12.23.2010

What's the goal?


Photo: angietorres


A friend recently described for me her church's confirmation class' goal of "ending hunger in our town by the time we graduate."

How excellent it is to see the church's young people focused out on the world and hoping to bring a congregation along with them. Theirs is a goal that exudes youthful exuberance and confidence that "we can do anything we put our minds to." We need that kind of faithful response, trusting that with God all things are possible. Even if it sounds like "pie-in-the-sky" to someone who has lived long enough to see the truth in Jesus' statement that the poor will always be with us -- sometimes in spite of my (our) best efforts and sometimes because of my (our) indifference.

Even if hunger can't be ended in their town in a handful of years (and I pray that it can be, everywhere), their goal suggests some deeper objectives that can shape their lives for years to come:
  • being aware of what they are blessed with, and what others lack
  • creating a way of life that includes sharing with those in need
  • getting to know those who are hungry and in poverty
  • raising awareness among their complacent neighbors of the needs of the poor
  • learning about and advocating against the causes of as well as the results of hunger
I hope that these young people name these as goals, too, and not just as tasks and strategies to be ticked off along the way.

We're a culture that loves to set impossibly high goals and then give ourselves excuses for not meeting them. (Made your New Years' resolutions yet?) Would it surprise you to know that Google searches for the word "gym" peak sharply each December and then quickly trail off into January? And how often do people say "I don't have the resources to really make a difference about hunger," so they do...nothing.

And we in the church are not immune. Don't we set practical goals like increasing giving by 5 percent, or welcoming 20 new members, or adding seating for 200 at worship? Or we resolve to become spiritually deeper (which means..?) or to read the Bible in a year. Or (let's be honest here) just to stay open a while longer and try to keep things the same in a changing world?

With the exception of that last sentence, there's nothing wrong with such goals. But I fear we often get it backwards, using our relationship with God, our prayer, our faith as mileposts on the way to those goals, rather than the eternal journey and destination. Jesus doesn't call us to be faithful as a tactic in order to enact social change. He calls us to perceive and live a new reality...which will change the world.

Ending hunger. Filling the pews. Knowing the Bible. These are all good tactics to keep us motivated as we pursue the lifelong task of personal and social transformation. The goal of our faith remains threefold: to know Emmanuel, the God who is with us and loves us wildly; to perceive the radically upside-down kingdom that is God's dream for us; and then living as if that dream is already true (which is the only way the kingdom actually arrives).

When we do these things, the Holy Spirit can take it from there.


12.18.2010

Love comes down

All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’  (See Matthew 1:18-25)
Jesus' birth is announced to Mary by the mystical appearance of an angel.  Scholars seek him out because of the appearance of a celestial phenomenon previously unseen.  Out in the fields, shepherds are roused by a host of angels singing the glad news.

But Jesus' birth is in raw circumstances.  In a bed of uncovered straw.  Out behind the inn.  Just his mother and father, and the barnyard animals.  Not only in our world, but in a place most of us would consider lowly, unworthy.  Yet this is what God plans.  I think that, if it were happening today, Jesus' birth would take place in the alley behind the bustling pub, between the dumpsters.  Or on a grate.  Or in a homeless encampment or refugee camp.

In Jesus, God is with us, in a way we cannot completely understand.  God is birthed in the world vulnerable, dependent on imperfect humans, waiting on the unfolding of years to be seen.  God could have come to us in a miraculous appearance, leaving no question that he was in charge.  Yet he chose to come, in Christ, virtually unnoticed by the world, and to live with us in the joys and trials of everyday life, so that he could point us to the new kingdom and life God offers.

God is with us.  No hoop jumping or ladder climbing required.  We don't have to get ourselves righteous, or even notice what God is doing, for him to be with us here and now.  He lives with us, so that we can be his presence for those who live around us.

How is God with you today? How do you want God to be with you?


What difference does it make to you that God is not "up there" waiting for you to climb to him, but right next to you reaching out his hands to you?

12.16.2010

Who are you waiting for?

Luke 7:24-30

Jesus challenged the crowds that flocked to him from John the Baptist to look deeply at their motives.  Did they seek out John because they were following the crowd?  Were they expecting a spectacle, or seeking someone to show them a prosperous, problem future?  Or were they seeking a prophet?

His question resonates today.  As we toss around slogans like "Let's keep Christ in Christmas" and "Jesus is the reason for the season," Jesus still calls me to look within.  Am I just going along with the church crowd?  Do I long for a meek, mild baby who doesn't cry or ask much of me?  A savior who will bless and rescue my life as I know it?  A source of certainty I can use to anchor my life or differentiate myself from others?  A conquering king?  Or a Messiah who will suffer nails and spears and model losing my life in order to really live it?

Are you waiting for the answers to your prayers? Or the answer to the world's prayers, who calls you to be part of the solution?

12.08.2010

A deepening awareness

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.
Wouldn't it be wonderful to get such a clear message from God?  A direct visitation from an angel -- that would be more definitive than neon lights or skywriting or the other signs that I often long for when discerning God's message to me.

I used to think that Gabriel's appearance was the source of Mary's confident response to the unexpected, disruptive news that the angel brings. "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."  An otherworldly spectacle would certainly grab anyone's attention, overcome their fear and galvanize them into action.  Right?

But Mary's encounter with the angel doesn't suggest a change of mind or heart.  She is perplexed by the visitation at first, but her simple question and then her acceptance of a new life sounds to me more like a deepening of an existing revelation, another chapter in a a story already in progress.

We human beings have a pretty bad record noticing when God is speaking to us.  Adam and Eve ignored clear, direct orders.  God's prophets to Israel were routinely ignored.  The power structure of his day plotted to trap and execute Christ.  Today, when some try to hear God speaking for the poor in the midst of economic upheaval, or for the environment in the face of disaster, other voices are quick to question.  Rarely do we have clarity about God's message in real time; often our best understanding comes from looking back at unfolding revelation.

So how do we move forward?  It seems to me that trusting response, like Mary's, to God's call doesn't come from an overwhelmingly convincing voice from above, but from a gradual deepening of our own ability to notice God's presence with us.  Mary's willingness to submit to the claim God places on her life isn't so much a response as it is a sign that she recognizes God's love and companionship down to the very depths of her soul.

11.29.2010

Food for thought from Seth Godin

Our normal approach is useless here

Perhaps this can be our new rallying cry.

If it's a new problem, perhaps it demands a new approach. If it's an old problem, it certainly does.

Memo to the ELCA

Good morning, ELCA. Today's question is simple: What "business" are we in?

The faith formation business? Or faith preservation?

Changing the world through living out justice and global connection and interfaith dialogue?

Certainly not, to paraphrase Brian McLaren, warehousing souls until they can be shipped to their final destination?

Preserving the "Lutheran" way of doing church?

Making disciples?

Hint: Look at where your people's energy, creativity and time are spent.

What business should we be in?

Turning outside-in

Listen. Do you hear the inbreaking of God's kingdom in this story? 
When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.” And he said to him, “I will come and cure him.” The centurion answered, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.” And the servant was healed in that hour. (Matt. 8:5-13)
Jesus has been traveling around Galilee, preaching the revolutionary good news of the Sermon on the Mount, healing, and drawing crowds from far beyond the territory. He's taught the people how to have dignity in the face of oppression, to suffer persecution for a greater good.

Returning to Capernaum, he is approached by a leader of the occupying Roman army.  This centurion is not drawn by religion; he is under Caesar's law, not Moses'.  Yet he is drawn to Jesus, because he has heard the buzz and sees that Jesus is to go-to guy if you seek healing and wholeness.  I imagine the centurion as a non-nonsense kind of man, one who has seen the world and knows how power works.  And the word has gotten back about Jesus' healing power.  Convinced of that power, the centurion doesn't need to have Jesus come to his home to prove it.  He knows that Jesus' word is good, if he says the servant is healed he is healed -- just as the centurion knows that his orders will be carried out by his men.

Jesus is amazed by this complete and unusual trust. What he tells his followers is equally stunning:  My Father's kingdom is not about being born of the right race, espousing the right religion.  It's not exclusive -- true faith exists even in people who have not heard of, scoff at and even oppress religion.  And more to the point, don't think religion can trump true trust in what God can do, or you're in for an unpleasant surprise.

Imagine if the church today were seen by society the way that centurion saw Jesus -- as the go-to place for concern about the sick, the hungry, the marginalized.  What would it take for people of no or other faiths to know that they could bring their hurts to the church, and trust that we are as good as Jesus' word?

11.28.2010

Which way are you flowing?


The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.  
2In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 
3Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 
4He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 
5O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord! (Isaiah 2:1-5)

Isaiah’s vision opens in an unsettled and anxious time, with scenes that would fit in today’s evening news.  The “Israelite Dream” has not come true.  Visions of success have turned to despair.  Self-interest has trumped justice, leading God to turn a deaf ear to Israel’s valued traditions and rituals. Yet here Isaiah’s prophetic imagination kicks in.  He reminds the people of God’s dreams for them – that their energies would flow toward God and not to their own individual concerns; that they would see their interconnectedness rather than seeing themselves as adversaries; that honest labor would prevail rather than seeking unfair advantage through might.  God will make this happen!  If only the people could look past their fear and uncertainty to grasp God’s mercy.

In perilous times such as ours, it is tempting to seize on the certainty of Isaiah 1: The obedient will thrive; rebels will fall to the sword.  “The Word of the Lord” will conquer all.  But in today’s passage Isaiah invites us into reflection.  Which way is the stream of my life flowing?  Am I journeying toward the mountain of the Lord, or have I exalted my own desires?  When am I too quick to grab the swords of anger or indignation to support my own positions?  How can I be the Lord’s messenger of peace and justice?  Grappling with these questions can be a first step or a next step in walking in the light of the Lord.

O God, direct the rivers and trajectories of my life so that they flow always toward you.  Help me to release the desires and concerns of my life so that I might perceive and experience the large, beautiful dreams that you have for your people. Amen.

(Originally published in The RevWriter Resource)

11.02.2010

Leaven, ferment or froth?

Sermonations on Mark 8:11-21


How does Jesus' message in the so-called "Yeast of the Pharisees" story speak to the church in emerging culture?  I'm crowd-sourcing an upcoming sermon, and I would appreciate your thoughts about what this text means to us today. Please share -- the more voices the better!

11The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, asking him for a sign from heaven, to test him. 12And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.” 13And he left them, and getting into the boat again, he went across to the other side.
14Now the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. 15And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.” 16They said to one another, “It is because we have no bread.” 17And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? 19When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” They said to him, “Twelve.” 20“And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” And they said to him, “Seven.” 21Then he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”

OK, friends...help me out. Use the headline link to go to my Facebook note, or add your thoughts in the comments below.

What was the leaven the religious establishment (Pharisees) and the culture-makers (Herod) brought to the batter of spiritual and political/economic life?

What form do those yeasts take today?

Why are the disciples so fixated on bread?  What is Jesus trying to get across to them?

How does it feel to see Jesus be so exasperated?

What about our paths of discipleship would cause Jesus to "sigh deeply from his soul?"

7.03.2010

Starting with Why


In a fascinating TED talk, author Simon Sinek explains the ideas in his book, Start with Why. The premise is simple: "People don't buy what you do they buy why you do it," he says. This is a central premise of what I call "higher marketing," selling things that don't just keep us alive but purport to define or add meaning to life. Wal-Mart may sell razor blades based on rolled-back prices, but Apple has to convince you they challenge the status quo or appeal to your self-image of "thinking differently" before you pay a premium for their beautifully designed, easy-to-use computers. ( Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action)

Most causes and brands communicate to their hearers' logical, cerebral brains with a lot of facts and figures about what they do and how they do it ("four out of five doctors recommend..." "now with five times the power of the competition..."). Breakthroughs come when leaders speak to the intuitive, non-verbal parts of the brain that responds to "why?" -- as in Apple's cool, creative appeal.

Sinek extends the idea to technological innovation and social causes as well. The Wright Brothers prevailed with passion and determination, while rival Samuel Pierpont Langley aimed at the "what" -- he wanted to be rich and famous. Rather than build on the Wright's initial success, Langley dropped out of the business since he couldn't be first. More than 250,000 people showed up on Washington's Mall to hear Martin Luther King Jr. because he articulated their belief that America could be more just. Sinek notes that King gave the "I have a dream" speech, not "I have a plan."

Faith is not a product nor an innovation, and only partially a social cause. Yet I think Sinek's premise has a lot to offer the church as we look at how we communicate with the world; not just in intentional evangelism but in all the ways we engage our culture and community.

Many writers have explored the idea that people admire and respect Jesus, while they have negative impressions of the intolerance and irrelevance of Christians and the church. Often cited objections to the church include intolerance aimed at homosexuals and other faiths, exclusivity and "my way or the highway" talk, excessive patriotism and support of war. All these fall on the "what" level of doctrine or the "how" level of tactics to live out that dogma. If you carry that back to the motivational level one sees a worldview of fear of others, an insatiable need to be right, a need for conformity and uniformity. This is directly opposed to what many people outside the church see and admire in Christ.

When interviewed, these folks often refer to Jesus' humility, his care for the poor and sick, his inclusion and willingness to risk. Jesus' why -- "the kingdom of God is among you" -- is clear to them:
"The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
Jesus' "why" was clear, and his actions completely resonated with his purpose. No religious hierarchy, need to be safe, or social convention got in the way. He ate with sinners, healed outsiders, dueled with Pharisees and Saducees, stood his ground with Pilate, and carried his own cross. All to live out and bring about healing, wholeness and justice. There's a cause to get behind!

The "Why" question is also relevant to the way churches talk about themselves and "reach out." How many times do churches describe themselves as "contemporary" or "traditional," "liturgical" or "free." Some boast strong Sunday Schools or youth programs or Kids' Kingdoms. Others tout high technology, coffee shops or intellectual discussion groups. Some stress "biblical preaching" while others are "accepting." All good things, and there is room for all approaches, but notice that all of these descriptors are what's and how's.

Sometimes churches' "why" revolves around community, although this can be vague and misleading. Is community a place of warm acceptance, where everybody knows your name ("Cheers!"), a place of camaraderie and shared purpose (the soccer club or the Army), people who are there when you need them (a support group), or people who will tell you the truth even if you don't want to hear it (Luther's mutual conversation and consolation)?

Other times the "why" will focus on making and being disciples, though the how and what can be different, as "discipleship" might mean attending to long teaching sermons, joining a small group, reading the Bible daily or seeking a relationship with God in prayer and contemplation. Some will focus on thought, others on social action, others on personal righteousness.

The church's "why" can be summed up in Luke 4, which is often called Jesus' "manifesto" or "purpose statement." We are called to do nothing less than join God in bringing about the kingdom of heaven on earth, right here and now. We give voice to another, better world, where the poor hear good news, prisoners are freed and the blind are healed. A just, inclusive world that threatens our current notions of wealth, power and security.

What is the "why" of your congregation?

Do your "how's" and "what's" resonate with your "why"?

How do you tell the story of your "why" to your community?

What, if anything, might look different if you added Jesus's manifesto in Luke 4 into your "why" statement(s)?




Watch Sinek's TED talk:

Happy Interdependence Day!

Interdependence is a key biblical value. Israel's society is based on the concept of community; the people are on their journey, and in relationship with God, together. Power and wisdom are marked by care for the vulnerable and infirm. Faith is not an idea but a way of living that cares for people and the natural world in relationship with the Creator.

Dependence is also an important value. Jesus tells us that our lives our not our own; they are only found by being given away. Reliance on God, not bread alone, keeps us alive. Our lives are reclaimed by stripping away what is on the outside to sit naked before our loving God.

The dictionary defines independence, which we celebrate this weekend, as "freedom from the control, influence, support, aid, or the like, of others." (Dictionary.com) While the United States' independence from the control of the crown opened a noble experiment in self-governance, "independence" is not a good way for individuals to live -- mainly because it is not real. We are each shaped by parents and family, influenced by teachers and friends, supported in time of need and able to respond to others in need. Our real lives are interdependent, lived in community with neighbors and children and governments as well as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

So while you are getting together with others for BBQs and fireworks, consider this great idea from the people at the Englewood Review of Books: Celebrate Interdependence Day!

Their blog post lists 40 different ways that you can celebrate the ways that you and your family depend on the gifts and talents of your neighbors (and people around the world) and on the local ecosystem (and the global environment).  Here are a couple of my favorites:
  • Gather your neighbors and do a spontaneous parade that shows off people’s talents – music, acrobatics, costumes, etc.
  • Visit an elderly neighbor or family member.  Have them tell you the story of their life.
  • Look for everything you have two of and give one away.
  • Hold a knowledge exchange where people gather and each get ten minutes to teach the group about something they’re passionate about.
  • Spend the 4th of July baking cookies or bread.  Give your baked goods to the person who delivers your mail or picks up your trash the next time you see them.
  • Write a note of appreciation to a mother; thank her for raising a child.
Read the entire list here. What are your favorites? Got better ideas? Let us know in the comments.

We are truly blessed in the US.  We are able to worship, work, love, live, vote and consume pretty much the way we want.  Our system is not perfect; no system is.  We are able to celebrate the times we are a light to others, and to question when we do not live up to our best.  That kind of independence is healthy for a nation.  As citizens and as Christians, we are blessed to be both interdependent with each other and with the world, and ultimately dependent on our gracious and merciful God.

4.30.2010

Just in time

Acts 13:13-25

Reading Paul's litany of God's faithfulness to God's people reminds me how good God is at giving us what we need, and when we need it. Not what we want, when we want it.

From patriarchs like Abraham and Moses, through judges and kings, to a Messiah...with some prophets thrown in along the way to spice things up...to apostles and missionaries and even persecutors and benefactors (such as the elector who protected my ancestor Martin Luther), and on through the parents, teachers, pastors and saints who transmit faith to us today, God has established a true apostolic succession, and unbroken chain of witnesses sent out from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. When Israel needed wisdom God sent judges, and when the people needed to be reminded of God's desire for them, prophets brought a word from the Lord. When I need to go deeper God sends a spiritual director; when I need company on the journey God provides a community. Providence, just in time.

I'm in DC for the TransFORM gathering of missional practitioners. I have been wrestling with the weight of the institutional church of late. Now I am about to be in prayer and conversation with kindred spirits, fellow travelers on the road outside the box. coincidence? I think not.

This is how we know God goes before us, even when we can't see a pillar of fire: We get exactly what we need. Just in time.

4.19.2010

What is emerging in the church?

The Sarcastic Lutheran posted a response this morning to a synchroblog on the question "What is emerging in the church?"  Its a question we at Kairos have been exploring throughout our three-plus years together, and one that's been on my mind of late.  So I'm going to jump in and crash the party!

What's emerging?

Life together. ... Community is about finding companions for the journey, not neighbors for the pew. We're looking for people who are there for us, living icons of the Christ who is always with us. We want to learn from each other, lean on each other, be there for each other,  it's not about another place to put on a "got it all together mask." At Kairos we value community time along with worship, because relationships grow and serious faith questions are wrestled with as deeply (if not more so) around the dinner table as in worship.

Practice in imperfection ... Faith should be a way of life, not a set of rules or a catalog of beliefs.  It's harder than don'ts... Faith gives us do's: the way of love, mercy, healing and justice modeled for us by Jesus.  But not as a ladder to climb to God, rather as a bridge to reconcile with our neighbors.

Creativity ... More and more I run into people who, like me, yearn to express their questions and their love for God in our own words ... In questions, and our stories, and prayers and liturgies.  Eventually we would like to worship mostly in our own words and images, but for now we blend our own ideas and resources from contemporaries in many traditions along with ancient litanies and creeds.

Collaboration ... Lets face it, there are serious fractures in the church. Yet there is an emerging willingness to put common commitments as followers of Jesus ahead - or at least on a par - with our differences.  Yes, in some cases the differences are becoming more loud and militant. Then there are churches like the ELCA which are becoming ecumenical bridges between communions that don't connect directly, and the emerging conversation has opened up dialogues between mainline, evangelical and global churches.  Denominations may well become less important as organizing structures, but have an important role to play guarding the treasures of their theological and spiritual traditions and forging new generations of ecumenical partnerships.

Engagement ... The disconnects that allow Christians to stay cloistered in a faithful bubble while ignoring the world outside their doors are being pieced back together.  Serving -- particularly feeding people in our neighborhoods -- is a hallmark of our community.  Many of us have spent time in churches where the busyness of administering the church, planning worship, paying the bills, etc. took priority over serving, so our church-without-walls has intentionally tried to balance enlightenment with engagement.

Formation ... In an age of instant consumerist gratification, we're learning that there are no quick solutions for spiritual formation.  Our vision is to welcome anyone and offer opportunities for those who want to go deeper.  And we include children in the main gathering rather than segregating them out for "education," because the lesson of being with their parents as they discuss, wrestle and worship is a lesson no other teacher can provide.

Fun ... One of our core values at Kairos is having fun with our faith.  We don't take ourselves too seriously -- we can celebrate, lament, serve, pray and journey together with the joy that comes knowing that God is with us in everything.

3.24.2010

Freedom's just another word for...

John 8:31-38

"So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed." -- Jesus

We are blessed to live in a free land but, like those first Jewish believers, we are caught in unfreedom all the same.

Listening to John's description of Jesus's encounter with "the Jews who had believed in him," I hear a teacher's caring lesson, not an angry confrontation. The passage begins with a lesson that seeks their good: following in Jesus' word, living under his yoke of discipleship, leads to true freedom. Good news, indeed.

But here these believers get stuck. They're caught thinking in the world's terms, where they are indeed free men, not slaves, not imprisoned debtors (although they do live under occupation). They're thinking in the worldview of their religion, where they have followed the laws and rules and are "free."

Jesus, characteristically, looks deeper. He is thinking in the way of the Kingdom of God, where verdict's of the Roman laws and self-justification by keeping an external religious law both fall short. In the Kingdom, living in the way of love and truth taught by Christ is the measure. So he begins by saying that living in the humility and justice that he models leads to freedom that neither the governor nor the high priest can offer -- the freedom to be who God has created them to be.

Stuck in their surface definition of free, they toss this good news aside and focus on justifying themselves. "We've never been slaves to anyone," they protest. "What do you mean?"

Jesus replies in expansive Kingdom terms. Everyone who commits sin -- i.e., everyone of us (not just those that aren't ritually pure) -- is a slave to sin. In the household of God, on our own we are not sons and daughters but servants. But Jesus, who is without sin, is the Son, and he chooses to make all who follow his way his brothers and sisters in that household. "So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed."

Indeed. True freedom is not just having legal independence nor ritual purity. And its not the romanticized freedom of the young and poor, nor the resigned freedom that Kris Kristofferson calls "...just another word for nothin' left to lose." True freedom is nothing more -- and nothing less -- than living fully and well in harmony with God's reality, not the one that we see in front of us.

Can you imagine Jesus saying to you, "I have made you free indeed"?

What difference would that make in your life?

What unfreedom keeps you from accepting the freedom Christ wants to give you?

3.10.2010

The pattern of hope

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. - Romans 5:1-5 NRSV


When faced with suffering, I am likely to focus on hope -- or my lack thereof. In rough moments I tend to fan the small embers of hope in my soul, or lament the lack of a spark. St. Paul wisely describes the lighting of hope's fire as a longer and less direct process.

Hope cannot be born out of a difficult circumstance, but out of character, our ingrained pattern of responding to trouble and suffering (and joy and success, as well). This is not an instant reaction, and in fact if we are reactive we will likely not experience hope, but fear and longing. Our character is shaped slowly, like clay being formed into a jar by the steady hands of a potter applying pressure gradually while the clay spins on the wheel. To continue the analogy, the pressure is applied externally, through the impact of unmerited graces or the weight of unwanted suffering. As Richard Rohr says, our natural, human resistance to change means that most transformation comes through external events.

Hope is not just the anticipation of a bloom in spring; it, itself, takes a long time to germinate.

So I can boast of this long period of waiting and hurting, not in the sense of "Hey, look at me, I'm suffering" but in the knowledge (and hope) that God is planting in this seemingly barren soil, which is really quite fertile.

2.18.2010

Gotta tend the earth if you want a rose

Penance as guilt is just what our monkey minds want.  The part of our brain stem that focuses on survival and preservation of the status quo often gets its way by imposing anxiety and fear, and guilt just piles on to its agenda.  But repentance — the ultimate aim of “doing penance” — is about taking action. The word literally means to “turn around,” to “head in a new (right) direction.”  Guilt, though, feeds on our insecurities and need to blame and, left unchecked, leads us to despair.  It is the root of thinking that we’re not good enough, that we can’t do anything to solve a larger problem that causes the guilt, and so leads to inaction — the exact opposite of repentance.

(This is a teaser for our Kairos Community gathering Sunday at 4 pm.  We're talking about moving beyond guilt and inaction to recognizing injustice and doing something.  Learn more at http://www.liveservegrow.info/?p=1435  You can join us online or in person. We'd love to see you.)

2.08.2010

Putting down the net

Luke 5:1-11

I know that just dropping our nets to follow Jesus seems awfully hard. We have families, jobs, responsibilities. But our fear of the all-or-nothing may be unfounded. In fact, it may be a mechanism to reduce our own responsibility..."I can't do it all, so why do anything."

I note two things about Jesus' approach to Peter and company. First, their calling here is evolutionary, not revolutionary. They are to use their aptitude and experience fishing to "catch" people. And while they "drop their nets" their needs are met and they are not too far from family -- at one point in their travels Jesus heals Peter's mother-in-law, so they are nearby or their families travel with them.

Second, they are not called to give up but to expand their lives into something much bigger. Yes, Peter stops "fishing," but he is called into a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a witness to history, and given the gift of seeing what God is up to first-hand. The Peter who sat in the boat couldn't have imagined public speaking; and by Acts he's preaching to and converting thousands.

This, I think, is what Jesus offers us: He wants to use our talents and gifts (God-given as they are) for a bigger purpose, and he wants to release the potential in us. That is scary because we are accustomed to the safety of the ways we have already defined to use our gifts and potential. But we can trust that God can accomplish more in us, if we stop holding on to what is safe and known and just follow.

2.06.2010

Imitating Christ's humility


Tommorrow night at Kairos Community our focus will be “Imitating Christ’s humility,” drawing on Paul’s beautiful description of Jesus’ emptying himself for us, taking the form of a slave, in Philippians 2. We’ll look at how our response to Jesus’ kenosis (emptying) plays out on the global stage (as in aid to Haiti and Africa) and how we might express similar solidarity with the poor and marginalized. I've posted the outline on our website. Let me know what you think.

Are you a hunter or a farmer?

Marketing guru Seth Godin has a great post about the difference between hunters and farmers. Each has a specific way of looking at the world.
"Farmers spend time sweating the details, worrying about the weather, making smart choices about seeds and breeding and working hard to avoid a bad crop. Hunters, on the other hand, have long periods of distracted noticing interrupted by brief moments of frenzied panic," Seth says.
Seth's post works out some implications for marketers and educators. I think his analysis speaks to us in the faith community, as well.

In its institutional form, the church would lean toward the farming side. And not just metaphorically, even though Jesus used a lot of agricultural images talking to people who grew olives and figs, tended sheep, and netted fish.

The institution's role is to plant the seed of the Gospel and be concerned with ensuring a continued crop of new believers.  It has to worry about the cultural weather and make smart choices about the strategies and tactics it will use to do so. That is a holy and valuable work for the kingdom, and I support it.

As Seth notes, it's not crazy to think that not everyone approaches their faith as a farmer.  Institutions tend to forge hammers and then start looking at everyone and everything as a nail.  Seth uses an example from education -- "medicating kids who might be better at hunting so that they can sit quietly in a school designed to teach farming doesn't make a lot of sense" -- but governments, non-profits and churches do the same.

There are many people who approach faith and their relationship with the Holy as hunters (a better term than seekers, I think, because most people I know in this category are driven in this regard).  We scan our environment looking for the places and people and events in which the Spirit is active, not just for truths and ideas about God.  When we find those spaces we can drop everything to "pounce" -- to explore what the Spirit is up to and join in.  We may not be as good at tilling the fields of religious life, listening to sermons waiting for God to speak (which Brian McLaren points out is a spiritual discipline), serving on committees, perpetuating institutions.

The question is: Does the church look at "hunters" as a problem or an opportunity?

It occurs to me that this is what we are trying to do at Kairos Community.  We're trying hard to be open to those who are watching and waiting and noticing and want to embrace the movements of the Spirit even if they don't buy the whole package.  We serve side by side, people who "believe" and those who balk, and share our journeys and honor those that are not explicitly Christian as well as those that are. We're hunters and farmers. And we want to sharpen the hunter skills, to foster our awareness of how God is working in and around us every day, and learn to appreciate those moments of distracted noticing and movements of the Spirit amid daily life.

Many institutions are farmers. Think on these examples from Seth's post:
  • Farmers don't dislike technology. They dislike failure. Technology that works is a boon.
  • Farmers prefer productive meetings, hunters want to simply try stuff and see what happens.
  • Hunters want a high-stakes mission, farmers want to avoid epic failure.
  • A farmer often relies on other farmers in her peer group to be sure a purchase is riskless.
  • The last hundred years of our economy favored smart farmers. It seems as though the next hundred are going to belong to the persistent hunters able to stick with it for the long haul.
Which approach sounds like you? Is your faith journey a season in the fields or a quest? Does it combine both attributes? Does your faith community appreciate the strengths that you bring?

2.04.2010

Amazing unbelief

Mark 6:1-6
‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offense at him.

How powerful is our need to be right, to be superior!

Jesus has returned to his hometown preceded by rumors of his miraculous healings, authoritative teaching, his message of hope for the hopeless and sight for the blind. Hearing for themselves, his friends and neighbors dismiss him -- "Oh, it's just that Jesus, the one we know."

Hearing this story today I'm drawn to the power of my expectations to blind me to what is right in front of me. The Nazarenes saw only the regular guy from an ordinary family instead of the teacher who excited crowds and struck fear in the hearts of kings and priests. I, too, am often left looking for God in the extraordinary rather than sensing the Spirit at work in ordinary people in everyday life.

The miracle of Christ's incarnation points us to where God is at work -- with us, in history, among people, at the margins of society as well as the center. This is a dangerous place to look, because it takes away all of our excuses. "I don't know enough." "I'm not holy enough." "I can't (pray, teach, serve, love, etc...) very well." None of them cut it if God truly works here and now with people like us.

It's no wonder I sometimes expect God to be extraordinary -- it takes all the pressure and responsibility off of ordinary me! It's amazing to me that I have the power and lack of discernment to look right through all the love, mercy and power of God cloaked in flesh. Perhaps as amazing as his townspeople's unbelief was to Jesus himself.

God, though, is more patient with me than I am with myself. I don't need to have perfect vision or never look for God's mystery. Just that when I am standing looking up at the sky for God's revelation, I need to remind myself that God might as easily be walking down the street, or across the office, or even kneeling at my feet.

1.25.2010

Blinded by the light

Acts: 22:3-16
‘While I was on my way and approaching Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” I answered, “Who are you, Lord?” Then he said to me, “I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.”
Last night at Kairos we were talking about how hard it is to pay attention to what the Spirit is doing in and around us. Some of us said that we know we're supposed to trust in what God will provide -- but we don't do it. Others noted that it's hard to be in the moment, to see that what and who is in front of us is what God is calling us to attend to. For some of us its hard to let go of what we think and what we want in order to let the Spirit be channeled through us.

It's comforting to realize that it took special effort for Christ to get the attention of a spiritual giant like Saul -- someone who was well versed in his faith before his encounter with Jesus, well educated at the feet of Gamaliel, and acting on what he believed to be right. Jesus had to blind him and literally stop him in his tracks.

For Saul/Paul, the conversion was swift an immediate. He was heading whole-heartedly in a direction, and after his experience of Jesus he moved just as energetically in a different direction.

For me, and for many people I've talked to, conversion is a process that happens over time, that moves forward then lurches backwards. Yet its no less real for its inconsistency. Jesus keeps coming to me, shining light on reality and grabbing my attention, urging me on when I am heading in the right direction and pointing out when a course correction is needed.

Richard Rohr offers some helpful thoughts on how individual and how challenging this process is:

Every person has to come to the God experience on their own. Conversion is a foundational change in life position, perspective, and finally, one’s very identity. After the transformation God is not out there any more. You don’t look at God as a separate identity; you look out from God who lives in you and through you and with you. That is a major shift, probably the most major shift possible for humans.

Like Paul, a converted person becomes convinced that they are participating in something bigger than themselves. After conversion you know you are being used, you know you are being led, and above all you realize your life is not all about you! You are about life! It is happening inside of you and all God needs is your “yes” and your participation. It is likely the hardest yes you will ever utter, because your years of habit will all shout “not possible,” “not me,” and “not worthy.”

Or, as we realized from our exploration of Matthew 5 and 6 last night, Jesus isn't calling us to do things differently. He is calling us to be different.

Dunbar's limit

Dunbar's number says our brain maxes out at 150 relationships. This is also a size barrier for many faith communities. (And Mashable notes that it applies to Facebook as well!) Yet I wonder if we don't misapply this principle to communities. If our kingdom networks are more than "church," our 150 includes not just the size of the faith community but our families, our co-workers, our neighbors, people we serve and serve with in the larger world. Could it be that as communities approach the Dunbar number in some aspect -- the raw number nears 150 or the number of relationships that a ministry leader has to manage nears it -- attention and energy gets more focused internally, on the relationships we have to maintain in the church? Might a smaller community be a better target, so there is margin for the people and leaders to extend their networks out into the rest of the world and maintain real connections?