Family in Community

7 December 2018

One of the early responses I got to an earlier post on community was, “Tim, most people in the evangelical world can’t relate to the experience you’re describing. They don’t have anybody present in their homes, much less participating in the family life.”

The question I want to ask is: why not? How can it be that the people of God, the visible reflection of the Trinity on earth, do not live in each other’s lives?

And the answer is, “Because we’re rich.” This is most definitely a first-world problem; the rest of the world is very different, and the rest of time more so. But here we are in the first world, and if it’s a first-world problem, we have it.

In a first-century village (or even a city), people lived on top of each other. They knew each other’s business in the same way that I know when my upstairs neighbors take a shower, make love, or leave for work in the morning. The ceiling’s not soundproof, and I can’t really help knowing what’s going on up there sometimes. By contrast, the American dream is to use our wealth to separate ourselves from each other rather than to grow more interdependent. We live in single-family homes. We park in attached garages; we’re already ensconced in our little steel-and-glass universes, radio tuned to our favorite station, before the garage door opens to the outside world. We shop in stores that serve a wide enough area that we usually don’t run into anybody we know. (I live in a relatively small town, and have a fairly wide circle of acquaintance. I run into someone at the grocery store every now and again, but it’s pretty unusual. Back when I lived in a big city (or the suburbs, before that), it was vanishingly rare.)

If the culture makes it hard to follow Jesus, then we need to be countercultural; it’s that simple. Wordliness is not about what kind of car you drive or how many iPads you have or hemlines and necklines (although it can be expressed in all those things). Worldliness is about how much The Way Things Are dictates your willingness to be obedient to Christ. When our culture makes sin look normal and easy, and righteousness look strange and costly, what will you do? Will you be carried by the stream, or swim against it? Will you follow Jesus when it makes you weird?

In the culture we’ve built for ourselves, it is actually very difficult to live in close community with one another. We’d have to go well out of our way to do it. Which is to say that our repentance really will be costly. But it will also be rewarding.

I’ve been seeking tight community since early adulthood. I managed a form of it…and then I moved cross-country to a new state eight years ago, and had to start all over again.

It wasn’t easy; I’m not a naturally outgoing person. But I got there. In my community now, I’ve called for help at 1 in the morning, and gotten it. I’ve been called for help, and dropped everything to go help with…whatever. Taking chicken soup to a sick friend. Babysitting during a family emergency (or to salvage a date night when the regular babysitter got sick at the last minute.) Providing a ride to the hospital. Taking my massage chair and oils to relieve a headache or back spasm. Running to the bank because my friend’s small business was out of quarters.

As I make my final editing pass through this post, there’s a spool of grey thread on the counter. I’ll drop it off with one of my friends later today, so she can mend a hole in a pair of her daughter’s pants. We noticed the hole yesterday; she doesn’t have the right thread, and I do. It’s a simple thing, a small extra errand.

But it’s also an extra errand in an already crowded day, and it would have been easy enough to avoid. All I needed to do was keep my mouth shut instead of saying, “I think I have the right color thread for that at home.” Why complicate my life? Because the right kind of complications are glorious.

Marriage complicates your life. Having children complicates your life. Making lasagne or bread or soup from scratch complicates your life. Deciding to build your own piñata for the birthday party instead of just buying one complicates your life. Calling a friend instead of an Uber complicates both your lives. Making music with your friends rather than just popping in a CD complicates your life. Close community is made of just such complications. We are choosing that rich complication over convenience. We want to live closely. We live for the triune God, and therefore for each other, not simply for ourselves and our own realization of the American dream.

How did I get there?

Not, I can assure you, through some virtuoso display of relational acumen. I’m actually kinda awkward. But I keep showing up, and I keep loving people. I followed God’s leading, and as I participated in His mission on earth, I found some fellow-travelers that would walk alongside me. We supported each other in our shared mission, and along the way, we became friends. We walk with God together, worship together. We support one another, day in and day out, in all kinds of ways. And we face the world together, caring for broken and hurting people, supporting the weak, bringing healing to the brokenhearted and light to the darkness.

When we ask each other, “How are you doing?” we actually want a real answer — first of all because we love each other and we care, and second because we do rough work together and if somebody can’t bring their A game today, we gotta know so we can adjust. (And it’s ok — nobody brings their A game every day. We cover for each other as needed. But precisely for that reason, honesty is prized.)

In the suburban churches I came of age in, there was far too little of all this. There was an awful lot of country-club Christianity: folks were saved, sure, and lived a generally non-scandalous red-state existence. Beyond that, their faith often seemed to make very little day-to-day difference in their lives. They came to church and pretended everything was great, no matter what was actually happening. I saw at least one family utterly ostracized for telling the truth about the ruin and hurt in their lives.

The teenagers, with their gift for cynicism, saw right through it all. They still see right through it all, and they’re disenchanted with the church, in droves. Rather be anywhere else. They want something real, and in too many churches, that’s simply not on offer.

In other words, the way we’re called to live is everything your jaded suburban teenager craves and doesn’t know how to ask for…and they are the future of the church. Get ’em involved in something real. Let them spend time with addicts and drunks and soccer moms and restaurateurs…people of all kinds, just like Jesus did. Let them serve, and bless, and have hard conversations, like Jesus did. Debrief with them, just like Jesus did with the disciples. And like Jesus did, lead by example–which means you go first.

It will do your heart good, trust me.

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Practicing Unity

27 November 2018

This post is part of the November Synchroblog on church and national unity. See the bottom of this post for a link list of other participating blogs.

The prompt for this month’s Synchroblog framed the quest for unity in terms of politics.

Well, the elections are over … but not really.

As I write this, counting is still going on in various states, and lawyers are setting up battle lines. Newly elected officials are heating up the rhetoric, and protesters are starting to lash out.

What is the role of the church in all of this?

It goes on to ask some bigger questions.

How can we work toward unity in the Body of Christ?…Does unity mean uniformity? If not, then how can we get along? And beyond unity in the church, how can we show the world the path toward peace and unity?

At the policy level, those are some tough questions. At the level of national policy especially.

To address those questions at the policy level, the level of presidents and congressmen and archbishops and general secretaries and such folk…jeepers. You would need a strategy that would unite the vast majority of all Christendom. As things stand now, any council with sufficient authority would never agree on a strategy.

But what makes us think we have to solve the problem from the top down? Top-down solutions are convenient, because they mean that most of us don’t have to do anything until the higher-ups get their act together. That shows no sign of happening anytime soon…so we don’t have to do anything, and it’s all conveniently somebody else’s fault.

That convenience ought to make us suspicious. Jesus rarely leads us by the convenient path. So what if He’s calling us to solve the problem from the bottom up?I think He is, and I think any straightforward reading of John 17 and Ephesians 4 confirms it.

What would that look like? Well, let me tell you what it looks like in my life right now. I’m not using myself as an example to say, “hey, look at me, I’ve got this thing knocked” — not a bit of it. I have a lot to learn. But I’ve also come a long way. What I have now? The man I was 15 years ago didn’t believe any of this was even possible. But it is.

I’m part of an interdenominational pastors’ prayer group in Englewood, Colorado. We meet once a month, and the pattern of the meetings is simple. We’ll go around the circle and check in with each other, and then we pray for each other. The check-in consists of three questions:

  1. How’s your ministry doing?
  2. How’s your family doing?
  3. How’s your walk with God doing?

That’s it. Brevity is valued — the goal is to answer all three questions in 3-5 minutes per participant. (Of course, we’re all pastors, so we don’t always make it under the 5-minute mark, but we try.) In a normal meeting, we’ll pray for each other, celebrating victories and blessings, and lifting up needs. When something unusually difficult is happening, we may abandon. The format entirely. There have been meetings where we put a chair in the center of the circle, sat our wounded brother in it, laid hands on him and just prayed for him for half an hour.

Nondenominational, Southern Baptist, Anglican, United Methodist, Assemblies of God, Messianic, Dutch Reformed…all of these are regularly represented, and over the 8 years I’ve been part of this group, we’ve also had Missouri Synod Lutheran, Grace Covenant, Vineyard, independent Baptist, a Navy chaplain, and many others. We don’t need a denominational commission to sign off on this; we just do it. We do it because Jesus told us to love one another. We do it trusting the Scriptures, which tell us that the Spirit makes the unity (not us!); our job is just to steward it (Eph. 4:1-6). And it works.

I’m also part of a ministry to the homeless of our city called Giving Heart. Come into Giving Heart when it’s open, and you’ll meet volunteers from all kinds of different churches — any of the ones above, and then some. You’ll also meet people who don’t go to church; some of them don’t even identify as Christian. They just want to help their city’s poorest and most vulnerable residents, and this is where it’s happening.

Giving Heart began 7 years ago with the realization that most apartment-dwellers are sorely lacking in community life. It started as a privately held community center serving a big multi-housing complex. The goal was to provide a third space where people could meet–host dinners, movie nights, parties on the holidays, and so on. It worked to an extent…but the open door turned out to be a magnet for the local homeless population. When we didn’t turn them away, more came. We didn’t have a lot to offer back then, but someone gave us a big popcorn machine. So if we were open, you could come by, get a bottle of water and some popcorn, and take a load off for a few minutes. Many did. A bottle of water led to conversation, which led to sharing life together.

Over time, the apartment ministry dwindled and the homeless ministry grew. Today, Giving Heart has grown into an access point to medical care, job training, transitional housing, counseling services, resource navigation assistance, and much more. Along the way, my business partner Joe Anderson was able to lead the pastors’ prayer group into a partnership with the city that birthed Change the Trend Network. Change the Trend is a partnership of city government, police, healthcare providers, Giving Heart and other ministries like them. Together, the network’s member agencies provide a road map out of homelessness, and the wrap-around services that getting out of homelessness requires.

Again, none of this came from a fancy council of archbishops, general secretaries, and so on, nor is it sustained by such people. It was birthed by local Christians working together to help the people right in front of us, because that’s what Christians do.

When we do what Christians do together, we minister healing to the sick and freedom to the captives. We proclaim the good news of Jesus to the poor and broken. We seek the Kingdom of God, and God is pleased to give it to us. As we do this together, the unity of the Body is a daily practical reality.

You notice I haven’t said anything about the elections. You know what? The people I rub shoulders with…some of them voted Trump, and proud of it. Some of them are “I’m with Her” folk. Some of them only voted for Hillary because Bernie wasn’t an option. Some of them held their nose and voted R or D; others held their principles and voted third party.

We’re just not that susceptible to the Facebook-meme level of political discourse, where you either voted like I did or you’re literally the devil. We already know better. We laugh together, cry together, pray together, work together to care for the people we all love. We have that basis of positive experience; we already know that our fellow workers who voted for those people are–however inexplicably–really decent human beings, definitely among the good guys.

So when the time comes to have hard conversations about politics, we have the relational and spiritual capital to handle it without demonizing the people who voted differently. We have a reason to actually listen to other points of view, because we already trust each other.

And the brutal truth is, we will not get to a solution any other way. If we can’t love the people right in front of us–the faces we see at home, at work, at church, on the street–then we will not become the sort of people who can handle bigger conversations and bigger issues. Conversely, if we will simply do what Jesus said — love our neighbors — we will find that the Spirit has already given us unity, and we will become the kind of people who steward it well.

Then when the time comes for the archbishops and general secretaries to do their thing, they won’t be trying to manufacture unity out of whole cloth. They will be seeking to steward  the unity their people already have. And that’s the way it should be.

***

Here is the list of other writers and authors who contributed to this month’s Synchroblog. Go read them all to see what others think about church unity.


Riffing on Romans 10

23 November 2018

Christians have always been called to engage in the healing and growth of the world in a holistic, spiritually aware way — not that we’ve always been good at doing it. Today in spiritual-but-not-religious circles, a quasi-secularized version of the same kind of person is often referred to as a lightworker.  

My heart’s desire and prayer to God for the lightworkers is that they would experience overflowing life. For I bear witness that they have zeal for love and peace, but their zeal is not according to knowledge.

For being ignorant of God’s ferocious personal love for them, and seeking to establish connection to divine love by their own wisdom, they have not submitted themselves to the love of God, although they often benefit from it. For Christ is the convergence of all wisdom that produces love, for everyone who simply entrusts themselves to Him.

Solomon writes in a certain way, “By wisdom God founded the world” and “those who hate wisdom love death.” But love through faith speaks in this way: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you,” which is the word we preach: that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you, too, will be filled with life,

Because with the heart one believes, resulting in reconciliation to divine love, and with the mouth you make your confession, resulting in overflowing life.

As the Scriptures also say: “Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.”

Because with God there is no distinction between those who are religious and those who are not. The same God over all hears their requests and is rich to all who call on Him, as the Scriptures say: “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be delivered.”

But how can they call on God for deliverance, if they have not trusted themselves to Him? And how could they trust themselves to Him, if they’ve never heard the truth of who He is? And how will they hear the truth, unless someone tells them? And who will tell them, unless someone is sent to do the job?

As Isaiah says, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace.” But having heard that good news, they have not all obeyed, as Isaiah also says: “Who has believed our report?”

So then they trust God because they hear the truth about Him, and they hear the truth when we proclaim the word of God. Can we say that they have not heard? No! “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies declare His handiwork” and “There is no speech or language; their voice is not heard, but their sound has gone out to the end of the earth, their words to the end of the world.” And again, “What may be known of God is revealed in them, because God has shown it to them.”

Paul explains: “although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became empty in their minds and dark in their hearts.” In that they have addressed their prayers and credited their results to the created universe, they have evaded the need to thank the God who made it, so that “professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the creator God into an image made like the creation” and “worshiped and served the created thing rather than the Creator.”

So these lightworkers, seeking healing, yet having fled from the one from whom all healing comes — has God cast them away forever?

No! I am one of them! God has not abandoned His creation, but “we also are His offspring.” Jesus said, “If I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to Me.” And with this Paul agrees, saying, “when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son.” As also Isaiah said so many years ago: “I was found by those who did not seek Me, and was revealed to those who did not ask for Me.”

Remember that when Elijah pitied himself and said, “I alone am left,” God said, “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal,” and on the last day, John shows us the saints before the throne of God, “people from every tribe, tongue, and nation.” Therefore among the lightworkers, God has reserved for Himself a people, for He “is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”

And knowing that “the kindness of God leads us to repentance,” He bestows rain on the just and the unjust alike, and also healing grace and love on those who seek Him and on those who do not. His love flows through lightworkers who know His name, and through those who erect altars “to the unknown God,” not recognizing the source of the grace that is given to them.

And yet the altar bears witness that they are grateful, and that they know this power does not come from within them. And so, God has overlooked this ignorance, but now calls all people everywhere to repent.

And from that call, we in the churches are not excluded. We have neglected the healing grace of God. Jesus came to heal the brokenhearted, but we have said that healing of emotions and memories is not God’s work. Jesus came to make the blind see and the lame walk, but we have been too timid to ask that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. If these lightworkers have found no place among us, is it because they have rebelled against God? Or is it because we have?

But thanks be to God, He calls all people everywhere to repent—even us.

 


The Shape of Ministry

14 September 2018

This is a speech I imagine giving at a seminary chapel. Nobody — for reasons that will become obvious — has invited me to actually give this address, so I’m gonna just publish it as a blog post.

As I look out across this auditorium, I see eager, bright people. I see the makings of a corps of intelligent, upwardly-mobile ministry professionals. And I’m afraid I have some very bad news for you. I have some good news for you too, but unfortunately the bad news has to come first. If you will stick with me through the bad news, then the good news will be — for some of you, at least — profoundly liberating.

So, the bad news. Secure corporate jobs are a thing of the past. It’s a gig economy now, and it really shows no signs of changing anytime soon. What does that have to do with you? Well, the same thing is true in the ministry world, albeit for slightly different reasons. The pool of ministry jobs that pay a decent full-time salary is shrinking. There are tons of bright, motivated, qualified people who — despite papering the country with their resumes — haven’t even gotten so much as a call back in the last year. There’s a bunch more who have done a ton of interviews, but someone always just seems like a slightly better fit.

Some of you — a very few of you — will land good ministry jobs out of school, and stay in that world for your entire careers. I wish you well, and you can probably tune me out now, because the rest of what I have to say won’t really apply to you.

The problem is, most of you who think I just gave you permission to tune me out — you’re wrong. You will spend at least some — and maybe most or all — of your career outside that glorious, enchanted, nigh-mythical land that is paying full-time ministry. So unless you have a crystal ball telling you otherwise, just assume that at some point, what I’m about to say will be relevant to you.

So much for the bad news. Let’s move on to the good news, which is that you don’t need the permission of some paycheck-issuing body to do ministry. I know a bunch of folks in the full-time, fully-paid ministry world, but let me tell you about the other folks I know for a minute.

Gabe started a handful of drop-in youth centers around Denver, and supports himself by working at a brewery. Heather runs a cafe, which she uses as the site for a very fruitful ministry. Dave started a day center for the homeless. He’s also the world’s leading expert on Victorian trade cards — you don’t know what that is, and I’m not going to try to explain it now, but he’s written a half-dozen books on the subject, edited a magazine for the field, and supports himself buying and selling these things on eBay. Bob is a full-time missionary now, but for years he supported his ministry projects by working 10 days a month for a marketing firm. Jenny is an itinerant prayer warrior who splits her time between here and Africa; she supports herself as a massage therapist.

Let me tell you about how this has worked out for me. I got hired out of seminary to teach. I was half-time as an adjunct faculty member, and half-time associate pastor at a local church. After a year, the seminary brought me on full-time. I quit the pastor gig, but then got another, very part-time gig with a little church plant (that turned out to be a counter-cult exit ministry disguised as a church plant, but that’s a story for another time.) I was full-time at the seminary for four years. That was the last time I had a stable, full-time paycheck from ministry — more than 10 years ago now.

You know what? I really liked being a professional geek. But life’s been a lot more interesting since I got dynamited out of that comfortable gig.  Since then, I’ve worked for another seminary part-time, and a couple more churches. I’ve started a nonprofit, done youth work, written Bible curriculum, driven a school bus. Presently, I’m a pastor-at-large ministering in the gaps between churches. I’ve baptized people in the Platte and served communion in shot glasses off the tailgate of my car. I’m also a massage therapist, because pastor-at-large is not the sort of job that comes with a fat paycheck.

Or any paycheck, most of the time.

You may not want this kind of life for yourself. You’re investing in a good education, and why shouldn’t you have a solid career, just like if you went into medicine, finance, education, or some other well-educated profession?

By way of an answer to that, let me tell you about another guy. He was a professional theologian; good education, pretty secure gig, and then he got mugged by spiritual reality. He spent the next 14 years trying to figure out what happened to him. After that, he traveled around sharing with anybody who would listen. Sometimes he planted churches. Sometimes he was fully supported; other times he supported himself while he did the work. He even wrote a few books, but they weren’t really theology books. They were mostly compilations of good pastoral advice to other people who had been mugged by the same spiritual realities, teaching them how to live with what had happened to them. For those of you who haven’t caught on, I’m describing Saint Paul. If he wasn’t too good to support himself, then what makes you so special?

God has a destiny for you, and if you step into it, He will supply what you need. You certainly will have needs, and here are some of them.

  • You need a useful trade. If you have no marketable skills, I advise you to get some, and soon.
  • You need a team. Anything really worth doing is big enough that it won’t be sustainable to tackle it by yourself. And we’re Christians — we’re the image of the Trinity; we’re not meant to do anything alone.
  • You need oversight. It is not healthy to have nobody who can tell you no. You need open-minded, experienced people who believe in what you’re doing — even if they don’t quite understand it — and are willing to help you do it. That last bit is important. Don’t trust people who are not invested in your success to give you directional guidance.
  • You need excellent self-care skills. That means you need a regular sabbath, you need retreat time, you need to clear margin for your relationships, and build a good support network.
  • You need to be able to say no without feeling guilty. The more you divide your time between different places, the more people will feel that it’s reasonable for you to give them just a little more — and you can’t give “just a couple more hours” to 4 different places in the same week.

If this sounds daunting, it is, but remember the examples we’re following. Paul faced some daunting prospects himself: go out into an overwhelmingly pagan world with virtually no support and plant churches. (And be quick, because you’re going to have to skip town before they kill you.) The good news, again, is that you do not need anybody’s permission to have a powerful and fulfilling ministry. If you are willing to go outside the shiny, professional box, it’s a big world out there, and the opportunities really are endless. I wish you well. 


Leaving Well

31 August 2018

I’ve been a ministry insider my whole life, and in that time, I’ve seen a lot of departures. The ones caused by outside factors (job transfer, moving to be near aging parents, etc.) are relatively easy. The ones caused by differing convictions, firings, the many variations on poorly-disguised firings, and so on…those are much harder. There’s an art to leaving well. Here are some tips:

  • Care for the People
    • “A good man leaves a legacy to his children’s children.” Everything you ever did for anybody in that group will be seen through the lens of how you left. So leave well. You were there to help people; don’t hurt them on your way out the door.
    • Organizations are totally dispensable; they are vehicles that travel a certain distance in time and space, and then fall apart. Don’t feel at all bad about dropping or walking away from an organization.
    • People are another matter. People are eternal, and are of incalculable value. Don’t make the mistake of treating the people as gears in the organizational machine. Treat them as people. (Even when they’re treating you as a cog. Especially then–rebuke the bad by practicing the better.)
    • The above point applies doubly for the ones responsible for the separation. You don’t get to ignore the golden rule, even if they did. Show grace.
  • Tell the Truth
    • You and the other actors involved did what you did. Own your part of it, and let the others own theirs. If they canned you, say so. If they had good reason, admit it. If you think their reasons are nonsense, say that. If they never gave a reason, you can say that too.
    • Firings are frequently disguised as something else. Your pride will tempt you to go along with the pretense; it beats having to admit you were fired. Don’t give in to that temptation.
    • Hide nothing. Gossip thrives on secrecy and the appearance of secrecy. Defuse it with openness. Don’t hide your feelings either. If it’s painful, say so. If you’re kinda relieved, admit it. Don’t lie.
  • Fighting
    • Mostly, don’t. It will be sufficient to tell the truth about why you’re leaving.
    •  For most of us, it’s easier to be angry than sad, so it’s easier to go out fighting than to just go out wounded. Therefore, you will be tempted to find things to fight about on your way out the door.
    • Resist that temptation. It leads to massive collateral damage, and hugely hinders reconciliation. 
    • When you’re looking for a fight, you rarely pick the root issue.  You pick the fight you think you can win — or at least the one where you can do the most damage to your target. There is no surer road to irreconcilable differences than ignoring the real issues to fight about something else. 
    • Read Tale of Three Kings. Don’t be a Saul or an Absalom.
    • Understand that your (soon-to-be-former) organization may actually value and reward Saul/Absalom behavior. Determine ahead of time that you will not accept that from yourself, regardless. Membership in an organization is not worth your soul.
  • Severing Ties
    • You need not be hesitant about cutting ties to the parts of the thing that are no longer your business. “Not my circus, not my monkeys” can be your mantra…internally. Externally, there’s no need to be snarky about it. “I don’t work there anymore; you’d have to ask them” is a good all-purpose response.
    • The more professional the organization, the fewer loose ends you’re likely to have. If you come out of your meeting with HR to find the contents of your desk in a box and security standing by to escort you from the building, then you probably don’t have to worry much about loose ends.
    • In less formal situations, there will often be phone calls later — “Hey, where are the _____?” Or “How did you do _______?” When you get that phone call, don’t be a jerk.
    • That said, those calls can be painful. Try to set it up so you don’t have to deal with that later. Make a list and pass it on to someone responsible, then refer all inquiries to that person. 
  • Changing Relationships
    • Some of your relationships were built entirely on you representing the organization. Those relationships were not actually with you, and they will evaporate or transfer to the new organization representative.
    • You aren’t required to sever all ties, even if they want you to. Personal relationships don’t just evaporate because the organizational relationship has changed or ended. Keep your friendships.
    • You will be surprised at which friendships stay, and which ones evaporate. When a friendship you were counting on evaporates unexpectedly, it’s okay to be hurt — that’s completely natural. But don’t force it, and don’t go to war with the person that hurt you. It’s a waste of effort, and it won’t get you what you want. Take it as data, and move on.
    • The relationships that endure will change, because the rhythms of the relationship have changed. The transition changes when you see each other, in what context, how often, and so on. That will change the relationship, often in unpredictable ways.
  • Learning Lessons
    • Be willing to take a hard look at yourself. How did you contribute to the problem? Did you have a hand in escalating it? Were you seeking occasions for reconciliation, or were you looking for a fight? (Looking for a fight is not automatically wrong; there are things we should fight about. But own what’s yours. If you came in talking like Jeremiah, you shouldn’t be surprised when they treat you like Jeremiah.)
    • In the heat of the moment, we often learn the wrong lessons. Do your best, but when the dust has settled, be willing to revisit what you learned. You’ll often have a more complete picture later.
  • Unintended Consequences
    • Take a long look at what you’re being spared here. In what ways has the separation liberated you?
    • Don’t assume you know what the separation means for the future. Remember, Steve Jobs worked for Apple twice.

Stripped to Nothing

5 July 2018

My friend and advisor Rich Bedsoe offers a powerful reflection on how Jesus impacts history in Principalities and Powers, part 1 and part 2. They’re long pieces, but worth your time.

The question that occurs to me is, what now? The Incarnation founded a new civilization when it destroyed Caesar’s power to rule by right of divinity. Justification by faith founded a new church when it destroyed the Roman Church’s power to rule by condemnation. So what now? Something like theosis–the re-animation of the naked/dead ego by the Holy Spirit founds a new…what? when it destroys…what?

Of course the sensible answer is, “Ask again in another 150 years or so.” But in the meantime, let’s speculate.

A friend suggests that the re-animation of the naked ego by the Spirit founds a new kind of human by destroying autonomous man. This new human is no longer animated by justification alone, but by glory.

I want to chase that idea a little further, and cash out something I think is implicit in Bledsoe’s articles. Ideas have the ability to shift culture, sometimes very powerfully, but Christianity makes a substantially greater claim for itself than just some transformative ideas. I want to suggest (and I think Bledsoe would agree) that in each case, it is not simply the idea operating upon the culture. The transformative effect on the culture comes from people animated by the experience which the idea describes.

The ancient kings’ right to rule as divine was not overturned simply by the idea that men cannot be gods. It was overturned by a critical mass of people whose authentic experience of actual divinity rendered Caesar’s pretensions an obvious sham. Providence makes the contrast even starker by providing real-life satire in the person of emperors like Caligula, and in due course, Julian the Apostate.

Likewise, the Roman church’s power to rule by condemnation and contempt was not simply overturned by the idea of justification by faith. It was defeated by people who were no longer vulnerable to human manipulation through false guilt, because they had experienced for themselves the freedom of being justified by faith. In the harsh light of their new experience, the guilt-manipulations of the Roman church stood revealed for what they truly were, and again, providential real-life satire in the person of Tetzel and his ilk only served to further highlight the problem.

Today, our suspicion of all authority strips the self bare. We have succeeded in divesting ourselves of anything that would interfere with our autonomy, and as a result, we have rendered the most mundane relationships impossible. Every relational overture is interpreted as a power play, and therefore treated with suspicion. The real-life satire is all around us, if we have eyes to see. We are headed toward a world where it won’t even be possible to share a cup of coffee except by the power of the Spirit, because everything is overwhelmed with suspicion, and we’re scared we’ll be taken in.

The autonomous self, “liberated” from constricting relationships, discovers it has also rendered its much-vaunted power of choice completely meaningless. Those same substantial relationships that once constricted our choices also provided context within which our choices had meaning. Apart from that context, our choices are wholly arbitrary, and therefore meaningless.

Autonomous and alone, the self craves absolution, but recognizes no authority that might offer it; craves glory, but hates any standard by which glory might be recognizable. Everywhere people gather in elective tribes, collectives, and fandoms in hopes of re-creating a context for themselves–only to abandon them when relational problems crop up, as they always do. As substantial communities, our churches are rarely better than any other affinity group–Jeep Owners, Juggalos, or Jubilee Baptist, take your pick.

But the Spirit broods over humanity, incubating a new people. As Caesar fell before the Incarnation and the church of Rome before the Cross, autonomous man must fall before the power of Pentecost.

United with the indwelling Holy Spirit, the self automatically enters into relationship with the Father and the Son. All who thus enter are in relationship with each other as well, invited into the perichoretic triune dance. We receive this relationship not as something we might possibly earn, but rather as a gift already accomplished for us. We could not, and by God’s grace need not, manufacture such relationships; we need only steward them and harvest their bounty.

We can quench the Spirit; we can grieve the Spirit; we can prefer the flesh’s works over the Spirit’s fruit–and we often do. When we refuse the Spirit’s bounty, our benefit from one another is as insubstantial as if we were just fans of the same band, car, or TV show. But there’s a crucial difference. You can stop liking that band, and just leave the group.

You can’t escape the new birth so easily. Unlike a fandom, the new birth is a historical event, and nothing you do now can make it didn’t happen. You are a child of God forever, and your only choice now is to be a good one or a bad one. Our culture, and even most of our churches, will tell you that being a good child of God means being a great person, possessed of the kind of cleanliness everyone at the country club pretends to have, but doesn’t really. (Pro tip: they’re all wrong about that. Abraham ran off to Egypt; Samuel was a bad father; David was an adulterer and murderer, Elijah sulked in a cave, and so on. Don’t worry; you’re in good company.)

Being the child God calls you to be isn’t about moral perfection. It’s about refusing to hide your faults and flaws (what 1 John aptly calls “walking in the light”), owning what God shows you. It means being seen by the people around you and refusing to project a nice, clean image. You live in the light, and God will grow you into a great person over time.

If you hide, then you miss all the relational benefits God is offering you, and you’ll get worse every day. You’re one of those friends invited to the wedding feast who never shows up. But if you live in the light…ah, my friend, what relationships you will have!

In the context of these relationships, already provided for us, our choices become meaningful again. When we invite the Spirit to move in power and allow Him to follow through, we are not only united to God in fact, but we reap the benefits in practice. The fellowship of the triune life (into which we enter vertically) is mirrored horizontally in our fellowship with one another. In the triune dance, we find our freedom in the ability to grow into who and what we were built to be, in relation to others who do the same.


The Fall of Ecclesiastical Communism

28 June 2018

Many American churches are closing, or merging, to survive. In many denominations, there are now the equivalent of hospice nurses for churches–interim pastors who specialize in closing churches down. The widespread feeling is that the church in America is shrinking. In fact, however, research suggests that “only moderate religion is on the decline in the United States.”

Serious engagement is another matter entirely.  

The percentage of Americans who attend church more than once a week, pray daily, and accept the Bible as wholly reliable and deeply instructive to their lives has remained absolutely, steel-bar constant for the last 50 years or more, right up to today. These authors describe this continuity as “patently persistent.”

This also means, of course, that those who take their faith seriously are becoming a markedly larger proportion of all religious people.

What is this?

I submit that we are seeing the fall of central planning in church ministry. Central planning was one of the great idols of the twentieth century, the idea that if you could systematize an endeavor on a large scale and execute it “scientifically,” there would be greater efficiency, less waste, and so on: the worship of technique with a capital T.

In 1917, a visionary went to Tsarist Russia to put this theory into action. His name was Vladimir Lenin, and his experiment failed horribly. Not only did the communists have to murder a bunch of people who didn’t really fit into the grand “scientific” design of the new society–which would have been bad enough–they were also notably less prosperous than the free world, and the entire enterprise eventually collapsed under its own weight. Everywhere central planning has been implemented on a national level, it begins by destroying those who don’t fit, and ends in dire poverty and starvation. Think East Germany versus West Germany, North Korea versus South. Cuba was once the jewel of the Caribbean. And so on, though endless 20th-century examples, right up to present-day Venezuela.

In the West, the publishing world offers another strong example of central planning in action. The Big Six publishers moved away from a broad set of offerings and responding to orders by booksellers to a “push model,” which allowed them to manufacture bestsellers by deciding on them in advance, and “pushing” them out into the market, whether the market wanted them or not. The market didn’t, as it turned out. And again, they began by destroying the careers of the authors that didn’t fit their vision — authors deemed unsuitable for whatever reason would never be “pushed,” and would not be allowed to become bestsellers. (They literally let books that were surprise successes go out of print rather than incur the cost of extra print runs to meet the demand. It’s nuts.) The Big Six became the Big Five, and the whole enterprise is looking increasingly green around the gills.

They blamed declining reading habits. Then Harry Potter taught a whole generation to read for fun, and they had to find another excuse. They blamed ebooks. Yeah, sure. There’s a bunch independent authors making a good living from ebooks, but never mind. They blame anyone and anything, except themselves and their failed theory.

The central planners are always looking for scapegoats, people to blame when the plan doesn’t work. They need a lot of scapegoats, because central planning never works.

Which brings us back to the church and its relationship to millennials. If my generation (Gen X) was so independent as to be fundamentally unmanageable (and we are, mostly), millennials are not. They are generally collaborative and team-oriented. They should be flocking to church in droves.

They aren’t. In my experience, that’s not because they’re rebellious. There’s a good bit of confusion and spiritual tourism, but that’s nothing new. The Boomers and Xers had plenty of that, too. It’s not because they don’t hear from God; in my experience they’re more open than Boomers or Xers there, too.

The fundamental problem is deeper: what they hear from God doesn’t match what they hear from church. God says to heal the brokenhearted; the church wants to point out all the ways it is their own fault. God says to seek the peace of the city; the church is mostly concerned about the peace within its own four walls. God says feed the hungry; the church wants a vision statement, a mission statement, an overseeing staff member, a proposal for the budget committee, and then of course we’ll need to run it by the property committee, which only meets every other month….

Most churches in the US are very top-down enterprises. There are a few people at the top that are allowed to have ideas, and everybody else is recruited to be support staff. Touted as “vision-driven leadership,” this pyramidal endeavor is actually central planning at its finest. And it works just as well as the other examples.

It’s vision-stifling leadership. Millennials as a class aren’t confrontational enough to try to take over the church from within (that would be my generation.) They’ll just go elsewhere. And they have.

So there’s a parallel reformation happening. You can find it in service organizations, at parks, in community meetings in city halls across the country. You can even find it in church basements–where there’s an AA meeting in progress, or a food bank at work.

When the Spirit is in a ministry initiative, of course, He also calls the necessary people together to make it run, whether that means two or a small army. But He blows where He wills, and that can’t be controlled in our day any better than it was in Jesus’ time.

When the American church learns this, and develops eyes to see where the Spirit is at work, we will be surprised at what is already under way.