Sunday, December 25, 2011

Wrapped in Love -- Merry Christmas 2011

One of my favorite places to visit in a store during this time of year is the free gift warping area. You know the place I am talking about. It is the place where someone will take the $9.99 gift you bought and make it look like a $29.99 gift. There is something about taking some shiny paper, ribbon and the ability to make a bow, that makes the ordinary and average look extraordinary. Over the past couple of years in our family there has been less and less extravagant wrapping of presents. We went from actual wrapping paper to, the funnies from the newspaper, which moved quickly to just newspaper. From there we made the move to Duct Tape. Note of caution when wrapping things with Duct Tape you want to be careful as it does not remove as cleanly as you would think, just saying. Now for the adults in the family when it is time to exchange gifts for some reason we simply leave it in the store bag and wrap the tails of the bag as tight as possible. It’s kind of funny, no matter what you put inside that store given plastic bag it looks like a cheap gift.

I have noticed it is not just our gifts we give a wrapping. There is the very literal concept of wrapping our bodies in clothing. It is easy to see there are some people who place a high value on the wrapping and others who do not. My idea of an expensive shirt is anything over 12 bucks. While others pay more for their undergarments. In our culture there is an odd value assigned to the wrappings we put on our body.

We could also look at the lifestyle we wrap ourselves with. Perhaps you are a person who on the outside looks like you are living the filet minion life, when in actuality you have a Raman Pride life. You choose to wrap your life in something different than reality. Maybe you are the person who lives right on the edge of keeping it all together but you present yourself as someone who has it all together and under control. I wonder if the wrapping we are seeing right now reflects who we really are?

That brings me to this Jesus baby. Now if we believe the scriptures and prophecies about the Messiah, and we believe this to be Jesus found in the New Testament, what does the wrapping tell us? Look at the passage in Isaiah and the titles given to the Messiah, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. These are some pretty impressive titles that should come with some pretty impressive wrapping. If we take a look at all the expectations there were for the Messiah, He was going to set the people free from the Romans. The Messiah was going to establish Israel as the most important nation once again. This one person, the Messiah, would make everything just as it is supposed to be. With those expectations you would expect some pretty amazing wrapping.

But what do we find, and ordinary baby, in a less than ordinary nursery being wrapped in scrapes of cloth. This is the anti-wrapping station move. The most precious gift or greatest value is given a wrapping that appears to make the gift look like less than it is. At the same time we take the $9.99 gift to get a wrapping to look like a $29.99 item. However there is another wrapping around Jesus that is not as easily seen as the clothes. Perhaps Jesus is more like the gift wrapped in the Wal-Mart bag. Contained in that bag may be something plain and ordinary, just another item off the shelves. More than the object though is the heart and intention behind the gift. My office is littered with gifts that do not look very impressive until you know the intent. Those tatted gifts are handmade, one-of-a-kind masterpieces made especially for me by my children. This changes everything. Those pictures, rocks and other trinkets are wrapped with so much more than paint and paper, they are wrapped with the love of my children.

That baby in a cave, because there was no room in the Inn, was in many ways a normal baby, treated as most babies in that day would have been treated. To look at the baby Jesus you might think he was the equivalent of a Wal-Mart shelf item. Sure we think about the star in the sky and all the pictures which have a halo around Jesus. The star was there, but the baby was still a baby, remember Jesus was fully human and fully God. This means the experience of baby Jesus was similar to other baby experiences. The difference was not the baby but what the baby was wrapped in. Jesus Christ was a gift from God given to you and I, along with all creation and he was wrapped in love. Not just any love, the love the creator has for that which was created. Love that is pure, true and not matched by anyone or anything on this earth or anywhere else.

Christmas might be your favorite time of year and you wish it would come more than once a year. You might be a person who cannot stand Christmas and you wish it would never come. This time of year might be festive and joy-filled for you, or it might be a time of great pain, regret and struggle. Perhaps you are like me and you get almost physically ill to see the god of consumerism on full display. Whether you are Ebenezer Scrooge, Bob Cratchit or Tiny Tim there is one truth of Christmas which remains. God, the Creator of all things, the great parent to all, gave us the gift of stepping out of eternity and into this world. This gift was wrapped in frail humanity that we might experience wholeness. Jesus was wrapped in the ordinary of life that we might experience the extraordinary of life. The Messiah was wrapped in love in order to make a way for all of us to know the peace, hope, joy and love of our God. What is more, this wrapping is shared with us. Through Jesus Christ we are wrapped in God’s love. My Christmas prayer and hope is that you will feel the love of God wrapped around you.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Life Beyond Maintenance

Chances are you are familiar with the following cycle. You have a moment in your journey when you learn a lesson. It might some great spiritual insight, or a simple principle that helps with daily living. Over time this new insight grows cold and once again something seems broken. In an effort to repair what is broken, you seek after wholeness again. As you seek you remember the insight from before and feel whole again. You repeat this cycle endlessly. This is a cycle describing many peoples interaction with church. On the weekend there is a great insight that makes life seem livable, so you follow it. By the next week the struggle is back on. In this mode attending a church gathering becomes a form of maintenance in our lives. With startling regularity we find ourselves struggling with that same old issue once again, even though we preform our regular maintenance.

It could be that all you need is regular maintenance. Like an oil change in a car, there simply needs to be attention paid to keeping things running at their peak. However, there are times when the recurring problem requires more than maintenance, it requires an overhaul. This moves beyond a simple insight to apply to our lives. An overhaul is when we dismantle something and replace it with something more suiting to the result we are looking for. An example might be helpful. So many people tell me they want to experience a closeness with God like they have not experienced, and they are hoping that regular attendance of services will accomplish this end. Over time there is perfect attendance, however there is not greater intimacy with God. It is not because the services are failing to be effective, it is we need an overhaul. There is a need to change some of the fundamental actions and thoughts of our daily lives. Maintenance gives us the ability to manage the struggles without ever really addressing the issue behind the struggle. An overhaul goes deeper, to the root of the struggle.

I have a feeling that most of us go through life managing the challenges we face without ever really dealing with them. We find ways to function daily and keep our challenges in check, yet there are times when the in place maintenance plan no longer works. Rather than do an overhaul, we simply change maintenance plans. We are called by the God of love to do more than live a life on a maintenance plan, we are called to experience a life of fullness.

So how do we make this happen in our lives. First, is be willing to go beneath the surface. When we want to make changes to the way we experience life, we have to be willing to make more than maintenance changes. Feeling overwhelmed by a schedule will require more than a simple correction to the scheduling of my time. After I make changes in my scheduling patters, over time I will return the former place. The challenge is to dig into the question of why I over schedule my life, what are my motives? Or to put it another way, what need within me is being fulfilled by over scheduling.

If more of us began to ask the deeper questions and make the deeper changes in our lives, then more people would experience life beyond maintenance. Fair warning, this is not as easy as maintenance. Moving beyond maintenance will require digging into sections of our lives we may have ignored for a while. It will require us to re-pattern our lives. Old wounds left to fester will have to be reopened for full healing. So many people choose maintenance rather than overhaul because maintenance is safe and relatively harmless. An overhaul will mean great challenge. On the other side of things however, maintenance will keep you locked in the same place. The overhaul will open the doors of transformation.

So I invite you to a life beyond maintenance. Know that the journey will be difficult. Know also you will not journey alone. We have a God who is there with us. This is the truest understanding of Christmas. We have a God who made a dwelling place among us. This is the person of Jesus Christ who promises to never leave or forsake us. No matter what challenge you are facing, or how long you have faced it, you can move beyond maintenance. There is hope in the struggle.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Lessons From Elijah

In this past Sunday's message I talked about Elijah listening for God in the midst of the noise surrounding him. This is a time of year when the noise of life can get extremely loud and we can miss the very voice we are seeking to hear. There are five key lessons to learn from Elijah in 1 Kings 19.

1. Positioned Correctly It seems Elijah knew he needed to hear from God, and needed help from God. Rather than simply keep going in the situation he found himself, he took time to get himself positioned to be able to hear God. I am not saying we need to go off to a cave and listen for God, although that might be it. In the midst of all the noise of life we need to find a place, time and way to connect with the God who loves and calls us.

2.Seeking to Hear Elijah not only gets in the right position to hear God, Elijah seeks God. Once positioned well Elijah could hear God ask why are you here? God knew Elijah was looking for God and for peace. Sure we look for it, but where and from whom are we seeking it? Elijah did not complain to someone else, did not give up of God. In the midst of the noise and chaos, Elijah sought after God.

3. Being Real With God There was no sense of Elijah trying to fool God. There was no pretense of being religious and having it all together. Nowhere to be found was a proper address to God. Elijah simply told God where he was at. The best summary I can offer is Elijah told God, life just sucks right now.

4. Knew What He Was Listening For When the wind blew, the earth shook and the fire raged, Elijah knew those were not the voice of God. Interestingly there are other times in scripture when they were the voice or God, or the voice of God was heard in them. Yet it was the whisper after that contained the voice of God. Only by knowing the voice he was listening for was Elijah able to find what he was looking for.

5. Peace Does Not Mean Easy God tells Elijah to go back the way you came, he came from the people trying to kill him. Elijah seeks God for peace and in the imparting of peace God tells him to go back to the most dangerous place on earth for him. Further, God gives him a task which not exactly the easiest, anoint new kings in places that already have them, and anoint your successor. God says I have got this all covered and you are worried about things which you cannot possibly control. Simply follow what I ask you to do and peace will be your companion.

If you would like to hear the entire message go to: Noise: Hearing Peace

The question is not whether God is still speaking to us, the question is can we hear the voice of God in the midst of the noise. The offer of peace is there, along with the offer of hope, joy and love. I pray we will all have ears to hear what the Lord has to say.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Crisis Of Leadership

It is no small secret the mainline, denominational church in America is in serious decline. Most of the major denominations are now wrestling with the how to remain in existence, not just for the long term, but in the next five years. Consultants have been hired and paid, studies and reports have been released, and all the cash and effort have produced the results that many have known by painful experience, the cause of the decline is found in the area of leadership. Much ink has been and will be continued to be consumed talking about issues like discipleship and evangelism. Books have been written and are being written about how to bolster a children's ministry or how to engage this population or that population. Some have turned to the Emerging Church, or the Missional Church models to find a way out. These are all good things that have been happening and are happening, yet the statistics still point in the same direction. The issue is leadership.

John Maxwell is often quoted as saying, "Everything rises and falls on leadership," the church is no exception to this. When the local congregation I serve is struggling it is more often than not due to a leadership issue with me. During this time of crisis in the church there is a need for strong leadership to come forward and lead, the problem is we have a crisis in leadership. Sure we have all the people in leadership positions, and for the most part they are wonderful people, they just are not very good leaders. They might even be fantastic managers, but they are not good leaders. Talk is on the rise about developing leaders but at least in my tribe, the UMC, talk is all we are experiencing. There are small pockets working to develop leaders but overall there is little progress being made.

Over the past few months I have wondered why something so important get so little attention. When I have asked those in position of leadership I am assured that leadership development is a top priority and things are in the works to address it, however there are many struggles facing the church. Many of you reading this have traveled life longer than I, however, it is clear to be that if something is called a top priority, yet there is no effort in that area it is not a priority. All the other things which are allowed to pull attention away from leadership will continue to get in the way if effective leadership is not applied. That which we spend out time, energy and other resources on is what will grow. When we focus on the fires they will grow. When we focus on the financial woes, they will grow. When we focus on the lose of what was, the lose will grow. If we were to focus on leadership, then it would grow. If we were to focus on mission, it would grow. But it all takes leadership to create a clear focus.

So what are we to do? Edgar Shine would remind us that once a culture is in place, the culture determines who leads. In the mainline church the culture is well in place and the choice for leaders are not leading. Actually, they are managing very well to maintain the status quo. More than just a present day buzz word the status quo is a powerful force which is never neutral. Only courageous leadership will break the cycle.

As for the rest of us who do not lead denominations, or judicatories, what can we do? If you are a leader, then lead. Work at becoming a better leader, develop the leaders around you, and lead the people God has given you care over. A symptom of poor leadership is waiting for someone else to provide leadership. If those who hold a position of leadership will not lead, waiting for them to provide leadership will being about a certain death.

So, search the Scriptures, find the examples of leaders in the Bible who did just that, lead. Allow your life and character to be shaped by the compelling love of Christ. Lead, seeking the justice of God, offering the hope of Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. A crisis as severe as we are experiencing will not be solved by distracted management, it will be solved by leaders who take action. So lead in your life, family, your workplace and your church. Do not wait for someone else to lead.

Let us set our hearts of Christ and follow the path of life that leads to the Kingdom of God being experienced by all the people of creation.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Falling Back

Wow, it has been a long time since I posted something, I needed a few tries to remember the password. Anyway, life has a way of going through seasons and for the last little season my writings been done in other forums. More to come at a later date. Today I have been thinking about the practice of Daylight Savings.

Last week as we were leading into the change of clocks for most of the United States, I heard several people complain about the fact that they lose an hour of sun once we turn the clocks back. Every science teacher should grown at that kind of statement. It is not that we lose any amount of the sunlight, it only get rearranged. Sure for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere the sun is around less during the winter but that has nothing to do with the clocks on the wall it is the little thing called creation.

No matter if we see it as losing an hour of daylight, or we remember our basic science lessons, I am struck by something even deeper about the issue. We are the one of a handful of countries that continue to have the audacity to manipulate this thing called time for our own benefit. Interestingly of the countries who continue to observe the crazy practice, there is a high frequency of countries in the privileged world, meaning North America and Europe with a few other highly developed countries. For most of the world the thought of manipulating the cycle of creation was given up, while others still never bothered. There are many reasons stated for the practice, and the proponents will be loud about how important it is to our economic system and other very treasured things. I say, it is pure audacity and self-interest.

There are many places where we can clearly see the shifting times from the Modern era, the Enlightenment, to the Postmodern era. In world that is increasingly postmodern holding onto this tradition of time change has a strong grasp in the Modern era. During the Modern era it has been common for humanity to rearrange the world and the way it functions for their personal benefit. This is the birthplace of the idea that we gain or lose and hour of sunlight because we change the clocks. Quite simply we could manipulate the clock all we want to and it will have no impact on the amount of sunlight one area gets. Further the claimed benefits of the time change are all steeped in consumerism. We want to maximize the amount of time we can make money, and we do not want to be inconvenienced by this pesky thing called darkness.

If you are still reading this, you probably have that look on your face accompanied by the thought of, okay I think Aaron is loosening his grip on reality and what is most important. You might be right. This is not the most pressing issue we face. The change of the clocks on the grand scheme of things really does not matter, unless you pay attention to the related health issues due to the change. The issue for me is that we as humanity repeatedly manipulate creation for our benefit and pleasure. True we were given stewardship over creation, and we are to enjoy meeting God in creation. However, we are not suppose to change it for our benefit.

In the end, I am sure we will continue to have Daylight Savings because we have always done it that way. I simply wonder if we stop and think about the foolishness of manipulating creation for our benefit, I am sure that doesn't happen any other place of situation, wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Video From Haiti Trip October 2010

This last October I traveled with a crew to Haiti for 10 days, here is a video to catch part of the experience.

Untitled from Aaron Bouwens on Vimeo.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Pastor As Shepherd

There are many responsibilities of a pastor. Some are chosen by the individual, while others are placed upon. There is yet another category of responsibilities which is often over looked by pastor types and non-pastor types, the Scriptures. As I have been mining the scriptures lately I have been look at what it means to be a pastor in Christ's church. One of the things I keep coming back to is the idea of the pastor as shepherd. For those who know me and have been inflicted with my ministry as a pastor, know this is an image or role of the pastor that I am very uncomfortable with. Wanting to become the best pastor I can for Christ, and his church, I have determined to take a good look at the pastor as shepherd. So far two conclusions have emerged, first, I will need to allow God to transform somethings in me which I have held dear over the course of my ministry. Second, the way we think of the shepherd is often not consistent with the teachings of Scripture.

Upon further reflection I have learned me resistance to embrace the role of pastor as shepherd comes from my own misunderstanding of the role of a shepherd. What I have carried with me from experience is when a shepherd is talked about what is meant is a person who will be a passive person who merely responds to all the felt needs of the sheep. In my little mind this reduced the shepherd to the role of caretaker. While care taking is very important, I have always felt called to a different style in ministry. Whenever I have entertained the idea of becoming the pastor as shepherd a voice from with in would quickly sound a warning that I was designed and gifted to be more than a caretaker of a church. As I have poured through the scriptures on this issue I have found a very different view of the pastor as shepherd.

As my investigation continued I found that many in the church wanted the pastor as shepherd to be the person who was in fact a caretaker of the people. Based on the listening I have done the common description of pastor as shepherd is as follows. The pastor will always know what is happening in my life and respond appropriately, which is determined by the person in need not the pastor. The pastor as shepherd will keep conflict to a minimum, and solve conflict by finding the path which keeps everyone happy. When it comes to the preaching and teaching of the pastor as shepherd, quality communication is desired but no challenging of the status quo in the church or individual lives please.

So, what have I found as through exploring the pastor as shepherd through the scriptures, tradition, experience and reason? That I am in fact to be a shepherd to the people God gives me charge with, however, I need to be transformed in my person and understanding. This leads to the question, what then is the pastor as shepherd?
  • Comforter and Confronter. The pastor as shepherd fulfills the role of offering comfort to those who are in need. This includes those who are in need physically, emotionally and spiritually. Further the shepherd also confronts those who are too comfortable. John Wesley is often quoted as saying we are to "Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." The shepherds crook is not for beating the sheep, it is to provide guidance and comfort.
  • Guide. The shepherd was not necessarily a day-to-day part of the sheep's life. The flock was left to roam the open pasture, grazing and investigating the days away. When trouble was around the shepherd would collect in the flock and bring them into the fold until the danger had passed, then returned the flock to the pasture. It is the shepherd who keeps the sheep moving in the directions they need to go.
  • Resource for the journey. Funny thing about sheep is they sometimes forget how to be sheep. The same thing happens to followers of Jesus, we forget what we are about and the shepherd provides resources for the journey so we can remember what it is we are about as followers.
  • Vulnerable Heart. To be a good shepherd, our hearts must be available for and to the flock. In John 10, Jesus explains his willingness to sacrifice and lay down his life for the flock. This requires a vulnerable heart. More than offering technical service, a book list or a few websites, the shepherd offers a congregation their heart. There is great risk in this, yet the True Shepherd Jesus, offered his heart and life.
As I have written these words conviction has been strong, I have so much growth and transformation to go through. The greatest challenge is found in having a vulnerable heart. I can give a list of "reasons" why this would not be a good idea, in the end they are all excuses. Being the pastor as shepherd is not easy work, especially for those of us who have been pastor as technician, yet it is the call. This is not a call to be a preserver of the status quo and never challenge the flock. This is not a call to simply watch the days go by. The call to be a pastor as shepherd is the call to make our hearts available to the flock knowing some will treat it like common fodder and trample it. While others will join their hearts with yours as together we all follow the Great Shepherd who is leading us to the heart of the God, for the full, abundant and complete life which the shepherd has offered.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Dark Day For A Bright Future

The second most pivotal day in history, Good Friday. There is no small irony this Good Friday coincides with Earth Day. While many will be rightfully remembering the creation on this day, I wonder if they will remember the one who redeems all creation? When Jesus went to the cross on our behalf, it was not only humanity that was being brought back into relationship with God, all of creation was. The process God used to bring back the Eden-like relationship was one that was dark and painful. The journey from the table of the Last Supper to the reality of the cross was filled with betrayal, injustice, beating, mocking, and nailing.

History, not just Scriptural history, records the day when the sky turned dark in the middle of the day. When Jesus was doing battle with sin, all that would keep us from our created relationship with God, the whole earth was involved and the light turned dark. The theological world will talk about theories of atonement, and the various ideas of how Jesus death brings about our redemption. All those theories and discussion have their place, this is not it. What I have experienced is this, I was trapped in sin and death until I realized the grace offered to me through Christ. I do not need to explain all the pieces and parts to know the act of Jesus on the cross changed everything for me and for all of creation. This does not mean we are free from brokenness, or that all the world is perfect. What the work of Jesus means is that on the dark day all that would prevent the pursuit of the fullness was defeated. The victory was won when Christ felt forsaken. As Jesus breathed his last, the curtain was torn and all were invited into the Holy of Holies.

The cross is not the end of the story. In fact if it is the end of the story we are all still headed for a death separate from God. If the cross ends the story then Jesus was another moral teacher who had a very traumatic death but that was it. On the cross Jesus steps in and declares whatever is needed to repair the brokenness is being accomplished. Sin is canceled, injustice is addressed, and hope springs. Not until the tomb is found without Jesus do we know that new life is possible. Jesus told that he was only going to be in the tomb for three days, the proof was in the pudding, with no Jesus in the tomb the move from great moral teacher to Messiah was reinforced. The darkness of the cross is turned into a bright future for all who would follow after the One who made it possible.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Day To Remember

Maundy Thursday. What the heck does that mean? It is the day Jesus commanded his followers to practice Holy Communion as an act of remembrance and connection with him. The primary setting of memory is the Upper Room and the Last Supper, however there is much more at the table than simply one night and one religious celebration.

The journey to Maundy Thursday began in the ancient times, a couple thousand years before Christ. The people of Israel were enslaved by the Egyptians for over 400 years. God had commanded Moses to lead the people to the promiseland. From captivity to freedom. The night before the journey is the Passover night, when God passed over the homes of the Israelites and struck the firstborn son of all the Egyptians. Once free from Egypt God commanded the people of Israel to have a Passover meal each year to remember the work of God in freeing them from slavery.

It was that very meal Jesus was sharing with the disciples in the Upper Room. The story would have been told of the journey from captivity. All the foods would have been shared along with the singing of all the songs. Yet Jesus, like with many things, put a twist to the long standing religious ritual. This was the night before he journeyed through death then back to life. Within Hours of this meal, Jesus would be going to the cross, so we could journey from captivity to freedom. The meal was a remembrance of years before, and a command for the years to come.

Today many people will let this day come and go with the thought that soon they will have a few days off from work, and we will dig into those little chocolate bunnies, or my favorite stale peeps. Even in the church we rush to the Cross of Good Friday, yet we do not spend time remembering. The ancient story and Jesus Story continue in us today. The gruesome reality of the cross is important only if we remember what the cross is about. We remember today the Body of Christ broken, and his blood shed so that we may move from captivity to sin and freedom in Christ.

Perhaps you will journey to a local church to remember with others at a service (Cortland UMC at 7pm), or maybe you will take time at the dinner table tonight with family. Possibly get together with a few others for dinner to remember and tell the stories of how God has moved you from captivity to freedom. Before we go to the cross we must remember the journey which has brought us to the cross.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Tyranny of Someday

I am sure like me you have a list of somedays. You know the list I am talking about, those things that you will do someday. When all the factors come into place, and the time is right, then we will start the new venture, or make today that someday. The problem is that day never seems to come, there is always a reason that today cannot possibly be someday. Left to its own process, the someday hanging over our heads begins to invade every aspect of our lives. Before we know it we become trapped to someday thinking, and never move into a new reality.

Why do we do this? I am not sure why you do it, but I know my reason is security. I have a great place of ministry which provides enjoyment and financial security. The support of my family is a role which I take very serious and the somedays in my head would call into question my ability to provide that support. Now I know the religious answer is to simply trust God and step out. The validity of this response has not been able to overcome my fear. I, like you perhaps, have yielded to the tyranny of someday.

So what are we to do? Quite simply we must fight the fear and begin making today, someday. I cannot imagine the Peter and Andrew saying to Jesus, someday I will follow. Or Paul saying someday I will get these scales removed from my eyes. We do find people in the Gospels who give Jesus a someday answer when he calls. They have a valid list of things to do before they follow the call of Jesus, yet Jesus calls them to make today, someday. Starting today, those somedays will become todays. I believe there is something to which God is calling us, and we have been holding off. That is the key, we must be following God, not ourselves. The someday has to be rooted in the work of God in our lives, not our own hopes and dreams. The only true reason to hesitate is to make sure it is the call of God, not human will. Once we know what God wants or today to look like, we are to pursue it with reckless abandon.

I want to be clear, this is not safe. People will not understand. A change in lifestyle will be required. Personal luxury may have to be abandoned. Yet we will be the most free we have ever been. The tyranny of someday enslaves us more than we realize. In the process we become enslaved to the things which keep us from stepping into someday. Break the chains and step out. One of the many things causing the church in America to struggle is the drive to live safe and neat lives where everything works and everything is logical. The grace of God is not logical. The call of Christ is often not logical, when using the standards of the world. Still we are called to step out in illogical, and crazy ways. Let's make today, someday.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Beautiful Awakening

Last week I was talking with a used car salesman, not about cars rather about the state of this thing called the church in our world. Part of or conversation took us to talking about the passages in the Bible which all the people of God to wake up. Isaiah 50 to 52, Romans, Ephesians and Revelation 3. We then thought about the different ways of waking up. There is the harsh sound of the alarm clock. Not to be outdone by the wonderful screaming of a parent up the stairs or down the hall. Also included are the demanding tones of an angry parent waking their teen child. As the two of us thought about all the various ways we had been awakened none were as wonderfully remembered as the beautiful awakenings. The sweet voice calling to us, coupled with the gentle touch, or even a kiss. Being awakened in that fashion has greater appeal in my life.

Classically when I have read the Scriptures calling the people of God to wake up I have heard them as an angry demanding God. What if that is not at all the emotion of God? What if God is whispering in our ear with a sweet voice? What if God is taking our hand and gently enticing us to see what the morning is bringing? Make no mistake it is time for the church of God to wake up from its slumber and greet the day the Lord has given them. The questions remains if it will be a harsh and jarring awakening, or if it will be a beautiful awakening?

What would the beautiful awakening look like? Would it resemble the street corner preacher yelling at everyone to repent or go to hell, or would it be the work of the faithful as they provide food and clothing to those who are hungry and naked? Would it be the pastor showing the vengeful God, or offering the God of hope who longs to see us embrace all of creation? The beautiful awakening does not require a media campaign. No billboard space is needed. Leave the tracts in the box. There is not even a need for a building for the church. Simply put, the beautiful awakening is a group of anybodies who decide to follow God more than anything else.

When we know the day ahead holds promise and excitement, no alarm clock is needed. We simply rise and greet the day with great anticipation of what is coming. Often we live lives in a consistent defeat. The wages of the world weigh us down and we do not expect God to show up in the day ahead, only more of what we experienced the day before. Day after day we diminish our expectation of what God can do with us in that day. The beautiful awakening stirs our souls about the possibility of what God is going to do with that day. The beautiful awakening draws us from our slumber hearing the sweet voice of God telling us about all the amazing things the day will hold.

A beautiful awakening can quickly be sidetracked by focusing on the obstacles. Isaiah 51 reminds the people of God to focus not on the power of humanity, rather focus on the God who is about the possible. We must work to preserve our beautiful awakening or risk having the beauty and joy of this day taken from us.

The call of God to awaken could be a demand to get our butts out of bed and get about the work which is set aside for us. It could also be the sweet voice of God calling to us to arise and see the possibility of what God is going to do with the day. The time of slumber is over, the church must awaken, may it be a beautiful awakening.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Lowest Common Denominator

Nothing says fun like math. Think back for a moment to the fun world of fractions. I still try my best to avoid fractions to this day. But, when it comes to adding or subtracting fractions I remember that you had to first find the lowest common denominator before you could complete the process. This often meant reducing one or more numbers, so that everything could look the same, and be measured the same.

It seems this has become the practice in our world and not just with fractions. Everywhere I look I find standards are lowered so more people can clear the bar. In fact the standards are often lowered to the point that anyone can clear the bar. It appears as the education system is in this mode, along with sports. I have seen where they have stopped giving out trophies to the winning teams because they did not want the losing team to feel bad. While all of this is tragic, the real tragedy is when this happens in our relationship to God. It was not all that long ago listed among the essentials of the Church was the exclusivity of Christ. The essentials of the church are those things which are recognized no matter what theological cloth you happen to be cut from. The exclusivity of Christ is the understanding that Jesus Christ is the only way to God. It seems as the time has come when we no longer can have this in the area of consensus in the church. I realize this has always been in the air for some, however we have reached the point when we are engaged in the lowest common denominator practice with Jesus.

Let me be perfectly clear, this is not a mandate to disrespect other faith traditions, or the people who adhere to them. It is not a reason to go our and tell people they are destine for hell if they do not believe in Jesus. Further, I am not offering an excuse to act in hate and ignorance toward people who are different than ourselves. What I am saying is I have a deep concern that we have lowered the standard of Christ to the point where it seems anything goes as long as a person is spiritual. The greatest evidence of this, is the fact that the idea of all religions leading to the same God has found significant support in the church.

So you might ask, if a Hindu does not believe in Jesus, are they destine for hell? The simple answer, I have no idea. It is not my job to determine who gets in and who does not. I am not even sure that is the real question. What I am sure of is this. Whether, Hindu or Muslim, Buddhist or Shinto, Christian or Pagan, there will come a day when we will have to deal with Jesus. I think about Matthew 7 when Jesus talks about those coming to him claiming Lord, Lord, and Jesus says I never knew you. Religious people of all fabrics will come before God, and may recognize Jesus but having no relationship will find themselves missing the fullness of God. Outside of Jesus there is no salvation. Not simply a knowledge of who Jesus is, but a relationship with Jesus.

An important note. While there is no salvation outside of Jesus, we must remember the reach of Jesus to be beyond our comprehension and knowledge. That is to say, we are not in charge of anything in the kingdom, we are not in management. The role of a follower of Christ is obedience, faithfully following the lead of our Christ. Christ is the only way to God, yet we are not the only way to Christ, our understanding is not the only way to Christ.

We must stop lowering the bar. When we read the Gospels we find Jesus setting the standards pretty high. In fact so high I am unbelievably grateful for grace and mercy. When the rest of the religious world was lowering the standards, Jesus raised them. It seems once again we need to return to the high standard of Christ, not as a goal, rather as a way of living. It has become increasing politically incorrect to be exclusive with Jesus. Yet, Jesus has often been politically incorrect. There is much more room in the Kingdom of God than I often realize, and I am sure when the great reunion of Revelation 21 and 22 happens, I will be surprised to see some of the folks there, just as they will be surprised to see me. I do not make the determination of who reaches God, yet I know the one who does, he is the gate by which we enter, Jesus.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentines Love

We have come to that day when we talk about the one we love. Let's keep in mind this is an extremely painful day for some who have loved and lost, or who have not know love at all. This is the day when I take time to celebrate the love of my earthly life, Sarah who has put up with me for nearly 12 years of marriage. Without her the ministry God has given me would suffer, and without the support, I would have long given up. This is the day when we love the lovelies in our lives, break out the flowers, chocolates, and other tokens of affection.

I wonder today about how this Valentines love translates into our relationship with Christ? More specifically how we show love for those who God loves. On the list of greatest loves of my life, behind, God, Sarah and family is this thing called the church. For nearly 11 years I have had the opportunity to experience the love of church. There has been opportunity to laugh together, cry together, even have some debates and arguments along the way. Whether it has been in Farmington, NY, Wolcott, NY or in Cortland NY, I have loved being a leader in God's church. I wonder is those in the world around us get to experience that same love? Sure anyone can make the choice to join in the life of a church. Yet often when people think about the church, they do not think love. In fact increasingly when people think about love, the church is not even part of the thought process. Could it be that the church, the people, have lost their love for the people of God who are not yet a part of the church?

Sometimes they are called the unchurched. I have heard the term unconvinced. In some circles the words used are pagans, ungodly or lost. All poor ways to describe those who have not yet become part of the community of God known as the church. No matter how these individuals are described there is a simple truth related to them which the church must pay attention to; our passion for seeing new people engage the community of God is severely lacking. While there are some, not many people feel like they do not want any more people to attend their church. Even fewer people do not want to see more people come to have a deepening relationship with Jesus Christ. Yet in the group designed by God to accomplish this purpose we often have no passion, or willingness to live in such a way that we connect and invite others to experience the community of God.

I could list a whole bunch of excuses I and many others have used as to why this is the case. They are simply that excuses. What is comes down to is love. We love those who love us. More often we love those who do something for us. This is a common understanding, yet not a biblical one. With his lifestyle Jesus challenges us to love everyone. Those who love us, those who are not sure about us, those who we consider unlovely. On this Valentine's Day think about the people in your life, by acquaintance or notice that you deem unlovely. Show them love. This Valentine's I think it is time for a heart transplant for the church. We must get rid of our heart of exclusion, and replace it with a heart which shows love and beats for those who are not a part of the community of God. This is not about building the church, it is about helping others to experience Jesus Christ through the power of community which is centered on him. May we look back at this Valentine's Day as the day when it all changed. When hearts were turned to show the love of God to all those in the world. When the church of Jesus Christ became impassioned once again for those who are not yet a part of the community of God in its fullness.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


We have all had that dreaded experience, much less if you are a Mac user. All the functions of our computers come to a grinding halt. Nothing is working and we are left to restart. Once we restart, things start working like they were intended. Not all of life is a computer, at least not yet, but it remains true there comes time when we need to restart so things start working in their intended way. The church of Jesus Christ is no different. Throughout the journey of the the people called Israel, the people of God, there have come times when pressing Ctrl+Alt+Delete have been necessary. Destruction of towers, great floods, and exile were all part of the attempt to return the people of God to their created function. The earthly pilgrimage of Jesus was in a effect a restart of the relationship of God and the people of God. People such as Phylis Tickle suggest since Christ about every 500 years the church goes through a restart process. I am suggesting we are at that point now.

In many ways the church is no longer functioning like it has been created to. In fact looking at the world of the church reveals more proximity with the Pharisees and other religious leaders of the Jesus day, than with Jesus. By and large the culture has stopped turning to the church for direction and started turning to anywhere else. Why? When the church is turned to the return is a religious system which short circuits a missional, relational and incarnational interaction with the Creator. In his book So Beautiful, and others, Leonard Sweet talks about the MRI church, Missional, Relational and Incarnational. In order to become such a place the church will need to restart. This does not mean what has always been is bad and of no value. Restarting does not mean everything is going to be scraped for the latest and greatest. Restarting means a return to the designed intention.

Restarting the church would return the church to understanding the creation of the church was not for organization, it was for being the mission of God. Being the mission of God requires organization but the organization supports the mission of God, not the mission of God supporting the organization. Pressing the restart buttons would return the church to a mindset of relationship with God through Jesus, and relationship of a community. This means more than simply knowing who God is, it is entering into community with others as we seek after a God who is seeking us. Finally restarting would move Jesus off the pictures on the wall into our day-to-day lives. I find myself treating Jesus as a memorial figure. Someone who once lived, was great, changed the course of the world but is dead. Jesus is alive, resurrection, not only alive, Jesus is with us this very moment. An incarnational Jesus is one who is amongst the people, real and tangible with and through the community called the church.

Unlike restarting a computer restarting the church is a much more involved process. There is also more at stake in restarting the church than a computer. Let me be clear, if we do not act the work of God will not be derailed. Simply we will not experience life as we are created to experience it. Still there is great struggle ahead in restarting the church. There is not reason to think we will have it any easier than Jesus himself did in addressing an organization that has lost its essence of existence. Just like Jesus it starts small and builds momentum. It starts when individuals decide there is more to life than they are experiencing. It grows when those individuals form a community that is missional, relational and incarnational.

The restarting of the church is underway. There are people and communities who have decided to return to life as offered at creation. Likewise there are people and communities committed to keeping things as they have been for the past 5 centuries. For the rest of us, we must do some serious seeking to see where it is that God is at work.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Culture Is Never Neutral

We all live multicultural lives. They may not be culturally diverse, including other races, religions and ways of life, still there are multiple cultures we all live in. There might be the work culture, the home culture, the family culture, the culture of your church, the American culture and on it goes. None of the cultures we exist in are neutral. Meaning all of these cultures have been formed in one way or another. Some cultures form more organically. Patterns develop and before long there is a sense of simply being. Once the culture comes into existence those who are a part of that culture work to preserve the culture, even if there is no knowledge of where it came from. Other cultures we exist in are intentionally created. The values and ways of functioning are chosen and not left to happenstance. Like the more organic culture, once the intentional culture is established effort is made to maintain that culture. No matter what, culture is developed, and there are always players looking to have the culture function in certain ways. This leaves us with a choice, we can simply react to the culture around us, or we can participate in shaping it.

Everyone can be intentional about the formation of the cultures in which they exist. There are cultures which are more challenging to shape, like the American culture. Still we have some level of control over the cultures we exist in. There is always the choice to simply let it happen around us, to take on the attitude of whatever will be, will be. The appeal to this kind of culture formation is often appealing as it requires very little from the participants of the culture. On the flip side there is a great challenge in this style of culture development. Culture in never neutral, there will be ab underlying mindset that will influence the culture. Overtime the culture developed my by extremely dysfunctional and trapped by the influential people who have much to gain from the culture as created.

Intentional culture runs the same risk as being held hostage, however when the formation of the culture is done intentionally good questions are asked and engaged. As the culture is formed questions come to the surface about the values and functions of the culture. There is then conversation about the shape of the culture. A simple example is looking at home life. Many people are frustrated with their home life. Often not termed as such but it is a culture problem. People are not unhappy with those in their home, they are unhappy with the culture of their home. Chances are the culture was allowed to develop organically. The good news is the culture can be changed. It will take hard work and dedication because culture is never neutral. Patterns of functioning will have to change and who holds authority, and how they hold it may have to change. The culture of a home can be intentionally set, and they worked to preserve. If there is not a willingness to be intentional about the culture being developed, we must simply figure out how to endure the culture which emerges.

So what am I really saying? Culture does not simply exist, or is not something which just is. Culture has emerged from a chosen passivity, or has been shaped intentionally. When a culture is first emerging it is easiest to be intentional. Once established, it is very difficult to change the culture because of the desire of stakeholders to remain stakeholders, or the desire of the passive to remain passive. You can engage a culture and be a shaper of the that culture. This is true whether it is your home, your work, church, country or any other culture. Just know there will be other people and situations working to influence the culture as well. Their work may be to preserve the culture already in place.

In the next entry I will explore the role and importance of leadership in culture setting.