Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Gracious Words

Every Tuesday morning our staff meets together. It's called "Devo", and it takes various forms; occasionally it's mostly prayer requests and time praying. Sometimes there are tears and vulnerability. Sometimes there are powerful teaching moments.

Sometimes I get to be in charge, and there's singing! And art! And creative things! Today was one of those days, and I thought I'd share it here.

I'd been thinking about a few things: The power of words, and the closeness of our staff, and the hectic nature of the holiday season, and the impending chaos of travel and all the things church folk do from Thanksgiving until Christmas, when the angels sing and we all collapse and take a week off. A plan began to formulate, and I set a few things in motion.

I contacted a few of our artists and asked for help; I distributed 5 x 7 canvasses and the names of our staff members and asked for a simple color wash and this text across the top:

I thank my God when I remember ___________

The blank space would hold the name of one of the staff members, so that each person would have their own pretty canvas.

The artists were awesome - one of them revealed some very ambitious skills and did a bit more decorating than we expected, which was impressive and extremely special. It did force me to explain that their was nothing personal in the fact that eight people got fancy trees and flowers and such, while the others got a color wash and ONLY a color wash - but it ended up absolutely perfect in every way, and I'm so grateful for Amy and Connie and Mary contributing their time and talent to honor these folks in this way.

It was good.

I read a verse, from Proverbs, and talked about the power of words. We often say, "Words matter" around our workplace, and it's true. Even for those who are not, by nature, "words people", the power of a well-timed word of encouragements and affirmation can carry weight beyond our understanding. As we approach the time of year that will leave us all with too much to do and too little time, it will be easy to lose sight of the fact that we are bound in unity with one another, in our calling and our sharing and the way we do life together, as we work together.

Ministry is hard work. You often find yourself offering things that people aren't sure they want. Humility is a requirement, and it's not always easy to access. Somebody is always disappointed, or mad, or hurt, and managing healthy compassion with honest self-differentiation is a challenge. The culture has shifted, and acceptance of spiritual leaders is often tinged with resentment, disinterest or worse.

But here we are, and off we go to do our work each day, and one of the greatest benefits is the family that we've become. So, today we took the time to share our words and our thoughts, to let one another know why each one mattered. It was a beautiful thing to me, and afterwards, as I read over each canvas, the world looked just a bit brighter.

My friend Kriston often says, "Be kind". I agree. Be kind. Be gracious. Kindness would go a long way to ease suffering, bring understanding and begin healing.

Start with yourself today, and then let it spill over into your family - even the challenging members - through this holiday. This much is true:

Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul 
and healing to the bones. - Proverbs 16.24

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Coming Out

I can't sleep because I have a blog post churning in my head. It's too many words; it's not enough words.

Something needs to come out of my head and heart.

There was a huge buzz about our church services yesterday. You can see the message online here, and I encourage you to do so; but the point is that our pastor "came out". He made two critical statements in his message:

"Sex is a sacred gift from God only when it exists within the bounds of marriage between one man and one woman. All other sexual expression outside of marriage between one man and one woman is less than the sacred blessing God had in mind for us."

And then:

"To our LGBT friends, I want you to know that God loves you, this church loves you, and I love you as your pastor. I want you to know that you are welcome here. We will embrace you, love you, and do life with you."

On one hand, we took a stand of sorts; PCC will not affirm same-sex marriages, because we cannot see Biblical support for it, or for any sexual intimacy outside of marriage between a man and a woman. 

That also means that we don't believe anybody - gay or straight - should be sexually intimate outside of marriage. And we believe God establishes marriage as a covenant between male and female partners.

On the other hand, we affirmed that there are people seeking to know more about God and have a relationship with Jesus who currently attend PCC and are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender. There are more who are outside the doors. My pastor looked up and said, "You are welcome here. We love you." He acknowledged the existence of LGBT people in our faith community and affirmed their presence.

This is the crux of who we are as a church: Welcoming broken people, guiding them to follow Jesus.

Lest this sound like all sorts of awesome - well, it's not, not completely. We haven't always done this well. We've lacked clarity. We haven't always loved and accepted gay people who have come through our doors. People have been hurt - not just by Christians as a group, or by political parties or protesters, but specifically by PCC. 

We're sorry. We're seeking a better way.

How can we do this? On one hand, draw a line around marriage that excludes same-sex couples who believe God is leading them in that direction; on the other, say that LGBT men and women are welcome to live and do church among us. Isn't that messy?

Heck, yeah, it's messy.

It's hard. It's a lot of tears. It's been years of reading and praying and listening and talking. It's fighting and frustration and fear and a lot of prayer and sleepless nights. It's wishing for the easy way, for the freedom to pick one side or the other and fall hard into that camp and feel safe. It's the paradox of scriptural teaching that has endured centuries alongside the very real lives of my uncle, and my cousin, and Rhonda, and Melissa, and Chris, and Ryan, and Carrie, and Rob, and Wendell, and Sarah, and Kim, and Brenn, and Ashley, and Josh, and Judy, and Austin, and Jennifer, and Dawn, and Zach, and Catherine.

It would be so much easier to pick a side, believe we're right - which, by default, makes everybody else wrong - and then comfortably live in our righteousness. And defend it, as needed.

But that's not the direction God is calling us. Quite frankly, it's not at all the example Jesus set as he lived his life (and did that whole death and resurrection thing, where he forgave a criminal and let him into heaven and all that).

Brian ended the message with a powerful challenge that we drop our stones. It resonated - literally, as we dropped heavy stones into trash cans. It was a powerful symbol of Jesus's teaching, of our call to love and rebuild and repair.

But in these 24 hours since the trash cans filled with rocks, I've been thinking a lot about holiness

My own.

See, I can - we all can - easily stand there, surrounded by all the stones we dropped, feeling good about not being judgemental. Standing.




And yet...

The text for the message centered on Jesus's encounter with a woman caught in adultery. He blasted the religious folk who wanted to stone her and they all dropped their stones and went away. He told her that he wouldn't condemn her, either. And there they stood, surrounded by stones. Still.

But not for long.

Jesus said, "Go."

He set her feet moving with a command and a challenge. "Go and sin no more."

"Go, and avoid the sins that plague you."

"Go on your way; from now on, don't sin."

"Don't sin anymore."

Here's the thing: We can get all jacked up with shouts of praise and excitement about the power of our tribe refusing to judge. We can affirm our pastor's wisdom. We can get on board with the call to live in the messiness of doing life with broken people. We can declare I LOVE MY CHURCH! for all to hear - and it's all good. It's important. It's meaningful and true.

But if any of us ignores the challenge to 'go and sin no more', we miss half the story.

Drop the stone, for sure.

But pursue holiness. Strive to find God's best for your life. Confess your sins to him, and do what you can to avoid them.

Just as we all have rocks, we all have sins. And the hardest work we do happens inside, in private.

Let's become a holy people, all of us together. Let our stones, piled up, become a symbol of our desire to follow Jesus with all of our soul and mind and strength. Let us do business with God, make our own lives right. Let's forge our identity out of who we are in Christ - and let's figure out how to do that by dealing with our own junk.

My favorite scripture is this: Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and act according to his good purpose. Philippians 2.12

How do you need to do that today? What's his purpose for you?

Drop the stone. And get to work.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Tom Magliozzi And The Downhill Slope

"I know I'm fully entrenched in middle age. I have six pair of reading glasses. And I can't find any of them."

I made this declaration in the middle of a senior staff meeting this morning.

It's true. It's snuck up on me, with the gray hair and the weird skin and the weight gain and the creaky knees and achy joints.

The vision thing is the most frustrating, because my eyes are already ridiculously weak. My contact prescription is a -9.0 I'm so nearsighted that contacts or glasses are absolutely essential to living; I literally could not function without them.

And now, even with the glasses or contacts, I can't read anything without the help of the El Cheapo reading glasses that clutter the various places in my life where Things Get Lost.

There are worse things, I'm sure. This is a nuisance and an annoyance.

But it's also a reminder that there is a finite nature to this life. I am, for the first time, looking daily at the downhill slope; the perspective from which things (and body parts) wear out. Where much maintenance is required.

Tom Magliozzi died this week. Half of the Car Talk duo, his voice was familiar to me. Every Saturday morning, NPR carries his show (in reruns for the past two years) and the jokes and the car advice and the puzzlers and the laughter always echo in my kitchen as the weekend begins. It's a constant rhythm to my life. The common sense doled out by Tom and his brother Ray reminds me of my dad and his wealth of knowledge about cars.

His laugh was contagious.

I've listened to Tom and Ray for years. I know their voices. I'd never seen their faces.

Upon the sad news of Tom's death this week, I explored the web to learn a bit more about his life. And I saw his face.

Terry Gross interviewed Doug Berman, who produced Car Talk. He talked about the infectious nature of Tom's laugh.

"It was almost a force, almost separate from him," Berman says. "It was always lurking, trying to come out. And he would see something funny coming a few sentences away, and he would start to laugh while he was talking, and he'd kind of be laughing and it would almost overtake him like a wave."

Tom Magliozzi died at 77, of complications from Alzheimer's disease. The downhill slope, for him and his family, was undoubtedly a difficult loss of place and time and memories. Maintenance wasn't really an option, I suppose; the disease takes what it pleases and leaves a sort of emptiness.

But not completely. In his interview, Berman said he had seen Tom a week or so before he died, and that they made funny faces at one another and then Tom laughed, the same laugh.

It matters, what we leave behind. They are gifts, memories, treasures.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A Collision

I spent a good part of the workday engaged in an online conference called The Nines. The subheading, Culture Crash: When Church and Culture Collide, gave a good indicator of the topics of
conversation that the organizers planned.

I've participated in this online event in years past, and it's been a positive experience. Essentially, it's a group of evangelical "names" talking to each other, about each other and about the church - specifically, leadership in the evangelical church. The bulk of the content is delivered in short, nine-ish minute prerecorded video segments by folks who are generally considered to be current ministry successes; the folks who are doing it right.

So we heard today from several mega church pastors; we heard from a few folks who are doing things well. There were women (but not too many). There were a lot of inside jokes and an abundance of beards.

I engaged online primarily because of the topic; as the culture around us changes (as they are wont to do), a church like ours has to pay attention. We have to respond; it is essential. Why?

The point of focus of our church is to reach people who are turned off by the traditional churches available to them, and we do so by leaning hard into authenticity and brokenness. We try to meet people where they are, and then walk with them to where they need to be; from disease to wholeness, from dysfunction to relational health, from confusion to clarity. We believe in Jesus and we believe in the power of God; we are connected to the historical doctrine and creeds of the Christian faith, and impacted and influenced by the very real transformational power and experiences we see in our community. We believe everybody is broken.

So broken people show up at our church, which is what we want. And we welcome them with arms wide open, and it gets messy, and sometimes it goes sideways. But overall, we cling - sometimes desperately - to the hope we have in the kind, generous grace of Jesus, and broken things become whole.

But the conversation is changing, in regards to how we frame what is broken and what is not. Cultural views on sexual ethics and relative truth morph as the world speeds up and technology changes and generations ebb and flow. The Nines sought, ostensibly, to have a conversation that mattered about such things.

And, to some degree, they succeeded. They gave airtime to an atheist, who presented a valuable and insightful perspective from outside of the evangelical Christian bubble looking in. They talked about LGBTQ issues (although, to their discredit, they only talked about rather than with). Christian civility got a lot of air time (because Lord knows, that's not really something Christians are known for). Tomorrow's agenda includes social justice, immigration, and changing sexual norms.

At least they - we - are talking. The church and current western culture is colliding, and people are being hurt. We do not have all the answers, and it is simply not enough to say, "Well, Jesus IS the answer!" because, quite frankly, it's not working. People walk away and I'm not enough of a Calvinist to think that we are off the hook when they do so because we aren't willing to hold up our end of the conversation.

At least we are talking.

/ / /

With crashing cultures coursing through my thoughts, as the workday ended I got ready for the satisfaction of a birthday promise I'd made to my youngest daughter, the theater student. I've heard tons of great press about The Book of Mormon - lots of awards, lots of positive comments. I saw it was coming to Richmond last spring; tickets weren't available in July, but I promised Syd I'd take her as a birthday gift. Between her schedule and mine, we were thrilled to discover - at the last minute - that we could make opening night tonight. Yesterday, I bought tickets for Syd, me and my mom - carefully choosing not to invite my mother-in-law, as I had heard that the show might be a tiny bit offensive.

Thoroughly corrupted.
Some of you, familiar with the show, might be laughing right now. At the least, you are rolling your eyes and smirking.

Incredibly entertaining, very funny and powerfully produced, The Book of Mormon is, without a doubt, the most offensive, vulgar production I've ever seen.

The fourth musical number has a made-up, tribal language title that is translated in the course of the song. It means (supposedly), "F**k you, God", and is used by the Uganda villagers to relate the despair of their circumstances. The phrase is repeated.

A lot.

Mormon prophets are mocked, as is Jesus, who has LED lights in his robe and calls Elder Price a d*ck in a dream sequence.

The crisis of faith encountered by the lead character reveals a perspective on belief - especially the more fantastical, supernatural parts - that makes it all seem utterly ridiculous.

The entire show mocks faith in general, not just Mormons.

And there were mock penises and F-words galore and and a few other choice expletives; all sung in perfect harmony with great dance moves.

Now, one might ask just what the heck I was doing there, as someone who serves as a pastor and leader at a Christian church. Quite honestly, I really didn't know what I was getting into. I knew it was a little risque - but I had no idea (frankly, I didn't even know you could do stuff like that on a public stage!)


But here's the deal; as I sat and watched - and found myself offended and slightly uncomfortable - I decided to let the story unfurl. I laughed, because some parts were really, really funny. I considered the immense talent on the stage. I empathized with the loss of innocence of Elder Price, who really thought that Heavenly Father would grant him his desire to serve his mission in the most perfect place in the universe: Orlando. And I looked for some truth and grace.

And as the tale unfolded, I saw it. Clearly connected to the monologues and conversations of the earlier evangelical conference I participated in:

This is the culture we live in.

It's a world that sees little value in the church. It's a world desensitized to vulgar language and sexual references. It's a world that doesn't shy away from mocking people revered by others.

And yet it's a world that can laugh at itself while clinging to a little bit of hope that we could and should be nicer to one another.

A world that knows that acceptance has to be found inside of ourselves

A world that recognizes that not everything is what it seems, but that sometimes it's worth it to push on through.

A world that recognizes the immense power of partnerships and community.

I could have done without the F-words. The fourth song quite literally, seriously hurt my heart and - to use old religious parlance - grieved my soul. I was offended by the vulgarity.

But the story rang true and clear.

It was the most compelling cultural collision 
I could have witnessed. 

We walked out of the theater and headed towards the parking garage. Right across the street, where the drummers always play, stood eight young men.

Black pants. White shirts and ties. Name badges.

At first glance, I thought they'd walked off the stage in costume and out into the street.

But they were the real deal; they were Mormons, on mission, and they were engaging with folks coming out of the theater. They were smiling. They were complimentary of the talent on the show and the commitment of the creators.

"Read the book," he said. "It's even better. And it's really true."

I wasn't up for that discussion, but I walked away impressed. When church and culture collide, we can condemn it, talk about it, or get up in disgust and walk out (a consideration during that fourth musical number, I confess.)

Or we can witness the ever-glorious beauty of our frail humanity as we struggle to make sense out of all that is broken in us and around us, and rejoice for the bits of grace that leak out.

And then wait on the corner for the chance to talk through it, with anyone who's got an ear to hear, who might want to wade towards clarity with a friendly face.

We are all more connected than we realized; when we collide, it might feel rough, but it can always be a good thing if we look for the light. Collisions always result in bruises and bumps. but I do believe that we are compelled to get up, shake it off and keep moving forward. That's where grace gets to live.