Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), often referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. And in case you’ve been in a cave in Afghanistan (some have) for the past few weeks, the internet has been all abuzz with people challenging each other to take the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. And while several individuals have been named, it is almost impossible to credit a single person with its origin. The goal is to raise awareness and money to fight ALS. The fact that you’re reading this almost certainly demonstrates awareness. And, as for money, nearly 23 million dollars have been donated in just the last few weeks… and that’s only to the ALS Association.
Closer to home, one of my friend’s closest friends married a man – Steve Dezember – who is fighting ALS as we speak. I have connected with them from a distance and continue to pray for them often. I have prayed long for healing, but I have also prayed for another part of their struggle… their faith. If you click on Steve’s name above, it takes you to an ABC News story. In it you will see my friend Joel baptizing Steve. Hope and Steve have combined faith and fighting ALS. They are likely the reason that my attention was drawn this direction.
As I have watched these Ice Bucket Challenges, at least 100 at this reading, I have noticed some accidental mirror images between people who say they accept the Ice Bucket Challenge and people who say they accept the challenge to follow Jesus. I am not judging. The fact is, no matter what you believe about either of these realities, the word is getting out. It may not be how you would do it, but at the end of the day it isn’t about you anyway. See if you agree.
So why are you doing it? Now I’m talking about following Jesus. If that’s a challenge that you’ve accepted, please make sure that first of all you know why. Next I would challenge all of us, in our own style, to learn how to effectively tell our own story.
I have used this saying for years as an out-loud declaration of what I believe in my heart… and now my typical honesty. As you will readily see by the picture, physically getting family together is not always easy. I think the last all-together McQueary time was 2009. That’s not what “family first” is about (only). Family functionality (or dysfunction) is every family member’s responsibility and privilege. Is dysfunction present in families? Yes, always. Because, as it turns out, families are filled with people… and people are filled with dysfunction. But labeling a family “dysfunctional” and moving on is not the right thing to do… especially if you say you follow Jesus. If you follow Jesus and understand yourself through the eyes of Jesus apart from grace, you know that all of us are by nature dysfunctional. This ought not lead us to despair. Instead, this reality allows and demands that we pursue our families the way that Jesus pursues us. As I have stepped back from this thought in the last few days, these are a few of things that “family first” has meant to me (particularly in my adult years).
Nuclear Family First
I realize this title labels me. I further recognize that the definition of nuclear is changing in our culture. Nuclear has historically been defined as a family group consisting of a pair of adults and their children. My emphasis is not on defining or redefining the term, but challenging myself and you that the one(s) to whom you have been partnered and the one(s) to whom you have given birth or are seen as their primary caregiver are foremost in the discussion of which part of family should be first. If you have chosen to be part of this kind of family, they are your most important responsibility. After God, there is no one who is more important to me than Christina, Natalie, Erica, and Tyler. This choice will likely frustrate other family members from time to time, but if you start early and practice the rest of what follows, they will respect you more for it in time.
Marriage, Divorce, and the Oxford Comma
Even my title is a gentle poke at the irreverence with which modernity handles family realities. Growing numbers of individuals find themselves in very different expressions than what was formerly referred to as “the traditional family”. The poke of my (only-humorous-to-a-few) paragraph title is not meant to say that God has no opinions about the categories that people occupy. What is important in my view is that we see all of them as part of the same family. Simply put, marriage does not remove you from a family (your original birth or adoptive family) any more than divorce does. And whether or not a state or a church recognizes your family, put its members first.
First off, I hate that phrase. I think it is at least partially responsible for why many families function the way they do. I like “included family” or something headed in that direction. When Christina and I married 21+ years ago, we did not remove ourselves from our individual families. Instead, we each joined the other’s family. We did not transfer our membership, we multiplied it. I was thinking about this just the other day as it relates to my own situation. I love Lorri and Eddie and Colleen and Kirk and Rebecca and Brian and Lauren as if they were my “natural” siblings. The first three married my siblings and the last four are Christina’s brothers and their wives. Similarly I love my in-laws (another term of which I am not a fan) as a second set of parents. Why does this matter?
A Few Suggestions
Recently a new friend of mine learned that I had been a church planter and that our church closed. He asked me a question that I have not stopped thinking about since. He said something to this effect, “And you escaped with your faith intact?” It was a harmless question. I think in some ways he was joking. But having also been a minister himself, I’m sure he knows examples of people that were not so fortunate. I know I know such people. I have friends that have not only stopped ministering after a spiritual trauma, but in some cases, they have walked away from their faith. So, my friend’s question was fair. The answer is a simple “yes”. The title of this post gives the how of the “yes”.
How I maintained my relationship with Jesus is much more involved than the simple “yes” answer indicates. The short list of things I will mention here are only part of the story. In time I will write about all of it because the how of my “yes” includes darkness and light.
I liken the grief of the last two years to the grief experienced in the loss of a close loved one. I knew I was hurting. In time, I even knew I was grieving, though I was numb to that at first. In 20+ years of serving as a pastor I have seen grief destroy relationships and people. I knew I was exposed. I felt exposed. I was deeply wounded.
Back to the stickers. Thanks to many years of great training and living as a practitioner, in my woundedness there were two constants that have sustained my faith. One, is the Bible and the other is worship… both were intentional choices.
I’m not going to make this rosier than it has been. There were days that I do not even remember what I read. There were moments that reading the Bible was little more than a spiritual exercise. I wasn’t faking it. I just did what I knew. I believed then and now that the very words of Scripture are life-giving and powerful. I knew that even if I didn’t feel it, eventually this book and these words were able to revive my soul. And they are doing just that.
This one was even more difficult because much of worship involves the emotions. And when I was feeling numb, sad, and angry I was not favorably dispositioned to worship. I told another friend recently that I had even tried to be angry with God, but could not… because I know who and what he is. I can remember weeks where I stood in church and just listened to the words being preached and sung. Especially during the music I can remember contemplating the meaning of the lyrics and just weeping in the middle of the service. I knew none of this was God’s fault. Declaring his worth helped pull me out of my nose dive.
So, no, the stickers themselves did not save my spiritual life, but I do believe my choosing the Scripture and worship did.
In my writing (and living, for that matter) I am often reminded that I take for granted the parts of my experience that I have forgotten. In other words, as I approach a given subject I am naturally inclined to view it from where I stand today. The problem with that is forgetting the steps it took to reach this day.
In all of my writing about community you have clearly heard a push beyond the walls of the church. My life (and hopefully yours, in time) has been forever changed to develop meaningful relationships across cultural strata that I would have never have ventured into previously. In addition, thanks to the prompting of a friend, I think it is valuable to highlight the importance of other relationships as well.
The year was 1991. I will only relay the parts of the story pertinent to this discussion. I arrived in the frozen tundra of northern Wisconsin. In many ways it was a new way of life. Likely the greatest takeaway (which is difficult because there are many) has been the need for personal, intimate accountability with another person or persons. Since understanding this concept I have had these types of ongoing relationships with Monty, Shannon, Trevor, Brian, Andy, Josh, Allan, Flynn, Jim, Randy, and Jeff. Even writing their names brings tears of joy to my eyes as I think of the influence they have been to my life.
In my opinion it matters entirely how and who and why you select these subterranean oasis friends. Most people in my life never knew the level at which these guys influenced me. They were behind-the-scene relationships. We met regularly. Nothing was out of bounds subject-wise. We discussed our highest highs and lowest lows. But how I decided who I would let in to these corners of my life was very intentional. In each season the “formula” was the same… find someone you can relate to who is of the same heart and passion as you and beyond where you are in at least one area of your spiritual life.
Let me emphasize that choosing a subterranean friend is so important that you should take your time. Pray about it. Watch people. Be able to tell them why you think the two or three of you would be a good fit. And finally… what about group size? Admittedly some (most/all) of this may be my personality, but I have other reasons too. I like to keep it small. I think the largest group I was ever a part of was the first… 4. The smaller the group the easier it is to be real and the more difficult it is to hide. You cannot afford to be without this type of friendship. Long for it. Wait for it. Pray for it. And then muster up all the courage you can find and ask someone to walk with you in this way. You can do it!
Often in conversations about following Jesus I hear Christians say things like, “I just want a deeper experience.” They are so right to want that. I believe that in most cases the “deeper” that people want is not the “deeper” that Jesus wants. What I have observed is that when people say “deeper” in the Christian context what they often mean (whether intentionally or not) is more Scripture or more liturgy or more meat or more of something that they feel is spiritually missing for them. And while the latter may be a decent motivation for wanting more of something, I don’t think it is the “deeper” that Jesus calls us to.
I selected the image atop this post with much thought and at great risk. I realize that the analogy I am about to make will be a difficult one to swallow for some. Usually when I write about hard truths I ask people not to take things personally, but today I hope that you will. I hope that you will examine your own walk with Jesus. Ask yourself some hard questions. Start with this one… am I stuck in the shallow end?
Defining the Shallow End
Before I offer a definition of the shallow end, please understand that I am not name-calling those who find themselves there. Plain-speak… I am not saying that those individuals are shallow (automatically). I lived in the shallow end for much of my Christian life. I thought that as long as I was learning the ways of Jesus and occasionally asking someone to come to church with me I was doing all the things necessary to follow Jesus. So what am I talking about? The shallow end is where Christians go to get educated about Jesus. Often it’s the church or some other worship experience or even a Bible study. We go and we go never realizing that really what we are doing is being trained to stay. Maybe the thought has even crossed our mind, “When do I graduate? What am I supposed to do with all of this knowledge about Jesus?” And while there is nothing wrong with inviting someone to church, that is not the answer to either of the previously-asked questions.
Rick Warren begins his best-selling book The Purpose-Driven Life like this, “It’s not about you.” For years I lived in the shallow end. I didn’t know any of my neighbors (not really). I listened only to Christian music and played on Christian sports teams and read Christian books and created for myself a parallel Christian universe – parallel to the one that existed in real life. Now several years into my new understanding of the deep end I am about to describe, I can tell you that I have never loved Jesus more or felt closer to Him than I do as I am swimming in the deep end.
Re-imagining the Deep End
First and foremost, the deep end is not evangelism… at least not the way that most of us practice evangelism… proselytizing. The deep end is the reason the shallow end was created. The things you and I are blessed with in the church and in worship and when we study the Bible have to matter in real time… or they don’t matter. If the stuff we read about and teach and sing are just facts to be learned, then, no thank you. But they aren’t. Learning and understanding the way of Jesus ought to give us a compulsion to show that way to the ends of the earth. The deep end is why we learn. We should never learn and study and worship solely so that we can feel closer to God. The deep end is the universe… not a parallel one that we create (a Christian sub-culture). It is those of us who have chosen to follow Jesus also choosing to interact with all people, believing that the best stage for what we have learned and begun to understand about Jesus is in community with all of those He has created.
This post is not about forming a small group Bible Study… though that did eventually happen. This is about making natural connections with people. This post is not about a bait and switch… i.e. forming friendships with people only so that you can proselytize them later (probably sooner). This post is about making natural connections with the people that God brings into your life stream… naturally. If you are plastic or wooden, people will know that. If you are connecting with others for any reason other than being their friend, this will be more obvious than you want it to be and will likely cause that person to run as fast as they can in the opposite direction.
So back to what this is about… making natural connections. When I first moved to Atlanta I only knew two people and they both lived almost an hour away from us (my brother and his wife). What I did next is not revolutionary nor is it difficult. I began to live life. First I needed a graphic designer who could help me create a logo. I hired a guy who I felt was a pro who knew his stuff and thought outside the box. Perfect. The next hire for me was a printer who would eventually put my vision accompanied by the other gentlemen’s graphic design into print. I found out later that these two knew each other and had even done work together. For whatever it’s worth, neither of them were churchgoing types.
Our relationships began as business. Within a few months my printer was preparing to be married and asked me to officiate the ceremony. I gladly said yes. At that point I was also able to meet his fiancée… also not a follower of Jesus. My relationship with my graphic designer was also becoming a friendship. Soon we started meeting together in our home once a week and just eating together. That’s all it was. No sermon. No Bible Study. Just new friends hearing each other’s stories and learning what made each of us tick.
In time (roughly 6-8 weeks) the group of us had now grown to about 10-12. They all knew who I was and had all been asking spiritual questions offline… mostly outside our weekly dinners. So we threw a big Cinco de Mayo party (it happened to fall on the night we always ate together) and I sheepishly suggested that we add a spiritual piece to our weekly dinners. I promised no sermonizing. No lecturing. The collective reply was, “Of course we would love to!” The plan was to tackle one question each week… the questions that different ones of them were already asking. That study lasted another 6-8 weeks or so. By the end they were asking me, “When are we actually going to study from the Bible?”
Following that question, we launched a 21-week study in John’s gospel. And it never stopped until the day we closed Process Church. Next it was Genesis… then Acts and Psalms and Hebrews and Ruth and Romans and Habbakuk and Matthew. This had become our pattern and it was thoroughly a part of the life of the church.
Let me close with some clarification about how this happened. Perhaps it is obvious to you (if you already believe), but I prayed about everything. So, from my vantage point, none of this was coincidence. But these connections also happened through natural means. These people who are now among my closest friends were not even initially sure that I was not just another Christian nut-job trying to force-feed them some religion. Yes, it is a long road that leads some to belief and others not… but we are all still friends.
A final challenge. This will not be easy for you if you have grown up in the Church. I’m not even sure that you can/should use my story as a template. But what I am sure of is that 6 years after I moved my family to Atlanta these are the people that God brought into my life. And though we have all moved on from our shared church experience, we are forever the closest of friends. That part I know you can do. The challenge is… will you? Will you leave the comfort of your Christian bubble and explore the natural connections that are already present in your life?
My steadfast belief is this… God created us for togetherness. It certainly begins with what has historically been referred to as the communion of saints (those who believe in and follow Jesus). My further belief is that we were also created to share life with those with whom we may share little more than geography. This is a marked difference. It rejects isolationism and calls for wearing Jesus well on a daily basis. It calls us beyond a Sunday-only version of Christianity to a reality that extends to every corner of daily life.
So here are some questions to get us thinking about what it means to be living in community:
1. If you’ve lived in an apartment, condo-type setup, or HOA… what are the advantages of such?
2. What are any associated disadvantages with that same type of living?
3. In similar fashion, what are some of the advantages to living life in community (religious or not)?
4. Likewise, what are some of the associated challenges to living life in community?
5. By reading Genesis chapters 2-3, what was one of the primary reasons God created people?
6. Sociologically, why do people groups clump (or seem to stay in close proximity to each other)?
7. From what you may already know, how did Jesus model sharing life with his own disciples?
8. Then when the church begins in the book of Acts, what are some of the common things shared in 2:42?
9. How does Acts 2:44-46 describe the extent of their sharing?
10. How might we translate that into our modern context?
11. What was the most miraculous by-product of all of their sharing (2:47)?