Tag Archives: discipleship

Pastor! Do You Love Your City?

kalamazooCityBkgThe above is a picture of my city.  Kalamazoo.  The place we have been called to and have chosen to live.  As a friend of mine would say, it is beautifully flawed.

Our community, the Kalamazoo community, is still reeling from the violence which has recently shaken us.  It has shaken our faith, our ability to trust – not only God but others. It has shaken our sense of security.

In the midst of this aftermath, there is something that has not been shaken in me.  In fact, I believe it has deepened. My love.

I could talk about my call to this community, but I believe you can experience a call to a particular place you do not love – think Jonah.

But love.  Several times I have been asked how the recent shootings in Kalamazoo have personally impacted me.  And at first I wasn’t sure how to answer.  Over the last two weeks, in the midst of a life-giving learning community, I began to realize the deepest impact has been love.

As a pastor my call is to a particular congregation (Haven) within a particular denomination (the RCA); but my call has always been to much more.  It has always been a call to the larger Church and to the broader community.  Always.

The call to pastor in the context of a city, or a community, is a call to love that city with the love of Jesus.  And the events of the past few weeks have clarified and deepened my love for Kalamazoo and the community surrounding it. I love the congregation with whom I serve, I love the larger Church of Kalamazoo and I believe I cannot truly seek the Shalom of God for the Kalamazoo area if I do not love Kalamazoo.

Jeremiah 29:7 tells us to seek the welfare of the city we are in, to pray for it to prosper.

In the last two weeks I have had several interactions which have caused me to ask this question:

Pastor, do you love the city you are in?

I’m not asking if you love what you do.  I’m not asking if you love your congregation or denomination.  I am asking if you love the city you have been placed by God in to partner with Him in reconciling and restoring all things.

Do you love your city?

Your city knows.  It experiences you.  The city you are in has a heart beat and knows.  Would you wonder with me if your city experiences you as a Jonah who didn’t want to be in Ninevah or if your city experiences you weeping along with Jesus over it?

Pastor, do you love your city?


Sometimes Being Stuck Is Good

stuck in mudMany years ago.  Many.  Six of us took a guys trip to the national forest in Colorado camping.  It was a father-son trip.  Two dads a little older than me each brought their sons and I brought my dad.  We drove to Colorado in an old van that didn’t have all its seats.

In Colorado we rented a Jeep Wrangler to play with in the wilderness.  We were set. 1 big expedition style tent, cots, bags, food, fishing poles, the jeep and more food.  The weather was amazing, the sky so clear at night.  I had a pile of books I read sitting in the mountains.  It was an amazing trip.

On the trip we took the jeep everywhere.  There were six of us and the jeep held 4.  We didn’t care, we doubled up and put all of us in the jeep.  

One evening we went out on some 2 track trails through the forested mountainside.  Several times we had to gun it to get through some deep, slushy mud.  It was muddy and it was fun!

Cruising down a hill and a quick turn to the left brought us to a stop, however.  Before us was a good 40 – 50 yards of deep, wet, fun looking mud!

John is driving and my dad is in the front seat next to him.  “Do we go?” John asks looking at me with a grin on his face.  His son Daniel is on my lap and Mike, sitting next to me, has his son on his, “I’m not sure we can make it” he says.  My dad is quiet.

“Yes, let’s do it!” I exclaim.  My dad turns and looks at me, “I thought I raised you smarter than that,” he says with a smile.  “I’m just like you, dad!  Let’s go!”

We make it half way.  Not even close before we spin to a stop.  Mud is up to the floor boards and the wheels have nothing to grip.

Climbing out we are all over our knees in mud.  It’s glorious.  Driven by our anxiety, immediately a flurry of talking erupts about how we are going to get unstuck – Nobody is excited about walking miles back through the wilderness to a real road to find help.  Prospects of getting unstuck on our own looks slim.

Pushing forward and backward and forward and backward. Back and forth and back and forth with mud flying everywhere. No progress except to be covered in mud!  “Let’s stop trying,” I say.  “When else can we just enjoy being stuck in the mud in the middle of something so beautiful, look around us!”

And it was beautiful.  Gorgeous.  But we were so hopelessly focused on getting unstuck we couldn’t see it.  The beauty in the mud.

We caught our breath.  We breathed.  We laughed at our mess.

Whenever we get stuck – spiritually, in life, in doubt, in messes – we tend to work really hard to get unstuck.  Being stuck can be scary.  Its uncertain how things might turn out.  We have doubts and our doubts scare us.

Does God care?  What if I don’t survive?  I don’t think even God can fix this.  I don’t think God even loves me enough to care!

Our stuckness and doubts can be really uncomfortable and we want to get out as soon as we can.  We want to feel safe, be secure and know everything is always going to be ok.

But sometimes our doubts – our places of stuckness – are exactly where God wants us to be.  More often than not, those are the most beautiful places.  And the mud isn’t dirty, it glorious. Messy and glorious go together. 

Putting the jeep in 1st gear, we slowly drove ourselves out of the mud.  We were unstuck but the adventure was over.

It isn’t until we stop striving against our circumstances that Jesus shows up and lifts us out.  The same Jesus who cried out, “My God! My God! Why have your forsaken me!” is the one who loves you enough.

Do you have doubts?  That’s ok – so do I.  Are you stuck?  Me too.  Let’s be stuck together.


LOVE doesn’t WIN when we bash each other

Path Broken Between People

Even God’s people don’t always get along…

If you want a post with some sizzle, post something about Chick-fil-A.  If you want it to generate a lot of conversation, make it controversial.  If you really want to make it provocative, recast a story of something that took place in Chick-fil-A with the words “Spiritual Molestation” as the title. (we’ll see, cuz I’m doing it right here!)

Recently there was this experience in a Chick-fil-A that went a bit viral on Facebook.  You can read what happened here.  A blogger from Love Wins Ministries didn’t see what happened as good, but called it spiritual molestation, and later in his blog called it a “story about power and control.”  You can read his blog here.

I think I get what Hugh Hollowell is trying to say.  As Christians we offer love and that Gospel of Jesus without strings and  without obligation.  We give a cup of water, feed the hungry and clothe the naked without obligating them to something.  But I think he goes too far; and I think he forgets…

I think he forgets Jesus and how God has often operated in the world as we see in Scripture.

If what happened in a Chick-Fil-A, then what about: God causing Jonah’s only shade to shrivel up? Isaac’s trauma at being placed on the altar? Hosea being told to marry a prostitute?

While I understand that Hugh is concerned that the man in the story is being “used,” I think it would be helpful to look at the ministry of Jesus for a moment.

In Mark 12:41-44 Jesus a very poor widow give all she has (making her maybe poorer than the man in Chick-fil-A).  Instead of letting her giving pass by in secret, Jesus uses her as an object lesson.

In the beginning of Matthew 9 some people bring a paralyzed man before Jesus, and out of love he forgives the man’s sins.  But the man is still paralyzed and lying on his matt.  The teachers of the law were mumbling to themselves about Jesus.  Knowing the evil in their hearts, Jesus uses the man and his paralysis to demonstrate his power to forgive. Healing the man Jesus says this to those around him, “I will prove to you the Son of Man has authority on Earth…” It could have been anybody with any ailment.  The paralyzed man isn’t central in the story – it is about power and control between Jesus and religious leaders.

Even Paul, in prison, when he is told others are boldly proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus only so Paul suffers more, says as long as Jesus is proclaimed he is good with it.

But all of this is an example, a microscopic example, of the fracturing taking place in the Church in North America.  Rather than being busy about the work of the Gospel, we fight, nitpick and shoot our own.  And we justify ourselves by saying the truth must be known – about those other people – who love Jesus – the same Jesus we love – and maybe love him more than we do.

Church, hear this! The world is not impressed with our inbred divisive bickering.

Hugh is right.  The Gospel of John is clear.  God so loved the world. Period.  The Gospel is Love.  God is Love.  Jesus is God and all Jesus did, and does, was done in love. Even when he heals a man only to make a point to someone else, it is Love.

Dear Church, let us love one another, for love comes from God.

 


The Pain of Church Shopping

shoppingcart

Not long ago a new family showed up at Haven.  I was really excited to meet them.  They were at Haven because they didn’t like the direction of their former church.  I sent them packing.  I asked them to clean up any messes at their former church before settling on a new church home.  I haven’t seen them since.

Recently a family left our church. One of their members was hurt by another in the congregation. It wasn’t a superficial bumping against one another, but a deep hurt. The kind of wound that creates shame and the distance that accompanies it.

After several weeks I noticed their absence and reached out to them. I was told, “We’re church shopping. It isn’t you, we love Haven. But we believe we need to find another church home.” And quietly they slipped away.

I would be lying if I said the conversation didn’t hurt. It did. In some ways, it still does. Sometimes church people can be really mean to each other and that hurts my heart. More so, however, it hurts because I miss people I love.

I pastor a congregation that often sees many people come and go. There are valid reasons for leaving a congregation; and there are some pretty superficial ones. But we’ve all done it. Even pastors do it.

It’s called Church Shopping.

Fast forward. Several months. Almost a year. I am approached by a dedicated servant in the congregation, “Hey, have you seen so-and-so? I haven’t seen them recently and we were supposed to lead this ministry together.”

Feeling a little defensive, but not wanting to gossip, I am left with, “they have been looking for another church” as my response. The person I am talking to experiences some shock which transitions into sadness as well.

And here is where leaving where you are planted and shopping for a new church hurts so many.

We tend to do life from a perspective that puts us in the middle of the universe. Our comfort and/or desires become the end goal. So when we leave one church for another, we are usually only thinking about ourselves and not the people who will be hurt. Usually. There are always the exceptions.

Most of us think about our relationships with a congregation as a one-on-one relationship: me-to-church (the staff and attenders are all put into the church category) and the church-to-me. And when we leave, we typically think only about what we experience – which is valid to be sure! But, it isn’t the whole.

Our relationships within a congregation are not merely one-on-one, but they are multiplicative (a new word I learned from our children’s pastor).

Let’s say a family of 4 (and a dog) leaves a congregation. It isn’t just four people leaving a church. It is four people leaving a number of relationships. Let’s say the family knows another 40 families of 4. But that’s too big a number for me to work with – I don’t do math!

Let’s say each member of the family is close with 20 different individuals. According to my old math, that represents 80 direct relationships. That’s a lot! But let’s keep going. Let’s assume that each of those relationships takes place within a sub-system of other relationships.

To keep our math simple, let’s say there are 6 people in each subsystem and that there is an overlap of 50% in each subsystem. That means each individual relationship with one other person is actually a relationship with 4 people. In simple math that means each relationship is like this (1 + 1) x 3 = 6. Six relationships are changed or broken when one person leaves. So if each member of a family of 4 is close to 20 other individuals and that family leaves a congregation, the math looks like this (1 + 20) x 3 x 4 = 252.

252 significant relationships severed, broken or damaged when one family of 4 leaves a congregation.

Last year a woman came to me in tears following an exchange from another woman in the congregation who is in a leadership role. She wanted to let me know she would be leaving Haven. I encouraged her to stay. To work through it.

Both of them took on the difficult work of reconciliation and repaired the relationship. Both of them shared with me they grew more spiritually in that time than they can ever remember. The whole church, without knowing it, has been blessed by their growing love.

What is the Holy Spirit saying to you?


The Sacredness of Black Friday

ChristmasRetailand the commercialism of Christmas.

First, a confession: It isn’t Thanksgiving yet and I am listening to Christmas music as I write this in my office.  I love Christmas and I love celebrating the Birth of Jesus – God, King, Savior, Life Giver & Life Changer.

Because I love celebrating, talking about and inviting others to experience Jesus, it would seem natural for me to have a certain disdain for the consumerism/commercialism attached to both Thanksgiving and Christmas.

But I don’t. Not completely. I believe there is a sacredness to it.

And that creates some tension for me. And maybe you?

Deep, deep down we all are aware, if we are honest (and what are we if we aren’t honest?), that consumerism has infiltrated the church, diluted the Gospel and all but rendered God’s people in Western Culture ineffective ambassadors of the Good News.

But – no – I mean BUT, I would like us to consider two things:

First, I wonder this question.  When did the Church become so inert that we would depend upon manufacturers, retailers, businesses & culture to keep Christmas about Jesus? Rather than living exhilarating lives of faith, we find ourselves sitting in our lazy-boys throwing popcorn at the screen of life and yelling at the players & coaches to turn things around. And then, when we get tired of yelling, we get up and participate in the very thing we say we scorn.

Church, it is not the responsibility of Best Buy, Starbuck, Kohls or Amazon to keep our Faith alive.

But maybe they are!

Second, would you consider this next question with me?  What if Thanks-getting, Black Friday and Christmas Commercialism are actually part of God’s answer to a prayer Jesus taught us to pray?

In Matthew 6:9-13 Jesus teaches his disciples a simple way of praying.  Many of us have it memorized and call it The Lord’s Prayer.  Some of us pray it every week in worship. Verse 11 simply says Give us today our daily bread.

Now, the Israelites and even Jesus ate more than just bread.  There were fruits, vegetables and even meat.  That piece of the prayer is not just about bread, but all that is necessary for the sustaining of life and references God’s daily provision for His People as they wandered in the wilderness hundreds of years before Jesus was born.

And what if a successful Black Friday and retail season leading toward Christmas Day is part of God’s answer to that prayer?  Traditionally there have been two markers for us regarding the health of our economy: home ownership, especially new homes; and retail season beginning with Black Friday.

Best Buy employs about 125,000 people.  Target about 366,000. Kohls 140,000.  Imagine with me how many people would go without their daily bread (read that as “unemployed”) if our economy didn’t work because we killed off 4th quarter spending.

Black Friday and the Christmas retail season provides is a significant piece in our overall economy and without it, many more would be unemployed – hundreds of thousands.

Do we need to be excessive? No.  Do we need to go into debt? No. Does it need to consume us? No.

But because it provides all kinds of jobs for people all over the world, jobs that allow people to buy their daily bread, it becomes part of God’s answer to the prayer.

There is a sacredness to God’s answering of prayer.


Refugees, The Prodigal Son & The Older Brother

syrianrefugeesThe current conversation in social media surrounding the Syrian Refugee Crisis has gotten me thinking.  I have read estimated reports that up to 9 million Syrians have fled their homes!  Where do they go?  Who takes them in?  How do they make new lives for themselves?

The Syrian Refugee Crisis, immigration issues, politics, all of it is really complicated and most of us who have opinions probably have only partially informed opinions.  I don’t know that I have an opinion as to whether we should allow however many tens of thousands of Syrians into the United States.  I don’t know if I am smart enough to have an opinion, much less an informed one.

But I do have an observation.

This morning I read the parable of the prodigal son found in Luke 15:11-32.  And I saw something of myself in the parable.  And as I saw myself, I think I saw many of us.

No, I don’t see the Syrian Refugees as the prodigal son who has gone astray.  But I saw myself.  I saw myself as the older brother. The GOOD brother.  The one who has done the right things: worked hard, made good choices, etc.

The Older Brother struggled when his younger brother, who lived a different lifestyle, came home and Dad wanted to throw down a party in celebration.  The older brother struggled because it meant loss to him.  The party would cost him his portion of the inheritance (the part not given to the younger son when he left).  At the end of the day, there would be less for him because someone who didn’t work for it was going to have squandered it one more time – at another party – this time thrown by his dad.

The older brother didn’t really love his father.  He loved his father’s wealth and was angry none of it had been given to him and he lashes out, “when have you even given me a little goat…!?”  The father, of course, reaffirms his love and that all he has is his and pleads compellingly, “This is your brother…!”

I wonder if we, as citizens of the United States, are more worried about what we will lose if Syrian Refugees come into the states than we are about their well being.  I wonder if we actually love our lifestyles and stuff more than we love the country we live in?  I wonder if we love our way of life more than we even love God?

Not only couldn’t the older brother find compassion for his brother, but he also couldn’t  see the blessing in having him home.  His own brother.

I think Dad might be saying, “This is your brother! This is your sister!”

I don’t think I want to be the older brother.


The Bible, Gays, Guns, Women and Flat Map Theology

worldmapHave you ever had that feeling in the pit of your stomach?  The feeling that something isn’t quite what it should be?  And it doesn’t go away?  I had that.

The other day.  On Facebook.

During my usual late evening stroll (one letter off from “troll”) through my FB Newsfeed, there were these two posts about different “Church Conferences.”  For those of you who are all that churchy – one thing you really need to know is that churchy people like to have conferences.  Anyway, this blog post isn’t about that…

Back to the two conferences that caught my attention and the irony of it.  The first post was from a friend within my particular churchy tribe (the RCA) who was at the closing of the Room For All conference.  The Room For All folks are fighingt hard for the full inclusion of the LGBTQ community into the life and ministry of the Reformed Church.  Right below this post was one from another friend in the denomination who LIKED a conference called We Are Protestant and certain letters were in red so the words “We Protest” stood out. This conference is put on by an organization called Together 4 the Gospel, or T4G.  T4G and Room For All really couldn’t be further apart.

Or could they?

If one was to put them on a map, then absolutely they are far apart.  As far as the east is from the west along latitudinal lines. And, I dare say, they probably don’t like each other. Of course, being good Christian folks, they would tell us they love one another; but chances are the people in T4G don’t hang with the peeps from Room For All and it is hard to actually love someone you don’t hang with…

But I digress.  Let’s get back to the map.  Both groups actually represent a deeper move taking place within the Church today – a significantly growing gap between two polarizing positions around political issues: Gays, women, immigration, guns, schools, etc.  Because of this, I also believe there is an ever growing shift away from Christ being the center. I know, I’ll probably tick someone off here, but at least I can tick everyone off at the same time.

What do I mean?  Both camps have an agenda.  Room For All, and others like them, have a very expressed agenda.  T4G’s agenda was harder to find, but on their website there is a set of assertions where it was made clear – that if I did not think like them, then my theology is wrong and that their agenda is to “recover the Gospel.”  So it would seem, that the two are so far apart.

Let’s put it this way.  If we lay out a map of the world on the table and we find that very place where the Prime Meridian intersects with the Equator, 0 degrees longitude and latitude, somewhere in the Gulf of Guinea.  Let’s say that is the very place where Jesus is central to life and ministry.  If we start there and we begin to move along the equator, based upon our THEOPOLITICAL ideology and positions, we move East and West.  And the harder we become with our positions, the more right we think we are, the further we move, until we are as far apart as the East is from the West.

On a map.  That is flat.

Flat map theology is polarizing theology.  And, if you think of the world as flat – which is indeed how we experience it most of the time – then we allow our theologies to become polarizing.

But the world ain’t flat.  Google it.  So if we put these two groups onto a map, as representatives of what is happening in our church culture today around almost any issue, we would need to put them as far apart as possible.  However, since the world isn’t flat, lets take their two positions on the map and find them on a globe and suddenly they are a whole lot closer than at first we thought.

So, how is it these two polarizing sides can be so close together?

They both have really strong agendas.  They both are deeply rooted in some right/wrong thinking.  Both have moved away from keeping the Gospel central by declaring their theopolitical agendas to be what keeps them Gospel centered.  Both functionally operate from within a vacuum of relationships with the other.  Both are looking back at the direction from which they have moved in order to keep distance from one another.

And suddenly they are standing back to back, hurting the people they are closest to.

The world we live in isn’t flat.  But the world is experiencing flat map polarizing theology from the Church. And flat map theology moves us away from Jesus.  And then we will start bickering over the cups at Starbucks…!

It is time to turn around, toward each other and begin practicing the love Jesus taught & modeled. That only happens in relationships that are deep, vulnerable, and life changing.