When People Leave

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

Ecosystem

During our all-church family meeting last month, someone asked, “What is our vision for growth as a church?” Our vision is to help people become passionate, devoted followers of Christ. One dimension of that vision is outreach. 93% of people living in Denver are not connected to a faith community. Many people are neither experiencing God’s great love for them nor God’s purpose for their lives. We hope to respond to that need by intentionally reaching out to more people in our 30-minute footprint with God’s love. We love because He first loved us. We pray God will fill and flood your life, your neighbor’s life, and your families’ lives with His light and love until no seat is left empty when we gather in worship.
Alongside reaching out, our vision is that God would transform you and I into his likeness and form us in community. Transformation happens as we understand and embrace in ever-increasing ways that we are God’s beloved, precious in His eyes. Community happens as we respect, honor, and enjoy each other. Our vision is that God would so knit us together that no one in this city would be alone. Our vision is for little groups of friendship to form all over Denver where love and laughter and friendship would spontaneously spring up, and everyone would know that they are never alone.
Our vision is that when we run out of seats in our sanctuary, we start planting churches, rather than building a bigger building, which furthers the vision of helping more people become passionate, devoted followers of Christ. Here is why we care about this vision: 1) People matter to God, 2) We exist to represent Christ in this world and convey to others that they matter to God. 3) We see our church as an eco-system, similar to a river. Every eco-system has a carrying capacity. If a river has a carrying capacity for 500 fish, that means the river is designed to care for 500 fish. 500 fish can thrive there. But if that river suddenly has far fewer or far more fish than it is designed to carry, the fish will begin to die. Churches, like eco-systems, have a carrying capacity. The carrying capacity of a church is determined by the number of worship services, the number of staff and volunteers, the size of the sanctuary, etc. The carrying capacity of Platt Park Church is about 500-600. Last Sunday we had 225. Platt Park church could double in size today with our exact same facility, staff and programing! Whatever our size, our mission will always be to help people become passionate, devoted followers of Christ. This vision is compatible with growth, and we’re excited to live into it boldly, exercising our responsibility to be good stewards of what God has entrusted to us to continue to reach out to people in Denver.

The Lowest RSVP Rate in the Nation

Colorado has the lowest RSVP rate in the nation. We are a state of people who like to keep our options open. We don’t want to be too nailed down. We like our freedom.

Open options, extreme flexibility, and self-determination are not bad values. They allow us to express our God-given preferences and explore the wide world which has been entrusted to us, at least partially for our enjoyment. They allow space for the vitality and spontaneity often conducive to creativity.

But living according to a default setting of “low RSVP rate” has some limitations, too. We cannot build a foundation of densely networked communities if we are primarily concerned with keeping our options open, remaining flexible, and determining our own destinies. Densely networked communities require personal investment. Investment consists of some level of risk in the areas of depth and intimacy, as well as some willingness to defer to others’ preferences and even to mutually agreed upon boundaries.

Think of such densely networked communities as Olympic teams, whether relay or basketball or soccer. For the sake of a shared victory, the players invest themselves in a long preparatory process, in which they spend concentrated time together, learning each other’s strengths and weaknesses. They accept correction and counsel from each other and from their coach. They practice together in order to figure out the best ways to honor the rules of the game while also highlighting each member’s unique contribution. Players commit to each other, to their coach, to the game, and to their country because they have a common goal.

Whether in an Olympic team setting or a church family, depth and intimacy require a commitment to “showing up” (and engaging actively) that directly opposes the culture values of keeping our options forever open. How do you see yourself buying into Colorado’s “low RSVP rate”? How has this benefited and/or limited you and those around you? Please share your thoughts!

Pretty Please: about asking

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. -Matthew 7:7-8

I’m not always great about asking for what I need. Maybe its because asking means facing the possibility of rejection. Maybe its because I just want to do it myself. Maybe its because I’ve spent so much of my life trying to fit in that I don’t’ even know what I really want to ask for.

But this is changing for me. I’m getting serious about my willingness to stand apart and not fit in if God is leading me somewhere. I’m sick of all the self-deprecating jargon I hear in myself and other people, like a badge of honor. Can we get beyond all that? Because God has placed grander visions in us. Every.Single.One.Of.Us.  And I don’t want to die someday having stood behind small-safe-selfish-afraid-comfortable living. I want you and I to get downright serious about not standing in the way of God bringing forth the next great thing through our lives in this world. There is too much need, too much brokenness, too much lonely living to play small and be afraid. Our world needs more willing, sacrificing, legacy leaving people who follow the Wild Goose (a Celtic expression for the Holy Spirit) into the great unknown.

Jesus spoke of the need to ask. Rumi also spoke of the need to ask when he said, “you must ask for what you really want.”

Asking awakens a powerful force in our lives because it is an act of faith and trust.  By asking we show our willingness to risk, to believe in a different tomorrow, and we show ourselves and others that hope is truly stronger than fear and that perhaps things could really change.

It is not that we necessarily and always get what we ask for. Sometimes we do not know what we most need. But the practice of asking exercises an important muscle in our lives. So, what do you need to ask for today?

An Old Camera and God

In the story of creation found in Genesis we learn an essential truth about ourselves: we all bear God’s image.  What does it mean to bear the image of God?
This morning I was flipping thru images on an old digital camera that we’ve been letting our 3 year old son Russell use for many months now.  Russell just runs around snapping pictures on this old camera. The blurry, sideways, odd and often half thumb-covered pictures reveal life from Russell’s vantage point.  The photos are a precious little insight into Russell’s world – how he sees thing, his vantage point, and what he cares about.

An image is like a small replica, an echo of the real deal, like a reflection in the water of lake Dillon on a still morning.

So, if we bear the image of God than every.single.person. bears insight into God’s heart, God’s way, God’s image. Men and women; rich and poor; my 90-year old neighbor and my 3 year old son; the highly driven and the not-so-much-so; every nation, culture, marital status, religion; the powerful and the vulnerable.  We all bear the image of God, no exceptions.

Dream.Risk.Create

“In the beginning God created…” You and I are made in the image of God and one of the implications is that we are creative beings. At Sipping n’ Painting (the little art studio business that we own) it is very common to witness people’s apprehension, hear the objection “I’m not creative” and watch the hesitation around the idea of being artistic. Somewhere along the way someone drew a line in the sand and put a small percentage of the kids on the creative side of the line and the rest of us on the other side of that imaginary line. As a result, most of us believe and even say, “I’m not an artist, I’m just not the creative type.” But I don’t believe it, I think every human being is made in the image of God and there is no one more creative and artistic than the designer of this planet earth.  Just consider…aspen leaves turning and twirling in the wind, oh my! Underwater life, are you kidding me? A duckbill platypus, a baby kangaroo in their mamas’ pouch…and all the wild characters in my family! What creativity, what imagination, what incredible art!

I think the thing that stands in the way of our creating is a little word called risk. We can dream, but in order for our dreams to move from dream mode alone to actual work of creation we must take a risk. It is the risk that holds us back. It is the unknown, the fear, and the potential for failure that keeps us dreaming but never creating. Sometimes I think the place where walking with Jesus gets exciting is at the moment when we leave the familiar, and dreams in hand, we step out in faith to co-create with God. It is risky, which is probably why we do it so rarely. Each week in our staff meeting we review the week. We ask: what went right? wrong? What was missing? confusing? And we always end by asking ourselves: what did we do this week that was risky?

My hope and prayer is that our church can be a place where we encourage Spirit-led risk taking. I hope we can put courage in one another when fear paralyzes us from pursing the grander vision God has planted in our hearts. I pray we become for each other the incarnational presence of Jesus that is needed to follow God into the creative and unfamiliar places He is leading.

Church, Art, Beauty and Change

I have always felt deep down to my toes that there is nothing like a faith community when it is working right. I witnessed this as a child, when my alcoholic father came to faith in Christ through the witness of a neighbor and the love of a local church. His life, and subsequently the entire trajectory of my family’s life, changed course dramatically. I have seen this transformation of human lives happen over and over again, as Jesus and his church have partnered together. Participating with God in transforming lives has always been the church’s job, as we hear in Isaiah 58, when God defined true worship: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter-when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”  Faith communities are working right when people care more and more about the things God cares about and less and less about the things he does not care about.

God absolutely cares about recognizing and restoring beauty and wholeness in people.

This Sunday we are having baptisms, which I love because we gather together to witness and celebrate the stories of peoples’ lives being changed by God. Baptism is an acknowledgement that Jesus didn’t just die for us a long time ago and then leave us to fend for ourselves. He invited us then and now to follow him, to die to our old selves and our former ways of living and being. He invites us to begin fresh and to participate with him in extending this possibility to others. Our immersion in the baptism waters is a picture of our dying with Christ in his death, and our emerging from the water represents our being raised to new life. A faith community that is working right holds this picture of baptism always before itself as a reminder of what God cares about: the healing and redemption of human lives.

I cannot wait to celebrate baptism with the Platt Park church family this week

I Lack Nothing

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
The Lord is my shepherd, I have all that I need.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

From the perspective of our personal stories, sometimes this famous psalm of David just does not resonate. Lack nothing? Shall not want? Have all that I need? I lack the family of my dreams, I need more money to pay the rent, and I wantwantwant so many other things….

When trying to understand the seeming discrepancy between the words of the psalm and our experiences of need, we might consider that when we pray this psalm, we are participating in a much larger story than our personal stories alone can tell. We are being brought into the story of the people of God. The psalm is framed in metaphorical language, which means that it isn’t designed to be read literally. Rather, the psalmist David is conveying an impression–through a series of striking images–of a general truth: God’s relationship to his people is like that of a shepherd with his or her flock of sheep. This is the first time David uses shepherd imagery to describe God in the psalms. Prior to the 23rd psalm, we read about Yahweh as a more distant “king” or “deliverer” or the impersonal “rock” or “shield.” But here David uses the personal and intimate metaphor of a shepherd who is always with his sheep and who prioritizes their wellbeing. Like a good shepherd, the Lord cares for his people.

It’s the identity of the shepherd – not the perspective of the sheep – that takes center stage in the psalm. A shepherd’s heart and mind are focused on making sure that the sheep are fed and safe, provided for and protected. This is true in the collective sense of God’s people across time and geography, and it is true in our personal lives. “He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake…” When we find ourselves in need, we can trust that our shepherd sees and knows our circumstances. We can “bleat” our prayers in confidence that our shepherd will lead us well, even through the valley of the shadow of death. We can come to love and trust our Shepherd so completely that our needs diminish in the light of his presence with us.

I am delighted that we are joining with The Church in Denver (a group of 10+ churches) to study this psalm during the month of July.  My hope and prayer is that we will not just learn about this psalm but that we will experience the loving Shepherd in new and intimate ways. Perhaps we could spend the entire series…or better yet our entire lives, just praying that those first two verses of this psalm might be true in our daily lives.

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

About Power

Several years ago I worked as a site pastor in a multi-site church. My boss at the time was the executive pastor Mike Ross, who later founded Mother’s Global Village, with whom Platt Park now partners in Guatemala. When the organizational structure of our multi-site church changed, Mike went from being my supervisor to being a site pastor at one of the other campuses. I remember writing him a note expressing what an impact he was having on me. I told him how impressed I was with his ability to transition between roles in the church without letting his ego get in the way. Most people would have gotten a sideways, resentful attitude about the perceived demotion of that change, but Mike never missed a beat. He seemed to readily relinquish the appearance and position of power for something more authentic…

I just finished reading Andy Crouch’s book Playing God, and I have to say it may be my favorite read this year so far.  Crouch says all of us-not just the obviously “powerful”-have real power and the responsibility to use it well. Power is both an idol to be rejected and a gift to be redeemed. Usually, we think of power as a bad thing; we nod our heads in agreement when we hear someone say, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Certainly, power can be corrupt when idolatry and injustice are involved. However, Andy Crouch shows how redeemed power is a gift meant for human flourishing. He says that the nature and essence of power can only be discerned by its effect, like the wind. The true quality test of power is found in this question: Are the people around us truly flourishing? What sort of wake are you and I leaving in our relationships? Human flourishing never happens by accident; it always requires intentionality.

May you wield your God-given and redeemed power for the flourishing of those around you.

Why I Love Child Dedication

As a Pastor, Mother’s Day makes me a little nervous every year. I am always aware that this is a painful day, a joyful day, a salt-in-the-wound day and a sacred day – depending on your experience. It is also a beautiful opportunity-day to acknowledge that anytime someone chooses to nurture & care for another human being, they are “mothering” in the best definition of that word.

Tomorrow we will celebrate with nearly 10 families who have chosen to dedicate their children to the Lord. I get misty-eyed every time we have child dedication in our worship service. I’m not sure if it has always been the case throughout the history of parenting but I know that the parents I speak with today (and myself included) regularly feel some shame in their job as parents. If you pull a busy parent aside and say, “you are doing a great job” do not be surprised if they break out into tears. Maybe it is the high expectations of our culture that no one feels they can measure up, maybe it is because every parent just has those days where they want to resign from the job and then feel guilty for wanting to, or maybe it is because little kids are just so unrelenting in their need for help, guidance and parenting.

So when parents stand up and dedicate themselves and their children to God it is a declaration of dependence, it is a cry for help in the best possible way we can cry out for help. It is a full-on, complete and total acknowledgement that we as parents cannot do this job alone. We need God, we need our friends and family, and we need our church community. There are not many places in this world where you can basically stand up and say “I need a ton of help here” and then make a celebration & ceremony out of how totally awesome that is to admit to the world.

Thank you in advance to all the families who will share heart-felt letters to your children with us in church tomorrow. Thank you for modeling dependence and your need for help. Thank you for modeling courage and strength for all of us. Thank you for being a part of our church. We know that you do not need one more person needing you right now, but the truth is: we need you too, our church needs you. We don’t need you to do anything extra, we just need you to be in our lives because what you are doing in raising children is important and when we see your sacrifice we remember why Jesus said “let the little children come to me” and we are reminded that God is found in serving the littlest and least of these.  You are doing a great job.