September 30, 2014

Mountains

Did you know that not all the scriptures started out written? Some were only written down after they had been oral tradition. And did you know that the new testament was written in a form of common Greek, but in the documents we still have, there are no spaces, no lowercase letters, and no punctuation?

I mean, can you imagine?

Let's eat Grandma.
vs.
Let's eat, Grandma.

Like the t-shirt says, punctuation saves lives.

So too with context. Context is a big deal. Without context, we are left to interpret things however we feel. So when I notice the mountains that Matthew uses in his account of Jesus' life and ministry, I should start paying attention. The details are important.

Mountains, for the Hebrews, were focal points. Throughout Israel's history, all the important stuff happened on mountains. Abraham's son Isaac was spared on Mount Moriah. Moses received the ten commandments and the Law from God on Mount Sinai. David encountered an angel on a threshing floor on the peak of a mountain. Mountains are woven into the fabric of Hebrew culture. So when we read that Jesus went up onto the side of a mountain in Matthew 5, we should pay close attention to what he's about to say.

Because, for the Hebrews, mountains ("the high places") were where God revealed Himself to His people.

In Genesis 22, God reveals himself to be nothing like the gods of the surrounding culture by providing a substitute sacrifice for Isaac; He is a god who will not forsake His people. In Exodus 20, God reveals that He cares about the welfare of His people, that they rest, that they not take advantage of others, that they respect the lives and property of their neighbors.

There are at least five mountains mentioned in Matthew's gospel; where he feeds four thousand, the mount of transfiguration, Golgotha, the mountain of the great commission ... and of course, this other time, Jesus walks up on a mountain; the one who John calls the Word Incarnate; the one who Matthew calls "God with us." And He begins to teach.

Matthew's saying, Jesus is about to say something important,

So pay attention.

September 23, 2014

Traditionol

I saw a cartoon once with this simple caption: “Every year American culture embarks on a massive project to carefully recreate the Christmases of baby boomers’ childhoods.” I found it a profound insight.

Tradition is a big deal pretty much everywhere you go, but nowhere else is it more revered than in religious settings. We like our traditions; the lights and greenery of the Christmas season, the parades on July 4 and Memorial day, that one special place every summer. For years before we moved out of Rochester, my wife and I would go to a sushi place called “California Rollin’” on our anniversary and our birthdays. It was our family tradition. We still go when we visit family there, as much for the nostalgia as for the food. Traditions can be true and deep and meaningful and - dare I say it - even holy.

There are two challenges, however, with tradition. The first is environmental: the world is not a static place, but rather, our environment is dynamic, always changing; jobs change, weather changes, economies rise and fall, friends come and go, people are born and people pass away … nothing stays as it is for long. Our traditions are subject to the movement of the world around us, now more than ever. The second is cultural: what one person considers a wonderful tradition is often unappealing for another. Some prefer the brightness of lights and lasers at Christmas, others prefer the darkness of a candle-lit sanctuary. Some prefer to rock around their Christmas tree, others prefer a silent night. We start to argue about making sure we “keep the tradition” and blacklist anyone who would dare suggest we try something new - they’re troublemakers up to no good, and no good will come of their antics. And we forget that our tradition was, at one time, not the way it was always done.

At some point, the tradition was new.

Traditions were not always "the way it is," but rather came from somewhere for a purpose. We create a rhythm with traditions; the rhythm is a reminder, a symbol of something deep and meaningful. Sometimes we can keep those traditions fresh and new, ever-imbued with deep meaning. I’d put “Silent Night” by candlelight into this category. It began a long time ago, when a German pastor needed music for guitar when his organ wasn't working. But it has evolved; every year it takes on a new meaning for me and many, many others; sometimes because of the peaceful tranquility of the soft music, sometimes because of the communal act of creating light and song together, sometimes just simply because it’s so darn pretty to see an entire room lit only with candles. It’s done every year on purpose, for good reasons, though we’d be remiss not to recognize that not everybody actually enjoys this.

All traditions, though, are created for a season, for a culture, and when they have run their course, when the world changes and more people come from other cultures with other traditions, everybody’s traditions change. Just like Silent Night, at some point, got charted out for organ or piano or cello or Orchestra, despite that it began as a song for guitar. And it’s ok - we can help each other create new traditions for a new season in a new time and place.

But “Traditionol” (now with fresh citrus flavor!) is a drug that promises, for many, to make it all better, as if going back to old faithful really will change the outcome. Despite a change in the environment or culture, despite the differences in traditions across a group of people, we often fight to keep the way it’s been done for the status quo, because the status quo always feels safer. Coincidentally, that’s also the definition of insanity: you are currently doing, as they say, exactly what it takes to get the results you are currently getting, and to expect new results by continuing this same course is simply lunacy.

Sometimes traditions continue only because that’s the way we do it; we can’t remember a good reason to do it beyond “that’s the way we always do it” or “we like it that way.” Sometimes we go so far as to make our traditions into dogma to be enforced on others as the right way, the only way; despite that those traditions were created for a positive purpose, to foster greater understanding and connection with others, along the way we lost the vision. That is when a tradition becomes the addictive and yet repressive traditionol: when we no longer understand why we should do it, but rather only know that we can’t and won’t stop; when we can't find a good reason to continue other than "because that's how we've always done it."

And so sometimes, sometimes the best thing to do is to let a tradition die.

That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been a good thing, a helpful thing, a beautiful and true thing in ages past. Traditions often endure precisely because they have been filled with great meaning and beauty. It simply means that it has served its higher purpose and now, something new is needed. Sometimes, to keep a tradition from becoming traditionol, we need to let it die, and in its death we allow it to birth new traditions for a new time and a new culture. To let it die can actually honor that tradition far more than forcing it to try to keep on living; there is no life in a zombie.

So remember it fondly, as a good thing, as something that blessed many. And then start over with all the creativity we can find, and from the charcoal of the old, the whisper of the new is born.

This post was originally run on December 30, 2011 on this blog and has been edited for content.

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 …