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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.
Other Posts in This Series
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.
Other Posts in This Series
It’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.
On 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 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.
Dear 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.
There is a sentiment that is prevalent among Christians–especially the conservative ones (which many people would call me). I saw it today on Facebook in response to a post about the legality of marijuana.
“The world is changing, and most of it is for the worst.”
In some Christian circles it is a pastime to look at the world through “the-world-is-going-to-hell” glasses. There is a longing for the “good-‘ol-days” when everyone was Christian and we weren’t so morally corrupt–when the United States was a Christian nation and we respected God the way we should. Is it true?
This perspective is most often expressed in the direction of traditional moral issues–sexuality, substance use/abuse, church attendance, abortion, and the themes of movies and television. I don’t deny that our current cultural location leaves some things to be desired in the realm of traditional morality.
The other place this perspective pops up is in relation to the perceived “liberalization” of America. It’s when prayer is removed from schools, universities dogmatize naturalism (not the good of science, but the assumption that God MUST not exist), and people try to take guns away (yes, that’s cheeky).
This perceived jettisoning of morality and slide into liberalism is cited as sure evidence that the world is sliding down the greasy slope to oblivion. Is it?
I don’t know, here’s some of the things I see when I look around. There is an uprising pushing us to take racism seriously (and we certainly already see improvement in the effects of racism since the first half of this century). Women are more respected and have greater opportunity than they have in the past. Extreme poverty is decreasing dramatically around the globe. Bullying and discrimination are increasingly stigmatized and not tolerated. Churches are looking outside themselves at how they can work for the good of their neighborhoods and the world. Efforts to care for the physical aspects of our planet continue to be explored and acted upon. There is movement to pursue business in ways that include profit but do not see profit as the only end. Is there more work to be done? Of course! But we can point to places of improvement.
In short, there are many things that look more and more like the kingdom of God. There are also things that look less and less like it. It looks to me like we live in a time where good and evil grow up together. The world isn’t going to hell. It also isn’t on the verge of utopia. It is growing and groaning in anticipation of it’s renewal.
I hope for those who claim to follow Jesus, we will live in hope–working faithfully for the good and flourishing of the world–working against darkness and pursuing light. There is so much good to be done, and believing the world is going to hell will keep us from it. Let’s live joyfully and hopefully for the life of the world God loves and in which he’s at work.
Last week I sat down to write three letters I’d considered writing for years. They were letters to each of my family members–my wife, son, and daughter–that they would only receive in the event of my death. It was something I’d wanted to write but just hadn’t–I don’t know why. I was going on a trip and felt a compulsion to make it happen. It kind of made me wonder if I was having some kind of premonition, but thankfully that wasn’t the case.
Writing these letters was incredibly clarifying for me. What would you say to the people you loved most if you knew it was your last time to tell them anything? That was the question writing these letters answered for me. As I typed through tears, here are the things I learned.
My words won’t matter without my actions.
The first and last things I wrote to each of them were words attempting to sum up the depth of my love for them with only moderate success. While these words were important, I felt the truth that they would only matter to my family to the extent they were supported by my actions over the course our years together. I am far from perfect, but I do believe each of my family members has experienced the truth of my love for them, and that was the thing that gave me confidence in the words I wrote. I also reminded me that this joyful work of love is an ongoing one. I want to live with my family in a way that those words would always ring true.
I believe the gospel of Jesus and its implications with every fiber of my being.
I devoted time in each of my letters to trying to engage the pain of loss and how that might impact the way each one viewed God. I don’t worry much about my wife’s faith. I know it would be devastating, but I believe she’d lean on God in a time like that. My daughter on the other hand, she feels so deeply, I’m not sure what outlet she’d find for the pain. I was a little surprised at how necessary it felt to me to communicate that my own death wouldn’t shake my belief in the goodness of God at all. It’s actually the death and resurrection of Jesus that gives me an unwavering hope.
I know we’re all at different places in our journey with God, faith, and what truly gives life. Writing these letters just confirmed to me how deeply I have planted myself with Jesus. His work in the world to bring healing to every aspect of the brokenness of the world and each one of us is unspeakably beautiful. Every day I see this in ways I haven’t before. He really wants what is best for all creation and every person, no matter how hard we run from it. His victory over death and the description of what will be one day at the end of the Bible give me so much hope for a wholeness beyond what I can currently imagine. There’s just nothing more life-giving or beautiful than this and I want my family to live in that, regardless of the hardships that might come in this life.
My fear is that they wouldn’t continue living fully.
Look, when I think about losing one of them, I struggle to think how I would continue to live fully. There would be a long period of grief. That loss would never leave me. Both of those things are okay, even good. At the same time, my love for them compels me to long for their good. I spent some time specifically encouraging them to seek healing with God through grief so they could pursue a full, happy, purposeful life. I understand I don’t have control over that, but I didn’t want them to have any sense that they would fail to love me by living the life they’ve been given fully.
I certainly hope those letters are never opened. I’m also thankful I wrote them. I’d want my family to have those words. I am also thankful for the things writing them taught me. It revealed the depths of my feelings and convictions. After all, there was nothing to hide there, no pretense. I’m thankful for the clarity it gave me. What would you say?
There is no black and white, only gray. There is no truth, only what is true for each person. Persuasion is a violation of the other.
These sentiments and the perspective the represent have become deeply embedded in the collective consciousness of our society. They are nearly assumed by all who are tolerant and loving. They are becoming the proverbial water in which we swim.
This perspective has certainly been doing its work on my own framework for engaging the world. I have dramatically shifted not only my perspective, but also my approach to issues and people, in the last ten years. I do believe that listening is a far better first step than talking (even if this doesn’t always work itself out in my practices!). I do believe that there is great nuance in our world–pure black and white is naive. People truly do have different perspectives that dramatically color perception. Yet there is in all of this a path that leads to oblivion. Football reminded me of this.
Yesterday I was watching one of the first football games of the year, and after a play was ruled to be a fumble, the team that had lost the ball challenged the call. The referee went to watch the review and the commentators walked all the viewers through slow-motion replays. As this was happening a thought struck me. We are all looking at this replay assuming there is objective truth to be found. It either was or was not a fumble and we will have a better chance of determining the truth through slow motion replays.
Now there is still plenty to soften the edges of this assertion. Fans of each team will find ways to see the replay as favoring their team. They may see the truth if they are willing to work hard at laying aside their affinities, but it will be difficult. Sometimes there is not a clear angle and the best the referee can do is make an educated guess about what happened. The play may even be so close that there is no way to tell for sure what happened. Yet none of these things negates the underlying assumption of all the people watching the game that there is a true event that actually happened. And if there is a true event it is something everyone should try to see as it really is.
I recently had the joy of speaking with an international student from Iran. He was so honest, personable, and engaging. In the course of the conversation he shared his belief that all religions necessarily divide people because they create “in and out,” “us and them.” After more conversation and reflection on this, I think he was on to something, but not just about religion. In his expression of agnosticism he was also creating a division of belief. I was either with him in that belief or not. There isn’t a position to be taken that doesn’t create “us and them” on some level. This doesn’t mean people can’t deeply love and befriend each other across these beliefs. We absolutely can. I’d even say “us and them” is too strong–perhaps better to say there is no way to erase significant differences without all believing exactly the same things. And we will wrestle with this because there is a reality to be sought out and discovered.
Like the football play, there is a reality. Either God exists or he doesn’t. Either Jesus died and rose from the dead or he didn’t. Either he will return as King or he won’t. These are not matters of opinion, they are aspects of reality with which we must wrestle. (It would be nice to have an instant replay!) Even those who say there is no truth are trying to get at the truth. That the world is random and devoid of meaning is still a claim to know the nature of reality. We’re all pursuing that. I hope we pursue it with love, grace, and peace toward each other and a willingness to listen before talking. I hope we recognize the difficulties of the pursuit based on our own ingrained perspectives and biases. I hope we remain humble in our beliefs and interactions. And I hope we understand the gravity of the pursuit. It is not unimportant. It is not something to be cast aside as antiquated. It is something to be pursued with the best of ourselves, in community, with humility and intention.
So that we may know the truth and be set free.
As I was writing this post, I came across this quote.
“What is love? Love is the absence of judgment.” The Dalai Lama
Maybe it depends on what you mean by judgment, or maybe the Dalai Lama and I just disagree.
Judgment is a dirty word in our society. It is one of the most carnal and insensitive acts a human being could perpetrate on another–to judge them. It is one of the two deadly sins Christians most frequently accused of perpetrating–judgment and hypocrisy. It is regularly berated by Christians as they remind us that we are called to love, not judge. It is the trump card tossed at people with whom we’d rather not have a dialogue–“Stop judging me (or them or whatever)!” Accepting the narrative that judgment is antithetical to love and in itself is a vice is deeply problematic.
Our legal system is based on judgment. When a murderer is judged to be guilty and subsequently sentenced we don’t object that the judges are just being judgmental. Parenting is an ongoing exercise in judgement. When my son threw away our trash at the frozen yogurt shop without being asked today, I judged that he was performing a kind act of service and affirmed him for it. When he yells at his sister I judge that he is being unkind and instruct him to adjust his actions, and hopefully his posture toward her. Hiring and firing are direct outcomes of judgment. We inspect a resume and judge a candidate’s personality and fit before deciding to hire. We judge that an employee’s performance is not good enough and we fire them. Is the act of making these judgments wrong (and if it is, isn’t that a judgment?)?
Judgment divorced from love is harmful–at times even abusive. But I don’t know that it is best to call judgment divorced from love judgment. I think it is something else. It’s something Jesus gets at.
Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
There is a type of judgment that is “unChristian,” but there is also a type of judgment that is essential to following Jesus. What Jesus is denouncing here is twofold. First, it is judgment without self-reflection. It is not that there is no speck in the eye of the other, but that one cannot remove that speck without dealing with the blurred vision being caused by the plank in his own eye. The passage does end with the plank and the speck being removed. The other sense in which judgement is denounced is when judgment is condemning. We should not stand in condemnation over another. When judgment is divorced from love it quickly becomes condemnation. There is no room for us to condemn others.
So judgment of condemnation or without self-reflection is wrong and deeply harmful. Period. Moving on from this point, there is a proper judgment that is wed to love. We can describe this judgment as discernment leading to action. There is no way to read the rest of the Bible and come away thinking what Jesus was getting at in the passage above was that we should not discern the difference between right or wrong and take action based on that judgment. The good of each person and the whole world requires an ability to judge the difference between light and dark, good and evil, right and wrong.
It is fashionable to say that right and wrong are matters of personal fancy, but when the truly reprehensible happens we cannot toe that line. A teacher in our city was just arrested for sexual assault of a student. No one is advocating that the morality of this act is in the eye of the beholder. Right and wrong are only matters of preference until it makes us uncomfortable. No doubt the lines between good and evil are not always clear. Gray areas are real things. But the complexity of virtue and vice does not negate their existence, it only increases the need for wise and loving judgment.
The sacrificial death of Jesus is the pattern of the deepest love–a love that is wed to judgment. It was the judgment that sin and death were destructive and needed to be broken that led Jesus to give his life. In that act of sacrifice he levied judgment against sin (something present in all people and enacted by all people) and loved the world in the deepest way possible. Without judgment this love would not have been necessary. In our culture it may be wise to use the word discernment rather than judgment. However, talking about this issue is important because when people are accused of judgment in our society it is often a discernment that is unfavorable to the sensibilities of another, not a condemnation. And we cannot lose wise discernment (judgment) that leads to action. For the sake of our selves, families, friends, neighborhoods, cities, and the good of the world we must allow judgment and love to remain deeply wedded.