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The Four Things…And Enchiladas

afro micahIt was something one of my mentors used to say every congregation should do and something every single healthy congregation actually does regularly. It was taught to me – by living instructors and long dead sages – as an essential spiritual discipline. It was stressed as a vital role in my own coach training and something I continue to emphasize regularly as a trainer of coaches.

No matter how many victories and accomplishments fill our resume, no matter how many defeats and failures litter our consciences, if we are to continue pressing forward with any semblance of health, hope and sanity, we must take time to celebrate.

Christian communities should be known worldwide for their parties. We’re ambassadors of good news for crying out loud! When the day draws to a close, it should be common practice to reflect upon the preceding events – giving thanks to God and rejoicing together in those areas where we were fully present; where we lived as Christ and saw Christ in others. And we should rejoice in our failures – if for no other reason than they give us the opportunity to reflect, learn from our mistakes, and possibly gain wisdom which will shape our future endeavors.

That doesn’t mean we should plaster on a smile when tears seem more natural – by all means, healthy disciples should mourn as well as they celebrate. I’ll venture a guess that our ability to do one of these truly well will increase our ability to do the other.

This past Friday after saying our Four Things and the Lord’s Prayer on the way to school, I issued Conner and Micah a challenge. This isn’t uncommon. Some days I just encourage them to focus specifically on one of the four things, or one aspect of the Lord’s Prayer. I even recently invited them to say the Prayer silently throughout the day. Conner is 9. Micah will be 7 in a month. They are exceptional dudes. But they are 9 and 7 years old. I didn’t expect them to come home chanting like the desert monastics. I didn’t really expect anything – I just offered a challenge.

Friday, rather than a more mental exercise, with no tangible markers of progress, I decided to invite them into something concrete.

“Today, your challenge is to see how many acts of kindness you can perform. Big things, small things, totally random things. How many times today can you go out of your way, even a little, to do something for someone else? And keep score, because the winner gets a prize.”

They’ve been talking about going to a restaurant to eat Mexican food – we don’t eat out much, so that’s kind of a big deal. So, in anticipation of something to celebrate, I decided we’d go to Miranda’s for dinner (then I forgot to tell Rachel, which goes in my own “today, I will mess up” column). I figured whoever won would get the be the hero and tell his brothers what we were doing. It isn’t always a hard task, but an important discipline for myself is actively looking for reasons to encourage these guys and celebrate with them – this was a great chance to do so as a family.

When Conner came in from school the first thing he said was, “I won the contest Dad! I did seven acts of kindness.” Some were pretty significant. One thing he said was, “I was talking to my friend Ryan, and I figured out that he doesn’t have Zook and we have two…so I want to give him one.”

Now, this is a BIG deal. Zook is a Skylanders figure. Some marketing genius created this game for the Wii – you not only buy the game, but you also buy little character figurines which are placed on a sensor attached to the Wii – there’s something like 70 of them altogether. The Wellsbrothers are obsessed with this game. They’ve collected dozens of these characters – and they love having duplicates because they can be upgraded differently.

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A few minutes later I called Micah in and asked how his day went. As usual he didn’t have a lot to say. So when I asked about the competition I was prepared for his reluctance to answer…but not for the stated reason. He said, “I did five acts, but I don’t need to tell you what they were because Conner did more and that’s what I wanted to happen.”

Conner lost his ipod a while back. After weeks – maybe months – of it being awol, Rachel found it…in the van…right under Conner’s seat. So we told him that he wouldn’t get it back until we witnessed him doing something especially responsible.

Micah looked me square in the eye and said, “Conner really misses his ipod. I figured if Conner could do more than 5 acts of kindness that would be pretty responsible and he could get it back.”

Speechless.

That kind of selflessness…I still can’t really describe how amazingly proud I was – am – of that boy.

“Oh yeah, the one good thing I want to say: I told Aiden I would give him one of our Chop-Chops [another Skylander] – we have two of them.”

What?!?!

Both boys came to that kindness separately.

But then Rachel brought up an important and potentially problematic issue. All three of our boys love Skylanders. Josiah no less so than the others. So, we told Conner and Micah that their little brother would need to sign off on the decision to give these characters away.

And then I held my breath as they presented their idea to the four-year-old, King Josiah.

Conner: “Joey, we have two Zooks and Ryan doesn’t have any. I think we should give one to him…it would be a nice thing to do.”

Josiah: “Hmm. Yeah, okay. That’s a good thing.”

Micah: “And Aiden doesn’t have Chop-Chop, but we have two. We should give him one.”

Josiah: “Yeah, sure. Let’s do it!”

We have a lot to celebrate as a family.

…and I’ve never had more delicious enchiladas.

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Listening From the Hallway

 

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Last week was a really interesting experience for me. I “audited” a grad class at ACU. For those that don’t know, you can sit in on a Bible class at ACU for $35 – you don’t have to take the tests and you don’t get college credit, but you get to participate at learn at whatever level you want. 

I received an M.A. in Christian Ministry from ACU in 2005 – that two year program took me 4.5 years since I was also in full-time ministry through the whole thing. A couple years ago I decided I wanted to pursue a D.Min (doctor of ministry) and that meant I needed some leveling work (my MA was a 54 hour degree and I need an MDiv, which is at least 72 hours). I think I’ve taken all the classes I need (I’ll find out for sure in a couple weeks). So I’m currently in a rare season of NOT being in school! (with the exception of a few semesters here and there, I’ve been in college and then grad school since 97!) 

So…when I found out that Chris was taking a class on Christian Worship, my inner nerd began shouting. I decided that it would be good  to sit in on the class with him so that we could process through the material together. This was a class that I’d wanted to take in grad school but didn’t “need” and never had a free January to squeeze it in.

Overall it was really good. Chris and I spent a lot of time discussing what went on in the class and came away with a few ideas. It was encouraging because we’re already doing   most of what we talked about. 

One component of the course involved the students (many of whom are full-time ministers) being placed in groups and preparing/leading a time of worship for the class. The two that were the most impacting to me were the first and last of the week. The final group led a lament service that did not in any way feel like a group project – it was one of the most profound times of worship I’ve experienced…certainly at ACU and maybe ever.

The first service impacted me in a very different way. Where the last was powerful because of the authentic and transparent nature of entering into communal and personal lament, the first was powerful because I was unable to engage in such a way.

A few of us had lunch with a professor (not the professor teaching our class) and we were late returning. I, being just a lowly auditor, dropped Chris off and went to find a parking place. By the time I got there the worship had already begun, so I stood in the hallway so as not to disturb (afterall, I didn’t know how nervous the group members were and I could hear what was going on anyway.)

Standing in the hallway during a worship gathering was interesting. I found myself, though somewhat self-conscious (since there were other people in the hallway), engaging at points in the singing and silence. I found myself listening intently to the readings. And yet I couldn’t really engage because I wasn’t fully engaged with the community. I found myself wondering what was happening when I could hear the sounds of movement but couldn’t see what people were doing. There were times when I really wanted to participate with them, but simply couldn’t because there was a barrier between me and everyone else (of course, all I had to do was open the door and go in…but I didn’t). At other times the distance and separation led my mind to wander; I found myself distracted by the things going on around me, disengaging because I wasn’t really a part of the proceedings.

And that got me thinking. How many people sit in the midst of our worship gatherings every week and experience precisely what I was going through?

There are times when they are drawn into the worship but even then they feel uncomfortable because they don’t feel like they’re really a part of the community. There are times when they can “hear the sounds of movement” but don’t really understand what’s going on. In other words, because what we do is so foreign to them, they can tell that something significant is taking place but they don’t understand and so feel like they’re listening to things happening on the other side of closed door.

How often do people disengage because they never fully engaged to begin with? And what are we doing or not doing to draw them in and welcome them? I don’t blame anyone in our class for me being outside – it was a choice I made. However, the simple truth is, right though it was, I stood in the hallway because when I approached this worship the door was closed to me.

I was unsure about whether or not I was allowed to open the door and so I stood at a distance. 

My prayer is that Christ Journey, and any gathering of Christ’s disciples, will always be aware of closed doors. Sometimes the door is closed for good reason and that means we need to be aware of anyone who may be on the other side of that door longing to join us. What happens behind the door is important and valuable – and so is what’s happening outside. 

No Doubt or Know Doubt: part II

 

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Rachel is still fond of saying that,“without doubt it isnt faith, its fact.” And before you think that makes faith less valuable or true, remember that one of the very fundamental fallacies of modern/enlightenment thought is that empirically verifiable fact is the only thing which is right or true. Translation – for the last five hundred years weve heard that only things which can be seen, touched, smelled, tasted or heard can be proven or trusted. The whole world, including the non-religious, are waking up from the stupor brought on by this thinking and in a loud voice are calling out for something more. We must stop expending so much energy labeling the New Age, Eastern mysticism and spiritualist movements as something evil and recognize that the world is tired of waiting for Christians to tell them what they need to hear.

There is something real and deep and true beyond the world that the senses currently detect. And sadly, Christians are often too busy attacking spirituality which fails to match our own to be able to say, “Yes! Your impulses are good! Let us journey together.” Having a commitment to the Lordship of Christ does not mean that we must attack and destroy or ridicule and ignore anyone with another commitment.

Unfortunately when we have engaged in this conversation it has often been with a Platonic and Cartesian dualism than from Biblical spirituality. The Platonic way of viewing the universe says that not only are the senses not where all truth resides, but the senses cannot be trusted AT ALL. For Plato everything we see and experience is merely a “shadow” of that which is Real. So we have developed this belief that matter and physicality are not real and are essentially evil. And this is something which the Bible does not affirm.

The certainty of the Enlightenment was based on science and human progress – and we, along with much of the world, say, “Not so much.” Much of the Christian community of last few hundred years jumped on the progress bandwagon. However, what spirituality we experienced has often gone to the other extreme and placed all our eggs in a disembodied spiritual existence. And to this, the Bible says, “Not so much.”

What does all this have to do with doubt and certainty?

When our existence involves both the seen and unseen, physical and spiritual (though I utterly disdain that distinction), faith and reason…it is more difficult to develop and defend rigid systems with black and white boundaries. There are variables. There is mystery.

That doesnt mean that there is no truth or that we should not hold convictions. It does suggest that we should hold our convictions with humility. It does suggest that we can, in good conscience and good faith, admit struggles and doubt; we can have a sense of solidarity with the skeptical seeker. It does mean that we can question assumptions, and challenge beliefs.

I wonder what that looks like? It can look like secular humanism. It can look like individual  cafeteria-style spirituality. It can look like a lot of things which have already been shown to be ineffective. 

However, if part of the process of challenging is giving serious consideration to how Christians and Jews throughout history have been formed; if part of the process is remaining connected to community – even in the midst of differing perspectives; if part of the process is listening to the voices (present and past) who with faith in God have asked similar questions…this process can healthy and life affirming.

Is Dr. Beck right when he suggests that injecting doubt into our churches will probably kill them? My guess is that typically it would be pretty difficult to accomplish without viciously pulling the rug out from under folks. And yet we who are engaging in the ministry of planting new churches are often doing precisely this at some level. At least some of us are saying to those we encounter, “Ive got a lot of questions and doubts too, and my goal is not to eliminate your doubt. I want to invite you into community with other people who are wrestling and also to introduce you to Jesus, the One who is more interested is healing your wounds (and sending you to heal others) than giving you a list of answers (and sending you to convince others).”

Make no mistake, left unchecked, doubt can be crippling. And yet, when a community of disciples is willing to openly and honestly deal with their doubt; to struggle with difficult issues instead of hiding behind platitudes, such a community is poised to experience faith that is never touched by those who refuse to fully engage.

So, This Story is a Little Long…

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I just finished 5 weeks of preaching at Christ Journey on the topic of Sabbath. My suspicion going into this series was that very few of us, particularly here in our faith community, really understand, appreciate or practice any type of Sabbath rhythm.

I think this suspicion was confirmed and (hopefully) overcome. Over the past month I’ve had people come to me and say, “I’m glad we did this, I never knew that Sabbath had anything at all to do with Christianity – I thought it was just an Old Testament thing like Passover or Kosher laws.” Another told me, “I was always taught that Sabbath was going to church and NOT GOING to movies or the mall on Sunday.”

What we spent this entire month considering were the ways in which a Sabbath rhythm could be cultivated (which basically means that we have an intentional time set aside each week to cease from work and the compulsion to produce and prove ourselves and instead embrace other things like rest, worship, feasting, remembering, celebrating and storytelling).

I admit fully that while I have a great affinity for the concept of Sabbath I am not always very good at practice. I can see the areas in my life that would be healthier and more satisfying were I to center myself in the practice of remembering God is God and I am not…but I do not do the thing I want to do and what I do not what to do, I do.

One concept which has come up quite a bit lately, through our Sabbath discussions as well as in other (seemingly) unrelated settings is the importance of story. Being good storytellers and story-hearers is important to our spiritual formation and it is also a reenactment of the Gospel of Jesus. 

We discussed in a couple of the sermons that Sabbath itself is rooted in story – we are first introduced to Sabbath in the narrative of creation. It does not simply show up out of the blue in the middle of the Ten Commandments. In fact the command issued in Exodus 20 is to REMEMBER the Sabbath day. This story is formative.

Later when the Ten Commandments are retold to Israel in Deuteronomy 5 Sabbath is set within another story. Here the people are told to remember the Sabbath day as a way to remember that they were captives in Egypt and God rescued them and brought them to freedom. The Exodus story is central to understanding God’s relationship to humanity. We, the captives, cried out to God and he came near in order to set us free. He is not a God demanding constant production, like the Egyptian masters. He invites his people to rest in Him. 

Jesus would later say that He came so that we might have life and have it to the fullest. He said, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.”

The hearing and telling of these stories – our stories in scripture – is central to participation in the life of faith. But that isn’t where the importance of story ends.

In the midst of one of our worship gatherings we had an opportunity for several couples to share stories. They were asked to talk about how God had worked in their lives in the past or where they were hoping to see God at work in the future.

I thought it was a great moment for our family when one couple shared what they thought were two unrelated stories. However after they shared their two stories we helped them to reinterpret their story. In fact the two were so closely connected that it was quite powerful – one talking about the struggle to find balance between providing for his family and spending time with them and the other talking about her struggle to forgive a father that failed to maintain that very balance.

We are a community that tells, retells and sometimes, reinterprets stories. It is what we do because it is precisely what God has done for us. The story of human existence was one of brokenness and despair. Sin, unchecked, destroys life after life with no compassion or mercy. God in his greatness did not allow this story to define us forever. Instead he stepped into the story and began redeeming and reconciling the characters. Humanity and all creation are in the process of being healed and restored by the Great Storyteller who was not happy with this tale ending in tragedy.

Where there are chapters of brokenness, God is editing and rewriting to include restoration. Where there is pain, God writes in healing; where there is chaos, God speaks a narrative of peace.

We too have that ability. We are able to tell the story in a new light. This isn’t to say that we stick our head in the sand and pretend that everything is okay. No, we step into the midst of a story that says everything is doomed and proclaim that in fact, there is hope. (Which was part of what happened at Marvelous Light)

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Paul stepped into the midst of total relativism in Athens (Acts 17) and said, “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship – and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”

Paul was able to reinterpret this story for the Athenians because he was willing to enter into their story in the first place. Had he simply stood outside the Areopagus and denounced their idolatry he would have had no impact whatsoever.

I recently heard a Christian say that they were unable to participate in Christmas activities because December 25 was an ancient pagan holiday associated with the Winter Solstice and the practices of Christmas originate in the worship of Saturnalia and other pagan gods. 

It may be jarring to learn for the first time that there were religious celebrations associated with winter and even December 25 prior to Christ. While this may be difficult if you didn’t know about it, it isn’t a great deception.

In (I believe) 350, Pope Julius declared that the celebration of the birth of Christ would take place on December 25. This happened when many pagans were being forced to convert to Christianity. The move, while certainly containing the risk of syncretism, retold  this story – which was always one of hope. 

And theirs was a good story. The worship may have been false, but the concept was one of hope in a higher power that could rescue humanity from the powers of nature which were so threatening.

In fact, the practice of bringing an evergreen tree into one’s home was meant as a reminder that life would return even though the harsh cold winter seemed an unstoppable ally of death. 

And Christianity retold this story. “Yes” we were able to say, “there is hope in the darkest of times; yes we can look forward to resurrection of life from the dead – but not because we’ve properly coerced the pagan gods but rather because the One True God has become one of us in order to be life and light in this darkness.” In other words, “So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship – and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”

Granted, the early church’s use of power and coercion was not something I believe to be Christlike. There were probably many pagans who simply used Christian language while maintaining their pagan beliefs – just as there are many Africans today who struggle with syncretism…and many Americans who baptize their consumerism and greed.

For Christians not to celebrate Christmas – at a time when the whole world is just a little more receptive to hearing the story of God coming near – seems to me to be a tragic missed opportunity to engage in this story. This story has been reinterpreted, retold and redeemed. For those who used (or use) the winter solstice to worship gods which are unable to actually save, we say, “Do not be afraid. We bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” And because this story has been redeemed we can claim it as our story…because that it what it has become, it is a new creation!

I love the season of Advent – which is focused on anticipation of God coming near; the season of Christmas – which is focused on the arrival of our hope in the form of a Savior; the season of Easter – which is the fulfillment of our hope through the victory of Christ over sin and death. These seasons are filled with storytelling cues which can be incredibly powerful…and they can also prime the pump for the story to be told to those who’ve never heard.

I love the music, the decorations, the preparation for Christmas…there is no denying that something is happening. This story is just begging to not only be told, but to be experienced and entered into.

Now if we want to have a conversation about letting Christmas be an excuse to become self-centered materialists…well that’s an altogether different story.

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