An Honest Question for Christians

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I have an honest question for Christians. If you call yourself one, I’m asking you to consider this question for yourself. I know it will be easiest to begin answering it for a bunch of other people who call themselves Christians, but I don’t want you to do that. For now, only think about yourself. Here’s the question.

Are you more committed to the gospel of Jesus (including its implications for every aspect of life and society) or a political ideology?

Slow down. Really think about it.

Full disclosure, I started thinking about writing this post because of frustrations with views I see of Christians in society, but as I did what I just asked of you and focused on myself I had to admit some things.

  • Some of my views are primarily driven by my disposition toward particular political and economic ideologies. (I’m not sure this is wrong, but it’s important for me to name where they come from and be open to the gospel challenging them.)
  • I am more angered by anti-gospel positions of those with whom I regularly disagree than those with whom I regularly agree. (This is not okay.)
  • I excuse bad behavior from politicians on one side the aisle more than the other.

In short, I let the lines between gospel-vision and political platform get too muddy at times. But I believe that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life–not any political or economic system. I want to recommit myself to aligning my thoughts and desires with him above anyone or anything else. I hope you might too. What would it look like in your life if you did? (I’ll be wrestling with that one too.)

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The Privilege and Challenge of Being a Pastor and Friend

This post is one in a series reflecting on my time with our last church that ultimately closed. You can read more context here.

Every job or role in life has unique privileges and challenges. But until my time as a pastor ended I didn’t take seriously the unique challenges of being one.

Being a person’s pastor and their friend is a beautiful and messy proposition. Perhaps this is more true in small churches, that’s the only kind I’ve ever really pastored. I do know that other pastors I’ve talked to have experienced some tension in the interplay of being pastor and friend. It is an area I didn’t give sufficient weight during my time as a pastor. I took the perspective that I was no different than anyone else and therefore my relationships didn’t need to be any different. (I don’t mean here that a pastor is different in essence, but the role they take on creates different dynamics.)

I’m still struggling to put words to the complexity of what I experienced with this dynamic of pastor and friend. My friendships with people in our church were authentic and honest. My desire and efforts to be their pastor were authentic and honest as well. I loved them. I say that with no hesitation. But the intersection of these two things made relationships more complex than I realized. I subconsciously felt the need to be guarded in ways I wouldn’t have been with a friend. At times I hesitated to speak deeply into people’s lives as a pastor needs to for fear of my friendships. It wasn’t all bad, it was just…tricky.

I had an experience a few months after our church ended that helped me see my struggle with this dynamic more clearly. We had started attending a great local church, and on the second Sunday we were there we saw a number of people from our old church. I felt so deeply troubled by it (even though I loved these people). As I worked to understand what I had felt, something unexpected came to the surface. I didn’t know how to go from being their pastor and friend to just friend. Total transparency–I felt some jealousy that someone else was now their pastor. I had taken on the role of care and shepherding so deeply and I didn’t realize it would be like ripping out a part of me to give it up.

Unfortunately this has led to awkwardness with people I love and care about. I just haven’t known how to make this transition. My awareness of the dynamic is helping me to unravel that a bit, but I’m still not always sure what it looks like.

To some extent I don’t think you can understand this unless you’ve experienced it. That is true of many things in life, it’s not unique to pastors. I just know there is a weight to the dance of being someone’s friend and pastor. It is a privilege, but not a light one.

So I take with me a new appreciation for the dance a pastor must navigate as both shepherd and friend. It gives me more grace and respect for those I see doing it so well. It reminds me to pray for them so they will have the wisdom to continue navigating it well.

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The Importance of the Weekly Gathering

This post is one in a series reflecting on my time with our last church that ultimately closed. You can read more context here.

The tired joke is that pastors work one hour a week. The real criticism that reflects the joke is that pastors spend all their time preparing for one hour a week.

Two things about that criticism.

  1. It’s patently false.
  2. Even if it were true I’ve become okay with it.

I grew up thinking of the weekly gathering on Sunday as an obligation. In my early life as a pastor I railed against it as a selfish activity that kept us from the mission of God. At my last church I came to see it as an essential aspect of living a life with Jesus as a part of His Church. In fact, as I dropped my cynicism and entered the weekly gathering with openness, it became like air to me.

Some of my conversion to passionately believing in the importance of the weekly gathering came through the hours our Worship Pastor and I devoted to shaping the gathering to have a meaningful, consistent liturgy and fostering the movement of people toward the unpredictable Spirit. (Yes, we devoted many hours to this and it was worth every second.)

My conversion to believing in the weekly gathering also came from what I experienced with people on Sundays. There are so many things I could share here, but I’ll tell one that will be with me forever. A couple years before our church ended we began praying the Lord’s prayer together every week. We did this to identify with the historical church, which has incorporated this prayer into weekly worship since the beginning. We also did it because we wanted an every week training in aligning our prayers and desires with Jesus’. The family that sat directly behind us had a wonderful, spunky daughter who was three years old. After a few weeks of praying the prayer she began to join in. A few weeks later she was praying it loudly and confidently. It became one of the things I looked forward to most. It made me smile and want to cry (or sometimes actually cry) at the same time. It was discipleship. It was community. It was beautiful.

One of the primary criticisms of the weekly worship gathering is that it is just performance. Maybe at times it is, but our church showed me that it absolutely doesn’t have to be. It is possible to craft a liturgy that honors the voice of the whole church. If we drop our cynicism the Spirit meets us in the words, music, and practices. If we look around and open our ears we hear the voices of our brothers and sisters in faith and it is a profound reminder that we are not alone.

I will never forget worshipping with that church. It is a “stone of remembrance” for me. The presence and power of God was so thick among us at times that it serves as something to hold onto in times of doubt and struggle.

So I take the experience of gathering weekly with our church with me. It grieves me that I won’t have it again. I’m profoundly thankful to have been a part of it for a season. It has converted me to an unwavering belief that getting out the door on a Sunday morning is always worth it.

 

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We’re All the Church–Kids Included

This post is one in a series reflecting on my time with our last church that ultimately closed. You can read more context here.

As I’ve reflected on our time with our last church, this is the thing I grieve the loss of most. Admittedly, this is probably more because I’m a dad than anything else, but so be it.

We were diligent about incorporating kids and youth into the life of the church. We did have programming for them because the reality is a five year old is going to struggle to get anything out of a sermon. But any activity that separated kids from the rest of the church was only done with careful consideration. Separating kids and youth from adults in any way was not the default.

We had elementary students who did our Scripture readings. Middle schools students ran our powerpoint for worship gatherings. (Don’t underestimate stuff like this. My son did this when he entered sixth grade and he took such pride in it. He understood his place in helping others to worship and learn. It made him feel like a legitimate part of the body.) One of our middle school students began playing drums for songs where he was able. Our kids and students helped us plan, decorate, and serve.

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free, [eleven or fifty-five year olds]—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many. (1 Corinthians 12:12-14)

I understand there are legitimate reasons for separating kids and youth from adults in the church. I also think it is done far too much. I saw the beauty and goodness of treating the kids and youth as “full members” of the body. It’s something I will take with me and work for in any way I’m able.

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The Love of the Church

This post is one in a series reflecting on my time with our last church that ultimately closed. You can read more context here.

The dominant narrative today is that the church is detrimental to society. At times this is true. That wasn’t my experience with our last church. Conversely, it was in this church where I experienced the beauty of the love and care that can exist among a group of people. Let me share a couple stories to illustrate.

In fourth grade my daughter developed a verbal tic. It was very noticeable–distracting for people around her and embarrassing for her. One week during our worship gathering it was especially intense and uncontrollable. For her sake and the sake of others in the room my wife walked out into the foyer with her. That evening, after the worship gathering had ended, one of the strong and caring women of our church walked up to my wife and said, “Don’t take her out. We love her. We can handle it.” The tears come retelling this story years later.

About four years ago my wife had an injury called costrochondritis–the tearing of the tissue between the ribs. It is incredibly painful and debilitating. For a long time she couldn’t open a water bottle or drive a car. Most people heal in a matter of weeks, but for a variety of reasons it took my wife almost six months before she could perform the tasks necessary to get through the day.  I know it’s common for people to come to the aid of the sick and hurting, but it is also common for that care to wane as an injury or illness lingers on. During the six months my wife was incapacitated, people from our church came to clean our house once a week. We had meals delivered to us at least three days a week every week. People drove my wife to appointments so I could continue with work and other obligations. Women from our church came and just sat with my wife–crying, praying, and talking. It was six solid months of holistic, loving, sacrificial care.

There are many other stories I could tell that stem from the struggles and tragedies of others who were a part of our church, but those are not mine to tell. I do know there are many who would affirm with me that they experienced a significant fulfillment of Jesus’ command in John 13.

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

So the first thing I’m taking with me from my time with our church is a deep experience of love put into action among the people of the church. Because of our experience with our church I know it is possible.

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Things I’m Taking with Me

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Eight months ago the church I thought I would pastor for the rest of my life ended.

The reasons it happened are another story. That’s not my purpose in writing.

When our church ended I was a long way down a very dark hole. Eight months of pain, counseling, and reflection have shown me I had no idea how deep or dark that hole was. It has only been in the last month that I have truly begun to sense my self resurfacing. That’s not quite right. That season of confusion has marked and changed me in profound ways. It has been the most profoundly transformative season of my life.

However, it has been in the last month that I’ve been able to reflect on the life of our church without a pain that causes me to mentally and emotionally retreat. It’s still hard for me to turn my whole self toward the time we had with our church, but for a different reason than before. I miss it. I believe now more than ever that we made the right decision to end. But I look back with increasing fondness and gratefulness for that time–even with all the pain–and I miss it.

This change has allowed me to begin naming some very good things from our time with those people, in that form, for that season, that I don’t want to lose. That’s what my next handful of blog posts are about. I write it first for myself–to remember, acknowledge, and be grateful to God–but I also believe these reflections could be beneficial to others. That’s why I’m sharing them here.

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You really want to “put Christ back in Christmas?”

christmas-tree-presents-stock-today-151210-tease_09c2f5d09dac7ddfc1783a11be7bdae9It’s that time of year again–a time when some will try to “put Christ back in Christmas” by pointing out all the violations of Christmas perpetrated by our society. Generic red Starbucks cups, people saying happy holidays, and a noticeable lack of nativity scenes. This isn’t a post about that.

Then there’s the annual wave of blog posts and articles that try to “put Christ back in Christmas” by pointing out the problem with the approach of the formerly mentioned Christmas police–they want us to focus on fighting consumerism and drop the red cups. Yeah, this isn’t a post about that either.

We are so good at dividing our lives up into single issues and areas. We dis-integrate our existence until we can’t keep track of all the pieces. We think we are Christians by fighting for nativity scenes or buying less presents or whatever. Regardless of the merits (or lack thereof) of any of those specific activities, there is a problem with the view of life that thinks some single activity is how we “put Christ back in Christmas.”

For Christians who would like to live faithfully during the Christmas season (and the rest of the year for that matter), it begins by understanding yourself as a part of the story of God. This is a story that is not primarily about you, it’s way better than that. It is the true story of God’s intentions for the flourishing of all things, and he invites you to join in it with joy. When we begin here, our questions should change from “how can I put Christ back in Christmas,” to “what is God doing in all the spheres of life I touch in this season?”

Christmas is a time when we celebrate the particular part of the story of God when God took the miraculous step of becoming human. This part of the story is filled with humility, sacrifice, hope, celebration, generosity, and presence (a particularly grand form of presence we call incarnation).

If we truly wanted to “put Christ back in Christmas,” we would begin by asking ourselves questions inspired by the story.

  • How can I live humbly with my family today as a reflection of the humility of Jesus in becoming human?
  • How can I be abundantly generous with my coworkers as God has been with us?
  • The birth of Jesus was celebrated with singing, joyful proclamation, interruption of routine, gifts, and reflection. How will I (and my family, church, neighborhood) celebrate?
  • How would this season be different if I were fully present in each part of it?

Add your questions. There can be hundreds inspired by the story of the birth of Jesus. And the point is certainly not to whittle the grand story back down to a single question, but to let it birth a multitude of questions that will lead us toward living all of life in ways that are fully God-shaped in this season.

Colin Kaepernick’s Protest

kaepernickOn Friday, Colin Kaepernick ignited a firestorm by choosing to sit through the playing of the national anthem. Since then the internet has been filled with memes and rants–some supporting him and many blasting him for his actions.

The response to Colin’s actions strike me as a perfect example of our struggle to understand each other and make progress in civil dialogue around issues that matter. I may be looking in the wrong places, but I have seen very few responses that seem aimed at actual conversation. People on both sides seem much more interested in puffing their chests and shaming those who disagree with them. Any of us who respond in this way cannot be part of the solution in this case or any other–we will only throw gas on the flames. We need more people who view those with whom they disagree as people and are willing to treat them as such.

So I’m going to share a few thoughts on the situation, and I would truly love any sincere dialogue in response. These are few responses I’ve seen the last couple days.

He should do something that isn’t so disrespectful.

This is one where I’d love to hear from those who do see this as a deeply disrespectful action. It might be. Perhaps he could have chosen something else.

I see his action as obvious and noteworthy, but not disrespectful. He didn’t take some vulgar or inappropriate action during the anthem or toward the flag. He just didn’t participate. But this is an area where I’d appreciate hearing reasoned thinking from those who would disagree. I know my perspective is different than others on this point and would love to listen if you are one of those people.

I do believe effective protests have to be noticeable. What he did was not violent or vulgar. It was clear and attention-grabbing. I think those are characteristics of an effective protest. But there might have been another way he could have accomplished the same thing.

If he doesn’t like it here he can just move.

This is a response often given when criticism of any kind is levied at the United States as a country. And it’s true, he and others could move (from the sounds of it a large percentage of the country will be moving to Canada no matter who wins the election in November!). But let’s stop and consider what this sentiment is really expressing. It is saying, “you are not allowed to dislike anything about the United States.”

I think this same sentiment could be levied at anyone who expresses any kind of frustration with any aspect of life in our country. If you don’t like President Obama, if you think the U.S. is too materialistic, if you are frustrated at the response to the global refugee crisis, if…

But this approach has some obvious errors. Number one, there is no perfect place in the world. If we encourage people (including ourselves) to move every time we dislike something, we’ll all be nomads. Second, there is a profound difference between disliking (or even hating) aspects of how things are in the United States and hating the United States. You can be profoundly grateful to live here while having a strong desire for aspects of our country to change. Related to this, isn’t it better to stay and work for the good of a place than to run away from it? There are times to leave, but in neighborhoods, jobs, schools, and civic organizations we laud the hard work of improving things over running away from difficulty.

I obviously don’t know Colin Kaepernick, but perhaps he loves this country so much he wants it to change. I think it would be possible for someone to protest for this reason in this way whether he did or not.

“I wish I was as oppressed as he is.”

This is an actual comment I saw on Facebook. The sentiment behind it is that he is too rich and famous to protest anything. This country has been good to him so he has no right to stand against aspects of life in this country.

This country has been good to him. I hope he’d acknowledge that. He is an example of the unbelievable opportunity many people have to flourish and prosper (an extreme example of this, but still…). In some way this lifts up something good about our country.

But why would this remove his ability to protest? In fact, you might argue that he is exactly the kind of person who needs to do it. The rich, famous, and powerful receive a disproportionate amount of influence, for better or worse. If some guy from San Francisco sat through the anthem in the stands it wouldn’t be national news. It is exactly the status Kaepernick has that gives his protest power.

Apart from this specific protest, I think those in places of power have a responsibility to steward it for those without a voice. That can happen in government, in the boardroom, or on the field. You may disagree with why he was protesting or how he did it, but people like him are exactly the right ones to be doing it.

One More Thing

There are things going on in our country with race that need our attention. Our country has a deep history of racism and oppression. If you look at history, things like this are generational issues. They don’t just go away even as they change. If you’re like me you’re not sure what your part is in all of it. I think it at least begins with listening–knowing that my experiences are different than others and that the only way I can learn is by listening. We can debate this protest, but I also hope it doesn’t keep us from listening to those who are different than we are.

I Apologize

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I feel like I need to apologize. I’m a pastor in the suburbs. I live in a place with little obvious material poverty. Multiculturalism is largely nonexistent. My back yard is bigger than my front yard. My community is rife with “first-world problems.” And moving to “the city” isn’t even on my radar.

Most of the “action” in the church world of our city is happening way closer to downtown. There are so many faithful churches doing powerful and beautiful things there. I love watching my brothers and sisters creatively engage their places with the good news of Jesus. The suburbs, on the other hand, are usually thought of as a wasteland of consumerism, isolation, and antiquated Boomer methods of being the church. That’s not all wrong. But if you want to be in on the “movement of God” in our city, the suburbs are not the place to be.

At the beginning I said “I feel like I need to apologize.” More accurately, I’ve felt the need to apologize in the past. When people asked about our church I focused on the work we were doing with a youth center in the inner city. I shared all the reasons our church wasn’t a “typical” suburban church. I located us on the closest edge possible to the city, shying away from greeting our actual geography with a willing embrace. And that’s something for which I actually need to apologize.

Here’s the thing. My wife and I feel called to the place and people we’re with–our neighborhood, church, and the south suburbs of Denver in general. We throw that “calling” word around pretty freely to spiritualize our choices, so let me explain what I mean. God has set this part of the city in our hearts as home. We have been drawn to this part of the city since we moved here, despite the fact that we lived elsewhere until three years ago. It’s like God placed a magnet in our spirits that drew us to this place. We kept trying to live here even when work took us somewhere else. This place, and these people, are home in a way that goes beyond our choices.

Once I accepted that fact, I started to believe that God wants the suburbs to flourish too, not just downtown or by the university. It’s true that the suburbs are profoundly broken–alienation, isolation, addiction, enslavement to things, and a gnawing sense of hopelessness.

“The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” Psalm 24:1

It’s also true that God’s good desires for his world are for the whole thing, including the suburbs.

So I’m committed to this place; this people. I’m thankful for the many who God has called to other places too. And I hope we see the peace and reconciliation of his kingdom take root and grow in every part of this city.

An open letter to open letters

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADear Open Letters,

In the past few months I have tried a number of tactics to address what I see as concerning behavior on your part, to no avail. At this point I feel my only recourse is to address these issues publicly, where all those on social media who agree with me will be able to click their approval, which will lead you to understand the corrosive effects of your actions.

Let me be clear, while my use of the personal communication form of a letter in this public space could be construed as a thinly-veiled attempt to defame or disparage you, it is anything but. My hope is that by writing this you will reconsider your actions and finally align yourself with my perspective. I can’t imagine a more persuasive approach, and eventually I’m sure you’ll thank me.

Before continuing, open letters, I want to affirm that I am sure your intentions are noble. I don’t doubt your character or desire to do what is best for society as a whole. In fact, you are one of the most gracious, upstanding, passionate entities I have ever met. It is not your character, but your actions that so deeply concern me. I wouldn’t want you to get the wrong idea. Since you’re not an idiot I’m sure you will easily see the error of your ways once I point them out.

First, I must call you out for your insatiable desire for attention. Your approach lays your selfishness bare, and it is unbecoming for one of your stature and position. You are supposed to be for the people, but you clearly only care for yourself. I hope people will see you for who you are and discontinue their support for you. Unless of course you are willing to see the light and completely reverse your position so we can agree. The choice on this account is yours–be a narcissist of the highest order or choose what is right.

Second, I cannot agree with the sincerity of your tone when you clearly have a manipulative agenda. Be honest. Don’t hide your motives. We can handle the truth. Just be plain and clear about what you’re after.

Finally, and most importantly, I beg you to wake up and see that everything you are doing is contributing to the utter disintegration of society as we know it. Our children’s future is being rent asunder by your dastardly deeds. If you don’t want to be responsible for the end of civilization, you must listen to my plea. Trust me. Once you see things my way and adjust your actions accordingly we will walk together, hand in hand, into our shared utopian future.

Hopefully Yours,