Category Archives: doubt

Relationships instead of Church?

Read this article from Kathy Lynn  Grossman of USA TODAY, “Relationships Are the New Religion for Many,” and tell me what you think. This is good Jacob’s Well conversation.Easter PostCard jacob's well 2007

I think the article’s observations are right on, the conclusion isn’t.              [It really reminds me of some elements of our message  yesterday. (3.24.2013)]

My analysis says that “church” has failed to deliver value or relevance to people at their gatherings (worship services and more) for so many decades that we now have whole generations who have no idea that the church might actually have any. What people still have is the relationships that once found amazing, empowering, loving context in being church, and so they gather around those relationships instead. And for the most part “church/religion/the institution” continues to gather those who are left around nostalgia for what doesn’t connect.

How will we teach those looking for more that there is more when so few are trying to reclaim what church can be?

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Notes taken while re-inventing church – 04

Take God seriously. Really seriously. Take your theology less so. 

Wedges, squares or more. It's still pizza.

Wedges, squares or more. It’s still pizza.

This is heresy to some of my doctrinally-oriented sisters and brothers, but I don’t consider myself dogmatically-handicapped, just conceptually-flexible. Here’s the deal: our theology only describes what we know and understand about God, it doesn’t prescribe what God has to be like.

A little humility is needed here. I was just reading the last four chapters of Job in preparation for preaching and was reminded by God’s booming voice coming out of the whirlwind that even in our most profound moments, we don’t know squat. At our best we reflect back, in our limited, human way, what we pick up from God.

The theological pizza can be sliced in more than one way; wedges, squares or more, it’s still pizza. That doesn’t mean there aren’t better ways or more faithful ways to understand and talk about God, it just means that none of them ARE God. They are all human constructs trying to capture to something that they can only point at.

So what does that mean?

  1. Don’t let your theology or theological traditions limit your experience with God. Expect God to mess with them; stretch them; make you rework them. If you don’t think this applies to you, you’ve parked the car of your faith journey while the world is flying by.
  2. Be open to other people’s experiences and expressions of God. Their ideas don’t have to be ‘right’ (nobody’s are, remember!) to be an authentic voice for their wrestlings with God right now, and for you to learn something from.
  3. Value your doubts and tough questions and experiences as God’s way of helping you do #4.
  4. KEEP GOD BIG! Theology is a box, not the thing itself. We need its categories and explanations to be able to deal with and talk about God, but we need to remember that God doesn’t, can’t ever fit in it. So take the initiative yourself to find the bigness of God that breaks your system. This may be painful but you’re on the way to a breakthrough, not a breakdown!

Ought I rejoice over Osama Bin Laden’s death?

The news stations are all reporting that Osama Bin Laden has been killed and Barack Obama is expected to speak momentarily about it. The news reporter from whom I first heard the story stated that he thought he’d never be able to report this, and was (I’m not quite sure of his exact words) was very happy to be able to do so now.

I feel a little premature in saying too much since we know so little about what happened, but all the circumstances and the reckoning of the justice of such an act aside, the basic fact remains: a human being has died.

The Haggadah of the Jewish Passover Seder comes to mind as I hear this news. One portion of the Haggadah reflects on the Egyptian army that was drowned in the Red Sea as they pursued the people of Israel after their escape from slavery in  Egypt.  Their defeat is a basic and essential part of the history of the people of Israel. One would be tempted to rejoice at this point of the narrative because of the Israelites’ victory, yet lest this happen, Rabbi Hillel added some commentary to the Haggadah that is often remembered. He wrote that upon the drowning of the Egyptians the company of heaven began to celebrate, but God commanded them to stop saying, “Would you rejoice? Can you not see that some of my creatures are perishing?”

I do not mean to compare Egyptians to Muslims or Bin Laden, nor to make the cause of the Americans ‘holy’ like that of the biblical story. Neither do I intend to underestimate the pain and suffering of those who died in 9/11 or in the ‘war on terrorism’ since, nor their families who lost loved ones. I do not mean to say that Bin Laden should not have been killed, it seems that he was one for whom Jesus’ words were true, “all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” [Matthew 26.52] Nonetheless, it seems that the God I have learned to know, and love, is saddened at the death of God’s child, Osama Bin Laden. Just as God was saddened at the death of the person who died on the 84th story of the World Trade Center, and the firefighter, and the man who commandeered one of the planes that crashed into it. And every other person who suffers on this planet.

Ought I to rejoice? I rejoice that the hand of terrorism may have been weakened. I do not rejoice that a person has died, even if it was just, deserved or necessary. And I am more than a little troubled about the soul of our nation who seeks to draw the sword to bring about the kingdom we seek for ourselves.

Dreams come true!

You might think this is crazy, but I’ve fantasized about this for years and yesterday it happened! I’m in the office and the phone rings and there is a woman on the other end. [If you’re thinking this is a sexual fantasy… get your mind out of the gutter! 🙂 ] She tells me she lives close to our church and is only working part-time but can’t get enough hours. She is really short of money for rent, feeding her kids, paying bills, etc. some friend of hers told her Jacob’s Well was a church that could help her work out her finances.

Okay, so here’s the deal. We need help with our finances at Jacob’s Well! We are running a deficit every month in this recession are getting within a hair’s breadth of having to cut back on staff or something (don’t worry staff… you won’t find out about lay offs in my blog – I promise!).  So I tell her that and inform her right away that we don’t have money to hand out. However, we do take managing our money really seriously and do a lot of work with people in establishing budgets and dealing with debt. I was ready to hear the ‘click’ on the other end as she hung up. But no, she cuts me off and says she isn’t looking for money. She was calling in hopes of finding help so she could learn how to better live on the money she has. Wow… I just sat there. Finally I came to and told her I could have someone call her who could help and she was  thrilled.

Why is this so cool? One, somehow the word is out that we believe our money is a spiritual issue and that we really want to help people manage their money so it isn’t managing them and getting between them and God. And that person shared that message with another person. I’ve worked in churches a long time. I have dealt with more people who walked in the door or called on the phone  looking for financial help than I can count, but I have NEVER had this happen before.

Two, if that wasn’t enough… I was already on the phone and had to put that person on hold to take this woman’s call. The person I put on hold was the person who runs our budgeting and debt workshops. I talk to him maybe once every 2 months on the phone. Within 5 minutes I had them connected.

Okay God… maybe it is worth working this hard. I guess I can doubt myself once in a while, but maybe I don’t have to doubt you so often. You are making things happen. Thanks for the glimpse. I need it!

The Dump Truck of Affirmation

I think I heard this phrase from Ron Sylvia first, but it sure captured it for me.

The question I’m dealing with right now is where is God at work. Not in theory. not just theologically safe, but where in my life, do I feel sure, confident, whatever, that God is there. There are places and all of them squoosh out between my fingers when I squeeze my fingers too tightly, but this is one that keeps coming through for me. The dump truck of affirmation.

Let’s face it, following God isn’t easy, and it is hard to know where to go, what to do, and whether you are walking with God or lost in the wilderness. So I get discouraged sometimes – a lot of times – and I’ve learned to let God know that. My prayer is something like this, “God, this is tough. I don’t know if what I’m doing is working, whether it’s worth it, or whether you are even there right now. Can you let me know?” And when I ask I get an answer, God comes through bigger than I expect. I start getting emails and phone calls from people – unsolicited, things start working out, people appear out of nowhere to take on leadership roles or fill gaps that are driving me crazy. It’s like God has everything going just fine, and cracks it open wide enough for me to see how what I’m up to fits into it – more than enough to keep me going. It’s not a hint, not a suggestion that could be easily dismissed as chance or selective perception, its the dump truck of affirmation.

Plop. “There it is,” God says, “you asked. Try and deny it.”

I know, this all sounds kind of weird to me too. But it happens. Every time. Sometimes the affirmation is not of what I’m doing but the new direction that I should be heading. Coming from God though, it isn’t like a reprimand, but like an inviting open door showing me what I want more than what I have. I guess God doesn’t just tell us – or at least me – what I should or shouldn’t do, and God doesn’t just melt the problems away, God does seem to care enough about me to want me to know I’m not alone and that what I’m doing is worthwhile and not just an invention of my own imagination.

Try it. Be honest with God about your discouragement. I can make no guarantees about how it will work out for you, but that dump truck of affirmation keeps backing up for me and dropping another load. So… I guess I’ll go back to work tomorrow and finish that message and try to connect with a few more lives this week.

God exists, but does God do anything?

Okay, one of the driving factors for me to start a new church (read the Jacob’s Well story here) was that I didn’t want to have to choose between the existing options. This is true in nearly every aspect of the life of the church, but the one I am writing about here is the real and active presence of God. On the one-side you have people who see God everywhere. God is responsible for all the good stuff that has happened to them, and for getting them out of all the bad stuff. Strangely, this God wasn’t responsible for the bad stuff The precarious walk between the optionsin their lives, except for helping good stuff come from it. But this God is often seen behind the bad stuff that happens to other people as a sign of judgment on them. This is deus ex machina, the game playing God. Sorry, can’t do it.

On the other side is a tradition that has rationalized God so thoroughly that God has (as in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) disappeared in a puff of logic. God still exists, and is a wonderful force for good in the universe, but any suggestion of just where or when makes people very uncomfortable very fast. I guess I’m looking for more.

So, I don’t want to choose between those two options. I feel like God is an active force in my life and in our world, but I’ll be the first to admit that it is pretty difficult to pin it down. It is a faith thing. My experience with God can be very compelling for me, but it is for me. You need to have your own experiences that are compelling for you.

When churches just get good at being churches (which is quite possible) and lose the active sense of God – a real, credible, respectable and inspired sense – they are in danger of losing their soul. It may as well be another club that offers good things for life; not the stuff that changes life by turning it upside down and inside out. By the way, an active God doesn’t just turn people’s lives upside down and inside out, but does that to churches too! So I asked the Jacob’s Well Board, which is responsible for the well-being of our community, to spend some time thinking about how God is active in their lives. I gave them each a composition book and asked them to start keeping track of where God was showing up.

They were pretty good sports about it, it seems. But I admit it isn’t an easy assignment. Not as hard as making our budget balance, but pretty hard. It is going to take some thinking, and soul searching. I know that I have to spend a fair amount of time just thinking about what it means that God is active in my life before I start writing where God is actually there. But that’s me. And I’m hopelessly cerebral and skeptical and all that fun stuff that constipates faith.

So there is God Sighting #1.  My intellectual approach to life has had its veneer irreparably cracked to let God in. God did it. God does it. My heart knows God and teaches my head. It may not seem like a lot to you, but it is pretty clearly God’s work to me.

More Active God Coming… the dump truck of affirmation, and the desperation of Haiti. Stay tuned.

Oh, and thanks for reading – I’d appreciate comments.


Spong and “church alumni”

The former Episcopalian Bishop of the Newark Diocese is on to something. I was listening to an MPR Midmorning interview with him that Melissa – another of my media gleaners – passed on to me. Brilliant and honest man. He takes people who Jacob’s Well was created to reach seriously: people who recognize and value the dimensions of life that are commonly referred to as ‘spiritual’ but who don’t consider themselves religious.

We learned early on that one of the best descriptors of Jacob’s Well likely candidates is “given up on church.” John Shelby Spong uses the term “church alumni.” That is so poignant it hurts. People who started in or tried the church and ‘graduated’ from it. They may have been hurt or burned by it. Just bored or uninspired. But for many the sophistication of the rest of their life outstripped what the church presented and how it expected them to adopt their “Christian” identity.

There is so much more that they have never been awakened to.  Christ followers are life time learners who had best always admit that there is more that they don’t understand than that they do. That their doubts are really just peeks through the cracks of their present understanding towards something that might be deeper, truer, more authentic to the human/divine experience.

Like with any organization, alumni are a powerful force. It is a pity to cut them loose and not utilize their strength. At one level or another, Jacob’s Well seeks to be a powerful alumni organization that reconnects them and their current lives with all the assets, experiences, hurts, worries and needs they have accumulated. I like this. Thanks Bishop Spong. I’ve got to dig into some more of your books.

Listen to the interview HERE.