September 28, 2011
For some reason I have been particularly struck recently by how much I benefit from the gifts of those around me. I think that we are brought up in a culture that makes a god out of self reliance. The Lone Ranger is an iconic image we all have of what we are truly like. If it came down to it, we can handle ourselves and the ills of this world armed with nothing but our own machismo and a six shooter. Well, nothing but machismo, a six shooter, and you know, Tonto.
So if not even the Lone Ranger is, well, LONE then we have some considering to do. The truth we all must know deep down is that we are completely and totally dependent beings. While each of our deepest fears might be that one day we might be forced to rely on others to feed us, bath us, and take care of us – in many senses we are already there. We all travel together. We are all inextricably linked together. Dependent. Needy. Communal.
People often begin conversations with me about church planting, with a question or comment that indicates it is something that I did. Like I created a seedling, planted it in the dirt I mixed, watered it with the hydrogen and oxygen I bonded, and then caused it to grow in the warmth of my radiant presence. (This is exactly the description of Ekklesia Hattiesburg‘s origins that I wanted to put on our web page, but I got voted down…it still hurts a little) The truth is that I don’t do much. This is not an attempt at displaying Christian humility, this is an attempt at truth telling. Each Sunday we meet in a building we did not pay for. We sit in seats that are lent to us. Our children play with toys that aren’t theirs, and are cared for by workers and volunteers who give their time to teach our kids. The meeting place is set up by volunteers, the scripture is read by the community, and the communion is distributed by the brothers and sisters. Each week we are treated to deep meditations on the character of Christ through music played by a group of people who give hours every week to use their talents for something that doesn’t put a penny in their pockets. We are a choir, we are not a room of soloists. I did not plant a church, we chose to become a family.
So today I will take some time to say Thank You. I believe that all good gifts come from God, and it would seem all those gifts are carried to me in the arms of Christ’s Body.
September 14, 2011
I have to admit to you all that I have a bit of a God complex. I‘m not yet in a tunic shouting decrees from the street corners but this complex is a real issue I have. To be honest I think this struggle comes with the territory of being in vocational ministry. Sometimes we ministers embrace the blurring of the deity line with gusto. We have all heard pronouncements from pulpits which could be literally translated as “God, told me this and if you disagree than talk to God!” In other words – “To have the blessing of listening to me is to have the blessing of listening to God!”
Blurring the line is a dangerous thing, but it is not without it’s enticements. If I am closer to God than you then I have some inherent power. This is a power ministers often relish along with the respect/fear/obedience that comes with it. If a minister tells you that it doesn’t exist and is not a temptation than they are, well, lying. This hierarchy is intoxicating to say the least, and like any intoxications it can quickly lead to dark places and bad decisions. Consider any of the 13,567 preachers who have have had huge public falls from their ivory tower. I would like to think that I try hard to avoid that mindset and it’s accompanying garbage. This is not because I am so spiritual that I remain unaffected, but more because I know how much I would like the arrangement.
I’m not confident in my ability to put a governor on that arrangement. Furthermore, the truth is that I could never pull it off. I’m not a good enough actor to convince people of any superhuman Holiness. I have said and will continue to say (often) things like: “I have no idea what this means” or “ A lot of people smarter than me disagree” or even “Don’t take my word for it, go ask someone with credibility”. I can genuinely say that I know me well enough to not take my presence behind the pulpit (or in our case flimsy borrowed music stand) too seriously. I am not currently struggling with this brand of God complex, but mostly because of a lack of real opportunity to succeed at it.
With that said I do spend far too much time applying for God’s job in people’s lives. The God complex I suffer from is summed up very well by Jean Vanier. Vanier is the founder of the L’Arch communities where those with and without special physical/mental/intellectual needs live together in what I think could be called a monastic community. Vanier says the following as he gets at what is often my problem.
“When we want to change people, we have power. We have generosity. We have goodness. But we create a cleavage when we want to do good things for each other”
- Jean Vanier – Living Gently in a Violent World pg 62
(first a moment to get the giggles out at Vanier’s proper though unpopular use of the word cleavage)
Despite his refreshingly naïve use of vocab there is something very deeply important for me and my God complex to hear in these words. Even in the midst of generous goodness I can be exercising a kind of power over people when I am attempting to change them. You know how this works. It is serving with an agenda. It is love in a particular direction with a determined end in mind. It generally comes from a very good place and leads to some less than ideal destinations. It is self service disguised as charity, and I am all about it. It rears it’s head in all kinds of places including in pre-marital counseling. A girl is ready to marry a guy based on the idea that she will change him into another person shortly. She is not loving him as much as loving this idealized man she will help him become later. This conditional and directional loving leads us down destructive paths if for no other reason than the fact that the change of another’s heart is outside of our strength. I have neither the wisdom or power to determine exactly who and what you should be. The changing of hearts and lives is God’s territory. Loving like Christ is our calling.
Hence my God complex as I entertain questions like these in my head.
“How many times is that person going to keep doing that, we talk about this stuff every Sunday night?”
“How many times is this guy going to need money before he realizes what a mess he has made of his life?”
A more truthful way to translate these questions is
“Is this person going to change or am I wasting my love on them?”
I think in the end when my “Christian” love is results based, I have fed my God complex. I have taken on responsibilities of a task for which I am neither qualified or able. Instead of making God’s love incarnate and tangible in the life of someone I am dangling it before them like a carrot on a stick. I hang it out in front of them to steer them where I want them to go. Ideally when I love unconditionally I offer myself as a tool God can use for someone else’s life change, but God’s love is not a tool I can use to achieve my desired results in anyone else. When all is said and done this misunderstanding of love does not encourage us to truly stand with each other in our brokenness and share the load. It creates a cleavage that none of us want to see.
September 7, 2011
(I wrote this last week and some how managed to forget to post it…oops)
I’m sitting in the Houston airport waiting on a connecting flight to the West Coast. I have done what I always do at airports. I take on the personality of an introverted teenager whose only friends are the earbuds he refuses to remove from his ear canal. Then I fill up on an unending stream of overpriced food. So here I sit by my gate with ears full of “Daisies of the Galaxy” by The Eels, and a belly full of BBQ and Diet Coke. (The Coke is “diet” because of my health consciousness.)
I’m feeling reflective and thankful, not because of the music and gluttony as much as the party we had last night. Last night a large, by our standards, crowd of friends gathered in the cafeteria of Hawkins Elementary School and celebrated four years of existence as Ekklesia. It felt like a little slice of Heaven on earth to me, and my theology allows me to say that more literally than metaphorically.
I’m not sure if I should be proud or embarrassed to say that this is officially the longest amount of time I have spent in the same community of faith in my adult life. Between college, graduate school, and my own shift in ministerial location I have not been in any one community very long. Additionally Sarah and I celebrated our 8th anniversary recently, which means we have been together for a decade, and living in the same town together for 8 years. I feel like I can officially say that I am rooted in a way I haven’t been since I was in grade school. I don’t just have friends and parishioners in my life, more deeply I now have family and neighbors who I am truly living life with.
This kind of stability used to be a source of anxiety for me. I never wanted to be “settled” or “routine”, because I was certain that I would be a worse person the less I moved. I now believe that nothing could be further from the truth. (I should have realized there was something wrong with any image that envisioned me as a shark – I have never been accused of being shark-like .)
I don’t think that it’s because I am getting older, lazier, or less adventurous. Although I could be accused of all of these things, they are not the reason why this new stage in life is so exciting to me. The truth is that I am becoming increasingly convinced that there was a reason that God lived most of his 33 years of human life in the same part of the world and among a relatively small group of people. You could argue that 90% of Jesus’ life was spent in a small town, and the other 10% he mostly surrounded himself with a small group of close friends as he traveled. I would say that indicates that most of Christ’s time was spent on the in and outs of everyday living with people. Consequently, there may be much of the Christ-like life that we can only access when we practice being rooted a similar discipline of stability and slow moving consistency. Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove says the following in the introduction to The Wisdom of Stability:
“This is a book about staying put and paying attention. In a culture that is characterized by unprecedented mobility and speed, I am convinced that the most important thing most of us can do to grow spiritually is to stay in the place we are…….stability’s wisdom insists that spiritual growth depends on human beings rooting ourselves in a place on earth with other creatures.”
As someone who is increasingly becoming more rooted in the day to day living in one place I couldn’t agree more. The last four years have been a process of rooting my life with many of you. It has been the incarnation of so much of my theology that had previously been word and not flesh. Because of this new family of mine I am learning increasingly more about the depth and value of the small daily obedience that characterizes the life I believe Christ wants for me. I don’t care much for big shows of spirituality. I find increasingly little value in much of the grandiosity that my faith used to revolve around. I am plumbing communal depths that I did not know existed, and I am in love with it.
All of this is to say two things mainly. First, plant yourself somewhere and grow old with some people. If you are not already deeply connected to other people of faith who are walking with God on a day to day basis, please do yourself a favor and pursue it. Stop church shopping. Stop moving every time the mountain top experience ends. Stop following the things that make the hair on the back of your neck stand up and root yourself someplace to experience what faith looks like on a day to day basis.
Secondly, thank you. Thank you family for showing me the face of God of the past four years. Thanks for being relentlessly gracious, overwhelmingly loving, and tirelessly servant hearted. Thank you for being living and breathing parables of God’s kingdom. I see Christ more clearly because of the way that you allow the love of God to permeate the small steps you humbly take each day. I can’t wait to grow old with you all.