re:THINK

The Stickers That Saved My Life

stickersBefore we begin, no, I don’t believe the stickers literally saved my life. And, no, I am not even talking about my physical life. However, none of that makes any part of my story any less true.

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.

Choosing Scripture
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.

Choosing Worship
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.

Why I Don’t Pray

prayingAllow me a moment of confession. There are seasons and days and moments in my life when I don’t pray. If you’re honest with yourself (and the rest of us), you have also shared such moments and days and seasons. Because we fail to pray does not co-sign us to the pit, but neither is it ok. When I have struggled through seasons of prayerlessness, I have found it greatly informing to ask one simple question. Why am I not praying?

Admittedly, over the course of my life there have likely been dozens of answers to that question. Let me share a few of the ones that I have noticed most often. I’ll share them in reverse order of their severity.

I Am Distracted
This may be the one that is also most common. Let’s face it, we all get busy. Too busy. Schedules and kids and work and life drown out the sound of silence. Fact is, we almost feel a sense of discomfort if/when life isn’t moving a million miles a minute. Our ADD American culture supports (and even exalts) this way of life. Jesus modeled the solution. His practice was to intentionally go away from the noise. Repeatedly we find Jesus leaving the crowds to talk to his father.

I Am Wandering
In the late sixteenth century St. John of the Cross wrote a poem called Dark Night of the Soul. It chronicled his own journey, parts of which were characterized by great darkness and feelings of abandonment and separation from God. In my own life I can attest to times where God’s voice was silent and I just felt lost. As I evaluated those seasons, they were almost devoid of prayer. I really only see one moment in Jesus’ life where he felt this way and that was at his death. Yet even in his feelings of abandonment, his instincts were to cry out to his father.

I Am Independent
This is the saddest (and scariest) answer of all. It’s the hardest to admit. There are many moments of my prayerlessness when I realize that I am not praying because I do not feel that I “need God”. Of course I am wrong. Of course Jesus never experienced this. Here’s how I see it. What is prayer in the first place? Prayer is ultimately dependence. It’s saying, “God I can’t. You must.” Not in demanding fashion. It is desperation. It is worship. This is the ugliest reason of all and as such, the one I do battle with most severely.

Prayer is our greatest privilege. What a beautiful benefit to commune with God in this way. There will most certainly come times when I don’t pray. Ask “why” and get back to it.

Community: Subterranean Oasis

subterraneanIn 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!

Community: The Deep End of the Pool

the pool

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.

Community: Natural Connections

connected 2This  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?

Living In Community

Together GroupsMy 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)?

For some extra insights follow the link to this commentary… Genesis 2-3 and Acts 2:42-47.

You Can’t Spell USA Without Jesus

Christian PatriotOh, wait… there’s no “a” in Jesus. Well there is in the Hebrew version… Yeshua. There you have it… USA! USA! USA! All joking aside, churches have often confused patriotism and pietism. They are not the same. Perhaps somewhat ironically, I am actually ok with both patriotism (to appropriate degrees) and pietism. Where I get lost is when Christians equate the two.

I think the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades are fair and negative examples of what can happen when we disproportionately blend politics and religion. But unfortunately we do not have to go back hundreds of years to see places where religion got it wrong. Christianity did not do the right thing during the Civil Rights era or its handling of gender issues. Those are just two of many more recent examples where religion struck out in the culture.

So what are the proper proportions of politics and religion? While I acknowledge some slight variance due to personality and calling, I think this line of thinking gets us further down the road than when we avoid the discussion altogether. First off, this is not a math equation and these proportions cannot be graphed or charted.

What percentage of my life is driven by my faith? In my opinion, the answer had better be 100%. If not, I question the strength of the system to which you adhere (or at least your commitment to it). If faith is seen as a mere afterthought or condiment, then how can we expect it to inform any other part of our lives except the spiritual? And I know that’s where it ends for many people. Not for me. I am a Christian first and last. Following Jesus flavors every corner of my life. This doesn’t mean I’m perfect. It doesn’t mean I “do it right”, but it does mean that I cannot disconnect my faith from the other sectors of my life.

What percentage of my life is driven by my politics? Again, this is not a math problem. If you forced me to put it into that framework, I’d say 0%. I am not waiting on any executive or legislative branch to make my life better or worse. They don’t have that power in my life, actually. Further, I do not believe you can legislate morality any more than you can teach a 5′ 5″ guy to dunk a basketball… he just doesn’t have the tools. I do understand that culturally we have assigned some value to the political process and as such, I acknowledge its existence and exercise my right to vote and speak into said process.

Being a Christian and being a patriot will often be at odds with each other. If they are not, you are likely not doing it correctly.

Scrapping My Plans

blueprintWe were asked to write in my senior yearbook about what we thought we’d be doing years down the road. I don’t remember the assigned numeric value of said reach. Of course answers ranged from silly to sillier with a dash of serious. Without searching through dozens of boxes for the exact words, I can tell you that my attempt was a mixture of the silly and the serious. I predicted that I would be taking over the 700 Club from Pat Robertson. That was my plan… or some version of it.

Truthfully I spent a good portion of my adulthood as the anarchist who revolted against planning. I took pride in the fact that I was a go-with-the-flow guy. This began to change when I became a leader of leaders and learned that my style did not translate to the majority of those I was attempting to lead. They wanted to know the plan. Where are we going? How do you expect us to get there? These became questions that would simultaneously frustrate me and mature my ability to lead.

The older I become the more I value planning. I try not to get uptight about it, but I do my homework, pray about it much, and read incessantly to help me formulate my plans. This was certainly my practice in getting ready to start a church. I read every book that was even suggested to me, interviewed dozens of guys who had done it, and even learned from people who had rejected faith for a variety of reasons. I had a plan. In all the ways that matter, my plan worked. My greatest boast is that there are a few dozen people (most of whom are still in my life today) who have a different impression of Christianity because of the actions associated with those plans. But in May of 2012 it was time to stop. In the ultimate sense, depending on your perspective, the plans had either run their course or they had not worked. I choose to think the former.

In the days since – and for the better part of 2 years – I have been learning to work through that unplanned reality. I haven’t really written about it until now because I have not been ready to write. Last night I was watching the DVR of the season finale of Criminal Minds and this quote was the sendoff…

We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us. – Joseph Campbell

Yes. Yes. And, yes. This is what I’ve been learning. Admittedly I have had a tough time moving on from this life event. But as I rewound and replayed that quote last night I felt a freedom in my spirit that has been mostly absent. Sometimes we have to let go of the things we had planned so we can get on with the things that are yet to come. Be free. These verses from Scripture say mostly the same thing.

I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection! But I keep working toward that day when I will finally be all that Christ Jesus saved me for and wants me to be. No, dear brothers and sisters, I am still not all I should be, but I am focusing all my energies on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us up to heaven.

For now I continue to work as a salesman for my day job and am starting to serve again through our great church that we’ve been called to be part of at The Bridge.

An Eye for An Eye

death penaltyComedian Ron White hails from the great state of Texas. Part of his routine includes a bit about the death penalty…

That’s right, if you come to Texas and kill somebody, we will kill you back. That’s our policy.

That would be funny, except that it isn’t. Most of us do not need any convincing regarding the seriousness of this issue. In recent weeks the debate about the usefulness and appropriateness of the death penalty has been re-ignited. It is my firm belief that as a Christian you should have an opinion on this. Your opinion should not be based on quippy sayings like, “What goes around comes around.” Your opinion should be based on the Scripture… all of it.

We’ll finish with the Scripture part. Allow me to make an intellectual appeal in the middle. In addition to what the Scriptures have to say about this issue, I would also appeal to the same sense of justice that has previously led many Christians to side with the death penalty. No one can deny or ignore the finality of death. There are no do-overs with the death penalty. Sadly there are far-too-many documented cases where innocent men were put to death. This should at least bother us. What if the sentence was unjust?

Finally, I would like to end with the Bible’s take on the death penalty. I am well aware of the Old Testament passages, included in which are the passages from the law of Moses that contain the title of this post. So, yes, I agree that at one point in time the death penalty was instituted by God as part of the old covenantal system. However when Jesus references this very text in Matthew 5, he does so only to highlight that the New Covenant is the fulfillment of what was incomplete under the law of Moses. This absolutely includes capital punishment. Have discussions and debates. In so doing, understand that many of the cultural laws of the Old Testament found in Moses have been replaced by coming of Jesus. The gospel trumps all.

Throw Like A Girl

mom“You throw like a girl” is a rude and derogatory phrase that is most often meant as an insult to women. Even when it is given in biological context (as it is HERE), it still reeks of male condescension. On this Mother’s Day I’d like to turn the phrase on its head. Of course there are biological differences between men and women. Unless you count that one movie when Arnold Schwarzenegger did, I’ve never heard of a man being able to reproduce offspring. We are created biologically different. But that fact does not make men superior… just… different.

Ask any (honest) man who has had to be solely in charge of the kids for any length of time. You will likely hear stories of nearly avoided (or not avoided) disasters that ensued because the poor guy was attempting things that he often does not do on a regular basis. I am in such a season presently with my wife working outside the home a bit more than usual. And even though I’ve been a dad for almost 20 yrs. now, have found myself doing things that are normally out of my purview.

Comedian Jeff Foxworthy, who happens to shop at my wife’s place of employment, jokes that “women may do 99% of the work, but we men are more proud of our 1%”. I’m not sure about his numbers, but in most households it is true that women typically do more than men. My point in writing this is not an attempt to domesticate men, though some of that might be a good thing. Nor am I pining for the “good ole days” when women were expected to be in the kitchen barefoot and pregnant.

I am simply stating today that I recognize, with fresh eyes, that moms are rock stars and superheroes when it comes to the responsibilities they are able to simultaneously handle. A mom can fix a girl’s hair for church while she is preparing a meal… and doing her own makeup. Almost every morning on my route I see those same women driving 2,000 lb. vehicles and applying same said makeup. They pay bills and clean toilets and arbitrate sibling violence and… and… and… they do it all with grace and style. Most of what they do is seldom if ever credited. Most of what they do is behind the scenes. Take one simple thing. When was the last time most of us had to be responsible for preparing over 1,000 meals in a single year, all the while attempting to satisfy the picky eaters, the meat eaters, and the vegetarians?

To my mom (pictured above), you are an amazing and selfless woman who is more than deserving of all the accolades that will come your way today. You gave birth to, and managed to keep from killing, four strong-willed children who certainly tested every nerve in your body. Born a small-town Indiana girl, you have become a globe-trotting woman who seems to fear no new setting. And when caring for a mom was as important as being one, you have put your own plans on hold to help your sis care for your own mother. The more I mature as a parent, the greater appreciation I have for all the roles that you filled in our home as we were all coming of age.

Though I am firmly committed to my own masculinity, today I have a growing appreciation for what it means to throw like a girl.

Love Exceeds Polarity

polarityThe so-called law of attraction postulates that like attracts like. For centuries this was presumed to be so and certainly there is truth to it. Fast forward to 1950 and a sociologist named Robert F. Winch introduces a theory that “opposites attract”. There is sufficient data to prove that at any given moment both may be true. But can this be true when the subject is connected to matters of religion? Is it possible for religious opposites to respect one another?

A friend of mine (who happens to be an Atheist) recently wrote a piece entitled The Difficulty of Respect, trying to get to the heart of these questions. His thoughts drove me back to my own thinking about why/how I am able to maintain genuine friendships with people who, not only do not believe what I do, but may even believe the opposite of what I believe… in terms of faith.

In my view, the answer is as simple and complex as the title of this post. True love is unconditional love. It isn’t merely lip service… saying I love someone. It isn’t love according to the law of attraction… loving only or primarily those who look like me (spiritually). True love exceeds polarity! I have previously written on this subject in similar fashion HERE.

Here is a brief bullet-point summary of how I try to live this out…

  • love doesn’t ignore polarity
  • love doesn’t force-feed religion
  • love doesn’t hide differences
  • love does seek to hear the perspective of others (especially when we don’t agree)
  • love does welcome opportunities to answer faith questions (when they are asked)
  • love does love someone whether or not they ever share my views on faith

I’ve lost some friends because of this thinking. Sadly all of them were Christians. Sadly they don’t understand the nature of the love that the Bible teaches. I understand that this kind of love is difficult to live out… for some of us more than others. But this is the way of Jesus. And as I always like to say, if the gospel (good news) matters, it has to matter in context. If you tell people that Jesus loves them, but you will not, what is that? Polarity is real. Especially in our current culture we have viewpoints that diametrically oppose one another. Biblical love exceeds polarity.

When I Run

chariots of fireAt the end of this month I will have been running for two years solid… well, solid with a few setbacks. To celebrate said milestone I’d like to borrow a somewhat famous line from the 1981 movie Chariots of Fire. The movie chronicles the real life story of Eric Liddell, a Christian from Scotland who came from a family of missionaries doing work in China. The now-famous quote is spoken when Liddell’s sister is chiding him because she feels that his running is becoming more important than his faith. His response is, “I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.”

When I Run

What beautiful words! And words that I have never uttered while running. When I run, I am actually not feeling anyone’s pleasure. Not God’s and least of all my own. So why bother? That is a question I have asked myself often on this journey. The above graphic is an honest demonstration (notice, you can’t spell that word without a demon). Running has been both a friend and a foe. This is going to sound very strange. Mostly, when I run, I am running against one of the oldest enemies… my own slothfulness.

So, when I run, I do gain the obvious health benefits. I’ve dropped a fair amount of weight and started playing some soccer again. I’m also putting together a team to start playing softball in a few weeks. When I run, I am gaining so much more, though. Running has been a form of therapy for me. No phone calls. No sales quotas. No pressure… except for me pushing myself to go harder. I’m working to feel my best ever at 50. I’m on the right path. That’s what I feel when I run.

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