Thursday, December 21, 2023

The Word Became Flesh...

I love this provocative portrayal of Jesus’ birth story, for all sorts of reasons, but primarily because of its linguistic and theological accuracy. 

According to the Gospel of John, “…the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
But that Greek word for “dwelt” is the word for “tabernacle”…”the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.”
But a tabernacle is just a tent…”the Word became flesh and lived in a tent among us.”
Jesus wasn’t born into royalty or a mansion. He was born out of wedlock to a teenage mom and a blue-collar stepdad. And they all immediately became refugees, fleeing their homeland out of political persecution.
So we welcome a Messiah who intimately knows poverty and oppression, suffering and pain, grief and loss. Jesus is uniquely present with the poor and the marginalized, the hurting and heartbroken, because he’s experienced those same struggles. The plight of the underprivileged and overlooked is not an abstract concept. These are the very people he has come to, bringing hope and healing.
Jesus is with my old friend who is lonely and in pain. He’s with my new friend whose camper home just burned to the ground and is struggling back to his feet. He’s with my spiritual hero who has lost his wife and now stares down the end of his own earthly journey.
This Christmas we celebrate that Jesus sees us and meets us in the midst of the intricacies of our lives. “The Word became flesh and lived in a tent among us.”

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Deconstruction Isn't Cool

It's not a new word or idea by any means, but it sure feels like "deconstruction" is the new, trendy word in Christian circles today. Social posts on the idea are everyone, books on the subject are hot off the press, deconstruction programs are being sold, and most of what I'm seeing lately at least somewhat glamorizes the deconstruction process.

Memes like this are a good example of what I keep seeing. (Please scroll down and read it if you haven't already.) They're not completely ignoring the difficulty of deconstructing one's faith, but they're also not being completely honest about the excruciating pain that so often comes when one reevaluates everything.

And I'm not trying to say that one shouldn't partake in this long, arduous process of rethinking one's faith. I went through that journey and am glad I did. But if you're glorifying deconstruction, then I don't think you properly understand deconstruction. I love the faith that's emerged from my long pilgrimage of stripping things to the studs, but "enjoy the ride" is not a phrase I find realistic or helpful when thinking about this incredibly difficult process. That wasn't my experience at all. I rarely felt like I was the driver of my own deconstructive process. Instead, it often felt like the wheels were falling off and my world was crumbling around me.

Deconstruction is a massive risk that's almost always painful and costly. I've personally watched marriages fail, pastors quit, theists become atheists, parents disown kids, kids write off parents, seminary students never attend church again, and tons of people just stop caring about faith. Deconstruction is lonely and scary. You feel crazy and sane simultaneously. You feel like you're finally being honest with yourself, and yet everyone else thinks you've lost it. And you often have to do this important work in isolation because to share this journey publicly would be too costly.

So, in my mind, you deconstruct your faith only when you have to; when to not ask these questions would mean denying everything you feel stirring in your soul; when keeping the status quo is just no longer an option; when you're finally willing to give up the comfort and security of the old system for the tantalizing-yet-uncertain hope for a better future.

But there's no celebrating. There's no buckling up and enjoying the ride. There's no manual to work through. It's not a program with six easy steps. You read and talk and question and cry, but somewhat just have to let it happen naturally. There's no forcing this sort of work. There's no rushing this sort of growth. There's no easy way out of one way of thinking and into another.

So if you're going to rethink your faith, count the cost and prepare for pain. And then do so slowly. Do so in community. Give yourself grace. Don't do it because it's trendy, but do so with a commitment to moving all the way through the questions and doubts and uncertainties to a new place of beauty and faithfulness. There's goodness on the other side, so keep going. Don't just tear things down, critique everything, and then quit your faith. Don't throw the baby out with the bath water. If you're going to go through the pain of deconstruction, make sure you keep moving through the hopeful goodness of reconstruction. Because if you press on, the new thing that emerges will be beautiful and good and liberating -- a life steeped in the grace and peace of God.

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

The Christian of the Future

Back in 1971, author and theologian Karl Rahner stated, "The Christian of the future will be a mystic or nothing at all." 

That's a prophetic, thought-provoking phrase, but while Rahner was ahead of his time by a number of decades, I think he was right. We've been steeped in the modern world of the scientific method for over 500 years, which has altered the way we think about faith. In our modern world, we've prioritized information over formation.

Our worship gatherings have primarily become lecture- or teaching-based.
Our discipleship programs have been mostly oriented around study.
Our evangelism has mainly been apologetic in nature.
We've emphasized the head, while often neglecting the heart and the hands.
We've often chosen theological points over spiritual practice.

And while none of those things are inherently bad, we've, generally speaking, lost the centuries-old beauty of mysticism. A mystic is a person who seeks and, at some level, attains a direct experience within the mystery of God. A mystic is someone who is open to actual, spiritual encounter with the living God. A mystic is a curious listener who is on high-alert for the mysterious, profound, usually-ordinary, and often-unexpected presence of God in all of life.

So, I think Rahner is arguing that in a post-modern, post-Christian world where cultural Christianity is no longer a thing and average Americans no longer flood churches on Sunday mornings just because the doors are open, people will be decreasingly interested in Christianity unless they actually (both personally and communally) encounter and experience the presence of God on a regular basis.

Author Brian Zahnd says a similar thing by saying, "The faith of the future will be sustained by an experience, not an argument." In short, our faith must be tangible and real. It must be practiced, not just understood. It must be lived out, not just believed in. If it's not experienced and practiced, it simply won't last.

Which is why we've worked hard, at our church, to cultivate a posture of awareness. I'm convinced that God is always at our world in our lives and the world, if only we'll have eyes to see. So as we seek to grow in our faith, we must constantly strive for ways to experience the presence of God, rather that information to understand about God.

If Rahner and Zahnd are correct, however, this also has huge implication for how we can best connect with our world through evangelism and mission. Because if our post-Christian world is no longer interested in and will no longer be swayed by a rational argument for faith, then it's incumbent upon the church to both embody the presence of God for the world and to help the world recognize and experience God's presence. If Rahner and Zahnd are right, then in the post-modern world, you're simply not going to argue or debate people into faith.

And, again, I think they're right. I think the world has already shifted and that this process will only continue. The world is asking, whether they know it or not, "What good is faith and why does it even matter?" So the people of God must have honest, real life answers to those questions, so we can help the world understand that there are good, helpful, life-changing answers to those questions.

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 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.