Desert.

 

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Thus says YAHWEH, who made a way through the sea,…No need to remember past events, no need to think about what was done before.  Look, I am doing something new, now it emerges; can you not see it?  Yes, I am making a road in the desert and rivers in the wastelands…for my people, my chosen one, to drink.

–        Isaiah 43:16, 18-20

Our church staff went on our annual retreat last week.  A couple of the highlights (in addition to playing cards and late night talks) were practicing the spiritual discipline of daily prayers using Phyllis Tickle’s prayer book, The Divine Hours, and having Sibyl Towner come and lead our church staff in her life mapping material for two of the days.

The above passage was from our reading the last morning of our retreat.  Sibyl also led us in a visual journaling experience.  The theme of “desert” was prominent on my mind and heart that morning and I kept on bumping into it.

Part of the reason is that I love being in high deserts.  I think they are places of immense beauty, expansive vistas, and evoke deep emotion within me.  One of my favorite deserts is Joshua Tree National Park in southern California.  When we lived there while I was attending Fuller, we went to Joshua Tree often.  I had several deep emotional and spiritual reactions there on each visit.  One visit in particular I remember sitting on the top of a boulder in the middle of wide open space, surrounded by Joshua Trees and  boulders scattered about with mountains way off in the distance.  It was early morning, very quiet, not much wind.  I had a lot to process as we were getting ready to move back to Cincinnati.  It was a time of deep transition and I wasn’t sure how to process all that I was experiencing.  In many ways, I felt like some would view the desert:   barren, lonely, and in need of something to hang on to.

As I sat there with my journal, thoughts, and prayers, I began to feel and hear a subtle breeze.  As I looked down on the desert floor, I began to see so much life around me.  A rabbit, a bird, a beautiful cactus, and other living things…in this barren place, life was  coming into focus all around me.  It became an overwhelming experience where I began to sense that I was truly not alone and the realization that God was with me and wanted to give me life in deeper ways than simply living.

I remember those moments in my life, especially when I feel like I’m in barren places within me and around me.  I am reminded of looking for signs of life, moments in our days and lives when we experience God.

I’m not sure what 2013 was like for you or the beginning of 2014.  Maybe you, like me, have experienced some times in the desert this past year.  Maybe you are in the midst of transitions in life and in need of reminders that you are not alone and that life is springing up all around you.

It was a good retreat.  If for no other reason than this:  to be reminded that God surrounds us with community that has life when we stop, listen, and really look.  And, that we have a God who is intensely loyal to us and whispers gently in our ears that we are not alone and that someOne believes in us.

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Expect.

To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28 We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. 29 To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me. (Colossians 1:27-29, TNIV) 

Hope.  The word in Greek is  ἐλπὶς, this has a meaning of prospect, hope, and “expectation”.  Glory has a meaning of grandeur, splendor, majesty, of power.  However, it is not for worldly power or as we understand it.  It means something different, something deeper and more powerful.  It means finding an identity in the One who came to give himself away to others, while having confidence in his identity.

When I was a kid, I wanted a bike like my best friend, Jeff Hume, for Christmas.  Jeff was cool, if I had that bike, I’d be cool.  I didn’t get that bike…and, at age 8 or 9, I kind of moped around a bit and wondered, why didn’t my parents give me the bike that I wanted, I even showed it to them in the store!  Later, as I matured and grew older, I realized that my parents made sacrifices for me and it made a huge difference in how I viewed them, and myself.  My attitude changed.

Friends, God has made huge sacrifices for us, even the ultimate sacrifice.  His relationship with us cost him greatly, on the cross and throughout history.  Yet, this God continues to love us and shares his love with everyone (vs. 28).

We have a deep need to cultivate this awareness that Christ is residing in us!  Not in some building or program, but in us!

As we approach 2014, may it be a year filled with expectation!

Wright and Torrance: Different Framings of the Gospel

Love this! Great blog from Adam Nigh…Brilliant!

Out of Bounds

In the video below, N. T. Wright discusses his new book on Paul’s theology. He strongly asserts that the ministry and death of Jesus Christ have to be understood within the history of Israel and the promises God made to Abraham, Christ himself being the fulfillment of those promises, the righteous Israel that restores humanity and thereby creation in light of the primeval fall. That much I think ought to be noncontroversial. Have a look.

What is wonky about this is the unapologetic plan-B-ness of Wright’s understanding of Abraham, the nation of Israel that comes from him and therefore Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s intentions with that nation. Wright paraphrases “that rabbi who said in I think the 3rd or 4th century” that basically prior to creation God said to himself he’d make Adam and if Adam blew it he’d make Abraham to fix what Adam broke…

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Lovers of Light.

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4 But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; 5 for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.

–        1 Thessalonians 5:4-5 (NRSV)

Stretch out my life and pick the seams out

Take what you like but close my ears and eyes

Or watch me stumble over and over

I had done wrong you built your tower

But call me home and I will build a throne

And wash my eyes out never again

But love the one you hold

And I will be your gold

To have and to hold

A lover of the light

–        “Lover of the Light”, Mumford & Sons

In the middle of winter, it can seem like things are bleak.  The days are shorter, it’s cold and cloudy, the sun doesn’t seem to shine as much.  Plus, in Cincinnati, we seem to get a lot of “in-between” weather.  Doesn’t really snow a lot, but still cold and wet.  We long for spring!

In our lives this past year (2013), we may have experienced things that have been bleak, dark, and we may have felt like we are in an “in-between place” as well.  We may have been sensing that a change is necessary, we have longed for the warmth of hope, just as we may have longed for the hope of warm sunshine in the spring after a long winter.

I believe our worshipping communities, our churches, may also at times this past year have felt like they have been a place of searching.  As a collective group of persons, it seems like we have been in an “in-between” place.  We dealt with (and continue to deal with) hard budget decisions, we have seen folks come and go, and we have experienced hurt and pain in relationships.

Yet, we are still a Church universal called out by God and we look forward to a new year filled with hope and expectation of change, healthy change.  As Jesus followers, or as “children of the Light and Day” as the above Scripture passage says, we should not be surprised when darkness comes.  It happens all around us and we not immune from darkness, evil, and pain…within our churches and within ourselves.

Yet, darkness does not win out, we are not consumed by it.  Darkness flees at the slightest beam of light.  And as events and occurences in our lives as persons and as a church or exposed to the Light, we can see clearly who we are as persons and collectively.  We may not always like what we see, but the Light not only exposes us, but can transform us.

I like this Mumford song, “Lover of the Light”.  It is hopeful.  As the writer grapples with his shortcomings, he still has hope and proclaims to be a lover of the light.  And as a lover of the light, he can and will change.

Friends, as we live into the present moment within our lives and in the Church, may we be lovers of the light.  May we look around at the darkness in our communities and go there so that we can be children of light in that darkness.  As I walk around our communities where I live and talk to folks and listen to them, I see so much potential for the church to step in and be the Light that shines in darkness.  We can be in our communities addressing so many needs right at our doorstep and even inside our doors, while also providing a context for genuine friendship to folks that need to know that they are not alone.

But, this takes some bold moves.  We can no longer have communities of faith cloistered away, hoping to avoid the darkness around us.  We must be a church that thinks in new ways.  We need to become the church springing out of the communities we serve.  This will change our theology, our worship, our traditions, and it will change us.  To be light, we have to live, love, and listen to the folks in the communities we live in order to have opportunities to build genuine friendships…not so we can “pack our pews”, or “leverage our relationships” to build a program.  Our intent should simply be to  connect with folks, to live life with them, to be in community and work together towards better communities, and to love well while receiving love from other imperfect folks and from a God who exhibits this love and loyalty to community in so many ways and ultimately Jesus, the Light of the world, who became one of us.

May it be so in 2014, may we all be lovers of the Light.

Relationship.

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Relationship really is what makes the world go around.

We experience this reality every day.  I’ve heard it said that we are the sum of our relationships.  All of our relationships form and reform us.  They give us perspective, hope, acceptance…and oftentimes, rejection, despair, and discontent.  That’s why it’s so important to approach every relationship with as much grace and honor as one can muster.

It’s also important to have that “long haul” perspective that helps us realize that we do indeed have grace and are free to give and receive each other in a way that brings growth.  We enter into relationships knowing that they are risky, yet so worth it.  We learn from mistakes, we understand the importance of confidence in ourselves and the frailty of ourselves.  We gain wisdom through relationships even as they are oftentimes “messy”.

We cannot escape relationships really.  We are not created to live as isolated individuals, but as whole persons interconnected with each other.

We were created for relationship out of relationship.  As a Jesus follower, I believe in a God who is relationship in it’s very being.  I believe in what Christian orthodoxy calls the “Trinity”.  God in three Persons.  God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit.  Three distinct beings that mutually indwell in each other.  Relationship.  This God relationship is the creative force that gave earth it’s form somehow, gave life to it somehow, and with a word of relationship, created us and even became one of us.

It’s not only relationship with others, but with a God who understands relationship, invites relationship, and gives us relationship.  A God that is not trapped in the four walls of a church, but is out in the community dancing and crying, laughing and frustrated, committed and loving.  A God who we can love well, doubt, question, and struggle with.  A God who’s relationship with us will not end, even when we think we may want it to.

Yeah, relationship, it says a lot to me about how I should interact with creation, with my wife, my family, co-workers, friends…and with God…especially when I understand the relationship that is the creative, regenerating, renewing force all around me…shaping me into the person that I am becoming.

Change.

DSCF6585Do not be conformed to this world,[c] but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Romans 12:2(NRSV))

In this passage, the word for transformed comes from the Greek word “metanoia”, which means a shift in thinking, a paradigm shift, a change of an inward reality.

In October, Debbie and I went to the Missional Developers Assessment Conference in San Anselmo, CA.  It was sponsored by the PC/USA and it gave great insight on where the church is today and what kind of leadership is required for the church in this present culture.  It gave us a great picture of the changes in our denomination and helped to further our growth in understanding of the change necessary in the church universal.

The analogy that one of the facilitators used was of the need for “adaptive change leadership”.  Often we feel like when we have challenges put before us in the church, or in any organization or institution, that we can fix our issues that need fixing by simply making technical changes.  For instance, if we break our leg, we can put it in a cast, take care of it, stay off of it, and rehab it.  If we do steps A through B, then our foot will probably come back stronger than before.   That’s also the mentality in organizations when faced with a changing culture or challenging issues.  If we just “work harder” or “smarter” (terms I’ve personally used!), we can “right the ship”.

However, that’s not what the church needs today.  It does not have a broken foot, it has lost its foot and it needs to adapt and have “adaptive change leadership”.

We are living in a new cultural reality when it comes to church.  People generally have either distrust or disdain for the church, or are simply ambivalent or don’t care.  I meet both students and adults many times who consider themselves “church refugees”.  At one time they felt comfortable, at home in the church, but now feel like the church has left them or has sold them a bill of goods that they don’t understand, want, or need.

The church has often responded to these refugees, as well as to others, with a consumer and/or corporate-business model or mindset that attempts to address perceived needs.  Often, the church simply has not done enough listening, deep listening to the real needs of the culture around us.  We go about “our business” in a paradigm that the world simply doesn’t get, it is foreign to them.

We need to change, we cannot settle for “business as usual” or status quo.  We cannot make cosmetic changes, it’s not simply about budgets or program changes, we need to listen deeply to the culture around us and seek out what God wants us to do and adapt to God’s purposes for this world that may look radically different from the way we’ve done “church”.

People are searching for deeper relationship with others and, ultimately with God.  People desire and need relational connection and they need the Truth.  The Truth, as revealed in Scripture and in the world, which is Jesus Christ.  A God who is incarnate…one of us.  They need to see this Jesus, this God, demonstrated through honest living in the culture, not against the culture.

I do not have the answers.  But, I do know that we need a transformation and renewal of our minds, and our souls, in order to be the body of Christ, the church, to the world around us.  We need adaptive “change”, or metanoia, leadership.

May we all be changed, transformed, renewed as we go on this journey together.

Love. Period.

I have been in a place of discernment lately.  At 45 years old, I’ve been asking myself this question:  where do I see myself in 5 years?  Well, I don’t exactly know.  I have an inkling, but not sure.  It’s more than a physical place, it’s who am I called to be.

What I do know is this:  I am called to be a pastor.  I love coaching cross country, I love being with students, I love seeing folks connect and become friends…some even dream some big dreams together, I love being present in our communities, etc.  But, all of those things can be summed up by saying that I love people.  I really do.

Yes, sometimes I get tired and I need to take my “extrovert/introvert” (or “ambervert”…new word that my friend Kevin Rains said of me.) self out of the social picture and get re-energized or be around a solid small group of people that give me energy.  But, I genuinely love people and want to be authentic in that love.

I understand that love for people coming from a love from and through God.  I don’t understand God or how or why God is and does…but, I know that this God is not me, but lives in and through me.  This God gives me purpose and calls me to my “true self” (see Thomas Merton and/or Parker Palmer).  This “true self” is found in my identity in Jesus.  I am a Jesus-follower and through Jesus I find hope and a desire to love folks and build community with them.

What I know I’m not about is loving others with an agenda.  I’m sorting that out in all sorts of places and relationships these days.  I’ll keep you posted on that one.

We (the Church) are called to love the world.  The church does not exist to perpetuate its self, but to give it’s self away to the world.  We are called to band together to bear witness and to serve (“love”) the world around us.  Without condemnation (see John 3:17).  God calls us into action.

I love being a pastor in this kind of church mindset.  Who knows where God is taking me, but I’m wide open!