Why aren’t churches more like people? And how that would make a difference in hard times.

One of my favorite books is TURN MY MOURNING INTO DANCING by Henri Nouwen. I’ve read it more than once and given away at least 15 copies in the past four years. Some say that it gives them a “framework” for dealing with suffering and others say that it has helped them learn to mourn their past and their sins and to receive healing. To me, it is all those things and more.

In this short 110-page collection of Nouwen’s writings and sermons on suffering and finding hope in hard times, we learn to remember and forget and to move forward from the depths of pain and challenge. This is all a great handbook for the valleys of a life lived from a whole heart, but how could some of the principles be applied to a whole community of people. Skeptical? So am I.

The church that I’ve been a part of for some 28 years is going through a very hard time. With that as background I came across these words recently in this book: Memory also reminds us of the faithfulness of God in the hard places and joyous moments. It lets us see how God has brought good from even the impossible situations. Remembering in this way allows us to live in the present. It does not mean to live in another time but to live in the present with our whole history, with an awareness of the possibilities we might not otherwise think to look for.

And this is no problem for an individual because all of my memories are contained in my heart and mind. But this is a major challenge for a church because our memory is a collection of all of the remembrances from all of the people who ever been a part of this community of faith. Those who are a part of this body in the here and now represent only a fraction of that memory of the faithfulness of God over the years. And changing pastors on multiple occasions is like transplanting the cerebral cortex with a new set of disconnected memories or starting over. The body has joys and sorrows, beauty and sadness, but only selected remembrances tie them together.

So, what do we draw upon when times are tough? Our corporate memory fails us. For an individual, here’s the advice Nouwen offer. Would this also work for a community of individuals?

1. Count your losses. As a prelude to our dance, we need to ask ourselves to remember what we have actually lost. For most churches, we have lost people over the years. Sometimes our loss is because of life changes, or illness or death, but too often it is “painfully, through misunderstanding, conflict or anger.”

2. Live in Hope. If we had a memory, we would experience the possibility of God’s rescue through a variety of means. Hope is not dependent on peace in the land, justice in the world or success in the business. Hope makes you see God’s guiding hand not only in the gentle and pleasant moments but also in the shadows of disappointment and darkness.

3. Open your community to receive compassion. To receive compassion, we have to allow others into our despair and pain. One of the hardest times for me was a few years ago when I suffered great loss and pain and was forced to let others know; including letting God know. I had to come to Him with empty and open hands and then to share weakness with people I knew and people I didn’t. Pride does not die easily and sharing our weakness and failure with family, friends and acquaintances can be excruciating. But, when shared, suffering is a catalyst for community and compassion. The key component to the word “compassion” is “with”. It is “suffering with” and “sharing with” and “sitting with” and “praying with.”

4. Overcome your activity to stop and pray. When things are great or tough, or life is sweet or it stinks, our vitality and movement into wholeness and allowing the voice of God to invade our prayers is dependent on a discipline of quiet or solitude. Our mind may tell us to get busy, but new beginnings or pressing the re-set button are only possible with the energy produced from prayer. Light a new fire through prayer.

5. Read life backwards. Nouwen instructs us that without memory there is not expectation. “For by not remembering we allow forgotten memories to become independent forces that have a crippling effect on our functioning and relating and praying… Like the people of Israel who repeatedly reflected on their history and discovered God’s guiding hand in the many painful events that led them to Jerusalem, so we pause to discern God’s presence in the events that have made us or unmade us.”

There’s more in the book and there’s more in the Bible, but here’s one of my favorite lines as we finish our time of sharing. This is the money quote for today and always, for individuals and churches.

For even while we mourn, we do not forget how our life can ultimately join God’s larger dance of life and hope.

So, if churches were more like people, perhaps we would experience more hope when our churches go through hard times.

Anima Christi

Although this has been around for 600 years or so, I have just recently discovered the beauty and power of this prayer.

Soul of Chirst, sanctify me

Body of Christ, save me

Blood of Christ, inebriate me

Water from Christ’s side, wash me

Passion of Christ, strengthen me

O good Jesus, hear me

Within thy wounds hide me

Suffer me not to be separated from Thee

From the malicious enemy defend me

In the hour of my death call me

And bid me come unto Thee

That I may praise Thee with Thy saints

and with Thy angels

Forever and ever

Amen

The power of literature: written and spoken words impact us with truth

I’ve been profoundly influenced by the convergence of what I’ve been reading and experiencing lately. I have to say that my heart is full of compassion and love for the Body of Christ. The combination of recently reading Susan Isaacs’ Angry Conversations with God, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help and Henri Nouwen’s The Road to Daybreak and Making All Things New have catalyzed in me an appreciation for the diversity of those who follow Jesus and the great difficulty that God experiences in answering our prayers. God is regularly required to ignore pain, suffering, injustice and disappointment in the lives of his adopted children for His Higher Agenda. It has given me pause and affected my prayer life in some deep ways. Having the presence of the Holy Spirit is enough. The security, love and satisfaction that comes to me by his presence is remarkable and surprising.

Rationally: I was quite surprised at how deeply these stories have shaken me. The resonance I have felt as I’ve related to different characters in these stories has helped me understand and appreciate their pain.

Emotionally: On more than one occasion I have been moved to tears as I’ve observed the pain and degradation experienced by God’s creatures (both real and imagined). The moralistic requirements and expectations being shoveled on to a broken Susan Isaacs by Christians; the hatred spewed out on black people in Mississippi in the name of God and those who have grown cold toward God in Nouwen’s Dutch homeland. And, yet, Jesus shed his precious blood for them ALL.

Deep Desire: That my appreciation for the price and power of the crucifixion of Jesus would never leave me.

Volitional: That I would act and grow in patience and kindness toward God’s children.

Overlooking the obvious – Instructions for men

It happens all the time. We become so familiar with a passage in the Bible or the storyline in a movie or lines in our favorite poem that we miss other parts of the story. For instance, I say, “First Corinthians 13,” you say, “the Love Chapter; read it at weddings; put it on a plaque.” But, did you know that the “Love Chapter” has important teaching on sanctification and growing in our walk with God and what happens when we see Jesus?

Psalm 23? The funeral psalm that we read as caskets go into the ground. Actually, it’s much more about life and about the abiding presence of God in good times and hard times than about death or the afterlife.

So, that brings us to First Timothy 2. This part of Paul’s letter is most often quoted regarding the office of mediator that Jesus holds due to his redeeming work on the cross or the teaching on the wardrobe and demeanor of women and their place in God’s hierarchy. But there is one pivotal verse that is often overlooked. It’s verse 8 and here’s what it says, “Therefore, I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument.” Wow. We could unpack this for weeks. And, yet, we often miss this critical teaching.

So, immediately, this is how I respond to this pivotal sentence.

  1. Pray – Come to God and share how you feel about what is going on in your life. Ask for his help. Cry out to God with your anxieties, pains, fears, joys, hopes and desires. Pray for those in your community and your community of faith. Ask God to open the hearts of those around you to hear the Good News that Jesus is the mediator between God and man.
  2. Lift up holy hands – what an amazing picture of our reaching out for God’s help. Coming to him with empty hands is very difficult for most of us. Sometimes God has to take away those things and people that we rely upon so that we can have holy hands to raise. They are holy because we raise them with singularity of purpose. We are lifting up our hands to God and God alone. We are saying that Jesus is our only hope for connecting to our Creator and Heavenly Father.
  3. Without anger or argument – I’m pretty much assuming that Paul’s talking about not being angry with those who around us and not while we are in the midst of an argument. It seems to be way too common that the people of God manifest anger and resentment within the church. Whether it is the attack of evil or our hiding behind our false selves, Paul says that we must shed those feelings and positions to raise our hands in prayer. Certainly, this would follow that if we are to come to God lifting our holy hands that we cannot come grasping to our hatred, disrespect or unwillingness to forgive, forget and move forward.

Won’t you join me in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument?

 

Understanding the ministry of Jesus

Over the past several weeks, I have been spending regular time following Jesus as he is portrayed and revealed in the Gospel of St. Matthew. I’m continually brought back to the core of his ministry. Jesus lived on earth by every word that came from the mouth of his Father.

Our friend and elder brother Henri Nouwen observed in his book Making All Things New (New York: Harper & Row, 1981), “We will never understand the full meaning of Jesus’ richly varied ministry unless we see how the many things are rooted in the one thing: listening to the Father in the intimacy of perfect love.”

Again and again, in Matthew, I get the sense that as Jesus begins or ends his days with a time of solitude with his Father that it is his life blood. Like manna in the wilderness, Jesus is fed by his Father with the food of love and wisdom.

Challenge of a Fast-Paced Life

How do we slow the pace of life?

Be with those who are weak, those who have to move slowly is one way to slow down our fast pace and experience beauty and truth in its fullest. Can we change our values and expectations?

“Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” What more do we want?

Work beckons us… and people need us to do this and that. When was the last time, no, when have you ever said, “No, I can’t go with you to that meeting because I’m trying to slow down the pace of of life.” A conscious effort and a willingness to be downgraded in the eyes of some is necessary.

Some say, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” Really? Aren’t we going to be really living after we transcend from this world to the next? When Jesus was teaching the crowds of people about the Father’s love he asked them to consider the flowers and the birds and how the creator took care of them. And then he added the note that men and women are greater in God’s sight than the flowers and animals.

Solomon, the wisest of them all, wrote in what we call Psalm 127: In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat — for he [God] grants sleep to those he loves.

What a warm, yet stern reminder of from where our sustenance comes.

I struggle mightily with saying, “No.” But, when I do, I find a deeper peace and foundation from which to live, work and serve. Placing our security in God is coming home.

CBBG

So, exactly how does God work to make us look and act like Jesus? The theological term sanctification is a term to describe the process of our being changed to reflect more clearly the image of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. “Set apart” is a common definition of sanctification. I’ve never found a word like sanctification very satisfying or even understandable.

The more I reflect on how the Holy Spirit works in my life and the lives of others to “make all things new” I see a definite pattern at work. I didn’t come up with this pattern on my own. But when I heard it, the words immediately rung true. I heard it in an interview with Henri Nouwen conducted several years ago when he was asked to discuss his views on a variety of topics. When the topic of Communion or the Lord’s Supper came up, I was blown away by what I heard. Henri talked about the picture created by communion being a metaphor for the life of Jesus and ultimately the life of all who follow Him.

And since hearing the colors that make up the palette of that picture, I have come to see them at every turn. They are vivid in the lives of many. And the result is a beautiful portrait.

Called – Jesus was called to preach freedom to the captives. At the start of his public ministry, Jesus read from Isaiah and confirmed that the prophet’s words were about Him. He was called by God to appear as a man. Called for a mission of mercy and grace. Jesus was called to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth. His calling was specific, personal and powerful.

Blessed – Right out of the gate, Jesus was marked as being God’s Beloved Son. That blessing carried Him through trials, temptations, heartache and pain. The blessing also gave Jesus vision, purpose, a powerful message and the strength to bring healing and hope to those who were sick.

Broken – Jesus was abandoned, beaten, speared and nailed to a cross. His brokenness has emerged as the very symbol of brokenness for cultures and peoples worldwide. He knew that being broken was an essential step in His mission and calling. Yet, it was painful and degrading.

Given – Indeed, Jesus life, death and resurrection was a gift to the whole world. If He had succeeded in living as a great philosophical or political leader, it would not have been enough. His life was a gift, but it was only effective after He was broken.

I’m sure you see the parallelism in Jesus’ life with the practice of the Lord’s Supper. We are called to the table, the elements are blessed, then the bread is broken as a reenactment of Jesus’ last supper with his closest friends. And also a reenactment of Jesus’ broken body and spilt blood on the cross. Then the bread and wine are given to the world. In the same way that Jesus was given as the savior of the world.

We were recently watching the Ron Howard Film, Cinderella Man, and I saw the pattern again. Based upon a true story, the boxer James J. Braddock was called to be a fighter from a young age. Braddock was blessed with success in the 1920’s as a boxer, a husband and father. Seemingly, with the stock market crash of 1929, Braddock’s career and life came crashing down. He was broken man. And he almost lost everything. He even suffered a broken hand. Through his brokenness, he learned the value of everything and his life was purified so that he could be given to the world. And he gave hope to a nation that was in great need of inspiration.

So, when I look for evidence of the sanctifying work of grace in a follower of Jesus, I look for a pattern. It is a powerful pattern that seems to be evidence of the Spirit’s work of making all things new. And I encourage you to embrace the pattern of calling, blessing, breaking and giving.

The presence of evil

We often downplay the presence of evil in our lives. Due to our sophisticated and scientific minds, we are prone to doubt that a spiritual dimension exists in our finite world. Of course, we will make some allowance for a God-oriented spiritual influence of some sort that helps us in our difficulty or may have an interest in the affairs of the world in which we dwell.

As we dismiss the role or presence of evil, we do, of course, delete large portions of the Bible that we otherwise believe to be infallible, inerrant and authoritative. Inconsistency thy name is human.

I believe there is considerable evidence that not only is evil present in our world, but that evil has an agenda. And that agenda is to seek and take out all who belong to Jesus. And we don’t have to look any further than the opening chapters of the Gospel of Matthew at the beginning of the New Testament to see powerful pictures of evil’s presence. The threat to God’s plan to purchase for himself his chosen people forced the Heavenly Father to use his strongest forms of communications: dreams, angels and Scripture.

Herod was determined to kill the baby Jesus before the Messiah could have an impact. God sent a vision to the wise men to return home a different way, he sent an angel and dreams to Joseph to go to Egypt, then to return to Israel. And as Joseph, Mary and the baby were traveling back to Israel another message came to hide out in Nazareth. All of this maneuvering was to protect Jesus from evil.

Now, years later as Jesus had grown into a man ready to fulfill his calling and purpose, he was called into the wilderness to confront the evil one straight up. Jesus was tempted to give in to the pursuit of the evil one, but through the word of his Father, the strength of the Spirit and the ministry of all of God’s resources, Jesus resisted.

So, if the presence of the attacks of evil were so obvious in the life of Jesus why do we not want to recognize those attacks on us? After all, Jesus lives in us. And it has seemed apparent that evil will try to undermine the work of Jesus whenever and wherever possible. The Apostle Peter warns us, “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”

Jesus and those around him listened to the voice of the Father, listened to Scripture and prayed often when faced with the attacks of evil. Jesus calls on us to watch and pray. And that includes watching out for each other. In Luke 23 we read, “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen…”

The American Local Church: Love it or leave it?

Our Broken Local Churches

Sparked by a combination of reading Eric Metaxes’ Bonhoeffer biography that tells of one of our 20th Century heroes of Christendom not being a big church goer while growing up in a very devout family, and the eventual power struggles that seem to occur as local churches transition between senior pastors, I’m wondering what all the fuss is about local churches.

Do we need small, medium, large, or mega churches for Jesus Messiah’s kingdom to expand?

Do we need the large budgets going for mortgages from the tithes of the faithful?

There was a time that many churches wouldn’t keep a program or ministry going unless there was a committed laity who was leading it and helping to fund it. Seems like a reasonable expectation. But what about the “givens” when it comes to the local church? Got to have a Sunday morning worship time and some kind of program for every age and stage that is offered before or after the worship service. I don’t need to describe the local church to you… You’ve seen the picture many times. And gathering an offering every week is critical to fund the building that houses the activity and pays the staff who organize and create content for the church programs.

So, things are cruising along, but then your pastor gets a call from another church. Should he go or stay? Let’s say he goes. So, you have an interim situation. The deacons, elders, or board members form a search committee and look for another pastor. So, a cross-section of the church members form a group of 5-15 to begin the search. They pray, set goals, write a profile, listen to sermons on CD or online and eventually agree on the guy to call. Everyone is excited. We’re tired of the interim pastor or the assistant pastors who aren’t good at preaching. New energy, new opportunities, new people.

But, whoa, hold on a second. This new guy is not like the old guy or the guy I like online. I think the search committee made a mistake. Now what do we do? Did we call this guy or did God? Our last pastor decided to leave, but this one hasn’t.

… What happens next is a chronic problem in American churches. And it doesn’t look Christian or even communal at all. It’s a power struggle. And most pastors didn’t learn much about it in seminary. And the church leaders are not sure how to handle it either. So, it becomes an opportunity for the devil.

What to do in a local church crisis
The way that Satan works is not surprising or unknowable to us. We’ve seen him doing this kind of thing for centuries. We also know how we are wounded and how we develop protective strategies and a false self or pose. We are pretty simple creatures. Our brains receive input and we act on it. We are scared, we respond with our pose. The status quo is shaken by disagreement over direction or personnel, and we react with our protective strategy. We try to control instead of trust and things go haywire. So, my first suggestion of what to do if you find yourself in this situation is: keep inviting men and women into your discipleship or small group ministry. This is the Gospel being pressed into the psyche and our inner being.

My second response is keep living in the present. Worship our savior, today. Pray for peace, today. Look for someone to help, today. Forget the past and don’t get caught up in “what if’s” of the future.

What evil uses?

I’ve been reflecting over this one for a while. We are a culture of spiritual scientists. Since the 1950s, our educational system has been focused on teaching us the scientific method. You know, gather data, systematically analyze, and come to conclusions. A+B=C. [That is not the way of the Holy Spirit. That is not the way of the gospel]. Most of evangelical Christendom and its leadership has been built through para-church ministries. I was part of one, you were likely part of one. So, we learn to show our intelligence through criticizing or reducing things to a formula. We learn to impress others by what we know. How we can break things down. And much of para-church discipleship is build around an odd mix of apologetics, doctrine and behavior. We do this in evangelical and reformed circles ALL of the time.

The local church’s leadership is full of guys and gals who came to faith in para-church ministries, who learned a bit of doctrine, what kind of speakers they liked and came to the conclusion that A+B=C. We thought that we had Christianity figured out. God was in a box. Our box. My box. I feel bad means I need to do something good. I need to pray, have a long quiet time, invite a co-worker to lunch. Be nice to my kids. Give away some money. Take my pain to Jesus? And look like an idiot? No, thank you. Believe that God loves me anyway? I don’t think so.

My third response is take your pain to Jesus. Don’t try to do something to fix the problem. Ask God to fix it. Because by “fix IT” I mean fix PEOPLE. And we can’t fix people. Remember our battle is not against flesh and blood. It is against the unseen powers of philosophy and systems that set themselves up against God.

Many local churches are led by the same folks who distinguish themselves in the community or market place. We are led lawyers, accountants, doctors and managers. We fix problems, count things, and try to control outcomes. We live in a world of black and white. Right and wrong. We are proud of the manifold success of someone who is paid well in the market place and is a leader in the church. “Wow, we must be a cool church. We have all of these successful professional people in it.”

My fourth response is read the Beatitudes [Matthew 5]. I mean, really read them and take them at face value. Don’t use some interpretation that takes away their sting and power. God doesn’t use the proud. He just doesn’t. There’s no room for Him at many churches. Satan, on the other hand, loves pride because he knows that it has no real power.

We have to go through hard times financially. It is the method of last resort by the Spirit of God. We worship what we can do with money. We love the feeling of security, of peace of mind, of success that it gives us. It does not bring us closer to God. In fact, it is just the opposite. The lack of money brings us closer to God. God loves us and will use whatever means possible to woo us back to Him and to pull us away from evil. The sooner we get to a point financially that we have no hope in money or people, the sooner we see hearts turn to Jesus and His offer of his broken body and shed blood. This is the ultimate black and white, life and death, and Jesus will stop at nothing to win back our hearts.

It’s a wonderful day to sit before our Risen Savior. It’s a wonderful day to do the work of ministry. It is a wonderful day that the Lord has given us.