Paying for School

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

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.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Questions and Answers for Steven

Recently, Pastor Steven Furtick was asked the following questions for an email interview.  He declined to answer.  So, in the interest of helping a guy out, I offer my answers which he is very welcome to borrow…

1) You say you were inspired to write (Un)Qualified after being called out by a critic on YouTube. Tell us that story and how it shaped your definition of what it means to be qualified?

Obviously I can’t help with the story but I can tell you what it means to me to be “qualified.”
Honestly, I feel like I’m the most inadequate person to be doing what I do – not just as a pastor but as a husband, a dad, a neighbor and, well, a human being. What qualifies me, I believe, in all these areas is the love of God that is manifest in Jesus Christ. To borrow from Paul – if God is for us, who can be against us? And one more line – God’s strength is perfected in my weakness. To boil that down – I guess what I think qualifies me is that I am aware of my own limitations, shortcomings and sin and have confidence that in His love, God equips me with all I need to live the life to which he has called me. I’m qualified to live my story, not yours, not Steven’s, not anyone else’s, by the love of God, the grace of God meeting my willingness to acknowledge my weakness and my need.
p.s. I probably should have read Steven’s book before answer that…

2) You point out that the Bible is filled with stories of broken people that God has used to do big things. What is an area of brokenness in your life that outsiders would be surprised to learn about?

I try to be pretty transparent about my stuff, my wife thinks I may be too transparent. The brokenness that I am most keenly aware of is how selfish I can be.  My primary addiction is to myself and whenever someone tells me to “take care of yourself” I almost respond, “get behind me Satan!” because nobody takes better care of me than me. (I know God takes better care of me as His child but I look after – to use an old Bible word – “my flesh” like a boss.) That means I wrestle with pride and judging my best against other people’s worst a lot and I wrestle with keeping my eyes and thoughts where they ought to be. And writing this I am realizing that I also struggle with what you think of me too because after my previous sentence I’m now worried about it.

3) Some of your critics will undoubtedly say that you writing a book about being qualified is ironic because they don’t think you are qualified to lead in ministry. They claim you are arrogant and that your church operates on a cult of personality. How do you respond to such things?

Well, all I can think of is to apologize to my critics and those I have hurt or let down and ask them to forgive me.  I suppose my response is to spend some time in prayer and introspection, listening to the Spirit’s voice on this. I can definitely be arrogant, so I need to own that and make amends where I can.  Making sure other leaders are released and recognized in their ministries will hopefully defuse any sense of spotlight that might land on me.  A cult of my personality would be so incredibly boring that I don’t think we’d draw much of a crowd.

4) Some are uncomfortable with the size of your house and the level of personal luxury you’ve achieved. They say this proves you are unqualified to lead. You’ve publicly thanked God for your house, saying you live in line with Jesus’ teachings. In a world of poverty and prosperity preaching, does a pastor’s personal wealth reflect on his or her qualification for ministry, in your mind?

I think my use of my wealth definitely reflects on my qualification for ministry.  I live in the tension of being part of the 1% while part of a world where brothers and sisters of mine are going to bed hungry regularly.  Daily. I think greed is a pervasive and acceptable sin in our western world, though we typically don’t preach or teach on it.  I sometimes feel bad about the amount of stuff I have, not based on merit, simply based on the needs of my family.  These things have to create tension in our lives and we must live lives that reflect that tension or we can hardly say we’re being influenced by Jesus.

5) You say, “God can’t bless who you pretend to be.”  What do you mean by that?

I can’t say what Steven means but I can say that the masks we wear insulate us from God’s transformative love and isolate us from each other.  I think a big part of the work the Spirit does in our lives is to restore who we were made to be rather than who we would like to be and definitely freeing us from who we pretend to be.

6) How have you pretended to be something you are not in your own life and ministry?

I’ve tried on so many other pastors and their ministries over the last 30 years that it makes my head hurt to think about it.  I’ve read books, attended conferences and seminars and then tried to be these other people and live their story in my context or particularity.  It doesn’t work. Not really.  In fact, I’d say it poisons the soul.  I’m conscious today that I live under the influence of others and I’m cool with that, but I also like me and who God created me to be.  I embrace my introverted self, my quirks and weirdness and the awkwardness that is part of being who I am.  If I’m honest though, I have to admit that pretending comes easy but hopefully between the Holy Spirit and my wife I get called out enough to break the habit.  Getting older has given me the gift of feeling this need to pretend become smaller and smaller.

7) How do you distinguish between what it means to be qualified in God’s eyes versus the world’s eyes? Does one’s reputation among outsiders matter?

In my experience, it comes down to the voice of the Holy Spirit talking to me, convicting me, encouraging me, guiding me to know what counts with God.  I’ve seen way too many “qualified” leaders in the Church crash and burn or their families and marriages implode or their hubris get the better of them.  The problem, of course, is that we’ve built an evangelical machine that feeds this and rewards it until they crash.  (And even then we can offer a great contract for a book on how they rebounded.) No one in the Church gets there alone, we’ve fueled it, fed it and applauded it – we drink the Kool-Aid and then ask for more.  We can’t blame these men and women alone; we bear the weight of this with them.  Does reputation among outsiders matter?  Absolutely.  But “reputation” in the sense that we live like Jesus, a man of “no reputation.” We don’t want to be jerks for Jesus but if the world is applauding us and calling us successful, we need to double check our lives. To some we’re going to smell like death, to others we’ll smell like fresh air – we should always be evaluating how we smell and to whom we stink.

That's it, I hope that's helpful Steven and I appreciate Jonathan Merritt asking these questions and giving me a nudge for some time with the Spirit today to clean out some closets. Are there questions that are too scary for you to answer? Which of these 7 would you rather not think about?  Should leaders expect to be accountable for the way they live and choices they make?