Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Aint'a THAT good news?....

Yeah, it doesn't get much better than this...

In my dream world, I would be able to take 2 days off, sit by the pool, dangle my feet in the water, and chew through the book at my leisure, sipping lemonade flavored Crystal Light and alternating munching on pistachios, popcorn and baby carrots.

In reality, I'll either be at a new job and won't have the time off, or I'll be unemployed and won't be able to afford the book. But it's still nice to dream...

UPDATE - if you looked earlier, you saw this image

I thought> that this was the US cover (it's the Canadian one, instead). At first glance, I thought it was probably the ugliest cover of them all - especially ditching the "HP" lightning-bolt type logo - but it's just not what I was used to...

Of course, when I even mention Harry Potter, I always brace myself for the critical theological questions - "How can you debase your faith by reading a book about witches, wizards and the occult? Haven't you READ Exodus 22? Haven't you READ Deuteronomy 18?"

(I am tempted at that point to say, "No, people keep pointing me to Leviticus, for some reason..." - but I don't.)

Actually, I have a book on my shelf called What's a Christian To Do With Harry Potter?, but to be honest, I've been enjoying Harry Potter books too much to ever bother with it. (Sin boldly, eh?....)

So yes, I will be "of the world" until the great day comes along. Unrepentant, too...

Monday, March 26, 2007

Making the choice, today

See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.

This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
(Deuteronomy 30:15-16, 19-20, NIV)
At times in my life, I think I can ignore this passage. After all, I have made this choice. I think I have chosen to talk in God's ways, and I think I'm doing it. I'm baptized; I go to church. I pray. I'm "in," right?

But then there are days when I'm not entirely on the beam. I may be a little bit off - maybe I've missed my morning prayers, agreed to do something at work that would cause me problems (like overworking, instead of working a normal day and exercising). Maybe I've slipped further off the beam - choosing that piece of pie or ice cream more than I should, and my weight creeps up. Each decision is not a huge, sinful act.
And then the voice in the back of my head says, "It's not like I'm killing someone, or anything..."

And then the pants don't fit. Or the blood-sugar meter shows a value that just isn't right. Something happens, and I come to the uncomfortable realization that I may think I love God, I may be taking actions like other believers at times, but I obviously haven't been obeying God. And now I have a choice. Right, or wrong. Life or death. Prosperity or destruction.

"Now choose life," the writer of Deuteronomy says - not so I suddenly get the "good stuff" in life, but so that I may love God, hear God's voice, and follow God's plan for me. Once I do *that*, then there is hope of "many years" and the rewards that go with them. The other option just isn't good news...

Today, Lord God, I choose life. I choose you, and your way. Period. But now that I've made that decision, I will need all your help to stick with that choice. I will trust that you are with me this day, and do my best to see your presence in every choice I make today. Amen.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Days of sadness, days of wonder

I have been too long away from these pages. I have missed you all.

Today is a day of anger, and yet of joy. Like Gimli the Dwarf in Tolkein's The Two Towers, I am torn between such fury and such celebration that I might well burst.

The fury is three-fold. First, I am furious that this is the fourth anniversary of the war in Iraq. I want to dump everything I am doing for my employer and just go protest - chain myself to something, take some anarchist action. Three thousand lives irrevocably lost; five hundred billion dollars spent in useless destruction. Do you feel any safer today? Any more terrorism-proof? I sure as hell don't.

It makes me want to hit something.

Second, almost every indication at The Evil Empire is that they are preparing to "outsource" a significant number of jobs on our project, either to other teams doing similar actions or to our service bureaus in India. I'd say that I probably have no more than 2 months of employment left; perhaps much less. I am terrified (for myself, and for my family), and furious with myself for not seeing it sooner. What a freaking waste of life this last year has been. What an incredible sucker I have been, to allow this to happen to me.

The urge to hit something comes back, big time.

Third, I am once again reminded of how badly out-of-shape I am physically, and how little I have done to counteract that condition. Buying a new suit for interviewing was yet another reminder of how disconnected from reality I am about my health and my physical appearance. Once again, I am at the "I need to change everything right now" stage of the game, and I hate it.

None of that makes where I'm at a necessarily nice place to be.

Yet despite all that, some incredible blessings have come my way. The work I get to do with new people in sobriety has been incredibly frustrating, yet incredibly fulfilling. Every "ah-ha!" moment is an amazing gift of joy and bliss. It's not that I am some kind of hero for having been a part of this; I know better than that. But I cannot help but see the positive changes in certain lives... and that is worth everything that went before.

I've had the opportunity to share some of these writings with some people outside the traditional Christian community, and that has brought a great deal of blessing, as well. And I'm going to be spending some time away this weekend - first, visiting a DeMolay chapter with my friend Ted on Thursday night, and then at a recovery conference in Troy, MI through the weekend. So that's all good.

My brother-in-law is going back to work at the job that laid him off at Thanksgiving. While it's not the answer I would have prayed for him, it's better than four months of unemployment. And sister Sue is starting at a new employer, as a permanent employee (even though she will not have benefits for 3 months yet) - and so far it seems like a much less toxic situation than her previous attempt. So there is hope there, as well.

But perhaps the most incredible gift of affirmation came from my friend Tim B., a faith brother from Kansas. He recently sent me a CD of my former church's choir, and some incredible photography of the church at Easter and Christmas, and of landmarks from around Kansas City. Those, by themselves, were true blessings. But his hand-written note contained the greatest gift of all:
As my blog comment from the other day said, I truly believe God is using you and the talents He has given you to the fullest, and He wouldn't be able to use you as effectively after ordination.

I believe you are truly living God's will for your life. Do not discount yourself for a roadblock He purposefully placed in your life, so you would be better able to do His will. If you are the blessing to other's lives as you have been in mine, you are making a far greater difference than you know.
Thank you, God. And thank you, brother Tim. I needed to hear that, more than you know.

As the old story goes, I ain't where I wanna be; I ain't where I'm gonna be. But thank you Jesus, I ain't where I used to be. And for today, that's enough.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Maybe it's time to try something different...

One of the few real gifts I have been given, over the years, has been to be surrounded by young people - both in church and in recovery - who want to both talk and listen. And when I can listen with even a mustard-seed's worth of humility, some amazing awakenings can tonight. Grab a cup of coffee and brace yourself, though - this one's gonna go a while...

Really, though, it's all Kyle Wetherald's fault. A young man from nearby Bluffton, Ohio, he found his way here, and left a comment here on an earlier post, and his profile led me to this great post of his. And he got me thinking - and you know where that gets me...

Kyle wrote as if he'd been reading my mail. His words echo every plaintive cry for church renewal I've listened to (or been a part of) for 15 years. Whether you listen to Brian McLaren and the Emergent folks, the folks at Relevant magazine, Youth Services, or if you listen to some of my heroes of faith, you'll see a thousand different attempts to change "the church." But while there are isolated successes, there are still people like Kyle (and like me) who keep asking the same questions:
What if church wasn't the Pastor Tim show? What if Church was more like the Bible study on Wednesday night (which is very sparsely attended), where people were actually engaged in their spiritual journey and not just going to church on Sunday because that's what you do...

What if it was okay if someone missed Corporate Worship one week because they were living a Christ centered life and offering love to their neighbor in need?

What if we were actually able to see that we don't go to church to meet God? God was there before too. God is in the parking lot. God is in the bars. God is in the workplace. What if we were able to connect our spiritual life with our physical life because thats where church was?

What if? What if? What if?

I could go on all night.
So could I, Kyle. Thank you for putting into words what I've been struggling with ever since I became a Christian.

I have come to believe this, though: Mennonite, Lutheran, Methodist, Catholic, Baptist - we all stumble around the edges of the mystery, Kyle. Some get closer than others. And many faithful, dedicated pastors (including yours) are trying to make things better - mostly within their context, but some with radical changes, which can bring their own problems. We try, through a thousand variations of speaking, music, Scripture, and all kinds of stuff (from multimedia to drama to lectio divina) to convey the unbelievable and unfathomable love of God in 60 or (God forgive us) 90 minutes. And then we wonder why we fail...

We fighting against the inertia of seventeen hundred years of Christendom (organized Christian religion approved by the authority figures of the times) weighing us down - and we wonder why we aren't making progress. So much of what "church" is today is based on what grew out of Emperor Constantine's conversion in 312 AD, and the building of the institutional church as a castle of righteousness, rather than as a M*A*S*H hospital for sinners.

But somehow, despite all the brokenness of the church, I managed to find God's presence. So as I read Kyle's comments, I had to ask : what did I do - what did God do in me - to help me get it? What were the parts that worked? So I looked at the three different faith communities in which I grew up - and how each one of them had a part in forming and re-forming my faith. It's helpful to see how each one synergized with the others...

The first one was the community of recovery - the 12 step world of AA. Immediately following that was a group of Lutherans - both a group of 20- and 30-somethings and another group of "mature" folks in several congregations in Shawnee Mission, Kansas, who wrapped themselves around me and mentored me in Christian faith. And the last one was a marvelous project called the Alpha Program, with which I am still in love (even though they wouldn't like me very much if they knew the truth about me...)

The heart of my awakening tonight is this: I am coming to believe that it is a loving, caring, accepting community that builds faith. Not worship (and the endless worship wars over various stylistic aspects of it). Not liturgy, or the lack thereof. Not sermons. Not architecture or symbols or icons or salvific theology. All of that helps, but in the end, it will count for nothing. Though conservative Christians will whimper in pain when I say the words, they are still true: it really does take a village. But it took some time to figure out where I'd figured that out from...

In the AA tradition I came from, we were encouraged to attend lots of AA meetings. And there, I found absolute, unconditional acceptance. It didn't matter what laws I'd broken; who or what I had (or had not) slept with; what I looked like, where I lived. None of that mattered. The question was: Do you want to stay sober today? Just for today? Yes? Then welcome. You're welcome here. And the more I came around, the more acceptance and welcome I found.

Then I got introduced to "the three-meeting meeting." The wise-o's in recovery would say stuff like this:
Steve, every time you go to an AA meeting, there are three meetings. There is "the meeting before the meeting," where people get together, meet, and spend time setting up chair and tables, making coffee and stuff. Then there's "the meeting," where people don't tell you what you should do; they tell you what they did, and how it worked for them. (It's called "sharing experience, strength and hope," rather than giving unsolicited advice.) And then there's "the meeting after the meeting," when people clean up, go out for coffee, and continue the fellowship. At "the meeting after the meeting," our primary purpose is to show folks that we don't bite. Make sure you go to all three meetings, Steve...
Strangely enough, I found this group of "young adults" at my first church who did the exact same thing. We met before church, had coffee and talked and sang and prayed together. They put up with my vulgarity, my theological stupidities, and my endless questions. They told me about how to buy my first Bible. And they showed me that you didn't need to be a Bible-wiz in order to go to a Bible study. They invited me into their community, then to be a part of their worship, and before long I was drawn in by the welcome and acceptance they shared. God's hands and feet were at the ends of their arms and legs...

And then, months after I left my first Kansas congregation, I was introduced to the Alpha program. And gee, can you imagine? What was at the heart of Alpha? Well, it was just like my other successful faith experiences:
- It was specifically designed for people who were unchurched. If you were willing to make a commitment to come, you were welcome. No theological litmus test. Heretics and apostates welcome.

- It followed the "three-meetings" rule almost to the letter. Every Alpha session started with a meal, and the #1 rule at the meal was: no church talk. The goal was to make people feel welcome.

- Every effort was to make the hosts (the church folks) as normal and everyday and inclusive as could be. Then there was a presentation - either video or in person - about some question of faith. There was humor, pathos, and honesty.

- And then there was the meeting afterwards - discussion groups where the stated rule was "no question too heretical to be asked, or answered."
In recent years, the Alpha Program and their founder, Nicky Gumbel have become associated more centrally with the folks who "love the sinner but hate the sin" when it comes to gay/lesbian issues, so if I ever went to an Alpha session, I'd more likely be an "outsider" rather than a member of "the faithful." But it was still a blessing - to me, an Alpha program was a sign that a church had a heart for outsiders. It might be fun to see how Alpha is working in the Buckeye state...even as an apostate...

Ten years ago, I was blessed to read one of the most amazing (and under-appreciated) texts ever put out by Augsburg Fortress: What NeXt? Connecting Your Congregation to Generation X. Though it's 8 years old at this point, it's still an amazing text (and video) on looking at church differently. (Augsburg is just about to remainder all these books, it seems. At $6.30 for the book and video, they're cheap at the price.) It spawned a conference at Lutheran Church of Hope in 2000 which was a big deal for me...

I read and heard Pam Fickenscher (the original pastor at Spirit Garage in Minneapolis) speak there, and later read her article in the book and in this article about the founding of this amazing satellite church. Over and over, I heard this message: unchurched folks are not going to come in the front door of your church. For years, Spirit Garage's new members came from Habitat for Humanity projects, food drives, work at homeless shelters, and the like. They came because they found a place where they could meet Christians, outside of church, and found that this particular group was pretty non-toxic, after all.

Needless to say, given some of the changes I've come through, I've been searching far and wide for "non-toxic Christians." And then there have been times when I didn't even want to look, to be honest. Getting back into a traditional (or quasi-traditional) congregation and fighting the same old battles has as much appeal as a traffic accident for me. I keep wishing that there was something more.

For decades now, my own denomination-of-record has believed in the power of bricks and mortar. It's been a kind of Field of Dreams syndrome: build it, and they will come. But so far, that has meant thousands of near-empty congregations, who'd rather die than switch or change.

Kyle, I think there's hope. But I think the hope is with you, and people like you, who are willing to step out of the box that we've allowed to hide the church and God. Keep asking the questions; keep questioning the answers. And thanks for sparking this extended rant. It's been coming for a while...

Friday, March 09, 2007

Thursday night at Friendly's

"The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' "But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'" (Luke 15:21-24, NIV)

Bible knowledge. Oh, sure, we can quote some verses - we all can. But when it comes down to what we truly, truly believe - what the theology junkies call our "credo" - do we know it enough to share it? Is it solid enough in our hearts and minds that we can pass it on?

It's 9:30 PM Thursday night. Friendly's Ice Cream shop. Across the table from me is a 28 year old recovering crack addict. He's two weeks sober, and all he can see is what a miserable piece of work he is. I'm talking to him about trusting God to change his life, and he looks up at me with those hopeless eyes, and says, "No, Steve, God doesn't want anything to do with a piece of work like me. I've thrown everything away. How can a piece of white trash like me even think about praying to God?"

So I start telling him a story. A story about a son who runs away, who blows everything he has, who is reduced to abject poverty, who is as alone and disgusted with himself as he can be. Quoting the Bible isn't what's needed here; the story is God's, but it goes into my words tonight. And little by little, my young friend starts to hear it.

"Where'd you get that story, Steve?" he asks. Right out of the words of Jesus, I tell him. Jesus told that story to make sure we understood - guys like you and me, guys who have screwed up bad, lost everything and everyone. He wanted us to know that even if the whole world rejects us, our Father in heaven is willing to welcome us home.

I can see the tears on the edge of his eyes. He takes a break to eat some of the half-melted ice cream, to get some breathing space. He looks up and asks, "D'you really believe that, Steve?"

Oh, you bet I do, buddy.

I don't know if this is your story, but it surely IS mine. I hold onto it like a life preserver - because if it's not true, I'm done for. I have been the prodigal son - the lost man wandering, not knowing what to do or where to turn. And the only reason I know this story is because someone sat down, just like this, and shared this story with me. It's the best card I can play, and I only have it because it was first given to me...

This is a God I can believe in, I tell the teary-eyed young man across the table. A God that knows what a schmuck I've been, and welcomes me home in spite of it all, because I'm His kid. A God who misses me when I run away, and one who throws a party every time I come home.

Outside, stamping our feet in the cold beside our cars, my young friend says to me, "Can we talk some more about this God of yours?" Oh, you bet, my friend - but he's not just MY God. This can be your God, too - all you have to do is ask. "Really?" he says. Oh, yeah - really, buddy - just ask. You can do it tonight. You can do it right now, if you want. "I'll do that," he says with a whisper of a smile, then gives me a quick hug and jumps into his car, and roars off.

I stand there, and watch the tail-lights fade down Reynolds Road. I feel the presence of my mentors, my brothers and sisters of faith, standing with me, as my prayers follow my young friend down the street. "God, I hope it was enough....please let him hear it...please let him see...."

And the wind whispers the "Amen" of a thousand saints who have passed this gift of faith on to me. And the tears of gratitude start to fall.

But now, this is what the LORD says— he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: "Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name;
you are mine. (Isaiah 43:1, NIV)

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Thoughts about the church

My friend Natala over at and that has made all the difference has posted these questions - by her own admission, BIG questions - about the church:

I'm in the midst of writing something, and need a random kind of 'survey'. I know these are not exactly light questions... but you can amuse me if you like :)

1. Is Church relevant ? (Can it be?)
2. What is the biggest reason that you believe people do not go to Church?
3. Likewise, why do people go to Church at all?
3. Does Church follow what Christ taught?
4. What does Church need to be/do?
5. What should the Church's first priority be?
6. Any other thoughts on the matter?

go ahead - anything you want to say.
[you can respond at her post over here.]

I believe each one of these questions are important - each one could well be a chapter in a book, for that matter. But in my oh-what-the-hell, shoot-from-the-hip mode, this is how I responded to her. Comments, discussion welcome...

1. Is Church relevant ? (Can it be?)
What the church is called to be - a MASH hospital for sinners, and the voice of God's love, acceptance and forgiveness to a sinful, broken world - is incredibly, desperately relevant.

How the church often ends up - a country club for "the faithful," a symbol of "we've got it made" spirituality and respectability, and a place from which sinful people can set up hierarchies of sinfulness, and look down on people "lower on the ladder" than them - that place is horrifically irrelevant.

2. What is the biggest reason that you believe people do not go to Church?

When the church is seen as the seat of holiness and respectability, the last place broken and hurting people will go is to church. Steven Curtis Chapman's For Who He Really Is, Susan Ashton's Started With A Whisper and Casting Crowns' Does Anybody Hear Her? are powerful testimonies on this topic.

3. Likewise, why do people go to Church at all?

It sounds simplistic (even to me) - but the simple fact is that if there's a chance of finding people who know about God and God's love, most of us keep on hoping that they will be in "God's house," and that they will be acting like "God's kids" rather than "God's judge, jury and prosecuting attorney."

(This, by the way, is one of the major arguments I have with folks who say "Sunday is for worshiping God; it's not about seekers, it's about WORSHIP." Like it or not, the primary time that seekers are going to come to us is on Christmas Eve, Easter morning, and on "any given Sunday." It's like Jesse James, when asked why he robbed banks - he said, "'Cuz that's where the money is..." We keep hoping "that's where the true Christians are...")

I appreciated what one of the commenters said about people going to church because they feel guilty. It made me think of the man in recovery who said he had low self-esteem, and he hated himself and what he'd been. His AA sponsor said, "Well, no kidding, bubba. We're alcoholics, but we're not stupid. We know what we have been; knowing that, who could POSSIBLY have reasonable self-esteem?..."

Part of the humility needed to accept God's gift of redemption is the knowledge that I am broken enough to need redeeming.

But I also think that a significant portion of church-goers go because that's where good, respectable, "former sinners" like them are supposed to be on Sunday. Not because there's a relationship with God, but because "it's what we do on Sunday..."

3. Does Church follow what Christ taught?

I would say that some Christians,, some church goers follow Christ's teachings. I'd say that for the last 100 years, the church has been following the traditions and pieties of Christendom, not Christ. Most churches are too afraid of being persecuted to follow Christ too closely.

So instead we find a way of facilitating life for those who are Respectables, the socially-acceptable folks, and try not to hear the call to abandon the nets, the buildings, the pipe organs, and the mission-endowment funds and just GO and SERVE.

Now, to be fair, it would be important to note that even when the apostles had Jesus right there with them, they still managed to do this us-n-them thing. The dirty, the lepers, the children, the Gentiles - the original apostles treated Jesus the same way modern-day publicists treat Brad Pitt. They tried to run interference for him, to be kept away from the untouchables.

Human beings like to associate with folks like them. The shared background, expereinces, and customs make it easier to keep odd-balls out, and keep "folks like us" in. It also makes church into an insider's club, rather than a place to land for the the folks (like me) who need to find Christ...

4. What does Church need to be/do?

The hardest thing for the church to do is to be prophetic in service to the world, rather than being a voice of condemnation to the sinners of the world.

We can talk God's holy word to each other ad nauseum. But when we start loving the untouchables and stop keeping our eyes trained on some unattainable holiness or perfection, that's when we will know that God is down here with us, rather than up there waiting on a cloud for us to "get better. and it will be much better.

5. What should the Church's first priority be?

To be the voices, hands and feet of Christ on earth. To be the ones who stand by the door and motion unbelievers and seekers into meaningful relationships.

6. Any other thoughts on the matter?

About 30 terabytes - but it's late, and I need to leave room for others!....