Failing Forward

potters-handsJesus said to the church, as he left this world, to “go and make disciples.” He said more than that, but for a second I want to wrestle with a little of what that means. A few quick points up front though: ancient people often gave more weight to what was said at the end of a person’s life. This means there is good reason to think this should be taken as the most important thing Jesus wanted to impress upon us. Next point, though it is often called the Great Commission, in the original Greek this is clearly a command. It is not a suggestion, it is not to be seen as one option among many. This is something God has not only revealed from His will, but something He expects our wills to conform to. And the last thing to get out up front, is that the word for disciple, mathetes, has at its root the idea of being a learner. Being a disciple at its core has to do with learning the way of Jesus, literally doing the things Jesus would do. This requires the heart, a deep commitment and passion for growing in the way of Jesus and being led by God’s Spirit. It requires the mind, an openness to taking the word of God into ourselves and letting it change us. And it requires our strength, there is work to be done. It requires us to live differently, to grow some spiritual muscles and respond with spiritual reflexes. It takes all of us. God will settle for nothing less.  

I have spent a lot of time reaching out this year. I really appreciate the Quaker understanding of “released” ministry, which often has released being used in a financial sense, but I also truly believe a pastor should not be “chained to a desk,” but should be out where the people are. I know that reaching out is a crucial thing, something that is a part of the calling of every person in any every church. It keeps us sharp. It helps us see where God is at work. As clear as the importance is of reaching out is, discipleship is more concerned with what to do when that reaching out actually grabs someone.

God has revealed to us that He is seeking disciples. This is not the same as converts. It is not the same thing even as church attendance. Jesus is offering far more than a regular opportunity for weekly worship. We, of course, DO want people to come and be a part of our fellowship. We do want people to worship with us and be a part of our Sunday morning community. Church attendance alone, however, is not the only metric of discipleship. It probably isn’t even the best metric. It is completely fair to ask the question, if not that, then what is?

I think a person who has embraced becoming a “learner” of the way of Jesus, is primarily concerned with relationships. Relationship with Jesus is first and foremost, but this can’t just be a “God and me only” thing, growth in Jesus happens personally, but also corporately. It is a corporate, not private, faith to which we are called.

Three kinds of corporate relationships are commonly emphasized in discipleship: First there are mentors. Who do I see as a mentor in my life? Thinking in terms of age may or may not be appropriate here. A person could be older and not spiritually mature. But a mentor is not necessarily older as much as more mature spiritually, but even that isn’t quite there yet. The person has to be growing and sharing the wealth of that experience. A mentor is someone who is actively investing in others, concerned about their development. Often this is a “Barnabas,” a person who encourages and challenges people to grow. So who is that person to you? Who is your Barnabas? If you don’t have one, who would make your list of people to ask? Often we have more to lose by not asking, than we do by asking. Who wouldn’t be flattered someone else saw maturity in you they wanted to seek out for themselves?

Next are peers. Peers are people actively growing but who are much closer to the same place of maturity. Small groups and accountability partners are intentional forms of peers, but there are unintentional peers as well. Peers are the easiest kind of relationships because we feel like equals. We often have the same affinities and interests. We feel the most comfortable around our peers, because they are the most like us. Peers walk with us. They are like a “guide alongside.” Perhaps the biggest problem with discipleship in the church is that we are content with surrounding ourselves with peers, but the truth is that God has more growth for us than we can get purely from people who are like us and we feel secure around. It is to “poke the bear” to say it that pointedly, but some things just need to be said.

Lastly is relationships with the people WE are mentoring, people we are actively investing in. To be a disciple is to embrace becoming a disciplemaker. Jesus had the three, the twelve, the seventy, and the multitudes. Imagine how much stronger the church might be if we each had even two mentees in our lives? Again, this does not have to be a physically young person, but a spiritually young person. It would go a long way toward making disciples if each of us could do a bit of soul searching about who we would choose to invest in.  Jesus had twelve he was actively investing in, people he took along with him. He chose them specifically for this purpose. This means choosing is a part of it. We can’t invest in all people equally, so we might consider striving for some old fashioned Quaker simplicity. We have to learn to say no to the right things, in order to say yes to the right things that God is calling us to do. Sometimes that is people in our own families. Sometimes it might be someone with similar interests, or similar spiritual gifts, or just people we see potential in. Sometimes we might need to prioritize “chemistry,” people we find a kindred spirit in. Sometimes it might be simply a burden we have for another person. Sometimes it might be the person to whom we feel a call to simply try and do the most good we can.

Discipleship is not a formula, some kind of “one size fits all” kind of deal. Human relationships are messy things. I do want to offer some wisdom that has stuck with me about the changing roles involved in discipleship:

1) I do, you watch

2) I do, you help

3) You do, I help

4) You do, I watch

There are various things this process could be applied to, but at its core it is about empowering others by passing on opportunities for growth in the way of Jesus. It could be used just as easily in a bible study setting as in a stand alone project together. Too often we just throw people in the deep end and see if they drown. We ask someone to take over a responsibility and we step back, but we offer very little of the middle two roles. The trick is in letting go of control. We want to short circuit the whole process by stepping out too quickly. This is, whether we realize it or not, just throwing people in the deep end of the pool. They need to be guided through this entire process. They need to be invited along and empowered. We have to be very intentional and put the time in in each of these roles, or we will never get to see the torch actually get passed. It might just be a fumble that burns both the parties involved.

I know many people in the church are diehards who would “go down with the ship” if need be. They have served faithfully for years, shouldering many burdens and responsibilities. Out of love for the church they have kept tight control—quality control—over the work of ministry. We justify this with a lot of fears, perfectionism, and talk of the Lord’s desire for us to strive for excellence. But let’s get real, the work of discipleship is intentionally “working ourselves out of a job.” Quality control, at many points, prevents discipleship. It is disempowering, because we are not raising up disciples and passing on experiences that help others grow. We are hogging them to ourselves because that way we don’t have to be afraid. That way we minimize risk. That way we can feel needed, important, busy, and indispensable.

But whether driven by fear or laziness, self serving motives or a sincere desire for excellence, if we do not share the power we have and give people room to fail, and help them pick up the pieces and learn, we are not only not being obedient to the very purpose of the church; we are ensuring a big storm will come that will bring the steeple down in a thunderclap. In not taking others along, and not doing the hard work of empowering others, we are setting up the generation after us to be “in over their heads” even more than we are. The way the world works today, young people are fragmented, disconnected, and unstable in many ways. There are few mentors, few mentees, and a whole lot of peers trying to pretend they have it all figured out. But young people today are not being taught things many older people take for granted, things as basic as how to manage a household, balance a checkbook, even cook a meal. No one has time for this, because it is easier to just do it ourselves so we know what we are getting, and it is faster to do it ourselves anyway.

Our society is very much a society where we throw people into the deep end. But Jesus is calling us to more than this. How can the church through God’s grace offer something better? Jesus invites us to a deep and abiding relationship, and he is inviting others through us to the same—and really, he has used others to bring us this far all along the way. How can our lives live into this reality? How can we be people who God uses to do for others what those who came before have done for us? How can we invite people into relationships where we can share Jesus? Where we can connect youthful, reckless passion and seasoned, hard-won wisdom? How can we let go of control, and use our power to bring others along, and bring them up in the wonderful things God is doing through a church at its best?

These are important questions, questions I will be wrestling with the rest of my life. But make no mistake, it is not about who shows up to worship as much as it is about God, and where God is at work. Weekly worship is a wonderful thing, but it can’t be the only thing. Jesus did not say, just before ascending to heaven, “Come ye into the sanctuary once a week, sing a few songs, listen to some preaching, and try to drag others along kicking and screaming if need be.” Jesus said “go and tell” not “come and see.” Jesus said make disciples—life-long learners of the way of Jesus, not converts—people who gather once a week to say hi to their peers.  Jesus does not ask us to squeeze a bit of God time into our overflowing lives, as they are bursting at the seams… he invites us to become like him. He wants us to grow in being responsive to the call of God. He wants us to be open to letting others speak into our lives. He wants us to play a part in investing in the spiritual lives of newcomers, novices, and even “nowhere to be seen’s” on a Sunday morning. Sometimes God is at work on the front porch, while we are inside biting our lip about the wrong slide popping up and wrecking our favorite worship jam.   

As a pastor, my job is not only to “go” myself, but to send others, and to take others along with me. To use my power to empower others, and share experiences that help each of you to grow. I admit, this is really, really hard and every fiber of my being fights against it. Like everyone else, it is all too easy to neglect the work of empowering others. It is all too easy to play to my strengths and keep control, and do what I can to avoid mistakes and keep everyone happy. But I can’t let you do that, and you can’t let me do that. The truth is, Jesus never intended that for us. To be disciples—learners—means to fail at times. It means “amateurism.” It means risk. It means letting go of control, even watching others fail to help them pick up the pieces and become learners. But this is what being the church really is. It is not a production. It is not what gets printed in the church bulletin. Jesus disrupted the expectations of people in worship one time and the congregation tried to throw him off a cliff. We too can put our expectations before what God might be trying to do, if we are not careful.

I am not asking you to find faults in me. I am not asking you to help me grow into some kind of super hero pastor with a cape on, who can do all things perfectly and never needs anyone else to lift a finger. Sure, I could improve on a lot of things, from preaching to time management to making sure my lawn gets mowed or my kids don’t destroy the house before you come over to visit the parsonage. But the look of squeaky-clean, polished perfection is actually a sign of death, not a sign of life. It is the pristine of the graveyard, not the messiness of a playground where life abounds and maturity is forming. Jesus calls us to the schoolhouse. Jesus calls us to fail at the small things, and to help others “safely fail” at the small things, that we might win at the big thing: making disciples. This is not checkers, this is chess. Jesus is the King, and as his pawns we need to make sure we are playing the King’s game. We each have our power, but not so we can cling to it. I have played chess with many people more concerned with losing their queen—the most powerful piece on the board—than with how the game will end. What is your endgame? To make disciples as Jesus commands us to, we must begin with the end in mind.

Agape,

James     


Mosaic of Love

heartOne of the ways historically that Quakers have attempted to demonstrate the gospel—to proclaim it with their lives—came to be called the testimony of community. Essentially we as a church were once rooted in a robust theology of lived faith, interdependence, and ‘accountability on a journey’ toward greater personal holiness. If a person felt a leading, and the community discerned that leading to be right, the community would back that leading up with tangible action. Traveling ministers like John Woolman and others could never have done the great things they did or touched the lives they touched without the support of the whole community back home that took care of their farms and families to “release” them to pursue the call God had placed on their hearts.

There are some wonderful examples of community lived out in Quaker history that are deeply inspiring. The thing about community though is that it is deeply personal, and requires great humility and vulnerability. To be the community God intended requires us to practice forgiveness and grace, take loving risks—and really—it requires a kind of covenantal model where we are truly committed to God and each other in ways that require service and sacrifice. The ties that bind us together in Christ, become far stronger than those forces that would tear us apart.

My Quaker Values students are often amazed when they first lay eyes on a Quaker Wedding Certificate and I tell them about the accountability involved…where when a couple sought a divorce they would seek out the people who signed it and tell them why; or when they hear about a young couple using a clearness community to invite the community into discernment around things like whether to get married, buy a house, or choose a major. I think this clearly evidences the reality of our American sense of “rugged individualism” and independence, and while I admit there are many good things that comes from growing in maturity and self reliance, community it seems is not one of them.

Community requires quite a bit of vulnerability and trust, and these things seem to be in short supply in our often fragmented and disconnected world. Fear of legalism or abuse is very real, as many a personal experience of those who have left church behind could testify to… but I wonder at times how much greater the impact the church as a whole could have as salt and light to our society if we could reclaim a bit of our Quaker theology and heritage by embracing more of a corporate model of faith.

My theology is very much steeped in the idea that being created in the image of God means we were created for community. The Trinity itself shows us that God exists as a kind of community… a community early church fathers such as Basil described as existing in “perichoresis” a sort of inter-penetration, which some modern theologians have likened to a dance. We were never created to be alone, to feel isolated or to feel alienated. We were created to share love, and that seems to take more than one actor to be a lived reality. Love is a verb, an action word. Love, by its very nature, seems to require expression. It is a gift that cannot be kept under a basket, but must be shared.

Proverbs 27:6 says “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” And sometimes sharing love requires someone to love us enough to risk offering guidance and correction, not from a “holier than thou” place of judgment, but from a place of humility and love and freedom. I have recently had a few people show me this kind of love and for me, as awkward as it can be, it is also very freeing. It offers a place for the rubber to meet the road in my spiritual journey. It helps me to realize I have not “arrived” and still have a lot of room to grow along the path of Christ-likeness I am walking, but it also helps me see that I am not walking alone, that others care enough about our relationship and my growth to invest time in me.

In community, we all have our perspectives—perspectives that are very real. In fact for us, these perspectives are our reality. Somehow by God’s design, the human eye has a blind spot our brains tune out, right at the very center. We tune out that blind spot so well because we have two eyes, and many of us have long forgotten it exists and can’t even make themselves see it again. Community puts us in that place where inevitably we have to confront our blindness. It puts us in a place where we see the limits of ourselves and recognize that we need each other, that with more “eyes”—more spiritual gifts and talents—we better become the body of Christ alive and become alert to the needs of the world. We each have our perspectives, our piece of the puzzle that is our part of God’s tapestry-like story of the redemption of the world. In the spiritual community the voiceless is voiced, the blindness finds its sight as we find our place in the body, and we discover our calling and where we thrive in service to the kingdom of God.  

Something I have found useful though is a visual tool called Johari’s window: Here is what it looks like:Johari_Window

One of the things it offers me is the reminder that there are things about me known by others but unknown to me, and there are things about me known only to God I or others may never even discover. Many of us are so used to living on the left side, the known side, that we have forgotten that there is still some mystery, some blindness in our perspective for good or for bad. But the truth is there are things about us that will only come out in community as we share our love and lives with others, and there will also always be certain things only God will reveal to us… if and when He chooses to do so. There are dimensions of growth that we are so out of our depth we need nothing short of illumination from God and the worshipping community. It is a part of being human.

As I have said, I have been this last month or so, breaking free of some of these boxes. I have been encouraged by exhortation, as well as correction and admonition. I can also say that though this sort of growth is not easy, it is immensely valuable. I have for instance asked for some accountability in certain areas of my life, and because of the vulnerability and love involved, God has blessed me in ways that I cannot help but be grateful for. I am so grateful the “wounds of a friend can be trusted” and that I have room in my life for more than an echo chamber of my own making, my own agenda, or my own ego. Rather I have room in my life for God to use others to speak into my life and help me take the next step with a little less blindness. Sometimes He even uses me to do the same…

I know I am not perfect. I know I make mistakes. I know I need God’s grace. I know at times I need to stop and ask for forgiveness, or offer it to others. And I know I am not alone in this reality that others are struggling in their own ways. And also, that they are finding victory in their own ways. I want to encourage you, as we enter this Autumn season, to think about the role community plays in your life, and the role you play in our College Avenue Community. We all have our issues, our unique obstacles to overcome. We all have our unique mix of strengths, weaknesses… passions and drudgery. But to be the body of Christ, we need to learn to trust and rely on one another… we need to learn to work together as a team, and hold our pieces of the puzzle loosely in the face of God’s will being revealed to us.

Walking together means walking in vulnerability, humility, and ultimately freedom. But we can’t forget we make the path by walking together. In our holy nudgings toward discomfort and growth, we also gain a greater sense of God’s peace and a better understanding of ourselves. If I have learned anything as a disciple of Jesus it is that ignoring hard truths is a path leading only toward destruction and death, not the new life that God offers us.  But I have also learned that Jesus IS present and active in community—in his body—and that where all our blind spots converse honestly, with open mindedness and willingness in an earnest desire for God’s will to be done, God not only gives grace; He gives freedom. Those the Son sets free are free indeed, but we each make the decision of how free we will let ourselves become. Often our fear of vulnerability robs us of the blessings God wants to give us. It robs us of the body, functioning fully as a body. It robs us of perhaps our best way of seeking the future; by doing it together.

Agape,

James                                                                                                                        

 

 


On Gathering and Scattering

golden-gate-bridge-690264_1280When the Assyrians conquered Israel in 722 BC, and also at the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, both of these events displaced massive numbers of Jewish people from ancient Palestine and scattered them around the Middle East and Mediterranean. These scattered Jews became known as the Diaspora, and often for much of Jewish history, there were more Jewish people outside of Israel than in it. The Apostle Paul, born in Tarsus, was one of these people, and it pushed him in a direction God was able to use powerfully. He was a Jew, even a Pharisee. But he grew up in a Pagan dominant setting, and was also a Roman citizen. Paul became the apostle to the Gentiles, a people he understood, sent out from the Jewish people, whom he also understood. Paul was a bridge between two worlds. He became effective in what God was calling him to do, in some ways, because his people were scattered, because they felt so rootless and had to find a Jewish identity they could take out with them as they navigated the world as they found it.

This may seem like ancient history to a lot of people, dull and dusty, but I feel on many levels that I can relate to Paul’s attempts at bridge-making for God. I am sometimes thought of as a member of Generation X, that missing generation that is rare to find in churches. Whatever demographic labels, Generation X,Y, Z, or whatever you want to call young people these days, I am painfully aware that for a whole host of reasons young people in great numbers are not exactly showing up in droves at most churches in America. I am painfully aware also of how people under 50, and especially under 30, do not seem to value being a part of a worshipping community. I can’t speak for the church before my time obviously, but I have very rarely seen a church that seemed to represent people anything near equally across the spectrum of ages. And as a church leader who loves the church and feels called to try this work of bridge building, the future looks pretty bleak. The anchors of faith in the older generation are really not connecting or seem to be anything close to holding with the strength it takes to bridge the gap.

The people of this time are like a modern diaspora. Those who have an identity in Christ seem to be struggling to keep that identity, in the same ways keeping a Jewish identity in a Pagan nation faced an uphill battle. The young, both in and outside the church, are scattered; especially in the summer where countless options present themselves, anything from vacations to Pokemon Go to disc golf. The things that bind people together in relationship seem to be more strained than they ever were. So many people have divorced parents it is almost the new normal. People today struggle with the very concept of what it means to be part of a community, let alone a worshipping community. Even a sense of place or roots are challenged, as many seek to find jobs after college far away from their families and places of origin.

The digital world has connected people in ways that seemed unimaginable; but as much as I see evidence of what it connects I also see how it dissects. The digital divide is one more bridge, one more dimension of being a bridge maker that is crucial to engage in; one more factor of relationships in America that seem “a mile wide and an inch deep.” These last few months I hardly know which half of the church I will get to see on a given Sunday morning. Or how many will grow apart and never find their way back at the end of this high energy season.

As a young pastor, in all honesty, trying to bridge these worlds has not made me feel like the most  savvy and effective leader. It has brought me to a place of brokenness. It has made me well aware of the importance of relationships, and really, what is the church if it is not a spider-web of relationships, built around the gospel and a common connection in Christ?

As I attempt to engage this world as a “bridge builder for God” or an “apostle to the Americans,” Paul offers a great example to be emulated. He used every tool in his toolbox to be all things to all people. We see from scripture how he navigates and leads change in the face of division as the church boils in turmoil during the Jewish/Gentile cultural conflict. Paul plays his Pharisee card, and his Roman citizen card with great wisdom. He writes amazing letters to help guide the church. He debates with stoic and epicurean philosophers, and is familiar enough with their culture to engage it and point them to God using things they find familiar, even to the point of quoting poets. He points to an idol “to the unknown God” and declares boldly about the God who created the heavens and the earth. He raises up leaders like Timothy, Silas, Epaphras, Phoebe, and Lydia. He traveled hundreds of thousands of miles, had high profile engagements with government leaders, planted numerous churches, and fanned into flame the things the Holy Spirit was up to in holy obedience.

Like many young Christians, I look at what I see in the pages of the book of Acts, and I look at the state of the church today, and can’t help but ask the question, “What happened?” I believe that God is still the same, still desires the same things of us and still has plenty of power through which to act. I think a lot of why we don’t see God moving is because we have given up on seeing the importance of the work of bridge building. Rather than place the blame at the feet of older people, or younger people, I think it falls on all of us really. Each of us. When something is “everyone’s job” it can easily default to “no one’s job,” but really the burden rests on each of us to do that work. People across generations young or old, cannot expect the other to come to them. They must invest in relationships themselves, both inside and outside the church community. I know of an older couple and younger couple from the church who like, of all things, professional wrestling. They used that as a bridge to develop a relationship. Being “all things to all people” can look like that in this time. It has to look like something.

If Paul was alive today, he would be where the people are. He would be at our local racetrack that roars every Wednesday night with fair weather. He would use YouTube, Twitter, and modern communications effectively.  He would be actively raising up people to reach the world on its cultural terms…however sprawlingly complex and fluid. But more than that he would anchor the work of being a bridge in the solidity of deep relationships. That is the tricky part, especially in an age where it is so hard even to get five people’s schedule’s to align. The thing is, God didn’t send the “great at everything” Paul the Superstar. He sent me…and he sent you. And the work of reaching out to the world with the love of Christ as witnesses is the work of every Christian. This work is so worth doing it is worth doing badly… until we can learn what we need to learn to actually do it well. I feel like “badly” is all I have to offer right now…

My prayer lately is that God would gather us. We seem hopelessly scattered as the church of our day. We come from a culture that has a weak sense of place, a rugged sense of individualism. And one by one, things like worship, accountability, striving together to live lives of holiness, all seem not even make it anywhere near the “top ten” list of priorities we actually do. Don’t get me wrong, God can do great things with scattering. He can use it in amazing ways to turn even a former religious terrorist into the writer of over a third of the New Testament. But to truly learn the lessons of scattering does not mean finding comfort in isolation and disconnection, and learning to be happy in the midst of that desert. It does not mean each of us in our brokenness, pick up the pieces alone. I believe that we must also experience being gathered as the Body of Christ. We must tear down and uproot as much as build and plant. We must bridge the gap of spending time together regularly, not just sending emails and texts, or even phone calls. These are meant to be ways to bring us together physically, not as a substitute for actual human interaction.

And I think we should repent of wasting so much time on everything else. Older people, do not let discouragement let you justify not reaching out to busy young people. Younger people, do not let older people’s feeble attempts at showing love and cultural insensitivity to the reality of your rapidly changing world discourage you from lifting your voice. Do not criticize your worshiping community while refusing to be a part of it. Christ died for more than just a Sunday morning ritual, but we are all the church. When we think of the church as completely separate from ourselves it is a short step to casting the first stone.

If the church is ever to have revival, or awakening, unity has a role to play. It truly takes the whole body working together as one.

But in our scattered world, how can we have unity without first doing our part to fight for connection? If you feel lost and scattered in the wind, whose steps lead you there? Are you resistant to being gathered? If your only times of gathering are between nine to noon on Sunday morning—if you feel like it— are you resisting being gathered? Or scattered?

Dietrich said “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone… Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls.” Solitude and community need each other. Gathering and scattering need each other. Young and old need each other. And all of this requires us to think like bridge builders. A suspension bridge has pillars, but it also has deep pilings and strong tethers. It needs all these dimensions or it will collapse in a heap. As the cultural chasm widens and deepens, the work of connection becomes even harder, and even more important. We need to think like Paul would. He did not go to the Areopagus with hundred year old hymns in an archaic he did his best to take what was familiar to the outsider and pour the gospel in it. Seeking understanding without being willing to stand in the gap is not enough. We need prayer, but we also need presence. My question to you is will you be that presence?

Being a leader means I have to take an honest look at the future, and accept reality as it is. Nothing has made me cling more to the cross. Pray for me as I engage in this work God is calling me to, but I need more than that. I need colaborers. The only way to speak life into a scattered world is to not be scattered. But to be connected, and invested in this arduous labor of love God calls us to. I see fruit. I see signs of hope. But I also need to see now and then that I am not fighting alone.


On Going Deeper and the Bleeding Edge

growthMysticism, or direct and unmediated spiritual experience, has long been a foundational element of what it means to be a Quaker. We, along with Christian brothers and sisters of many stripes, believe strongly that God IS already at work. God is at work both through the church and beyond the church. We also do not believe works and good deeds in any way earn our salvation. Somewhere in the tension of these two realities we find what is often referred to as spiritual formation. Christian spiritual formation is not a way of controlling God or manufacturing spiritual ecstasies, but it is a discipline—really a disciplined approach to life—that trusts that God is at work and seeks to assist in that work. It is trying to put one’s self in the best position so that the work of God would carry on unhindered.

During one of his talks at Barclay College, Fil Anderson, author of the book Running on Empty: Contemplative Spirituality for Overachievers, gave a wonderful metaphor for how we approach  this “work” we do. He likened it to the “work” of working on a tan. When we speak of “working on our tan,” it is really the sun that does the work; our work is just putting ourselves in the best position to soak up the suns’ rays. We are changed by our encounter, yet we recognize right away that in no way do we for one second control the sun.

We do not earn the rays. But there is a truth that our little part matters. There is a relationship between how we live and how available we are to God, and the fruits God grows in us. It is not a one to one correlation. We are finite, God is infinite. But we can to some extent, when it comes to the spiritual life, have the faith that the sun will shine and live into the truth of that reality. We can grab the spiritual equivalent to some oil and a towel. We can look for a sweet place to put ourselves before, and appreciate the warmth of, the Shekinah glory of God that is always shining to those whose eyes are open to take it in.

You might not realize it, but the sunflower is not called the sunflower because it looks like the sun in its way. The sunflower is called the sunflower because it turns its face fully toward the sun, and follows it across the sky all day. Like sunflowers, you and I, were created to point our hearts in God’s direction and always be slowly moving along with God in obedience, however small and unnoticed by others this work will often be. We do not do this physically, but it is at times just as subtle, just as secret, as a sunflower doing what it was created to do.

I don’t know about you, but I want to go deeper. I want to chase the mystery of God on the bleeding edge of faith. But this is not the work of one person who–like a Green Beret jumping out of a plane knife in mouth–pulls themselves up by some kind of spiritual boot straps. We cannot manufacture the work of God in ourselves. We are more like a plant than we want to admit. But even just looking at how living things are—finding the wisdom of the plant if you will—can tell us a lot about what is within our small sphere of work in the spiritual life. Like many things in life, it is not the responsibility of a pastor, spiritual director, mentor or any other kind of guru to see that this work is being done in your life. The work is your own to do. No one can do it for you, only with you. As Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 3:5-8, servants serve in obedience to and in accordance with the plans and purposes of God, they are just co-laborers with Him. They “manufacture” nothing:

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.

I think it is fair to ask the question, “to what extent is a plant complicit in its own growth?” I think a lot of the work we do to further our growth is simply to keep God’s perspective before us. It is only in this perspective of faith that we recognize the truth that God is the source of life, not us. It is only through eyes of faith that we can recognize the fruit God has blessed us with. It is only through the eyes of faith that we can have a transformed perspective on what is happening within, through, around, and beyond us.

There is however the work of “letting” God work, and don’t let anyone fool you; letting is a lot harder than it looks. But unlike plants, we do have the choice of what we are soaking in. We have choice of the soil we absorb our nutrients from. “Garbage in, garbage out” is not God’s governing purposes for us. But it can easily become a metaphor describing our spiritual life. At the same time, not all that stinks is garbage. Sometimes the things we do not like are actually fertilizer, catalysts of positive change in our life. I have seen my share of pasty white computer geeks logging countless hours in places that do not prioritize the light. We too have the choice of entertaining ourselves to death rather than pursuing the spiritual life. We too, to some extent, make the choice of our priorities, of where we are planted so to speak. We do some of that work of soaking; it is good to ask ourselves now and then, as a spiritual query, “What have you been soaking in?”

The soil around us, when it is good soil, gives us context. When we are grounded in God and God’s words of life, we also become aware of the edges around us. They may not seem like bleeding edges necessarily, but there is something God does in us when our focus begins to look outward as well as inward, for evidence that God is at work. The soil around us gives us a sense of “placed-ness,” rootedness, grounding. We notice opportunities for loving service. We notice where God is at work in those around us, and we begin to seek Him out and join Him there. We even notice places we desire that work to be strengthened. We notice those planted next to us (people), and the ways we are connected.

Some varieties of bamboo, to the outward eye, seem pathetic and disappointing in the early stages of their lives. Even after a few years only a small sprout and a few leaves are all that can be perceived as evidence of growth. But often, beneath the surface has been forming a massive root system. Like bamboo we often must grow depth before we can grow height. Since we are so easily focused outwardly we can miss this truth, it really doesn’t matter which way you are growing. The invisible work God does to prepare us for outward work is every bit as important. Often I think we spend our time looking for growth in the wrong places. We level our frustrations at the one or two things that can be seen, and fail to notice the importance of all that is needed to grow. We forget that often we must practice growing and trusting God down in the earthy darkness before we can follow Him in the places of blinding light.

The sequoia, a giant among trees, looks strong and mighty but its roots are shallow. Other trees have about as much going down as they do up, but the sequoia does not. One thing its shallow roots do however is wrap themselves around one another. This is the secret to the sequoia’s strength, on its own a windstorm could push it over and bring about down, but because it’s roots join together with others its own deficiencies do not hold back its noble grandeur. It is in community, not in isolation, that our growth can push beyond the limits of our own roots. It is here that reaching our true potential can do so in safety, that our upward strivings form the true bleeding edge; the corporate canopy of a community stretched out to catch all the grace God rains down upon us.

Lastly, all living things do not stay frozen in time, they move and change. Where movement ceases, life ceases. All living things have cycles of death as well as cycles of reproduction. There is a journey with the bleeding edge that calls us to navigate change, to recognize our place in time. We enjoy the first fruits of eternal life, and look forward to eternity with God, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take a hard look at where we are at in this journey toward maturity. Are we in a season of harvest, multiplication, or fallow? There is a story here, a history of God’s faithfulness. Salvation is best perceived with the hindsight of the past, with gratitude in the midst of today’s struggle, and with an eye filled with hopeful expectation for the future. Parker Palmer writes eloquently about different seasons of experience. Each part of the cycle of life has new things to teach us: there is a time for the bustling creativity of Spring, the tempering heat of Summer, the finishing work of Fall, and the life giving fallow that comes only through the path of a harsh Winter.

The bleeding edge will always point us to our need for God. It is always that point where we stop, and God begins, that God is at work. When I was a child I remember marking my age by half years because everything seemed so far off. It was amazing how big even a minute could be then. Now the years seem to whiz by before I even realize I blinked. Whatever season, whatever direction of growth, we face the same choice: reflective mindfulness or ignorance?  Actively chasing a fruit filled life, or passively coasting into the slumber of mediocrity? Will we be stuck on the past, or racing ahead of the future? Or will we be anchored in the present moment with God, aware of our bleeding edges; aware of what God is doing in this stretch of the journey?

There is a sacredness to the space life occupies. As we become comfortable being in that space, living into that space, and growing in understanding of ourselves, God and others… we would do well now and then to dare ourselves to risk going deeper: we would do well to find the life of obedience calling us to the bleeding edge of God’s sustaining grace at work within and without, above and below, inside our community and in that visceral place where we live in the moment with Him.

Agape,

James


Finding the New Normal

salvador-daliSpring is such a time of transition. Things in life seem to start ramping up to…something. Hopefully not a cliff! But most of us start to become so busy that we can hardly fathom what is past the week we are in. As a recent graduate of George Fox Evangelical Seminary, I still find many things ramping up. Yet strangely I feel some things ramping down. My life is not the frantically paced ball of stress it was a month ago, and I am good with that. But in the quest for the new normal, I feel the need to push back at my tendency toward business and complexity. I have spent a year teaching at Penn, and one of the things I teach about is simplicity. I present this to the students equally as much in the directions of simplicity being a value, as I do in hammering home the idea that a simple life is often a “value first” life, one in sync with one’s identity and what one truly sees as important. I have also had the pleasure to close out my coursework at Fox with a Spiritual Leadership class by MaryKate Morse, in which I was tasked with reflecting on the most important values that I need to protect in order to stay sane for the long haul of ministry and keep my own relationship with God vital.

In the paper I created a personal mission statement, reflected on my call and my identity in Christ, and did some real examination of my strengths and weaknesses. All of this culminated in a process of connecting my core values with some super specific and tangible vital behaviors. In short, it was an attempt to distill down and understand the deep desires of my heart. I purchased and gave out to many of the leaders of College Avenue Friends a book called the Leadership Ellipse by Robert Fryling, who wrote in a very practical way how to connect spirituality and leadership. He produced something he refers to a Rule of Life, with “rule” used in the sense of a monastic rule: something of a wise list of behaviors to live a deeply spiritual life. At the end of the book he shares these behaviors, intimately connected to his identity and the desires of his heart. For my course I produced something similar. I want to share a short portion of what I came up with, for me, in the hopes that you will not only pray for me and hold me accountable in some ways to this “rule,” but in order that you might consider doing something similar.

My Core Values

  • Family-I want my family to be loved, cherished and discipled.
  • Learning– I have an insatiable drive to learn and seek the truth, and passionately share that learning with others.
  • Leadership– I have the desire, confidence, and natural ability to lead and people put their trust in me easily. I cannot “not” lead if no one else is. In circumstances where another leader is serving in this way, I do my best to help the one who I leading to succeed.
  • Communication– I have a drive toward writing, poetry, speaking, and content creation in general. I enjoy opportunities to speak and write, and love to use words to inspire, instruct, or encourage whenever I get the chance.
  • Excellence– I have a deep desire to improve anything I can, to seek mastery, and make the world a better place. I thrive under circumstances that require creativity in the context of challenging circumstances and limitations.

Priorities and Vital Behaviors

  • Priority: Pursuing personal excellence and spiritual vitality.
    • Heart’s Desire: “I want to be present and connected with God.”
      • *Absolute Vital Behavior: Keeping a true Sabbath every Monday.
      • Vital Behavior: getting 8 hours of sleep every night by going to bed the same time as my wife whenever possible.
  • Priority: Keeping my family close, connected, and vibrantly healthy.
    • Heart’s Desire: “I desire a smiling wife who knows she is loved.”
      • *Absolute Vital Behavior: Sharing a date night with my wife the third and fifth Friday evening of every month.
  • Heart’s Desire: “I desire a family connected to God and to each other.
    • *Absolute Vital Behavior: eating breakfast together as a family every Monday-Saturday and following it with brief age appropriate devotions.
    • *Absolute Vital Behavior: regularly planning for a daddy/daughter date with each of my girls the first and second Friday lunch hour of every month.
    • Vital Behavior: Calling my mother Monday during my lunch break every week.
  • Priority: Giving myself the freedom to create.
    • Heart’s Desire: “I desire to steward my creativity in ways that are fun and life giving.
      • Vital behavior: spending a few hours in the woodshop to work in solitude each month.
      • Spending a few hours writing each month (for myself or publications).

Vital Behaviors

 

The process of stewing over these things and dreaming about what kind of life and ministry I want to foster was one of the best possible ways to end my master’s program. As much as spiritual formation was emphasized, alongside this was a workload and rhythm that really didn’t have space for things like a true Sabbath rest. Now that I am free of this burden I get the change to unlearn some of the bad habits I have picked up along the way.

Seldom do people take the opportunity to stop and reflect about their priorities rather than simply reacting to outside forces and the general churn of life. My list here is probably nothing too profound. It is not there to be used as a new way to be legalistic, but at the same time I believe that a disciplined life is the only way to a truly fruitful life. I am giving myself a bit of permission to be “legalistic” about some of these core things. This is not simply a New Year’s Resolution that might get discarded within a month. These are serious things. I dare you, if you can spare the bandwidth to reflect on it a while, to narrow down your own handful of values and handful of vital behaviors that reflect your heart’s desire and who you are. Roman’s 12:1-2 says:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

The pattern of this world calls out to all of us, but so does the transformation God offers. If we can bring ourselves before God fully, rather than giving Him the leftovers of a frantic life, I imagine we can find the strength needed to push back and break free of the mold encircling us. Fryling, Foster, and others have a great deal to teach us about putting ourselves in that place of receptivity. I am trying blaze a trail in that direction myself. There are no easy answers in something like this, no cookie cutter “7 steps.” But to those who take the time to reflect deeply, and who can muster the discipline to really test and approve the will of God, God offers renewal; a renewal desperately needed in a world drowning in busyness, a world where relationships are often left to wither slowly and fade in the face of constant hurdles.

As followers of Jesus, we should recognize the pattern of Jesus involved rest, deep reflection, time of prayer with the Father. Jesus withdrew at times from all the busyness surrounding him to spend time in prayer. If we would truly let our lives speak, we must offer ourselves fully, as living sacrifices. This is also the only way we will find the strength to offer our best selves to the world. If we as Christians are run-ragged, exhausted. Our witness, like our lives, will be vastly diminished. Yet if we are refreshed, tranquil, present, and in tune to God’s will, I think people will notice. They will notice something different about us. They will smell the sweet aroma of Jesus. From there, I can imagine we will be a rich conduit of God’s blessings to the world, strong witnesses. Let us strive to offer our whole selves to God, to listen, and put pen to page. Simplicity has a wealth of wisdom, but only for those who are not satisfied only with its low hanging fruit.

Agape,

James

 

 


Lenten Journey of Justice: “Holy Saturday”

Lenten Journey of Justice facebook 2Read Matthew 12:38-45; 1 Pet 4:1-8

Devotion

In college I had the pleasure once of having a Greek Orthodox priest come speak in chapel. Though this was unique and had never been done before, some of the Quaker mystical tradition had developed friendships with mystics of the Greek Persuasion, as well as some who had been working with the Apprentice Institute. If memory serves the man who came was called Father Gregory, and he gave one of the most interesting and controversial homilies to ever echo through Haviland Friends Church. Seeking to correct against the Protestant excess with the Penal Substitution theory of atonement (a Law/Punishment paradigm), this priest told us the gospel story according to Origen’s version of the Ransom Theory  (an overcoming Death paradigm). While I an many of my classmates listened in rapt attention to this radically foreign perspective on the gospel story, I admit I had some reservations. But when it comes to the atonement, I think most of the theories are valuable and mostly help us see that the truth of the gospel in a multi-faceted truth.

Father Gregory spoke in some fresh ways about what was going on during this interim time, a mostly silent time in Scripture though it is hinted at what happens during this time in the Apostle’s Creed and writings of the church fathers. In Gregory’s Greek Orthodox view, this was the time Jesus battled death in a spiritual reality beyond the cross. As Jesus went went into the grave it was seen has him being swallowed by death, going down into the belly of the beast so to speak.  Spiritually, Jesus descended into the bowels of death just as Adam and Eve had, and when Jesus arrived he found them there. Adam and Eve were trapped in their sin and could not get out, but death could not hold Jesus. According to this view of the gospel what Jesus did was essentially to grab Adam and Eve and burst back out from the belly of death,  giving Adam and Eve a path to their freedom and reversing the work of the devil.

While this stretched our protestant lens a great deal in chapel to seemingly speculate so much about how Jesus did this work of reversing the curse, I found it a helpful way to think about Holy Saturday. I do not know what to make of Jesus’ pointing to the sign of Jonah, nor or what to make of 1st Peter’s concept of Jesus. But I do understand that what is signified by them is is more than simply Christ resting in death. What happened during this period is a mystery, but one worth chasing a bit as we celebrate the gospel story at work within us.

A. Katherine Grieb, in her book, “The Story of Romans: A Narrative Defense of God’s Righteousness” argues persuasively that as Paul is arguing for Jesus’ work on the cross in light of his role as a New Adam figure, that Paul is borrowing from Jewish Holy War theology the idea of a representative fighting solo for his people, something akin to what David and Goliath agreed to do: they could spare the cost of war by choosing a representative from each side to fight for all. I like how these ideas blend together in reflecting on Holy Saturday, like David at Ziklag, Jesus comes to rescue a people in bondage. As Isaiah pointed to, Jesus came to set the captives free and break the yokes of slavery. He may not have fought an earthly battle but in facing off with Sin and Death the Lord was a warrior who took the fight to the powers and principalities of our darkened world crying out for redemption. Though scripture is silent or even confusing about what was going on on Holy Saturday, I think the case can be made that Jesus kept on fighting and took the fight into the belly of the Beast. Jesus conquered death, undoing the curse of Adam and Even, and leading God’s people to freedom.

Take 10 to 20 minutes in solitude to ponder the victory of Jesus, both on the cross above and in the realms below. At the incarnation God came on an all out rescue mission for our sake, at the cross that rescue took the form of redemption and atonement, and in the grave we find Jesus conquering sin and death. As we await the coming Act of the gospel story–the resurrection, let us not lose the importance of Holy Saturday; where the seeds of our redemption germinated and began to sprout, ready to burst from the soil Resurrection Sunday with unexpected glory and joy.


Lenten Journey of Justice: Good Friday

 

Lenten Journey of Justice facebook 2

Read Luke 23
Devotion
In Luke’s version of the Last Supper it ends in a cryptic dialog where, after fighting over who was the greatest, Jesus tells the disciples to go and by swords. Here Jesus performed a prophetic sign pointing to the meaning and significance of his death; He was to die as a Sufffering Servant, living out a vision of redemption envisioned in Isaiah 53. Another reason Luke include this is to foreshadow the actual way in which Jesus was to die: he would be numbered among the transgressors. It would be no shock to Jesus that he would die between two insurrectionists, but it was bitterly ironic for Jesus was not a Judas Maccab eus-style Messiah who came to raise up an army and drive out the Romans, he was a radically nonviolent Suffering Servant type, a type not on the radar of the Jewish paradigm’s land-centric focus.

He may have driven the money changers out this temple, but Jesus was not interested in building an earthly kingdom. He may have stood up to the self righteous and the status quo, but he was not as willing to kill for his beliefs as much as die for them. If one were left with any doubts about the humility of Jesus, we must recognize that the incarnate Creator of the universe here “Did not consider equality with God something to be used to his advantage, but rather poured himself out, taking the form and nature of a Servant (Phil. 2:6-7 translation mine). There is great truth in the Christian cliche that “it was love that held him on that cross” because staying there was not just a sacrifice but a choice. A choice of love he made for you and for me.

If Jesus hadn’t left it up to us I have my doubts that the day Jesus suffered through would have been called Good Friday. This rightly recognizes that this is the event at the heart of the gospel or “Good News,” but when I think of Good Friday I always recognize it was good for us, but not good for Jesus. And from the earliest days of Christianity it has been a day of sorrow, penitence, and fasting… something preserved in the German terminology for this day Kartfreitag, or Sorrowful Friday.

For Jesus this day would be a nonstop train wreck of pain, with Jesus fresh off his experience with betrayal to spend all night enduring three religious and three civil trials–none of which were as concerned about justice as they were with pleasing the court of popular opinion. Jesus endured a flogging severe enough it may have eventually killed him. He carried his heavy crossbeam through a mocking crowd hurling rocks, dirt, spittle, and insults. He had his hands pierced by cruel nails. And to make matters worse, while hanging on the cross the only way to keep breathing was to push his feet against the nail through his legs. The wooden footrest we see in pictures was considered optional and since they wanted to hasten the death and get things cleaned up for the the Passover Festival, it probably wouldn’t have been there.

Jesus had to earn every breath on a clock he knew he would never outrun. Near the end of this exhausting process his states of rest would be like waterboarding himself in a rapidly downward spiral of energy loss. Jesus experienced pain on a level we could scarcely imagine, he experienced the death of a criminal, a transgressor. It was a death reserved for those the Romans wanted to make an example of. It was a warning to all who would follow the path of this “transgressor.” It is a warning to us as we follow him that we are also on a journey of a cruciform life.

Good Friday wasn’t that good for Jesus, but it was exceedingly good for us. It was the culmination of a human life of suffering: Jesus grew up in a town that ostracized him for a scandalous birth, he fled a genocide as an infant, he was rejected in his hometown and nearly thrown off a cliff, he lived as a homeless man wandering the countryside teaching people about God, the very people who would reject him. He truly was, as Isaiah envisioned, a man whose life was well acquainted with hardship and sorrow. To die a painful death between two insurrectionists is the zenith of his suffering, but it surely wasn’t the beginning of Jesus’ many encounters with pain and brokenness.

The two insurrectionists who shared crosses with Jesus point us in two ways we can respond in taking up our crosses and sharing in the death of Jesus. One eased his pain by joining in with the mockers, rejecting outright the idea of a Suffering Servant. The other criminal recognized in this injustice that it was actually God at work through Jesus’ death on the cross; in sharing in the suffering of Jesus he recognized he was not innocent but that Jesus was. This latter path is the one where we earnestly share in the death of Jesus. We must recognize Jesus in his sinlessness, suffering the fate we deserved and ask to be identified with him. This man’s desperation led him to publicly identify with Jesus in the face of a mocking crowd. At times it can be that black and white… and when our chips are down in our suffering we see glimmers of where our identity is truly coming from. We face the same choice.

 

Friday Fool’s Challenge Prayer
Gather some paper and dark writing implements such as a sharpie or pen, and also a pencil. Spend some time doing your best to draw Jesus on the cross with a sharpie or pen. The drawing need not be very detailed, but if you have enough artistic ability to move beyond stick figures to a silhouette please attempt to do so. When you are finished flip the page over and look at where the figure of Jesus bled through the page. Next take the pencil or some other lighter weight writing implement and draw yourself onto the “bleeding through” silhouette of Jesus on the cross. As you draw prayerfully and artistically “identify” with this cruciform representation of Jesus, recognize the spiritual reality that your sin like, ink or graphite–where it falls on the cross– is identified with him and removed. It is forgiven, and you are free. Good Friday is Good News indeed!


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