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.

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…The powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse

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“Funny the way it is, not right or wrong
Somebody’s broken heart become your favorite song”

— Dave Matthews

With much of the world, I am stumbling today through the fog of the reality that Robin Williams is dead.

More than a comedic genius and brilliant entertainer, Williams had that rare gift of bringing to light the depth and breadth of the human experience through his art. He exhibited a sort of radical vulnerability that pierced through the realities we attempt to construct and spoke joy into life in a way few others have managed.

In many ways his was the artistic and prophetic voice of my generation. While we were virtually peeing our pants laughing at his antics, we were often almost simultaneously struck to the core by the truths he revealed about who we are and what our world has become.

It is indeed tragic that it appears the joy he brought to millions escaped him personally. That the masks he helped us strip away from ourselves were ones he was unable to live behind any longer. That the raw depths of pain he used to fuel our laughter would overtake and destroy him.

Beyond just the loss of Williams and his creative force, I also find myself mourning the inescapable reality that so much of what brings us joy and life is borne out of such deep and destructive pain.

All great art requires the artist to lay bare the aches and struggles of life, to expose the powers behind them, and transform them into something transcendent. But the fact that so much of that vulnerability places the artist on a razor’s edge between life and death strikes at something deep within me that makes me question why it is that we seem to have an almost innate need to feed on others’ suffering.

Whether it’s for something as seemingly as flippant as “entertainment” or for the deeper appreciation of what it is that great art of any kind stirs within us, we seem to dwell in this sort of noxious tension between the joy we receive from it—however it is we define that—and the pain in someone else that paradoxically breathes life into it.

My only solace is the sure knowledge that in some mystical, mysterious, inexplicable way, even the harshest torment the world can serve up can be molded into something good and lovely. That art is perhaps the Great Creator’s way of taking what is horrible and revealing something exquisite.

That it is the art that endures beyond the temporal shell of the artist.

And so out of pain and death, life and beauty persist.

Perhaps to show that beneath misery and wretchedness, there is something more true, more splendid and more good that can’t be defeated.

Rest in peace, dear soul. Thank you for your gift. And may the demons that robbed it from you and from us be vanquished in the knowledge that you were able to twist their maleficent schemes into something beautiful.

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.

Here is the church, here is the steeple…

steeplefingers

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“…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

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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 Radical Alternative

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istockphoto.com

One of my favorite stories in the Bible comes from the very end of John’s gospel.

Jesus has been crucified and resurrected, and has appeared a few times to his disciples.

But at one point, it’s been awhile. The disciples are confused. They don’t know where Jesus is. They don’t know if they’ll see him again. They’re still not sure what to make of this whole affair.

And Peter, being Peter, decides to go fishing.

(I like this dude.)

And so Peter and the other disciples are out fishing, and they fish all night (you fish at night in Palestine because it gets pretty stinkin’ hot in the middle of the day), and they haven’t caught a thing.

Zero. Nada. Skunked.

And this guy appears out of nowhere on the beach, and he does what everyone does when they see people fishing.

“Catchin’ any?”

Now, the disciples don’t realize it yet, but the guy on the beach is Jesus. And Jesus tells them to do something very, very strange.

He tells them to try casting their nets on the right side of the boat.

Now, to us, that doesn’t seem all that weird. If you’ve been trying one side of the boat all night, why not try the other? If anything, it may seem a bit silly. What difference would changing sides make?

Of course, we have the benefit of hindsight. We know that in Luke’s account of Jesus calling his first disciples, he does something similar.

So we put two and two together and assume Jesus is trying to tell them something. To remind them of a turning point in their lives.

And it’s true that’s part of Jesus’ agenda here. But there’s more going on.

The ancient Near East, like most pre-modern cultures, was a decidedly right-handed culture. Left-handedness was not just a strange anomaly. It was a weakness. It was something to be feared. Reviled. In some contexts it was even thought to be a sign of evil.

So if you were a fisherman, throwing nets into the water and hauling the weight of those nets back into your boat, you fished off the left side of the boat, enabling you to leverage the strength of your right arm and right side. Imagine pulling a heavy weight from your left to your right. Your right hand is on top, and your right arm is doing all the work.

When Jesus tells the disciples to throw their nets on the right side of the boat he’s not just inviting them to try something different.

He’s calling them to a radical alternative.

Now, it’s tempting to say, “Of course. Jesus calls us all to a radically alternative life.” Again, that’s true enough.

But remember who Jesus is talking to.

These are not just random fishermen. These are his closest followers. The people who know him best. The people who followed him everywhere for three years, saw everything he did, heard every word he said.

They were witnesses to the resurrection.

They are the ones who will lead Jesus’ church.

This call to a radical alternative is not just a cute anecdote or a way for Jesus to remind his disciples of their original invitation.

It’s a commission to engage the world in a completely different, completely unexpected way. To play to what they perceive to be their weakness rather than their strengths.

It’s a call to cast aside the “We’ve always done it this way” or “This is the way things are” or “This is what scripture says” arguments.

It’s as if the story in John 21 has less to do with the disciples’ actual fishing trip than it does with the challenge Jesus lays on their lives. As if it’s not really about which side of the boat they cast their nets to or which hand they use to pull them up, but about how they will stretch their preconceived mindsets to build and lead Jesus’ church.

Remember, these were devout Jews. Versed in Torah. Drenched in history. People of tradition.

And while all of those things are valuable and important, they all reach their epicenter in the stranger on the beach.

I wonder if in today’s church we’ve developed our own sort of “right-handedness.” If we’ve grown so comfortable with the way we do things that we can’t imagine really radical alternatives.

Have we become so accustomed to what we perceive to be our strengths (scriptural interpretation, tradition, doctrine) that we fail to hear the suggestion from the stranger on the beach? Have we forgotten that the only real value in our strengths comes when they are directed by the incarnated and resurrected Jesus?

Have we forgotten that he meets us all in the midst of our deepest weaknesses?

Have we forgotten that Jesus consistently used those who were perceived as weak, or feared, or reviled, or even evil, to proclaim the good news and expand his kingdom?

I wonder if we as the church today can embrace this kind of radical alternative. Can we trust Jesus enough to set aside our perceived strengths and play to our weaknesses?

Do we dare to listen to the stranger on the beach?

Daring to Love — A Guest Post by Darren Bouwmeester

2013-10-30 19.01.18Dear Conspirators for Awesomeness: Allow me to introduce Darren Bouwmeester. Darren and I met through our common space in the blogosphere when I discovered his site, Momentary Delight, and at about the same time he landed here at The Awesomeness Conspiracy. I’ve invited Darren to share some thoughts here with you faithful readers.

In addition to being a husband and father of two girls, Darren is co-editing a newly-launched e-magazine called Composting Faith on following Jesus and living sustainably. You can check it out at www.compostingfaith.com.

I hope you’ll enjoy Darren’s thoughtful contribution. Please visit and support his sites.

By Darren Bouwmeester

I grew up in a conservative Christian home and attended an evangelical Christian school for much of my youth. In High School, I wasn’t the most masculine guy. At one point, the high school gym teacher called me out and ridiculed me in front of my classmates, questioning my sexuality. He didn’t really need an excuse, since he was our football coach and I was an awkward undersized sophomore. That said, when one of your teachers bullies you in front of your classmates, it’s pretty much open season. In the end, it didn’t really matter that I wasn’t gay. My coping strategy was to withdraw and do my best to disappear in plain sight.

Throughout my twenties, as someone who was still insecure about his sexuality, I felt like I had to prove myself and my manliness. In retrospect, I can’t say enough about the hurt that is caused by insecure people like me, who act out of fear and loathing (for themselves) and feel they need to project an image. You want to show that you’re okay and show your bona fides. As a result, I said and wrote things twenty years ago about LGBT people which I deeply regret and which mortify me.

Still later in my thirties, I was part of a Southern Baptist Church. We had a don’t ask, don’t tell approach to sexuality. To the best of my knowledge, every child at that church was immaculately conceived. During this season of life, one of my best friends at my workplace was gay. I knew he was gay. He knew that I knew he was gay. But we never talked about it. Yes, this was the South, and this was probably his defense mechanism. You don’t talk about these things. Moreover, he knew I was a Southern Baptist, and didn’t want to make me uncomfortable, or rock the boat. So, we worked together for two years and we talked about my wife, my kids, our hobbies and workplace politics, but we never talked about the fact that he was gay. I can’t imagine what he probably thought of me. If I could speak to him today, I’d apologize to him. Clearly, he felt that it was not safe for him to speak to me about his life.  It’s ironic, isn’t it? As a follower of Jesus, shouldn’t people feel safe around me? Shouldn’t people feel like I’m approachable and accepting, much in the way that people felt around Jesus?

Now in my forties, I’m married with two young daughters. I confess that much like our nation, my attitude toward LGBT people is evolving. Having lived in religious settings, where it seems like we were always condemning people for various reasons, I don’t feel like I want to condemn anyone anymore. In many respects, I feel that LGBT people have a lot to teach me. As someone who has had his own sexuality questioned, I know the hurt and pain of being marginalized and the pain of being made to feel “less than.”

If I could say anything to LGBT people, it would be Jesus loves you. I would also ask them to be patient with me. I have a lot of hang-ups and I’m still figuring things out. I would also apologize for whatever hurt they’ve experienced from me and from my fellow Christians.

When we look back on our life, we might question God about our life experiences. Why God? Why God did you let this happen? Why did I have this past experiences? Sometimes, with the questioning comes anger. As I grow older, instead of simply getting angry, I’ve tried to see my experiences as gifts.

How do you teach a person empathy and compassion? I suppose there are people out there who might be naturally empathetic and compassionate. I’m not one of them. I’d like to think that through my own life experiences and even the pain I’ve experienced, that God is teaching me compassion, humility, kindness and empathy. If there’s a purpose or meaning to be found in my past experiences, this is a pretty good one.

As someone who lived in a very legalistic Southern Baptist Church (and I’m not saying that every Southern Baptist is a legalist), I’ve known the weight of condemnation and guilt. The Jesus I follow is not about condemnation or guilt. My reading of the gospel shows a Jesus who welcomed sinners, the broken and the hurting to his table. Overjoyed that Jesus would let me sit with him, how can I refuse anyone else a place at this table.

The highest law in the New Testament is love, to love God and to love people (Matthew 22:36-40). While I admit that I’m likely totally wrong on any number of topics, including matters of faith, I’m nonetheless resolved that if I’m to be wrong, I’d rather err on the side of love.

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. (1 Peter 4:8)

When our cures make people sick

poinsettias

In my home church, we have a beautiful Christmas tradition of lining the altar with white poinsettias for our Christmas services. The bright blooms set against the greenery and lighting of the season makes for a stunning display. It is a gorgeous visual invitation into a very special experience of worship.

It is an elegant, exquisite sight to behold. It is wonderfully fragrant. It is a powerful symbol of the season.

And it makes me sick. Literally. Sick.

Since boyhood, I’ve been subject to pollen allergies. When I played Little League baseball in the spring, my eyes would often swell almost shut from all the blooming flowers and trees and the fresh-cut grass of the ballfields. I took allergy shots every week from age 10-17 just to help me get through the season. Even now I basically subsist on Claritin and Benadryl during March and April.

So, every winter, that wonderful display of white Christmas flowers in the sanctuary brings on itchy, watery eyes, a runny nose, chest congestion, and a scratchy sore throat.

I know the people who decorate the church aren’t intentionally trying to make anyone sick. They’re authentically trying to create a very special experience for people.

And for me, it’s worth the tradeoff. There’s no place I’d rather be than in that sanctuary with my church family on those most holy of days. So I pop an antihistamine and gut it out (and, admittedly, whine a bit to my wife and kids…we all need to vent, right?!).

But this Christmas, as I sat in my pew and fought back the coughs and sneezes, I started wondering…

What other things might we be doing in our churches that are—completely unintentionally—making people “sick?” Not so much physically, but spiritually?

What occurred to me was that not only were the folks who placed the poinsettias obviously not trying to illicit an allergic reaction, but it didn’t even occur to them that it might happen.

And that’s the thing. We do things all the time that somehow cause some harm to others. And we do it because it doesn’t even occur to us that that’s what’s happening.

In a way, it’s understandable. We’re experiencing something deeply meaningful and we want to share that experience with others. Our intentions are good.

Unfortunately, too often we fail to translate that experience to others’ perspectives. Especially if they’ve had a bad experience with church in the past.

In our efforts to spread our joy, to include more people in our experience, we say and do things that make others feel more and more excluded. Not because we’re mean or bad or evil, but because we simply don’t consider how our words and actions are perceived outside of our tribe.

I think this may be especially true when we see people engaged in what we perceive to be behaviors that seem contrary to what we’ve been taught to believe. In our efforts to “save” them from such behaviors, we usually end up doing more harm than good.

We don’t mean to, but that’s what happens.

And so we say things like, “The most loving thing I can do for someone is to point out their sin so they can correct it and get right with Jesus. If I see someone drowning, should I not throw them a life vest? If someone is falling out of a plane should I not give them a parachute?”

On the surface, that all seems noble enough. And it’s true. If we see someone we love doing something harmful, our natural tendency is to intervene.

But what we fail to realize is how that sentiment is often understood. In our efforts to be helpful, we are instead perceived as being critical and disparaging. It’s not our intent. But we have to recognize that perception is reality.

To the folks we’re trying to help, it doesn’t sound like help. It sounds like judgment. Like condemnation. Sometimes it even sounds like hate.

Our poinsettias become poison.

Here’s the thing…

Unconditional love is hard. It requires us not only to reach out to others, but to put ourselves in their place. To walk alongside them in whatever their experience is. To not try to “fix” them, but to simply be present, no matter what.

The difference is our focus. Are we going to focus on what we perceive to be peoples’ sins? Or are we going to focus on God’s grace?

Jesus didn’t just offer people a life vest or a parachute. He gave up his life vest. He handed over his parachute.

There is a temptation to look at what I’m saying here and say it’s too easy on sin. To say that it’s just a weak excuse to accept what Diedrich Bonhoeffer referred to as “cheap grace.”

But in reality, there’s nothing harder on sin than grace. Because grace is the only thing that breaks sin’s power.

The message of the gospel is not sin management. It’s shalom.

As we enter into a new year, may we learn to focus not on sin and judgment, but on unconditional love and grace.

May all our good intentions be matched by words and actions that cause no harm but instead spread true peace and goodwill.

Happy 2014!

A Christmas Prayer

CandleWhile there is always time for opinion, dialogue and debate, I wanted to take this opportunity to simply share my prayer for us all on this Christmas Eve. Be of good cheer and celebrate well, dear friends! May your blessings overflow.

If you are sick, may you find comfort.
If you are hurt, may you find healing.
If you are sad, may you experience a moment of unexpected joy.

If you are distant from others, may you find reconciliation.
If you are angry, may you find peace.
If you are unloved, may love itself find you.

If you doubt, may you find courage.
If you suffer injustice, may you find mercy.
If you are poor, may someone share themselves with you.

If you feel helpless, may you be served.
If you struggle for acceptance, may you experience unconditional love.
If you seek truth, may you learn to love unconditionally.

Let the just rejoice, for their Justifier is born.
Let the sick and infirm rejoice, for their Savior is born.
Let the captives rejoice, for their Redeemer is born.
Let slaves rejoice, for their Master is born.
Let free people rejoice, for their Liberator is born.
Let all rejoice, for Jesus Christ is born.

— St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 c.e.)

Persecuted or Persecutors?

CupIf you’re on the internet reading this blog, I’m sure you’re aware of the controversy swirling around some comments made by Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson and A&E Network’s subsequent decision to suspend him from the show.

I really had no intention of writing about this today. And, in truth, it’s not really what this blog is about. But it does create an illustration for something I’ve been wanting to talk about for awhile, which is the false sense of persecution that is so prevalent in the American church today.

I’ve watched a grand total of probably 20 minutes of DD in my life. Which is about the same amount of NASCAR I’ve ever watched. So you see the connection. I don’t get it. It’s not for me.

In fact, I really don’t care what Robertson said or how A&E responded. My opinion of his comments was that they were fairly uninformed, but largely blown out of proportion. It’s less than a blip on the cosmic radar as far as I’m concerned.

But what does concern me is the response of the church. And so far, I’m pretty disappointed.

I’m not quite sure how the DD crew got to become spokespeople for American Christianity. I know they speak openly about their faith on national TV, which is pretty rare, and so I can see how some people can identify with them because of that.

But it seems like Christians have become desperate to have some kind of icon to hold up to the secular world. And I think that desperation grows out of a sense that somehow Christians are being persecuted in America.

Just look at the so-called “War on Christmas.” Somehow a large number of us have gotten it in our heads that we’re under attack.

But here’s the thing: we’re not. We’re just not in control anymore.

And that, my friends, is not persecution. Believe me. Thousands of Christians around the world are being truly persecuted. And what some goofy rednecks do or say on television has nothing to do with it.

Yes, things are changing around us. We live in a culture with a multitude of religions, belief systems, races, and nationalities. When I was in grade school we used to celebrate this fact. The great melting pot of America was something we took pride in (that is, until non-white, non-Christians started to outnumber us).

And yes, Christians have been criticized, and often unfairly. But that’s still not the same as persecution. That’s just criticism.

What’s really happening is that there are other ideas in the world that sometimes challenge and even conflict with Christian beliefs. Nothing new there. But because Christianity in America has for so long dominated the general cultural consciousness, we’re feeling threatened and defensive because we think we’re losing control.

Still, it’s a long way from persecution. Moving from the majority to the minority may be uncomfortable. It may be incredibly hard. It may even piss you off to no end. But it’s still not persecution.

So for the folks who are outraged by what they perceive as Christianity coming under attack, and who think Phil Robertson is their new champion and standard-bearer, please consider a couple of things:

I know you think Phil is defending your faith. I know you think he’s defending the Bible. I know you think he’s standing up to the liberal non-Christian secular humanist Grinches that are trying to steal your perfect Who-ville Christmas.

But faith that hurts people—even people you disagree with—is most emphatically NOT the faith of Jesus.

The hard truth is, for most of our history in America, the church has more often been the persecutor than the persecuted. We have been responsible, directly or indirectly, for untold atrocities in the name of “defending our faith.”

If you want to understand real persecution in America, try sitting with one of my gay friends who once again today is being subjected to hateful marginalization by a church founded on the principals of love and inclusiveness for the marginalized.

So while many of you are supporting Phil Robertson all over your Facebook timelines and “defending your faith” on Twitter, you need to realize that you’re simultaneously sending a message to a confused teenager somewhere that she’s unworthy of the God who created her.

So ask yourself this, my fellow Christian:

Will your “I support Phil” meme be the last thing that girl sees before she swallows that handful of pills on her dresser?

Will your words “defending your faith” be the last words a young boy reads before he decides to put a gun in his mouth rather than come out to his parents?

Is that the kind of faith you want to defend? Is that your church?

Persecuted or persecutor?

What kind of church are we going to be?

Happy holidays.

Throwback Thursday: A Roller Coaster Guy in a Merry-Go-Round World

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This article originally appeared on Aug. 13, 2009. I revisit it today not because of any current frustration with my own leadership roles, but because I’ve recently completed a course in Christian leadership that reminded me of some of the tensions in which those of us in leadership positions often find ourselves.

I love metaphors. I think there’s a reason Jesus speaks so much in that form through stories and parables. Metaphors draw pictures of concepts in a way that speaks to our commonality of experience.

Regular readers–both of you (insert smiley face emoticon here)–will notice that lately I’ve been wrestling with expressing some frustrations in the arena of church leadership. And last night, in one of those times when my brain wouldn’t shut down and let me sleep, this whole Merry-Go-Round/Roller Coaster metaphor started to creep into my imagination. And it speaks to a lot of my current sense of restlessness.

Folks who know me will get it when I say I’m a Roller Coaster. Wildly erratic at times, rushing at full speed from place to place, tossed about uncontrollably. If it wasn’t for the belts and harnesses I’d fly off the track. Life to me always has been and always will be a thrill ride. An adventure. An experience to throw myself into without worry or regard to where it’s going to take me or what it’s going to do to me.

Other folks, though, are more like Merry-Go-Rounds. Enjoying a nice, pleasant, easy pace. No jerking around. No sudden acceleration. No adventure. No need for belts or harnesses. No puking at the end of the ride.

Merry-Go-Rounds don’t understand Roller Coasters. They’re too uncomfortable. Too unpredictable. Too uncontrollable. Too messy. Too dangerous.

We Roller Coasters, similarly, don’t get the Merry-Go-Round life. Circling around and around and around and around. Seeing and experiencing the same things over and over and over again. Too comfortable. Too predictable. Too ordered. Too safe.

Roller Coasters want everyone to be Roller Coasters. To experience the thrill. To be utterly and thoroughly exhilarated by the very wildness of the ride. To fly off into the unknown and be totally at the mercy of the ride.

Merry-Go-Rounds have no desire to be Roller Coasters. Merry-Go-Rounds wonder why Roller Coasters can’t just straighten the track, flatten the hills, and be more…well…stable. More cautious. More under control.

Now I’m not talking about extremes here. I’m not about to go jump out of an airplane or bungee off of a bridge. Nor am I talking on the other end of the spectrum about folks who just do nothing and settle for a bland, couch-potato type of existence. I’m just talking in broad generalities.

If you’re a Merry-Go-Round, please try not to get mad at me here. Because I love you. I just don’t get you. Going around and around and around makes me dizzy. It’s not pleasant or peaceful at all. In fact, I find it stressful. Unnatural. Because when I look at Jesus, I don’t see a Merry-Go-Round. I see a Roller Coaster.

And yet, in many ways, there is something about “church life” that is much more Merry-Go-Round than it is Roller Coaster. It is the most counter-intuitive thing I can imagine. And I think the reason is, we’re much more comfortable PLAYING church than BEING the church.

Playing church is comfortable. It’s safe. It’s predictable. It’s plannable. It’s showing up on Sundays, singing nice songs, passing the plate. Casserole dinners. Shaking hands in the aisles. Not offending anyone. No risks. Polite prayers. It’s a Merry-Go-Round.

Being the church is dangerous. Unpredictable. It’s stepping into the war zone of culture and addiction and poverty and brokennes. It is battling the demons that entrap total strangers while forcing yourself to face your own. It is risking everything to follow Jesus wherever he leads you. It is loud, powerful, hands-in-the-air, tears-in-your-eyes worship. It will fill you with adrenaline one minute and empty your stomach the next. It’s high-fiving your friends right before you barf on your shoes. Roller Coaster.

Admittedly, some Merry-Go-Rounds will never embrace Roller Coasters. Some folks will always be content to spin around and around, their biggest thrills coming as the horsies bob up and down. Smiling and passing the potatoes. Playing a nice comfortable game of church.

Others will long for the rush of the Roller Coaster, but live a life afraid of leaving their friends on the Merry-Go-Round. Worried that the Merry-Go-Rounds will resent them for changing rides. Afraid to leave the game and live the life. Trapped in an endless cycle of regret. Resenting both the Merry-Go-Rounds that hold them back and the Roller Coasters who live with wind in their hair and hearts pounding out of their chests.

Those who will take the risk and ride the Roller Coaster will be filled with life in a way that can never be experienced on the Merry-Go-Round. We will suffer as much as we rejoice. We will cry as much as we laugh. And we will love every minute of it.

We will always love our friends on the Merry-Go-Round. But we can’t ride with them.