I Remember…

I remember when I first realized that living in my “faith tribe” might not always be easy.

Though I grew up in the church (good old Methodists! Everyone loves the Methodists!), my faith didn’t really take root until I was in my late 20s, when I was working at Willow Creek Community Church. Because of that church’s resources (and theology), I got to hear (or hear about) some amazing teaching from people like Philip Yancey, Dallas Willard, and Brennan Manning (who eventually became a sort-of guiding light for me).

I thought talk about the spiritual disciplines and hearing about the scandalous love of God was sort of part for the course for my evangelical, non-denominational tribe.

Then I moved south.

I’ve been in north Florida (or southern Georgia,  whichever the case may be) for 8 years now, and though there are plenty of fine folks here (that’s the way we/they say it), I was shocked to find that when my family arrived here to start working at yet another non-denominational, evangelical church, there was practically no awareness of Mr. Manning, or Mr. Willard.

Even more alarming, I was told about how certain people had left our church (before I arrived) because of they were “uncomfortable” with, of all people Philip Yancey. This prompted an internet search, and my naiveté collapsed around me as I read scathing comments about Philip. What’s more, I searched again, and discovered that Dallas Willard was considered practically evil, and associated with something like “typical Fuller seminary theology”. (Um, this was not a compliment.)

This was challenging, to say the least. I thought my “tribe” was full of open-minded tolerant people who sought to know this God of love and grace and mystery and transformation.

What I found instead were people who were interested in dogma and rigidity, close-mindedness and exclusivity.

I found fundamentalism.

I hope it’s clear when I say this is not about the south: this is about just me discovering the reality of the tension that still exists under this umbrella that I share.

(Some of my best friends of fundamentalists.)

Some days I don’t think I live under this umbrella anymore. Some days I no longer recognize my “tribe.” Some days I’m not sure I want to recognize them anymore.

But I keep on seeking. Because my tribe ≠ my God.

He’s bigger, and more loving, and more mysterious, and open-minded than any of us will ever be.

That’s why I follow him.

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Channa Masala and the Myth of the Super-Disciple

Here’s what you must know first: I really, really like Indian food. photo-2

So when a buddy of mine forgot about a lunch appointment we were supposed to have at an Indian restaurant in town, I wasn’t about to shrug my shoulders and say, “Oh well, guess I should go on back to my office.”

No way. I was going to stay and enjoy that lunch buffet.

While I sat and enjoyed my tandoori chicken and naan, I started reading a book by one of my favorite authors: Future Perfect by Steven Johnson. Johnson perfectly fits my idea of interesting reading: his work is multi-disciplinary, makes unexpected connections, and is built around what makes ideas great and compelling.

He starts off the book by telling the story of US Airways flight 1549, the “Miracle on the Hudson,” when Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger managed to successfully land a damaged airplane on the Hudson river in New York with all 155 passengers safe. Though it was truly an amazing act of piloting, and “Sully” made a great hero—humble and relatively quiet, and committed to being good at his vocation—Johnson goes deeper behind the story.

You see, Sullenberger (and flight 1549) was indeed a talented and composed pilot. But, as Johnson points out, there was a lot more going on here than just Sully’s grace under pressure. Actually, Sulllenberger’s actions on that morning were the culmination of decades of research and behind-the-scenes engineering, all of which enabled the pilot to make the “in the moment” decisions that saved those passengers lives.

(Hint: it was all about chicken guns and fly-by-wire technology.) 

 

This just in: none of those engineers were being interviewed on cable news shows.

Instead, decades of men and women simply went to work and thought about little ways to make flight better and safer.

And then when it mattered, it all came together.

Are they any less heroes?

There’s an assumption that the one with the most “face time” is the hero. They are the ones who have done all the right things in order to make things happen (or make things not happen, as the case may be). These heroic mean and women—even truly humble ones like Sullenberger—are celebrated as “just-a-bit-better-than-everyone-else” people.

But are those nameless engineers and manufacturers any less responsible for those 155 passengers still being alive?

Sullenberger is definitely a “hero”, but he is not the only one. Little decisions and efforts get made over months and years and decades that put people like him in position to win.

Sometimes people of faith get hung up on the “super disciples” around us. Whether it’s people from the Bible (like Peter, Paul, or John), or other really, really good people we’ve heard about (like Mother Theresa, or Billy Graham, or Desmond Tutu), it’s easy to get caught up in their stories, or in their charismatic personalities.

Maybe, if you’re anything like me, it’s even tempting to somehow start thinking that somehow they got an “extra dose” of God’s Spirit, something that’s allowed them to do the things they did and think the thoughts they did.

But it’s simply not like that.

Sure Paul looms large in the Bible. But if you just read his letters you know he didn’t do it alone: that he traveled with people, and had key helpers with him as he did his ministry. Some of their names ended up in our pages (Priscilla and Aquila, Junia, Tychicus [my favorite]), but a lot of them probably didn’t. 

Yet they were with Paul. Helping. Doing the work when he had moved on to other cities. Some of them may have even had preliminary conversations with their communities before Paul got there, so that they would have context for what he was talking about.

In other words, they help “set the table” so that Paul could succeed.

What are their names?

I have no idea.

But they absolutely made a difference.

And they are absolutely heroes.

Sometimes the person that gets the most prominent billing is not the only one responsible for the victory, or for averting a disaster. Sometimes there’s another story that is just as critical, just as important to the success as the decisions that are made in the moment.

The point that I’m trying to make is that when faith becomes “big business”, and when we become exposed to all of the gifted and talented Christian teachers, preachers, writers, musicians, etc., etc., we can allow this thought to enter our head that says that somehow they are “just a little bit more” than us. They are Christians, but moreso: somehow they got that extra dose of the Spirit.

That’s simply not true. Paul writes in Romans 8 that the same power that raised Jesus from the dead lives in us: the church.

That means everyone has the same spirit. We may all be at different parts of our journey, and we all have different gifts, but we should never assume that the man or woman doing all the interviews is the “most gifted”, or the only hero.

We are all heroes.

I love Indian food.

And this David Bowie song.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tgcc5V9Hu3g

 

 

 

Why I Don’t Give Up

Let’s be honest: there are a lot of reasons to throw in the towel on faith.

  • a book that is thousands of years old that is difficult to penetrate and understand
  • a God that claims to be good in the midst of a world that is torn apart with suffering and hatred
  • my own repeated personal failures (too numerous to mention)

(As Marvin said, “it makes me wanna holler, and throw up both my hands.”)

For a lot of people, that’s just a trifecta of negatives, and I’ve seen them check out of this “faith thing.”

If I’m honest, sometimes I’m tempted too.

So far, I’ve been able to hold on, and though I’m no great apologist, here are a few reasons why:

  • Though I can’t explain why, I know that we are more than “just” flesh and bones. I believe I have some unseen soul, and so I tend to it.
  • Though I have, in fact, failed countless times, I’ve come to the conclusion that only something supernatural can heal the sickness I have: only “letting the light” in (through those pesky cracks) will allow me to be a little less jealous, a little less self-centered, a little more patient, a little more peaceful today than I was yesterday (and we’ll let tomorrow worry about itself).
  • The Bible is, in fact, difficult in places to wrap my head around. That being said, there are some ways to “keep it simple,” starting with this guy named Jesus: he helps me make sense of the Bible.

All in all, I haven’t given up because I have this desperate faith and sense that it is possible to be a better human being, and I think one of the greatest gifts we can give the world is a person that has become as full and complete of a human being as possible.

And only faith gets that job done.

 

Just because #PeterGabriel

 

 

How Most Churches Seem to View Discipleship

Okay: I know I’m dating myself here, but Steve Martin used to have this bit in his standup called, “How to Be a Millionaire and Never Pay Taxes.” He used it in his opening monologue 1977 when he hosted Saturday Night Live. The transcript reads like this:

 

You.. can be a millionaire.. and never pay taxes! You can be a millionaire.. and never pay taxes! You say.. “Steve.. how can I be a millionaire.. and never pay taxes?” First.. get a million dollars. Now.. you say, “Steve.. what do I say to the tax man when he comes to my door and says, ‘You.. have never paid taxes’?” Two simple words. Two simple words in the English language: “I forgot!” How many times do we let ourselves get into terrible situations because we don’t say “I forgot”? Let’s say you’re on trial for armed robbery. You say to the judge, “I forgot armed robbery was illegal.” Let’s suppose he says back to you, “You have committed a foul crime. you have stolen hundreds and thousands of dollars from people at random, and you say, ‘I forgot’?” Two simple words: Excuuuuuse me!!

 

Sometimes I think the church views discipleship in a similar way. In a variety of different ways we proclaim, “You can be like Jesus!” (Well, at least I hope we proclaim that. A lot of churches still focus on proclaiming, ‘You can avoid hell and go to a weightless, disembodied heaven!’ This, um, was not Jesus’ message. But that’s for another time.)

Then we roll out our “plan”, which essentially sounds like this:

“You can be like Jesus!”

“Pastor, how can I be like Jesus?”

“First, be like Jesus. Now…”

Um, what?

Most of church “discipleship programs” essentially tell people to be like Jesus without ever examining how transformation actually happens. 

We do well, and quote Paul about training versus trying, but then we never seem to actually do anything about the training! Which really amounts to us actually advocating trying versus training!

Maybe I’m wrong; maybe it’s happening in more places than I see (I know my church is doing its best at a multifaceted plan for discipleship).

But if we were doing our job, it seems like we’d be producing more transformed people according to Galatians 5:

  • more loving people, who fight against the divisive and often hateful speech of our country (particularly in the political realm)
  • more peaceful people, who are willing to entertain the fact that violence and war are often not God’s will
  • more self-controlled people, who are willing to recognize and separate themselves from all entanglements and addictions, whether they be from alcohol and drugs or food and shopping
  • more kind people, who are willing to stop blaming the poor and powerless for being, well, poor and powerless

As I said, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the North American church really is aligned with God on the subject of spiritual transformation (or as C.S. Lewis put it, “Producing ‘Little Christs’”. But I don’t hear a lot of people talking about it.

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I Know I Am (But What Am I?)… 

I like personality and gift tests: Myers/Briggs; Strengthsfinder; Enneagram; so on and so forth. Enjoy finding out how I (and others as well) am wired, and why I think the way I think. Overall, it’s really helpful. In fact, a lot of organizations (including churches) take great stock in how these gifts are allocated and mixed through staff members. All of these tests help us identify how to interact with each other, and where the pitfalls may be in our common life.

However, the last time I was a part of a round of these tests, I found myself thinking, “How many times do I need to be told what or who I am?” Furthermore, I found myself thinking a lot of how I’d used my personality type as an excuse for some issues in my life that I actually needed to address. Rather than thinking about my behavior or thoughts as issues that needed to be addressed or changed—as sin or brokenness—I thought about them as “this is the way I am.”

But is that all there is to life?

Lately, I’ve stopped being so interested what/how/who I am now, and I’ve become much more interested what/how/who I can be. 

I love all of these tests, but I know for me that I am very adept at hiding inside these labels and avoiding the call to grow, to change. I’m afraid that it’s all too easy to use these labels and titles to simply reinforce my “false self”—the part of me that is so good at hiding from God and others—and ignore the possibility that all of these “strengths” and “gifts” may actually inhibit my growth if all I ever do is focus on them and remain content.

Which is ultimately what we are called to: I wholeheartedly believe that the point of the life that Jesus offers us is to change and to become increasingly more like him. Our personalities, or strengths, or gifts are tools that we can use to grow and change, but there’s also a limiting side of those gifts. I’ve come to believe that every part of our personality has a shadow side; a broken part that can keep me from growing and being shaped into a “little Christ” (as C.S. Lewis would put it).

For instance, I know that I’m an introvert, but I also know that I have a tendency to use my quietness as an excuse to hold back from people, from actively welcoming the stranger, from being a voice of invitation.

I know that I tend to look at the world from a “strategic” perspective, and this has been very helpful to my church. However, I also know that this perspective sometimes keeps me from getting in and just “doing the work” to ideas and initiatives that I don’t always understand. It can also keep me from supporting ideas that I don’t agree with.

The point is not to reject my gifts and personality; it’s to think about the idea of change and growth as an imperative. It’s about refusing to be content with what the assessments say that I am, and writing off my behavior as, “Well this is just as good as it gets, because I’m an INTJ (or whatever).”

It’s about seriously accepting the call to grow, and never stop growing until I can say that I have truly adopted the “mind of Christ” that Saint Paul says I’m supposed to have.

No I’m not there yet. But I am increasingly knowing who I am, and hungry for who I’ll be next.

Does this make sense?

 

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Just As I Am (But then again…)

It is one of the great mysteries of God (and, indeed, the universe) that I am accepted with all my faults and imperfections. So much so, that one of the great journeys of my life (or anyone’s for that matter) is simply coming to terms with that great truth: I am loved in spite of myself.

But lately, I’ve been wondering if there’s something we’ve been leaving out.

Simply stated, I’ve been wondering how much of what passes for faith and spirituality in the American church is geared towards letting me stay the same arrogant, prideful, self-obsessed person that I’ve always been.

Is that the path that we’re on?

I know we give lip service to “change” and “transformation”, but at the same time we our “de jeur” practice of faith celebrates our individualism and uniqueness, often simply allowing our individual “quirkiness” (read: brokenness) to simply become part of who we are.

In a way we say, “This is who I am, warts and all: deal with it.”

Even some of the most helpful tools we have in understanding ourselves: Strengths Tests, Myers-Briggs, etc. Can we used to REINFORCE our false self, rather than expose its shortcomings and invite us to change.

In my life, for instance, some of the major characteristics of my personality are that I’m introverted, I’m highly motivated by intellectual curiosity, and I place a high value on individual stories and perspectives. These are all amazing and helpful.

But I’m afraid that what we don’t talk about enough is the shadow sides of our strengths, the ways all of these assets can tend to reinforce and prop up our false self; that part of ourselves that—out of fear, or self-centeredness, or pride (or all three!)—has difficulty relinquishing control to God.

Let me show you how this works: Yes I’m introverted, I can’t merely celebrate my “quietness” without recognizing that it can keep me from seeking to embrace the outsider; that my quiet reflection can also morph into arrogant self-justification.

Yes, I’m intellectually curious, but that curiosity can also turn into a crutch, and an instance where I substitute the latest book ABOUT God for God Himself. It can also drive me to needlessly spend resources, and to over-complicate my life with more material things.

Yes, I react powerfully to people’s individual stories and perspectives. I seek to hear and understand what “makes someone who they are.” However, this can turn into a hesitancy to challenge their assumptions about their lives, or the decisions they are making.

I am not saying that understanding yourself is in any way wrong or mis-guided. What I AM advocating is that we keep in mind that there is ALWAYS a shadow side to ourselves. Declaring to the world, “This is who I am” can neglect the powerful and necessary truth of our need to be transformed, to be liberated from the brokenness, the compulsions, the pathological desires that still govern our lives.

Don’t ever—for one minute—think that you can (or even have to) earn God’s love: it is freely given to us all, no matter where we find ourselves or what we have (or haven’t done). However, also don’t ever think that we should remain content with who we are in this world. There is great brokenness in the world, and the church is no exception. We need to avoid our tendency to self-justify our personalities and false selves, and embrace the true mystery of the spiritual life: eternal change and transformation.

Two Questions That Have Governed My Spiritual Life

I am 45 now. Wow. Somehow, I am still coming to terms with that fact. Believe it or not, I am getting to the point where, every once in a while, I can claim to have a little wisdom. A few years of reflective, thoughtful living will do that to you.

Anyway, as I was reflecting on some current reading, I got to thinking about how you could divide my life, spiritually-speaking, into two phases. Each of these phases were marked by one governing question, and furthermore I think in my case they were influenced by age (or lack thereof).

Overall, I have a tension with sweeping generalizations: on the one hand they eliminate and minimize subtlety and detail; on the other hand they are remarkably useful in saying an awful lot with a few number of words.

With that in mind, I’d like to offer up the two questions that the spiritual/Christian life asks. They are not necessarily age-bound, but I believe they tend to be, because they simply require different modes of thinking that aren’t always available at certain ages. When we are young, we can afford to think dualistically or in black and white; the consequences just aren’t that great (I once quit a band because they wouldn’t go to the chord I wanted), and we can afford to have our world be as simplistic as we’d like.

As we get older, and (ideally) encounter more and more of the world in all of its diversity and complexity, most of us learn that binary, dualistic thinking just won’t explain what we are seeing. We see marriages fall apart, and though black and white thinking would have us blame “one or the other”, in truth we know that most of the time both parties have contributed to the hurt and pain that kills a relationship. We need a better explanation for how the world works (and one that fits with our Christian worldview, I might add).

So with that in mind, here are the two questions that I have heard from life:

1. How do I get to heaven? 

I grew up in the church, so it wasn’t a huge reach for me to start thinking about “heaven” and some kind of after life. As I’ve told a lot of friends, I prayed “the sinner’s prayer” at least a half dozen before I was 21; as I figured it, if there was a heaven (or hell), it sure couldn’t hurt to be sure I had that taken care of.

“How do I get to heaven?” definitely helped me ask some of the right questions, and it guided me to certain churches and individuals over time that helped me answer it.

However, there is a definite “on or off” nature to this question: you get to heaven by doing/believing X and Y.

It’s almost like a math equation, and to my mind at the time, a math equation was actually pretty comforting (as my wife likes to point out, one of the ways to calm yourself during an anxiety attack is to, ahem, do math problems). 

But I have to be honest: math gets old after a while. 

Furthermore, as I got older, life stopped asking me the “heaven question” over and over.

Things got complicated: marriages ended; children struggled; addictions reared their head; friends died unexpectedly; people lost faith (and in some cases found it again).

These things were all happening people who were indeed “going to heaven”—they’d got the answer to the question right—but the math equation was no longer relevant.

For a while, this caused a lot of despair: Was Jesus not enough to explain these very complicated, messy situations? 

We all needed a different question.

2. How am I supposed to live? 

Over time, the “heaven” question receded, and a new question took its place. This new question was not nearly as concerned with the math equation. In fact, the equation wouldn’t even line up behind this question, almost as if was a different discipline altogether:

“6-4 = the color blue”

This question has nothing to do with binary thinking; it embraces the complexity of life, without giving easy answers.

It’s content is qualitative, rather than quantitative.

It is not black and white.

Essentially, this question started to come up after I’d answer the first one fairly certainly: I knew I was going to heaven, that Jesus would embrace me when my time had come. However, what was really vexing me was trying to figure out why, given that truth, my life was still such a mess. 

Why was I still struggling with repetitive sin? Why was I still given to bitterness, cynicism, arrogance and a radical self-centeredness that threatened to consume everything I held dear?

I knew I was “saved,” but somehow that question no longer seemed relevant, and as I began to ask the second, some amazing things began to happen, first and foremost that I realized (at least for me) that answering the first question left me “in heaven” but really a passive actor in my own spiritual life. After all, I was in heaven now—why bother about “the rest of the stuff”.

To put it another way, I was a “good Christian”, but my heart (and certain parts of my life) was really a mess.

I was going to heaven, but I was taking a hell of a lot of baggage with me.

Maybe it’s normal, but I began to be less concerned with the first question, and really embraced the second. I wasn’t nearly as concerned with “doctrine” as I used to be, but much more focused on does this work? Does it transform me into someone who looks JUST A LITTLE MORE like Jesus than before? 

These are not black and white math problems.

These answers involve silence, meditation, focus, prayer, and embracing ambiguity (I am simultaneously a “sinner and a saint”).

Slowly but surely, I think it’s working.

Finally, there was something ultimately profound in wrestling with these two questions.

Focusing on the first question, doesn’t necessarily lead to the second. But when you focus on the second, most of the time you will get the answer to the first thrown in. 

You may get to heaven, but your life may never change or evolve.

If you focus on transforming your life, with partnering with God for your spiritual growth, you will most likely find yourself fit for “eternal life” (and what’s more, for the “eternal life now” that Jesus talks about in the gospels.

Our spirituality should always ask us the deepest questions; what is your spirituality or faith asking you?

 

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