A modest plea

“Let the little children come unto me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Mt 19:14)

When I was 16 and a junior in high school, I had perhaps my first mega-significant awakening to the goodness of God in the face of Christ.  It exploded the boundaries of my perception and opened me up to the reality of God’s limitless grace in a way I had not understood… and as such, it totally set my life on fire.

Something about tasting of God in that way makes one hunger for more.  So I ran at God with all my might.  I remember sitting in class during those days… and just being downright ANTSY.  All I could think about was getting out of school and back into open space where I could seek God… better yet, where I could DRINK DEEPLY from the well of the Divine.

It was from that place that my first and most pure desire to preach came.  Tasting God and sensing his heart for his people made me want to vocalize the depths of His yearning… so as to draw people in to what I was tasting.  It was a short step from communion to ministry.  The simplicity of loving God – and the experience of being loved by God – first awakened a longing to be a voice among the people of God.

Matthew has Jesus telling us that children are a model for faith.  Their simplicity and empty-handedness makes them uniquely capable of receiving the kingdom as it comes in the face of Christ.  So much so that in one place Jesus can say earlier in Matthew, “Unless you repent and become like little children, you will certainly never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Think of that.  We need to repent … in a way … of the sin of adulthood.  Perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising, since Jesus in Matthew also says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” and “Blessed are the meek…” and “Blessed are the pure in heart…” for it is these who receive the kingdom, inherit the earth, and see the face of God.

As the narrative continues to unfold in Matthew 19 and 20, we see Jesus’ words about children in action.  The Rich Young Man cannot – in complete and exuberant simplicity of heart – disband himself of his possessions and joyfully follow Jesus.  Instead, he tries to reduce faith to a morality-management play.  And he misses the kingdom.  And in the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Mt 20), the workers who were hired first cannot appreciate the stunning fact that they are being paid to work in the vineyard… instead, the complexity of their scheming souls causes them to be scandalized at the seeming inequity of grace played out before their eyes.  For the rich young man and the workers who were hired first… there is no simplicity, and hence no joy, no Jesus, no kingdom.  They are the exact opposite of the children.

Life has a funny way of beating the childlikeness right out of us.  My own experience is that ministry in particular can be lethal to childlikeness.  We start innocently and with wide-eyed wonder.  But then we gain “experience”.  Some of those experiences are good, and so we start to feel like we’re something… that we’ve proved something and have something to say.  Some of those experiences are bad, and so we become jaded.  We watch other churches rise and fall, see other pastors succeed and fail, and we measure our own “success” (or lack thereof?) against an invisible, ever-changing, but oh-so-menacing standard.

And it kills kingdom in us.

It occurs to me that both success and failure in ministry can cause us to lose our souls.  We are called to be infatuated with the person of Jesus, and to bring that infatuation to the people of God, inviting them into it, and letting a family of loving, gracious infatuation with Jesus emerge.  The moment ministry becomes more than this, the moment the standard changes from this to “this-AND”, I think we’re in deep trouble.  I think we’re on the verge of making this whole thing really lethal to spiritual health – our own and others’ around us.

I see this in the “seasoned” pastor-types who have too much experience for their own good and hence cannot embrace the newness that God wants to breathe over his church

I see it in the up-and-coming “successful” pastor-types who parade their successes around, universalizing their methods, and pretending that somehow their successes as measured by a handful of numerical measurements somehow ought to make their voice just that much more authoritative on this or that subject

And I see it in the pastors and church planters whose experiences have been hard and slow-going, and who carry around a palpable sense of inferiority and failure

…and all of it so unnecessary.  “Repent, and become like children…”

And then every so often we meet the person who is undefiled by their success and untainted by their failures, who exist so purely and perfectly in the grace of God that while they may be old, they seem quite young.

This morning, through tears, my plea is that what inaugurated the journey for me some 14 years ago would ever be the pure brightness that sustains me through to the end – a sort of loving laughter of the soul as the light of God shines in it, and a deep yearning that, whatever else I become, I’d be a consistently buoyant voice calling people into that light, so that their own souls may come alive to the joy of God.

Keep us simple-hearted, Lord.

Into the Wilderness…

Eight years ago this Spring, Mandi and I left the friendly confines of Tulsa, Oklahoma and rolled in Chicago, Illinois so that I could attend seminary.  We did not know a soul when we arrived, and needless to say, it was a little scary.  God was good to us, however, and we very quickly found ourselves immersed in several communities of wonderful people, for whom we are forever grateful.

I in particular found myself among a sort of “league of extraordinary gentlemen” at seminary; guys whose theology was shaped by deep pastoral and missional concerns, who loved Jesus and his Church and longed for a better future for the Church’s witness in America, and who saw personal spiritual formation as being at the heart of any kind of renewal movement.

One of those guys was a friend by the name of Dave Neuhausel.  Every once in awhile I’d run across someone at school of whom I would say to Mandi, “I would let THAT guy be my pastor any day of the week.”  Sound minded, straight-hearted, and full of care for God’s people.  “Pastor” was like an essence they exuded.  Dave was one of those guys.

We sort of lost touch after seminary, but when Mandi and I moved to Denver in 2009, it was a HUGELY pleasant surprise to realize that Dave was on staff with Denver Community Church as their outreach pastor.  Dave helped welcome us to the city and got me networked very quickly within a marvelous community of pastors and leaders here in Denver… it’s hard to put into words how appreciative I am for that.

In any event, I am thankful for such (old) friends, and especially thankful when they agree to give me a (much needed) week off of preaching, which the Good Reverend Neuhausel did last night at Bloom.  Without really knowing what we’ve been teaching on so far this year in our community, Dave taught on the (very appropriate Lenten) theme of the Wilderness. That God reveals himself in the Exodus as something of a “Wilderness God”, who is present to his people in times of extreme hardship and deprivation, and actually intends to USE such times to shape us into the kind of people he wants us to be.  (You can listen to the talk here.)

One of the more interesting and illuminating moments of the message was when Dave compared “wilderness experiences” to “liminal moments.”  Liminality is a word that simply means “threshold”, and is often used to

“…refer to in-between situations and conditions that are characterized by the dislocation of established structures, the reversal of hierarchies, and uncertainty regarding the continuity of tradition and future outcomes.”  (From the Wikipedia article on Liminality)

As such, “liminal spaces” serve as thresholds where old worlds, ways of thinking and being, etc., are let go of, and new worlds, ways of thinking and being, etc., are slowly embraced.  The child developmental psychologist Jean Piaget used to talk in a similar vein about “disiquilibration” in the process of learning for children.  That is, when a child experiences a new event or piece of knowledge, her old structures of knowing and understanding are “shaken” (dis-equilibrated), which leads to NEW and MORE COMPLEX and ultimately MORE ACCURATE forms of knowing and relating to the world.  To put it simply, now that the child has encountered a cow and gone through the disequilibration of that encounter, every furry thing with four legs is not “puppy”.  Now that the child has entered into the “liminal space” of leaving an old form of knowledge behind and stretched out towards new knowing, a whole new world is possible.  Without such experiences, the child will simply never mature.

BUT HERE’S THE THING – Liminality, disiquilibrating experiences, wilderness, etc., SUCK.  They are by their very nature frustrating, disorienting, destabilizing, scary, and sometimes downright painful.  And yet…

…it occurred to me as I was listening to Dave last night that I have not had a single moment of significant growth that did not come on the other side of an experience that was deeply frustrating, painful, disorienting, hard, scary, etc.  EVERY ONE OF THEM has been borne out of tension, stretching, “falling apart”, “dying” on some level…

…and then rising again.  Perhaps Jesus put it best (as always he does) when he said that “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains a single seed; but if it dies it produces many seeds.” (John 12:24)  This pattern of the old dying away so that something new and ultimately more beautiful can be born is built into the very fabric of the cosmos.  And yet… we fail to embrace the wisdom of it for our own lives.  Like the Israelites in the Wilderness, we bicker and complain… we turn our hearts back to Egypt… we wish that things could just go back to “the way it used to be”…

…and in so doing we resist God’s better future for our lives.

If Lent is about anything, as Dave wisely taught us last night, it is about entering into – indeed EMBRACING, as a core and regular element of our faith – those experiences where God leads us to the limits of our knowledge, the limits and end of our old ways of living and being, the end of our sense of self, the end of sweet seasons, so that new knowing, new living, new being, new self-understandings, new seasons… indeed a new world, can be born.

I’m saying, EMBRACE THRESHOLD EXPERIENCES.  They are the only way we come into maturity.

Grace to you.

“Already”… from the soil springs life

Lately, as I begin my morning devotions, I quote this Psalm (Psalm 1), surely one of my “top 10s”:

Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, or stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of mockers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on that law he meditates day and night.  He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither.  Whatever he does prospers.  Not so the wicked!  They are like chaff that the wind blows away…

Psalm 1 sets the trajectory for the entire Psalter.  The “blessed” – fortunate, happy, well-off, wholesome – life is a life rooted in God.  It is a life conditioned by and anchored Yahweh’s in wisdom, for of course no one knows better than the Creator where and how our flourishing as human beings is effected.  And so the “blessed” man is the one who, like a tree, is planted near the ever-flowing water and in the fertile soil of God.  From this place he is fruitful.  Echoes of Jesus’ words in John 15 can be heard here: “I am the vine, and you are the branches.  If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit.  Apart from me, you can do nothing.”

The call of Christianity is to anchor ourselves in God, to let our lives spring out of the soil of the Divine, to let our “doing” rise up out of our “being-in” God.

And that is just where things get difficult for many of us; for many of us are do-ers, and have defined ourselves mostly by what we can accomplish or produce.  Somewhere along the line, at an early age, we bought into the notion that “We are good IF________”.  For some, we are good if/when we are novel and exceptional.  For others, we are good if/when we are beautiful.  For still others, we are good if/when we are powerful and successful.  And for others, we are good if/when we are “right.”

All of this is vanity.  It is the pursuit of a “self” that is not anchored in God’s first love for us, and therefore it occurs to me that MOST of what drives MOST of our lives is … is there another word for it? … sin.  The Apostle Paul says that anything that doesn’t come from faith is sin (Rom 14:23).  Is it possible that a good deal of the energy of our lives comes from a basic lack of confidence in the love and mercy of God?  And so we quest after _______ (you fill in the blank) in a desperate attempt to soothe an ache or fulfill an “if-then” that is better soothed and fulfilled somewhere else.

For me, the “I am good if _______” equation looks like this: “I am good if/when I am accomplished.”  I am an achiever.  I want to preach sermons that blow peoples minds and cause their hearts to rupture.  I want to write blogs that do the same.  I want to build a community that people notice (even envy?).  I want to write books and lead seminars on how to do … oh I don’t know … ANYTHING that I’ve learned how to do.  I am DRIVEN by what I can accomplish.

Accomplishing is not bad, by the way.  But all of that “if/then”-ing can easily lead to the construction of a sort of “false self” that is built on and anchored in things that will easily pass away.

Not every sermon will impress

Not every blog will inspire

The community will always be a work in progress

Someone else will always be more accomplished

And one day

Even if I wind up being wildly successful in this life

EVERYONE WILL FORGET ABOUT ME

(How’s that for a dose of reality?)

This is why prayer is so important for me.  And not just any kind of prayer, but contemplative prayer.  As a born and bread charismatic, my prayer life can easily become yet more place where my vanity and need to define my worth by my accomplishments (read: sin) expresses itself… Did I “experience God” in a profound way?  Did I pray with intensity over the things that needed praying for?  Did anything happen in prayer that was worth telling other people about?  Did God speak to me?

And there again… the vanity… the if/then-ing.  So much of our lives, and even our prayer lives, is built on an energy of the flesh, when it really needs to be built on the energy of the Spirit, who comes to us as the gracious Gift of the Father from the Son to graft us into the family of God, where we are already loved, already secure, already known, already safe.  This is what contemplative prayer is all about, and why I love it so much.  Because simply BEING in the presence of God – without “judging” or scrutinizing how “well” I’m “being” – is the death of vanity, the end of my seemingly endless need to impress and inspire and accomplish.  Simply being… God will not be impressed or inspired by it… and there is nothing to “accomplish” of it.  To pray in this way is to remember that “we love because he first loved.”  It starts there.  And the energy – a right energy – for “doing” comes from there.  Henri Nouwen once wrote:

Through contemplative prayer we can keep ourselves from being pulled from one urgent issue to another and from becoming strangers to our own heart and God’s heart.  Contemplative prayer keeps us home, rooted and safe, even when we are on the road, moving from place to place, and often surrounded by the sounds of violence and war.  Contemplative prayer deepens in us the knowledge that we are already free, that we have already found a place to dwell, that we already belong to God, even though everything and everyone around us keeps suggesting the opposite. (From In the Name of Jesus)

I love that.  My impression of most people in the church is that even though they’ve acquiesced mentally to whatever-it-is they see Christianity as, their lives are still driven by a whole host of neurotic, ridiculous passions…  The Spirit has not yet liberated them to become the “true selves” God wants them to be: liberated, anchored, at rest, strong, free, and full of love in his presence.

Prayer – the kind of prayer that leads us into God’s first love – is a powerful first step towards taking us there.

 

Lent begins… And we’re coming home again

I love Lent.  That probably strikes some as a really weird and perhaps morbid thing to say… but its true.  I love it.  And here are a few reasons why:

  • Because the whole of our faith comes crashing together during this season
  • Because Lent calls us to remember our mortality and need for God
  • Because we’re reminded that God is the only real Good… he is our very life
  • Because of the promise… the SWEET promise… of resurrection
  • Did I mention resurrection?
  • Resurrection
  • Homecoming
  • Exile and return
  • The Father’s mad pursuit of us
  • The invitation to leave death and dislocation and alienation

AND COME.  BACK.  HOME.

Whatever else Lent is, it is certainly about that.  The Scriptures portray the human story as one both tragic and yet full of promise.  In Genesis 3 we were banished from the Garden.  In Genesis 4, not long after the inevitable chaos begins to ensue post-banishment, men “begin to call on the name of the Lord.”

How profound.

The Christian tradition, which flowers out of the fertile soil of the Scriptures, has always maintained that human beings were MADE for God.  We were made to love and enjoy and delight in God as our only Good.  And the tradition has further maintained that as human beings, we SENSE that we are not “at home”… that something is simply not right with us.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it profoundly in his masterful work Ethics when he said that fallen man is “at disunion with his origin”, that is, God.  And our disunion drives us into all kinds of foolishness… we try to soothe the ache… when what we really want is God, and only God.  He is our Good.  Our Father.  Our Home.

The great theologian of the early church, Augustine, put our predicament perfectly in two different places.  In his Confessions he writes:

You awaken us, O God, to delight in your praise, for you have made us for yourself, and our souls are restless till they rest in you.

Augustine knew what the Christian tradition has always known… we were made for God, and until our restless souls come alive in him, we’ll simply be groping about for something… ANYTHING… to satisfy us.  As he says elsewhere, in his beautiful prayer:

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all.

But you called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned with longing for your peace.

The tragic irony of our existence is that we search for that which satisfies within all the good things that God has made, and yet because we don’t have the sense enough to turn to the Maker of all good things, the good things themselves taste stale.  He longs to be first, and highest in us… and it is for our good that it should be so in us.

In Lent, we remember this.  And we come home.  We respond to Him who flashes and shines in us to awaken us to his Beauty… we allow that Beauty and Love to tenderize our hearts so that we’re yielded to Him… Him who is our only Good.  Our Maker.  Our Love.  Our God.  He will do this in us if we’ll let Him.  As the Lord said through the prophet Hosea:

I will heal their waywardness and love them freely (Hos 14:4)

It occurs to me that perhaps the key difference between the Christian and all the rest is simply that the Christian has by the grace of God had the sense enough to recognize the basic “ache” of their soul for God, and then let that recognition issue in a mad dash back home.  Not unlike the Prodigal Son.

This Lent, I’m praying for myself… and for our church… and for you… that the good, longing-for-home-eliciting grace of God would drape itself over our hearts, so that we’d return to Him.

Bring us home Lord Jesus.

Happy Birthday Bloom! Looking Backwards // Looking Forwards

February marks the 3 year anniversary of Bloom‘s first official weekly public gathering – it’s birth(day/month), in a sense.  I like birthdays, so we decided to have a birthday celebration for Bloom this weekend.  Tell some stories, eat some cake.  It was a really great time.

Actually, I did most (all) of the story-telling.  I get the impression sometimes that a lot of people are part of our community without having the foggiest idea where we came from or why we do the weird things that we do.  Or even better, why we don’t do some of the things that we don’t do. Like, why don’t you raise a bunch of money to do like a “real” church launch (whatever a “real” church launch looks like).  Stories help put all that in perspective.

So I told some stories to talk about why we are what we are and why we sense the Spirit leading us where we think the Spirit is leading us.  In all, I would call the talk a mega-important primer on the “what the heck” of Bloom.  If you haven’t, you should listen to itIt may become required listening for anyone who wishes to join our community.

Without spilling the beans, and in brief, I spelled out why I don’t think God’s dream for Bloom is to become the next super-awesome church experience in the city of Denver. In truth, Denver doesn’t (maybe no city does) really need another super-awesome church experience anyway.  It needs churches that are more intentional about spiritual formation, discipleship, mission, etc.

So instead, I tried to paint a picture of a radically decentralized church… a church that pushes ministry to the fringes, plants and replants new house churches/missional communities that penetrate neighborhoods with the good news of what God is doing in the world in Jesus, and then regularly gather together regionally to celebrate the work of God and be re-cultivated for running after Jesus in his mission “out there”, as he’s more often than not “out there” doing all kinds of amazing things.  Its just up to us to catch up with him.

Anyway, especially if you’re part of the Bloom community, I hope you’ll give it a listen.  We have a bright future and a lot of work ahead.