Friday, July 29, 2022

Discipling Leaders

So we've talked about the three groups most likely to step up in our churches and offer to lead ministries - those who need to be needed, those who need to be seen, and those who need control - and we've seen how their ministries become toxic when too much self-interest is mixed in. 

At the same time, we hold onto two other truths: first, that if it were not for these persons stepping up, most of our ministry needs would go unfilled. Second, we are a redemptive people, called not to hold anyone to their yesterdays but to believe in their tomorrows.

This is where we usually get ourselves in trouble right out of the gate. There's a certain mindset that says that maybe we can just let someone work their way out of their own brokenness by leading, that the more we trust them and the more responsibility we give them, the more likely they are to step up and work their way out of the very thing that made them step up in the first place.

And sometimes, that's true. Sometimes, someone can settle into a ministry of leadership and have that so centered on God that it puts to rest the stirred things in their own soul. 

But...not usually.

As we saw with the person who needs to be needed, when their recognition fades in their current ministry, they usually just add a second one and then a third and then a fourth, rather than dealing with the discomfort they feel when they no longer feel needed. The person who needs to be seen will usually make an even bigger spectacle if you ignore the first one. The person who needs control will buckle down and squish everything under their thumb if they feel like the ministry is getting away from them. 

Perceived "failures" in ministry tend to make persons double down on the insecurities that brought them here in the first place, not finally step into and resolve them healthily.

This is why we need to have a strong core of Godly leaders in the church who can recognize these patterns (and others - Lord knows this list is not exhaustive) in the willing and can help disciple them toward truly impactful leadership in the church.

We need to have elders who can take the willing under their wing. We need to have pastors who regularly have meetings with lay leaders about more than the status of their ministry; he or she needs to have a finger on the pulse of the leadership itself. We need to have mature believers who can help gently push and guide in all wisdom and truth. 

And I know what you're thinking - what if we scare off the willing? What if we talk about discipling and surrender and satisfying the needs of the lay leader's heart and that lay leader decides not to lead at all?

Well, then, is that a person you really wanted leading in the first place?

We are talking about a church here. We are talking about a redemptive fellowship of God's people saved by His grace. If you have persons in your church who haven't tapped into that fellowship or that grace and aren't using it the way God intended - to mark their own lives by His Cross - then those persons are simply not qualified to lead in your church. And if they aren't even willing to step toward Calvary, then that's all the proof you need - this is not someone you need leading in your church. Period. 

That sounds harsh, and maybe it is, but it's true. If you have persons who claim to love God but shy away from grace, who claim to be committed to the church but won't tap into its resources for their own needs, then you have someone using the church - even leadership in the church - to fill a need, to satisfy a brokenness they are unwilling to surrender. 

You may have more ministries than you thought possible, but with these persons in charge, if you aren't holding them accountable to a meaningful discipling program, will bring your church down from the inside out.  

Thursday, July 28, 2022

The Loner

So we have seen how some leaders will step up because they need to be needed and others because they need to be seen. This last group that I want to look at is made up of leaders who will step up because they need to be in control. 

This is someone who likes the idea of deciding what happens and when and exactly how. 

You can recognize this person because their life is usually a very public train wreck. Sometimes, they haven't shared their stuff, but most of the time, they have, and everyone knows it. So when they offer to lead something, your initial reaction is probably, "Really?" It just doesn't seem to fit with what you know of them. 

Yet, it's a perfect fit. It gives them the opportunity to control something in their life when the rest of it is usually spiraling out of control. And for a significant subset of these types of leaders, it gives them a chance to show very publicly how good they are at making decisions and running things. See the draw? Everyone knows their life is messed up, so leading a ministry is a great opportunity to show that they can manage things and so, naturally, their life is not their fault. 

That's where the trouble starts - their life is not their fault, and their failures in leadership are quickly not their fault either. Ironically, this person usually will not do the amount of prep work that others on the team may do, but when they show up unprepared, they just start throwing out a bunch of reasons why their plan will never work - and why that's not their fault. It's the fault of others, who keep trying to do things that are not exactly the way this leader wants things done. Or it's the fault of technology that is failing. Or it's the result of some component that isn't quite ready. When this leadership falls apart, and it almost always does, it is never because of the leader. At least, that's what the leader will tell you. 

This Loner doesn't listen to input, and they aren't willing to solve problems on the fly. When something comes up, the whole enterprise is ruined and beyond salvageable, and instead of leaning on others, this leader becomes defiant and takes an "I'll just do it myself" approach and throws everyone and everything out with the bathwater.

It's important to be extremely careful with this type of leader for this very reason - because she is chewing up and spitting out others who might be willing to lead now or in the future. She's shutting them down because she can't handle things that don't go exactly the way she needs them to go, and she's damaging their willingness to join a program in your church ever again. If she's a small group leader who doesn't listen to the members of her small group, those in attendance may walk away and never try a small group again. If he's a mowing ministry leader who constantly criticizes the way the lawn is cut and re-cuts it himself, no one's going to volunteer to help maintain the church grounds. And those that have? They might not volunteer to do anything again, not even so small as to change a light bulb.

The Loner, in attempting to prove how capable they are, tends to always be telling others how incapable they are and projecting his or her own drama from a broken, traumatic life onto others. She is doing the same thing to persons in your church that she is trying to escape from herself. And it's neither helpful nor successful to try to explain to her that she is the toxic one.

She can't possibly be the toxic one! That's exactly what she stepped up to prove in the first place. 

While I have said for two days that you do not necessarily have to keep the insecure or the showboat from leading, I think you do have to draw a line with the loner. Just by the nature of how many wounded persons he's going to leave in his wake. (And the anger he is likely to display as he does.) You have to work with a loner first to address the broken nature of his life before you let him take the reins of any of your church programs. 

Otherwise, you're going to have a bigger mess on your hands than if you didn't have that ministry at all. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

The Showboat

If the first person to step up for leadership in your church is the person who needs to be needed, the second person to step up is going to be the person who needs to be seen. 

What better way to be seen than to be in charge of something?

You will notice this person because they will make a spectacle of their service in one way or another. Usually, they're going to make this spectacle out of the other areas in their life where they are not receiving the affirmation that they need. 

So this is the guy who shows up to speak wearing his dirty work clothes. He hasn't even bothered to shower or to change because it's important to him that you see how hard he works. It's important to him that you understand how much time he puts in or how much grease he gets on his hands. His appearance is meant to tell you, "I work hard," and his greatest joy comes if you mention it to him. "Man, long shift at work? Busy day?" He doesn't care if you heard a word that he said; he wants you to notice how well-worked he is. 

This is the woman who brings all six of her kids with her to teach a class or run a rehearsal. She lets them run around and get into things and make noise. Sometimes, she makes sure you see her stopping everything else in order to attend to her child. She might be a single mother whose every day is like this, trying to tame a bunch of kids and no one notices how hard she works at it. She might be married and not receiving support from her husband. But it's important to her that you notice how hard she's working at mothering and how much she gives for her children and how good she is at caring for them. The class or the rehearsal or the ministry is secondary to her; she is looking for recognition of her mothering skills. 

What's sad about the second scenario is that this is a woman in a church. She is surrounded by others, particularly women, often widows or empty nesters, who would have absolutely no problem stepping up and helping with her children while she leads, if she would just ask. But she won't ask. Sometimes, women will step up during the ministry and offer to help with her children, and she will turn them away. That's a tell-tale clue you've got a showboat on your hands, that you're dealing with someone who needs to be seen. If she won't let anyone help her, even when she knows she's making a spectacle of things, it's because she needs the spectacle

Just like the man who won't put on a clean shirt. 

You've got to be careful with this type of volunteer leader because it's very easy for them to lose sight of the heart of the ministry. It's easy for them to lose control of the content. It's easy for them to just stop caring and to push it to the side altogether and adopt something entirely more informal or even something that is a full waste of time. You will have persons show up to a class and never crack a book open because the book is not the thing; the spectacle is the thing. 

A person who needs to be needed will throw themselves into the ministry because they're weaving themselves into it as an indispensable thread. But a person who needs to be seen will do no such thing because that ministry is just a venue; it's just an opportunity. 

Again, does that mean you don't let a person lead who needs to be seen? Not necessarily. But you have to work with this person quite diligently to make sure their need doesn't interfere with their service. You have to change the narrative a bit and help them understand, at the very least, that the best way to be seen in ministry is by actually doing the ministry, not by making a scene. You want to recognize them for their successful, meaningful, invested service and not just for showing up. Talk to the man about his words, not his appearance. Talk to the mother about her content, not her kids. Make sure they know that the thing is really the thing.  

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

The Insecure

One of the first persons who is going to step up in your church to lead a ministry or a class or a service project or whatever is the insecure person.

That doesn't seem to make a lot of sense on the surface; wouldn't someone who is insecure want to stay in the background, not make a scene, not be noticed? Wouldn't they want to lurk around in the shadows of the church? 

You would think that, but the insecure person in the church is a bit different. They are already embedded in a community they don't feel entirely connected to (that's why they're still insecure) and in relationship with a God who hasn't affirmed their soul for some reason (usually by their own choice, because they haven't brought it to Him, which is why they're still insecure), so they are surrounded by promises and opportunities for security, but they haven't tapped into them. 

Thus, the best way, they think, to tap into those is to throw themselves in deeper. By doing this, they become a valuable thread in the community and build things in such a way that certain things fall apart without them.

That makes them feel secure.

Add to that the prestige of leading a ministry, a role where they are constantly receiving praise from others who are participating in whatever thing they are leading and also receiving praise for being willing to step up and lead in the way that they are. 

All of a sudden, the person surrounded by promises and opportunities for security has found it and woven themselves so tightly in that they are sure they cannot be pulled out. 

What's interesting about this person is that if things start to unravel at all, if persons get used to their leadership and stop praising them or if their ministry becomes so mainstream they are not recognized all the time for their willingness to lead it, most insecure persons will add another ministry to their leadership. They'll start a second class. They'll pick up a second project. Anything to renew the love and the praise that they're receiving. 

Anything so that they don't have to feel the weight of their insecurity again.

As I said above, the trouble here is that these leaders are usually not living lives surrendered to God or even committed to community. They haven't addressed the insecurity they're feeling; they're simply trying to fill it by using the church. It looks like they're serving the church, but they're really using the church. And the painful truth is that these leaders are prone to severe burnout because they add so many ministries to their plate, and if they reach a point where they are not receiving the praise they need in their soul for "all the things they do for this church," they end up just leaving the church and finding a new church in which to make a scene of themselves so that they can start receiving praise again and stave off the insecurity they feel in the depths of their soul. 

Again, this doesn't mean that we don't let these persons lead in our church, but it does mean that we need to work with them to help them understand their insecurity, bring it to God, establish real connections with our community, and come to lead out of a healthy place instead of this broken one. 

Monday, July 25, 2022

Leadership in the Church

Much has been said lately about leadership in the church, and much of what has been said is good and important. We know that we are living in a time in which scandals in leadership seem to be at an all-time high, and whether that's because things are more corrupt in this era than they have been previously or because we're better at exposing things, it's hard to tell. Some like to blame the "celebrity" culture of pastoral ministry, where some pastors are coming to gain fame from their pulpits, but I think that's a bit too easy. After all, America has always had its famous pastoral voices; fame for ministers is not a new phenomenon. 

(It is an interesting one, though. At a time when the church seems to be struggling and when the "nones" are the fastest-growing religious demographic, it's interesting that we want to now start attacking "celebrity" as a big problem of the church. I just think of guys from revivals past who were well-known across the entire country at a time when Christianity was enjoying prominence and widespread acceptance. But anyway, I digress....)

But I don't want to talk about pastors. I don't want to talk about the guys and gals in the pulpit. 

I want to talk about Joe, who decided to lead that small group. And Betty, who decided to step up into that service ministry. And Dave, who has taken on a leadership role with the youth ministry. And even Zoe, who volunteered to put together the bulletin every week. 

I want to talk about the actual leaders in our churches, the men and women - the brothers and sisters - who are stepping up to do the real ministry work that meets our communities in the quieter places. I'm talking about the volunteers, the folks who say, "Yes! I will do that!" when a need arises or those who are bringing their own ideas for opportunities to the pastor and the elders and pitching to start something new. 

I want to talk about them because in so many of our churches across this country, the standards for this kind of leadership are dangerously low. In many churches, the only standard for leadership of this type of ministry is, "Is someone willing?" Because so many of our churches are struggling with buy-in and participation, that's all it takes - if you're willing, you're "hired." Congratulations! You have just become one of the faces of this church.

But that's exactly the trouble. These folks who are willing become the folks who are the faces of our congregation. They are the ones our members and visitors are meeting most often. They are the ones who represent who we are and what we're about. 

Shouldn't there, then, be some kind of standard about what kind of person, what kind of Christian, these persons are? Shouldn't we have some kind of accountability beyond, "Just how willing are you?" 

In a lot of ways, we hold these persons up as measures of true faith. Look at so-and-so, leading two small groups and teaching a class! Look at this person, who agreed to take over X ministry! These are great examples of the kind of Christian you should be! 

But...are they really?

The sad reality is that too many of the willing among us are not serving out of a deep love for God or even a strong faith in Him. They are serving out of a broken flesh that is unsurrendered and thus, they are looking for approval from men that they haven't sought (or accepted) from God. And there are a few primary places that this comes from. 

This, I think, is a problem in the church that must be addressed, especially when we know how much these persons become our representation in our communities.  

I'm not saying that we turn these persons away from leadership. Lord knows the church doesn't need more gatekeepers. But what I am saying is that we need more accountability to keep growing them and stop just turning them loose without any insistence on developing true spiritual maturity. 

We'll talk about it. We'll look at a couple of the big things that are really going on with the ministry of the willing, and we'll talk about how we can do better in shaping leaders among us. 

Full disclosure: there were seasons of my own life and "service" during which I was guilty of these very things. Looking back, some the interventions I'm going to propose are the things I wish someone had done for me much sooner. 

Friday, July 22, 2022

Lying to Ourselves

Of course, we know it could be us. That's what makes it so traumatic. No matter how many stories we spin, no matter how good we are at convincing ourselves we're okay, we're not okay. Our world is broken, and we don't get to escape that. 

We don't get to escape that by sitting back and making up stories about what happened until it all makes sense. Something inside of us knows it doesn't make sense, no matter how much sense we make of it. We don't get to escape it by making up stories about how it could never be us. The more we know the details in our own stories, the more we are keenly aware that it could be us. It could be us tomorrow. 

That's why we have to get better at dealing with the traumatic silence. That's why we have to get better at handling the grief. That's why we have to get better at managing sacred space. 

Because trauma isn't faced in the sense of it; it's faced in the silence. It's faced when we learn to sit and wrestle with brokenness as we encounter it. It's faced when we recognize that the only thing we can truly do is find our own way through it, based on our experiences and understandings and worldview. 

It's faced when we realize that our only option is to confess openly that this world has some serious flaws in it, some powerful brokenness that stains the very fiber of creation. And then, when we figure out what we want to do with that.

Notice that I don't say - what we want to do about that. Trauma isn't about problem-solving. Not at first, at least. At first, it's about coming to terms with itself. It's about recognized trauma and letting it sit, letting it be, figuring out how to sit with it. Figuring out how to be with it. 

What are we going to do with trauma? 

And we're back where we started, with having to learn to sit in the silence with trauma and let that silence drown out all of the questions. With fighting back so that we don't rush to fill the silence with noise. With letting trauma speak in its own time so that we're sure that what we hear from it is truth and not just something we're telling ourselves to make us more comfortable. 

To sacred spaces and solemn stillness and holding ourselves back from rushing in unprepared. To learning to sit instead of to let the franticness overtake us. 

I heard the story last night of a woman talking to dispatchers on Sunday. Her daughter had called her from the mall and told her that she'd been shot, so the woman grabbed her purse and car keys and headed toward the mall. She got there while she was on the phone with the dispatchers, and they told her something she probably didn't want to hear. "Park your car, put your hazard flashers on, and wait. A police office will come and get you." 

She wanted to rush in. She wanted to run right to the spot where her daughter last told her that she was. At the very least, she probably wanted to hang out by the ambulances and be there when her daughter came out. She wanted to throw herself deep into the midst of the trauma...and they told her not to. Mercifully, they told her not to. 

So the question for us is this: in a moment like this, are you willing to just sit? Are you willing to sit in your car with your flashers on and wait? 

How would it change your experience of the trauma if you would? 

Thursday, July 21, 2022

A Difference Between Men

You might be tempted to think that once we learn the truth about an event like this, once we have a good set of facts to process, that we would be done making up stories in our own minds about what happened. But that is simply not the case.

What happens next in cases of a traumatic event is that we attempt to create a new sense of security, and the way that we do that is by drawing differences - real or imagined - between our reality and the event that took place.

We usually start by establishing for ourselves a difference in circumstances. For example, we may say, well, I never go to the mall. Or when I do go to the mall, I don't eat in the food court. Or we might even go so far as to say to that we would never go to the mall on a Sunday night. Anything we can say to create a little distance between ourselves and the place.

Then, we start creating differences between ourselves and the other persons who were in that food court that evening. We start telling ourselves how aware of our surroundings we are, how we definitely would have noticed a guy taking a couple of backpacks into the restroom, how we certainly would have noticed that he didn't come out for more than an hour. (Yes, we actually say this to ourselves, and some have even dared to say it through comments on social media. But let's be real - who among us sits around and judges the bathroom habits of total strangers in public? None of us.) 

Maybe we start creating hero scenarios in our heads. Maybe we know that we carry a weapon on us, so we fancy ourselves that we would "Never be a victim." We have vivid fantasies of shooting the shooter, or of tackling him from behind, or of running toward him to protect our children or our friend or whoever. We craft these incredible narratives whereby we are heroes, not because we would actually necessarily be brave in a situation like this, but because we cannot live with the truth that we might someday be a victim. 

Finally, we start creating narratives about the shooter. We start theorizing about what is different in his life than ours, about what kinds of internal resources we have that he doesn't. We could never be him, we conclude. We're simply better equipped to handle our lives than he was. And those we love could never be him because we are creating an entirely different environment for them than his family obviously did for him. 

We create narratives about how this world is different now than it was in our generation. Or, if we are in the same generation, perhaps about how our experience of this world is far different from his. We say things about entitlement or about disconnection or about video games or about an inability to take responsibility for one's life. We think about things like support vs. neglect, isolation vs. connection, friendships vs. loneliness. We create an entire story about what his life must have been like until we are confident that it is nothing like our own. 

All of this is in an effort to come to one very powerful conclusion: this could never be us. We would never be in that mall, we would never be a victim, we would never be a shooter. 

It's meant to give us a measure of comfort and security, to assure us that we are safe in a world that just doesn't feel safe any more. If we can latch on to a powerful story with a thousand details that can mean nothing else except that this could never be me, then it seems easier to separate ourselves from the whole thing and just become, at best, onlookers. Shaking our heads, perhaps, but not shaking in our boots. 

Of course, it's never really that easy....  

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Meaning Makers

An interesting thing happens if the world does not quickly start helping us fill traumatic silence: we will fill it ourselves.

We will start writing stories in our own mind about what is happening, about why it is happening. We will start "remembering" things that may or may not have been true at one point, though most likely will have been unrelated to what we're trying to connect them with. We will start rehashing these narratives in our head until we make sense of them. 

We simply cannot tolerate things that do not make sense to us. We are, at our core, meaning makers, and we will go to great lengths to get to a point where we understand. Or at least, where we think we do. 

In the early hours of the investigation into our community's shooting late this weekend, the narrative was all the same: no one knew what happened, nothing seemed to start it, it was all very random. And then, hours after the event, one witness came out - one person who was in that mall food court - and said, "There was a fight. I know there was a fight." 

All of a sudden, everyone was talking about the fight. Yes, there was a fight. A fight started this whole thing. Yes, a fight. The news media was even reporting that there was a fight that took place before the shooting started.

That's because a fight in this context makes sense to us. We think, okay, someone got into a heated exchange with someone else, something was said, and the whole thing escalated. And now, we have an angry person with a gun who unfortunately chose to use it, and whether he was then reckless with that gun or simply a bad shot is irrelevant. 

Something in our souls comes to rest when we hear there was a fight. makes sense now. We can accept this. 

Except...the truth? There was no fight involving this gunman in the mall. None. There was no contact that we know of between this gunman and anyone else before he started shooting. Surveillance video shows him entering the mall, going straight into the restroom, staying there for more than an hour, and then coming out shooting. 

Police eventually clarified that there was no fight involving this gunman, though they didn't throw the theory entirely out the window. They confirmed there seemed to be some kind of argument in the food court prior to the shooting, but it is no way involved the gunman. 

It had nothing to do with the shooting, except in the minds of us as meaning makers who needed to understand what on earth happened. So, our minds tied the two together so that it didn't seem so random. 

Interestingly, even after the police confirmed that the fight had nothing to do with the shooting, witnesses continued talking about the fight for a bit longer. They kept saying there was a fight in the food court and then shots started ringing out. Once they connected it in their heads to where it made sense, they couldn't let go of it, even after being told it was false. Even with video proof that it was false. 

Trauma does this to us, too. It makes us write these stories. It makes us seek this understanding. We cannot live in the tension of not knowing, of not being able to figure things out. It makes us write these stories, and then, it weaves them so deep into our memory of an event that we are almost always forever certain that the story we've come up with is no story at all - it is the truth.

Yet another reason why we should become more comfortable with the silence, even with traumatic silence. Because if we don't, we put truth on the line, and we may never get the story straight. We will simply settle for the first thing that makes sense. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Filling the Silence

There's a reason that we rush so quickly to fill the silence in moments like these. If we don't, our hearts become an echo chamber that fills up fairly quickly with trauma and grief.

That's how trauma works. Most persons don't realize that their gut reaction to moments like these is trauma; they think it's sadness or something much less, but it's trauma. And here's what trauma does:

Sunday night in the silence, those around here who have been to that mall and eaten in that food court were thinking about the last time they went to that mall or ate in that food court. Those who had plans to go to that mall or to eat in that food court last night but were suddenly side-tracked last minute were thinking about what would have happened if other priorities had not come up. They were looking at their watches and trying to time out where they would have been and when. 

Those who are not local but heard the story thought about their own mall and their own food court and the last time they were there. Some may have been in a mall when they heard; some, even in a food court. 

It's the same way that we think about our own schools and our own children when we hear about a similar event in a place like Uvalde. 

What it is is the loss of innocence and the shattering of the seemingly-simple. What it is is our hearts trying to wrap themselves around a story that now includes this chapter. Our community lost something Sunday night, more than just the tragic loss of four lives. We lost something that cuts to the depths of our being. 

And those of us that have heard gunshots ring out in a closed, sacred space of innocence went to bed Sunday night with gunshots ringing in our ears again, even if we were nowhere near the mall. Those who know what this sounds like, smells like, feels like to be in a place and a moment like this were thrust back into that place and moment Sunday night and couldn't get out of it.

That's what trauma does.

That's why we rush so quickly to fill the silence with noise. That's what we're trying to drown out.

We're trying to drown out our own tears over our own innocence. We're trying to drown out the what-ifs. We're trying to drown out the memories that come flooding into whatever space they can fill like spray foam spreading out in a crevice. We're trying to keep ourselves from feeling these things that honestly, most of us are not prepared to feel. We're not prepared to deal with it. We don't know how to do trauma. 

Even someone like me, someone who has stood in the dark places for so much of my life and has served as a chaplain and has volunteered to step up in moments like these - I don't get a pass. My stomach turns in knots just like the rest of yours. My mind fills up with what-ifs and memories. My heart twists and turns until it wrenches nearly all of the life out of itself. I'm not immune to trauma.

But I am more willing, by nature of who I am and what I've been through, not to fight it so hard. To just let it come and fill up my empty spaces. To let it seep into the silence and expand and push on the cracks of my soul. I'm not immune to trauma, but I'm not afraid of it, either, because I understand that our best way beyond an event like this is through it. 

Our best course of action is to figure out how to navigate through the trauma, how to deal with it meaningfully. Our biggest challenge on a day like today is not our thousand "what-ifs;" it's "what's next?"

And that's a question that we cannot answer without the silence, without the space. Without the trauma and the grief. 

Strange as it seems, we need those things for healing. 

Monday, July 18, 2022

In Desperate Need of Noise

I had a series on the church ready to start for this week, but then, last night, my community became Anywhere, USA, when a gunman opened fire at the local shopping mall - killing three, wounding others, and becoming a victim himself. And what I was going to say this week can wait. 

What we need is time for grief.

That sound strange to say, perhaps, because this sort of thing just keeps happening in our communities. All around this country, families are going to malls, to parades, to work and not coming home. Memorials are going up, cries are going out. You would think by now, we would be "good" at grief and trauma. 

But...we're not. 

In fact, most of us never even take time for grief. We never stop for trauma. We try to push through, try to find a way to deal with it without ever dwelling in it. But grief and trauma require more being than doing. They require a silence and a space in which to encounter moments like these.

From the very first gunshot, though, most of us are racing to fill the silence with noise and the space with activity. We start planning what we need to do, start figuring out what our next act is going to be. We start asking a thousand questions, right away, looking for answers that no one has yet and when our questions cannot be answered, we simply shout them louder. We become indignant that someone isn't answering us, that someone isn't filling our silence with noise.

It's the silence that's haunting, but that's exactly why we need to be there. It's the silence that gives us the space to recognize that what we need most to do right now is simply to be. To find a way to be. To wrestle with ourselves and with what it means to live in a world like this and with our hopes and dreams for better things and our heartbreak over what is. It's the silence that invites us to truly engage the moment and not just the noise. 

But man, we are so good at making noise. 

Last night, there were no answers. None. There were a thousand questions, but no answers. There was a news update, with the promise of another one an hour later, and some stayed awake a little while longer just because they wanted to know. And then, at that second update, nothing new. No answers. Nothing to say. And then...the word that not another update would be given until this afternoon. Until a full 16.5 hours more have passed. 

The number of persons trying to dig out details on social media is astounding. Anything that anyone even hints at is taken as truth, and stories to start stir and swell. Well, so-and-so said this, and this guy heard that, and this woman said that her cousin's ex-boyfriend's best friend said whatever. And all of a sudden, we have a story. It's not the true story, but it's a story, and it gives us some noise to fill the silence with. And that's all we're really looking for. 

Because what in the world are we supposed to do for 16.5 hours?????

What if we could just be?  

Friday, July 15, 2022

What a Friend

Not that I think it's always necessary to tie things up in a nice little package, but there's one more thing that we have to say about that nephew's ex-wife's new mother-in-law that started this whole discussion on prayer: 

Do you know how lonely she is?

We talked a couple of weeks ago about loneliness in the church and how it's a serious problem, and I think the prayer list is a great place to see where loneliness may be a problem in your own church. 

Maybe you find yourself troubled by the notion that someone would write into the prayer list to say that their cat has diarrhea and they are concerned, but have you considered that perhaps the prayer list is the only "person" she can talk to? Perhaps the prayer list is the only way she has of connecting with others. Maybe it's just her and her cat in that house all alone and her kids don't call or visit any more and her husband has passed on and no one even notices whether she's at church on Sunday or not and so the only meaningful connection she has with other human beings is to communicate with them through the prayer list. 

This thought ought to give us pause, especially when we are tempted to groan inwardly about "another" "trivial" request from so-and-so. 

It's almost always a female, by the way, who uses the prayer list this way. It's almost always a single female, whether young and looking for a support system or older and looking to replace lost connections. Very, very rarely have I seen a male use the prayer list in this way. No, it's our widows and orphans and single mothers who are lonely like this.

And these prayer requests, she hopes, are not just connections throughout the week, but conversation starters the next time she sees you. She's hoping not only that you are praying for her cat, but that next Sunday, you will ask her about her cat. She's hoping that the next time you see her, you will talk to her. 

Think about that for a second. Think about the kind of lonely heart that has to reach out this way.

This is, by the way, why it is so doubly painful when we turn the prayer list into gossip and start talking about that nephew's ex-wife's new mother-in-law instead of talking with her. It's salt in an open wound. She took a risk by putting herself out there, doing the only thing she knew to do to try to make connections in the church and let others know who she is. She put her small talk on the prayer list hoping that it would lead to the chance to small talk in person, and now, the church is talking about her behind her back. This why we have to resist the temptation to use the prayer list as fodder for gossip, especially when it comes to these "trivial" things that we think we're bothered by. 

We have to learn to look under that request and see what's really going on. And what's really going that that nephew's ex-wife's new mother-in-law really needs a friend. 

Will you be one?

Maybe you're bristling right now, all self-righteous in yourself, thinking that there are better ways of going about making friends and connections than sending your small talk through the prayer list. And maybe you're right. 

But in my experience? The women (again, overwhelmingly women) who use the prayer list this way are the women who are also standing in the church foyer every Sunday, saying a quiet hello to many persons they are trying to talk to, and they get passed right by as everyone heads toward their friends, toward the persons they already know. I have watched these women stand in the greeting space and attempt connection only to be avoided or ignored because they are not well-known, and then the very next day, here comes a prayer request to the church about her cat. 

Here's what else I can tell you from my own experience - when these women finally get connected into the church, when they join up with women's ministries or small groups or service opportunities, the "trivial" prayer requests slow down, if not stop altogether. Months will go by and you will realize you haven't heard about so-and-so's cat any more, and you'll look up and wonder if she's even still part of your church. And then, you'll see her, talking with her new friends from whatever ministry she's hooked up with. And because she now has someone in her life to talk with, she doesn't have to do her talking through the prayer list. 

See how loneliness plays such a big role in this? 

So the next time you see one of those prayer requests come through, one of those ones you don't understand as easily, one of those ones that seems "trivial," ask yourself if there might be something more going on than just a cat's diarrhea. 

Usually, there is. And it takes not just a prayer, but a friend, to address it. 

Thursday, July 14, 2022

The Practice of Prayer

Prayer is one of the most fundamental spiritual practices in which we engage. But it is called a practice for a reason - because the more you do it, the better you get at it. And that's true whether you've been praying for five breaths or five decades. (Okay, it's not exactly true. There's no such thing as being bad at prayer - if you're praying, you're good at it. But you do get to where you feel more proficient.) 

Which means that if you are one of the too many Christians who does not currently engage in prayer, I have good news for you: you don't have to be any good at it to start. 

And here's even better news: the prayer list is a great way to begin.

If you are someone who doesn't pray - because you don't know how to pray or because you don't know what to pray for or whatever reason you have - the prayer list is an awesome place to start. Because it's full of other persons of faith asking you to pray for them. They'll tell you what to pray for, and often, they'll tell you what outcome they're hoping for. All you have to do, then, is find your own way to repeat those words to God.

We get all bogged down immediately, it seems. We think that prayer means that we have to have a certain posture, that we have to get on our knees and fold our hands and close our eyes. I have actually heard others tell me that they can't pray any more because their knees don't work so good, so they can't get down on the floor right. 

Friends, that is not what prayer is about.

Prayer doesn't require you to make yourself uncomfortable first. It doesn't require you to change the entire nature of who you are and what you're doing. Done right, prayer will change the nature of who you are and what you're doing, but you don't have to make those changes in order to start praying.

Prayer is just a conversation. That's all it is. You can talk with God like you would talk with anyone you might be taking a phone call with. (And I think it's important to point out the prepositions here, too - you aren't talking "to" God; you are talking "with" Him.) 

So if you're someone who picks up the phone and tucks it on your shoulder and talks with a friend while you're washing the dishes, talk with God while you're washing the dishes. If you're going out to check the mail, take God with you to check the mail. If you prefer to settle down into a comfy chair and give the conversation your full attention, settle down into a comfy chair and talk with God. I hesitate to say it because I so strongly dislike when this happens to me, but if you're someone who takes the phone to the bathroom with you because you don't want to interrupt the conversation, take God to the bathroom with you. (Seriously, though, stop taking me to the bathroom with you.) 

Start with the prayer list. Start by just repeating in your own voice the things that your friends and family, brothers and sisters are asking you to bring before God. Start by just mentioning the things they've asked you to mention. And then, pay attention to what happens. Pay attention to what God does next for that person. 

Because one of the best ways to stay engaged in the practice of prayer is to see how it's paying off. That is, to see how prayer is actually working in the lives of those around you. 

You'll get so comfortable praying the prayer list that before you know it, you'll start praying your own prayers. You'll start praying your own needs. Having this conversation with God will become so natural to you that you won't be intimidated by it any more. 

Pretty soon, you'll be wrapping the cord around your fingers mindlessly as you gab with God with your legs kicked up over the side of the sofa. 

And you'll wonder why it is that you didn't start praying sooner. 

Prayer is a spiritual practice. It's called a practice because you get better at it the more you do it, whether today is your first day or your thousandth. So stop worrying about whether you know how and start thinking about how to learn. And...start praying. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

The Hard Truth about Prayer

When we're talking about our own personal thoughts about the prayer list, how we might be willing to use it, what our threshold is for making a request, there's a hard truth that underlies all of it, and that truth is this: 

Too many of us hesitate to add our needs to the church prayer list because we know that we are not praying for our needs ourselves. 

There are, of course, a number of reasons for this. 

Perhaps we don't know how to pray. Prayer is a discipline that is not taught so much any more, unless it is taught at home. In churches where prayer is a staple of the Sunday morning service, members of the church tend to witness some very formal and non-specific prayer, which isn't really helpful when your own heart is hurting. Some churches have done away with a dedicated public prayer time in fellowship and only pray "for" different parts of the service - a prayer for Communion, a prayer for Offering, a prayer for the sermon. And many of these moments of prayer have actually become just continuations of what the speaker was saying beforehand; too many persons who pray in the church are praying such that the congregation hears the message one more time, not praying for God to hear the cry of our hearts. 

Sometimes, we get too busy solving our own problems to stop and pray. We are a people who are taught to take care of ourselves, and we live in a culture where self-sufficiency and initiative are rewarded. So when we are faced with a trial or a struggle, our instinct is to jump in and try to start working our way out, not to stop and pray first. 

Maybe we think that what we want to pray about isn't the kind of thing that God is interested in, that we shouldn't bother Him with whatever it is. This reveals a serious heart problem. Put simply, this kind of faith is not faith at all. If you don't believe the God who knit you together in your mother's womb cares about every single little thread of your life, you don't believe in God. Sorry. That was blunt.

I know that for me, there are times when I start to pray about something and realize how limited my own perspective is. I realize that I am praying for something that I think is good, but something in my heart nags me to tell me that it's not really what I want. Then, I get all flustered and lost in my own finiteness, and if I don't even really know what I'm praying about, then what am I doing? It's easy at that point to just quit praying. 

There are times, too, when we are just too weary to pray for ourselves. There are times when we've run out of every single thing that we've got, and it takes every fiber of our being to take that next breath. There are times when we have been praying for so long, it feels like we can't pray one more day. Our knees are scuffed and scraped and there are deep ruts in our hands from holding so tightly together and we're just so exhausted that we cannot possibly pray right now. (This is, by the way, a great example of a time when we should use the prayer list! So that other prayer warriors in our fellowship can hold us up when we can't.) 

The point is - too many of us hesitate to add our requests to the prayer list because we know we aren't praying for them. It's hard to ask someone else to pray for us when we aren't praying for ourselves. It feels like...asking someone else to live our faith for us. It 

So maybe the place to start with the prayer list is by asking about our own prayer lives. Are you a person of prayer? 

What would it take for you to become one?

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

A Convicted Heart

Most of us have some kind of hang-up around the prayer list. I say "most" of us because, well, there are folks like that nephew's ex-wife's new mother-in-law. 

Whether we consciously think about it or not, something happens in our hearts when we read the prayer list that shapes the way that we think about prayer in general and the fellowship of believers.

If you're having trouble figuring out what that is in your own heart, ask yourself about the last time you wished you could ask others to be praying for you. Ask yourself about the last time that you thought about using the prayer list. 

What were your criteria for whether or not you actually sent that message or made that phone call? Was it whether or not your request seemed "important" enough? Were you thinking about what others might be thinking about you when they read it? Were you considering whether it was something you wanted to become gossip in the church?

The way that we are personally willing to use - or not use - our church's prayer list for our own need reveals the sometimes subconscious feelings that we have about prayer. Not about the prayer list, but about prayer in general. 

Is it just for the big stuff? For the little stuff? For the stuff that has pushed us so far that we don't care if there's gossip any more? Is it for when we're desperate? 

You know what's interesting about that nephew's ex-wife's new mother-in-law? You know what makes her different from most of the rest of us?

She is someone who thinks prayer first

That's why she's so quick to send requests. When anything happens in her life, prayer is her first response, and the fellowship of believers, a close second. 

So what keeps you from doing the same? When you think about the prayer list and your reaction to the mere thought of using it for your own need, what does looking at your heart reveal to you?

Do you wonder if your request is "important" enough? Is it important enough to bring before God? 

There's a dirty little secret buried in all of this that's worth talking about, that requires us to talk about it. So we will. Tomorrow. 

Monday, July 11, 2022

The Prayer List

It all started with a nephew's ex-wife's new mother-in-law. And where it takes us is into a deep, hard, but necessary, conversation about prayer.

A few weeks ago, one of the accounts that I follow on Twitter tweeted, saying, "Please pray for my nephew's ex-wife's new mother-in-law, who has a tendency to burden her former church's prayer chain with trivial requests." 

It was, of course, satire. It was meant to draw a laugh. I confess that I laughed. 

Every church has one of these folks, right? At least, every church that I have ever been part of has had one, as have other ministries I have danced with over the past twenty years. It's someone who is constantly sending in requests for the prayer list, someone who brings every little thing to the church. Some of them certainly seem trivial; many seem downright strange. 

In twenty years in the fellowship of believers, not to mention the few I've spent in active ministry, I'd like to say that I've seen it all, but I know that the minute I do, someone's going to come up with something even I haven't heard yet.  

But we get these prayer requests. Things like, "Please pray for my cat. He had a little bit of diarrhea earlier today, and I don't know what's going on with him, but I just want him to feel better." Or "Please pray for the pipe that burst in my basement yesterday." Or "I got a touch of food poisoning last night. Please pray for my recovery." And sometimes, even, "I got a touch of food poisoning last night. I'm feeling much better today, but please pray for my recovery." 

These little, seemingly weird, prayer requests can sort of chip away at us sometimes. I have heard from many who say that it's hard for them to even read the prayer list any more when it's "clogged up" with these sorts of things, or that they groan a little inside when they see that another prayer request is coming through from so-and-so. 

Something about chuckling at my Twitter feed felt unsettling in my soul. I started to hear this question roll around in my heart - who gets to decide what's trivial? Is it trivial because it's not important to me? 

I confess I don't care a lot about your cat's diarrhea. Because it's not my cat, and I don't like cats anyway. But I know how I feel when my dog is sick and I don't know why. I know how I worry about trying to figure out the best things to do for her. I know how many times I look over at her, seemingly at random, and have to just look a little while longer and make sure she's breathing. I know how "not trivial" these things are when they are impacting my own life in the ways that make sense in my story. 

And...who gets to say that our trivial stuff is trivial to God? 

This was the real sticking point for me. This is the moment I felt convicted in reading that tweet. Because the truth is, most of us just don't pray like this. Most of us don't take every little thing in our lives to God. Yet, that's exactly what He's asked us to do. It's the way He's told us to pray - in utter dependence upon Him for everything. It's the kind of faith that we profess that we have - relying on God for every breath, knowing every good thing comes from Him. It's just...not the way we pray.

So I laughed. Because I know what kind of person this tweet was talking about. And then, I felt convicted. Because that nephew's ex-wife's new mother-in-law's faith is more sold out than my own. 

Friday, July 8, 2022

Separation of Church and State

One of the things the world keeps shouting when it tells you that you aren't supposed to vote your conscience as a Christian, because your conscience comes from God, is "separation of church and state!" The church, the world says, isn't supposed to influence the state. 

Never mind that the world celebrated the recent-ish election of a few Muslim Congresspersons as a great step forward for diversity. Hey world, Muslim Congresspersons vote their religious conscience the same way that Christian ones do.

Anyway, it's gotten so bad that the world has decided it's against the Constitution for any political body to come to any decision or agreement that might even incidentally line up with a Christian belief. When the Supreme Court, a body of legal experts chosen for their ability to interpret complicated matters of law, rendered a decision that abortion is not a right guaranteed by the Constitution, culture lost its mind and called them a bunch of religious nuts who were bent on destroying our country. 

Of course, not a single one person has pointed to anywhere in the Constitution that would disagree with the justices. There has not been a single legal expert who can demonstrate differently. There have been no talking heads. All of the talk has been about what a crushing blow this is to abortion "rights," when the decision is basically that no such right exists. The argument has been, "it exists because we have it, and that is enough." To the culture, this was not a legal decision based on external evidence, but a religious decision coming out of the perverse hearts of an appointed few...all because it was a decision that many Christians celebrated. (And admittedly, some, for the wrong reasons.) 

The point is - none of the talk was about the actual legal matters involved. All of the talk has been about religion. No one has stopped to consider or to talk about whether the decision is actually right

It's gotten so bad that it goes even further than this. When a week or so later, the Supreme Court ruled that a coach had the right to pray on the football field - by himself in a public space, an act that was not mandatory for his team to join him in any way, shape, or form - the culture lost its mind again. "Separation of church and state!" they shouted, claiming that because it was a public space - perhaps even a public school - acts of religion were forbidden.

So what the culture is saying is that they believe it should be illegal for you, as a Christian, to practice your religion where anyone else might possibly see you. Are we coming to a point where you aren't allowed to pray with your blinds open because it might offend your neighbor? That doesn't seem like such a stretch to the culture. 

Never mind, of course, that this decision was actually the First Amendment "freedom of religion" issue. Freedom of religion doesn't mean that I can only practice it where you approve. It means I can practice it wherever I want to; it is a fundamental part of my existence.

The world shouts "separation of church and state" and has expanded it to mean that there should be no church within the borders of the state, that the church doesn't have a right to exist in a political space. But that's not what this little clause in our founding documents means; it's not what it ever meant.

Remember, the colonists, the founding fathers, were running away from a state with an imposed religion - the people of England were forced to worship as the King saw fit. They were required to be Christians. What they didn't want was for America to become a place where religion was compulsory.

Fast forward two hundred plus years, and we're having conversations where the world is claiming this separation means the state can't let you be a Christian. 

That's not the same conversation. That's not what the document intended. That's not what the clause states. 

So no, separation of church and state doesn't mean that you don't get a vote. You do get a vote, and you should use it. Separation of church and state doesn't mean you're not allowed to pray in public. You are allowed to pray anywhere, as long as you don't force anyone else to join you (and God wouldn't like that, either, so....) Separation of church and state was meant to protect your freedom of religion, not hinder it. 

It is simply not the weapon the world is trying to make it. Thankfully, there are some - including some in high places - who still understand that.  

Thursday, July 7, 2022

The Christian Vote

If we are called to be a nonpatriotic people, one of the questions that logically flows out of that we vote? Should we vote? Should we be part of the governmental process?

The world would love it right now if I said no. They would. They would love it if Christians would just retreat into our little theological bubbles and leave "America" alone. They would love it if we would "stop trying to legislate our morality" because "you can't make everyone Christian by force of law." 

And the world would be right...and the world would be wrong. 

As Christians, we do have an imperative to vote. God wants us to be part of the country and culture where we are living. It's okay to want to shape our society in ways that we know help to bring about life and life abundant. Remember, God told His people to pray for the peace and prosperity of Babylon, and He even implied that they should work for it. He told them to build their homes there and set up their lives and plan to stay awhile. And that means, it's okay to be part of the fabric of Babylon. 

As long as we remember that Babylon is not our home; it's just where we're living for a little while. 

Praying for the peace and prosperity of the places that we live necessarily means acting for the peace and prosperity of the places where we live. James said that faith without works is nothing. The Bible tells us that if we see someone hungry and naked and in need, and we just tell them that God wishes them well, it isn't enough; we have to offer them food and clothing and provision, or else, we're just windbags. 

If we live in America, but don't attempt to meet her needs and help her navigate her challenges, we're just windbags. So yes, we vote. 

And the world says, okay, you vote, but stop trying to legislate your morality. Stop trying to make laws based on your Christian understandings. Stop voting Christians into office to represent you. That's not the way politics works.

Except that's exactly the way that politics works. 

Everyone who votes votes out of their own conscience, and therefore, they vote out of whatever guides their conscience. For Christians, that is God. (At least, it's supposed to be.) For the world, that's "science" or "humanism" or even hedonism. But the fact remains that everyone has a foundational understanding through which they view the world, and even if it's not on the basis of God, everyone who votes is attempting to legislate their morality. 

It's the morality of the world that women should be able to use abortion as a form of birth control, that babies should be legally aborted for no other reason than that the mother doesn't want them. It's the morality of the world that homosexual marriage should be legal. It's the morality of the world, in an increasing number of places, that certain illicit substances should be legalized. It's the morality of the world, a certain segment of it, that healthcare should be free for all. And the world will even tell you that for them, these are moral issues. 

And in the very same breath, tell you that you don't have a right to vote your morality. For no other reason than because your morality is rooted in a God this world is tired of being convicted by. 

Can you imagine if you didn't vote your morality? If you didn't vote according to that internal compass through which you see the world? How could you possibly vote at all? How can you cast a vote if not on the basis of something that you believe in? It doesn't make any sense. The world doesn't expect itself to do that, so there's no ground on which they can reasonably expect you to do it. 

This is the cultural tension of our time, and it's growing. The world is so at odds with the ways of God that it is seeking to shut them down entirely, to tell Christians they have no standing in the public square - that their beliefs are the only ones not welcome here. The world's feathers are ruffled when a morality that is against its prevailing tides, that grounds itself in something different, gains even a little ground, despite the fact that voting still shows that we are a country roughly half-and-half - that is, half of this country doesn't buy into the world's prevailing notions, but the world keeps continuing to write them off. 

One of the arguments that the world keeps using in trying to tell us that we shouldn't vote our morality and that we have no standing in the public square is the idea of the "separation of church and state," which is written into our very foundation as as a country. But is that legitimate? 

We'll wrap up our political discussion by looking at this idea tomorrow. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

American Citizens of Heaven

It's hard to even write about how God calls us, as Christians, to be nonpatriotic because American patriotism is so dangerous blended with Christian values in this country. But the fact that we've gotten this wrong doesn't change what is right, so here we are. And that leaves us with the question that we keep asking in a variety of contexts: how, then, should we live?

Remember that we are called to be nonpatriotic, not unpatriotic, and that means a few things. First, it means that it is not wrong to thank God that you were born in America and not somewhere else. It is not wrong to be mindful of the opportunities that being an American offers you. It is not wrong to pray for God to bless the country in which you live. As we've said all week, He even says as much - pray for the peace and prosperity of Babylon (America). 

And it's not even wrong, necessarily, to partake in cultural events like we have had this weekend. It's not wrong to attend a cookout with family and friends. It's not wrong to sit and watch fireworks. It's not wrong to light a few yourself. (But seriously - if you bought $1,000 worth of professional-grade fireworks, have the common decency to set them off in some empty parking lot somewhere and not your crowded neighborhood.) 

We approach these kinds of things with the wisdom of Paul, who said that if your conscience allows you to eat meat offered to idols, then do so. Go, fellowship with your community. Attend the things to which you are invited. Partake. It's an act of one anothering. Just...don't get drawn into it. 

Don't sacrifice the meat to idols yourself. Don't go wearing the accoutrement of the idol worshipers. Don't cross the line between faithfulness/righteousness and something less. And don't let what your conscience allows you to do be a stumbling block to someone who is still growing up in the faith. 

Then, we're faced with the questions about what we do about some of these other things. Like honoring the military. How do we navigate celebrating the armed forces of the state to which we only temporally belong? We are a people who don't love war (despite what those with shallow readings of the OT would try to argue), and if we don't love war and we don't belong to the state...what about the soldier?

Here's where that whole "love your neighbor" thing comes into play. We honor the sacrifices and the heart and the grit and the love of our neighbor for the things that we appreciate about being Americans - for the freedoms we have here that make it easier to be both Christian and nonpatriotic. We honor brothers and sisters who live and love right next to us, who also serve on behalf of things that we hold dear. 

There is no conflict here. There is no conflict between being nonpatriotic, not loving war, grieving the fighting of humans, appreciating that God knit us in our mothers' wombs in America, and loving our neighbor. This is a thoroughly consistent Christian way to live. 

The world doesn't see it this way, and of course, it's not easy. It seems really piecemeal and really inconsistent with itself, like we're just drawing wonky lines through life and landing wherever. The world says we're hypocrites if we step out of ceremonies worshiping America but, say, stand at a graveside for the playing of Taps. The world says we're just anti-fun, like Christians have "always been," when we don't set off fireworks or whatever. The world says we think we're better than them or that we're just trying to take a really public moral stand on a weird sort of ground. The world says that if we don't worship America, we don't love America and if that's the case, then we should just leave. 

But what we really are is citizens of Heaven - keeping our sights on the land from which we truly come, loving our neighbor, fellowshipping on the ground, thanking God for His blessings on our house, and longing for Home. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2022


Wait...did I say that as Christians, we are not supposed to be patriotic Americans? Actually, no - that's not what I said.

But I'll say it right now, just to be clear.

As Christians, we are not supposed to be patriotic Americans.

Patriotism is an act of worship, and it is an act of worship of the state. The state is not God; therefore, the state is an idol and patriotism is idol worship. That's the heart of the matter, and the matter of the heart is that too many Christians party harder and celebrate more joyously on patriotic American holidays than on any Sunday they spend with the church, including Christmas and Easter. Many Christians will even skip church on American holiday weekends - like this past weekend we had or Memorial Day, which always falls across a weekend holiday - to go out and celebrate the American holiday. They will skip church to go out on their boat, grill hot dogs, have a bonfire, whatever. 

Let that sink in for a minute and ask yourself if that whole line about patriotism being an act of worship - and an idol - doesn't immediately make more sense. 

Not only that, but being an American is not intrinsically tied to being a Christian. That is, you happen to be a Christian living in America because this is where God knit you together in your mother's womb. There's nothing particularly special, when it comes to being a Christian, about being an American. You could just as easily have been a Scotsman or a Namibian or a Peruvian (and you might be just as tempted in those places to develop a worship for the state, as well; that's just how our human brain works). 

Even Israel wasn't meant to be a political nation. The Lord grieved when His people demanded a king like all of the other nations. He'd spent His entire story from "in the beginning" trying to form a people who were unlike all of the others on the earth, and even when His Son came as a king, He made very clear that His Kingdom was not like all of the others. 

There's absolutely nothing in the Scriptures about being a people devoted to country, about being a patriotic people committed to the state, about celebrating the earthly places in which we dwell. Because we are, in fact, citizens of Heaven. Plain and simple. 

And, at least in America, too many of us seem to have forgotten that. Because we're too busy being Americans. 

Now, that said, let's talk about what that doesn't mean. That doesn't mean that we become unpatriotic - that we diminish the state and denigrate it and dismiss it. It doesn't mean that we stand on street corners and tell patriotic Americans that they're missing the boat, that they're worshiping the wrong thing. It doesn't mean we are antagonistic toward the state. That's not biblical, either. God says very clearly to pray for the peace and prosperity of Babylon, even to pray for Jerusalem, which was His people's home "state." We are to be actively involved in the places where we live. 

But we are not to worship them. In that sense, then, we are called to be nonpatriotic - having no sense of adoring affection and loving devotion to America, per se. Not because we are not thankful to be here but because we understand that we are just sojourners passing through, that this is not our home. And the minute we let it become our home, it gets a piece of our heart that is reserved for heaven. 

That's how so many of us are living too earthly-minded lives. We've set up our home here, and where the heart it. So our hearts are here. And that's the kind of thing we're expressing when we become patriotic and start worshiping the state. 

And if you need another reminder of that, think again to what you thought about earlier - how different your 4th of July cookout looks than your last church service. Or even your last church potluck. Or how quick you are to get to the lake on Memorial Day...and how quick you are to get out of church to get there (or even skip church entirely). 

American patriotism is not an act of Christian faith. It is not a marker of our holiness. It is not a righteous pursuit. 

So then, we should not attempt to hijack patriotic cultural holidays and pretend to baptize them into our faith because they are not a mark of our faith at all.  

Monday, July 4, 2022

For Freedom

For freedom, you have been set free.

That is just one of the many Christian references you are likely to hear today, if you haven't already been hearing them all weekend. The church just loves to take whatever culture is doing and try to "baptize" it by making it about Jesus, especially when Jesus professes an affection for the very same sorts of things. Today, America is celebrating her freedom, but Christians know that it is Christ who set us free. 

You realize this is why the world hates us, right?

We think we're baptizing these concepts, but what we're really doing is hijacking them for a cheap attempt at evangelism. What we're really doing is weighing them down with more of our Bible thumping, trying to take something that brings the world joy and tell them it's meaningless, that it's nothing, that it's a shadow of a real thing. Can't we just let the world have joy?

What's worse is that we're not actually offering them Jesus on a day like today. We're just throwing His name out there, using His branding, trying to put Him on spectacle - hang His cross in the public square when it looks like the whole world is looking on, just so they can see what He looks like in His passion. 

And us? We're less than passionate. Us? We're less than sacrificial. We tend to just get really "in your face" about things like this, about declaring stuff like "America isn't free; Christians are free." But we're not preaching, and certainly not demonstrating, love.

You can probably tell by now that I really hate this sort of thing, that I hate the hijacking of cultural moments when all we're doing is using them to brand Jesus for a consumeristic world. For example, and I say this with all love for my own congregation (who was not the only congregation to do this) - just look at a recent "Night of Worship" we had. We have a night of worship regularly, but our most recent one fell near the end of June, as did many other events in our broader community and churches around the area. 

So instead of having a "Night of Worship," as we routinely do, we branded this one a "Freedom to Worship" night and put a poster out with a bunch of red, white, and blue stars. Because hey, July 4th was just around the corner. 

Our night of worship had nothing to do with being Americans, with American freedom, with the things we celebrate on the 4th. We hijacked a cultural moment and branded it for Jesus. 

Another one of our local churches brought in a very famous retired (I think) military official who happens to be a Christian to preach their services for them last weekend. Why? Again, to try to capitalize on a cultural moment. 

It just results in this very dangerous blending of Christianity and American patriotism that is no good for the church or for the country, and it certainly isn't a Christian value. There's nowhere in the Bible that God tells us to do this. Pray for the peace and prosperity of Babylon, yes, but don't baptize your citizenship in a foreign nation. We are a people of God from a heavenly Kingdom. When we do this sort of thing, we just get everything all confused. 

And this is extremely important this year, especially, as our country is wrestling with "conservative Christian values" and the "legislation of faith" and even the notion of "separation of church and state" on the heels of some very big, very bold decisions by our Supreme Court. Of course, this seems like a great week to talk about some of those things. 

And yes, I realize and feel the sting of hypocrisy here. At least, to some degree. I've wrestled with this. Because on one hand, I hate the hijacking of cultural moments to brand them for Jesus, and yet, here I am capitalizing on a week in which our patriotism is in the forefront of our minds to talk about what it means to be American Christians at a time like this. 

But I think the difference lies in the fact that I'm not talking to the world; I'm talking to the church. I'm talking to Christians on this one. I'm talking to us. And I absolutely think it's important that we talk about things that are touchpoints in our culture (you know that by now). 

So we're going to talk about a few things this week that are coming up right now in the cultural conscience precisely because we're so good at doing what we should not be doing on a day like today - hijacking, or "baptizing," culture to brand it for Jesus. 

Friday, July 1, 2022


So where does all of this leave us? It leaves us with a lot of lonely persons in our church, that's where. 

And the trouble with lonely persons in a church is that they don't feel connected to anything, and when they don't feel connected to anything, they don't feel committed to anything, and that's when they start to leave.

They go and find another church. They go and find another pew to occupy. They go and find another box to put a few dollars into every week. They go searching for connection, and if they're lucky, they find it, but the truth is that loneliness is an epidemic in far too many of our churches - probably in more of them than it's not a problem in. 

And after you go and feel lonely in two or three or four churches, you start to very reasonably ask what the point is any more. Then, you disengage entirely from what God told us all along was a faith of one anothering, a faith of togetherness. 

And you just can't do this Christian life alone. 

Have you ever had this happen? You look around your church one Sunday morning for that person that you really want to talk to, feeling like it's been a bit too long since you've spoken to them, and when you look around, they aren't there. When you ask around, no one seems to know. Then, that one guy (that one guy who knows everybody) says, "Oh, her? She hasn't been here for months." 


There are persons walking out of our churches and not walking back in and it takes months for us to miss them, if we even notice at all that they aren't there. (Usually, we notice they aren't there when we have a need for them to fill - something they've always done, whether it's build a certain kind of prop for summer VBS or have a conversation about a topic you've conversed about before.) 

This is why so many are so comfortable with the idea of church hopping and church shopping. They aren't committed to their church because they aren't connected there, and if they aren't connected, their church usually isn't very committed to them, either. It doesn't occur to them that their departure feels like pulling a thread out of a beautiful tapestry because they don't feel like they were woven in in the first place. 

Do you realize how many stray threads we have walking around out there? In here? It's heartbreaking. 

Church, we have to do better. We cannot go on like this. We cannot let persons, brothers and sisters, continue to walk through our doors and be lonelier inside our walls than they were outside of them. We cannot let one another come side by side and yet, still apart. We have to do together better. 

After all, as one of my favorite preachers likes to say, we're all just walking each other home. 

So let's do that.