A Prayer for Our Military: National Day of Prayer 2016

Oh God, our God, you have told us that there is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends. Lord, bless those that take that risky invitation freely and put their life on the line in duty and service to others. Currently, our military faces a landscape that is more complicated and more diverse in threats than ever before. Scattered across the globe, we are engaged in the longest continuous period of conflict in the history of our nation. Separated by hemispheres and oceans, we remember those engaged in operations abroad. Lord, watch over the nearly 4000 troops deployed in Iraq, 300 troops deployed in Syria, and nearly 10,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan. Combined with troops deployed and stationed at countless forts, bases, and ports across the world, the need for prayer is never ending and overwhelming and we pray for the peace that will bring them all safely home. For our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen, and Veterans, be their refuge and their stronghold.  

We grieve for the heroes that will not come home and now leave spaces in our hearts and our formations. This Tuesday, we received news that we lost another hero, Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Charlie Keating IV, in a heroic defense of American combat advisors in Iraq who were pinned down by ISIS militants. We honor his sacrifice and the life he offered freely. However, we’re reminded that our enemies are not only found in the deserts across the world, but in our own backyards. Last year alone, 475 service members took their own lives. This is a staggering loss as we continue to kill ourselves faster than our enemies can. In your mercy, Lord, hear our prayers. The suicide rate for our citizen reserve and guard soldiers rose by over 24% this year and our veterans continue to commit suicide at rates nearly 50% over the national average. This cannot continue. The primary enemy and threat to our military is not extremism or proliferation, it’s apathy, hopelessness, and isolation. These are enemies that we have tolerated for too long and cannot tolerate any more. We can fight these enemies ourselves and the work needs to start today. Let us move with you, God, from prayer to significant action.  

Wherever the mission carries our heroes, Lord, be one in whom they can trust. Be the one who will not abandon them and will not give up on them. Allow them to find refuge in your wings in the midst of battles both external and internal. Do not let them fear the terrors at night and the arrows that fly in the day. Remain right beside them. Across our world and our nation, allow every service member to know the assurance of your promise to them, to hear them, to be with them in whatever hell they find themselves and rescue them. You’ve guaranteed your protection, now please answer their thoughts and their prayers, especially the ones without words. Be with them in troubling times and fill them with old age and stories that through them we might see the testimony and the work of your salvation.

-CH (CPT) S. Arthur Harrison 

Feature photo “Military Carosel Golden Tank” by Daryn Labier 

It is finished

One of the top stories on AL.com this morning was an article written by Greg Garrison called, “Why do they call it Good Friday?”  It’s a great article and the author does a great job explaining context, theology, and tradition.  I appreciated the explanation and the question being asked in such a public way; however, I found myself taking it a different direction.  I wasn’t sure that even with the answers in front of me that I understood it.  Explaining the meaning of the cross of Jesus doesn’t help me to understand it.  I want to sit with it.  Wrestle with it.  I want to consider the cross and what Jesus’ last words, “It is finished” mean to me.

We have gotten slightly uncomfortable with mystery and I am the first to begin trotting with anxiety to my nearest Google search bar to satisfy my curiosity and questions.  This isn’t a question that google can answer.  Why is the day that God died a good day?  We can look up generations and ages of beautiful and thorough theological thoughts to find an adequate response, but in other ways it’s more a question of perspective and experience.  I am far away.  Any answer that I come up with wouldn’t be able to touch or respond to the agony and the grief of those crowds, disciples, and family members that gathered on that deadly hill and saw their Savior die.  To those witnesses, in that moment, there was very little that was good.  On that first day, the finality of the cross was crushing.  There wasn’t 2000 years of explanation to comfort us and tell us that everything is going to be alright, Sunday is coming.  I imagine when Mary went home that night, she didn’t thank God for grace and for forgiveness.  She was probably closer to feeling the words that she heard from her son, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  She probably had to be carried home from trauma rather than walking back in victory.  If Mary slept at all, it was out of exhaustion and grief rather than peace and assurance.  The comfort and anticipation that we have of a few days later was dead to her.

“It is finished.”  To us, those words are a transitional movement.  They are an accomplishment of one part of Christ’s ministry before another that starts with angels and large stones being rolled away.  To the disciples and others, “it is finished,” hung in the air like death.  Their thoughts immediately went to scattering and survival.  Let’s not distance ourselves too much though.  Even with over two millennia of story that tell us that everything is going to be alright, we know that feeling too well.  We know what hopelessness feels like.  Maybe we know the next chapter of the cross in our minds, but we all have moments in our lives that feel like we’re at the foot of that cross and our hope is stolen and murdered.  We’re not so far away.  We know how Friday can feel.

There are circumstances in this life that we don’t feel are ever going to change.  We can push, fight, cry, and yell all we want.  We can know all the right answers, even the disciples had been told it would be alright, but when you’re in the midst of a battle, it’s hard not to recognize that sinking feeling of death when you know you’re on the losing end.  You feel beaten.  You feel finished when the words from the cross echo through us, “It is finished.”  We are finished.

Sometimes hope is so very hard to see.   Sometimes hope looks like death.   But hope is not so easily finished.  The words that we take as loss and death keep ringing and hanging over us, too stubburn to fade away.  “It is finished.”  Those words contain the seeds of Good News.  They are not words about us.  They are words for us.  We are not finished yet.  Rather, the power that death and hopelessness had over us is finished.  The chains that addictions have over us is finished.  The power that anger and stress have over us to crush us and crush those around us is finished.  Every voice, diagnosis, and debt that told us that we are not capable of being made new again is finished.  It’s broken, helpless, and impotent.  We can know the explanations of why Good Friday is good, but until we’ve felt what it’s like to have what’s bent, broken, and dead in our lives redeemed and given a taste of recreation, our perspective of the cross will always fall short of eternal.

Our story stretches thousands of years to the cross of Jesus, and before that, to the first moments of creation when God wanted to be with us.  We are the ones who sit in a mystery.  We see beyond ourselves.  We look upon death and still see hope.  We are the ones who can look at a veiled, tortured and absent God and know that he is still king.  We are the ones that endure as a flickering light in the darkness so that others may see a sense of hope and steadiness.  On this Good Friday, rather than just answering the question, why is it good that God died, we can start to show the world.  We can be the ones who stand watch for three days and care for those who still tremble.  We can be the ones who leave here today with a story and a purpose that God is not finished with us yet.   A new day has come.  A new type of Friday.  A Good Friday.

*the feature picture is from Flickr image share sourced on Google images

I am thirsty

Taste has a way of taking us back.  A bite of home cooked bread, or the first sip of our favorite drink has a way of awakening a pool of memories and thoughts.  Within my family, occasions like New Years are remembered by the taste of smoked salmon and cheese fondue.  I can tell you whose birthday party I’m at by what kind of birthday cake is being served.  I even remember when my sisters and I were kids, the first time I ever had skim milk was at my grandmother’s house splashed over a bowl of Frosted Flakes.  I knew what my cereal was supposed to taste like and it wasn’t whatever was swimming around in my bowl.  To this day, I cannot stand the taste (or lack thereof) of skim milk, but I always remember that moment whenever I see a carton.  Taste has a way of tying us into our memories in a unique and powerful way.  In light of Holy Week and especially Maundy Thursday and the last supper, it’s fascinating what role and position taste plays in the story.  Let’s talk about the two last things Jesus tasted before he died.

In the gospel of John, the last request and the last sensation that Jesus has other than pain is taste.  His last statement of need or want is contained in John 19:28, “I am thirsty.”  When we look at the words in light of the last taste and the last cup that Jesus took for himself before this moment, they take on a significant position in the passion story.  It was presumably around the table with his disciples the night before, during the meal where Jesus shared broken bread and a cup of shared wine that Jesus experienced his last taste before the cross.   The wine at the table, he was surrounded by those he loved and cherished.  The sour wine at the cross soaked into a sponge suspended on a stick of hyssop, he was surrounded by guards and those filled with hate.

These two last drinks of wine bookend what the gospel of John calls Jesus’ final hour.  On the front end, the scriptures beginning in John 13 say, “Before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.”  On the back end in 19:28, on the cross, when he asks for his last drink, it says, “When Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said, ‘I am thirsty.’”  What lies between the wine at the table and the wine on the cross is the final lesson, the final commandment that Jesus left for his followers, and I believe left for us.  “Love one another.”  Love each other like I loved you.  This is how others will know that you are my disciples, by the way you love each other (John 13:31-35).

Jesus demonstrated most fully what this love looked like when during that final meal and around their last cup together, Jesus rose and took off his outer robe.  He tied a towel around his waist and began to wash his disciples’ feet.  After he finished, he put his robe back on, returned to the meal and told them, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have set an example that you should also do as I have done to you (John 13:14-15).

With this last commandment and this last example of a love that is humble and deep, Jesus finalizes his preparation for the church.  Then, he gives it away.  He gives away the church to us.  He asks for us only to kneel, wrap a towel around our waist and serve each other out of the love that he has for us.  He asks us to love in such a way that when others who are searching and hurting say, “I am thirty”, rather than sour wine, they can find the source of living water and the cup that runs over with God’s grace.  It says they will know where to look by the way we love each other.

And so I wonder, as that sour wine, suspended on the stick of hyssop, as it wet his mouth, did the taste and wetness stir his memories as we know that taste does with ours?  Did scenes flash of his last drink with his friends?  Did the taste bring back through the pain and through the exhaustion a memory of the first moments of his ministry when he turned water into wine?  Wine to wine, a sense of completion through the agony.  One last, painful, futile, sour taste and human comfort before the end.  All was complete.  What he loved, the people, the church, are cared for and in another’s hands now.  Our hands. We continue the ministry and the life of God when we cannot see him and cannot find him with the help of the Holy Spirit and the help of each other.  We hold the kingdom in trust together, gathering around a table to remember and taste what God has done for us.  We break the bread of community and sacrifice and share the cup of salvation so that others may come and taste that the Lord is good.

feature picture from: http://request.org.uk/festivals/holy-week-and-easter/maundy-thursday-in-the-church/

Shouting Louder Than Rocks

Palm Sunday is the day when all of the stories and the miracles begin to point in one focused, clear, direction, Jesus to Jerusalem, and then Jesus to the cross.  The movement of the story has brought us to the gates of the city of which Jesus will not leave until his ascension.  Roots of the story stretch back decades earlier, as the people yell, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.  Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven.”  We are reminded of the chorus of heavenly angels that escorted Jesus into this world and announced his arrival saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth, peace, goodwill among the people.”  Jesus is arriving to his death with the same purpose that he arrived in this life, to bring peace, salvation and life for us all.

Peace is a funny thing.  As we follow Jesus from the top of his donkey into Jerusalem, peace doesn’t seem to be what he stirs up.  In fact, Jesus begins to agitate a lot of the tension and friction that is already vibrating in the city as soon as he arrives.  The festival of Passover is just around the corner.  The city is filling with pilgrims and vendors and the Romans respond with more Soldiers, more Swords, and more rules.   The faithful and the political are gathering from all over the countryside to worship and remember liberation and God’s deliverance of His people from the hands of an oppressive empire.  Imagine the irony and the tension as the crowds of Jewish faithful celebrate their deliverance while still staring down the point of a Roman short sword.  “Remember, don’t celebrate your freedom, too freely now.”  Jesus doesn’t bring peace into this already heated tension.  His followers steal a donkey, though they insist it’s for a good cause.  His disciples stir up the crowd with revolutionary and bombastic chants.  Even, if we read ahead to the end of the chapter, the first thing Jesus once he arrives in the city is overthrow all the tables and cages in the temple and drive out the money changers.  Peace on earth indeed.

When we look beyond Jerusalem to the entire scope of Jesus’ life, not much has changed in terms of peace.  Jesus is still stirring up trouble and people are still trying to kill him for it.  Whether it’s one king or another, one religious authority or another, peace seems so elusive for this king that was supposedly going to change the world.  However, one small thing is different.  Maybe not the kings, guards, walls, and politics, but something significant and powerful.  The voices of the people are different.  The voices that are singing Jesus’ arrival are different.  They have taken up the song that the angels used to sing about Jesus.  What the shepherds were told about Jesus by angels is now the testimony of crowds of followers as Jesus rides into the city.  Here is the prince of peace, here is the king who has brought peace, (maybe not to the kingdom), but to my life.  Jesus is surrounded by a whole multitude of disciples that have learned from him, followed him, told stories about him, and they sing about him because their lives have peace.  “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.  Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven.”

As we spend time with Jesus, our voice changes.  As we experience the peace and love of God that we were once told about for the first time, our way of seeing the world and experiencing peace is forever changed.  We are like the crowds that gather around Jesus, where he was once announced by angels, he is now announced by sinners, broken people, sick people, depressed people, who have for a moment experienced exactly who Jesus said he was and now can’t help but tell the story and the good news of what God has done for us.  The angels song is now the people’s song.  They become so loud and so disruptive that the Pharisees tell Jesus to calm them and he says, “if they were silent, the stones would still cry out.”

We are the voice of what God has done in the world.  Speaking not only of how God has changed something within us, but that even now when we could be facing the worst week of our lives, we are the ones with the voice and the purpose to declare that we are at peace because we are free even in the face of circumstances that demand otherwise.  The empire has no power over us anymore.

As the season of Lent draws to a close, we are at the gate of the city of Jerusalem, a city that kills the prophets, and we still have a voice of hope.  We are the broken and bent ones who surround Jesus as he nears the city and declare that peace and hope have comes into the world.  We announce the arrival and the freedom of God, even when it’s hard to feel free.  What has God done for you?  What is your story that you declare with the way you lives your life.  What is worth waving your palm and laying down your coat?  What is your story of when God set you free?  Maybe it’s still unfolding and you’re willing to walk a ways to see where this road ends up.  I believe a walk with God ends in peace and hope and that’s a gift and story worth sharing.  Tell someone this week about how far you’ve come.  Share your story this week with a friend, a spouse, or a child and tell them that there’s hope in life even in the midst of chaos and violence.  If we don’t do it, the rocks will have to do it for us and surely we can shout louder than a rock.

Dirty Fingerprints

This past Ash Wednesday was the third time that I’ve had the chance as a pastor to impose ashes onto the foreheads of believers who desired their first steps into the season of Lent to be steps of repentance and preparation.  When I was in their shoes, I remember standing in line and wondering why I was doing this,  and not even really being clear on why it was being done to me.  It seemed sacred and important.  I couldn’t explain it if someone asked, but I felt that I was a part of something significant when it was being done.  Even looking around afterward and seeing all the dirty finger smudges across so many foreheads felt sacred in some way.

Now that I’m standing with the bowl and the dirty finger making the smudges, I don’t know if I have a better explanation.  Look around and see.  We’re part of something bigger than ourselves.  We’re part of a story that goes back to disciples and apostles who are now dust, and there will be others who receive smudges on their foreheads long after we ourselves are dust.  We are dust and to dust we shall return.  Repent and believe.

I had the pleasure of taking some ashes to a home bound member before the service in the evening and impose ashes upon her forehead.  As I ground the dry dark ash between my thumb and index finger, I managed to create a dark enough layer that served to impose the sign of the cross beautifully across her forehead.  It remained stained to my fingers as I packed up my kit and I was careful not to touch anything as I left her perfectly clean home.  Between the drive from her home to the office, I forgot that my fingers were covered in dark ash and I began to leave dark fingerprints like a trail of breadcrumbs across doorknobs, walls, light switches, and sheets of paper as I went.  And it wasn’t until I was reviewing my bulletin for the evening that I realized I was leaving fingerprints on whatever I touched.

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My first inclination was to brush them off, wipe them away, and clean what I had marked.  But as I sat staring at that sheet of smudged and dirty paper, I realized how it was almost as if some invisible detective had stumbled across my soul and with his fingerprint brush and fine powder, brought into focus and reality the fingerprints of God which are daily impressed from and rubbed off onto others through my day.  God’s fingerprints would be dirty.  They would be inconvenient.  They would cause us to want to wipe them away.  They are marks of a life well lived, a life that knows what it means to be separated in the mud from God and for God to reach down in the dirt to breathe into us and speak to us yet again.  These were marks that reminded me that I had shared a sacred moment with someone today and neither one of us could be the same anymore.  We rubbed off on each other and carried marks that would rub off onto the rest of the world saying, we are new creations and we have the dirty fingerprints to prove it.

What falls out when I shake a Christian cliché?

“When God closes a door, He opens another.”  This is one of my readily available Christian sayings when I’m in a tough spot, dead end, or beating my head against a door.  I’m more nostalgically attached to it than anything, I suppose.  So, I want to play with it for a minute.  I want to untie it from my baggage and my high school years and see what happens when I take the screws out and take the cover off.  What am I implying when I say it and post it with inspirational photos on status updates and feeds?  I am saying that God cares about me.  I am saying that God has a plan for me.  I am saying that when bad things happen, or when nothing happens, I believe that I should keep pushing and searching for the abundant life that God has for me to love God, love my neighbors, and love myself.  These are admirable faith statements and I think I could stand upon just about any of those for a good amount of time if needed or pressed; however, if I shake this statement around a little bit more, some other implications and loose parts that I don’t know what to do with that fall out onto my proverbial table.

  • I’m saying that God closes doors on me. Whether these are doors that need to be closed or doors that might hurt me or cause me to stray from God, I am saying that God is responsible somewhat for my decisions and my ability to choose the direction and events of my life.
  • I’m implying a distance from God. Much like a stranger God who wishes to measure my reactions and test my behaviors, it seems to be more of an evaluative process than a relationship of intimate spiritual connection.
  • It outlines a linear journey through a series of single doors that we walk through until the end. In reality, I imagine there are countless doors that I have never tried let alone eliminated as faithful options.  I only try the doors that I want to open.  God never opened the door for me to become a professional athlete, a mechanic, or a pharmacy tech.  But, I never tried those doors.
  • It suggests that a closed door is a door I should give up on.

Through these smaller and maybe non-intentional statements, I might begin to define success in life by the doors that are open to me and the doors that I can walk through.  I may  begin to define faithfulness and God’s will by whether something succeeds or not– whether I am able to successfully walk through and seize an opportunity or if it blows up in my face or shuts me out becomes an effective measure of discipleship and faithfulness.  These are my own personal assumptions and concerns, but they worry me.  They worry me, because I am not sure that’s the message and kingdom of God that Jesus was trying to tell me about.

In fact, when Jesus sent the twelve disciples out in the gospel of Matthew, he sent them out across the region and he gave them instructions, “Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave.  As you enter the house, greet it.  If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.  If anyone will not welcome you or listen to you words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.”  As I read that in light of our message, the disciples were instructed to carry the message of the Kingdom of God whether someone slammed the door in their faces or not.  Jesus didn’t promise them any open doors, but he did promise them that they would be fed, clothed, and provided for regardless of the state of the door in which they found themselves knocking or leaving.  They weren’t evaluated or cared for by the number of doors they successfully navigated; rather, on their willingness to faithfully carry the news and  promise of the kingdom of God to each and every door that they came across.

Also, let’s be honest, some doors in life are hard to open.  The inability to accept that a door or a way is closed off is a strong lesson to learn.  Jesus told a parable about a neighbor who woke up his nearest neighbor at midnight to borrow some food to feed a friend who just dropped by to visit.  The sleeping neighbor did not want to get out of bed to help and readily supplied a convincing list of reasons to not get out of bed.  You can imagine in what tone of voice or what other choice words this neighbor might have shouted through the door at such an hour.  However, Jesus’ lesson at the end of this parable is funny, “Even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence, he will get up and give him whatever he needs.”  In a sense, if this was you, “The neighbor wasn’t willing to get up and get you what you needed just because you’re a friend, but trust me, keep banging on his door and don’t let him sleep, you’ll eventually get the things that you need.”  He ends his lesson with the iconic words, “Ask, and it will be given you, search and you will find, knock and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”  Some doors that start off locked just take a little more pounding, knocking, and kicking than others

I look at the story of Joseph in the Book of Genesis as the shining example of the phrase, “When God closes a door, He opens another.”  As the favored and somewhat spoiled son of Jacob, Joseph soon found himself literally at the bottom of a pit with his brothers arguing over whether they were going to kill him or sell him into slavery and just say that they killed him.  Through a variety of situations and scandals, Joseph experiences his fair share of doors opening up for him through hard work and divine blessing only to find them shut in his face and seemingly needing to start all over again from square one, working his way from the pit of a hole or dungeon to the position of top administrator and civic official in all of Egypt, subject to only Pharaoh.  Maybe there is more to the story and lesson than Joseph experiencing faithful living through God closing doors and opening others.  What if we measured faithfulness through transformation instead?  How much of a change did he experience from the little pampered spoiled kid that didn’t want to get his clothes dirty and didn’t even know where to find his brothers when they went out in the fields to work to a man responsible for caring for every person in the greatest known kingdom of his day?  Maybe the greater miracle is not that he got to rule and exercise authority and direction over the entire land of Egypt.  Maybe the greater miracle was that this young man, through a life of devastating circumstances, through the fair and unfair situations that he found himself, began to walk in such a way that it didn’t matter what doors opened or closed in front of him, he transformed from a man focused on his own comfort and position to a man devoted to serving and fulfilling the needs of more than just his family and those around him, but an entire kingdom.

“When God closes a door, he opens another.”  There is nothing wrong or hurtful in saying it, but I believe it’s an incomplete picture of God and who God is calling each of us to be.  Our lives are not measured by the amount of doors that we successfully walk through and the amount of doors that we find in the dark, but by persistence for the very heart of God and a deep love for our neighbor and who God has made us to be.  For that, there are no closed doors, there are no windows to squeeze through, and no guessing on what doors lead to the right job or the right relationship.  I can’t imagine God was with Joseph because God needed Joseph on top of the world, and I can’t believe God’s with us because God needs us to walk through the right doors at the right moment.  God is with us because God promised he would be with us guiding us, comforting us, counseling us, reminding us, and loving us in front of every door that we find ourselves regardless of what’s on the other side.

 

Christian worship that hasn’t happened yet.

I love worship.  If I am asked by supervisors or strangers what I love most about being a pastor and what gives me the most energy, I say worship.  I love thinking about it.  I love putting different pieces together.  I love thinking about the space and how it can be used or how the people might interact with each other and with God.  I have a deep and joyful belief that whenever I walk into a sanctuary or worship space before anyone else, usually very early in the morning, that God is already there and the Holy Spirit is already hovering over the face of our deep places that we bring with us.  However, worship is a strange beast.  There are very few hard and fast rules.  In different spaces, worship looks different, smells different, and sounds different.  Sometimes we feel close to God and close to others.  Other times, we feel lost, congested, and frustrated.

I was once told by a professor to look at Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam fresco.  mich5

She said that what happens between their two fingers is liturgy, or what we do as people in worship with God.  I grabbed onto that image and stored it away.  I could see the energy, the tension and the anticipation that comes with reaching towards God and finding a God that is already reaching towards me.  The small space between their fingers is mystery.  It’s tension and peace, vulnerability and acceptance.  It’s the very heart of worship.

Similarly, Pre-Christian Celtic spirituality provided an image that stuck with me and flavored the type of worship and Christian faith that developed in that region.  They referred to certain places and events in worship as “thin places.”  A place where the borders between heaven and earth are nearly indistinguishable and one can experience a rare closeness with God.  While my beliefs of an ever present God who lives with us and even within us pushes back on this idea to a degree, I feel that most people might have a sense of what these early Celts were talking about.  Most people have a particular space or time when they felt a little closer to the divine than normal.  Somewhere it was easier to think, easier to pray, or easier to listen.  There is something about that space between the fingers.  There is something about the thin places in our lives.

So, the question becomes how do we create thin places, if they’re able to be created at all? Do we just stumble upon them?  Is there a secret formula or script that must be followed or recited precisely in order for God to respond?  How, like the painting of Adam, do we stretch out our fingers more for the touch of God?  How do we worship and who is there in worship with us?  We’ve gotten very good at providing answers to the question, but I am not sure if we’ve made nearly as much progress satisfying the question.

There might be an image or experience that comes to our mind when we picture or think about a worship service or act of worship.  After rolling that image around in our heads for a minute and coming up with some idea or image, I am interested now in what we’re not thinking about.  What is the worship that we haven’t thought of yet and haven’t experienced yet?  Are there walls or buildings?  Is there music?  What is the work of the people?  What does prayer look like, sound like, and smell like?  I don’t want to come across as dismissive.  “Think of what is meaningful to you.  Now, let’s just push all of this aside and start all over!”  Rather, I want to jump in the deep and murky waters because I believe God hovers over them as well.  I want to think about how we can be more involved in people making connections and stories with God and each other in Spirit and Truth.  I want to know how people are making connections and stories outside of the Church and why they don’t need or expect worship or churches to be a part of their story.

I want to see God more and I believe that worship can be deeper and wider than what we’ve seen so far.  I want to hear how God is moving in ways that I didn’t consider or believe at first.  I want to hear about how prayers are being answered and lives are being changed in ways that were never thought possible.  If everyone brings their experience and revelation of God to worship and adds their faith story to the story of the faith community then we, in a sense, are never complete as long as people are missing and uninvited.  Our voice is never whole and our prayers are never fully complete.  How can we help make more thin places and how can the space between our fingers become more alive with a spark of creative life.

The Good Idea Fairy

I’ve been at war for years against a foe that’s elusive, disruptive, and catastrophically dangerous.  He goes by the name of the Good Idea Fairy.  Image

I was briefed on the danger of the Good Idea Fairy during my initial days in the military.  The intel collected on this particular enemy thus far warns of covert and disruptive operations.  If caught unaware, certain individuals are suddenly overwhelmed with the genius of a certain idea and become hopelessly blinded to the obvious flaws in tactics, logistics, and overall lack of common sense.  More experienced staff and leaders may be familiar to the signs that a Good Idea Fairy is in the area and have developed safe zones and no-fly zones in which spontaneous “good ideas” offered by “that guy/gal” are quickly contained before they can spread.  In the military, the counter strategy is to isolate the infected (typically) officer and distract them with some form of a Power Point presentation with pictures until the Good Idea Fairy has safely left the area.

I am a very common target for the Good Idea Fairy.  I have come to learn that The Good Idea Fairy knows the route from my house to my office rather well.  As a pastor and chaplain, I find myself often knocked over the head with his magical wand as I tweak and twist worship and outreach strategies to change the world, or at least my little corner of it.  My wife, soldiers, and members are pretty good about getting me back down to the ground and throwing me outside or in my office until the effects wear off.  I am always looking for the next great idea or trying to identify the areas that I am losing touch with the community and the world around me.  I’ve found that as a pastor, I forget.  I forget what it’s like to not be a pastor.  I forget what it’s like to not think about church events and services.  I forget what it’s like to wake-up on Sunday morning and go over options on what to do with my day.  I forget what it’s like to be the type of person that I’m trying to get to know.  And when I really think about it, my great ideas are normally at the expense of great relationships.  Who are the great people that I’m leaving behind when I’m too busy trying to make great ministry?

I think we’ve left some good people behind– labeled as bad ideas in our search for the perfect good idea.  I preached this last week about a Good Idea Fairy in the Old Testament.  In a story about Abram and Sarai, God promised them not only a great and wonderful land in which to live, but God promised them descendants and offspring in which to fill the land and become a great and powerful nation.  Now, as the situation begins to unfold, I quickly recognize the work of an ancient Good Idea Fairy.  Abram and Sarai can’t have children and it is going to be awfully hard to fill up an entire promised land without some sort of heir apparent.  I can only imagine what kind of dinner conversation took place as Sarai came up with the good idea to let Abram sleep with her Egyptian slave girl, Hagar, and conceive an heir through her.  Somehow Abram found it within himself to grudgingly and selflessly agree to have sex with now two women until a son was conceived.  Amazingly enough, Hagar does become pregnant and her relationship with Sarai begins to deteriorate and unravel quite quickly.  Imagine that.  What seemed to be such a good idea to Sarai and Abram at first becomes quite the family drama and ends with some of the most heartless and cruel treatment of a young pregnant girl with no choice and no rights that I’ve ever read about, and yet they seem to write it in such a way that one feels that surely Hagar deserved what she got.  Maybe if she didn’t dress like an Egyptian slave all the time, people wouldn’t look at her like an Egyptian slave.  Now I understand my modern perspective and moral perspective are much different than ancient Middle Eastern customs, but the isolation and abuse of others for the sake of pursuing what we believe to be good ministry and good organization planning is all too common across generations.  The baby is not even born yet before Sarai and Abram write off Hagar and her unborn child as their unfortunate bad idea and run her off into the desert trying to get home.

This isn’t the only time that Hagar finds herself in the wilderness, pushed off as a bad idea, with nothing to show for her sacrifice than broken promises and a child that she was forced to conceive and raise, now desperately close to death.  It’s at this point that God does something that I think Abram and Sarai wouldn’t expect.  Who knows if they ever even found out, but God appears to Hagar and speaks to her each time she finds herself alone and desperate.  God tells her that even if everyone else around her as discarded her as a bad idea and broken their promises with her, God will keep God’s promises and still see her and her son through until they too become a great nation.

It’s a hard story to deal with if you’re a big fan of Abraham and Sarah.  We may try to justify their actions and we may try to convince ourselves that their intentions were good or noble on some level; however, the Good News is what happens in the wilderness when God shows up to the one that was cast out.  God still treasures, hears, and speaks with the young girl that was thrown out as a bad idea.  I wonder who we’re leaving behind, forcing out, and have left labeled as a bad idea?  Would we find seek out Hagar in our communities and apologize for how she’s been treated and offer her the support and care she needs to experience the fullness of the promise of God, or is God left to clean up our bad ideas and make the connections and promises that we’re too busy and too afraid to make on our own?

Go therefore…

…and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you.  Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of the present age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)  I used to be scared of this verse.  At the very least, I was annoyed.  Whenever I head it preached, studied, published, or flashed up on the screen, I knew I had a weekend of looking forward to awkward door-knocking conversations or handfuls of tracts to hand out and leave in “strategic” locations.  I heard words like “saved”, “born again”, and “testimony” and I would feel a sense of dread spreading through my gut.  Evangelism was a buzzword for “get ready to be annoying and feel persecuted.”  If someone was receptive, awesome!  If someone slammed their door in your face or cursed you out, even better.  Jesus likes that too!  Oh, the memories…

The crowning jewel of my evangelistic upbringing was the $20 bill tract and the fake money tracts.

 20bucks2-1023x477dollar evangelism

dollarPrepare To Meet God Money Tract

It was this particular proclamation tool that poisoned any real sense that God was looking down and smiling upon any of this.  Half of the tract looks like a twenty-dollar bill.  The other half is a mocking revelation that you’re not actually lucky, but probably damned for all eternity.  Cagey for sure, but Christ?  Sure, it had a sinner’s prayer on the bottom, but who could read it once the recipient burned it or tore it apart in a frustrated rant that Christians can be real tools?

Evangelism had become synonymous with guilt, shame, fear, and awkwardness.  When one friend of mine didn’t go down to the altar one night, a youth worker asked him, “don’t you want to live forever with Jesus rather than going to hell?”  That’s like asking cake or death! An evangelistic approach that pushes others towards God using the lowest of human emotions denies a God who draws all things to himself through complete love and grace.

So what does healthy evangelism look like?  I imagine it looks most like Jesus.  The attraction of knocking of doors and handing out tracts is that it doesn’t require a relationship.  In fact, it doesn’t even involve a name or a story.  All stories are the same, and names are not important.  Jesus sat with people though, he heard their stories, met their needs, healed their hurts, called them by name, and demonstrated the complete love of God instantly in their lives.  There is an assurance that we matter and are individually significant.  God knows our name and speaks life into our stories. With Jesus, there wasn’t only a quick prayer attached to a vague promise of eternal love and acceptance in the future kingdom of God.  Rather, a deep and abiding love was fully realized in that very moment coupled with an answer to their heavy and honest prayers.

What’s so shocking about the Great Commission is that most Christians I know can quote it and recall it at will; however, the promise of Jesus’ presence is forgotten, edited for length, or dismissed.  He, himself, will be with us every day until the end of the age.  We seem to structure our evangelism programs on one of two models.  Either we’re doing evangelism because Jesus commanded us to make disciples when he left and we have to do it while he’s gone, or we don’t do anything and leave it completely up to God and we trust him to make disciples independently.  I don’t see a faithful Church in either model.  As with most things when it comes to the Gospel, to the Good News, it’s done purely when it’s done in relationship.  It’s done when we don’t have all the answers and we’re willing to take risks and allow the gospel to come alive in new and crazy ways for others and for us again.  The Church needs to look like it’s message.  It’s time to start our discipleship and evangelism with a risky commitment to share our lives with others and become a people of stories and names, not tracts and shame.

Messy Work

I remember cleaning my room when I was a little tot.  What it really amounted to was clearing toys and clothes off the floor and hiding them under the bed, under the covers, in the closet, and stuck in drawers.  My dad used to say that I spent twice as much energy and time hiding my messes rather than cleaning them up.  If I couldn’t see the mess and if I could convince my parents that the mess was gone, everyone was happy and I could move on with my day to bigger and better things.  As I’ve gotten older, I learned that messes don’t usually go away when you can’t see them.  Usually, they even get a little worse.  Food left out spoils and rots, bills left in piles and stacks slip into collection, and struggling relationships dissolve and crumble.  If we turn our eyes away from messes, we seem to have a childish hope that they’ll just go away.  It’s one of the few areas that our cultural really embraces a child-like faith.  “If I don’t see it, it can’t exist.”

Unfortunately, our culture seems have adopted a similar faith in people experiencing need.    Homeless communities are routinely bulldozed and fire-hosed to make room for more developments and infrastructure.  Large shopping centers are placed in front of housing projects and communities in heavy poverty to raise the aesthetic value of townships to tourists and those passing through on highways and interstates.  Years ago, businesses in parts of inner Los Angeles came up with the solution to install sprinklers on their roofs to discourage homeless from collecting outside of their doors on the sidewalk.  Before the city council banned the practice, business owners would say that they only turned them on when they felt in danger, or when too many people where gathering outside, or when it started to smell bad, or when someone was sleeping, or whenever basically, they felt like it.  Eventually the practice was banned because public sidewalks are in fact public and  it’s bad press when you wash people into the gutter.  At what point is hiding the problem of poverty and homelessness and trying to wash it down the street and into the dark corners of our cities and towns going to make the problem going away?

And what’s so terrible is I understand.  I get it.  I was raised with the myth of social mobility and ideas like, ‘God only helps those who help themselves.”  I know what is going through people’s minds.  I know why businesses don’t like people who are dirty and smelly sitting outside their doors.  This culture has taught me from a very early age that there’s something wrong with you if you’re sitting there.  There’s something wrong with you if you’re not successful.  You’ve done something wrong.  You didn’t work hard enough.  You didn’t fight long enough.  You didn’t pull your bootstraps hard enough.  If you hear something enough times, you’re bound to believe at least parts of it.  Internalization works both ways though.  There are those in our culture that believe some people are messes and are not worth our attention, and there are those in our culture that feel they’re a mess and not worth any attention.  Now that’s heartbreaking.  Now that’s darkness.  That is the dirt under our carpets, the toys in our closet, and the dirty clothes under the bed.

So how do we change it?  We quit looking away.  We start telling stories.  We start making some friends outside of those who look like us and live like us.  We might learn some names, and hear some stories.  I think that this is a first-step.  This is accountability to God and ourselves that we will never leave anyone behind, that God still cares, that the systems that we have built with our own hands will never be good enough, but that God is good enough to provide deep, lasting, and contagious care for all creation.