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!

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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.

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.

No Greater Joy

joyAll of my adult life I have been a teacher. I am in my element when I am helping people understand the message of the Bible and what following Jesus entails. The season that I am currently in has allowed for (even demanded) moments of deep reflection. This week I’ve been thinking through the things that have made me most happy in my life. The one I kept coming back to is a phrase that Paul, the apostle, used versions of often…

I could have no greater joy than to hear that my children live in truth. – 3 John 4

Here is what the phrase has meant to me…

  • joy because of people who have chosen to follow Jesus
  • joy because of people who have fallen away and come back
  • joy because of people who have grown in their faith
  • joy because of people who have been honest with their doubts
  • joy because of people who have expressed thanks

So the joy of my heart has been people. First and last are those that share my last name and my address. And after my family I have been blessed to share life with hundreds and thousands of people. From the United States, Mexico, Hungary, the Ukraine, and Russia. I have friends around the world who have brought me joy as they live in truth. If you are one of them, thank you so very much.

The Noah Movie: Storytelling

NoahLet’s begin where the Book does…

5 And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. 7 And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.

Genesis 6:5-7 KJV

Let’s allow the movie to begin where it desires to as well (these are the first words at the top of the movie’s website)…

The film is inspired by the story of Noah. While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis.

 Since its March 28th release (and before, really) I have had the advantage (and in some cases, disadvantage) of reading many passionate reviews… all before I had seen the movie. I was reminded that some of us actually read reviews to decide whether or not we will go to the theater to see a movie. So reviews have their place. As usual, I come to this evaluation process from a bit of a different angle. For the last 20+ yrs. I have been a professional storyteller. You may look at my resume and wonder why a pastor would call himself that, but that’s exactly what we who deliver sermons are doing… we are telling and retelling the stories found in the Scriptures.

If you were/are looking to the Noah movie to retell the story word-for-word as the Scripture does, I am nearly certain that you will walk away as many have… disappointed. However, most of us who attend Christian churches would be equally disappointed if we showed up to a worship service and the sermon for the day was solely the reading of Scripture. We want to know some perspective. How does that text apply to my life? What am I supposed to do or be because of what the Scripture teaches? I think this movie does both masterfully. Here a few of the high points that stood out to me:

  • total ownership of why God was destroying the earth… the wickedness of man… sin
  • acknowledging God as Creator
  • even enumerating the very acts of creation day by day
  • showing Noah as the righteous yet fallen human that he was
  • even the weird stuff (you already have your list) does not diminish the power of the story

So even if you don’t end up liking the movie, let’s be the ones that are known for what we are for instead of what we are against. May this retelling of the story of Noah cause audiences to consider the greatness and grace of our God.

Weeping With Westboro

Westboro Baptist Church Case to be Heard by Supreme CourtMost of the tears I have shed in the last many years with regard to the Westboro Baptist Church have been because of their actions. However, Romans 12:15 also reminds those of us who follow Jesus that we are to…

Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.

And so today we weep. As difficult as it may be, we weep at the passing of Fred Phelps. Mr. Phelps, I will not do him the honor of calling him by any other name, was clearly a tormented soul. But he was a soul. One for whom Jesus died… even if he did not have a clue what following Jesus was supposed to entail.

There will be a day when it is appropriate to talk about the legacy of Mr. Phelps. Today is not that day. May he rest in the peace that he so often attempted to refuse to others.

The Lens of Time

the lens of timeIt has been said that time heals all wounds. Unfortunately that simply is not true. This Monday I made an unscheduled stop at the place where I grew up – in the shadow of the Sears Tower (yes, it will always be the Sears Tower to me). My simple post to Facebook – just three words – read, “So many memories.” What ensued was remarkable in some ways and sad in others. Bethel Baptist Church and Schaumburg Christian School were and are not perfect places. They were however, the places that I made lasting friendships. Friendships that have passed the test of time.

And there’s that word again… time. So if time does not heal all wounds, what is its potential value? I think it better to see time as a lens. As we look through the lens of time we are able to see things more clearly. Function and dysfunction. Good and evil. Joy and pain. Events may not be healed with time, but they can be understood. And, hopefully, made right.

In my professional life I have been blessed to help people. I have seen two common trends: one, people tend to view the pain of others as less than it really is; and two, people tend to see their own pain as greater than it really is. Whichever “side” of that you may fall on, it would greatly help the discussion move forward if you could lean into those two trends a bit.

How exactly does the lens of time work? We may come to different conclusions about things or events, but I think all of us have benefitted more or less in these kinds of ways:

  1. time gives perspective – I remember the first time I returned to my childhood street in Hoffman Estates. I had been gone several years and now had kids of my own. I could not believe how short the street had become and how the slope of the street had diminished. Of course, neither of those things were true. Only my perspective had changed.
  2. time brings maturity – I acknowledge that age and maturity are not synonymous. That said, most of us move through our youthful experiences and understand that things done/said in immaturity are just that. I guess that’s perspective, too.
  3. time allows for forgiveness – Even our judicial system gets this. Whether we always think it fair or not, certain crimes have statutes of limitations. Perhaps so should we.

In saying all of this I am NOT saying that things spoken or done do not matter… they do. I’m just trying to open the door for civil discussion by saying that time should help us see Bethel and SCS as they really were – flawed places that did some things wrong and some things well. May we all see more clearly as we look through the lens of time. PS: I don’t think it means that all of us must see everything the same way.

Hitting the Wall Can Be A Good Thing

Jeff Burton, Brian Vickers, David Reutimann, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex JrHitting the wall is almost always seen as a bad thing. Certainly in auto racing it is. Baseball players try to avoid it. And in the world of writing it even has its own pet name… writer’s block. So for the last two weeks I have been in one of those places. Stuck. Just not wanting to write or think. Usually when I hit one of these walls I may stop writing for a significant amount of time. It has often been multiple weeks, even months. Usually I will read an article like this one – http://michaelhyatt.com/13-idea-starters-for-stuck-bloggers and get back to work. But this is a different season and I have seen writing become a more significant part of my personal life as well as my “ministry life”. So my viewpoint of this wall-hitting has also been different.

I love to sing. More than a few times I have even considered it as a career. For any aspiring musician their becoming is all about finding their voice. What makes them unique. What they have to say and how they say it that sets them apart. Which brings me to this particular wall. Even 40+ years into my journey I am becoming. In this season of life I have found myself asking questions of myself (and God) that I have not asked in a very long time. Yes, I am familiar with the whole mid-life crisis thing. And this may have something to do with that at some level. But it’s more than that. I’m finding my voice. I’m in a place of discovering what God has wired me to do in this next season of life. To be honest, I’m sure I do not know all of what that means. But as the weeks pass I am becoming increasingly convinced that it will have something to do with writing and speaking.

What about you? Yes, you. You are helping me find my voice. It’s only fair that I help you. What has God uniquely wired you to do? You think it’s too late for that? You’ve hit the wall in a dead-end job? Then you’re in the perfect place to ask that question! Get to it. Find your voice.

Full Circle Discipleship

Jenni Button

This coming March it will be exactly 30 years ago that I felt a serious sense of calling on my life. I was not quite 14 yrs. old. I believed that I was to spend my life investing in other people. More specifically, I felt that calling in the direction of vocational ministry. And so began my journey.

The work of discipleship has been my life’s work. Really, before I knew what I was doing, I was busy teaching people to be application-style followers of Jesus. Not just “saying you’re a Christian”, but showing that you are. As someone has said, “We are human beings not human doings.” I have tried to teach people that life with Jesus should be a reflection of that reality. A primary focus on being over doing.

A good friend of mine has a phrase that has come to define his life… it goes like this, “A disciple isn’t really a disciple until they have made another disciple.” This mentality is the full development of the ethos that surrounded my upbringing. I was raised in a culture that valued salvation – it still does. When I have conversations with those who are still of this persuasion, our conversation most immediately goes to, “We had ______ number of people saved last Sunday.” Beginning to follow Jesus (being saved) is important. Continuing to follow Him and leading others to follow Him are exponentially more important.

That brings us to the heart of this post. This past Friday I was privileged to reconnect with a young lady that represents well the way in which I have been blessed to serve. During her high school years Jenni attended another church regularly, but would occasionally attend the youth group where I served as pastor. After high school she went on to a Christian university in Kentucky and felt a calling into vocational ministry. She came home to Michigan and asked if she could serve in our youth ministry. Of course I was happy to have her and did my best to show her what a Jesus-focus should look like in a ministry context. We became good friends through that experience and I’ve been pleased to see God continue to develop her gifts even now as she is serving in our nation’s capitol.

Seeing Jenni again reminded me of all of the places I have been privileged to serve vocationally… Chinese Gospel Church, Northland International University, Bethlehem Baptist Church, Immanuel Bible Church, Locust Grove Baptist Church, The Chapel (EFCA) and Process Church (EFCA). Wow! In just over 20 years of vocational ministry we have lived in Illinois, Wisconsin, Virginia, Arizona, Kentucky, Michigan, and now, Georgia. Additionally I’ve been blessed to serve short-term in Mexico, Ukraine, Russia, and Hungary. The common thread of each of these places? People. People who were discovering and learning and failing and trying again to follow Jesus. Just a few years in to my journey I can see people all over the world whose lives I have been graced to be a small part of.

In some ways I wish I could “do-over” some of the discipleship of my early years in ministry. But even in those early relationships I can see the grace of God in his making up for my weakness (as still today). The greatest joy of this backward look is being able to see pages and pages of young men and women whose lives I have influenced with the grace and love of Jesus. What makes this look even more gratifying is that these same friends are now influencing others in the same way I was able to encourage them. This is full circle discipleship.

You’ve Got A Friend In Me

friendinmeThe thing that I am most proud (actually humbled) to have passed on to our kids is that all three of them get the heart behind my oft-repeated phrase that to have good friends you must be a good friend. I’m not saying I have always been the best friend. I’m definitely not saying I know everything about being a good friend. This is not a how-to post. You will have to read your own personality into this. These are just some of the things I have done (and am doing) to have friends that include those who don’t share my understanding of faith.

It should be noted that I did not have a step-by-step plan in fostering these kinds of friendships. In fact, my opinion is that doing it that way would seem artificial and wooden, and would likely be evident (and a turn-off) to the person you are trying to befriend. So this list was formed after the fact. I just looked back at the progression of my newer friendships and analyzed the commonalities. Among them are these…

Natural connections. In most cases my new friends came through natural connections (business contacts, parents of our kid’s friends, neighbors). Admittedly there were a few times when there were less-than-natural initial connections (i.e. one of my good friends and I met first through Twitter), but I think he would say that it was our connection when we met face to face that allowed for us to become “real friends”.

Not initiating religious discussion. I know I’m sure to get some pushback on this one… and that’s ok. I’m not saying that the Bible says to do it this way. I’m not even saying that this is the best or only way to connect. Here is why I chose to do it this way. Especially in my case as a pastor, once they knew that about me (usually early on, if not immediately), there were nearly-unscalable walls erected. The only way I knew to climb those walls was to disarm the preconception that I was just being friendly so I could preach to/at them. Let me make it equally clear that in every case, to varying degrees, that kind of discussion (religious) did come up sooner than later. I think most, if not all of my friends would say that this component was a huge piece in gaining trust.

The long haul. There is simply no substitute for time. Earlier I alluded to the fact that often Christians flee these kinds of friendships because the friend doesn’t convert to their way of thinking. Here is a simple (simply confusing) fact: I am friends with my friends for no other reason than they are my friends. Do I wish for each of them to know Jesus in the way that I do? Certainly. Will I stop being friends with them at any point because they don’t? No!

In conclusion, there is no purer reflection of God’s love than to work in this direction. After all, isn’t this exactly the way he has interacted with each of us? Romans 5 says it in the strongest way possible… He sent Jesus “while we were still sinners… while we were still his enemies” (Romans 5:8, 10).

What’s Next?

next1A question I’ve been hearing often lately is, “What’s next for you?” Until very recently that question would ever only be answered with a glazed stare. I had no idea. I really still haven’t given it all that much thought. But what I have come to know is the truth behind a phrase that I coined to help me simply answer the “what’s next for you” question. Next is now.

I’ve been saying it for awhile, yet only in the last few weeks have I begun to see what it will look like in my day to day life. Process Church may not have made it in the ultimate sense, but I still believe from the deepest parts of me that the activities that we were involved with on a weekly basis were meaningful, life-giving, and yes, even life-altering. So, for now, I’m going to return to doing those kinds of things. I remember some early spiritual figure in my life used to say, “When you don’t know what to do next, do what you already know.” That’s good.

I will return to intentionally investing in others… not as projects to be proselytized… but as people to be loved just as they are. Part of that is this blog. As my heart has continued to be healed, my thoughts and ideas (and even a few dreams) have begun to return. I’m far from where I want to be – aren’t we all! But today (more than ever) I’m OK with that.

I am not anxious – in the negative sense – to return to vocational ministry. If/when that happens it will happen. What I do know… next is now!

FAITHFULNESS Is the Fruit of the Spirit

7 faithfulnessLooking at the original languages that the Scriptures were written in often give us a view of their deeper meaning. Today is a clear example of such. When I think of the English word faithful I think of being full of faith or being steady and constant. The idea definitely includes those things, but the heart of its use in this passage is the idea of loyalty. I get it that being loyal may be seen much the same as constance. On this Memorial Day allow me illustrate the difference in how I wear my patriotism.

First of all it should be noted that I am as much of a blue-blooded American as the next guy. I’m even listening to Born in the U.S.A. as I type this… no, really I am. I would give my life to defend this country and oppose its oppressors. However, my first loyalty is not to this country. I am first and foremost a citizen of heaven (Philippians 3:20). This is why it is my personal opinion that patriotism and worship should not share the same space. Some of the most daring words I’ve ever heard in a Christian song were written by Derek Webb and say this…

My first allegiance is not to a flag, a country, or a man
My first allegiance is not to democracy or blood
It’s to a king & a kingdom

I think it is precisely this kind of loyalty that is spoken of… a loyalty to Jesus that supersedes even one’s patriotism. Jesus even suggested that our love for him ought to make our love of family seem to be hatred. That’s what he was saying in Luke 14:26 when he said, “If you want to be my disciple, you must hate everyone else by comparison — your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters — yes, even your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple.”

May we aspire to this level of faithfulness!