the greatest treasure

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my shadowed places
your radiance illumines,
by your life I shine.

-kirk stevens

I feel very blessed to be surrounded by amazing people. Tonight, a friend’s heartfelt concern for another challenged me. It was nothing more than the comment of a moment, an expression of desire for someone we both care about to know Christ.

Some who read this may not agree with that desire and that’s okay. If it helps, think of something else that you deeply value for a dear one’s life. The point is, her presence reconnected me with something important. Rather than bring guilt or shame, it challenged me, and, in a way, invited me to join her in her care for another.

If you have people in your life that make you a better person simply by their presence. People who, in the simple act of living, encourage, challenge and inspire you. People whose light makes your light brighter. Hold them close. I’m not sure there is any greater treasure in this life.

God’s Little Never Angels

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It was a little over a year ago that I first heard of Never Angels. I don’t recall the details clearly, but the man who told me about them gave clear advice.

Be careful what you say you’ll never do!

He recalled his own past and the fate changing words, “I’ll never live in (insert state name here).” It was then, he said, that God sent out his Never Angels, and he soon found himself pastor of a church is that very state.

While I don’t necessarily believe in the existence of a covert branch of the angelic realm bending fate against our will, I have come to appreciate a healthy challenge to my own “Never”s. Looking back I’ve started many sentences with “I never”. I don’t have to look far. Take last weeks declaration as an example.

“I’ll never again own an Apple product!”

But today I ate my never pie as I read reviews of the new iPhone 11. Put bluntly, for the path I intend to take in the near future it may be the best tool for the job. And it may not be, but if it is… Well, I’ll own another Apple product. Worse yet, I’ll be the better for it.

You see, Never is a dangerous word. Never is a biased word. Never is a closed word. Never refuses to look any deeper than its expectations, and I am learning to be wary of Never. I think Never might be one of my greatest enemies. He draws close and pretends to protect me while holding me back. He provides the well intentioned platitude that gets in the way of the new, of growth and of adventure. He blinds and distracts me from the tools I most need. Worst of all, he feels safe.

But I think maybe I don’t need him. I need a whole cadre of Never Angels helping me go places I never thought I would!

 

Come As You Are

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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

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“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

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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

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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.