Something about fasting…

With Lent right around the corner, I’ve been thinking that now would be a good time to rummage through my old attic of spiritual disciplines, pull out an oft-forgotten item, dust it off, and put it to use again.  So I fasted yesterday.

CONFESSION – You will be hard-pressed to find a Christian leader of any stripe who is worse at fasting than I am.  Indeed, you may be hard-pressed to find any Christian anywhere who is worse at fasting than I am.

I heard stories growing up (and continue to hear stories, for apparently people still do this) of people – both Christian leaders and the so-called “laity” – fasting for extraordinary lengths of time.  Weeks on end.  The mythical 40 day fast loomed and continues to loom large in my mind.

I honestly don’t know how these people do it.  Two years ago, this kid from our church, Jake, decided to go on a fast.  43 days later, he broke it and then went on a missions trip to Japan.  As elated as I was for him, I was also embarrassed for myself.  “Good Lord,” I thought, “this kid just fasted longer than JESUS, and I’m supposed to be his pastor?  Me – who can hardly go without food for more than an hour without getting whiny?”

It’s actually as sad as it is comical for me.  On Sunday night, after church, Mandi and I grabbed some Taco Bell.  I ate two chicken soft tacos and some weird cheese-covered potato things.  Then we went to bed.  I woke up yesterday morning knowing that I was at that point officially “fasting”, which had an immediate impact on my morning prayers at 7:30ish.  I definitely felt more spiritual because I was doing without food, until it occurred to me that on a normal morning, I don’t usually eat anything until 9:00 anyway.  I promptly followed up feeling really spiritual by making up some excuse as to why Monday actually wasn’t a good day to fast.

Like I said… I am pretty terrible at fasting.  It is a completely harrowing experience for me.  I hate not eating.  I’ve never understood these people who can say outrageous things like, “Yeah at 2:00 this afternoon it occurred to me that I hadn’t eaten anything ALL DAY.”  Seriously.  Food is the first thing I think about in the morning, and I don’t stop thinking about it until I go to bed.  And even then it’s a challenge to stop thinking about it.  So when I fast I find myself vacillating wildly between being absurdly self-congratulating for my moral stamina and trying to find defensible reasons to quit.

Be all of that as it may (now that I’ve totally outed myself), fasting is really good for me.  And here’s why:

1) It reminds me how human I am.  I am really uncomfortable being human.  I’d like to be a demi-god.  Deep down, I believe in perfection, and most of my days are spent trying to attain it.  I would like to have no weaknesses, no obvious shortcomings.  Instead, the truth is that I have many more than I would like.  Fasting reminds me of that, and invites me to know God’s love for me AS A PILE OF DUST (see Genesis 2, Psalm 103, etc etc) – something I have a really hard time accepting.

What’s funny is, that impulse to try to rise up beyond my “dustiness” manifests itself even in my fasting.  I found myself at various points yesterday saying, “I am going to get better at this!” and then devising elaborate plans to become an expert faster.  When I realized what I was doing, I had a good laugh at myself.  I need to just be okay with not being awesome, learning to accept myself as dust just as the Lord accepts me.

I do think that this is connected, in some mysterious way, to the primal sin of Adam and Eve.  I read the story of Genesis 3 to my kids this morning at breakfast, and while I was teaching it to them, I couldn’t help but be amazed again at how the Tempter says, “If you eat this you will be LIKE GOD…”

But they were ALREADY “the image and likeness of God” – clumps of dirt with God-breath in them.  They could not be any more “the image and likeness” than they already were.  But the Tempter deceived them into believing that they had a deficiency in their “likeness”, and it was this that led to their disastrous failure (a failure, I might add, that was connected to eating… hmmm).

Why do I have such a hard time believing that I am ALREADY made in the image and likeness?  That – clump of dirt that I am – I am ALREADY beloved and approved of and safe?  I don’t know.  But to dwell on it, even for a moment, is to perceive an honor that like the rising of the sun on a summer morning, evaporates all my striving.  I have nothing to prove.  Fasting helps me remember that.

2) In similar fashion, it reminds me how dependent I am.  Here again, this is something that I constantly try to deny.  The self-sufficient, world-beating champ, the self-made man who needs nothing and no one, who’s got it all figured out… all of that miserable illusion goes up in smoke when I fast.  I remember how painfully dependent I am on things outside of myself for my survival.  Therefore, it puts me in a good place with God.  A place I always ought to be anyway – “As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master…so our eyes look to the Lord our God” (Ps 123).  I need God.  I need people.  I AM poor, whether I like to admit it or not (see Mt 5:3).

3) Finally, fasting helps me remember that narrative-free appetites ruin me.  For whenever our appetites divorce themselves from their God-given narratives, the “end” for which they were made, they will invariably create their own narratives, and autonomous appetites are cruel tyrants.  Our appetites for food, pleasure, sex, money, power, safety… divorce any of them from their God-given narrative context, set them up as little blind lords, and they will assuredly plunge your life, and probably the lives of those around you, into pain.  When I fast, I am saying to my appetites, “You need to submit to God”, and there, in that moment, the redemption of the world is underway.

Actually, in his book Great Lent, Father Alexander Schmemann describes how for the Eastern Orthodox, fasting is central for exactly the reason I described above.  The fateful step into chaos began with an appetite gone awry (Gen 3).  Redemption consists in our appetites, our desires, being restored to God, which is why the Eucharist is so central for the Orthodox – it is the Meal that leads us back to communion with God, to Paradise.  That is why fasting is so important.  It helps us remember that “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Do you see it?  Jesus is the Bread-Word.  When we feast on him, we live.

So there you have it.  I suck at fasting.  But it is good for me.  So I’m gonna do it a bit more I think.  I’m just not going to try to “get better” at it 🙂



From Mustard Seeds to Trees… Some Thoughts on Where We’re Going in 2012 at Bloom

Hey Bloom Family –

I wanted to take a few minutes here to both recap our gathering last night (in case you missed it) in which we talked at length about our plans for 2012 as well as offer some more detail and clarifications on things you may have been wondering about.

Jesus tells a fascinating parable in Matthew 13.  We have made reference to it often at Bloom (we find it just SO illuminating and helpful), but it bears repeating:

31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.”

The reign of God, says Jesus, does not begin with an earth-shattering revolution.  Instead, it gets planted in the soil of human society, as the very smallest of all “seeds”.  YET, Jesus says, when it grows, it becomes the largest and most visible of all the plants in the garden.  Indeed, it becomes a tree.  The kind of tree that provides stability for the soil, shade, and a place for the birds of the air to call home.

That parable has proven to be pregnant with wisdom and illuminative power for us, lighting the path when we were unsure where to go.  Bloom, as many of you know, began as a small gathering of folks in a living room trying to figure out what it would look like if God was really manifesting his reign through them to the city of Denver.

A seed of the kingdom was planted… and it has been growing ever since.  Though “planting a church” in the traditional sense was never really the express goal of the early gathering, well, here we are today – a collective of 7 house churches which gather together weekly as one congregation, seeking to make the kingdom of God tangible to the city of Denver as we align our lives with his reign.

The last 6 months in particular have frankly been inspiring.  Our little “gardens of resurrection” are growing, and it is beautiful to behold.  A dream which has been simmering in the hearts of many of us for years… is coming true.  And thanks be to God for that.

There is more for us to do, and to be together, however.  But what?

Our vision, as we’ve said is to cultivate a congregational network of house churches (“gardens of resurrection”) spread throughout the Greater Denver area, infecting it with the life of the kingdom.  It’s a vision that inspires and motivates us to work hard and keep running.

Yet in order to accomplish this vision, we’ll need to be careful and thorough in our planning, lest the vision implode all around us.  And one of the things that we feel in a unique way right now is that God is leading us into a season as a congregation of moving intentionally towards enduring stability, depth, and faithful presence.

What does that mean concretely?  Let me break each item down for you:

  • Enduring stability.  Jeremiah exhorted the Jewish exiles who had been deported to Babylon to “Build houses and settle down” (Jer 29:5).  What an astounding statement.  They were not to spend their time wishing for a speedy return to Jerusalem.  Rather, they were to put roots down in that pagan city.  And why?  Because God intended to use them to make his “shalom”, his peace, palpable to those around them.

In the same way, we sense God calling us to make a deliberate move towards long-term stability in this city.  So as part of our budget this year, we’re going to start stashing money ($1,000 per month) away for a permanent facility.  We think that planting our flag in the soil of Denver matters for how we understand our mission to the city, so that’s what we’re going to do.

I would hasten to add here that as our sense of congregational identity is coming increasingly into focus, it is becoming more and more apparent that we are a church for the city.  That means that when we start looking for a permanent facility, we’ll be looking in or near downtown.  Our dream is to be, to use Paul’s words, a “colony of heaven”, right smack in the middle of the city.

  • Depth.  We believe that the family of God, by its very nature, is an organism that, when growing in a healthy way, does so both in breadth and in depth.  We don’t want to sacrifice one on the altar of the other.  But holding the two in balance, letting them tug on each other in appropriate ways… well that is easier said than done.

Simply put, we need to work to round out our pastoral team.  As most of you know, Bloom has been able to grow to the point it has (7 house churches, 150+ at our Sunday evening gathering) operating with basically 1.5ish pastors and a whole mess of volunteers.  To that extent, we have done VERY well.  But to continue to  grow in the way we envision, adding depth and substance to what we do and building systems and structures that multiply culture and leadership… we need help.

The addition of Denver Seminary student Rusty Gates to our team last year has been an immense blessing to us.  This year we’re excited to announce a new couple joining our team: Jamie and Bre Mertens.  The Mertenses have been friends with the Arndt and Gungor family for years now and have recently wrapped up a five year tenure at a church in Boulder where they served mostly as youth pastors, with a variety of family ministry responsibilities salt and peppered in there.

Many of you will no doubt recognize Jamie from his work in recent months with us as our setup and hospitality coordinator, and you’ll likely recognize Bre’s face from the times she’s helped out with our worship teams.  Now that their time in Boulder is complete, you’ll be seeing their faces a LOT more.

And for that, we’re really grateful.  These two have wonderful hearts and a pile of gifts that are going to be a HUGE asset to Bloom in both the short and long term, and the truth is that Jamie’s actually been helping out behind the scenes on a whole bunch of strategic issues since late last summer (he’s a fantastic strategic and organizational thinker).

Now before you start fretting that a new “pastor” is being thrust on you, let me tell you how this is going to go down:

– First, we want to be really sensitive to this couple’s need to debrief and relax a bit after a really strenuous five years.  So in the next few months, “status quo” is the word – they’ll continue to help in the capacities they have over the past few months as they rest and recuperate and get their feet set for the next season of their lives.

– Second, slowly but surely we want to work Jamie into public visibility at Bloom, which will probably mean doing announcements here and there and preaching every so often (just like Rusty).

– Third, they’ll be starting a new house church up in Superior (10 minutes south of Boulder) sometime around spring break.

– Fourth, as the resources become available and their gifts are both tested and finding integration in the Bloom community, we’ll start pushing more pastoral tasks their way.

Think of their path as being exactly what Rusty’s path is – we see pastoral gifts, we test pastoral gifts and watch them bear fruit in our context, and one day we simply acknowledge what is already apparent: this person is a pastor.

We think that it’s unfair to simply unfurl a new “pastor” at you, especially with our community being the size it is.  So we’re eager to make sure the communal reality (the pastor-congregation relationship) precedes any title we give out.  Paul says “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands” (1 Tim 5:22).  We think that’s great advice.  So we’re following it.

  • Faithful presence.  I stole this term from James Davison Hunter in his book “To Change the World“.   In it, Hunter argues for a vision of congregational life in which the church neither tries to dominate the culture nor withdraws from the culture, but instead exists as a counter-society of the kingdom WITHIN culture, being “faithfully present” in a way that brings life and health and hope to the culture that it finds itself within.  Or to use Eugene Peterson’s words, it is a vision of congregational life in which “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message).

To put it another way, if Bloom as a congregation disappeared tomorrow, would Denver mourn?

That is a startling, jolting, “take a tall, stiff drink of THAT” kind of question.  But like a splash of cold water on the face, it is surprisingly clarifying and refreshing.

“Faithful presence” for us means that as the strength of this community rises, so also does the amount of tangible “shalom” in the city of Denver.  Interestingly, in that same passage out of Jeremiah, where the prophet exhorts the exiles to settle down, he also says:

Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. (29:7)

How fascinating.  The shalom of the city and the shalom of the people of God were somehow bound up with one another.  They were not allowed to seek their own flourishing in isolation.  Seek the flourishing of pagan Babylon, Jeremiah says, and you will flourish also.

So what are we going to do about that?  Two things:

  1. First, we’re committing to a budget in which 20% of our income goes to ministries of mercy and church planting, both locally and abroad.  We want more people in Denver to eat and find shelter and medical care because we exist.  Moreover, we want to invest in seeing OTHER “gardens of resurrection” – churches – sprout up in this area and abroad.
  2. Secondly (and this I did not mention last night), we’re encouraging our house churches to work through a deliberate process of discerning who’s “feet” in the city of Denver they are called to wash, and how they will wash them.  We want our house churches to make a concrete impact for shalom in this city.

And so… enduring stability, depth, and faithful presence.  That’s what we’re gunning for.

As we’ve worked through the numbers on this, we think that we can pull it all off on a monthly budget of around $12,500.  Now, just to give you an idea of where we’ve been, during the last quarter or so of last year, we ran our ENTIRE operation for about $6,700 per month.

That’s $6,700 for…

  • 1.5 staff salaries
  • A facility
  • Charitable donations
  • Administrative costs
  • Supplies, etc., for Sunday nights
  • And a handful of miscellaneous expenses

You may not know a lot about church finances, but let me assure you, $6,700 for a church of our size is a bit like “And he took the loaves, gave thanks, broke them, and distributed them to the people… and there were about 5,000 of them present”… It’s kind of crazy that we’ve been able to do so much with so little.

And of course you might be thinking, “Geez, so you’re going to ADD $6,000 per month to a budget that was already crazy bear-bones?


But it’s really doable, guys.  Let’s say that we have a monthly target budget of $12,500, and there are 150 or so people who call Bloom their home.  That works out to a monthly average of $83 per person.

$83.  $83 to start stashing money away for a permanent facility, round out the pastoral staff so that we can continue to multiply and deepen ministry, and begin blessing the city and the world with shalom.  $83.

We can do this.  I am sure that we can.

The question is whether or not we WANT to.  And that comes down, I think, to questions like, “So what exactly are we made of?”

Edwin Friedman, in his extraordinary book “A Failure of Nerve” wrote this:

We are on our way to becoming a nation of “skimmers”, living off the risks of previous generations and constantly taking from the top without adding significantly to its essence.  Everything we enjoy as part of our advanced civilization…came about because previous generations made adventure more important than safety.  (P. 83)

The hard truth here is that my crowd – the under 35 crowd – tends not to be a generation of builders.  Our parents were builders.  They perceived that the world was theirs for the shaping, and so they did.  Not us.  We largely whine and complain about how things are, the world our parents left for us, without having the character to bleed and sacrifice for the kind of world we believe in.

We are long on criticism, and short on character.  We skim from the top, and rarely if ever add to the essence of anything.


So our challenge to you this year Bloom, is this: come build with us.  There is a bright future ahead.  Let’s go get it together.

With respect to all this budgeting talk, we also plan on publishing quarterly reports this year – which will show in essence “budget vs actual” income and expenses, so we’re all dialed in to how we’re doing.  We need to own this together.

If you have any questions about any of this, or would like further clarification, as always, don’t hesitate to ask.

With great love and a heart full of hope for the future,


Praying with Jesus #9: On Eating (Pt 2 of 2)

There is more to be said, however, on “give us this day our daily bread” (see here for part 1 of this post).

As we have already seen, Jesus’ mention of “bread” provokes the remembrance of miracle bread (manna) on the desert floor for the Israelites each day during their time of wandering in the wilderness.  Exodus 16 declared that when the Israelites went out to gather, each one gathered as much as they needed (Ex 16:18), and Moses recalled in Deuteronomy 2:7, after 40 years of shepherding the people of God, that “These forty years the LORD your God has been with you, and you have not lacked anything.”

“Not lacked.”  The 40 years of wandering may not have been particularly pleasant, but the Israelites always had exactly what they needed, when they needed it.  Why?  Because their God was WITH them, as a Father, present and near.

“There you saw how the LORD your God carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place.” (Deut 1:31)

As a father carries his babies, so Yahweh carries his people.  What a beautiful image.  In like manner, Jesus teaches us to know God as a father, who is present and near to us, meeting our needs on a moment by moment basis, out of his illimitable kindness.  And so we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread“, for daily bread is exactly his specialty.  “Open wide your mouth and I will fill it”, says Yahweh in the Psalms (81:10).  He fills our mouths with bread.

The early Christians also of course remembered the Exodus story.  In fact, their reading of the Old Testament Scriptures was such that they saw the meaning of the events of the Exodus as coming to a climax, being “filled up” in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, in the pouring out of his Spirit and the gathering together of a people, his Church.  That in the same way that the Israelites had been delivered from Pharaoh’s Egypt through sacrifice, they had been delivered from Satan’s dominion by sacrifice.  And in the same way that the Israelites had passed out of Egypt through water (the Red Sea), they had passed out of the land of Sin and Death by water (baptism).  And in the same way that the pillar of fire and the cloud of God’s presence guided them through the wilderness until they reached the promised land, so they were being guided by the Spirit as aliens and sojourners until they came to final rest in the New Heavens and the New Earth.  They saw Exodus EVERYWHERE in their life.

Including the matter of provision.  In an incredibly significant passage in 2 Corinthians 8, Paul is encouraging the Corinthian believers to help supply aid to some churches who had been affected by a severe famine, saying:

13 Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. 14 At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality,

And then, in a stunning interpretive maneuver, he adds:

15as it is written: “He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little.”

“He who gathered much…”  HE IS QUOTING EXODUS 16:18.  But whereas in Exodus, the miracle bread came, as it were, out of “thin air” for the people of God, NOW IT IS COMING STRAIGHT FROM THE HANDS OF GOD’S PEOPLE TO THOSE IN NEED.

The miracle is being recapitulated, but in an astounding, surprising, and deeply challenging way.

We must remember that at least as often as the early church prayed the Lord’s Prayer by themselves, they prayed it together.  And what did they pray?  Not, “Give ME this day MY daily bread…” but, “Give US this day OUR daily bread…”

Think about the effect that praying this prayer would have had on their corporate life.  Imagine them sitting together in one of their houses, praying “Give us this day our daily bread,” and then looking around and seeing a severely handicapped person, a beggar, and a widow sitting in front of them.  Would they not have jumped at the opportunity to be part of the Father’s answer to this prayer?  We know from history that in fact they did:

32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. 34 There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need. (Acts 4)

To pray “Give us this day our daily bread” is both a prayer for individual provision and a profound act of communal self-discipline, for we are called to be part of the Father’s miraculous provision of bread on behalf of others.  How shall we pray this prayer together with the people of God, and then turn a blind eye to the needs in our midst, when our cupboards are full?  We would perhaps be better off if the food in those cupboards turned to maggots and stank the next day, for we have the opportunity to be the Hands and Feet, and selfishly we refuse.

Part of the problem here, though, is that the rampant individualism and isolation of our lives puts us in a position where, even if we attend church on Sundays, we do not share life deeply enough with other people to be able to be able to pray this prayer in the way that it was meant to be prayed.  “Give us this day our daily bread” becomes yet one more way in which the God of the Bible, the Exodus God, becomes the Coke Machine god for our self-centered, narcissistic, American-dream centered lives.

We are called into the Body, called to make manifest the miracle of the Father’s never-ending provision for his hungry kids.  May we not pray “Give us this day” unless we’re ready to put bread in the Father’s hands for him to give to others.

15 As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”

16 Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”

17 “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.

18 “Bring them here to me,” he said. 19 And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people20They all ate and were satisfied… (Matthew 14)

Here is our bread, Lord Christ.  Take it.  Bless it.  And feed the hungry with it.  Far beyond what we could ever ask or imagine.


“Always protects…” :: Some Thoughts on Richard Roberts

Early this morning, the former president of Oral Roberts University, Richard Roberts, was arrested on a DUI charge.  He was released on an $1,100 bail just a few hours ago.

Richard, who served as president of ORU for 15 years, resigned his post in 2007 amid charges of corruption and misuse of the university’s assets.  It was a dark season for ORU, but by all accounts it seems the university has responded with aplomb, now healthier than ever.

I graduated from ORU back in the spring of 2003.  ORU was a mythical place to me in my childhood.  Growing up in more or less rural Wisconsin from a more or less pentecostal/charismatic church, “Tulsa, Oklahoma” was to me practically what Jerusalem would have been to a Jewish kid born in Babylon during the exile: a place of lore and legend, with people and institutions that represented the best of our self-understanding.  So it was with a fair amount of enthusiasm that I moved to Tulsa to attend ORU in the fall of 1999.

Disappointment almost immediately set in.  And the disappointment was not so much with the school as such (great classes, great professors, great students), but with the leadership.  I had every reason to believe in the Roberts family, Richard and Lindsay in particular.  As time when on, those reasons eroded.  Before long, trust had been replaced with cynicism.  It was the “skeletons in the closet” stories (stories both past and present, all of which abounded) that created a real sense of disconnect between what I saw of the Roberts family and what was pretty clear was going on behind the scenes.  “Duplicity” was not a word I used often, but it certainly described my sense of what was going on.  It was clear to me that the unhealth of the institution and the unhealth of the family that led it were intimately connected.

So when the scandal(s) that ultimately led to Richard’s departure hit back in 2007, I remember actually being happy for the Roberts’ family, and for the institution.  ORU is a great place with a lot of potential.  To see a new wave of clear-minded leadership come in was a really hopeful thing.

But even more than that, I was legitimately happy for Richard and Lindsay, for the burden now lifted off of their shoulders.  “What an opportunity,” I thought “for them to get out of the limelight, lay aside the pressure, and rediscover the simplicity of walking with Jesus, together, among his people, journeying toward health.”

Ministry, after all, can be a pure delight.  It can also be a soul-crushing burden.  More still, it can become a place that aids and abets and exacerbates our brokenness.  And when our health and wholeness (“singleness of heart” is how the prophet Jeremiah might have described it) is not up to the level of (or beyond) the weight we carry, trouble is sure to follow.

So I was happy for Richard and Lindsay back in 2007, and I’m really sad today.  A DUI is not necessarily a sign that a person is finding wholeness.  I’m sure it’s a pretty dark day in the Roberts household.

So, what we do with this?  A few things…

We refuse cynical commentary.  “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice” (Pr 24:17) says the writer of Proverbs.  Richard is perhaps no one’s “enemy” in the sense intended by the sage, but it applies all the same.  It is a sign of our own sickness that we gloat and snark over things like this.  When the scandal of 2007 hit, predictably I suppose but sadly, much of the ORU alumni community went on the offensive with destructive, cynical, sarcastic commentary.  Paul says that love “keeps no record of wrongs.”  It “does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Co 13).

Love always protectsIt is a sign of how unlike our Father in heaven we are that we can’t muster up the will to protect and build up the Roberts family (or anyone for that matter) through this.  Rise to the occasion ORU alumni.

– As a corollary, we refuse to be morbidly fascinated with scandal and failure.  I have observed moral failure both up close and from afar, and what is always true, especially in a society that worships its heroes as much as ours does, that when leaders fail, the public becomes morbidly fascinated.  People can’t stop talking about it.  I’m not totally sure why that is.  I know it’s weird.

Perhaps, I might suggest, it is evidence that we don’t have very robust “selves” that we so easily find heroes to worship, which is why we crucify them when they fail – they threaten the fabric of our self-identity, so we need to distance from them.  Maybe, I might suggest, our longing for transcendence falsely expresses itself in our living vicariously through celebrities and leaders that have seemingly broken free of the earth.  If all of this is the case, then we are guilty of breaking several major commandments (“you shall have no other gods before you…” ahem, ahem), and its effects on our sense of self and our health as a people are palpable.

We need to do better.  Observe failure, pray for restoration, and then move on.  Our addiction to celebrity worship is destructive both to ourselves and to those we worship.

And finally…

We refuse to make soul-care subordinate to the other concerns of our lives.  This is perhaps especially important for people in vocational ministry, but it applies to all of us.  The old word for it was “integrity”, which didn’t necessarily refer to “honesty” (though it included it), but to the whole of a person’s constitution.  In architectural terms, if a building has “structural integrity”, we know that it safe to live and work in.  If that integrity is compromised (the foundation cracks, or there’s a termite problem), we know that the building will eventually not support its own weight; say nothing of the weight of others in the building.  It is unsafe.

And so it is with us.  We seek to make sure that our “structural integrity” is sound, and getting sounder.  If and when we fail to pay attention to that integrity, sooner or later our unsoundness will express itself, and chances are, people will be hurt.  This is why intentionality in our own spiritual formation is so critical.

The big trouble with ministry, of course, is that it encourages us to pretend that all is well.  Our ambition for seeing the institutions we lead succeed causes us to subordinate the concerns of our souls to the concerns of our ministries.  That is exactly backwards.  The problem is, oftentimes our gifts and talents (our capacity) outpace our character, which means that we can get away with it.  For awhile.

I remember being on a several week fast back during my college days.  During one of the days of the fast, I expressed in prayer some frustration that it didn’t seem like a lot was happening in my life.  I remember the Lord saying very clearly to me, “Don’t despise the seasons of quietness.  You need to allow my Spirit to do a deeper work of faith in you (during these seasons) so that your character will be able to sustain you in the places your giftedness will take you.”

That has always stayed with me.  I want there to be MUCH MORE to me, my character, who I am, than what anybody sees on Sunday.  But even more than that, I want the capacity of my character to always outpace the capacity of my gifts, otherwise I’ll never be able to hold the opportunities (and challenges!) my gifts bring my way.  Still more, I never want ministry to be something that’s fundamentally separate from who I am.  That is precisely the place that ministry becomes duplicitous.

That is why soul-care, the work of spiritual formation, is so important.  We want “selves” that are “structurally sound”, rooted and planted in Christ Jesus, so that our lives may be a blessing and a strength to the world around us.

My prayer for the Roberts family is that the Spirit would continue to lovingly lead them in the journey towards wholeness… “shalom”… everything in its place, just as God intends.

Make it so Lord God.

Praying with Jesus #8: On Eating… (Pt 1 of 2)

Jesus’ prayer thus far has taken us on a journey that radically decentralizes the “self”.  We are called to approach God not first of all in a spirit of “gab”, blabbering on and on to God about whatever happens to pop into our heads, and neither with a laundry list of narcissistic items for our individual lives.  Instead, we are challenged to join with “all the saints” in opening our eyes and souls up to the sheer grandeur of the Story that we find ourselves in… God, his Glory, and his Kingdom.  Jesus’ prayer will usher us into the wide open places of a breathtaking narrative.  We are not the center of the universe.  And it is for our good that it should be so, and that we should see it.

But lest we should think therefore that the concerns of our little lives don’t matter, Jesus instructs us to pray next:

Give us this day our daily bread…

We are called to ask for bread.  Our hungry stomachs matter to this God.

But it is the nature of the bread we are called to ask for that is perhaps shocking to our ears.  We are not called to ask for huge mountains of bread that we can then shove in plastic bags and freeze up so that when times are lean, we’ll have enough.  No, it is “daily” bread.  “Today” bread.  Sustenance for this moment.  Provision for the immediate future – this coming day, hour, minute, second.  And not beyond.

When we read this talk of “daily” bread we will likely recall the Exodus tale of the Israelites gathering manna – “what is it?” is what “manna” means in Hebrew – on the floor of the desert each morning.  The Lord their God promised them that even in the desolate wilderness, provision would be there.  Always enough.  For each household.  And the recollection of Old Testament writers was that “he who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little. Each one gathered as much as he needed” (Ex 16:18). Everyone had just enough.

There was a catch, though.  And the catch was that no one was to store the miracle bread up for the next day.  For if they did, it would immediately spoil.  And some of them did try to store it up.  The result?  The next day the bread was “was full of maggots and began to smell” (16:20).  And Moses was angry.

The bread “began to smell.”  What an apt description of the absence of simple trust.  It smells.  The act of gathering up manna, trying to save it for the next day, was an act of pure, straightforward unbelief.  Yahweh promised bread.  Daily bread.  Miracle provision.  On the floor of the desert.  They got it once.  But some did not trust that Yahweh would be Yahweh-for-them TOMORROW too.  They hedged their bets against God.  I think this broke God’s heart, deeply disappointing him.

I think we do this all the time.  We pray for provision, but it is not the “daily bread” sort of provision that Jesus calls us to pray for.  Instead, we pray that we’d get “that job” that pays really well.  And even though it is not wrong to pray for such things, yet in our hearts, if we’re honest, the reason that we’re praying for “that job” that pays really well is because we’re hoping to break out into a situation in which we no longer need to trust God for “daily bread”, because such trust is not comfortable.  It is precariously uncertain.

Perhaps you don’t know this, so it is worthwhile to say – God never intends to graduate us from moment-by-moment dependance on him.  We are called to live continually under the canopy of his care, and it is a sign that deep down we don’t really believe his goodness that we are constantly trying to escape that canopy and build our own.  

How ironic that the vehicle of our unbelief so often is prayer.  Prayer that is intended to unite us with the Father for many of us becomes yet one more way our mistrustful hearts find expression

Would to God that we would be able to pray, in simple trust, like children with their parents, “I’m going to need to eat today, Father.  Please make sure there’s enough for me.”

That is…

“Give us this day our daily bread.”

Praying with Jesus #7: The Kingdom

The first “requests” of the Lord’s Prayer are three, set in parallel:

  • Hallowed be Thy Name
  • Thy Kingdom come
  • Thy will be done

Parallelism is a common rhetorical device in Greek.  It is largely to indicate that we are talking about the same thing, but from a variety of viewpoints, each viewpoint mutually enriching the other and filling out the picture.

And with that, many of our “gospels” go on trial.  

There is a “gospel” afoot in our culture that makes salvation all about “the decision for Jesus” and the personal piety that follows.  The goal here is going to heaven when you die.  It is about making sure that you, and others, are “in”.

There is another “gospel” afoot in our culture that makes salvation all about working for “justice and peace”.  The goal here is making the world a better place.  It is about making sure that there is equal opportunity and fair treatment for all.

Jesus will have none of it, and the Lord’s Prayer is a sure indication of it… What he says in another place applies equally here: “What God has joined together, let man not put asunder.”

GOD’S DESIRE IS NOTHING LESS THAN THE RESTORATION OF ALL THINGS.  (See Revelation 21 and Paul, almost anywhere, for more on that.)  That is to say, his desire is for his universal reign to be made manifest throughout the cosmos.

But we must understand the nature of this reality.  There will be no lasting justice and peace apart from the hallowing of the Divine Name… no hallowing of the Divine Name that does not bring with the beginnings of justice and peace.

For when we speak of “the Kingdom”, we are speaking of the King being recognized as King (Hallowed be Thy Name) even as his rule is being made manifest among those who submit to his Kingship (Thy will be done).

“Thy Kingdom Come” is a profound prayer to pray.  On the one hand, it is most certainly a cry for the final “coming” of the Kingdom.  Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15 that a day is coming in which God the Son will “hand over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power” (v 24), the very last power to be destroyed, of course, being Death itself.  And then, he says, “the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all” (v 28).

Do you see it?  Oppression and injustice… Hunger and famine… Rape, neglect, and child abuse… all of it will vanish like the morning mist at the rising of the Sun… when God is universally glorified, the Creation will be universally restored.  With the Church we cry, “Come Lord Jesus!”, “Maranatha!”

But to pray this is not just to pray that “one day” that would happen.

It is to pray that anticipations of that Final Day would sprout up in the here and now.

That is to say, that WE would serve as anticipations, living embodiments, of that Final Day.  And in that same breath it is important to say that when I say “we”, I do not merely mean “each of us in our individual lives”, though that is true enough.  Remember that Jesus teaches us to pray out of and with the Church!  “OUR FATHER…”  

We are praying much more than personal, individual piety.  We are praying that the communities of faithful brothers and sisters in Christ which we inhabit would increasingly come to reflect the nature and substance of the Kingdom to which they bear witness.  We are praying that we would serve as a SIGN, and FORETASTE, and an INSTRUMENT of the coming Kingdom of God.

People should be able to wander into our communities and feel as though they’ve tasted heaven itself… anything less is a betrayal of our call.

“Thy kingdom come” then is a cry OF the Church, TO God, FOR the Church to make manifest in the here and now, the vision of John:

1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Rev 21)

All things new.  Among us.  Today.  Now.

Make it so Lord God.

Praying with Jesus #6: Hallowing the Divine Name…

Now that we’ve got the “To Whom” we pray part down (“Our Father who art in heaven”), Jesus begins to teach us the “For What” of prayer.  And it is noteworthy what he calls us to pray for:

hallowed be Thy Name,

Thy Kingdom come

Thy will be done

On earth as it is in heaven

“Hallowed be thy name” – literally, “let your Name be sanctified/set apart as holy.”  The first request is that God’s Name (which discloses his character) would be recognized and treasured as holy.  By us, in us, through us, and throughout the world.

These are not idle words.  This is not flowery language used to butter up God, putting him in a good mood so that when we get to the “real stuff” (our laundry list of narcissistic items for our life), he’ll be more inclined to answer.

No, this is bigger than that.  This is about God’s grand project of redemption.

We are told throughout the biblical narrative that Sin and Death came into the world because Adam and Eve, our first father and mother, turned their backs on God, seeking to be “like God” by eating the forbidden fruit.  The primal turn away from God, this original Usurpation, sent shock waves throughout Creation.

And we are still reaping its effects, for whenever and wherever human beings fail to “glorify God” and “give thanks to Him”, “exchanging the glory of the immortal God” for lesser gods (most often themselves), death, destruction and grief are the result (Rom 1).

Down through history, the Church’s teachers have always taught us that at Fall, the human will, created to submit to God, was warped… turned in on itself… so that instead of willing submission to God, we “will” ourselves, our drives, our passions, and our desires, as ends within themselves, divorcing them from the End for which they were made.

Fallen man does not worship and serve God

Instead he serves:

  • Money
  • Sex
  • Power
  • Greed
  • Ambition
  • Self-glorification
  • Pleasure

And on and on the list goes… it is not hard to see how the warping of the will is the fountainhead of global chaos.

With the result that Redemption, whatever else it entails, entails a BREAKING of the stubborn will so that it can “will” what it was originally meant to will… GOD.  We might say that worship is the first evidence of the soul’s return to God, and hence the first moment that Redemption begins to spill into the world.

Do you see why “hallowed be Thy Name” is first?  TO PRAY THIS PRAYER IS TO DIE WITH CHRIST OUT OF OUR OLD, WARPED, ADAMIC WILL, AND TO BE BORN AGAIN INTO THE SON’S LIFE LIVED TO THE FATHER (Rom 6), for of course the Son, the New Adam, always lives to glorify the Father.

“Hallowed be Thy Name” is call for repentance and rebirth into our true identity as creatures made by and for the Creator.  And when we pray it, we are invited to imagine (for so it is) that in our praying, Creation (we are made, after all, of the dust of the earth) is returning to its Maker.

Thanks be to God.

This is why, in my own devotional life, I do not begin with merely “talking to God” about whatever happens to pop into my head.  I begin by worshiping God with the Church, taking Psalms like this on my lips:

1 Praise the LORD, O my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
2 Praise the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits—
3 who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,
4 who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
5 who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Ps 103)

Or this:

1 Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD;
let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
2 Let us come before him with thanksgiving
and extol him with music and song.

3 For the LORD is the great God,
the great King above all gods.
4 In his hand are the depths of the earth,
and the mountain peaks belong to him.
5 The sea is his, for he made it,
and his hands formed the dry land.

6 Come, let us bow down in worship,
let us kneel before the LORD our Maker;
7 for he is our God
and we are the people of his pasture,
the flock under his care.

Today, if you hear his voice,
8 do not harden your hearts… (Ps 95)

Psalms like these invite me to step out of my usurpatious, narcissistic self-centeredness, and into a world in which I find my joy in being a creature made in the image of the Creator, called to live in submission to Him, a reflection of his life and character.

And oh what joy it is… to pray, “hallowed be Thy Name”, and to see that in the praying of that short phrase, the Redemption of the world is underway.  God is getting back what belongs to Him.

Gladly we yield ourselves.

May your Name be treasured and loved today Lord God.