Paying for School

My ongoing adventures in life and the pursuit of more...

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Dear Friends Who Preach and Who Listen to Preaching

I’ve said before how much I love preaching as an art.

As a result, I listen to a lot of preaching, past and present, and find something beautiful in almost every message. 

Almost.

There’s a contemporary trend that seems to be wildly popular and often the homiletical approach of some preachers of very large churches – as well as some very normal sized churches. 

Honestly, it has much more to do with orientation than it has to do with size.

This trend usually develops a message in one of two ways with both achieving the same broken result.

The first way which seems very popular today is the allegorical sermon.  These practitioners and artists will spend a lot of time in the Old Testament turning the narrative into allegories about modern day struggles and issues and how to overcome them, how to live in victory, be a success, get a win. 

It’s very American, very much in tune with our modern zeitgeist.

The second way which also seems very popular today is (what I will call) the therapeutic sermon.  These practitioners and artists will take a relevant, contemporary topic and piecemeal scriptures together (or sometimes not) that support their thesis about how you and I can deal with common problems, struggles and issues we face and come out as winners, overcomers and with the best life now.

Several years ago, I was part of a 3-week summer English camp in mainland China.  Our goal for the camp was to teach conversational English to teens and young adults as a means to building relationships and sharing our faith.  One method we used was to share Bible stories as English lessons and in the midst of our lesson, bring up our faith.  I was surprised, the very first time I did this, to discover that my “atheist, communist” students already knew the stories I was telling them.  Instead of being surprised by the parables or the stories, they spoiled the endings which they knew by heart.

I was confused. So I asked them to tell me more.

What I discovered was that in the same way I had been taught Aesop’s fables or tales of Greek mythology, like Pandora’s Box, these students had been taught a lot of the Bible but it hadn’t told them anything about Jesus.  The story of the Prodigal Son was, for them, a lesson on the importance of family loyalty.  David and Goliath, overcoming adversity.  Loads of Bible.  No Kingdom.  No Jesus, the Autobasileia.  It was like getting a vaccination, just enough to immunize us from the real thing.

And this is what scares me about a lot of preaching I listen to.  Lots of stories with life lessons, lots of allegories that turn the Bible into a cleverly disguised self-help book, great moments that would easily make an Oprah segment or a TED talk, but they’d play in atheist classrooms in China as easily as a gathering of saints in Chicago. As a pastor I get emails offering to teach me or sell me programs of successful preaching plans for a year.  Ways to plan your preaching around peak times of the year for visitors and ways to capitalize on the natural rhythms of holidays and special events to build interest and attendance.  I have friends who visit other churches or watch them on-line like I do and I inwardly cringe as they extol the buzz they feel coming away from these services that are obviously designed to, like Hans and Franz, pump *clap* you up.  But my taste in Germans leans much more towards Bonhoeffer than it does Hans and Franz.

My personal litmus test has become “David and Goliath.” If a preaching pastor takes that text and turns into a Malcolm Gladwellian story of triumph over adversity or any version that makes the story of David about how you and I can face down the giants in our lives, I know that the paramount goal of the message is not the Kingdom, it’s the crowd.  It’s not telling the story of Jesus, it’s telling the story of me, in which Jesus briefly appears as a supporting character.  It’s not about transformation, it’s about self-actualization.

If the medium is the message, the message is, “it’s all about you.”

Stanley Hauerwas once said, “…the story that we should have no story, except the story we chose when we had no story, it is a story that has at its heart the attempt to make us tyrants of our own lives. But no one is more lonely than tyrants. Since they must always distrust everyone around them, because they know that they want their place…” The unintended consequences of preaching us into the center of the story is, as Hauerwas observes, that we are made tyrants of our own lives. This kind of message, unintentionally, does not bind us together, it drives us apart. We’re always at odds with each other and in conflict or tension with one another as we vie for our place at the center of the story. And there can be only one.

But Jesus tells a better story, Jesus is a better story, and his Kingdom offers a better story than our self-centered services and self-centered messages tell. Jesus is the center of the story, and we’ve all been invited to join a story that formed us and forms us, we did not form it.  We become a part of the story and that story makes us open to the stranger, the other and causes us to recognize that this isn’t my story, it’s not about me, my rights, my destiny but about Jesus, the Kingdom and his story, the one he tells and the community tells together.


There is a better story than the one that’s all about you, and I’m very sure there’s a better story than the one that’s all about me. And I think the best preaching we can all do is to tell the story of the Autobasileia. That means we’ve got to immerse ourselves in our story and live that story, not just talk about it. Especially not just talk about it.  That story needs to permeate our day to day lives, our relationships, our vocations, our conversations, our calendars and our check/cheque books.

I know, I'm not the official voice on "how to preach right," I'm just a nobody who isn't impressed with the Emperor's new clothes. And I'm convinced if I let the Emperor go out like that, I'm complicit and responsible by virtue of my silence.  There is a better story.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Women: My Confession and my Credo

I don’t know if this is my philosophy or my theology but it is what I believe and what I hope is my practice.  My Credo.

When the movie, Selma, came to theaters, we were living in the States again.  My daughter went to see the movie.  I chose not to prepare her for what she was going to experience.  She came home devastated.  She asked us if it was true that white people like us had treated black people like that. In school she had learned history but those brief lessons did nothing to prepare her for a very recent story of people who have been segregated, abused and lynched here in America.

There’s another story I haven’t adequately prepared her for: her own.

When my daughter was little, she would ask me if I would turn the church I was pastoring over to her when I was finished. And as she has grown into a young woman, the sense of vocation has not left her. Of all the things she talks about doing with her life, the one constant has been full-time ministry in one capacity or another. What I don’t want to tell her is how hard it will be for her, as a woman, to live that vocation here in America.

I am part of a network of churches that is connected relationally across the U.S. and around the world.  In each country, our churches observe their geographical boundaries as the boundaries of their own orthodoxy and orthopraxy.  So in Canada, for instance, our churches had a position on women in leadership that was egalitarian in belief, if not in practice.  Egalitarian meaning that leadership roles were assigned by God based on vocation, not on gender.  In the U.S., same network but different practice: we have staked out an egalitarian position but we have no requirement that anyone in the U.S. actually has to live by it.

I attended my first U.S. National Gathering of our network of churches about 3 years ago.  It was held at the “mother ship” in California. Thousands gathered from all around the U.S. as well as others from around the world.  One main session during the day featured a message by two women. Workshops were on the schedule immediately following their message and I attended one on financial stewardship (or how to raise more money by including self-addressed stamp envelopes with your mail-outs).  Just before the session started, two guys in the row behind me were having a conversation about the previous session and they were both shocked and a little repulsed that two women had preached to us. I turned, assuming that they were being ironic or that they were old.  Very old.  But they were neither old nor being ironic.  They were late 20s or early 30s and very earnest about how troubled they were about women being turned loose to preach to men.
And I was shocked. After 30 years of ministry, it takes a lot, but that did it.

It was strange for me to feel so surprised by their conversation because I spent a long stretch of my Christian life as a complementarian.  Short version – we all share equal status before God but we have different roles and preaching and pastoring is reserved for men.  It’s hard for me to even write that last sentence now without being unfair to that position or judgmental about those who hold it…because I was one.  But after being born again again, I have come to believe that the complementarian position is wrong – not just intellectually, but morally.  And one of the things I have loved about my Canadian Tribe and my U.S. Tribe of churches is that we brought the Gospel into gender reconciliation and prevailed against the dominate culture because we have a better Story.

However, I’m coming to believe that telling women in our movement today that we are egalitarian is like telling my African-American friends that we’ve abolished racism.  Making room on the stage isn’t the same as making room in our hearts and heads.

And it’s especially not the same as putting women in key leadership roles where they will have male subordinates.

The story I still need to tell my daughter is that no matter how loud her vocation might be, as a single female, she has almost zero chance of finding a paid position as a senior pastor or almost any other kind of pastor.  There are two things against her: she is a woman, and she is single.  We might cope if she’s married and “under her husband’s authority” (stomach turn) but we really don’t know what to make of her if she’s single and feels called to lead men and women.  In fact, I think we’re suspect of single people anyway, marriage being the evangelical ideal, but that’s a post for another time.

She will be shocked. She will feel stuck.  She will feel judged.

So, here is my credo:

Single men and women are not broken or missing any pieces.  Jesus completes them, not any man or woman.

The Gospel applied will always mean that walls of division are dissolved in favor of reconciliation.  Therefore, gender is not the basis on which people are deemed appropriate for service in the Kingdom of God.

Vocation is affirmed by the Church and the Holy Spirit but not conferred by the Church.  We recognize the story you are in but we do not get to tell you what story you are allowed to be in.

Any reading of the Gospel that subjugates one gender to another is a misreading of the Gospel and it is neither beautiful or Christ-like.

If God has obviously poured out His Spirit so that “daughters shall prophesy,” who am I and who are we to tell God that they shall not? Women are gifted and called to preach to all genders.  If my understanding of other New Testament Scriptures leads me to another understanding, I must question my understanding.

We are doing violence to the body of Christ if you or I deny any woman’s vocation and gifts to the rest of the body.

I will happily follow any woman who follows Jesus anywhere our King and Savior leads.

I will not feast at the table of leadership and privilege as long as anyone is not given equal access or expected to be satisfied with the crumbs that fall from the table. Therefore, I must intentionally, actively and consciously affirm and embrace the vocation of others regardless of gender.

We must stop lying to ourselves and especially to women that we are equal when our behavior, conversation and praxis communicates otherwise.  It should be women and not men who tell us when we have achieved equality and egalitarian practice.


To my daughter, I pray that you will find within the Church ways to exercise the gifts and vocation that come to you from our Father.  May your experience be one of inclusion and embrace and may you find the dividing walls truly broken and the stones that were once used to build them, turned into paving stones for a road both men and women can walk on together without worrying about who gets to choose which direction we are going.

I'm aware that I'm writing this as a male.  I would appreciate hearing from my sisters about their experience and their perspective on our beliefs and our practices in the Church towards gender and the egalitarian/complementarian argument.   

Women: My Confession and my Credo

I don’t know if this is my philosophy or my theology but it is what I believe and what I hope is my practice.  My Credo.

When the movie, Selma, came to theaters, we were living in the States again.  My daughter went to see the movie.  I chose not to prepare her for what she was going to experience.  She came home devastated.  She asked us if it was true that white people like us had treated black people like that. In school she had learned history but those brief lessons did nothing to prepare her for a very recent story of people who have been segregated, abused and lynched here in America.

There’s another story I haven’t adequately prepared her for: her own.

When my daughter was little, she would ask me if I would turn the church I was pastoring over to her when I was finished. And as she has grown into a young woman, the sense of vocation has not left her. Of all the things she talks about doing with her life, the one constant has been full-time ministry in one capacity or another. What I don’t want to tell her is how hard it will be for her, as a woman, to live that vocation here in America.

I am part of a network of churches that is connected relationally across the U.S. and around the world.  In each country, our churches observe their geographical boundaries as the boundaries of their own orthodoxy and orthopraxy.  So in Canada, for instance, our churches had a position on women in leadership that was egalitarian in belief, if not in practice.  Egalitarian meaning that leadership roles were assigned by God based on vocation, not on gender.  In the U.S., same network but different practice: we have staked out an egalitarian position but we have no requirement that anyone in the U.S. actually has to live by it.

I attended my first U.S. National Gathering of our network of churches about 3 years ago.  It was held at the “mother ship” in California. Thousands gathered from all around the U.S. as well as others from around the world.  One main session during the day featured a message by two women. Workshops were on the schedule immediately following their message and I attended one on financial stewardship (or how to raise more money by including self-addressed stamp envelopes with your mail-outs).  Just before the session started, two guys in the row behind me were having a conversation about the previous session and they were both shocked and a little repulsed that two women had preached to us. I turned, assuming that they were being ironic or that they were old.  Very old.  But they were neither old nor being ironic.  They were late 20s or early 30s and very earnest about how troubled they were about women being turned loose to preach to men.
And I was shocked. After 30 years of ministry, it takes a lot, but that did it.

It was strange for me to feel so surprised by their conversation because I spent a long stretch of my Christian life as a complementarian.  Short version – we all share equal status before God but we have different roles and preaching and pastoring is reserved for men.  It’s hard for me to even write that last sentence now without being unfair to that position or judgmental about those who hold it…because I was one.  But after being born again again, I have come to believe that the complementarian position is wrong – not just intellectually, but morally.  And one of the things I have loved about my Canadian Tribe and my U.S. Tribe of churches is that we brought the Gospel into gender reconciliation and prevailed against the dominate culture because we have a better Story.

However, I’m coming to believe that telling women in our movement today that we are egalitarian is like telling my African-American friends that we’ve abolished racism.  Making room on the stage isn’t the same as making room in our hearts and heads.

And it’s especially not the same as putting women in key leadership roles where they will have male subordinates.

The story I still need to tell my daughter is that no matter how loud her vocation might be, as a single female, she has almost zero chance of finding a paid position as a senior pastor or almost any other kind of pastor.  There are two things against her: she is a woman, and she is single.  We might cope if she’s married and “under her husband’s authority” (stomach turn) but we really don’t know what to make of her if she’s single and feels called to lead men and women.  In fact, I think we’re suspect of single people anyway, marriage being the evangelical ideal, but that’s a post for another time.
She will be shocked. She will feel stuck.  She will feel judged.

So, here is my credo:

Single men and women are not broken or missing any pieces.  Jesus completes them, not any man or woman.

The Gospel applied will always mean that walls of division are dissolved in favor of reconciliation.  Therefore, gender is not the basis on which people are deemed appropriate for service in the Kingdom of God.

Vocation is affirmed by the Church and the Holy Spirit but not conferred by the Church.  We recognize the story you are in but we do not get to tell you what story you are allowed to be in.

Any reading of the Gospel that subjugates one gender to another is a misreading of the Gospel and it is neither beautiful or Christ-like.

If God has obviously poured out His Spirit so that “daughters shall prophesy,” who am I and who are we to tell God that they shall not? Women are gifted and called to preach to all genders.  If my understanding of other New Testament Scriptures leads me to another understanding, I must question my understanding.

We are doing violence to the body of Christ if you or I deny any woman’s vocation and gifts to the rest of the body.

I will happily follow any woman who follows Jesus anywhere our King and Savior leads.

I will not feast at the table of leadership and privilege as long as anyone is not given equal access or expected to be satisfied with the crumbs that fall from the table. Therefore, I must intentionally, actively and consciously affirm and embrace the vocation of others regardless of gender.

We must stop lying to ourselves and especially to women that we are equal when our behavior, conversation and praxis communicates otherwise.  It should be women and not men who tell us when we have achieved equality and egalitarian practice.


To my daughter, I pray that you will find within the Church ways to exercise the gifts and vocation that come to you from our Father.  May your experience be one of inclusion and embrace and may you find the dividing walls truly broken and the stones that were once used to build them, turned into paving stones for a road both men and women can walk on together without worrying about who gets to choose which direction we are going.

I'm aware that I'm writing this as a male.  I would appreciate hearing from my sisters about their experience and their perspective on our beliefs and our practices in the Church towards gender and the egalitarian/complementarian argument.   

Friday, June 24, 2016

What I was Trying to Say...

Jesus has been called a lot of things.  I think one of the most important things he has been called is what he called himself and what was echoed by the writer of Hebrews. 

“Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” And “I and the Father are one.” Both from John’s Gospel.  Both are Jesus asserting more than a similarity with God the Father, more than a familiar connection.  Hebrews 1 says it like this, “Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son. God promised everything to the Son as an inheritance, and through the Son he created the universe. The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God…” (NLT)

A couple Sundays ago, I was wrapping up my morning message about the image of God and the idols we replace Him with. Jesus, I was trying to say, is the best revelation of God that we have.  One practical application of that truth, I was asserting, was that Jesus should be the lens through which we read the whole rest of the Bible. 

Here’s part of what I said, “If we look at any other parts of the Bible to determine what God is like we have to look at it through the lens of Jesus so that when it doesn't look like Jesus we have to go hmmmm I'm going to have to set that aside because that doesn't look like Jesus I can't ascribe that to God just because it says it because it doesn't look like Jesus. I need a greater understanding that I don't have right now because this is what Jesus said “have I been with you all this time Philip and yet you still don't know who I am.  Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father so why are you asking me to show him to you. Jesus reveals the Father.”

I know this was confusing for some. You can give the whole thing a listen here, and let me know what you think.

What I wasn’t trying to say was that we should all go “Thomas Jefferson” on the Bible and cut out all the bits that we don’t like. I wasn’t trying to say that we should toss out some of the hard passages that ascribe horrible violence to God. I wasn’t trying to say that Jesus replaces YHWH of the Old Testament. What I meant by “set that aside…” was simply this, my understanding of the Bible is undoubtedly fallible and my capacity for interpreting its meaning pales in comparison to Jesus’ ability to accurately image what God is really like.  Therefore, when my understanding of a passage paints a picture of God that doesn’t look like Jesus, I need to “set it aside,” ie. don’t build a doctrine around it, don’t change my worship because of it and don’t tell other people my “word of wisdom” because I’m clearly missing something.  If Jesus and the Father are one (and I think they are) and Jesus is the exact representation of God’s character (and He is) then the flaw is in my understanding, not in Jesus’ revelation.

So how does that come up practically?

When I read that women are to remain silent in the church, and I read that through the lens of Jesus, something doesn’t make sense.  Jesus elevated women, included them and encouraged them to speak up.  He sent the woman at the well back to town with a story to tell, he sent the women back to be the first to declare the good news, “Jesus isn’t in the grave!” So, while the plain reading of the text is quite obvious, its actual meaning must not be.  Because it doesn’t look like Jesus.

When I read the Old Testament and the picture of a war-like tribal God is painted for me, it has to give way to the revelation of Jesus in arriving at the best understanding of what God is really like.  At least that is what Hebrews seems to be saying.  I’m not saying that those passages should be ignored or cut out or tossed in the bin.  I’m saying that we need to “set it aside” until we can come to an understanding about their meaning that maintains the integrity of the revelation of Jesus as the exact representation of God’s character. Don’t make big decisions, don’t develop theology, don’t change your worship, don't feel justified in doing violence to your enemies - if it doesn’t look like Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

In some ways, what I’m advocating is that we use the same hermeneutic that Jesus seems to be using in the Gospels when he says things like, “You have heard that it was said…but I tell you…”

There’s a worship song that’s currently popular that says, “I’ve heard a thousand stories / Of what they think You’re like.” Well, God’s only told one story, Hebrews seems to be saying, that tells us what God is precisely like and that story is Jesus.


I hope this hasn’t added to the confusion, I know that’s one of my spiritual gifts, adding to the confusion.  Leave comments or questions below and I’ll do my best to sharpen the clarity on what I’m trying to say.  Or offer apologies if I’m somehow missing what the Bible says.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

When a Movement Stops Moving

What makes a Movement a Movement and not an Institution or Organization?

It seems like there are a few key differences but I think what best sums them all up is the presence of what Walter Brueggemann calls, “Prophetic Imagination.” A Movement possess it, an Institution eliminates it.

Initially, it seems that a movement begins when a grass roots felt need is met by a catalyst, develops critical mass and is captivated by prophetic imagination – things can be different than they are now. The danger, as Brueggemann points out, is that which is developed from the prophetic imagination tends to become the enemy of that prophetic imagination as it settles into an institutional rather than prophetic shape.

Herbert Blumer described the four stages of a social movement, these have been refined or simplified by other scholars but maintain the same basic meaning.  They are: Emergence, Coalescence, Bureaucratization, and Decline.  The story of Israel, Brueggemann says, illustrates this movement.  It started with Moses and a vision of a “free God” and that life didn’t have to be “this way.” Then, as this new Movement pursued the prophetic vision and a “free God,” they eventually morph into Solomon’s monarchy, and a consolidation of power wherein the former slaves became the oppressors and the Tabernacle was replaced with a Temple and God was ‘permanently’ anchored in place. The Movement experienced both its highest and lowest point at exactly the same time, albeit from two different perspectives.

Eventually, it seems, Movement becomes Empire.

Then, two things happen.  1) The Empire has to marginalize the voices of dissent.  Ultimately, the Empire must eliminate the dissenting or prophetic voice as they clearly endanger the well-being of the Empire. And 2) The prophetic voices begin a race to the bottom to be sure they aren’t the last one standing who is compelled to tell the Emperor that he’s naked.

To resist the gravity that pulls us towards being an Empire, Movements need to be able to carry on what the catalyst started, to nurture the prophetic imagination, to be self-correcting – like science – and invite dialog, facilitate the prophetic imagination and reform accordingly.  But this is almost impossible because the Empire is convinced of their rightness, their efficacy and their sense of an almost divine approval by which they do what they do.  We can tweak the Empire, but we cannot dismantle the Empire, we’ve invested far too much of our resources and our ego.

So, what do we do to get a Movement moving again?

1) Listen to the Artists.  I don’t mean to say that we have them submit papers or proposals or give them 30 minutes to present something to our board or executive council.  I mean that we create Artist collectives and we engage in conversation, listen to the music, observe their dance, walk through their galleries.  Where the Arts are not fostered you can be sure that Empire is gaining ground.  To move, we must let the songwriters and the painters, the dancers and the musicians, the wine makers and playwrights, tell us what sort of future they imagine for us.

2) Listen to the Scholars. Why oh why have a body of scholars developed within the midst of a Movement and then not consult and listen to them?  Empire develops scholars to legitimize themselves and their actions, as needed.  A Movement consults and seeks consensus, it looks for the synergy that comes from a collective who may not agree on every point but who embody the heart of where we are going with a deep knowledge and understanding of from where we have come.  Scholars, however, are often early adopters of the prophetic imagination and this, quite simply, makes them dangerous to the Empire.

3) Listen to the Story.  Stanley Hauerwas writes about the effort of modernity as, “the attempt to produce a people who believe that they should have no story except the story that they choose when they had no story.” We have a story but the Empire is a revisionist or a redactor or simply in denial because it suits the Empire to be what is, what was and what is to come.  We need to revisit the work of our storytellers and realize that what we had at the beginning of our story may be because of what we did at the beginning of our story.  We should not think the way forward is through nostalgia or trips down memory lane, these actually serve to reinforce the Empire.  Rather, we need to let our story remind us of the prophetic imagination that once served as catalyst for our Movement and let that be all the permission and authority we need to begin to prophetically imagine what can be.

4) Empower the Imagineers.  Most of us don’t like tension.  But tension is where all the good stuff usually happens. Gather the Imagineers and create time and space where dreamers can dream and sacred cows can be put on the grill for burgers and steaks. Yes, this is scary.  Yes, it may mean uncomfortable change.  Yes, there will be some people who are committed to the Empire and they will threaten to take their toys and leave.  You can’t be a Movement if you’re being held hostage by people who threaten to quit and neither can you be a Movement if you put a gag on the dreamers – overtly or covertly simply by never making space to listen or to act on what comes from them.

Final word goes to Walter Brueggemann, from The Prophetic Imagination, “…every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist.  It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing futures alternative to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.”

What future are you dreaming of?

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Figuring It All Out

One of the great myths of the United States is the myth of the self-made man (or, thanks to feminism, woman).  It is a story we tell ourselves and we tell each other and we tell our children, to inspire confidence and attempts at doing new things, particularly in business or politics. It is a defining story for our culture and when you suggest that there is no such thing as a self-made anyone, you provoke the tender places that elicit violent reactions or icy cold reception.

As a pastor, I see this same sort of mythologizing among Christians who come to their “own conclusions” about faith and feel great confidence in the rightness of their preferences or of the conclusions they have drawn. These conclusions and preferences have no orientation, no “north star” other than the gravity of their own thoughts and feelings. This is a human condition, so it’s no surprise to see it in the attitudes and actions of believers. In large part, I think this is the unintended consequence of cutting people off from the Story we’re all in, the work of modernity that coopted faith for its own ends.

Stanley Hauerwas writes about this as, “the attempt to produce a people who believe that they should have no story except the story that they choose when they had no story.”

In the pond I swim in, we often refer to this as “the next move of God.”  We could just as easily call it the next wife, the next job, the next re-invention of myself: me 2.0. We talk about “what God is doing today” as if he’s started a new story – because that fits the narrative we’re already living in. Frankly, we prefer a faith practice that reinforces the things that we already believe, the feelings we’re already feeling, the conclusions to which we’ve already come. And by wrapping these all up in very spiritual language we externalize our issues and make noble our actions as we seek to follow Jesus the way we want to.

This path locks us into the inevitable entropy of disintegrated anticipation and the need to keep jumping to a new story as the last one fizzles, fails or falls apart.

Since I’ve been a Christian, not as long as you might think, we have Marched for Jesus, Willow Creeked, Wimbered, Alpha-ed, K.C. Propheted, Inner Healed, Watchmened for the Nations. We’ve been Purpose Driven, Spiritually Mapped, Soaked, the Father’s blessed us, we Cell churched, Shepherded, Globally Awakened, had the restoration of apostles and prophets, done Identificational Repentance and we’ve taken our cities for God.  We have been revived in Brownsville, renewed in Toronto, done 24/7 prayer, 24/7 worship, Youth Churched, fasted for spiritual breakthrough, made intercessors a separate group from everyone else in the church, taken Steps to Freedom, watched Transformation Videos, joined the Global Day of Prayer and discovered the moving pinnacle of worship in Integrity, Hosanna, Maranatha, Vineyard, Hillsong, Delirious, Passion, Jesus Culture, Elevation, and the soup du jour.

Some of the above has been amazing.  Some has been rubbish.

A friend of mine, a younger friend, moved to a large city and found himself in the midst of a number of people his age, believers, intent on following Jesus.  Of course, they couldn’t find a local church that exactly did it for them.  So they started meeting together in an apartment. As their numbers grew, they rented an apartment together, collectively, just to hold their meetings in.  They sat on the floor on pillows, sang acoustic songs, listened to insights they would share with one another, and from one guy in particular who people seemed to look to as an unelected leader or spokesperson for those who gathered.

At first, they didn’t take up an offering, they just helped out the poor in their neighborhood and among them. Once they had to rent an apartment to accommodate their growth as a group, they started to take up an offering, just to help with community expenses, and my young friend was made the “keeper of the bank account” because he was, and still is, gifted by God to handle and create resources.  In a short amount of time, my young friend was involved in two conversations.  The first was awkward.  The “unelected leader” of the group had found himself devoting more and more time to teaching and conversations and need meeting within their informal group.  He came to my young friend and wondered if there were any moneys in the community account that could be used to reimburse him for time missed at his regular job and cover some expenses incurred from doing his volunteer work with their group.  The second conversation was with their whole community, not awkward at all, but an epiphany of sorts.

They called a “community meeting” after their regular meeting for worship and insights. Some of the young adults wanted to discuss an issue.  Several of the young couples had started to have children.  In fact, there were a number of babies in their meeting and several women who were present were also pregnant.  They wondered together whether or not there was something they could do so that the young moms could stay in the room for worship but the babies were all nearby in some adjacent room or something, with someone designated to look after them, maybe on a rota of some kind so not just one mom or individual had to be in the next room with the babies all the time?

It was at this moment my young friend (who had grown up a PK) told me, that he realized they had become a church like the churches they had all come from.

As followers of Jesus, we’re in a Story.  It’s valuable to know the Story we are in because it will save us from thinking we’re “boldly going where no man has gone before.” It will orient us to the things that have always mattered and will always mattered.  The Story will help us sort out our wants that we’ve always projected onto God from the main and the plain of what God is doing.  Knowing our Story helps us sort out the phonies and their miracle claims because we know the Story and what miracles really look like. Immersion in the Story we’re in will carry us through the seasons when it seems like nothing is happening because we know we’ve been there before and these deserts always precede something better. Knowing our Story gives us heart for the long haul rather than spastic sprints from one “move of God” to another.

So, may we know the Story and not be taken in by the stories we’ve made up for ourselves when we thought we had no story.  And may we be saved from “self-made” thinking and find the freedom of being made by God, embedded in the brilliant Story that he has given us.

Friday, May 27, 2016

When Is Your Tribe Not Your Tribe?

About 20 years ago I walked into my first Vineyard Church meeting.  My story is like the story of many others who did the very same thing and suddenly realized, “This is my tribe! These are my people!”

My own journey with God had taken me from a Cessationist movement and into a desert where my faith was deconstructed.  It turned out that my desert was in an ocean all along and God was engaging me in a process of formation that continues until the Last day. But I’ve enjoyed this feeling for two decades – I am part of a Tribe that gets me, that connects with God the way I connect with God, that lets God define himself rather than the boxes we build for him.

As I have lived and grown and been changed, I’ve found my Tribe within the Tribe: the Vineyard Scholars.  From a certain perspective, I might be a scholar.  I am not a theologian, but I do love theology. But what makes this Tribe within the Tribe dear to me is that, in hanging around them, reading them and engaging with them in conversation, I feel at home in both my head and my heart. This group is a grace from God to me.  They make me feel sane, they challenge me, they remind me what I have always loved about the Vineyard from the very first day I walked into my very first Vineyard Church meeting.

But lately I feel I am standing at a crossroads. I feel like I am standing at the center of an X where trajectories would appear to offer alternate futures from this time and place we’ve been sharing together. I love my Vineyard Tribe, but the question I contemplate a lot is this: what happens when your Tribe stops behaving like your Tribe?

From my perspective there are 4 Vineyards within the Vineyard today.  Let’s call one “Vineyard Classic.”  That’s the Vineyard that Carol Wimber gathered in her living room and connected with God in worship using 3 chords and a lot of hunger.  I’d call number two “Vineyard lite”, we maintain our continuity with our history but we’ve pursued legitimacy and reputation over our values.  We’re much more about church growth than we are about Kingdom theology.  The 3rd version I see on the go and growing is “Baptiyard,” a strange Baptist/Vineyard hybrid that references the Holy Spirit, teaches on the Holy Spirit but utilizes the Spirit as a tool and more likely to listen to experts on “exponential attendance growth” than waiting on the Holy Spirit. This group is invested in a primary goal, being a new mega-church (or at least a mini-mega-church). Finally, the 4th stream that flows is what I would call “Bethyard,” another hybrid, this one a mix of Bethel and the Vineyard.  There have always been some in the Vineyard who want more, more experiences of the “glory cloud/gold dust/angel feathers/stick quarters to the wall” stuff.  Who believe “everyone gets to play” but seem to think one or two of us are better at playing than the others. In the Vineyard we have embraced the Already and Not Yet of the Kingdom of God: an enacted inaugurated eschatology.  The Bethyard folks have simply concluded that in the Vineyard we’ve emphasized the “not yet” too much and they, like Bethel, prefer a realized eschatology and land heavily on the “already.” The trouble, of course, for the Bethyard folks is this – what do they do when a Bethel gets planted nearby? Why will people stick around for the hybrid when they could have the real thing?

Back to me. (…cause, y’know, it’s all about me…)

Seeing this all play out around me, like a stranger in a strange land, has me contemplating these days, wondering what happens when my Tribe doesn’t feel or behave like my Tribe anymore? These are probably the growing pains of any movement, we are young at this in the Vineyard. But for sure, some of us have already decided to take our stuff and go elsewhere.  And a recent letter let us know that some Vineyards haven’t been contributing their 3% and if it that doesn’t change by October, they will be presumed dead (my expression, not the Vineyards). Can a relational movement, as I have perceived it, survive when consultation and conversation is replaced by position papers and mass emails?  Or were we never a relational movement and I’m simply deluded?

In May, I participated in a two-day workshop hosted by my regional leaders and led by Derek Morphew. It was brilliant and I was reminded by both the content and the participants why Vineyard is my Tribe. But for me it was also bittersweet as my perception is that the content that focused on Mark and Kingdom theology is becoming an ever quieted voice within our Tribe and the values that pulled us all together with Jesus at the center, is becoming something other than what it once was.  We all grow, we all change, life is a process and this is not an ode to the good old days. This is just me, a little voice out on the edge that feels deeply indebted to my Tribe, deeply appreciative for who I perceive we are, but I am feeling increasingly doubtful that when I show up for the next reunion the Tribe I once discovered will be the Tribe I will find.