Monday, October 4, 2021

Kingdom not Competition

As the Executive Minister of our denominational region, Charles Revis, so wonderfully preached through a section of Acts 9 this past Sunday, there was one piece of the story that stood out to me like a sore thumb. Now, in sharing this I realize I'm revealing myself to be a sometimes jealous and petty person, but I can't shake the amazing actions of Barnabas in the story.

For those who weren't there on Sunday or need a quick reminder, in Acts 9:26 the Apostle Paul arrives in Jerusalem. But at this point in the story, Paul is still an extremely new convert to the Jesus Way and has not yet earned the trust of the early disciples. To them, Paul is still the angry, murderous bounty hunter who has been traveling from town to town, seeking out Jesus followers, and throwing them into prison, or worse. So when Paul shows up in Jerusalem, proclaiming his conversion and seeking to join the disciples in ministry, you can understand their distrust of this (formerly) disdainful man.

Which is why the actions of Barnabas are so strikingly beautiful and profound. As the story goes, "...Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus." Barnabas takes this young, untrusted Paul under his wing, vouches for the integrity of his conversion and subsequent ministry, and pleads with the other disciples to trust him as they move forward in collaborative ministry.

It's an amazing act of faithfulness on Barnabas' part--one that literally changes the course of human history because of the work Paul will go on to do in the world--but it wouldn't have had to happen. If Barnabas were like me he might have been jealous that this new minister had come to town, brimming with skill and potential, already loaded with stories of ministry success. If Barnabas were like me he might have constantly compared his own ministry to that of Paul's. If Barnabas were like me he might have incorrectly assumed that if Paul has ministry success and gains public notoriety, then that says something bad about himself. If Barnabas were like me he might have felt intimidated by someone else's presence and not self-assured enough to celebrate the addition of a new ministry partner. And worst of all, if Barnabas were like me he might have secretly wished for Paul to fail so that his own ministry would seem more successful.

Now, of course, these descriptions of myself are hyperbole and usually only describe me on my worst of days, but the temptation is always present to think about ministry in terms of competition and not Kingdom collaboration. For me, it's easy to see other pastors and/or churches having ministry success and think lower of myself or my ministry. Or it's easy to see that other pastor and/or church that is struggling and think higher of myself or my ministry. And I'm guessing I'm not alone in this--that you also find yourself comparing and contrasting your own stills, abilities, and successes with those of the people around you--and feel competitive and not collaborative as we engage in this life together.

So, the invitation from Barnabas is to lay aside our jealousy and pettiness to view our work in the world through the lens of kingdom collaboration, not competition. Let's cheer one another on. Let's love and support one another in both our successes and failures. Let's celebrate the good work God is doing through other people and churches, rather than feel disappointed about our own work. Let's remember it's about Kingdom, not competition.

Monday, September 13, 2021

The Always-Relevant Gospel of Jesus

In a world that is increasingly post-Christian or secular, where fewer and fewer people are involved in organized religion, it's sometimes tempting to believe the lie that Jesus and his gospel are no longer relevant or intriguing. And it's one thing to wonder what the future of the church looks like. It's realistic to question whether our religious practices, as we currently know them, will be sustainable moving forward or will require a massive overhaul. But every so often I'll have a beautiful encounter with someone that snaps me back to reality and reminds that the good news of Jesus is, in fact, still good news. And that happened for me recently.

After a recent worship gathering, a man entered our church and inquired about whether he could play the piano in the basement for a little while. And since we were still busy cleaning up and closing down the church, that was no problem. But while he was in the church basement, he stumbled upon some notes from Bob Snyder's recent Bible study on donkeys and found himself intrigued.

So, as he was leaving the building for the day, he noticed Austin Beard and I hanging out on the fronts steps of the church and stopped to ask us a few questions about the Bible study notes. Which, everyone knows if you ask a preacher a question about the Bible, you risk getting a sermon. And as I unpacked a few ideas from Bob's notes, connecting an Old Testament prophecy to the coming of Jesus, you could see this man's eyes light up with wonder. He was amazed and awestruck by the idea that the Messiah would come not as a conquering warrior atop a mighty steed, but as a humble servant, perched atop a lowly donkey, ready to save the world through peace, not the sword. Jesus came to die, not kill; serve, not dominate; save others, not himself. And despite this being the most simple and truthful way I can imagine to talk about the gospel, you could tell this narrative about Jesus was different than he was used to hearing, and he was caught up in the beauty of the story. So when I informed him that Bob was converting his Bible study into a sermon for the next Sunday, he happily and definitively declared that he'd be back to hear it (and he was).

Austin and I stood there with this man, witnessing the power of the gospel at work, and I was reminded that the good news of Jesus is still as beautiful, profound, overwhelming, and delightful as ever. The form and function of how we do church has changed a myriad of times in the last 2000 years, and will need to take on different formats in the future. But just as God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, so the good news of God remains relevant, profound, and life-altering at all times and in all places. So as the winds of cultural change rock the boat of organized religion, may we not lose heart, because Jesus' upside-down message of grace, peace, and love will never go out of style.

Monday, August 30, 2021

The Counter-Intuitive and Otherworldly Invitation to Peace

In my devotional time this morning, I found myself reading and praying through Psalm 46, where the psalmist writes, “Come and see what the Lord has done, the desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth. He breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.” Or as the devotional author suggested this be rewritten in today’s language: “He breaks the assault rifles and shatters the drones; he burns weapons of mass destruction with fire.”

Which feels like such a helpful reminder for my soul, at a time where our world is embroiled in conflict – with the most current and personal happening right now in Afghanistan. As you all know, our country suffered a great tragedy this week as 13 of our military service members were killed in a terrorist attack outside the airport in Kabul. And while the immediate response of violent retribution against the perpetrators, terrorist group ISIS-K, might have been justified in a worldly sense, President Biden’s use of the book of Isaiah to justify this violent reaction was extremely troubling. He’s not the first American leader to do this and won’t be the last, but it was still vastly misguided and needs to be called out.


Psalm 46, amongst so many other places in scripture, reminds us that the way of God is always one of peace. What we come to understand most clearly through Jesus’ depiction of God, is that God is a creator of life, not a taker of one. God has always sought to bring about shalom in our world, a right ordering of all that is so we can properly live in harmony with God, each other, ourselves, and creation.


And it shouldn’t surprise us then, that the very next line after this anti-violent section of Psalm 46 is one of the most well-known verses in all of the Bible: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). Because the proper response to violence isn’t the clamor of more violence, but a peaceful silence in the presence of God. When we are riled by the din of destruction, we must untangle our unsettled hearts and remember what is ultimately true about our God-soaked world. 


Which, I understand that peaceful non-violence is counter-intuitive and easy to doubt its potential effectiveness. But, to be honest, violence and retribution aren’t exactly solving our world’s problems either, are they? So what do we have to lose in giving peace a shot? Or, as John Lennon so beautifully articulated: “All we are saying is give peace a chance.”


The psalmist’s invitation is to trust the God of peace enough to calm our warring hearts and choose a better way forward. When we’re confronted with conflict and tempted toward retaliation, the only godly response is one of quiet humility, where we still our hearts and mouths, remember the shalomic calling of God, and intentionally choose peace and forgiveness over anger and revenge.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

On High Alert with God

Have you ever found yourself alone in the woods--hiking, biking, camping, or backpacking--and suddenly remembered that you're trudging through bear country? Have you ever had that sneaky suspicion something was nearby? You try to ignore the fear, you try to put the thought behind you, but you suddenly can't stop thinking about the fact that you're not alone in these woods after all.


You notice every sound. You're aware of every rodent scurrying through the brush. You're attuned to each gust of wind whistling through the trees. And with each noise, you find yourself wondering which large, ferocious animal is approaching to devour you.


I had this very sensation on Monday morning in Helena. I had dropped our kids off for a few, fun days with their grandparents, but decided to catch a quick mountain bike ride on the ridge of Mt. Helena before heading back home. And I'm not exaggerating about the noticing of noises and the fear of the ferocious that settles in when I'm alone in the wilderness. I hear everything. I constantly scour the area searching for predators. I process whether I'd be able to turn around and outrun a bear on my bike, whether I'd pick the bike up and use it to fight off the bear, or whether I'd just lay down and play dead. And I even find myself talking aloud to myself to warn any animals of my impending arrival.


In short, our senses are on high alert in the wild. We watch and wait and wonder. We see and hear and sense. Nothing goes unnoticed. Because we stand in awe of the power and majesty of God's creation.


But what if we saw our journeys with God as wilderness experiences as well? What if we also approached the Creator with fear and trembling, in awe of God's power and majesty? What if we were on high alert spiritually as well--listening for the sound of God’s spirit moving in our midst; beautifully and appropriately terrified of God’s presence all around; constantly aware of what he’s up to and how he might move in our lives?


So may we be on high alert with God, constantly attuned to his movement and presence around us. May our senses be heightened to where God is actively working in our community. And may we notice these actions and return to tell others of our encounters with the living God.

Monday, May 24, 2021

I Can't Lose You

I came across this phrase recently—I can't lose you—written about someone's relationship with God, and instantly found myself wondering about its multiplicity of meaning. 

My mind works in strange ways. I love rhyme and alliteration. I love puns and cleverly constructed language. I see words, phrases, or ideas and often find myself toying with them, stretching them, and massaging them to squeeze out significance.
 
And I find this specific phrase—I can't lose you—interesting because it can be read multiple ways and have (seemingly) opposite meanings. On the one hand, it conjures thoughts of desperately longing to hold on to God; to not have Him slip from our grasp or our life. And that's a beautiful sentiment, where someone feels their faith slipping from their grasp but remains committed to keeping it as a foundational part of their life. But the phrase “I can't lose you” could also be read as trying to get away from God, but being unable to do so. It could mean trying to get Him out of our lives—trying to run—and just not being able to get away.
 
Now, of course, at first glance the former understanding of the phrase seems more apparently faithful than the latter. What person of faith would want to run away God, desperate to lose Him but unable to do so?
 
But what if those two meanings of this simple phrase are really just two sides of the same coin? What if our faith is a pretty even mixture of desperately longing for God AND simultaneously running from God, ducking and dodging his presence, hoping he never finds us?
 
Because, as I further ponder the dual-meaning of the phrase, that’s actually a more honest description of my life of faith—equal parts saint and sinner; full of both wonder and doubt; faithful one minute and faithless the next. I tend to be a pretty even amalgamation of desperately longing for deeper relationship with God while also resisting God and His presence in my life.
 
But what if naming that reality is actually the path forward in discipleship? What if the refusal to play perfect and hide our doubts and pretend all is well is actually an essential part of our growth? What if honesty and vulnerability are actually vital pieces in our formation?
 
Pretending all is flawless doesn’t pave the way for it to be so. Hiding our imperfections doesn’t perfect them. But owning our struggles, admitting our failures, and illuminating the dark places of our faith...now that makes space for real growth.
 
Am I proud that I’m equal parts desperately trying to maintain relationship with God and desperately trying to lose Him? Well, no. But I’m also not filled with shame over this fact, because knowing and owning this reality is what makes space for growth, spiritual formation, and a more faithful walk with Jesus.
 
So, God, I admit it...I can’t lose You.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

You Can’t Do Everything for Everyone

I just recently finished a short sermon series call “Life After New Life,” exploring the things Jesus does and doesn’t do after his resurrection and what they have to tell us about living as resurrection people. But there were enough ideas to explore that they didn't all fit within the timeframe of this series, so I thought I would tackle one of my thoughts in this format.

One thing Jesus doesn’t do after he rises from the dead…is everything. He doesn’t walk out of the tomb with a massive to-do list. He doesn’t embark on a 40-day campaign to heal every sick person he can. He’s not hurried or harried, frantically trying to get as much done as possible. Simply put, he doesn’t try to accomplish everything for everyone.

He didn’t behave that way before the crucifixion. And he doesn’t behave that way after the resurrection.


Which again, like all the ideas we explored in this series, is surprising and alarming. Anytime I take a few days off from work (like Jesus’ three days in the grave), upon my return I feel anxious and eager to get caught up. Or anytime I have an impending deadline (like Jesus’ 40 days left on earth), I desperately and hectically rush from task to task, trying to get as much accomplished as I possibly can.


I felt this anxiety just a few weeks ago, as I wrestled with whether to attend my uncle’s funeral. There had been miscommunication about whether the memorial would just be for the siblings or for extended family and friends, so I hadn’t received a verbal invitation until just a few days prior to the service. Which also meant I hadn’t adequately prepared to be gone for a few days that week. So, to attend the funeral would have meant neglecting some necessary parts of my job, putting my family in a bind, preaching a lousy sermon that coming Sunday, and doing all of that in a perpetual state of stress. But to stay home and not attend would have meant not seeing my family, not being able to properly grieve the loss of my uncle, and not being able to comfort my dad in the midst of his grief.


I wanted to do everything. I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. But there was no way around it: I was going to let someone down. I couldn’t do it all. I couldn’t make everyone happy. I couldn’t help but disappoint. And at one point in that decision making process, I literally found myself laying on the steps in our home, tears welling from my eyes, groaning with paralysis and indecision.


But Jesus doesn’t appear to feel this same level of anxiety, shame, and desperation. He doesn’t fret over unfulfilled expectations or unsatisfied people. He’s not frantically ticking things off his to-do list. Instead, he moves slowly and deliberately—living in peace, sharing meals with friends, offering reconciliation to the guilty and ashamed, and intentionally encouraging and mentoring his disciples.


Living a resurrection life involves learning to live with a shame-and-anxiety-free posture, cutting ourselves slack and not feeling the need to be all things to all people. We don’t have to save the world. It’s okay to not meet people’s expectations. We literally cannot do everything for everyone. Resurrected people don’t live with a savior’s complex, because apparently, neither did our Savior. 

Finding God on the Trail

For those who don’t know, my family spent our spring break this year in St. George, Utah. We spent two days in the car, going and returning, but the six days in between were loaded with activities like hiking, rock climbing, and swimming. But the thing I was most excited for on this trip was the mountain biking. St. George is surrounded with incredible trails, and some of the best we encountered were about 3 blocks from our condo.

Mountain biking has become, over the last decade, one of my favorite activities in the world. I love the thrill of the descent, the speed of each turn, the wind rushing past my face, and my heart stopping for just a moment as I launch from a jump and await my return to earth. It’s always a time of physical exhaustion, yet emotional rejuvenation. I find peace and joy, community and friendship, and relief from the burdens of life.


But as I rode the trails in St. George—and especially the Zen Trail—I also found God. I found myself in a spiritual experience, sensing God’s presence and giving Him praise. And it happened in a number of ways.


First, God was most-certainly apparent in the beautiful, grandiose setting in which I was riding. The trail flanked the cliff of a giant mesa, with stunning views of the desert below and the mountains on the horizon. With the sun beginning to set and the sky as blue and cloudless as possible, I couldn’t help but be in awe of the Creator. I was utterly amazed that God had created all this magnificence. I was caught up in God’s power and goodness and was nearly brought to tears with each pedal stroke through the beauty of creation.


But I also found myself engrossed in worship through contemplation of the minutia of God’s handiwork. As I quickly careened down the trail, narrowly avoiding a myriad of potential pitfalls in the form of rocks and dirt, drops and jumps, rollers and climbs, I found myself thinking about the wonder of the human body. How in the world were my eyes and brain able to absorb the countless bits of information that was necessary to dodge and turn, slow down and speed up, narrowly avoiding disaster a thousand times over?! I don’t think I’m being overly dramatic or inaccurate in calling it a miracle. 


God has designed our bodies to function in ways that vastly surpass my understanding. He doesn’t just create the mountains and deserts, rocks and dirt, sunsets and blue skies. His creative work is also intricate and delicate, down to the tiniest detail of the human body. So, once again, I found myself worshiping our great God. I was grateful for both his monstrous power and the intricate detail of his interaction with our world.


So, while perched atop my carbon steed, meandering through the Utah desert, I was reminded of the ability to worship God everywhere and for everything. And I’m committed to doing that very thing in all the normal moments of my day, and not just while on vacation from reality.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Cultivating the Right Spirit

On my drive up to Bridger Bowl this Monday, I found myself in the midst of a simple miscommunication that sadly resulted in a very angry man hanging his head and his middle finger out his window and shouting in a violent tirade. Fortunately, I wasn’t able to hear the specifics of his outcry, but while I’m not a professional lip-reader, I’m assuming the words he was screaming would not be appropriate for me to share with you all. 

It was about 9:15am on Monday morning, so I found myself in the long line of skiers making their way to the mountain. I wasn’t in a hurry (like some people often are) and had no desire to pass the cars in front of me (like some people often do). But suddenly I noticed that the car in front of me had drastically slowed down and the driver had extended his hand from window and appeared to be waving me on to pass. I checked to make sure it was safe and then quickly skirted around him. 


But I quickly realized that he hadn’t been waving to me, but was signaling to a plow truck that was waiting to merge into the long line of traffic. I tucked in behind the plow to contentedly and patiently continue my journey to the ski hill, but not before being presented with a barrage of angry words and actions from the man I had passed. And I mean a vein-popping, red-faced sort of ANGRY. This guy was SO MAD. And he offered the same furious gestures to the two vehicles behind me that misunderstood what was happening and passed him as well.


The thing that shocked me most about this encounter, however, wasn’t the content of his tirade, but how quickly and instinctively it emerged. He didn’t have to mindfully and intentionally conjure up his response. He didn’t take a moment to process his emotions and then react accordingly or appropriately. He just erupted, without hesitation.


Which means that this man’s life has cultivated a spirit of frustration and anger, emotions that sit bubbling, just below the surface, ready to explode at any given moment. And I’m really not trying to judge him, because I do the same thing at times. I’ve never found myself screaming obscenities out my car window (or using my middle finger in that sort of way), but I certainly react poorly and regrettably at times. Maybe he had a really bad morning. Maybe he has a family member who is sick or struggling. Maybe he’s suffering from relational or vocational stress. I totally get it. But for whatever reason, he hasn’t cultivated a peaceful and generous spirit that will emerge as kindness and love in his moments of anxiety, pain, and struggle.


We all foster a certain lifestyle that will naturally rise to the surface in our moments of crises or uncertainty, for better or worse. Jesus says it this way:


“A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” (Luke 6:45)


Whatever we’re nurturing—whether grace, peace, generosity, and love; or judgment, anger, greed, and hatred—will dictate how we react and respond to the onslaught of encounters we experience each day. So, let’s make sure we’re doing the hard work, up front, of cultivating a righteous spirit that will subconsciously emerge as forgiveness, generosity, peacefulness, and love when we’re faced with trying situations. Let’s make sure that what we’re storing in our hearts is the sort of thing we’d want bubbling to the surface—because it surely will.