Tuesday, January 26, 2010

No Wounds? No Scars?

I've been reading Three Cups of Tea, The New Friars and am just beginning sub-merge. These stir a deep part of me that I'm not sure I can even identify. But this post will be an attempt to do so.

In his introduction to sub-merge, John Hayes (no relation to me), speaks of this younger generation as "...increasingly disenchanted with a faith life that peaks on Sundays and wrestles the remainder of the week in a spiritual crawl space....I sense that they do not want to attend church services that confuse worship and entertainment, joy and enjoy."

I concur.

The past decade has provided me a unique opportunity to know several college and post-college Christian young people. I find them to be refreshingly radical in their outlooks and restless in their faith expressions. These are the reasons I relate to them.

Yet, I don't see this pain shared by young Christians alone. There is a radical nature in the call of Jesus that causes all sincere followers to expect adventure. I wasn't motivated to be a Christian so that I could have a cozy place to hole up on weekends. I wasn't called into ministry in order to make a living doing what I loved. My call was to make a living that mattered--to risk my life for the good of my fellow man and the planet--to introduce with my living the very reign of God.

The above mentioned books are records of risky living. They are stories--one after another--of young people going out into real and scary parts of the world, and experiencing real and scary risk. These are stories of heroes. These are stories of Jesus-meets the things that scare us most through regular ordinary people sold-out to his cause. These are the kinds of stories that drew me to faith, and that cause me to stay in it.

These stories, however, not only make me restless; they make me sad. They convict me and force me to face my safe and comfortable life. They force me to consider just how little like Jesus I have been in my expression of his reign and love. They make me understand just how little taking up my cross and following him I've done in my life.

We in North America (and "Western civilization" in general) live in a time of mega-churches and shrinking numbers of people going to church. We live in a day when following Jesus means you risk only being seen as smug, or as a prude. We will follow Jesus into the Christian bookstore, or with a fish on the back of our SUV. But we rarely fear for our health or our life or the safety or our children because of the Name. Perhaps that is why our faith is disrespected, banal, weak and bordering on being entirely useless?

Consider the radical challenge of the last lines of Amy Carmichael's poem:
No Scar?.
No wound? No scar?
Yet, as the Master shall the servant be,
And pierced are the feet that follow Me.
But thine are whole; can he have followed far
Who hast no wound or scar?

And this leads me to another couple of books. If you know of a pastor like Trent in my book, The Runaway Pastor, then you probably know one with bigger dreams than arranging for your entertainment and enjoyment on Sundays. There are a growing number of pastors who signed up to have the boldness of a firefighter or a Navy Seal, and have found themselves never risking a broken nail... They are leaving churches in percentages even more shocking than American Christians. You can read another one of their stories in Leaving Church a book by Barbara Brown Taylor. I've read it with tears of understanding, and it's on my nightstand again.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Quiet strength

It is Tuesday night. Silence. I strain to hear some sound from within or without our cabin. None. Even the glow from the wood stove is withholding its usual tick...tick. Two students in the house are studying. My wife is recovering from the flu by sleeping noiselessly.

I sat with a friend and her family today. Brave sons, daughter and husband; loving siblings and nieces and others sobbed their good-byes to her. We watched and wept as she breathed her last, ending what has been a rugged, ragged cancer-path. It is a loud agony to lose loved ones...even for those of faith. Yet a Silence prevailed in the room, hovering somewhere near the hearts of those who wept and embraced and spoke of their undying love for the departed, and for one another.

Somehow in scenes such as these--and I've witnessed many--there is a Peace that offers itself. Loved ones, between bouts of grief's wracking pain, seem to lean back into the Stillness, finding Rest even in the early moments of their grief journey.

Often when our spirits are present near the borderlands of life and death, we come-away humbled, quieted and still. Somehow midst these toughest of times, we discover that we have been renewed by the stripping-away of all. Because we have not been made bare: Love clothes us.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

We sure do love to talk! Christian education by going and doing.

We use Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, and we send our children to a special worship service designed for them. Some people fortify these with a Christian preschool through Christian College education. And some Christians choose the home-schooling route. There are many ways that we can, and do, give Christian teaching to our children.

I remember when we moved to start a church in a growing community. We prayed for and sought one dozen Christians to join my wife, children and I in the process of planting this new church. There were a handful of large Churches (of one thousand or more) in the area, and we tried with their pastor's support, to recruit a few families. We ended up finding some people who were willing, but it took a while! And there was one big reason people refused to step-up: their children. "We want our children to get the best Christian education they can get," parents would say as they gave us their best "surely you understand" look.

A few years later, we had connected more than 80 adults and 60 children to our faith. Then, several of them were convinced to leave our young church and go to one of the biggies which had bigger classes, better facilities and all. And that was OK. We had connected them to Christ, which was our aim. A pastor of one of those mega-churches told me that we were reaching unconnected people faster than his congregation. (And that was because we were a new church, and new churches reach new people faster than any other kind of church. But church planting isn't my point today.)

Often, when parents would tell me they couldn't risk their child's eternity on a small church that met in a school (and didn't have color coded slides for children to ride down to their age-group classes), I would try and tell them that kids can learn in a mission type setting. My own kids were taken overseas to a foreign land when they were 4 and 8. There was no established Sunday School or fancy curricula. Their teacher hadn't even had time to learn the basic bible stories our children already knew. What could they learn in that foreign land?

Maybe seeing us live out the faith they were being taught? Maybe joining us as we left friends and family behind for the sake of the call was a lesson? Maybe even our 8 year old telling her new teacher about how to teach memory verses (by erasing one word at a time and having the class quote the verse with what was left) or the two of them doing a Christmas play--our son played shepherd, wise men and Joseph; while our 8 year old was Mary and the director of the production-- maybe?

I'm reading some books about people who go and immerse themselves in another culture and live the life of Jesus amongst them. I'm remembering that nearly every important lesson I've ever learned about being a Christian has come when outside of a classroom setting, I took action.

I am grateful for having had the benefit of good Sunday Schools, a youth group and a Christian University Education. Yet as important as those things were, I believe that growing up with a tool-maker dad who played ball with me and disciplined me and taught me of the faith; and being with a housewife mom who loved me, fed me, made sure I got up in time to get to school, and prayed with me like my dad--these two people taught me what it meant to be like Jesus. And between public school days and dirty talking friends I had plenty of "bad influences." But I was a kid baptized and taught the ways of Jesus. And I was taught that faith in action is important.

I remember painting lines on the church parking lot with my dad. I was just a kid, and evidently he went to the right meeting or volunteered to help, but there we were at the hardware store buying chalk-line and chalk, and paint and rollers. Something about seeing the cars lined-up in an orderly fashion that next Sunday made me feel dignified, important. Painting lines taught me to obey in bigger areas...like when I was called to move overseas or when I left a strong church of 250 to start a new one with only the four of us.

I'm just saying...

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Dark silences: Where is God when there is no comfort?

I'm studying my text for tomorrow's sermon: Luke 3:1-18. I am struck by words I usually skip over in this text. They are found in verse 2: "the word of God came to John."

So many times we read in the Old Testament of an absence of a word from God. The Psalmists often cry out for God not to be silent. Yet, as the ministry of John is introducing the Kingdom coming in Jesus, God is breaking what has been a 400 year period of silence. "...the word of God came to John...in the desert."

I typically think God's word comes to his people when they are desperate to hear it. Yet, that is not necessarily true. Abraham had a promise, and then decades of waiting. Moses had a call, then forty years of ranching in Midian with seemingly no further attention from "the comforter." Mother Teresa's life ended with years of agonizing emptiness and silence from God. Martin Luther knew silence: "Bless us Lord, even curse us, but don't remain silent." St. John of the Cross wrote of the Dark Night of the Soul. Jesus, feeling no promise, and soon God's absence (My God, why have you forsaken me?), went to the cross out of sync with his Father ("Not what I will but your will be done...") Evidently, human longing and desperation do not force God into communication mode.

There is a saying: "It's often dark at the foot of the lighthouse." Hmmm.

I will say that I have known years of dear closeness to the word of God. And I also see myself as largely a failure in the decade and a half of the "dark night" of God's apparent silence. I have to agree with a converted Turkish Muslim (Ziya Meral) who notes that two-thirds of all Christian martyrs since the first century, were killed in the twentieth century. He wonders: "Where is God when millions of his children are being persecuted in the most brutal ways? Why does he keep silent in the middle of persecution, but speak loudly in the middle of conferences with famous speakers and worship bands?" Having chosen the narrow way, it seems faithful pilgrims are often left to their stalwart and faithful obedience, without the comfort of God's evident presence or comfort. Meral again quotes Luther: "God often, as it were, hides himself, and will not hear; yeah, will not suffer himself to be found."

I am looking forward to teaching from Luke tomorrow. And I'm not sure whether I should be encouraged by the fact that God's very faint speaking has been heard in my spirit again this week. And my last few days have been as low and difficult as any I've lived for a while.

Praying that I may be faithful in the days before me, and with the tasks at hand.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Day-off musings, reading, and becoming...

My exchange student daughter is weaving her way further into my heart right now. She sits in my home speaking face to face with her real parents (thanks to the miracle of Skype) and her laughter and smiles are lighting up our living room. Her mother, father and sister are enjoying a conversation with her, and they seem to be having such fun. Skype is amazing.

This being my "day off," I enjoyed a breakfast with the family this morning. I held Laynie and ate eggs, sausage and homemade scones. It is still snowing outside, and it is beautiful. The northwest edges of the trees are outlined in white, and our German Shepherd is frolicking about as if it is dog-Christmas. The stove is hissing and putting out heat in our pioneer aged cabin.

I got some new books this week, gifts purchased with a little Christmas money. The first one I've started is The New Friars, which tells the stories of dozens of young people who are forsaking all wealth, and moving to live with the poorest of the poor in ways reminiscent of the ancient monastics. I'm gaining theological insight into what I've always heard termed "compassionate ministry." Last night I enjoyed a chapter about St. Francis of Assisi, and Sister Clare. These are amazing and adventurous stories of lives turned around. Next on the list is sub-merge: living deep in a shallow world, and Follow Me to Freedom: Leading as an Ordinary Radical.

If you have been following along here, you may know that I am in a bit of a personal reformation. It is like pieces of a giant puzzle in my life are coming together and creating a picture of a future that I had never envisioned. No, I'm not planning to go live in a garbage dump in Asia or South America. But I believe I can make a difference in the spiritual and physical poverty of world where I live. I am staying tuned and discovering that God is very willing to respond to my desires to serve, when they center around serving those in need.

I may even have a good idea brewing for what Trent of The Runaway Pastor is about to do with his life in the sequel...

Grace and peace to you.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Runaway Pastor

The first couple of months of sales of The Runaway Pastor have been very encouraging. This type of a project is never a fast take-off, however, there has been a great deal of interest in the book and its message. It is gratifying. And I want to say thank you.

I also want to thank the readers of this rather schizophrenic blog. Sometimes you come here and get an add for my book. At other times, you have followed chapter by chapter as I began another. (BREAKERS is still on the back burner.) Sometimes you here the love of a pastor for his people, and at others, you see the steam rise from my cheeks as I try to find wisdom to lead in a way that seems relevant. So thank you for checking in here. There is someone here monthly from almost each one of the United States, and from a few dozen countries. It is gratifying to know you check in. Thanks. And remember, I appreciate it when you sign in as a "follower," leave your check (as very few do) in the opinion boxes at the bottom of each post, and use the feed provided so you know when something new is posted here.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Runaway? Or running to?

Running away must be such an easy short-term victory. In The Runaway Pastor I began telling the tale of a runner. Trent Atkins is a pastor who can't stand it any longer. And so he runs, from both his church and wife.

I've been so grateful for all of the people who work other occupations and yet identify with this urge to run. I've heard from business owners, nurses, wives, teachers and seemingly a representative from every occupation under the sun--that running is a temptation. Yet, I want to beg the attention of all non-clergy here for just a minute. I want you to consider that perhaps the temptation to be a runaway pastor is a bit different.

What if your occupation was to lead your best friends in their obedience to God? What if you believed the very future of your community and world depended upon how well those you lead succeed in being the person and presence of Jesus to their world? Trent ran, not because of the many details of his work, but because the ONE OVERRIDING purpose of his life and calling was not being met: To usher in the kingdom of God. Trent, like most pastors would gladly deal with the pressures, if he only believed he was leading a congregation full of people who were committed to world change. Surely, Jesus asks no less of any of us who claim to be his followers.

Pastors despair, in my opinion, not because of the difficulty of the task--and it is difficult--but because of the seeming irrelevancy. We are called to change the world, and soon find ourselves maintaining an institution.

A week ago Sunday, I laid down a dare to my congregation. In so many words I said: "I either have to find a way to lead us into meeting the needs of our community, or I need to quit and get out of the way so that someone can. The urgency of God's calling in my life is beyond just trying to preach good sermons to good people. The core of what Christ wants to accomplish in our world is so far beyond just 'growing a church,' that the very terminology sickens me.

"I live in a methamphetamine blemished county. I live near parents who can't or won't care for their children. Our school system is drowning in academic needs, and trying to fix human problems with government dollars; all the while what they really need is for someone to love kids into a new way of doing life. We as Christians must quit insisting on putting a layer of insulation between ourselves and the needs around us--such as giving money or old clothes to someone else to help people who are hurting. What our community needs is the very person and presence of Jesus rubbing up against the hurts and agonies that plague us."

"In Brown County, Indiana, we have excellent teachers who love the children in their classrooms, but simply cannot be the physical, emotional, spiritual and academic lifelines of so many. We have outstanding administrators and principles who are giving their lives to see the children of our county know academic and life success. It is time for us to quit trying to bring children into our building to hear a sweet lesson about a sweet Jesus. Instead we need to go and be Jesus, live him and touch the rough edges of young lives. If they are hungry, we need to feed them, if they need a call in the morning to get them up for school, or a ride when they miss the bus or someone to help them learn to read...we need to be present."

And perhaps--if I may be so presumptuous to hazard a guess--this is why so many people are tempted to quit whatever it is they are doing. Is there a disconnect between our tasks and our passions? Do nurses have this hidden desire to nurture and care for patients instead of paperwork? Do teachers have some strange latent passion for students to read or write, instead of trying to work their way up to some well-to-do community, where the pay is better and the pressures fewer?

I do not have the answers. But I've decided I can no longer stand aside, or worse yet run away from the problems. And so, as a new year begins, I have decided to run toward them. And I may fail. And my leadership may fall far short of its passions. But for now, while I have a chance and before I am empty of strength, I will continue to run toward what I perceive to be the need around me.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Christmas and New Year: Just another lap around the sun?

I've written this sermon for 30 years now. Not only is each week a fresh challenge to find something profound to write, and then speak, to people waiting for encouragement; each year brings around this familiar set of texts, and these texts take my mind to the same old places. Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem. Jesus is born in and laid in a manger. Shepherds and wise men visit. John reminds us that the Word became flesh, and we didn't recognize him.

I guess what I am saying is, it's easy to feel like these Christmas truths are at best familiar territory--and at worst tired lessons. Was Christ born anew this year? Is there anything fresh in my spirit after having led a congregation through another advent--a full lap around the advent wreath's four candles before lighting the Christ Candle at almost midnight on Christmas eve? Or did I return home, stuff stockings and hit the bed as if I'd clicked off another pastoral obligation?

I'm guessing most of us have put away our Christmas decorations this weekend. Our tree is outside in the cold, and the gift wrap is all thrown away. But across the living room from me--on a gate-leg table--shepherds are bowing before a king. A mother and father are standing back in awe of what God has done. And even the cattle, a donkey and some sheep seem unusually aware that something big has happened.

I'm trying to experience Christmas as I hit it's second Sunday tomorrow. Hope I didn't miss it the first time around. And if so, I hope to find it yet--tucked away somewhere beyond my habit-bound-heart, in the fresh flesh of my seeking spirit.