March 24, 2015

The Transient Home

One of the things I’ve learned about ministry in the last year is that all ministry is transitional; every position is temporary; all jobs are for a time;

every Call will end.

A little over a year ago, I left my job of a little over 3 years. It wasn’t something I wanted or would have chosen for myself, but nonetheless, it happened. I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the change over this last year, asking why, asking what next, asking what wasn’t my fault, asking what I could have done better … asking how to make the hard stuff never happen again. And through my ponderings, the words of a friend and colleague have rung true: all ministry is transitional. It wasn’t just THAT job, and it wasn’t just the transitional role I currently occupy; we’re all preparing our ministry for the next person to lead it. Nothing is permanent; even if your stay in your role for 25 years, eventually somebody else will take your place to work with whatever you’ve left behind; and you won’t know it will last 25 years until you’ve been there that long.

You can imagine how this has messed with me, especially since my dream right now is to have a job that’s not interim/transitional/transient. Having moved fourteen times in the last ten years, my family and I desperately want to live somewhere - *really live there* - for a long time. We have all sorts of ideas about what “ideal” might look like, but beyond all the little preferences, we want to be able to invest in the community and put down roots. We want the safety and relative security of a house. We want to get to know our kids’ school principle and teachers, to get to know neighbors. We want our kids to have friends to play with next door, a yard to call their own.

But the transience of our culture and of employment these days feels like it doesn’t allow for that. Transience means that at some point - whenever that might be - we’ll have to leave, and so instead of investing in the people around us, instead of allowing them into our hearts and lives, it feels far, far safer to have superficial surface-ish flat relationships, to do a job, to check the boxes on a list and move on. Investing in a community in a transient world means that eventually, it will be torn, ripped, wrenched away. Investment eventually will mean suffering and pain and loss; at some point, we will be taken away from familiarity, from things we have grown to love - friends, a house, schools, a favorite restaurant, even family.

It feels easier to just avoid the whole thing.

Introverted though I am, I crave a solid community, one that cares deeply for its members and for the world in which it finds itself. It turns out that I’m really just like everyone else - we all want that. It might look different for different people, but deep down what every person wants is a place to belong and a people to call their own. Though accepting the reality of this might be difficult, what I’ve come to realize is that the transient nature of our world doesn’t mean we can’t have those things.

What it means is that we must accept that those things, being so desirable, will cause us pain.

A great existential crisis grips my generation. We're masters of our electronics, but not of truth; priests of our own customized religions, but victims of our circumstances; over-educated and dangerously entitled. We're all Solomon, sitting in our palaces, surrounded by more than we could ever want (or afford), wondering why we're still so unhappy. And I think it’s because we’ve not yet learned how to handle pain. In fact, our whole first world economy is geared toward pain avoidance. That’s what it MEANS to have convenience - it means we can avoid all different kinds of pain;

The pain of doing something I don’t like …
The pain of waiting, of being alone with ourselves …
The pain of our bodies in injury or age and the realization of our own mortality …
The pain of wanting but not having …
The pain of not knowing something …
The pain of hunger or thirst …
The pain that comes from the consequences of our coping mechanisms in trying to deal with the other kinds pain …

Our economy and our culture say that we can buy our way to happiness, because to us, happiness means the state at which we are in the least amount of pain. Suffering from envy of your neighbor’s stuff? Take out a loan and buy that stuff yourself (no payments for a year)! Suffering from the pain of having to go to bed before the Oscars are over? Buy a DVR and cable and record it! Suffering from a growling stomach? Buy some drugs to stay thin AND full! Suffering from the pain of being left out? Buy a North Face jacket or an iPhone 6+ and feel included! Suffering from not knowing? Google is here for you!

But what if pain isn’t something to always avoid, but something to embrace? Pain leads to solidarity with others in pain; through that shared experience, a community can grow deeper, more aware, more willing to give of itself to others in pain. A community that doesn’t know pain will never empathize with the world around it because in the Kingdom of God, we’re not promised an irritant-free, pain-free, suffering-free life; we are promised that pain and suffering lead to something greater: 

resurrection.

We have a choice about how we will live. Home is, after all, what we make of it. So for me, home is where my wife and kids are, not where all my stuff is, not where I find myself with the least amount of pain. We may move to new jobs, change houses or apartments, move to new social circles, or lose family members. To really thrive, our safety and security - our faith - must be placed outside of our circumstances, beyond ourselves and our resources and our comfort zones. 

In the midst of good seasons, but especially in seasons of transience and pain and suffering, our faith should be put in the God who walks through the pain with us,

because our God is the God of the Resurrection.

March 17, 2015

Birds

I was on my way to work this morning when I noticed something curious as I was waiting at an intersection: birds kept landing in the middle of the road. And I kept thinking, “come on birds, get out of the way, some car is going to run you over!” But inevitably, at the last minute, they’d simply bounce into the air and avoid traffic. What struck me was how care-free they seemed. Nothing seemed to bother them as they pecked away at whatever interesting gunk they’d found glued to the pavement. I thought about how nice that might be, to not care about my own mortality, but to find sidewalk crap so interesting that I was oblivious to the dangers around me. I thought about how God takes care of the birds, how they don’t lack for food when they need it.
  
But then I thought no, some of them do die; some of them get hit by traffic; some of them starve; some of them get eaten by predators; some of them drown; some of them choke on sidewalk crap. And it suddenly felt cruel. But again, they never know the difference; they’re just birds, and their enviable oblivion of past or future has consequences too. 

It gives me a new appreciation for how I was created.
  
God loved us enough - He valued us so much - that He entrusted to us one of the very essences of His own character: choice. He didn’t make us automatons, because that would not be love. The very nature of choice requires an alternative, two options; if what existed in that space simply did as it was told without choice, it would be, in essence, simply an extension of God. To create us, God had to make a place that was NOT God - a huge act of humility, and if you think about it, a risk - so that something other than He could exist. Then, God created us with a say in the relationship, something He could not control.

In other words, the risk God took when creating us was rejection.

The question of evil is endlessly debated, about why God would permit so many horrible things to happen (to people). But I can’t help but wonder how many of the evils we blame on God are consequences of our choices. After all, one might reason that if it’s choice that causes bad things to happen - terrorism, murder, human trafficking, rape, abuse, etc. - then perhaps God ought not have created us with choice.

But therein lies the rub: choice, the very thing that has caused so many problems also gives us our ability to love God. Without the ability to choose, we cannot love, nor would we be able to do other things that make us uniquely human: discovery; creativity; innovation; recreation. It lets us love our spouse or kids or friends; it lets us love our neighbor, even our enemies.

We can choose life, too.

Choice places God at what is, essentially, a disadvantage. But that is part of what love is: the act of giving up control so that others may have the ability to flourish. Love is what it is precisely because of the risk involved. Instead of forcing Himself upon us, God invites us, persuades us, woos us, extends His hand to us, opens His arms to us, 

and we get to choose how we’ll answer.


March 9, 2015

Epilogue: Posture Helps Us Sing on Sunday (Part 9)

Other Things That Help People Sing on Sunday (Part 7)
Make Room for Singing on Sunday (Part 8)

I was stuck in traffic the other day and since left-turn arrows take FOREVER here in Omaha, I got to looking around me to see whatever there was to see. And the first thing I noticed was a huge argument going on in the car behind me.

How did I know?

Though I obviously couldn't hear anything, and though their eyes were obscured by sunglasses (seriously, what is with the ever-increasing size of women’s sunglasses?), body language told me a lot. She was extremely animated. Her arms flailed all over the place in large, exaggerated gestures, making herself bigger. The way her shoulders moved up and down in rhythm with her wide-open mouth made me think she was probably yelling. He, on the other hand, was quite obviously tense; his arms were crossed and he kept shifting in his seat while folding and re-folding a newspaper - anything to avoid her eye contact. If his mouth ever moved to say anything, I never noticed. She was angry. He was in trouble.

Our postures give us away.

When leading worship, I notice things like this too. I can tell when my congregation doesn't know a song (or doesn’t like it / resonate with it / understand it) by their posture: folded arms, eyes wandering the room, and oh yeah, closed mouths, usually with a slight (or not so slight) frown. Likewise, I can tell when they DO know a song and resonate with it: open postures (arms at their sides or raised), heads up, and open mouths - OR - bowed heads, the hint of a smile (if they’re not singing), and closed, slightly crinkled eyes. The posture of our congregations can be a strong indicator for us as worship leaders to know when things are going well (when people are able to use the environment we’re creating to respond to God), and when things aren’t (when they’re focused on us, for whatever reason).

The question is, are we paying attention?

The funny thing about posture is that it works the other way too. We all know that our physical posture reflects our mental posture, but our mental posture can also be influenced by our physical posture. The two can become a self-reinforcing loop, and while this can be problematic at times (like when we’re angry or upset), we can also use this to our advantage. Just like closed postures reinforce our anger, teaching your congregation to be intentionally open-postured can help them engage, whether in song, prayer, or silence.