September 16, 2014

Bricks

"You're a very useful engine, Thomas.”

Did you ever watch that show? I mean, really watch it, not just occasionally catch few lines while your kids soaked it up in the background. It's about an island full of living trains who are slaves suffering from Stockholm Syndrome and are self-defined by whether or not they're useful to a dictatorial (human) conductor. Ok, I know, it’s not technically the intent of the show’s creators, but when I’ve been forced to endure the cliches of so much children’s programming, what's a guy to do? But that’s the line that stuck out to me, one that’s repeated over and over again: “you’re a very useful engine” is what we hear when Thomas does something good.

I’ve had a hard time finding words again lately, and I have a feeling it's directly related to the fact that I've been busy with all the preparations that come with launching ministries in the fall season. When my hands get busy with tasks, my mind doesn't wander to words the way it needs to in order to write, but rather, my mind gets caught up worrying that I won’t get everything done. And I will confess, this has bothered me a lot more than I may care to admit. I get anxious when I don’t have time to write because I love the process of writing and reflection that it requires, a process that is enjoyable and intense all at the same time. But sometimes I start thinking about blogging experts I’ve read, who say that I'll lose readers if I don't keep posts coming with some regularity (because this would be a travesty).

And in my most honest moments, I worry that I'm not producing enough.

In the book of Exodus, the Hebrew people travel through the wilderness quite a distance. They’ve seen the miracles of the plagues, Pharaoh suddenly deciding to let them go, then changing his mind and in the resulting pursuit, the parting of the red sea, manna available every day … and eventually find themselves camped out at the foot of Mount Sinai. God gives them the ten commandments, but then the author records these few verses:
When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.”  [Exodus 20:18-20]
Don’t be afraid, God is testing you?

We’ve all been trained to worry about testing; it always means we’re being evaluated and judged, and the resulting possibility of failure often produces such anxiety that our odds of failure actually increase. But here, Moses says it like it’s supposed to be reassuring, even hopeful. The tragedy of their slavery in Egypt was not just that many Hebrews died making bricks for an oppressive power. The tragedy was that, upon finding their miraculous freedom, the former slaves sought to cling to the life of slavery out of their anxiety of making choices on their own.

In slavery, every choice is made for you on pain of death, and so the ‘right’ choice often feels obvious. As a slave, then, your whole life is not really your own; it is being directed by someone else who generally does not have your best interests in mind. The self-determination that comes with living a freed life feels distant, unfamiliar. And upon attaining this freedom, the unknown territory of the new can be so scary that we long for the familiar routines of slavery - they’re not actually good for us, but they often sound better than being responsible for our own choices and our own existence.

To the point, look at how many times in the wilderness the Hebrews complained about their circumstances and ask to return to Egypt - the occasions are numerous. But this is the very reason the Hebrews spent so much time in the wilderness - they were not yet ready for the responsibility required to live in the promised land. They were proverbial children who had to re-learn how to make good choices as a community. And so God started them all over again in the wilderness with basic survival; ‘depend on me,’ he said, and over the course of many years - a whole generation, really - worked the slave mentality out of their culture. That is why we ought not be afraid of testing;

it’s what keeps us from thinking that making bricks for somebody else is our only purpose.

To put it another way, what if this testing is God’s way of helping us grow? Paul says that if God is for us - and that he is - who could possibly stand against us? What if testing isn’t like taking an exam, but is more like refining impurities because God loves us so much that he wants us to be better than we are now? The first thing God did with these ten commandments was to create a rhythm of life for the Hebrew people to limit the bad habits they’d accumulated in slavery - loving other gods, fighting over each others’ property, lying or murdering to cover it up, etc. In short, these rules were created to help them learn to get along with God and with one another, to trust one another, to live a sustainable life, not just make brick after brick as if they were merely the sum of what they produced.

They were no longer slaves to their labor, no longer merely ‘useful engines’; they began to live as children of a God who loved them.

They’re not the only ones who need to learn this lesson. We too often behave as slaves. For some, like me, it’s finding identity in making writing-bricks or checking off task-bricks. For others, bricks look more like finding an identity in a business or possessions or in influence or in sexuality or intellect or even in family. Bad things happen, and while many (most?) of them have nothing to do with God, I believe he allows some to happen because we often get confused about who we are and need our brains reoriented. Some hard things aren’t persecution, they’re lessons to be learned. We must stop living into our identities as victims of circumstances we cannot control and start taking responsibility for the choices we can make ourselves.

Stop trying to be a useful engine; you’re not just someone’s brick-maker.

You’re a child of God.

May you live as one.

September 12, 2014

Sustainable

My time as a church-planter living in Australia back in 2006 changed my outlook on a lot of things, most of them positive. I got to learn from some pretty big names in the missional church world, to experience what missional Christianity (or, as I call it, “Christianity”) can be like first-hand, and I got to learn by doing. My theology was radically challenged for the better, and even learned a few new fun words like “liminality” and “contextualization” and “knickers” (although that last one may only have been because I was in Australia).

But I nearly didn’t go into worship ministry after - because of - my time there.

Nobody could adequately answer for me what place a worship gathering - and by extension, those who design them - had in this brave new/ancient missional paradigm. What was one to do with a “worship service” in the life of a “sent” church? Put another way, if we’re people engaged in God’s mission to build the Kingdom of God by serving the weak and oppressed, the alien and the widow, the gentile, with all the different sort of social and financial pressures associated with that, why would we selfishly spend that money and time and social capital on a pastor to “lead worship” or on a building in which to gather when those things, historically, have been the central problems for consumeristic Christianity? Don’t the really spiritual people move to the slums or the inner city or overseas? Or, if you’re less spiritual, shouldn’t you stay in your suburban neighborhood and have deep meaningful conversations over (free-trade, organic) coffee with your neighbors and eventually all sell most of your stuff and start have a communal garden and share your yard equipment and give your excess money to the poor? Isn’t that true spirituality? Isn’t music a luxury, not a necessity?

In light of the world’s crazy issues, why bother singing together when we could be out serving?

I felt so guilty for feeling called to worship ministry. But the Calling wouldn’t go away.

Because the answer is no: gathering together is not optional, nor is music a luxury. In fact, good music, well-led music, intentionally missional music is a necessity. Not a single culture is without music because our music (and really, all art) is a vessel for our identity. Who we are can be found in our music, but more importantly, it can shape who we must become. What we sing together helps us form our individual and collective identities - we also become what we sing. Which means that, if we are the sent people of God, we had better sing songs together of our identity as sent children of a creative God, of the mission, of the Kingdom the mission is building.

Here’s the rub: if we stop singing, all the conferences and free-trade coffee and money given to the poor with good intentions and service opportunities will eventually dry up. People without art in their lives become bitter, and bitter people stop making good choices and certainly don’t help others see the Kingdom. Good music isn’t simply a consumable good; our music can also keep us focused on the the vision, who we are, how we must then act. Without that inspiration, without the ear worm reminding us why we do what we do, without the language to express our joys and frustrations, our work will become stale and eventually slow or even cease.

True, investing in all that is required to have a good worship ministry is not “efficient,” but that which is of the Kingdom of God rarely is. The Kingdom is not brought about by some western business model, it’s a way of life made sustainable by (mostly) small choices that add up. And it's in creating and curating intentional space that worship pastors help people to first be, rather than do, so that we can then go. It's that space that makes this new/ancient missional way sustainable. And one of the centers of that space is music.

Don't stop singing.

August 26, 2014

Sloppy

A few days ago, my youngest daughter, who’s 18 mos. old, came up to me and gave me a kiss on the cheek. And not just any kiss, she really planted it on there, and afterwards, I had to wipe soggy goldfish crumbs off of my face. As a parent, I know that this comes with the territory, and so far from being offended by the goo, I felt loved by my daughter. And it brought to mind a line from one of my favorite songs:

"and then heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss …"

I find this line brilliant, both in the poetry and in the theology. Good relationships, like the ones Jesus describes (for family and for friends), are like this - vulnerable, messy, honest. My daughter doesn’t feel the need to pretend around me or anybody else because she’s not yet learned betrayal, or contempt, or any of the other experiences that lead to the masks that we create for ourselves to hide from others. Good relationships are about removing those masks again and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, raw, honest … in spite of and because of and through the mess. 

Heaven met earth not in a showdown of power, but in these raw, vulnerable, messy places. … like the innocence of a kid planting a sloppy wet goldfishy kiss on the cheek of her father, or like the buzzy razz I gave my daughter after she kissed me. I know some people don’t like that line because it seems too awkward, too raw, too much like a teenager kissing a first date, and so they replace this phrase with “unforeseen kiss.” But I think that misses the point altogether; Jesus knew exactly what He was doing when He came to earth - the prophets told of His coming - so there was nothing “unforeseen” about it. It’s not a phrase about romance; it’s a phrase about vulnerability and pure, unadulterated joy. And so that’s why I use the original version, because when I hear that phrase, I’m reminded that there’s something elegantly simple and yet infinitely deep about the way God loves us.

How he loves us so …

August 22, 2014

Object Lesson

There are things that you are, and things that you are not. 

You are not an animal that devours others. You are not at the mercy of your urges, be they biological or emotional. You are not merely a sexual being, nor are you merely a robot for production; you are far more. You are not a piece of meat and metal available for consumption by others, for their visual or tactile or emotional pleasure. You are not an object to be moved around by the flights and fancy of those who see you as one. You are not meant to be the object of fantasy, nor are you to treat others as the objects of fantasy.

Hear it again: you are not an object.

And you are not alone.

You are free, or rather, you have been freed. Not by yourself or for yourself, but with others and for others. You are capable of beautiful dreams, of creativity and compassion and empathy, of generosity and gentleness, of self-control and mercy. You are capable of dependence on one greater than yourself, for it is not under your own power or authority, but under the One who has freed you.

You are part of a community, whether you know it or not. You are the son, daughter, child, father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, aunt, uncle, cousin, granddaughter, or grandson of another human being. And you must always remember to look at others in that same way; don't look at them, see them. There is more to you than the way others describe you. You are loved without hesitation or condition. And you are given the task of loving others likewise.

You are a child of God.

Today, and the day after that, and the day after that, from now forward, you are Eschat Chayil (woman of valor) and Ish Gibor Chayil (mighty man of valor). May you live up to that name! May it become your identity, child of God. May you live out of what you are, instead of what you are not. May it inspire you forward, carry you through the times when encouragement is sparse, and overflow into others in times of plenty. May others catch your enthusiasm, be it a vociferous shout or a quiet confidence. And may you tell this story others, and so doing, draw them into the ekklesia, the community of the freed.

August 19, 2014

Activate

Believe it or not, more energy is wasted turning on lightbulbs than it takes to simply leave them on. The energy required to activate the reaction of a burning element inside the lightbulb is much greater than the energy it takes to sustain that same reaction of the element burning. The extra power it takes to start the reaction is called ‘activation energy.’ 

Chemistry is a scientific discipline all about getting one thing to turn into another thing at the most fundamental level. This happens in “reactions,” which sometimes means adding heat, sometimes requires the presence of other substances to start the reaction, and other times simply requires lots of time. Most of the time, it means all three. And at the end of the reaction, there will always be a product and some waste. To make things more complicated, in the real world, as soon as you change one thing, the products and by-products of that reaction will change their surroundings, and you may get secondary or even chain reactions that you didn’t expect. 

The same is true for implementing change.

When we start new ministries or change existing ministries at a fundamental level, it will always require activation energy. We’ll need more time, usually more financial resources (buying that curriculum, advertising, equipment, whatever), and of course, additional people to get things up and running. Sometimes this will mean being willing to add more stuff to an already busy schedule for a little while (if it’s truly activation energy, it should calm down after it gets started).

Then, when we decide to implement that change, we have to be willing to pay the price of the by-products and the chain-reactions. That means also being willing to lose some of the stuff we had from before that no longer fits the new vision (events, old equipment, etc.) - good things, valuable things! And, speaking of valuable things, it usually means being willing to lose a few people who just can’t get behind the change. It doesn’t mean they are any less followers of Jesus, it simply means they might better align their gifts or resources with another part of God’s vision elsewhere.

It will never be a question of “if” change, but rather of “what” and “when” and “how” change. God is a God of creation and of creativity, which means He’s always starting new things, re/making things new one at a time, and what’s more, the world around us is also always changing. Whether or not we’re ready - to use another metaphor - are we willing to hoist our sails into the winds of God’s Spirit and follow? Are we listening to the Spirit who moves to new horizons? Are we willing to put more of our resources and effort into activating new ministries in response to a changing world (and let others die) if that’s where God is going?