Flat tires and sunsets: A story of answered prayer

sunset

Sometimes, we have to look through the weirdest circumstances to encounter God. This is a story of one of those times.

I was lucky enough to spend last week serving as a mentor for a group of teenagers at the Radical Discipleship Academy of Appalachia, an initiative of the West Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church’s Conference Committee on Youth Ministries. It was an incredible week working with some really remarkable teenagers and some awesome colleagues at Spring Heights Camp, a facility owned by the WVUMC and used for a variety of summer camps and other retreat activities.

As the adult staff gathered on Sunday night to prepare for the students’ arrival on Monday, we walked through some worship and prayer exercises and ended our time together in prayer triads, groups of three people who would pray for one another’s needs for the week.

A prayer for rest

One of my prayer partners, who happened to be our guest speaker for the Academy, asked me what I needed prayer for. Having just come off a stressful week of trying to button things up at the church so I could be gone for a week, I simply asked her to pray for me to have some rest.

It seemed like a pretty reasonable request, considering the fact that our schedule for the week was jam-packed, including late nights and early mornings. Rest would be a precious commodity.

We’re having a heat wave…

Sure enough, I was beginning to feel the effects of sleep deprivation by about Thursday, a day when we were to take the students offsite for a planned overnight mission project. Due to some allergy issues, I planned to return to camp at the end of the day along with a few other adult leaders with similar concerns.

Thursday also turned out to be the 5th consecutive day for us to experience 90+ degree temperatures and oppressive humidity that drove the heat index well over 100º. So, needless to say, by mid-afternoon when some of us had to drive a few miles out a rural West Virginia back road to shuttle some of the kids from one place to another, I was fading fast.

Blowout

flat-tire-jpgWhich is when God gave me the flat tire.

Now I know it sounds strange to say that God gave me a flat tire. But hear me out.

As a result of getting a flat out in the boonies of Roane County, WV, in 100º+ heat, I was a filthy, sweaty mess by the time I got the tire changed, and had just enough time to get back to the town of Spencer to try to get to an auto shop before they closed to see if I could buy a new tire (luckily, my Jeep Cherokee came with a full-size spare…but it was just one spare, leaving me vulnerable for further driving on roads used more frequently by logging trucks than local residents).

I made it to the shop five minutes before closing time, and the kind and very professional owners and staff fixed me up by putting my spare back on the good rim and selling me a used tire to put in the spare well.

At that point, though, it was fairly pointless to drive back to the mission site, so I returned to camp with the hopes of getting my sermon for last Sunday written and maybe catching up on some correspondence before the other staff members returned.

One is the loneliest number

As it turned out, I had nearly five hours of total solitude back in the retreat area of Spring Heights.

Now, as an extrovert, I generally relax in a crowd. I need people around me to unwind. But even extroverts need the occasional bit of solitude.

After a quick shower and piecing together some delicious leftovers for dinner (don’t ever let anyone tell you sausage gravy and mashed potatoes isn’t a good dinner!), I sat down at my laptop, expecting to do battle with the camp’s sketchy Wi-Fi service while trying to get some work done while I had the time.

But something really cool happened in the midst of that.

I not only managed to get everything done I needed to do, but actually flew right through it without my internet signal ever dropping out. And as I finished up, I looked out the windows of the cottage to see an amazing sunset over the hilltops on the western horizon.

As I stepped out to try to get some photos and admire the day’s final display of color and light, I realized the humidity of the day had broken a bit, making it almost pleasant (or at least markedly less disgusting!) in the summer evening air.

And I realized something else.

I felt rested.

Did you hear the one about God and the flat tire?

And that’s when I realized God had answered my prayer through a flat tire.

I should note, by the way, that I’ve never doubted that God has a sense of humor.

I say that because in the moment of having a blowout in literally The Middle of Nowhere West Virginia, I could have thrown one hell of a pity party. I could have questioned why I was even there in the first place, or ruminated on what particular sin God was punishing me for, or indulged any of a number of other negative thoughts.

Now, do I believe God literally gave me that flat tire just so I could experience something transcendent later that evening? Honestly, I don’t think that’s how God works.

But I do believe God gave me the ability to see that good can be made of anything, and that if we’re willing to tune in and pay attention and not get wrapped up in our own self-pity, we might just open ourselves up to an encounter with the divine.

That evening, witnessing that sunset on that West Virginia Hilltop, there was no room for anything but gratitude.

Gratitude for a flat tire.

And an answered prayer.

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“Delmar’s been saved!”

Some interesting conversation emerged over on my Facebook page after my last post about American individualism and its infiltration into the church.

One of the things that jumped out at me as part of that discussion was the popular notion that Christianity is primarily about our personal relationship with Jesus, and that “salvation” is something that is made available to each of us as individuals as we make a choice to enter into that relationship.

I want to be careful here. Having a personal relationship with Jesus is indeed a key tenet of Christian faith. Not only that, I believe it to be integral to my own identity. I believe it is, as theologians say, salvific. That is to say, it is at least in part what saves and is saving.

But I also believe that the notion of “salvation” as a strictly individual transaction is not, in fact, the primary message of the gospel…and the Western church’s insistence that it is may be part of what is currently tearing at the fabric of society in our world today.

These modern times

Bear with me a moment for a little philosophical background…

We live today in the shadow of the Enlightenment, the mid-17th through early-18th Century movement most famously embodied by Descartes’ famous “cogito ergo sum” (“I think therefore I am”). It was a time when humanity began to see the possibilities that science and reason could provide rational explanations for everything, including our very existence.

The modernist movement spawned by the Enlightenment period began to reject religion as a source of meaning in favor of a belief that only knowledge—not religion—could be certain, objective, and good…and that only reason could ultimately lead to truth.

This required a radical commitment to freedom of individual thought over against collective religious certainty.

Predictably, the church of the time responded with fear and defensiveness. Fresh off the reformation, both Catholics and Protestants were scrambling to assert authority over their flocks. While the church was saying it was the ultimate arbiter of truth, modernism said humans could essentially take the place of God by attaining ultimate knowledge through science and reason.

“Delmar’s been saved!”

As James K.A. Smith points out in “Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?” (pp59-61), a great contemporary representation of the clash between religion and modernism can be seen in the Coen brothers’ cult classic “O Brother Where Art Thou?”

In the clip above, we see a philosophical clash between George Clooney’s character, Ulysses Everett McGill, and his rube-ish cohorts Pete and Delmar. For Everett, it’s a modern world where the quest for individual knowledge is the path to utopia. His bumpkin friends succumb to the irrational superstition and magic of religion…even to the point where Delmar believes Pete has been transmogrified by the demonic sirens in the river (“We…thought…you…was…a…toad!).

But what’s interesting is how, in the span of about a hundred years or so, the church actually began to appropriate modernist thought patterns. Even while railing against scientific knowledge as the basis of truth, it acquiesced to the notion that the individual was the most sovereign expression of humanity.

As Western societies developed in the wake of the Enlightenment, so Western Christianity ran a parallel path. In its fight against modernism by rejecting science itself through invoking a literalist reading of scripture, the fundamentalist movement (which emerged to counter the liberal social justice theology of Catholics and mainliners in the mid-late 19th Century) chose to fight that battle in the heart and mind of the individual.

And thus the goal of Christianity—just like the goal of modernism—became personal conversion.

“Jesus was a socialist”

I have to admit to a bit of gratuitous click-baiting in the headline of last week’s post. The point was not to debate or defend socialism as an institution, but to point out that the gospel of Jesus soundly rejects any notion of the value of individuals over the value of community or collective humanity.

And so when we make the central claim of our faith to be about a personal relationship with Jesus, and we pursue intellectual assent to that principle (and call it “salvation”), we miss the point of Jesus’ message.

Again, I want to be careful. It’s not that Jesus’ message is not about a personal relationship. Even though that specific phrase is found nowhere in scripture, there is abundant evidence that personal relationships were of critical importance to the Jesus event.

My point is that Jesus’ message is indeed about personal relationship, but it’s also about much, much more.

Evacuation theology

Modernist Christianity (most specifically—but not exclusively—embodied in the fundamentalist and evangelical camps), with its stress on individual conversion/salvation, more or less follows the proposition that: 1) I am “saved” by intellectual assent and personal confession; and 2) I am called to love you; therefore I want you to be “saved” by whatever means necessary.

Also, our post-Enlightenment approach has suffered from a misdiagnosis of what Jesus actually means by “salvation” by making it all about the eternal disposition of one’s disembodied soul after death.

Again, I’m not arguing that a continued postmortem existence is not part of the message, but it’s not the whole message. Jesus’ promise of “eternal” life is as much about a quality of life here and now as it is about an ongoing quantity of life once our mortal flesh ceases to exist. “Eternal” in the early languages of the Bible connotes the life of God or the life of the ages. It is a present, as well as a future, reality.

So when we talk about salvation as something strictly individual that results in the transport of our immortal souls to some other-worldly “heaven,” we miss the point Jesus makes that the kingdom of heaven is sprouting up all around us, here and now, as we share his radical program of unconditional love in the times and places we find ourselves as human beings.

“On earth as it is in heaven” is not just a cute phrase in a memorized prayer, it is the actual goal Jesus has for God’s kingdom.

Salvation as holistic

I do indeed believe Jesus wants to save us all as individuals. But the modern Western church’s notion of salvation as primarily an individual transaction misses the larger biblical context for what salvation is really all about.

At the risk of being redundant, our Western/American arrogance and pervasive individualism get in the way of our ability to see what Jesus is doing and saying because we have 200+ years of indoctrination into the modernist primacy of the sovereign self.

What God has been about from the beginning has been the redemption of all things (Rev. 21:5). To me, that suggests that salvation is not meant to be individual, but holistic. And that it’s not about being swept away into the clouds when we die, but about a redemption and regeneration of the created cosmos, with love as the creative force that binds it all together.

So instead of saying, “I’m in and you’re out; but I love you and want you to be in, too,” a holistic approach is more like, “I’m a part of something, not apart from it. And if I’m a part of a greater whole, it’s only by the salvation of all things that my own salvation has any meaning.”

The longer we continue to put ourselves as individuals at the center of the salvation narrative, and the more we assert our rights as individuals over against the rights of others in our pursuit of our own salvation, the further we get from what Jesus actually intended.

Our challenge is to recapture that holistic sense of belonging, to become radically committed to the well-being of others, and to extend that commitment beyond our tight circles of those who look and think like us to those who disagree with and even persecute us:

“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that. In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

Matthew 5:43-48 (The Message)

“Jesus was a socialist…”

pond5.com

pond5.com

It the first day of a week-long seminary intensive course on the theology of John Wesley. I found myself in a classroom in central Kentucky viewing a satellite feed from another classroom in Orlando where our professor was conducting his lecture.

We were less than an hour into the class, having gone through brief introductions from everyone on both sites. Then, out of the blue, the professor dropped the bomb.

“Jesus was a socialist…and so am I.”

If a seminary classroom ever had a collective, unspoken “WTF?” moment, this was it.

Of course, the professor intended to create a stir. His statement was as much for shock value as anything…he was not making a political statement so much as he wanted to capture our attention and point us to something beyond what we’d mostly always been taught.

To a large degree, the church in America has hung its hat on the idea that our nation was founded on Christian principles. Our fight for liberty from an oppressive monarchy was, we’ve been taught, both right and righteous.

And as we drafted policies to protect our freedom to express our religious beliefs, that naturally grew into all sorts of other freedoms that were necessary to protect the foundational freedom of religion.

But as those freedoms have become more and more ingrained, an uglier side of them has emerged. We have gone from protecting ourselves against subjugation to the point where the rights of individuals have, in many cases, overridden the common good.

What was supposed to be freedom from oppression has become freedom to oppress.

Case in point: the current debate over vaccinations. There can be no question that childhood vaccination against diseases like measles and polio is beneficial to the vast majority of people and to society as a whole. Yet, in our staunch political defense of individual choice, we have allowed an illness that was once virtually dead in this country (and much of the world) to now create a public panic.

Which leads to the question: Have our freedoms enslaved us?

And, perhaps more to the point, to what extent is the church complicit?

For centuries predating the founding of America, church and state were effectively the same thing. From the time Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Holy Roman Empire, religion and governance have gone hand in hand.

And while the American project, with its explicit constitutional separation of church and state, ostensibly rebelled against extant Christendom, nothing really changed.

The predictable result, as history has shown over and over, is a rather unholy alliance where the agenda of the state invariably infects the agenda of the church.

And so as America grew in its love of individual freedoms and protection of our rights to make choices contrary to the common good, so the church became equally enamored of those freedoms.

Which is what made my professor’s statement so provocative.

Somewhere along the line we managed to turn a movement based on radical inclusion and sacrificial love into a hackneyed champion of the sovereign self. We have become so consumed with exercising what we perceive to be our individual “rights” that we can no longer distinguish where one person’s rights begin and another’s ends.

But the Jesus we claim to follow was no respecter of persons. Everything he did and said laid bare the claim that, while individual rights and freedoms are indeed important, the most free a human being could be was in setting aside personal rights in favor of the other…even to the extent of loving our enemies.

The radical claim of Jesus is not that we are so much free from something—oppression, marginalization, even sin or death—but that we are free for something.

And that something is the terrifying prospect of being able to love in the ultimate way…unconditionally and sacrificially.

The reason most of my classmates were shocked at my professor’s statement was that they have bought into the idea that our sociopolitical protection of individual rights is somehow a biblical concept. They immediately equated Christian socialism with political Marxism…which was not at all the claim the professor was making.

To claim that Jesus was a socialist is to claim that Jesus valued others above self, community above individuals.

21st Century America is arguably the most individualistic society ever to exist on the face of the earth. It is so much a part of our DNA that we don’t even realize it. The idea that we would sacrifice individual rights—even the right to ignorance—is not only completely foreign to most of us, it is downright offensive.

But the kind of love Jesus represents requires a vulnerability that flies in the face of militant protection of individual freedoms.

That’s why it causes me no grief at all to echo my professor’s provocative statement: “Jesus was a socialist…and so am I.”

It’s not a political statement. I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the benefits and privileges that come with being a free citizen of this free country.

But we have to realize how often our personal rights and freedoms come explicitly at the expense of others.

The question for the church is, do we have the courage to repent?

Have Yourself a Compelling Little Christmas

pond5.com

pond5.com

The gospel is compelling, not coercive.

Is there a statement that more fully embodies the Christmas story?

In a time when Christian denominations offer a fragmented picture of the body of Christ, when self-appointed gatekeepers impose narrow definitions and restrictive requirements for what is and is not acceptable, and when fear is wielded as the primary motivator of faith, we as the church would do well to be reminded of the compelling nature of God’s entry into our winner-take-all existence.

The ancient Hebrews spoke of God’s hesed love. Hesed is most often translated as “loving-kindness,” eliciting mercy, loyalty, faithfulness and compassion.

Hesed love is not conditional. It is not a love that wavers with our commitment or diminishes in the face of our disobedience. It is not love that pushes us to change in order to be acceptable.

Hesed is love that comes to us in a story of the poor and oppressed, of the despised and reviled. Of a baby born in dirt and filth to an unwed mother, whose coming was announced not to kings or religious leaders but to untrustworthy field workers and immigrant astrologers.

It is no coincidence that hesed is by its very nature incarnational. It is love that comes to us not as a warm and fuzzy feeling of attraction and excitement but as something that comes alive and takes shape in us and through us.

It is not just something that is delivered to us, but produces something in us, something new and surprising.

Something faithful and compassionate and merciful and just and beautiful.

There is nothing coercive about this kind of love. Nothing about it screams, “accept me or else!

But could there be anything more compelling?

Is there anything else, any other power in the universe that so captivates us? That grabs our imagination and makes us ask, what if life could REALLY be like this?

That’s the answer that Christmas gives us.

The compelling story that life really CAN be like this. That there is a love that reaches past our sorry commitments and our disobedience. That brings the incarnational beauty of hesed alive in us and unites us.

This Christmas, may we truly embrace the hesed loving-kindness of God through the incarnation of Jesus. And may we, like him, become a compelling force for mercy, love, justice, and compassion.

Happy Christmas!

Excerpt from An Ecological Eschatology

MontanaSkyIs the church waiting around for God to bring about his ends? Or, perhaps, is God waiting for us to get on board? What if our mandate for creation care is more than simple stewardship? What if our call is to be agents of redemption?

If those questions intrigue you, you might be interested in my latest Benthics column over at The EcoTheo Review. Here’s a snippet:

“In the broad sweep of scripture, an overarching story unfolds. And that story is one wherein God’s ends are achieved through the activities of human beings in history.

The elect people of Israel come about because of Abraham’s faith and obedience. The line of Judah (from which Jesus is eventually born) is carried on through the long-suffering faithfulness of Joseph. Rahab shelters Joshua and Caleb so the Israelites can conquer Canaan. Ruth lays on the threshing floor with Boaz, and a couple of generations later King David is born. The heroic actions of Esther and Mordecai preserve the Jewish race during the exile.

Again and again, God uses ordinary people to unfold his redemption plan. A plan which, as Romans 8 reveals, includes not just human salvation, but rescue for all of creation.

It seems that waiting for God is not so much a passive thing.

In fact, it seems like something we get to participate in.

God’s plan, it seems, is not so much something that magically reveals itself in a flash of light and a puff of smoke. Rather, it appears to come to life as human beings actually live into it.”

You can read the full article here.

Crazy Busy-ness and Pub Church Awesomeness

wineskinsIt has been a crazy and eventful summer here at the home offices of The Awesomeness Conspiracy. A 9-hour course load (which included an intensive ministry internship) to push me toward the finish of my master’s degree from Asbury Theological Seminary this fall has dominated my time.

Add to that the move of Elder Daughter and TAC Poet Laureate Anna to Pittsburgh for her new career at ModCloth Clothing, and prepping Younger Daughter Amanda for her driving test and junior year in high school, and there hasn’t been much temporal or mental space for content update here!

Things never really seem to slow down much, but hopefully the clearing of those particular life events will clear out a little room to get back to updating the site and engaging the broader conversation of how we can bring more awesomeness to the world around us.

And speaking of awesomeness, there’s been a little movement happening here in the Mid-Ohio Valley that I wanted to share with you faithful readers.

If you’ve noticed the little tabby things at the top of the page, you may have observed that one called “New Wineskins” has appeared there in the past few months. New Wineskins is a discussion group that some of us are having every other week to bring to light various ways in which the church might re-examine contemporary issues in light of our growing postmodern cultural context.

It’s all based in Jesus’ words that appear in some form in Matthew, Mark, and Luke about the need for a new interpretation of what it means to be God’s people in light of God’s ever-present revelation of himself in new ways for each new generation and each culture in which the gospel comes alive.

My friends at the Marietta Brewing Company have been kind enough to host our little gatherings, giving it sort of a hip pub church kind of vibe. Each meeting focuses on a particular idea or issue that we present in various formats such as music, poetry, narrative, story-telling, etc.

And then, we just talk. Everyone gets the chance to respond to whatever has been presented, to raise questions, to share insight, and to dig deeper. Over the past several months we’ve discussed culture wars, depression/recovery, science, gender roles, and a number of other topics where it seems the church finds itself struggling.

What has been most remarkable has been the raw vulnerability that participants continue to bring to the discussion. People have been unbelievably willing to share their deepest doubts, their hardest questions, and their rawest emotions…often with complete strangers.

The result is that we are all beginning to understand one another better. To separate issues from people. To learn to love and be loved.

And it all happens around the table, sharing food and drinks, growing friendships.

If you live in these parts, or if you find yourself in the Parkersburg-Marietta area some Sunday evening and have a couple of hours to kill, we’d love to see you at one of our gatherings. Upcoming discussion dates and topics are posted and updated regularly on the New Wineskins website, and we have a Facebook event page where people can invite other friends and share ideas between gatherings.

Even if you can’t join us in person, we’d love to have your voice in the conversation. There are comment sections posted with each weekly update both on the website and on the Facebook page. It’s not exactly the same as being there, but we live in a connected world where participation transcends physical space.

And thanks for being part of what we’re doing here at The Awesomeness Conspiracy. New content is constantly brewing, and I hope you’ll tune in often and join the conversation!

Peace,

Joe

Worship or warfare? A tale of pens and swords.

Feather sword and letter

You may have noticed that I’ve been in a bit of a rut lately.

As a writer I’ve learned that sometimes we go through these dry spells. Times when it’s just really hard to process and coalesce any thoughts that seem worth articulating.

It’s not that there haven’t been things I’ve wanted to write about. In fact, I have about a dozen rough drafts saved in a folder on my laptop. Stories I’ve started to write but couldn’t figure out how to end. Most of them were responses to occurrences where it seems the church is failing to seek justice and act mercifully in light of current events.

But somewhere in my effort to write pieces that try to critique in a helpful way, I crossed a line.

When I read through those rough drafts, I don’t find the voice of someone searching for truth and justice. I find the voice of a self-righteous jerk.

I find myself becoming exactly the kind of Christian I was criticizing.

And so I had to try to step back and take an honest look at what I was doing.

And in reading back through all those unfinished, unpolished, discarded drafts, I started to see a pattern.

And behind the pattern I found the problem.

Somewhere along the line, my writing stopped being an act of worship.

One of the scary things that happens when your creative work starts to get noticed is that, well, it gets noticed. And getting noticed carries the weight of expectations…those you perceive from your audience, and those you place on yourself in response to that perception.

My best writing, or at least what I consider to be my best writing, is the stuff I write that comes out as an expression of how I’m experiencing something of the divine. It’s the stuff that articulates a deep relationship with Jesus…whether that comes through a day on a trout stream or a season of wrestling with difficult scriptural texts or a conversation with another human struggling to navigate life on planet earth.

It’s the stuff that takes a hard and honest look at what we’ve become as a church and tries to find a way back to The Way of The One.

And that’s worship. When we pour ourselves out in love and awe as a result of how we experience the reality of Jesus.

It doesn’t just happen in gilded buildings on Sunday mornings. It happens when we hand a homeless man a dollar or a cup of coffee. It happens when we give up a Saturday afternoon to help a mom & daughter move out of an abusive household. It happens when we fix meals or build houses or buy toilet paper for people who, for whatever the reason, can’t do it for themselves.

It also happens when we stop to hear the morning songs of the birds in the trees, when we listen to grandparents’ stories of their youth, and when we watch four-year-olds eat ice cream.

And for some of us, it happens when we make music or mold sculptures or paint images or even write sentences and paragraphs that express a reality we can’t explain any other way.

If the pen is indeed mightier than the sword, it can’t simply become a sword. It must serve a higher purpose.

So that’s what I’m trying to get back to.

Writing is a gift, and with it comes a responsibility. It’s not a weapon to wield in the destruction of opposing ideas, but—hopefully, at least—a conduit by which I can help you connect to your own unspoken realities.

Yes, at times that requires honest critique. If the church is to be a vehicle for justice and mercy in this world, it must be open to regular and constant self-assessment and adjustment. Our abuses usually come out of sincere desires to help, but sometimes we get in our own way by putting the wrong things first.

And this is where you come in. I need you, my readers, to keep me accountable. To keep the right things first.

It’s easy to get on a bandwagon when you connect emotionally with a particular argument or issue. It takes deep discernment to find the most helpful, loving, transformative ways to create dialogue.

Our goal should be communication, not condemnation.

Worship, not warfare.

Sometimes the bar, why, he eats you…

A snippet from my latest piece over at The EcoTheo Review, and the iconic clip that inspired it:

emptycreelNobody wants to read about my bruised toes from hiking too many miles with untrimmed nails, or the times I’ve busted my ass on snot-covered rocks, or the hours of sweating through nettle-filled underbrush that goes along with getting off the so-called beaten path in order to experience those transcendent moments.

But sometimes, “sometimes the bar, why, he eats you.”

The truth is, those moments when everything comes together, the ones which fill our memories and the ones we tell stories about, those moments are the exception rather than the rule.

Sometimes, you just get skunked.

Most of us, when that happens, find a way to wax philosophical about the whole thing.

Our power to rationalize is indeed formidable.

But mostly, it’s bullshit.

Read the whole article here.

But first, a word from The Dude (insert obligatory language warning here):

 

 

Here is the church, here is the steeple…

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istockphoto.com

“…Open it up, and see all the people. … Hey! They look just like me!”

I’m in the middle of a seminary class this week on leading change. “Change” is a big word in church circles these days. It seems like everyone is either dying for it or dying to avoid it.

I’ve been part of church change conversations in a variety of contexts over the past several years. I’ve been part of internal change movements and have tried to help others either facilitate or manage change.

There are a few things I’ve noticed about change in churches:

1) Almost everybody seems to know they need to change. The alternative to changing is to fade into non-existence.

2) Almost everybody is terrified to actually implement change. They understand the consequences but simply can’t bring themselves to endure the uncertainty that comes along with it. By doing so, they essentially choose a slow but sure diminution into non-existence.

3) Those who want change generally want something specific. And what they want is for the church to change to be more like them.

It’s that third thing I want to focus on.

When I was part of a change movement in my church several years ago, I had a vision. At the time, I thought that vision was for a more vibrant, more lively, more “relevant” expression of the church.

In hindsight, what I now realize is that what I wanted was a church made in my own image. One to suit my wants and desires and perceived needs.

I arrogantly assumed that everyone would (or at least should) want the same thing. And even if they didn’t know it yet, that was the kind of church that they really desired to be part of. Once they could experience it, they’d surely come around.

Now that I’ve spent some time seriously studying the church in its various expressions and various movements, both historically and contemporarily, I’m coming to the realization that that’s pretty much what everyone wants.

The best church, we assume, is the one that’s most like us.

And so we embark on these Quixotic change missions, trying to make the church what we want it to be, laboring under the assumption that what we want is really what everyone wants. More hip. More traditional. More welcoming. More stable. More conservative. More progressive. More evangelical. More missional. More straight. More gay. More “biblical.” More “spiriti-led.” More diverse. More homey. More young. More multi-generational.

What you seldom see or hear in these conversations is probably the one thing that maybe we should all be striving for.

Instead of a church that’s more like us, maybe we should be seeking a church that looks more like Jesus.

Of course, our immediate response to that is to say, “That is what I want! JESUS WANTS EXACTLY WHAT I WANT!!”

Really?

Here’s the thing: The church of Jesus almost never looks like what we think we want.

Because Jesus is dangerous.

Jesus calls us into those places that make us uncomfortable, that challenge our preconceptions, that stretch our imaginations. The church we think we want, the one that looks and thinks and acts just like we do, does none of those things.

And do you know why?

Because Jesus is all about LOVE.

Sound oversimplified? Think about it. Really think about it.

Love is anything but simple.

Love makes us uncomfortable. Love challenges our preconceptions. Love stretches our imaginations.

Love—real, authentic, unconditional, life-giving love—is the hardest thing we can do.

Love calls us to die so that it can rise up in our place.

We cannot continue to box ourselves into our labels and categories and preconceptions and preferences, and love like Jesus loves. It’s not until we abandon all of those things that we can even begin to glimpse what that kind of love is like.

It’s only in utter surrender that we can find true freedom.

In Wesleyan theology we talk about the idea of “Christian Perfection.” That’s a pretty hard concept to get your head around. We all know instinctively that we can never be “perfect.” But because of that instinct, we never really give the idea an honest try.

What John Wesley meant by “perfection” wasn’t an error-free existence. What he meant was that we could—at least conceivably—actually love other people and the world around us the way Jesus does.

Bob Tuttle, one of the most brilliant professors I’ve had the privilege to study under, defined it like this:

“Love devoid of self-interest.”

The love of Jesus, the love he calls us to as individuals and as his church, is a love that does nothing for its own benefit and everything for the sake of others.

Everything.

So whatever our agendas are and as noble as they may be, unless they are founded on that kind of utterly self-sacrificing, thoroughly generative love, they fall short of the best life Jesus calls us to.

So what kind of church do you want. Really want?

If you want one that’s just like you, I guarantee you’ll find it.

I hope we can choose the riskier path.

Where moth and rust consume

Moth

istockphoto.com

Nobody ever believed in Jesus because they lost an argument.”

I wish I could remember the name of my seminary colleague who said that in class one day. I’d gladly pay him royalties for the number of times I’ve quoted him.

In today’s contentious church environment, I think it’s a salient reminder.

It seems everywhere we turn, church people are fighting. Not just with non-Christians but, even more frequently, with one another. Don’t believe it? Google “Christian blogs,” pick one, and go to the comment section.

In fact, let me save you some trouble. Just go check out one of my favorites, Rachel Held Evans’ blog. Pick any post. You won’t have to scroll down far before you see the vitriolic responses starting to fly.

Who’s selling out to who?

In a recent post, Evans notes that the most frequent argument levied against liberal/progressives from the conservative/evangelical camp is that we are “selling out” to the culture around us. We compromise the truth of scripture in order to win friends from the “world” so that we can appear to be “relevant” or even “cool.”

But, Evans pointedly notes, the very same people who voice those accusations are also very often the first to “sell out” to the “worldly” notions of retributive violence, economic elitism, racism, sexism, and secular class warfare:

“And I am concerned that the Church is indeed conforming to the world—every time it preaches violence as a way to achieve justice, every time it glorifies celebrity and success, every time it reduces womanhood to subordination and manhood to power, every time it justifies cruelty or unkindness in the name of proving a point.”

Treasures in heaven

Not surprisingly, Jesus has something to say about all of this. In addition to the rather obvious issue of splinters and planks (Matt. 7:4-5), there is a somewhat obscure and almost universally misunderstood passage wherein our favorite itinerant Galilean rabbi challenges his followers to a radically different perspective:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. […] No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

—Matthew 6:19-20, 24 (NASB)

Contrary to popular belief, Jesus really isn’t talking about money in this passage. Nor is he advocating some kind of pious “investment” in a distant, post-mortem future. Those interpretations take the passage out of its context as the climactic words of what we now refer to as the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7).

In the buildup to this statement, Jesus is encouraging the marginalized amongst his followers and admonishing the religious watchdogs of his day. He tells the oppressed and disenfranchised that, contrary to social convention, they are blessed. He tells the religious leaders that their scrupulous adherence to the law falls far short of its intent.

“Treasures on earth” doesn’t necessarily refer to wealth itself, but to the the trappings of power, influence and status. Because those things often accompany wealth, it becomes an apt metaphor for anything other than Jesus to which we attach value.

“Treasures in heaven,” similarly, are not good deeds which we store up in some sort of religious bank account to cash in when we…well…cash in. Instead, it is a call to treasure Jesus himself and to embrace his way of being.

Righteousness of the Pharisees

Early on in his sermon, Jesus informs his listeners that their righteousness must surpass “that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law” (Matt. 5:20, NIV). A bit later, he tells them to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48).

Jesus is not laying down a new, more stringent legal code to follow. He is challenging his followers to integrate his life into theirs. In doing so, he directly contrasts that kind of life to that of the “Pharisees and teachers of the law.” The religious elite. The self-appointed gatekeepers.

The Pharisees were not evil people. They were convinced they were doing what God had commanded of them. They were adamant that legalistic morality, even at the expense of those who were thoroughly unable to achieve it, was the path to realizing the kingdom of heaven.

Unfortunately, they were missing the big picture.

Radical reorientation

Throughout his discourse, Jesus’ whole point is not for his followers to try to obey some set of behavioral mandates. It’s to reorient their lives around him and the kind of radical, unconditional, thoroughly inclusive love he displays…especially to those who seem to deserve it the least.

The “treasures on earth” Jesus rebukes are the systems and structures that oppress, objectify and dehumanize others at the altar of self-righteousness, exclusivity and superiority. Systems which, incidentally, the Pharisees had embraced in their behavior-management-based righteousness.

“Treasures in heaven,” then, are not deposits on some cosmic ledger, but an orientation toward love as the highest universal value. Not just love as a touchy-feely emotion, but as a radical, forgiving, inclusive force that rejects all manner of self-interest for the benefit of others.

For Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is not a place or even a way of life. It is the ultimate reality, where love reigns and rules, and which he embodies.

Moths and rust

The Pharisees were sincerely trying to do what they thought was right. The problem was, they were misunderstanding the story God was telling. In their zeal to be holy, they had sold out to the worldly systems and structures of status and power.

And Jesus’ message to them is that their earthly treasure—as noble as they believed it to be—was ultimately unsustainable. In fact, he tells them, it will consume and destroy them.

The church should pay attention.

When we obsess over our arguments and the defense of our particular beliefs, we are falling into the same trap. And eventually, it will consume us. And we’ll miss the kingdom reality Jesus is offering.

A Confession…

confession

Forgive me Father, for I have sinned.

I didn’t really mean to. I thought I was doing the right thing. But over time I started believing it was more important to convince people I was right about what you want than to show them who you are. I became more concerned with piousness than piety. I gave you allegiance, but not submission. I invoked your name to belittle, argue, and exclude. I used your word not to heal but to attack. You asked me to be your hands and feet, but all I wanted to be was your mouthpiece.

Forgive me Sister, for I have sinned.

I thought I was following the rules. But in doing so I failed to appreciate you for all you are. I pigeonholed you into unfair and antiquated gender roles. I devalued your work, and I made matrimony and motherhood your only acceptable virtues. When you needed support, I responded with empty rituals. When you needed a strong foundation, I handed you a one-size-fits-all formula to follow. I disrespected you, objectified you, and oppressed you in countless ways.

Forgive me Brother, for I have sinned.

I took you for granted. I missed so many opportunities to engage you in conversation. Instead of celebrating your unique ability to contribute, I offered you a litany of boredom and irrelevance. When we were together, I failed to respect your particular gifts and talents and thrust you into roles for which you were not suited. When you wanted adventure, I offered chores. When you wanted meaning, I offered clichés and platitudes.

Forgive me Friend, for I have sinned.

I meant to be helpful. But I assumed you wanted the same things as me, without ever asking. I saw you through my own eyes instead of getting to know you deeply. Our relationship was little more than a consumer transaction to me. When you needed me to listen to you, I only saw ingratitude. When you needed me to help you, I demanded that you try harder. I used you for my own benefit without seeking to benefit you.

Forgive me Neighbor, for I have sinned.

You weren’t like me, so we never talked. You came from a different place, your skin was a different color, you didn’t believe the same things as me, and you loved the people I thought it was wrong for you to love. I never bothered to try to know you, because it was easier to just believe what others said about you. I wanted you to conform to my ways before I would even approach you, and I missed out on all the richness, the beauty, and the joy I could have experienced through you.

Forgive me World, for I have sinned.

I was supposed to change you. But too often I was all too easily drawn to status, power, and influence. I was supposed to bring justice, but instead I joined forces with the unjust. I offered banal, insipid answers to your deepest worries and hardest questions. I did good works on your behalf, to be sure. But too often those works came with an agenda. I wanted to be in you but not of you, so I withdrew from you rather than face your difficulties side-by-side…and I pretended I was better than you because of it.

I am the Church, and this is my confession.

Forgive me, for I have sinned.