Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Sunday Morning Serving

Many people I talk to complain about the church they are part of. I feel lucky because I love my church. This weekend we are doing something that makes me proud. We are gathering on Sunday morning but the purpose of the gathering is to serve. How cool is that? Christians getting together to serve on a Sunday morning! It's an anomaly but it shouldn't be. I don't see why we don't gather together more often to "do outreach." Sure, singing, teaching, preaching, and the sacraments need to be practiced. But I think most churches would be more abundant and vibrant if they gathered once a month to serve others.

Also the nature of the service is quite unique. Chicago is home to the biggest gay pride parade in the country that takes place on the North Side. Some friends who live in an intentional community up there have a heart for gay, lesbian, and bi-sexual people. Often the only Christian presence that shows up are the ones with picket signs and angry words. So as an alternative we are going to hand out bottled water. Bottled water void of any "Christian" label or Bible verse. Imagine thousands of dollars worth of bottled water as an act of compassion. Just a practical way to love people because God first loved us.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Open Road

This spring I made a few trips home to Iowa. I decided to drive some different routes through western Illinois and eastern Iowa. In the process, I found a small town in western Illinois I really liked. Main Street is just one block off the old Lincoln Highway. It's a one-way street with bars, restaurants, and offices looking onto the street from curtained plate-glass windows. The names are handpainted on the glass.

While I liked the stark, dry storefronts and the local menus, I think something else attracted me to the town: anonymity. At the restaurant where I ordered an open-faced ham sandwich, they didn't take a credit card. I had to run to the ATM a block and a half west to withdraw cash. When I asked the waitress if she needed to hold on to my license or something, she looked at me, "Just come back." When I drove out of town, there was no receipt with my name or signature on it.

I savored my meal sitting alone at an oversized table against the wall. I exchanged pleasantries with my waitress, but nothing more. I ignored the locals as much as they ignored me. I made up stories about the house for sale along the highway on the way out of town. I imagined the neighbors rumbling away from the bar on Main in their unmufflered truck, and the gossip criss-crossing town. I wondered whether the local pastor of the community church was hoping one day to cast his nets into bigger ponds.

All the stereotypes I was planting alongside the highway as I left town gave me another reason to like the town: It was an escape. This was not my home, not my community. I had no reputation to live up to. These were not my people, not my friends. I had no responsibilities to follow through on. I was whoever I chose to be. I was undefined. That seemed like freedom, that place where I had only possibilities.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

First Things

My first post in almost a month (thus, the welcome back). My excuse for the absence is explained with a series of first things:

First time ever in Boston. My friends documented it well here and here

First wedding of the year in Indiana

First time graduating from Seminary

First extended canoe trip from Wisconsin to Illinois

First time wearing a brown tuxedo in a West Virginia wedding. Props John!

Now I'm back and I'll tell you what is next but give me a second.

26 + 1 First Date = 27

I went on one date when I was 26. It had all the makings of a great first date. I was so excited. I’d met her through a friend and then run into her, a second time, at a bookstore. Having a mutual friend seemed promising for the chances. I love books so I figured meeting again in a bookstore gave us at least one more thing in common. She was reading a book by an author we both could quote, and she invited me to sit down. We talked for a while, even laughed.

After that we became friends on Facebook where the conversation continued. Things were looking good. Two weeks later we were on our first date. I had tickets to a play adapted from that same author’s works. I had found a little Argentinian café just down the street. I thought she was gorgeous, and she had said yes.

I picked her up and we drove a half-hour to the theater. As we talked, I learned that she’d thought about doing more schooling, getting a theology degree, but hadn’t taken the plunge. She said she was frustrated with her big church. It was too big and impersonal. I resonated with that sentiment. I was tired of big church too. And her interest in school, in theology, resonated in me too. I loved serious thinking, about anything, but especially about God.

Smart. Beautiful. Spiritual. Everything seemed to add up. I couldn’t have orchestrated things better if I’d been a control freak.

We got to the theater a few minutes late. I apologized. The usher led us in and we slipped into the back row quietly. We hushed to hear the actor’s voice. The audience was rapt.

When the play let out, it was still early, too early to really be hungry. So we passed the café and kept walking, talking. We found ourselves 5 blocks down, looking at a red light, on a blank corner. I looked around, nothing promised anything better. We turned around and retraced our steps to the café.

There were blank silences as we drove home. I let them hang, hoping out of the emptiness something more genuine might emerge. We sat waiting for a green light with nothing to say. I dropped her off, and we thanked each other for the evening and the company.

I was at a loss. I couldn’t find an explanation. I’d done the math and it worked out nicely. It made sense. But the flat contour of the whole evening told a different story. The math worked, but the chemistry didn’t. I couldn’t explain it more than that.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Is Blessing the Carrot or the Donkey?

(Continued from "Grasping Forward" and "Giving to the Poor: The Two Big Issues.")

God promises blessing.

In the Old Testament God consistently promises to bless Israel’s obedience. This is not only a spiritual sort of blessing. It’s not even necessarily blessings of peace and love among people. God’s promised blessings are those things, but they are also expressly material blessing. Passages like Genesis 24:35-36, Leviticus 26:4-13, and Deuteronomy 28:3-15 point us to a concept of blessing that includes “prosperity and well-being; long life, wealth, peace, good harvests and children” (The Mission of God, 209). These aren’t the blessings we church kids learned about in Sunday school.

This reality about God’s blessing confuses the matter of poverty for me. One might ask, “Well, are they poor because their disobedient?” If that were the case, then we would all be in poverty. Are the wealthy pleasing God that he blesses them? That doesn’t make sense either. We can’t draw straight lines from obedience to blessing. So, let’s set that question aside.

Instead, I have a more basic question. It’s sort of connected. “Why does God bless us?” In other words, “What does God want to accomplish through his blessing?”

Most often, we think of blessing as the reward for our obedience. Obedience is the means. Blessing is the end. Or, “Obedience = Blessing.” The problem we continually run into is that we obey but we don’t receive blessing. Obedience doesn’t equal blessing with any reliability. Finally, we give up obeying because we’re not seeing the benefits.

The question I’m asking moves the blessing from an end to a means. Instead of thinking about blessing as a reward, I wonder if it may be a means to another end. So we have, “Obedience + Blessing = ?” In effect, I’m asking, What if blessing is the means to another end?

What if God withholds his blessing because we believe it is the end and not the means? When we see it as the end, we won’t do anything with it except revel in it. If this isn’t God’s intent when he blesses us, then what is?

Maybe that old adage has the right idea: “To whom much is given, much is expected.” If that’s the case, then it’s vital to figure out what we’re supposed to do with God’s blessing.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

You can't force it.

(Continued from "How's the Reception?" and "Programmatic Prayers")

After the sermon concluded, the program cut to an empty sanctuary with the pastor in one of the aisles. He was wearing khakis and an open-collared shirt—two buttons undone—instead of his suit jacket and open-collared shirt—two buttons undone. Now for a personal message from the preacher to his television audience.

"You matter to God, and. . .” He paused. The next phrases seemed obvious, but I sensed a hesitation. Was there another thing to say that could seem natural? He continued. "You matter to us.” Apparently not. “If I could come into your house, come into your kitchen, and have a cup of coffee with you, I would. But I just can't do that with everyone who watches this program. But I want you to know God loves you. He's got a plan for you. You're important to him, you're important to others.”

The contradictions here made for an awkward moment, even for the pastor, alone with his camera crew. It’s hard to earnestly care for people you can’t see or even imagine. I sensed, not in his words but in his delivery, that he struggled to find a place of honesty from which to deliver his lines. I do not think he was disingenuous, but he was simply face-to-face with the limitations of his medium. He was desperately trying to overcome them. Instead of saying, “You matter to me,” he said, “You matter to us.” The interpersonal element could not be established nor sustained using television. Who’s this “us” that you matter to? The TV programming crew? His church’s staff? Who’s “you”? Is it you the individual, or is it “y’all” (as Hipps points out)?

The mass medium of television is just that. It’s for the masses, not the individual. Attempts to speak to the individual from a television nearly always seem ridiculous. Even when experienced politicians speak to the individual, it’s a sort of "grouped individual," not the personal individual. They say things like, “If you’re facing credit cards bills you can’t pay . . .” or “When the doctor says you can’t work and your employer says you can’t stay home. . .” It’s all these hypothetical statements to general audiences. Sometimes they even clarify by saying, “you, the American people.” It’s the best they can do.

And it’s the best this pastor could do. “You matter to us.” The church isn’t meant to be a mass culture like that. If a church-goer is always and only among the “y’all” and never the “you,” then the community has failed. It is likely both the fault of the church and the fault of the individual, but the TV medium can never avoid that failure, whereas even a megachurch leave the possibility open. For that reason alone, the nature of the TV medium runs contrary to the nature of the church. That’s why the pastor paused, why he had to say “us” instead of “me,” and why he could not pierce the medium and establish a relationship with me. He was trying to send a message that the medium could not transmit. He was trying to force a camel through the eye of a needle. That’s where God has to get involved.

Okay God, we'd love to have you show up and work through this. You've got a 30-second window. Go.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Giving to the Poor: The Two Big Issues

If I break down Jesus’ command a bit, I find myself faced with two major dimensions I need to resolve. The first is giving time and/or money. The second is the identity of the poor.

Jesus command is more complex that just giving money. I wonder if I should be instead giving time, or giving time and money. I’d rather just give money. But that desire alone tells me that I should probably give my time. It’s something I want for myself, which is reason tells me it’s still a place where I don’t want God to be. Giving my time means making sacrifices elsewhere. It also means new relationships and the new commitments that come with them. It requires more than money. It requires me. I’m much more selfish about giving part of myself. Money is just money.

The third issue for me is the poverty issue itself. I think this is embedded in the broader justice issue being discussed in Christian circles. Economic equality is a trendy issue among the progressive faithful (and in the broader culture to some degree). I live on the edges of those circles, so I see bits and pieces, catch glimpses. But I’m still not convinced.

Here’s why. I tend to side a bit more with fundamentalists in this regard. I do see other priorities trumping this one. The question isn’t whether giving to the poor is a good thing. Clearly, it is. It’s a question of whether it’s the best thing. If I could only choose one or the other, which is most important? (Fortunately, it’s not an either/or. It can be a both/and!) In truth, I’ve answered that question already in the ways I allocate my time now. I give to my church faithfully and serve in a Bible study. I feel like the rich young ruler when I say that. He said, “I have kept all these things since I was a child.” That’s my fundamentalist side.

However, I think the fundamentalists have failed by nearly eliminating serving the poor altogether. (“You still lack one thing,” Jesus responded.) Economic equality and social justice are worthwhile causes, and I feel that to be balanced—or at least, more faithful—I should be supporting them in some way. I need to strike that balance then by adding an emphasis on social justice to what I’m already doing.

So then, what does this look like? How poor is poor enough? And why isn’t giving my money good enough? I mean, are we talking Chicago homeless poor, or are we talking Haiti poor? Are we talking mission poor, or garbage-dump slums poor? How poor do they have to be to qualify?

Are these even the right questions?

Thursday, June 04, 2009

How to find the love of your life.

I just had that conversation.

“How's your love life?”
“Anemic” was the adjective I chose.
“Anemic? Oh, that sounds bad.”
“Well that’s how it feels.”
“You know, I found my husband when I wasn’t looking for him.”
“Hmm. Well, I’m always looking.”
“Maybe you should stop looking.”

Nothing like the paradoxical relationship logic of finding a spouse.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Grasping Forward

I’m trying to decide. Maybe you can help.

I told a friend, it’s like grasping in the dark. I don’t even know what questions to ask. I’m just trying to get a sense of what’s in the room. I’m feeling around for ANYTHING.

In this case, for me it starts with figuring out what Jesus really means when he says, “Go. Sell everything you have. Give the money to the poor.” I don’t want to rationalize it away. I mean to take it seriously, but I need to know whether Jesus means it literally or figuratively.

Strangely, those who would stereotypically take it literally are not the fundamentalists (that is, the literalists). Instead it’s the churches often most at odds with fundamentalists who would turn out to be the literalists with Jesus’ words here. The fundamentalists would affirm this Jesus’ command, but would then quickly prioritize so many other things ahead of it and argue that spiritual needs are much more important, that they would effectively squeeze out a literal obedience to meeting the needs of the poor. I know it. That’s where I’ve lived. That’s where I’m coming from.

But now I’m in between, looking both ways, seeing both sides, and feeling torn. So I’m trying to decide. For me, this is the next step into deeper obedience, renewed faithfulness. That’s why I need to answer the question and resolve the issue.

Maybe the answer isn’t either/or—literal versus figurative. Maybe it’s both. That’s a good likelihood. So then, it’s important to determine which one is most important now. Maybe for me specifically, or maybe for us as Christians in a flat global village, or maybe for us in the western suburbs.

I’m trying to decide. Maybe you can help.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Programmatic Prayers

(Part One: "How's the Reception?")

The TV pastor concluded his message on being available to God through prayer this way. "I want you to bow your head and close your eyes with me." He adjusted his sleeve and checked his wristwatch. "Just for a moment. Just for brief moment. I want you to pray with me."

More absurdity. Here the preacher was telling me to take time, turn off the television, make space for God to speak, for me to pray. But what I saw was a preacher squeezing in a prayer before the show ended. No matter whether I had been watching in my living room or sitting in the audience, I saw a preacher who sincerely believes that we need to make time to pray but was unwilling to use the church gathering as one of those times. (If not with the gathered church, then when?)

The programmatic nature of many churches these days inhibits to opportunity for God to actually be in control. There's a schedule to maintain. When it's necessary to finish on time in order to turn over the parking lot and start the next service on time, the movement of the Holy Spirit (of God himself) gets squeezed. Okay God, we'd love to have you show up and work among us, but you've got a 2-minute window for that to happen. Go.

Again what the preacher said was contradicted by the context in which he said it. This conflict undermined the message he wanted people to take home. Instead of using the medium, or reforming the medium to reinforce his message, the medium stood at odds with the message. The message could be powerfully communicated if the medium were aligned to drive it home.