Category Archives: love

Do you see it NOW? from church to not-church

Laurie Goodstein reported on the Pew Research findings in the 10/9 New York Times (read it here) that protestants no longer make up a majority of the US population. What’s more, it is a rapidly changing trend. And it isn’t because people are switching churches. They are simply opting out.

The clanging bells and flashing lights of this warning might just get our attention this time. So, in case you couldn’t see it, hear it coming before, well… business as usual is coming to an end. We are staring face to face with the fact that what churches are doing is connecting with and engaging fewer and fewer people every year. And it isn’t because God has changed. People simply have not been experiencing sufficient relevance or value in churches to make them orient their world around them.

It’s time to get out from behind the safety of our institutions and doctrinal checklists and start being what we tried to define, describe and defend. It’s time to be the church. It’s time to make mistakes, build less, love more. It’s time to stop worrying about the orthodoxy of what we believe and how we do things, and to start risking the extravagance of living out love no matter what it looks like.

Maybe people aren’t leaving the church because they don’t believe in God, in fact the study showed that only a minority of those who have given up on church have also given up on God. They are leaving because they don’t see the church being big enough to hold what they believe God is. So they have left hoping to get a peek of God out in the immensity of the rest of life.

In case you were wondering, it looks like the stop arm is descending from the semaphore. It isn’t when or if things really need to change; it is time. Time to let God be BIG again. So big that God bursts the seams of church and we go spilling out all over the place. Those places all those people are. Those places where God already is.

Folks, this article… the way I see it, it’s good news.

God’s ‘too big’ ideas

There is an intrinsic problem in trying to understand God. That is that God is God and therefore beyond our experience or understanding. Our best and most sophisticated concepts and analogies inevitably reduce God to something we can handle. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, it just means that we should be careful what we claim. I find that the most helpful isn’t to describe what God is like and doing, but to point towards where we see God showing up.

So, to point in a helpful direction, I like to say God is too big for our world and wants to make us too big for it too and by blowing our minds with thinking that is too big for our world. Too big thinking resonates with and calls to us, but it can’t be managed or accomplished.

What is God’s too big thinking? I’m sure many lists of great length could be put together, but here is one I shared on Christmas Eve at Jacob’s Well that makes a lot of sense to me. What do you think?

God’s too big thinking – we see these all played out in the person of Jesus – says…

  • Sacrifice, not self-interest, is the most direct route to happiness.
  • Generosity, not accumulation, is the greatest source of wealth.
  • Love, forgiveness and mercy are the greatest forces in our world.
  • We are loved no matter how unlovable we think we are, and that
  • We depend on that undeserved love no matter how deserving we think we are.
  • Hope is not wishful thinking, but faith in action.
  • Peace is not the absence of violence or trouble, but an active presence in the midst of life.

What makes me think that these are God-style too big is that I want them all to be true and find myself drawn to them, but have to be really honest and say that I neither truly understand, fully agree or practice any of them. I’m ready to follow a God who says they are the real thing though.

Learning to want to love, rather than be loved

Working on my message for Jacob’s Well I got to thinking about our relationship to God and what God wants with us. God doesn’t – as far as I can see – need us for anything. Rather we were created to need God. Or let me put it this way; we were created to be loved by God. That is where the need is – we need God. By being loved by God we learn to love God back.

That led me to think about my role as a parent. My relationship with my children is rather different from my role with my wife. Maybe I’m different from everyone else, but in ‘falling in love’ and getting married I have had a great inclination to be loved by the other person. Yes, I’ve read the books and poems about the person who can’t help but always want to selflessly love the other, but i’m not that perfect… I was always so enraptured with the ‘someone specials’ of my romantic life that I mostly was in love with the idea of being loved by them, and I let them do it. I wallow in being loved by my loved one.

With my kids it changed. They were not able to love me from the start. And, truth be told, they weren’t very good at it for a long time. Oh sure, they could be cute and endearing, even devoted and wholeheartedly trusting, but that was all because of something else – my love for them. They were created to be, first and foremost, loved by me and their mom. And from that love they learned to love us. It was natural for me to love that way with them. It was what i wanted to do. it was fulfilling on its own. Sure, I wanted them to love me back – it would be miserable if they didn’t – but my love didn’t depend on it. Love with them was first and foremost about Kris and I loving them.

I wonder if it is part of God’s grand design (and this isn’t supposed to be an argument against same-sex relationships, they too can take on and raise children as their own) that in marriage we have children to perfect our understanding of love. That with our children we learn how to live to love another, not be loved by another. And hopefully we take that hard earned lesson and apply it to our committed relationships, and begin to better understand the heart of God who created us to love us.

The Irresistible Revolution – 1

The Irrestible Revolution

We are reading Shane Claiborne’s book, The Irresistible Revolution: living as an ordinary radical at Jacob’s Well right now. I read it some time ago and have often returned to it. I picked it up again this morning as I was getting ready to speak tomorrow and nearly read the whole thing again. Sometimes I can’t believe I hadn’t read it before we started Jacob’s Well (other than the fact that it hadn’t been published yet…) because it speaks to the heart of what we seek to be about as a congregation.

Our Groups are using the books, so get in one. And no, you don’t have to be a Jacob’s Well person. It may help if you live in the Twin Cities area, however. But even if you aren’t in a Group. Pick it up (available at our services) and read it. You will want to discuss it. I’ll be at Turtle Bread (48th & Chicago) on Wed. night at 7 for anyone who wants to talk about it. Come join me. Or if you can’t make that, start commenting on this blog. I’ll make notes as we go.

So one way or another, join in.

Oh, something to start with.  In his intro (p. 20) Shane writes:

I don’t really fit into the old liberal-conservative boxes, so it’s a good thing we are moving on to something new.  My activist friends call me conservative, and my religious friends call me liberal.  What I often get branded is “radical.”

Now there’s a compliment!

Punishment from God – part 1

Question marks

People give me great theological questions quite regularly, I suppose because I am a pastor and they assume I have some kind of answer.  Which I do, quite often… but I’d prefer to call them responses rather than answers.  Answers put an issue to rest and finish the inquiry.  Most of the really good and deep questions don’t work that way.  And I don’t know “The Answer” in that sense.  Hopefully some of my knowledge, experience and reflection can point towards something illuminating, but as I like to say, it is probably towards ‘a better question,’ not ‘the answer.’

The question this time was ‘Who goes to hell, and what could be so horrible that God would do that to someone?’ 

First,  I’ve noticed that whenever I get into these big quandaries about God and faith that just don’t seem to be so un-understandable I usually find I’m asking the wrong question.  It’s no surprise that we get no answer or the wrong answer when we ask the wrong question.  The problem here is that we are so trained to ask this question.  “Who’s in and who’s out?”  Undoubtedly the Bible encourages this type of thinking in places.  Jesus’ story of the separation of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25.31ff) is an example of this.  But there are other messages.

One of those is the Gospel Message of unconditional love and acceptance, of a God giving his life in Jesus as a sacrifice paying for our sinfulness precisely so we wouldn’t have to.

Another is the redefinition of obedience that God points to already in the Old Testament (Hebrew scripture), Jeremiah 31.31-34 for instance, and that Jesus seals.  That is the notion that putting ourselves right (translate as ‘righteousness’) doesn’t come from following rules or doing the ritual right, but from an authentic relationship with God.  That is the theme of our worship service the week after Easter (March 30) when we kick off our UnLearn series with “UnLearn Religion.”

My studied and experienced sense of God is that while God is all about discerning what is better from what isn’t as good, it is for the purpose of calling out what if best, not to catch us at the worst.  What I mean is that God isn’t out to get us.  Find our flaws and trip us up.  It doesn’t take God to do that; we can do it for ourselves and each other easily enough.  We are imperfect, unworthy and undeserving at a pretty obvious level.  Stalin’s secret police leader is famous for saying, “Show me the man, and I will show you the crime.”  God, the creator of all things who declared them good is about finding, uncovering, redeeming and reclaiming that which is good and noble and usable within us and our world for the building of the kingdom.  God is about saving, not condemning. 

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3.17)

The real question, the better question… I think it is something like this…

What is it worth to me to seek to know and follow God and live the way I am taught?

What is the cost to live trusting things that shall pass away, allowing the separation between God’s will and my reality to grow wider and wider?

The affirmation that I would add is this…

The more I learn and experience about God the more amazed I am.  And what amazes me is how good God is; graciously, unselfishly, extravagantly loving.  And if I could add to those superlatives, it would be that God does it with mind-boggling variety.  It is not one size fits all.  It is so creative that we often miss it.

So, who goes to hell and what could be so terrible as to deserve eternal punishment?  There are those who will give you the lists.  I’d rather not argue with them, but ask, “What will God’s love accomplish next, and how can I open myself to that love and show it to others?”  The former, to me, is a human question.  The latter, a Jesus question.  Let’s surround our lives with Jesus questions!

This is the kind of love we are talking about—not that we once upon a time loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God.”  1 John 4.10 (The Message)

 

I can’t unravel the web of preparing worship and doing ministry

weave

So when do you decide you are spending too much time preparing for worship services and setting up systems, and not enough time ministering to people? Or vice versa?

I am in one of my busiest and most stressful times as a pastor, but it is right now that people are coming forward seeking help from our community. I know it isn’t my job to do it all, but I’m often the first stop. An easy conclusion would be that it is time to worry less about all the details. Maybe that last creative element for Sunday that we are trying to pull off isn’t really all that important, just free up time to “be there,” to minister to people.
But then I stop and realize that the reason the person came to Jacob’s Well, and came back, and finally felt permission to open up the pain inside was because of creative elements that we painstakingly prepared and presented.

It is an intricately woven fabric of telling the story, opening lives and touching them with the presence of God. There is balance, but there is no formula. It is always follow God doing the best you can with what you have. Keep your eyes wide open and remember that both ministry and God inspired creativity have a tendency to happen when you haven’t planned on them.

Held accountable

I finished my message yesterday at Jacob’s Well with Tony Campolo’s story about throwing a birthday party for a prostitute in the middle of the night.

(Great story, if you don’t know it see his book, The Kingdom of God is a Party. You can also find it on the web on sites like this.  But buy his book anyway.)

It’s a powerful story that calls us out of our “nice and tidy” ministries and out into the “down and dirty” love that Jesus was about.  My concluding words were, “What if there was a church that threw birthday parties for prostitutes in the middle of the night?  I want to be the pastor of a church like that, and I hope that you want to help Jacob’s Well be that kind of church too.”

no-shoulder-sign.jpg

Afterwards a woman came up and said, “Great message, I love that vision of the church. But I wonder if you really mean it.”  She went on to a say a few other positive but challenging things and then ended by saying, “I’ll be watching you.”  I told her I needed accountability, we all do.  She had been burn by a church that didn’t practice what it taught, and is sharp enough to know that while I’m not Jacob’s Well, if I don’t believe and practice something it is pretty unlikely the church will either.

My first reaction – Wow!  Someone was listening and taking me seriously enough to call me on what I say.  That’s what preaching is all about.

Another reaction – Being a precarious pastor and a congregation that ministers from the margins rather than soft, safe center of its resources and comfort level isn’t easy.  We have to hold each other accountable so we will go where Jesus goes.  We also have to encourage each other and remind each other of the vision with which God leads us out of the wilderness of our comfort zone.

Anyone else ready for this journey?  What will we have to give up to be that kind of church, and are we willing to do it?

“Deep” & “Shallow”

deep-water.jpg

Okay, here is another one I’ve heard recently and has been reported to me by other church leaders trying to transition congregations into more intentional, discipleship oriented directions. “When will we get into deep teaching?” Operative term here is “deep.” I’ve asked people what they mean by this, and pretty much across the board they mean ‘heavy duty Bible Study’; a sermon that just keeps digging away at the text and unpacks its meaning.

I don’t disagree, there is something very deep about that, and being a bit of an insufferable academic myself, I can and do get into it. But to me the real meaning of deep isn’t only how far we get into the text, but how far we let the text get into us. If we keep learning and learning, but don’t spend time living out what we have learned, then ultimately that was all pretty shallow.

I believe in digging into the message of Jesus, exploring how to apply it, practicing that, and then letting that whet our appetite for more learning – either because what we have tasted made us hungry for even more, or because trying to implement it into our lives made us realize how much more we need to know.

One of the dangers of the church, and one of the reasons the church has lost relevance and value for younger generations, is that believing has been a head thing, not a life thing. Going to church or Bible studies are important, but it doesn’t make us look more like Christ or change the world.

Surprise!

Last week was a – let us say, ‘significant’ – birthday for my wife, Kris. We always observe birthdays and anniversaries, but we don’t usually pull out too many stops for them. That fact made this birthday all the more tempting to do the ultimate… a surprise party… she’d never expect it.

I’ll spare you the details, but even with some adverse last minute changes of events we were able to pull it off. And even though I had only gotten back in town the middle of the day before and had to pull the house and food together in very little time (thanks to great help from wonderful neighbor Lisa and all 4 kids doing great stuff) I have to say I really enjoyed it. In fact I enjoyed it so much it ‘surprised’ me.

I love parties like this. I love to wander around and talk to my favorite people, scores of them, surrounded by good food and drink. But I enjoyed the party more than I that could account for, especially considering how hard I worked to make it happen. It took little reflection to figure out why. I was overjoyed (that sounds like a trite phrase, but it is what I felt) to do this for Kris. I learned a new aspect of my love for her that day. There is something deep inside me that found great satisfaction – almost fulfillment – in doing omething that she could enjoy so much, and that brought her the love of her family and friends that is so good and frue for her.

Back to Isaiah 43.3b-4a (one of my favorite chapters in the Bible).

I give Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you,

This serves as a reminder for us to continue to use varied and creative ways of bringing people into the presence of God at Jacob’s Well. You can be taught a lot by by someone telling you something, by reading a blog or a book, but I like learning profound things by throwing a party. In this case a different view of my relationship with the one person I’m spending my whole life with… and an insight into God’s motivation to make an ultimate gift for me. Wow, God loves me like that.? That changes things…

Squeezing the best out of life

j-in-apple-treesmall.jpg

Since the early 90’s we’ve had a family tradition of going to the farm of some of our dearest friends, they are known to us as Mama & Papa Pogo, who are surrogate grandparents to our four kids, to make apple cider. We met the Pogos when we lived in Papua New Guinea. They were new people to the country and had been sent to our outstation for cultural immersion. Kris and I had recently had a string of new people sent through our station, many of them cultural insensitive, most of them unable to deal with the high altitude and rugged terrain of Marawaka. We watched as these two got out of the 6-seater Cessna 207 and saw their wrinkled faces and white hair. We both thought, “You’ve got to be kidding. They’ll never make the walk to our house from the end of the airstrip!” We were wrong.

Mama and Papa Pogo impressed and inspired us from hour one. We soon became fast friends and Kris and I decided that as we grow older we wanted to do it like they are… using the opportunity of age to widen our lives, rather than succumb to the temptation of narrowing for the convenience of routine and familiarity. We figure there are realities, like poor health, that can force one to limit life, but there is a large element of choice in this. We choose to squeeze the best out of life like Mama & Papa Pogo.

Which brings us back to the apple cider. Every year about this time – despite the busy schedule of the start of the school year and the subsequent acceleration of church life – we head down to Howling Mountain Farm. We get there in the evening and talk over a cup of hot chocolate before crawling into cozy beds all made up for us. In the morning we wake up to a great breakfast and then head to the orchard. We pick barrels of a variety of types of apples (that’s my son, Jordan, up in a Fireside apple tree in the photo), and then wash the dust off (they are organic), quarter and put them through the cleverly designed apple press Papa Pogo and buddies manufactured years back.

We laugh, reminisce, tell stories and make sure everyone knows just how important we are to each other. And just like those relationships, we make sure that we don’t miss a bit of one apple, because we don’t want to lose a drop of what they have to offer.

So as we enjoy the day a steady stream of clear, turning brown as it flows, liquid pours from the press. We drink freely from it then and there and gather the most (there is far too much to consume then) into gallon jugs to enjoy the rest of the year.

A few hours later we are back in our south Minneapolis home with enough cider to make the wonder of a crisp fall day reappear magically in our mouths until we can squeeze apples again. We also have enough love to make sure we are reminded to continue opening our lives until we get a chance to squeeze some more again from Mama & Papa Pogo.

Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
     
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
     
without money and without cost.

Why spend money on what is not bread,
     
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
     
and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.   
Isaiah 55.1-2 NIV