Paying for School

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

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Being Better Together - What Does It Take?

We are about half-way through our series on being better together - a fellowship of differents, at our church.

In these days of intense polarization we are staking out Galatians 3:28 for this whole series and the big idea Paul unpacks for the Galatians and eventually the Romans. Being in Christ changes the narrative geography we inhabit and the relationships we share with those who share that piece of mystical real estate.

Bonhoeffer wrote, “Life Together” and gave the Church in his time and place some guidance on what that should look like for all of us sharing this home in Christ. It’s guidance nearly completely stands the test of time and the shift in cultures. We would all be better off for having read it, even better for having applied it to our everyday lives.

In this post today I want to quickly offer a few thoughts for our current time and culture – a little guidance for my friends – on what being better together and living as a fellowship of different takes today.

To live successfully as a fellowship of differents, the beloved community, the outpost of the kingdom of heaven, we need to practice self-awareness.

Self-awareness is not self-consciousness or self-centeredness. It means regularly, honestly and fearlessly taking a look at the man or woman in the mirror. And almost all of the time, the mirror for having a look at ourselves is in our relationship with other people.

Other people are the gift God gives us to discover who we really are.

I’m quite good at fooling myself. I can very easily focus on my intentions rather than my actions, my most noble thoughts rather than my more perverse ones. And on another day I find it very easy to condemn myself and find no good thing in me, wretched man that I am. Community reminds me that the truth is somewhere in between. I’m neither angel nor devil but something more like the way Brennan Manning describes himself, “When I get honest, I admit I am a bundle of paradoxes. I believe and I doubt, I hope and get discouraged, I love and I hate, I feel bad about feeling good, I feel guilty about not feeling guilty. I am trusting and suspicious. I am honest and I still play games. Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer.”

Life before the mirror of community, authentic community, sharing life together, help me see myself in all my glory and all my imperfection. And this is good.

To live successfully as a fellowship of differents requires all of us sharing this home in Christ to be self-aware enough to recognize our incredible tendency to be wrong about things.

Do you know the difference between how you feel on the inside when you are wrong about something and when you are right about something?

There is no difference. 

Until you know you are wrong you feel exactly the same on the inside as you do when you are sure you are right. We need each other, this fellowship of different to help us discover the places and ways in which we are wrong – BUT STILL LOVED.

I am biased. So are you. It’s our broken default setting. We need to practice self-awareness by being willing to admit we all have bias, we all listen through our bias and speak through our bias and that’s dangerous only when we are unaware of our bias. Life together helps uncover our bias. It helps us recognize that our “normal” setting actually looks quite different from the “normal” setting of others and we might need to actually contemplate what “normal” really is.

These are two big ideas, two major practices for doing life together as a fellowship of differents, that I have seen profoundly lacking in the church today. Not just the church I attend but THE Church. I’ve seen the absence or lack of these two aspects of self-awareness tear up families, workplaces and churches.

The Red Green Possum lodge prays this simple prayer, “I'm a man, but I can change, If I have to, I guess.” Maybe it can be a starting place for us and our capacity for self-awareness.

Within the fellowship of differents, our greatest need when it comes to self-awareness is our awareness that we are in need of grace. God’s grace and the grace of God extended to us through other people, especially our friends. As followers of Jesus we often talk about grace and reference grace, even expressing appreciation for grace and maybe even acknowledging our dependence on God’s grace.

And then we promptly walk away and act like had it covered.

Jesus told this story about a guy who needed grace.

Like a billion dollars’ worth of grace.

And the guy was given grace. A clean slate. And then he came across someone who owed him some pocket change and demanded immediate repayment.

In the story as Jesus told it, God does not take kindly to those who gratefully receive grace but do not willingly extend that grace to others.  This wasn’t a “get to heaven” parable, it was a story about how you and I are supposed to get along together, as different as we are.

Because here’s the deal. You need grace.

We're both the first guy in the story AND the second guy in Jesus' story.

You don’t just need God’s grace, you need grace from the people with whom you are doing life. 

Here’s an exercise – think of someone you know in your own little world who bugs the crap out of you. Someone you hope isn’t at the meeting, meal or get together. Someone who doesn’t even have to speak before you are already on edge around them.

You are that person for someone else. Someone close to you. Someone you think of as a good friend. Some days you are that person to many people. 

I promise.

If you don't already know this it is because people around you don't feel like you can bear hearing it, worry what hearing it would do to your relationship with them or you have power of some kind over them and they fear reprisal.

But the truth of doing life together is that people you love sometimes think you stink and some people you're doing life with who you feel like you or are with you ALSO think you stink. Doing life together with love and mercy at the center can bear this.

I have a friend who killed someone.

He was driving downtown in a heavy downpour and had several more drinks than anyone should have when they are behind the wheel of a car. On the road ahead of him a young man tried to run in the rain as quickly as he could from one side of the street to the other. My friend saw him, but didn’t react quickly enough – and there was plenty of time – and hit and killed him.

My friend turned himself in and did time and on his release he sought out the father of the young man he killed. He sought grace. He was looking for forgiveness. The father of the young man showed mercy and extended forgiveness and grace and even reconciliation so that he became a guiding influence in my friend’s life.

But here’s the part of the story that I need to get to – this friend of mine practiced grace in the most irritating relationships he found himself in after that because he was self-aware enough to know that he had killed another man and that a father had given him grace and forgiveness for what he thought could never be forgiven.

My prayer would be that we all catch the revelation of how much we have been forgiven, you and I. May we all have the self-awareness to see how much grace we need and more freely extend that grace to the people we know and don’t know. I would ask God to expand all of our capacities to walk humbly with one another and gracefully with one another and instead of judging we might extend a hand of mercy.

After all, mercy does triumph over judgment. When we practice self-awareness we will embrace mercy as a way of life together.

Brother’s Keeper
by Rich Mullins

Now the plumber's got a drip in his spigot
The mechanic's got a clank in his car
And the preacher's thinking thoughts that are wicked
And the lover's got a lonely heart
My friends ain't the way I wish they were
They are just the way they are

And I will be my brother's keeper
Not the one who judges him
I won't despise him for his weakness
I won't regard him for his strength
I won't take away his freedom
I will help him learn to stand
And I will, I will be my brother's keeper

Now this roof has got a few missing shingles
But at least we got ourselves a roof
And they say that she's a fallen angel
I wonder if she recalls when she last flew
There's no point in pointing fingers
Unless you're pointing to the truth

And I will be my brother's keeper
Not the one who judges him
I won't despise him for his weakness
I won't regard him for his strength
I won't take away his freedom
I will help him learn to stand
And I will, I will be my brother's keeper

…to be continued…

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Being Better Together

The church I’m a part of is about to begin a new series that is meant to be an invitation for us to think and feel and discern what it means to be a fellowship of differents.

What does living that out look like?

The old story goes like this…you can build a better and bigger church by making as much as you can of the principle of homogeneity. Like draws like and the more you are the same the more comfortable people will be gathering together. It’s a kind of “path of least resistance” to getting the maximum number of people under the same roof.

There are a few problems with that story but not least among them is that this bears no resemblance to the kingdom Jesus came to build.

Martin Luther King Jr. called the church out when he observed, "it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning." We’ve segregated ourselves. No one did this to us. And that is the most appalling part of it for me.

We segregate ourselves by ethnicity, by culture, by age, by socio-economics, by theology, by politics, by a multitude of preferences so that we can gather together to convince ourselves we’ve got something everyone else needs.

The thing is, we’ve been at this for 2000 years and counting. Wouldn’t you think we’ve had sorted this out by now? Am I the only one that thinks our will to segregate negates our authority to speak to the dominant culture?

Scott McKnight, in his book A Fellowship of Differents, writes, "The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens, we show the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together are designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a family."

I don’t know if anyone has ever been given an “F” for show-and-tell but we definitely deserve one.
If our churches – no, if our lives – don’t reflect the diversity of our community, we are not living like Jesus.


The early church didn’t take to this like a fish to water either. This is hard work. Read James or 1 Timothy or 1 Thessalonians or 1 Corinthians or the Didache. Doing something new means doing hard work. There have been some bright lights, some hopeful communities, some tastes of what this beloved community can be like but we struggle to sustain it.

Because it is hard work.

Because it is costly.

Because it is the path of the most resistance.

But it is the good life.

Can I be offensive and suggest that I’ve seen as many or more people who are not Christians living this good life than I have seen Christians who embrace it?

Can I risk being offensive to tell you that the evangelical system of the last 100 years has taught us to be partisan in the worst ways and called “holy” our bent towards division?

There is a movement of churches of which I am familiar that published a resource for their churches on how to have difficult conversations. It’s a key practice for anyone who wants to be in the beloved community, a fellowship of differents. But here’s the deal, as a movement of churches they kind of suck at having difficult conversations. I’m sure they happen. I’ve heard they happen. But I’ve also heard from more people who didn’t get invited to have them than I’ve met people who did get invited to have them.

Why bring that up? Because historically we, as Christians, are great at telling everyone how they ought to live, what’s wrong with them, the way things out to be done, but when it comes down to us doing it – being better together – embracing each other in a fellowship of different – we kind of suck. 

But we don’t have to.

(to be continued)

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Thoughts on Worship to Alienate More Friends

The other day I received an email that offered to help me up our game when it comes to stage lighting.

Quoting lighting and worship leaders from various churches, the article extolled the virtues of being able to set mood, adjust the lighting temperature for video cameras, use LED panels for dynamic backgrounds…generally to create a vibe.

One hard-working lighting pastor even spends part of his work week contemplating how to use the lighting to enhance the preaching pastor’s message.

The other day I was messaging with a pastor friend who was displaced by a recent hurricane and moved his whole congregation of 300 people under a big top to worship together in a parking lot.

And then another hurricane came through and shredded their “tent of meeting” and left them, I guess, with just the parking lot to worship in.

The juxtaposition of these two situations got me thinking about what we’ve made of worship through technology.

I’m not a Hutterite. I’m not against technology. I love electric guitar, amplification and bass that I can feel in my chest. I even like lighting, especially when it helps me see what’s going on. I prefer projected lyrics and I use powerpoint and video clips when I preach.

But there comes a point when we have to ask whether we are using technology appropriately for our worship context and even whether we are using it ethically.

I’ve watched over the last 30 years (wait, what? Am I really that old?) as the “vibe” has changed. I’ve embraced most of that change, even lobbied for a lot of it.

But if I’m honest, I have to admit that there are some unintended consequences.

People sing less and watch more. Not all people, not everywhere but as I travel I have noticed in the various places I go the congregational singing that happened as we held onto our hymnals has become more spectator and less participant as the lights have gone down and production value has gone up.

I don’t mind saying the worship team is performing or even that I am performing when I preach. But I think we’ve rigged the game with the amount of technology we use and created an atmosphere, a concert vibe, that affects both the worship team and the worhippers in less than helpful ways.

Years ago I was leading worship and we were approaching a moment when the electric guitar would carry the song through a time intended to be reflective. As we came to that moment I caught, out of the corner of my eye, my young, electric guitar player doing “the walk” until he reached his stage monitor, put his foot up on it and proceeded to bang his head during one of the slowest rock n roll solos I have ever heard.

We all loved him but I knew then that we had created a sort of Christian Karaoke out of our worship. Some folks like Karaoke. Some folks are bored by it. Some are just mystified by it. Some look for another bar.

There’s also, I think, an ethical nature to the kind of production this article talks about. The word “manipulation” isn’t used but it’s really at the heart of the article. We have the technology to manipulate people’s emotions and through their emotions we can manipulate their wills.

I get that worship does that on a natural level. The words and music have their effect on us. But like the old preacher who would start his invitation for salvation at the end of his message by telling a dead dog story, a story to elicit strong emotions, we are using technology in our worship that elicits a strong emotional response which people are confusing for the Spirit. My hope is that as followers of Jesus we can agree that manipulation is wrong.

Here’s where I need to bring up the beard.

How many whiskers does it take to make a beard? Two? Four? Twenty-four? It’s difficult to say how many whiskers make up a beard. And yet we know a beard when we see one.

I bring up the beard because someone will inevitably ask, “How much technology does it take before it becomes manipulation?” or something like that.  We don’t have to come up with percentages to know manipulation when we see it. And we need to avoid manipulating people.

“The way the kingdom comes is the kingdom that comes.”

Back to my friend, Lucas, in a parking lot without even a tent to meet in. I suspect that they will find a way to worship and their worship will not be harmed by the lack of LED panels to control the lighting temperature for live streaming nor would it be enhanced by the same. Worship is not in our production, it’s what we bring in our hearts and heads when we gather.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far way called California, some hippies started a revolution. Some of them plugged in. But it was simple. It did not require fog or haze. Follow spots did not help enhance the mood. LED tape did not elevate people. There was no auto-tune to make it sound just right.

Technology has always come with this promise of an easier lifestyle. I think we’ve embraced this in our contemporary worship here in North America and used it to create “vibes” because that’s a lot easier than a lifestyle of worship that carries its own “vibe” with it.

My hope is that we discern the difference between worship and manipulation, between production and producing and between the end and the means. The juice is worth the squeeze, as my friend Jason says. Worship offers us a better promise than technology can ever deliver on.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to go watch my Facebook friends count go down.