Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday/Lenten Reflection

Joel’s "Threefold Way"

Often on Ash Wednesday, we read a passage from the Old Testament book of Joel. As I read the full text of Prophet’s words recently, I heard echoes of an ancient well-travelled Threefold Way that Christians throughout the centuries have used as a practical means of pursuing growth in Christ. This way is particularly a popular one to traverse during Lent. (I recommend taking time to read through Joel—at only three chapters long, it’s easily read in a single setting.)

· STEP 1: Returning/Rending (Purgation)—Joel 2:12-14. Joel told a people who had wandered far from God to: rend their hearts… and return to God. Just as we return to the soil of a garden after the winter and work hard to turn the soil over to prepare it for planting, so too hearts that have laid fallow and wandered from God for a time must be “turned over” and purged of anything not conducive to cultivating Christ in us. This stage is often difficult and painful; it does seem natural at first; it requires hard work, sweat, and even tears.

· STEP 2: Receiving (Illumination)Joel 2:28-29. Joel promised the people he spoke to that God was about to pour out his Spirit. Thus, the rending and purging of STEP 1 serve a purpose—namely preparation. Exerting effort to work up the soil makes it more receptive to life-giving nutrients that will come at this stage. Likewise, “roughing-up” our hearts makes them more open to the workings of God’s Spirit in our lives. The “seeds” are planted and begin to take root and grow in our hearts. Our eyes are opened and we “see” God with a level of clarity that we have not experienced before…

· STEP 3: Rejoicing (Contemplation/Union)Joel 3:18. As did some other Prophets, Joel promised that though the present circumstances seemed very bleak (see Joel 1:11-12 for example), the day of the Lord would come. On that day, Joel promised that God would restore the physical and spiritual health of the land and the people. God’s presence would return to dwell with them, and wherever God’s presence is found, joy follows. Here, the work done during STEPS 1 & 2 begins to bear fruit. Like the people of Joel’s day, our joy returns to us and begins to deepen as we reconnect with God and experience increasingly more intimate fellowship with our Creator.

NOTE: This process isn’t meant to be something we do once and then we have “arrived at our destination”. No, this Threefold Way takes us on a spiral path toward God throughout our lives. As we progress, we move closer to God (but we never reach God in this life!) and Christ is formed in each of us. Each inward spiral reveals other debris and clutter in our hearts that must be removed (i.e., back to purgation) in order for us see even more clearly (illumination) and enjoy ever-deepening fellowship with our Maker (contemplation/union).

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Hope Blossoms: Pondering the Future of the Church

In the third movie of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, “The Return of the King,” the white tree of Gondor[1] sits in a fountain outside the palace. This tree has lain barren for centuries awaiting the return of the true king of Gondor. When the movie begins the tree is barren, but when Aragorn (the true King) arrives in Gondor, we see a brief scene where the long-dead tree now has a single white blossom—signifying hope. At the end of the movie, at Aragorn’s coronation, the same tree is now covered with an over-abundance of white blossoms, a veritable shower of joy for the true King’s return and the beginning of a new era of peace.

Since 1968, the United Methodist Church, of which I am a member, has been declining. That means that I’ve never really known a time when my denomination’s “tree” was in full bloom.

Like the people of Gondor who waited for so many years for their king to come, after 41+ years, I sometimes wonder: Can Methodism’s tree live again? I want to believe that, one day, against all odds, our “tree” will bloom again, and we will see revival. But year after year, I peer out into the “courtyard”, and see little or no new growth on our tree. In fact, if anything, each year, a few more blossoms fall off. Our attendance continues to decline, our congregations get a little greyer (as we struggle to attract youth and young adults), and it gets harder and harder to find enough resources (be it people, money, time, or energy) to do effective ministry in our communities and our world.

There are wonderful exceptions to the rule to be sure, but in general, a state of spiritual malaise seems to have settled over the people called Methodists[2]. We are a denomination in decline, and far too often, we act the part.

The Prophet Ezekiel once faced a similar question concerning the fate of Israel. He was standing looking over a grim site at the time—a valley full of the dry bones of his fallen countrymen—and he heard God ask: “Mortal, can these bones live again?” God wasn’t necessarily talking about these dead bodies so much as he was about the spiritual malaise of the people of Judah. Ezekiel’s reply was brutally honest: “God only you know.” (Ezekiel 37:1-14) Maybe it should be translated: God I hope so!

Ezekiel cared deeply for the people of Judah. He wanted to see his people strong again. But, honestly, he wasn’t sure if it was too late for them to turn back to God. Had they let themselves decline for so long that there was no hope for them to return? He simply didn’t know if their “tree” had any life left in it or not.

Church leaders surely relate to the Prophet’s angst here. We too hope our “dry bones” can live again; we hope that, despite outward appearances, our “tree” is still alive—merely lying dormant awaiting the spark of hope ignited by the coming King. We so much want to claim that future with hope (Jeremiah 29:11), abundant life (John 10:10), and goodness (Romans 8:28) that Scripture claims are possible for those who follow God.

But if we’re honest, we’re not sure what the future holds for us? We want to believe the best but struggle with unbelief (Mark 9:24). After all, how can we have realistic hope for the future when all we’ve ever known is decline?! After one is part of a declining church long enough it impacts how we think, even how we live.

Even the most spiritually zealous people among us are not completely immune to the spiritual malaise I spoke of earlier. It is contagious—it “infects” you if you are exposed for too long.

Many of our churches seem to have adopted a sort of “bunker mentality” to survive. We hunker down in our churches hoping to ride out another winter of discontent far from certain that we will ever see another spring of hope. We don’t share our resources with the world around us because we’re afraid that if we share with them, at some point, we might not have enough for ourselves.

While we can certainly survive for a time in our “bunker”, we will never thrive living that way. We will continue to decline, contract, shrivel, and ultimately—we will die. Surely God’s heart breaks as he watches the Body of Christ wither. This cannot possibly be the life God intends for us, his beloved People…

The upcoming season of Lent is a time for self-reflection, a time to ask: How has our current approach to life been working out? What changes do we need to make to grow closer to God? We can also extend that to our “life together” as the People of God, the Body of Christ—the Church. We can—and we must—ask ourselves: How has our current approach to doing church working? What changes do we need to make as a community? That’s a very difficult question to tackle, but if we are to be faithful to our call to be the Church today’s world, we must continue to wrestle with it until we get some satisfactory answers!

Lent not only calls us to ask hard questions, it also demands honest answers. We can never hope to change if we’re not willing to humbly admit our present reality. And the evidence (I believe) is clear: Our present approach to church is, by and large, not working. We need to consider a different way.

Considering a “different way” doesn’t mean we have to give up on God’s Church or the Kingdom of God. No, but it may mean we have to give up on Church as We Know It—or, to say it another way, “the way we’ve always done it.”

And, yes, in some cases we will need to reckon with a painful reality: Some churches have declined so much that they cannot “live again” in their present configuration. I honestly believe the faithful choice in those cases would be to direct the church's remaining life essence into the birth of something new.

In pursuing this vision of a “different way” to do Church, we would cling to a promise that the Prophet Isaiah once made to the people of Israel: A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
 and a branch shall grow out of his roots. (Isaiah 11:1). This is a risky approach; not everyone will like it. People get attached to the way things have always been; change frightens us and we lash out at the change agents. (They did it to Isaiah and the other Prophets in the Bible!)

Friends, just as it did for the original recipients of Isaiah’s message, on the surface of things having this kind of hope for the future of the Church seems utterly foolish. We haven’t seen many “shoots” recently, much less any “blooms”. Nothing but lifeless “stumps” as far as the eye can see. We wonder: Can hope possibly blossom here?!

But as people of faith we trust that even though our eyes can’t see it yet, the King is indeed on the move, hope is rallying, and things are happening behind the scenes, under the surface. Preparations are being made for new life that will emerge come spring. God will be faithful to God’s promise—hope will soon bloom!

In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree;

In cocoons, a hidden promise: butterflies will soon be free!

In the cold and snow of winter there’s a spring that waits to be,

Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

Hymn of Promise, verse 1

[1] Photo Credit: Photo of a tree resembling the mythical White Tree of Gondor taken at Aleppo Citadel in Syria—

[2] The experience I describe is certainly not unique to the United Methodist Church. The statistics show and personal experience confirms that most “mainline” denominations are experiencing similar decline and uncertainty over what the future holds for them.

A Poem for Valentines Day: What is Love?

What is love?

Love isn’t a law… it is lived poetry.

Love isn’t a duty… it’s our shared destiny.

Love isn’t a smooth path … it is a treacherous way.

Love doesn’t come naturally… we struggle to learn.

Love calls to us from the depths.

We give our all on a quest for love

We pour out ourselves on the altar.

We lay down our lives...

All in the name of love.

Love stays.

Love rejoices.

Love mourns.

Love suffers.

Love believes.

Love endures.

Love hopes.

Love is something we practice now and do for all eternity.

It is the language of God’s kingdom.

It is the music we will sing in heaven.

Love is a lifetime commitment.

Love is living.

Love is learning.

Love is letting go.

Love pours in; love gushes out

What is love?

Three words…

God with us.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Mirroring God's Image

At a recent pastor’s conference, evangelist John Piper shared his view that God gave Christianity a “masculine feel”. He insinuates that because God chose to reveal himself as a male, because God chose only male priests and prophets in the Old Testament, because Jesus’ 12 most famous disciples were male, and so forth, that the churches and families that will flourish are those that likewise have a similar “masculine feel”—i.e., male headship.

You can imagine these words have set off quite a response, to which I am about to add my own. As the husband of a pastor, you can probably guess where I am going to come down on this issue. But I should acknowledge that there was a time not all that long ago where I might have been closer to Piper's views than I am today. It's funny how God can use our life experience to radically change how we think about certain issues. It was easy for me to take a certain "stance" on the matter when I was single. But when I actually got to know a strong female leader, and ultimately married her, that obviously changed things for me.

Piper admits that God created both men and women in "his image" (magnanimous of him since the passage below from Genesis tells us so) but then he goes on to say that the fact that he named them as he did suggests this “masculine feel” is, if you will, built in to the very fabric of our human essence.

Then God said, let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness… So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Genesis 1:26-27

Piper attests that this arrangement isn’t a bad thing at all—in fact it’s ultimately God-ordained and best for churches (and families) to flourish.

Isn’t it funny how, throughout human history, the oppressor has a habit of telling the oppressed that they are actually better off the way they are?

I’m quite sure that slave-owners justified the continuation of that age-old institution using similar exegesis. We know that some Southerners used the Bible verses that command slaves to obey their masters to justify maintaining the status quo.

Abraham Lincoln once quipped that, during the Civil War, both Union and Confederate Soldiers read the same Bible and prayed to the same God. In other words, both sides tried to claim that God was “on their side” in the conflict—when the reality is God, who abhors war, wouldn’t have chosen either side. Looking at it another way, God was bigger than either side.

Likewise, neither Piper nor I have the market cornered with regard to discerning God's word on the issue before us. We are both followers of Christ, we read the same Bible, we pray to the same God, but we reach very different conclusions when it comes to interpreting these scriptures and how they should be interpreted.

I understand humanity to be created in God’s image. Both men and women reflect God’s image in distinctive ways. We’re all like mirrors[1], each carefully constructed to reflect the divine image; no two are exactly the same. When we do what we were put on this planet to do, we “reflect” God to the world. To say it another way, we reveal glory—the essence of who someone is—both God’s and ours.

The glory of God is a “fully human being”.

Adapted from St. Irenaeus and N.T. Wright

Now, let’s take the mirror metaphor a little further...

There was only one person whose mirror reflected God perfectly—Jesus. The rest of us have scratches on the surface of our mirror. Living life on imperfect (but good!) planet Earth guarantees we will have them. Thus, you, me, and every person on Earth are imperfect God-reflectors. Even if every God-reflector on the planet joined together, we would still fail to capture the full image of God. (The Eastern Orthodox say that while God’s divine energy interacts with creation constantly, God’s divine essence always remain utterly distinct and separate from what we can “see”.)

If life on Earth already guarantees we’ll get scratches on our mirror, does it then make sense to say that fully one-half of all human beings have a design flaw built in by the Creator? (That would kind of make NASA’s Hubble Telescope fiasco pale by comparison!)

Piper seems to be saying: “Yes, we’re all in God’s image, but if you happen to be born with two X-chromosones, you begin life with a pre-installed disadvantage. I’m afraid your mirror can’t possibly be as reflective as your male counterparts and you’ll need to defer to them to “see” clearly.”

Really?! Have you ever met my wife? Have you seen her in the pulpit? Or have you seen many other women I know in both secular and sacred roles? These confident, assertive, and intelligent women would certainly take issue with Piper's flippant assessment; and so do I.

In fact it's probably safe to say that the widespread perception that the Church doesn’t let women lead—even if not true in many cases—is probably a big reason that many of these women I speak of would have little interest in going to church.

Can you blame them—when Piper gets this kind of news coverage for what he says? They assume Piper represents us all, and they say, “No thanks.” It just confirms what they already thought was true about “the Church”.

Personally, I think we need—and God desires—all the mirrors we can get; we need the reflections of both men and women. This to me is why a diverse Christian community is so important. The Jesus Way was never meant to be practiced in isolation. When we get together, our mirrors begin to reflect off each other and when we turn them toward God, and our “focusing power” is far greater than when we are by ourselves. Our image of God and of ourselves becomes clearer. We can begin to see past beyond the scratches on our souls and understand who God has created us to be. Why would we want to limit the potential of the Body of Christ by suggesting that women aren’t quite on par with men?

I believe the Church is at its best when there is a healthy mix of male and female leadership. While I do feel that many churches currently languish for lack of male leaders, I don’t suggest as some do, that females are only stepping up to lead because males have abdicated their “God-ordained” roles. Females are leading because that’s what God has called and continues to call them to do.

From Deborah, to Esther, to Mary Magdalene, to Priscilla; from Perpetua, to Therese of Lisieux, to Mother Teresa, to my wife; down through the ages God has called and continues to call women to lead.

I am proud to be the husband of a pastor; I am proud of what my wife does and who she is. I would never ask her to put aside her God-given identity as pastor simply because she is female. I do my best to support and encourage her as she lives out her call to serve God. She in turn supports me as I seek to discern and live out my calling. As spouses, we are mirrors into one another’s souls. When we are at our best, we see ourselves more clearly through the other’s eyes. Together we focus on our Creator, reflect upon one another, and seek to discover the glory that is within us, our children, and in the world around us.

[1] I believe N.T. Wright also developed this metaphor but what appears here is my own reflections.

Pondering the Patterns of God's Garden

Creation is messy… Creation sometimes appears random. Until you look more closely… I have the largest flower bed on our cul de sac—ma...