All Things in Common

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And all who believed were together and had all things in common. – Acts 2:44

After Wednesday’s statement regarding the importance of community, I began to think about a very special time in my life. For a little over a year, I had the privilege of living alongside an incredible group of people. I suppose I could call it an unintentional commune of sorts. That time forever changed my perspective on what the church is.

As I began to walk down memory lane, words flooded my mind.

They had all things in common.

Only the context had shifted the meaning for me. For a moment, I’d like you to return to the passage at the top of this page. Read it and take a moment to think about what it means to you.

Have you done it?

If you are anything like I was, your first thoughts will probably include Acts 2:45. It reads, “And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” For me, this verse has always been tied to a material social justice and self sacrifice for the benefit of those in need. I’ve always seen and used it in the context of “living simply so others may simply live”. I still believe there is truth to that, but as I’ve recalled my time in Waynoka Cove I have come to realize that if that is all we take from “had all things in common“, then we have come away with far too little.

“The Cove” as we called it, was simply a group of neighbors and friends who shared a common faith and who chose to share our lives as well. And sharing our lives went far beyond just sharing our resources, though it wasn’t uncommon for us to do so. That is the key point I want to try to convey about having all things in common. Life together is bigger than the sharing of material wealth, and I think Acts 2, if we look beyond vs. 44-45 supports this idea.

And day by day, attending the temple together…

Life together is a life of shared worship. While some of us did attend the same local congregation, not all of us shared that bond. Only once, on a very cold and snow covered weekend did we hold a church service in our apartment. I won’t go into detail, but I remember that weekend with fondness and longing. We did however worship together in our daily lives. What I remember most is that God was on our lips. We would discuss books and theology. We would pray for one another. We would occasionally sing together. I don’t mean that it was a constant everyday thing, but it was a very real and consistent part of our lives.

and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts.

I think maybe food is one of the glues that hold society together. There is an incredible joy to be had in sharing food with family and friends. And food shared with gratitude to one another and to God is a profound gift.

praising God and having favor with all the people.

We were very fortunate to connect with neighbors and friends as a result of each individuals gifts and connections. I remember Gary who would drop in on me and my roommate for what sometimes turned into deep conversations about life and God. Knowing that at some point he’d exclaim, “Man, you a ****ing scientist!” I remember the Sudanese boys who would come to see Pete after school. They were bonded to him by the years he ministered to them at Neighborhood School, but they were just as much my friends as his and we served them together. We snacked, played basketball and worked in the garden together. I remember standing outside Jorge’s apartment with Jorge, Pete, Andrew and a three foot tall tin knight as Andrew serenaded Jenny, Jorge’s wife on their anniversary. A throwback to a Colombian tradition to have mariachis serenade your fiancee before the wedding. What was traditionally one day, Jorge had turned into a week.

When I think back on those days, I smile and I am filled with joy. Don’t get me wrong, things were not always happy. We didn’t always get along. We didn’t always serve one another well. And that is part of sharing life as well. But I think, in the end, that maybe we got to experience Christian community in a way that would benefit us all. A community that bonded us. One I feel bonds us even now. We “had all things in common”, and far more than just possessions.

It’s something to consider.

From the Pulpit… or not?

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Not long ago, I gave a brief recounting of my own personal church history. Today, as I read the next chapter in Phileena Heuertz’s Mindful Silence, two statements resonated with me deeply. The first reads as follows:

“Many people find church services wanting, the worship music and teaching to be shallow, not relating to our complex human condition and our soul’s voyage.”

And the second is like it, but it is in the second that I believe we find an answer to the need expressed in the first. It begins with the same frustration and disillusionment brought on by an emphasis on orthodoxy that “fails to address their most impeding obstacles to developing personhood.”

And what is personhood?

She defines personhood as “a person who is united with all reality- an eye within the body (1 Cor. 12)”. To further clarify, it is a person who has died to the old self, the false self, and in whom his or her self identity is united with God and others. To put it yet another way, it is a self awareness that allows us to freely enter into real relationship with God and others. A place she would say we’ve been connected to God all along. It happens when we have been stripped of the lies we tell the world, layer by layer until the core of who we are remains. A core identity that has been set free.

And? So what?

“Ascribing to ‘right belief’ isn’t helping with the everyday challenges of discerning purpose, being faithful in vocation, accessing patience, mercy and long-suffering in relationship, and loving and forgiving those who hurt us.”

It’s great to tell me what I should and should not do. But how?

For me, I began to find the lessons I would need outside my local church. It was Julia Cameron who took me down the first paths of contemplation with The Artist’s Way. In exposing myself to Christian contemplation I soon discovered that my daily journal, my morning pages, are for me a contemplative prayer. The Spirit always meets me there and in that place, I am vulnerable and exposed. I began learning freedom there, and it taught me to listen. In listening, I began to see my lies and face them. In those pages were the seeds of self awareness.

Discerning purpose, developing routine and the power of habit to strengthen discipline came from Darren Hardy and Mike Matthews. One a success mentor who gave me the tools I needed to bring some order to my chaos. A man who taught me the importance of saying no. The second is a man who gave me the tools to take control of my health and make my way into the best shape of my life. The personal and life lessons learned in these processes are still helping me grow. Those lessons forced me to make decisions that provided greater clarity of vision, helped me better serve those around me, better keep my word, and remain truer to the man I claim that I want to be.

It was in living alongside friends in an unexpected community of believers that I began to better understand patience, mercy and long-suffering in relationships. During that year, that community of friends, of family, taught me more about what the church is than a hundred thousand sermons. We were sold. We were also seen as a little dangerous, vocal outliers upsetting the status quo.

In the end, I still sit here with as many questions as I do answers. I am not sure of the local church’s part in all of this. I do believe we can do more to address the orthopraxy that accompanies our orthodoxy in areas beyond bible study and prayer. I also believe that the key lies in our community. I’ll speak more on this later, but community is, in my opinion, the greatest struggle of modern day congregations. Probably because it is also a great struggle of our Western culture. That said, it’s people who lead us to connections like the ones above. And maybe, as I discovered for myself, we’re expecting too much of the local congregation and thinking too little of the church universal.

Ultimately the lessons lie in living this life alongside God. We learn as we go. We learn on the hard packed roads and hidden paths of our adventures!

What do you think? How do you think the local church can better meet the needs for deeper truth and better understanding in living a fulfilled life? Is that even something we should expect of our local churches?

 

Note: I linked quite a few books in this post. Books that have greatly influenced me and helped me to grow along the way. In case you’re interested, here are a few more.

The One Thing – Gary Keller & Jay Papasan

Bigger Leaner stronger – Mike Matthews

Walking on Water: Reflections on Life and Art – Madeline L’Engle

Engaging the Other

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Over the past few years, I’ve been searching for a church home. A dear friend and partner in ministry recommended I check out a local church. A couple weeks later I did. Most of what happened that day is unclear but for general feelings, but one moment stands out with complete clarity.

I entered the church, grabbed a bulletin from the greeter at the entrance and took up a seat nearer to the back. I suppose I intended to remain inconspicuous. Just ahead on the right I noticed two familiar faces, a gay couple I’d known for years as a barista as Starbucks. They are both wonderful people. I made a note to say hello after the service. When it came time to celebrate communion, I rose to join the line funneling its way forward and noticed these same friends in the next line over. My gut clenched. At this time, I hold the belief that homosexuality is a sin. Nothing in my study has persuaded me otherwise. To say the moment challenged me is probably an understatement. But, at the same time, I realized something very important. I needed that tension in my life and in my walk with Christ.

Yesterday’s sermon spoke to this need, and as I listened and reflected I knew today’s post needed to change.

The core of the sermon can probably be summed up in a single word – “We.” Rather than unpack everything, I want to focus on a single point. The common ground, the 99.5%, better known as the DNA we all share as human beings. In our study of the human genome, only 0.5% varies from person to person. And yet we tend to focus our attention on that 0.5%. I realize this is a physiological statement, but I believe the concept goes beyond that to the psychological and philosophical. As humans, we gravitate to people who share our views, our ideas, our goals, our likes and dislikes – in short, people like us. And the church has been no exception.

In fact, I was taught embracing and engaging those who did not believe like me placed me in danger. By doing so, I risked tainting my faith. I believe this is one of the most destructive trends in modern local churches and in society at large. We’re taught to fear the other. So we sit in judgment, in ignorance, and often in hatred. Fear is toxic.

But fear is not from God.

Fear is not ever from God!

In saying this, do I mean to do away with fear of God. I cannot go so far. Scripture rebuts such a statement. We have statements like “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10) or “work out your own salvation in fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). These do not always mean merely an awe of God either. For those under judgment it should be a terrifying thing.

But it is not fear of God I am speaking of here, but fear of everything else. Fear that does not know the God who drives out all fear. For those of us who know Him, His power, and His love, there is no fear. (1 John 4:18) God is bigger than all our fears. And God is bigger than anything that waits across the aisle. I’ve mentioned before that the point at which we refuse further revelation is the point at which we cease to grow. By standing in the shadow of fear and refusing to engage the things that make us uncomfortable and challenge us, we are closing ourselves off from growth. Most heartbreaking, we are closing ourselves off from the blessing of God’s deeper revelation of Himself.

I get it. It’s scary. In fact, it can be downright terrifying. But we desperately need it. Engaging the other leads to transformation as we engage more deeply with God. And God is bigger than any fear we can imagine.

Maybe it’s time to trust Him, to be courageous and step across the aisle, across denominations, across political lines, across divides of sexuality, across the tracks, and engage the other. Not to win them over or change them, though that may happen, but instead to listen and learn. And in so doing, to change. Yes, it will change us. Taking us from caterpillar to butterfly. Drawing us more into the image and likeness of God himself.

Unexpected Gift

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A short few months ago I met a girl. From the moment she entered my life I experienced an awakening. Now if you’re expecting a tale of romance, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed.  But it is the beginning of a happy story and one I am thankful for.

That said, let me begin with a bit of someone else’s story.

 

I recently watched The Secret Life of Walter Mitty again. He and I share more in common than I would like to admit. I zone out less, but we both have vivid imaginations and neither of us are living the life we imagine. At one point in the film, he turns down a free ride that will further the quest. Not that I blame him, riding a helicopter into a storm with a drunk pilot is not generally a recipe for wisdom. It is then that an imagined Cheryl Melhoff, his love interest, takes the stage singing David Bowie’s Space Oddity. A song she herself said is about bravery and going into the unknown. It moves him to action and moments later he leaps into a rising helicopter, a look of shock on his face at what he’s just done.

That’s a bit how I feel.

There are things I deeply admire about this woman. Some of them are hopes I have for my own life that I see her living as a world traveler and an artist. Others are the simple joy of easy conversation and good company. Not to mention she’s also a fighter. She’s the kind of woman  you’d want at your side for a grand adventure.

Her life became a catalyst for me, accelerating the changes already in progress in my life and, in some places, inspiring new ones. At first, I questioned the motivation. After all, shouldn’t these things be motivated by God. In the midst of that line of questioning, I chose to accept a word of advice from Darren Hardy. Whatever motivates you, use it. In so doing, I came to recognize that her presence in my life was a gift from God. A gift that, among other things, has drawn me closer to Him. She happens to be what I needed at the moment I needed it.

So where does that leave me now? I suppose it leaves me still staring down the corridor of the unknown. A future I prefer to call a mystery. It’s undiscovered territory. There is no telling where it will lead, who it will lead to or what it holds for my future. And thanks to her presence, God’s gift of this friend I deeply value, I am further on down the line than I was before. And I’m thankful, because the simple fact that someone like her exists has given me hope for the future.

I’ll close with a quote from The Four Loves. It touched me the moment I read it, and it captures how I feel.

“Appreciative love gazes and holds its breath and is silent, rejoices that such a wonder should exist even if not for him, will not be wholly dejected by losing her, would rather have it so than never to have seen her at all.”  – C.S. Lewis

 

The Other Side

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Time away from the local church and its meetings and ministries opens a door. For some it reads ‘Exit’. For others it is more like a backstage pass, an invitation to go deeper. As I mentioned in my last post, for me it was the latter.

As I’ve written, rewritten and changed this post time and again I’ve began to wonder why it was an invitation for me and not an ending.

Ultimately, I believe it is a result of the grace of God. I remember a specific moment in my past filled with doubt when I realized I don’t have a say in the matter. I knew that, even if I didn’t want to be a Christian, I was. I am His. Period.

When I take that into consideration, all the other things fall into place. He’s doing the work of sanctification. Making me more like Him. And He’s opening up the door for me to enter in and dine with Him, talk with Him, know Him. It reminds me of the only definition of eternal life I’ve seen thus far in scripture.

“And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”   – John 17:3

But knowing Him is not the same as knowing about Him. These past few years have been the testing ground of my knowledge about Him, and the deepening of that knowledge into understanding Him better. More often that not it is a relationship forged in the furnace.

It’s been a while since I’ve considered the trials of my furnace. Loneliness, definitely. Frustration also. Fear. Doubt. I’ve continuously struggled with who I am. Recently, in reading someone else’s struggles I think I gained a little more insight into why. She explained how she never felt accepted for who she was as a child. I feel like my story is a lot like hers. No matter what I did, it was never good enough. I’m not sure where this idea came from. I’m not sure who I was looking to for approval. All I know is that I decided that strength was being good at everything. I had to be Superman to be accepted. I would make everyone look up to me. Looking back, this wrecked me. It’s only been in recent years that I’ve found more freedom to be myself, weaknesses and all. It’s also only recently that I’ve allowed myself to admit that I desperately need other people, and not just admit it, but really know that it’s okay to need others.

It helps me to see another truth. As God exposes me, He is healing me. I feel like someone waking up. He’s freed me to dream again in places I hadn’t realized I’d given up. In so doing, He’s also helped me to know Him more. I have never been more aware of His love, His pride and His belief in me and who He made me to be. He’s cultivating me still to be an image bearer and a beacon of His glory to the world. Where I think it’s too late. He reminds me that it is never too late.

Never too late to create.

Never too late to have a family.

Never too late to see the world.

The adventure is just beginning!

 

 

 

 

Leaving Church to Find it

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Until very recently my church attendance was sporadic at best. The most effective motivators to get up and go were guilt and desperation, but only rarely did I leave with anything other than disappointment and emptiness.

This season without Sunday services began as a result of my work. As I moved into a position of greater authority, Sunday became a work day. I had already grown frustrated with my home church, and by extension, all the nearby church clones, so it didn’t take long to break ties completely. Looking back, I believe my dissatisfaction stemmed from unrealistic expectations for what the local church should be.

As a musician and as an artist, I struggled with the absolute adherence to corporate worship music and the sense that, even as an act of personal worship, there was only so much room for indulging myself as a musician. To explain, let me turn for a moment to jazz. When a jazz artist improvises, it is an instantaneous creative explosion. Even with my training, I don’t always get it and I can’t always appreciate the mechanics of it. However, when I see the player who is lost in the moment, I see something of beauty. For a believer, those moments are time we revel in God’s gift in us and that is something I absolutely can appreciate. And as a musician, it is something I revel in and long for. It is worship. But in my experience, little room, if any, is made for this kind of worship.

As a student of the Word and later as a teacher, I grew frustrated with sermons. Early on in my journey with the church, I wanted theology. After being raised Baptist and suckled on topical sermons, I discovered a Bible church in college that taught me the value of expositional preaching. I devoured it. During that time, I scorned topical sermons or sermons that were anything but orthodoxy. Practical application was important, but I didn’t want to hear the seven habits of highly effective people from the pulpit. Later on, after I had been given the educational equivalent of a Seminary degree sans Greek, my dilemma changed. I found myself growing critical, just as I had during my time in music school. My knowledge made me judgmental. But more than that, the Word, at least in its exposition, grew stale. There was no longer anything new. Just the same old recycled truth, like a little boat pulled out, dusted off, spattered with a new paint and thrown out to float on shallow waters.

This brings us to today. I once again have what I consider a local church home. It is different, and it isn’t. You see, as regards the practice and method it is the same. We pray. We sing. We read the Scripture. Someone teaches. We share in communion, and then we go home. The worship is still corporate, and nobody’s losing themselves in an extended worship solo. I still find times I gain nothing new from the teaching, or disagree entirely. Though, surprise, I’ve come to value the more practical seven habits applications far more.

So what has changed?

Me.

I’m no longer the same man I was.

I read these words from Father Thomas Keating earlier today in Phileena Heuertz’s book Mindful Silence.

“If you stay on the spiritual journey long enough, the practices that sustained your faith will fall short. When this happens, it can be very disillusioning. But if we stay on the journey, we find out that this is actually an invitation to go deeper with God.”

I had reached a point where the “practices that sustained (my) faith” fell short. And the church life I’d relied on could not take me any further on my journey. So I left it behind, and in doing so I found a deeper faith and a more fulfilled life.

My journey outside the church led me to intentional personal development. A path that required me to not only seek my purpose in my passions and desires, but also to take responsibility for that purpose. Before, I always hoped that things would simply fall into place. I wasn’t living the life I wanted to live, and spiritually I looked to the local church to provide it. I wanted fulfillment as a musician, but the church service wasn’t a venue for performance or creation. I wanted deeper discussions that challenged the norm, but even small groups were not structured with that depth or level of freedom. I wanted to be closer to God, but I had exhausted all the options I knew and the church wasn’t providing anything new. In the end, I had to learn that these things I longed for depended on me. I had to take responsibility for myself, the only thing I have any control over, and trust God for the rest.

In the end, I received an incredible gift away from the local church. I learned to live without it. In doing so I returned able to embrace it, to receive everything it can give, and I am the richer for it.

To Share a Journey

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My return to the world of blogs is the result of a confluence. A desire to grow as a writer, and a desire to unpack my faith journey over the past few years, specifically as regards the church. These two things have spurred me on in what I hope will, in the end, bless us both.

The landmarks of my journey are connected to recurring themes – community, the arts, worship, social justice, and freedom. They weave their way throughout my story and will provide the markers by which we’ll navigate. So you can follow one or all of these ideas as they progress.

I hope my journey may be of use to those who are or have been where I’ve been. My path has brought me from an early faith bound in legalism, to the first whispers of grace and on to a growing freedom in Christ. I’ve been “in the ministry”, I’ve served in the church and I’ve simply lived as a Christian. For most of my life I never missed a service. Until I did, and for a handful of years I hardly darkened a church door. And I feel compelled to state – those were not dark years. I was not living the life of a prodigal outside the church. They were enlightening years, and my relationship with God grew as a result. I have seen in every season the rise and fall of my own depravity and the heights and depths of God’s miraculous love.

I do not claim to be a scholar. I do not claim to be an authority. I am only a man sharing my own story. You are free to disagree with me. You are free to challenge my ideas, though I do ask you to be civil. That, when all is said and done, God may teach us both.