Come As You Are

adult-bible-book-series-1296720.jpg

Sunday morning service began in its usual way, a prayer led by one of the elders. She offered thanks as one “bursting with love for” God. It was a sentiment I did not feel in the moment. She continued, and asked God to meet us here. All of us. Those beaming with joy and those lost in deep sorrow. Those who were full to bursting and those who were desolate and empty. The whole. The scarred. The broken. Those at war and those at peace.

All of us.

I remember a time when I would have felt wrong to be empty in the presence of God. I would feel judged. I realize now this is a residue of the works based Christianity I grew up with. A Christianity that told me I needed to clean up before I approached God. My dad wore a suit every Sunday. I still remember him telling me as things became more casual that he struggled with it, because it was bringing less than your best before God. After all, we were coming before a King. I actually agree with the reasoning. We should bring our best before God. He is our King. But sometimes our best is dirty and worn; sometimes our best is threadbare and full of holes. What then?

We’re still welcome! God still looks upon us with love!

So why is it so hard to remember this truth of grace? For me, it’s often the faces we see around us. We, as the church, are meant to be the face of God to the world. So when those faces look out on the world and into their own pews with judgment and disapproval we see a false god, one made in the image of man. It becomes a culture of comparison. A culture that separates and isolates where it should embrace. When I think back, I don’t remember any teaching as clearly as what I saw lived out. It told me I needed to fake it if I didn’t feel it. It demanded I not show myself empty, hurting or broken. If Christ was real in my life I shouldn’t feel those things. Good Christians didn’t feel those things, and I wanted to be a good Christian.

But what does it mean to be a good or a bad Christian? Personally, I’ve come to believe there is no such thing. At least, if there is, I have no way to judge. It’s beyond me. That’s a God sized task.

All of this leaves me with two important takeaways. One, we’re all welcome just as we are. Yes, we are to bring our best. But it’s okay when our best is our worst. If I don’t come to God and my family when I’m hurting, how am I to be healed? And two, as a Christian, I need to work hard to reflect His same attitude of hospitality, tenderness and love. None of us have it all together. None of us will have it all together. Life isn’t so pretty that we have it all together all the time. And that’s okay. We need one another to get through this mess.

So come. Come as you are. You’re still welcome!

Free to be me

I could choose what felt right for me without needing to be like everyone, or needing everyone to be like me.

Austin Channing Brown, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whitness

I’m not coming from the same place as Austin Channing Brown, but I still feel the weight of these words. It is a freedom we all hope to discover. To know, even if I’m not like you, I’m alright. In fact I am more than alright. I am incredible.

I think we all start with a desire to belong. We want to fit in. I’ve never really felt like I fit in. Looking back, it is probably because I tried to fit in everywhere. The best I could do was skim the surface as a Christian, as a nerd, as a musician, as a jock… as whatever mask I wore at the moment. Some of it was authentic. There were lines I would not cross. But outside of those, I did my best to be who I thought they wanted me to be. Trust me, it’s no way to live.

I am reminded that often directly pursuing happiness and satisfaction, in this case belonging, prevents us from attaining them. I tried to be everyone but the person I was made to be – me. I won’t lie and say it’s not still a struggle. I’m not done yet. But I’m amazed by the friends I have found since beginning to walk in my own identity. We’re each unique, and it’s made for a diverse mess of a community. One I’m proud to be a part of.

I don’t know who or what opened or will open the door for you, but as I write these words I both pray and hope that each of you will be able to find a place where you choose what feels right without needing to be like everyone, or needing everyone to be like you. And I pray and hope that in doing so, you come a little closer to the unique gift to the world you were created to be.

 

Challenging the Sun

back-view-backlit-clouds-847484.jpg

“I had looked straight at the sun and demanded answers, and I was still standing. And I was not blind.”    – Jedidiah Jenkins, To Shake the Sleeping Self

I spent about four years outside of the local church. For me, such a thing is a direct violation of the rules I’d been raised with. “Do not forsake the assembling” rings in my ears. Interestingly enough, as I return to that passage it is not an imperative. At first I hid behind my job, using my schedule as a convenient excuse for someone tired and worn out by Western culture Christianity. Following that, I had relationships I could point to as my ongoing Christian community. In the end, I despaired of finding what I sought though I had not yet given up. Barring the doubt I’ve come to appreciate as normal for a healthy Christian life, I didn’t doubt my faith. Time spent in my own dark night of the soul years ago assured me of who God is and then who I am to Him.

Regardless, this was my looking straight into the sun to demand answers. I had been told that departing from the church was a sure path to apostasy, but the church as I knew it was falling short. That church, no matter how it struggled with the deeps of theology, couldn’t get out of the shallows. So, tired, I took a break. I rested and focused on my health. That choice changed my life. It marked an awakening and provided the healing I needed to return to the local church transformed. And “I was not blind.” My faith held firm. My God was still with me.

I have come to value the power inherent in asking questions. I’ve said it over and over again at this point. If your god isn’t big enough to handle your questions, then that god isn’t big enough to be God. The pursuit of truth can lead to nothing other than truth. Fear keeps us from truth. Fear that to look at the sun will inevitably blind us. Fear that questioning God will bring judgment. If you haven’t heard this before, then please listen now.

God welcomes your doubt. God welcomes your questions. God loves you and He’s bigger than all of it. God loves you and He’s patient beyond our expectations. Try Him and see. Do you wonder about what scripture says? Go ahead and ask your questions! Torn up by the sorrow and darkness in our world? Challenge Him. Give Him the chance to speak. God is not afraid. God is not vindictive. He is loving. He is kind. He is gentle. He is with us, and He’s certainly big enough for the journey.

Coffee with Jesus

beverage-black-coffee-brewed-coffee-1596563

Sunday morning our pastor shared a new development in his daughter’s understanding of Jesus. For those of us who were new to the story, he brought us up to date. At first, she wanted to kill Jesus. She had a nightmare. She faced a figure clad in grey robe with a long white beard and a sword. Our pastor was thinking Gandalf, but she said he was Jesus. It scared her and she proclaimed before going to sleep that she would kill him in her dreams. Recently, she saw a cartoon in which it took her to the cross and the death of Christ. The resurrection, however, wasn’t included. So, as far as she’s concerned, he is now dead and nothing her dad says will persuade her to the contrary. It’s an ongoing journey of discovery in their household.

But there was something more. As she was getting ready to go to bed, she told her dad something like this. “I love Jesus. I wish he could be here. I wish I could spend time with him.”

For her, he is as real a person as me, or you, or her mom and dad. He truly is someone who lived and breathed that she could interact with if he weren’t dead. I wish he were that to me. To be honest, I’m not sure if he ever has been. Maybe it is simply something I’ve lost with the innocence of childhood. It’s been on my mind of late. How different would I feel about God and Jesus if I saw them, heard them, talked to them and felt them in the flesh?

I found these feelings manifest in worship moments before he shared this story. I felt disconnected and disengaged. The lyrics were uninteresting and resolved themselves to noise in the background as my mind began to wander. I tried to find something to interest me in the music by drumming the beat along the back of the pew or finding an interesting harmony. I drifted into thoughts about worship, or what it will be like when I take my place on the stage with them. Somewhere in all the distraction, these thoughts of God in the flesh returned and I saw myself sitting across from Jesus for coffee. I sat distracted, listening in on another conversation or drifting into my inner thoughts. Point is, I wasn’t present. Just as in that moment, I wasn’t present.

I believe this awareness is part of the answer to a prayer I began a few years ago. I prayed to know God. Not know about Him, but to truly know Him as one person knows another. If I want to know him in that way, it means I need to be present with Him as surely as I strive to when I meet a friend for coffee. It’s refreshing. And as I delve deeper, I am excited. I’m also hopeful for that little girl. She’s already taught me a little more about the presence of Jesus. I can’t wait until she finds out He’s not dead.

Freed to Lead

StockSnap_KDAPLBMD4J

Last Sunday I had the chance to visit with an old friend at the church I’ve been attending. He asked me about my former church, not realizing at least four years have passed since I served there. I confessed I had been mostly out of church for the past few years. I don’t know if a question prompted me or he asked, but I answered.

Why?

I mentioned frustration had been growing even before work made it difficult to attend, and as my mouth began moving on its own I recounted struggles I’d forgotten. Maybe I’d deliberately set them aside once that door was closed. I don’t know. But I think they hold important lessons for leaders, and quite possibly for me as well. Things I was blinded to at the time.

At the time, I sang on the worship team. We had two recurring discussions that often left us commiserating after a weekly rehearsal. Our anger was not with our leaders, but on their behalf. You see, both issues stemmed from a pastoral leadership that left them no room to do what they were hired and gifted to do.

The first, and possibly easiest to deal with, was a lack of flexibility in time allotted to worship in music. At that time, we simply felt there was little room for leaders to sense and respond to leading of the Spirit. A dark look or, in worst case, a deliberate interruption awaited any deviation from the schedule. When I consider logistics of two services, I get the need to adhere to a tighter schedule. My thought on the matter remains the same – schedule flexibility. If you need forty five minutes to transition between services, why not schedule an hour so there is room for a little extra? We talk about leaving room in our personal schedules and our finances. Are we doing the same thing with our services?

The second I consider to be far more significant. The creative reins were tight. Song choices had to be approved, and no music written by the worship leaders could be used. The lack of trust chafed those who’d been tasked with leading musically. We, who worked with them, could see it wearing them down. And as often happens with suppressed or unappreciated talent some began to consider leaving. All the while, the church became poorer for the continued distrust.

There is plenty of material out there for leaders in this situation. I hope that today I might entreat any leaders who read this to have a care in how they handle those who serve with them. If you feel you need to exercise this kind of control, then one of two things is true. Either you’re operating out of fear and/or arrogance, or the person you’ve hired is not suited for the position. In both cases the appropriate response is uncomfortable. Self reflection is painful, and so is firing someone. That said, letting it continue is always more destructive in the end.

That said, trust is transforming. You’re support will free you’re leaders to lead in the fullness of their gifts. Gifts God has given them to serve the body. More than anything, I ask that you invite them to the table as equals. Let them challenge you. They are brothers, sisters, and fellow servants with a unique perspective that God endowed them with and that the church needs.

All Things in Common

breaking bread

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?

stephen-radford-86qxyjwq8lu-unsplash.jpg

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