Know Your Core

At Willow Creek’s 2011 Global Leadership Summit (hollah), Bill Hybel’s challenged us to be aware of how we would summarize the central message of Christianity:

“What five words would you use to describe the gospel?”

He had everyone draw a circle, and then write the five central messages inside the circle. Everything inside that circle should be driving your mission; those words should be connected vitally with your mission, either as an organization or an individual. 

My core

Question 1: What are your five words?

Question 2: Are you living them out?

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Thoughts on THE Prayer Pt 2 :: “In the heavens…”

Our Father, who lives in the heavens,
May Your name be kept holy.
May Your Kingdom come,
May Your will be done,
On earth just like it’s done in Your presence.

Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive our sins
As we forgive those who sin against us.
Don’t bring us to the times of trial,
But deliver us from the evil one.
Amen.

Where does God live, and why does it matter?

This phrase introduces two ideas about God that exist in constant tension: God’s transcendence and God’s immanence. 

God’s transcendence is the “clouds-in-the-sky” part of God: the I-created-the-whole-world aspect of God’s character. This incredible power was important to God’s people; it established YHWH’s credentials as the ultimate power in the world. This is the power that is present at, over, and above creation; in fact, you could say that the point of Genesis 1 and 2 is not to show that God can count to seven or invent the platypus. It’s to show that God is separate from and has power over the creation.

Jesus is not using this phrase so that his prayers have the correct “address” to get to God. He uses the phrase as a form of worship, as a way of reminding himself of God’s infinite power. No matter what life on earth looks like, Jesus prays to the God who created the whole operation, and is more than capable of intervening at any point.

Simultaneously, the phrase “in the heavens” indicates another—and almost more profound—mode of God’s existence. Simply put, “the heavens” doesn’t just indicate a specific address beyond the clouds where God lives (with an awesome beard).

The heavens can mean anywhere.

Even right next to you…

even inside you.

To pray to “our Father in the heavens” is not merely to call on God’s infinite creative power, it’s to call on his intimate presence. 

It means that He is not standing (sitting?) far off watching us succeed or fail, watching us walk or stumble or crawl or fall. He is capable of being everywhere: in our vehicles, in our classrooms, in our dining room, in our cube farm.

Because of His infinite (transcendent) power, He has can be absolutely (immanently) anywhere.

A couple of questions:

  • Does your prayer life involve worship? What would it mean to turn your thoughts to God’s infinite power during prayer, to dwell on the fact that He is in control of everything? How powerful (or weak) is the God of your prayers?
  • Does your prayer life address the fact that God is very, very near? That He has not left us to languish, but is dynamically and constantly present with us? What would it mean to understand the infinite as intimately present with you? How close is the God of your prayers?

Father God you are infinitely present in the heavens; in control of all. You were present before creation, and at creation, and will exist forever. You are all powerful, and nothing is beyond your doing. I thank You that You in control of all the situations that stress me out, or that cause me distress, and I ask You to sustain me through them. At the same time, Lord, I know that You are very gently present with me, even as I sit in this kitchen typing. Not only are You ‘Lord Most High,’ You are also ‘God With Us.’ You are here as I walk through my day, and are always inviting me into a deeper, fuller life of submission and obedience. I pray that I might exist more completely in Your presence, in order to see Your creative power at work in my life. Amen.

“Movement of Jah People” … Exodus Week 1

So my bible study/growth group is going through the book of Exodus for the next… who knows? As long as it takes, I guess. It occurred to me that maybe I could post some thoughts here that I/we pull out of the text for any who miss the group meetings or for any who might be interested in what we’re learning…

General Thoughts

“Exodus” isn’t really “Exodus”, first of all. We derived that name from the Septuagint, the Greek version of Hebrew Scriptures. In Hebrew the book is called “Names”, from the first line of the book (roughly, “… and these are the names.”). It’s the second book of the Pentateuch, the books of Moses, and is central to Israel’s (and, I argue our) understanding of itself and YHWH. I once heard a scholar argue that you can understand the first five books of the bible as God’s People’s Birth, Childhood, Adolescence, and eventual Maturity. If that’s the case, then Exodus is the definite childhood, where their identity and God’s identity is cemented forever, in the same way that our own childhood can cement our self-perception as well as the understanding of who our parents are.

Chapter 1

The book opens up with Israel in Egypt, where Joseph (one of the Twelve sons of Jacob) had brought them to escape famine. In Genesis, God’s people is a family of creative and interesting characters: Abraham, the sly deal-maker; Jacob/Israel, who steals his brother’s birthright and “wears the stretchy pants” with God; Joseph, the upstanding (but sometimes arrogant with his brothers) dream-interpreter.

Before we go seven verses into Exodus, however, we enter a new territory. We are told that Jacob’s family has now “had many children and grandchildren. In fact, they multiplied so greatly that they became extremely powerful and filled the land.” Gone are the individual names of cousins, aunts and uncles. Now they have “multiplied” and “filled the land.” In a few short verses we learn that God has plans to turn this family from Genesis into something much more: a people. God is never after “just” individuals; He is always seeking a people (though still a family) to carry out His mission in the world. Eventually these seeds will bloom into the church that Paul talks so beautifully about in Ephesians 1 and 2. But Exodus is the birth—the sowing—of this seed.

Unfortunately, the population explosion of God’s people bring them into conflict with the political and military power of Egypt. In the face of this life bursting forth, Egypt becomes almost irrationally fearful and threatened. “Look,” Pharaoh says, “the people of Israel (see they’re now a people, ed) now outnumber us and are stronger than we are. We must make a plan to keep them from growing even more. If we don’t, and if war breaks out, they will join our enemies and fight against us. Then they will escape from the country.”

It’s important to understand who Egypt is. Egypt is an empire. They are the big dogs. They rule with sociopolitical and military might. They have the power to sustain life, or to crush it.

Or so they think.

As they begin to feel threatened (which brings up a whole other host of questions, primarily, “Why does this empire feel threatened by a group of powerless slaves?“), Pharaoh (and thus Egypt) begin to take steps to crush Israel. But they can’t. The coming confrontation between YHWH and Egypt—between God’s people and empire—is the story of God’s undeniable, life-affirming, liberating “gospel” (yes, “good news” existed even back then!) opposing the earthly, worldly-but-life-negating empire of the Egyptians.

What we will see in Exodus is the character of God established, and it will remain consistent from Exodus to Isaiah, to Mark’s gospel story, to Paul’s re-imagining of Israel’s story in Romans, to Revelation.

  • With God, life cannot be denied. It bursts forth despite repeated attempts to crush it.
  • God is inclined to the powerless. Israel has no power compared to Egypt; yet God favors the broken and crushed.
  • Passing through the water—even when it symbolizes death—signifies salvation.
  • Good things can happen in the desert.
Get ready. This is going to be epic (even without Charlton Heston).

Checking in at the Wall, Pt 1

My church is in the middle of a series on the book of Nehemiah. Throughout the series, we are asking folks, “What happens when God grabs hold of a man or woman, and they choose to respond in obedience?” Nehemiah’s story is a great portrait of how someone responds and navigates life when their heart is broken for something that is breaking God’s heart.

To be blunt, I am so excited to see what God will do during this preaching series. I think whenever God’s children open themselves open to what God might want to do through them and in them in the world, amazing things can happen; entire worlds can change; history can get made. It’s my prayer that someone may open the door of their heart just a crack to see a new reality: that God wants them to be a part of changing their world in some way, big or small.

In other words, I pray that God might guide someone to their own wall. 

When someone finds “their wall”, things change in their life. As we’ll see in the book of Nehemiah, struggles and challenges are put into perspective when we have chosen to let God guide our steps. We attack life with a new energy, with new focus and purpose.

In short, we know what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

I interact with so many amazing people, week-to-week, who are hungry to find “their wall.” Some of us wait years (or longer) to find it; some of us find it when we are quite young. Some of us know intuitively what the wall in our life will look like; others of us have to go through a longer period of discernment and/or questioning.

A helpful process to go through when searching for that “thing” in your life is the search for “vocation.” “Vocation”, or calling, can lead us clearly to the walls in our life, to the thing that will motivate, guide, and put our time and resources into proper alignment.

Parker Palmer writes extensively about vocation; in Letting Your Life Speak, he says that vocation—your “wall”—occurs at the place where your deepest joy meets the world’s great need. This is a clue for the place where you can find your wall.

So what about you? Can you take 30 minutes this week and journal through those two questions?

  • What is my deepest joy? What are those things in my life that I would do, regardless of a paycheck?
  • What is a great need of the world? What are broken things that I see that just seem so glaringly obvious?
  • What does the intersection of those two things look like? Does it look like a new work of art? An entrepreneurial venture? A relocation? Getting involved in a new ministry? Changing jobs?

Journal through those questions (it may take minutes, hours, days, or even months to get clarity on, but the journey is nevertheless helpful). As you find clarity, share with friends and ask their perspective on your findings.

Peace.

Wrong Question

Clarity.

I’ve been seeking it, praying for it, for months now. Years.

What’s next? Where should I be pouring my heart, my soul?

What am I waiting for? 

Sometimes “clarity” comes in hints, like the first hints of springtime warmth through March clouds, but oftentimes it evaporates just as quickly (if you live in Chicago in particular, you know how fast “springtime warmth” disappears in March). At any rate, I’ve hungered for it so much. I want my next steps to be clear, to be paving-stone solid in front of me.

All of that disappeared in the rumpled-up paper of a Brennan Manning book (water-logged by a friend, but it was a sacrifice that was well worth it)…

“Craving clarity,” he writes, “we attempt to eliminate the risk of trusting God.”

Ouch.

At what point does “clarity” begin to war against “faith”? At what point does our desire for certainty undermine our need for trust and obedience?

I think I need to revise my prayers…

I Will Try to Fix You … (But, Really, I Can’t)

I got on the Coldplay train pretty early. I got a copy of Parachutes pretty early, and was pretty mesmerized by the simplicity, passion, and purity of the music. As this was the early, early days of eBay, I even sought out a copy of some demos and B-sides (remember “B-sides”?), and just soaked in where they were coming. I was convinced Johnny Buckland was going to be the next great British guitar hero (especially, for, um, church guitar players).

When Rush of Blood to the Head came out, I harassed a good friend who’d gotten a record-release poster to hand it over (I think that poster now resides with Trace Armstrong); I defended my sister’s charge of “This is too repetitive!” when she heard “Clocks” for the first time. I was hooked.

They released X&Y after we’d moved back to Chicago from Colorado. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the same reaction. Three records in, I expected to hear some growth, some risk-taking from the band, and it simply wasn’t there. It was all just very, “Coldplay”. Same old rhythms, same rather wimpy vocals and “super-sensitive guy” lyrics.

Meh. I gave a cursory listen-through, but didn’t really stop to sit through any of the tracks. I through it in the car to listen to “sometime.” (And we all know that “sometime” really never comes in my car.)

But one night I was driving to a gig down on Belmont Avenue, and this song came on. I was transported. Something really happened in those few minutes; I had to just sit there in the car, prior to hauling gear, and let it play out. It remains an incredibly healing song in my life (and in others’ as well: I’m partial to this version).

But over the past few weeks I’ve come to realize that the song contains a subtle but damaging lie. One of the strange paradoxes of my job as a pastor is that I spend a lot of time trying to get people to be honest with themselves–and also with me–about their hurts and their pain. Over lunch, coffee, beer; across café tables and couches; I try to “make space” for people to tell the truth of their lives. Without honesty, true healing cannot take place, so I spend a lot of time to try and lead people (safely) to those places of honesty.

The thing is, once we get to those places of honesty, the results can be devastating and difficult to watch. Being honest with your life usually requires confronting pain and hurt. Tears come. “Why?” Gets asked. A lot. They hurt, and I want to help, so badly, but as a Believer I believe that ultimately, I can’t fix them. These people are my friends (mostly), and it’s a sometimes cruel paradox to think that, though I lead them to places of great vulnerability, I can’t lead them back out of those places. It’s a Spirit thing, an act of healing in which they must collaborate with God.

So I lead them, I patiently wait for them to arrive, I watch walls fall down (occasionally I even poke a little), and then I mostly can do nothing. I pray for them, I encourage them (I hug a lot, too). But I can’t fix them…

… But lights may, indeed, guide them home.

Why I Wrestle…

There’s a wonderful scene in The Devil Wears Prada, where Miranda Priestly, played by the amazing Meryl Streep addresses her new assistant’s (played by Anne Hathaway) indifference — even disdain — for the world of high fashion that the fictional Runway magazine reports on. (watch the scene here; I’ll wait.)

I was thinking about this recently while wrestling through a book on the relationship between Paul and 1st century rabbinic Judaism (fascinating, I know). Streep’s character points out the relationship between the frontiers of “high fashion” and the seemingly mindless, instinctive choices that Hathaway’s character makes in shopping and picking out clothes each day.

“You think this has nothing to do with you,” she says. “What you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s cerulean. And you’re also unaware of the fact that in 2002 Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns … and then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of 8 different designers; and then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down to some tragic casual corner where you no doubt fished it out of some clearance rack … It’s sort of comical how think you’ve made a choice that somehow exempts you from the fashion industry when in fact you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.”

Chilly elitism aside, I think this is important. Theology — thoughts and study about God – is always growing and changing. Archaeology is revealing more about Jesus and Paul and their context. It’s easy to think that theology is irrelevant to our daily lives, but I think that wrestling with “deep things” is like high fashion – as folks think through the really big issues, it will work its way through the seminaries, colleges and churches and eventually into our daily lives. The problem is that I’m afraid many of us are wrestling with the equivalent of acid washed jeans and polyester shirts. The truth is, God is doing new things, always. Are we (as pastors and leaders) willing to wrestle with the “high fashion” theological questions — not so we can be faddish or “cool” but so we can keep in step with what we are coming to know about God, Jesus, and their message and mission for the world?

I believe we will walk out our theology; we will speak it into others’ lives; we will proclaim it from the platform.

I want to know why we pick the Cerulean sweater.

What I Learned in 2010…

Last year was a pretty cool year, all in all. I preached a lot, served as the interim pastor at my church, recorded a pretty amazing record (just you wait!), and feel like I grew a ton, albeit in ways that few people may actually see. Boiling the year down to some key learnings, it looks a bit like this…

  1. Musically, I am an “outlier”. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell does an extended examination of what it takes to master a craft or skill. Using examples of Mozart, Bill Gates and the Beatles (among others), he concludes that, rather than some kind of strange, random “anointing”, expertise actually comes from hard work and time spent learning a craft, skill, or instrument. As I prepared for a message this year, I realized (some shockingly) that I had probably put my “10,000 Hours” in on guitar around 2003/2004. While it may sound arrogant, it was liberating to me to realize that I could probably claim some level of “mastery” of guitar. (Let me clear: this does not mean that I’m somehow the best guitar player in the world — or even on my block. What it does mean that I have little trouble making wood, metal, and electricity do and say exactly what I want it to.)

    The results of this revelation has freed me to actually look at music as something that I can give to others, rather than something I consume all the time.

  2. “The success of my organization is my success”. I wrote this in my journal sometime in 2010, and it really impacted me. Sometimes, the organization you are in — work, church, etc. — makes choices that you may not agree with personally. At that point, it’s easy to choose to rebel or withdraw because there appears to be a less than 100% “alignment” with your personal values and goals. However, rebellion and withdrawal is not a productive “strategy”. Furthermore, believing that an organization’s goals and values somehow limit your own is thinking that is governed by scarcity. You are not reduced by your organization’s success. By contributing to your job’s success, you have the opportunity to grow more, live more, understand more.
  3. Growth is always an option. In 2010 I turned 42. I’ve struggled all my life with fear, frustration, and — to a certain degree — resentment. And yet, I saw more growth in these areas in my life last year than probably in the previous 5. No matter where you are in life; no matter how “old” (or young) you are, you can always choose to grow, and it’s always an option.

    Relatedly…

  4. God’s power is limitless. That’s the only way I can put it, really. We may know this God as someone who does these physically impossible miracles (dead back to life, seas being parted, walking on water, etc., etc.), but the daily miracles — someone receiving peace when they usually get angry; of someone being able to experience emotional maturity after decades of stunted growth — are just as earth-shaking. His power is always available to help us follow Him, to mature us into fruit-bearing trees.

    Relatedly…

  5. To access that power, you have to make yourself available. The thing that changed in 2010 was my commitment to private practices of prayer, solitude and study. To date, my prayers have been sporadic and reactionary, offered up after “Prayer Requests” or before some special event (or when I felt especially guilty). As I began to regularly practice a form of prayer, I can definitely say that God’s Spirit-inside-of-me began to dwell more actively, and my life began to change.

    To often, we live our lives with the expectation that God will “just do” something supernatural when He wants to, and we are largely the passive recipients in this life.  While He is always the prime–as well as the primary–mover and actor, we are meant to be co-participants with Him in this life. Most of us sit around hoping that God will heal us or change us. History tells us otherwise: that men and women who have seen God’s power move in their lives have been devoted to prayer and other disciplines in order to “make room” for the Spirit of God to move in our lives.

    Relatedly…

  6. The “slower frequencies” have the most impact. I’m still unpacking this metaphor for myself, but it works like this: in music, the bass (lowest frequency) drum hits less frequently than the high hat (highest frequency), but sonically it carries the longest and furthest (ever heard a car drive by with some really massive speakers? you get the point).

    Our culture lives life in the high frequencies — statuses and technology pulling us into ever tighter spirals of interaction. Update after update, conversation after conversation. Life lived in moments. While these “high frequency” moments are necessary and even fun, the slow, low frequency of prayer and meditation can have the longest and deepest impact. The “unsexy” traditions of sitting before God in prayer, devotion and meditation are like ripples that spread out through the day of a believer (like me), and they allow you to move through the high frequency interactions of our day with a stillness and peace that is necessary to have a deep life.

  7. Scripture is endlessly fascinating. We are a “people of the book” (along with our Muslims and Jewish cousins), and so we must constantly wrestle with what scripture is and what God is trying to tell us. I find that a lot of what I’ve been taught scripturally isn’t quite correct, or that it’s only skimmed the surface of what God was trying to get through. There are so many resources, so many threads to follow. Jesus was ten times more radical and provocative than you’d ever think, but so much of that has been lost due to the emphasis on faith (and therefore, the Bible) as being all about getting you, as an individual, into Heaven. As deep and amazing as that is, it’s just the surface. Jesus’ (and God’s) agenda is so much bigger than that. It was (and is) “creation-sized.”

 

So that’s really it. That was my 2010. It was an amazing year, all told. Saw God move in pretty amazing ways. Saw “miracles” of the every day variety. Saw a little boy cling to life for weeks in July. Saw faith spring up in people who didn’t expect it. Saw people embrace new calls on their life, to wake up to new visions of their lives. Experienced contentment, peace, and a little freedom.

Let’s see what happens in 2011.

I Know Where She Is…

Meet my sister. She’s five years older than me, and mostly amazing.

She’s been inspiring and challenging me for decades now (I’m excluding the first 12 or so years, because then she mostly just picked on me…), and now she’s moving gently but firmly into a new arena of life and ministry.

Please take 30 minutes and listen to her teach. Her message is about what you do when you find out that you’re not where you think you are in life. When expectations aren’t matching up with reality.

I know where she is… she’s following close behind a rabbi.

Centralia

For two summers, when I was 18 and 19, I worked for the steel company that employed my father. I did random sales and marketing stuff for them: customer satisfaction surveys and inventories with the various state and local transportation departments that used their products. Driving around — Texas, Pennsylvania, Florida, and California — by myself in a rental car with an expense account was pretty happening for a skinny college kid who wanted to spend as much money as he could on guitar gear.

One day I was riding around with some guys in central Pennsylvania when we came to a town called Centralia. It stank. Smelled like sulfur. When I asked, they just shook their heads and said, “wait.” When we got closer to the town, they told me to get out and put my hand on the pavement. Even though it was a cool day, the pavement was warm; really warm.

Sulfur; heat.

Was this hell?

They finally told me what was going on. You see, Centralia is in coal mining country, and one day a fire started burning in the mine at Centralia…

… that was in 1962, and it’s been burning ever since.

Once the fire got started, there was seemingly nothing anyone could do. All attempts to extinguish it had failed, and it essentially was smoldering for over 30 years.

You can smell the sulfur, and you can feel the heat. The slowly became toxic, houses slowly being evacuated before it got too risky, health-wise, to remain.

Eventually the fire killed the town, and Centralia doesn’t really exist anymore.

Sometimes I wonder about the stuff we carry around in our spirits, in our hearts. Are there things that gnaw at you? Things that you’ve done or seen? Things that were done to you? When there is significant pain in our lives it is tempting to “get on with it”, and try to shut things away, but when we do that we often find that those things are like the mine fire at Centralia: even though we see no destruction on the surface, deep down we are being destroyed, and eventually what’s going on underneath will be displayed on the surface of our lives.

When there is pain, we need to do our best to bring things into redemptive time — to allow them to see the light of day, to exist in the oxygen, so that we can deal with them.

Burying them won’t kill them. It only gives them places to smolder and burn.