I don’t like you, but I really want to love you

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Creative Commons

 

“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.” –Matt. 5:43-47 (MSG)

So I’ve been trying to do something really radical lately.

I’m trying to love people I don’t like.

This is one of those strange paradoxes of the Christian life. We know, or at least we assent to the notion, that we’re called to love our enemies.

But if we’re honest, for most of us, all that really means is that we hold those with whom we’re in conflict at arms length, agreeing without words to stay out of each other’s space.

But that’s not love. That’s just polite avoidance.

By both his words and actions, Jesus provides an example for how to not only tolerate, but actively love those we deem unlovable.

Actively, as I was reminded by a friend in a recent conversation, is the key word here.

For me to love my enemy means more than just passively setting aside animosity. It means actively seeking his or her well-being. It means—more often than not—sacrificing my own wants and desires so that someone I disagree with, someone I strongly dislike, or even someone who means me harm, can actually benefit from my actions.

The more I try to love people I don’t like, the more I find out that it’s not just hard. It’s actually costly. It requires something of me, something sacrificial.

It requires that I examine my motives, confront often previously-unrecognized prejudices, and become vulnerable. After all, there’s no guarantee that it will be reciprocated.

I’m beginning to believe, though, that learning to love people we don’t like might be among the most important things we can do if we truly want to follow Jesus.

Let’s face it. Arguing, fighting, insulting, bullying, and belittling don’t work. If they did, the problems of the world would have been resolved long ago. No authentic relationship was ever built on coercion.

And yet, those things continue to be our default settings. When confronted with ideas we find disagreeable or offensive, or with people we find rude or ignorant or otherwise flawed in our eyes, we move instantly to criticism and condemnation.

What we fail to recognize is that, in doing so, we rob the other person of their very humanity. The moment we categorize someone as this type or that kind of individual, we have made him or her a thing and not a person. In our minds they are little more than an object to be sorted into our narrow definitions and classifications.

This, in fact, is at the heart of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. As he declares the outcasts and unlovable to be blessed, he reminds them of their humanity. A humanity of which the religious and social elite of their communities too often had robbed them because of their failure to live up to accepted norms and standards.

He reminds them that each human being is a creation of God, loved by God. Equal under sun and rain, in good times and bad, whether good or evil.

And he reminds them that loving one another—actively and unconditionally—is the most powerful thing they can do. In fact, it’s what opens the doors to the kingdom of heaven.

We’re good at loving people who look like us, think like us, act like us and talk like us. We’re good at loving those who share our beliefs and values and worldviews.

But when we come up against opposition, with people who look different, believe differently, behave differently, we turn instantly to condemnation.

Disagreement challenges us on a primal level. Feeling that we’re “right” about a particular viewpoint reinforces our sense of well-being and identity. When confronted with the notion that we might be wrong about something, we react defensively out of a need to protect that identity.

That’s why loving those we dislike is so costly. It requires that something within us—an opinion, a preference, a belief—must, in some fashion, die.

But what comes to life in its place is always something better and more beautiful.

And when our “enemies” experience that, and when others around us see it, it is a catalytic force for transformation and reconciliation.

So I’m going to keep trying to love people I don’t like.

I’ll fail. A lot.

But I hope by actively seeking the best for them, I’ll find the best in me.

And ultimately, in us.

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“Jesus was a socialist…”

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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

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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!

A prayer for Ferguson

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I’m praying for Ferguson today.

Not just in that semi-sincere “Christian-ese” way that feels sorry for someone and says, “Oh, I’ll be praying for you.” I am literally on my knees. Praying. Begging God to make things right.

I’m praying that your city will find peace, and that neighbors can learn to live alongside one another without fear. That your people who desired nothing more than a nonviolent protest in response to a devastating announcement aren’t further victimized by criminals who used your pain as an excuse to loot and pillage, and your peaceful attempt to be heard as a cover for their selfish actions.

I’m praying for Michael Brown’s family. Your loss is insurmountable. And regardless of what the grand jury said, regardless of the evidence they saw, or maybe didn’t see, you deserved better than a cheap explanation from a slick politician.

I’m praying for Darren Wilson and his family. You have experienced something awful. You made a decision no one should ever have to make. You too are a victim of sorts. A victim of a “shoot first and ask questions later” mentality that makes deadly force your first instinct instead of a desperate measure of last resort.

I’m praying for justice. Not revenge. Not retribution. Those are different. I’m praying for real justice, the kind that brings reconciliation, the kind where something beautiful grows out of something horrible.

I’m praying that we can stop calling killing of any kind “justifiable.” I understand self-defense. I get that “kill or be killed” is a real, powerful, primal instinct. But because it’s understandable doesn’t make it justifiable. Again, that word implies that justice was somehow achieved. It’s more than semantics. Words matter, and we need to be less careless when our words are this important.

I’m praying that we can stop promoting and elevating fear as a motivation for our actions. The more we do that, the more superficial the things on which we base our fear…to the point where we become afraid of each other based on something as ultimately superficial as the color of our skin.

I’m praying that our news media will honor its responsibility to inform citizens, discover truth, and uncover corruption rather than selfishly escalating viewers’ emotions and inflaming conflict in the interest of selling more of its product.

I’m praying that white Americans can begin to empathize with the different perception our black neighbors have of life in our country. That we can recognize our privileged position in society and admit that we are able to live without much of the daily anxiety African-Americans must endure every moment of every day. That we can stop deflecting the argument toward so-called “black-on-black” violence. Or the notion that had Darren Wilson and Michael Brown been of the same race, their confrontation would have never made headlines. Those are cheap excuses that keep us from confronting legitimate issues.

I’m praying that the people of Jesus, who should be best equipped to bring about the kind of change that can end violence and injustice, will worry less about the silent voices of invisible imps and demons tempting them to misbehave and worry more about the systemic sin of an industrial/political/military complex that stirs fear and mistrust in order to protect its wealth and power and privilege. I’m praying that we will take seriously the call to stand up for the poor and oppressed and marginalized and stop defending those who oppress and marginalize.

And finally, I’m praying for love. Not a soft, sentimental emotion, but a love that has the power to burst through horrifying events to create communities of genuine affection and caring. A love that refuses to fear and insists on kindness, respect, dignity, and the common good.

A love that breaks down barriers and exposes our mutual humanity.

That’s my prayer for Ferguson. And for all of us.

Amen.

Time to come clean…

writing notesIt’s time to come clean.

I’ve kicked around explanations and excuses for weeks, and I just have to admit it.

I got lazy.

I haven’t gone this long without publishing something here on the blog for almost two years. Even when I was in a dry spell, I was trying to find interesting content to link, or at least pull something out of the archives to re-post.

But since about the end of July, I’ve found precious little time to update my little corner of the interwebs. Wait. Strike that. I’ve had time. I just haven’t been motivated.

I’ve been writing long enough to know that these extended bouts of unproductiveness happen from time to time. But to be honest, this time has been different.

Every time I’ve tried to sit down to write something, I’ve allowed distractions to creep in and steal my attention & focus.

It has been a busy and eventful few months. I got to spend the summer working as a ministry intern at a traditionally African-American church in the heart of one of the whitest cultural areas of the country. I learned and grew a lot during my time there.

About the time that gig was wrapping up, I accepted a part-time job as the director of youth & children’s ministry at another church in my area. I never really saw myself going back into youth ministry, but it seems like a good fit and, even though I’ve only been at it a few weeks, I feel a genuine connection with the students, families and congregation.

I also busted my hump by loading up on extra hours during the summer term so I can finish my master’s degree in December. The heavier-than-usual workload took some adjusting on my part, but hopefully it will be worth it to finish things up a semester ahead of schedule.

But even with all the work that has gone into those endeavors I still have to admit that my failure to keep the blog updated is due less to busyness than to laziness. And so, not for the first time, I’m trying to jump-start and get things rolling again.

I think part of the problem is that I sort of lost focus. I had begun to drift into what can be a dangerous area for writers. I had started to think I needed to write about things people wanted to read.

If I’ve learned anything from my time in the blogosphere, it’s that writing to your perceived audience is almost always ultimately a dead-end road. It causes you to over-think and makes you hypercritical. And it rarely has the desired effect.

What experience tells me (and conversations with other writer friends bears this out), is that I’m at my best when I just write what I need to write, whether I believe anyone else wants to read it or not. The best I can do is invite you along for the ride and hope you find something that connects, that inspires, that breathes life into something you, too, may be wrestling with.

So that’s my goal. I hope my rants and rambles will find a place in your imagination and help you give voice to your own thoughts and dreams.

Let’s conspire together again.

Peace,
Joe

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

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

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istockphoto.com

“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.

A Declaration of Peace

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istockphoto.com

 

My good friend Jeff Johnson has posted a brilliant and evocative piece over on his Our Human Life blog. Jeff raises some important issues that all of us trying to follow Jesus and seek shalom need to explore.

Will we continue to pay lip service to a nebulous concept of peace, or will we be the generation willing to take the hard path of nonviolent response that is the only way to a world where war will be no more?

I invite you to read Jeff’s brilliant and beautiful article and join the conversation. Click the link to begin:

A Declaration of Peace

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…

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.