just misguided attempts for union, for oneness. Mary Oliver helps me return to my truest self, with compassion, by reminding me, “You do not have to be good.” Tell that to your inner-Puritan who has been striving to prove your worth through many versions of “walking on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.” All along, Jesus has continued to simply invite, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” This is what I’m really wanting, even though I myself may not always know it. God made “the soft animal of your body,” and He designed that soft animal of you to flourish best in an environment where you are fully known, fully loved, with no fear of rejection. The only place that exists is in the sweet embrace of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.