Tag Archives: Quaker

Some Thinking on Thankfulness

While not a very religious holiday, Thanksgiving is still my favorite one to celebrate. This has to do with my love of gathering loved ones around a table in fellowship. It truly is the great American love-feast, and often comes the closest many of us ever experience in our culture to the table fellowship of the early church (or for that matter the holy feasts of the Old Testament). There is something holy in the love that our green bean casseroles were made with. There something holy (and wholesome) about dedicating a day to spend together with family thanking God for His providence.

Thanksgiving seems to break through our individualistic culture and provide a sorely needed excuse for togetherness. In our fragmented and disconnected world, there is something that food and fellowship around a table provide, that I believe, is sorely needed. It gives us an opportunity to invite in that weird uncle or aunt or neighbor who sees the world so differently than we do, and to love them where they are (not as we want them to be). As Quakers, we believe that everyone is imbued with the image of God; that all people have value. At Thanksgiving, many of us put that commitment to love our neighbor to the test! We need this grace to us more than most of us are willing to admit.

As an Osky transplant, I am blessed with a newcomer’s perspective. I see the many things about this community that are amazing. For me, it has been kind of like stepping into a Norman Rockwell painting, in a very good way. I think as a community we have a lot of things to be thankful to God for, and that joining together in worship to celebrate God’s rich bounty is something that is worthwhile. While there may be theological differences and a variety of ways people experience God in worship in this community, I bet one thing we could all agree on is God’s goodness to us. This one brute fact should inspire us to live out our love modeling Christ’s example. If God truly loves us–US–warts and all…that should fill us with excitement.

In my Quaker values class I teach regularly about simplicity, something I like to define for a largely secular audience as “saying no to some things in order to say yes to the right things.” I regularly do an exercise where I have the students physically stand in the left, middle, or right side of the classroom to show their response (agree, unsure, or disagree) to an intentionally vague statement. This really gets people talking because they have already made a statement in their walking. For the week on simplicity I pose the statement “having lots of money will automatically make a person grateful, happy, and enjoy a meaningful life.” I am always surprised with how this exercise reveals. Some, see money as giving a person the freedom to pursue a life of meaning unhindered. Others, resonate with money’s power to magnify good or problematic areas of a person’s life. They acknowledge statistics about high levels of suicide among lotto winners, and recognize that in many ways, massive wealth could undermine the things in life they value the most.

This is a crucial step in the class’ journey of exploring the intersection between simplicity and gratitude, something few of us wrestle with openly. To get the class moving in this direction, I read a quote from Robert Fryling’s book The Leadership Ellipse that asks such an important question:

“…Gratitude is the involuntary response of the heart to all aspects of life and ultimately to God. It is not based primarily on circumstance. Some of the most grateful people in the world are the poorest, while many that are rich often are characterized by their lack of gratitude as they seek to acquire more money or fame. If this is the case, what then makes us grateful, or how can we be more grateful people?”

I think how we answer that question powerfully shapes the direction of our lives.

It is easy for many of us to always focus on what we have not attained, to be driven (consciously or not) by our fears or pride, or other people’s expectations. Few of us ever stop and be grateful.

One girl, who warned me on the first day of class that she struggled immensely in all of her attempts at religion classes, ended the course having a spiritual awakening and getting involved in a local church. As she presented her journey of exploring simplicity, she found such freedom that as a part of her relationship with God, she had someone to be grateful TO for her many blessings and the beauty of creation. This, among many other extravagant luxuries, are easily taken for granted by us Christians. But at the end of the day–each day–so much of how we see the world is shaped by where our focus lies. We daily have a choice of what we choose to focus on–the blessings we haven’t yet received, or the ones we have. We can allow gratitude to fill our hearts…or jealousy. The only one who chooses this, is you or me.

How DO we become more grateful people? I think grateful people focus less on the negative aspects of their current circumstances, and more on their many blessings. It is easy to fall into the same trap as the nightly news which is basically to focus only on the terrible or controversial things that happen in the world, and to do so until we find ourselves ever torn between reeling in fear and addicted to outrage. There is a story of three couples–freshly moved to town–who encounter an old man on a bench. In separate encounters, he asks each of them, “What was it like where you came from?” One couple said everyone was always gossipping and backbiting, another that people were always looking down their nose at others as they kept up with the Jones’, and the last said that there were many wonderful people with friendships that had deepened over dozens of years. The man on the bench responded to each couple with the exact same answer, “You are going to find a lot of that here too.”

As Christians we are going to find a lot of what we are “looking for” as well. We may see slights or grace, good or evil, the fallenness of people or the faithfulness of God. Whatever we want to see more of we will find. But we seem to need extra grace to do as Paul exhorts in Phil 4:8,

“whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

Scott Mcknight once said “Tables build societies.” How might Thanksgiving be an opportunity to see God’s value in all people? How might some food, fellowship, or even board games around a table be an opportunity to share God’s love? That table of old where Jesus sat with his rag-tag disciples transcended the differences between a radical zealot and his nemesis a tax collector. It brought together rough and tumble fishermen, and even had room for a traitor like Judas. There is something about Thanksgiving that connects us to the table Jesus shared long ago, and reminds us of the Great Wedding Supper of the Lamb to come. I believe it is there to find for us, if we are willing to let God give us the eyes to see it.

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Stay Hungry

Have you ever trained for something? Whether its music or sports or preparing for a final exam, training takes a lot out of you. It can be exhausting. But some of us, who have had our passion inflamed, who have felt a clarity of our callings, find a love that sustains us even as we train. Training takes a certain kind of obsession to be effective, because training is work and work takes energy and time.

I think in our day people value talent, but loath training. Talent is valuable, but the truth is, it can get in the way of training because people feel like they have arrived. Raw talent is an inspiring thing, but it is just that: raw. And some people who already have it feel like they have nothing left to learn, no new heights to obtain, and as the old saying goes the good can be the enemy of the best.

Paul writes in Philippians 3:12, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” One of the blinders that needs to come off in the spiritual life is the blinder that tells us, “We have arrived. We have attained. We have taken ahold of what Christ has for us and now we can stop training and get comfortable. We can cash in our chips and punch out for the day.”

But as the Body of Christ we are a Body in training. We have not arrived, we still have a lot of work to do. The question before us isn’t simply whether we will do this work or not. The question before us is, have we lost our passion? Our focus? Are we missing the fuel that will sustain us? The clarity of calling? The hope of arriving someday? Paul points this out in his words: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Renowned scholar N.T. Wright translates this: “No, I am hurrying on eager to overtake it, because King Jesus has overtaken me!” I like his translation because it fits better with the theme of racing, a theme Paul is really emphasizing here.

Paul had Olympic running in his day, and like the Olympics of our day it was a worldwide competition. Not every country got to compete, but you can bet the Jews of Paul’s day followed the Olympics and knew the outcome. I love his illustration of running because running is all about forward progression. In the spiritual life, we cannot keep looking back, we must look forward for what God has for us next. We must keep an eye on the prize, but with the other eye we have to keep watch on the road before us. We can’t look back, or we could wander off course, or hit a pothole. We could miss the next obstacle and get hurt and have to quit the race.

I love the Friends church. I love our history and heritage. I love our stories of dauntless missionaries and saints. But perhaps the biggest problem with our denomination is that we have such a wonderful heritage we can end up making that the focus. But we can’t be effective runners if our heads are spun around the wrong way. We have to keep one eye on the prize. One eye on chasing Jesus sure, but we have to keep the other eye looking down where our next step is about to land.

We cannot be distracted by side issues. We cannot always be people who look back. We should keep our eye on the prize of reaching out and raising up disciples. That is the main thing and the real reason the church exists. It is the work each of us, in our own way, is called to.

We have a wonderful building. We have a beautiful church family. But we can’t, like a runner who finds himself in 1st place, stop straining on. A race isn’t over until it is finished. We have to work hard not only to keep what we have gained, but gain even more.

We can’t get comfortable, but should live into our vision and values statement that says: “College Avenue Friends exists not only for its own sake but also for the sake of those outside our walls that Christ calls us to love and serve. We are committed to pushing beyond the status quo and being a light to others in our daily walks of faith.”

The real treasure we seek in the Christian life is Jesus. It is not even the reward of heaven, but of being with Jesus. Heaven is not the goal, He is the goal. God calls us heavenward, but He calls us not only to heaven, but to Himself. And He calls us to be with Him on a journey, a heavenward journey. And Paul goes even further, from preaching to meddling as it were, as he challenges us in verse 15 “All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you… Only let us live up to what we have already attained.”

We might not always agree about what the next steps will be, but we need to take them together, trusting that God will make it clear for us as we walk together. As we cling to the truth that we have so far… as we cling to that bit of gold we have that God is still refining in us, God will reveal even more to us.

There is a maturity in knowing not only what we already know, but what we don’t know. It was said of Socrates that he was the wisest person in Athens, not because of how much he knew, but because he knew how much he had left to learn. Those of us with real maturity have a humble maturity, one that comes not only in acknowledging our strengths and successes and our victories in the spiritual life, but also in acknowledging our fumbles and foibles and failures.

A maturity that comes in the form of recognizing how far we have yet to go in becoming like Jesus, but seeking it together anyway. So, we live the Christian life as I have said so far, with one eye on Jesus. One eye off in the distance, filled with hope and keeping our eye on the prize. But we also keep one eye down at our feet, looking to overcome the next hurdle. Looking to keep what we have already attained.

Eric Liddell, the Olympian who inspired the movie Chariots of Fire, was a man of intense discipline used mightily by God. As a runner, he refused to run on Sundays, even when it cost him greatly. May we live purposeful lives willing to risk for God. Liddell once said, “In the dust of defeat as well as the laurels of victory there is a glory to be found if one has done his best.” It is my belief that the glory he was talking about was God’s glory not Eric’s glory, the glory revealed in us as God’s creatures, as we run the race He has before us. There are limits God gives us, limits like sabbath rest. And we do God’s kingdom little good if we work ourselves to death. But for some of us the greater danger is in letting our training regimen go… neglecting our prayer and bible reading and fellowship together. Sunday morning service was never meant to be the beginning and end of our spiritual nourishment, but the overflow of what God has been doing in our lives all week. Let us bring our best even there.

For those who want to win, there can be no looking back. There can be no pining for days gone by. There is only striving, a striving that melts away all our complacency. Where we want to be where Jesus is more than anything else. We are not looking at the distractions around us, the fool’s gold in our midst. We are not settling for our past successes… we are striving. Striving for even more growth on our journey with Jesus. There will be a time beyond the striving, a time victory is complete. But this is not yet that time. For now, the race is on.

Agape,

James


Loving Local

One social justice issue that College Avenue Friends Church cares about especially deeply is hunger. You can see this in the many among us who volunteer at the local ecumenical food cupboard, in Jan Palmer’s Take Along Lunch program that helps hungry kids get through the weekend, and the Oskaloosa Summer Lunch Program that I especially want to highlight here. The Summer Lunch program was pioneered by a wonderfully Christ-like woman named Martha Comfort, who launched and directed the program on a volunteer basis for its first three years. It became a non-profit under the umbrella of the United Way of Oskaloosa and because of the high poverty levels in our community it is both fully reimbursed for every meal by the USDA, as well as is not required by them to ask the children for proof of their neediness. It now has twelve sites in the Oskaloosa area. Martha recently stepped down from the program as she graduated from a graduate program in social work and plans to pursue further ministry in the new doors God has opened to her in a slightly different direction.

At a Golden Circle program (a monthly small group for senior members) the winter before last, Martha came and told us about her program, and immediately I wanted to learn more about what it would take to become a site. College Avenue sits of course right next to the Friends Park, the shadiest park in Oskaloosa on a hot summer day, and its recently updated play structures and sand pit are the perfect place for large groups of kids to play. Historically CAF had its Jack and Jill preschool whose legacy is readily seen in our facility’s ample kitchen and nursery, which is a wonderful plan B location in the case of rain or bad weather.

After finding out all that was needed was a small about of food safety training and a few volunteers, and all we really had to do was show up and love on the kids and serve them, we started last year out as a smashing success. Lunches were served MWF from noon till 12:45 with a fifteen minute craft or game following. Martha brought a bunch of donated sand buckets to give the kids at our first launch last summer and the first day we had around thirty kinds having a blast in the sand box! I mostly did the activities and picked up the food, and got a chance to meet many of the kids in the neighborhood and minister to them. One child known by many of the neighborhood kids had died tragically from an allergic reaction to the anesthetic from a simple tonsil removal, and though I was not technically allowed to proselytize because of federal funding, the kids knew I was a pastor and I was of course free to respond to their questions.

I knew all of this work was worth it when I saw the kids enjoying hospitality together as equals free of the poor kid stigma I grew up with, as well as mothers enjoying each other’s company in a welcome break from the isolation that comes with small children. Also, many of these kids did come out in the fall for our movies in the park, and I remember one day walking over to the church when seven kids riding their bikes all greeted me gregariously shouting “Hi Pastor James!” when before, they might not have even realized a church met there for worship or recognized me at all. Seeds of love were scattered very thoroughly last summer, and I pray some of these relationships that started last year will continue to deepen and grow, and of course come to discover that Jesus is at work.

This year our Peace and Social Concerns committee at CAF is beginning to gear up for launch May 31st. This year, my wife Liz will be the head cook of the program, and we recently built a weatherized bulletin board in the park to help communicate to people in the park opportunities they will have to experience the love of Jesus at work among us. Liz is especially suited for this work and has been gifted to serve in the area of hospitality. Her degree from George Fox was focused on equipping her to start a restaurant, and she spent three years as the head cook of Barclay College. The amount of volunteers that showed up and worked hard to bless these children is truly inspiring and there are many ways to get involved for those who have interest.

God’s heart for justice is clear, but not all justice ministries need be perceived as overly political. I believe most what is needed is eyes to see those in need in our community and compassion to serve. There are many tangible ways of ministering to the hungry that are very practical and dead simple, and perhaps even fully funded in some cases. All that is sometimes needed is a space and a helping hand. Love has to be shared, and I believe, must be seen in the form of action. How might we as the church better share the love of Jesus with those who are hungry, and perhaps build relationships where their spiritual hunger may also be addressed? It is my conviction that the more one knows God, the more one recognizes His love for the least, the lost, and the last. Jesus told us to love our neighbor, and it is the natural response to first loving God. When someone asked Jesus who was their neighbor, he told them the story of the Good Samaritan. Love is a verb, an action word. It is also a command straight from the mouth of Jesus. Let us pray for ears to hear and eyes to see what God might dream for our neighborhoods, and our world!

Agape,

James


Paths Through the Desert

In Job we get to see something interesting about how God uses suffering to reveal what is in the hearts of humans. Job, a righteous man, suffers immense tragedy at the hands of Satan. While God ultimately restores Job, his “friends” keep coming around telling him he must have done something. His friends are saying God is not protecting Job because he must have messed something up in his relationship with God. “You got your troubles by your own mistakes Job, because God would have protected you if you were really righteous,” they argue.

A while back we went through 1st Peter, another book that reveals how God uses suffering to refine us, to identify us with the sufferings of Christ. God sometimes uses fiery trials to re-form us closer to the image of Christ, the God who suffered for us and suffers with us. This book was written for an audience who was experiencing intense persecution and yet, it kept pointing them back to the example Christ. This experience was not lifted up as something God would protect them from and help them escape, it was seen as an opportunity to be refined.

The fact is God can use suffering, and does use suffering. He uses it to refine us, and every now and then it’s actually good for us. It can shake us out of our complacency and turn us back to God. It can purify our motives. Suffering can draw us closer to God in ways that comfort can actually get in the way of. As John of the Cross reminds us, when we are comfortable, often the first thing to suffer is our relationship to God because we begin to forget how much we really need Him.

The truth is, God seems more likely to use suffering to refine us than we are comfortable with. God is not in the business of handing out golden parachutes, but in raising up true disciples who like Job can weather even the biggest storm this life can throw at us and have our relationship with God remain intact. We might freak out a little bit, but the center holds. God holds us together though the mess. Sometimes God draws us to a desert experience so that we would thirst for Him…to show us we have been drinking from other places than the water of life. Like Jesus in the wilderness God sometimes calls us to travel the way of the desert: The way of trusting God on an unfamiliar path.

God’s grace sustaining us on the desert way—puts us in a place to see things as they really are: We see ourselves, and our relationship with God with new eyes. We see the end of ourselves. We see our dependence on God. We see our utter need, but we also see God sustaining us in ways we never believed were possible. God doesn’t just give us new eyes to see ourselves, He gives us eyes to see our tethers (the things William Penn called cumber). We see the things that control us for what they are…and as they are unmasked we learn to be free of them once again.

Like the children of Israel before the exile, we can limit God. We can mentally trap Him inside a building on Sunday morning, we can even trap Him inside the Bible, if we read it in unbelief that the Spirit is still moving and still leading us today. The children of Israel had a way of seeing God that was bound to the land. It was bound to the Temple, the monarchy. It was bound to the shadow of mount Zion. They would point to the promises of God, but their actions were no longer rooted in the character and nature of God. They no longer depended on God, but on external things. They pointed to the blessing God promised them, but they ignored the warnings about their own part of the covenant. All their encounters with God were past encounters, because they had long since gotten comfortable with their sin separating them from God.

So God called them to Babylon. He would no longer protect them from themselves. He would strip it all away to show them something new. He would show them how as Creator, He was unfettered and free. He would keep His promises on His own terms, not on their terms. He would show them that outside the protections of their armies. Outside the protections of the Promised Land. Outside the elaborate Temple system and blessings of the priests. God was there, even in Babylon. God was not limited by the limitations they tried to put on Him…

God is still trustworthy to sustain us. The same God who parted the Red Sea would also make a way through the exile. After all these things were stripped away, the one thing they would know they could count on would be the promises of God. They would one day get back these blessings they were about to lose. They would one day return to the land they knew, but first a lot of chaff would be stripped away. God had to make them thirsty for the right things once again…

Isaiah writes:

“Look, I am about to do something new. Now it begins to happen! Do you not recognize it? Yes, I will make a road in the desert and paths in the wilderness.  The wild animals of the desert honor me, the jackals and ostriches, because I put water in the desert and streams in the wilderness, to quench the thirst of my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself, so they might praise me.” (Isa. 43:19-21)

After a long experience of God stripping me down, revealing the good and the bad motivations for ministry still kicking around within me, revealing the parts of my mind still needing to be held captive by Christ. I went through a long process of letting go all control, and trusting God to lead me once again. It was a process that brought me here, and a process still at work within me in some new ways. Maybe you’re in that place. It is messy to watch something we love fade. To mourn it. And to wake back up to the hope of God resurrecting something new in its place…

We have been through quite a time of testing these last few months at College Avenue. It has been hard to lose so many people we love and walk with them through various trials. These last few months I feel as I have come to the end of myself, and yet broken through to that place where God’s presence floods back in, bringing beauty to the brokenness. God’s Spirit has sustained me recently in ways I could never begin to describe. And as Isaiah reminds us, we can come out the other side of a desert experience with hearts filled with praise. I long for that, for me and for you. I long for God to bring about something new and wonderful, bearing fruits only He can bear in us. We bear these fruits only through being connected to the Vine. Sometimes nothing reveals that like the desert. May our many trials make us thirsty for God, and help us trust Him to satisfy our thirst as only He can. May we learn to trust Him in these uncertain times. May we be grateful for His streams in the desert, filling our hearts with hope and even wonder at the journey. God wants his people to be freed from slavery, and sometimes that means trusting God through the desert, and then finally to the Promised Land beyond it. Let us keep walking, keep hoping, and keep dreaming for the new things God wants to do among us.

Agape,

James

 


Resolving for More

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It has become traditional for many of us to reflect on our lives in the twilight of one year fading and the next approaching. Often most of what guides that thinking is regrets we want to learn from, or goals we want to strive for. Unfortunately for many who have reflected on their lives, despite the best of intentions, New Years resolutions often burn out before winter even begins to thaw. The Quaker view of simplicity as I understand it has a lot to say about how one might approach this time of reflection. At its core it is about evaluating what produces addiction in us; what controls us. Often we find that we can bend who we are around how we want others to see us, or what pleasures we might lose ourselves in. But the goal of simplicity is not merely sin management, pleasure seeking, or knocking things off our “bucket list,” in short it is more about getting in touch with our truest convictions, and living from them, than it is about “resolving” to add something new to our lives.

One of my growing convictions is that I was made to tinker and create. This does not mean I am not called to be a pastor, but it does profoundly shape how I approach serving as a pastor and how I spend healthy time at play. When I say creativity is one of my convictions, I am not saying creativity is something I value as much as I am saying that I “cannot not” create. The way my mind works and my passions are orientated necessitates I do the life giving work of creating, whether than means writing, building a project in the garage, or developing new skills that help me grow to my potential. Lately I have been playing with metal casting, building a forge, designing an anvil, and learning French. But none of these endeavors have anything to do with resolutions for a new year. They each in their own way, fit into my convictions about living a simple life, as surprising as that might be to hear.

My hope and prayer is that each of you makes space in your life for your convictions to thrive. So much of our lives can easily become more like slavery to a multitude of obligations than growing into who God is calling us to be. As Christians, we have a robust theological understanding of being the body of Christ, and this understanding means our strengths come from our unity and diversity. Indeed we were created to be different on purpose, and yet were each made to work in unison to the glory of God. As our lives lose touch with the wisdom of simplicity, instead of saying no to some things in order to say yes to the right things, we often say yes to too many things and only say no when we are drowning. Yet God has a much saner and life giving way for those who would take on the yoke of Christ. If we are hoping to attract others to the way of Jesus we must first demonstrate that the way of Jesus has something more to offer than the hurry and stress of a secular life! As Jesus said, we must examine the plank in our own eye….

While I find myself disagreeing with John Piper about a great number of things, he has an interesting understanding of doing what we were made for he confusingly calls “Christian Hedonism.” Piper defines that as briefly in his statement “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” What Piper means is that as we grow into who God is calling us to be and take on the mind of Christ we will naturally enjoy good Christian things. These things are not limited to prayer and bible study or regularly attending worship, though those are all good things. What I mean is that God will create in us desires for good things, and also a deep satisfaction in doing the things we were made to do. At its core, I think this speaks to the heart of simplicity.

As we approach a new year, let us do more than settle for fleeting convictions fast forgotten. Let us go deeper into the lessons this last year has been trying to teach us about how to be satisfied, not as an end to itself, but as a byproduct of living out our calling and finding the freedom of desiring the will of God to reign in our hearts and minds. A simple life is a life seeking righteousness, earnest faithfulness, and the Holy Spirit convicting us not only of our sins, but of about righteousness (John 16:8). While it may not be the soundest argument about the overall thrust of that verse, I do believe God brings convictions into our lives about how we are to live free from sin, but also how we are to let the righteousness of Christ shape how we live our lives. Paul describes his way of living out the gospel among the Thessalonians as one stemming not “simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction” (1 Thess. 1:5). May we strive to live out our faith to those around us in touch with God’s leadings, and in touch with the truest things God is creating in our hearts.

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


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