You are not your name (reflections on our identity)

(Recently, my wife gave the commencement address for a local high school graduation. When I read her words I was deeply moved and knew I needed to share it here. Enjoy.)

Congratulations, graduating class of 2016!

Well done on your disciplined hard work that has brought you to this point..your high school graduation!

As students, you have done a lot of self-taught learning, I am sure.  But I believe there is also a word of gratitude and congratulations due  your parents and anyone else who has guided you along this educational journey over the past several years.

Well done, parents, other famfily members, teachers, tutors, mentors, administrators and anyone else I have forgotten to mention!

I am sure each person from this category of helpers would, or has already wished you well and offered their highest hopes for your continued future.  They have guided you with the hopeful expectation that your next few years will lead you toward a successful career that suits your gifts and talents and personal interests.

And actually, this may be your most challenging concern right now!  The mapped-out-for-you years for the most part are over and it is time to choose your own path!  You may have a college already picked out and plans for your major…or you may only be at the point of wondering what you will wake up and do tomorrow!  Wherever you are in this process of discerning your next steps, I am sure you feel the weight of those decisions.

Your educational, emotional, spiritual, and relational training thus far have been preparing you for such a time as this.

A time when you are about to enter a world full of expectations and demands. A world that will call you to a variety of challenges, and a world that will choose a name for you depending on your response to those challenges.

Yes, you have already experienced being named!  You have your given name…it may be one that was pleasing to your parents’ ears, or it may carry  specific meaning that they desired to impart on you.  You have your family name..the one you have inherited just by being born into your family.  This name can carry weight, right?  The Meyers never give up!  The Smiths are hard workers!  The Joneses are generous.   I am sure if you think upon it, you would come up with a phrase to communicate the weight that your name carries.

But there are also names like Smart. Diligent. Committed. Studious. Book Worm.  Distracted.  Hyperactive. Names you may have received as a student over the years.

And maybe there are names that were meant to sort of foretell your future!  You are an entrepreneur!  You are creative!  You are business-minded.  You are athletic.  You are a leader.

Not long ago I had a series of conversations with my four year old daughter.  “E, I have been watching you at the park and I notice that the other children follow you and want to do whatever you are doing.  You are a leader!”  A few days later after visiting the doctor we had this conversation, “E, I noticed you were very interested in all the details of the doctors office and the work they were doing.  Is becoming a doctor something you would like to do when you are older?”  Without hesitation, she responded, “No, Mama, I’m a leader!”

This is a sweet story, certainly, but it is also an example of how easy it is to make the names we have received our identity.

How easy it is for a simple observation about a quality you possess to lead to a name that leads to the formation of an identity.

For example, if you have been named as smart, you begin to take that on in ways like…”If I am smart, then what I have to offer the world is my intelligence.”  And that can lead to you wrapping your entire identity up in a name.  And this can lead to some pretty astounding life challenges.

In elementary and high school I was always called, “smart.”  School was something that I always felt good at.  I was self motivated and I was a hard worker and I received grades that proved that I was a hard worker..and “smart.”  This continued to be my “identity” throughout college as well.  But then when I graduated and started working jobs that didn’t give me grades and my hard work was no longer measured, I felt like no one saw me.  No one really knew me.  After several discouraging years, I finally came to realize that I was not my hard work.  I was not my intelligence.  I would meet a lot of people and they would not know these things about me…so who was I going to allow them to know?  What was my true identity.  What did I have to offer the world, no matter the situation or circumstances?  Yes, I am a hard worker, I am a pastor, I am artistic, I am…  But these characteristics..these names..cannot be my identity.

So I stopped striving to be a name I had given myself..or a name others had given me…and started striving to live into the name God had given me.

My desire for you is the same.

My desire for you and everyone young or old, is to seek the name God has given you.

In Mark 1:9-11, when Jesus was baptized, God imparted his identity onto Jesus.

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

And because we have been adopted as children of God, this message is for each of us!  “You are my child, whom I love and with whom I am well pleased.”

Graduates, you are daughters of a King! and he loves you and he is pleased with you.

What comes next?  What flows from receiving and living into the identity..the name..sons and daughters of God?  Obedience.

Jesus was given his identity and in the next verse he was sent out into the desert.  Jesus set forth in obedient action.

He had not done a single miracle or act of healing, he had not gathered his disciples or preached to the multitudes…yet his Father was already pleased with his son and blessed him with a name.

Wait a minute?  This feels a little backwards.  Don’t we…haven’t we been taught to…do in order to be?  The world says that identity comes from obedience.  If you study hard, then you will be a good student.  If you work hard, then you will be successful.  If you practice, practice, practice, then you will be a good athlete or musician.  And as females, there are the ones like.. If you put on your make-up and dress well and tone your body, then you will be beautiful.

But this if-then relationship to life is not true identity.  And if you allow this cultural understanding of identity to be the pattern by which you name yourself, I can tell you from experience, there will be disappointment and dissatisfaction in those names.  A name will never be able to carry the weight of who you truly are.  You may always feel like you fall short.  You will always need to work harder, practice more, dress better…the list will never end.

BUT, if you can leave here today remembering that you are not the sum of all your parts, so to speak, but that you are Becca, daughter of a King.  That you are Scott, son of a King.  And you are Amy, daughter of a King.  And that you are Sean, son of a King, then you can set forth on your journey of finding your place in this world with a much lighter load!

I don’t think this way of our culture will ever change.  Our world will continue to ask you to do in order to be.  There will always be an if-then expectation.  But you have been given the opportunity to live in the midst of this expectant world with the knowledge that your identity has already been given…not because you have earned it, but because your Father loves you and calls you his own.  Not having to earn the love of our Father through good behavior, hard work, good grades, etc.  you can then walk confidently in obedience to whatever, where ever,  he calls you next!

And as you set forth, know that we are here cheering you on!  Once again, congratulations!

(The foundation for Father/Identity/Obedience comes from the work of Mike Breen in his book, Building a discipleship culture.)

 

Lament, and why I’m not a protester.

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Sitting in the lobby of a hotel in downtown Kansas City, the memories of spiritual conversations still fresh in my mind, I had a moment of deep knowing. A moment when I felt God tugging me in a particular direction and to speak a particular message.

It was a tugging that terrified me. A call to be vulnerable and honest. Speaking uncomfortable truths.

As I wrestled with this call, I remember wondering what people’s responses to me would be. Would they grow angry with me? Would they resent me? Would I lose friendships? Would it cost my job?

In many ways, many of these came true (I’ve kept my job because, well, my church is amazing). For in doing my best to speak truthfully about uncomfortable situations, I’ve lost friendships, I’ve been publicly chastised, and been called names I don’t wish to repeat.

Most frequently, though, I’ve been told I’m a protester.

That I’m a disruptor of unity. That I’m endangering the Kingdom of God. That my actions will undo generations of work.

Protest. 

protester

Something never quite sat right about that word, though. After all, I never felt like a protester. From Dr. King protesting segregation, to Gandhi protesting British imperialism, to Malala protesting the subjugation and dehumanization of women in Pakistan (and in the Middle East), there are few things as powerful as protest.

Still, I never felt as though I was a protester; at least not fully. I felt like I was called to something different.

Recently, though, I was listening to a speaker talk about the book of Lamentations, and during his discussion, he quoted the work of Kathleen O’Connell, and all of a sudden, things came into beautiful focus. Kathleen says:

“Lamentation names what is wrong what is out of order in Gods world, what keeps human beings from thriving in all their creative potential. Simple acts of lament expose these conditions, name them open them to grief and anger and make them visible for remedy. In its complain and anger and grief, lamentation protests conditions that prevent human thriving and this resistance may finally prepare the way for healing.”

Lament as protest

Through the words of the Jewish prophets, we see a demonstration of women and men calling the powerful to account for the ways in which they’ve manipulated and abused the vulnerable.

We watch as these prophets name how religious leaders have distorted the law of God, taking something designed to give life, and warping it into something that allows the powerful more control. These prophets name the ways in which clergy misconstrued God’s heart and then call them to account for their hypocrisy.

These prophets gave a public demonstration of the power of lamenting.

The prophets showed what happens when someone fiercely and fearlessly names what’s wrong within a given system and a given heart.

The prophets show us lament is far more than simple weeping (though, there’s a great deal of that, too). Lamenting the practice of naming systemic wounds and brokenness, and dragging it out into the open, kicking and screaming.

This is a painful, but holy practice. It is holy because, it’s only when we lament that we’re fully able to find healing and life.

A Church called to lament

I believe the church desperately needs to be re-learn what it means to lament. We must practice the act of naming and confessing that which is broken. In many ways, this lament has already begun.

Clergy and non-clergy alike are beginning to speak out. Their souls becoming restless.

We lamenting the racial division so prevelant in our church services.

We lament how we’re unwilling to listen and speak on behalf of our minority brothers and sisters who suffer under the weight of systemic racism and injustice.

We lament the ways in which our system unequally represents our sisters called into vocational ministry.

We lament the prevalance of nationalistic idolatry in our church services.

We lament our preference for well-dress politicians at the expense of displaced refugees.

We lament exclusion and rejection of LGBTQ family and friends.

We lament the ways in which our systems have pushed out dissenting voices; choosing status quo over spiritual discernment; uniformity over sacramental unity.

We lament the ways in which we continue to choose legalism over grace.

Is there room for lament?

Here’s the thing about lament. It’s the most difficult work we’ll ever do. Rigorous honesty is painful, and those in power quickly grow frustrated with those who lament, growing tired of the hard questions, and weary of constant pushback.

Understandably, this creates friction.

Before we know it, those who lament are labled as troublemakers, accused of starting riots, and seen as only satisfied with burning the institution to the ground. Quickly, it becomes the sole desire of those who hold the power to silence and remove those who are calling the powerful to account.

However, we cannot avoid those who lament forever.

Lamenting abuses of power is a journey we all must take, and more specifically, this is a journey we can no longer afford to resist. Eventually, we’re going to either make this journey, or find our tribe irrelevant and spiritually dead.

Which church will we be?

Over the coming years, our tradition must ask a simple yet difficult question: Will we listen to those who lament?

Will we be willing to transition from a demand of cold and stagnant (American Holiness) legalism based perfection, into a beautiful life of confession and healing?

Will we call the powerful to account?

Will we allow ourselves to be humble, and in our humility, will we endure the pain of rigorous honesty.

For this is the only way to true healing. This is the only way to life. Because, contrary to what the American dream promises us, faith doesn’t move upward. It voluntarily walks into the dark.

Richard Rohr sums this life up perfectly:

The path of descent is the path of transformation. Darkness, failure, relapse, death and woundedness are our primary teachers rather than [more] ideas or doctrines.

Friends, let us lament, and in this lamenting, maybe we discover the path of transformation.

False Holiness and our Shadow Self

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Creative Commons: “Shadow” by Lolwaro974

A Shadow lurks within us. 

A shadow which follows us everywhere we walk. It’s present in our ever day comings and goings. In our meetings. Lurking in our prayers. Whispering in our ears during our lunch time conversations. Condemning us during a sermon. Celebrating our failures.

We all have a shadow.

Our wounds.

Our struggles.

Our pasts.

Our fears.

Our insufficiencies.

Guilt. Regret. Personal limitations.

There is no limit to the breadth and depth of our shadow. We know it. It knows us. We hate it, and the ultimate outcome is we come to hate ourselves.

Because we feel like an imposter.

The shadow is the imposter within us.

This imposter tells us that at any moment, someone is going to knock on our door and reveal to the world the ways in which we’re not as “perfect” as others think we are. The ways we’re not the leader we’re supposed to be. The ways in which we aren’t the Christian other’s expect us to be. The ways in which we doubt God.

There’s something we hate most, about our shadow, though. We hate what it forces us to recognize.

To know our shadow is to know our real selves.

And as a “holiness people” we want nothing more than to keep our “real selves” hidden, because our real selves scare the hell out of us. (well, we want it scared out of us…but rarely does that actually happen)

Shadow vs Separate

The Church, specifically churches in the holiness tradition (a tradition to which mine belongs), spends a great deal of time talking about holiness, but very little time talking about the existence of our shadow and how that relates to holiness.

Very rarely do we talk about the shadow self, because the shadow self makes us uncomfortable.

I’m not sure when it happened, but we’ve come to believe that somehow, to acknowledge the shadow within us, to acknowledge the imposter is to deny the holy work of God within us.

However, nothing could be further from the truth.

The shadow self is not the enemy of the journey of faith.

Our separate self is.

Let me explain.

The separate self is an elevator.

The separate self is the part of ourselves which desires to be more than, or better than, or superior to, or distinct from.

The separate self, when described this way, feels very American, doesn’t it?  But even then, most will recoginze the ways in which this falls short of the full dependence and surrender to Christ we’re called to as Christ-followers.

However, whether we want to admit it or not, we church people are far more comfortable with living out the separate self than we are living out the shadow self. Because its easier to manipulate and conceale the separate self, and in this distortion, we can begin to look a whole lot more holy.

Separateness, at least outwardly, seems more holy than brokeness.

Richard Rohr describes our tendency to elevate the separate self this way:

“The separate self is the problem whereas most religion and most people make the shadow self the problem. This leads to denying, pretending and projecting instead of real transformation into the divine.”

The Gospel is the realization that our shadow is our glory.

Our shadow is the means by which Christ reveals himself most deeply to his creation. Our shadow is the way in which our Father in heaven most viscerally comes into contact with the most wounded and broken places within us- the parts which exposes our humanity.

We see shadow engagement through the Gospels.

We see Jesus engaging the shadow self when he talks with the woman at the well. We see it  when he engages a post-denial Peter around a campfire. We see it when Jesus invites a doubtful Thomas to touch the wounds on his palms.

The gospel is the story of Jesus coming into contact, not with those who were separate and outwardly holy, but rather those who cast the longest of shadows. Those who have the deepest wounds.

As Richard Rohr said,

“God uses [our] shadow self to bring [us] to himself…Our wounds are our glory. They are the hole in our souls which lets God in.”

In a religious world which speaks of holiness as “correct behavior,” it becomes a great liberating force when we realize the most holy requirement made of Christ followers is humility and honesty.

The call to recognize, humbly, the ways in which we’re broken, and to be rigorously honest about our wounds. This humility and honesty leaves us nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide. And in our standing exposed, we experence the deepest healing of our Father.

Thanks be to God.

Setting a table in the Valley of Death: This pastor’s journey with depression and anxiety

 

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A couple times a year, articles circulate on social media shared from an outside source which cite some frightening statistics.

For instance.

• 70% of pastors constantly fight depression.

• 50% of pastors feel so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could, but have no other way of making a living.

• 50% of the ministers starting out will not last 5 years.

• 1 out of every 10 ministers will actually retire as a minister in some form.

Now, these statistics are often shared generously by fellow clergy. They’re accompanied by comments like, “churches take care of your pastors!” Rare is the pastor, though, who will say, “Hey, guys…I’m struggling here. And I want to invite you into this struggle.”

Pastors don’t say it, because pastors don’t feel like they can.

They feel like they need to be perfectly together for the congregation. They need to be an idealized version of a christian.

And so pastors hide.

And somewhere along the line, I realized that as a pastor, if I ask for honesty from my congregants, but never lived it out myself, I’d be a hypocrite.

More importantly, if I as a pastor, don’t invite you into my life, we will miss out on something beautiful. We miss out on the community of faith becoming a community of healing.

So today I’m going to invite you into my life. Into my mind. But more than that, I’d like to invite you into what God has been teaching me. This isn’t theory. It’s not something I’ve just read in a commentary. It’s real life blood, sweat and tears.

I am depressed and suffer from anxiety.

I’m not exactly sure all the reason why I suffer from depression and anxiety, however my guess is it’s part genetic and a mixture of a few other things.  Not knowing the “why” doesn’t change the fact that it’s there. Present. Walking with me most of my days.

Some days are better than others. Some days are worse than others.

Some days it’s a buzzing deep in my chest, other days it’s completely debilitating. Leaving me unable to think or function in any normal or meaningful way.

Like anyone who suffers, in these moments, I often find myself asking questions of God:

“God, why is this happening to me?”

“God, why haven’t you healed me?”

“God, where have you gone?”

We pray these prayers in so many areas of our lives, don’t we?

Sickness.

Grief.

Heartbreak.

Sadness.

Depression.

Anxiety.

The ways in which we find ourselves suffering are as numerous as the number of people who suffer.

Somewhere along the way, the church found itself telling people who suffer that simple faith will heal you and make you whole (just this past week I heard a sermon given in our denomination saying this very thing). Sermons are preached and small groups taught telling us that if a person just believes enough, God will respond and healing will take place.

And so we pray. We, God’s children, pray. Begging, pleading, asking with tears in our eyes for our father to make us whole.

Then, when we once again find ourselves in the middle of the pain, we find our pain has brought a friend. Guilt.

We begin to carry shame from our lack of faith in the power of God.

Because God can’t heal us if we don’t believe deeply enough.

This is a lie I believed for the longest time. This recently has begun to change, much due to a beautiful song of David.

Psalm 23. 

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

He makes me lie down in green pastures,

he leads me beside quiet waters,

he refreshes my soul.

He guides me along the right paths

for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk

through the darkest valley,

I will fear no evil,

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff,

they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me

in the presence of my enemies.

You anoint my head with oil;

my cup overflows.

Surely your goodness and love will follow me

all the days of my life,

and I will dwell in the house of the Lord

forever.

My whole life, I’ve read this psalm as if it’s a single movement. Recently, though, I discovered Psalm 23 isn’t one. No, it’s three.

Three movements. Three acts. These acts go like this:

First act, we read:

 

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

    He makes me lie down in green pastures,

he leads me beside quiet waters,

    he refreshes my soul.

He guides me along the right paths

    for his name’s sake.


In this act, life is beautiful and good. The world is filled with green pastures. Gentle, running, streams.

One can almost taste the clean mountain water, and can smell the dew in the early morning air.

These are the moments when we sit in the stillness and quiet of the moment and we are overwhelmed by the goodness of God.

God is here in these beautiful moments, and in them, he restores us.

We love to experience faith here, and once we find ourselves here, we fight like mad to stay here. Unfortunately, the spiritual life doesn’t linger in green pastures nor beside still waters.

The spiritual life often moves to a darker place. The second act.

Even though I walk

    through the darkest valley,

I will fear no evil,

    for you are with me;

your rod and your staff,

    they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me

    in the presence of my enemies.

Darkness.

Valleys.

Fear.

Enemies.

Oh, we understand this place, don’t we?

We know what it feels like to feel assaulted by the enemy. Seen and unseen alike.

The red eyes in the darkness surrounding us.

Sickness unrelenting.

Anxiety paralyzing.

Depression suffocating.

Sadness life sucking.

Oh, we know this part all too well. This valley can become so familiar.

And in the third act we read:

You anoint my head with oil;

    my cup overflows.

Surely your goodness and love will follow me

    all the days of my life,

and I will dwell in the house of the Lord

    forever.

This is a beautiful way to end this psalm.

Images of anointing, healing, goodness, love, and a place to belong in the house of the Lord.

We want this.

We crave this.

But the question becomes, how do we move from the valley death into the goodness of the house of the Lord?

We want our lives to be filled with the good, and often we’re told we can claim that good, and God will give us this good.

How many times have we, in the middle of the darkest moments of our lives, been told by a well-meaning family member or friend that we can “do all things through him who gives me strength?”

And how often do we feel as though this well intentioned comment cheapens the pain we’re in? Makes us feel like we are the problem. That our pain is the result of our own failure? Faith not enough.

And so, in our pain, we push into greater effort. Striving, working, pushing to walk ourselves out of hell.

Here’s the thing, though. It was never about working ourselves out of hell. 

It was about something different.

To understand this, let’s look at this psalm again.

Theologian, James Meade points out something beautiful here.

“In Psalm 23, we find there are fifty-five Hebrew words in this psalm, and unlike many other psalms almost none repeat.

Only the Hebrew words for “Lord” (vv. 1, 6), “day” (v. 6, twice), and possibly “restore/return” (vv. 3, 6, NRSV “dwell”) are repeated.

It’s as if the poet were given a list of some fifty words and told to write the most memorable poem in human history.

Moreover, a total of fifty-five words creates a precise center (the 28th word), namely, “you,” in reference to the Lord.”

“You are with me.”

It’s as if the whole psalm was built around this understanding of “God with us.”

More than this, it’s built around this understanding of God with us wherever we actually, specifically are. This beautifully given shape and form through the line, “You prepare a table before us in the presence of our enemies.”

You see, when we move out of the pastures and the rolling hills and walk down into the darkness of the valley, it’s everything we can do not to run away screaming.

When we’re attacked, and when we’re assaulted on all sides, we plead for God to bring judgement upon them. The psalms are filled with these sorts of pained requests. “Kill my enemies. Bring judgement on them. Lift me out of this pain.” the Psalmist often writes.

But psalm 23 reminds us that, more often than not, God not only doesn’t airlift us out of the valley, he often choses to set up a dinner table in the middle of our hell.

He actually moves into the darkness with us.

He sits there, eating with us, sitting in the pain and the sorrow with us.

I love the way pastor and theologian, Tim Keller says it:

“While other worldviews lead us to sit in the midst of life’s joys, foreseeing the coming sorrows, Christianity empowers its people to sit in the midst of this world’s sorrows, tasting the coming joy.”

This God-enabled grace to sit in the midst of pain in holy anticipation is seen all the way through scripture.

Early we quoted Philippians 4:13. A verse frequently offered to those suffering as a “pick-me-up” to pull themselves up and feel better about life.

But the context is important. Leading up to this passage we read (v. 10-13):

I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

If anyone suffered, it was Paul.

In a letter to another Church, paul wrote more about these “troubles.” He said:

I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.

I wish I could tell you that the Christian life is free from struggle.

I wish, desperately, that I could tell you that every time you sit in the valley, darkness surrounding you, that God will come in and swoop you out of it.

I wish I could tell you that faith alone will deliver you from the worst parts of this life. The most painful parts.

But I can’t. I can’t tell you faith will alway heal you. I can’t tell you faith will always deliver you from the hell in which you sit.

This isn’t consistent with what we understand about the life of a Christ follower.

But I can promise you this.

In the middle of the fire, the storm, the disease, the anxiety, the fog, the depression, the fear, the tension, the despair, God is with you. Near you. Suffering with you.

I want to direct you, one last time, back to our Psalm.

More specifically to the first verse, the middle verse and the last verse.

The lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

I will fear no evil, for you (The Lord) are with me.

I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

When you begin to see the way in which the Psalmist structures and repeats his words, you begin to see a truth emerging…and that’s a portrait of the divine shepherd who is there at the beginning, the middle, and the end of our journey.

In the good, and in the bad. In the lightest and darkest.

Amongst friends and darkest enemies.

You are not alone, my friends. Take hope.

Wounding Words: Reflecting on how the church has verbally wounded “the other.”

I recently shared a few thoughts with a group of pastors and lay leaders regarding the church and the ways we speak of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. It was a hopeful and redemptive conversation. While I cannot share the details of that conversation (it was had in a private group), I wanted to share my initial post in hopes it spurs more conversation.

May we move forward in love and unity.  

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We’re at a place as a culture, and as a denomination where we’re no longer able to ignore what’s happening all around us. The issue of sexuality, once considered simple and black and white, is becoming more and more complex. For a few moments, through the lens of the church, and speaking of as a pastor, I ask we consider a few realities:

-1 in 1500-2000 births (or about 180,000 people in the US alone) are born with both male and female reproductive organs. Upon birth, the doctor selects their gender without knowing what they will emotionally and physically be attracted to.

-Of this significant number of people, nearly 41% consider or have attempted suicide.

 Speaking of the LGBTQ community in general:

-They have escalated rates of self-harm (2.5x the national average), addiction (3x the national average), and bullying (86%).

-There are roughly 320,000 homeless LGBTQ youth each year (40% of the the entire homeless youth population), and many of them are homeless due to being forced out of their religious homes.

Over and over again, we claim that our denomination cares for the well-being of LGBTQ folks. We claim to be a people who value life. We claim that we want to be a safe place for those who are wrestling with tough issues, and asking difficult questions. We claim that we desire to welcome people as they are, and we believe God will move them along.

I do believe the church is honest in their desire to be that sort of church, however I believe it needs to be admitted and named that we are self-sabotaging our efforts. We, over and over again, make statements about “the gays.” We suggest someone who is trans is simply “choosing” to be the other gender so they can be pervy in the other genders bathroom. We call them gross, confused and when talking about their “sin” we lump them in with child-molesters and pedophiles. (Note: I’ve heard every single one of these statements in the past year from those who are otherwise good and kind Nazarene clergy and leaders)

Do we not see the ways we’re contributing to the above mentioned stats? Do we not see that in our careless conversations we’re pushing the dagger deeper and one day will have to stand before Christ and account for every single one of these reckless words and tragically lost lives? That blood is on our hands.

We’ve placed a “heavy yoke” on their shoulders, telling them if they chose to enter out buildings they’re welcome, but we tell them if they “really want to belong” they better expect to change (with the implication of that change being quickly) rather than helping them learn to trust and follow the working of the spirit in their own life.

This leads me to an increasingly life or death question:

Do we actually want to be like Christ?

Because until we’re willing to fight for the dignity of a group of people (who are literally slaughtering themselves), and until we’re willing to defend them from those who seek to demean them, wound them, and cast them aside (many of which are in our churches), we’ll never live into our claims of being Christ-like. We’ll be more like the pharisees looking to stone the woman than we will be the Messiah leading her into transformation.

We are the crowd: A Palm Sunday reflection.

palm branch

Matthew 21:1-9

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

“Say to Daughter Zion,

    ‘See, your king comes to you,

gentle and riding on a donkey,

    and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”

The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”

 

We are the crowd. 

This is uncomfortable for us to admit it. I mean, it’s easier when it’s those people…in that passage…all those years ago.

It’s easier when it’s them. Not us.

We read the story of them celebrating Jesus on a donkey…all while knowing the next part of the story.

We know the cheers turn to boos.

We know the palm leaves turn to fists and whips.

Cries of Hosanna- God save us turn to cries of “Crucify him!”

This crowd was witnessing the messiah arriving.

And they had their minds set on what this meant. This would be a king and a kingdom which would overthrow Rome.

It would set the Jewish nation free.

It would unburden them from Rome’s tax.

It would establish them as a light on a hill. A beacon in the darkness. An empire stronger than any other.

It would be the might of Israel. Not the might of Rome.

And so, “Hosanna,” they said.

Save us.

Restore us.

Make us great again!

A king arrives. Our day has come. The king is here.

The Problem is he wasn’t what they had hoped and dreamed about…

Christ arrived, but not to overthrow Rome. No, he arrived in order that he might die.

Willingly.

sacrificially.

Unceremoniously.

This was not the way of a King. Kings don’t lose. Kings aren’t losers.

Kings are winners.

They squash opposition. They overcome obstacles. They overthrow tyrants. The destroy empires.

Jesus, by all respects and purposes, by the opinion of his day- and, well, any day- felt like a lousy messiah.

One would have to wonder, as we’re neck deep in political season, what we would think about a candidate like Jesus.

A candidate, a messiah, who’s central platform is

“turn the other cheek,

love your enemy and pray for your persecutors.

That the last will be first, and the first, last.

That his kingdom is for the depressed, brokenhearted, sick, peacemakers and merciful.”

Something tells me we wouldn’t know what to do with that sort of message.

We know the crowd didn’t know how to deal with it. 

They realized he wasn’t what they were expecting. He wasn’t the warrior. He was a lamb. The only blood he was willing to shed was his own.

So they turned on him.

Crucify him! They cried.

This man cannot be our king.

He will not be our king.

Really, we haven’t changed that much since then.

Palm Sunday is a reminder that we don’t know what do with jesus.

We’re reminded that, after the euphoria and the excitement, we’re not always sure if we’re willing to walk to the cross with jesus.

We’re far more comfortable with a messiah who will make us rich. Or make us popular. Or wise. Or powerful.

We’re comfortable with a savior who doesn’t ask too much and does open too many closet doors. We’re comfortable with a surface level Christ.

We have a beautiful moment of hosanna…when we realize Grace has welcomed us.

But cry crucify him when we realize the cost. That he’s come to open the windows and shake out the rugs.

It’s hard work, this Christ-led-kingdom.

It’s messy, and painful and leaves us often feeling as though we’re losing ground.

It’s easier hanging on the surface.

Our friends are getting a Bentley and we’re…we’ll, we’re wondering if we chose the right horse to bet on.

Palm Sunday, though, is about a truth that the crowd didn’t understand…and a truth we often forget, too.

Christ is saving us from ourselves. And he was willing to go to the cross to do it. 

And so today, as we sang hosanna- Save Us- we must also understand that we participated in the “crucify him.”

But it’s towards this crucifixion that Jesus walked voluntarily.

It’s the restoration and completion of the Covenant that he is bringing about.

The thing Abraham only dreamt of.

The thing David sang about.

Jesus is bringing into reality.

And it was done through the nails and a cross.

And the cries of us all. Crucify him.

Book Review: “Theology of Luck”

Note: Last summer I was approached about the possibility of being a reviewer of Theology of Luck. Hearing only great things about the book, I eagerly accepted. However, life being life, I find myself sitting here, nearly a year later, having never written this review. I want to make it a point to bring to the forefront that the authors, Jeff Lane and Rob Fringer, were extremely gracious and forgiving (even when I gave them little reason to be so). So, I eagerly implore you, read this review, and go buy their book. Your investment couldn’t go to better people, and this is a book very much worth your hard-earned money.

Theology of luck

Why does God let good things happen to bad people?

Why does God let bad things happen to good people?

Does God even care about us?

Is God even in control?

These questions have run through the minds of most who have taken the journey of faith. As pastors, we’ve comforted the grieving as they bury a child, a spouse, friend or loved one. We’ve sat in hospital rooms, weeping over and praying for the beautiful child laying on the sterile hospital bed. Struggling through tears and fears, to answer the questions (from others, and from ourselves) about the obvious injustice of a 5 year old little girl caught in a losing battle with leukemia.

“Why them, God?” we ask.

This is the cry of the human heart. This, the sincere longing for understanding. I mean, if God is so powerful, so wise, and so loving, how can these tragedies happen?

This internal struggle can lead us to a terrifying proposition:

Either God is all powerful and not all loving.

Or

God is all loving but not all powerful.

Does it have to be this way? I mean, there has to be more to God, pain and suffering than a simple binary answer, right?

This is the question Rob Fringer and Jeff Lane attempt to answer in their latest work, Theology of Luck: Fate, Chaos, and Faith.

Breaking it down

Theology of Luck is separated into three sections with three chapters each.

Those sections being: (1) Movement from fate to faith, (2) the movement from magic to mystery, and (3) movement from destiny to desire. On the journey through these sections, the reader is invited to explore the differences between luck and fate, unpack our theology of “inadequate faith” (the understanding that God only gives good things to those who have enough faith), and in the midst of it all, discovered what it is we are created to become (our purpose and what it means to live fulfilled lives).

Each chapter uncovers, unpacks and sheds light on some of the most destructive and wound-inflicting theologies we Christ-followers come in contact with (as well as internally struggle with ourselves).

What I loved about this book

I found myself moved at many points during this book. However, I was deeply impacted by the work in chapter eight; examining what it means to be called by God. The parse the difference between occupation and ones “calling.” The authors worked through how God desires for each of us to live out our “calling” no matter our specific “vocation.” It is irrelevant whether a person finds their paycheck coming from their hours spent as a lead pastor, construction worker, banker or baker, the work we do, is our calling.

Often, church folks can fall into the trap of believing the only ones “called” by God are the ones who stand up front, behind the pulpit, and draws a salary from the church. Fringer and Lane, however, argue our calling is much more inclusive than we often imagine.

They brilliantly quote Frederick Buechner when he wrote:

There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than the voice of society, say, or the superego or self-interest.

…The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you [find your work rewarding], you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work [does not benefit others], the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). However, if you work [does benefit  others], you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re [unhappy with] it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your [customers] much either.

…The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meets. (p. 149-150)

Summary

Ultimately, the greatest contribution made by Theology of Luck is the brilliant way Fringer and Lane wrestle with what it means to be in participation with our heavenly Father’s mission in the world. As a pastor, as a Christian, and as someone who wrestles with who God is and what his character looks like, I found this book deeply meaningful and comforting. I could not recommend a book more highly.

I give this book 5 out of 5 stars.