A Church For A Time Such As This

As the time came for our prayer on Sunday morning, we couldn’t help but pray the news – for the victims of gun violence across the nation, for those trapped in the cycle of racism, and for those whose call to protect and serve left them exposed, threatened and afraid.

One day removed from the horrors of another terror attack in France, a week from the awful events in Dallas, the horrible images of the deaths of African-American men at the hands of police in St. Paul and Baton Rouge still on our minds, the carnage of Orlando still in our hearts and souls – to be the church, we had to pray.

We prayed not to prevent action but to ask God to propel us to it. We prayed that we might have the courage to live into our ministry of reconciliation. We prayed that somehow and someway our nation might trade its current ways for a new way of justice and peace.  Mostly we prayed for all of this to stop.  We prayed for a way to settle differences and perceived scores that didn’t include unleashing death and destruction upon innocents. 

But within five minutes of getting back to my office after church, the five minutes it took to sit down and turn on the computer, I slumped in my chair.  Because before we had even finished asking God for help, there had been another one – another shooting, another attack on police officers, another declaration that life didn’t matter.

It is awful to watch and even more gut wrenching to live.  America is on fire – full of rage and stocked up on anger, plenty of it righteous. We’re long on shouting and justifying and knowing just who is to blame, but we’re short on relationships and kindness and ways that lead to life and peace.

Our parents told us stories of how frightening it was to live through the 1960’s.  We ignored them them, but we’re paying attention now.

And as a church leader I know that people are paying attention to us now, too.  They are listening to what we say and watching how we live. 

They know that the solutions to the presenting problems – circles that combine race and violence and inequality and neighborhoods and the cops – aren’t going to be found in political ideologies intent on assigning blame. They know that the way forward won’t come from blasting each other on Twitter or limiting ourselves to the echo chambers of those who see it the same way that we do. 

And so, looking for something else, they come back to us again. They listen again because they want to know whether the church they grew up going to or pass on the street every day has a message that’s big enough for this.  They want to know whether we have a way of life that can transform such a time as this.

They listen because even if a lot of them aren’t in our buildings on Sunday mornings, they know there is power in our story.  They know that our message is about light overwhelming darkness and that we put our trust in a life more powerful than death. 

They know that when we quote Scripture we quote words of equality. They know that in our story the logic of creation denies the logic of racism – no dark claim to racial superiority can withstand the light of Genesis 1:26, that everyone, male or female, black or white, rich or poor, is created in the beautiful and beloved image of God.  

They know that we claim that our identity isn’t tied to our appearance but is formed by who loves us and how far He went to prove it. To deny that everyone has the right to live without fear and to seek joy is to deny the fundamental truth of our faith – that no life is worthless and that every life can be redeemed.

They know that our mission is reconciliation, to bring those who are far apart together. They want to believe it when we remind them that this is what God is all about and this is the mission we can all be a part of. 

And yet they aren’t quite sure about us.  We have to admit there’s good reason for that.

They’ve seen us give up the essentials of discipleship for the convenience of an attractive consumer-driven faith.  They’ve seen us shy away from calling sin what it is so we can stay comfortable. They’ve seen us trade our mission of transforming the world for resting in the status quo. They’ve seen us praise God’s way with our lips and turn from it with our lives. They’ve seen us give up our convictions far too quickly when power and influence can be had.

To be a church for a time such as this we have to tell the old story but we also have to live it with truth and courage and conviction. We glorify God as much with how we enter difficult conversations and contested places as we do when we sing our songs and say our creeds. 

We spend a lot of time talking about how the church can bounce back, how we can connect with generations and groups that don’t seem to pay us much attention.  

People are paying attention now.  They are longing for a community of faith to live out what it believes.  They are desperate for a path forward and for leaders who can help them find it. They are seeking those who can remind us of what we have in common, who can help us listen to one another and who can do the work of reconciliation, not  by making an easy peace that denies the problems, but by forging a real one that can make all things new.

The good news is that we do have a way of life for such a time as this.

The question for us then isn’t what shall we say.  It’s more important than that.  

How then shall we live?

 

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The Church Beyond Anxiety

We live in anxious times.  

It doesn’t take a keen observer of the news to feel it.  It is always there during an election, but it feels more acute this time. The stakes are so high, it seems, that Canada is already offering a new home for the losing side.  If you have to go somewhere, there are worst places. 

As someone who spends most of my waking hours either at a church, reading about church, thinking or writing about what it means to be the church, all this feeling of anxiety isn’t unfamiliar. 

It flows from our fear – the fear of what we can’t control or predict, the fear that the ground beneath us is shifting, the fear that the ground might not be what we thought it was or what it always has been. 

It is, in fact, more than a feeling. It is reality. The ground on which we stand is shifting. What were once our strengths we now experience as liabilities. We don’t have the same influence we used to, even here in the Bible Belt. The institutions and structures we created to enable ministry have become burdens and obstacles to continuing it. Our experience isn’t the answer because the culture and church where we gained it no longer exist apart from our memories. 

The shifting landscape means we aren’t sure where we are headed and what exactly we should do.  The only thing we are certain of is that we don’t like uncertainty. 

I was struck last week at how friends from another denomination were reporting on the exact same arguments and frustrations and battles at their annual meeting as we did at ours a couple of months ago. Different names on the signs and different meeting places, but the same divisions, the same heartbreak, the same falling short of the city of God. 

When it comes the church, anxiety is a universal experience. 

The Antidote

The uncertainty tempts us to seek our salvation in new strategies and well researched plans – a third way, a new approach, a call to action, a way forward, you’ve heard them all. But a surplus of plans and consultants hasn’t released us from the prison of anxiety and uncertainty. 

That’s because the antidote to the problems isn’t a new strategy – it is faithfulness. The firm foundation we are looking for in the midst of uncertainty won’t come from marketing slogans or complicated plans.  Instead, it is found where it always has been – in answering Jesus’ call to follow.  The call to fidelity is the call that created the church and it is the call that will see the church through.

The way beyond fear is no more and no less than the Way and the pattern of life that Jesus handed down to us.  It is found in worship that reorients our life by centering it in God, in spiritual formation that reminds us that everything we have is a gift and in working to make the world more just and more like God envisions it.  It is acting from our core conviction that everyone was created in the Image of God and it is living by grace that in the best times and in the worst times God is with us.  

It is the Way that prevents us from chasing lesser things and it is the Way that enables us to stay true to our purpose and calling.  It is the Way that reminds us of why we actually exist in the first place – to bear witness to God’s love, to make the world a better place for all of God’s children, to enjoy a community where everyone can find and use the gifts God has given them and to help one another live lives that look more like the life Jesus lived and the one he envisions for us. 

We find our way in this complicated time for the Church by living into the rhythms of these convictions – the Way and the pattern of life shaped by gift and responsibility, by confession and forgiveness, by absolution and reconciliation, by salvation through faith  and membership in God’s beloved community. 

Make no mistake, this Way isn’t easy.  It requires a trust and a radical commitment in the victory of God.  But why not – don’t we say that the church is of God and give our lives in the promise that the church, the bride of Christ, will be persevered until the end of time? 

It’s probably unrealistic to think that the anxiety we live with in the church is going away any time soon.  As dramatic as this might seem, the culture will shift again – there will be new challenges and more obstacles, new uncertainties and more chances to live in fear.  

But the way forward is the same as it always been, and it begins with answering a charge – Follow Me.  

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Cracked Open For Grace

People in a hurry don’t make good decisions, at least people like me.

I had spent the morning rushing and driving and hurrying from one place to the other, making sure I had everything I needed. A little bit tired but with time to spare, there was only one more task to check off the list.

The last detail was the most important – setting the table, bringing the bread and cup, making sure there was a place for grace.

I had plenty of time, but again, hurried people don’t make good decisions. So, I piled two chalices and a pitcher on the plate, and slowly began the walk from my office to the sanctuary.

Pro tip: one way to know you aren’t making a good decision is when you actually take the time to think and then say out loud – this might actually work.

It was actually working, right until the time I walked up the steps to the edge of the table – and I felt the wobble.  The chalice veered to the edge of the plate, I intervened to stop it from falling, but the damage had already been done.  A chain reaction sent chalices careening into the pitcher. The only thing to escape damage was the plate.

That plate sat there on the table, holding chalices and a pitcher, vessels of grace, cracked and broken. 

The Cracks We Know

It doesn’t take a shattered communion set to know about cracks and broken things. 

We all know what its like to be cracked.  We suffer through the cracks mostly in secret, angry and ashamed at the way they have a hold on us, longing for some way to fill them up so that one day we might get to struggle with something that can’t inflict so much damage. 

They’ve formed so deep, worming their way into our hearts and souls. They know the tender spots to settle and the fragile buttons to push. We’re held hostage because they know the traps to set and the secret to keeping us locked up in the prison cells that keep closing in, only increasing the pressure.

We know, really we do, that we’ll never be perfect. It is true that we’ve never known anyone who is as smart or pretty or confident as they would like to be.  But that’s doesn’t stop us from needing to be or pretending to be. 

The thing about cracks and brokenness, though, is that like the one that begins small in your windshield, it usually doesn’t take long for the pressure to turn them into huge fissures that radiate out so far that everyone can see them.

That’s why you snap at the people closest to you, or why we’re so committed to being right no matter the cost. That’s what tempts you to make so many panic-driven decisions that create spirals of pain for you, your family and the people close to you.

It might start small and private, but it never seems to end that way. 

The Way In

We spend most of our lives doing everything we can to keep the cracks hidden, to live without them and to show the people we really care about that we have conquered them. What we have to show for all that effort is a lot of shame, a lot of anger and a lot of inadequacy.  

That’s because the healing we long for can only come when we open ourselves to grace. Healing isn’t found in hiding, but in naming the pain so we can make room for grace.  Isn’t that what Jesus taught us on the Cross – with his arms not closed off in anger or defiance but extended, open to God and vulnerable to the world?

And so, what if instead of seeing our imperfections as things to be conquered, we realize that they were gifts that facilitated connection with God? Our hope comes from the truth that cracks in our lives actually aren’t obstacles to grace that keep us away from God. No, they are the way that grace gets in.

So yeah, I cracked that pitcher pretty good, but that didn’t stop us from using it.  We still gathered, and when we did, we told stories of faith, we prayed and we invited God to be among us.  We lifted that pitcher, broken but not finished, and we gave thanks to God and poured, receiving what we needed from a vessel of grace, that like you and me, might be full of cracks but in the end is just fine.

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A Church Nerd’s Summer Reading List

 

We just set the dates for our summer vacation with the family – which means at least two things – packing noise-cancelling headphones and bringing lots of books.

The summer means different things for different people, but in our house it means a little bit of a break to finally find the time to read those books that have been on our Amazon Wish List or have been collecting dust around the house.

My list is a little heavier on preacher nerd stuff than yours might be, but if you are looking for a few good things to dig into this summer, here’s what I’ll be reading at the Lake and on the back porch this summer.

Summer Books

God Stuff:

God Unbound: Wisdom From Galatians for an Anxious Church, Elaine Heath

It is an anxious time to live in and love the church, particularly the United Methodist Church.  Elaine Heath is a bold and faithful thinker and leader.  I don’t pre-order often on Amazon, but when I do it is for a book from Elaine Heath.

The Class Meeting, Kevin Watson

I came out of General Conference with a conviction to return to the sources of our Wesleyan heritage. I’m thinking and praying a lot about what it means to lead a community that is unapologetically Wesleyan and lives into our way of life shaped by the means of grace. Kevin Watson has written a book that I’m confident will help me continue doing just that.

Field Hospital, William Cavanaugh

William Cavanaugh wrote what was probably one of the most influential books I read during seminary – Torture and Eucharist.  We in the church are struggling with the tension, as we probably always have, between generosity and integrity, holiness and mercy.  So, this I am confident, is another important and timely book.

Becoming Wise: An Inquiry Into the Mystery and Art of Living, Krista Tippett 

Krista Tippet has interviewed some of the most interesting and important leaders in the church and across the religious spectrum. This book is a compilation of what she has learned.  I imagine it will be hard to read it without coming away a whole lot smarter, a whole lot wiser, and a whole lot more grateful for all that I’ve been given.

The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard 

The classic work that has shaped so many of my friends and leaders who are influencing me about spiritual formation, worship and spiritual leadership.  It’s long and imposing, but I hope to finally tackle it this summer.

How to Survive a Shipwreck, Jonathan Martin

Jonathan Martin was my preacher while I was on medical leave a couple of years ago.  Uniting Pentecostal and Sacramental traditions, he spoke and preached in ways that made me think and made me long to experience more of Jesus in my life. I’m pretty sure I was the only one in the physical therapy room listening to a sermon on the treadmill.  He’s been through it a little bit since then, so I am looking forward to hearing what he has to say in this new book.

Generational IQ: Christianity Isn’t Dying, Millennials Aren’t the Problem, and the Future is Bright, Haydn Shaw

I serve a church and live in a community that is very divided along generational and demographic lines. This book comes highly recommended as a framework to help us better understand one another.  There will probably be a book review coming on this one.

Good Fiction:

The Black Widow, Daniel Silva 

I got hooked on Silva’s mysteries a couple of years ago.  They are quick reads that take you into the world of spies and international espionage.

Modern Lovers, Emma Straub

Emma Straub’s first novel, The Vacationers, was one of the best books I read last year.  She writes with grace and empathy for complicated characters.  As a preacher, there’s a lot to learn there. Plus, she writes funny and great stories with enduring characters despite their flaws.  Sin and grace, we might call it.

NW, Zadie Smith 

Zadie Smith is brilliant and British and an incredible creator of sentences.  This has been on my list for a while – and hope to get to it soon.

The Zero, Jess Walter

Jess Walter, simply, is my favorite writer writing right now. This is one of his first novels, a mystery set after 9/11.  It will be a fun read.

The Book of Jonah: A Novel, Joshua Max Feldman

Joshua Feldman led a conversation at the Festival of Faith and Writing on the theology and philosophy of the Coen Brothers.  When I found out he wrote a book, it went straight to the summer’s to-read list.

Memoirs and Other Stories

Lit, Mary Karr

Memoirs are one of my favorite things to read and Mary Karr is one of the best at the genre.  A harrowing story of the brink of addiction and the power and grace that comes from going to the edge and making it back.

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

This one won’t be an easy read or a light read but it is a must read.  I’m working on cultivating a more diverse reading list and this is an important start. I imagine at times it will make me mad and at other times it will make me think.  But most importantly I know reading it will make me a more faithful person when it comes to interacting across lines of difference.

The Arm, Jeff Passan

Jeff Passan is one of the most plugged-in baseball reporters around. His research and analysis on how to locate and best take care of young pitching arms will interest any baseball fan – particularly those like me who saw the Cubs squander two of the best in Kerry Wood and Mark Pryor!

So this is what I’ll have my nose in this summer.

How about you?  What are you reading?  What should be on this that isn’t?  I’d love to hear from you.

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Must Read: Found Grace

After I came across two references to breast-feeding in the first two pages of this book, I wasn’t exactly sure what kind of book I had just downloaded. 

But when the next few pages contained so much truth – the kind of truth that you know deep in your heart and in the core of your bones – I was absolutely certain what kind of book I had gotten my hands on. 

In Found, Micha Boyett’s gritty and beautiful memoir, I had discovered a book of grace that stays with you, one of those books you jab in the hands of the people who trust you, and even a few who don’t because it is that good, the kind you want everyone to read because surely no one can receive this gift and remain unmoved. 

I saved so many quotes and sections that I pushed the edge of the Kindle app’s memory. I’m really lucky there wasn’t a pen nearby, because had there been I am certain there would have been so many marks on my screen that my iPad screen would have been easily confused for an Etch-A-Sketch. 

This was more than a good book – I’ve read plenty of those.  This was more than even the best book of any type or genre I had read in a long time, although it was and is.  This was a gift of grace, a moment when I wasn’t so much objectively reading someone else’s story as I was seeing my own laid out on the screen, narrated in words and phrases that had been given to someone else and were now being given to me.

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I was saving sentences and praying over the words of a kindred spirit, because despite the not insignificant differences between a San Francisco mom and a dog-dad from East Tennessee, it was apparent that God was writing two unique stories with a whole lot in common. 

Her story reminded me that I wasn’t alone in mine.  Sometimes life is about figuring out how to slog through a spiritual life that changes on you. And in Micha’s words I received the language I needed to help me understand that grace still moves in and around you, even when it is pretty good at hiding. 

I wrote last week about the journey into the hard middle between what God had given me as a new Christian and the new spiritual life that God was preparing me for as I graduated from college into adulthood. I had been searching for the words to describe it longer than I even knew, and I would still be looking if I hadn’t stumbled across holy words in a book appropriately named Found.  

“I am living the middle ground, between the faith of my childhood – the Spirit who snagged the front of my overalls by God – hook and towed me to the altar for salvation – and the doubt of my mind, which though it has repeatedly seen the miraculous in the lives of the young people I ministered to, still struggles to believe the Spirit world is living and breathing, much less that I am breathing in it.” – Micha Boyett

The truth that is there, and drips across almost every page of the book, is the truth that I need reminding of every day. God isn’t waiting for some magical point when everything lines up as a precondition for showing up.  No, God is present in the life that I have been given and the life that I have right here, even if it isn’t the life I imagined for myself.

The same God who called me out of the chaos of my life as an only child turned college sophomore is the same God who inspired me to dream about ministry in the hardest neighborhoods of our city. The God who laughed when I said I would never serve in a local church is the same God who is here now, in the ordinary of producing a bulletin every week and in the mundane of washing my hands after being walked by the dog.

I spent my late 20’s dreaming about living a life that would impress people, a life so inspiring no one could accuse me of selling out to live it.

But faith isn’t about creating and presenting a life other people are impressed with.  That’s what Instagram is for, I think.  

Instead, faith is about recognizing all the ways that God is here right now, inviting you to give thanks, and then living the life you have been given with as much gratitude as you can muster. 

My new book friend Micha is a better writer than me, so she says it like this: 

“Maybe redemption is the only possible story my life is telling. We are all being written together by a generous author.”

This is why we read and write – to speak the truth in such a way that God might use it to move in the life of someone we haven’t yet met. 

It is grace – the gift that lifts us out of anguish and despair to give thanks – for all that has been and all that will be, but most importantly all that is, right here and right now. 

So here’s the most important thing I’ve learned: grace can be found anywhere, even on a tablet and in a story that you found and that is still finding you.

 

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