Tuesday, September 24, 2013

New Blog

Thank you for reading "Content, Never Satisfied." However, due to some account change stuff, I had to change to a new blog. Please continue reading at barefootrevandy.blogspot.com

Why Didn't God Just...?

On Saturday morning, I was facilitating a conversation into Acts 14. Specifically, our Bible study was addressing the story of Paul and Barnabas being mistaken for incarnate Hermes and Zeus, respectively. The folks of Lystra watch Paul heal somebody, then offer sacrifices to him, saying, "The gods have come down in human form!"

At this point, I would have said "We are not gods come down in human form, but let me tell you about the God who did come down in human form..." Theological commentaries even addressed the incarnation in this story, and on a meta level, I believe the narrative is written in such a way to make the reader think about the incarnation. However, Paul goes in a different way. He never even addresses Jesus by name. He talks about the Creator as good and the one who brings seasons and joy. It seemed like such a simple place to go.

And yet, it is where the Lystran people were. They worshiped the Greek gods as the arbitrary and morally questionable keepers of the seasons, even though polytheistic worship was out of vogue in the Roman Empire. Paul addressed them where they were.

I led a class on addressing faith and science a month ago. In this class, I received this question: "Why would God give scientifically inaccurate information in the Bible?" The earth is not built on pillars, it is not flat, etc. And to many, the notion that there would be scientifically inaccurate information in the Bible is tantamount to God lying. Then God would not be God.

Or is there another way? Perhaps God truly does speak to us as we are. In Lystra, Paul knew that the prime concern of the people was to keep the cycles of fertility and harvest going. In Genesis/Proverbs/Job/Psalms, God seems more interested in talking about who created and for what purpose than the mechanics of creation (in a modern scientific sense). In this, the very act of revelation is an act of grace- God speaking to us in a way we can understand, in language which makes sense.

Now here's the tricky part. I think we are meant to emulate this behavior. So often, discipleship is reduced to the efficient transfer of information. This model of discipleship is often void of relationship, void of patience and can be done with a large stack of books and no other mentor. Jesus called people into relationship, transmitted information in inefficient stories and parables without a lesson plan, and sent them out to do ministry before they were ready. If God listens and understands before speaking, perhaps discipleship is far more about the relationship and the time than it is about the information being transmitted.

Somehow, a model of discipleship that listens first, loves first, and speaks second seems both more human and more divine.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Living at the End of the World, Old Testament-Style

No genre intrigues me like the post-apocalyptic genre. TV Shows like Falling Skies, Walking Dead and even Revolution keep calling me back to see how the world would end and what would happen afterward. Damon Lindelof, one of the creators of Lost, is back on TV with a show about the time after the Rapture (an event I don't believe in, but still intrigued by). In the aftermath of apocalypse, the rules are changed and the world is reset with an opportunity to rebuild and recreate... maybe even to avoid the mistakes which have gone on before.

And yet it never works. People are still people. Tyrants rise up, slavery happens and people turn on one another. Civilizations fall apart just as easily after the apocalypse than before.

My fascination with post-apocalyptic resonates with my fascination with the Old Testament. The Old Testament is a series of end-of-the-world stories. Adam and Eve, Flood, Babel, Abraham, Exodus, Judges, Assyrian exile, Babylonian exile, Return and Restoration of the Temple, are all stories where there is an apocalyptic event and people have to respond to a changing set of circumstances. When you consider the apocalyptic imagery of the prophets, it isn't too difficult to view the Old Testament happening in the same world as the Walking Dead. Substitute the Babylonians for "Walkers" or "Skitters," and you understand the Old Testament pretty well.

Perhaps this is partially why folks in the United States have such a hard time understanding the depth of the Old Testament. The church has responded to the modern age by valuing certainty and comfort, whereas the Old Testament is honest about doubt and pain. The modern US church loves to talk about safety, whereas the Old Testament skips over the safe times and emphasizes the unsafe times. The modern US church refers to God in quiet deference, whereas the Old Testament interacts with God through raw nerves and unflinching commitment to what is.

The Old Testament shows us that disaster and catastrophe is part of the landscape of life in this world. The Old Testament also shows us that those who insulate themselves from catastrophe are either a) powerless to do anything about it, or b) part of the catastrophe. But ultimately, the Old Testament reveals a God who is willing to step into catastrophe time and time again to take it on and heal the deep wounds. It makes perfect sense, then, that the complete depiction of God in Scripture is a guy who stepped into catastrophe and took it on, even to the cross and beyond.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A Safe Place at the Kiddy Table

Three things have happened in the past few weeks, and they are linked.

1) I was invited to join the "Deep and Wide" cohort of 15 emerging pastors in the RCA. Don't read "emerging" in terms of theology, but in terms of age. Pastors in this cohort will be approximately 25-35, and I am safely on the younger end of that spectrum at 28.

2) We had four children (ages six and under) stay in our home.

3) I told a group of pastors (all of whom have my deepest respect and admiration/envy) about a time I failed to accomplish what I said I would accomplish.

There's something about eating with a range of children that is utterly fascinating. Some children are at an age where they need to be told to finish their food, some children need to be told how to properly eat their food, and some children are at an age where they just go at it and you wait patiently to clean up afterward. The progress is fun to watch. Children, as they age, begin to take on more responsibility at the table. Eventually adults will help clean up after themselves (in theory...). Children, however, create all sorts of messes with varying degrees of capacity to clean it up or even see it.

Confession: I don't like being referred to as young. I hear young, I hear child. I hear young, I hear child, I feel an intense desire to prove myself. I could let the chip on my shoulder slide a little bit. As I remind people, I will naturally phase out of being young. I am already approaching the big 3-0, after all.

Second confession: There's something attractive about sitting at the kiddy table.

At the kiddy table, I am there to make people laugh and attract attention before being released to play. But at the grown-up table, I have to clean up my messes and take responsibility for the functioning of the table.

I sit at many tables. I am in a church table, a denomination table (and being invited into this cohort is a big deal for me at this table), a family table, friendship tables, and even a table of community agencies working together for the betterment of my county. Those are a lot of tables. And yet, there is something attractive about going back to the kiddy table. It is comfortable there. I can sit and talk about what needs to be changed but never take ownership of that change. Changing systems is for grown ups, just like doing the dishes for Thanksgiving.

The kiddy table was cool for a time, but there are areas in my life in which I want out of the kiddy table and to take the place that Jesus has set for me at the grown-up table, wherever that place may be. Perhaps you, the reader, are sitting at the kiddy table of life, a victim of circumstances or scheduling. Let's take a walk together to the grown up table and learn together what it means to take responsibility there.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

"I Saw The Old You Back There"

Few words can hold the power of, "I saw the 'old you' back there." "Old you." I remember old me. Old me isn't that old.

When I was in elementary school, my school had its fair share of bullies. Big kids in groups who tormented the other kids in the school. Safe to say, I was a common target coming home from school. I never received anything too traumatic, but I can remember the constant cruelty of a few kids. Let's be honest, I am never going to be confused for biggest kid in the class. The same was true in elementary school. With a heavy backpack on, I knew that I could not run. My size made it challenging to fight. But I was smarter than my bullies. A lot smarter. I had a way with words and a skill in crafting them together. And so when the bullies would make fun of something, I would turn it back on them. The first few times just embarrassed me as they had pre-thought out insults printed from the computer or from a book. I did not.

But eventually, I grew in my skills and turned it around. By middle school, people wouldn't make fun of me because they knew that once I got rolling, I could embarrass them to the point of having their own friends laughing at my jokes. It's how I protected myself from the bullies. And it had the hidden consequence of getting others to approve of me. They thought I was funny. They laughed when I laughed. They complimented my way with words. I was accepted.

By the end of high school, when I told people I wanted to become a pastor, I got two responses. One was "Oh, how wonderful!" and the other was "Wait... you?" People who had been on the receiving end of my jokes were often the first to question my choice of profession.

Over the course of college and seminary, I worked really hard to tame the tongue. And I saw some victory there.

Then, a few nights ago, I heard those words: "I saw the 'old you' back there." My wife recognized the Mr. Hyde to my Dr. Jekyll. For those who don't know the story, Dr. Jekyll was a scientist who tried to a way to isolate human evil, but instead created a way for his dark impulses to take center stage in the form of diminutive Mr. Hyde. But Dr. Jekyll finds himself changing into Mr. Hyde without his fancy chemicals. Soon, he finds himself changing into Mr. Hyde and not realizing it. The end of the story is dark and tragic. I had slipped into "old me" without realizing, embracing the fact that my words were gaining approval at the expense of a friend.

Through a process called FaithWalking, I am learning to see myself more clearly and to recognize when the various Mr. Hyde's show up. What most people don't recognize from the story, because they are used to the Incredible Hulk image, is that Mr. Hyde is actually smaller than Dr. Jekyll. In many ways, Hyde represents a child more than a monster. And the same thing was true then. I was in a crowd of people I didn't know, and felt scared. And when I am afraid, there is an 8-year old saying "Remember how you handled this? Remember when people laughed with you and didn't ignore you?" And the 8-year old won out.

1 Corinthians 13 may be one of the most famous passages in the Bible, but it is also one of the most challenging. It ends with these words: "When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me." That 8 year old voice of fear may have helped me get to this point in life. It gave me the feeling of confidence, a belief that I could stand up to people more powerful than me and helped me work on my use of words. All of those are skills I use today. But that voice also makes me see people like things to be used for my own ease and safety. So it is a voice that needs to be put behind me.

It's too bad, really. Dr. Jekyll could never rid himself of the Hyde voice. And maybe I won't either. But through the grace of God, perhaps that voice of fear can come face to face with the voice of God's perfect love.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

It's Just a Bus Ride

There are things I have hated to admit over time. One: I battle envy on a fairly regular basis. Two: I really like control. The first one has seen enough ink. The second one has some energy to it today.

Over the course of the past several months (a year already... how time flies), our church has been taking a good hard look at ourselves and at our community to see where we need to invest in our growth and in the shalom of the Glen Lake area. And so we saw in ourselves a need to grow in the areas of spiritual formation/disciplines (who doesn't?) and that our community was one where isolation was becoming more of a "thing." Isolation is a regular experience for people living in the most beautiful place in America. What a good way to encourage spiritual discipline than to commit ourselves to ending isolation? Spiritual disciplines, after all, open ourselves to God and neighbor, effectively ending isolation from both.

Then it got personal. I committed myself to understanding public transit in a rural community. Whereas I would think that I would embrace public transportation in an urban area, I tend to think of my car as a survival skill in Glen Arbor. My inner dread increased as I began to think about the things I would need to cope with in order to make the bus part of my life.

I am a couple miles from the nearest bus stop.

The bus only comes a couple times a day.

The places I need to go can be a mile or two from the bus stop.

I have to be prompt and carry cash (even exact change!).

Confession: I feel entitled. I feel entitled to my car. I feel entitled to my schedule. I feel entitled to do what I want when I want. The rural public transportation system defies my entitlement.

Entitlement is a dirty word nowadays, particularly in a time of sequestration. Entitlement has gone from a feeling to a code word for government subsidy. Nobody wants to admit to feeling "entitled." So allow me to say it again, allow me to bring that demon out of the shadow and into the light, where it belongs.

I feel entitled to controlling my own life.

I wish the bus system was the only place this entitlement shows up. But it isn't. My entitlement shows up in how I respond to interruptions. My entitlement shows up when I work really hard and it doesn't go according to plan. My entitlement shows up in how I expect the social systems of the world to work for me all the time, even when I hear my neighbors and friends lament how the systems seem to be arrayed against them. And so I show up with a degree of entitlement. And I don't like it. I like to think of myself as a justice-minded, shalomy type of pastor. And still, I sit in my office grumbling over the fact that my bus stop is a one mile walk from the my target.

Richard Foster would not list "bus riding" as part of the new edition of "Celebration of Discipline," but that's just what it will be for me as I seek to make the bus part of my life. It's a chance to challenge my own model of how the world "should be" and embrace the way God would have it be. It may be just a bus ride, but for me, it's a prayer.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Does Jesus Live in a Church?

Very few theologians would state that the answer to the above question is "yes." Despite my hyper-awareness of every sound in the church building after the sun goes down, I don't expect to find Jesus taking cookies out of the freezer or anything. I do that. Jesus doesn't.

So why do I ask the question about where Jesus lives? I think we functionally understand that Jesus lives inside the church walls, looking out at a broken world and hoping people will come to Him for solutions. It sort of reminds me of the psychiatric stand in the Peanuts cartoon strip. We hold this view when our outreach strategies and programmatic endgame is to get people within the walls of a church building so that they can meet Jesus. This plan, however effective it may have proved in the past (even this is disputable, this plan has created the current reality of the US Church), has significant drawbacks. Those drawbacks are as old as the book of Genesis.

When God created, God formed a Temple worthy of God's beauty and majesty. This Temple was called the universe, or Creation if you want to use more Church-language. Within that Temple, God created a smaller temple called Eden. God moved about the temple as a smaller version of the big thing, but with one notable exception- the presence of human beings. But human beings thought that God was confined, and so they opted for "wisdom" and instead received shame. They hid in the mini-temple from God. A place which had told the story of God's beauty suddenly didn't. It now told the story of hiding. And so that mini-temple was abandoned.

The second mini-temple was the tabernacle, culminating in the construction of a physical temple in Jerusalem. This temple also reflected the cosmic Temple with the exception that there were now steps of entrance so that human beings could be in the temple space with God as well. But the problem came when the people of Israel thought that God was confined to the mini-temple, and not the Temple. So with a version of God neatly confined to the Jerusalem temple, the Israelites trashed the cosmic Temple with waste, denial of sabbath, injustice and idolatry.

The New Testament introduces a new mini-temple- the Church. Not the building, the physical bodies of the people. Now the cosmic Temple unites with the mini-temple. And the Holy Spirit resides in both.

And so now we come to the dangerous theology of Jesus living inside the Church structures. Church buildings, in my estimation, are good. They can house worship services, community functions, and provide resources for ongoing ministry to the most vulnerable and marginalized in the community. However, they also run a particular risk of believing that Jesus is waiting on us to minister before He will get involved.

The New Testament seems to say that Jesus wants to partner with us in ministry, but not to wait for us. Indeed, it seems that we inherit Jesus' ministry, which means that Jesus is already outside the walls and working. Jesus is on the streets and sitting in the homes of the lonely. Jesus is in the eyes of the starving and providing encouragement to those in despair. In fact, when we meet Jesus in Revelation 3, Jesus is trying to go to church but has been locked out. The people inside are too busy caring about other things than getting involved in Jesus' work of love, justice and reconciliation. For those who are wondering, it is the Church of Laodicea, who famously get called "lukewarm" and have been the subject of intense sermons for centuries.

Friends, we have been hiding since Genesis 3. We have been trying to rest on our own "in-ness" since the Old Testament. Jesus is already at work in the great Temple of the universe, and the Holy Spirit has been flitting about creating since Genesis 2. Our choice is to let Sunday morning be our encouragement to move out into the world and join Jesus out there, or to stay in the walls and wait for Jesus to find the spare key in order to get back in. Let's go.