Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Not So Fast

As we dive deeper into the story of Laban, which begins not in Genesis 28 with Rachel and Leah, but in Genesis 24 with Rebekah, we have to avoid jumping to conclusions right away. It's true that Laban appears to be up to the same scheme in Genesis 24 that he was in Genesis 28-31, where he attempts to concoct shady deals and to postpone the leaving of his loved one, but that in no way means that he had the same intent in asking for Rebekah to stay a bit longer as he did in asking his daughters to stay.

See, the first thing we have to understand about this story - and about our stories and really everyone's stories - is that life changes persons.

It's not so far-fetched, as we follow the story of Isaac and Rebekah, to think that once Rebekah left home, Laban never saw her again. After all, when Jacob arrives in the land of his ancestors, he has to introduce himself. No one comes running to meet him from the house, thrilled that it's Jacob, the nephew. No one seems to know off-hand who he is. He has to tell them. Hey, I'm the son of the sister that left here, say, several decades ago. 

That's a long time not to talk to your sister, not to see her face-to-face, not to hear from her. Not to even know about her kids, for crying out loud. And this is especially true when you are a kinsman-redeemer, when you have a certain responsibility to her as a surviving familial male, which we can assume from the fact that the Genesis 24 story talks about Rebekah's mother and brother, but no father, which leaves Laban in the guardianship role.

It's entirely possible, then, that in the Genesis 24 narrative, Laban's protectiveness of his sister as kinsman-redeemer guides his request that she stay just a few more days. After all, he doesn't know this servant who just showed up out of nowhere. He hasn't heard from this Abraham guy in awhile, maybe even ever at all. Maybe he just wants to make sure that his sister is going to a real place, a good place, into a good family. Maybe he wants to make sure all the details are worked out, the dowry and all that and the agreements about family in general. Maybe he wants time to think about this deal and make sure it's honoring to his sister and to his own family and, of course, that it's legit. 

Really, you can't just let your sister go off with any guy who shows up with a bunch of camels and a good story. Can you? 

But then, Rebekah agrees to go and she goes and for decades, Laban never sees her again. Then all of a sudden, another guy shows up from a land far away and meets another woman at a well, this time Laban's daughter. And he really puts the ropes on Jacob. He makes the man stay with him seven years, then swaps daughters on him. Then he makes him stay another seven years before giving him his promised daughter. Then he makes him stay another seven years for his possessions and herds and goods and stuff. Then he tries to make him stay....

At this point, his concern is not Jacob. He's not worried about what kind of family his daughters are going into; he knows it well. Jacob has been a good and faithful servant. He's not concerned about the price and the details and all the business end of marriage; that's already been taken care of. More than.

Maybe what Laban's concern is now is that his daughters are about to go off and maybe he will never see them again, either. 

It would have been common in this ancient society for women to marry close. Their sisters and mother and aunts and grandmothers would still run into them at the well. They'd still see their brothers and fathers and uncles occasionally in public as they walked the streets. There were ways to keep contact, to keep in touch, to keep up to date on one another. Not so when the women are going to a foreign land, which is now happening to Laban not once (Genesis 24) but thrice (Genesis 28-31). He's losing all of the women he's responsible for, and in doing so, he's losing a little bit of himself. 

This is vitally important when we consider persons' stories. It's so easy to attribute motive or even character based on what we know from today. It would be easy to look at the Genesis 28-31 narrative and then look back at Genesis 24 and say that Laban was always a shady man, always up to the same tricks, always scheming at something. But that might not be the case. In fact, it's probably not. 

It's more like the case that in Genesis 24, Laban was a noble man, attempting to do what was best by his family, by his mother, and by the sister that he had become responsible for, working to be a man in a boy's world and figure out how to do it honorably. But by Genesis 28-31, Laban is a wounded man (and still, we must point out, not a "bad" man - just wounded). The words sound eerily the same, but the heart is very different.

The truth is that you never know what you might discover about someone if you don't jump to conclusions too quick, if you take the time to look at the depths of their story and understand the heart with which they are really acting, which changes over time. Life happens, and it changes persons. 

And we do life together best when we recognize that. 

Monday, July 30, 2018

What If - Genesis 24

Do you ever read the Scriptures and wonder what would have happened if some of the stories had gone another way? Do you recognize some of the crucial points where they might have? 

One such point occurs in Genesis 24, but in order to understand how this story might have turned out slightly different, we have to skip forward a few chapters to Genesis 28-31 (by which point, we almost always seem to have miraculously forgotten what happened - and what could have happened - in Genesis 24). 

It's a fairly well-known story, as biblical stories go. Jacob has taken flight from his father, Isaac, after stealing his brother, Esau's, blessing and birthright. He has returned to the land of his mother, Rebekah, to find for himself a wife, and he has set his eyes on the beautiful young Rachel, who happens to be the daughter of his uncle, Laban. And Laban is a wicked and crafty man, always out to get more for himself. 

Jacob and Laban agreed on a price for Rachel - seven years of service - and so began the count, but when the seven years were up, Laban switched brides and then convinced Jacob to work another seven years for Rachel, starting the process all over again. After that, several more years passed, several children were born into the Jacob-Leah-Rachel family, and Laban, we're told, had switched Jacob's wages a number of additional times, always making it something different than it used to be, always trying to make sure it was he, Laban, who got the best of things and Jacob who got the leftovers. 

And then Jacob wants to leave; he wants to go home and see his father, Isaac, again (which is weird in and of itself because at the moment that Jacob stole the blessing of his brother, Isaac was said to have been near death and bedridden; here we are now twenty-something-ish years later). Laban agrees and says it's no problem, just let his daughters stay a few more days. ...and a few more days. ...and a few more days. ...and just one more night. ...and just another one more night. And before you know it, Laban has drawn this entire thing out to the point that Jacob has to ask his wives what they think, then pack everyone up in the middle of the night and essentially run away from home. 

After which, of course, Laban pursues him and when the two men meet up in the desert, Laban wants to know what Jacob's problem is, and he talks to him like he's the bad guy who broke this whole relationship to bits by running away. 

So that's Laban and the way that he handled his daughters leaving home with their husband, but now, let's turn back a few pages to Genesis 24, the first story in question. Because it's actually here that we first meet Laban. And, interestingly, he tried the same exact trick here. 

Abraham had sent his servant to find a wife for his son, Isaac, from among his own people. The servant had come upon Rebekah at a well and found by God's divine provision that she was the one chosen for Isaac. Rebekah happens to be Laban's sister. 

So the servant goes home with the girl and starts to talk with her family, which seems to be primarily her mother and her brother, who has likely assumed guardianship of her in some way with a father that's apparently out of the picture. That's how it works in male-dominated societies. But then the servant starts to talk about taking Rebekah home with him the next day, and Laban speaks up.

Really? So soon? Why don't you stay just one more day?

Aha. And now, we see how easily this story could have been a different story, for we know how Laban's "one more day" is calculated. Imagine what would have happened if the servant of Abraham had given into Laban's scheme, even once. Imagine how the story could have been different if Laban had done this same thing twice and gotten away with it. Imagine the possibilities of just one more day when the words come out of this man's mouth. 

Thankfully, the servant of Abraham is not having it and decides to ask Rebekah what she thinks, a question that took Jacob a far longer time to ask, and Rebekah says she's ready to go, so they leave. Thank God for good servants.

But this story, and this what if, and the two very different ways that these stories ended up have much to teach us. We'll dig into some of it this week, so stay tuned. 

Friday, July 27, 2018

Unnecessary Ruts

Yesterday, I wrote about the vital nature of the spiritual disciplines or practices, how persisting in them, even when they feel like ruts, carves grooves into our lives that the Lord then uses to rush to our side in times of need. (Among, of course, other good reasons to engage in the disciplines.) And I confessed that sometimes, these practices do feel like ruts; they can seem monotonous or boring.

But they don't have to. 

One of the greatest challenges that we have when it comes to the spiritual disciplines is our lack of imagination. We think that reading the Bible means sitting down and reading the Bible. We think that praying means folding our hands and bowing our heads or kneeling beside our bed at night. We think that having a Sabbath means doing the same nothing one day every week. We think that singing songs of praise means remembering whatever it was that we sang at church the last Sunday and doing our best with it. 

We have so mechanized and ritualized and made "proper" our worship that of course it's easy for it to feel very quickly like a rut, very quickly like a boring task, very quickly like an unexciting, unengaging, minimally-meaningful thing we do every day. But that's just not the case. 

You can read your Bible every day, and you absolutely should, but that doesn't mean you have to sit at your desk, open the heavy tome, and read a designated section of it start to finish. There are countless reading plans out there that you can tweak to your own heart. Maybe you read it cover-to-cover, but maybe you read it chronologically. Or maybe you take an entire year and read it by topic, focusing on just one thing you'd like to learn more about and you read verses on, say, grace for an entire year. Or maybe you find a good Scripture-based devotional and read just what it tells you to read each day. Some have been known to read just the Psalms, day after day after day. Some read just the Gospels, over and over and over again. It doesn't matter what you're reading or why you've chosen to read that; what matters is that you're reading God's Word every day, even if it's just one verse that you then meditate on for the next 23.9 hours. Maybe you read different translations, maybe even side by side. The possibilities are endless.

Praying to God doesn't mean that you fold your hands and bow your head or that you have some cute little rhyme about God's goodness and the food you're about to eat. Prayer is anything that we do to express to God the depths and the state of our heart; it's anything we do to celebrate and strengthen the loving relationship that we have with Him. Prayer is dance. It is service. It is worship. It is words. It is silence. It is groaning. It is kneeling and lying prostrate and walking around and jumping up and down. It's beside your bed and in the depths of the woods and in line at the supermarket and sitting in traffic. It's writing or drawing or making or doing or not doing or resting or working or whatever. If you only have one way to pray to God, of course it's going to get old pretty fast. But if you expand your definition of prayer to include what's natural and holy and life-giving for your unique soul, it doesn't have to be.

Even Sabbath or fasting, times when it seems like we're not doing anything at all, can be diverse and wonderful. For example, although my Sabbath has some hard and fast rules, it also has a lot of flexibility. Maybe on a Sabbath, I'm cooking a large meal for my family. Or maybe I'm going to watch a football game with friends. Or maybe I'm playing a few more Frisbees with my dog. Whatever I'm doing, I'm doing knowing that I'm choosing on my Sabbath to connect with God in a different way than I normally do, and it brings a new depth of meaning to what I'm doing. When fasting, we need not fast only from food. Maybe we fast from technology. Or from worry. Or from whatever it is that takes too much of our time away from God. Fasting from different things enables us to tap into different depths of our spirit and find God anew. 

Spiritual disciplines are vital and important, but they need not be drudgery. Our God is a God of wild imagination, and that means that we are just one crazy idea away from connecting with Him in an entirely new way. He's given us this ability when He created us in His image; He's given us a piece of His wild imagination, and we ought to be using it to draw us back to Him. It doesn't have to be monotonous. It doesn't have to be boring. It doesn't have to be tedious. In fact, it was never meant to be. 

God never wanted, and still doesn't want, your reluctant engagement; He wants your heart. So think outside of the box and let your heart beat, and you'll feel the life coursing through your practices every day. 

And then, yes, those ruts become grooves and something greater still courses through them - the Holy Spirit, on His way to your side. 

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Ruts and Grooves

I received some difficult news this week, the kind of words that, when you hear them, make your heart catch in your throat. The kind of news that, for a moment, makes you unable to think clearly...or much at all, and your soul sinks inside of you a little bit, just enough to tap into a well of tears that you fight desperately to hold back. That kind of news. 

But that's not really the story. 

(And for what it's worth, when I started this week talking about knowledge and wisdom and sorrow and grief, I didn't know this was coming, so it's unrelated to the past three days.) 

The story, the real story, is God.

You've probably heard of the importance of having a daily quiet time with God, of being in His Word faithfully, of committing yourself to prayer and other spiritual disciplines. Maybe you wonder what that's all about because you've tried to do these things and they don't seem to make much of a difference in your life. Or they get boring...fast. I've heard some say that they read the Bible once, so they don't know why they would have to read it again. Or that they don't have anything to pray about, so they don't know why they would bother to pray. Or...the list goes on. 

The reason you invest yourself in these practices, among a number of other reasons, is that these practices, even when they sometimes feel like ruts, become vital, life-giving grooves in your life. And they are life-saving and life-giving in times like these. 

For years, I have started my day with a daily devotional. For the past several years (maybe 7? ish?), I have read the Bible through from start to finish every year in this morning quiet time, sometimes coupled with a morning devotional and sometimes not. One year, I read it chronologically. Some years, I've read it in the God's Word translation, others in the New Living Translation. This year, I'm utilizing a "Journal the Word" version of the KJV.*

The truth is that every year, I find something new that jumps out at me; reading the Bible, even though I have read it before, is never a waste. The truth is also, however, that some days, it's boring. Sometimes, I end up in a section that just doesn't speak to me in the season in which I find myself, and it's difficult some days. But I keep doing it, even when it feels like a rut. 

Because it one day becomes a groove.

I practice in prayer, although I confess also that my prayer life is not where I want it to be. I have some work to do in this area, but I'm doing it. I almost rather enjoy feeling like I have some work to do here because it keeps me practicing, keeps me pushing toward what I desire. And I wonder sometimes if, in a thing like prayer, I can ever get "there" - where I want to be. I can always draw closer, go deeper, be bolder. I kind of like the challenge. So I'm practicing, I'm trying, I'm investing...even on days where I'm not sure that I know what to pray or how to pray or that I have anything to pray about. And it, too, can sometimes feel like a rut. 

But it, too, becomes a groove.

And if you know me at all, you know that I practice a consistent Sabbath on Sundays. My Sabbath practice has changed and grown over the years, but it is what it is. I'm at a stage right now where it's becoming a new challenge all over again and where it's more difficult some Sundays than it ought to be, especially as deep into the practice as I am. I'm in a space where it feels a little bit like a rut. 

But it's an incredible groove.

Here's the thing, here's what I'm getting at: maybe you're in a rut and you don't know what you're doing it for. Maybe you can't understand why you should have to invest yourself in these kinds of practices, or why you should read the Bible more than once or pray every day or whatever. Maybe you don't know what these kinds of grooves are for. 

They are for such a time as this.

On a week like this week, when this kind of difficult news comes, those grooves are what rescued me. I didn't even know what to pray. I forgot that I knew how to pray. My heart was so crushed, in that moment, that my whole being went numb and for a few minutes, I think I almost forgot that I even have a God and that He is good. It was that kind of moment. 

I was trying to drive myself home, my heart reeling and my head struggling to wrap itself around what I had just heard. I was on the verge of a complete breakdown, and I knew it; I was about to, as they say, lose my "stuff." And all of a sudden, without warning, without prayer, without petition, with groaning beyond what words could ever have done for me, the Lord came rushing through the depths of my soul, flowing through these grooves that have carved a path for Him through my life the way water rushes down a mountain pass in its own path. He just...showed. up. 

At the very moment that I was about to break down, He showed up. When I was about to lose it, He found me. Not because of anything I had done in the moment, but because I have invested my life in the kind of ruts that make these grooves, in the practices that carve out the channels where God can come rushing into my heart at the very moments that I desperately need Him. 

I am eternally grateful for this incredible God and the amazing way He's done this. 

I tell that story just to say this: if you're one of those persons who doesn't know what it's all about, who doesn't "get it," who can't figure out why quiet time, Scripture reading, prayer, Sabbath, fasting, Examen, imagination are so important and so vital to a living, life-giving faith, particularly when these things become so monotonous, so boring, as to become a kind of a rut or are so difficult they're forced, this is exactly why. Because in moments like these, you need those ruts. 

They become your grooves. And the God of all love and comfort, the God of all peace, the God of all mercy, comes rushing wildly through them to be with you. 


*If you're wanting to know how to read the Bible through in a year, there are plenty of plans out there. One of the things I don't like about these plans, however, is that they can be a little bit erratic, having a lot of reading one day and not as much the next, which makes it difficult to plan a quiet time. The way that I ensure that I read through the entire Bible in a year is that as I prepare for the year, I take the number of pages in the Bible translation I'm planning to read and divide it by the number of days in that year (usually, 365, except in leap years). Then, I read that many pages per day. This helps to keep consistent the amount of time I know I need to set aside in the mornings so that I can plan accordingly. This year, I read 5 pages on odd days and 6 pages on even days, and this will get me to the end of Revelation by December 31.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

A Greater Hope

The Preacher of Ecclesiastes is correct when he says that greater wisdom leads to greater grief, that more knowledge leads to deeper sorrow. And perhaps to some, that seems reason enough not to seek understanding, not to acquire knowledge, not to pursue wisdom. After all, if your heart aches all the deeper simply from knowing more, then what's the point of inquiring? What's the good in knowing?

You can almost see a little bit of this attitude in the Preacher himself. He's consistently saying through his sermon that it's all meaningless, nothing but vanity, nothing but chasing the wind and trying to catch it. You don't get anything for it, he says, except trouble, except exhausting yourself and running yourself dry. 

This is where I break with the Preacher, for my heart of sorrow knows something different. Something the Preacher perhaps could not know, given as he lived some time before the Cross. And this is it:

The same wisdom and knowledge that leads us to deepest sorrow and grief is the very wisdom and knowledge that draws us to greatest hope.

Once you see the brokenness and the fallenness of this world in which we live, you can't un-see it. At every turn, you see the depraved hearts of men, the longing hearts of men, the wounded souls of men that are just doing what wounded men do to try to make it in a world that's chewing them up and spitting them out alive and leaving them to find their own way through it. This is the source of sorrow and grief. 

But the more that you see this, the more you understand the contrast between what is and what was meant to be. The more you see men struggle against their own woundedness, the more you understand the wholeness - and holiness - that God intended for us. The more you see us all going to Hell in a handbasket, the more your eyes are opened to understand the beauty of heaven. And it is on this account that the tiny flame of hope begins to flicker and burn and rage inside your soul. 

The more you understand about this fallen world, the more your heart aches to see it restored. The more you hurt for those who hurt, the more you long for healing. The more lost you feel here, the more anticipate you have to be found. Done right, this great sorrow draws us into greater hope until our eyes, which see so clearly here, become firmly focused there. 

And it's not just hope. It's faith, for this kind of sight gives us the strength to live in a world promised but not yet come. It's love, for our compassion is kindled for those mired here. It's confident assurance, for we can see the echoes of Eden that remain and the absolute truth of God's promise. It's humble expectation and fervent anticipation, for we know without a doubt that day is coming. 

The Preacher may seem to say that perhaps it's not worth it, perhaps wisdom and knowledge are not the incredible gifts that they seem to be. They bring sorrow and grief, he says, and he is right. 

But they also bring hope. And hope is a most precious gift that, I say, is worth the cost. We must be willing to grieve deeply if that is what it takes to hope abundantly. 

Seek wisdom, my friends. For it truly is a good and beautiful gift. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

The More You Know

Most of us, when our hearts or spirits are troubled, think that the answer to our pain is understanding. If only we could know more than we do right now, if only we could learn that little piece of elusive information that would bring it all together for us and shed new light on things, if only we could understand what's happening beneath the surface of what seems like what's happening, then perhaps we wouldn't ache so much. Perhaps we wouldn't hurt so deeply.

So we spend our lives in pursuit of knowledge and understanding, even wisdom, and truly believe that if we had just a little bit more of any of these, life would just not be so hard. 

But that's not, unfortunately, how wisdom and knowledge work. Not in a fallen world, not in a world marked by sin and selfishness. Not here, not now. The truth is that wisdom and knowledge do exactly the opposite for our pain than what we hope they will do: they deepen it. They intensify it. They magnify it so that what we thought was beyond what we can bear becomes unquestionably beyond what we can bear. 

Thus, we weep. 

This is truth according to God's Word itself, although I will say that from personal experience, I can confirm the words of the Preacher of Ecclesiastes. Here's how he says it, in Ecclesiastes 1:18: For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. Another translation says, With a lot of wisdom comes a lot of heartache. The greater your knowledge, the greater your pain. Yet another translation says, For the greater my wisdom, the greater my grief. To increase knowledge only increases sorrow.

This is tough for most of us to swallow because in the depth of our ache, what we most often find are unanswered questions. We have this human longing to know what we do not know, thinking that it is the unknown that causes so much of our grief. But the truth is that whatever can be known leaves us more grief-stricken than what we cannot know. 

Here's why: the more you know about anything in this fallen world, the more you understand about how the human heart beats in its own depravity, the more you recognize sin and selfishness...the more you realize just how far we are from where we ought to be. The more you see clearly the fallen world, the more you see clearly the unfallen world and the promise of God that it was never supposed to be this way.

The pain that comes from this kind of wisdom is too deep for words. 

And it ruins everything, really. It turns what our sinful hearts desire on its very head and makes it almost impossible to seek the kind of resolution we dreamt so often of having. Because here's what's so troubling about the fallen world that we live in: no matter how deeply we dig under depravity, we only find more depravity. It builds upon itself and deepens and worsens as each generation gets further and further from God. The only answer this world can offer to its aches is a deeper ache, a clearer vision of just how wrong things have gone. 

Every time we cry out, it wasn't supposed to be this way, we dig deeper into the problem and find out it really wasn't, but it is, because it wasn't, but it was, because it wasn't, but it was, because it wasn't...and all the way back to a tiny little fig that ruined everything. 

Once you begin to see that, you can't un-see it. Ever. And the very thing that was supposed to soothe your soul, that was supposed to heal your heart, rips it all the wider open until all you can do, as the Preacher said, is grieve...and ache...and long. We long for the day when God sets it right again, when these wounds are healed, when the world is made new, and when our souls are restored from all that the troubles of this world have done to them. 

And we long for the very thing that God Himself told us all along was worth longing for, to know the very thing He told us was worth knowing....to be still and to know that He is God. 

Monday, July 23, 2018

Broken Beautiful

It is difficult on a day like today to know what to write. Truth be told, I've started this blog a number of times, in a number of different ways, and clearly, erased them all. It's because I'm torn. I'm torn between some of the good and beautiful and breathtaking things that I know about God and the depths of the pain in very real human hearts who are stuck somewhere east of Eden, my own heart included. 

My own soul included.

I have a bit of a reputation in real life, though it doesn't often come through on the blog, for being able to fix just about anything. And if I can't fix it, I'll learn how, particularly if it's important to someone (or if you tell me how much money I can save by learning to fix it myself). And I love being able to fix things, but the truth is that I'm still human, and there's nothing I can do to fix the human soul. 

This life we live, it's messy. It's hard. It takes more out of us some days than we feel like we have to give, and it drags through the depths of our well until even the mud and the muck at the bottom are all stirred up before it just...leaves us there. Used up. Drawn dry. Aching from the assault. 

And we look up toward the heavens, and we scream, God, what am I supposed to do with this??? and we bury our heads in our hands and weep, God, what am I supposed to do with this.... 

And the answer, as much as we don't want to hear it, as much as we don't think we can handle it being actually this, is that we're already doing it. We're already doing exactly what we're supposed to do with it, screaming and crying and mourning and weeping and aching and fearing and letting our souls be troubled. This is it. This is all that it is.

It feels like there ought to be some balm for that, like there ought to be something in all this world that would soothe that ache, that would salve that wound, but there's not. Not really. It lies open, bare and exposed before everything, and it brings us face-to-face with the very real nature of being...human. 

It's not, of course, the way that it was supposed to be; God never created Adam for this. But here we are anyway in a world that so often just claws at the very depths of our being, at the very seat of our souls, at the very root of our existence until there's nothing left but a raw, bleeding heart...and tears. And a soul that aches for the Lord who walks in the cool of the garden with us. 

It's the human story, at least since the fall, and I don't suppose I'm the one who's going to change it. I wouldn't even know where to start. It's hard, perhaps the hardest thing in all the world, to stay broken by this, to stay broken at all. It's so much easier to get angry, furiously mad, violently aggressive and go after it. It's so much easier to get entitled, to feel betrayed, slighted, to become passive-aggressive. It's so much easier to do just about anything because broken...broken hurts without fault. There's no one else to blame, no one to go after, nothing to retaliate against. Broken's just broken, and it's a hard place to be. 

But God does broken beautiful. And on those nights where I know my own powerlessness, where I feel the ache in the depths of my soul and know there's not a darned thing on earth that I can do about it, on those days where the ache is deeper than my well and the pain is too much to take, I cling only to this hope and know that although there is nothing I can do for my own wounded soul, there's something God can do and He's already doing it. Beautifully. 

I wish I had something more encouraging to say to you, something to make it easier to be in the kind of painful, aching, hurting place in which you find yourself, but I don't. I just don't. The only thing I know about these places is what we all know: they're hard. And even though it feels like the last thing you want to do right now, like the worst piece of advice possibly ever, all I know to say is this: stay broken. Stay broken and don't let yourself grow angry or bitter or entitled or inauthentic. Flay your heart out and lay it before the Lord who heals souls, who is the balm for this very human ache. 

Because He does do broken beautiful. Promise.

Friday, July 20, 2018

On Leaving the Church

As I said yesterday, the problem with growing in tangles is that sometimes, persons leave the church. This is messy and painful and hard, but it's part of being a real community. So what follows are a few words on leaving the church.

Sometimes, persons leave the church because their life circumstances change. In other words, they have to move. A new job has opened up, but it's in a different community. Or perhaps a loved one has reached the point where he/she can no longer care for him/herself and this person needs to go and be there for awhile. Whatever the reason, this is painful to a community that is tangled together, and it is painful for the one who is leaving. In these cases, we must remember to stay in contact with one another - from both sides. Physically leaving a community does not mean we leave it altogether, and there are ways to be a vital and valuable part of a community and to have that community remain a vital and valuable part of your life even if you are not physically there.

But let's also say this: if you're leaving a community into which you are properly tangled for the sake of financial advancement or climbing up the corporate ladder or some other worldly achievement, pause for a bit and take stock of the very real cost of what you're losing by leaving and the damage you're doing to others for the sake of your own success. It's counter-cultural, but what if we, as a people of God, were a people who chose real, vital community over bigger paychecks or fancier titles? What if we were more satisfied to be known by our love than our titles or achievements? Something to consider. Something to strongly consider.

Sometimes, persons leave the church because they have a fundamental theological difference with the church. Often, these are the ugliest leavings because the person leaving is very sure they are right and everyone else is wrong, no matter how much he loved them yesterday. These often get loud and bitter and become public to-dos, which, by the way, the world is watching. If you're one of these persons, leaving your community because the theology has shifted in such a way that you no longer feel comfortable with it, remember the love that you have for these people. Remember the community that you have together. Remember what it was like before you disagreed and operate under the assumption that they are still the same people. Because, well, they are. They haven't lied to you. They haven't betrayed you. They haven't backstabbed you. You disagree with one another on something that is extremely important to you; it happens. It's part of being human. There are ways to leave a church that is theologically unsafe for you without ripping it - and you - apart in the process.

Sometimes, persons leave the church because they have a preferential difference with the church. This can be anything from not approving of a new elder's appointment to disliking the color of the carpet in the new sanctuary. Maybe it's the style of worship music, the addition of a certain instrument, or the appointment of a new teacher. If this is you, let me let you in on a secret: no one is perfectly satisfied with everything that goes on in a church. No one. No one approves of 100% of everything that a church does or the ways that they do it. If you're tangled into a community and you're ready to bail because it's not perfect for you any more, don't do it. Don't rip apart the soul of a people because you feel entitled to everything being exactly how you want it. It never will be. Count the blessings that you have, take stock of your investment in the community and the community's investment in you. Because here's another truth: things that change will change again. In a few years, there'll be another new elder, more new carpet, a different new teacher, a brand new style of worship. Things change. That's no reason to bail on the people you're tangled into. 

And if something's amiss about the church, truly amiss, if the community is failing in some way and that's why you're tempted to leave, let me say this: stay. Stay and make that community the kind of community that you wish that it was, the kind of community you're afraid it's losing. If you leave, you're not helping the situation; you're fanning the flames. So stay...and do better. 

Sometimes, persons leave the church because the church is changing. This one makes absolutely no sense at all. If you're leaving because things are changing, you're really just changing things for yourself so that you feel like you're in some control of it. Nothing stays the same when you change everything, so there's no possible way for you to leave your changing church and find something exactly the same as you were leaving. It doesn't exist except for where you are. Or maybe you're taking your changing church as an opportunity to go find what you've been wanting for a long time. What if the changes coming to your church are the changes you've been wanting for a long time, but you don't stick around long enough to see them? What if God is actually good and He's been orchestrating these changes and you're about to have something you could only dream of, except you're too scared of what "might" happen and you go off running at the first sign of change? If your church is changing right now, it's not the time to leave. Stay. At least through the change. See what happens. Even when your church is changing, these are still your people. That's what being tangled is all about. 

Sometimes, persons leave the church because they die. Don't die. Seriously, it just makes it easier on everyone if you don't. (Kidding...kind of.)

What I'm saying, I guess, is that even though there are some valid reasons to leave a church, they are honestly few and far between. Most of our leaving is from the flesh, not from the spirit, and that's no reason to do anything, really. Find a reason to stay. If you're tangled into the community, it shouldn't be too hard. In fact, it should be easier to stay than to go. 

And if you do go, know what you're doing to those who stay. Know how you're tearing up a part of them, too, how you're ripping part of their root system out of the ground by your going. It's not easy for anyone, and in a properly tangled community, you will never be replaced. You can't be. There will always be a you-shaped hole when you're gone, just as there will be a them-shaped hole forever in you. 

Thursday, July 19, 2018

The Trouble with Tangles

But wait a minute - if our communities grow in tangles rather than rows, isn't that...messy? Painful? Hard? Most of us recognize right away, perhaps even from personal experience, that growing our communities in tangles doesn't keep some members from uprooting themselves. It doesn't keep some from leaving. It doesn't keep some from believing they live in rows, even when we know better.

That's true. Because of the way that human life is, and human nature, community is always going to get messy. It's even messier when it's all tangled together and has grown in such a way that one set of roots or branches cannot be pulled without pulling on others. 

That by no means serves as a reason not to do it.

There are a number of reasons that persons may leave our communities, and we should be aware of them - not so that we can guard ourselves against becoming "too" entangled with those who might leave (we never could, for it could be nearly anyone at nearly any time), but so that when it does happen, we can understand why and use that as a balm for moving forward. 

Someone might leave our community because they are spiritually immature and haven't grown into the tangles yet themselves. Thus, they believe they are planted in a row and that it's nothing to anyone if they move on and find a different place before they settle in and start to put down roots. If we are a community that grows in tangles and we have invited them to stay and belong, this should not bother us. It certainly shouldn't bother us nearly as much as it does. It's easy to get offended that someone would say, early on, that our community isn't really for them, but the truth is that everyone is looking for something particular that is vital for their own soul, and some communities are better at some things than at others. We should celebrate with and pray for someone who says they need something different in community than we excel at and goes off to find it; they are looking for a place to grow tangled into God's fold.

Now, if they are leaving God's community altogether, then we have some work to do. But if they're just going on to a different place before they get as tangled up with us as we already have with them (because we're tanglers), then God bless them. 

Someone might leave our community because they are quite literally leaving our community. God may call them or lead them or life might drag them to a new physical location where it is no longer viable for them to remain physically in our tangles. In some of the best ways that I've seen this happen, they do not really become untangled from us...ever. They remain a part of our community, even from a distance, although the best of them also find a new community wherever they are. This is how tangles work. When life pulls you one way, your tangles hold you down, and you never really leave, even though you're gone. These are a persons we must hold near and dear and make efforts to continue to include, persons we must continue to talk with, to pray for, and to share our lives with because they are still a vital part of it...and they have even more lives in which they are a vital part now. It's hard to have them gone, but they continue to broaden and deepen our tangles in new and wonderful ways and connect us more powerfully to God's people all over the world. 

But there are a couple ways that someone might leave our community that just plain hurt, that are hard to move on past, that are nearly impossible to "get over." One of these ways is through petty differences and the other is through death. Both are eerily the same. The truth is that some persons are going to leave our community when something changes that they don't like or maybe that they're just scared of, whether that change is big or small. Persons have left churches over changes in leadership or name or worship style or the like, and they have also left churches over changes in the color of the carpet or whether the toilet paper hangs correctly. And some persons, of course, die.

This is where the tangles really, really hurt. Because these persons, when they leave, rip something out of us that we never quite get back. They tear up our own tangles because we never forget what we're missing without them. When situations arise or when our hearts ache, we know exactly who we ought to turn to to step into that place, but they're not there any more. I've been through two major church splits with my congregation already, and even now, more than a decade later, when certain things come up, I say to myself, "You know who'd be great for that? Oh...never mind. They aren't here any more." Or when I'm wrestling with something in my own life, I know just who I should talk to...but they're gone. Some of them are dead; some of them have moved on to the church down the road and just don't want to talk to me any more because I'm in that community and they've cut their ties here (or so they think). 

It's not easy. In fact, I think tangled community is one of the most difficult things in all of life to do. And for this very reason, because not everyone is tangled to the same degree. Because it seems so easy for some to just pull up roots and leave and not think about what that does to the rest of us. Because being tangled forever pulls on our own souls and spirits and it's not always "fun."

But it's holy.

It's the way God designed it, at least, the tangles part is. The pain that we feel with it, that's the fall. But community is God's design, and God's design doesn't change just because we mess it up. It doesn't change just because we're not perfectly good at it. It doesn't change just because we've ruined it in sin. It's still His design. And it's still good and beautiful and holy. And worth it. 

In fact, it's the only possible way to do it, to do life. We can only ever do it together

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Side By Side

A church that grows in rows rather than in tangles is a threat not only to the very structure of God's people, His intended design for the community of His children, but also hinders the spiritual growth of all present. This is because a church that grows in rows is trapped in a perpetual state of infancy with no way to move beyond it and mature. 

It's really not that hard to see. In order to understand this, we need look no further than basic human development models. When you walk into a room full of toddlers or preschoolers, they are often all playing, and it looks like they are playing even, perhaps, together. But what's really going on is that they are playing next to one another, sometimes with the same kinds of toys. It's called "parallel play," and while it is the first step toward learning to actually play together, it's a far cry from real friendship, fellowship, and community. 

But this is what's happening in our churches every day. We are a people of God stuck in parallel play. What's happening is that we're worshiping, serving, loving, and learning next to one another, sometimes with the same kinds of tools, but we're not actually doing these things together. It's the first step toward being an actual people of God, but it's a far cry from the kind of meaningful friendship, fellowship, and community that God desires for us. 

And it's why it's so easy for us to "belong" to and attend a church of hundreds, if not thousands, and still feel not only alone, but so far from God. 

The Scriptures talk about how at some point, we must grow up in our faith. We must stop feasting on spiritual milk and get to the real meat of being a people of God. We can't do this if we are stuck in an immature community, in a toddler-level fellowship where all that we're doing is side-by-side. If we intend to grow and mature and become spiritual adults, we have to move from this side-by-side to something more face-to-face and hand-in-hand. 

It's life, all tangled together, the way it was always meant to be. 

What does one have to do with the other? Why can't we study our Bibles, pray diligently, worship passionately, and grow in rows? Why does our spiritual growth depend upon being in a real, vital, tangled community of God's people?

Because our God is a relational God. Everything He can teach us about the world, about Himself, about ourselves is relational. Jesus had twelve disciples, not one. And at the most important moments of His life, He never took just one disciple with Him; it was always at least two or three. That's because life is not done alone. Faith is not done alone. We simply cannot truly know or understand or vibrantly live any truth unless it is a shared truth, and shared truth is done in relationship.

If you find that your faith is not growing deeper, if you find that it's not growing wider, if you find that no matter what you do to invest in your relationship with God, it's just not bearing the fruit it ought to be bearing, ask yourself how you're growing in your church. If you're always side-by-side with others, that's probably part of the problem.

You've got to be face-to-face and, better yet, hand-in-hand. It's how we grow to be heart-in-heart.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

For the Church

When the church grows in rows, rather than in tangles, something terrible happens: it comes to exist only for itself. Its people become a people of the church, not a people of God, and its congregation is nothing near a real community.

There's a simple way to tell whether this is what's happening in your church or not. All you have to do is send out a couple of feeler notices. Invite the people of the church to a church-based, church-sponsored, church-wide event - a nice pitch-in, a festival, a cookout, even a special prayer service or holiday event. (I recently saw one church advertising a church-wide "kite fly," and this sounds like incredible fun to me.) Invite them also to pray for Jill before her upcoming surgery, to show up to help Mark move, or to the blessing of Bill and Betty's new house.

A church that grows in rows will have a large portion of its membership show up for the former, but very few for the latter. They'll come to the pitch-in, the festival, the cookout, the prayer service, the holiday event, but they will neglect the very real need of their brother or sister. This is because they are committed to the church, but not to one another.

They are not growing in tangles.

That doesn't mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that church-sponsored, church-wide events are bad; they are necessary. (But in the absence of the other, neither of these practices is pleasing to God.) Israel often gathered together as a people of God, and the same example continues on through the New Testament and the early church. The difference is that in a church whose members are interwoven, a church that grows in tangles, the people show up to both. They come to the kite fly and to help Mark move. They show up at the pitch-in and at the blessing of Bill and Betty's new house. They come to the Christmas Eve service and the chemo ward. And they recognize that both of these things are pleasing to God and essential for His people.

When a church grows in rows long enough, when the people are neglected long enough, it doesn't take much for the church to stop doing altogether the kind of real people work it was intended to do. "Pastoral care" falls by the wayside, and when it's requested at all, it's met with a kind of boredom...even from the pastoral staff, who have come to believe that their ministry is nothing more than program planning. They'd rather be working on the next big event because that's where the payoff is. That's where the people come.

And all of a sudden, the people exist for the church - coming only to "church" things, but not anymore to "God" things - and the church exists for the church - designing events for its people to attend, but not anymore digging into the deep places of real life.

Neither exists for the grace or glory of God or for the strength and community of His people.

It's nice and neat and fairly easy to pull off, and when something goes wrong, it's just as easy to start over, to pull up one plant and move on to the next without fear of uprooting anything else, without fear of disturbing anything else. But it's not holy and it's not God's idea.

It's not God's idea that we should do things together; He always intended for us to do life together. And when we exist only for the church and the church exists only for itself, that's not happening. It's a heartbreaking reality that's creeping into congregations all over the country, congregations that are no longer churches, but country clubs, where the offering is no longer a gift unto the Lord but a dues to be paid and tables are not shared, but catered and countless individuals feel their namelessness, their emptiness, their loneliness even in the midst of the large numbers because nothing real is happening any more in a "church" like this.

And so maybe they leave - they leave that church or they leave the church altogether, but it only confirms what they've felt all along: that they never really were in a community at all. Because the Millers? They're gone.

But have you met the Smiths?

Monday, July 16, 2018

Church Growth

Last week, we talked about some of the issues that stem from the church accepting too much of a business model in its leadership structure and how true discipleship often gets pushed to the side, especially in a "professional" ministry. But perhaps the greatest challenge to our churches today is not how we lead, but how we grow. 

And this discussion is aimed squarely at those who sit in the pews, not at those who stand in the pulpit (although, to be certain, pastors can have a significant impact in this area).

Today's churches far too often grow like farms, like fields of wheat. Conveniently planted in nice, neat rows, we plug in new members in our registries and in our communities like tiny little seedlings. And if anyone should happen to leave, we just pluck them right out and put another family, person, seeker in their place. 

"Oh, the Johnsons? They haven't been here in four months. But have you met the Millers?" 

In most churches, it doesn't even phase one family to see another family leave. The occurrence is so commonplace that it's essentially expected, and although we are sometimes surprised by who leaves or by when, it doesn't really upset the fabric of our churches too much. We get over our offendedness (for that is primarily what we are any more when someone seems to reject us or something we care about, like our church), plant a new name in an old place, and move on. After all, the church is just a field and we are all but one fruit of the harvest. 

But churches weren't meant to grow in rows, and congregations weren't meant to live in gardens. We're not supposed to be able to pluck out one piece and plant another in its place; that's not what community is about. 

Churches are supposed to grow like forests, like intertangled messes of roots and branches and leaves. Members of the church are supposed to have their lives intertwined with one another in such a way that when one person or one family leaves, everyone feels it. Their uprootedness pulls at the roots of all of the others. Their branches pulling out of the canopy breaks off a few fragile bits of everyone else's and creates a new space where the empty winds blow through.

This sounds horrible, I know. It sounds ominous. It sounds like something you wouldn't want to be a part of. It sounds...painful. And it is painful. But it's what real community is all about. 

There's a reason that Jesus uses so many organic metaphors when He talks about His followers. He is the vine; we are the branches. Why are we branches? Because we get all tangled up in each other. He talks about good soil where roots go down deep. What happens when roots go down deep? They get all tangled up in each other. He even talks about the kind of farmer's fields that we have become so accustomed to in our churches, and He says that even there, the wheat and the weeds (the various types of plants) grow so close together that you can't pull one up without uprooting the other. 

And yet, the Johnsons? They're yesterday's news. Have you met the Millers?

It's a problem, and not a small one. It's a challenge for our churches on a lot of levels. Not the least of which is that when we attend a church where we are but one little seedling in a nicely-cultivated farm where anyone and everyone is easily replaceable, we exist as nourishment for the church itself and not for one another. Our only connection is to the structure and the Sunday service and the business model of the church; we are not connected to one another in such a way that we are truly a people, let alone a people of God. That in itself should scare us, but that's not all. 

This week, we'll look at some of the things that happen when we attend churches that grow in rows instead of tangles, as fields instead of forests. Stay tuned. 

Friday, July 13, 2018

Go and Make Disciples

The truth is that even though the disciples were in training for the ministry of Christ, they were not at all in training for "the ministry;" Christ's aim was to make them disciples, not pastors. Christ's aim today is the same.

Our churches have lost sight of this aim quite a bit, or at the very least, we have redefined what it means to be a "disciple." Today, it means something scarily similar to being a "member." And you can tell because of the great pride that a number of churches take in the mere number of "members" they have on their lists, whether or not those members ever attend a small group or even a Sunday service, whether those members are growing or maturing (or not), whether those members live their lives like real disciples of Christ. 

That's one of the reasons it's so dangerously easy to let our churches become overrun by the business model, to use our ministries as rungs on the corporate ladder rather than as opportunities to make the deepest impact in the lives of our people. After all, if all that the church needs is numbers, then it makes sense that the church becomes a training ground for those who will be responsible for those numbers in the future. It makes perfect sense that if all we care about is how many names we can record, then it's only natural that we invest our time and energy in those that will be responsible for those names in the future. 

But that's just not what Christ ever dreamed of for His church. Not by a long shot. 

We look at some of the things that the disciples were doing, both when Jesus was with them and when He had gone on ahead of them. They were preaching the word, visiting the imprisoned, healing the sick, casting out demons, raising the dead, breaking the bread, leading worship, defending the truth, accepting the offering, praying, and telling the story of the Christ, who they knew so intimately. 

And we in the church look at that list and think how convenient it is that those are all of things that our pastors do for us today. Thus, surely, God had in mind a professional ministry for His disciples all along. Didn't He? I mean, just look at what they're doing, all those things we could never do. 

We were meant to do those very things. And that's the passion, the power, and the presence that the church has lost in the world today by no longer focusing on making disciples, but rather, on making members. 

When was the last time someone in your church did any one of those things above? When was the last time you heard the testimony of Christ from someone who knows Him intimately, who has been walking with Him for years...and who doesn't have their name on the church door? When was the last time you asked for presence and were visited by someone not in official leadership? When was the last time you were sick and the person who sits next to you in the pew (assuming you don't sit by an elder or a pastor) laid hands on you? 

Let's get a little more raw. When was the last time you took responsibility for the testimony of Jesus, as someone who has been walking with Him for years? When was the last time it was meaningful for you to even know that you know it as intimately as you do? When was the last time that someone in your life was in need of presence and you showed up for them? When was the last time you heard of someone who was sick and you laid your hands on them? When was the last time you prayed prophetically, took up an offering for the needs of the church, cast out a demon, or raised the dead? 

Oh, you mean you're not doing those things? Why not? These are the things that disciples do, that disciples have always done, that disciples should be doing. And Jesus told us in no uncertain terms that our entire aim was to become disciples and then to make disciples. Not pastors. Not preachers. Not professional ministers. 


Or are you just a "member"? 

This...without a doubt, this is the number one threat to the life, passion, and power of our churches. Too many ministries, not enough ministers. Too many attenders, not enough belongers. Too much business, not enough blessedness. Too much corporation, not enough community. Too many pastors, not enough friends. 

Too many members, not enough disciples. 

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Pastors in Training

When I posted on Tuesday about the dangers of having a pastorate that works like a corporate ladder, expecting ministers to work their way up through "lesser" ministries to assume a senior pastorate, I got some immediate backlash. Some pointed out that this is the way the church has worked for quite awhile, although I contend that just because we've done something for generations does not make it biblical or right or even good. Some, to be sure, found themselves somewhere around the middle of the ladder and are hesitant to suggest overhauling the system because they have put their years in, and they're "almost there."

Some said, "Well, the disciples were pastors in training."

Yes and no. 

Yes in the sense that the disciples were being trained by Jesus to continue His work of ministry after He left them. Yes in the sense that the disciples were being trained to become apostles (and yes, they are different things; I've written about this before). Yes in the sense that they were ever fine-tuning their skills, learning faith and obedience, and becoming comfortable with the power that they had as followers of Jesus. 

But no, the disciples were not pastors in training in the way that pastors today are "in training" under the corporate ladder model. 

Jesus never asked the disciples to do tasks they weren't gifted in. He didn't ask them to "pay their dues" and start at the bottom and learn by doing things that had nothing at all to do with what He wanted them to be able to do. He didn't ask them to while away their years working at labor that neither satisfied nor filled their heart, work that was outside of their calling. He said He would make them fishers of men, and their training consisted of learning to cast wider nets. That's it. 

This is a far cry from the contemporary church model that takes a man with gift of preaching and tells him that if he wants to work in the pulpit, then he has to chaperone youth group trips for a few years. And then lead worship for some more years. And then teach Sunday school classes and manage the budget for a few more years. The church today tells him that if he wants to be a preacher, he has to start by being something completely different and then, one day, it might give him the opportunity to demonstrate his skills inside his calling. 

But he has to do the "grunt" work first. 

Jesus told Peter that on this rock, He would build His church. He didn't also say that Peter would have to watch for twenty years first as Jesus built His church on some other guy. Judas was gifted as a bookkeeper and a money-minder; Jesus did not tell him that he would have to be a pack mule for a few years first while Bartholomew kept the books. 

When Jesus was training His disciples for ministry, everything He had them do was within their gifting and their calling. Nothing less. So while it's fair to say that they were ministers-in-training, it is unfair to say that they were operating in the same kind of system that our churches are using today. Not by a long shot. 

And, oh, there's one more tiny little detail that brings this conversation a bit more full-circle: Jesus wasn't actually training pastors at all, even though He had His eye on their future ministries. He was training disciples. 

That's something entirely different altogether. (More on that tomorrow.)

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Pastors and Elders

Yesterday, we looked at one of the ways that a worldly business model has been creeping into the church, specifically through the expectation that pastors would have served in "lesser" ministries before being moved up into more prominent roles (i.e. how the other church's youth pastor became your preaching minister). This alone is hurting the church.

But it's also become commonplace to have so much ministry staff in the model of the business world that ministers, paid ministers, are now doing work they were never meant to do and other offices of the church have been pushed out completely. 

There are churches now that have "executive" pastors or "administrative" pastors. I see job postings for them all the time. You see, the church has become such a business that they believe that they need someone on staff whose entire job it is to make business decisions for the church - hiring/firing, policies and procedures, budget allocation, etc. It's this guy who becomes the main cog in the wheel, the gear that makes the whole clock turn. He's running the show, even if he never preaches a sermon, teaches a Sunday school class, leads a small group, counsels a widow, feeds an orphan, or even changes a light bulb. 

Yes, really. 

All of these functions are functions that ought to be carried out, biblically, by elders. But you want to know something else that's scary? There are churches now that don't even have elders. 

Yes, really. 

Some have elders by name only. Some have elders, but they go by worldly titles (like board of trustees or just "the board). But some have no elders at all. They have so professionalized their pastorate that there are no "lay" leaders within the church, despite the fact that in the New Testament, lay leaders were all that the church had. 

Instead, these churches have pastors for everything the elders would normally do, and in some cases, they have staff members for the things that deacons would normally do. (They don't have deacons, either.) So they have someone on staff for budgeting, even if it's not an official "executive" pastor. They have someone on staff who takes care of the grounds, someone else who takes care of the building. They have a staff member who leads the teaching ministry. They have someone who does nothing but shut-in visits. And they pay all these persons to do all these things. 

And all that the church members are then expected to do...is to show up. Let the professionals handle "ministry;" you just come to church.

This is more true in some of the bigger churches, which are then hindered by having such weak connections and integration in their congregations. Did you know that in some bigger churches, despite pastoral staffs of more than twenty or thirty men and women, there are a fair number of members of congregations that no one on the pastoral staff even knows? They don't even recognize the name. 

It's because their business is "church," not people. Production, not community. (Although, let's be fair, they might have a community guy somewhere on staff.)

It doesn't really surprise anyone. After all, this is how most, if not all, businesses operate.

But let us be clear: the church was never meant to be a business.

If you're in a church that runs like this, you're not in a church. Sorry. You're in a social club. It doesn't matter if you get together and talk about Jesus; so could any regular old book club that happened to be studying the Bible. If you're in a church that doesn't take its leadership structure from the Scriptures, you're in a church that doesn't aspire to be a church. It's a business.

Our churches need elders. They need lay leadership. They need men and women stepping up, being connected, being integral parts of the worship and the mission that is happening in our communities. Our churches need community. What they don't need is corporation. 

It's time we take back our churches and demand more from our leaders than a pretty program and a satisfying Sunday service. It's time we stand for real leadership. 

We are a people, not a professional organization. Let's start acting like one. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Farm Team

Quietly, the American church has become infested with models of the American business world, and this is a threat not only to our churches, but to our Christian hearts. No longer can we trust that our pastor or pastors have a heart for the work that they doing; rather, we must constantly be concerned that he or she has eyes on something else. 

See, this is what's happened: a lot of churches have moved to a model that fills ministry positions from within other ministry positions. No longer is it admirable to say, "I am a preaching minister. I have studied preaching; I have a passion for preaching; I have the gift of preaching." Far more often, it is better in the eyes of many churches to say, "I am a youth pastor, but I've always wanted to preach."

In other words, what's happening is that churches are turning to their "farm teams" to fill ministry roles higher and higher up the pastoral ladder. Youth ministers become worship ministers become associate ministers become senior ministers. Children's ministers become counseling ministers become preaching ministers.

If you want to be a minister in today's church, it's far too often the case that you have to be willing to come in at a certain "level" of ministry and work your way up through years of dedicated service and proving yourself. 

This is also one of the reasons that ministers often switch congregations. They've been a youth minister here for ten years, but someone over there is looking for someone to do what they really want to do or someone a bit further down the road is offering another step up the ministry ladder. 

One of the greatest gifts of attending seminary, particularly of the path that I was able to trace through seminary by choosing some of my core courses, was that I experienced first-hand how invested, how passionate, how gifted, and how called, individuals are to the ministries for which they are studying. 

I got to worship with worship ministry students who could do things with music and experience that an aspiring youth pastor could never dream of. I got to learn with youth pastors who wanted nothing more than to stay in youth ministry their whole career; they had no eyes for a senior pastorate. I got to write sermons with aspiring senior pastors who have tremendous gifts of leadership and of pulling together a lesson. I sat with scholars who aim to go into theological study, shaping the course of future seminarians who are pursuing just as wholeheartedly their passions. I wrote curriculum with teaching pastors whose gifts and callings are in education and small groups and Sunday school. I engaged matters of the soul and spirit with counseling pastors whose tender truthfulness is just what the wounded soul needs. 

And in all of this, I realized how seldom these persons will be able to find, let alone keep, the positions in the church that God has called them to. 

Some will have trouble finding them because they haven't worked their way up through not-their-ministry. Some will have trouble keeping them because they will be under constant pressure to move up, to move on. Some will be so discouraged by the politics of the church ministry ladder and by the business model of the community that they will leave the church altogether and go on to other things. 

It's absolutely heartbreaking to think of the number of young servants of God whose dreams will never get off the ground because they don't want to be part of the "farm team;" they just want to do what God has called and gifted them to do. 

It's absolutely heartbreaking to think of the number of pastors who are right now serving in ministries that God has not called them to, for no other reason than because that is what the church affords them or requires of them. 

It's absolutely heartbreaking to think of the number of churches who are right now being served by ministers who are not serving out of their gifting. 

Oh, how I wish that you could see the eyes of these seminarians dance when they talk about their ministries, when they set pen to paper and start planning it out, when they let their imaginations run away with all that God is going to do with them and through them in His Kingdom because of their passions and callings.

Oh, how I wish all of our ministers could speak like them. 

But in order for that to happen, we have to stop pretending the church is a business with a ladder to climb, a professional league that needs a farm team. There is no farm team in God; only passionate players for every position on the field. 

Think about how it would revolutionize our churches to recognize that.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Grieve First

The Scriptures, which are our guide in so much of how we live, are our guide here, too, as we attempt to discover a more holy and holistic way to deal with pain and trauma and tragedy and grief in our lives. The men and women of the Bible, God's people, are a people who have handled their pain remarkably and paved the way for those of us who follow.

One of the things you'll never see in the Scriptures when it comes to pain, when it comes to fallenness, when it comes to living a very human existence in God's created world, is the kind of psychological depths of entitlement that come so naturally to us. Nor will you see any calls to "get over it" or "get on with it." God's people have always created beautiful spaces out of broken ones and given their hearts the tenderness necessary to deal with this life. 

The Psalms are a good reflection of this, of course, but so are some of the Old Testament histories. It is in the histories that we see how Israel handled her grief, in particular, and this is a valuable lesson for the rest of us.

We could look at any number of stories that remember how Israel handled the death of her leaders, how she mourned publicly and collectively for days when someone integral to the community died...or even when a close friend or family member died. Think about the sheer number of days that Israel stopped on the border of the Promised Land just to grieve after Moses died, even though milk and honey were finally just a breath away. 

But perhaps no story sets an example quite like the one in 1 Samuel 30, which rests at the intersection of pain, trauma, grief, and vengeance. 

David has been hiding out in the land of the Philistines and has made quite a name for himself there in his self-imposed exile while Saul continues to reign in Israel. He goes out to battle with the foreign forces, but there are some who question his loyalty to this people, so he is sent home with the men who follow him. But when he gets back to Ziklag, where he's been living with his men, they discover that while they were gone, the Amalekites had invaded the city, destroyed it, and carried off all the spoils - including the women - while the city burned. 

Our natural reaction might be to chase after the Amalekites, to catch up with them in the desert and slaughter them all. Then, we'd take back our women and children and all of the property that they'd carried off, we'd return to our city, and we'd rebuild it. Not only would we rebuild it; we would fortify it. We would spend the rest of our lives making sure that we were not vulnerable again to such an attack, and we'd even have raid drills to make sure we knew what to do in case anyone tried. We'd rehearse the trauma, rebuild our walls, and reassert our authority. And, eventually, we might come to sit in the ashes for a little bit and shed maybe a couple of tears over the irreplaceable things. But only after the "important" stuff is taken care of. Only after we've put the pieces back together.

Not David. Not his men. Not the people of God. Look at what happens:

So David and his men came to the city, and, behold.... Then David and the people that were with him lifted up their voice and wept, until they had no power to weep.

While the fire was fresh and the ashes still smoldering, while the footsteps of their captive families were still close enough they could almost hear them, while the Amalekites made their get-away and got further and further from Ziklag, David and his men stopped to grieve. They grieved first, even while their souls were still aching for, and even believing in, reconciliation. Restoration.

They were angry. They felt betrayed. They were devastated. Their very souls were wracked by the trauma of it all. And their first reaction, their first response, was to just let it hurt for a little bit. Until there was nothing else they could do with their pain, until there were no more tears left in their eyes. 

They cried themselves out. And only after that did they start to talk about what to do about it. 

This is an incredible story, a beautiful story, and a powerful example. And what makes it most beautiful is, perhaps, how they did it together. They wept together, they grieved together, they processed the traumatic together and made it okay to weep. It was not one man that wept; it was David and his men that wept. Something about being able to do this in community is both wonderful and necessary; it's vital. 

Then, when the weeping stopped, when they were all cried out, when their hearts came to rest flayed open on the ashes of what was once their life, when they were ready to move once more, they started with prayer and asked God what He would have them do. 

And He blessed them.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

On Pain

One of the reasons we struggle with how to handle trauma is that we struggle with how to handle grief. The primary reason that we struggle with both trauma and grief is because we do not know what to do with pain.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, most of us still believe we are somehow entitled to live in a world that doesn't hurt, and one that doesn't hurt us. We invest a lot of our energies, time, and even money in easing our pain and virtually no time at all either soothing or even accepting it. 

Those who experience trauma are very quickly counseled through the fine art of pain avoidance, very quickly given instructions on how to turn pain into at least indignation, though it ought to more rightly be fodder for grief. We are told that yes, it hurts, but that's because you should never have experienced it. No one - or nothing - should ever have done that to you. That pain you feel? It's really anger. And fear. And shame. And indignation. The first step, we say, is that you have to recognize that you weren't supposed to feel this. Ever.

The same is true about grief, although we've gotten far more formal in this domain. When someone we love dies, it's a profoundly painful experience, particularly the closer the love is to our heart. And researchers have invested a great deal in detailing the "five stages" of grief, all of which come right up against pain but still refuse to acknowledge it, turning it instead into an expression of our entitlement to a life without pain.

Look at it. Denial - the belief that these kinds of things just don't happen to us; we live our lives without pain. Anger - an eruption when we figure out that these kinds of things do happen to us, though we still firmly believe that they shouldn't. Bargaining - our attempt to talk our way out of it because, you know, these sorts of things shouldn't happen to us. Depression - a realization that perhaps these things have happened anyway and there's nothing we can do about it, even though it's still completely unfair. And finally, acceptance - confessing that it happened, although at this point, we often turn our energies toward making sure it doesn't happen again. 

At no stage in this process are we permitted our pain, at no point are we allowed to say that it simply hurts. There's always a shield between us and pain, between our good nature and a fallen world.

But there's simply no real truth to this kind of processing. There's no biblical truth to this view of the world. At no point in the Scriptures does God tell us that life will be easy, that we are immune from pain, or that it's not supposed to hurt to live in a broken world. In fact, it's just the opposite - God promises we will have trouble. God promises this life will be painful. 

The only question we have to ask ourselves is what we're doing to do with that.

Both trauma and grief (and quite honestly, a host of other human experiences) require us to feel their pain. They require us to ache. They require us to lie awake at night with tears streaming down our faces, with chests tight and hearts pounding in our ears. They require us to learn to let it be, to let pain exist, and to not talk ourselves out of it or excuse ourselves from it or twist it and turn it until we're sure again that we're not supposed to feel this way. This is exactly how we're supposed to feel - it's trauma, it's grief. It's pain.

And it's hard. It's hard because it's helpless, because when we finally come to terms with the pain that has been inflicted on our lives, with the depth of the just plain hurt that we are feeling, there is absolutely nothing at all that we can do with it except to ride it like the wave that it is. There is no rushing it, no matter how much we want to. There is no easing it, not in any healthy way. There is no denying it, nor is there any excusing it. There is only letting it be. 

But this...this is the first step. It is to simply hurt, to feel the depth of the pain. This is what lets us grieve. This is what lets us finally start working it through. This is what lets us to live. This is what lets us to heal.

If you want to heal nearly anything in your life, if you want to soothe your wounded soul and salve your aching heart (which is, by the way, what God desires), then as contrary as it may sound, and as difficult, you must first learn simply to hurt.